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    black and white illustration of a hand on the side of a well

    Short Story: The Well of the Star

    Elizabeth Goudge

    December 22, 2020
    • Andrea Bell

      Lovely story! Thank you so much!

    On the road to Bethlehem there is a well called the Well of the Star. The legend goes that the three Wise Men, on their journey to the Manger, lost sight of the star that was guiding them. Pausing to water their camels at the well, they found that it was again reflected in the water.

    David sat cross-legged by himself in a corner of the room, separated from the other children, clasping his curly toes in his lean brown hands, and wished he were a rich man, grown up and strong, with bags full of gold and thousands of camels and tens of thousands of sheep. But he was not rich; he was only a diminutive ragged shepherd boy who possessed nothing in the world except the shepherd’s pipe slung around his neck, his little pipe upon which he played to himself or the sheep all day long, and that was as dear to him as life itself.

    At the moment he was very miserable. Sighing, he lifted his hands and placed them on his stomach, pushing it inward and noting the deflation with considerable concern. How soon would he be dead of hunger? How soon would they all be dead of hunger, and safely at rest in Abraham’s bosom? It was a very nice place, he had no doubt, and suitable to grandparents and people of that type who were tired by a long life and quite ready to be gathered to their fathers, but hardly the place for a little boy who had lived only for a few short years in this world, who had seen only a few springs painting the bare hills purple and scarlet with the anemone flowers, only a few high summer suns wheeling majestically through the burning heavens.

    If only it were summer now, instead of a cold night in midwinter! If only mother would light a fire for them to warm themselves by, a bright fire that would paint the walls of the dark little one-roomed house orange and rose color, and chase away the frightening shadows. But there was no light in the room except the flickering, dying flame that came from a little lamp, fast burning up the last of their oil, set on the earth floor close to his mother, where she sat crouched beside her sick husband, swaying herself ceaselessly from side to side, abandoned to her grief and oblivious of the wails of four little cold and hungry children, younger than David, who lay altogether on their matting bed.

    If only he were a rich man, thought David, then it would not matter that storms had destroyed the barley, that their vines had failed, or that their father, the carpenter of this tiny village on a hilltop, could no longer ply his trade. Nothing would matter if he were a rich man and could buy food and wine and oil and healing salves; they would be happy then, with food in their stomachs, their father well, and comforting light in this horrible darkness of midwinter.

    How could he be a rich man?

    Suddenly there came to David’s mind the thought of the wishing well far down below on the road to Bethlehem. It was a well of clear sparkling water and it was said that those who stood by it at midnight, and prayed to the Lord God Jehovah from a pure heart, were given their heart’s desire. The difficulty, of course, was to be pure in heart. They said that if you were, and your prayer had been accepted, you saw your heart’s desire mirrored in the water of the well – the face of someone you loved, maybe, or the gold that would save your home from ruin, or even, so it was whispered, the face of God Himself. But no one of David’s acquaintance had ever seen anything, though they had wished and prayed time and again.

    Nevertheless he jumped up and crept noiselessly through the shadows to the door. He had no idea whether his heart was pure or not but he would give it the benefit of the doubt and go down to the well. He pulled open the door and slipped out into the great cold silent night.

    And instantly he was terribly afraid. All around him the bare hills lay beneath the starlight in an awful waiting, attentive loneliness, and far down below, the terraces of olive trees were drowned in pitch-black shadow. But the sky was streaming with light, so jeweled with myriads of blazing stars that it seemed the weight of them would make the sky fall down and crush the waiting earth to atoms. The loneliness, the darkness, the cold, and that great sky above turned David’s heart to water and made his knees shake under him. He had never been out by himself so late at night before and he had not got the courage, hungry and cold as he was, to go down over the lonely hills and through the darkness of the olive trees to the white road below where they said that robbers lurked, wild sheep-stealers and murderers who would cut your throat as soon as look at you, just for the fun of it.

    Then he bethought him that just over the brow of a nearby hill a flock of sheep were folded, and their shepherds with them. His own cousin Eli, who was teaching David to be a shepherd, would be with them, and Eli would surely be willing to leave the sheep to the other shepherds for a short time and go with David to the well. At least David would ask him to.

