James Riley.

The Old Soldier's Story: Poems and Prose Sketches



Since we have had no stories to-night I will venture, Mr. President, to tell a story that I have heretofore heard at nearly all the banquets I have ever attended. It is a story simply, and you must bear with it kindly. It is a story as told by a friend of us all, who is found in all parts of all countries, who is immoderately fond of a funny story, and who, unfortunately, attempts to tell a funny story himself one that he has been particularly delighted with. Well, he is not a story-teller, and especially he is not a funny story-teller. His funny stories, indeed, are oftentimes touchingly pathetic. But to such a story as he tells, being a good-natured man and kindly disposed, we have to listen, because we do not want to wound his feelings by telling him that we have heard that story a great number of times, and that we have heard it ably told by a great number of people from the time we were children. But, as I say, we can not hurt his feelings. We can not stop him. We can not kill him; and so the story generally proceeds. He selects a very old story always, and generally tells it in about this fashion:

I heerd an awful funny thing the other day ha! ha! I don't know whether I kin git it off er not, but, anyhow, I'll tell it to you. Well! le's see now how the fool-thing goes. Oh, yes! W'y, there was a feller one time it was durin' the army, and this feller that I started in to tell you about was in the war, and ha! ha! there was a big fight a-goin' on, and this feller was in the fight, and it was a big battle and bullets a-flyin' ever' which way, and bombshells a-bu'stin', and cannon-balls a-flyin' 'round promiskus; and this feller right in the midst of it, you know, and all excited and het up, and chargin' away; and the fust thing you know along come a cannon-ball and shot his head off ha! ha! ha! Hold on here a minute! no sir; I'm a-gittin' ahead of my story; no, no; it didn't shoot his head off I'm gittin' the cart before the horse there shot his leg off; that was the way; shot his leg off; and down the poor feller drapped, and, of course, in that condition was perfectly he'pless, you know, but yit with presence o' mind enough to know that he was in a dangerous condition ef somepin' wasn't done fer him right away. So he seen a comrade a-chargin' by that he knowed, and he hollers to him and called him by name I disremember now what the feller's name was

Well, that's got nothin' to do with the story, anyway; he hollers to him, he did, and says, "Hello, there," he says to him; "here, I want you to come here and give me a lift; I got my leg shot off, and I want you to pack me back to the rear of the battle" where the doctors always is, you know, during a fight and he says, "I want you to pack me back there where I can get med-dy-cinal attention er I'm a dead man, fer I got my leg shot off," he says, "and I want you to pack me back there so's the surgeons kin take keer of me." Well the feller, as luck would have it, ricko-nized him and run to him and throwed down his own musket, so's he could pick him up; and he stooped down and picked him up and kindo' half-way shouldered him and half-way helt him betwixt his arms like, and then he turned and started back with him ha! ha! ha! Now, mind, the fight was still a-goin' on and right at the hot of the fight, and the feller, all excited, you know, like he was, and the soldier that had his leg shot off gittin' kindo fainty like, and his head kindo' stuck back over the feller's shoulder that was carryin' him.

And he hadn't got more'n a couple o' rods with him when another cannon-ball come along and tuk his head off, shore enough! and the curioust thing about it was ha! ha! that the feller was a-packin' him didn't know that he had been hit ag'in at all, and back he went still carryin' the deceased back ha! ha! ha! to where the doctors could take keer of him as he thought. Well, his cap'n happened to see him, and he thought it was a ruther cur'ous p'ceedin's a soldier carryin' a dead body out o' the fight don't you see? And so he hollers at him, and he says to the soldier, the cap'n did, he says, "Hullo, there; where you goin' with that thing?" the cap'n said to the soldier who was a-carryin' away the feller that had his leg shot off. Well, his head, too, by that time. So he says, "Where you goin' with that thing?" the cap'n said to the soldier who was a-carryin' away the feller that had his leg shot off. Well, the soldier he stopped kinder halted, you know, like a private soldier will when his presidin' officer speaks to him and he says to him, "W'y," he says, "Cap, it's a comrade o' mine and the pore feller has got his leg shot off, and I'm a-packin' him back to where the doctors is; and there was nobody to he'p him, and the feller would 'a' died in his tracks er track ruther if it hadn't a-been fer me, and I'm a-packin' him back where the surgeons can take keer of him; where he can get medical attendance er his wife's a widder!" he says, "'cause he's got his leg shot off!" Then Cap'n says, "You blame fool you, he's got his head shot off." So then the feller slacked his grip on the body and let it slide down to the ground, and looked at it a minute, all puzzled, you know, and says, "W'y, he told me it was his leg!" Ha! ha! ha!


