Last Christmas

THE little town climbs the hill from the shore, English and typical. There is the ‘Cobb,’ the very origin of whose name is lost, jutting its stone breakwater into the sea, a bulwark along the deep, such as you know all up and down the coast and around the shores of England. The Cobb shelters the fishing-fleet whose many-colored boats, drawn up along the shingle, are heeled over to-day among lobster-pots and fishing-nets.

Few boats go out to the deep sea in the early gray of morning. Stout heart and quick hand are called to more desperate duty and are not found in safe harbors. Old men remain to smoke, to gather on the stone parapet, and to take out the seine when the weather favors — old men and boys who will carry on the great tradition!

Halfway up the hill, to seaward, stands the market, with pitched oak roof sturdy on stone pillars, where Dorset farmers from the rich inland have brought their produce for many a hundred year; forefathers, brothers, and friends, think we, of our forbears who crossed that wide sea to the rocky shores of our New England. Brave men, to leave this South Wessex land so sunny and secure, this dear warm corner of old England, for an unknown wilderness. Brave men sailed, and brave men stayed. Brave men are coming back to-day. Standing in the tiny cobbled market-place overhanging the sea, we hear in the Dorset speech, ‘Transport and two destroyers.’ — ‘Where?’ — ‘Yonder — Americans.’ There is deep satisfaction in the tone. Steady eyes look seaward. Sons of men of Dorset, men of Devon, Dorsetmen are watching your return! Do you feel the call of the blood, of the old places, of the old names in old England, of the places where you have played as boys, in New England? The transport creeps along the sky-line, and the two destroyers.

The church of St. Michael, like all Saint Michael’s churches, stands on the steep, and the tombstones and the crosses halt at the clean cliff edge. Here, looking out to sea, the sleepers lie — the men of Dorset who knew the fathers of New England. As we stand beside their graves and watch the transport stealing by, we wonder if dust is all, if spirit does not hover to acclaim and welcome back the sons of English sires, come across the seas to fight.

The bell rings from the square church-tower, where the flag of England waves — a merry peal, for it is Christmas Day, 1917. Up, up through the streets of the little town come the old men and the women and the children.

The bell rings merrily, for it is Christmas Day; but it is a quiet people, with grave faces and earnest hearts, who enter the church porch.

The sea — the mart — the church — the arteries through which the steady pulsing life of England has run these thousand years — a noble life.

The church is full, to the doors; but the black-gowned sexton leads us to a place in the main aisle, where we kneel with the sweet Christmas sense of holly and greens, and boys’ voices singing a Christmas song, and rise to see — our flag — our flag! The Stars and Stripes are hanging above the altar in a sunlit glory, dimmed only by the tears in our eyes.

So they have come back — Dorset men who sailed away — to the hearts of their own kin. I laughed in my heart, but the tears would not cease. My flag, with all it stands for — there; ‘ the faith that was in them ’ has brought it back again. ‘Peace on earth to men of good-will,’ reads the vicar from the old Jacobean pulpit, standing under a sounding-board wreathed around with the carven name of ‘a merchant adventurer, 1615.’ ‘ Peace on earth to men of good-will. ’

The transport is sailing to France.

‘Of your charity, pray for the souls of the gallant dead, 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917’ — so run the words on the shrine against the pillar. Beneath the laurel wreath, between the white ensign and the Union Jack, is inscribed the long list — so many names of Massachusetts and Connecticut among them — of the men who have died, for what? On the wall close by, I read the answer. An exquisite small brass tablet, silvery with time, bears arms, and the inscription : —

‘ Here lyeth the body of Ralph Edmonston, gentleman, also here lyeth the body of Thomas, son of the sayd Ralph, also William, son of the sayd Thomas, also Anthony son of the sayd William, which sayd Anthony deceased Sept. 12, 1655.’

Men pious, just, and wise, each many a yeare,
The helme of this towne’s government did steere,
Beyond base, envious reach, whose endless name
Lives in all those that emulate their fame.

Brought up in a pious, just, and wise tradition, their sons have gone forth to die for justice and their God — and are going and will go — will go.

We hurried out among the graves to the cliff top — the transport was almost out of sight.

In the church of St. Michael the Stars and Stripes keep Christmas vigil with the cross of St. George above the altar. ‘Peace on earth,’ they promise, ‘to men of good-will.’

As I wrote these words, sitting in my great bedroom at the old inn late that night, a true and wonderful thing happened.

The red damask curtains were drawn, and the four-poster bed and the old prints were dim in the light of the two candles on my writing-table; this and my arm-chair I had pulled as near as I could to the fire, for it was very cold. Suddenly a distant step rang out on the stillness of the frosty night, coming nearer down the steep cobbled street; and then a man’s voice came to me, clear and sweet, upon the frosty air. ‘ It’s a long, long way ’ — he was quite close — ‘to my home in Kentucky.’ He was under my window— ‘It’s a long, long way’ — he had passed.

For a moment home did seem half the world away; then I remembered the flag above the altar, and I said aloud. ‘O you singer! It’s not nearly as long a way as it was!’