THE MEETING OF THE MAGI
In the days when Augustus Caesar was Emperor of Rome and Herod reigned in Jerusalem, there lived a man named Artaban, a Magi who lived in Media. On one particular night, he was in the upper chamber of his home, holding council with his friends. There were nine Parthian nobles, differing widely in age, but alike in the richness of their clothes, including winged circles of gold resting upon their breasts, the sign of the followers of Zoroaster.
They took their places around a small black altar at the end of the room, where a tiny flame was burning. Artaban began to chant a prayer to their god Ahura Mazda (who was thought to be the sole uncreated creator of the universe), to cleanse them from falsehood, keep them safe from evil, shine on their gardens, work and whole race. The fire rose with the chant, throbbing as if it were made of musical flame, until it cast a bright illumination through the whole apartment, revealing its simplicity and splendor.
Imagine the scene. The floor was laid with tiles of dark blue veined with white; columns of twisted silver stood out against the blue walls; the round-arched windows high above them was hung with azure silk; the vaulted ceiling was a pavement of sapphires, like the body of heaven in its clearness, sown with silver stars. From the four corners of the roof hung four golden magic-wheels, called the tongues of the gods. At the eastern end, behind the altar, there were two pillars of dark-red porphyry; above them a lintel of the same stone, on which was carved the figure of a winged archer, with his arrow set to the string and his bow drawn. The doorway between the pillars, which opened upon the terrace of the roof, was covered with a heavy, pomegranate-hued curtain, embroidered with innumerable golden rays shooting upward from the floor. In effect, the room was like a quiet, starry night, all azure and silver, flushed in the east with rosy promise of the dawn. It was the perfect expression of the character and spirit of the master.
He turned to his friends when the chant ended and invited them to be seated on the divan at the western end of the room. "You have come tonight," he said, looking around the circle, "at my call, as the faithful scholars of Zoroaster, to renew your worship and rekindle your faith in the God of Purity, even as this fire has been rekindled on the altar. We worship not the fire, but Him of whom it is the chosen symbol, because it is the purest of all created things. It speaks to us of one who is Light and Truth. Is it not so, my father?"
"It is well said, my son," answered the Artaban's father Abgarus. "The enlightened are never idolaters. They lift the veil of the form and go in to the shrine of the reality, and the light of truth comes to them through the old symbols."
"Hear me, then, my father and my friends," said Artaban, respectfully, "We have searched the secrets of nature together, and studied the healing virtues of water, fire and the earth. But the highest of all learning is the knowledge of the stars. If we could follow them perfectly, nothing would be hidden from us. But our knowledge of them is incomplete. Are there not many stars still beyond our horizon--lights that are known only to the dwellers in the far south-land?"
There was a murmur of assent among the listeners.
"The stars," said Tigranes, "are the thoughts of the Eternal. They are numberless. The wisdom of the Magi is the greatest of all wisdoms on earth, because it knows its own ignorance. And that is the secret of power. Foolish men will always wait for a new sunrise for better days. But we ourselves know that the conflict between good and evil will never end."
"That does not satisfy me," answered Artaban, "for, if the waiting must be endless then it would not be wisdom to look and wait. We should become like the new teachers of the Greek knowledge who say that the wise man is one who spends his life discovering and exposing the lies that have been believed in the world. Do not our own books tell us that a new sunrise will come to pass, and that men will see the brightness of a great light - of Goodness in Man?"
The brought a variety of reactions from his council of friends. While one agreed that a mighty brightness would come and make life everlasting, incorruptible, and immortal; others were of a different opinion. Another said that the effort was futile and that they should focus on increasing the influence of the Magi instead of looking for one to whom they must resign their power.
The others seemed to approve these words.
But Artaban replied: "Father, friends, I have discovered books of prophecy. I have read these words which also have come from the fountain of Truth, and speak yet more clearly of the rising of the Victorious One in his brightness."
He drew from the breast of his tunic two small rolls of fine linen, with writing upon them, and unfolded them carefully upon his knee. He said, "In the years that are lost in the past, long before our fathers came into the land of Babylon, there were wise men in Chaldea, from whom the first of the Magi learned the secret of the heavens. Hear the words of his prophecy:
"There shall come a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall arise out of Israel."
