AGNES SLIGH TURNBULL
SARA, from long practice, always woke with the dawn. On this morning, because of the many things that lay upon her mind, she woke earlier while the stars were still shining. With quick, soft movements she slipped into her underdress and coarse, everyday robe, rolled up her pallet and quilt and placed them in the closet, and was ready to stand for a moment at the window watching the miracle of the daybreak.
It seemed, as she looked, as though night might have its will for hours yet upon Bethlehem. There was still the cool, soft air abroad; there were the low drooping, bright stars; there was no sound yet of the feet of camels and donkeys climbing and slipping on the steep limestone hill that led up to the town. No least hint from the narrow streets and vine-covered terraces that strangers would sxm be swarming through them.
Then, as suddenly, Sara thought, as though her own breath had dispelled them, the stars vanished. A flush of lilac swept the East through which the sun seemed to leap gloriously into the sky. The day had begun.
Sara stepped softly jxist Simon, her husband, who was still asleep, and hurried through the inn to the back courtyard where the handmill was. Old Rachel, who helix*! with the housework in return for her living, ought to be wakened. But she had been complaining so much the day before of pains in her knees, that Sara liad not the heart to call her. She would be roused soon enough when Simon woke.
Sara moved hastily now to the big wickerwork barrel in which the grain was stored. In spite of the fact that large basins of Hour awaited her hand in the house, she decided to grind a little more. She could manage the mill herself. She sang a bit of song softly as she pulled on the stout \v(xxien jx*g that turned the upper millstone. A song on her lips sounder! odd, but there was no keeping down the curious thrill of happy anticipation which rose in her heart at thought of what the day might bring.
INDEED, ever since Simon had first brought home the news about Caesar's new tax law, she had looked forward to this time with a starve*! eagerness.
"You mean,” she had asked then incredulously, “that everyone whose family is Bethlehem bom must come here to register for the tax records?”
"Exactly !” Simon answered. “From the farthest end of the country they must come if their lineage runs back here.” Then his full figure took on new imjx)rtance. He swaggered a bit as he crossed the floor.
“For once this inn will be full. Crowded to the doors! There will be feasting, wine, lights far into the night. Songs, stories, merrymaking. That’s what an inn should have. And what a host I shall lx* ! 1 lave I not often told you I am wasted here in Bethlehem? A traveller once a fortnight perliaps. Bah ! After this the fame of my inn shall be spread far and wide. We may move. We may even go to . .
Thai he stopixxi short, looking at her sternly.
"But see to it that your part is well done. There must be new mattresses and quilts contrived somehow—just a few for the richer guests. There must be fexx!, plenty of it on the day of the big in-gathering itself. Everything delicate and fine for the rich, coarser foods for the poorer. Nothing mismanaged. No mistakes. From sesame cakes to pottage— everything perfect, mind you!”
But Sara had stood still before him, her mind not on the sesame cakes. Her eyes were wide with wondei.
“Do you mean?” she asked breathlessly, "that there may
really lie here at our inn ladies in fine raiment and travellers from far parts? That there will be lights and singing and stories of mystery?”
"Why not?” Simon countered, strutting back and forth.
“Plenty of people have left Bethlehem quietly enough through the years who have seen strange sights and filled their purses with gold in the meantime.”
AND SARA, hugging the bright thought to her heart, had gone on her busy way, doing the heavy work uncomplainingly as usual while Simon sat at the inn door or gossiped on the street comer, according to his custom. Not that Sara ever blamed him. All she could do could never make up to him, she felt, for the terrible fact itself. If she were even beautiful, as Hannah must have been in the olden days of Israel, then her husband might love her even though she were childless.
But Sara was not beautiful. Her face was plain. Her body was short and stocky, strong limbed, full breasted, wide loined, designed by nature apjxirently for the one supreme purpose which life had not fulfilled to her.
Her strength had stood her in gcxxl stead, however, through the years, while she had slaved at the gleaning and the wine-pressing and the mill, in order that Simon might sit at the door to greet the travellers who came so seldom to the little hilly town of Bethlehem.
