“So I was turned over to Sira and that day I led her camel upon a long journey to her sick mother. I took the occasion to thank her for her intercession and also to tell her that I was not a slave by birth, but the son of a freeman, an honourable saddle maker of Babylon. I also told her much of my story. Her comments were disconcerting to me and I pondered much afterwards on what she said.
“’How can you call yourself a free man when your weakness has brought you to this? If a man has in himself the soul of a slave will he not become one no matter what his birth, even as water seeks its level? If a man has within him the soul of a free man, will he not become respected and honoured in his own city in spite of his misfortune?’
“For over a year I was a slave and lived with the slaves, but I could not become as one of them. One day Sira asked me, ‘In the eventime when the other slaves can mingle and enjoy the society of each other, why dost thou sit in thy tent alone?’
“To which I responded, ‘I am pondering what you have said to me. I wonder if I have the soul of a slave. I cannot join them, so I must sit apart.’
“’I, too, must sit apart,’ she confided. ‘My dowry was large and my lord married me because of it. Yet he does not desire me. What every woman longs for is to be desired. Because of this and because I am barren and have neither son nor daughter, must I sit apart. Were I a man I would rather die than be such a slave, but the conventions of our tribe make slaves of women.’
“’What think thou of me by this time?’ I asked her suddenly, ‘Have I the soul of a man or have I the soul of a slave?’
“’Have you a desire to repay the just debts you owe in Babylon?’ she parried.
“’Yes, I have the desire, but I see no way.’
“’If thou contentedly let the years slip by and make no effort to repay, then thou hast but the contemptible soul of a slave. No man is otherwise who cannot respect himself and no man can respect himself who does not repay honest debts.’
“’But what can I do who am a slave in Syria?’
“’Stay a slave in Syria, thou weakling.’
“’I am not a weakling,’ I denied hotly.
“’Then prove it.’
“’Does not thy great king fight his enemies in every way he can and with every force he has? Thy debt are thy enemies. They ran thee out of Babylon. You left them alone and they grew too strong for thee. Hadst fought them as a man, thou couldst have conquered them and been one honoured among the townspeople. But thou had not the soul to fight them and behold thy pride hast gone down until thou art a slave in Syria.’
“Much I thought over her unkind accusations and many defensive phrases I worded to prove myself not a slave at heart, but I was not to have the chance to use them. Three days later the maid of Sira took me to her mistress.
“’My mother is again very sick,’ she said. ‘Saddle the two best camels in my husband’s herd. Tie on water skins and saddle bags for a long journey. The maid will give thee food at the kitchen tent.’ I packed the camels wondering much at the quantity of provisions the maid provided, for the mother dwelt less than a day’s journey away. The maid rode the rear camel which I followed and I led the camel of my mistress. When we reached her mother’s house it was just dark. Sira dismissed the maid and said to me:
“’Dabasir, hast thou the soul of a free man or the soul of a slave?’
“’The soul of a free man,” I insisted.
“’Now is thy chance to prove it. Thy master hath imbibed deeply and his chiefs are in a stupor.
Take then these camels and make thy escape. Here in this bag is raiment of thy master’s to disguise thee. I will say thou stole the camels and ran away while I visited my sick mother.
“’Thou hast the soul of a queen,’ I told her. ‘Much do I wish that I might lead thee to happiness.’
“’Happiness,’ she responded, ‘awaits not the runaway wife who seeks it in far lands among strange people. Go thy own way and may the gods of the desert protect thee for the way is far and barren of food or water.’
“I needed no further urging, but thanked her warmly and was away into the night. I knew not this strange country and had only a dim idea of the direction in which lay Babylon, but struck out bravely across the desert toward the hills. One camel I rode and the other I led. All that night I traveled and all the next day, urged on by the knowledge of the terrible fate that was meted out to slaves who stole their master’s property and tried to escape.
“Late that afternoon, I reached a rough country as uninhabitable as the desert. The sharp rocks bruised the feet of my faithful camels and soon they were picking their way slowly and painfully along. I met neither man nor beast and could well understand why they shunned this inhospitable land.
“It was such a journey from then on as few men live to tell of. Day after day we plodded along. Food and water gave out. The heat of the sun was merciless. At the end of the ninth day, I slid from the back of my mount with the feeling that I was too weak to ever remount and I would surely die, lost in this abandoned country.
“I stretched out upon the ground and slept, not waking until the first gleam of daylight.
“I sat up and looked about me. There was a coolness in the morning air. My camels lay dejected not far away. About me was a vast waste of broken country covered with rock and sand and thorny things, no sign of water, naught to eat for man or camel.
“Could it be that in this peaceful quiet I faced my end? My mind was clearer than it had ever been before. My body now seemed of little importance. My parched and bleeding lips, my dry and swollen tongue, my empty stomach, all had lost their supreme agonies of the day before.
“I looked across into the uninviting distance and once again came to me the question, ‘Have I the soul of a slave or the soul of a free man?’ Then with clearness I realized that if I had the soul of a slave, I should give it up, lie down in the desert and die, a fitting end for a runaway slave.
“But if I had the soul of a free man, what then? Surely I would force my way back to Babylon, repay the people who had trusted me, bring happiness to my wife who truly loved me and bring peace and contentment to my parents.
“’Thy debts are thine enemies who have run thee out of Babylon,’ Sira had said. Yes it was so. Why had I refused to stand my ground like a man? Why had I permitted my wife to go back to her father?
“Then a strange thing happened. All the world seemed to be of a different colour as though I had been looking at it through a coloured stone which had suddenly been removed. At last I saw the true values in life.
“Die in the desert! Not I! With a new vision, I saw the things that I must do. First I would go back to Babylon and face very man to whom I owed an unpaid debt. I should tell them that after years of wandering and misfortune, I had come back to pay my debts as fast as the gods would permit. Next I should make a home for my wife and become a citizen of whom my parents should be proud.
“My debts were my enemies, but the men I owed were my friends for they had trusted me and believed in me.
“I staggered weakly to my feet. What mattered hunger? What mattered thirst? They were but incidents on the road to Babylon. Within me surged the soul of a free man going back to conquer his enemies and reward his friends. I thrilled with the great resolve.
(Excerpt from The Richest Man In Babylon by George Clason