    It was a well of clear sparkling water and it was said that those who stood by it at midnight, and prayed to the Lord God Jehovah from a pure heart, were given their heart’s desire.

    He set off running, a little flitting shadow beneath the stars, and he ran hard because he was afraid. For surely, he thought, there was something very strange about this night. The earth lay so still, waiting for something, and overhead that great sky was palpitating and ablaze with triumph. Several times, as he ran, he could have sworn he heard triumphant voices crying, “Glory to God! Glory to God!” as though the hills themselves were singing, and a rushing sound as though great wings were beating over his head. Yet when he stopped to listen there was nothing; only the frail echo of a shepherd’s pipe and a whisper of wind over the hills.

    He was glad when he saw in front of him the rocky hillock behind which the sheep were folded. “Eli,” he cried, giving a hop, skip, and a jump, “are you there? Jacob? Tobias? It’s David.”

    But there was no answering call from the friendly shepherds, though there was a soft bleating from the sheep; only that strange stillness with its undercurrent of triumphant music that was heard and yet not heard. With a beating heart he bounded round the corner and came out in the little hollow in the hills that was the sheepfold, his eyes straining through the darkness to make out the figures of his friends.

    But they were not there; no one was there except a tall, cloaked stranger who sat upon a rock among the sheep, leaning on a shepherd’s crook. And the sheep, who knew their own shepherds and would fly in fear from a stranger whose voice they did not know, were gathered closely about him in confidence and love. David halted in blank astonishment.

    “Good evening to you,” said the stranger pleasantly. “It’s a fine night.”

    David advanced with caution, rubbing his nose in perplexity. Who was this stranger? The sheep seemed to know him, and he seemed to know David, yet David knew no man with so straight a back and so grand a head or such a deep, ringing, beautiful voice. This was a very great man, without doubt; a soldier, perhaps, but no shepherd.

    “Good evening,” said David politely, edging a little closer. “’Tis a fine evening, but cold about the legs.”

    “Is it? Then come under my cloak,” said the stranger, lifting it so that it suddenly seemed to spread about him like great wings, and David, all his fear suddenly evaporated, scuttled forward and found himself gathered in against the stranger’s side, under the stranger’s cloak, warm and protected and sublimely happy.

    “But where are the others?” he asked, “Eli and Jacob and Tobias?”

    “They’ve gone to Bethlehem,” said the stranger. “They’ve gone to a birthday party.”

    “A birthday party, and didn’t take me?” ejaculated David in powerful indignation. “The nasty, selfish brutes!”

    “They were in rather a hurry,” explained the stranger. “It was all rather unexpected.”

    “Then I suppose they had no presents to take?” asked David. “They’ll feel awkward, turning up with no presents. Serve them right for not taking me.”

    “They took what they could,” said the stranger. “A shepherd’s crook, a cloak, and a loaf of bread.”

    David snorted with contempt, and then snorted again in indignation. “They shouldn’t have gone,” he said, and indeed it was a terrible crime for shepherds to leave their sheep, with those robbers prowling about in the shadows below and only too ready to pounce on them.

    “They were quite right to go,” said the stranger. “And I have taken their place.”

    “But you’re only one man,” objected David, “and it takes several to tackle robbers.”

    “I think I’m equal to any number of robbers,” smiled the stranger. He was making a statement, not boasting, and David thrilled to the quiet confidence of his voice, and thrilled, too, to feel the strength of the arm that was round him and of the knee against which he leaned.

    “Have you done a lot of fighting, great lord?” he whispered in awe.

    “Quite a lot,” said the stranger.

    “Who did you fight?” breathed David. “Barbarians?”

    “The devil and his angels,” said the stranger nonchalantly.

    David was momentarily deprived of the power of speech, but pressing closer he gazed upward at the face of this man for whom neither robbers nor devils seemed to hold any terrors, and once he began to look he could not take his eyes away, for never before had he seen a face like this man’s, a face at once delicate and strong, full of power yet quick with tenderness, bright as the sky in early morning yet shadowed with mystery. It seemed an eternity before David could find his voice.

    “Who are you, great lord?” he whispered at last. “You’re no shepherd.”

