The sun had dropped below the western hills of Judea, and the stillness of night had covered the earth. The heavens were illumined only by numberless stars, which shone the brighter for the darkness of the sky. No sound was heard but the occasional howl of a jackal or the bleat of a lamb in the sheepfold. Inside a tent on the hillside slept the shepherd, Berachah, and his daughter, Madelon. The little girl lay restless,—sleeping, waking, dreaming, until at last she roused herself and looked about her.
"Father," she whispered, "oh, my father, awake. I fear for the sheep."
The shepherd turned himself and reached for his staff. "What nearest thou, daughter! The dogs are asleep. Hast thou been burdened by an evil dream?"
"Nay, but father," she answered, "seest thou not the light? Hearest thou not the voice?"
Berachah gathered his mantle about him, rose, looked over the hills toward Bethlehem, and listened. The olive trees on yonder slope were casting their shadows in a marvellous light, unlike daybreak or sunset, or even the light of the moon. By the camp-fire below on the hillside the shepherds on watch were rousing themselves. Berachah waited and wondered, while Madelon clung to his side. Suddenly a sound rang out in the stillness. Madelon pressed still closer.
"It is the voice of an angel, my daughter. What it means I know not.
Neither understand I this light." Berachah fell on his knees and prayed.
"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
The voice of the angel died away, and the air was filled with music. Berachah raised Madelon to her feet. "Ah, daughter," said he, "It is the wonder night so long expected. To us hath it been given to see the sign. It is the Messiah who hath come, the Messiah, whose name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. He it is who shall reign on the throne of David, he it is who shall redeem Israel."
Slowly up the hillside toiled the shepherds to the tent of Berachah, their chief, who rose to greet them eagerly.
"What think you of the wonder night and of the sign?" he queried. "Are we not above all others honored, thus to learn of the Messiah's coming!"
"Yea, and Berachah," replied their spokesman, Simon, "believest thou not that we should worship the infant King! Let us now go to Bethlehem, and see this thing which has come to pass."
A murmur of protest came from the edge of the circle, and one or two turned impatiently away, whispering of duty toward flocks, and the folly of searching for a new-born baby in the city of Bethlehem. Hardheaded, practical men were these, whose hearts had not been touched by vision or by song.
The others, however, turned expectantly toward Berachah, awaiting his decision. "Truly," said Jude, "the angel of the Lord hath given us the sign in order that we might go to worship Him. How can we then do otherwise? We shall find Him, as we have heard, lying in a manger. Let us not tarry, but let us gather our choicest treasures to lay at His feet, and set out without delay across the hills toward Bethlehem."
"Oh, my father," whispered Madelon, "permit me to go with thee." Berachah did not hear her, but turned and bade the men gather together their gifts.
"I, too, father?" asked Madelon. Still Berachah said nothing. Madelon slipped back into the tent, and throwing her arms around Melampo, her shepherd dog, whispered in his ear.
Soon the shepherds returned with their gifts. Simple treasures they were,—a pair of doves, a fine wool blanket, some eggs, some honey, some late autumn fruits. Berachah had searched for the finest of his flock,—a snow-white lamb. Across the hills toward Bethlehem in the quiet, star-lit night they journeyed. As they moved silently along, the snow beneath their feet was changed to grass and flowers, and the icicles which had dropped from the trees covered their pathway like stars in the Milky Way.
Following at a distance, yet close enough to see them, came Madelon with Melampo at her heels. Over the hills they travelled on until Madelon lost sight of their own hillside. Farther and farther the shepherds went until they passed David's well, and entered the city. Berachah led the way.
"How shall we know?" whispered Simon. And the others answered, "Hush, we must await the sign."
When at last they had compassed the crescent of Bethlehem's hills, they halted by an open doorway at a signal from their leader. "The manger," they joyfully murmured, "the manger! We have found the new-born King!"
One by one the shepherds entered. One by one they fell on their knees. Away in the shadow stood the little girl, her hand on Melampo's head. In wonder she gazed while the shepherds presented their gifts, and were permitted each to hold for a moment the newborn Saviour.
Melampo, the shepherd dog, crouched on the ground, as if he too, like the ox and the ass within, would worship the Child. Madelon turned toward the darkness weeping. Then, lifting her face to heaven, she prayed that God would bless Mother and Baby. Melampo moved closer to her, dumbly offering his companionship, and, raising his head, seemed to join in her petition. Once more she looked at the worshipping circle.
"Alas," she grieved, "no gift have I for the infant Saviour. Would that I had but a flower to place in His hand."
Suddenly Melampo stirred by her side, and as she turned again from the manger she saw before her an angel, the light from whose face illumined the darkness, and whose look of tenderness rested on her tear-stained eyes.
"Why grievest thou, maiden?" asked the angel.
"That I come empty-handed to the cradle of the Saviour, that I bring no gift to greet Him," she murmured.
"The gift of thine heart, that is the best of all," answered the angel. "But that thou mayst carry something to the manger, see, I will strike with my staff upon the ground."
Wonderingly Madelon waited. From the dry earth wherever the angel's staff had touched sprang fair, white roses. Timidly she stretched out her hand toward the nearest ones. In the light of the angel's smile she gathered them, until her arms were filled with flowers. Again she turned toward the manger, and quietly slipped to the circle of kneeling shepherds.
Closer she crept to the Child, longing, yet fearing, to offer her gift.
"How shall I know," she pondered, "whether He will receive this my gift as
Berachah gazed in amazement at Madelon and the roses which she held. How came his child there, his child whom he had left safe on the hillside? And whence came such flowers! Truly this was a wonder night.
Step by step she neared the manger, knelt, and placed a rose in the Baby's hand. As the shepherds watched in silence, Mary bent over her Child, and Madelon waited for a sign. "Will He accept them?" she questioned. "How, oh, how shall I know?" As she prayed in humble silence, the Baby's eyes opened slowly, and over His face spread a smile.
The First Christmas Roses - A Christmas Story