The Gilded Roll.

A poem by James Whitcomb Riley

Nosing around in an old box - packed away, and lost to memory for
years - an hour ago I found a musty package of gilt paper, or rather, a
roll it was, with the green-tarnished gold of the old sheet for the
outer wrapper. I picked it up mechanically to toss it into some
obscure corner, when, carelessly lifting it by one end, a child's tin
whistle dropped therefrom and fell tinkling on the attic floor. It
lies before me on my writing table now - and so, too, does the roll
entire, though now a roll no longer, - for my eager fingers have
unrolled the gilded covering, and all its precious contents are spread
out beneath my hungry eyes.

Here is a scroll of ink-written music. I don't read music, but I know
the dash and swing of the pen that rained it on the page. Here is a
letter, with the self-same impulse and abandon in every syllable; and
its melody - however sweet the other - is far more sweet to me. And here
are other letters like it - three - five - and seven, at least. Bob wrote
them from the front, and Billy kept them for me when I went to join
him. Dear boy! Dear boy!

Here are some cards of bristol-board. Ah! when Bob came to these there
were no blotches then. What faces - what expressions! The droll,
ridiculous, good-for-nothing genius, with his "sad mouth," as he
called it, "upside down," laughing always - at everything, at big
rallies, and mass-meetings and conventions, county fairs, and floral
halls, booths, watermelon-wagons, dancing-tents, the swing,
Daguerrean-car, the "lung-barometer," and the air-gun man. Oh! what a
gifted, good-for-nothing boy Bob was in those old days! And here 's a
picture of a girlish face - a very faded photograph - even fresh from
"the gallery," five and twenty years ago it was a faded thing. But the
living face - how bright and clear that was! - for "Doc," Bob's awful
name for her, was a pretty girl, and brilliant, clever, lovable every
way. No wonder Bob fancied her! And you could see some hint of her
jaunty loveliness in every fairy face he drew, and you could find her
happy ways and dainty tastes unconsciously assumed in all he did - the
books he read - the poems he admired, and those he wrote; and, ringing
clear and pure and jubilant, the vibrant beauty of her voice could
clearly be defined and traced through all his music. Now, there's the
happy pair of them - Bob and Doc. Make of them just whatever your good
fancy may dictate, but keep in mind the stern, relentless ways of

You are not at the beginning of a novel, only at the threshold of one
of a hundred experiences that lie buried in the past, and this
particular one most happily resurrected by these odds and ends found
in the gilded roll.

You see, dating away back, the contents of this package, mainly, were
hastily gathered together after a week's visit out at the old Mills
farm; the gilt paper, and the whistle, and the pictures, they were
Billy's; the music pages, Bob's, or Doc's; the letters and some other
manuscripts were mine.

The Mills girls were great friends of Doc's, and often came to visit
her in town; and so Doc often visited the Mills's. This is the way
that Bob first got out there, and won them all, and "shaped the thing"
for me, as he would put it; and lastly, we had lugged in Billy, - such
a handy boy, you know, to hold the horses on picnic excursions, and to
watch the carriage and the luncheon, and all that. - "Yes, and," Bob
would say, "such a serviceable boy in getting all the fishing tackle
in proper order, and digging bait, and promenading in our wake up and
down the creek all day, with the minnow-bucket hanging on his arm,
don't you know!"

But jolly as the days were, I think jollier were the long evenings at
the farm. After the supper in the grove, where, when the weather
permitted, always stood the table, ankle-deep in the cool green plush
of the sward; and after the lounge upon the grass, and the cigars, and
the new fish stories, and the general invoice of the old ones, it was
delectable to get back to the girls again, and in the old "best room"
hear once more the lilt of the old songs and the stacattoed laughter
of the piano mingling with the alto and falsetto voices of the Mills
girls, and the gallant soprano of the dear girl Doc.

