In Lockerbie Street
Copyright. 1909 by
B. W. DODGE & COMPANY
Copyright, 1908 by
All Rights Reserved
Printed in the United States of America
"The gravel roadway that fairly runs into a tiny Dame
Trot cottage, standing right in its path
at the end of a single block."
"The cool dark branches of the trees lock and lovingly interlace above."
IN LOCKERBIE STREET
HARDLY anybody used to know where to find it. Tucked away in a secluded nook, it is so far that almost apart from the passing play it sees the shifting scenes of events. It is so near that almost across the curbstone of the next square, or the next, is the eddying throng of the commercial district. More than fifteen years ago a poet went there to live. There fame and the tourists have followed him. Now the soft brooding quiet of the little green lane is broken by the blatant bawling of the sight-seeing autos that announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Lockerbie Street and Riley's residence!"
Yes, and once on a sultry summer's day as, on the front porch he refreshed himself with a cooling glass of innocent lemonade, the climax of dramatic interest was reached when the megaphone boomed hysterically, "Ladies and gentlemen, behold James Whitcomb Riley drinking a high ball!"
Oh! labelled and looked at like the star freak of a circus tent. Or, as he himself whimsically protests, "One might as well be a white mouse with pink eyes." So he retreats from the front porch where he loves to linger, but where lately
will catch him
if he don't watch out!
It is only that the American nation knows now that some time ago in the middle west unto them was born the greatest poet of a generation. So they are coming to Indianapolis to bring him the laurel wreath of their admiration. That it is done in the curious vandal American way, that would crown him and then carry away a piece of the crown as a souvenir, makes the tribute not the less real. Only the staring glare of publicity shines a trifle unpleasantly in eyes that have loved so well just starlight and sunlight falling in flickering shadows in Lockerbie Street.
PERHAPS you might not think that this would be where a man would want to live, who is reputed to have made a half million dollars from his verses. That is, you might not, unless it were given you to see with somewhat of his vision. It is quite apart from the fashionable district. It looks like something that the village forgot when it went on to its city days. It is narrow and quiet. There is so little hurrying that the grass finds time to grow soft green fringes between the red bricks of the humpety-bumpety sidewalks. The dark cool branches of the trees lock and lovingly interlace above the gravel roadway that fairly runs into a tiny Dame Trot cottage, standing right in its path at the end of the single block. And some of the houses nestle close to the sidewalk, and some have picket fences to set them apart, and one has a blue pump in the front yard, and one has its front porch sagging in a tired kind of way. They are not shiny, new and expressionless. They are all houses that say something. They are mostly weather-beaten and worn with the lives lived in them, and they are all so human that you can almost hear their hearts beat. Anyhow, a poet can.
He lives at the large house, where in spite of the well-kept lawn that a negro servant tends to with care, there is an air of faded gentility about the brick residence that seems its apology to the rest for having terraced
"He lives at the large house where . . . there is an air of faded gentility."
stone steps and flower urns that they lack. People call it the Riley house. But he wishes they wouldn't. It isn't his.
"Why, they only let me stay here," he explains. Once he lived with a married sister. But there was a boy growing up there, of whom his uncle was fond, and "I've got some few eccentricities it wouldn't be good for a boy to get," says Mr. Riley. "So I packed up and pulled out before folks had a chance to say, 'Um, he learned that from Jim.'" Afterward for a while Mr. Riley lived at a hotel. Then his most intimate friend, Major Holstein, an Indianapolis lawyer who also wrote sonnets, said, "Come and live at our house." And he has been there ever since. He seldom goes away when he can help it. Here is home. He has no other.
OUT at Greenfield, a town twenty miles distant, he owns a house. It is the simple old frame house in yellow and white that he has immortalized in his verse. And people say, "Why doesn't he live there, he loved it so!" O, but that is just why. He loved it so. And now the voice of the house is still. There was a gentle, fair-haired woman and a tall dark man and five happy little Hoosier chaps. And he cannot find them anywhere, not in the little room up under the eaves where Bud and Johnny slept. Not out where they ate their supper on the porch, not on the winding spiral stair that used to echo with circus feats. Not even our hired girl Elizabeth Ann or the Raggedy Man answer his call in the kitchen. They are all gone away. And he cannot stay without them. But the crickets and the katydids are chirping a reminiscent musical note of his boyhood, and the scent of the old red apple-tree's bloom is heavy on the summer dusk. He pauses on the front piazza and looks down the road. For a moment he can almost see again long white caravans of prairie schooners moving by on into the West. Then out from the horizon, rimmed by a sunset sky, shoots a streak of light, and with a rasping, discordant buzzing, a trolley car has gone whizzing past, shattering its way ruthlessly through the white vision of yesterday.
