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by William J. Locke
Originally (1910); this copy from Tales of far-away (1923, ed.)
THREE men who had gained great fame and honour throughout the world met unexpectedly in front of the bookstall at Paddington Station. Like most of the great ones of the earth they were personally acquainted, and they exchanged surprised greetings.
Sir Angus McCurdie, the eminent physicist, scowled at the two others beneath his heavy black eyebrows.
"I'm going to a God-forsaken place in Cornwall called Trehenna," said he.
"That's odd; so am I," croaked Professor Biggleswade. He was a little, untidy man with round spectacles, a fringe of greyish beard and a weak, rasping voice, and he knew more of Assyriology than any man, living or dead. A flippant pupil once remarked that the Professor's face was furnished with a Babylonic cuneiform in lieu of features.
"People called Deverill, at Foullis Castle?" asked Sir Angus.
"Yes," replied Professor Biggleswade.
"How curious! I am going to the Deverills, too," said the third man.
This man was the Right Honourable Viscount Doyne, the renowned Empire Builder and Administrator, around whose solitary and remote life popular imagination had woven many legends. He looked at the world through tired grey eyes, and the heavy, drooping, blonde moustache seemed tired too, and had dragged down the tired face into deep furrows. He was smoking a long black cigar.
"I suppose we may as well travel down together," said Sir Angus, not very cordially.
Lord Doyne said courteously: "I have a reserved carriage. The railway company is always good enough to place one at my disposal. It would give me great pleasure if you would share it."
The invitation was accepted, and the three men crossed the busy, crowded platform to take their seats in the great express train. A porter, laden with an incredible load of paraphernalia, trying to make his way through the press, happened to jostle Sir Angus McCurdie. He rubbed his shoulder fretfully.
"Why the whole land should be turned into a bear garden on account of this exploded superstition of Christmas is one of the anomalies of modern civilization. Look at this insensate welter of fools travelling in wild herds to disgusting places merely because it's Christmas!"
"You seem to be travelling yourself, McCurdie," said Lord Doyne.
"Yes and why the devil I'm doing it, I've not the faintest notion," replied Sir Angus
"It's going to be a beast of a journey," he remarked some
moments later, as the train carried them slowly out of the
station. "The whole country is under snow and as far as I
can understand we have to change twice and wind up with a
twenty-mile motor drive.
He was an iron-faced, beetle-browed, stern man; and this morning he did not seem to be in the best of tempers. Finding his companions inclined to be sympathetic, he continued his lamentation.
"And merely because it's Christmas I've had to shut up my laboratory and give my young fools a holiday just when I was in the midst of a most important series of experiments."
Professor Biggleswade, who had heard vaguely of and rather looked down upon such new-fangled toys as radium and thorium and helium and argon for the latest astonishing developments in the theory of radio-activity had brought Sir Angus McCurdie his world-wide fame said somewhat ironically: "If the experiments were so important, why didn't you lock yourself up with your test-tubes and electric batteries and finish them alone?"
"Man!" said McCurdie, bending across the carriage, and speaking with a curious intensity of voice, "d'ye know I'd give a hundred pounds to be able to answer that question?"
"What do you mean?" asked the Professor, startled.
"I should like to know why I'm sitting in this damned train and going to visit a couple of addle-headed society people whom I'm scarcely acquainted with, when I might be at home in my own good company furthering the progress of science."
"I myself," said the Professor, "am not acquainted with them at all."
It was Sir Angus McCurdie's turn to look surprised.
"Then why are you spending Christmas with them?"
"I reviewed a ridiculous blank-verse tragedy written by Deverill on the Death of Sennacherib. Historically it was puerile. I said so in no measured terms. He wrote a letter claiming to be a poet and not an archæaeologist. I replied that the day had passed when poets could with impunity commit the abominable crime of distorting history. He retorted with some futile argument, and we went on exchanging letters, until his invitation and my acceptance concluded the correspondence."
