At Zekesbury.

A poem by James Whitcomb Riley

The little town, as I recall it, was of just enough dignity and dearth of the same to be an ordinary county seat in Indiana - "The Grand Old Hoosier State," as it was used to being howlingly referred to by the forensic stump orator from the old stand in the courthouse yard - a political campaign being the wildest delight that Zekesbury might ever hope to call its own.

Through years the fitful happenings of the town and its vicinity went on the same - the same! Annually about one circus ventured in, and vanished, and was gone, even as a passing trumpet-blast; the usual rainy-season swelled the "Crick," the driftage choking at "the covered bridge," and backing water till the old road looked amphibious; and crowds of curious townsfolk straggled down to look upon the watery wonder, and lean awe-struck above it, and spit in it, and turn mutely home again.

The usual formula of incidents peculiar to an uneventful town and its vicinity: The countryman from "Jessup's Crossing," with the cornstalk coffin-measure, loped into town, his steaming little gray-and-red-flecked "roadster" gurgitating, as it were, with that mysterious utterance that ever has commanded and ever must evoke the wonder and bewilderment of every boy. The small-pox rumor became prevalent betimes, and the subtle aroma of the assafoetida-bag permeated the graded schools "from turret to foundation-stone;" the still recurring exposé of the poor-house management; the farm-hand, with the scythe across his shoulder, struck dead by lightning; the long-drawn quarrel between the rival editors culminating in one of them assaulting the other with a "sidestick," and the other kicking the one down stairs and thenceward ad libitum; the tramp, suppositiously stealing a ride, found dead on the railroad; the grand jury returning a sensational indictment against a bar-tender non est; the Temperance outbreak; the "Revival;" the Church Festival; and the "Free Lectures on Phrenology, and Marvels of Mesmerism," at the town hall. It was during the time of the last-mentioned sensation, and directly through this scientific investigation, that I came upon two of the town's most remarkable characters. And however meager my outline of them may prove, my material for the sketch is most accurate in every detail, and no deviation from the cold facts of the case shall influence any line of my report.

For some years prior to this odd experience I had been connected with a daily paper at the state capitol; and latterly a prolonged session of the legislature, where I specially reported, having told threateningly upon my health, I took both the advantage of a brief vacation, and the invitation of a young bachelor Senator, to get out of the city for awhile, and bask my respiratory organs in the revivifying rural air of Zekesbury - the home of my new friend.

"It'll pay you to get out here," he said, cordially, meeting me at the little station, "and I'm glad you've come, for you'll find no end of odd characters to amuse you." And under the very pleasant sponsorship of my senatorial friend, I was placed at once on genial terms with half the citizens of the little town - from the shirt-sleeved nabob of the county office to the droll wag of the favorite loafing-place - the rules and by-laws of which resort, by the way, being rudely charcoaled on the wall above the cutter's bench, and somewhat artistically culminating in an original dialectic legend which ran thus:

F'rinstance, now whar some folks gits
To relyin' on their wits.
Ten to one they git too smart,
And spile it all right at the start! -
Feller wants to jest go slow
And do his thinkin' first, you know: - -
Ef I can't think up somepin' good,
I set still and chaw my cood!

And it was at this inviting rendezvous, two or three evenings following my arrival, that the general crowd, acting upon the random proposition of one of the boys, rose as a man and wended its hilarious way to the town hall.

"Phrenology," said the little, old, bald-headed lecturer and mesmerist, thumbing the egg-shaped head of a young man I remembered to have met that afternoon in some law office; "Phrenology," repeated the professor - "or rather the term phrenology - is derived from two Greek words signifying mind and discourse; hence we find embodied in phrenology-proper, the science of intellectual measurement, together with the capacity of intelligent communication of the varying mental forces and their flexibilities, etc., &c. The study, then, of phrenology is, to wholly simplify it - is, I say, the general contemplation of the workings of the mind as made manifest through the certain corresponding depressions and protuberances of the human skull, when, of course, in a healthy state of action and development, as we here find the conditions exemplified in the subject before us."

Here the "subject" vaguely smiled.

