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A Picture Of The Nativity By Fra Filippo Lippi Post by :Securenext Category :Short Stories Author :Vernon Lee Date :September 2010 Read :4049

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A Picture Of The Nativity By Fra Filippo Lippi


"Now, I cannot affirm that things did really take place in this manner, but it greatly pleases me to think that they did."--FRA DOMENICO CAVALCA: Life of the Magdalen.

The silly folks do not at all understand about the birth of our Lord. They say that our Lord was born at Bethlehem, and because the inns were all full, owing to certain feasts kept by those Jews, in a stable. But I tell you this is an error, and due to little sense, for our Lord was indeed placed in a manger, because none of the hostleries would receive Joseph and the Blessed Virgin; but it took place differently.

For you must know that beyond Bethlehem, which is a big village walled and moated, of those parts, lies a hilly country, exceeding wild, and covered with dense woods of firs, pines, larches, beeches, and similar trees, which the people of Bethlehem cut down at times, going in bands, and burn to charcoal, packing it on mules, to sell in the valley; or tie together whole trunks such as serve for beams, rafters, and masts, and float them down the rivers, which are many and very rapid.

In these mountains, then, in the thickest part of the woods, a certain man, of the wood-cutting trade, bethought him to build a house wherein to store the timber and live, himself and his family, when so it pleased him, and keep his beasts; and for this purpose he employed certain pillars and pieces of masonry that stood in the forest, being remains of a temple of the heathen, the which had long ceased to exist. And he cleared the wood round about, leaving only tree stumps and bushes; and close by in a ravine, between high fir-trees, ran a river, always full to the brim even in midsummer, owing to the melting snows, and of greenish waters, cold and rapid exceedingly; and around, up hill and down dale, stretched the wood of firs, larches, pines, and other noble and useful trees, emitting a very pleasant and virtuous fragrance. The man thought to enjoy his house, and came with his family, and servants, and horses, and mules, and oxen, which he had employed to carry down the timber and charcoal.

(Illustration: A Hilly country)

But scarcely were they settled than an earthquake rent the place, tearing wall from wall and pillar from pillar, and a voice was heard in the air, crying, "Ecce domus domini dei." Whereupon they fled, astonished and in terror, and returned into the town.

And no one of that man's family ventured henceforth to return to that wood, or to that house, save one called Hilarion, a poor lad and a servant, but of upright heart and faith in the Lord, which offered to go back and take his abode there, and cut down the trees and burn the charcoal for his master.

So he went, being a poor lad and poorly clad in leathern tunic and coarse serge hood. And Hilarion took with him an ox and an ass to load with charcoal and drive down to Bethlehem to his master.

And the first night that Hilarion slept in that house, which was fallen to ruin, only a piece of roof remaining, which he thatched with pine-branches, he heard voices singing in the air, as of children, both boys and maidens. But he closed his eyes and repeated a Paternoster, and turned over and slept. And again, another night, he heard voices, and knew the house to be haunted, and trembled. But, being clear of heart, he said two Aves and went to sleep. And once more did he hear voices, and they were passing sweet; and with them came a fragrance as of crushed herbs, and many kinds of flowers, and frankincense, and orris-root; and Hilarion shook, for he feared lest it be the heathen gods, Mercury, or Macomet, or Apollinis. But he said his prayer and slept.

But at length, one night, as Hilarion heard those songs as usual, he opened his eyes. And, behold! the place was light, and a great staircase of light, like golden cobwebs, stretched up to heaven, and there were angels going about in numbers, coming and going, with locks like honeycomb, and dresses pink, and green, and sky-blue, and white, thickly embroidered with purest pearls, and wings as of butterflies and peacock's tails, with glories of solid gold about their head. And they went to and fro, carrying garlands and strewing flowers, so that, although mid-winter, it was like a garden in June, so sweet of roses, and lilies, and gillyflowers. And the angels sang; and when they had finished their work, they said, "It is well," and departed, holding hands and flying into the sky above the fir-trees.