    “I’m a soldier,” said the stranger. “And my name is Michael. What’s your name?”

    “David,” murmured the little boy, and suddenly he shut his eyes because he was dazzled by the face above him. If this was a soldier, he was a very king among soldiers.

    “Tell me where you are going, David,” said the stranger.

    Now that they had told each other their names David felt that they were lifelong friends, and it was not hard to tell his story. He told it all – his father’s illness, his mother’s tears, the children’s hunger, and the cold home where there was no fire and the oil was nearly finished, his longing to be a rich man that he might help them all, and the wishing well that gave their heart’s desire to the pure in heart.

    “But I hadn’t meant to go down to the road alone, you see,” he finished. “I thought Eli would have gone with me, and now Eli has gone to that birthday party.”

    “Then you’ll have to go alone,” said Michael.

    “I suppose the sheep wouldn’t be all right by themselves?” hinted David gently.

    “They certainly would not,” said Michael firmly.

    “I’m not afraid, of course,” boasted David, and shrank a little closer against that strong knee.

    “Of course not,” concurred Michael heartily. “I’ve noticed that Davids are always plucky. Look at King David fighting the lion and the bear when he was only a shepherd boy like you.”

    “But the Lord God Jehovah guided and protected him,” said David.

    “And the Lord God will protect you,” said Michael.

    “I don’t feel as though He were protecting me,” objected David.

    “You haven’t started out yet,” said Michael, and laughed. “How can He protect you when there’s nothing to protect you from? Or guide you when you don’t take to the road? Go on now. Hurry up.” And with a gentle but inexorable movement he withdrew his knee from beneath David’s clinging hands, and lifted his cloak from David’s shoulders so that it slid back with a soft rustling upward movement, as though great wings were folded against the sky. And the winter wind blew cold and chill about the little boy who stood ragged and barefoot in the night.

    “Good-by,” said Michael’s deep voice; but it seemed to be drifting away as though Michael, too, were withdrawing himself. “Play your pipe to yourself if you are afraid, for music is the voice of man’s trust in God’s protection, even as the gift of courage is God’s voice answering.”

    David took a few steps forward and again terror gripped him. Again he saw the bare lonely hills, and the shadows down below where the robbers lurked. He glanced back over his shoulder, ready to bolt back to the shelter of Michael’s strong arm and the warmth of his cloak. But he could no longer see Michael very clearly, he could only see a dark shape that might have been a man but that might have been only a shadow. But yet the moment he glanced back he knew that Michael was watching him, Michael the soldier who was afraid neither of robbers nor of the devil and his angels, and with a heart suddenly turned valiant he turned and scuttled off down the hill towards the valley.

    Nevertheless he had the most uncomfortable journey. Going down the hill he cut his feet on the sharp stones, and fell down twice and barked his knees, and going through the olive grove below he saw robbers hiding behind every tree. There were times when he was so frightened that his knees doubled up beneath him and he came out in a clammy perspiration, but there were other times when he remembered Michael’s advice and stopped a minute to play a few sweet notes on his precious pipe, and then he was suddenly brave again and rushed through the terrifying shadows whooping as though he were that other David going for the lion and the bear . . . But all the same it was a most uncomfortable journey and he was overwhelmingly thankful when with a final jump he landed in the road and saw the water of the well gleaming only a few feet away from him.

    He leaned against the stone parapet and looked at it gravely. Water. In this land that in the summer months was parched with drought and scorched with heat, water was the most precious thing in the world, the source of all growth and all purification, the cure of sickness, the preserver of life itself. It was no wonder that men came to water to pray for their heart’s desire – to water, the comforter and lord of all life. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people.” It seemed to him that he heard voices singing in the wind among the olive trees, as though the trees themselves were singing, voices that sang not to the ear but to the soul. “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd: He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom. Wonderful! Counselor! The mighty God! The everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!” Surely, he thought, if the Lord God Jehovah cared so for the little lambs, He would care also for David’s sick father and weeping mother and the little hungry children; and covering his face with his brown fingers he prayed to the Lord God that he might have gold to buy food and wine and oil for that stricken house up above him on the hill. So hard did he pray that he forgot everything but his own longing, forgot his fears and the cold wind that nipped him through his rags, saw nothing but the darkness of his closed eyes and heard nothing but his own desperate whispering.

