By liAiliiti.C.i9100.0.0 0:000MON.O.OMOVP.O.O.V.V.M00101M
—who is 'Philip Archer', well-known radio personality and writer, and author with Fr. Michael Day, of "Stories of the Saints", and "St. Anthony: The Man who Found Himself"; both published by Burns, Oates; also of "More Stories of the Saints" which is being published early
THERE was once a boy in Bethlehem. nearly two thousand years ago, who was both lonely and unhappy.
He was lonely because he had no friend in the world; and unhappy because both his parents were dead. and because his uncle, his only relative, seemed to take de light in demeaning the boy in front of the servants (for he was rich) and in making him do the most menial tasks the whole day long.
The boy's name was John; an ordinary name; but he was no ordinary boy; for, in spite of his continual unhappiness. he always turned a smiling face to the wortd.
Now Bethlehem lies on a sort of ledge in the hills; and one day in spring. John was walking through the fields that spread out helow the town. to take a message from his uncle to a diStant shepherd. In spite of the great carpets Of wild flowers that grew in the patches of scrubby ground between the rocks, and the brilliant pools of quivering crimson that John knew were wild poppies, his face was sad: for the truth was that his perpetual smile wasn't perpetual at all: he smiled only when there was anyone to see him. just to show that he didn't really care how hard the world was to him. When he was alone. his loneliness and his sadness overcame him: and his deep-set eyes took on a faraway look of yearning and melancholy. The deep green of the lovely land of Judea had not yet been parched by the unclouded summer sun; and yet John was soon thirsty with walking. even in the gentler heat of springtime.
Near to his path across the open wilderness, little streams ran sparkling along; and their merry and inviting sound prompted John to clamber over the nearby rocks, and sink down an to the mossy ground, lying at full length with his lips just touching the cool refreshing waters.
As he lay there, drinking his fill, he thought he heard a faint cry, which was as strange as it was unexpected in that lonely place. He sat up and strained his cars to listen. trying to distinguish tha strange cry from the laughing babble of the stream.
SUDDENLY his eye caught a little movement on the opposite side of the brook, and shading his eyes from the bright spring sunshine, John saw a tiny creature, crying and whimpering, and making, now and then,
little darts and dashes towards the edge of the stream.
Then it would fall back on its haunches, bemused and frustrated, and. panting, would try yet again. Suddenly, though, it gave out once again a short cry which John recognised at once as the yelping bark of a puppy.
It had seen John, and, quite clearly, it was trying to cross the stream in order to . . (could it be?) .. to make friends with him. John had no friend in the world, In a flash John had crossed the stream; and the puppy. with little welcoming cries of delight, licked John's face excitedly with its warm pink tongue. Soon they were the besi of friends; and with a start John realised that he was actually smiling; smiling. not defiantly. with his chin jutting out, but smiling with sheer happiness.
Almost at once. though. his smile faded. as he remembered that he must continue with his errand and leave the little dog behind. He rose to his feet and wus about to turn to go when something lying among the rocks attracted his attention: it was a sheep-dog, lying motionless.
The next instant John could see the whole story: this was the puppy's mother, and the savage wounds at her throat showed that she had died in a struggle with some wild beast. a wolf perhaps. John knew all about the wild animals that roamed those open lands, and how his friends the local shepherds always had to keep a look-out by night and day to protect their flocks from those beasts of prey.
AFEW minutes later John, followed a few yards behind by the puppy was striding towards the shepherd's little cottage where he was to deliver his uncle's message. The cottage was barely more than a hovel of heaped stones beside a brook; and as he approached, John heard the cheery voice of the shepherd greeting him.
Soon the message was safely delivered and John had learnt that old Simeon, the oldest of the shepherds, had died nearly a month before, leaving no relatives or anyone to tend his flock. The shepherd recognised the puppy as belonging to old Simeon; and then John recounted how he had found the mother sheep-dog's body. "Then the puppy's an orphan like you, John", said the shepherd, "and there's nothing to stop you taking charge of it. If you don't it'll certainly have the same fate as its mother.'
"Couldn't you look after him, though?" pleaded John.
The old shepherd merely grunted; "My own sheepdog here, she's got five young pups at this very moment; and I'm afraid I shall only be able to let her rear one of those."
