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The Calgary Poet
If there ever was a feller completely lost in the world, it was a young chap I run across out in Calgary, one Christmas week, when I was snowed in there.
I was travellin' for a Montreal firm then, and used to get 'round to Calgary about once a year. A remarkable little town is that, but a most terrible lonesome place in which to be snowbound.
This young feller who I'm tellin' you about was clerk in the post-office out there. A tall, lanky, awkward chap he was, with clear, big, brown eyes an' as pleasant a face as you ever want to see. Me an' him was friends the minute we set eyes on one another, and every night after office hours he'd come down to the hotel an' play checkers with me for a while, and then we'd drift into tellin' yarns about when we was little fellers, for it was Christmas week, you know, when one is always a bit soft-hearted if he amounts to shucks in the world, and, as it turned out, the postoffice chap was a farmer boy, too, born an' raised in New Hampshire. How he come to drift out to Calgary he never told me, and I forgot to ask him.
Well, sir, I told him all about me an' Ed an' Jane, and the fun we used to have together, and he'd sit an' listen, them big eyes of his drinkin' it all in. I never told a yarn to any one who enjoyed it more.
Ed, you know, died just when he'd come to be a young man an' full of promise, and when I told the chap about him, and how he used to play the fiddle by the hour an' make up fairy stories, his eyes glistened a bit, and I kinder felt queer myself.
Say! You'd oughter known Ed. He was all right. I've met many fellers up an' down the country — good an' bad — but I never met any one, man, woman or child, that I liked as I did him. Father an' mother an' Jane, they was all dear to me; but Ed — well, now you know, I can't just put it the way I want to.
You see, we was boys together on the old farm, and us two kids was all there was in the big world. We didn't know nothin' about anybody else. The world was made for us alone, and we roamed up an' down the face of that farm, never darin' to go beyond the line fence, (for father had forbid us), just a-wonderin' and a-findin' out.
You'd ought to a-heard Ed tellin' me an' Jane about Hell. It would be on a warm summer evenin', when the sun went down red an' the three of us 'ud be settin' on the rail fence at the head of the lane, while the folks did the milkin'. He'd begin soft an' shivery about the sun, and would lead on to the judgment day when Gabriel would blow his horn, and the earth 'ud be burnt up an' the dead would all stand before God — the good people on the right hand an' the bad people on the left. Jane 'ud be blubberin' by this time, but that was what Ed liked. Then he'd have us in the lake of fire an' brimstone, and describe the Old Boy standin' on the brink, gnashin' his teeth at us, till even he got scart himself, and we'd creep to the house a-holdin' hands — Jane in the middle — and hang 'round mother, not darin' to go to bed in the dark.
My! What an imagination Ed did have! If he'd only lived, he'd made a name for himself sure. There wasn't anything one knew that the other didn't. We liked the same things to eat, and what the one had the other had to have, or there'd been a row.
I remember once father brought me home a pair of plug boots, with blue tops an' copper toes, — but I'll tell you about that another time. We used to fight an' quarrel between us, me an' Ed, but it didn't take long to forget all about it. When I got into dispute with the boys at school I was a great feller for arguin' about an' darin' 'em to do this an' that before comin' to fists. I never really took to fightin' at school, not bein' naturally clever at it; but Ed was a holy terror. Just let a boy pitch into me, and he was at him like a cat, cryin' to beat the band an' smashin' right an' left. Why, he'd lick a feller twice his size in two shakes of a lamb's tail, he was that furious. There wasn't anything to do but to run, and he was such a little feller, too.
When we growed up we wasn't so communicative to one another, but our hearts was just the same, and when he died, — well, now you know, it just mellered me down, and I've been a bit soft-hearted ever since.
I run on just like this to the Calgary chap, and he'd set an' listen just as I told you. Well, one night I told him about a time when father an' mother had gone to prayer meetin' of a winter's night, and me an' Ed an' Jane was left all alone, and how Ed got out his fiddle, which he dasn't play when father was about, — fiddles bein' considered wicked, — and played to me an' Jane just whatever come in his head.