    Then, sighing a little like a child awaking from sleep, he opened his eyes and peeped anxiously through his fingers at the water in the well. Would he have his heart’s desire? Had he prayed from a pure heart? Was that something glittering in the well? He dropped his hands from his face and leaned closer, the blood pounding so in his ears that it sounded like drums beating. Yes, it was gold! Circles of gold lying upon the surface of the water, as though the stars had dropped down from heaven. With a cry of joy he leaned nearer, his face right over the water, as though he would have touched with his lips those visionary gold pieces that promised him his heart’s desire. And then, in an instant of time, his cry of joy changed to a cry of terror, for framed in those twinkling golden points of light he saw the reflection of a man’s face, a bearded, swarthy face with gleaming teeth and eyes, the face of a foreigner.

    The world seemed full of kings tonight, and kings doing the most unsuitable things, too, keeping sheep on the hills and journeying along the highway, travel-stained and weary.

    So the Lord God had not protected him. So the robbers had got him. He stared at the water for a long minute, stark with terror, and then swung round with a choking cry, both his thin hands at his throat to protect it from the robber’s knife.

    “Do not cry out, little son. I will not hurt you.” The man stretched out a hand and gave David’s shoulder a reassuring little shake. “I but looked over your shoulder to see what you stared at so intently.”

    The voice, deep toned, kindly, strangely attractive with its foreign inflection, chased away all David’s fears. This was no robber. His breath came more evenly and he wiped the sweat of his terror off his forehead with his tattered sleeve while he looked up with bulging eyes at the splendid stranger standing in front of him.

    He was tall, though not so tall as that other splendid stranger keeping the sheep up on the hill, and he wore a purple robe girdled at the waist with gold and a green turban to which were stitched gold ornaments that shook and trembled round his proud hawk-nosed face. David had one pang of agonized disappointment as he realized that it was only the reflection of these gold ornaments he had seen in the water, and not God’s answer to his prayer, and then amazement swept all other thoughts from his mind.

    For the star-lit road to the well that a short while ago had been empty was now full. While David prayed, his ears closed to all sounds, a glittering cavalcade had come up out of the night. There were black men carrying torches, richly caparisoned camels, and two more splendid grave-faced men even more richly dressed than his friend. The torchlight gleamed on gold and scarlet, emerald green and rich night blue, and the scent of spices came fragrant on the wind. This cavalcade might have belonged to Solomon, thought David, to Solomon in all his glory. Surely these men were kings.

    But the camels were thirsty and the first king drew David gently away from the well that they might drink. Yet he kept his hand upon his shoulder and looked down upon him with kindly liking.

    “And for what were you looking so intently, little son?” he asked.

    “For my heart’s desire, great lord,” whispered David, nervously pleating his ragged little tunic with fingers that still shook from the fright that he had had.

    “So?” asked the stranger. “Is it a wishing well?”

    “They say,” said David, “that if you pray to God for your heart’s desire from a pure heart, and if God has granted your prayer, you will see a vision of it in the water.”

    “And you saw yours?”

    David shook his head. “You came, great lord,” he explained. “I saw you.”

    One of the other kings, an old white-bearded man in a sea-green robe, was listening smiling to their talk.

    “We three have lost a star, little son,” he said to David. “Should we find it again in your well?”

    David thought it must be a joke. For what could three great lords want with a star? But when he looked up into the fine old eyes gazing down into his he saw trouble and bewilderment in them.

    “If your heart is pure, great lord.”

    A shadow passed over the old man’s face and he turned back to the third king, a young man with a boy’s smooth skin and eyes that were bright and gay.

    “Gaspar,” he said. “You are young and pure of heart; you look.”

    Gaspar laughed, his white teeth flashing in his brown face. “Only an old wives’ tale,” he mocked. “We’ve lost the star twenty times in the blaze of the night sky and twenty times we have found it again. Why should we look for it now in a well?”

    “Yet pray,” said the old man sternly. “Pray and look.”