This is the scene I want you to look in upon, as, in fancy, I do
now - and here are the materials for it all, husked from the gilded

Bob, the master, leans at the piano now, and Doc is at the keys, her
glad face often thrown up sidewise toward his own. His face is
boyish - for there is yet but the ghost of a mustache upon his lip. His
eyes are dark and clear, of over-size when looking at you, but now
their lids are drooped above his violin, whose melody has, for the
time, almost smoothed away the upward kinkings of the corners of his
mouth. And wonderfully quiet now is every one, and the chords of the
piano, too, are low and faltering; and so, at last, the tune itself
swoons into the universal hush, and - Bob is rasping, in its stead, the
ridiculous, but marvelously perfect imitation of the "priming" of a
pump, while Billy's hands forget the "chiggers" on the bare backs of
his feet, as, with clapping palms, he dances round the room in
ungovernable spasms of delight. And then we all laugh; and Billy,
taking advantage of the general tumult, pulls Bob's head down and
whispers, "Git 'em to stay up 'way late to-night!" And Bob, perhaps
remembering that we go back home to-morrow, winks at the little fellow
and whispers, "You let me manage 'em! Stay up till broad daylight if
we take a notion - eh?" And Billy dances off again in newer glee, while
the inspired musician is plunking a banjo imitation on his enchanted
instrument, which is unceremoniously drowned out by a circus-tune from
Doc that is absolutely inspiring to everyone but the barefooted
brother, who drops back listlessly to his old position on the floor
and sullenly renews operations on his "chigger" claims.

"Thought you was goin' to have pop-corn to-night all so fast!" he
says, doggedly, in the midst of a momentary lull that has fallen on a
game of whist. And then the oldest Mills girl, who thinks cards stupid
anyhow, says: "That's so, Billy; and we're going to have it, too; and
right away, for this game's just ending, and I shan't submit to being
bored with another. I say 'pop-corn' with Billy! And after that," she
continues, rising and addressing the party in general, "we must have
another literary and artistic tournament, and that's been in
contemplation and preparation long enough; so you gentlemen can be
pulling your wits together for the exercises, while us girls see to
the refreshments."

"Have you done anything toward it!" queries Bob, when the girls are
gone, with the alert Billy in their wake.

"Just an outline," I reply. "How with you?"

"Clean forgot it - that is, the preparation; but I've got a little old
second-hand idea, if you'll all help me out with it, that'll amuse us
some, and tickle Billy I'm certain."

So that's agreed upon; and while Bob produces his portfolio, drawing
paper, pencils and so on, I turn to my note-book in a dazed way and
begin counting my fingers in a depth of profound abstraction, from
which I am barely aroused by the reappearance of the girls and Billy.

"Goody, goody, goody! Bob's goin' to make pictures!" cries Billy, in
additional transport to that the cake pop-corn has produced.

"Now, you girls," says Bob, gently detaching the affectionate Billy
from one leg and moving a chair to the table, with a backward glance
of intelligence toward the boy, - "you girls are to help us all you
can, and we can all work; but, as I'll have all the illustrations to
do, I want you to do as many of the verses as you can - that'll be
easy, you know, - because the work entire is just to consist of a
series of fool-epigrams, such as, for instance. - Listen, Billy:

Here lies a young man
Who in childhood began
To swear, and to smoke, and to drink, -
In his twentieth year
He quit swearing and beer,
And yet is still smoking, I think."

And the rest of his instructions are delivered in lower tones, that
the boy may not hear; and then, all matters seemingly arranged, he
turns to the boy with - "And now, Billy, no lookin' over shoulders, you
know, or swinging on my chair-back while I'm at work. When the
pictures are all finished, then you can take a squint at 'em, and not
before. Is that all hunky, now?"

"Oh! who's a-goin' to look over your shoulder - only Doc." And as the
radiant Doc hastily quits that very post, and dives for the offending
brother, he scrambles under the piano and laughs derisively.

