She turned her sightless face toward Jerusalem and spoke as if to a friend present.
"Yea, Lord," said the little Jewish girl in simple faith, "I will wait for Thee, and for Thy Messiah who will open the eyes of the blind. Surely when Messiah cometh I shall see. And until then, I will wait and pray for His coming. I will wait."
On the outer stairway that led from the ground to the roof stood Ezra, breathless, his hand pressed against his side. He had run all the way, without stopping, up the steep lanes from the Bethlehem stable, and now, pausing to rest an instant before speaking to Naomi, he could not help overhearing the last words she said.
"So thou wilt wait?" he whispered, his breath coming in gasps. "Thou wilt wait for His coming? Nay, my little sister, thy time of waiting is over. The Messiah is here! The Christ is born! O that I might shout it from the housetop, that my father and mother and all the world may know that the Lord hath kept His promise and the Messiah hath come!"
Ezra's whole heart and soul were full of a great new hope, and the sight of Naomi's tear-stained face and groping, outstretched hands made him long to tell her the good tidings at once.
But the boy's love for his unhappy little sister made him wise beyond his years.
"If I tell her, and it does not come to pass as she wishes, it will break her heart," he argued. "The Messiah is but a tiny Baby now, weak and helpless. It may be He must grow to manhood before He can heal the blind, the deaf, and the sick. Who knows? Not I. I will not tell her yet."
So Ezra clattered noisily up the remaining steps of the stairway, calling out:
"Naomi! Naomi! Where art thou? Oh, here thou art! Are thy sandals well tied? For I have come to take thee down to the inn stable to show thee something there. And what it is, thou couldst never guess if thou didst guess a hundred years."
Naomi shook her head.
"Show me? What could I see? Nay, I will go nowhere, Ezra," she answered sadly. "If I went, I could not see thy wondrous sight. I would far rather stay at home."
"But this is something to feel," said Ezra coaxingly, putting his arm about Naomi and leading her gently toward the stairway. "Tell me, dost thou remember when young Deborah, the vine-dresser's wife, laid something soft and warm in thine arms?"
"A baby, Ezra?" asked Naomi, stopping short. "A baby at the inn stable?"
"Aye," said Ezra firmly, "a Baby! A Baby born in a stable and lying in a manger because there was no room last night at the inn."
"But I cannot see it, Ezra," said Naomi mournfully. "Why should I go? I cannot see."
"Dost thou remember, too, how Deborah's baby clung to thy finger?" said the crafty Ezra, guiding her tenderly down the steps as he talked. "And did ye not find it pleasant to hold? You rocked it to and fro all day long, Naomi. You said that you wished that Jonas might be put back in swaddling clothes again."
"Aye, it was pleasant," admitted Naomi. "But Deborah brought the baby to me. I will not go to the khan, Ezra. I do not wish to meet any one. My heart is heavy. There will be people to stare at me and to talk in the lanes and at the stable. I will not go."
"Naomi," said Ezra desperately, "dost thou love me?"
"Aye, thou knowest that I love thee," answered Naomi in surprise.
"Then, to please me, come to the inn stable," was Ezra's quick response. "Ask me no questions and delay not, but come. It is early, Naomi. We will meet no one, I hope and trust. Give me thy hand and come."
Naomi instantly slipped a thin little hand into her brother's outstretched palm.
"For love of thee, Ezra," said she sweetly. "For love of thee."
Down the quiet road, deserted in the winter season at this early hour, Ezra led Naomi, carefully guiding her over the stones and ruts in the rough highway. Unobserved, they slipped quietly through the town gate, and when a turn in the road brought the khan into view Ezra threw his arm about his sister and quickened their steps.
He spoke but once.
"One of thy pigeons flies before us, Naomi," said he, "as if to lead us on. It glistens in the sun like silver."
Naomi only nodded and clung the tighter to Ezra's arm.
Past the inn and round to the stable door he led her, and there they halted.
"Naomi," said Ezra, his voice trembling with hope and fear, "thou knowest the stable well. Enter, and walk forward until thy feet touch the straw before the manger. There lies the Babe!"
