James Whitcomb Riley

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

Told By - Poem by James Whitcomb Riley

Coming, clean from the Maryland-end
Of this great National Road of ours,
Through your vast West; with the time to spend,
Stopping for days in the main towns, where
Every citizen seemed a friend,
And friends grew thick as the wayside flowers,--
I found no thing that I might narrate
More singularly strange or queer
Than a thing I found in your sister-state
Ohio,--at a river-town--down here
In my notebook: _Zanesville--situate
On the stream Muskingum--broad and clear,
And navigable, through half the year,
North, to Coshocton; south, as far
As Marietta._--But these facts are
Not of the _story_, but the _scene_
Of the simple little tale I mean
To tell _directly_--from this, straight through
To the _end_ that is best worth listening to:

Eastward of Zanesville, two or three
Miles from the town, as our stage drove in,
I on the driver's seat, and he
Pointing out this and that to me,--
On beyond us--among the rest--
A grovey slope, and a fluttering throng
Of little children, which he 'guessed'
Was a picnic, as we caught their thin
High laughter, as we drove along,
Clearer and clearer. Then suddenly
He turned and asked, with a curious grin,
What were my views on _Slavery? 'Why?'_
I asked, in return, with a wary eye.
'Because,' he answered, pointing his whip
At a little, whitewashed house and shed
On the edge of the road by the grove ahead,--
'Because there are two slaves _there_,' he said--
'Two Black slaves that I've passed each trip
For eighteen years.--Though they've been set free,
They have been slaves ever since!' said he.
And, as our horses slowly drew
Nearer the little house in view,
All briefly I heard the history
Of this little old Negro woman and
Her husband, house and scrap of land;
How they were slaves and had been made free
By their dying master, years ago
In old Virginia; and then had come
North here into a _free_ state--so,
Safe forever, to found a home--
For themselves alone?--for they left South there
Five strong sons, who had, alas!
All been sold ere it came to pass
This first old master with his last breath
Had freed the _parents_.--(He went to death
Agonized and in dire despair
That the poor slave _children_ might not share
Their parents' freedom. And wildly then
He moaned for pardon and died. Amen!)

Thus, with their freedom, and little sum
Of money left them, these two had come
North, full twenty long years ago;
And, settling there, they had hopefully
Gone to work, in their simple way,
Hauling--gardening--raising sweet
Corn, and popcorn.--Bird and bee
In the garden-blooms and the apple-tree
Singing with them throughout the slow
Summer's day, with its dust and heat--
The crops that thirst and the rains that fail;
Or in Autumn chill, when the clouds hung low,
And hand-made hominy might find sale
In the near town-market; or baking pies
And cakes, to range in alluring show
At the little window, where the eyes
Of the Movers' children, driving past,
Grew fixed, till the big white wagons drew
Into a halt that would sometimes last
Even the space of an hour or two--
As the dusty, thirsty travelers made
Their noonings there in the beeches' shade
By the old black Aunty's spring-house, where,
Along with its cooling draughts, were found
Jugs of her famous sweet spruce-beer,
Served with her gingerbread-horses there,
While Aunty's snow-white cap bobbed 'round
Till the children's rapture knew no bound,
As she sang and danced for them, quavering clear
And high the chant of her old slave-days--

'Oh, Lo'd, Jinny! my toes is so',
Dancin' on yo' sandy flo'!'

Even so had they wrought all ways
To earn the pennies, and hoard them, too,--
And with what ultimate end in view?--
They were saving up money enough to be
Able, in time, to buy their own
Five children back.

Ah! the toil gone through!
And the long delays and the heartaches, too,
And self-denials that they had known!
But the pride and glory that was theirs
When they first hitched up their shackly cart
For the long, long journey South.--The start
In the first drear light of the chilly dawn,
With no friends gathered in grieving throng,--
With no farewells and favoring prayers;
But, as they creaked and jolted on,
Their chiming voices broke in song--

''Hail, all hail! don't you see the stars a-fallin'?
Hail, all hail! I'm on my way.
Gideon[1] am
A healin' ba'm--
I belong to the blood-washed army.
Gideon am
A healin' ba'm--
On my way!''

And their _return!_--with their oldest boy
Along with them! Why, their happiness
Spread abroad till it grew a joy
_Universal_--It even reached
And thrilled the town till the _Church_ was stirred
Into suspecting that wrong was wrong!--
And it stayed awake as the preacher preached
A _Real_ 'Love'-text that he had not long
To ransack for in the Holy Word.

And the son, restored, and welcomed so,
Found service readily in the town;
And, with the parents, sure and slow,
_He_ went 'saltin' de cole cash down.'

So with the _next_ boy--and each one
In turn, till _four_ of the five at last
Had been bought back; and, in each case,
With steady work and good homes not
Far from the parents, _they_ chipped in
To the family fund, with an equal grace.
Thus they managed and planned and wrought,
And the old folks throve--Till the night before
They were to start for the lone last son
In the rainy dawn--their money fast
Hid away in the house,--two mean,
Murderous robbers burst the door.
...Then, in the dark, was a scuffle--a fall--
An old man's gasping cry--and then
A woman's fife-like shriek.

...Three men
Splashing by on horseback heard
The summons: And in an instant all
Sprung to their duty, with scarce a word.
And they were _in time_--not only to save
The lives of the old folks, but to bag
Both the robbers, and buck-and-gag
And land them safe in the county-jail--
Or, as Aunty said, with a blended awe
And subtlety,--'Safe in de calaboose whah
De dawgs caint bite 'em!'

--So prevail
The faithful!--So had the Lord upheld
His servants of both deed and prayer,--
HIS the glory unparalleled--
_Theirs_ the reward,--their every son
Free, at last, as the parents were!
And, as the driver ended there
In front of the little house, I said,
All fervently, 'Well done! well done!'
At which he smiled, and turned his head
And pulled on the leaders' lines and--'See!'
He said,--''you can read old Aunty's sign?'
And, peering down through these specs of mine
On a little, square board-sign, I read:

'Stop, traveler, if you think it fit,
And quench your thirst for a-fip-and-a-bit.
The rocky spring is very clear,
And soon converted into beer.'

And, though I read aloud, I could
Scarce hear myself for laugh and shout
Of children--a glad multitude
Of little people, swarming out
Of the picnic-grounds I spoke about.--
And in their rapturous midst, I see
Again--through mists of memory--
A black old Negress laughing up
At the driver, with her broad lips rolled
Back from her teeth, chalk-white, and gums
Redder than reddest red-ripe plums.
He took from her hand the lifted cup
Of clear spring-water, pure and cold,
And passed it to me: And I raised my hat
And drank to her with a reverence that
My conscience knew was justly due
The old black face, and the old eyes, too--
The old black head, with its mossy mat
Of hair, set under its cap and frills
White as the snows on Alpine hills;
Drank to the old _black_ smile, but yet
Bright as the sun on the violet,--
Drank to the gnarled and knuckled old
Black hands whose palms had ached and bled
And pitilessly been worn pale
And white almost as the palms that hold
Slavery's lash while the victim's wail
Fails as a crippled prayer might fail.--
Aye, with a reverence infinite,
I drank to the old black face and head--
The old black breast with its life of light--
The old black hide with its heart of gold.

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Poem Submitted: Friday, April 9, 2010

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