There was no room at the inn. Already it was six to a room. There were Medes sharing with Persians, which was bound to lead to trouble. The extension was still not fit for habitation. The builders had run off to work for Herod’s nephew, who was adding forty rooms to the Jolly Roman, knocking down six houses and tearing up a small park to make room. Of course, Herod’s nephew had got planning permission right away, while Ichabod had had to wait for weeks and spend half his savings on bribes. Now Ichabod was stuck with a builder’s bill for work half done, and six rooms with no roofs or floors. The star was bringing in the trade. He had told them all it would. But it was proving to be false bounty. It was costing him a fortune.
Kefir, his son, mop-headed and breathless, tore into the taproom, his voice high and squeaking as he cried, “Kings, Father. There are Kings coming. Kings from the east, on camels.”
Ichabod went out into the street, shooing away the six youths who lay by the open door dicing for pieces of silver. It was deep into the evening and already the fires were going out, for the prices were high and who could waste wood when there was the star to light up the darkness? He watched the kings come towards him, their diadems glittering in the light of the star, their harnesses chiming as the sore-footed camels plodded up the street. As they passed the gates of the Jolly Roman, Herod’s nephew ran out in his nightshirt, risen from the bed of his mistress to welcome them.
But the camels did not stop or turn to enter The Jolly Roman. They came on down the street towards Ichabod. Herod’s nephew ran after them, bare-footed in the mud, promising them girls dressed in silk, promising them sherbet. They did not heed or speak to him. They came onward.
“Martha, Martha,” he called, running back into the taproom. “Get up, woman, get up. We have kings coming. Get those awful Greek women out of number three, and that pompous Carthaginian lot out of number five.”
His wife appeared at the head of the stairs, in her nightgown, her hair all a tumble, as he had once known and loved it, in the passions of their youth.
“The Carthaginians are paid to the end of the week,” she said.
“Kings, woman!” he cried. “There are kings coming. Do you know what rates we can charge to kings? Foreign kings who do not understand the money! There are three of them. We must have another room. Who else can we be rid of?”
“There’s that crowd of shepherds in seven,” his wife replied. “They should be abiding in the fields this time of year anyway. And they make the whole place smell like sheep.”
“Out they go. And that Nazarene couple in the stable. They must go too. We need the space for the camels.”
“But she has just given birth to a child.”
“Just? That was twelve days ago, and I only said they could have it for the night. Get them out. Send them on their way. Tell them that Egypt is nice this time of year.”
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Ichabod ran out into the street again, ready to bow and scrape. The camels progressed augustly towards his door, the camel men cursing and grumbling. If they passed him by, as they had passed by Herod’s nephew at the Jolly Roman, he would lose his last chance to make good his losses. The vine leaves over the lintel were drooping, but there was no time to change them now.
“My lords, my lords, my gracious lords,” he cried, standing in the middle of the road. “I have beds for all, beds for all. Soft beds, and very clean. My wife makes ready for you even as I greet you.”
“Out of the way, man,” the leader of the camel man cried. “We mean to travel all night. We do not stop in your dirty villages. Your prices are too high.”
“The prices are high,” he replied, “but consider the amenities. The star, my lords, look up. The star is right above our heads. We are the nearest lodging to the star. The original. The best!”
The camel man stepped forward and took him by the arm. “I might persuade my lords to stay, innkeeper, if you can promise me liquor and women.”
“Liquor, certainly, my Lord,” Ichabod replied. “As much as you can drink. But women? I do not know where you can find a woman of that sort in a hundred miles. My servants have all left me to work at the Jolly Roman. But you do not want to go there. The Centurions stay there, and there is much unpleasantness. And my wife, well, she is becoming an old woman, querulous and wrinkled. I do not think you would find her to your appetite. But the liquor I can give you! Like nectar! Headier than the wines of Dionysus. A glass or two of that, and you can dream any woman you like.”