And he goes back to Lockerbie Street. It will never have the haunting romance of the wonderful boy world from which he has journeyed. But it has living folks. And he likes it. It is about the one place left now where he can be a man as well as a poet. People who live next door do not stand off as he passes and nudge each other and say in loud whispers, "There goes Riley." That thing elsewhere gets on his nerves. It's fine to be famous, but it's frightful to be forever on parade as a superhuman. It's like a man wearing a dress suit every day and not daring to bend for fear his smooth shiny shirt front might crack. See? Riley does.
In Lockerbie Street he is one of the folks. His life is linked with others by daily accustomed association. He can saunter into Trustin
"Out in Greenfield . . . he owns a house . . . the simple old frame house
in yellow and white that he has immortalized in his verse."
Igoe's house—yes, that's the name, Trustin—without knocking at the door, and wander through the hall until he finds the family in the dining-room at supper. Then he says, "Say, Trustin, got any tobacco? I'm just out. Got to have some." On the front porch later, he may sit right down with his back against a post: "O, no, don't bother. I don't want a chair. But, O, this tobacco is a comfort! Do you know, when I'm dead, Trustin, I want you to see to it personally that beside me in the tomb they put a small table and on it a pitcher pf water, a set of Dickens and a little tobacco. For I wouldn't want anything to happen that I'd come to in there with no tobacco on hand!" He can be just that natural and familiar, as if he were not a great personage.
ONCE they had a charity fair in Lockerbie Street and some one was trying to make a sign for the fortune-telling booth. Mr. Riley stopped and watched the work for a moment. Then he said, holding his hand out for the brush, "Better let me do that lettering. Sign painting was once my business, you know." And when the various booths had been apportioned among the different neighbors, they asked, "Now, Mr. Riley, what are you going to do for the Fair?"
"I'll do anything you want, if only you won't make a show of me," he replied earnestly. They had wanted him to give readings from his poems, but he wouldn't. So finally he compromised by writing the poem, "The Lockerbie Street Fair," which they sold for a dollar a copy.
At the corner grocery he has often dropped in to ask, "Any red apples to-day, Mr. Kiser?" When he gets one, he leans against a cracker barrel. Having polished the fruit carefully, he snaps his teeth in with the zest of a boy, and is off on reminiscences of the days when he was a wandering musician along with a patent medicine wagon, traveling through Indiana where the groceryman used to live. Or, if it is summer time, he stops on the sidewalk outside, tips a chair against the wall, and with other neighborly spirits, laughs and tells stories until bed time.
"See that man going by on the other side of the street with a basket?" says one. "He's worth a lot of money, and I knew him when he didn't have a cent."
"Owes me yet for the basket," chimes in the groceryman.
"Shucks," says Riley, "let me tell you a better one. Why, when I struck town, I'd hardly a rag to my back. Now look 'em over!" Which couldn't have failed to create a laugh, for James Whitcomb Riley, with all his easy going ways, is one of the best dressed men in Indianapolis.
He is the faultlessly attired gentleman who daily walks out of Lockerbie Street with a gold headed cane and often with a white carnation in his buttonhole, as he starts down-town for his publishers. And before he's gone far, he has accumulated a following of children. If there is a little red headed boy at the house with the blue pump, standing on a fence rail
"At the corner grocery he has often dropped in."
playing telephone with the clothes line, Mr. Riley calls "Hello Amber Locks!" The first time they met, he lifted the boy over the fence, sat him down on the ground, looked at him gently, and said, "Son, you've got hair just like Hum used to have. Hum was my little brother, and grandmother called him Amber Locks." And as he goes on down the street, there isn't a child that he misses. He knows them all by name.
