IT is of a Christmas Eve years ago that my little tale has to tell--one of the bitterest, bleakest Christmas Eves in their memory, men told each other, as, with collars well up about their ears, they went about their business in the streets of a big northern town. But it is not to the town I will take you now, but to the outskirts of a village a few miles beyond; there, if anything, it was bleaker and the wind had an even sharper nip in it. Snow had fallen earlier in the day, covering everything for miles around, and along the winding road, following a solitary human track marking the way of some pedestrian, came two pitiful little figures.
The smaller was a boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, a ragged shawl round his thin shoulders, and his little blue toes peeping out from broken boots. Every now and then the bitter wind lifted the dark locks lying across his forehead, and his eyes would shut for a moment while he stumbled onwards, holding tightly to his sister's hand
She, poor child, had seen twelve long years of poverty and hunger, culminating in a nightmare week of trouble upon trouble, which had left her in sole charge of Bernard and the precious bundle she carried in her arms. But the brave little heart of her never wavered.
"Cheer up, dear." She stooped to give the boy's rough head a loving caress. "See the footmarks are still there and they must lead to somewhere soon, and then----" but she stopped abruptly, for what would happen then she did not know. The last words on her mother's lips had been, "Take the children to Broadwood . . . and---" but there she had stopped, and the tired eyes had closed for ever. So towards Broadwood Mary had turned her face early that morning with her two little charges, and surely, surely they must be nearly there.
The darkness closed in completely, and they could no longer see the footprints, but stumbled blindly on. Suddenly the boy cried, "Look! oh look! there's a light!" and a few moments later a trembling knock startled the inmates of the tiny cottage standing alone in the great silence of the snow-covered country.
"Don't get up, my dear, I'll see who it is." The old man rose stiffly from his high-backed chair by the fire, and his wife looked up from her knitting as he opened the door.
"Come here, my dear!" he called, and she went, grumbling.
"See!" he cried eagerly, "there be two children, or three, rather, for the girl's carrying a baby, and they want shelter for the night."
"They'd better get along pretty sharp them," she broke in, "for they'll get none nearer than the village, and that's more than a mile."
"But, Catherine--wife!" he pleaded, "they're so little--couldn't they---"
"No they couldn't" she interrupted again, and he hung his head abashed before her indignant eyes. "Look you here, children! You follow that road," pointing the way they had come, "till you come to the cross-roads, then turn to the left, past the church--and about as far on again you'll come to the village. The first house is the priest's. You'd better go there!" and she slammed the door.
There was a painful silence in the little cottage for a moment, then David said gravely, "It is quite dark and it is going to snow again."
"More shame to the people who send children out at this time o' day!" she snapped, and he knew it was useless to urge her any further. Yet he made one more effort.
Laying his hand on her shoulder he said softly: "There was a baby, Catherine, a tiny one!"
"I can't bear babies!"
"But, my dear, think! To-night, of all nights! Think of the little Christ-Child!" and then softly, under his breath, "there was no room for Him!"
She gave him a scornful look as she took up her knitting, but vouchsafed no answer at all, and David sought consolation in his pipe, but found none. His wife's bitter words had hurt him as they always did. Once she had been a dear and loving wife to him and a devoted mother to the three little girls who had made glad their tiny cottage. It did not seem lonely then, for David found all of earth he wanted there, and his quick fancy caught glimpses of Heaven itself in the eyes of his children. It was thirty years since the two eldest had died and twenty since the youngest--the darling of her mother's heart--had left her home, and vanished from their sight completely.
During all those years Catharine had never gone more than a few yards from her cottage and had grown daily more embittered.
Very patient old David had been with her, and when he could bear his trouble alone no longer, he would make his way to the little church and tell to the Friend he met there all the. sorrow and longing that filled his loving old heart.
The evening wore on, and presently he went to the window and looked out.
"No use to go star-gazing to-night!" remarked Catharine.
It was one of her pet grievances that David would spend hours on a clear, starlight night, leaning on the little gate, looking into the depths of the heavens. It was no use trying to explain the attraction of the stars to her; he had no words to tell it, she had not the heart to understand.
How near God seemed to him sometimes as he stood there motionless and let himself be carried in imagination, up--and up--and up, amongst those shining orbs! But Catharine would say, scornfully, "Your God is very far away!" and quote words that were often on David's lips, "Out beyond the shining of the farthest star." "Yes, that's where He is! He can't--and doesn't--care for people like us. You may gaze at the stars as much as you like, but you can't get to them!" And poor David could only hope that someday, somehow, his wife would find the link between earth and heaven.
As the two children turned wearily away, the boy began to cry softly.
"Hush, darling!" whispered his sister, "we must hurry and get to the village, and the priest will surely help us."
"But it's such a long way and I'm so tired!" he wailed, and her heart ached to hear him. Just then they almost ran into some building verging on the roadway, and finding it to be a sort of shed, they felt for the door, and after listening in vain for sounds of anything alive within, lifted the latch and stumbled over the threshold.
It was very small, as they discovered by feeling their way round the walls, and quite bare, save for a pile of wood in one corner, and in another, opposite the door, a heap of something soft and sweet-smelling on which they sank wearily down.
Soon Bernard was fast asleep, his head cradled on his sister's lap, beside the still sleeping baby.
