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James Whitcomb Riley

(7 October 1849 - 22 July 1916 / Greenfield, Indiana)

Little Jack Janitor


And there, in that ripe Summer-night, once more
A wintry coolness through the open door
And window seemed to touch each glowing face
Refreshingly; and, for a fleeting space,
The quickened fancy, through the fragrant air,
Saw snowflakes whirling where the roseleaves were,
And sounds of veriest jingling bells again
Were heard in tinkling spoons and glasses then.

Thus Uncle Mart's old poem sounded young
And crisp and fresh and clear as when first sung,
Away back in the wakening of Spring
When his rhyme and the robin, chorusing,
Rumored, in duo-fanfare, of the soon
Invading johnny-jump-ups, with platoon
On platoon of sweet-williams, marshaled fine
To bloomed blarings of the trumpet-vine.

The poet turned to whisperingly confer
A moment with 'The Noted Traveler.'
Then left the room, tripped up the stairs, and then
An instant later reappeared again,
Bearing a little, lacquered box, or chest,
Which, as all marked with curious interest,
He gave to the old Traveler, who in
One hand upheld it, pulling back his thin
Black lustre coat-sleeves, saying he had sent
Up for his 'Magic Box,' and that he meant
To test it there--especially to show
_The Children_. 'It is _empty now_, you know.'--
He humped it with his knuckles, so they heard
The hollow sound--'But lest it be inferred
It is not _really_ empty, I will ask
_Little Jack Janitor_, whose pleasant task
It is to keep it ship-shape.'

Then he tried
And rapped the little drawer in the side,
And called out sharply 'Are you in there, Jack?'
And then a little, squeaky voice came back,--
'_Of course I'm in here--ain't you got the key
Turned on me!_'

Then the Traveler leisurely
Felt through his pockets, and at last took out
The smallest key they ever heard about!--
It,wasn't any longer than a pin:
And this at last he managed to fit in
The little keyhole, turned it, and then cried,
'Is everything swept out clean there inside?'
'_Open the drawer and see!--Don't talk to much;
Or else_,' the little voice squeaked, '_talk in Dutch--
You age me, asking questions!_'

Then the man
Looked hurt, so that the little folks began
To feel so sorry for him, he put down
His face against the box and had to frown.--
'Come, sir!' he called,--'no impudence to _me!_--
You've swept out clean?'

'_Open the drawer and see!_'
And so he drew the drawer out: Nothing there,
But just the empty drawer, stark and bare.
He shoved it back again, with a shark click.--

'_Ouch!_' yelled the little voice--'_un-snap it--quick!--
You've got my nose pinched in the crack!_'

And then
The frightened man drew out the drawer again,
The little voice exclaiming, '_Jeemi-nee!--
Say what you want, but please don't murder me!_'

'Well, then,' the man said, as he closed the drawer
With care, 'I want some cotton-batting for
My supper! Have you got it?'

And inside,
All muffled like, the little voice replied,
'_Open the drawer and see!_'

And, sure enough,
He drew it out, filled with the cotton stuff.
He then asked for a candle to be brought
And held for him: and tuft by tuft he caught
And lit the cotton, and, while blazing, took
It in his mouth and ate it, with a look
Of purest satisfaction.

'Now,' said he,
'I've eaten the drawer empty, let me see
What this is in my mouth:' And with both hands
He began drawing from his lips long strands
Of narrow silken ribbons, every hue
And tint;--and crisp they were and bright and new
As if just purchased at some Fancy-Store.
'And now, Bub, bring your cap,' he said, 'before
Something might happen!' And he stuffed the cap
Full of the ribbons. '_There_, my little chap,
Hold _tight_ to them,' he said, 'and take them to
The ladies there, for they know what to do
With all such rainbow finery!'

He smiled
Half sadly, as it seemed, to see the child
Open his cap first to his mother..... There
Was not a ribbon in it anywhere!
'_Jack Janitor!_' the man said sternly through
The Magic Box--'Jack Janitor, did _you_
Conceal those ribbons anywhere?'

'_Well, yes,_'
The little voice piped--'_but you'd never guess
The place I hid 'em if you'd guess a year!_'

'Well, won't you _tell_ me?'

'_Not until you clear
Your mean old conscience_' said the voice, '_and make
Me first do something for the Children's sake._'

'Well, then, fill up the drawer,' the Traveler said,
'With whitest white on earth and reddest red!--
Your terms accepted--Are you satisfied?'

'_Open the drawer and see!_' the voice replied.

'_Why, bless my soul!_'--the man said, as he drew
The contents of the drawer into view--
'It's level-full of _candy!_--Pass it 'round--
Jack Janitor shan't steal _that_, I'll be bound!'--
He raised and crunched a stick of it and smacked
His lips.--'Yes, that _is_ candy, for a fact!--
And it's all _yours!_'

And how the children there
Lit into it!--O never anywhere
Was such a feast of sweetness!

'And now, then,'
The man said, as the empty drawer again
Slid to its place, he bending over it,--
'Now, then, Jack Janitor, before we quit
Our entertainment for the evening, tell
Us where you hid the ribbons--can't you?'

'_Well,_'
The squeaky little voice drawled sleepily--
'_Under your old hat, maybe.--Look and see!_'

All carefully the man took off his hat:
But there was not a ribbon under that.--
He shook his heavy hair, and all in vain
The old white hat--then put it on again:
'Now, tell me, _honest_, Jack, where _did_ you hide
The ribbons?'

'_Under your hat_' the voice replied.--
'_Mind! I said 'under' and not 'in' it.--Won't
You ever take the hint on earth?--or don't
You want to show folks where the ribbons at?--
Law! but I'm sleepy!--Under--unner your hat!_'

Again the old man carefully took off
The empty hat, with an embarrassed cough,
Saying, all gravely to the children: 'You
Must promise not to _laugh_--you'll all _want_ to--
When you see where Jack Janitor has dared
To hide those ribbons--when he might have spared
My feelings.--But no matter!--Know the worst--
Here are the ribbons, as I feared at first.'--
And, quick as snap of thumb and finger, there
The old man's head had not a sign of hair,
And in his lap a wig of iron-gray
Lay, stuffed with all that glittering array
Of ribbons ... 'Take 'em to the ladies--Yes.
Good-night to everybody, and God bless
The Children.'

In a whisper no one missed
The Hired Man yawned: 'He's a vantrilloquist'

* * * * *

So gloried all the night Each trundle-bed
And pallet was enchanted--each child-head
Was packed with happy dreams. And long before
The dawn's first far-off rooster crowed, the snore
Of Uncle Mart was stilled, as round him pressed
The bare arms of the wakeful little guest
That he had carried home with him....

'I think,'
An awed voice said--'(No: I don't want a _dwink_.--
Lay still.)--I think 'The Noted Traveler' he
'S the inscrutibul-est man I ever see!'

Submitted: Friday, April 09, 2010

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