Henry Van Dyke.

The Lost Word, Christmas stories online

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Produced by Charles Aldarondo. HTML version by Al Haines.


A Christmas Legend of Long Ago



New York







"COME down, Hermas, come down! The night is past. It is time to be
stirring. Christ is born to-day. Peace be with you in His name. Make
haste and come down!"

A little group of young men were standing in a street of Antioch, in
the dusk of early morning, fifteen hundred years ago. It was a class
of candidates who had nearly finished their two years of training
for the Christian church. They had come to call their fellow-student
Hermas from his lodging.

Their voices rang out cheerily through the cool air. They were full
of that glad sense of life which the young feel when they awake and
come to rouse one who is still sleeping. There was a note of
friendly triumph in their call, as if they were exulting
unconsciously in having begun the adventure of the new day before
their comrade.

But Hermas was not asleep. He had been waking for hours, and the
dark walls of his narrow lodging had been a prison to his restless
heart. A nameless sorrow and discontent had fallen upon him, and he
could find no escape from the heaviness of his own thoughts.

There is a sadness of youth into which the old cannot enter. It
seems to them unreal and causeless. But it is even more bitter and
burdensome than the sadness of age. There is a sting of resentment
in it, a fever of angry surprise that the world should so soon be a
disappointment, and life so early take on the look of a failure. It
has little reason in it, perhaps, but it has all the more weariness
and gloom, because the man who is oppressed by it feels dimly that
it is an unnatural and an unreasonable thing, that he should be
separated from the joy of his companions, and tired of living before
he has fairly begun to live.

Hermas had fallen into the very depths of this strange self-pity. He
was out of tune with everything around him. He had been thinking,
through the dead, still night, of all that he had given up when he
left the house of his father, the wealthy pagan Demetrius, to join
the company of the Christians. Only two years ago he had been one of
the richest young men in Antioch. Now he was one of the poorest. And
the worst of it was that, though he had made the choice willingly
and accepted the sacrifice with a kind of enthusiasm, he was already
dissatisfied with it.

The new life was no happier than the old. He was weary of vigils and
fasts, weary of studies and penances, weary of prayers and sermons.
He felt like a slave in a treadmill. He knew that he must go on. His
honour, his conscience, his sense of duty, bound him. He could not
go back to the old careless pagan life again; for something had
happened within him which made a return impossible. Doubtless he had
found the true religion, but he had found it only as a task and a
burden; its joy and peace had slipped away from him.

He felt disillusioned and robbed. He sat beside his hard little
couch, waiting without expectancy for the gray dawn of another empty
day, and hardly lifting his head at the shouts of his friends.

"Come down, Hermas, you sluggard! Come down! It is Christmas morn.
Awake and be glad with us!"

"I am coming," he answered listlessly; "only have patience a moment.
I have been awake since midnight, and waiting for the day."

"You hear him!" said his friends one to another. "How he puts us all
to shame! He is more watchful, more eager, than any of us. Our
master, John the Presbyter, does well to be proud of him. He is the
best man in our class. When he is baptized the church will get a
strong member."

While they were talking the door opened and Hermas stepped out. He
was a figure to be remarked in any company - tall, broad-shouldered,
straight-hipped, with a head proudly poised on the firm column of
the neck, and short brown curls clustering over the square forehead.
It was the perpetual type of vigourous and intelligent young manhood,
such as may be found in every century among the throngs of ordinary
men, as if to show what the flower of the race should be. But the
light in his dark blue eyes was clouded and uncertain; his smooth
cheeks were leaner than they should have been at twenty; and there
were downward lines about his mouth which spoke of desires unsatisfied
and ambitions repressed. He joined his companions with brief
greetings, - a nod to one, a word to another, - and they passed together
down the steep street.

Overhead the mystery of daybreak was silently transfiguring the sky.
The curtain of darkness had lifted softly upward along the edge of
the horizon. The ragged crests of Mount Silpius were outlined with
pale rosy light. In the central vault of heaven a few large stars
twinkled drowsily. The great city, still chiefly pagan, lay more
than half asleep. But multitudes of the Christians, dressed in white
and carrying lighted torches in their hands, were hurrying toward
the Basilica of Constantine to keep the latest holy day of the
church, the new festival of the birthday of their Master.