Tigranes angrily said: "Jews were in bondage to our kings! The tribes of Israel are scattered through the mountains like lost sheep, and from that remnant neither star nor scepter shall arise."
"And yet," answered Artaban, "it was the Hebrew Daniel, who was most honored and beloved of our great King Cyrus. A prophet and a reader of the thoughts of God, Daniel proved himself to our people. And these are the words that he wrote (Artaban read from the second roll):
"Know, therefore, and understand that from the going forth of the commandment to restore Jerusalem, unto the Anointed One, the Prince, the time shall be seven and threescore and two weeks."
"But, my son," said Abgarus, doubtfully, "these are mystical numbers. Who can interpret them, or who can find the key that shall unlock their meaning?"
THE SIGN IN THE SKY
Artaban answered: "It has been shown to me and to my three companions among the Magi--Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. We have searched the ancient tablets of Chaldea and computed the time. We have studied the sky and have seen a new star there. It is time. I have sold my house and my possessions, and bought these three jewels--a sapphire, a ruby, and a pearl--to carry them as tribute to the King. My three brothers are watching the star at the ancient Temple of the Seven Spheres, at Borsippa and I have been watching it here. They will wait ten days for me at the temple, and then we will set out together for Jerusalem, to see and worship the promised one who shall be born King of Israel. And I ask you to go with me on the pilgrimage, that we may have joy together in finding the Prince who is worthy to be served."
But his friends looked on with a veil of doubt and mistrust. They glanced at each other with looks of wonder and pity.
At last Tigranes said: "Artaban, this is a vain dream. It comes from too much looking upon the stars and the cherishing of lofty thoughts. It would be wiser to spend the time in gathering money for the new fire-temple at Chala. No king will ever rise from the broken race of Israel, and no end will ever come to the eternal strife of light and darkness. He who looks for it is a chaser of shadows. Farewell."
One by one, his friends left shaking their heads, but wishing him well. But outside of his apartment, they all agreed that his actions were foolhardy.
But Abgarus, remained to, and said, gravely: "My son, it may be that the light of truth is in this sign that has appeared in the skies, and then it will surely lead to the Prince and the mighty brightness. Or it may be that it is only a shadow of the light, as Tigranes has said, and then he who follows it will have only a long pilgrimage and an empty search. But it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst. And those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone. I am too old for this journey, but my heart shall be a companion of the pilgrimage day and night, and I shall know the end of thy quest. Go in peace."
So one by one they went out of the azure chamber with its silver stars, and Artaban was left in solitude. He gathered up the jewels and replaced them in his girdle. For a long time he stood and watched the flame that flickered and sank upon the altar. Then he crossed the hall, lifted the heavy curtain, and passed out between the dull red pillars of porphyry to the terrace on the roof. The shiver that thrills through the earth where she rouses from her night sleep had already begun, and the cool wind that heralds the daybreak was drawing downward from the lofty, snow-traced ravines of Mount Orontes. Birds, half awakened, crept and chirped among the rustling leaves, and the smell of ripened grapes came in brief wafts from the arbors. Far over the eastern plain a white mist stretched like a lake.
But where the distant peak of Zagros serrated the western horizon the sky was clear. As Artaban watched the sky, behold, an azure spark was born out of the darkness beneath, rounding itself with purple splendors to a crimson sphere, and spiring upward through rays of saffron and orange into a point of white radiance. Tiny and infinitely remote, yet perfect in every part, it pulsated in the enormous vault as if the three jewels in the Magian's breast had mingled and been transformed into a living heart of light. He bowed his head. He covered his brow with his hands.
"It is the sign," he said. "The King is coming, and I will go to meet him."
Silently, the light in the room faded and the door closed. I turned and walked further down the Hall of Dreams amazed at what I had seen and heard. Was this real? I came to another door; as I reached to touch its ornate knob, it opened. I cold see the cool evening and was aware of an excitement and anticipation of the future. The feeling flowed over me in waves. I took one step inside the door and closed my eyes to feel Artaban and his quest.
