A Caller From Boone by James Whitcomb Riley

Story type: Literature

BENJ. F. JOHNSON VISITS THE EDITOR

It was a dim and chill and loveless afternoon in the late fall of eighty-three when I first saw the genial subject of this hasty sketch. From time to time the daily paper on which I worked had been receiving, among the general literary driftage of amateur essayists, poets and sketch-writers, some conceits in verse that struck the editorial head as decidedly novel; and, as they were evidently the production of an unlettered man, and an old man, and a farmer at that, they were usually spared the waste-basket, and preserved–not for publication, but to pass from hand to hand among the members of the staff as simply quaint and mirth-provoking specimens of the verdancy of both the venerable author and the Muse inspiring him. Letters as quaint as were the poems invariably accompanied them, and the oddity of these, in fact, had first called attention to the verses. I well remember the general merriment of the office when the first of the old man’s letters was read aloud, and I recall, too, some of his comments on his own verse, verbatim. In one place he said: “I make no doubt you will find some purty sad spots in my poetry, considerin’; but I hope you will bear in mind that I am a great sufferer with rheumatizum, and have been, off and on, sence the cold New Year’s. In the main, however,” he continued, “I allus aim to write in a cheerful, comfortin’ sperit, so’s ef the stuff hangs fire, and don’t do no good, it hain’t a-goin’ to do no harm,–and them’s my honest views on poetry.”

In another letter, evidently suspecting his poem had not appeared in print because of its dejected tone, he said: “The poetry I herewith send was wrote off on the finest Autumn day I ever laid eyes on! I never felt better in my life. The morning air was as invigoratin’ as bitters with tanzy in it, and the folks at breakfast said they never saw such a’ appetite on mortal man before. Then I lit out for the barn, and after feedin’, I come back and tuck my pen and ink out on the porch, and jest cut loose. I writ and writ till my fingers was that cramped I couldn’t hardly let go of the penholder. And the poem I send you is the upshot of it all. Ef you don’t find it cheerful enough fer your columns, I’ll have to knock under, that’s all!” And that poem, as I recall it, certainly was cheerful enough for publication, only the “copy” was almost undecipherable, and the ink, too, so pale and vague, it was thought best to reserve the verses, for the time, at least, and later on revise, copy, punctuate, and then print it sometime, as much for the joke of it as anything. But it was still delayed, neglected, and in a week’s time almost entirely forgotten. And so it was, upon this chill and sombre afternoon I speak of that an event occurred which most pleasantly reminded me of both the poem with the “sad spots” in it, and the “cheerful” one, “writ out on the porch” that glorious autumn day that poured its glory through the old man’s letter to us.

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Outside and in the sanctum the gloom was too oppressive to permit an elevated tendency of either thought or spirit. I could do nothing but sit listless and inert. Paper and pencil were before me, but I could not write–I could not even think coherently, and was on the point of rising and rushing out into the streets for a wild walk, when there came a hesitating knock at the door.

“Come in!” I snarled, grabbing up my pencil and assuming a frightfully industrious air: “Come in!” I almost savagely repeated, “Come in! And shut the door behind you!” and I dropped my lids, bent my gaze fixedly upon the blank pages before me and began scrawling some disconnected nothings with no head or tail or anything.

“Sir; howdy,” said a low and pleasant voice. And at once, in spite of my perverse resolve, I looked up. I someway felt rebuked.

The speaker was very slowly, noiselessly closing the door. I could hardly face him when he turned around. An old man, of sixty-five, at least, but with a face and an eye of the most cheery and wholesome expression I had ever seen in either youth or age. Over his broad bronzed forehead and white hair he wore a low-crowned, wide-brimmed black felt hat, somewhat rusted now, and with the band grease-crusted, and the binding frayed at intervals, and sagging from the threads that held it on. An old-styled frock coat of black, dull brown in streaks, and quite shiny about the collar and lapels. A waistcoat of no describable material or pattern, and a clean white shirt and collar of one piece, with a black string-tie and double bow, which would have been entirely concealed beneath the long white beard but for its having worked around to one side of the neck. The front outline of the face was cleanly shaven, and the beard, growing simply from the under chin and throat, lent the old pioneer the rather singular appearance of having hair all over him with this luxurious growth pulled out above his collar for mere sample.

I arose and asked the old man to sit down, handing him a chair decorously.

