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A Winter's Tale for the Little Ones
A MERRY sound of clapping hands, A call to see the sight; And lo! the first soft snow-flakes fall, So exquisitely virginal: 'Tis my wee Nell at window stands, And the world is all in white. Her eyes, where dawns my bluest Day, Dance with the dancing snow! I see delicious shivers thrill Her through and through. She feels the chill Of Earth so white, and skies so gray Enrich our fireside glow. "No Winters now, my little Maid, Like those that used to come, Making our Christmas sparkle, bright As crystallized plum-cake at night, And Frost his Puck-like trickeries played, With fancies frolicsome. "He fixed your breath in flowers, the Trees To Chandeliers would turn: He pinched your toes, he nipped your nose, He made your cheek a wrinkled Rose: Perhaps at night you heard him sneeze, And the Jug was cracked at morn! "The Snow-Storms were magnificent! And in the clear, still weather Against the bitter wintry blue And Sunset's orange-tawny hue You saw the smoke straight upward went, For weeks and weeks together. "At night the Waits mixed with our dream Their music sweet and low: We children knew not as we heard, Each, listening, nestled like a Bird, Whether from Heaven the music came, Or only over the snow! "No winters now-a-days like those." And then my darling tries To coax me for a "tale that's true: A story that is new—quite new." And up the arch of wonder goes, Above the frank, blue eyes! "Once on a time"—"Do tell me when, And where?" says my wee Nell— "When Christmas came on Thursday—now, Some five-and-thirty years ago! Superbly we were snowed-up then, Who lived in Ingle Dell. "His icy Drawbridge Winter dropped; The running springs he froze; The Roads were lost; the hedges crossed; All field-work ceased through the 'Long Frost.' But there was one thing never stopped— That was Grandmother's nose! "The snow might fall by day, by night, The weather wax more rough, And up to our bedroom windows heap The drift, and smother men like sheep, And wrap the world in a shroud of white— Old Gran must have her snuff! "So Uncle Willie, then a lad Not more than nine years old, Upon the Christmas morn must go And fetch her snuff, and face the Snow, Which surely had gone dancing mad, And wrestle with the cold. "Wrapped in his crimson Comforter, His basket on his arm, He started. Mother followed him With her proud eyes so dewy-dim; While kisses from the heart of her Within his heart were warm. "How gentle is the gracious Snow, When first you watch her dance; Her feathery flutter, winding whorls; Her finish perfect as the pearl's; She looks you in the face as though 'Twere unveiled Innocence. "But now, 'tis wild upon the waste, And winged upon the wind: You see, just passing out of sight, The Ghost of things in a swirl of white!— The Storm unwinkingly he faced, Though it snowed enough to blind. "Fire-pointed, stinging, strikes and burns To the bone, each icy dart. He stumbles—falls—is up again, And onward for the Town a-strain; Backward our Willie never turns, And never loses heart. "He looks a weird and wintry Elf With face in ruddy glow; And all his curls are straightened out, Hanging in Icicles about A sparkling statue of himself, Shaped out of frozen snow. "He still fought on, for though the Storm Might bend him, he was tough; And when the Blast would take his breath, With kisses like the kiss of death, One thought still kept his courage warm— It was Grandmother's Snuff! "At length with many a danger passed, Unboding worse to come, He has got the Snuff. Far more than food, Or wine, 'twill warm her poor old blood. He has it safe at last, at last! And sets his face for Home. "He has the Snuff; but it were well If Granny had it too! For early closes such a day, And wild and dreary is the way; If dark before he reach the Dell, What can poor Willie do? "Within the Town the blast is hushed; The snow-flakes from you melt: But out upon the pathless moor, The storm grows madder than before; And at him all its furies rushed, Till he faint and fainter felt. "His thoughts are whirling with the Snow: His eyes get dizzy and dim! And on the path, 'twixt him and night, Now dancing left, now dancing right, It seems a white Witch-Woman doth go, With white hand beckoning him! "To the last stile he clung—maybe A furlong from our door; Then missed his footing on the plank, And deep into the snow-drift sank. O, my belovèd Willie, we Shall never see you more! "Ah, they looked long and wistfully Who waiting sat at home: At every sound they leaned to hark; They strained their eyes through the depeening dark, And wondered where could Willie be, And when would Willie come? "Through all that night of wild affright They searched the road to Town; They called him high, they called him low, They mocked each other through the snow, And all the night, by lanthorn light, They wandered up and down. "They sought him where the waters plash Darkly by Deadman's Cave! They sought him at the Rag-Pit, near The Mill, and by the awesome Weir; At the Cross-Roads where 'Harry's Ash' Grows from the Suicide's Grave. "In Ingle Dell they locked no door, Put out no light. At such A time you cling to a little thing That's done for neighbourly comforting! Old Gran thought she would snuff no more, And she took thrice as much. "All night the Snow with fingers soft Kept pointing to the ground. Only too well they knew 'twas there; But had no hint to guide them where! And he so near. They passed him oft, Close by his white grave-mound. "And did he die?" cries little Nell. "No, he was nestled warm. The Snow's white arm that round him curled Had caught him into another world: What other world he could not tell, But, out of all the storm. "And all was changed too suddenly For him to know the place. He swooned awhile, and when he woke A lightning from his darkness broke; Alone with the Eternal he Seemed standing face to face! "There in his grave alive, he knew He stood, or sat upright! With burning brain, and freezing feet: And he so young, and life so sweet; And, bitter thought! what would Gran do Without her snuff that night? "A long, long night of sixty hours Did Willie pass. I know Not how he lived. But Heaven can hold A life as safe as Earth can fold Her hidden life of fruit and flowers, Through her long trance of snow. "'Tis Sabbath day. How quietly gleams That snow-drift o'er him driven! The winds are softly laid asleep, In their white snow-bed covered deep. The white Clouds all so still! it seems Like Sunday up in Heaven! "The Country-folk are passing near His tomb—no tale it tells— Old Ploughmen in their white smockfrocks, Old Women in long scarlet cloaks, And Lad and Lass,—when on his ear There faints a sound of Bells! "And, looking up, a tiny hole Was melted with his breath; Where-through a bit of God's blue sky Was smiling on him like an Eye; A living eye with a loving soul Shone in that face of death! "O joy! He shouted from his grave, And finding room to stir, He tooth and nail began to climb; He clutched the top o' the bank this time; Thrust his hand through the snow to wave His good old Comforter! "'I'm here!' 'It's me!' His flag they see, And know lost Willie's voice; They quickly answer shout for shout, And with their hands they dig him out, And carry him home. Oh! didn't we In Ingle Dell rejoice? "There be some tears that smile, and such Were wept by Woman and Man. But while they glistened in each eye, He pulled the snuff out sound and dry; Snow might cover him, cold might clutch, The Snuff was safe for Gran."
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