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THE LITTLE TOWN OF THE MANGER
IT was afternoon when we drove to Bethlehem-a I pleasant drive, though dusty withal. The road lies between grain-fields — fields where Ruth may have gleaned, and where the Son of Man may have stopped to gather corn. It gives one a curious feeling to remember that these fields are the same, and that for them through all the centuries seed-time and harvest have never failed. Nor have they changed — the walls, the laborers, the methods, the crops belong to any period that this country has known.
The convent of Elijah was pointed out to us, but it did not matter. Elijah never saw it-never heard of it. It is different, however, with a stone across the way from the entrance. Elijah went to sleep on that stone, and slept so heavily that he left his imprint there, which remains to this day. We viewed that stone with interest; then we took most of it and went on.
In a little while we came to the tomb of Rachel. The small, mosque-like building that covers it is not very old, but the site is probably as well authenticated as any of that period. Jacob was on his way from Padan when she died, and he buried her by the roadside “when there was but a little way to come into Ephrath” (which is Bethlehem). He marked the grave with a pillar which the generations would not fail to point out, one to another, as the last restingplace of this mother in Israel who died that Benjamin might have life.
Poor Rachel! Supplanted in her husband's love; denied long the natural heritage of woman; paying the supreme price at last, only to be left here by the wayside alone, outside the family tomb. All the others are gathered at Hebron in the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought from the children of Heth for Sarah's burial-place. Jacob, at the very last, made his sons swear that they would bury him at Hebron with the others. He remembered Rachel in her lonely grave, and spoke of her there, but did not ask that he be taken to lie by her side, or that she be laid with the others. He died as he had lived
- self-seeking, unsympathetic — a commonplace old man.
Just outside of Bethlehem we were welcomed by a crowd of little baksheesh girls, of a better look and distinctly of a better way than the Jerusalem type. They ran along with the carriage and began a chant which, behold, was German, at least Germanesque:
“Oh, du Fröliche!
I suppose “Oh, thou happy one; Oh, thou holy one,” would be about the translation, with the wailing refrain at the end. I think we gave them something. I hope so; they are after us always, and we either give them or we don't, without much discrimi
nation. You can't discriminate. They are all wretched and miserably needy. You give to get rid of them, or when pity clutches a little fiercer than usual at your heart.
So we were at the gates of Bethlehem—the little town whose name is familiar at the firesides of more than half the world—a name that always brings with it a feeling of bright stars and dim fields:
“Where shepherds watched their flocks by night
All seated on the ground,'
and of angel voices singing peace and goodwill. A camel-train led the way through the gates.
I suppose the city itself is not unlike Jerusalem in its general character, only somewhat cleaner, and less extensive. We went immediately to the place of the nativity, but before we could get to it we were seized and dragged and almost compelled to buy some of the mother-of-pearl beads and fancy things that are made just across the way. We escaped into the Church of the Nativity at last-an old, old church, desolate and neglected in its aspect, though sufficiently occupied with chanting and droning and candlebearing acolytes. Yet it is better-oh, much betterthan the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and it has a legitimate excuse. If Christ was born in a Bethlehem manger, as the gospel records, it is probable that He was born here. There are many reasons for believing that the grotto below this church was used as the inn stables in that time, and that the brief life which has laid its tender loveliness on so many lives had its beginning here.
We descended to the grotto and stood on the spot that is said to have heard His first infant cry. There is a silver star in the floor polished with kisses, and there are a lot of ornate lamps and other paltry things hanging about. It does not matter, I suppose, but I wish these professional religionists did not find such things necessary to stimulate their faith. Still, one could shut his eyes and realize, or try to realize, that he was standing in the place where the Light that has illumined a world struck its first feeble spark; where the impulse that for nineteen hundred years has swept across the nations in tides of war and peace first trembled into life-a wave of love in a mother's heart. As I say, the rest did not matter.
While the others were looking into the shops across the way, I wandered about the streets a little, the side streets, which in character cannot have changed much in nineteen hundred years. The people are poor, and there are many idlers. There are beggars, too; some of them very wretched--and leprous, I think. It seems a pity, here in the birthplace of Him who healed with a word.
We bought some of the Bethlehem beads. They will sell you a string a yard long for a franc, and they cut each bead separately from mother-of-pearl with the most primitive tools, and they shape it and polish it and bore a hole in it, all by hand, and link it on a gimp wire. In America you could not get a single bead made in that way for less than double what they ask for a whole string. But, as I have said, they are very poor here—as poor as when they bestowed a Saviour on mankind.