…So gently did the white hand drop the curtain that for a long, unbreathing moment, the three within poised themselves in time and space as audiences poise after a song is ended

By Gregory Clark, December 23, 1939.

It is a perilous business for three wise men to get together Christmas Eve. Curious things are likely to happen, or so goes a very old legend.

Of course, in war time, strangeness is everywhere. It is as if we swallow our tears and they intoxicate us. In this tale, which most soldiers have heard in one form or another, the three wise men were in a concrete machine-gun pillbox. It was just east of the village of Feuchy, where there was a chapel dating back so far, that some of the stones were said to be 10th century. And that is half way back, isn’t it?

Whether some of those old stones were used in the construction of the concrete pillbox is not mentioned in the story. But the suggestion is offered now. If anything can carry the touch of bygone things, it is a stone.

Brown, the lance-jack on the Lewis gun, was the first wise man. He was, he asserted, the most expert chicken thief in Frontenac county. Abell, the Number One on the gun, was wise in a chuckling, slant-gazing fashion. But MacPhedran laid claim to no wisdom, and therefore was the wisest of them all.

“Well,” said the lance-jack, very authority, “it’s Christmas Eve.”

And he twitched the rubber sheet aside from the concrete doorway and glanced out as if to prove it.

“Modern war,” said Abell. “And they can’t even get the rations up. Did you see the sergeant?”

“The sergeant,” said L.-Cpl. Brown, “was very sympathetic. He said nobody had no rations. And if we preferred to come back into the ditch, he would gladly give our pillbox to three other guys.”

“We’re really cut off, aren’t we?” said MacPhedran.

“Everybody’s cut off,” said the L.-Cpl.

“Well, boys,” said Abell, “I’ve got a little surprise for you, if you can take it. You know that busted estaminet back here, at the corners? Where we had the gun yesterday? Well, sir, I found three bottles of vin blink in there.”

“Where are they?” hissed L.-Cpl. Brown.

“They’re still there, sweetie,” said Abell. “I shifted some of them blocks of chalk and in a cubby hole, there they was – three bottles, vin blink, shiny and yellow.”

“Why didn’t …” began the L.-Cpl. hotly.

“With a thousand guys looking?” said Abell. “Mind the house, and I’ll sneak back for them now.”

“Just a minute,” said the L.-Cpl. “Before you go, I might as well come clean. So you’ll take care and not get sniped off by some of our own gang. Look.”

Reaching into his packsack in the corner, the L.-Cpl. dug deep into the tangled depths and slowly drew out a package, a slightly bloody package wrapped in the French edition of the Daily Mail.

“A rabbit,” said Abell.

“A chicken,” sighed the L.-Cpl. softly. “It’s cackling kept me awake. I can hear a chicken cackle for two miles. So I just quietly….”

A Very Curious Face

“I could kick in my iron ration biscuits,” said MacPhedran rather timidly.

“As your superior officer,” stated the lance-corporal sternly, “I forbid you to employ your iron rations at this time.”

“There’s a fellow in B company owes me half a loaf of bread,” said MacPhedran.

“You eat on us tonight, Mac,” advised the L.-Cpl., rather magnificently. “It’s Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner combined. There always has to be a guest.”

“I’ll get some bread,” muttered MacPhedran earnestly.

By which time Abell was leaving and the L.-Cpl. ordered him to be careful and not to be long. You might wonder how these men could come and go. Well – armies dissolve at last into their least common denominator, which is the section. Once war really starts, generals hand over the command to the lance-corporals in charge of the sections of six men. These three were all that were left of a Lewis gun section. Ahead of them a front line company hid in battered trenches. Behind them, a support company had dug itself shelters of earth and planks from the vestiges of villages. Between the two lines, these three were stationed in the recently captured Germen concrete box. In 10 seconds, they could be outside, aiming their little chattering gun. So that was their job. In time of need, to leap outside and aim their gun.

Abell was gone less than 15 minutes. When he returned, he bore a heavy sandbag in which reposed three bottles of vin blink. Out into the candle light he drew their glossy greenish yellow forms, with the gestures of a magician.

Already the pillbox was rich with the odor of chicken. On the brazier, the L.-Cpl. had started to fry the skilfully dismembered chicken in fat army bacon. When Abell sat down, MacPhedran quietly departed and in five minutes was back through the concrete door, half a loaf of army bread in his fist.

“How did you do it?” cried the L.-Cpl.

“A fellow in B company owed it to me,” said MacPhedran simply.

“Will miracles never cease?” said the L.-Cpl., busy with his pan.