“It would take much liquor before I forgot my want of a woman,” the camel man said.
“Well, there are women among my guests,” Ichabod said, walking backwards now before the advancing camels. “A man, such as yourself, my lord, surely does not need to pay for company, not with such a handsome face, such sinewed legs, such mighty arms.”
“Halt here, camel man,” came a deep though quavering voice from atop the lead camel.
“As you say, Highness,” the camel man replied, vexed to have been stopped without receiving his bribe from the innkeeper.
“I think this is the place, Caspar, or as near as we are likely to find,” the king upon the lead camel called back to his companion. He was an old man, bearded white, weariness in his posture and in his face.
“It does seem that the star hangs over this place more than any other, Melchior,” his companion replied. Caspar was a man of middle age, his beard red and his eyes merry, yet there was weariness in him also.
“Is there any information to be had?” the third king asked.
“What would you have me ask, Balthasar?” Melchior asked, in the voice of a man for whom all has grown futile.
“A king, as we have so long divined. Are we come at last to the place of the king?” Balthasar was a young man, very dark in his complexion so that his eyes stood out in his face in the light of the star. He alone seemed fresh enough to continue the journey, and yet it was he who seemed most willing to believe they had found its end.
“Balthasar, my lad, I am weary of this,” Melchior said. “I think now that this may all be folly.”
“It cannot hurt to ask the man, Melchior.”
“We have asked many times, Balthasar, in hostile cities and unfriendly towns.”
“But is this not the very place above which hangs the star that we have followed?”
“The star, majesties, yes, the star,” Ichabod cried. “Every room has a view of the star.”
“Who can say over which spot a star hangs?” Casper said, resignation in his voice. “It has seemed above us ever since we dropped below the snowline.”
“No,” Balthasar said, looking upward and shielding his eyes. “I say this is the spot. The very spot. Besides, it’s the dead of winter and at least the man offers us shelter. Melchior, I am sure, would welcome a bed for the night. I say this is the place. Let us ask the question.”
“Ask it, then,” Melchior said, his voice dull and indifferent.
“You there, innkeeper,” Balthasar called out. “Our divinations tell us that there is a child born to be king of the Jews. Have you news of him?”
At this moment, the Carthaginians, recently dismissed from number five, brushed by Ichabod. It seemed like they intended to accost him, but then they looked up at the three kings with all their retinue and were awed. The most pompous of them looked up at Balthasar for a moment, showing little deference. His mouth opened as if he meant to speak, but then he closed it again and hurried off. His companions followed him, protesting in lowered voices.
Ichabod hurried up to the side of the camel on which Balthasar sat, pushing through a crowd of bleary-eyed and truculent shepherds to reach him. “We have no king but Herod, Majesty. But I would warn you not to stay at his nephew’s inn, the Jolly Roman, for there the mattresses are full of lice. Our beds are fresh, stuffed with clean straw, and we offer a free hot breakfast in the morning.”
“Herod is not the king we seek, innkeeper,” Balthasar said. “All our divination told us that this star, this star which shines so bright above us, would lead us to a newborn king.”
“A birth or a death, Balthasar,” Caspar said. “Both aspects were in the divination.”
“Whose death then, Melchior? Herod? But Herod lives, it seems. And could we have been brought so far for such a minor matter as the death of Herod? I believe it is a birth we are here for.”
“I should not speak such words in the street, Majesty.” Ichabod said, “Whatever you may have divined, let none of it come to the ears of Herod! But come inside, Majesty, come inside. My house is a house of discretion. I may need a little money, you understand, to keep idle tongues silent. But I shall see to it, Majesty. You may leave it to me. Come in, Majesty. You will find the place satisfactory.”
“Perhaps we should stay here, my brothers,” Caspar said, “We have had a hard time of it and my camel is refractory. It would be good to sleep more than a snatch.”
