Knights of the Pain Table

A Camelot for Sufferers of Chronic Pain

The Story of the Other Wise Man – Part 4 – by Henry Van Dyke – A Profound Story for Thee

 By the Waters of Babylon

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, dry and yellow as parchment,  bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marsh-lands in autumn.   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,  consigning the body to that strange burial which the Magians deemed most fitting — the funeral of the desert,  from which the kites and vultures rise on dark wings,  and the beasts of prey slink furtively away,  leaving only a heap of white bones in the sand.

 

     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 Magian’s robe and held him fast.

 

     Artaban’s heart leaped to his throat,  not with fear,  but with a dumb resentment at the importunity of this blind delay.

 

     How could he stay here in the darkness to minister to a dying stranger?    What claim had this unknown fragment of human life upon his compassion or his service?    If he lingered but for an hour he could hardly reach Borsippa at the appointed time.    His companions would think he had given up the journey.    They would go without him.    He would lose his quest.

 

     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 Magians 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 Magian,  of the city of Ecbatana,  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,  for the caravan that has waited for me may depart without me.   But see,   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.   But stay;    I have nothing to give thee in return — only this:    that I can tell thee where the Messiah must be sought.   For 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 brief rest, ran eagerly through the silent plain and swam the channels of the river.   She put forth the remnant of her strength, and fled over the ground like a gazelle.

 

     But the first beam of the sun sent her shadow before her as she entered upon the final stadium of the journey, and the eyes of Artaban, anxiously scanning the great mound of Nimrod and the Temple of the Seven Spheres,   could discern no trace of his friends.

 

     The many-colored terraces of black and orange and red and yellow and green and blue and white,  shattered by the convulsions of nature,  and crumbling under the repeated blows of human violence, still glittered like a ruined rainbow in the morning light.

 

     Artaban rode swiftly around the hill.    He dismounted and climbed to the highest terrace, looking out towards the west.

 

     The huge desolation of the marshes stretched away to the horizon and the border of the desert. Bitterns stood by the stagnant pools and jackals skulked through the low bushes;    but there was no sign of the caravan of the wise men, far or near.

 

     At the edge of the 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.”

Written by Henry Van Dyke

 

End of Part 4

Next Read Part 5

 

Read the Beginning   Part 1

 

Read more    Christmas Stories

We thanketh Project Gutenberg for this story.


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