With a gentle push Ezra started Naomi toward the Mother and Child, whose figures he could dimly see on a heap of straw at the back of the cave. Then in the shadow of the doorway Ezra fell upon his knees.
"O Lord," he prayed, "I know that this is Thy Messiah. I believe that Thou hast sent Him. Thou hast promised of old that when Messiah cometh He shall open the eyes of the blind. I would that He might open my sister Naomi's eyes. If Thou wilt answer this prayer, Lord, I will promise Thee anything. I will be Thy faithful servant, I will be an obedient son, I will learn my lessons well at school and never shirk. I will no more throw stones at stout Solomon nor even call him names. I will promise anything Thou mayst ask of me, if Thy Messiah will only open my sister Naomi's eyes. Hear my prayer, O Lord, hear my prayer."
Within the stable Naomi crept cautiously forward. Her footsteps lagged, for she had no heart in this undertaking.
What pleasure could there be for her in visiting a stranger's baby which she could not even see? A short time ago, to hold the soft little body close and to feel the tiny clinging hands might have given her a moment's happiness; but to-day her heart was so full of misery that there was no room in it for joy to enter. She longed to sink down on the stable floor. Only her love for Ezra kept her moving.
She felt the straw before the manger beneath her feet, and she dropped to her knees and stretched out a timid hand.
Yes, the Mother and Child were before her.
She fingered the hem of the cloak wrapped about the young Mother, but she could not bring herself to touch the little Child.
"I care not! I care not!" thought Naomi hopelessly. "What to me is this Baby? Why should Ezra wish me to visit this Child?"
As if in answer to her unspoken question, with a sudden lovely gesture, the Child leaned forward. His tiny fingers touched Naomi's forehead and His hands rested for an instant upon her darkened eyes.
* * * * *
Naomi opened and closed her eyes rapidly. She rose to her feet and stared about her. Was it a dream, the same kind of a dream with which she had so often lightened the weary hours of darkness, the long watches of the night, when she had called to mind some old familiar scene—her mother at the well, the country road, Ezra hastening home from school? Now the inn stable rose before her. Did she really see the nose of an ox thrusting itself over the stall? Or did she only dream the mound of hay, and on it the young Mother wrapped in a wide blue cloak and in her arms a Child, at the velvet touch of Whose tiny hands the black curtain had dropped from before her eyes?
Naomi rubbed her hands together and looked down at them. Yes, they were her own hands. There was the familiar little brown spot on the inside of her third finger. Her dress? Yes, that was an old friend, the yellow and red striped robe. She had worn it the day in the garden that she had given her four scarlet poppies in exchange for little Three Legs.
Then it was true! She did see. But how had it happened? Why at the touch of this Baby hand had her sight been restored?
"Ezra!" she called, not daring to stir. "Ezra!"
Ezra's face, white under the tan, showed itself round the stable door.
"Ezra," cried Naomi, "I can see! I can see! I know not how it is, but I was blind and now I see! O Ezra, the Baby touched me and I can see!"
Ezra came swiftly forward. His eyes were full of tears, but his face was radiant. He knelt before the Mother, who was watching the scene with wondering eyes, and the Child, Who slept now in His Mother's arms. He pulled Naomi down beside him.
"Naomi, it is the Christ Child," he whispered. "The Messiah has come! Our Saviour lies before us! O Naomi, the Messiah hath opened the eyes of the blind! The Lord hath heard my prayer!"
And bending low before Him, they worshiped at the Christ Child's feet.
THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
The household of Samuel the weaver lay sleeping soundly. The dim light of the small oil lamp revealed the figures of Samuel and his wife wrapped in heavy slumber, with Jonas, rolled into a plump little ball, at his mother's feet. Naomi lay close by with arms outstretched. Her dreams were pleasant, for her lips were parted in a smile. Ezra was missing. He was again spending the night in the fields with shepherd Eli. The friendship between the old man and the lad had grown more deep and strong since the night of the Angels' Visit, and they never wearied of discussing the wonderful event and all the marvels that had followed in its train.