There seemed nothing for it but for John to take charge of the starving helpless creature. And when he looked down at it, as it lay panting with the exertion of the journey. its gaze fixed devotedly on him, John knew that he could do nothing but take the puppy with him.
He said goodbye to the shepherd. and. gathering up the warm bundle of fur into his arms, he strode off towards Bethlehem, desperately trying to work out in his mind some plan which would enable him to keep his new-found friend. without his uncle's knowing anything about it.
WHEN he reached home, John stole round to the back of the house into the yard, looking stealthily around to make sure that no one saw him; and, hiding the puppy beneath his ragged tunic, he crept into the brokendown outhouse where he slept.
This was the only corner of the whole world where he felt that no one would intrude. He settled the puppy down on the straw which was his own bed; and then went to report to his uncle.
As John went inside the house he could bear the high-pitched whines and whimpers of the puppy; and he was afraid that his uncle or the servants would hear. Inside the kitchen. though, all was hustle and bustle: his uncle was entertaining that evening and the preparations were keeping everyone busily occupied.
FOR several weeks John was able to keep the existence of the puppy a complete secret. It was a friendly and intelligent creature, and John trained it to " stay "; to wait for him out of sight; to come when called;
and, most important of all, to go back to his hiding-place in any emergency.
Only a few days after he had found the puppy, John became aware that first the cook, and then all the other servants, knew all about it. Then passed several days of anxiety ; but soon it became clear that no one had mentioned it to his uncle because no one wished to be blamed for allowing John to bring the animal home in the first place.
First weeks went by, and then months; and the puppy grew; in fact it grew so alarmingly that by the time autumn came it seemed almost as big as a young wolf, It was a fine grey-black colour. with high intelligent pointed ears. and a flne tail like a great brush. . .
Then came that fateful day in December, when John had been sent on one errand after anolher all day. The little town of Bethlehem was full to overflowing with people who had come in from the surrounding countryside for the census: John did not know what this meant exactly, but it certainly caused his uncle to have twice as many of his strange business affairs on hand.
It was late evening ; and John had returned, very weary, from delivering a message on the far side of the town; and, fearful lest he should forget to deliver the answer he had gone at once into the front door ofthis house to find his uncle, instead of following his usual practice of looking into the outhouse to say hello to his dog for a few minutes.
His uncle sat upon a. carpet, resting on embroidered cushions, talking with his business associates, and eating from earthenware dishes which were spread out on low tables in front of them.
" WIAT is it, boy ?" demanded his uncle, irritably—for he made no attempt to hide the fact that he resented John's very existence.
John, feeling that the sneering gazes of all present were turned Upon him, began to stammer out the answer to the message. At
that moment his dog burst into the room through the open doorway that led to the kitchen.
With a little yelp of delight he leapt at John, licking his face in welcome. John's heart turned over with horror, as he saw his uncle's brow cloud over with a terrible anger.
" What in the name of thunder is that mongrelly creature doing here ?" he stormed.
" Down. boy, down I" John cried in a hoarse whisper; and at once the dog obeyed. Seeing this, John's uncle burst out :
"Oh. so you are responsible. are you ? Get out of my sight at once !"
He raised his arms to threaten John; and, as he did so, the yawing dog rushed forward in order to protect his master, and growled and showed his teeth.
"Why, the creature's dangerous " exclaimed one of the guests.
"A mad dog, no doubt," put in another among murmurs of fear and agreement.
" You'd growl at me, would you ? " fumed John's uncle, and, as he did so. he seized a thick earthenware platter, and raised it menacingly over his head.
'' Come on," calledslohn, " good boy. Go to bed ! "
HEARING the familiar order, the dog looked up into his master's face, and then began to lope obediently towards the door.
As he did so, the heavy platter hurtled through the air, and crashed against the dog's fine bushy tail. pinning it for an agonised moment against the jamb of the door. With a howl of pain the dog shot away towards the back of the house, scattering several dishes as he rushed through the kitchen.
" You hit him I" cried John, facing his uncle with pained defiance.
"And you'll be the next I" roared his uncle. "Get out of here, and never come back .. . and take that vicious brute with you."
John did not wait to hear any more; but quickly followed the dog to the outhouse. John sat down beside it on the straw, where it lay cowed and shaken, and comforted the frightened creature, fondly running his hands over its fur.