But Mary sat staring into the darkness with wide unseeing eyes. She was tired and hungry; but that was nothing. How to care for the two helpless little brothers left in her charge taxed all her thoughts. Presently she thought of that other helpless Baby, for whom there was no room and no welcome on that first Christmas Eve so long ago, and there was much com fort in the thought. Almost she fancied she could see them here beside her--the Blessed Mother and the Holy Babe, and the dear Saint Joseph watching over both with such love in his wondering, brooding eyes.
For a long time she sat thinking, and then she woke the boy.
"Look, Bernard; I've got an idea! I'm going to put baby down on the straw here, and you can go to sleep beside him while I go on to the village and get something for you to eat. You'll be quite safe, and I'll be back before you wake up."
But Bernard refused to be left.
"I should be frightened--take me, too!" he pleaded.
"But I should get on so much quicker without you, dear; and, besides, how can I leave, baby alone? It'd take ever so much longer to get there if I have you both with me."
"Baby'd be all right. He's too little to be frightened. Oh, Mary! please don't leave me!"
And in the end poor distracted Mary had to give way. After feeding the baby with the last drop of milk she had been saving so carefully, she laid him on the straw, wrapped tightly round in the shawl, but with hands and face uncovered, and went out again into the keen, cold night, with Bernard clinging to her hand.
The snow had begun to fall and fell ever more and more steadily. More than once she turned to go back to the shed, but the thought of possible help ahead made her persevere, though the snow nearly blinded her, and her feet stumbled as often as her little brother's.
And still the snow fell ever more and more thickly as they groped their unseeing way through it, till Bernard fell without a sound in the roadway, and Mary, having no strength left to haul him up, sank down herself with the effort.
In a few moments all that shewed their presence was a queer-shaped mound by the roadside, growing smoother with the covering snow each minute.
Catharine sat staring into her fire till the soft crash of a collapsing log made her stretch her hand to the wood-box, only to find it empty.
David was daft to-night, she told herself angrily. He had gone out to the Midnight Eucharist, heedless alike of the snow-storm and her protests, and not only so, but had forgotten to fill her wood-box before he went. Now she must go for some logs herself, unless she was to shiver in the cold till his return, so, wrapping herself in a voluminous shawl, she took her lantern and went out to the shed. The snow was falling very lightly now, though it lay inches thick on the pathway, but the way was too familiar to miss.
Opening the creaking door she shook the snow from her shoulders and stepped inside.
Then lifting the lantern high, she looked about her.
What was there in that little rough shed to work such a change in her? She, who boasted she was afraid of nothing, who went about with a grim determined face that repelled all who came near her, stood now in her own little wood-shed, gazing with startled eyes at something lying on the floor. Her face was ghastly in the light of the lantern, which shook in her trembling hands.
On a heap of straw opposite her lay a wee babe wrapped closely about, but with tiny appealing hands stretched towards her. The eyes were really closed, but in the glimmering light Catharine fancied they were fixed on her.
Over the snow came dimly to her ears the sound of the church bell.
"Oh, David! Why did you leave me alone!" she moaned. "Oh, dear God, I can't bear it! I'm a wicked, unloving old woman, but I didn't under stand--I didn't understand!"
There was a crash as the lantern fell from her trembling fingers, and, sobbing with terror, she covered her face as she dropped on her knees in the darkness.
A moment later she raised her head and listened.
Through the pitchy blackness came a sound she knew well of old, though she had not heard it for many long years, a sound that woke something in her heart that had been fast asleep, but never dead--the cry of a very young baby.
All her terror vanished as she eagerly felt for the matches in her pocket and the lantern lying beside her. Wonderingly she gathered the wailing baby in her arms and made her way back to her cottage. Soon she was so absorbed in the delightful task of caring for her unexpected guest that she sprang up with a stifled cry of terror at a muffled sound outside, followed by a hoarse shout of "Catharine! Catharine! Open the door!" As she obeyed, David stumbled in and laid down gently what he carried in his arms, then reached up for the other burden hanging limply over his shoulders. For a moment husband and wife faced each other across the silent little forms, and then Catharine moaned, "Oh! God forgive me! They're the children I drove from our door!" Then with a sudden change of tone, she added quickly, "Now, David lad, look alive! We've got to work as we never worked before, and we'll save them yet, please God!"
Laying the now sleeping baby in a chair and ignoring the question she saw in David's eyes, she set to work on the two unconscious children.
Two hours later she came into the little living-room, after putting Mary and the baby to bed, and found David had satisfactorily accomplished a like office for little Bernard, and was standing by the improvised couch watching the boy with a hungry longing in his eyes.
He looked up as she entered.
"We had better get to bed ourselves, I suppose," he said slowly, "and see what to do with them all in the morning. But you haven't told me yet where you found the baby?"
She laid her head against his shoulder as she answered softly--"David, dear lad, I have much to tell you to-morrow, but just two things you must know to-night. For one," her voice was very soft and low, "I know now what Christmas means--I've seen to night something of the love that made the God, who lives beyond the stars, become a helpless baby--and it nearly broke my heart. . . . And the other thing, David--you'll never guess, dear lad!" She put her arms round him and drew his head down to her shoulder. "Those children--oh, David, the wonder of it! They're our Nancy's children! Think of that! The little girl had a letter and one or two other things that prove it beyond a doubt. . .
And here we must leave them, for words failed David entirely. But this much we must say. The little cottage was never again the gloomy place it had been, and with the sweet faces and merry laughter of her grandchildren about her, Catharine was in no danger of forgetting the wonderful lesson she had learned of the love of the Babe of Bethlehem.