A Christmas Message
Vespasia stood at the long, open window of her hotel bedroom and gazed across the rooftops of the city toward the western sky. The sun was sinking into
the Mediterranean, as if it were bleeding crimson into the water. The light was fading quickly. The air was already cooler, but it was mid-December. Even here in Jaffa, on the coast of Palestine, the winters were cold.
Still smiling, she pulled her shawl around her shoulders. This journey to Jerusalem was the most cherished Christmas gift she had ever been given. She knew all the great cities of Europe, but she had never come farther east. Was it her imagination that this land was so very different from the places she knew? How much is any place seen through the lens of one’s imagination, colored by the dreams one has of it and of the events that have happened there?
In Paris, does one hear the laughter and music, and see the ghosts of the Revolution and the Terror? In Rome, does the tramp of the legions sound on the stones? Does one see Caesar with the laurels on his brow, and the world at his feet?
Who does one see in this land, holy to Muslim, Jew, and Christian alike?
She should close the window and go in, keep the room warm. And yet she wanted to watch the sky darken until there was only the blaze of stars to see.
Vespasia had known Victor Narraway for many years in connection with Thomas Pitt and the cases he had solved, and in which they had assisted one way or another, but in spite of her silver hair and the refinement of many years in her face, this year of 1900 was only the second of their marriage. Narraway’s gift of a journey to Jerusalem had surprised her. There was a spiritual resonance to it she would not have expected from him. She knew his ethical beliefs very well. She could not have married a man whose driving forces she did not know, but he had never framed them in terms of religion. But then perhaps she had not either. One could kneel in church among scores of people who used the same words as you did, many long familiar, and yet the meanings they each took from them were probably worlds apart.
There was so much to discover, even in those you knew best. She hoped it would always be so. One should be growing, changing, learning forever. Ideas in the mind were like blood in the veins. The heart that does not beat is dying.
She heard movement behind her and turned.
Narraway was standing in the middle of the room, smiling. In the soft candlelight he looked very dark, and the usual lines of anxiety were eased away, as if he had left all responsibilities behind.
“You’ll get cold,” he warned her.
“Yes, I know,” she admitted. “I was waiting for the stars.” She pulled the windows closed and fastened the lock. “It’s too early for dinner. If I take a cloak, we could go for a walk. Perhaps toward the sea? It’s only half a mile or so.”
“No,” he said a trifle too quickly. “It would be unwise to walk in the streets after dark.” A flicker of concern crossed his face. “In fact, it might be better not to go toward the dockside even in daylight.”
“I know there’s unrest,” she replied. “But isn’t that a little . . . ?”
“No, it isn’t,” he answered, his face somber. “There’s always unease in Palestine, but this time of the year it’s worse. Thousands of Christian pilgrims come here on their way to Jerusalem, or Bethlehem. Jews come to the Western Wall, and Muslims to the Dome of the Rock. Feelings are high.” He gave a slight shrug, just the lifting of one shoulder. “God knows, too often we have little respect for one another’s religions or customs, especially if they conflict with our own, and we don’t understand them. We don’t even try to.”
She heard the sharpness in his voice, and might have mistaken it for temper had she not known the depth of his knowledge. In all the experiences they had shared, very often in connection with matters of importance and danger, she had never seen his nerve fail him. Once he had been head of Special Branch, that arm of the police service responsible for the detection of treason and threats to the safety of the state from within, as opposed to those who defend from armed attack by other nations. In all her long and frequently interesting life, Vespasia had never known anyone less likely to fear unreasonably.
He offered her his arm. “We’ll walk in the garden. It’s small, but it’s very pleasant, even at this time of the year.”
At the door, he put her cloak around her and she felt his touch linger a moment longer than necessary. The pressure of his fingers was light, but she was aware of its warmth, and it pleased her.
The garden was indeed small, little more than a wide-open courtyard with a few vines on the supporting pillars of the extended roof. A couple of cypress trees rose like black flames beside the fountain, which flowed with slight sound into the stone pool. The four hanging lanterns were too dim to detract from the blaze of stars across the open center.
“There’s hardly room to walk,” he said with regret. “But at least there’s no one here to disturb.” The moment he said it, she saw that he was mistaken. A shadow detached itself from one of the farther pillars, was visible for a moment, then melted into the hollow of the arcade and disappeared. She felt his hand tighten on her arm, and she stopped.
“Possibly a servant,” she said quietly. It was ridiculous to be distressed by it.
“Or someone keeping an assignation,” Narraway suggested, beginning to move again.
Vespasia looked upward at the sweep of stars, now that the darker sky made them brilliant. “I imagine they’ll be even better out in the desert, when we take the train to Jerusalem. The stars seem so much farther away in London; here they look almost close enough to touch—just stretch a little more, stand on tiptoe. I wonder if that is why Christ was born in a place like this.”
“For the stars?” he said with disbelief.
“Well, the wise men could hardly follow the star on a winter night in London,” she said reasonably.
“Do you believe that, about the star?” he asked with interest, and perhaps a shadow of amusement. He was standing a little behind her, close enough to keep the faint breeze from chilling her. “If they could see it, why couldn’t everyone else? Why couldn’t Herod, for a start? Didn’t he ask them where it led, and to come back and tell him?”
She was silent for a moment. She had not considered it before. Indeed, why had the frightened, jealous Herod not seen the star himself? Why did he need the wise men to return and tell him where it had guided them?
“I don’t know,” she said at last. “Perhaps you only recognize what you are looking for.”
“But he was looking for it,” Narraway pointed out.
She thought for a moment longer. “He was looking for a rival king, in order to kill him while he was still an infant. The wise men were looking for a different kind of king, one to whom they brought gifts, symbolic of who he was.”