THE PILGRIMAGE BEGINS
All night long Vasda, the swiftest of Artaban's horses, had been waiting, saddled and bridled, in her stall, pawing the ground impatiently, and shaking her bit as if she shared the eagerness of her master's purpose, though she knew not its meaning. Before the birds had fully roused to their strong, high, joyful chant of morning song, before the white mist had begun to lift lazily from the plain, the other wise man was in the saddle, riding swiftly along the high-road, which skirted the base of Mount Orontes, westward. How close, how intimate is the comradeship between a man and his favorite horse on a long journey. It is a silent, comprehensive friendship, an intercourse beyond the need of words. They drink at the same wayside springs, and sleep under the same guardian stars. They are conscious together of the subduing spell of nightfall and the quickening joy of daybreak. The master shares his evening meal with his hungry companion, and feels the soft, moist lips caressing the palm of his hand as they close over the morsel of bread. In the gray dawn he is roused from his bivouac by the gentle stir of a warm, sweet breath over his sleeping face, and looks up into the eyes of his faithful fellow-traveller, ready and waiting for the toil of the day. Surely, unless he is a pagan and an unbeliever, by whatever name he calls upon his God, he will thank Him for this voiceless sympathy, this dumb affection, and his morning prayer will embrace a double blessing--God bless us both, and keep our feet from falling and our souls from death!
And then, through the keen morning air, the swift hoofs beat their spirited music along the road, keeping time to the pulsing of two hearts that are moved with the same eager desire--to conquer space, to devour the distance, to attain the goal of the journey. Artaban must, indeed, ride wisely and well if he would keep the appointed hour with the other Magi; for the route was about 150 miles, and fifteen was the utmost that he could travel in a day. But he knew Vasda's strength, and pushed forward without anxiety, making the fixed distance every day.
For days he travelled; passing Mount Orontes, the level plains of the Nisasans, and the fertile fields of Concabar, where the huge temple of Astarte with its four hundred pillars stood. He passed the rich gardens of Baghistan, saw the figure of King Darius trampling upon his fallen foes, and the proud list of his wars and conquests graven high upon the face of the eternal cliff, the ancient city of Chala, where he saw the image of the High Priest of the Magi sculptured on the wall of rock, with hand uplifted as if to bless the centuries of pilgrims, past the city of Ctesiphon, where the Parthian emperors reigned, and the vast metropolis of Seleucia which Alexander built; across the swirling floods of Tigris and the many channels of Euphrates, flowing yellow through the corn-lands--Artaban pressed onward until he arrived, at nightfall of the tenth day, beneath the shattered walls of populous Babylon.
Vasda was almost spent, but he knew that it was three hours' journey to the Temple of the Seven Spheres, and he must reach the place by midnight if he would find his comrades waiting. So he did not halt, but rode steadily across the stubble-fields. A grove of date-palms made an island of gloom in the pale yellow sea. As she passed into the shadow Vasda slackened her pace. She scented some danger or difficulty; it was not in her heart to fly from it--only to be prepared for it, and to meet it wisely, as a good horse should do. The grove was close and silent as the tomb; not a leaf rustled, not a bird sang. At last she gave a quick breath of anxiety and dismay, and stood stock-still, quivering in every muscle, before a dark object in the shadow of the last palm-tree. Artaban dismounted.
The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road. His humble dress and the outline of his haggard face showed that he was probably one of the poor Hebrew exiles who still dwelt in great numbers in the vicinity. His pallid skin bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marsh-lands. The chill of death was in his lean hand, and, as Artaban released it, the arm fell back inertly upon the motionless breast. He turned away with a thought of pity.
But, as he turned, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man's lips. The brown, bony fingers closed convulsively on the hem of the Magi's robe and held him fast. Artaban's heart leaped to his throat, not with fear of this broken man, but with the fear of what a delay might do to his appointment with his Magi brethren:
- How could he stay here in the darkness to minister to a dying stranger?
- If he lingered but for an hour he could hardly reach Borsippa at the appointed time, could he?
- What would his companions think? That he had given up the journey? That he had forsaken his faith?
- That he would lose his quest to meet the King!