The vast, bare building was soon crowded, and the younger converts,
who were not yet permitted to stand among the baptized, found it
difficult to come to their appointed place between the first two
pillars of the house, just within the threshold. There was some
good-humoured pressing and jostling about the door; but the
candidates pushed steadily forward.

"By your leave, friends, our station is beyond you. Will you let us
pass? Many thanks."

A touch here, a courteous nod there, a little patience, a little
persistence, and at last they stood in their place. Hermas was
taller than his companions; he could look easily over their heads
and survey the white sea of people stretching away through the
columns, under the shadows of the high roof, as the tide spreads on
a calm day into the pillared cavern of Staffa, quiet as if the ocean
hardly dared to breathe. The light of many flambeaux fell, in
flickering, uncertain rays, over the assembly. At the end of the
vista there was a circle of clearer, steadier radiance. Hermas could
see the bishop in his great chair, surrounded by the presbyters, the
lofty desks on either side for the readers of the Scripture, the
communion-table and the table of offerings in the middle of the

The call to prayer sounded down the long aisle. Thousands of hands
were joyously lifted in the air, as if the sea had blossomed into
waving lilies, and the "Amen" was like the murmur of countless
ripples in an echoing place.

Then the singing began, led by the choir of a hundred trained voices
which the Bishop Paul had founded in Antioch. Timidly, at first, the
music felt its way, as the people joined with a broken and uncertain
cadence, the mingling of many little waves not yet gathered into
rhythm and harmony. Soon the longer, stronger billows of song rolled
in, sweeping from side to side as the men and the women answered in
the clear antiphony.

Hermas had often been carried on those "Tides of music's golden sea
Setting toward eternity." But to-day his heart was a rock that stood
motionless. The flood passed by and left him unmoved.

Looking out from his place at the foot of the pillar, he saw a man
standing far off in the lofty bema. Short and slender, wasted by
sickness, gray before his time, with pale cheeks and wrinkled brow,
he seemed at first like a person of no significance - a reed shaken
in the wind. But there was a look in his deep-set, poignant eyes, as
he gathered all the glances of the multitude to himself, that belied
his mean appearance and prophesied power. Hermas knew very well who
it was: the man who had drawn him from his father's house, the
teacher who was instructing him as a son in the Christian faith, the
guide and trainer of his soul - John of Antioch, whose fame filled
the city and began to overflow Asia, and who was called already
Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed preacher.

Hermas had felt the magic of his eloquence many a time; and to-day,
as the tense voice vibrated through the stillness, and the sentences
moved onward, growing fuller and stronger, bearing argosies of
costly rhetoric and treasures of homely speech in their bosom, and
drawing the hearts of men with a resistless magic, Hermas knew that
the preacher had never been more potent, more inspired.

He played on that immense congregation as a master on an instrument.
He rebuked their sins, and they trembled. He touched their sorrows,
and they wept. He spoke of the conflicts, the triumphs, the glories
of their faith, and they broke out in thunders of applause. He
hushed them into reverent silence, and led them tenderly, with the
wise men of the East, to the lowly birthplace of Jesus.

"Do thou, therefore, likewise leave the Jewish people, the troubled
city, the bloodthirsty tyrant, the pomp of the world, and hasten to
Bethlehem, the sweet house of spiritual bread. For though thou be
but a shepherd, and come hither, thou shalt behold the young Child
in an inn. Though thou be a king, and come not hither, thy purple
robe shall profit thee nothing. Though thou be one of the wise men,
this shall be no hindrance to thee. Only let thy coming be to honour
and adore, with trembling joy, the Son of God, to whose name be
glory, on this His birthday, and forever and forever."

The soul of Hermas did not answer to the musician's touch. The
strings of his heart were slack and soundless; there was no response
within him. He was neither shepherd, nor king, nor wise man, only an
unhappy, dissatisfied, questioning youth. He was out of sympathy
with the eager preacher, the joyous hearers. In their harmony he had
no part. Was it for this that he had forsaken his inheritance and
narrowed his life to poverty and hardship? What was it all worth?