And then a silence falls upon the group - a gracious quiet, only
intruded upon by the very juicy and exuberant munching of an apple
from a remote fastness of the room, and the occasional thumping of a
bare heel against the floor.

At last I close my note-book with a half slam.

"That means," says Bob, laying down his pencil, and addressing the
girls, - "That means he's concluded his poem, and that he's not pleased
with it in any manner, and that he intends declining to read it, for
that self-acknowledged reason, and that he expects us to believe every
affected word of his entire speech - "

"Oh, don't!" I exclaim.

"Then give us the wretched production, in all its hideous deformity!"

And the girls all laugh so sympathetically, and Bob joins them so
gently, and yet with a tone, I know, that can be changed so quickly to
my further discomfiture, that I arise at once and read, without
apology or excuse, this primitive and very callow poem recovered here
to-day from the gilded roll:


As I sat smoking, alone, yesterday,
And lazily leaning back in my chair,
Enjoying myself in a general way -
Allowing my thoughts a holiday
From weariness, toil and care, -
My fancies - doubtless, for ventilation -
Left ajar the gates of my mind, -
And Memory, seeing the situation,
Slipped out in street of "Auld Lang Syne."

Wandering ever with tireless feet
Through scenes of silence, and jubilee
Of long-hushed voices; and faces sweet
Were thronging the shadowy side of the street
As far as the eye could see;
Dreaming again, in anticipation,
The same old dreams of our boyhood's days
That never come true, from the vague sensation
Of walking asleep in the world's strange ways.

Away to the house where I was born!
And there was the selfsame clock that ticked
From the close of dusk to the burst of morn,
When life-warm hands plucked the golden corn
And helped when the apples were picked.
And the "chany-dog" on the mantel-shelf,
With the gilded collar and yellow eyes,
Looked just as at first, when I hugged myself
Sound asleep with the dear surprise.

And down to the swing in the locust tree,
Where the grass was worn from the trampled ground,
And where "Eck" Skinner, "Old" Carr, and three
Or four such other boys used to be
Doin' "sky-scrapers," or "whirlin' round:"
And again Bob climbed for the bluebird's nest,
And again "had shows" in the buggy-shed
Of Guymon's barn, where still, unguessed,
The old ghosts romp through the best days dead!

And again I gazed from the old school-room
With a wistful look of a long June day,
When on my cheek was the hectic bloom
Caught of Mischief, as I presume -
He had such a "partial" way,
It seemed, toward me. - And again I thought
Of a probable likelihood to be
Kept in after school - for a girl was caught
Catching a note from me.

And down through the woods to the swimming-hole -
Where the big, white, hollow, old sycamore grows, -
And we never cared when the water was cold,
And always "ducked" the boy that told
On the fellow that tied the clothes. -
When life went so like a dreamy rhyme,
That it seems to me now that then
The world was having a jollier time
Than it ever will have again.

The crude production is received, I am glad to note, with some
expressions of favor from the company, though Bob, of course, must
heartlessly dissipate my weak delight by saying, "Well, it's certainly
bad enough; though," he goes on with an air of deepest critical
sagacity and fairness, "considered, as it should be, justly, as the
production of a jour-poet, why, it might be worse - that is, a little

"Probably," I remember saying, - "Probably I might redeem myself by
reading you this little amateurish bit of verse, enclosed to me in a
letter by mistake, not very long ago." I here fish an envelope from my
pocket the address of which all recognize as in Bob's almost printed
writing. He smiles vacantly at it - then vividly colors.

"What date?" he stoically asks.

"The date," I suggestively answer, "of your last letter to our dear
Doc, at Boarding-School, two days exactly in advance of her coming
home - this veritable visit now."