LAST summer there was a lemonade stand under the trees at the house beyond the red brick church. Lemonade was three cents a glass. But there weren't many buyers. The fingers of the small venders were not comfortably clean, and nobody knew if they washed the glasses. By and by it began to rain and four of them scuttled of to the shelter of the big church doorway, leaving only the littlest boy in charge. Along came the fine gentleman, and though he didn't have an umbrella, he stopped in the fast increasing rain to say, "I'll take a glass of lemonade." And he drank it, too. Then he left ten cents and didn't want the change. He never does. Every newsboy in Indianapolis knows that. Among the little folk he meets he scatters pennies as freely as the sunshine of his words.
"You see," he says apologetically to any grown-up who catches him, "pennies are awful hard to get when you're a boy. Why, there isn't anything so hard as pennies. I remember."
Always when he comes home from down-town he brings candy. The children troop to meet him along the route, literally hold him up to go through his pockets, and he lets them. He and children know so well how to get together on a common meeting ground. It's the greatest embarrassment to both for grown people to make the introduction. He doesn't at all enjoy having Mary or Johnny trotted into the parlor in best clothes to recite "Orphant Annie" to him. And he never says, "How do you do, my little man?" or "Can't the pretty little girl give me a kiss?" Never! That wouldn't be Mr. Riley. If he and the children are left to themselves, he will sidle along like another child and say, "Hello! What's your name?" And if this doesn't work, he'll say, pretty soon, "Say, I know a story. Want to hear it?"
Invariably this will bring at least an affirmative nod. In another moment he is rambling delightfully on in the lines of the Raggedy Man or The Runaway Boy or the Bear Story. He is reciting the verses that great audiences would pay good money to hear. The children don't know that. But they are listening open-mouthed, in fascination drawing nearer and nearer, until an absent-minded little hand may even have hold of his sleeve.
Better than this, even, he likes to play at being a child himself, until he fairly forgets that he isn't one. Amber Locks used to have broomsticks for horses, seven of them stabled behind the woodshed door. He and Mr. Riley named them severally Nancy Hanks, Star Pointer, etc. And Mr. Riley knew so well how to ride a broomstick horse with one's head thrown up high, very high! He'd told the boy how. But he just ached to show him. So he did one day. People looking from their windows saw the celebrated writer canter gayly along Lockerbie Street astride a broomstick with his coat tails flying in the wind. And when he stopped, panting and out of breath, there was in his laughing face something of the old glory of childhood that was good to see.
SOMETIMES he puts the children into his books. There was a little boy lived next door. His name was David. And David had a spine that was crooked and crippled with rheumatism; and he was eleven years old. But his great ambition was to be a soldier. All the little boys around Lockerbie Street he used to gather daily in his front yard for training and he was the captain of the regiment. Always as Mr. Riley went by he would ask, "Well, and David, how's the regiment to-day?" Once at first, he had come along and found the boys in some altercation and had inquired, "What's it all about?" And David answered, "Why, sir, you see they all want to be officers, and it don't leave me any privates."
But the drilling went on. And one day David said wistfully as he walked by the poet's side, "Mr. Riley," and then very softly, "Mr. Riley, did you ever know a crooked soldier?"
"O, yes," promptly answered Mr. Riley, "and he was a very fine soldier, such a fine soldier indeed! David, do you see that robin over there? I declare spring's here, and I never knew it. Did you?" Afterward, when David was gone, it was to his mother that Mr. Riley wrote the beautiful poem about "The Little Boy That Sleeps."
"The little boy that sleeps." And little David used to draw pictures most anywhere, pictures of soldiers and flags and stacks of arms. And there was one under the south parlor window. It was one day after David went to sleep that workmen came briskly into Lockerbie Street with ladders and pails of paint. And Mr. Riley called, as he walked by, "O Mrs. Cobb, you going to have the house painted?"
And she said, "Yes, Mr. Riley, it's looking pretty bad this spring, and we just thought we must." Then the poet caught his breath hard and said, "Oh, but I wouldn't like to paint those out." And he was looking at David's soldiers.
SO he has laughed and sorrowed with Lockerbie Street. Is it any wonder that he loves it? There is one house down at the end of the row that is quite new, only fourteen years built, while the rest have been built over forty. The people there thought it would be nice to have the street made modern, improved with cement sidewalks, asphalt pavements and electric lights. The others were talking about it in an excited group, and Mr. Riley coming up asked, "What's the matter?" When they told him, he drew back as if warding off a blow. "Oh!" he said, "Lockerbie Street suits me just as it is." And his eye swept its length even to the grocery at the corner, plastered grotesquely with blue and yellow and green advertisements for soap and bread.