Melchior consented, too weary to argue. Balthasar was anxious to stay, still full of the promise of their divination. The camel men forced the camels to their knees so that the kings could dismount into the dusty street.
“I do not know how well I shall sleep in this light,” Melchior said. “The star is like the moon thrice shown, and blots every other star from the sky.”
“But surely this is the sign that this is the place we have sought ever since we set out upon our journey,” Balthasar said.
“Indeed, my lords, indeed,” Ichabod cried. “The very spot indeed. The very spot indicated by the star!”
“Have you rooms then, innkeeper?” Casper asked. “It seems every inn and every hut and stable and doorstep is occupied in Bethlehem and all the villages here about.”
“It is because of the star, sire, as you see. People come from all over the world to see the star of Bethlehem. They have come from Midian and Ephah, from Sheba and Kedar and Nebaioth. There have been shiploads come from Tarshish. Some days it seems that the land is covered in camels! But for kings, sire, for kings we always make room. Come in, come in. And I shall make room in the stable for your camels also.”
He led them into the taproom, kicking aside the empty wine skins that littered the floor. Martha was herding out the Greek women who had been in number three. They were protesting loudly and demanding their money back, even though they had been paying by the day, and getting their meals from the thermopolium in the square, depriving him of their custom at table.
“What do you mean, requisitioned?” the chief harridan of the Greeks was complaining to Martha. “Requisitioned by the king? What would Herod want with that damp pokey room when his nephew owns the finest inn in Bethlehem just up the road?”
“I see the Carthaginians have gone,” Ichabod called to his wife. He wanted no part of her quarrel with the Greeks.
“He’s threatened to complain to the night guard,” she replied.
“Good luck to him then,” Ichabod said. “Gaius and Titius know where their beer comes from. What about the Nazarenes in the stable?”
“Not yet. I can’t be everywhere at once, can I?”
“I’ll do it myself then. Food and ale for my lords Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar.” He turned to the kings, who now stood in the doorway looking sourly at the taproom’s mud walls and straw-covered floors. “Do not be deceived by the look of things, your majesties,” Ichabod said. “What can I do when the Romans hire away all the builders? But you will find the food and ale the finest in Judea. And the beds so soft and warm. My wife will attend you directly. I will go and make room for your camels in the stable.”
He went out the back door and across the yard to the stable. By the light of the star, which seemed here to hang more directly above his head even than it did in the street, he saw that the young woman had the child at her breast while her husband seemed occupied in mending the gate to the hay byre, a job that Martha had been nagging Ichabod to get round to for months.
“Out, you two,” he cried. “Gather your things and go. I need my stable for the camels of the kings of India, Arabia, and Persia.”
“Go in the morning, do you mean sir,” the husband asked, testing the swing of the gate, which swiveled smoothly and silently into place and latched with a click.
“Now. Not morning. The camels are outside in the street. Pick up your things and go.”
“Is there not some other place we can rest the night?”
“All of Judea as far as I am concerned. But you must quit my stable. I only said you could stay one night.”
“But then the baby came, and it was a hard birth…”
“Do you mean to stay till it is weaned? Till it is presented in the temple? No, you must go. It is time to return to your own place. Take your ass and your things and go.”
“As you say, Innkeeper,” the husband said, humbly. “I thank you for the hospitality you have shown us when we were in need. We will go now, as you ask.”
“What is this, innkeeper?” a voice asked from behind him. He turned and saw Balthasar standing in the courtyard, his eyes bright with starlight.
“Just a pair of Nazarenes and their brat, my Lord. They have been squatting in my stables. I have told them they must go to make room for your camels.”
Balthasar walked into the stable and went to the young woman, who was now holding the child against her shoulder and rubbing its back while she sang to it, “lully, lulla.”
Balthasar held out his hands. The young woman looked into his face, inquiring and yet humble and serene. Her husband came and stood beside her. They stood thus a moment, and then slowly the mother held the child out and the king took it in his arms. The child gave a loud burp and spat up a little, which made the king smile. He raised the hem of the child’s smock and inspected the testes. Then he nodded gravely and handed the child back to the mother.