But if he went on now, the man would surely die. If he stayed, life might be restored. His spirit throbbed and fluttered with the urgency of the crisis. Should he risk the great reward of his divine faith for the sake of a single deed of human love? Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing Hebrew?
"God of truth and purity," he prayed, "direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest."
Then he turned back to the sick man. Loosening the grasp of his hand, he carried him to a little mound at the foot of the palm-tree. He unbound the thick folds of the turban and opened the garment above the sunken breast. He brought water from one of the small canals near by, and moistened the sufferer's brow and mouth. He mingled a draught of one of those simple but potent remedies which he carried always in his girdle--for the Magi were physicians as well as astrologers--and poured it slowly between the colorless lips. Hour after hour he labored as only a skilful healer of disease can do; and, at last, the man's strength returned; he sat up and looked about him.
"Who art thou?" he said, in the rude dialect of the country, "and why hast thou sought me here to bring back my life?"
"I am Artaban the Magi of Media, and I am going to Jerusalem in search of one who is to be born King of the Jews, a great Prince and Deliverer of all men. I dare not delay any longer upon my journey. Here is all that I have left of bread and wine, and here is a potion of healing herbs. When thy strength is restored thou canst find the dwellings of the Hebrews among the houses of Babylon."
The Jew raised his trembling hand solemnly to heaven. "Now may the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob bless and prosper the journey of the merciful, and bring him in peace to his desired haven. I have nothing to give thee in return--only this: that I can tell thee where the Messiah must be sought. Our prophets have said that he should be born not in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem of Judah. May the Lord bring thee in safety to that place, because thou hast had pity upon the sick."
It was already long past midnight. Artaban rode in haste, and Vasda, restored by the rest, ran eagerly. But as she entered upon the final stretch of the journey, Artaban could discern no trace of his friends. At the edge of a terrace, he saw a little cairn of broken bricks, and under them a piece of parchment. He caught it up and read: "We have waited past the midnight, and can delay no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert."
Artaban sat down upon the ground and covered his head in despair. "How can I cross the desert," said he, "with no food and with a spent horse? I must return to Babylon, sell my sapphire, and buy a train of camels, and provision for the journey. I may never overtake my friends. Only God the merciful knows whether I shall not lose the sight of the King because I tarried to show mercy."
The light around me faded and I carefully took one step back into the Hall of Dreams. My chest filled with the angst of Artaban's choice. How many times have I experienced this same dilemma. I know that my life has been filled with these decisions. As I looked at the wake of my life, I was able to see many of the choices I had made and the consequences they had on my life. As I reflected on these consequences, I needed to know how Artaban would meet his destiny.
I closed the door and walked further in the Hall of Dreams until I came upon the next door. I looked at the door to my right as it opened.
FOR THE SAKE OF A LITTLE CHILD
Through the door I saw, but very dimly, his figure passing over the dreary undulations of the desert, high upon the back of his camel, rocking steadily onward like a ship over the waves. The land of death spread its cruel net around him. The stony wastes bore no fruit but briers and thorns. The dark ledges of rock thrust themselves above the surface here and there, like the bones of perished monsters. Arid and inhospitable mountain ranges rose before him, furrowed with dry channels of ancient torrents, white and ghastly as scars on the face of nature. Shifting hills of treacherous sand were heaped like tombs along the horizon.
By day, the fierce heat pressed its intolerable burden on the quivering air; and no living creature moved on the dumb, swooning earth, but tiny jerboas scuttling through the parched bushes, or lizards vanishing in the clefts of the rock. By night the jackals prowled and barked in the distance, and the lion made the black ravines echo with his hollow roaring, while a bitter, blighting chill followed the fever of the day. Through heat and cold, the Magian moved steadily onward.
Then I saw the gardens and orchards of Damascus. I saw also the long, snowy ridge of Hermon, and the dark groves of cedars, and the valley of the Jordan, and the blue waters of the Lake of Galilee, and the fertile plain of Esdraelon, and the hills of Ephraim, and the highlands of Judah. Through all these I followed the figure of Artaban moving steadily onward, until he arrived at Bethlehem.