These happenings had roused all the village of Bethlehem, and had now touched even the city of Jerusalem since the appearance of the Wise Men from the East, who, following His star, had come to worship the King of the Jews.
That very evening Ezra and Naomi, caught on a lonely hillside by the sudden fall of night, had with one accord pointed to the dusky road below, along which rocked noiselessly three tall camels bearing the Magi rapidly in the direction of Arabia.
"They brought gold and frankincense and myrrh," murmured Ezra, "the offerings to a king."
"Aye, to my King, to my Messiah," answered Naomi happily. "Oh, Ezra, I would that I had all the gold and frankincense and myrrh in all the world that I might lay it at His feet. How can the neighbors doubt when they see what He has done for me? Who but the true Messiah could open my eyes and give me sight again?"
Ezra shook his head.
"Many do believe, Naomi," he answered. "And all thy life now thou canst be a living witness to God's mercy and love. How happy He has made us all! Father and Mother, thou and I!"
"And Jonas, too," said Naomi quickly. "He laughs and plays with me now as never before. He knew that something was wrong, though he could not put it into words. We are to begin again to dig our well to-morrow, he and I. I promised him."
It may be that Naomi's dreams that night were of this pleasant task that awaited her; it may be that in her sleep, as in her waking hours, her thoughts were filled with visions of the Christ Child even as her heart was full of love for Him. Her smile deepened, and she did not stir as the night wore on.
The stars were growing pale, though morning was still far off, when the deep silence of the village was broken by the sound of feet running lightly, cautiously, up the lane.
Nearer and nearer came the footsteps until they halted before the door of Samuel's house, and a little figure, panting and breathless, stepped quickly within.
Naomi sat upright and peered sleepily through the gloom.
"Ezra, is it thou?" she asked in surprise. "Is it morning yet? What brings thee here?"
"I have news, Naomi, bad news, I fear," the boy answered. "I must waken my father and mother. Whatever is done must be done quickly. There is no time to lose."
"I hear thee, son," said Samuel's voice unexpectedly. "What is thy tale?"
"And my mother?" questioned Ezra. "It concerns Jonas."
"I sleep not," said Jonas's mother, broad awake in an instant, and drawing the drowsy little ball into her arms in swift alarm. "Tell thy story quickly."
"As ye know," began the boy hurriedly, "I went down to the Fields of David at sunset to spend the night with shepherd Eli. And as I passed through the gate old Nathan hailed me. He told me that one of the shepherds had borrowed his warm cloak and had not yet returned it, and that he was now full of aches and pains and sorrows because of the lack of it. He charged me straitly to tell the shepherd to return it at once or he would have him haled before the magistrate at daybreak, and that he would not cease his watch for it nor sleep that night until the cloak was round his shoulders once again.
"When I reached the Fields, I gave his message, but the shepherd who had taken his cloak was not there; he had gone in search of a lost lamb. And when, less than an hour ago, he returned, he asked me to keep him company to the gateway, and help him make his peace with angry Nathan. They know that Nathan is friendly to me," added the boy in explanation.
"And I know that some night, wandering about as thou dost, thou wilt be caught by beast or robber," growled Samuel. "Resume thy story."
"The shepherd and I," continued Ezra hastily, "were passing the inn when I saw a figure by the roadside beckoning me to come to him. It was Joseph of Nazareth, and behind him in the shadow was his wife, Mary, bearing the Christ Child in her arms. He spoke low so that the shepherd should not hear. He told me that an angel of the Lord had appeared to him in a dream, saying, 'Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I tell thee: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.'
"He spoke no more," Ezra went on, "but I said unto him, 'My little brother, think you there is danger for him?' He nodded in reply, and then I asked, 'Start you at once?' He nodded again and stepped back into the shadow.
"At the gateway old Nathan, glad to see his cloak again, let me through, and I hastened home to tell the tale to thee."
Ezra's mother had already arisen and, opening the great carved chest, had taken from it warm wrappings in which she was bundling the still sleeping Jonas.