He turned then and walked back towards the door of the inn. “Do not disturb them on our account, Innkeeper,” he said as he passed Ichabod. “Our camels are hardy from their long journey and have spent many nights colder than this in the open.”
“But, Majesty,” Ichabod said, “consider how weary they must be, how sore-footed. Surely they deserve kinder treatment after such a long journey.” The price for housing camels, particularly the camels of kings, would be enough to pay off several of his debts.
Balthazar went to the door of the inn and called inside. “There was a birth, certainly, my brothers. A boy child. Come and give your judgment whether our divinations have told true.”
Caspar and Melchior came into the stable yard, Melchior leaning heavily on his staff. Now that Ichabod saw him close, and by the light of the star, he saw that he was a very old man, stooped, and pinched about his features. The kings went and stood before the child, whom the mother once again offered for their inspection.
“You, man,” Caspar said, addressing the husband. “This is your son?”
“It is, Lord.”
“And what is your lineage?”
“We are of the house of David, Lord.”
“You are a prince of that line?”
“No, Lord. I am just a carpenter.”
“Well, there it is then,” Melchior said. “All this bitter journey, and nothing to show for it.”
Caspar returned the child to the woman.
“But did not our divination speak of a birth, and a star to mark the place,” Balthasar protested.
“My lad,” Melchior said, with kindly resignation, “There was a star above the head of every child that was ever born.”
“But such a star as this? Must not such an extraordinary star betoken an extraordinary child?”
“I had hoped so, yes, or I would not have made such a bitter journey, a journey that has been like a death to me. But we have seen the evidence and there is no doubt. A carpenter’s son. I am weary now, and I find myself ill at ease. I will go to my bed.”
Concern for the old man stilled any further argument in Balthasar’s throat. He and Caspar supported Melchior, one on each side, leading him back into the inn.
Ichabod looked at the Nazarenes. There would be no fare for camel lodging this night, he saw. He cursed the softness of his heart for having let them stay so long. “In the morning,” he said, shaking a finger at them. “In the morning you will be gone.”
He followed the kings into the inn. Martha was there, directing them to the rooms that had been made ready for them. But at that moment Kefir burst into the Inn once more.
“The Carthaginians have gone to The Jolly Roman,” the boy cried. Kefir had developed a crush on the lovely, but quite unreachable, Livia, daughter of Herod’s cousin. He spent every free hour he had, and many an hour when he should have been working, hanging around The Jolly Roman hoping to catch a glimpse or exchange a word with her.
“What of it, boy,” Ichabod asked. “I’m sure he has not got a room for them, though I would not grudge him that trade if he has. Those Carthaginians are not worth the trouble!”
“No, Father, I heard them talking. The Carthaginians said that there were three foreign kings here and that they were seeking an infant king among the Jews. He says there is a rebellion fomenting in our taproom. Herod’s cousin has woken the centurions and they have sent for their men from the camps.”
“My lords,” Caspar said. “It is as I feared it might be. We should not have spoken publicly about a king among the Jews. Such talk was bound to offend Herod and his kin. If the soldiers are coming, we must depart at once and return to our own kingdoms by a different road.”
“Oh!” said Melchior wearily, “another such journey will be the death of me. But perhaps I will be glad of it. Our time, my lords, is passing away. Perhaps this is the death that was in my divination.”
“Perhaps, my lord. I confess that I feel much as you do,” Caspar said. “Though the feeling has come over me of a sudden, and I cannot account for it. Our time may indeed be passing. But for the present, it will be three deaths, swift and sure, if we do not go now.”
“But what of the child?” Balthasar asked. “If the soldiers are sent seeking an infant king among the Jews, what infant in Judea will be safe from them? Perhaps this is the death that was in your divination, Melchior. Perhaps all along it was our task to prevent it.”