And it was the third day after the three wise men had come to that place and had found Mary and Joseph, with the young child, Jesus, and had lain their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh at his feet. Artaban drew near, weary, but full of hope, bearing his ruby and his pearl to offer to the King.
The streets of the village seemed to be deserted. From the open door of a low stone cottage he heard the sound of a woman's voice singing softly. He entered and found a young mother hushing her baby to rest. She told him of the strangers from the far East who had appeared in the village three days ago, and how they said that a star had guided them to the place where Joseph of Nazareth was lodging with his wife and her new-born child, and how they had paid reverence to the child and given him many rich gifts.
"But the travellers disappeared again," she continued, "as suddenly as they had come. We were afraid at the strangeness of their visit. The man of Nazareth took the babe and his mother and fled away that same night secretly. It was whispered that they were going far away to Egypt. It is said that the Roman soldiers are coming from Jerusalem to force a new tax from us, and the men have driven the flocks and herds far back among the hills, and hidden themselves to escape it."
The young mother laid the babe in its cradle, and rose to minister to the wants of the strange guest that fate had brought into her house. She set food before him, the plain fare of peasants; willingly offered, and therefore full of refreshment for the soul as well as for the body. Artaban accepted it gratefully; and, as he ate, the child fell into a happy slumber, and murmured sweetly in its dreams, and a great peace filled the quiet room.
But suddenly there came the noise of a wild confusion and uproar in the streets of the village, a shrieking and wailing of women's voices, a clangor of brazen trumpets and a clashing of swords, and a desperate cry: "The soldiers! the soldiers of Herod! They are killing our children." The young mother's face grew white with terror. She clasped her child to her bosom, and crouched motionless in the darkest corner of the room, cowering in fear. But Artaban went quickly and stood in the doorway of the house. His broad shoulders filled the portal from side to side, and the peak of his white cap all but touched the lintel. The soldiers came hurrying down the street with bloody hands and dripping swords.
The captain of the band approached the threshold to thrust him aside. But Artaban did not stir. He held the soldier silently for an instant, and then said in a low voice:"I am all alone in this place, and I am waiting to give this jewel to the prudent captain who will leave me in peace." He showed the ruby, glistening in the hollow of his hand like a great drop of blood. The pupils of the captain's eyes expanded with desire, and the hard lines of greed wrinkled around his lips. He stretched out his hand and took the ruby.
"March on!" he cried to his men, "there is no child here. The house is still."
The clamor and the clang of arms passed down the street as the headlong fury of the chase sweeps by the secret covert where the trembling deer is hidden. Artaban re-entered the cottage.
He turned his face to the east and prayed: "God of truth, forgive my sin! I have said the thing that is not, to save the life of a child. And two of my gifts are gone. I have spent for man that which was meant for God. Shall I ever be worthy to see the face of the King?"
But the voice of the woman, weeping for joy in the shadow behind him, said very gently: "Because thou hast saved the life of my little one, may the Lord bless thee and keep thee; the Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee; the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace."
Once again, the lights faded from within the room. I wondered about what I had seen. Artaban is doing good things for people. But he has not seen the King. And now, he only has one of his gifts left to give. And then I asked myself: "Would I have been brave enough to stand in the path of evil?" Have there been times in my life when I refused to stand up for those less fortunate than I?
I backed slowly into the Hall of Dreams and could see another door ahead. I slowly walked opened it. There was a silence in the room. deeper and more mysterious than the first silence I had experienced in this dream. I understood that the years of Artaban's life were flowing very swiftly under the stillness of a clinging fog, and I caught only a glimpse, here and there, of the river of his life shining through the shadows that concealed its course.
I saw Artaban moving among the throngs in Egypt, seeking everywhere for traces of the household that had come down from Bethlehem, and finding them under the spreading sycamore-trees of Heliopolis, and beneath the walls of the Roman fortress of New Babylon beside the Nile. But the traces would disappear as quickly as footprints in the sand. I saw him again at the foot of the pyramids; and then watched him look up into the vast countenance of the crouching Sphinx and vainly tried to read the meaning of the calm eyes and smiling mouth.
Was it, indeed, the mockery of all effort and all aspiration, as Tigranes had said--the cruel jest of a riddle that has no answer, a search that never can succeed?
