The Hired Man And Floretty

A poem by James Whitcomb Riley

The Hired Man's supper, which he sat before,
In near reach of the wood-box, the stove-door
And one leaf of the kitchen-table, was
Somewhat belated, and in lifted pause
His dextrous knife was balancing a bit
Of fried mush near the port awaiting it.

At the glad children's advent - gladder still
To find him there - "Jest tickled fit to kill
To see ye all!" he said, with unctious cheer. -
"I'm tryin'-like to he'p Floretty here
To git things cleared away and give ye room
Accordin' to yer stren'th. But I p'sume
It's a pore boarder, as the poet says,
That quarrels with his victuals, so I guess
I'll take another wedge o' that-air cake,
Florett', that you're a-learnin' how to bake."
He winked and feigned to swallow painfully. -

"Jest 'fore ye all come in, Floretty she
Was boastin' 'bout her biscuits - and they air
As good - sometimes - as you'll find anywhere. -
But, women gits to braggin' on their bread,
I'm s'picious 'bout their pie - as Danty said."
This raillery Floretty strangely seemed
To take as compliment, and fairly beamed
With pleasure at it all.

- "Speakin' o' bread -
When she come here to live," The Hired Man said, -
"Never ben out o' Freeport 'fore she come
Up here, - of course she needed 'sperience some. -
So, one day, when yer Ma was goin' to set
The risin' fer some bread, she sent Florett
To borry leaven, 'crost at Ryans' - So,
She went and asked fer twelve. - She didn't know,
But thought, whatever 'twuz, that she could keep
One fer herse'f, she said. O she wuz deep!"

Some little evidence of favor hailed
The Hired Man's humor; but it wholly failed
To touch the serious Susan Loehr, whose air
And thought rebuked them all to listening there
To her brief history of the city-man
And his pale wife - "A sweeter woman than
She ever saw!" - So Susan testified, -
And so attested all the Loehrs beside. -
So entertaining was the history, that
The Hired Man, in the corner where he sat
In quiet sequestration, shelling corn,
Ceased wholly, listening, with a face forlorn
As Sorrow's own, while Susan, John and Jake
Told of these strangers who had come to make
Some weeks' stay in the town, in hopes to gain
Once more the health the wife had sought in vain:
Their doctor, in the city, used to know
The Loehrs - Dan and Rachel - years ago, -
And so had sent a letter and request
For them to take a kindly interest
In favoring the couple all they could -
To find some home-place for them, if they would,
Among their friends in town. He ended by
A dozen further lines, explaining why
His patient must have change of scene and air -
New faces, and the simple friendships there
With them, which might, in time, make her forget
A grief that kept her ever brooding yet
And wholly melancholy and depressed, -
Nor yet could she find sleep by night nor rest
By day, for thinking - thinking - thinking still
Upon a grief beyond the doctor's skill, -
The death of her one little girl.

"Pore thing!"
Floretty sighed, and with the turkey-wing
Brushed off the stove-hearth softly, and peered in
The kettle of molasses, with her thin
Voice wandering into song unconsciously -
In purest, if most witless, sympathy. -

"'Then sleep no more:
Around thy heart
Some ten-der dream may i-dlee play.
But mid-night song,
With mad-jick art,
Will chase that dree muh-way!'"

"That-air besetment of Floretty's," said
The Hired Man, - "singin - she inhairited, -
Her father wuz addicted - same as her -
To singin' - yes, and played the dulcimer!
But - gittin' back, - I s'pose yer talkin' 'bout
Them Hammondses. Well, Hammond he gits out
Pattents on things - inventions-like, I'm told -
And's got more money'n a house could hold!
And yit he can't git up no pattent-right
To do away with dyin'. - And he might
Be worth a million, but he couldn't find
Nobody sellin' health of any kind!...
But they's no thing onhandier fer me
To use than other people's misery. -
Floretty, hand me that-air skillet there
And lem me git 'er het up, so's them-air
Childern kin have their popcorn."

It was good
To hear him now, and so the children stood
Closer about him, waiting.

"Things to eat,"
The Hired Man went on, "'s mighty hard to beat!
Now, when I wuz a boy, we was so pore,
My parunts couldn't 'ford popcorn no more
To pamper me with; - so, I hat to go
Without popcorn - sometimes a year er so! -
And suffer'n' saints! how hungry I would git
Fer jest one other chance - like this - at it!
Many and many a time I've dreamp', at night,
About popcorn, - all busted open white,
And hot, you know - and jest enough o' salt
And butter on it fer to find no fault -
Oomh! - Well! as I was goin' on to say, -
After a-dreamin' of it thataway,
Then havin' to wake up and find it's all
A dream, and hain't got no popcorn at-tall,
Ner haint had none - I'd think, 'Well, where's the use!'
And jest lay back and sob the plaster'n' loose!
And I have prayed, whatever happened, it
'Ud eether be popcorn er death!.... And yit
I've noticed - more'n likely so have you -
That things don't happen when you want 'em to."

And thus he ran on artlessly, with speech
And work in equal exercise, till each
Tureen and bowl brimmed white. And then he greased
The saucers ready for the wax, and seized
The fragrant-steaming kettle, at a sign
Made by Floretty; and, each child in line,
He led out to the pump - where, in the dim
New coolness of the night, quite near to him
He felt Floretty's presence, fresh and sweet
As ... dewy night-air after kitchen-heat.

There, still, with loud delight of laugh and jest,
They plied their subtle alchemy with zest -
Till, sudden, high above their tumult, welled
Out of the sitting-room a song which held
Them stilled in some strange rapture, listening
To the sweet blur of voices chorusing: -

"'When twilight approaches the season
That ever is sacred to song,
Does some one repeat my name over,
And sigh that I tarry so long?
And is there a chord in the music
That's missed when my voice is away? -
And a chord in each heart that awakens
Regret at my wearisome stay-ay -
Regret at my wearisome stay.'"

All to himself, The Hired Man thought - "Of course
They'll sing Floretty homesick!"

... O strange source
Of ecstasy! O mystery of Song! -
To hear the dear old utterance flow along: -

"'Do they set me a chair near the table
When evening's home-pleasures are nigh? -
When the candles are lit in the parlor.
And the stars in the calm azure sky.'"...

Just then the moonlight sliced the porch slantwise,
And flashed in misty spangles in the eyes
Floretty clenched - while through the dark - "I jing!"
A voice asked, "Where's that song 'you'd learn to sing
Ef I sent you the ballat?' - which I done
Last I was home at Freeport. - S'pose you run
And git it - and we'll all go in to where
They'll know the notes and sing it fer ye there."
And up the darkness of the old stairway
Floretty fled, without a word to say -
Save to herself some whisper muffled by
Her apron, as she wiped her lashes dry.

Returning, with a letter, which she laid
Upon the kitchen-table while she made
A hasty crock of "float," - poured thence into
A deep glass dish of iridescent hue
And glint and sparkle, with an overflow
Of froth to crown it, foaming white as snow. -
And then - poundcake, and jelly-cake as rare,
For its delicious complement, - with air
Of Hebe mortalized, she led her van
Of votaries, rounded by The Hired Man.

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