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GIVEN BACK ON CHRISTMAS MORN.
(A mother watches by her sick babe.)
OUND about the casement
In its shroudlike vastness,
(The mother sings.)
Babe of mine-babe of mine,
Will should choose you?--
Babe of mine-you entwine
With existence !
If one strips the clinging vine
Shall not I then-? I talk wild,
Ah, my child-my child!
Babe of mine-heart's best wine-
Death's near presence.
The imperial purple of the night
A sombre pall hangs overhead,
One long wide waste of silent snow.
And the night wanes wearily
(The mother sings.)
Must the dear eyes close?
Must the lips be still?
How I love their speech that flows
Like a wanton rill!
Must those cheeks, soft-tinged with rose
Give her back to me, angel in disguise!
So your mystery I shall learn-yet with tear
By the pangs, the prayers,-
By her hopes, her fears, her cares,
Give it back to me !
Quenched the eyes' soft lightHushed the cowslip breath! Going, darling, in the night? Spare-oh, spare her, Death! Dying-is it so?
Oh, it must not be!
Give her back to me :
Or take me too-left alone
Ah, my child, my child!
Among the clouds that sail o'erhead
A tremulous motion, and a thrill,
About the lonely casement
Blows fresh the breath of day;-
Sees death glooms fade away!
The blue eyes open once again
Once more the lips have smiled-
(Footsteps are heard under the window.)
(Carollers sing an ancient carol.)
Hosannah! sing, Hosannah! sing,
New life they told to all on earth,
Hosannah! sing, Hosannah! sing,
New life to all-new life to all-
Hosannah! sing, Hosannah! sing,
The voices hushed-the footsteps died
It seemed a blessing did abide
As far away their cheery singing
Among the clouds that sail o'erhead
And on the hill-tops crowned with snows,
A rosy blushing radiance grows,
As wider still the warm light glows:-
A golden sea of swimming light
last Christmas Day consisted of gruel. Gruel for roast
beef, gruel for
gruel forturkey, gruel for plum pudding, gruel for mince pies; for almonds and raisins, russet
apple, filbert, old brown October, tawny port, wassail-for all the Christmas courses and dessert-gruel!
I had looked forward to that Christmas Day with a keen anticipation of pleasure. I was invited to a country house, an old-fashioned country house, where Christmas has been kept in great state for many generations; a country house with corridors and oak panels, and an old hall with a great yawning fireplace, specially designed for yule logs-just such a place as imaginative artists love to sketch in the Christmas numbers of the illustrated papers and periodicals. Ivy, holly, snow, and robin red-breasts outside; blazing fires, merry faces, warmth, comfort, mistletoe-bough, and pretty girls inside.
I was arrived at that time of life when I could enjoy all these things to the full. Observe, I say all. There are periods of existence when a man can enjoy only some of the things I have mentioned. A boy enjoys the eatables, the turkey, the plum-pudding, and the almonds and raisins; the young man takes delight in the society of the pretty girls, and can neither eat nor drink for thinking of them. But the middle-aged fogey-like your humble servant-what boundless, all-embracing enjoyment is his! He can relish everything-turkey, plum-pudding, almonds and raisins, old port, pretty girls, a nap in his easy chair, a hand at cards, a cigar, what not! Age has its advantages, its privileges: one of the latter I value very much. As a middle-aged fellow, done for long ago, I am the recipient of many pretty, playful attentions from the girls, without exciting serious envy or jealousy. It is my good fortune to have a bald head. Do I astonish you by calling that good fortune? Let me explain. The bald head makes me look older than I am. It gives me a settled-down, sedate appearance. The consequence is that young and pretty girls have no scruple about fondling me, even in the presence of their proper parents and jealous sweethearts. I am old uncle Tom.' The girls delight to play me off against their lovers when the young fellows are jealous or sulky-as young folks in love often areand they come in a bevy of beauty and kneel round my chair, and pat my bald head, and teaze me in a most delightful manner. I like this, just as I like to dandle pretty little sweet-faced babies on my knee. That is to say, I take their attentions placidly, and enjoy them as an abstract admirer of beauty, and gaiety, and innocence, without a quickened emotion or an extra beat of the pulse. You can't do this when you are young, and your hair curls. At that time of day you must have 'intentions,' you must ask papa and mamma, you must submit to be scowled at by jealous rivals, you must be prepared to name the day, the amount of settlement, and so forth. But I am old and bald. I have gone through all that fire, and I have come out a cool bit of tempered steel, safe and true. I have so many calm loves, you see. Those dainty bits of beauty rustling about me don't take away my appetite for supper, nor dash my relish for a glass of port. My eye wanders
away with perfect contentment from their flashing eyes and ruby lips to contemplate the beeswing floating in the wine cup. Nothing in the way of enjoyment comes amiss to me; but I am wedded to no single pleasure. I take infinite delight in the prattle of my pretty Jane, but when, at the sound of the knocker, she rushes away to meet her dear Edward on the stairs, I turn without a pang to woo the amber lips of my meerschaum pipe.