And Hilarion wondered greatly, and said five Paters and six Aves. And the next day, as he was cutting a fir-tree in the wood, there met him, among the rocks, a man old, venerable, with a long gray beard and a solemn air. And he was clad in crimson, and under his arm he carried written books and a scourge. And Hilarion said,--

"Who art thou? for this forest is haunted by spirits, and I would know whether thou be of them or of men."

And the ancient made answer: "My name is Hieronymus. I am a wise man and a king. I have spent all my days learning the secrets of things. I know how the trees grow and waters run, and where treasure lies; and I can teach thee what the stars sing, and in what manner the ruby and emerald are smelted in the bowels of the earth; and I can chain the winds and stop the sun, for I am wise above all men. But I seek one wiser than myself, and go through the woods in search of him, my master."

And Hilarion said: "Tarry thou here, and thou shalt see, if I mistake not, him whom thou seekest."

So the old man, whose name was Hieronymus, tarried in the forest and built himself a hut of stones.

And the day after that, as Hilarion went forth to catch fish in the river, he met on the bank a lady, beautiful beyond compare, the which for all clothing wore only her own hair, golden and exceeding long. And Hilarion asked,--

"Who art thou? for this forest is haunted by spirits, and I would know whether thou art one of such, and of evil intent, as the demon Venus, or a woman like the mother who bore me."

And the lady answered: "My name is Magdalen. I am a princess and a courtesan, and the fairest woman that ever be. All day the princes and kings of the earth have brought gifts to my house, and hung wreaths on my roof, and strewed flowers in my yard; and the poets all day have sung to their lutes, and all have lain groaning at my gates at night; for I am beautiful beyond all creatures. But I seek one more beautiful than myself, and go searching my master by the lakes and the rivers."

And Hilarion made answer: "Tarry thou here, and thou shalt see, if I mistake not, him whom thou seekest?"

And the lady, whose name was Magdalen, tarried by the river and built herself a cabin of reeds and leaves. And that night was the longest and coldest of the winter.

And Hilarion made for himself a bed of fern and hay in the stable of the ox and the ass, and lay close to them for warmth. And, lo! in the middle of the night the ass brayed and the ox bellowed, and Hilarion started up.

And he saw the heavens open with a great brightness as of beaten and fretted gold, and angels coming and going, and holding each other by the hand, and wreathed in roses, and singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis."

And Hilarion wondered and said ten Paters and ten Aves.

And that day, towards noon, there came through the wood one bearing a staff, and leading a mule, on which was seated a woman, that was near unto her hour and moaning piteously. And they were poor folk and travel-stained.

And the man said to Hilarion: "My name is Joseph. I am a carpenter from the city of Nazareth, and my wife is called Mary, and she is in travail. Suffer thou us to rest, and my wife to lie on the straw of the stable."

And Hilarion said: "You are welcome. Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini;" and Hilarion laid down more fern and hay, and gave provender to the mule. And the woman's hour came, and she was delivered of a male child. And Hilarion took it and laid it in the manger. And he went forth into the woods and found the ancient wizard Hieronymus, and the lady Magdalen, and said,--

"Come with me to the ruined house, for truly there is He whom you be seeking."

And they followed him to the ruined house where the fir-trees were cleared above the river; and they saw the babe lying in the manger, and Hieronymus and Magdalen kneeled down, saying, "Surely this is He that is our Master, for He is wiser and more fair than either."

And the skies opened, and there came forth angels, such as Hilarion had seen, with glories of solid gold round their heads, and garlands of roses about their necks, and they took hands and danced, and sang, flying up, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."

By The Stay-At-Home Traveller.

"He prepares to read by wiping
his spectacles, carefully adjusting
them on his eyes, and drawing
the candle close to him--is
very particular in having his
slippers ready for him at the


(The end)
Vernon Lee's short story: A Picture Of The Nativity By Fra Filippo Lippi

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