Both Bob and Doc rush at me - but too late. The letter and contents
have wholly vanished. The youngest Miss Mills quiets us - urgently
distracting us, in fact, by calling our attention to the immediate
completion of our joint production; "For now," she says, "with our new
reinforcement, we can, with becoming diligence, soon have it ready for
both printer and engraver, and then we'll wake up the boy (who has
been fortunately slumbering for the last quarter of an hour), and
present to him, as designed and intended, this matchless creation of
our united intellects." At the conclusion of this speech we all go
good-humoredly to work, and at the close of half an hour the tedious,
but most ridiculous, task is announced completed.

As I arrange and place in proper form here on the table the separate
cards - twenty-seven in number - I sigh to think that I am unable to
transcribe for you the best part of the nonsensical work - the
illustrations. All I can give is the written copy of -


A was an elegant Ape
Who tied up his ears with red tape,
And wore a long veil
Half revealing his tail
Which was trimmed with jet bugles and crape.

B was a boastful old Bear
Who used to say, - "Hoomh! I declare
I can eat - if you'll get me
The children, and let me -
Ten babies, teeth, toenails and hair!"

C was a Codfish who sighed
When snatched from the home of his pride,
But could he, embrined,
Guess this fragrance behind,
How glad he would be that he died!

D was a dandified Dog
Who said, - "Though it's raining like fog
I wear no umbrellah,
Me boy, for a fellah
Might just as well travel incog!"

E was an elderly Eel
Who would say, - "Well, I really feel -
As my grandchildren wriggle
And shout 'I should giggle' -
A trifle run down at the heel!"

F was a Fowl who conceded
Some hens might hatch more eggs than she did, -
But she'd children as plenty
As eighteen or twenty,
And that was quite all that she needed.

G was a gluttonous Goat
Who, dining one day, table-d'hote,
Ordered soup-bone, au fait,
And fish, papier-mache,
And a filet of Spring overcoat.

H was a high-cultured Hound
Who could clear forty feet at a bound,
And a coon once averred
That his howl could be heard
For five miles and three-quarters around.

I was an Ibex ambitious
To dive over chasms auspicious;
He would leap down a peak
And not light for a week,
And swear that the jump was delicious.

J was a Jackass who said
He had such a bad cold in his head,
If it wasn't for leaving
The rest of us grieving,
He'd really rather be dead.

K was a profligate Kite
Who would haunt the saloons every night;
And often he ust
To reel back to his roost
Too full to set up on it right.

L was a wary old Lynx
Who would say, - "Do you know wot I thinks? -
I thinks ef you happen
To ketch me a-nappin'
I'm ready to set up the drinks!"

M was a merry old Mole,
Who would snooze all the day in his hole,
Then - all night, a-rootin'
Around and galootin' -
He'd sing "Johnny, Fill up the Bowl!"

N was a caustical Nautilus
Who sneered, "I suppose, when they've caught all us,
Like oysters they'll serve us,
And can us, preserve us,
And barrel, and pickle, and bottle us!"

O was an autocrat Owl -
Such a wise - such a wonderful fowl!
Why, for all the night through
He would hoot and hoo-hoo,
And hoot and hoo-hooter and howl!

P was a Pelican pet,
Who gobbled up all he could get;
He could eat on until
He was full to the bill,
And there he had lodgings to let!

Q was a querulous Quail,
Who said: "It will little avail
The efforts of those
Of my foes who propose
To attempt to put salt on my tail!"

R was a ring-tailed Raccoon,
With eyes of the tinge of the moon,
And his nose a blue-black,
And the fur on his back
A sad sort of sallow maroon.

S is a Sculpin - you'll wish
Very much to have one on your dish,
Since all his bones grow
On the outside, and so
He's a very desirable fish.

T was a Turtle, of wealth,
Who went round with particular stealth, -
"Why," said he, "I'm afraid
Of being waylaid
When I even walk out for my health!"

U was a Unicorn curious,
With one horn, of a growth so luxurious,
He could level and stab it -
If you didn't grab it -
Clean through you, he was so blamed furious!

V was a vagabond Vulture
Who said: "I don't want to insult yer,
But when you intrude
Where in lone solitude
I'm a-preyin', you're no man o' culture!"

