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Now it has turned home to be new-rigged and fitted for further
voyaging. Before it is sent out again I have been asked to tell where
the story came from and what it means.
I do not know where it came from--out of the air, perhaps. One thing is
certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found
among the ancient lore of the East. And yet I have never felt as if it
were my own. It was a gift. It was sent to me; and it seemed as if I
knew the Giver, though His name was not spoken.
The year had been full of sickness and sorrow. Every day brought
trouble. Every night was tormented with pain. They are very long--those
nights when one lies awake, and hears the laboring heart pumping
wearily at its task, and watches for the morning, not knowing whether
it will ever dawn. They are not nights of fear; for the thought of
death grows strangely familiar when you have lived with it for a year.
Besides, after a time you come to feel like a soldier who has been long
standing still under fire; any change would be a relief. But they are
lonely nights; they are very heavy nights. And their heaviest burden is
You must face the thought that your work in the world may be almost
ended, but you know that it is not nearly finished.
You have not solved the problems that perplexed you. You have not
reached the goal that you aimed at. You have not accomplished the great
task that you set for yourself. You are still on the way; and perhaps
your journey must end now,--nowhere,--in the dark.
Well, it was in one of these long, lonely nights that this story came
to me. I had studied and loved the curious tales of the Three Wise Men
of the East as they are told in the "Golden Legend" of Jacobus de
Voragine and other mediaeval books. But of the Fourth Wise Man I had
never heard until that night. Then I saw him distinctly, moving through
the shadows in a little circle of light. His countenance was as clear
as the memory of my father's face as I saw it for the last time a few
months before. The narrative of his journeyings and trials and
disappointments ran without a break. Even certain sentences came to me
complete and unforgettable, clear-cut like a cameo. All that I had to
do was to follow Artaban, step by step, as the tale went on, from the
beginning to the end of his pilgrimage.
Perhaps this may explain some things in the story. I have been asked
many times why I made the Fourth Wise Man tell a lie, in the cottage at
Bethlehem, to save the little child's life.
I did not make him tell a lie.
What Artaban said to the soldiers he said for himself, because he could
not help it.
Is a lie ever justifiable? Perhaps not. But may it not sometimes seem
And if it were a sin, might not a man confess it, and be pardoned for
it more easily than for the greater sin of spiritual selfishness, or
indifference, or the betrayal of innocent blood? That is what I saw
Artaban do. That is what I heard him say. All through his life he was
trying to do the best that he could. It was not perfect. But there are
some kinds of failure that are better than success.
Though the story of the Fourth Wise Man came to me suddenly and without
labor, there was a great deal of study and toil to be done before it
could be written down. An idea arrives without effort; a form can only
be wrought out by patient labor. If your story is worth telling, you
ought to love it enough to be willing to work over it until it is
true,--true not only to the ideal, but true also to the real. The light
is a gift; but the local color can only be seen by one who looks for it
long and steadily. Artaban went with me while I toiled through a score
of volumes of ancient history and travel. I saw his figure while I
journeyed on the motionless sea of the desert and in the strange cities
of the East.
And now that his story is told, what does it mean?
How can I tell? What does life mean? If the meaning could be put into a
sentence there would be no need of telling the story.
HENRY VAN DYKE.
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