Fiction

Lisbon Inn

There was no room on the plane. Luke was sorry but ...Then he thought of an inn on that first Christmas

LISA RAMSAY December 15 1947
Fiction

Lisbon Inn

There was no room on the plane. Luke was sorry but ...Then he thought of an inn on that first Christmas

LISA RAMSAY December 15 1947

Lisbon Inn

LISA RAMSAY

There was no room on the plane. Luke was sorry but ...Then he thought of an inn on that first Christmas

SORRY.” Luke Henning looked down from his gaunt height at the small man he’d bumped against in the doorway. For a moment their eyes met; the sad Jewish eyes in the lined white faee and Luke’s black slits of weariness.

“Sorry,” Luke repeated and made his way to a table near the door.

Luke had waited for a plane in this cellar tavern near the airport a dozen times in as many years. The waiter came to him in a recognizing rush.

“Welcome again, Señor Henning,” he was effusively cheerful. “Where from is it this time? Or perhaps a secret?”

“No, nothing secret about me. Got in from Belgrade this morning. Palestine before that.

But now I want some food.”

“And you go again, señor?” the waiter might have been paid to get the information,

Luke thought. Even now, two years after the war, Lisbon was filled with people who made it a business to know other people’s business.

He looked up at Jose’s swarthy, grinning face.

“Home for Christmas,” he said. “First time since the war too. You ought to see Christmas in Canada, Jose—you had better

come with me.”

As the waiter went away, smiling, Luke met for the second time the anxious eyes of the little Jew, staring at him from the doorway. Obviously he’d heard the conversation. But what did it matter? Luke didn’t quite know why he was worrying. The war was over.

They are bringing in the Christmas tree, he thought, leaning against the table . . . there will probably be soft snow drifting against the back fence and you can see the yellow glow of lights in the stable . . . and it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the. world should be taxed . . . what a way to spend Christmas Eve, in a Lisbon tavern . . . if he could have started out on bis long-due leave last month as he had meant to, but first there was that, trouble in Palestine, and then Greece, and then more delay because of his recurring bouts of malaria.

When they get the t ree in, the branches will begin to spread as the frost melts and the spruce smell will grow more pungent and grandma will probably close the living room door right in their faces just the way she used to do when they were kids, so they couldn’t see her decorate the t ree.

FOR A moment the rolling thunder of many languages, filling the low-ceilinged room, penetrated his consciousness. “Jose,” he said to the waiter who had brought, his food. “Jose, in my home they’re cooking all sorts of good things tonight and there’s a smell of fresh bread and mince pies and meats in the kitchen and a spruce smell. When my kid brother and I were at home we were always chased out, just about this time, to clean the sleigh bells and the harness for the morning. We went to early church every Christmas morning . . .”

“Si, señor. I, too, go to the Mass, the holy Mass of Christmas,” Jose offered enthusiastically though his eyes were anxious on the other’s flushed face.

When Jose left him Luke rested his head on his hand. His brain was humming and spasms of heat swept through Him and though he tried to brush it away his father’s voice

reading the Christmas text as he had done every year kept sounding in his ears "and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was Governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem ; because he was of the house and lineage of David—”

“Sir, sir” the glaze slipped from his eyes and he saw the little Jew he had bumped in the doorway had come over and was trying to talk to him. Probably he had been f rying for some minutes.

Luke looked up at him and realized that, despite

his deeply lined face the man couldn’t be much older than himself.

“Sit down,” Luke said. But his mind was so bent on following his own thoughts that he could not immediately bring it back to the present. He spoke aloud: “Some of t he kids will be going around singing Christmas carols the way they do it on postcards and their lanterns shine in t he dusk as you look out of the window of a dark room and their voices ring clearly. This is in my country, sir,” he tried to regain coherence. “Christinas Eve in a small Ontario town,” he explained.

The man smiled

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at Luke. Then he spoke, hastily. “My wife is with child,” he said and his voice cracked.

Immediately Luke’s feverish mind turned inward, listening to his father’s far voice, “—to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered—”

“We escaped out of Poland,” the man’s voice broke through again. “We go to Greece, walking. There we went on a ship. But, Palestine is forbidden land. We are brought back. To Germany now. We walk again. Finally we are guided across the mountain paths of Pyrenees. We are in Lisbon now for many months.”

He talked urgently as though he was afraid that once interrupted he would not have a second chance. “Since then we try to get the plane to America. There is no room they say. No room in the plane. We have all papers, yes. The permits—each month new permits. And the tickets —look. But there is no room.”

Luke tried to push away the papers. The writing blurred before his eyes. The little man sounded frantic now. “I hear you say you go tonight. Please, will you tell me how you get this seat? My child, I want it born there. I am afraid for my wife. Her fear—it will kill her—”

“I’m a newspaperman,” Luke found himself saying. “My paper arranges for my transportation. We have to get around, you see.”

“Please, before you go. Is it possible for you to speak to someone?” This man with his huge moist eyes is surely a mirage, Luke thought, struggling with his fever, the vivid mental pictures of home.

“I don’t think it would help any,” Luke said. “You see, I’m not anybody important. A Canadiazz ...”

“Yes, yes.” The man was shaking with excitement. “From America—!”

“Señor, the time, she is short. The plane!” Jose said. “Yes, I must go. Merry Christmas, Jose,” Luke grinned feebly. “For you and for zne.”

AS HE went up the stozie stairs he had a shadow. The - little Jew, now silezzt, remained close to him, as though for an extra moment’s protectiozz. Behind them izz the tavern the German, Spazzish, Italian and English provided distant garbled sound effects, it seemed to Luke. He fumbled for something comforting to say to the sznall man.

There was mist azzd rain and the administratiozz building was a shadow among the shadows of this Christznas Eve. As he walked swiftly past it, toward the lighted plazze, someone tugged at his coat. Two people stood beside him. “My wife . . .” said the Jew.

Luke hesitated, bent to look at her. Dark eyes stared up at him out of an oval, white face. The dusk cloaked her and there was a mass of dark hair azzd his father’s voice in his ears—“being great with child—and she brought forth her first-born son—because there was no room for them in the inn —because there was no room—”

Betweezz the words wez*e vivid pictures and the woman seemed to become part of them. His tour, with other correspondents, of Belsen azzd how he had stopped to vomit.. The sunlit streets of Jerusalem aizd fear walkizzg down the middle of them.

There was shouting from the field beyond. He could hear the steady drumming of engines warming up.

Luke said quickly, “She can have my seal.”

And he hurried her across the field, questiozzing the little Jew who was still his shadow. “Passport?”

“Yes, all papers. Here.”

“Anyone in New York?”

“My cousizz. He will welcome her.”

“We caiz fix the authorities. You don’t mind beizzg left?” “No. My sozz will be born in freedom—without fear.” They were at the plazze zzow azzd the woman was on it. Fogbound figuz*es moved the steps away while Luke was .still shouting explanations azzd then the big aircraft turned slowly azzd taxied dowzz the runway. Later, much later it seemed, it came out of the mist azzd rose slowly, a lighted shadow' izz the Christmas night.

They stood there side by side, Luke azzd the man whose name he did not know, in the mist and light raizz, and Luke kept smelling the scent of thawdzig spruce, azzd fresh bread, and hearing his mother’s voice singing and his father’s voice “—and lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them—” or was t hat the little Jew talking?

He turned to look at his cozzzrade, standing now so straight that he was as tall as Luke, and saying, “—and 1 urn Joseph Bar-David, your servant.” ★