Ed must certainly a-been a wonder with the fiddle, for, as I told this chap, one time years after, when I was in Boston, I went to hear a feller play who had the name of bein' the crack fiddler of the world. And he was an almighty good player, too, but he couldn't make the fiddle talk the way Ed could. Jane could back me up in this. Why say! When he'd shut his eyes an' play "Robin Adair," your soul 'ud go right out of you, and you'd wake up when he was done with your mouth wide open.
The next evenin', after we'd played a few games of checkers, my Calgary friend took a piece of paper from his pocket an' handed it to me, kinder sheepish like.
"It's about Ed's playin' to you an' Jane," he said.
I took the paper an' glanced it over. It was poetry, done in a neat, round hand, as plain as print. Here's the identical piece in my pocket-book now. Kind of rusty, ain't it? — but it's his writin', just as he put the words down in his bedroom that night in Calgary.
THE LITTLE FIDDLE ED PLAYED ON
Sarsarty was the fiddler's name,
An' he could play,
Well, I should say!
'Twas a whole circus an' a shinny game
To hear him make that fiddle talk,
An' laugh an' cry's if like to die;
He made it dance, he made it walk,
He made it sing, he made it sigh;
He sent the notes clear up to Mary,
An' then way down to the Old Harry;
He knew no doubt what he was about;
He fairly set me cryin' once,
An' then he made me laugh right out
I felt as sheepish as a dunce.
But arter all is said an' done
Arter all the fine notes he 'ud take
'Twan't no sech music's Ed 'ud make
With the little fiddle he played on.
That was the cutest little fiddle!
It was as black
As a factory stack
It allers seemed ter me a riddle
Where all them pretty sounds 'ud stay,
They was so sweet, so shy, so neat;
An' then the way that Ed 'ud play!
There wa'n't nobody but 'ud say,
When round the dancers gaily went,
"Tip 'm the wink an' he could beat
The man as made the instrument."
It was delicious jes' to feel
The bow a-tunin' off a reel
Back an' for'ard, toe an' heel,
Your eye a-dancin' with your feet,
Your partner lookin' flushed an' sweet;
Not a false step, not a break,
Sech was the music Ed 'ud make
With the little fiddle he played on.
But in the chimney-corner, home —
A winter night,
By candle light,
The sweetest music seemed to come.
You'd hear the water laughin', dancin',
The birds 'ud sing, the sleigh-bells ring;
You'd fairly see the horses prancin',
An' then so low, so sweet an' slow,
You'd hear the fairies in the air
A-singin' to 'emselves up there
A verse each time he drawed the bow;
An' Jane an' me, aside his knee,
'Nd sit an' cry an' laugh together,
An' watch the flickerin' in the fire,
An' speculate an' wonder whether
The angels in the holy choir,
From their gold harps sech notes 'ud shake,
As the lovely music Ed 'ud make
With the little fiddle he played on.
'Tain't real awful bad, is it? You know, I don't show this to many people, for they wouldn't appreciate it, not know-in' Ed an' his style of playin'; but you'll understand. Now, I ain't no poet, or ever expect to be, and I don't know good from bad, but this here bit of paper is gold and diamonds to me, for that Calgary feller just saw right into my heart, and put down on paper feelin's I could never express. Here's another. I'll show you this, seein' as you liked the first.
I WANT TER GO BACK HOME
The city's way ain't mine, nor it wa'n't Ed's way, neither,
The air here never smelt a bit home-like to either;
Fer Ed, you know, an' me was farmer boys, an' grew
Where the old New England hills stare right up through
The topsa'l clouds at Heaven. We lads was brothers, —
Never knew a wrangle, fer what was one's was t'others;
An' when hard luck an' taxes jes' driv us off the land,
We went right out'n the world, a-hand a-holt o' hand.
We knocked about consi'drable, but only fer a spell,
An' I'd jes' a-got a-thinkin'at all was goin' well,
When Ed — well, Ed he sez to me — "George, come! —
"I want ter go back home!"
Ed was a han'some feller's ever you'd wish to see;
Eyes and hair's black's a coal, and figger straight's a tree.
Two years younger'n me an' everyone took to him quick,
If gittin' loved ain't nat'ral, Ed sartainly knew the trick.
