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Fraddon, her husband, had left her very mysteriously. Their only horse needed shoeing, which he rode into the village, and whilst the blacksmith was preparing the iron, Solomon was seen in the market, with his best whip in his hand, talking with a strange man—and that was all. Inquiries were made, advertisements inserted in the newspapers, searching parties wandered hither and thither; but there was no clue to the missing man.
The kind blacksmith brought the horse back to Susan Fraddon, and said all it was possible to say to comfort her; but, like Rachel of old, she refused consolation. She took, however, this great trouble to her Heavenly Father, and in the midst of her severest anguish He sustained her. She had known His love when but a child, which had softened for her the ills of life, and was never more precious than in the day of trouble.
Little Frank was then a baby in the cradle; and often has she kissed him there in the evening twilight, when the beautiful image of sleep was upon him, and smiles played upon his pretty cheeks like day-beams upon the pastures, and gone to the door of her home to listen for the footfall of him who was dearer to her than the light of the stars or the beauty of the summer bower. And there she would remain lost in meditation and prayer until the moon rose over the river and built bright palaces of silver in every dell, turning the warm tears upon her face to pearls of liquid light, and hanging the tree-tops, ferns, and grasses in snowy tissues. The breeze rustled in the underwood, bats wheeled by the ivied ruin, the river murmured on the lonely moor, and strange whisperings travelled among the hills; but no husband's footfall gladdened her ear, nor his much-loved voice cheered her heart .
And week after week it was the same, until the lagging years partially softened the sudden sorrow. The horse had long gone, the cow had been parted with, the sheep driven to other fields and sheltered in other folds; and poor Susan and her boy were so reduced that it was really difficult to survive. Nearly the last piece of bread had been eaten for breakfast, and poor little Frank's hunger had not been appeased. Yet Susan Fraddon still trusted in her God. How beautiful is faith, especially the trust of a loving wife! And how much more beautiful is the childlike faith of the Gospel!
"Here, Frank," said Susan Fraddon, "take this sewingwork which I have just finished, over to the lawyer's, and tell the servant that mother would feel obliged, as it will be Christmas Day to-morrow, if Mrs. Bindweed would send the money for it, and also that which was due to me a fortnight ago. If this is not sent ours will be a very small dinner to-morrow, for we must cook the three last potatoes we have in the broken pan under the stairs, and eat them with a little salt. But He who was born in a stable will not despise us because our dinner is poor; but, if our hearts go up to Him, will visit us as freely as those whose tables are heavily laden with the luxuries of life. Whatever it is, Frank, we will try to be thankful, and not forget to render Him our love. Methinks I have never felt Him so near as I have lately, when our cupboard has been empty, and the last stick in the grate. But go now, dear Frank; I will tidy up the house a little, and put a few stitches in your best cap, as we know not when we shall afford to buy another. Of course I shall think of your father, as I always do on Christmas Eve, more than on any other eve throughout the year. I shall put his chair in the corner, with his slippers by it, which have been unworn so long; for, perhaps, after all the Lord may send him back. Now let me kiss you; there, good-bye, and I do hope Mrs. Bindweed will pay you."
Little Frank Fraddon kissed his mother, and closed the door behind him. He was not very long in reaching the lawyer's residence, when he told the servant his story, handing her the parcel. She replied that she was sorry her mistress was not at home, that she was gone to a ball at the Squire's, and would not return until late at night. Poor Frank, he felt his heart sink within him, and a cold shudder shook his frame. He bade the servant good-bye, turned from the door, and soon his eyes were red with weeping. What should they do now to pass the Christmas? How procure sufficient to eat? And, worse than all, how could he break the sorrowful news to his mother? As he passed along, the snow began to fall, and the wind was whistling through the leafless trees. His hands were very cold, but he rubbed them together to warm them, and even washed his face in the cold water of the brook, that his mother might not see he had been crying. Brave little Frank, we feel we could kiss him heartily if he were near us now! He lifted up a little prayer to our Father in heaven as he trudged along, which served to comfort him greatly. Will it not be well for those who are discontented, amid so much of the good things of life, to remember the hardships and privations of poor little Frank Fraddon, which might tend, perhaps, to remove their ingratitude, and stimulate their hearts with thankfulness to the great Giver?