As his hands gently stroked the dog's tail, it gave a little vi himper of pain, and John saw with horror that the tail was broken: the fine brush which was usually held so proudly, and which told so clearly the animal's thoughts and feelings, was now half lifeless: only part of it moved, whilst the remainder trailed like a reed broken in the wind.
Overcome with fear and sadness and bewilderment, John buried his head in the warm fur around the animal's neck ; and, as he sobbed himself to sleep, with his head pillowed on the furry flanks of the dog, he whispered, haltingly: "Tomorrow, at first light, we must go away from here. . . We must find a new home, and a new way to earn a living. . . I only wish I knew of somewhere to live. . ."
Almost as if it understood, the dog tried to wag his wounded tail . but, limp and broken, it only flickered awkwardly and with pain.
THE innkeeper a few doors a way was a brusque enough fellow, yet he was kind beneath his bluff.
He listened patiently as John told his story; and then he said that if he cared to sleep in the cave in the hillside behind his inn, then he could stay there for a few days—until something turned up. "And there'll be plenty of odd jobs for you to do, to earn your keep, young fellow," be said. "My inn's nearly full already, with all the extra people in Beth lehem. If things go on like this ril soon be turning folks away."
The cave behind the inn was used as a cattle-shed and as a stable for the mules and donkeys of those who stayed at the inn. For several days John and his dog were happy there; though, between the jobs he did for the innkeeper, John thought a great deal about the future, and realised that he must try to learn some trade or calling if he was to survive.
Then, early one afternoon, the innkeeper came out from the inn calling John by name. John sat up; and at once the dog too rose to his haunches and sniffed the air.
Then it turned and gave John one of those expressive looks which sometimes fill the eyes of dumb creatures, and which not everyone can understand. John
did understand though; even if it was only by instinct: a sort of instinct that told him that they were near to something strange and wonderful.
SOON the reason for the innkeeper's visit to the cave was clear. The inn was full; there was no room
for the two newly-arrived strangers save here in the stable, and the inn-keeper felt moved in his heart to offer it to them, with John's consent. And when John saw the husband leading his pale young wife on a mild-eyed donkey, all thoughts of annoyance and dismay at having to leave his new home vanished.
" Yes, of course," he found himself saying, "they may have my place in the stable. We'll find somewhere else, somehow, my dog and 1."
The husband thanked him; and the wife turned upon John the sweetest, most radiant smile of thanks, that needed no added words to express her gratitude, as she descended from the donkey and, supported by her husband, was helped on to a bed of sweetsmelling hay, where she sank down in utter weariness.
John asked if he could help; but the innkeeper drew him quietly away, and advised him to try to find himself somewhere to spend the night. for already the day was far spent and the air was growing chill. Suddenly the dog began to give little pleading barks, trotting a few yards down the road, and then returning and taking the edge of John's tattered tunic between his teeth, trying to draw him gently away.
John soon understood, and found himself following. As if driven by some sure and undeniable instinct, the dog led the way like a homing pigeon. " Making straight for home?" wondered John. "For home. . . ? Where could it be that his dog was taking him?"
THE sun was sinking over the rim of the hills, as, almost gasping for breath in the haste, John followed the
dog out of Bethlehem and down to the lowlands where the shepherds were keeping watch over their sheep, for as it was now winter, they had brought their flocks down from the wilder uplands.
Turning his thoughts over in bewilderment. John suddenly realised that the dog was indeed
taking him to his home . . towards the hovel of old Simeon the shepherd. In the gathering darkness John could see .several shepherds whom he knew, all sitting round a camp-fire not far away from old Simeon's home. As they approached, John heard one of them say:
" Why. if that isn't old Simeon's sheep-dog. She isn't dead then, like her master. after all!"
In a few words, John soon explained that this dog was not old Simeon's sheep-dog, but her son, whom John had found as a starving helpless puppy.
"Then that's a sort of omen," mused one of the shepherds. darkly. "It seems to me that you're the one to take old Simeon's place."
Seeing John's puzzled look, another shepherd explained: " We've been wondering now for months what would become of Simeon's flock and his little cottage here. He left no relatives, you see."