“No–no,” he said–“I’m much obleeged. I hain’t come in to bother you no more’n I can he’p. All I wanted was to know ef you got my poetry all right. You know I take yer paper,” he went on, in an explanatory way, “and seein’ you printed poetry in it once-in-a-while, I sent you some of mine–neighbors kindo’ advised me to,” he added apologetically, “and so I sent you some–two or three times I sent you some, but I hain’t never seed hide-ner-hair of it in your paper, and as I wus in town to-day, anyhow, I jest thought I’d kindo’ drap in and git it back, ef you ain’t goin’ to print it–’cause I allus save up most the things I write, aimin’ sometime to git ’em all struck off in pamphlet-form, to kindo’ distribit round ‘mongst the neighbors, don’t you know.”

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Already I had begun to suspect my visitor’s identity, and was mechanically opening the drawer of our poetical department.

“How was your poetry signed?” I asked.

“Signed by my own name,” he answered proudly,–“signed by my own name,–Johnson–Benjamin F. Johnson, of Boone County–this state.”

“And is this one of them, Mr. Johnson?” I asked, unfolding a clumsily-folded manuscript, and closely scrutinizing the verse.

“How does she read?” said the old man eagerly, and searching in the meantime for his spectacles. “How does she read?–Then I can tell you!”

“It reads,” said I, studiously conning the old man’s bold but bad chirography, and tilting my chair back indolently,–“it reads like this–the first verse does,”–and I very gravely read:–

“Oh! the old swimmin’-hole!”

“Stop! Stop!” said the old man excitedly–“Stop right there! That’s my poetry, but that’s not the way to read it by a long shot! Give it to me!” and he almost snatched it from my hand. “Poetry like this ain’t no poetry at all, ‘less you read it natchurl and in jes the same sperit ‘at it’s writ in, don’t you understand. It’s a’ old man a-talkin’, rickollect, and a-feelin’ kindo’ sad, and yit kindo’ sorto’ good, too, and I opine he wouldn’t got that off with a face on him like a’ undertaker, and a voice as solemn as a cow-bell after dark! He’d say it more like this.”–And the old man adjusted his spectacles and read:–

“THE OLD SWIMMIN’-HOLE”

“Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! whare the crick so still and deep
Looked like a baby-river that was laying half asleep,
And the gurgle of the worter round the drift jest below
Sounded like the laugh of something we onc’t ust to know
Before we could remember anything but the eyes
Of the angels lookin’ out as we left Paradise;
But the merry days of youth is beyond our controle,
And it’s hard to part ferever with the old swimmin’-hole.”

I clapped my hands in genuine applause. “Read on!” I said,–“Read on! Read all of it!”

The old man’s face was radiant as he continued:–

“Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! In the happy days of yore,
When I ust to lean above it on the old sickamore,
Oh! it showed me a face in its warm sunny tide
That gazed back at me so gay and glorified,
It made me love myself, as I leaped to caress
My shadder smilin’ up at me with sich tenderness.
But them days is past and gone, and old Time’s tuck his toll
From the old man come back to the old swimmin’-hole.

“Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! In the long, lazy days
When the hum-drum of school made so many run-a-ways,
How pleasant was the jurney down the old dusty lane,
Whare the tracks of our bare feet was all printed so plane
You could tell by the dent of the heel and the sole
They was lots o’ fun on hands at the old swimmin’-hole.
But the lost joys is past! Let your tears in sorrow roll
Like the rain that ust to dapple up the old swimmin’-hole.

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“Thare the bullrushes growed, and the cattails so tall,
And the sunshine and shadder fell over it all;
And it mottled the worter with amber and gold
Tel the glad lillies rocked in the ripples that rolled;
And the snake-feeder’s four gauzy wings fluttered by
Like the ghost of a daisy dropped out of the sky,
Or a wownded apple-blossom in the breeze’s controle
As it cut acrost some orchurd to’rds the old swimmin’-hole.

“Oh! the old swimmin’-hole! When I last saw the place,
The scenes was all changed, like the change in my face;
The bridge of the railroad now crosses the spot
Whare the old divin’-log lays sunk and fergot.
And I strayed down the banks whare the trees ust to be–
But never again will theyr shade shelter me!
And I wisht in my sorrow I could strip to the soul,
And dive off in my grave like the old swimmin’-hole.”

My applause was long and loud. The old man’s interpretation of the poem was a positive revelation, though I was glad enough to conceal from him my moistened eyes by looking through the scraps for other specimens of his verse.