McCurdie, still bending his black brows on him, asked him why he had not declined. The Professor screwed up his face till it looked more like a cuneiform than ever. He, too, found the question difficult to answer, but he showed a bold front.
"I felt it my duty," said he, "to teach that preposterous
ignoramus something worth knowing about Sennacherib. Besides,
I am a bachelor and would sooner spend Christmas, as to whose
irritating and meaningless annoyance I cordially agree with
you, among strangers than among my married sisters' numerous
and nerve-racking families.
Sir Angus McCurdie, the hard, metallic apostle of radio-activity, glanced for a moment out of the window at the grey, frost-bitten fields. Then he said:
"I'm a widower. My wife died many years ago and, thank God, we had no children. I generally spend Christmas alone."
He looked out of the window again. Professor Biggleswade suddenly remembered the popular story of the great scientist's antecedents, and reflected that as McCurdie had once run, a barefoot urchin, through the Glasgow mud, he was likely to have little kith or kin. He himself envied McCurdie. He was always praying to be delivered from his sisters and nephews and nieces, whose embarrassing demands no calculated coldness could repress.
"Children are the root of all evil," said he. "Happy the man who has his quiver empty."
Sir Angus McCurdie did not reply at once; when he spoke again it was with reference to their prospective host.
"I met Deverill," said he, "at the Royal Society's Soirée this year. One of my assistants was demonstrating a peculiar property of thorium and Deverill seemed interested. I asked him to come to my laboratory the next day, and found he didn't know a damned thing about anything. That's all the acquaintance I have with him."
Lord Doyne, the great administrator, who had been wearily turning over the pages of an illustrated weekly chiefly filled with flamboyant photographs of obscure actresses, took his gold glasses from his nose and the black cigar from his lips, and addressed his companions.
"I've been considerably interested in your conversation," said he, "and as you've been frank, I'll be frank too. I knew Mrs. Deverill's mother, Lady Carstairs, very well years ago, and of course Mrs. Deverill when she was a child. Deverill I came across once in Persia he had been sent on a diplomatic mission to Teheran. As for our being invited on such slight acquaintance, little Mrs. Deverill has the reputation of being the only really successful celebrity hunter in England. She inherited the faculty from her mother, who entertained the whole world. We're sure to find archbishops, and eminent actors, and illustrious divorcées asked to meet us. That's one thing. But why I, who loathe country-house parties and children and Christmas as much as Biggleswade, am going down there to-day, I can no more explain than you can. It's a devilish odd coincidence."
The three men looked at one another. Suddenly McCurdie shivered and drew his fur coat around him. "I'll thank you," said he, "to shut that window."
"It is shut," said Doyne.
"It's just uncanny," said McCurdie, looking from one to the other.
"What?" asked Doyne.
"Nothing, if you didn't feel it."
"There did seem to be a sudden draught," said Professor Biggleswade. "But as both window and door are shut, it could only be imaginary."
"It wasn't imaginary," muttered McCurdie.
Then he laughed harshly. "My father and mother came from Cromarty," he said with apparent irrelevance.
"That's the Highlands," said the Professor.
"Ay," said McCurdie.
Lord Doyne said nothing, but tugged at his moustache and looked out of the window as the frozen meadows and bits of river and willows raced past. A dead silence fell on them. McCurdie broke it with another laugh and took a whisky-flask from his handbag.
"Have a nip?"
"Thanks, no," said the Professor. "I have to keep to a strict dietary, and I only drink hot milk and water and of that sparingly. I have some in a thermos bottle."
Lord Doyne also declining the whisky, McCurdie swallowed a dram and declared himself to be better. The Professor took from his bag a foreign review in which a German sciolist had dared to question his interpretation of a Hittite inscription. Over the man's ineptitude he fell asleep and snored loudly.
To escape from his immediate neighbourhood McCurdie went to the other end of the seat and faced Lord Doyne, who had resumed his gold glasses and his listless contemplation of obscure actresses. McCurdie lit a pipe, Doyne another black cigar. The train thundered on.