The gracious prayers with which the young converts were blessed and
dismissed before the sacrament sounded hollow in his ears. Never had
he felt so utterly lonely as in that praying throng. He went out
with his companions like a man departing from a banquet where all
but he had been fed.

"Farewell, Hermas," they cried, as he turned from them at the door.
But he did not look back, nor wave his hand. He was alone already in
his heart.

When he entered the broad Avenue of the Colonnades, the sun had
already topped the eastern hills, and the ruddy light was streaming
through the long double row of archways and over the pavements of
crimson marble. But Hermas turned his back to the morning, and
walked with his shadow before him.

The street began to swarm and whirl and quiver with the motley life
of a huge city: beggars and jugglers, dancers and musicians, gilded
youths in their chariots, and daughters of joy looking out from
their windows, all intoxicated with the mere delight of living and
the gladness of a new day. The pagan populace of Antioch - reckless,
pleasure-loving, spendthrift - were preparing for the Saturnalia.
But all this Hermas had renounced. He cleft his way through the
crowd slowly, like a reluctant swimmer weary of breasting the tide.

At the corner of the street where the narrow, populous Lane of the
Camel-drivers crossed the Colonnades, a story-teller had bewitched a
circle of people around him. It was the same old tale of love and
adventure that many generations have listened to; but the lively
fancy of the hearers lent it new interest, and the wit of the
improviser drew forth sighs of interest and shouts of laughter.

A yellow-haired girl on the edge of the throng turned, as Hermas
passed, and smiled in his face. She put out her hand and caught him
by the sleeve.

"Stay," she said, "and laugh a bit with us. I know who you are - the
son of Demetrius. You must have bags of gold. Why do you look so
black? Love is alive yet."

Hermas shook off her hand, but not ungently.

"I don't know what you mean," he said. "You are mistaken in me. I am
poorer than you are."

But as he passed on, he felt the warm touch of her fingers through
the cloth on his arm. It seemed as if she had plucked him by the

He went out by the Western Gate, under the golden cherubim that the
Emperor Titus had stolen from the ruined Temple of Jerusalem and
fixed upon the arch of triumph. He turned to the left, and climbed
the hill to the road that led to the Grove of Daphne.

In all the world there was no other highway as beautiful. It wound
for five miles along the foot of the mountains, among gardens and
villas, plantations of myrtles and mulberries, with wide outlooks
over the valley of Orontes and the distant, shimmering sea.

The richest of all the dwellings was the House of the Golden
Pillars, the mansion of Demetrius. He had won the favor of the
apostate Emperor Julian, whose vain efforts to restore the worship
of the heathen gods, some twenty years ago, had opened an easy way
to wealth and power for all who would mock and oppose Christianity.
Demetrius was not a sincere fanatic like his royal master; but he
was bitter enough in his professed scorn of the new religion, to
make him a favourite at the court where the old religion was in
fashion. He had reaped a rich reward of his policy, and a strange
sense of consistency made him more fiercely loyal to it than if it
had been a real faith. He was proud of being called "the friend of
Julian"; and when his son joined himself to the Christians, and
acknowledged the unseen God, it seemed like an insult to his
father's success. He drove the boy from his door and disinherited

The glittering portico of the serene, haughty house, the repose of
the well-ordered garden, still blooming with belated flowers, seemed
at once to deride and to invite the young outcast plodding along the
dusty road. "This is your birthright," whispered the clambering
rose-trees by the gate; and the closed portals of carven bronze
said: "You have sold it for a thought - a dream."



HERMAS found the Grove of Daphne quite deserted. There was no sound
in the enchanted vale but the rustling of the light winds chasing
each other through the laurel thickets, and the babble of
innumerable streams. Memories of the days and nights of delicate
pleasure that the grove had often seen still haunted the bewildered
paths and broken fountains. At the foot of a rocky eminence, crowned
with the ruins of Apollo's temple, which had been mysteriously
destroyed by fire just after Julian had restored and reconsecrated
it, Hermas sat down beside a gushing spring, and gave himself up to

"How beautiful the world would be, how joyful, how easy to live in,
without religion. These questions about unseen things, perhaps about
unreal things, these restraints and duties and sacrifices - if I
were only free from them all, and could only forget them all, then I
could live my life as I pleased, and be happy."

