The Carols of Bethlehem Center
There might have been no church had not James McKenzie come just when it seemed tottering to a fall. There might have been no Sunday school had not Harold Thornton tended it as carefully as he tended his own orchard. There might have been no class number four had it not been for Gertrude Windsor. But there would have been no glad tidings in one wintry heart save for the voices with which Eddie and the two Willies and Charlie and little Phil sang the carols that morning in the snow; and they came straight from Him who gave the angels the songs of, “On earth peace, good will to men.” (Luke 2:14)
At the end of the winter term in Gertrude’s junior year the doctor had prescribed a year of rest for her, and she had come to find it with Aunt Mehitable, in the quiet of Bethlehem Center.
On her first Sunday she attended the little Sunday school, and at the close of service there was an official conference.
“She would be just the one if she would,” said the pastor.
“It can’t go on as it is,” answered the superintendent. “The deacon means well, but he doesn’t know boys. There wasn’t one here today, and only Eddie last Sunday. I wish she’d be chorister, too,” he added. “Did you hear her sing?”
“I doubt if she would do that. I am told she nearly broke down in college, and is here to rest.”
“Yes, so Mr. Thompson told me. But we do need her.”
“Well, I will call on her, and let you know what I learn.”
Gertrude hesitated; but the wistful face of Harry, who brought their milk, decided her. And the second Sunday saw her instructing Eddie and little Phil in the quarterly temperance lesson. It was not until school was over that she learned the reason of little Phil’s conscious silence; and next day, when she met him with his father on the street, she tried to atone for her former ignorance.
“Are you Phil’s father?” she asked, stepping toward them.
Tim Shartow, who was believed by some to regard neither God, man, nor the devil, grew strangely embarrassed as he took her hand, after a hurried inspection of his own.
“Yes’m,” he answered.
“I am to be his Sunday school teacher,” she went on; “and of course I want to know the fathers and mothers of my boys. I hope Phil can come regularly. We are going to have some very interesting lessons.”
“I guess he can come,” answered his father. “It’s a better place for him than on the street, anyway.”
This was faint praise, but well meant. Gertrude smiled her appreciation, and in that brief meeting won not only Phil’s lifelong regard, but, had she known it, that of his father as well; for thenceforth Tim Shartow felt that he had two friends in Bethlehem Center of whom he need not be ashamed.
His other friend was James McKenzie. The mutual though qualified respect which they felt for each other dated from their first meeting, when Mr. McKenzie had walked into the saloon and asked permission to tack up some bills advertising his revival services.
“I guess you can,” the proprietor had answered, standing alertly on his guard.
The bills had been posted, and the unwonted visitor turned to the man behind the bar. They were alone together.
“We should be very glad, Mr. Shartow,” he said, “if you would attend some of the meetings.”
“It’ll be a cold day when I do,” answered the saloonkeeper.
Mr. McKenzie did not reply.
“The worst enemies I’ve got are in that church,” added Tim, by way of explanation.
A smile lighted up the pastor’s earnest face. “No, Mr. Shartow,” he said, “you’re wrong. They don’t like your business—I don’t like your business—but you haven’t an enemy in our church. And I want to tell you now”—his foot was upon the bar rail, and he was looking straight into the eyes of the man to whom he spoke—“that every night, as I pray that God will remove this saloon, I shall pray that he will bring you to know my Savior. And if ever you need help that I can give, I want you to feel free to come to me. We are traveling different roads, Mr. Shartow, but we are not enemies; we are friends.”
And the pastor departed, leaving Tim, the saloonkeeper, “that shook up,” to use his own phrase, that it is doubtful whether he ever entirely regained his former attitude toward “them church folks.”
By Gertrude’s second Sunday as teacher, the two Willies had come to test the truth of rumors that had reached them. Charlie and Harry came next, and, after Gertrude announced the mid-week class meetings as a reward for full attendance, not one absence occurred for thirteen weeks.
To Harold Thornton it had the look of a miracle that the class for whom no teacher could be found was as clay in the hands of the potter. There was nothing Gertrude could not do with them. They listened spellbound while she talked, took part in the responsive readings, answered questions, studied their lessons, sat wherever the superintendent wished; they even pocketed their papers without a glance at them until the session was over. And they sang with a wild abandon that was exhilarating to hear. Even Harry, who held throughout the note on which his voice first fastened, never failed to sing; and, though it added little to the harmony, it spoke volumes for the spirit of the school and the devotion to the chorister.
But if Gertrude was doing much for the boys, they were doing much for Gertrude; and in obeying her orders to rest, exercise, and grow strong, she could not have had better helpers. From the time when the first pale blossoms of the bloodroot showed beside the snow, through the seasons of violets and wild strawberries and goldenrod, to the time when the frost had spread the ground with the split shucks of the hickory nuts, the spoil of all the woodland was brought to her.
Their class meetings became long tramps, during which Gertrude told them interesting things about insects, birds, and flowers, and they told as much that was strange to her. Every one of them had become a conspirator in the plot to keep her out of doors, away from her books; hardly a day passed that she did not go somewhere with one or more of them. And as the healthy color began to show beneath the tan, as strength came back, and every pulse beat brought the returning joy of life, she often felt that all her work for class number four had been repaid a hundredfold.
It was one mid-August afternoon, when the tasseled corn stood high, and the thistles had begun to take wing and fly away to join the dandelions, that there came the first thoughts of the carols. Harry had to drive cows that day; but the others were with her, and as they came out through Mr. Giertz’s woods, and looked down upon the pasture where the sheep were feeding, little Phil began the quaint old version of the shepherd psalm that she had taught them—
“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want;
He makes me down to lie”*—
and, the other boys joining, they sang through to the end.