I saw the Other Wise Man again and again, travelling from place to place, and searching among the people of the dispersion, with whom the little family from Bethlehem might, perhaps, have found a refuge. He passed through countries where famine lay heavy upon the land, and the poor were crying for bread. He made his dwelling in plague-stricken cities where the sick were languishing in the bitter companionship of helpless misery. He visited the oppressed and the afflicted in the gloom of subterranean prisons, and the crowded wretchedness of slave-markets, and the weary toil of galley-ships.
In all this populous and intricate world of anguish, though he found none to worship, he found many to help. He fed the hungry, and clothed the naked, and healed the sick, and comforted the captive; and his years went by more swiftly than the weaver's shuttle that flashes back and forth through the loom while the web grows and the invisible pattern is completed.
It seemed almost as if he had forgotten his quest. But once I saw him for a moment as he stood alone at sunrise, waiting at the gate of a Roman prison. He had taken from a secret resting-place in his bosom the pearl, the last of his jewels. As he looked at it, a mellower lustre, a soft and iridescent light, full of shifting gleams of azure and rose, trembled upon its surface. It seemed to have absorbed some reflection of the colors of the lost sapphire and ruby. So the profound, secret purpose of a noble life draws into itself the memories of past joy and past sorrow. All that has helped it, all that has hindered it, is transfused by a subtle magic into its very essence. It becomes more luminous and precious the longer it is carried close to the warmth of the beating heart. Then, at last, while I was thinking of this pearl, and of its meaning, I heard the end of the story of the Other Wise Man.
A PEARL OF GREAT PRICE
Three-and-thirty years of the life of Artaban had passed away, and he was still a pilgrim, and a seeker after light. His hair, once darker than the cliffs of Zagros, was now white as the wintry snow that covered them. His eyes, that once flashed like flames of fire, were dull as embers smouldering among the ashes. Worn and weary and ready to die, but still looking for the King, he had come for the last time to Jerusalem. He had often visited the holy city before, and had searched through all its lanes and crowded hovels and black prisons without finding any trace of the family of Nazarenes who had fled from Bethlehem long ago. But now it seemed as if he must make one more effort, and something whispered in his heart that, at last, he might succeed.
It was the season of the Passover. The city was thronged with strangers. The children of Israel, scattered in far lands all over the world, had returned to the Temple for the great feast, and there had been a confusion of tongues in the narrow streets for many days. But on this day there was a singular agitation visible in the multitude. The sky was veiled with a portentous gloom, and currents of excitement seemed to flash through the crowd like the thrill which shakes the forest on the eve of a storm. A secret tide was sweeping them all one way. The clatter of sandals, and the soft, thick sound of thousands of bare feet shuffling over the stones, flowed unceasingly along the street that leads to the Damascus gate. Artaban joined company with a group of people from his own country, Parthian Jews who had come up to keep the Passover, and inquired of them the cause of the tumult, and where they were going.
"We are going," they answered, "to the place called Golgotha, outside the city walls, where there is to be an execution. Have you not heard what has happened? Two famous robbers are to be crucified, and with them another, called Jesus of Nazareth, a man who has done many wonderful works among the people, so that they love him greatly. But the priests and elders have said that he must die, because he gave himself out to be the Son of God. And Pilate has sent him to the cross because he said that he was the 'King of the Jews.'"
How strangely these familiar words fell upon the tired heart of Artaban! They had led him for a lifetime over land and sea. And now they came to him darkly and mysteriously like a message of despair. The King had arisen, but He had been denied and cast out. He was about to perish. Perhaps He was already dying. Could it be the same who had been born in Bethlehem thirty-three years ago, at whose birth the star had appeared in heaven, and of whose coming the prophets had spoken?
Artaban's heart beat unsteadily with that troubled, doubtful apprehension which is the excitement of old age. But he said within himself: "The ways of God are stranger than the thoughts of men, and it may be that I shall find the King, at last, in the hands of His enemies, and shall come in time to offer my pearl for His ransom before He dies."
