The day before, as evening was falling, a creaking old caravan had passed along the street in the driving snow pulled by an old man and a dog. Behind the window-pane looked the pale face of a thin young woman who was pregnant and had large anxious eyes.
They had passed on their way, and those who saw them thought no more about it.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and the air was frozen clear as glass, pale blue over the wide world all muffled up in white fur.
And the lame Shepherd Suskewiet, the Eelfisher Pitjevogel with his bald head, and the watery-eyed Beggar Schrobberbeeck went from farm to farm dressed up as the Three Kings.
They carried with them a cardboard star that span on a wooden pole, a stocking to hold the money, and a sack to put the food in. Their ragged coats were turned inside out. The Shepherd wore a top-hat, Schrobberbeeck a floral crown from some procession, and Pitjevogel, who made the star spin, had blacked his face with shoe polish.
I had been a good year, with a rich harvest. Every farmer had put a pig in the pickle and now they sat, puffing on their pipes and warming their bacon-bellies in front of the fire, waiting anxiously for the Spring.
Shepherd Suskewiet could sing such beautiful old carols, Pitjevogel could spin the star so skillfully, and the Beggar could roll such sad, beggar eyes, that, when the red moon rose in the sky, the foot of the stocking was full of pennies and the sack was bloated like a bellows with bread, ham-bones, apples, pears and sausage.
They were all in the merriest of spirits, jogged each other with their elbows, and looked forward to the pleasure of drinking a bumper glas of ‘vitriol’ in the ‘Mermaid’ that evening, and of so rounding their hollow bellies with good and tasty food that you would be able to squash a flea on them.
Only when the farmers had turned out their lamps and gone yawning to bed did they stop singing and begin to count their money in the bright moonlight.
Man, oh Man! Gin for a whole week! And money enough for fresh meat and tobacco as well!
With the star on his shoulder, black Pitjevogel stepped out smartly, while the other two followed on behind, their mouth watering.
But little by little a strange uneasiness crept into their rough souls.
They said nothing.
Was it the white snow on which the moon shone, hard and pale? Or the huge ogreish shadows of the trees? Or the silence, the deathly silence of the moonlit snow in which no owl hooted and no do barked?
And yet they, ramblers and rovers of the backstreet, riverside and field, were not easily alarmed.
They had seen many strange and wonderful things in their lives: will-o’-the-wisps, ghosts, spooks, and even Long Flutter himself.
This time, however, it was something different, something like the prickly fear that heralds the approach of some great joy.
‘I’m not afraid!’ the Beggar said bravely.
‘Nor am I,’ said the others simultaneously, but their voices trembled.
‘It’s Christmas Eve to-day,’ comforted Pitjevogel.
‘And God is born again anew,’ added the Shepherd, with childlike piety.
‘Is it true that the sheep stand with their heads towards the East then?’ asked Schrobberbeeck.
‘Yes, and then the bees fly and sing.’
‘And you can see right through the ice,’ added Pietjevogel, ‘though I have never witnessed it myself.’
Again this silence which was more than silence, as if a sentient soul stirred in the moonlight.
‘Do you believe that God comes down on earth again?’ asked the Beggar anxiously, thinking of his sins.
‘Yes,’ said the Shepherd, ‘but where, nobody knows. He comes only for one night.’
Their sharp black shadows walked before them and made them even more afraid.
Suddenly they noticed that they were lost. Endless snows covered frozen brooks and roads and fields.
They stopped and looked round. Snow and moonlight everywhere, and here and there a tree; but no farmsteads anywhere, and the friendly mill was nowhere in sight.
They were lost, and in the moonlight they could see the in each other’s eyes.
‘Let us pray!’ implored Suskewiet the Shepherd. ‘Then nothing evil can happen to us.’
The Shepherd and the Beggar began to murmur Ave Marias, but Pitjevogel just mumbled meaninglessly to himself, for since his First Communion he had forgotten to pray.
They went round a little thicket, and then it was that Pitjevogel spied a friendly light gleaming from a little window in the distance. Without speaking, but sighing happily with relief, they made their way towards it.
And then something miraculous happened. All three of them saw and heard it, but none of them dared speak of it. They heard bees humming, and there, beneath the snow above the ditches, a light shone brightly as though lamps were burning below.
And beside a cluster of dreamy willows stood a lame caravan, candlelight shining through the window-pane.
Pitjevogel went up the steps and knocked at the door. And an old man with a hard, stubby beard came and opened it confidently. He was not surprised to see their strange clothes, the star, or the black face.
‘We have come to ask the way,’ stammered Pietjevogel.
‘You are here,’ said the old man. ‘Come in.’
These words surprised them, but they followed him inside and there, sitting in the corner of the cold, bare caravan, they saw a young woman in a blue cloak giving her almost empty breast to a tiny newborn babe. A large yellow dog lay beside her, his faithful head resting on her thin knees.
Her eyes were clouded with sad dreams, but when she saw the men, friendship and love shone in them and even the child, though he had but down on his head and his eyes were little slits, laughed at them, especially taken by the black face of Pitjevogel.
Schrobberbeeck saw the Shepherd kneel and remove his top-hat; he too knelt down and took his processional crown from his head, suddenly repenting deeply his sins which lay heavily on his conscience, and tears came into his inflamed eyes. The Pitjevogel too bent his knee.
There they knelt, and sweet voices sang round their heads, and they were filled with bliss transcending all earthly joys.
And none knew why.
In the meantime, the old man attempted to light a fire in the iron stove. Pitjevogel, seeing that it would not go, asked obligingly:
‘Can I help?’
‘There’s nothing to be done, the wood is wet,’ answered the old man.
‘Haven’t you any coal?’
‘We have no money,’ said the old man, sadly.
‘But what do you eat?’ asked the Shepherd.
‘We haven’t anything to eat.’
The Three Kings were perplexed, and looked pitifully at the old man, the young woman, the child and the spindly dog.
Then they all looked at each other. They had but one thought, and the stocking with the money was turned out in the woman’s lap and the sack of food was emptied on the rickety table.
The old man grabbed greedily at the bread and gave the young woman a rosy apple. Before biting it, she dangled it before the laughing eyes of the child.
‘We thank you,’ said the old man. ‘God will reward you.’
And they went on their way again, the way they knew, in the direction of the ‘Mermaid’; but the stocking was rolled up in Suskewiet’s pocket and the sack was empty. They had not a penny or a crumb of bread left.
‘Do you know why we gave everything to those poor people?’ asked Pietjevogel.
‘No,’ said the others.
‘Nor do I,’ said Pietjevogel.
A little later, the Shepherd said:
‘I think I know. Do you think the child was God?’
‘What will you think of next!’ laughed the Eelfisher. ‘God has a white robe hemmed with gold, and a beard and a crown, like in Church.’
‘Before, at Christmas, he was born in a manger,’ objected the Sheperd.
‘So he was!’ said Pitjevogel. ‘But that was a hundred years ago or more.’
‘Why did we give everything away then?’
‘I wish I knew!’ said the Beggar, who was hungry.
In silence, with mouths that yearned for a good draft of gin and meat with mustard, they passed outside the ‘Mermaid’ where lights were burning and men were singing and playing concertina.
Pitjevogel gave back the star to the Shepherd, who always looked after it, and without saying a word, but happy in their hearts, they parted at the crossroads, each to his bed. The Shepherd to his sheep stall, the Beggar to his haymow, and Pitjevogel to his garret, into which the snow was blowing.