It was beautiful. She had never realized that they could sing so well, and, suddenly, as she listened, the plan came full-grown into her mind, and she proposed it then and there. The boys were jubilant; for a half-hour they discussed details; and then, “all seated on the ground,” like those of whom they sang, she taught them the beginning of, “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.”
That was the first of many open-air rehearsals, transferred, when the weather grew colder, to Willie Giertz’s, where there were no near neighbors to whom the portentous secret might leak out. There was not one defective voice in the class save Harry’s, and he was at first a puzzle; but that difficulty vanished when it was learned that his fondest ambition was satisfied by striking the tuning-fork. Thereafter all went smoothly, with much enthusiasm and a world of mystery.
When the program was complete, they had by heart six songs: “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” “Away in a Manger,” “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “There Came Three Kings Ere Break of Day,” and last, but best, because it seemed especially made for them, the song that began:
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.”*
And so at length came Christmas Eve. Little eyes were closing tight in determined efforts to force the sleep that would make the time till morning so much shorter. But in Bethlehem Center were six boys who, it is safe to say, were thinking less of the morrow’s gifts than of the morning’s plan; for preparations for early rising had been as elaborate as if it were fourth of July, and there was a solemn agreement that not one present should be looked at until after their return.
Gertrude had fallen asleep thinking of the letter beneath her pillow, promising her return to college at the beginning of next term; but at the first tinkle of her alarm clock she was up, and, dressing by candlelight, went softly down the stairs and out into the keen air of the morning. The stars were still bright overhead, and there was no light in the east; but Gertrude Windsor was not the first abroad; for at the gate Eddie, the two Willies, and little Phil stood waiting, and already Harry and Charlie were seen coming at top speed.
“Are we all here?” asked Eddie in a stage whisper; and the other boys huddled close together, and wriggled with suppressed excitement.
“Yes,” answered Gertrude. “Which place is first?”
“Mr. McKenzie’s,” announced Charlie, whose part it was to lay out the route; and, crossing the road, they passed through the parsonage gate. Beneath the study windows, Harry, at a given signal, struck the tuning-fork against his boot heel, Gertrude gave the key, and then, like one, there rose to greet the dawning of another Christmas day those clear young voices:
“Hark! the herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.’ ”
There were sounds from within before they had finished the first stanza; but when, after the “Amen,” the pastor started to open a window, the boys were too quick for him. There was a volley of “Merry Christmas,” and his answer reached only the rearguard tumbling over the picket fence.
Beneath the bare apple tree boughs in Harold Thornton’s yard, Charlie, Eddie, and little Phil sang, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” while the others joined in the chorus. At the song’s close, the superintendent, swifter of foot than the pastor, overtook them with a great box of candy.
Tears came into the eyes of Mrs. Martin as, watching beside her sick child, she heard again the story of the Babe, “away in a manger, no crib for His bed.” Old Uncle King forgot for a moment his vexing troubles as he listened to the admonition to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”* Mrs. Fenny cried, as sick people will, when she heard the boys reiterate the sweet, triumphant notes.
So from house to house the singers went, pausing at one because of sickness, at another because those within were lonely, at some for love, as they had serenaded the pastor and the superintendent, and bringing to each some new joy.
The stars were fading out, and they had started to return. On their side of the street was the post office, and opposite them was the saloon, with its gaudy gilt sign, “Tim’s Place.” Little Phil was behind Gertrude; and as they passed that building—it was home to him—his hand just touched her sleeve.
“Do you think,” he whispered, and she could see the pitiful quiver of his chin as he spoke—“do you suppose—we could sing one for m’ father?”
Tears filled Gertrude’s eyes; and had she not known boys so well, she would have stooped and caught him in her arms.
“Why, surely,” she answered. “Which one do you think he would like best?”
Phil had shrunk behind her, and beneath the gaze of the other boys his eyes were those of a little hunted animal at bay. “Bethlehem,” he said, huskily.
And when Harry had struck the tuning-fork, they began to sing together—
“O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.”
The twenty-fourth had been a good day for business in Tim Shartow’s place. He had had venison for free lunch; two mandolin and guitar players had been there all the evening; and there was more than two hundred dollars in the till. But now, in the quiet of the early morning, as he sat alone, the reaction had come. He remembered how Rob MacFlynn had had too much, and gone home maudlin to the wife who had toiled all day at the wash tub. He thought of the fight Joe Frier and Tom Stacey had had. And—he did not drink much himself; he despised a drunkard—and these things disgusted him. There was little Phil, too—“the saloonkeeper’s boy,”—and that cut deep. Wouldn’t it pay better, in the long run—and then the music floated softly in.
He did not hear the words at first, but he had a good ear—it was the singing that had brought him, as a boy, into the beer-gardens—and, stepping to the window, he listened, all unseen by those without. There the words reached him—
“How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heav’n.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive Him”—
and until they sang the “Amen,” Tim Shartow never stirred from the window.
The storm that had been threatening all day had descended. Without, a blizzard was raging; but within, beside his study fire, the little ones tucked away in bed upstairs, and a book in his hand, James McKenzie could laugh at weather. A knock at that hour surprised him; but when he saw who stood upon the threshold, he knew how the saloonkeeper felt when he posted his bills so many months before.
“Good evening, Mr. Shartow,” he said. “Won’t you come in?”
The face of his visitor was tense and haggard; for the struggle had lasted the day long.
“I’ve come for help,” he answered, shortly. “I guess it’s the kind you can give, all right.”
For a moment the pastor searched his face. “God bless you!” he exclaimed. “Come in, come in.”
And so was wrought again, before the close of the day that had been ushered in by the singing of the carols, the ever new miracle of Christmas; for God’s gift to men had been again accepted, and into another heart made meek and ready to receive Him the dear Christ had entered.