"Why not?" said a quiet voice at his back.

He turned, and saw an old man with a long beard and a threadbare
cloak (the garb affected by the pagan philosophers) standing behind
him and smiling curiously.

"How is it that you answer that which has not been spoken?" said
Hermas; "and who are you that honour me with your company?"

"Forgive the intrusion," answered the stranger; "it is not ill
meant. A friendly interest is as good as an introduction."

"But to what singular circumstance do I owe this interest?"

"To your face," said the old man, with a courteous inclination.
"Perhaps also a little to the fact that I am the oldest inhabitant
here, and feel as if all visitors were my guests, in a way."

"Are you, then, one of the keepers of the grove? And have you given
up your work with the trees to take a holiday as a philosopher?"

"Not at all. The robe of philosophy is a mere affectation, I must
confess. I think little of it. My profession is the care of altars.
In fact, I am that solitary priest of Apollo whom the Emperor Julian
found here when he came to revive the worship of the grove, some
twenty years ago. You have heard of the incident?"

"Yes," said Hermas, beginning to be interested; "the whole city must
have heard of it, for it is still talked of. But surely it was a
strange sacrifice that you brought to celebrate the restoration of
Apollo's temple?"

"You mean the goose? Well, perhaps it was not precisely what the
emperor expected. But it was all that I had, and it seemed to me not
inappropriate. You will agree to that if you are a Christian, as I
guess from your dress."

"You speak lightly for a priest of Apollo."

"Oh, as for that, I am no bigot. The priesthood is a professional
matter, and the name of Apollo is as good as any other. How many
altars do you think there have been in this grove?"

"I do not know."

"Just four-and-twenty, including that of the martyr Babylas, whose
ruined chapel you see just beyond us. I have had something to do
with most of them in my time. They - are transitory. They give
employment to care-takers for a while. But the thing that lasts, and
the thing that interests me, is the human life that plays around
them. The game has been going on for centuries. It still disports
itself very pleasantly on summer evenings through these shady walks.
Believe me, for I know. Daphne and Apollo were shadows. But the
flying maidens and the pursuing lovers, the music and the dances,
these are the realities. Life is the game, and the world keeps it up
merrily. But you? You are of a sad countenance for one so young and
so fair. Are you a loser in the game?"

The words and tone of the speaker fitted Hermas' mood as a key fits
the lock. He opened his heart to the old man, and told him the story
of his life: his luxurious boyhood in his father's house; the
irresistible spell which compelled him to forsake it when he heard
John's preaching of the new religion; his lonely year with the
anchorites among the mountains; the strict discipline in his
teacher's house at Antioch; his weariness of duty, his distaste for
poverty, his discontent with worship.

"And to-day," said he, "I have been thinking that I am a fool. My
life is swept as bare as a hermit's cell. There is nothing in it but
a dream, a thought of God, which does not satisfy me."

The singular smile deepened on his companion's face. "You are ready,
then," he suggested, "to renounce your new religion and go back to
that of your father?"

"No; I renounce nothing, I accept nothing. I do not wish to think
about it. I only wish to live."

"A very reasonable wish, and I think you are about to see its
accomplishment. Indeed, I may even say that I can put you in the way
of securing it. Do you believe in magic?"

"I have told you already that I do not know whether I believe in
anything. This is not a day on which I care to make professions of
faith. I believe in what I see. I want what will give me pleasure."

"Well," said the old man, soothingly, as he plucked a leaf from the
laurel-tree above them and dipped it in the spring, "let us dismiss
the riddles of belief. I like them as little as you do. You know
this is a Castalian fountain. The Emperor Hadrian once read his
fortune here from a leaf dipped in the water. Let us see what this
leaf tells us. It is already turning yellow. How do you read that?"

"Wealth," said Hermas, laughing, as he looked at his mean garments.

"And here is a bud on the stem that seems to be swelling. What is

"Pleasure," answered Hermas, bitterly.

"And here is a tracing of wreaths upon the surface. What do you make
of that?"

"What you will," said Hermas, not even taking the trouble to look.
"Suppose we say success and fame?"