Somep'n 'at's common-like, and good
And plain, and easy understood;
Somep'n 'at folks like me and you
Kin understand, and relish, too,
And find some sermint in 'at hits
The spot, and sticks and benefits.

We don't need nothin' extry fine;
'Cause, take the run o' minds like mine,
And we'll go more on good horse-sense
Than all your flowery eloquence;
And we'll jedge best of honest acts
By Nature's statement of the facts.

So when you're wantin' to express
Your misery, er happiness,
Er anything 'at's wuth the time
O' telling in plain talk er rhyme
Jes' sort o' let your subject run
As ef the Lord wuz listenun.



Mon cher Monsieur le Secretaire,
Your song flits with me everywhere;
It lights on Fancy's prow and sings
Me on divinest voyagings:
And when my ruler love would fain
Be laid upon it high again
It mounts, and hugs itself from me
With rapturous wings still dwindlingly
On! on! till but a ghost is there
Of song, Monsieur le Secretaire!


Little baby, you have wandered far away,
And your fairy face comes back to me to-day,
But I can not feel the strands
Of your tresses, nor the play
Of the dainty velvet-touches of your hands.

Little baby, you were mine to hug and hold;
Now your arms cling not about me as of old
O my dream of rest come true,
And my richer wealth than gold,
And the surest hope of Heaven that I knew!

O for the lisp long silent, and the tone
Of merriment once mingled with my own
For the laughter of your lips,
And the kisses plucked and thrown
In the lavish wastings of your finger-tips!

Little baby, O as then, come back to me,
And be again just as you used to be,
For this phantom of you stands
All too cold and silently,
And will not kiss nor touch me with its hands.


Ah! at last alone, love!
Now the band may play
Till its sweetest tone, love,
Swoons and dies away!
They who most will miss us
We're not caring for
Who of them could kiss us
In the corridor?

Had we only known, dear,
Ere this long delay,
Just how all alone, dear,
We might waltz away,
Then for hours, like this, love,
We are longing for,
We'd have still to kiss, love,
In the corridor!

Nestle in my heart, love;
Hug and hold me close
Time will come to part, love,
Ere a fellow knows;
There! the Strauss is ended
Whirl across the floor:
Isn't waltzing splendid
In the corridor?


Louella Wainie! where are you?
Do you not hear me as I cry?
Dusk is falling; I feel the dew;
And the dark will be here by and by:
I hear no thing but the owl's hoo-hoo!
Louella Wainie! where are you?

Hand in hand to the pasture bars
We came loitering, Lou and I,
Long ere the fireflies coaxed the stars
Out of their hiding-place on high.
O how sadly the cattle moo!
Louella Wainie! where are you?

Laughingly we parted here
"I will go this way," said she,
"And you will go that way, my dear"
Kissing her dainty hand at me
And the hazels hid her from my view.
Louella Wainie! where are you?

Is there ever a sadder thing
Than to stand on the farther brink
Of twilight, hearing the marsh-frogs sing?
Nothing could sadder be, I think!
And ah! how the night-fog chills one through.
Louella Wainie! where are you?

Water-lilies and oozy leaves
Lazy bubbles that bulge and stare
Up at the moon through the gloom it weaves
Out of the willows waving there!
Is it despair I am wading through?
Louella Wainie! where are you?

Louella Wainie, listen to me,
Listen, and send me some reply,
For so will I call unceasingly
Till death shall answer me by and by
Answer, and help me to find you too!
Louella Wainie! where are you?


The text: Love thou thy fellow man!
He may have sinned; One proof indeed,
He is thy fellow, reach thy hand
And help him in his need!

Love thou thy fellow man. He may
Have wronged thee then, the less excuse
Thou hast for wronging him. Obey
What he has dared refuse!

Love thou thy fellow man for, be
His life a light or heavy load,
No less he needs the love of thee
To help him on his road.


"He bore the name of William Brown"
His name, at least, did not go down
With him that day
He went the way
Of certain death where duty lay.

He looked his fate full in the face
He saw his watery resting-place
Undaunted, and
With firmer hand
Held others' hopes in sure command.

The hopes of full three hundred lives
Aye, babes unborn, and promised wives!
"The odds are dread,"
He must have said,
"Here, God, is one poor life instead."

No time for praying overmuch
No time for tears, or woman's touch
Of tenderness,
Or child's caress
His last "God bless them!" stopped at "bless"

Thus man and engine, nerved with steel,
Clasped iron hands for woe or weal,
And so went down
Where dark waves drown
All but the name of William Brown.


Why are they written all these lovers' rhymes?
I catch faint perfumes of the blossoms white
That maidens drape their tresses with at night,
And, through dim smiles of beauty and the din
Of the musicians' harp and violin,
I hear, enwound and blended with the dance,
The voice whose echo is this utterance,
Why are they written all these lovers' rhymes?