"It's a hard life, though," put in a third, "but that dog of yours looks a handy creature for dealing with sheep, even though it has got a kink in its tail!" " Do you think you'd like the life of a shepherd? " asked the first, throwing another log upon the fire.
TT was quite dark now, and ▪ John looked into the
weatherbeaten faces of the shepherds as they sat in the fireglow.
They were simple men, but the lines on their faces were made by sun and wind and fresh air. not by the sort of worries that had set deep scowling lines into the faces of John's uncle and his business associates. At his elbow John could hear the eager panting of the dog; and he knew in his heart that his only course was to become a shepherd and take old Simeon's place.
Then he reflected that if he had not agreed to leave the cave behind the inn, perhaps this chance of a new life might have escaped him. Before he could reply to the shepherds' offer, though, he found his breath taken away in amazement.
For suddenly the faces of the shepherds were lit up with a strange unearthly light: the air was filled with music as if a million voices were all raised in harmony; and turning towards the sky, to where the shepherds too were gazing, John shielded his eyes. The sky was filled with countless dazzling shapes of misty radiance: and, as he gazed the figures became clearer, golden and shimmering. Then, clearly heard above the continuous harmonycame a voice of awe and wonder. At first John and the shepherds were afraid; but the voice brought • comfort, and more than comfort as it announced its message, a message that seemed almost unbelievable: " Do not be afraid; behold, 1 bring you good news of a great rejoicing for the whole people. This day, in the city of David, a Saviour has been born for you, the Lord Christ himself. This is the sign by which you are to know him: you will find a child still in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."
THEN the voices of the angels surged up in harmony as they sang:
"Glory to God in high heaven, and peace on earth to men that are God's friends."
Gradually the vision faded, and the great bowl of the sky was filled no more with music and, where angels had been visible, only the sprinkled stars were seen. For a long moment no one spoke; until finally, the eldest one among them said:
" We must go at once. But where shall we find this wonder?"
Then John remembered that very afternoon, and the innkeeper, and the husband, and the smile of the young wife.
"We can take you there," he said, knowing that it was the truth that he was speaking, " we can take you there . . . my dog and
And so it was. Through the starlit fields the dog and his young master led the shepherds along, until the footpath became a track and the track became the road that led up into Bethlehem.
As they crossed the inn-yard, and made towards the cave, they saw once again a radiance of shimmering gold, like that which had filled the sky when the angels were singing, save that this time it seemed more brilliant and even more wonderful.
TNSIDE the cave, the cattle • were contentedly munch
ing the hay; the weary mules and patient donkeys stood silent in their stalls; while in a shadowy corner an ox lowed.
There indeed was the husband whom John had met that afternoon; and there too his lovely young wife, holding in her arms a newborn child. Tenderly the mother laid the baby among the 'sweet hay of a manger.
Gently, and scarcely rustling the straw that littered the floor of the cave. the shepherds moved out of the shadows into the radiance that surrounded the child. and then they fell upon their knees. As John gazed upon the scene, spellbound and silent. he knew that he was witnessing one of the greatest moments of all time, and his heart was filled with the wonder of it.
Slowly then he became aware that all the animals in the cave had turned towards the manger, and, wonder of wonders, they too had meekly fallen on their knees.
At his side John knew his dog was waiting patiently, and, looking down, he saw that the dog, too, was bowed in adoration. As he gazed at the child and the tender face of the mother, he felt the strangeness and the beauty of it all, and there flooded into his heart the warm and confident assurance that he would never be lonely again.
THE shepherds were loth to leave the stable; and John himself felt that he could have stayed there kneel
ing in adoration for ever. But eventually the eldest of the shepherds gave a sign, and they
began to withdraw into the
shadows. Instinctively John stretched out his hand to pat the faithful dog beside him.
His hands stroked the creature's head, and slid along its back, and. almost without thinking, continued in one long gentle caress along its tail. Then John remembered, and was about to draw his hand away, fearing to cause the animal pain. But there came no whimper from the dog...
And as John went back with the shepherds along the road from Bethlehem out into the fields under the marvelling stars, he knew that he was beginning a new and happier life; and beside him there trotted contentedly his grey-black shepherd dog, with pointed intelligent ears and a tail held proud and erect . . . a tail that was straight and flawless and whole.