The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke
Originally published in 1895
A condensed version (by Sabina) told in 4 parts
Part 2 – By the Waters of Babylon
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 full 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, westward.
Artaban must indeed ride wisely and well if he would keep the appointed hour with the other Magi; for the route was a hundred and fifty parasangs, 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, though he must travel late into the night and in the morning long before sunrise.
Artaban pressed onward until he arrived, at nightfall of the tenth day, beneath the shattered walls of populous Babylon.
Vasda was almost spent, and he would gladly have turned into the city to find rest and refreshment for himself and for her. but he knew 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.
As she passed into the shadow Vasda slackened her pace, and began to pick he way more carefully.
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. She felt her steps before her delicately, carrying her head low, and sighing now and then with apprehension. At last she gave a quick breath of anxiety and dismay, and stood stock-still.
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. The chill of death was in his lean hand… .
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 an hour … his companions … would go without him. He would lose his quest.
But if he went now, the man would surely die. If he stayed, life might be restored.
“God of truth and purity,” he prayed, “direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which only You know.”
Then he turned back to the man… .
Hour after hour he labored as only a skillful healer of disease can do; and, at last, the man’s strength returned; he sat up and looked about him.
“Who are you and why have you sought me here to bring back my life?”
“I am Artaban the Magian, … and I am going to Jerusalem in search of one who is to be born King of the Jews, a great Prince and Deliverer for all men.”
The Jew raided his trembling hands 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. … May the Lord bring you in safety to that place because you have had pity upon the sick.”
It was already long past midnight. Artaban rode in haste and Vasda, restored by the brief rest, ran eagerly … 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 Temple of the Seven Spheres… .
Artaban rode swiftly around the hill. He dismounted and climbed to the highest terrace, looking out toward the west.
The huge desolation of the marshes stretched away to the horizon and the border of the desert. …; 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. “We have waited past the midnight and can delay no longer. We go to find the King. Follow us across the desert.”
He would have to sell his sapphire for a camel and goods in order to cross the desert. One of his tributes to the King would be gone. Artaban sat down upon the ground and covered his head in despair.