W was a wild Woodchuck,
And you can just bet that he could "chuck"
He'd eat raw potatoes,
Green corn, and tomatoes,
And tree roots, and call it all "good chuck!"

X was a kind of X-cuse
Of a some-sort-o'-thing that got loose
Before we could name it,
And cage it, and tame it,
And bring it in general use.

Y is the Yellowbird, - bright
As a petrified lump of star-light,
Or a handful of lightning-
Bugs, squeezed in the tight'ning
Pink fist of a boy, at night.

Z is the Zebra, of course! -
A kind of a clown-of-a-horse, -
Each other despising,
Yet neither devising
A way to obtain a divorce!

& here is the famous - what-is-it?
Walk up, Master Billy, and quiz it:
You've seen the rest of 'em -
Ain't this the best of 'em,
Right at the end of your visit?

At last Billy is sent off to bed. It is the prudent mandate of the old
folks: But so lothfully the poor child goes, Bob's heart goes,
too. - Yes, Bob himself, to keep the little fellow company awhile, and,
up there under the old rafters, in the pleasant gloom, lull him to
famous dreams with fairy tales. And it is during this brief absence
that the youngest Mills girl gives us a surprise. She will read a
poem, she says, written by a very dear friend of hers who, fortunately
for us, is not present to prevent her. We guard door and window as she
reads. Doc says she will not listen; but she does listen, and cries,
too - out of pure vexation, she asserts. The rest of us, however, cry
just because of the apparent honesty of the poem of -


O your hands - they are strangely fair!
Fair - for the jewels that sparkle there, -
Fair - for the witchery of the spell
That ivory keys alone can tell;
But when their delicate touches rest
Here in my own do I love them best,
As I clasp with eager acquisitive spans
My glorious treasure of beautiful hands!

Marvelous - wonderful - beautiful hands!
They can coax roses to bloom in the strands
Of your brown tresses; and ribbons will twine,
Under mysterious touches of thine,
Into such knots as entangle the soul,
And fetter the heart under such a control
As only the strength of my love understands -
My passionate love for your beautiful hands.

As I remember the first fair touch
Of those beautiful hands that I love so much,
I seem to thrill as I then was thrilled,
Kissing the glove that I found unfilled -
When I met your gaze, and the queenly bow,
As you said to me, laughingly, "Keep it now!"
And dazed and alone in a dream I stand
Kissing this ghost of your beautiful hand.

When first I loved, in the long ago,
And held your hand as I told you so -
Pressed and caressed it and gave it a kiss,
And said "I could die fora hand like this!"
Little I dreamed love's fulness yet
Had to ripen when eyes were wet,
And prayers were vain in their wild demands
For one warm touch of your beautiful hands.

Beautiful Hands! O Beautiful Hands!
Could you reach out of the alien lands
Where you are lingering, and give me, to-night,
Only a touch - were it ever so light -
My heart were soothed, and my weary brain
Would lull itself into rest again;
For there is no solace the world commands
Like the caress of your beautiful hands.

* * * * *

Violently winking at the mist that blurs my sight, I regretfully
awaken to the here and now. And is it possible, I sorrowfully muse,
that all this glory can have fled away? - that more than twenty long,
long years are spread between me and that happy night? And is it
possible that all the dear old faces - O, quit it! quit it! Gather the
old scraps up and wad 'em back into oblivion, where they belong!

Yes, but be calm - be calm! Think of cheerful things. You are not all
alone. Billy's living yet.

I know - and six feet high - and sag-shouldered - and owns a tin and
stove-store, and can't hear thunder! Billy!

And the youngest Mills girl - she's alive, too.

S'pose I don't know that? I married her!

And Doc. -

Bob married her. Been in California for more than fifteen years - on
some blasted cattle-ranch, or something, - and he's worth a half a
million! And am I less prosperous with this gilded roll?

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