"Deborah, the vine-dresser's wife, leaves at sunrise in the caravan for Joppa." As she spoke, she worked busily gathering Jonas's little garments into a bundle. "For friendship's sake she will take Jonas with her. We have, in her, at least one true friend in Bethlehem. Her mother lies at Joppa sore stricken with a fever, and it may be that our boy will take the sickness and perchance will die. But rather would I see him in his baby grave than in the clutch of cruel King Herod."
"I will go with thee, wife, to carry the child," said Samuel gravely, seeing that her simple preparations were now finished. "Give thy brother a kiss in farewell, children. It may be thou wilt never see him more."
As Naomi stood on tiptoe and pressed a tender kiss upon Jonas's plump cheek, he suddenly opened his dark eyes and, at sight of his sister, broke into a broad smile.
"Farewell, Jonas, farewell," whispered Naomi, her eyes full of tears. "When thou returnest we will dig the well behind the myrtle bush, thou and I. Farewell!"
Then she laid her hand upon her father's arm.
"Father," said she in a low voice, "the little Messiah also traveleth far to-night. I owe to Him my sight and the happiness of us all. I would fain give unto Him a gift. I would that I might give unto Him my little Michmash, that He may be borne swiftly and surely on the long road that He must go."
Samuel looked for an instant into the brown eyes upturned to his own. He remembered the darkness, the suffering, the vain hope, the despair, then—blessed be Jehovah! the Light that had appeared and that had so wondrously shone into the life of his little maid.
"Yea, child," said he warmly. "No gift that thou couldst give would be too great."
"Ezra," cried Naomi, "canst thou overtake them, think you?"
But Ezra had already left the room, and could be heard in the shed behind the house fitting the bridle over the astonished Michmash's head.
Naomi caught up her little scarlet cloak from out the carven chest, and as Ezra came past the door, leading the little gray donkey, she flung it across her brother's arm.
"The journey down into Egypt is far, and the night winds are cold. It may be my scarlet cloak will keep the little Messiah warm."
She threw her arms about her donkey's neck and laid her cheek against his soft furry nose.
"Fare thee well, little Michmash," she whispered. "Stumble not nor falter on the way. Thou carriest the Light of all the world, the Hope of every heart upon thy back. Farewell, farewell!"
Sunrise—and again Naomi stood alone upon the housetop. Her night of darkness behind her, she turned her happy gaze upon the morning sky, blue and rose and violet, whose clouds touched to misty purple the hilltops and the peaks that surrounded Bethlehem village. Below her lay the white stone houses, a few steep fields of dark ruddy loam, the sloping gardens with their vines, their fig and olive trees.
From where Naomi stood the road that led to the Holy City was hidden from view by the mountain peak Mar Elias, and as she looked toward it her face lighted and she clasped her hands before her. For on the mountain-top rested two great clouds like angels' wings, and with a heart full of awe and reverence and love little Naomi felt that she stood in the very presence of Jehovah God.
What though the promised Messiah was fleeing secretly and in dread from His own country? The Lord was mindful of His own, and was even now keeping watch over His people. "Behold, He that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep."
She had no words. She could only stand and let the tide of love she felt sweep over her again and again, until softly and almost imperceptibly the Heavenly Pinions faded away into the blue.
When Ezra came he found Naomi looking toward the road that wound ribbon-like past the Bethlehem inn down into the land of the Pharaohs, the country of the Sphinx and the Pyramids.
He nodded at the question in her eyes and silently pointed out to her a little group that moved steadily forward upon the dusty road below.
"Dost see them?" asked Ezra softly. "Joseph, staff in hand, leads little Michmash who bears the Mother and the Child upon his back. He steps forth bravely, the little beast. Ah! now they take the turn that hides them from our sight. Our little Messiah! Gone from us after so short a time!"
"Aye, but to come again," said Naomi confidently. "I know it, Ezra. I was blind and now I see. As a tiny Babe He brought the light to me alone. But when He comes again, He will be the Light of all the world, Ezra, the Light of all the world."