"You recognize that mug, don't you?" whispered my friend. "It's that coruscating young ass, you know, Hedrick - in Cummings' office - trying to study law and literature at the same time, and tampering with 'The Monster that Annually,' don't you know? - where we found the two young students scuffling round the office, and smelling of peppermint? - Hedrick, you know, and Sweeney. Sweeney, the slim chap, with the pallid face, and frog-eyes, and clammy hands! You remember I told you 'there was a pair of 'em?' Well, they're up to something here to-night. Hedrick, there on the stage in front; and Sweeney - don't you see? - with the gang on the rear seats."

"Phrenology - again," continued the lecturer, "is, we may say, a species of mental geography, as it were; which - by a study of the skull - leads also to a study of the brain within, even as geology naturally follows the initial contemplation of the earth's surface. The brain, thurfur, or intellectual retort, as we may say, natively exerts a molding influence on the skull contour; thurfur is the expert in phrenology most readily enabled to accurately locate the multitudinous intellectual forces, and most exactingly estimate, as well, the sequent character of each subject submitted to his scrutiny. As, in the example before us - a young man, doubtless well known in your midst, though, I may say, an entire stranger to myself - I venture to disclose some characteristic trends and tendencies, as indicated by this phrenological depression and development of the skull-proper, as later we will show, through the mesmeric condition, the accuracy of our mental diagnosis."

Throughout the latter part of this speech my friend nudged me spasmodically, whispering something which was jostled out of intelligent utterance by some inward spasm of laughter.

"In this head," said the Professor, straddling his malleable fingers across the young man's bumpy brow - "In this head we find Ideality large - abnormally large, in fact; thurby indicating - taken in conjunction with a like development of the perceptive qualities - language following, as well, in the prominent eye - thurby indicating, I say, our subject as especially endowed with a love for the beautiful - the sublime - the elevating - the refined and delicate - the lofty and superb - in nature, and in all the sublimated attributes of the human heart and beatific soul. In fact, we find this young man possessed of such natural gifts as would befit him for the exalted career of the sculptor, the actor, the artist, or the poet - any ideal calling; in fact, any calling but a practical, matter-of-fact vocation; though in poetry he would seem to best succeed."

"Well," said my friend, seriously, "he's feeling for the boy!" Then laughingly: "Hedrick has written some rhymes for the county papers, and Sweeney once introduced him, at an Old Settlers' Meeting, as 'The Best Poet in Center Township,' and never cracked a smile! Always after each other that way, but the best friends in the world. Sweeney's strong suit is elocution. He has a native ability that way by no means ordinary, but even that gift he abuses and distorts simply to produce grotesque, and oftentimes ridiculous effects. For instance, nothing more delights him than to 'lothfully' consent to answer a request, at The Mite Society, some evening, for 'an appropriate selection,' and then, with an elaborate introduction of the same, and an exalted tribute to the refined genius of the author, proceed with a most gruesome rendition of 'Alonzo The Brave and The Fair Imogene,' in a way to coagulate the blood and curl the hair of his fair listeners with abject terror. Pale as a corpse, you know, and with that cadaverous face, lit with those malignant-looking eyes, his slender figure, and his long, thin legs and arms and hands, and his whole diabolical talent and adroitness brought into play - why, I want to say to you, it's enough to scare 'em to death! Never a smile from him, though, till he and Hedrick are safe out into the night again - then, of course, they hug each other and howl over it like Modocs! But pardon; I'm interrupting the lecture. Listen."

"A lack of continuity, however," continued the Professor, "and an undue love of approbation, would, measurably, at least, tend to retard the young man's progress toward the consummation of any loftier ambition, I fear; yet as we have intimated, if the subject were appropriately educated to the need's demand, he could doubtless produce a high order of both prose and poetry - especially the latter - though he could very illy bear being laughed at for his pains."

"He's dead wrong there," said my friend; "Hedrick enjoys being laughed at; he 's used to it - gets fat on it!"

"He is fond of his friends," continued the Professor "and the heartier they are the better; might even be convivially inclined - if so tempted - but prudent - in a degree," loiteringly concluded the speaker, as though unable to find the exact bump with which to bolster up the last named attribute.

The subject blushed vividly - my friend's right eyelid dropped, and there was a noticeable, though elusive sensation throughout the audience.