But he worked too hard an' went completely down in a heap;
Couldn't eat nor nothin', 'ud wake so quick in his sleep
An' set bolt up, while his eyes 'ud wildly roam,
'S he'd say — "George," he'd say, so wistful like to me,
"I want ter go back home!"
What's a feller to do with his brother a-sayin' that
In the pleadin'est kind o' way? I could only gently pat
His hot head with my hand, for I knowed (an' it hurt me sore),
It wa'n't no use to say a word — there wa'n't no home no more!
The typhoid fever had 'im, he didn't know none he see;
He'd call his friends queer names, but allers say George to me.
I never left him a minit, though it hurt clean through to hear
The way he'd keep a talkin' 'bout old times held so dear,
An' things I'd haft fergotten, an' ev'ry once an' awhile
His eyes 'ud snap an' sparkle — he'd grab my hand an' smile
The beseechin'est smile, as he'd say — "Come! George, come! —
"I want ter go back home!"
Sometimes right in the night he'd wake me out o' a drowse;
"Git ready, George," he'd say, "we must be fetchin' the cows;
"Chokecherries's ripe's you'd wish 'em up erlong the lane;
"The cows ain't fer away — I kin hear old Mulley plain,
"A-ringin' her bell. I'll run you from here to the shed."
Then I'd drop plum down at his side an' cry, "Fer God's sake, Ed,
"Let up, er you'll break my heart!" But he didn't know a thing.
"I hate this water," he'd say. "Fetch me a drink from the spring,
"Er a cup o' Limeback's milk — I see the rich cream foam.
"Say! George — what are we stayin' here for?" "I want ter go back home!"
He jes' went down by inches; I knowed he had to go,
An' I braced myself to meet it, though a man's but a man, you know.
Say! What's the love o' Heaven, when all is done an' said,
'Side o' the love o' brothers who've allers had one bed?
He went quite suddint at last; he was talkin' the same old way,
'Bout helpin' me cut the wood so's both o' us could play;
When his face lit up the sweetes' I ever hope to see,
An' he squeezed my hand an' " George," he says to me
"The pussy willer's blossomin', the egg plum's all erblow;
"Red-finned suckers in the creek's all o' 'em on the go;
"Same old robin's buildin' her nest in the silver maple's limb;
"I long to git my boots off an' go in fer a swim;
"Listen them birds tweedlin! — how splendid fresh an' sweet
"Them lilacs smell! I swan if that there bob-o-link don't beat
"The grandes' choir fer music!" An' then he riz an' threw
Himself right in my arms. "Oh, George," he says, "it's you!
"I hear the bells a-ringin' in the old church dome — "I want ter go back home!"
It's many a year since I buried Ed a-side o' dad an' mam;
I've tried to fit these new ways, but I am jes' what I am.
These songs I hear ain't ha'f 's sweet's what the birds 'ud sing,
I want ter smell them lilacs, I want a drink from the spring;
I want ter hear the water laugh in the rapids in the creek,
I want ter see old "Darb" ag'in, so lazy, fat an' slick;
I want ter hear the wind at night a-sobbin' thro' the trees,
I want ter feel complete erlone, with God 's all who sees;
I want ter see them graves up there, as placid as their dead,
I want ter say my prayers ag'in an' go to bed with Ed.
Fer my heart's up there in the hills, no odds how fur I roam
I want ter go back home!
This is my favorite, and you can better believe it struck a tender spot in my heart. I met a feller once in the train between Toronto and Winnipeg, and got to talkin' with him. He was a college professor down at McGill in Montreal, and thinkin' he would be a good judge of poetry, I showed him them two pieces an' asked his opinion, not sayin' a word of my connection with 'em.
"Well," says he, "the woods is full of this kind of stuff — maudlin sentiment. Give a man," says he, "a soft heart an' a woman's liver, and he'll flood the press with this kind of poetry."
I felt kinder taken back, but I kept my temper an' asked him: —
"What kind of poetry is good poetry?" says I.
"Good poetry," says he," "is beautiful and artistic conceptions expressed in polished English." You see, I remember it word for word. " Good poetry," says he, goin' on, "is divine — an inspiration to the cultivated mind. This stuff," says he, handin' me back my poor verses, "is just silly gush."
