James Whitcomb Riley (7 October 1849 - 22 July 1916 / Greenfield, Indiana)
Cousin Rufus' Story
My little story, Cousin Rufus said,
Is not so much a story as a fact.
It is about a certain willful boy--
An aggrieved, unappreciated boy,
Grown to dislike his own home very much,
By reason of his parents being not
At all up to his rigid standard and
Requirements and exactions as a son
He brooded over his disheartening
Environments and limitations, till,
At last, well knowing that the outside world
Would yield him favors never found at home,
He rose determinedly one July dawn--
Even before the call for breakfast--and,
Climbing the alley-fence, and bitterly
Shaking his clenched fist at the woodpile, he
Evanished down the turnpike.--Yes: he had,
Once and for all, put into execution
His long low-muttered threatenings--He had
_Run off!_--He had--had run away from home!
His parents, at discovery of his flight,
Bore up first-rate--especially his Pa,--
Quite possibly recalling his own youth,
And therefrom predicating, by high noon,
The absent one was very probably
Disporting his nude self in the delights
Of the old swimmin'-hole, some hundred yards
Below the slaughter-house, just east of town.
The stoic father, too, in his surmise
Was accurate--For, lo! the boy was there!
And there, too, he remained throughout the day--
Save at one starving interval in which
He clad his sunburnt shoulders long enough
To shy across a wheatfield, shadow-like,
And raid a neighboring orchard--bitterly,
And with spasmodic twitchings of the lip,
Bethinking him how all the other boys
Had _homes_ to go to at the dinner-hour--
While _he_--alas!--_he had no home!_--At least
These very words seemed rising mockingly,
Until his every thought smacked raw and sour
And green and bitter as the apples he
In vain essayed to stay his hunger with.
Nor did he join the glad shouts when the boys
Returned rejuvenated for the long
Wet revel of the feverish afternoon.--
Yet, bravely, as his comrades splashed and swam
And spluttered, in their weltering merriment,
He tried to laugh, too,--but his voice was hoarse
And sounded to him like some other boy's.
And then he felt a sudden, poking sort
Of sickness at the heart, as though some cold
And scaly pain were blindly nosing it
Down in the dreggy darkness of his breast.
The tensioned pucker of his purple lips
Grew ever chillier and yet more tense--
The central hurt of it slow spreading till
It did possess the little face entire.
And then there grew to be a knuckled knot--
An aching kind of core within his throat--
An ache, all dry and swallowless, which seemed
To ache on just as bad when he'd pretend
He didn't notice it as when he did.
It was a kind of a conceited pain--
An overbearing, self-assertive and
Barbaric sort of pain that clean outhurt
A boy's capacity for suffering--
So, many times, the little martyr needs
Must turn himself all suddenly and dive
From sight of his hilarious playmates and
Surreptitiously weep under water.
He wrestled with his awful agony
Till almost dark; and then, at last--then, with
The very latest lingering group of his
Companions, he moved turgidly toward home--
Nay, rather _oozed_ that way, so slow he went,--
With lothful, hesitating, loitering,
Reluctant, late-election-returns air,
Heightened somewhat by the conscience-made resolve
Of chopping a double-armful of wood
As he went in by rear way of the kitchen.
And this resolve he executed;--yet
The hired girl made no comment whatsoever,
But went on washing up the supper-things,
Crooning the unutterably sad song, '_Then think,
Oh, think how lonely this heart must ever be!_'
Still, with affected carelessness, the boy
Ranged through the pantry; but the cupboard-door
Was locked. He sighed then like a wet fore-stick
And went out on the porch.--At least the pump,
He prophesied, would meet him kindly and
Shake hands with him and welcome his return!
And long he held the old tin dipper up--
And oh, how fresh and pure and sweet the draught!
Over the upturned brim, with grateful eyes
He saw the back-yard, in the gathering night,
Vague, dim and lonesome, but it all looked good:
The lightning-bugs, against the grape-vines, blinked
A sort of sallow gladness over his
Home-coming, with this softening of the heart.
He did not leave the dipper carelessly
In the milk-trough.--No: he hung it back upon
Its old nail thoughtfully--even tenderly.
All slowly then he turned and sauntered toward
The rain-barrel at the corner of the house,
And, pausing, peered into it at the few
Faint stars reflected there. Then--moved by some
Strange impulse new to him--he washed his feet.
He then went in the house--straight on into
The very room where sat his parents by
The evening lamp.--The father all intent
Reading his paper, and the mother quite
As intent with her sewing. Neither looked
Up at his entrance--even reproachfully,--
And neither spoke.
The wistful runaway
Drew a long, quavering breath, and then sat down
Upon the extreme edge of a chair. And all
Was very still there for a long, long while.--
Yet everything, someway, seemed _restful_-like
And _homey_ and old-fashioned, good and kind,
And sort of _kin_ to him!--Only too _still!_
If somebody would say something--just _speak_--
Or even rise up suddenly and come
And lift him by the ear sheer off his chair--
Or box his jaws--Lord bless 'em!--_any_thing!--
Was he not there to thankfully accept
Any reception from parental source
Save this incomprehensible _voicelessness_.
O but the silence held its very breath!
If but the ticking clock would only _strike_
And for an instant drown the whispering,
Lisping, sifting sound the katydids
Made outside in the grassy nowhere.
Down some back-street he heard the faint halloo
Of boys at their night-game of 'Town-fox,'
But now with no desire at all to be
Participating in their sport--No; no;--
Never again in this world would he want
To join them there!--he only wanted just
To stay in home of nights--Always--always--
Forever and a day!
He moved; and coughed--
Coughed hoarsely, too, through his rolled tongue; and yet
No vaguest of parental notice or
Solicitude in answer--no response--
No word--no look. O it was deathly still!--
So still it was that really he could not
Remember any prior silence that
At all approached it in profundity
And depth and density of utter hush.
He felt that he himself must break it: So,
Summoning every subtle artifice
Of seeming nonchalance and native ease
And naturalness of utterance to his aid,
And gazing raptly at the house-cat where
She lay curled in her wonted corner of
The hearth-rug, dozing, he spoke airily
And said: 'I see you've got the same old cat!'
Comments about this poem (Cousin Rufus' Story by James Whitcomb Riley )
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