Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Fourth Wiseman

I am running behind with all sorts of work at the moment, the world is rushing round me. Perhaps it is for this reason that H.F.W Tatham's story of The Fourth Wiseman is one of my current favourites. It sits somewhere round the back of my brain and retells itself in quiet moments, as if it were a record on an old gramophone. It is told in the voice of an old englishman, with clipped consonants and glass vowels - as people used to speak in the 1920's. It begins....

You have all heard the story of the three Wise Men who came nineteen hundred years ago to see the Child that had been born in Bethlehem, and brought Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh, and how a Star led them and stood over the place where the young Child lay. But perhaps you have not heard the story of the Fourth Wise Man. 
He had not seen the Star, and did not go on the journey with the other three. But he had seen a vision in the night, and though, when the morning came, his memory of what it had been was all blurred and faint, and grew fainter as the day grew brighter, as dreams will, and though he told no one of his vision, yet it was enough to make him go forth and sell all that he had, house and lands and goods, and change the money that he received for them and his other moneys for three great jewels that he could easily carry—an emerald, a ruby, and a diamond. These he hid in a belt cunningly made, and started forth upon his journey alone. They were to be given to the King when he found him; that was all that he knew. 
But it was no easy road that lay before him, and the dangers and difficulties were great. At one time he was cast into prison by a ruler of a country through which he passed; at another he was compelled to fight and defend a town beleaguered by the savage natives of the neighbourhood; at another he was seized by pirates and carried off in their ship to sea. Time passed rapidly away, and his adventures in detail would fill volumes; but there were three events which stood out clearly from the rest. 
He had come to a cottage by the roadside one evening, and saw a group of soldiers outside, armed as though for war, and a richly dressed man mounted on a horse, evidently in authority over them; in the midst of the group was a youth, hardly more than a boy. His hands were tied behind his back, his face was bleeding, his clothes were dusty and torn. On his face was a look of despair, but he plainly put constraint upon himself, and bit his lip to keep back the rising tears. But what most arrested the attention of the Wise Man was the loud and bitter weeping of a woman which at that moment burst forth from within a cottage. When the boy heard it he started visibly, and crying, ‘Mother!’ struggled wildly with the soldiers who held him; and at the same moment the cottage door opened and a woman rushed out and flung herself at the feet of the mounted man. 
She was old and worn, and robed as a widow. Her torn and dishevelled hair, her tear-stained face, the hopeless agony written in her strained and haggard eyes were enough to move the pity of the hardest heart. But the man looked down on her and smiled coldly. 
‘Mercy, my lord,’ she wailed, ‘leave me my son, my only son! I am a widow; his father and his two brothers have died in the King’s service; without him I cannot live in this desert, nor without him do I desire to live. Leave him to me, I entreat you!’ 
But the man laughed harshly. ‘You know the price,’ he said. And he named a vast sum; more, far more than it was conceivable that any but the richest could pay. 
A bitter cry burst from the woman’s lips, and, flinging herself down, she beat her forehead in the dust. ‘Lead on,’ said the captain to the soldiers, and they prepared to obey. But the Wise Man stepped forward. His hand had gone to his girdle, where he felt the precious stones press against his side. They were presents for his King—but could he keep them back now? He drew out the great emerald and held it forth to the captain.‘Is this a price rich enough to buy back a soldier for his mother?’ he said. 
The captain laughed. ‘Ay,’ he said, ‘that is enough. But a fool art thou to give thy jewel for such a worthless wretch. Let him go, men; lead on.’ And he rode away. The Wise Man stood for a moment and then softly followed. The mother and son were in each others’ arms. 
The story moves on, and the wiseman travels alone - the three companions who started ahead of him are far beyond his reach now. He stops to help others on his way, buying the freedom of a slave girl with his ruby. Lastly, years and years after he has set out, he sees a man being led out to be crucified. The man falls by his feet, and as the Roman guard rears his horse and whip to beat him, the wise man offers his diamond. The blow falls on the wise man, who remembers nothing more until....
When he awoke he was in a very bright place, so bright that he could not lift his eyes but could only lie and gaze at the shining floor around him. But he was conscious that a voice had been speaking to him, and the sound was as the sound of many waters. And presently he was aware that a man stood near, though he could see nothing but his feet and the hem of his garment. Then the same voice bade him look up. 
Slowly, very slowly, he raised his eyes. The white robe of the speaker dazzled them, but by degrees they reached the hand that hung by the side. On the third finger a green stone gave forth a radiance that he knew; it was his emerald. 
Again he lifted his eyes. The necklace round the throat of the man caught them. It hung low on the breast in front, and in its very centre blazed a great red jewel with a heart of blood and fire; was it not the ruby? 
Then for a moment he saw the face, but ere he could recognise it his startled eyes were dazzled by the intense white light reflected from the great diamond that shone in a circlet of gold around the wearer’s forehead. 
And the face? He knew it now; it was the face of the man who had looked upon him on the road to Calvary. 
And so, after all, the King had received His jewels!
It is a simple little parable really, but I love it. This wise man was late. He got distracted by everyone and everything upon his way. That was what he was meant to do. I take great comfort in that. Single mindedness has never been my forte. For those of you who know my dreams, it was the emerald ring that freaked me out when I first heard this story. It has appeared in my dreams for many years, always in different contexts, and it always causes trouble! I keep thinking on it.

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