― 114 ―

“Absent Friends.”

A Christmas Ballad.


White the snow upon the graves, white the frost upon the steeple,
Ruddy doorways flush the road, as the chatty neighbours leave,
Going home to bed at ten: very late for quiet people
Like the villagers of Combe, but remember—Christmas Eve!

Johnny Cope who keeps the Crown, takes his “nightcap” and his candle,
As his gossips whistle gay o'er the frozen meadows bright;
Polly, beauty of the bar, stoopeth, blushing, o'er her sandal—
Romping 'neath the mistletoe gives her eyes that roguish light.

When the windows all are dark, come the little carol-singers,
Wreathing sleepers' lips with smiles, for the music soft and thin
Summons angels to their dreams: in the vestry sit the ringers,
Clustered round a can of flip—they've to ring Old Christmas in.

Hark! a whirring breaks the hush, to the belfry now they hurry,
Slip their feet beneath the straps, seize the frosty bellropes frayed—
Slow the deep notes clang and die—hearts all thumping in a flurry,
For the final stroke of TWELVE list they silent in the shade.

Still it echoes from the walls when the bells leap out in gladness,
Silv'ry through the startled night send their greeting far and wide:
Heav'nliest of earthly sounds, though its sweets are linked with sadness,
For the Present wakes the Past—merry—mournful—Christmas Tide!

In a tiny cot at Combe dwell a widow and her daughter,—
Teacher in the market-town, home awhile at times like this;
Pretty, pensive Fanny Payne! Weary, waiting years have taught her
Men forget, whilst girls love on, pining o'er their blighted bliss.

Through her lattice looks the moon, not so pale as weeping Fanny
Heark'ning to the Christmas bells, murm'ring, as her fancies stray:
“Once—but that was long ago—Harry loved me. Oh, how can he
Break his word and leave me thus? What care I for Christmas Day?

“Soft he whispered, as we waltzèd at his father's on the hill,
This time five years, just before sailing for the Land of Gold:
‘Water cannot wash out love—our purse, pet, I go to fill,
Rich or poor, I'm back again ere two years have o'er us rolled!

  ― 115 ―
“Not one little loving line have I ever had from Harry,
Though Joe Jocelyn's letter brought tidings of his luck and health.
How I hate that New South Wales! It was him I longed to marry,
Handsome Harry, darling Hal—not a heap of dirty wealth!”

At the Grange upon the hill sleepless lies young Harry's mother,
Thinking of her laughing boy far away across the sea;
Of the many sons still left, gravely good, there's not another—
Naughty scapegrace though he was—close knit to her heart as he.

Therefore, last night came the note, bidding to a Christmas dinner
Mistress Payne and “dearest Fan,” from the Grange upon the hill;
Though but dull are now those feasts, lacking him, the witty sinner,
Who could make the sternest laugh, leaden brains with frolic fill!


Brightly gleams the little Church. Faces, ruddy as the holly
Round them glowing, fills the pews, whilst the dear old Rector roads;
Harry's father, Farmer Fiske, jolliest of all the jolly,
In churchwarden majesty, anthem and responses leads.

Grandly, too, he leaves the church, all his clan around him crowded,—
Nephews, nieces, daughters, sons, come to spend their Christmas Day;
Proud he greets them, but his brow with a passing shade is clouded,
As he counts, and misses one, thinks of him that's far away.

Grace is said by Rector's lips. Pullets, ducks, with sav'ry dressing,
Alderman in sausage chains, baron brave of stall-fed beef,
Custard, pudding brandy-sauced, pies of mince, deserve a blessing;
And the carving Farmer finds solace for the Father's grief.

Much he marvels that poor Fan, chosen for his right-hand neighbour,
Cannot find in dainty food refuge from depressing fate;
Even “Pope's-nose” brings no peace—vain is all his honest labour
Heavy-laden heart to soothe with a heavy-laden plate.

Fruit and fresh wine now are brought; healths are drunk, and toasts are given,
“Queen,” “Prince Albert,” “Church and State,” “Army,” “Navy,” “Rise in Corn,”
Second Derby Cabinet”—long good Farmer Fiske has striven,
To defer, for Fanny's sake, one toast heavy to be borne.note

  ― 116 ―
But its turn has come at last—to omit it would be treason
At a Christmas gathering: cries he, “I have one toast more,
One for brimming glass and eyes, sadly drunk in festive season:
Charge!—I give you “Absent Friends!”—open flies the oaken door!

Bearded like a patriarch—glossy-brown as any berry,
Rushes to his mother's arms—HARRY, as in days of old!
Bearlike was the way he hugged, fiercely loving, filial—very,
But the kiss he gives his Fan makes his other kiss seem cold!

Ere his tongue has told his tale, truant Hal receives his pardon,
For she reads unswerving truth flashing from his sunny eyes;
Angry that such darling duck she should ever have been hard on,
Marmaladish, bitter sweet finds she in the glad surprise.

When he tells how long his toil, fruitless, hopeless, made him doleful,
How he didn't like to write, thinking news like that no good;
How, as Joey Jocelyn said, suddenly he found a holeful,
How bushrangers bailed him up, hast'ning townwards through a wood;

How a fever laid him low, how for months he lay a-dying,
Thinking sadly of his home, of his precious little Fan;
How at length he made a pile, swag and self in clipper flying,
Shipped, and hurried o'er the sea, fully purposed, if he can,—

Christmas Day at Combe to spend (Diggings' Christmases are dreary);
How from Plymouth he came post, how he filled John Cope with fear,
Leaping out like Harlequin, how the postboy thought him beery,—
Laughing, crying, Fanny sobs: “Could I doubt of such a dear?”

Then he turns to Mistress Payne (winking slyly at the Rector),
Bids her straightway let her house, for he means to take a farm;
Circling, meanwhile, Fanny's waist; sisters' needle-eyes detect her
Squeezing Harry's freckled hand, nestling in his brawny arm.

Wasn't that a jolly dance, when they cleared away the tables?
Wasn't that a sweet walk home? Wasn't that a clinging kiss?—
When again the midnight moon silvered the low cottage gables,
Fanny Payne, methinks, no more murmured of her “blighted bliss.”