Why are they written all these lovers' rhymes?
I see but vacant windows, curtained o'er
With webs whose architects forevermore
Race up and down their slender threads to bind
The buzzing fly's wings whirless, and to wind
The living victim in his winding sheet.
I shudder, and with whispering lips repeat,
Why are they written all these lovers' rhymes?

Why are they written all these lovers' rhymes?
What will you have for answer? Shall I say
That he who sings the merriest roundelay
Hath neither joy nor hope? and he who sings
The lightest, sweetest, tenderest of things
But utters moan on moan of keenest pain,
So aches his heart to ask and ask in vain,
Why are they written all these lovers' rhymes?



Light falls the rain-drop on the fallen leaf,
And light o'er harvest-plain and garnered sheaf
But lightlier falls the touch of loving hands.

Light falls the dusk of mild midsummer night,
And light the first star's faltering lance of light
On glimmering lawns, but lightlier loving hands.

And light the feathery flake of early snows,
Or wisp of thistle-down that no wind blows,
And light the dew, but lightlier loving hands.

Light-falling dusk, or dew, or summer rain,
Or down of snow or thistle all are vain,
Far lightlier falls the touch of loving hands.


'Twas a test I designed, in a quiet conceit
Of myself, and the thoroughly fixed and complete
Satisfaction I felt in the utter control
Of the guileless young heart of the girl of my soul.

So we parted. I said it were better we should
That she could forget me I knew that she could;
For I never was worthy so tender a heart,
And so for her sake it were better to part.

She averted her gaze, and she sighed and looked sad
As I held out my hand for the ring that she had
With the bitterer speech that I hoped she might be
Resigned to look up and be happy with me.

'Twas a test, as I said but God pity your grief,
At a moment like this when a smile of relief
Shall leap to the lips of the woman you prize,
And no mist of distress in her glorious eyes.


Chant me a rhyme of Christmas
Sing me a jovial song,
And though it is filled with laughter,
Let it be pure and strong.

Let it be clear and ringing,
And though it mirthful be,
Let a low, sweet voice of pathos
Run through the melody.

Sing of the hearts brimmed over
With the story of the day
Of the echo of childish voices
That will not die away.

Of the blare of the tasselled bugle,
And the timeless clatter and beat
Of the drum that throbs to muster
Squadrons of scampering feet.

Of the wide-eyed look of wonder,
And the gurgle of baby-glee,
As the infant hero wrestles
From the smiling father's knee.

Sing the delights unbounded
Of the home unknown of care,
Where wealth as a guest abideth,
And want is a stranger there.

But O let your voice fall fainter,
Till, blent with a minor tone,
You temper your song with the beauty
Of the pity Christ hath shown:

And sing one verse for the voiceless;
And yet, ere the song be done,
A verse for the ears that hear not,
And a verse for the sightless one:

And one for the outcast mother,
And one for the sin-defiled
And hopeless sick man dying,
And one for his starving child.

For though it be time for singing
A merry Christmas glee,
Let a low, sweet voice of pathos
Run through the melody.


All day the sun and rain have been as friends,
Each vying with the other which shall be
Most generous in dowering earth and sea
With their glad wealth, till each, as it descends,
Is mingled with the other, where it blends
In one warm, glimmering mist that falls on me
As once God's smile fell over Galilee.
The lily-cup, filled with it, droops and bends
Like some white saint beside a sylvan shrine
In silent prayer; the roses at my feet,
Baptized with it as with a crimson wine,
Gleam radiant in grasses grown so sweet,
The blossoms lift, with tenderness divine,
Their wet eyes heavenward with these of mine.


With her face between his hands!
Was it any wonder she
Stood atiptoe tremblingly?
As his lips along the strands
Of her hair went lavishing
Tides of kisses, such as swing
Love's arms to like iron bands.
With her face between his hands!

And the hands the hands that pressed
The glad face Ah! where are they?
Folded limp, and laid away
Idly over idle breast?
He whose kisses drenched her hair,
As he caught and held her there,
In Love's alien, lost lands,
With her face between his hands?

Was it long and long ago,
When her face was not as now,
Dim with tears? nor wan her brow
As a winter-night of snow?
Nay, anointing still the strands
Of her hair, his kisses flow
Flood-wise, as she dreaming stands,
With her face between his hands.