    Obediently Gaspar stepped up to the well, his scarlet robe swirling about him and the curved sword that he wore slapping against his side, bowed his head in prayer, then bent over the well.

    “I can see only a part of the sky,” he murmured, “and each star is like another in glory – no – yes.” He paused and suddenly gave a shout of triumph. “I have found it, Melchior! It shines in the center of the well, like the hub of a wheel or the boss of a shield.”

    He straightened himself and flung back his head, his arms stretched up toward the sky. “There! There!” he cried, and David and the elder kings, gazing, saw a great star blazing over their heads, a star that was mightier and more glorious than the sister stars that shone around it like cavaliers round the throne. And as they gazed it suddenly moved, streaking through the sky like a comet.

    “Look! Look!” cried David. “A shooting star!” And he danced out into the middle of the road to follow its flight. “Look! It is shining over Bethlehem!”

    The three kings stood behind him, gazing where he pointed, and saw at the end of the road, faintly visible in the starlight, slender cypress trees rising above the huddled roofs of a little white town upon a hill, and above them the blazing star.

    Gaspar, young and excited, suddenly swung round and began shouting to the servants to bring up the camels, but the two older kings still stood and gazed.

    “Praise be to the Lord God,” said the old king tremulously, and he bowed his head and crossed his hands upon his breast.

    “Bethlehem,” said the king who was David’s friend. “The end of our journey.”

    His voice was infinitely weary, and for the first time it occurred to David that these great lords had come from a long way off. Their beautiful clothes were travel-stained and their faces drawn with fatigue. They must, he decided suddenly, be lunatics; no sane men, he thought, would come from so far away to visit an unimportant little place like Bethlehem; nor be in such a taking because they had lost sight of a star. Nevertheless he liked them and had no wish to lose their company.

    “I’ll take you to Bethlehem,” he announced, and flung back his head and straddled his legs as though it would be a matter of great difficulty and danger to guide them the short way along the straight road to a town that was visible to the naked eye.

    “And so you shall,” laughed his friend. “And you shall ride my camel in front of me and be the leader of the caravan.”

    David jigged excitedly from one foot to the other. He had never ridden a camel, for only well-to-do men had camels. He could not contain himself, and let out a shrill squeak of joy as a richly caparisoned beast was led up and made to kneel before them – a squeak that ended rather abruptly when the camel turned its head and gave him a slow disdainful look, lifting its upper lip and showing its teeth in a contempt so profound that David blushed hotly to the roots of his hair, and did not recover himself until he was seated on the golden saddle cloth before his friend, safe in the grip of his arm, rocking up toward the stars as the camel got upon its feet.

    It was one of the most wonderful moments of that wonderful night when David found himself swaying along toward the cypresses of Bethlehem, the leader of a caravan. Because he was so happy he put his pipe to his lips and began to play the gay little tune that shepherds have played among the hills since the dawn of the world, and so infectious was it that the men coming behind began to hum it as they swung along under the stars.

    “It is right to sing upon a journey, great lord,” said David, when a pause fell, “for music is the voice of man’s trust in God’s protection, even as the gift of courage is God’s voice answering.”

    “That is a wise child you have got there, Balthasar,” said old Melchior, who was riding just behind them.

    “I didn’t make that up for myself,” David answered truthfully. “A man up in the hills told it to me. A man who came to mind the sheep so that Eli and the other shepherds could go with their presents to a birthday party in Bethlehem.”

    “Does all the world carry gifts to Bethlehem tonight?” questioned Balthasar softly. “Wise men from the desert with their mysteries, shepherds from the hills with their simplicities, and a little boy with the gift of music.”

    “Do you mean that we are all going to the same place?” asked David eagerly. “Are you going to the birthday party too? And am I going with you? Me too?”

    “A King has been born,” said Balthasar. “We go to worship Him.”

    A king? The world seemed full of kings tonight, and kings doing the most unsuitable things, too, keeping sheep on the hills and journeying along the highway, travel-stained and weary. On this wonderful topsy-turvy night nothing surprised him, not even the news that the birthday party was a King’s; but desolation seized him as he realized that he wouldn’t be able to go to it himself. For how could he go inside a grand palace when his clothes were torn and his feet were bare and dirty? They wouldn’t let him in. They’d set the dogs on him . . . Disappointment surged over him in sickening waves. He gritted his teeth to keep himself from crying, but even with all his effort two fat tears escaped and plowed two clean but scalding furrows through the grime on his face.

