Jacob put down the pen, pushed back the stool, and stretched out his long, lean arms. His stiff back resisted painfully as he struggled to his feet. His feet – how they throbbed in their sandals!
It had been a busy day, reflected Jacob, stroking his long, graying beard. The profits were worth it, though. His sharp black eyes again scanned the figures of the inn’s assets. Yes, he had finally made it. He and Sarah could retire to that little farm in the country, and his son Ben could take over the inn.
Twenty years ago, when he had first bought this run-down inn, he had dreamed of this day. He had worked hard to enlarge the inn and the stables and to keep them in good condition. In a town like this, where the census was taken every ten years, a good innkeeper needed only two good chances to make his fortune. True, the years in between were sometimes lean, but at census time the coffers spilled over. Every night each room was filled with travelers, every stall in the stable bulged with stock.
Jacob’s reverie was shattered by a loud knock on the door. He was surprised as the hour was beyond that of the usual traveler’s arrival. He took his time getting to the door. He was very tired, and he had not an empty space within his walls. Perhaps the perspective customer would get discouraged and go on.
A soft snow had fallen, and the light in Jacob’s hand was reflected in a broad circle around the door. In the light Jacob saw a tall young man wearing a brown cloak with a hood that fell back as he raised his head toward Jacob. The man’s gaunt face was lined with fatigue and concern. He spoke then in a low voice.
“I need a room,” he said, “for my wife and me.”
Jacob sighed, wishing he could accommodate the young couple.
“I’m sorry,” he replied, starting to close the door, “all of my rooms are completely filled. I have nothing for you.”
“Please, sir,” the anxious young man touched Jacob’s sleeve in a gesture of supplication. “It’s my wife.” He glanced back over his shoulder, indicating a shadow behind him. “She’s about to give birth. We’ve been on the road all day. She needs a place to rest.”
Jacob lifted his lantern. The pale yellow arc of light sought out the figure of donkey. On the donkey’s back was a huddled form which moved as Jacob’s light came closer.
The dark-veiled head lifted, and the light illuminated a face like Jacob had never seen before. It was a very young face, rounded still from youth and already maturing from impending motherhood. The soft, brown eyes looked straight into Jacob’s. He saw in them – what was it? – pain? Yes. Fatigue? Yes. But something else. There was at the same time a dignity, a wisdom which Jacob could not decipher.
“Please,” the young man was imploring, “isn’t there any corner, a barn, anywhere that we might sleep? I will pay double for just a warm place for my wife to rest.”
Jacob, his eyes still riveted on the intriguing girl, hardly heard the pleading voice. He felt a peculiar tingling and an inexplicable sense of awe. He shook himself to his senses. He must help these young people.
Where could he put them? There was no point in sending them to another inn; every place was filled. In his own quarters? No, Sarah had already retired. In the stable boys’ hut? No, he had already rousted the urchins for an earlier caller. How about the stable? He could put them and the donkey in with his own cow, protected from the wind and cold.
“Run to the stable and put the merchant’s donkey in with my cow. Then fill the stall with clean straw and bring some fresh water. Hurry up!”
As the boy ran off, Jacob turned to the young man. “It’s the best I can do,” he said.
“Thank you,” said the young man, his voice choked with relief. “What do I owe you?”
Jacob looked at the young woman. She smiled in gratitude, and Jacob felt a lump in his throat.
“Ah – nothing. It’s all right.” He felt suddenly embarrassed, but he did not know why. “Around the corner to your left,” he directed them. “Here, take my light.”
He handed the lantern to the young man and turned inside. He felt so strange; his step was buoyant, his head light.
But his mood was broken as another door to the room opened, and Jacob looked up to see his son Ben. He smiled. How proud he was of this boy – no, he was a man now, ready to take on the responsibilities of a man.
“Come here, Ben,” he said. The handsome youth approached him. “I’ve been going over the business, son, and it looks like this year’s census has made me a rich man.”
“I’m glad, father. Now you can take mother to the country where she will not have to work so hard.”
“The inn will be in your hands now. We’ll talk more about it in the morning. Now, I am tired and must rest.”
“Good night, father, and thank you.”
In the room he had shared with Sarah for over thirty years, Jacob blew out the candle and stretched out to sleep. He looked at his wife sleeping next to him. It would be so good for her to get away from this inn. She was no longer young nor well.
Gradually, Jacob became aware of something strange in the room. He looked about, but saw nothing unusual. Then with a start, he realized that he could see everything in the room clearly, though no candle was burning.
Sarah, awakened by his movements, lifted her head.
“What is it, Jacob?” she asked sleepily.
“A star,” he breathed, “and so close. It looks like it’s just hanging there above the stable.”
“A star,” she muttered flatly. “Come to bed, Jacob. You must be very tired.”
Jacob tore his eyes from the star and turned back to the room. Yes, he was tired, but still a little excited.
He lay down on the cot again. He felt good. His work was coming to an end. His son, too, would one day be rich. He had had a good life. He settled under the rough woolen cover and closed his eyes.
Then he opened one eye. The room was still bathed in silver. That surely is a bright star, he thought, and drifted into sleep.
Reflections: Prose, Poems, Photos, and Artworks: the OLLI-USF 20th Anniversary Collection was published by OLLI-USF in 2013. The 374-page volume consists of written and visual materials submitted by OLLI members to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the OLLI chapter on the USF Campus. The Innkeeper was one of three prose works submitted by Mary Bowers in 2013.