The Spelling Bee at Angels

A poem by Francis Bret Harte

Waltz in, waltz in, ye little kids, and gather round my knee,
And drop them books and first pot-hooks, and hear a yarn from me.
I kin not sling a fairy tale of Jinnys fierce and wild,
For I hold it is unchristian to deceive a simple child;
But as from school yer driftin’ by, I thowt ye’d like to hear
Of a “Spelling Bee” at Angels that we organized last year.

It warn’t made up of gentle kids, of pretty kids, like you,
But gents ez hed their reg’lar growth, and some enough for two.
There woz Lanky Jim of Sutter’s Fork and Bilson of Lagrange,
And “Pistol Bob,” who wore that day a knife by way of change.
You start, you little kids, you think these are not pretty names,
But each had a man behind it, and my name is Truthful James.

There was Poker Dick from Whisky Flat, and Smith of Shooter’s Bend,
And Brown of Calaveras which I want no better friend;
Three-fingered Jack yes, pretty dears, three fingers you have five.
Clapp cut off two it’s sing’lar, too, that Clapp ain’t now alive.
’Twas very wrong indeed, my dears, and Clapp was much to blame;
Likewise was Jack, in after-years, for shootin’ of that same.

The nights was kinder lengthenin’ out, the rains had jest begun,
When all the camp came up to Pete’s to have their usual fun;
But we all sot kinder sad-like around the bar-room stove
Till Smith got up, permiskiss-like, and this remark he hove:
“Thar’s a new game down in Frisco, that ez far ez I can see
Beats euchre, poker, and van-toon, they calls the ‘Spellin’ Bee.’”

Then Brown of Calaveras simply hitched his chair and spake,
“Poker is good enough for me,” and Lanky Jim sez, “Shake!”
And Bob allowed he warn’t proud, but he “must say right thar
That the man who tackled euchre hed his education squar.”
This brought up Lenny Fairchild, the schoolmaster, who said
He knew the game, and he would give instructions on that head.

“For instance, take some simple word,” sez he, “like ‘separate:’
Now who can spell it?” Dog my skin, ef thar was one in eight.
This set the boys all wild at once. The chairs was put in row,
And at the head was Lanky Jim, and at the foot was Joe,
And high upon the bar itself the schoolmaster was raised,
And the bar-keep put his glasses down, and sat and silent gazed.

The first word out was “parallel,” and seven let it be,
Till Joe waltzed in his “double l” betwixt the “a” and “e;”
For since he drilled them Mexicans in San Jacinto’s fight
Thar warn’t no prouder man got up than Pistol Joe that night
Till “rhythm” came! He tried to smile, then said “they had him there,”
And Lanky Jim, with one long stride, got up and took his chair.

O little kids, my pretty kids, ’twas touchin’ to survey
These bearded men, with weppings on, like schoolboys at their play.
They’d laugh with glee, and shout to see each other lead the van,
And Bob sat up as monitor with a cue for a rattan,
Till the Chair gave out “incinerate,” and Brown said he’d be durned
If any such blamed word as that in school was ever learned.

When “phthisis” came they all sprang up, and vowed the man who rung
Another blamed Greek word on them be taken out and hung.
As they sat down again I saw in Bilson’s eye a flash,
And Brown of Calaveras was a-twistin’ his mustache,
And when at last Brown slipped on “gneiss,” and Bilson took his chair,
He dropped some casual words about some folks who dyed their hair.

And then the Chair grew very white, and the Chair said he’d adjourn,
But Poker Dick remarked that he would wait and get his turn;
Then with a tremblin’ voice and hand, and with a wanderin’ eye,
The Chair next offered “eider-duck,” and Dick began with “I”,
And Bilson smiled then Bilson shrieked! Just how the fight begun
I never knowed, for Bilson dropped, and Dick, he moved up one.

Then certain gents arose and said “they’d business down in camp,”
And “ez the road was rather dark, and ez the night was damp,
They’d” here got up Three-fingered Jack and locked the door and yelled:
“No, not one mother’s son goes out till that thar word is spelled!”
But while the words were on his lips, he groaned and sank in pain,
And sank with Webster on his chest and Worcester on his brain.

Below the bar dodged Poker Dick, and tried to look ez he
Was huntin’ up authorities thet no one else could see;
And Brown got down behind the stove, allowin’ he “was cold,”
Till it upsot and down his legs the cinders freely rolled,
And several gents called “Order!” till in his simple way
Poor Smith began with “O-r” “Or” and he was dragged away.

O little kids, my pretty kids, down on your knees and pray!
You’ve got your eddication in a peaceful sort of way;
And bear in mind thar may be sharps ez slings their spellin’ square,
But likewise slings their bowie-knives without a thought or care.
You wants to know the rest, my dears? Thet’s all! In me you see
The only gent that lived to tell about the Spellin’ Bee!

He ceased and passed, that truthful man; the children went their way
With downcast heads and downcast hearts but not to sport or play.
For when at eve the lamps were lit, and supperless to bed
Each child was sent, with tasks undone and lessons all unsaid,
No man might know the awful woe that thrilled their youthful frames,
As they dreamed of Angels Spelling Bee and thought of Truthful James.

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