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Christmas Eve

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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 rainThat 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 handsReached past me, groping for the latchOf the inner door that hung on catchMore obstinate the more they fumbled,  Till, giving way at last with a scoldOf the crazy hinge, in squeezed or tumbled  One sheep more to the rest in fold,And left me irresolute, standing sentryIn 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, whiteA long way past me into the night,Skirting the common, then diverging;Not a few suddenly emergingFrom the common's self thro' the paling-gaps—They house in the gravel-pits perhaps,Where the road stops short with its safeguard borderOf 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 ralliesAnd leads into day again,—its priestlinessLending itself to hide their beastlinessSo cleverly (thanks in part to the mason),And putting so cheery a whitewashed face onThose 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 disconcertedAs, bound for the hills, her fate averted,And her wicked people made to mind him,Lot might have marched with Gomorrahbehind 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 gruffHinge's invariable scoldMaking my very blood run cold.Prompt in the wake of her, up-patteredOn broken clogs, the many-tatteredLittle old-faced peaking sister-turned-motherOf the sickly babe she tried to smotherSomehow up, with its spotted face,From the cold, on her breast, the one warm place;She too must stop, wring the poor ends dryOf a draggled shawl, and add therebyHer tribute to the door-mat, soppingAlready 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 breastAnd its babe, as good as a lance in rest.  Close on her heels, the dingy satinsOf 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 pitiedAll that was left of a woman once,Holding at least its tongue for the nonce....