So the old man followed the multitude with slow and painful steps towards the Damascus gate of the city. Just beyond the entrance of the guard-house a troop of Macedonian soldiers came down the street, dragging a young girl with torn dress and dishevelled hair. As the Magi paused to look at her with compassion, she broke suddenly from the hands of her tormentors, and threw herself at his feet, clasping him around the knees. She had seen his white cap and the winged circle on his breast.
"Have pity on me," she cried, "and save me, for the sake of the God of Purity! I also am a daughter of the true religion which is taught by the Magi. My father was a merchant of Parthia, but he is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death."
Artaban trembled. It was the old conflict in his soul, which had come to him in the palm-grove of Babylon and in the cottage at Bethlehem--the conflict between the expectation of faith and the impulse of love. Twice the gift which he had consecrated to the worship of religion had been drawn from his hand to the service of humanity. This was the third trial, the ultimate probation, the final and irrevocable choice.
Was it his great opportunity, or his last temptation? He could not tell. One thing only was clear in the darkness of his mind--it was inevitable. And does not the inevitable come from God? One thing only was sure to his divided heart--to rescue this helpless girl would be a true deed of love. And is not love the light of the soul? He took the pearl from his bosom. Never had it seemed so luminous, so radiant, so full of tender, living lustre. He laid it in the hand of the slave.
"This is thy ransom, daughter! It is the last of my treasures which I kept for the King."
While he spoke, the darkness of the sky thickened, and shuddering tremors ran through the earth, heaving convulsively like the breast of one who struggles with mighty grief. The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loosened and crashed into the street. Dust clouds filled the air. The soldiers fled in terror, reeling like drunken men.
But Artaban and the girl whom he had ransomed crouched helpless beneath the wall of the Praetorium. What had he to fear? What had he to live for? He had given away the last remnant of his tribute for the King. He had parted with the last hope of finding Him. His quest was over, and he had failed.
THE WISDOM OF THE OTHER WISE MAN
But, even in that thought, accepted and embraced, there was peace. It was not resignation. It was not submission. It was something more profound and searching. He knew that all was well, because he had done the best that he could, from day to day. He had been true to the light that had been given to him. He had looked for more. And if he had not found it, if a failure was all that came out of his life, doubtless that was the best that was possible. He had not seen the revelation of "life everlasting, incorruptible and immortal."
But he knew that even if he could live his earthly life over again, it could not be other than it had been. One more lingering pulsation of the earthquake quivered through the ground. A heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple. He lay breathless and pale, with his gray head resting on the young girl's shoulder, and the blood trickling from the wound.
As she bent over him, fearing that he was dead, there came a voice through the twilight, very small and still, like music sounding from a distance, in which the notes are clear but the words are lost. The girl turned to see if some one had spoken from the window above them, but she saw no one.
Then the old man's lips began to move, as if in answer, and she heard him say in the Parthian tongue: "Not so, my Lord: For when did I ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty, and gave you drink? When did I see you as a stranger, and took you in? Or naked, and clothe you? When did I see you sick or in prison, and came to you? Three-and-thirty years have I looked for You; but I have never seen Your face, nor ministered to You, my King."
At that moment, Artaban ceased talking. But then she heard the sweet voice again. And again the maid heard it, very faintly and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words:
"Verily I say unto thee, inasmuch as you have done it for the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me."
A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of dawn on a snowy mountain-peak. One long, last breath of relief exhaled gently from his lips. His journey was ended. His treasures were accepted.
The Other Wise Man had found the King.
I awoke suddenly. My heart beating wildly. I heard that sweet voice speaking again, "He who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul may keep the path, but will not reach the goal. While he who walks in love may wander far, but I will bring him where the blessed are."
I looked at my beloved wife next to me. I thought of my children and their families. I saw in my mind's eye all the people who I had befriended and aided during my lifetime. I felt the love and warmth of the King envelope me and I began to weep tears of joy.
And there in the corner of our humble bedroom, I saw the smiling face of Artaban, waving to me.
Note about the story. I came across this story doing research for another project. It is from a book by Henry van Dyke, published originally in 1896. It is now in the public domain and published by Project Gutenburg. But when I read it, I was moved to share it with you. I hope it touches you the way it has touched me.
Merry Christmas to all.