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Christmas Eve   By: (1812-1889)

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Out of the little chapel I burst Into the fresh night air again. Five minutes full, I waited first In the doorway, to escape the rain That drove in gusts down the common's centre At the edge of which the chapel stands, Before I plucked up heart to enter. Heaven knows how many sorts of hands Reached past me, groping for the latch Of the inner door that hung on catch More obstinate the more they fumbled, Till, giving way at last with a scold Of the crazy hinge, in squeezed or tumbled One sheep more to the rest in fold, And left me irresolute, standing sentry In the sheepfold's lath and plaster entry, Six feet long by three feet wide, Partitioned off from the vast inside I blocked up half of it at least. No remedy; the rain kept driving. They eyed me much as some wild beast, That congregation, still arriving, Some of them by the main road, white A long way past me into the night, Skirting the common, then diverging; Not a few suddenly emerging From the common's self thro' the paling gaps They house in the gravel pits perhaps, Where the road stops short with its safeguard border Of lamps, as tired of such disorder; But the most turned in yet more abruptly From a certain squalid knot of alleys, Where the town's bad blood once slept corruptly, Which now the little chapel rallies And leads into day again, its priestliness Lending itself to hide their beastliness So cleverly (thanks in part to the mason), And putting so cheery a whitewashed face on Those neophytes too much in lack of it, That, where you cross the common as I did, And meet the party thus presided, "Mount Zion" with Love lane at the back of it, They front you as little disconcerted As, bound for the hills, her fate averted, And her wicked people made to mind him, Lot might have marched with Gomorrah behind him.


Well, from the road, the lanes or the common, In came the flock: the fat weary woman, Panting and bewildered, down clapping Her umbrella with a mighty report, Grounded it by me, wry and flapping, A wreck of whalebones; then, with snort, Like a startled horse, at the interloper (Who humbly knew himself improper, But could not shrink up small enough) Round to the door, and in, the gruff Hinge's invariable scold Making my very blood run cold. Prompt in the wake of her, up pattered On broken clogs, the many tattered Little old faced peaking sister turned mother Of the sickly babe she tried to smother Somehow up, with its spotted face, From the cold, on her breast, the one warm place; She too must stop, wring the poor ends dry Of a draggled shawl, and add thereby Her tribute to the door mat, sopping Already from my own clothes' dropping, Which yet she seemed to grudge I should stand on: Then, stooping down to take off her pattens, She bore them defiantly, in each hand one, Planted together before her breast And its babe, as good as a lance in rest. Close on her heels, the dingy satins Of a female something, past me flitted, With lips as much too white, as a streak Lay far too red on each hollow cheek; And it seemed the very door hinge pitied All that was left of a woman once, Holding at least its tongue for the nonce. Then a tall yellow man, like the Penitent Thief, With his jaw bound up in a handkerchief, And eyelids screwed together tight, Led himself in by some inner light. And, except from him, from each that entered, I got the same interrogation "What, you the alien, you have ventured "To take with us, the elect, your station? "A carer for none of it, a Gallio!" Thus, plain as print, I read the glance At a common prey, in each countenance As of huntsman giving his hounds the tallyho. And, when the door's cry drowned their wonder, The draught, it always sent in shutting, Made the flame of the single tallow candle In the cracked square lantern I stood under, Shoot its blue lip at me, rebutting As it were, the luckless cause of scandal: I verily fancied the zealous light (In the chapel's secret, too!) for spite Would shudder itself clean off the wick, With the airs of a Saint John's Candlestick... Continue reading book >>

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