"But!" said the Professor, explosively, "selecting a directly opposite subject, in conjunction with the study of the one before us [turning to the group at the rear of the stage and beckoning], we may find a newer interest in the practical comparison of these subjects side by side." And the Professor pushed a very pale young man into position.

"Sweeney!" whispered my friend, delightedly; "now look out!"

"In this subject," said the Professor, "we find the practical business head. Square - though small - a trifle light at the base, in fact; but well balanced at the important points at least; thoughtful eyes - wide-awake - crafty - quick - restless - a policy eye, though not denoting language - unless, perhaps, mere business forms and direct statements."

"Fooled again!" whispered my friend; "and I'm afraid the old man will fail to nest out the fact also that Sweeney is the cold-bloodedest guyer on the face of the earth, and with more diabolical resources than a prosecuting attorney; the Professor ought to know this, too, by this time - for these same two chaps have been visiting the old man in his room at the hotel; - that's what I was trying to tell you awhile ago. The old sharp thinks he's 'playing' the boys, is my idea; but it's the other way, or I lose my guess."

"Now, under the mesmeric influence - if the two subjects will consent to its administration," said the Professor, after some further tedious preamble, "we may at once determine the fact of my assertions, as will be proved by their action while in this peculiar state." Here some apparent remonstrance was met with from both subjects, though amicably overcome by the Professor first manipulating the stolid brow and pallid front of the imperturbable Sweeney - after which the same mysterious ordeal was lothfully submitted to by Hedrick - though a noticeably longer time was consumed in securing his final loss of self-control. At last, however, this curious phenomenon was presented, and there before us stood the two swaying figures, the heads dropped back, the lifted hands, with thumb and finger-tips pressed lightly together, the eyelids languid and half closed, and the features, in appearance, wan and humid.

"Now, sir!" said the Professor, leading the limp Sweeney forward, and addressing him in a quick, sharp tone of voice. - "Now, sir, you are a great contractor - own large factories, and with untold business interests. Just look out there! [pointing out across the expectant audience] look there, and see the countless minions toiling servilely at your dread mandates. And yet - ha! ha! See! see! - They recognize the avaricious greed that would thus grind them in the very dust; they see, alas! they see themselves half-clothed - half-fed, that you may glut your coffers. Half-starved, they listen to the wail of wife and babe, and, with eyes upraised in prayer, they see you rolling by in gilded coach, and swathed in silk attire. But - ha! again! Look - look! they are rising in revolt against you! Speak to them before too late! Appeal to them - quell them with the promise of the just advance of wages they demand!"

The limp figure of Sweeney took on something of a stately and majestic air. With a graceful and commanding gesture of the hand, he advanced a step or two; then, after a pause of some seconds duration, in which the lifted face grew paler, as it seemed, and the eyes a denser black, he said:

"But yesterday
I looked away
O'er happy lands, where sunshine lay
In golden blots,
Inlaid with spots
Of shade and wild forget-me-nots."

The voice was low, but clear, and ever musical. The Professor started at the strange utterance, looked extremely confused, and, as the boisterous crowd cried "Hear, hear!" he motioned the subject to continue, with some gasping comment interjected, which, if audible, would have run thus: "My God! It's an inspirational poem!"

"My head was fair
With flaxen hair - "

resumed the subject.

"Yoop-ee!" yelled an irreverent auditor.

"Silence! silence!" commanded the excited Professor in a hoarse whisper; then, turning enthusiastically to the subject - "Go on, young man! Go on! - 'Thy head-was fair-with flaxen hair - '"

"My head was fair
With flaxen hair,
And fragrant breezes, faint and rare,
And warm with drouth
From out the south,
Blew all my curls across my mouth."

The speaker's voice, exquisitely modulated, yet resonant as the twang of a harp, now seemed of itself to draw and hold each listener; while a certain extravagance of gesticulation - a fantastic movement of both form and feature - seemed very near akin to fascination. And so flowed on the curious utterance:

"And, cool and sweet,
My naked feet
Found dewy pathways through the wheat;
And out again
Where, down the lane,
The dust was dimpled with the rain."