Presently they all lunched together in the restaurant car. The windows steamed, but here and there through a wiped patch of pane a white world was revealed. The snow was falling. As they passed through Westbury, McCurdie looked mechanically for the famous white horse carved into the chalk of the down; but it was not visible beneath the thick covering of snow.
"It'll be just like this all the way to Gehenna Trehenna, I mean," said McCurdie.
Doyne nodded. He had done his life's work amid all extreme fiercenesses of heat and cold, in burning droughts, in simooms and in icy wildernesses, and a ray or two more of the pale sun or a flake or two more of the gentle snow of England mattered to him but little. But Biggleswade rubbed the pane with his table-napkin and gazed apprehensively at the prospect.
"If only this wretched train would stop," said he, "I would go back again."
And he thought how comfortable it would be to sneak home again to his books and thus elude not only the Deverills, but the Christmas jollities of his sisters' families, who would think him miles away. But the train was timed not to stop till Plymouth, two hundred and thirty-five miles from London, and thither was he being relentlessly carried. Then he quarrelled with his food, which brought a certain consolation.
The train did stop, however, before Plymouth indeed, before Exeter. An accident on the line had dislocated the traffic. The express was held up for an hour, and when it was permitted to proceed, instead of thundering on, it went cautiously, subject to continual stoppings. It arrived at Plymouth two hours late. The travellers learned that they had missed the connection on which they had counted and that they could not reach Trehenna till nearly ten o'clock. After weary waiting at Plymouth they took their seats in the little, cold local train that was to carry them another stage on their journey. Hot-water cans put in at Plymouth mitigated to some extent the iciness of the compartment. But that only lasted a comparatively short time, for soon they were set down at a desolate, shelterless wayside junction, dumped in the midst of a hilly snow-covered waste, where they went through another weary wait for another dismal local train that was to carry them to Trehenna. And in this train there were no hot-water cans, so that the compartment was as cold as death. McCurdie fretted and shook his fist in the direction of Trehenna.
"And when we get there we have still a twenty miles' motor drive to Foullis Castle. It's a fool name and we're fools to be going there."
"I shall die of bronchitis," wailed Professor Biggleswade.
"A man dies when it is appointed for him to die," said Lord Doyne, in his tired way; and he went on smoking long back cigars.
"It's not the dying that worries me," said McCurdie. "That's a mere mechanical process which every organic being from a king to a cauliflower has to pass through. It's the being forced against my will and my reason to come on this accursed journey, which something tells me will become more and more accursed as we go on, that is driving me to distraction."
"What will be, will be," said Doyne.
"I can't see where the comfort of that reflection comes in," said Biggleswade.
"And yet you've travelled in the East," said Doyne. "I suppose you know the Valley of the Tigris as well as any man living."
"Yes," said the Professor. "I can say I dug my way from
Tekrit to Bagdad and left not a stone unexamined.
"Perhaps, after all," Doyne remarked, "that's not quite the way to know the East."
"I never wanted to know the modern East," returned the Professor. "What is there in it of interest compared with the mighty civilizations that have gone before?"
McCurdie took a pull from his flask.
"I'm glad I thought of having a refill at Plymouth," said he.
At last, after many stops at little lonely stations, they arrived at Trehenna. The guard opened the door and they stepped out on to the snow-covered platform. An oil-lamp hung from the tiny pent-house roof that, structurally, was Trehenna Station. They looked around at the silent gloom of white undulating moorland, and it seemed a place where no man lived and only ghosts could have a bleak and unsheltered being. A porter came up and helped the guard with the luggage. Then they realized that the station was built on a small embankment, for, looking over the railing, they saw below the two great lamps of a motorcar. A fur-clad chauffeur met them at the bottom of the stairs. He clapped his hands together and informed them cheerily that he had been waiting for four hours. It was the bitterest winter in these parts within the memory of man, said he, and he himself had not seen snow there for five years. Then he settled the three travellers in the great roomy touring-car covered with a Cape-cart hood, wrapped them up in many rugs and started.