But now on this rainless morning as Sara tugged hard at the millstone, the song came to her lips like water springing from a hidden fountain. Today there would be no pretense. The travellers would indeed come. There would be stir and excitement and novelty between the drab walls of the inn. With her own hands she would serve the tables and hear the talking and the laughter. Her rough fingers would doubtless touch a piece of silk or soft, embroidered linen as she lingered in the room where the women would be gossiping. She would hear news of distant places—she who had never been out of Bethlehem. This was going to be the greatest day of her life! It would make up to her in part for the sad and bitter sameness of all the other days.
With another pot of meal now ground, she hurried back to the kitchen end of the inn to commence her baking. Though her hands were coarse looking enough, they were deft. Indeed there were those in Bethlehem who said that in times of sickness no hands were as tender and as efficient as Sara’s. But all their skill now was concentrated upon the making of the bread and the sesame cakes.
When the sun was still poised above the Mountains of Moab, she paused to survey the results. Two great baskets stood filled with small golden-brown loaves. Cn a large tray
"Almost enough for Caesar’s army itself,” she said to herself. “Surely Simon will be satisfied.”
She could hear him stirring now, calling loudly upon old Rachel, berating her for her slowness, reminding her that she ate more than she was worth. Sara knew, however, that when Rachel had brushed her hair and put on her best dress and cap, Simon was prouder to have her seen at the inn door than his wife. Old Rachel had known better days. She had once been beautiful and the memory of it still showed in her face. She had an easy way, too, of talking with strangers.
The morning moved quickly. Sara’s hands and feet never stopped. She drove herself relentlessly. Floors were swept,
the brass ewers and pitchers were cleaned afresh, candles were set in their places, heavy benches and tables were moved w'hile Simon was out in the street watching for the first travellers. But Sara did not mind. A little smile touched her lips as she worked. The evening meal would be, of course, the crowning point of the day. She would wear her best robe. She might even borrow a little antimony paste from Asenath, her young neighbor, if she had time, and touch her eyelashes. Asenath would help her put it on. It would hardly be wicked to do it for this great occasion,
when she would be moving about among the strangers, speaking with the women, listening to the men. Her heart, so little exercised in gladness, thrilled with the thought.
When the first arrivals came, Sara's hands were mixing the ground meat and meal that would form one of the chief dishes at supper. She called quickly to old Rachel, who was already in her best clothes.
“You go to receive the women, Rachel. I can’t leave this cooking. Make them comfortable. Use the brass basins. Be sure to get the clean towels ...”
But Rachel, pleased and excited herself, with no hint now of pains in her knees, was away at the first word.
After that, the guests came quickly. There would be the sound of a donkey’s feet upon the cobblestone courtyard, then Simon’s voice swelling with importance and hospitality, old Rachel’s shriller one at the doorway, and then the unusual tones of the strangers. Sometimes a little trill of a woman’s laugh!
Sara heard it all as she added onion and cracked wheat to the great pot of boiling lentils, and filled more plates with dried raisins and figs and almonds. But she was content. Her time would soon come.
And still the strangers arrived! Sara was just about to slip away to put on her best robe, when Asenath, her young neighbor, appeared at the back doorway, her pretty face white with despair. “Sara,” she began, “we expected no guests and I prepared nothing ! But just now five men have stopped at our house. They are distant relatives of my husband come clear from Capernaum !”
She paused, her eyes wild and her hands beating at her breast. “What can I do? I shall be eternally disgraced in the eyes of my husband. I have not even grain enough in the house to grind meal for so many. Sara, won’t you help me?”
Sara looked at the girl. Her graceful body wore a bright robe. Her dark eyes looked larger and brighter because of the shining blackness of her lashes. She had had time and to spare that day to use the antimony paste! But Sara’s generous heart put the thought aside.
“Here,” she said quickly, filling a basket with loaves, "take these and I'll give you some of the lentil pottage, too. I’ve cooked so much I’ll never miss it . . . Now with your own raisins and figs you’ll have enough . . There, run along. I must hurry.”
For though she had made light of her gift, Sara knew she must set about replacing it. The sounds both from the inside room and from the courtyard told her that still more travellers were arriving. She could hear Simon’s voice raised in hilarious welcome. Old Rachel in her hurried trips back to the kitchen had told her of the numbers.