In the pause following there was a breathlessness almost painful. The poem went on:

"But yesterday
I heard the lay
Of summer birds, when I, as they
With breast and wing,
All quivering
With life and love, could only sing.

"My head was leant,
Where, with it, blent
A maiden's, o'er her instrument;
While all the night,
From vale to height,
Was filled with echoes of delight.

"And all our dreams
Were lit with gleams
Of that lost land of reedy streams,
Along whose brim
Forever swim
Pan's lilies, laughing up at him."

And still the inspired singer held rapt sway.

"It is wonderful!" I whispered, under breath.

"Of course it is!" answered my friend. "But listen; there is more:"

"But yesterday!...
O blooms of May,
And summer roses - Where-away?
O stars above;
And lips of love,
And all the honeyed sweets thereof!

"O lad and lass.
And orchard-pass,
And briared lane, and daisied grass!
O gleam and gloom,
And woodland bloom,
And breezy breaths of all perfume! -

"No more for me
Or mine shall be
Thy raptures - save in memory, -
No more - no more -
Till through the Door
Of Glory gleam the days of yore."

This was the evident conclusion of the remarkable utterance, and the Professor was impetuously fluttering his hands about the subject's upward-staring eyes, stroking his temples, and snapping his fingers in his face.

"Well," said Sweeney, as he stood suddenly awakened, and grinning in an idiotic way, "how did the old thing work?" And it was in the consequent hilarity and loud and long applause, perhaps, that the Professor was relieved from the explanation of this rather astounding phenomenon of the idealistic workings of a purely practical brain - or, as my impious friend scoffed the incongruity later, in a particularly withering allusion, as the "blank-blanked fallacy, don't you know, of staying the hunger of a howling mob by feeding 'em on Spring poetry!"

The tumult of the audience did not cease even with the retirement of Sweeney, and cries of "Hedrick! Hedrick!" only subsided with the Professor's high-keyed announcement that the subject was even then endeavoring to make himself heard, but could not until utter quiet was restored, adding the further appeal that the young man had already been a long time under the mesmeric spell, and ought not be so detained for an unnecessary period. "See," he concluded, with an assuring wave of the hand toward the subject, "see; he is about to address you. Now, quiet! - utter quiet, if you please!"

"Great heavens!" exclaimed my friend, stiflingly; "Just look at the boy! Get onto that position for a poet! Even Sweeney has fled from the sight of him!"

And truly, too, it was a grotesque pose the young man had assumed; not wholly ridiculous either, since the dwarfed position he had settled into seemed more a genuine physical condition than an affected one. The head, back-tilted, and sunk between the shoulders, looked abnormally large, while the features of the face appeared peculiarly child-like - especially the eyes - wakeful and wide apart, and very bright, yet very mild and very artless; and the drawn and cramped outline of the legs and feet, and of the arms and hands, even to the shrunken, slender-looking fingers, all combined to most strikingly convey to the pained senses the fragile frame and pixey figure of some pitiably afflicted child, unconscious altogether of the pathos of its own deformity.

"Now, mark the kuss, Horatio!" gasped my friend.

At first the speaker's voice came very low, and somewhat piping, too, and broken - an eerie sort of voice it was, of brittle and erratic timbre and undulant inflection. Yet it was beautiful. It had the ring of childhood in it, though the ring was not pure golden, and at times fell echoless. The spirit of its utterance was always clear and pure and crisp and cheery as the twitter of a bird, and yet forever ran an undercadence through it like a low-pleading prayer. Half garrulously, and like a shallow brook might brawl across a shelvy bottom, the rhythmic little changeling thus began:

"I'm thist a little crippled boy, an' never goin' to grow
An' git a great big man at all! - 'cause Aunty told me so.
When I was thist a baby one't I falled out of the bed
An' got 'The Curv'ture of the Spine' - 'at's what the Doctor said.
I never had no Mother nen - far my Pa run away
An' dassn't come back here no more - 'cause he was drunk one day
An' stobbed a man in thish-ere town, an' couldn't pay his fine!
An' nen my Ma she died - an' I got 'Curv'ture of the Spine!'"