    They were at Bethlehem before he realized it, for he had been keeping his head bent for fear Balthasar should see his two tears. Looking up suddenly he saw the white walls of the little town close in front of him, the cypress trees like swords against the sky, and that star shining just ahead of them, so bright that it seemed like a great lamp let down out of heaven by a string. The gate of the town was standing wide open and they clattered through it without hindrance, which surprised David until he remembered that just at this time Bethlehem would be full of people who had come in from the country to be taxed. They would not be afraid of robbers tonight, when the walls held so many good strong countrymen with knives in their girdles and a quick way with their fists. The visitors were still up and about, too, for as they climbed the main street of the little hill town David could see lines of light shining under doors and hear laughter and voices behind them. And a good thing, too, he thought, for at any other time the arrival of this strange cavalcade in the dead of night might have caused a disturbance. The Lord God, he thought, had arranged things very conveniently for them.

    “Which way are we going?” he whispered excitedly to his king.

    “We follow the star,” said Balthasar.

    David looked up and saw that the star must have been up to its shooting tricks again, for it had now moved over to their right, and obediently they, too, swerved to their right and made their way up a narrow lane where houses had been built over caves in the limestone rock. Each house was the home of poor people, who kept their animals in the cave below and lived themselves in the one room above reached by its flight of stone steps.

    “The king can’t be here!” said David disgustedly, as the cavalcade, moving now in single file, picked its way over the heaps of refuse in the lane. “Only poor people live here.”

    “Look!” said Balthasar, and looking David saw that the star was hanging so low over a little house at the end of the lane that a bright beam of light caressed its roof.

    “The star is making a mistake,” said David firmly, “if it thinks a king could be born in a place like that.”

    But no one was taking any notice of him. A great awe seemed to have descended upon the three kings, and a thankfulness too deep for speech. In silence the cavalcade halted outside the house at the end of the lane, and in silence the servants gathered round to bring the camels to their knees and help their masters to the ground. David, picked up and set upon his feet by a sturdy Nubian whose black face gleamed in the torchlight like ebony, stood aside and watched, something of the awe that gripped the others communicating itself to him, so that the scene he saw stamped itself on his memory forever. The torchlight and starlight lighting up the rich colors of the kings’ garments and illumining their dark, intent faces as though they were lit by an inner light; the stir among the servants as three of them came forward carrying three golden caskets, fragrant with spices and so richly jeweled that the light seemed to fall upon them in points of fire, and gave them reverently into their masters’ hands. The birthday presents, thought David, the riches that Balthasar had spoken of, and he looked hastily up at the poor little house built above the stable, incredulous that such wealth could enter a door so humble.

    But the door at the top of the stone steps was shut fast and no line of light showed beneath it or shone out in welcome from the window. The only light there was showed through the ill-fitting door that closed in the opening to the cave below, and it was toward this that Melchior turned, knocking softly on the rotten wood and standing with bent head to listen for the answer.

    “But that’s the stable!” whispered David. “He couldn’t be there!”

    But no one answered him, for the door opened and the three kings, their heads lowered and their long dark fingers curved about their gifts, passed into the light beyond, the door closing softly behind them, shutting David outside in the night with the strange black servants and the supercilious camels.

    But his curiosity was too strong for him to feel afraid. There was a hole quite low in the door and kneeling down he pressed his dirty little face against the wood and squinted eagerly through it.

    Of course there was no king there; he had said there wouldn’t be and there wasn’t; looking beyond the kings he saw there was nothing there but the stable and the animals and a few people, poor people like himself. The animals, a little donkey with his ribs sticking through his skin, and an old ox whose shoulders bore the marks of the yoke they had carried through many hard years, were fastened to iron rings in the wall of the cave, but both of them had turned their sleepy heads toward the rough stone manger filled with hay, and toward a gray-bearded man who held a lighted lantern over the manger and a woman with a tired white face, muffled in a blue cloak, who lay on the floor leaning back against the wall. But though she was so tired she was smiling at the men who were kneeling together on the hard floor, and she had the loveliest and most welcoming smile that David had ever seen.

