Our American Holidays - Christmas/The Mother (A Story)
All day her watch had lasted on the plateau above the town. And now the sun slanted low over the dull, blue sheen of the western sea, playing changingly with the angular mountain which rose abruptly from its surge.
The young matron did not heed the magic which was transforming the theater of hills to the north and lingering lovingly at last on the eastern summit. Nor had she any eyes for the changing hue of the ivy-clad cubes of stone that formed the village over which her hungry gaze passed, sweeping the length and breadth of the plain below.
She seemed not much above thirty: tall, erect, and lithe. Her throat, bared to the breeze, was of the purest modeling; her skin of a whiteness unusual in that warm climate. Her head, a little small for her rounded figure, was crowned with a coil of chestnut hair, and her eyes glowed with a look strange to the common light of every day. It was her soul that was scanning that southward country.
From time to time she would fondle a small object hidden beneath the white folds of her robe. Once she threw her arms out in a passionate gesture toward the plain, and tears overflowed the beautiful eyes. Again she fell on her knees, and the throes of inner prayer found relief at her lips:
"Father, my Father, grant me to see him ere the dusk!"
Once again she sank down, moaning:
"He is in Thine everlasting arms. But Thou, who knowest times and seasons, give him to me on this day of days!"
Under the curve of a shielding hand her vision strained through the clear, pure air,—strained and found at last two specks far out in the plain, and followed them breathlessly as they crept nearer. One traveler was clad in a dark garment, and stopped presently, leaving his light-robed companion to hasten on alone toward the hungry-eyed woman on the plateau.
All at once she gathered her skirt with a joyous cry and ran with lithe, elastic steps down through the village.
They met on a low, rounded hill near the plain.
"My son, my darling!" she cried, catching him passionately to her bosom. "We have searched, and waited, and agonized," she continued after a pause, smiling at him through her happy tears. "But it matters nothing now. I have thee again."
"My mother," said the boy as he caressed her cheek, looking at her dreamily, "I have been with my cousin. Even now he waits below for me. I must bid thee farewell. I must pass from thy face forever."
His lip trembled a little, but he smiled bravely. "For it is the will of God, the Father."
The mother's face went ashen. She tottered and would have fallen but for his slender arm about her.
Her thoughts were whirling in wild confusion, yet she knew that she must decide calmly, wisely, quickly.
Her lips moved, but made no sound.
"Oh, lay Thy wise and gracious hand upon me!" was what she breathed in silence.
Then her voice sounded rich and happy and fresh, as it had always sounded for him.
"His will be done. Thou comest to bid farewell to thy brothers and father?"
"It may not be," he answered. "My lot henceforth is to flee the touch of the world, the unsympathetic eye, the ribald tongue of those like my brothers—the defilement of common life."
The mother pressed him closer.
"Say all that is in thine heart," she murmured. "We will bide here."
They sank down together on the soft, bright turf, facing the brilliance of the west, she holding her child as of old in the hollow of her arm.
He began to speak.
"For long and long a voice within me said, 'Go and seek thy cousin.' So I sought and found, and we abode together in the woods and fields, and were friends with our dear brothers the beasts, and the fishes, and the birds. There, day by day, my cousin would tell me of the dream that filled his soul and of the holy men who had put the dream there."
The mother's eyes grew larger with a swift terror, but she held her peace.
"And at the last, when the beauty, the wind, the sun, the rain, and the voice of God, had purified me in some measure, my cousin brought me to visit these holy men."
The clear, boyish voice rose and began to vibrate with enthusiasm.
"Ah, mother, they are the chosen ones of God! Sweet and grave and gentle they are, and theirs is the perfect life. They dwell spotless and apart from the world. They own one common purse, and spend their lives working with their hands and pondering and dreaming on purity, goodness, and the commands of the great law."
He sprang up in his excitement from her encircling arm and stood erect and wide-eyed before her.
"Ah, mother, they are so good that they would do nothing on the Sabbath, even to saving their own lives or the lives of their animals, or their brothers. They bathe very often in sacred water. They have no wives, and mortify the flesh, and―"
"What is their aim in this?" the mother interrupted gently.