With all this capacity for enjoyment, it was a sad disappointment to me last year to be seized with a catarrh on the eve of Christmas Day. It is Horace, I believe, who says that no man can be supremely happy who is subject to a cold in the head. I agree with him there entirely. I will even go further, and say that, of all the ills that flesh is heir to, there is no one greater, or harder to bear, than a cold. It is an aspiring, ambitious, desperate malady. While gout is content to assail the foot, and colic modestly takes a middle range, a catarrh audaciously attacks the citadel of the head, and lays all the senses prostrate at one blow. While the tyrant holds sway you cannot see, you cannot taste, you cannot smell, you cannot think, and sometimes you cannot hear. There is a certain depth of wretchedness in the sufferings of the victim, when he does not care what becomes of him. I was at the bottom of this slough of misery and despond on Christmas morning. I had hoped that the tyrant would relax his grip, but I might have known better; he never does; he makes a rule of putting you through the whole process, the middle part being half murder.
I could not go to Oakhurst to my Christmas dinner that day. Everybody else in the house was going somewhere, except the cook, who was an orphan, fifty years of age, a spinster, a hater of her species, and one who was accustomed to say that Sundays and Saturdays, Christmases and Good Fridays, made no difference to her.
It was a dreary day after everybody had gone. I sat alone by the fireside, moping and miserable. On ordinary days I had more visitors than I cared about. To-day nobody came; not even the doctor, though I had engaged him to attend my case. It was a glorious day for him, knowing what to eat, drink, and avoid, and seeing others joyously preparing themselves for draughts and pills. But as for poor me, I was ready to cry when I thought of my loneliness, sadness, and desolation on that day when everybody else was making merry.
VOL. X.-CHRISTMAS NO.
Everybody else! Yes, I thought everybody else, except me.
The misanthropical cook came in to ask if I would take a little of the boiled mutton which she had prepared for her own dinner. Such was that woman's misanthropy, such her unchristian condition, that though she was offered a piece of beef and materials to make a little plum-pudding, all to herself, she preferred boiled mutton and a suety dumpling. The cook, I say, came in to offer me boiled mutton. I had no appetite, I could not swallow. I asked for gruel, and I had it just about the time that 'everybody' was sitting down to turkey. I did not say grace before that gruel-did anybody ever say grace before gruel, or after? I was heathenish, and summoned Philosophy to my aid. Philosophy-whom I should have expected to appear in the form of a grave old man, with long flowing white locks, and the Book of Knowledge in one hand and the magic Wand of Experience in the other-did not answer the summons. How should such a cold, sedate old spirit be within call of mortal on that day of native gladness. He was no doubt asleep over his musty old book. I performed another incantation. Into a little china cauldron I put various charms, all of which had been prepared with great care, and brought with pains and peril from distant parts of the earth-liquid red fire from the western Indies, lumps of sweetness blanched in blood, drops of acid of the citrus limonium, grown over the volcanoes of Sicily, and waters made mad with fire. These I mixed together with many conjurations, and when I had drunk of the charmed potion-contrary to the express injunctions of my doctor-High Priest of Slops -I summoned to my aid Memory.
She came at my call, a comely maiden, clothed in shadows, with a grave, soft smile on her cheek, and a great depth of thought in her large contemplative eyes. As I gazed at her dreamily, I fell into a pleasant, waking trance, and saw the past roll up upon my vision, like clouds from the west, that the sun glorifies in going down.