“Really?” His voice lifted with mild curiosity.
“Gold for the king, frankincense for the priest, and myrrh for the sacrifice,” she told him.
“I didn’t know that was what they meant,” he admitted. “Do you want to walk out into the next courtyard? It goes beyond the archway there.”
“What a good idea,” she agreed. “Then in to dinner.”
They were still early for the meal, and found themselves in a very pleasant lounge, where they asked if they might join an elderly man who was sitting alone near the fire. His hair was white, and his high-browed aquiline face was weathered by wind and sun, and—Vespasia guessed—by much thought. The lines in it were etched deeply, and yet they only added to the beauty of his repose.
Narraway introduced himself and Vespasia, and they took the offered seats near him. The man spoke of his occupation as an astronomer, but he did not offer them his name.
“You are English,” he said with a smile. “Much traveled, perhaps, but I think this is your first time in this land, whatever name you choose to give it.”
“Yes,” Narraway agreed. “And you?”
The man smiled. “I confess, I travel so much I sometimes forget where I began. The world is full of interest, and beauty. The span of one life offers barely a taste of it: just sufficient to know that it is infinitely precious. Are you perhaps journeying to Jerusalem for Christmas?” His eyes were bright, and he regarded them carefully. “And yet you do not look like pilgrims, in the ordinary sense.” He smiled, to rob his words of presumption. There was great gentleness in his face, and also perhaps a shadow, as if he saw, even at this moment, some of the darker things one does not easily mention to strangers.
“Our visit is a Christmas gift,” Vespasia told him. “Do you know the country well?”
“Very,” the man replied. “I shall go to Jerusalem again this year, for Christmas.” He hesitated. “I think.” The shadow was in his eyes again.
For a moment, Vespasia’s gaze was drawn to a small movement near the door, as if someone had pushed the door to the lounge open but gone away again without coming in. Then she looked back at the man.
“You go often?” she asked, smiling.
The man also smiled, as if filled with many memories. It was a sweet expression. “Very,” he replied. “But whilst you are here, there are other cities you must see as well. Petra, for example. You approach it on horseback, through a great defile in the cliffs, and suddenly there it is in front of you, rose red, as if it were not man-made, but has grown up out of the rich, burning rock around it.”
He was traveling in a vision of his own, and neither Vespasia nor Narraway interrupted him.
“Or Persepolis,” he went on. “You stand there in the evening light, like this, as if you were a traveler in time. The ruins of empires tower slender and exquisite into the sky, and you hear the camel bells as the caravans pass, eternally journeying through time, exactly as they were a thousand years ago, or two thousand, or five. Abraham could have paid his tithes to Melchizedek, and fled on his way into Egypt just so.” He looked at Narraway. “To step aside from the forward flow of time every now and again is a good thing. As long, of course, as you do not forget to return to the present. There is much to do, battles to be fought, wounds to heal. But from the look in your eyes, perhaps you know that?”
Narraway smiled back at him. “Not in what remains of this year. We are on holiday. It is the first real one we have had together. Events have always intruded before. Perhaps we stayed too close to home.” There was a touch of regret in his voice, and Vespasia heard it. She would have reached out to touch him, had they been alone.
The old man’s face was wistful. “My dear friend, Jerusalem is the heart’s home to all of us, and there is no escaping it.”
Once again Vespasia, facing the doorway more than the others, was aware of a shadow beyond. The moment was so fleeting the shadow could almost have been an illusion, except for the breath of coldness it sent through her. They were being watched by someone who did not wish to be seen.
She forced the thought from her mind and joined in the conversation about travel until they were called to dinner. Without hesitation she invited the old man to join them, and he accepted with evident pleasure.
The food was simple but delicious, a delicately flavored whitefish, with only the lightest sauce, and a grain she had not tasted before, flavored with herbs. There was also a light dessert, a delicate pastry filled with fresh fruit. However, the chief pleasure was the conversation. They spoke of cities and of people. The old man had visited places that neither Vespasia nor Narraway had seen. He described Isfahan.
“I remember standing on the cool sand in the night,” he said quietly. “The ancient minarets towered up into a sky almost white with stars, and there was not even a whisper of the wind. Then I heard the camels, and they appeared out of the darkness, piled high with who knows what? Silks, spices, ivory, gold. They came toward me with that strange, lurching gait that they have, at once so awkward, and yet so graceful, and there was no sound in the night except the bells. I thought of the old Silk Road, of Samarkand, and also Trebizond, and other places with marvelous names.”
Narraway spoke a little of Bruges, and Saint Petersburg, and other cities built on canals. But even more they spoke of ideas. Some things were remembered with laughter, some with sadness, all were unique.
“Such dreams,” the old man said gently. “As if we could climb high enough to reach the stars in heaven.”
Again Vespasia saw, in the corner of her vision, the shadow pass the doorway and disappear. It was without the shading of fabric or the form of a man, the catching of the light on a shoulder or the curve of a head or face.
“Someone is watching us,” she said in a low voice, leaning closer to the old gentleman, thinking he may know who it was. Then, instantly, she thought how foolish it sounded.
“I know,” the old man agreed quietly with a sudden bleakness in his face. “I think the time is close. Perhaps tonight, or tomorrow.” He looked up to address them both. “Share this bottle of wine with me, in the name of companionship.”
Vespasia felt a coldness like a fourth presence in the room. She looked at Narraway, but there was nothing in his face to suggest that he had felt it too or that he had heard their brief exchange. She accepted the wine, blood red in the lamplight, and drank to companionship in the journey, and wondered if each of them meant something different by the words. She had thought of the warmth, the love of discovery, friendship, however brief. Did the old man mean something more? She glanced at Narraway, but saw only interest in his face.