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II 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 therebyHer 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. [Footnote: See Rev. i. 20.] There was no standing it much longer. "Good folks," thought I, as resolve grew stronger, "This way you perform the Grand-Inquisitor "When the weather sends you a chance visitor? "You are the men, and wisdom shall die with you, "And none of the old Seven Churches vie with you! "But still, despite the pretty perfection "To which you carry your trick of exclusiveness, "And, taking God's word under wise protection, "Correct its tendency to diffusiveness, "And bid one reach it over hot ploughshares,-- "Still, as I say, though you've found salvation, "If I should choose to cry, as now, 'Shares!'-- "See if the best of you bars me my ration! "I prefer, if you please, for my expounder "Of the laws of the feast, the feast's own Founder; "Mine's the same right with your poorest and sickliest "Supposing I don the marriage vestiment: "So shut your mouth and open your Testament, "And carve me my portion at your quickliest!" Accordingly, as a shoemaker's lad With wizened face in want of soap, And wet apron wound round his waist like a rope, (After stopping outside, for his cough was bad, To get the fit over, poor gentle creature, And so avoid disturbing the preacher) --Passed in, I sent my elbow spikewise At the shutting door, and entered likewise, Received the hinge's accustomed greeting, And crossed the threshold's magic pentacle, And found myself in full conventicle, --To wit, in Zion Chapel Meeting, On the Christmas-Eve of 'Forty-nine, Which, calling its flock to their special clover, Found all assembled and one sheep over, Whose lot, as the weather pleased, was mine.

 

"Christmas Eve" by Robert Browning