And at that moment, they heard someone’s step outside and the rubber sheet across the entrance was drawn aside. This was no hour for visitors. Especially hungry sergeants.

“Could you direct me to Feuchy-Chapelle?” asked a quiet voice.

“Feuchy-Chapelle?” said the L.-Cpl., who loved pronouncing French names. “Why, it’s just about 400 yards straight west. If you wait a minute until Fritzie fires a star shell, you can see the ruins….”

The rubber sheet was drawn further aside and a face looked in. Under the steel helmet, it was a very curious face to see in France. It was so different.

“Come in,” said MacPhedran.

The stranger entered and stood with his back to the entrance, smiling at the scene before him. Even the L.-Cpl. was in doubt as to whether the stranger was an officer or not. He wore a private’s coat, but lots of officers did in the line. He had no rank badges, but his air was more … more delicate, somehow, than a private’s.

“Feasting?” said the stranger.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” explained the L.-Cpl. “No rations came up. But we’re all wise guys. Even MacPhedran there was able to scrounge a half a loaf of bread. How about a touch of vin blink?”

“No, thanks,” said the stranger.

“Vin blink!” cried the L-Cpl. “Aw, come on. Imagine Christmas Eve and Abell here finds three bottles hidden in an old estaminet back on the pave. Just a touch?”

“No, thanks,” said the stranger. “I won’t have anything. It’s enough just to see the feast.”

“Have some chicken, it’s done in five minutes,” said Abell.

“Nothing, thanks,” said the stranger. “I have eaten and have drunk.”

In a Star Shell’s Light

MacPhedran was kneeling at the box cutting the bread with his clasp knife. When the stranger turned to smile at him in turn, Mac held up the bread. And the stranger shook his head.

“What’s your outfit?” asked the L.-Cpl.

“It’s a long way from here,” said the stranger.

“Engineers?” asked the L.-Cpl., sizing up the stranger, looking at his clean hands, his thin, untanned face.

“It is associated with the chaplain services,” said the stranger kindly.

“Ah,” said the L.-Cpl., setting the vin blink bottle back with its fellows in the shadows.

The chicken was hissing in the pan, Mac had the punk nearly all cut into six thick slabs, Abell was toying with the corkscrew of his army knife. Outside, in the night, far-off mutters of machine-guns and lonely moans of high shells quilted in all the silences.

“Sure you won’t join us?” said the L.-Cpl. conclusively.

“No thanks,” assured the stranger. “It was good to see you, though. Good luck.”

“Feuchy-Chapelle is about 400 yards straight that way,” said the L-Cpl., indicating with his knife.

Mac had not moved. With motionless face, fixed eyes, his lips open, he stared at the stranger, the bread held lifted in his hand.

“Good night,” said the stranger, thrusting aside the rubber sheet and bending out through the concrete. He paused an instant, his white hand holding back the sheet. “Ah,” came his voice, quietly, out there in the night, “a star shell.”

In the opening past the rubber sheet, the three wise men saw the pallid light of the star shell lobbing and fading.

“Did you see the ruins?” demanded the L.-Cpl.

“Yes,” said the stranger; and so slow and deep was that one word, and so gently did the white hand drop the curtain that for a long, unbreathing moment, the three within poised themselves in time and space as audiences poise after a song is ended.

It was MacPhedran spoke first, and he still held the bread out, as in the act of giving.

“Did you,” he said unsteadily, “notice his hands?”

“They were white,” muttered the L.-Cpl.

“They had a round scar in the back of each,” whispered MacPhedran.

“And when he shoved his helmet back,” said Abell, “there was a ring of white scars around his head…”

So all three rose to their feet, set down the pans and the bread and knives, and followed the L.-Cpl. out through the concrete entrance and stood in the night, watching off west and south to see any figure creeping amid the ruins towards Feuchy-Chapelle. But all they could see was the night and the stars, and hear the mutter of far-off machine guns and the lonely murmur of high shells going far back.

And when a star shell popped from the German trenches, to hang magically in sky for an instant, MacPhedran said, “God help us,” and they bent and crawled back into the pillbox and ate their Christmas supper without any conversation, but looking long and strangely into one another’s eyes.

Editor’s Notes: The Canadian Armed Forces abolished the rank of lance corporal on their creation as a unified force in 1968. It is the equivalent of a master corporal.

An estaminet is a small café in France that sells alcoholic drinks.

“Vin blink” is probably a corruption of “Vin blanc”, white wine.

A star shell is a shell that on bursting releases a shower of brilliant stars and is used for signaling.