A few titterings from the younger people in the audience marked the opening stanza, while a certain restlessness, and a changing to more attentive positions seemed the general tendency. The old Professor, in the meantime, had sunk into one of the empty chairs. The speaker went on with more gaiety:

"I'm nine years old! An' you can't guess how much I weigh, I bet! -
Last birthday I weighed thirty-three! - An' I weigh thirty yet!
I'm awful little far my size - I'm purt' nigh littler 'an
Some babies is! - an' neighbors all calls me 'The Little Man!'
An' Doc one time he laughed an' said: 'I 'spect, first thing you know,
You'll have a little spike-tail coat an' travel with a show!'
An' nen I laughed - till I looked round an' Aunty was a-cryin' -
Sometimes she acts like that, 'cause I got 'Curv'ture of the Spine!'"

Just in front of me a great broad-shouldered countryman, with a rainy smell in his cumbrous overcoat, cleared his throat vehemently, looked startled at the sound, and again settled forward, his weedy chin resting on the knuckles of his hands as they tightly clutched the seat before him. And it was like being taken into a childish confidence as the quaint speech continued:

"I set - while Aunty's washin' - on my little long-leg stool,
An' watch the little boys an' girls 'a-skippin' by to school;
An' I peck on the winder, an' holler out an' say:
'Who wants to fight The Little Man 'at dares you all to-day?'
An' nen the boys climbs on the fence, an' little girls peeks through,
An' they all says: 'Cause you're so big, you think we're 'feared o' you!'
An' nen they yell, an' shake their fist at me, like I shake mine -
They're thist in fun, you know, 'cause I got 'Curv'ture of the Spine!'"

"Well," whispered my friend, with rather odd irrelevance, I thought, "of course you see through the scheme of the fellows by this time, don't you?"

"I see nothing," said I, most earnestly, "but a poor little wisp of a child that makes me love him so I dare not think of his dying soon, as he surely must! There; listen!" And the plaintive gaiety of the homely poem ran on:

"At evening, when the ironin's done, an' Aunty's fixed the fire,
An' filled an' lit the lamp, an' trimmed the wick an' turned it higher,
An' fetched the wood all in far night, an' locked the kitchen door,
An' stuffed the ole crack where the wind blows in up through the floor -
She sets the kittle on the coals, an' biles an' makes the tea,
An' fries the liver an' the mush, an' cooks a egg far me;
An' sometimes - when I cough so hard - her elderberry wine
Don't go so bad far little boys with 'Curv'ture of the Spine!'"

"Look!" whispered my friend, touching me with his elbow. "Look at the Professor!"

"Look at everybody!" said I. And the artless little voice went on again half quaveringly:

"But Aunty's all so childish-like on my account, you see,
I'm 'most afeared she'll be took down - an' 'at's what bothers me! -
'Cause ef my good ole Aunty ever would git sick an' die,
I don't know what she'd do in Heaven - till I come, by an' by: -
Far she's so ust to all my ways, an' ever'thing, you know,
An' no one there like me, to nurse, an' worry over so! -
'Cause all the little childerns there's so straight an' strong an' fine,
They's nary angel 'bout the place with 'Curv'ture of the Spine!'"

The old Professor's face was in his handkerchief; so was my friend's in his; and so was mine in mine, as even now my pen drops and I reach for it again.

I half regret joining the mad party that had gathered an hour later in the old law-office where these two graceless characters held almost nightly revel, the instigators and conniving hosts of a reputed banquet whose menu's range confined itself to herrings, or "blind robins," dried beef, and cheese, with crackers, gingerbread, and sometimes pie; the whole washed down with anything but

" - - Wines that heaven knows when
Had sucked the fire of some forgotten sun,
And kept it through a hundred years of gloom
Still glowing in a heart of ruby."

But the affair was memorable. The old Professor was himself lured into it, and loudest in his praise of Hedrick's realistic art; and I yet recall him at the orgie's height, excitedly repulsing the continued slurs and insinuations of the clammy-handed Sweeney, who, still contending against the old man's fulsome praise of his more fortunate rival, at last openly declared that Hedrick was not a poet, not a genius, and in no way worthy to be classed in the same breath with himself - "the gifted but unfortunate Sweeney, sir - the unacknowledged author, sir - 'y gad, sir! - of the two poems that held you spell-bound to-night!"

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