“Here,” said I enthusiastically, “is another one, signed ‘Benj. F. Johnson,’ read me this,” and I handed him the poem.

The old man smiled and took the manuscript. “This-here one’s on ‘ The Hoss,’” he said, simply clearing his throat. “They ain’t so much fancy-work about this as the other’n, but they’s jest as much fact, you can bet–’cause, they’re no animal a-livin’ ‘at I love better ‘an

“THE HOSS”

“The hoss he is a splendud beast;
He is man’s friend, as heaven desined,
And, search the world from west to east,
No honester you’ll ever find!

“Some calls the hoss ‘a pore dumb brute,’
And yit, like Him who died fer you,
I say, as I theyr charge refute,
‘Fergive; they know not what they do!’

“No wiser animal makes tracks
Upon these earthly shores, and hence
Arose the axium, true as facts,
Extoled by all, as ‘Good hoss-sense!’

“The hoss is strong, and knows his stren’th,–
You hitch him up a time er two
And lash him, and he’ll go his len’th
And kick the dashboard out fer you!

“But, treat him allus good and kind,
And never strike him with a stick,
Ner aggervate him, and you’ll find
He’ll never do a hostile trick.

“A hoss whose master tends him right
And worters him with daily care,
Will do your biddin’ with delight,
And act as docile as you air.

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“He’ll paw and prance to hear your praise,
Because he’s learnt to love you well;
And, though you can’t tell what he says,
He’ll nicker all he wants to tell.

“He knows you when you slam the gate
At early dawn, upon your way
Unto the barn, and snorts elate,
To git his corn, er oats, er hay.

“He knows you, as the orphant knows
The folks that loves her like theyr own,
And raises her and ‘finds’ her clothes,
And ‘schools’ her tel a womern-grown!

“I claim no hoss will harm a man,
Ner kick, ner run away, cavort,
Stump-suck, er balk, er ‘catamaran,’
Ef you’ll jest treat him as you ort.

“But when I see the beast abused
And clubbed around as I’ve saw some,
I want to see his owner noosed,
And jest yanked up like Absolum!

“Of course they’s differunce in stock,–
A hoss that has a little yeer,
And slender build, and shaller hock,
Can beat his shadder, mighty near!

“Whilse one that’s thick in neck and chist
And big in leg and full in flank,
That tries to race, I still insist
He’ll have to take the second rank.

“And I have jest laid back and laughed,
And rolled and wallered in the grass
At fairs, to see some heavy-draft
Lead out at first, yit come in last !

“Each hoss has his appinted place,–
The heavy hoss should plow the soil;–
The blooded racer, he must race,
And win big wages fer his toil.

“I never bet–ner never wrought
Upon my feller-man to bet–
And yit, at times, I’ve often thought
Of my convictions with regret.

“I bless the hoss from hoof to head–
From head to hoof, and tale to mane!–
I bless the hoss, as I have said,
From head to hoof, and back again!

“I love my God the first of all,
Then Him that perished on the cross,
And next, my wife,–and then I fall
Down on my knees and love the hoss.”

Again I applauded, handing the old man still another of his poems, and the last received. “Ah!” said he, as his gentle eyes bent on the title; “this-here’s the cheerfullest one of ’em all. This is the one writ, as I wrote you about–on that glorious October morning two weeks ago–I thought your paper would print this-un, shore!”

“Oh, it will print it,” I said eagerly; “and it will print the other two as well! It will print anything that you may do us the honor to offer, and we’ll reward you beside just as you may see fit to designate.–But go on–go on! Read me the poem.”

The old man’s eyes were glistening as he responded with the poem entitled

“WHEN THE FROST IS ON THE PUNKIN”

“When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

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“They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here–
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock–
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

“The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin’ of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries–kindo’ lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin’ sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below–the clover overhead!–
O, it sets my hart a-clickin’ like the tickin’ of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

“Then your apples all is getherd, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin’ ‘s over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage,
too!…
I don’t know how to tell it–but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me
I’d want to ‘commodate ’em–all the whole-indurin’ flock–
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!”

That was enough! “Surely,” thought I, “here is a diamond in the rough, and a ‘gem,’ too, ‘of purest ray serene’!” I caught the old man’s hand and wrung it with positive rapture; and it is needless to go further in explanation of how the readers of our daily came to an acquaintance through its columns with the crude, unpolished, yet most gentle genius of Benj. F. Johnson, of Boone.

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