Susan Fraddon received the intelligence of Mrs. Bindweed's absence with some dismay; but the cloud did not remain on her countenance long when she saw the brave look of her boy. The neighbouring people passed by their door on their way from the late market, but there was no market for Frank or his mother! Of what use was it to go there with an empty stomach and an empty purse? Money is what the sellers wanted, or there would be no buyers. Legs of mutton, ribs for roasting, fat geese and ducks, and all the rich abundance prepared for the holy tide, passed another way, and not a single shred crossed their threshold. Frank went down to the sea-beach, and found some wood washed up by the waves, which he gathered together and carried home, so that they might not be entirely without fire on Christmas Day. He also succeeded in securing a handful or two of shell-fish, which he put into his pocket for his mother, as he knew she greatly relished them. A few crusts were all they had that evening, when they retired to bed early to save their fuel and the candle. And who knows what earnest, heartfelt prayers went up through the darkness of that poor home, from mother and son, to Him who exclaimed, when walking through this sorrowful world, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head!" Could Mrs. Bindweed have heard their solemn petitions, and seen the tears upon the faces of the two praying ones, would she not have shuddered in the midst of the brilliant ball, like him who saw the fingers of a man's hand writing mystically upon the plaster, and have sent the poor needlewoman's hard-earned pittance to her before the dawning of the following Christmas Day? Surely it is high time that the selfish rich ceased thus to trifle with the industrious poor, who too often suffer hunger and cold through such neglect.
The bells rang on Christmas Day, the sun looked down upon the snow, carol-singers chanted their anthems in rich men's halls, the mistletoe and holly graced many a dwelling, and the yule-log blazed in the chimney-nook; but naught of a festive nature was found in Susan Fraddon's abode. Now and then they caught the stray strain of a Christmas song floating past them on the cold wind, awakened by the choristers at a well-to-do farmer's door, where buns and beef were plentiful; but no fowl was spitted in their dwelling, or festal cake sent forth its odour on their board. Frank kindled the drift-wood he had picked up on the beach, which soon made a cheerful blaze in the chimney corner. But he was careful not to burn it too fast, and got a few sods from the wood-corner to save it. His mother put the three remaining potatoes in the saucepan, placing it over the fire, which, as our readers are aware, with a shell-fish or two, would constitute their Christmas dinner. Frank attended to the wood, and sometimes smiled to see the great sparks soaring and spluttering up the stack. Susan sat by him with her holiday cap on her head, and a few faded garments she had saved from the wreck of the past enfolding her person. She was pale and thoughtful, and looked with anxious eyes into the flickering fire, as if she saw some far-off vision which had aforetime cheered her spirit. The Christmas bells of other days sounded in her ears, when one, who now is not, filled her life with brightness and her soul with hope—gone from her outward gaze like the mists from the moorland mere.
And who can say that she did not see Him in the midst of the blazing driftwood, who once walked with the three Hebrew children in the burning fiery furnace, and also stood in glorified robes on the Mount of Transfiguration, and whispered in after days to His wondering disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, "Children, have ye any meat?" Who can say that she did not see Him, and that He did not whisper to her, saying, " Daughter, be of good cheer; I will never leave thee or forsake thee?"
The three potatoes were ready, and several of the shellfish were roasting upon the red brands. Frank was watching them, and Susan was laying the cloth on the table, ever and anon wiping off a tear from her face, and bending affectionate looks upon her poor patient boy, who seemed so contented with the thought of having two potatoes—for she would only reserve one for herself—and a few limpets for his Christmas dinner, when so many were having their roast meat and fowl pie, to say nothing of the pudding, which could scarcely bear its own weight. Frank Fraddon had no thoughts of envy of the better feasters of the day, for he even whistled with contentment as he attended to the cooking of the shell-fish, and often spoke quite cheerfully to his mother, saying it was jolly to hear the hissing of the fish and the crackling of the brands. Just then someone came into the porch and knocked. Who could it be at that time, for it was rarely indeed that they had a visitor? Susan opened the door, and, behold, a man was standing there with a bandage around his brow. He was leaning on a stick, and appeared to be very weary. He told them he had been travelling for a considerable way,