The Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke
Originally published in 1895
A condensed version (by Sabina) told in 4 parts
Part 4 – A Pearl of Great Price
Thirty-three 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 smoldering 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 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 filled with strangers. The children of Israel, scattered to far lands all over the world, had returned to the Temple for the great feast.
But on this day there was a singular agitation visible in the multitude. The sky was veiled with a portentous gloom. A secret tide was sweeping them all one way. The clatter of sandals and the sound of thousands of bare feet shuffling over the stones, flowed unceasingly along the streets.
Artaban joined company with a group of people from his own country and inquired of them the cause of the tumult, and where they were going.
“We are going 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 said 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 risen, but he had been denied and cast out. He was about to perish.
Artaban’s heart beat unsteadily … 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, a troop of Macedonian soldiers came down the street, dragging a young girl with torn dress and disheveled hair. As the Magian 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.
“Have pity of me,” she cried “and save me, for the sake of the God of Purity! My father was a merchant, but he is dead, and I am seized for his debts to be sold as a slave. Save me from worse than death!”
It was the old conflict in his soul, which had come to him in Babylon and in 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 and he laid it in the hand of the slave. “This is your 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 …
The walls of the houses rocked to and fro. Stones were loosened and crashed into the street. The soldiers fled in terror but Artaban and the girl whom he had ransomed crouched helpless beneath the wall.
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. The quest was over and it had failed. 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 otherwise that it had been.
One more tremor 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 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 someone had spoken from a 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:
“Not so, my Lord! For when did I see you hungry and fed you? Or thirsty and gave you a drink? When did I see you a stranger and took you in? Or naked and clothed you? When did I see you sick or in prison and came to you? Thirty-three years I have looked for you; but I have never seen you nor ministered to you, my King.
He ceased, and the sweet voice came again. And again, the maid heard it, very faintly and far away. But now it seemed as though she understood the words:
“I say to you, because you have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.”
A calm radiance of wonder and joy lighted the pale face of Artaban like the first ray of a 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.