The boy was aflame with his subject.
"Ah, that is it—the great goal toward which they all run," he cried. "They are doing my Father's work, and I must help! Hear, hear what is before me: When a young novice comes to them they give him the symbols of purity: a spade, an apron, and a white robe to wear at the holy meals. In a year he receives a closer fellowship and the baths of purification. After that he enters the state of bodily purity. Then little by little he enters into purity of the spirit, meekness, holiness. He becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit, and prophesies. Ah, think, mother, how sweet it would be to lie entranced there for days and weeks in an earthly paradise, with no rough world to break the spell, while the angels sing softly in one's ears! I, even I, have already tasted of that bliss."
"Say on," she breathed. "What does the holy man do then?"
"Then," the inspired, boyish tones continued— "then he performs miracles, and finally—" he clasped her hand convulsively—"he becomes Elias, the forerunner of the Messiah!"
From far out in the wilderness came a melancholy cry.
"It is John, my cousin," said the boy, radiant, half turning himself at the sound. "I must go to him."
She drew in her breath sharply, and rose to her feet.
"Bear a message to John," she said. "Not pourings of water, nor white robes; not times and seasons, nor feasts in darkness and silence, shall hasten the kingdom of heaven; neither formulas, nor phylacteries, nor madness on the Sabbath. Above all, no selfish, proud isolation shall usher in the glorious reign of the Messiah. These holy men,—these Essenes,—are but stricter, sterner, nobler Pharisees. Tell thy cousin to take all the noble and fine, to reject all the selfish and unmeaning, in their lives. Doctrine is not in heaven. Not by fasts and scourgings, not by vigils and scruples about the law; not by selfishly shutting out the world, but by taking all poor, suffering, erring, striving humanity into his heart will he become the true Elias."
There was a breathless, thrilling moment of perfect silence as the glowing eyes of the mother looked deep into the astonished, questioning eyes of the son.
Then she rested both hands on his shoulders and spoke almost in a whisper.
"As for thee, the time is now come. Does my son know what this day means?"
He looked at her wonderingly and was silent.
The mother spoke:
"For many years I have kept these things and pondered them in my heart. Now, now the hour is here when thou must know them."
She bent so close that a strand of loosened hair swept his forehead.
"In the time before thou wert born came as in a dream a wondrous visitor to me straight from the Father. And that pure, ecstatic messenger announced that the power of the Highest would overshadow me, and that my child was to be the son of the Highest, who should save His people from their sins—the Prince of Peace—the Messiah!"
From the wilderness came a long, melancholy cry, but the rapt boy heard not.
The mother continued in the soft, tender voice that began to tremble with her in her ecstasy.
"This day is thy birthday. Twelve years ago this eventide, when thou camest into the world of men, men came to worship and praise God for thee,—the lowliest and the highest,—as a token that thou wert to be not only Son of God but Son of Man as well. Poor, ignorant shepherds crowded about us in that little stable where we lay, and left the sweet savor of their prayers, and tears, and rejoicings. And great, wise kings from another part of the earth came also."
From beneath the folds of her robe she drew forth by a fine-spun chain an intricately chased casket of soft, yellow gold.
The boy took it dreamily into his hands, and as his fingers opened it, there floated forth upon the air of the hills of Nazareth the sacred odor of incense mingled with a perfume indescribably delicate and precious.
"Read!" whispered the mother.
The boy held his breath suddenly.
There, on the lower surface of the lid, graven in rude characters, as if on the inspiration of the moment, stood the single word
She flung wide her arms as if to embrace the universe.
"Love! Love! Love!" she cried in her rich mother's voice. "It is the greatest thing in the world! It is the message of the Messiah!"
The heavens over the sea were of molten gold, and a golden glow seemed to radiate from the boyish face that confronted them. In their trance-like ecstasy the wonderful eyes gazed full into the blinding west—gazed on and on until day had passed into night.
One iterant sound alone, as it drew closer, stirred the silence of that evening: it was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
- By permission of The Century Magazine