    And then he saw that the men she was smiling at were Eli, Jacob, and Tobias, kneeling with heads bent and hands clasped in the attitude of worship. And before them on the hard floor, just in front of the manger, they had laid their gifts; Eli’s shepherd’s crook that had been his father’s, Jacob’s cloak lined with the lamb’s wool that he had set such store by, and Tobias’s little loaf of bread that he always ate all by himself in the middle of the night when he was guarding sheep, never giving a crumb to anyone else no matter how hard they begged. And beside these humble men knelt the kings in their glory, and beside the simple gifts were the three rich fragrant caskets, just as though there were no barrier between rich people and poor people, and no difference in value between wood and bread and gold and jewels.

    But what could be in that manger that they were all so intent upon it? David had another peep through his hole and saw to his astonishment that there was a Baby in it, a tiny newborn Baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Normally David took no interest at all in babies, but at the sight of this one he was smitten with such awe that he shut his eyes and ducked his head, just as though he had been blinded by the sight of a king with eyes like flame sitting upon a rainbow-encircled throne.

    So this was the King, this tiny Baby lying in a rough stone manger in a stable. It struck David that of all the extraordinary places where he had encountered kings this night, this was the most extraordinary of all. And then he gave a joyous exclamation. On the journey here he had cried because he had thought a barefoot dirty little boy would not be able to go to a king’s birthday party, but surely even he could go to a birthday party in a stable. He leapt to his feet, dusted his knees, pulled down his rags, laid his hands on the latch of the door, and crept noiselessly in.

    And then, standing by himself in the shadow by the door, he bethought him that he had no present to give. He had no possessions in the world at all except his beloved shepherd’s pipe, and it was out of the question that he should give that for he loved it as his own life. Noiseless as a mouse he turned to go out again, but suddenly the mother in the blue cloak, who must have known all the time that he was there, raised her face and smiled at him, a radiant smile full of promise, and at the same time the man with the gray beard lowered the lantern a little so that it seemed as though the whole manger were enveloped with light, with that Baby at the heart of the light like the sun itself.

    He took his hands away from his face and gazed and gazed at the Baby, his whole being poured out in adoration.

    And suddenly David could not stay by himself in the shadows, any more than he could stay in a dark stuffy house when the sun was shining. No sacrifice was too great, not even the sacrifice of the little shepherd’s pipe that was dear as life itself, if he could be in that light. He ran forward, pushing rudely between Balthasar and Tobias, and laid his shepherd’s pipe joyously down before the manger, between Balthasar’s jeweled casket and Tobias’s humble loaf of bread. He was too little to realize as he knelt down and covered his face with his hands, that the birthday gifts lying there in a row were symbolic of all that a man could need for his life on earth – a cloak for shelter, a loaf of bread for food, a shepherd’s crook for work, and a musical instrument to bring courage in the doing of it, and those other gifts of gold and jewels and spices that symbolized rich qualities of kingliness and priestliness and wisdom that were beyond human understanding. “Wise men from the desert with their mysteries,” Balthasar had said. “Shepherds from the hills with their simplicities, and a little boy with the gift of music.” But David, peeping through his fingers at the Baby in the manger, did not think at all, he only felt, and what his spirit experienced was exactly what his body felt when he danced about on the hills in the first hot sunshine of the year; warmth was poured into him, health and strength and life itself. He took his hands away from his face and gazed and gazed at the Baby, his whole being poured out in adoration.

    And then it was all over and he found himself outside Bethlehem, trailing along in the dust behind Eli, Jacob, and Tobias, footsore and weary and as cross as two sticks.

    “Where’s my camel?” he asked petulantly. “When I went to Bethlehem I was the leader of a caravan, and I had three great lords with me, and servants and torches.”

    “Well, you haven’t got them now,” said Eli. “The great lords are still at Bethlehem. When Jacob and Tobias and I saw you there in the stable we made haste to take you home to your mother, young truant that you are.”

