They returned to the threshold,
and as they were bending over to grip the dead man the same sound filled the air, but this time louder, more intense, a cry of great agony. The sweat dripped from McCurdie’s forehead. They lifted the dead man and brought him into the room, and after laying him on a dirty strip of carpet they did their best to straighten the stiff limbs. Biggleswade put on the table a bundle which he had picked up outside. It contained some poor provisions—a loaf, a piece of fat bacon, and a paper of tea. As far as they could guess (and as they learned later they guessed rightly) the man was the master of the house, who, coming home blind drunk from some distant inn, had fallen at his own threshold and got frozen to death. As they could not unclasp his fingers from the broken bottleneck they had to let him clutch it as a dead warrior clutches the hilt of his broken sword.
Then suddenly the whole place was rent with another and yet another long, soul-piercing moan of anguish.
“There’s a second room,” said Doyne, pointing to a door. “The sound comes from there.” He opened the door, peeped in, and then, returning for the lamp, disappeared, leaving McCurdie and Biggleswade in the pitch darkness, with the dead man on the floor.
“For heaven’s sake, give me a drop of whiskey,” said the Professor, “or I shall faint.”
Presently the door opened and Lord Doyne appeared in the shaft of light.
He beckoned to his companions.
“It is a woman in childbirth,” he said in his even, tired voice. “We must aid her. She appears unconscious. Does either of you know anything about such things?”
They shook their heads, and the three looked at each other in dismay. Masters of knowledge that had won them world-wide fame and honour, they stood helpless, abashed before this, the commonest phenomenon of nature.
“My wife had no child,” said McCurdie.
“I’ve avoided women all my life,” said Biggleswade.
“And I’ve been too busy to think of them. God forgive me,” said Doyne.
The history of the next two hours was one that none of the three men ever cared to touch upon. They did things blindly, instinctively, as men do when they come face to face with the elemental. A fire was made, they knew not how, water drawn they knew not whence, and a kettle boiled. Doyne accustomed to command, directed. The others obeyed. At his suggestion they hastened to the wreck of the car and came staggering back beneath rugs and travelling bags which could supply clean linen and needful things, for amid the poverty of the house they could find nothing fit for human touch or use. Early they saw that the woman’s strength was failing, and that she could not live. And there, in that nameless hovel, with death on the hearthstone and death and life hovering over the pitiful bed, the three great men went through the pain and the horror and squalor of birth, and they knew that they had never yet stood before so great a mystery.
With the first wail of the newly born infant a last convulsive shudder passed through the frame of the unconscious mother. Then three or four short gasps for breath, and the spirit passed away. She was dead. Professor Biggleswade threw a corner of the sheet over her face, for he could not bear to see it.
They washed and dried the child as any crone of a midwife would have done, and dipped a small sponge which had always remained unused in a cut-glass bottle in Doyne’s dressing-bag in the hot milk and water of Biggleswade’s thermos bottle, and put it to his lips; and then they wrapped him up warm in some of their own woollen undergarments, and took him into the kitchen and placed him on a bed made of their fur coats in front of the fire. As the last piece of fuel was exhausted they took one of the wooden chairs and broke it up and cast it into the blaze. And then they raised the dead man from the strip of carpet and carried him into the bedroom and laid him reverently by the side of his dead wife, after which they left the dead in darkness and returned to the living. And the three grave men stood over the wisp of flesh that had been born a male into the world. Then, their task being accomplished, reaction came, and even Doyne, who had seen death in many lands, turned faint. But the others, losing control of their nerves, shook like men stricken with palsy.
Suddenly McCurdie cried in a high pitched voice, “My God! Don’t you feel it?” and clutched Doyne by the arm. An expression of terror appeared on his iron features.
“There! It’s here with us.”
Little Professor Biggleswade sat on a corner of the table and wiped his forehead.
“I heard it. I felt it. It was like the beating of wings.”
“It’s the fourth time,” said McCurdie. “The first time was just before I accepted the Deverills’ invitation. The second in the railway carriage this afternoon. The third on the way here. This is the fourth.”
Biggleswade plucked nervously at the fringe of whisker under his jaws and said faintly, “It’s the fourth time up to now. I thought it was fancy.”
“I have felt it, too,” said Doyne. “It is the Angel of Death.” And he pointed to the room where the dead man and woman lay.
“For God’s sake let us get away from this,” cried Biggleswade.
“And leave the child to die, like the others?” said Doyne.
“We must see it through,” said McCurdie.
A silence fell upon them as they sat round in the blaze with the new-born babe wrapped in its odd swaddling clothes asleep on the pile of fur coats, and it lasted until Sir Angus McCurdie looked at his watch.
“Good Lord,” said he, “it’s twelve o’clock.”
“Christmas morning,” said Biggleswade.
“A strange Christmas,” mused Doyne.
McCurdie put up his hand. “There it is again! The beating of wings.” And they listened like men spellbound. McCurdie kept his hand uplifted, and gazed over their heads at the wall, and his gaze was that of a man in a trance, and he spoke:
“Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given—“
Doyne sprang from his chair, which fell behind him with a crash.
“Man—what the devil are you saying?”
Then McCurdie rose and met Biggleswade’s eyes staring at him through the great round spectacles, and Biggleswade turned and met the eyes of Doyne. A pulsation like the beating of wings stirred the air.
The three wise men shivered with a queer exaltation. Something strange, mystical, dynamic had happened. It was as if scales had fallen from their eyes and they saw with a new vision. They stood together humbly, divested of all their greatness, touching one another in the instinctive fashion of children, as if seeking mutual protection, and they looked, with one accord, irresistibly compelled, at the child.
At last McCurdie unbent his black brows and said hoarsely:
“It was not the Angel of Death, Doyne, but another Messenger that drew us here.”
The tiredness seemed to pass away from the great administrator’s face, and he nodded his head with the calm of a man who has come to the quiet heart of a perplexing mystery.
“It’s true,” he murmured. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. Unto the three of us.”
Biggleswade took off his great round spectacles and wiped them.
“Gaspar, Melchior, Balthazar. But where are the gold, frankincense and myrrh?”
“In our hearts, man,” said McCurdie.
The babe cried and stretched its tiny limbs.
Instinctively they all knelt down together to discover, if possible, and administer ignorantly to, its wants. The scene had the appearance of an adoration.
Then these three wise, lonely, childless men who, in furtherance of their own greatness, had cut themselves adrift from the sweet and simple things of life and from the kindly ways of their brethren, and had grown old in unhappy and profitless wisdom, knew that an inscrutable Providence had led them, as it had led three Wise Men of old, on a Christmas morning long ago, to a nativity which should give them a new wisdom, a new link with humanity, a new spiritual outlook, a new hope.
And, when their watch was ended, they wrapped up the babe with precious care, and carried him with them, an inalienable joy and possession, into the great world.