Hush! hush! list, heart of mine, and hearken low!
You do not guess how tender is the Night,
And in what faintest murmurs of delight
Her deep, dim-throated utterances flow
Across the memories of long-ago!
Hark! do your senses catch the exquisite
Staccatos of a bird that dreams he sings?
Nay, then, you hear not rightly, 'tis a blur
Of misty love-notes, laughs and whisperings
The Night pours o'er the lips that fondle her,
And that faint breeze, filled with all fragrant sighs,
That is her breath that quavers lover-wise
O blessed sweetheart, with thy swart, sweet kiss,
Baptize me, drown me in black swirls of bliss!


The hour before the dawn!
O ye who grope therein, with fear and dread
And agony of soul, be comforted,
Knowing, ere long, the darkness will be gone,
And down its dusky aisles the light be shed;
Therefore, in utter trust, fare on fare on,
This hour before the dawn!


Good-by, Old Year!
We have been happy you and I;
We have been glad in many ways;
And now, that you have come to die,
Remembering our happy days,
'Tis hard to say, "Good-by
Good-by, Old Year!

Good-by, Old Year!
We have seen sorrow you and I
Such hopeless sorrow, grief and care,
That now, that you have come to die,
Remembering our old despair,
'Tis sweet to say, "Good-by
Good-by, Old Year!


One said: "Here is my hand to lean upon
As long as you may need it." And one said:
"Believe me true to you till I am dead."
And one, whose dainty way it was to fawn
About my face, with mellow fingers drawn
Most soothingly o'er brow and drooping head,
Sighed tremulously: "Till my breath is fled
Know I am faithful!" Now, all these are gone
And many like to them and yet I make
No bitter moan above their grassy graves
Alas! they are not dead for me to take
Such sorry comfort! but my heart behaves
Most graciously, since one who never spake
A vow is true to me for true love's sake.


I am dazed and bewildered with living
A life but an intricate skein
Of hopes and despairs and thanksgiving
Wound up and unravelled again
Till it seems, whether waking or sleeping,
I am wondering ever the while
At a something that smiles when I'm weeping,
And a something that weeps when I smile.

And I walk through the world as one dreaming
Who knows not the night from the day,
For I look on the stars that are gleaming,
And lo, they have vanished away:
And I look on the sweet-summer daylight,
And e'en as I gaze it is fled,
And, veiled in a cold, misty, gray light,
The winter is there in its stead.

I feel in my palms the warm fingers
Of numberless friends and I look,
And lo, not a one of them lingers
To give back the pleasure he took;
And I lift my sad eyes to the faces
All tenderly fixed on my own,
But they wither away in grimaces
That scorn me, and leave me alone.

And I turn to the woman that told me
Her love would live on until death
But her arms they no longer enfold me,
Though barely the dew of her breath
Is dry on the forehead so pallid
That droops like the weariest thing
O'er this most inharmonious ballad
That ever a sorrow may sing.

So I'm dazed and bewildered with living
A life but an intricate skein
Of hopes and despairs and thanksgiving
Wound up and unravelled again
Till it seems, whether waking or sleeping,
I am wondering ever the while
At a something that smiles when I'm weeping,
And a something that weeps when I smile.


Dah's Brudder Sims! Dast slam yo' Bible shet
An' lef' dat man alone kase he's de boss
Ob all de preachahs ev' I come across!
Day's no twis' in dat gospil book, I bet,
Ut Brudder Sims cain't splanify, an' set
You' min' at eaze! W'at's Moses an' de Laws?
W'at's fo'ty days an' nights ut Noey toss
Aroun' de Dil-ooge? W'at dem Chillen et
De Lo'd rain down? W'at s'prise ole Joney so
In dat whale's inna'ds? W'at dat laddah mean
Ut Jacop see? an' wha' dat laddah go?
Who clim dat laddah? Wha' dat laddah lean?
An' wha' dat laddah now? "Dast chalk yo' toe
Wid Faith," sez Brudder Sims, "an' den you know!"


Crouched at the corner of the street
She sits all day, with face too white
And hands too wasted to be sweet
In anybody's sight.

Her form is shrunken, and a pair
Of crutches leaning at her side
Are crossed like homely hands in prayer
At quiet eventide.

Her eyes two lustrous, weary things
Have learned a look that ever aches,
Despite the ready jinglings
The passer's penny makes.

And, noting this, I pause and muse
If any precious promise touch
This heart that has so much to lose
If dreaming overmuch

And, in a vision, mistily
Her future womanhood appears,
A picture framed with agony
And drenched with ceaseless tears

Where never lover comes to claim
The hand outheld so yearningly
The laughing babe that lisps her name
Is but a fantasy!

And, brooding thus, all swift and wild
A daring fancy, strangely sweet,
Comes o'er me, that the crippled child
That crouches at my feet

Has found her head a resting-place
Upon my shoulder, while my kiss
Across the pallor of her face
Leaves crimson trails of bliss.

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