The Little Hunchback Zia by Frances Hodgson Burnett


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Page 1

Since he had fled from the village in which his wretched short life had
been spent he had hidden himself in thickets and behind walls or rocks
or bushes during the day, and had only come forth at night to stagger
along his way in the darkness. If he had not managed to steal some food
before he began his journey and if he had not found in one place some
beans dropped from a camel's feeding-bag, he would have starved. For
five nights he had been wandering on, but in his desperate fear he had
lost count of time. When he had left the place he had called his home he
had not known where he was going or where he might hide himself in the
end. The old woman with whom he had lived and for whom he had begged and
labored had driven him out with a terror as great as his own.

"Begone!" she had cried in a smothered shriek. "Get thee gone, accursed!
Even now thou mayest have brought the curse upon me also. A creature
born a hunchback comes on earth with the blight of Jehovah's wrath upon
him. Go far! Go as far as thy limbs will carry thee! Let no man come
near enough to thee to see it! If thou go far away before it is known,
it will be forgotten that I have harbored thee."

He had stood and looked at her in the silence of the dead, his immense,
black Syrian eyes growing wider and wider with childish horror. He had
always regarded her with slavish fear. What he was to her he did not
know; neither did he know how he had fallen into her hands. He knew only
that he was not of her blood or of her country and that he yet seemed to
have always belonged to her. In his first memory of his existence, a
little deformed creature rolling about on the littered floor of her
uncleanly hovel, he had trembled at the sound of her voice and had
obeyed it like a beaten spaniel puppy. When he had grown older he had
seen that she lived upon alms and thievery and witchlike evil doings
that made all decent folk avoid her. She had no kinsfolk or friends, and
only such visitors as came to her in the dark hours of night and seemed
to consult with her as she sat and mumbled strange incantations while
she stirred a boiling pot. Zia had heard of soothsayers and dealers with
evil spirits, and at such hours was either asleep on his pallet in a far
corner or, if he lay awake, hid his face under his wretched covering and
stopped his ears. Once when she had drawn near and found his large eyes
open and staring at her in spellbound terror, she had beaten him
horribly and cast him into the storm raging outside.

A strange passion in her seemed her hatred of his eyes. She could not
endure that he should look at her as if he were thinking. He must not
let his eyes rest on her for more than a moment when he spoke. He must
keep them fixed on the ground or look away from her. From his babyhood
this had been so. A hundred times she had struck him when he was too
young to understand her reason. The first strange lesson he had learned
was that she hated his eyes and was driven to fury when she found them
resting innocently upon her. Before he was three years old he had
learned this thing and had formed the habit of looking down upon the
earth as he limped about. For long he thought that his eyes were as
hideous as his body was distorted. In her frenzies she told him that
evil spirits looked out from them and that he was possessed of devils.
Without thought of rebellion or resentment he accepted with timorous
humility, as part of his existence, her taunts at his twisted limbs.
What use in rebellion or anger? With the fatalism of the East he
resigned himself to that which was. He had been born a deformity, and
even his glance carried evil. This was life. He knew no other. Of his
origin he knew nothing except that from the old woman's rambling
outbursts he had gathered that he was of Syrian blood and a homeless

But though he had so long trained himself to look downward that it had
at last become an effort to lift his heavily lashed eyelids, there came
a time when he learned that his eyes were not so hideously evil as his
task-mistress had convinced him that they were. When he was only seven
years old she sent him out to beg alms for her, and on the first day of
his going forth she said a strange thing, the meaning of which he could
not understand.

"Go not forth with thine eyes bent downward on the dust. Lift them, and
look long at those from whom thou askest alms. Lift them and look as I
see thee look at the sky when thou knowest not I am near thee. I have
seen thee, hunchback. Gaze at the passers-by as if thou sawest their
souls and asked help of them."

She said it with a fierce laugh of derision, but when in his
astonishment he involuntarily lifted his gaze to hers, she struck at
him, her harsh laugh broken in two.

"Not at me, hunchback! Not at me! At those who are ready to give!" she
cried out.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Tue 25th Feb 2020, 6:01