"Yes," said the stranger; "it is all written here. I promise that
you shall enjoy it all. But you do not need to believe in my
promise. I am not in the habit of requiring faith of those whom I
would serve. No such hard conditions for me! There is only one thing
that I ask. This is the season that you Christians call the
Christmas, and you have taken up the pagan custom of exchanging
gifts. Well, if I give to you, you must give to me. It is a small
thing, and really the thing you can best afford to part with: a
single word - the name of Him you profess to worship. Let me take
that word and all that belongs to it entirely out of your life, so
that you shall never need to hear it or speak it again. You will be
richer without it. I promise you everything, and this is all I ask
in return. Do you consent?"

"Yes, I consent," said Hermas, mocking. "If you can take your price,
a word, you can keep your promise, a dream."

The stranger laid the long, cool, wet leaf softly across the young
man's eyes. An icicle of pain darted through them; every nerve in
his body was drawn together there in a knot of agony.

Then all the tangle of pain seemed to be lifted out of him. A cool
languor of delight flowed back through every vein, and he sank into
a profound sleep.



THERE is a slumber so deep that it annihilates time. It is like a
fragment of eternity. Beneath its enchantment of vacancy, a day
seems like a thousand years, and a thousand years might well pass as
one day.

It was such a sleep that fell upon Hermas in the Grove of Daphne. An
immeasurable period, an interval of life so blank and empty that he
could not tell whether it was long or short, had passed over him
when his senses began to stir again. The setting sun was shooting
arrows of gold under the glossy laurel-leaves. He rose and stretched
his arms, grasping a smooth branch above him and shaking it, to make
sure that he was alive. Then he hurried back toward Antioch,
treading lightly as if on air.

The ground seemed to spring beneath his feet. Already his life had
changed, he knew not how. Something that did not belong to him had
dropped away; he had returned to a former state of being. He felt as
if anything might happen to him, and he was ready for anything. He
was a new man, yet curiously familiar to himself - as if he had
done with playing a tiresome part and returned to his natural state.
He was buoyant and free, without a care, a doubt, a fear.

As he drew near to his father's house he saw a confusion of servants
in the porch, and the old steward ran down to meet him at the gate.

"Lord, we have been seeking you everywhere. The master is at the
point of death, and has sent for you. Since the sixth hour he calls
your name continually. Come to him quickly, lord, for I fear the
time is short."

Hermas entered the house at once; nothing could amaze him to-day.
His father lay on an ivory couch in the inmost chamber, with
shrunken face and restless eyes, his lean fingers picking
incessantly at the silken coverlet.

"My son!" he murmured; "Hermas, my son! It is good that you have
come back to me. I have missed you. I was wrong to send you away.
You shall never leave me again. You are my son, my heir. I have
changed everything. Hermas, my son, come nearer - close beside me.
Take my hand, my son!"

The young man obeyed, and, kneeling by the couch, gathered his
father's cold, twitching fingers in his firm, warm grasp.

"Hermas, life is passing - long, rich, prosperous; the last sands,
I - cannot stay them. My religion, a good policy - Julian was my
friend. But now he is gone - where? My soul is empty - nothing
beyond - very dark - I am afraid. But you know something better.
You found something that made you willing to give up your life for
it - it must have been almost like dying - yet you were happy.
What was it you found? See, I am giving you everything. I have
forgiven you. Now forgive me. Tell me, what is it? Your secret, your
faith - give it to me before I go."

At the sound of this broken pleading a strange passion of pity and
love took the young man by the throat. His voice shook a little as
he answered eagerly:

"Father, there is nothing to forgive. I am your son; I will gladly
tell, you all that I know. I will give you the secret of faith.
Father, you must believe with all your heart, and soul, and strength
in - "

Where was the word - the word that he had been used to utter night
and morning, the word that had meant to him more than he had ever
known? What had become of it?

He groped for it in the dark room of his mind. He had thought he
could lay his hand upon it in a moment, but it was gone. Some one
had taken it away. Everything else was most clear to him: the terror

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Online LibraryHenry Van DykeThe Lost Word, Christmas stories → online text (page 1 of 3)