    “I don’t want mother,” grumbled David. “I want my camel.”

    Eli glanced back over his shoulder at the disagreeable little urchin dawdling at his heels. Was this the same child who had knelt in the stable rapt in adoration? How quick can be the fall from ecstasy! “You keep your mouth shut, little son,” he adjured him, “and quicken your heels; for I must get back to those sheep.”

    “Baa!” said David nastily, and purposely lagged behind.

    So determinedly did he lag that by the time he had reached the well he found himself alone again. The well! The sight of it brought home to him his desperate plight. From his night’s adventure he had gained nothing. Up there on the hill was the little house that held his sick father, his weeping mother, and his hungry little brothers and sisters. And he must go home to them no richer than he went. Poorer, in fact, for now he had lost his shepherd’s pipe, thrown away his greatest treasure in what seemed to him now a moment of madness. Now he had nothing, nothing in all the world.

    He flung himself down in the grass beside the well and he cried as though his heart were breaking. The utter deadness of the hour before dawn weighed on him like a pall and the cold of it numbed him from head to foot. He felt himself sinking lower and lower, dropping down to the bottom of some black sea of misery, and it was not until he reached the bottom that comfort came to him.

    His sobs ceased and he was conscious again of the feel of the earth beneath the grass where he lay, hard and cold yet bearing him up with a strength that was reassuring. He thought of the terraces of olive trees above him and of the great bare hills beyond, and then he thought of the voices he had heard singing in the wind up in the hills, and singing down below among the trees, and then suddenly he thought he heard voices in the grass, tiny voices that were like the voices of all growing things, corn and flowers and grasses. “They that sow in tears, shall reap in joy,” they whispered. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

    He got up, his courage restored, and stumbled over to the well, faintly silvered now with the first hint of dawn. He did not pray to be a rich man, he did not look in it for his heart’s desire, he simply went to it to wash himself, for he did not intend to appear before his mother with dirty tear stains all over his face. If he could not arrive back home with bags full of gold and thousands of camels and tens of thousands of sheep he would at least arrive with a clean and cheerful face to comfort them.

    Like all small boys David was a noisy washer and it must have been the sound of his splashings that prevented him hearing the feet of a trotting camel upon the road; nor could the surface of the well, much agitated by his ablutions, show him at first the reflection of the man standing behind him. It had to smooth itself out before he could see the swarthy face framed in the twinkling golden ornaments. When he did see it he blinked incredulously for a moment and then swung round with a cry of joy.

    “So you thought I had forgotten you, did you, little son?” smiled Balthasar. “I would not forget so excellent a leader of a caravan. When you left the stable I followed after you as quickly as I could. See what I have for you.”

    He gave a bag to David and the little boy, opening it, saw by the first light of the dawn the shine of golden pieces. Lots of golden pieces, enough to buy medicines and healing salves for his father and food and warmth for all of them for a long time to come. He had no words to tell of his gratitude but the face that he tilted up to Bathasar, with eyes and mouth as round in wonder as the coins themselves, was in itself a paean of praise.

    Balthasar laughed and patted his shoulder. “When I saw you give your shepherd’s pipe to the little King,” he said, “I vowed that you should not go home empty-handed. I think it was the little King Himself who put the thought into my head. Now I must go back to my country, and you to your home, but we will not forget each other. Fare you well, little son.”

    As he went up through the shadows of the olive trees David was no longer frightened of robbers, for he was far too happy. The trees were singing again, he thought, as the dawn wind rustled them. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people,” they sang. And when he got out beyond the trees, and saw the great bare stretches of the hills flushed rose and lilac in the dawn, it seemed as though the hills themselves were shouting, “Glory to God!”

    From Home for Christmas: Stories for Young and Old. Originally published by Coward-McCann, Inc., copyright 1941 by Elizabeth Goudge. Reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

    black and white illustration of a boy seeing his reflection in a well

    Illustration by David G. Klein

    Contributed By Elizabeth Goudge Elizabeth Goudge

    Elizabeth Goudge (1900–1984) was among the most popular British writers of the twentieth century. She wrote short stories, novels, biographies, and children’s books.

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