IT was the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany in the little Church of Saint John in the far east of London. Without, was the squalor and misery of one of the poorest of the great city's parishes. Within, a handful of people had lately been gathered for the first Evensong of the Epiphany, but they were gone now, and the Church was nearly empty, and in darkness, save in the Chancel, where the Sanctuary lamps glimmered faintly, and in a corner of the Lady Chapel, where a row of candles burned before the Crib, throwing into relief the pale little face of the boy who stood before it.
It was the first time Timothy had been in Church.
Only this morning his mother had been taken to the hospital, and Timothy, feeling more lonely and forlorn even than usual, had spent the hours since in aimlessly wandering about the streets, till, seeing the people turning in at the open door, he had followed in the wake of a motherly-looking woman, glad to escape for awhile from the bitter wind and sleet.
So he sat there and heard many things he did not understand, and a few that he did.
Now, in the dim light he stood and looked at the Crib.
Oh! it was beautiful! He had never seen any thing so lovely, he thought. And it was all quite new to him, too. No one had told him the "old, old story" as he had heard it to-night from the lips of the white-haired priest. There was the Mother, kneeling by the Manger, and Saint Joseph standing by, the angels bending low in the background, the ox and the ass resting in the straw, and in the Manger, with arms outstretched, the Holy Babe.
Clasped tightly in one grubby little hand was a penny, the gift of the motherly-looking woman who had taken him under her wing. She was very poor herself, but her quick eyes had seen the hungry look in the boy's blue ones, had noted the broken boots, and jacket out-at-elbows.
He looked at the penny, then again at the Crib.
It was plain that some weighty question was being decided.
Had not the old priest said they must all give some thing to the Divine Babe who had given so much to them? And was not the penny all he had in the world? And he was very hungry. Could he give it all?
He heaved a sigh.
"It's awful hard," he murmured.
Then he brightened suddenly.
"I know," he said aloud. "I'll buy a bun--Mrs. Jones had quite big buns for a ha'penny--then I'll come back and bring the other ha'penny."
With a happy smile he turned away and made his way cautiously down the darkened Church, pausing at the door to throw a last look towards the Crib; then, lifting the big latch with both hands, he passed out into the street.
He shivered as the bitter wind met him and pierced his ragged shirt. He tried to pull his coat together, but it was too small and would not meet, so he thrust his hands into his pockets and trudged steadily on.
There was Mrs. Jones' shop--that one with the bright light. His tired little legs broke into a run as he came in sight of it, and in another minute he was flattening his nose against the window. There were so many things he would have liked (that liquorice looked awfully good, he thought). But he had only a ha'penny to spend. He was quite sure on that point.
"I want a bun, please," he said timidly, to the sour- looking woman behind the counter.
"What sort?" she asked sharply.
"Please, the biggest you've got for a ha'penny."
She snorted, then handed him over a large, sticky bun, and a ha'penny.
He could hardly wait to get outside to begin on that bun, but he stood for a minute on the doorstep, holding it up, and feasting his eyes on it, trying to prolong the joy of it.
Timothy started and looked round.
"Hello," he said. Then he searched the other boy's face eagerly, noting with satisfaction the signs of battle it showed. Jack Long had cheated over that game of marbles yesterday--Tim was quite sure about it, and as cheating was one of the things his whole soul hated, he had taken great pains to give Jack a real good licking. At least, he had tried to, but he had been rather afraid the other had had the best of it.
"Want some more?" he asked.
"More what?" said Jack.
Tim doubled his fist.
"Don't be an ass," said Jack crossly.
Tim turned away, and as his teeth met in the bun, he sighed with satisfaction.
"Say, Tim, I'm awful hungry," said Jack at his elbow, and there was a pleading note in his voice Tim had never heard before.
He paused before taking his second mouth-full.
"Can't help it," he said slowly.
Jack's eyes rested on the bun, then sought his friend's face.
As Tim looked into those brown eyes so full of pleading, he suddenly seemed to see the Crib--the Babe with outstretched arms. . . . "Take it," he said quickly, with a choke in his voice. Thrusting the bun into Jack's hand, he turned and ran down the street.
In a dark corner of the railway arch he stopped, and the tears would come into his eyes. He was so hungry, but he could not spend the other ha'penny, he was sure.
A sound behind him startled him, and he turned and peered into the shadows.
In the darkest corner sat a little girl, sobbing.
"What's the matter . . . dear?" he asked. "Oh! don't cry, please . . . and don't be frightened," he added, as she looked up, startled.
"I've lost it," she wailed.
"The farving Muvver gave me . . . to buy tea and she'll beat me." The sobs broke out afresh.
"Oh! please don't cry--I'll help you to find it." But even as he spoke Tim knew it was hopeless to try to find anything in that dark spot.
"Here, take this," he said suddenly, thrusting the ha'penny into the little girl's hand. "Don't cry any more. You can buy some sweets for yourself with the other farthing. Mrs. Jones has some awful nice liquorice in her window. Anyway, it looks nice."
Two grubby little arms went round his neck, and a wet cheek was pressed to his.
"You're an awful nice boy," said a grateful little voice.
Then she ran off, and in a few minutes was on her way home contentedly sucking a stick of liquorice, with the farthing packet of tea clutched safely in her hand.
But back in the little dark Church, Tim knelt sobbing before the Crib, his head buried in his hands. He felt suddenly so ill and weak and tired.
"Oh! Baby dear," he whispered between his sobs, "I did so want to give you the ha'penny . . . but Jack was so hungry . . . and the little girl was crying. . . ." His voice broke off, and he lifted his head and looked up through a mist of tears.
There was an opening at the back of the stable, and a cold blast swept through, making Tim shiver as he gazed with awe-struck eyes at the scene before him, and the Mother bent lower over her Babe, wrapping her cloak about Him. In the background, the two angels knelt adoring, a wistful sadness in their watchful eyes. Tim felt the warm breath of the animals on his cheek, heard the soft rustle of the angels' wings.
But hush! the Mother was speaking, and he strained his ears to catch her words.
"Mind not the cold, my Son," she was whispering, "or that Thy subjects do not come to worship Thee. All the world shall own Thee one day. The kings of the earth shall adore Thee, and Thy people bring their gifts to Thee."
There was a little stir among the angels, and a smile broke over their faces as one came forward and laid something at the Mother's feet.
She looked, smiled too, and bent lower over the manger.
"See, Son of My Heart," she whispered, "see what a little boy has brought Thee!"
And Tim caught his breath in sudden wonder and delight, for in the gifts held up to the Holy Child he recognised--his bun and ha'penny!
The Babe stretched out His tiny Hands and smiled, and the sweetness of that smile was too much for Tim's love-hungry little heart.
With a sigh of exquisite content, he shut his tired little eyes, and passed to the Land of Love.