I was not to be merry in the present that Christmas night; but the longloving maid, Memory, was to make me merry in the past, amid Christmas scenes upon which the dark curtain of time had fallen long ago. Memory was more prodigal of her gifts than present reality could be. The envied Everybody else was spending one Christmas. I was spending a dozen.
The first Christmas of my experience rose upon my view, and I was a boy
again, in Scotland, being awoke at five o'clock in the morning to drink sowans. Old style still prevails in Scotland-or did then-and Yule was celebrated on the 6th of January. I have no recollection of roast beef and plum-pudding: but I have a very vivid recollection of sowans a sort of gruel made from the fermented gluten of oat husks. Not by any means a pleasant drink, even when sweetened with sugar or treacle. But this was the fare peculiar to Yule, and we got up in the middle of the night to drink it. If there were any not able to get up, basins of sowans were carried to them in their beds. It was in the country, at a farm-house. The great sowans drinking took place in the large kitchen. Neighbouring swains came from far and near, through the darkness and the snow, to join in the festivity. Behold Betty, the cook, stirring a great pot on the fire, and a circle of lads and lasses around her, waiting to be served in wooden bickers. It might have been a religious ceremony, it was so sad and solemn. There was no drinking of healths, no singing or dancing, no mirth or jollity, but just a sombre drinking of gluten. We did not go to bed again, but sat up waiting for the 'beggars.' The beggars are the Scotch waits,' with a worthier mission. The miscreants, as Mr. Bass or Mr. Babbage would call them, who wake us up in the middle of the night in London, with 'O, rest you merry gentlemen,' or the doleful squeaking of a clarionet, are generally loafers and idle skulks, who seize custom and opportunity to annoy others and benefit themselves. In Scotland the beggars are strapping farmers' sons, who shoulder the bag for the nonce, and go round to the farm-houses begging meal for the poor, generally for lone, lorn widows. They come with a song, but not until daylight doth appear, and the lasses put on their best caps and wreathe their best smiles to give them welcome. Now comes the 'rape of the kisses.' The sturdy handsome young beggars throw down their meal-bags, rush in among the lasses, and kiss them all round, amid such a 'skelleching '-expressive word that-and giggling as never was heard. Then the mistress of the house gives the young fellows a dram, and in the true spirit of the Saxon lefdey, or lady, drops with her own hands a portion of meal into each bag. There are many good souls, animated by the feeling of the time, who do good deeds and blush to let them be known. Aware of this, the poor old widows, when they receive the bounty, take care to sift the meal, and
oftentimes find in the sieve a residuum of shillings and sixpences.
A marked feature of the Yule festivities was a grand tea-breakfast to the servants and dependants. At ordinary times the servants' breakfast consisted of oatmeal porridge, milk, and oat cakes. But on Yule morning they had a breakfast of tea, white bread-that is to say, bread made of flour-eggs, and haddocks. Ah! what a glorious 'ploy,'-the only English equivalent for this word I can think of is spree,' and that does not quite express it was that Yule breakfast! In my vision I can see Betty, the cook, at the head of the great deal table, pouring out the tea from a big, battered Britannia-metal pot, into cups of all sizes and patterns; while down the sides are seated ploughmen and ploughboys, each with a buxom lass by his side, all laughing, giggling, and eating at one and the same time. There is no stint of white bread and butter, but the allowance of tea, which is a rather expensive article at this time of day, is limited, and the infusion soon pales before the brisk and active demand. I remember something about it not being genteel to take more than two cups of tea, and to drink out of the saucer; but as tea comes but once a year on this scene, all such etiquette is thrown to the winds. I can hear Betty saying it now, I declare that loon (Anglice,boy") Geordie has had fourteen cups.' I don't doubt it. Geordie had been gulping down cup after cup, and sending up for more with astonishing despatch. The colour bad gone out of the liquid long ago, but what was that to Geordie or Jamie, or Jessie or Jenny, so long as it ran out of a teapot, and left some grouts at the bottom of the cup to tell fortunes by. What rare fun we had reading fortunes in the cups! It afforded such a capital opportunity for lads and lasses to look over each other's shoulders, and get their lips and cheeks close together. And when rosy cheeks and warm lips approach within a certain range of each other, they are apt, like the magnet and the bit of steel, to come suddenly into collision. They sat long, with lingering delight, over their tea-breakfast (long after the loaves and the butter and the haddocks had disappeared), to read the cups; and great was the laughter when the close juxtaposition of a long stalk of tea and a short stalk of tea, followed by a motley crowd of stalks of all sizes, was declared to portend the marriage of Willie the grieve (bailiff') with Annie the little housemaid.