Say! That was a staggerer to me, and I thought he had me. But when I got to Winnipeg I set down in my own room an' hauled out the poetry an' read it over careful. "Blame!" says I, to myself, "it reads smooth enough an' it certainly was just as everything happened." And I made up my mind then an' there that the poetry, or the paintin', or the scenery that touched your heart an' made a better man of you was good enough for me, and that I'd stick by my Calgary poet through thick and thin.
You can see for yourself that every line means somethin'. He's worked in a lot of the stuff I told him, and some parts ain't strictly true. For instance, in the first verse he says, "Where the old New England hills," an' so forth. We was Canada boys, me an' Ed, and I asked him why he "worked" in "New England."
"Well," says he, "I got the idea in my head of the hills stickin' their noses up through the clouds, and I wanted to work it in. There ain't any high hills where you was born, but New England is full of 'em. Then I wanted the New England hills in any way, George," he says, kind of grinnin' foolish like, "for I was born up in North Conway, and I kinder like to celebrate them old mountains when I get a chance."
Here's the only other piece he wrote for me. He struck it off right under my nose in about ten minutes.
DURIN' P'TRACTED MEETIN'
Down in Carterville las' winter
You know old Ebenezer Snider?
Nose on 'im jes' 's sharp's a splinter,
Color o' nine-y'ar apple cider;
Good preacher, though, 's ever you see,
Sound at heart 's a white oak tree.
Wall, to the p'int: As I was sayin',
Eb was holdin' p'tracted meetin';
Had the hull district singin' an' prayin',
An' gittin' converted. "Time was fleetin'
Fast," he said, "'s a blue-winged pigeon,"
'S he hustled 'em up ter git religion.
You know Jed Pringle's second daughter
Bethilda? — gal with sparklin' eyes?
Stout 's Jane, but a little shorter,
Bang-up cook on cakes an' pies.
Likelies' gal 'n the place, it's said,
Face an' figger 'way ahead.
Bethilda she sot 'mong the seekers,
I sot over agin the wall;
But Lord! she couldn't keep them peekers
O' her'n from wand'rin' 'round at all.
Thar wa'n't 'nought else 's I could see —
Them eyes they jes' converted me.
First thing I knowed I was sittin'
'Side o' Bet on the pen'tent seat;'
Tain't twice 'n a life a feller's gittin'
So strong a call from eyes so sweet.
Conviction er love, no matter whether,
Bethilda an' I driv home together.
Stars out bright an' moon a-beamin',
Snow on the ground a-dazzlin' white;
Clouds hangin' low in the west a-dreamin',
Never see a perfecter night.
So pure was the earth an' sky above,
You couldn't resist a-talkin' love.
Give me a hoss as feels his feedin',
Head right up an' feet a-flyin';
A hoss 's won't disgrace his breedin',
Trot ter win if he was dyin';
A hoss 's don't need much command,
So's a feller kin drive with jes' one hand.
"Wall," I sez, "Bethilda — Bet," sez I,
A-feelin' my way each word, you see,
An' puttin' a p'int ter all, so sly:
" S'pose you allers ride home with me?"
Heard the man chuckle in the moon,
As she whisper'd, " Jim, I'd jes' as soon."
The same old story — jes' the same,
Said in 'bout the same old way;
But Ed he says it's a 'tarnal shame
We didn't go for'ard from that day.
Lost religion — bad ter do it
But we got married an' that's next to it.
Did you ever hear the like of that! It's old Ebenezer Snider to the life. Bethilda Pringle was the girl's name. I used to go to school with her. She was a beauty all right, and as full of the old scratch as the next one. Jim Vandewater is the feller who married her, and a dum good husband he made her, too. They're rich now, — yes, got a three hundred-acre farm an' grown-up children. Bethilda an' Jim was tickled to death when I showed 'em this piece. Got a copy of it now in the family Bible.
I tell you, that Calgary poet was certainly lost in the world. I read the poetry in the papers now an' then, and hope that some time I'll run across his name at the bottom of a piece.
Jackson, that was his name, — Arthur Jackson, Calgary, N. W. T. Did you ever see it? No? Well, I wish you had, for that feller had a heart in him an' a love of fun, and was as good a checker player as I ever run up against.