After a few moments, the huddling together of their bodies for, the Professor being a spare man, there was room for them all on the back seat the pile of rugs, the serviceable and all but air-tight hood, induced a pleasant warmth and a pleasant drowsiness. Where they were being driven they knew not. The perfectly upholstered seat eased their limbs, the easy swinging motion of the car soothed their spirits. They felt that already they had reached the luxuriously appointed home which, after all, they knew awaited them. McCurdie no longer railed, Professor Biggleswade forgot the dangers of bronchitis, and Lord Doyne twisted the stump of a black cigar between his lips without any desire to relight it. A tiny electric lamp inside the hood made the darkness of the world to right and left and in front of the talc windows still darker. McCurdie and Biggleswade fell into a doze. Lord Doyne chewed the end of his cigar. The car sped on through an unseen wilderness.
Suddenly there was a horrid jolt and a lurch and a leap and a rebound, and then the car stood still, quivering like a ship that has been struck by a heavy sea. The three men were pitched and tossed and thrown sprawling over one another on to the bottom of the car. Biggleswade screamed. McCurdie cursed. Doyne scrambled from the confusion of rugs and limbs and, tearing open the side of the Cape-cart hood, jumped out. The chauffeur had also just leaped from his seat. It was pitch dark save for the great shaft of light down the snowy road cast by the head-lamps. The snow had ceased falling.
"What's gone wrong?"
"It sounds like the axle," said the chauffeur ruefully.
He unshipped a lamp and examined the car, which had wedged itself against a great drift of snow on the off side. Meanwhile McCurdie and Biggleswade had alighted.
"Yes, it's the axle," said the chauffeur.
"Then we're done," remarked Doyne.
"I'm afraid so, my lord."
"What's the matter? Can't we get on?" asked Biggleswade in his querulous voice.
McCurdie laughed. "How can we get on with a broken axle? The thing's as useless as a man with a broken back. Gad, I was right. I said it was going to be an infernal journey."
The little Professor wrung his hands. "But what's to be done?" he cried.
"Tramp it," said Lord Doyne, lighting a fresh cigar.
"It's ten miles," said the chauffeur.
"It would be the death of me," the Professor wailed.
"I utterly refuse to walk ten miles through a Polar waste with a gouty foot," McCurdie declared wrathfully.
The chauffeur offered a solution of the difficulty. He would set out alone for Foullis Castle five miles farther on was an inn where he could obtain a horse and trap and would return for the three gentlemen with another car. In the meanwhile they could take shelter in a little house which they had just passed, some half-mile up the road. This was agreed to. The chauffeur went on cheerily enough with a lamp, and the three travellers with another lamp started off in the opposite direction. As far as they could see they were in a long, desolate valley, a sort of No Man's Land, deathly silent. The eastern sky had cleared somewhat, and they faced a loose rack through which one pale star was dimly visible.
"I'm a man of science," said McCurdie as they trudged through the snow, "and I dismiss the supernatural as contrary to reason; but I have Highland blood in my veins that plays me exasperating tricks. My reason tells me that this place is only a commonplace moor, yet it seems like a Valley of Bones haunted by malignant spirits who have lured us here to our destruction. There's something guiding us now. It's just uncanny."
"Why on earth did we ever come?" croaked Biggleswade.
Lord Doyne answered: "The Koran says, 'Nothing can befall us but what God hath destined for us.' So why worry?"
"Because I'm not a Mohammedan," retorted Biggleswade.
"You might be worse," said Doyne.
Presently the dim outline of the little house grew perceptible. A faint light shone from the window. It stood unfenced by any kind of hedge or railing a few feet away from the road in a little hollow beneath some rising ground. As far as they could discern in the darkness when they drew near, the house was a mean, dilapidated hovel. A guttering candle stood on the inner sill of the small window and afforded a vague view into a mean interior. Doyne help up the lamp so that its rays fell full on the door. As he did so, an exclamation broke from his lips and he hurried forward, followed by the others. A man's body lay huddled together on the snow by the threshold. He was dressed like a peasant, in old corduroy trousers and rough coat, and a handkerchief was knotted round his neck. In his hand he grasped the neck of a broken bottle. Doyne set the lamp on the ground and the three bent down together over the man. Close by the neck lay the rest of the broken bottle, whose contents had evidently run out into the snow.