“We can’t take many more in,” she said excitedly. “There isn’t room. They'll have to sit close as it is. There won’t be enough cushions at supper-time. Nor pallets! Some of them have their own mattresses with them; that will help. They say the whole town is full. You’ll need to cook plenty . . . hist ! isn’t that someone else shouting in the courtyard now?”
Sara was beginning to be weary, but she hurriedly prepared to bake more of the small crisp loaves, and added a second pot of lentils to the one boiling on the fire. The eager light was still in her eyes, however. It was almost time for supper. Then at last, she too would mingle with the guests and be a part of the happy excitement.
Just as she was starting once again to exchange her coarse working robe for a better one, Simon himself, his face flushed with triumph, his portly form swaggering, appeared in the doorway. With him were two young women who lived not far away.
Simon waved an expansive hand.
"I’ve fetched Priscilla and Joanna here to serve the guests at supper," he said. “They are both comely and light of foot. They will do credit to the place. Rachel will oversee them. And, Sara, you keep on with the cooking. See that there is plenty, for the house is full. They are taking their places now. In a few minutes, start the serving.”
Sara stood still, her limbs leaden, her heart dead. An incredible desolation overcame her; a bittemess which made her eyes too hot and dry for tears. So, after all her eager hopes, she was to be shut out. She, whose heart was so starved for beauty, was not to see the brightly robed guests seated in the candle-shine; her ears were to hear nothing but the crackling of the fagots as she heated the oven. And tomorrow the strangers would be gone as though they had never been.
"DUT SHE turned back to the fire and put more onion with the lentils. Her white lips were set tightly together. The hungry must be fed, and she must show no sign of her disappointment to Priscilla and Joanna. They were not to blame. They fluttered about her now, arranging the food, running back and forth to the rooms where the travellers would sup.
“There’s a woman here from Caesarea,” Joanna announced. “You should see her robe! She let me smooth it. It’s so soft. And she’s been telling the other women about the buildings there. It must be the most beautiful city in the world !”
“And there's a man from Joppa in the other room that has sailed on the great sea. I heard him speak of it just now as I set the raisins on the table. Oh, there will be great story-telling later. Where is the wine, Sara?”
The supper began at last, group by group being served. Sara, harried by the nervous calls of the waitresses and old Rachel, and an occasional quick word from Simon, kept to her task, out of sight. Echoes of laughter came back to her and the reports of the girls.
“One of the women went with her husband once to Damascus. Oh, if you could hear her tell about the bazaars !”
“And that old man with the long beard was once in Rome. I heard the others say he’s very rich. And the young man with the gay robe has a lute with him. He will play later. Oh. Sara, it’s wonderful to hear them !”
Once only, Sara left her task. She heard again the sound of an animal’s feet on the cobblestones of the court. In a moment Simon’s voice rang out from the front door.
"No room ! No rx)m !”
There was a triumphant note in it as though all his life Simon had dreamed of an overcrowded hostelry. Sara peered through the window. Through the early dusk she could discern in the courtyard a small white ass, its head bowed as though after a long journey. On its back drooped the figure of a young woman in an attitude of unshakable weariness.
“No room ! No rx)m !” shouted Simon again.
She could hear the voices then of the two men, though the words were indistinguishable. The stranger seemed to be beseeching strongly, even sternly, while Simon sneered. Suddenly the young woman on the ass raised her head, shrouded in the soft blue folds of a cape. Sara could not see her features clearly, but when she six)ke, the gentle tones seemed at once to still the two striving men beyond.
"I think I should like the stable, Joseph. It will be so quiet there. The oxen will lx asleep. And with a blanket we can make a bed upon the hay.”
In a few moments more the strange man came around the house with a lantern which Simon had evidently given him, and led the ass through the courtyard and on to the stable in the rear.
SARA TURNED back to her duties heavily. So the inn was really so full that Simon would turn people away. The stable! And they seemed like gentlefolk, too. She must remember in the morning to see if they had enough provisions with them. Then the weight of her own heart made her forget the strangers. Por in the sup[xr room there was music as though the lute was accomjxmying a tale that was being told.
Sara looked down at her coarse, work-soiled dress. She was too utterly weary now to change it. All the glad excitement of the earlier hours was drained from her. So was her strength. Her one great desire now was to throw herself down to sleep.
