“Do you need to be told that even such modest attainments
As you can boast in the way of polite society
Will hardly survive the Faith to which they owe their significance?”
T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock
The nursery door creaked, awakening the old woman dozing in a rocking chair by the fireplace. She sat up, straightened her cap, and smoothed the folds of her crisp black skirt as a small boy vaulted across the room onto her lap.
“Oh, Nurse!” he cried joyfully.
“Did you have a fine time, Master Jonathan?” asked Nurse, rocking him as she had when he was a baby.
“Then sit here by the fire and tell me about it.”
Jonathan slipped off her lap and knelt beside her on the hearth rug. She stroked his soft white-blond hair while he told her about the wonders he had seen: sheep and cows and donkeys, a beautiful mother and a regal father, a real swaddled baby in a manger, shepherds, glorious angels, and three exotically dressed gentlemen riding real camels.
After a while in front of the drowsy fire, he stopped talking and his eyes drooped. Nurse roused herself and said,
“Come now, Master Jonathan! What will the Mistress say if she finds us asleep by the fire?”
Soon, Jonathan was tucked into his small bed with several toys to keep him company.
“How shall I sleep tonight, Nurse?” he whispered.
“Just lie still and think of the miracle of our Lord’s birth, and of all the presents you’ll have on Christmas day.”
“Will I have my own horse?”
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Nurse mendaciously, for she knew that Jonathan’s father had gone to Tattersalls last week for that very purpose.
There was a step then, and a light at the doorway. Jonathan saw his mother standing there, tall and stately and beautiful, in a blue dressing gown with her long brown hair loose about her shoulders. His small face beamed. He loved it when Mother came to kiss him goodnight.
“You may go to bed now, Maggie,” she said, with a pleasant smile for the older woman.
“Thank you kindly, Ma’am,” said the Nurse, bobbing a curtsy. “Goodnight, Ma’am... Master Jonathan...”
Mother sat down on Jonathan’s bed as Nurse went out.
“Did you like the Nativity pageant?” she asked, as she put the candle on the nightstand.
“Oh, yes, Mother, ever so much!”
“I thought you would.” She leaned over and kissed him on his soft cheek.
“Is it... true?”
“True, dear? Whatever do you mean?”
“The minister says that Jesus was God’s son, and he was born in Bethlehem, and the Angels sang to welcome him, and the Wise Men came to visit him...”
“But I heard Father say that perhaps it is only a fable... like the fairy tales that Nurse reads me.”
A crimson flush spread across Mother’s face.
“I don’t know when you heard your father say that,” said Mother sternly, in the voice of one who would have something to say to her husband later.
“But he did say it, Mother. I heard him, when he was talking with the gentlemen who came to the house last week!”
“You should not have been downstairs when your father’s Philosophic Society was meeting,” said Mother. “I will speak to Nurse about it.”
“Oh, please don’t do that,” said Jonathan earnestly, for he had sneaked away from his Nurse that night to beg a strawberry tart from Cook.
“Well, then.” His mother leaned forward, her face kindly and no longer stern. “I will tell you a secret.”
“It may be true, or it may not be. But you are only a little boy, and all you need to know is that the story is true in the best sense.”
“The best sense, Mother? Why, what do you mean?”
“Christmas... and the Christmas story... remind us of all that is good and virtuous in humanity. The spirit of love and giving, you see. So we may believe in that, and in the goodness of mankind, even if...”
“Even if... the story isn’t true?”
“Oh, you mustn’t think of it like that. I must take you to see the minister. He can explain it so much better than I.” She kissed him again. “Goodnight, my dear.”
But when his mother had gone away and the room was dark, Jonathan lay awake for a very long time... and wondered.
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