“They should go also, for a certainty,” Caspar said. “And we should give them something to sustain them on their journey, for the husband will have been deprived of his work some weeks already, and now must go many more days without it. I shall give him a little frankincense. I carry it for the journey for it is as good as coin at any inn, and lighter to carry than gold.”
“I have a little myrrh, which I have carried for the same purpose,” Balthasar said.
“I will give plain old gold,” said Melchior, rummaging in the pocket that hung from his belt. “In case they meet an innkeeper who does not know his spices.”
Melchior and Caspar handed their gifts to Balthasar, who hurried off towards the stable yard.
“But my Lords,” Ichabod said, “what of me? I have expenses.”
“But we have had nothing of your trade, innkeeper,” Caspar said. He spoke mildly, but reproof was clear in his tone.
Ichabod followed Balthasar out into the courtyard, for where money was taken, he always found it wisest to follow. Balthazar was speaking urgently to the husband, who was saddling the small ass that belonged to the couple. The wife had laid the baby boy down in a cattle trough and was hastily gathering up their few possessions.
“I can talk to the centurions,” Ichabod said. “I’m sure it will be all right. They are good customers of mine, sometimes. I’m sure with a little gold, or frankincense, or myrrh to grease their palms, I can make the whole nasty business go away, and then you all may stay. Even the Nazarenes and the baby!”
Balthasar ignored him. The Nazarene carpenter helped his wife into the saddle while Balthazar picked up the child from the trough and handed him to his mother.
“Go swiftly now, and find a place of refuge where you may stay a while,” Balthasar said to the husband. “Go a different way from us. They will have descriptions of us, but not of you. We would only be a danger to you.”
The husband led the ass and its burden out of the stable yard by the back gate and into the alleys of Bethlehem. Balthasar watched them go. It seemed to Ichabod that the young king’s face proceeded from anxiety to bewilderment and then to great melancholy. But once the young family was out of sight, he turned and ran back into the inn to join his companions.
Ichabod followed Balthazar through the taproom and into the street. The camel men were helping Melchior onto his camel. Caspar and Balthasar ran to their own beasts and mounted swiftly. At once the camel men urged the camels to their feet.
“But my lords,” Ichabod cried. “The beds, the food, …” But then he let his voice trail off, for he saw that there was no hope that they would stay.
The camel men urged the camels to a walk and they proceeded down the street, turned a corner, and were gone from his sight.
Martha came and stood beside him. “You should just have told them that there was no room at the inn,” she said. “Then none of this unpleasantness would have occurred. The Carthaginians would be asleep in their beds and the centurions none the wiser.”
Ichabod ran his hand over his face and tugged at his chin. “But how could I pass up the chance of kings?” he asked. Then he gathered his courage and forced a confident look onto his features. “At least we have the stable back again,” he said. “And the empty rooms will fill up tomorrow, and with better clients, mark my words. After all, we still have the star. People come from far and near to see the star.”
But Martha tugged on his arm and pointed upwards. He followed her gaze and saw that the star was proceeding toward the west and dimming as it went. After a minute it seemed lost among the roofs of the town. The night turned black, and above them a million stars began to shine, one right above the head of every child in creation.
Ichabod knelt down in the street and wept.
This Christmas Story contain a number of references. Fat Chance University will issues degrees to anyone who identifies them, according to the following syllabus:
BA — for identifying the Biblical references
MA — for identifying the non-Biblical references, and the largest one in particular
PhD — for identifying references and influences unknown to the author which reveal the deep-seated childhood trauma that scared his life and induces the deep bitterness and cynicism of his work.
All degrees are awarded at the sole discretion of the committee.
The Gift of the Magi, T. S. Eliot. Plus Matthew and Luke for the infancy narratives. Thank you for this and Merry Christmas.
Loved this story, Mark! Great job.