But there was still work to be done. There were many pots and pans and plates to lx cleaned. And there must be breakfast in the morning.
The candles burned late in the inn that night as Simon had said they would. There was merry-making aplenty, too, for Simon, replete with pride, had grown reckless with the wine. There was shouting and singing far into the night. But at last even the inn lay dark and quiet beneath the sky.
Sara had spread her pallet on the kitchen floor, and lay fully dressed, sunk in exhausted sleep, the tears which had come at last still damp upon her cheeks. One would have said indeed that all Bethlehem slept, except, of course, the shepherds keeping the night watch with their sheep on the hills.
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Continued from page 13—Starts on page 12
VX/TIEN SARA roused herseli at last to a VV hajf consciousness, she found that it was not the dawn that had wakened her. It was a knocking at the door near where she lay.
She sat up, still heavy with sleep. The knocking grew louder.
With a great effort she got to her feet and opened the door. A man stood there clearly visible in a strange soft light like that of the moon. His dark handsome face was drawn with anxiety. He spoke quickly.
“It’s my wife,” he said. “Her hour has come and she has sore need of a woman’s hands. Is there anyone wrho will help her? We are in the stable there. There was no room here at the inn.”
Sara stared dully at him without speaking. All she could feel was the terrible weariness of her own body. Was she not then even to have a few hours rest? She would s^nd him on up the street to seek old Martha who was often called upon at such times. But old Martha had failed of late. Sara knew that she herself could render more aid.
“I will come,” she said at last.
In another moment with a small bundle under her arm, she stepped from the doorway and, with the man who told her his name was Joseph, started toward the stable.
SHE NOTICED as they went that the strange light did not come from the moon. It came rather from one great luminous star which hung from the heavens above the stable itself. Through the soft glow she could see the sleeping roofs of Bethlehem, the fields of Boaz down below, and beyond, the Tower of the Shepherds, all clear and yet unreal as though caught up together in a mystery. The very air seemed hushed about them.
As they neared the stable Sara spoke.
“Is it her first child?” she asked softly. The man did not answer at once. Sara could hear him catch his breath as though he himself suffered.
“Yes,” he answered, very low-. Then as they had come to the door he added : “I will wait here.”
As she passed inside, she saw that he was kneeling.
Sara had been thinking of the lantern, but as she crossed the stable threshold, she knew it would not be needed, for the light from the
star fell inside, too, with a soft diffusion of radiance. Sara’s eyes saw first the quiet, sleeping oxen, and the rough manger. Then as she advanced, her hand flew to her breast in a gesture of unconscious adoration. For upon the hay lay Mary, with a beauty beyond that of earth. Her white face shone between waves of golden hair, and her lips smiled even while her eyes were full of pain. With a sob she could not suppress, Sara knelt quickly beside her.
When the hour ended, the hush that had seemed to hold heaven and earth was broken by a little cry. It was the cry of Mary’s first-born son. And even as it came, there was a rush as of beating wings from the sky above them, and music of heavenly sweetness.
“Glory to God,” sang the voices, “and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Sara’s eyes were raised, stricken with wonder, but Mary’s held no fear, only a great light.
“It is the angels,” she whispered. “They are welcoming His birth.”
Sara’s hands were clasped before her. Her voice was broken with awe.
“Can it be—the Messiah?”
Mary’s eyes were looking far away as though lost in a vision, but before she could answer the heavenly voices came again.
“For unto you is bom this day, a Saviour
■VXTHEN JOSEPH was again by Mary’s ** side and the babe had been wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid to sleep on the soft hay in the manger, Sara slipped quietly out of the stable. It was not yet time for dawn. The great star still shed its fair, pale light over the sleeping town. Through it she could see in the distance a group of shepherds making their way hurriedly across the fields. No one else in all the countryside seemed to be astir.
Sara walked across the courtyard to the door of the inn. She was no longer weary. 11 was as though a new and radiant strength possessed her. All the bitter disappointments, all the dreary unfulfillments of her life, had fallen from her as a garment. She leaned against the inn door, trembling with rapture. Her lips moved.
“I, even I, have heard the angels singing! Against my own heart I have held the little Christ!”