"Drunk?" asked Biggleswade.
Doyne felt the man and laid his hand on his heart.
"No," said he, "dead."
McCurdie leaped to his full height. "I told you the place was uncanny!" he cried. "It's fey." Then he hammered wildly at the door.
There was no response. He hammered again till it rattled. This time a faint prolonged sound like the wailing of a sea-creature was heard from within the house. McCurdie turned round, his teeth chattering.
"Did ye hear that, Doyne?"
"Perhaps it's a dog," said the Professor.
Lord Doyne, the man of action, pushed them aside and tried the door-handle. It yielded, the door stood open, and the gust of cold wind entering the house extinguished the candle within. They entered and found themselves in a miserable stone-paved kitchen, furnished with poverty-stricken meagreness a wooden chair or two, a dirty table, some broken crockery, old cooking utensils, a fly-blown missionary society almanac, and a fireless grate. Doyne set the lamp on the table.
"We must bring him in," said he.
They returned to the threshold, and as they were bending over to grip the dead man the same sound filled the air, but this time louder, more intense, a cry of great agony. The sweat dripped from McCurdie's forehead. They lifted the dead man and brought him into the room, and after laying him on a dirty strip of carpet they did their best to straighten the stiff limbs. Biggleswade put on the table a bundle which he had picked up outside. It contained some poor provisions a loaf, a piece of fat bacon, and a paper of tea. As far as they could guess (and, as they learned later, they guessed rightly), the man was the master of the house, who, coming home blind drunk from some distant inn, had fallen at his own threshold and got frozen to death. As they could not unclasp his fingers from the broken bottle-necks they had to let him clutch it as a dead warrior clutches the hilt of his broken sword.
Then suddenly the whole place was rent with another and yet another long, soul-piercing moan of anguish.
"There's a second room," said Doyne, pointing to a door. "The sound comes from there."
He opened the door, peeped in, and then, returning for the lamp, disappeared, leaving McCurdie and Biggleswade in the pitch darkness, with the dead man on the floor.
"For Heaven's sake, give me a drop of whisky," aid the Professor, "or I shall faint."
Presently the door opened and Lord Doyne appeared in the shaft of light. He beckoned to his companions.
"It is a woman in childbirth," he said in his even, tired voice. "We must aid her. She appears unconscious. Does either of you know anything about such things?"
They shook their heads, and the three looked at each other in dismay. Masters of knowledge that had won them world-fame and honour, they stood helpless, abashed before this, the commonest phenomenon of nature.
"My wife had no child," said McCurdie.
"I've avoided women all my life," said Biggleswade.
"And I've been too busy to think of them. God forgive me," said Doyne.
The history of the next two hours was one that none of the three men ever cared to touch upon. They did things blindly, instinctively, as men do when they come face to face with the elemental. A fire was made, they knew not how, water drawn they knew not whence, and a kettle boiled. Doyne, accustomed to command, directed. The others obeyed. At his suggestion they hastened to the wreck of the car and came staggering back beneath rugs and travelling bags which could supply clean linen and needful things, for amid the poverty of the house they could find nothing fit for human touch or use. Early they saw that the woman's strength was failing, and that she could not live. And there, in that nameless hovel, with death on the hearthstone and death and life hovering over the pitiful bed, the three great men went through the pain and the horror and squalor of birth, and they knew that they had never yet stood before so great a mystery.
With the first wail of the newly born infant a last convulsive shudder passed through the frame of the unconscious mother. Then three or four short gasps for breath, and the spirit passed away. She was dead. Professor Biggleswade threw a corner of the sheet over her face, for he could not bear to see it.