There is no going to church in Presbyterian Scotland on Christmas Day. No
religious exercises of any kind hold a place in my memory in connection with old Yule. It was merely a holiday in the schoolboy's sense of the word, a day of play. The one amusement especially associated with the occasion was a shooting match, at which the highest prize was a gun, or a silver watch, and the lowest a bane kame. Do you know what a bane kame is? Let me whisper in your ear. A bone comb-that kind of comb which has small teeth! I remember Jamie coming home from the shooting looking very glum and downeast.
'Weel Jamie,' said Willie, 'have you won the gun?'
Nor the watch?'
Have ye nae won onything?' 'Ou ay, I've just won the bane kame l'
'Weel,' said Willie, who was a bit of a wit in his dry way, 'I'm just thinking you'll be likely to do mair execution with the bane kame than with the gun.'
Holly and mistletoe do not enter into the Scotch Christmas rites. When I think of these things my vision changes to a farm-house in Kent, where I spent my first English Christmas. I am realizing what I had often read of in books. I go out to the wood to assist in bringing home the Yule log. I am assisting an elderly spinster to decorate the rooms with holly and mistletoe. I remember here, pleasantly, over my gruel, how I fell plump over head and ears in love with her, though she was old enough to be my mother, and made no attempt to conceal her liking for ginand-water. She had a girlish way with her that captivated me, a way of giggling and shaking her curls. I was quick to learn the privileges of an English Christmas, and kissed her under the mistletoe the moment she hung it up. It was she who started up, as twelve o'clock struck on the Eve, to let Christmas in. I ran with her to the door, and kissed her again. I was very happy then, for I did not find out until afterwards that Miss Lizzy was giddy even to the verge of lunacy, and had loved and been in love a hundred times. On Twelfth-night she trysted me to the orchard at ten o'clock at night, and there, under a cherry-tree, while the moon shone bright, she said
Tom, let us be married, and fly to foreign lands.'
I had dreamt of something of the kind; but this abrupt way of proposing to settle it cooled my ardour.
'Give me,' I said, time for reflection.'
'Love,' she replied, almost fiercely, 'never reflects.'
Miss Lizzy had money, and her friends found it expedient to prove, which they did, that she was non compos. But she made a very sane remark that time under the cherry tree, by the light of the moon, when she said that 'love never reflects.' After long experience I am prepared to say it does not.
For the first time in my life, at that Kentish farm-house, I heard the waits singing the Christmas carol; for the first time I went to church on Christmas Day-a church decorated with evergreens-what a sight to me! For the first time I saw the boar's head and the flaming Christmas pudding brought in with due ceremony. English people grow up from infancy accustomed to these Christmas rites, and are little impressed by them. But upon the mind and sympathy of an adult stranger they strike with the force and charm of enchantment. The very remembrance of that Christmas Day brings a thrill of pleasure, which I fear no Christmas of the future will ever stir, in my accustomed breast.
This vision fades, and another rises in its stead. A pleasant foregathering of children, and children's children, on Christmas Day round a granddad's board. It was our aged host's birthday, too. He was ninety-two years of age that very Christmas Day. A little, feeble old man he was, almost as helpless as a child, but still cheery and hearty. When the children and the grandchildren-the eldest child was threescore-came in from church, they found the old man seated in his arm-chair directly under the branch of mistletoe. His youngest daughter (who had remained unmarried for her poor old father's sake, that she might live with him and attend upon him), had placed him there to be kissed, like a pretty baby. Two generations made a rush at him, and, almost smothering him first, nearly devoured him afterwards. It was an affecting sight to see so much love centring in a poor old man, sitting, as it were, on the very brink of the grave. The old man cried for very happiness, and his good daughter had to go and wipe away his tears, for he was too feeble to perform even that office for himself. At dinner time he sat at the head of his table, as he had always done, though he could no longer do the honours. And after dinner, when he had had half a glass of wine-the dear old baby!-he cheered up wonderfully, and became quite garrulous about