“Salute him when he comes near,” said the oldest shepherd. “Are we not four to one? We have nothing to fear from a ragged traveller. Speak him fair. It is the will of God-and it costs nothing.”
“Peace be with you, brother,” cried the youngest shepherd; “may your mother and father be blessed.”
“May your heart be enlarged,” the stranger answered, “and may all your families be more blessed than mine, for I have none.”
“A homeless man,” said the old shepherd, “has either been robbed by his fellows, or punished by God.”
“I do not know which it was,” answered the stranger; “the end is the same, as you see.”
“By your speech you come from Galilee. Where are you going? What are you seeking here?”
“I was going nowhere, my masters; but it was cold on the way there, and my feet turned to your fire.”
“Come then, if you are a peaceable man, and warm your feet with us. Heat is a good gift; divide it and it is not less. But you shall have bread and salt too, if you will.”
“May your hospitality enrich you. I am your unworthy guest. But my flock?”
“Let your flock shelter by the south wall of the fold: there is good picking there and no wind. Come you and sit with us.”
So they all sat down by the fire; and the sad shepherd ate of their bread, but sparingly, like a man to whom hunger brings a need but no joy in the satisfying of it; and the others were silent for a proper time, out of courtesy. Then the oldest shepherd spoke:
“My name is Zadok the son of Eliezer, of Bethlehem. I am the chief shepherd of the flocks of the Temple, which are before you in the fold. These are my sister’s sons, Jotham, and Shama, and Nathan: their father Elkanah is dead; and but for these I am a childless man.”
“My name,” replied the stranger, “is Ammiel the son of Jochanan, of the city of Bethsaida, by the Sea of Galilee, and I am a fatherless man.”
“It is better to be childless than fatherless,” said Zadok, “yet it is the will of God that children should bury their fathers. When did the blessed Jochanan die?”
“I know not whether he be dead or alive. It is three years since I looked upon his face or had word of him.”
“You are an exile then? he has cast you off?”
“It was the other way,” said Ammiel, looking on the ground.
At this the shepherd Shama, who had listened with doubt in his face, started up in anger. “Pig of a Galilean,” he cried, “despiser of parents! breaker of the law! When I saw you coming I knew you for something vile. Why do you darken the night for us with your presence? You have reviled him who begot you. Away, or we stone you!”
Ammiel did not answer or move.
The twisted smile passed over his bowed face again as he waited to know the shepherds’ will with him, even as he had waited for the robbers. But Zadok lifted his hand.