They washed and dried the child as any crone of a midwife would have done, and dipped a small sponge which had always remained unused in a cut-glass bottle in Doyne's dressing-bag in the hot milk and water of Biggleswade's thermos bottle and put it to his lips; and then they wrapped him up warm in some of their own woollen undergarments, and took him into the kitchen and placed him on a bed made of their fur coats in front of the fire. As the last piece of fuel was exhausted they took one of the wooden chairs and broke it up and cast it into the blaze. And then they raised the dead man from the strip of carpet and carried him into the bedroom and laid him reverently by side of his dead wife, after which they left the dead in the darkness and returned to the living. And the three grave men stood over the wisp of flesh that had been born a male into the world. Then, their task being accomplished, reaction came, and even Doyne, who had seen death in many lands, turned faint. But the others, losing control of their nerves, shook like men stricken with palsy.
Suddenly McCurdie cried in a high-pitched voice. "My God! Don't you feel it?" and clutched Doyne by the arm. An expression of terror appeared on his iron features. "There! It's here with us."
Little Professor Biggleswade sat on a corner of the table and wiped his forehead.
"I heard it. I felt it. It was like the beating of wings."
"It's the fourth time," said McCurdie. "The first time was just before I accepted the Deverills' invitation. The second in the railway carriage this afternoon. The third on the way here. This is the fourth."
Biggleswade plucked nervously at the fringe of whisker under his jaws and said faintly, "It's the fourth time up to now. I thought it was fancy."
"I have felt it too," said Doyne. "It is the Angel of Death." And he pointed to the room where the dead man and woman lay.
"For God's sake let us get away from this," cried Biggleswade.
"And leave the child to die, like the others?" said Doyne.
"We must see it through," said McCurdie.
A silence fell upon them as they sat round in the blaze with the new-born babe wrapped in its odd swaddling clothes asleep on the pile of fur coats, and it lasted until Sir Angus McCurdie looked at his watch.
"Good Lord," said he, "it's twelve o'clock."
"Christmas morning," said Biggleswade.
"A strange Christmas," mused Doyne.
McCurdie put up his hand. "There it is again! The beating of wings." And they listened like men spellbound. McCurdie kept his hand uplifted, and gazed over their heads at the wall, and his gaze was that of a man in a trance, and he spoke:
"Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given "
Doyne sprang from his chair, which fell behind him with a crash.
"Man what the devil are you saying?"
Then McCurdie rose and met Biggleswade's eyes staring at him through the great round spectacles, and Biggleswade turned and met the eyes of Doyne. A pulsation like the beating of wings stirred the air.
The three wise men shivered with a queer exaltation. Something strange, mystical, dynamic had happened. It was as if scales had fallen from their eyes and they saw with a new vision. They stood together humbly, divested of all their greatness, touching one another in the instinctive fashion of children, as if seeking mutual protection, and they looked, with one accord, irresistibly compelled, at the child.
At last McCurdie unbent his black brows and said hoarsely:
"It was not the Angel of Death, Doyne, but another Messenger that drew us here."
The tiredness seemed to pass away from the great administrator's face, and he nodded his head with the calm of a man who has come to the quiet heart of a perplexing mystery.
"It's true," he murmured. "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Unto the three of us."
Biggleswade took off his great round spectacles and wiped them.
"Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar. But where are the gold, frankincense and myrrh?"
"In our hearts, man," said McCurdie.
The babe cried and stretched its tiny limbs.
Instinctively they all knelt down together to, discover, if possible, and administer ignorantly to its wants. The scene had the appearance of an adoration.
Then these three wise, lonely, childless men who, in furtherance of their own greatness, had cut themselves adrift from the sweet and simple things of life and from the kindly ways of their brethren, and had grown old in unhappy and profitless wisdom, knew that an inscrutable Providence had led them, as it had led three Wise Men of old, on a Christmas morning long ago, to a nativity which should give them a new wisdom, a new link with humanity, a new spiritual outlook, a new hope.
And, when their watch was ended, they wrapped up the babe with precious care, and carried him with them, an inalienable joy and possession, into the great world.