"Now I want to know," said the lady from the house at the end of the row, "do you like to walk the curb in rainy weather to keep out of the sidewalk mud puddles?"
"I've learned to," answered Mr. Riley cheerfully. Finally the will of the majority of the property owners prevailed. Their protest to the Indianapolis city officials was effectual, and they are left with their own in Lockerbie Street, unchanged as they want it.
So it is still known as Lover's Lane, where young people like to wander under the thick leafy shade on summer evenings. Through the low French windows of the unlighted drawing room where he sits, Mr. Riley sometimes hears their comments.
"I wonder if he's married," asks a girl, looking toward the house. "Sure," answers the young man, with an arm around her waist, "didn't he write that 'Old Sweetheart of Mine?'" And the author laughs to himself a little low laugh in the moonlight.
Nobody knows but Mr. Riley why he didn't marry. And he won't tell. It is one of the marks of his genius that he can look at life even without having lived it and see himself as the other man is. Yet somehow you feel that there should have been somewhere a girl of whom he was thinking when he painted the poem. Down around Greenfield there used to be a number of girls, Lizzie and Annie and Nell and Louise and Mollie. And sometimes now you meet there nice matronly women who look up quickly when you put the question, "Were you ever an old sweetheart of James Whitcomb Riley?" Then their cheeks grow girlishly pink as they admit, "Why yes, I believe I was a long time ago."
"And you pick it up and look at a sweet face with old-fashioned
braids of hair."
THERE is one pretty woman with softly graying hair who laughingly holds up a bundle of old love letters, "Jim's, you see!" Out of them drops a little old faded photograph and she exclaims, "Why, I didn't know that was there. It's the one Jim used to carry in his pocket."
And you pick it up and look at a sweet face with old-fashioned braids of hair. Then you turn over the picture and read on the back in the same fine hand that penned the letters: "Friday night at Prayer Meeting, March 22, 1872—engaged September 1, 1872." If you are allowed to read the letters, you find the record of a quarrel in the church yard, and a making up, with a happy-not-ever-after, but for three months longer—and then the end.
So it seems that Mr. Riley used to go to church when there was a girl to go after. He doesn't go much now. A neighbor in Lockerbie Street often says, "You ought to. Come, go with us to-day." But he will only promise, "Maybe, some time."
"I don't go to church only when I have to," he says. "I can't bear the awe and gloom. I don't like worship that way. It ought to be cheerful and joyful. I don't believe God likes Christians with long faces in an attitude of abnegation. I'd kick any one sky high I'd see do that to me, and God must want to.
"It just sort o' clabbers my mind to go to church. It's the groups of people gathering hushed and still. Swish, swish, Sunday silks coming down the aisle. The odor of black crepe and the silence in which somebody'll hear your collar creak if you turn your head. Then there's the boom, boom of the bell. And it all brings back the gray day you came here before to put away a loved one; the procession of black carriages, the bleak wind—it's the heartbreak of life here in the house of worship. No, sir, I don't go to church when I don't have to."
As he stops talking the room grows still. He is looking off toward Greenfield. And he sees a long country road bordered with thirty-one poplar trees in a row. Their silvery leaves rustle and whisper sorrowfully. And at the end of the long road is a gateway with gilt letters, "The Park Cemetery." Then through the gateway, over down by the edge of the cornfield, there is a granite stone that guards four graves, and on it is written: "God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain."
If anybody thinks because Mr. Riley doesn't go to church he hasn't got religion, just look in his verses and you will find it. If he ever does run short personally, it's only because he's put so much of his supply into his poetry. There's one poem prayer, if he never prayed another, would just about open the gates of heaven. When he walks among the flowers, too, he looks at them with long, long looks filled with a poet's reverent adoration at the mystery of their creation. He likes hollyhocks. "Not the new-fangled, ruffled ones," he says, "but plain ones, with room for a bee to get in and buzz, just as when I was a boy I used to catch em in there and hold 'em to hear em sing."
"In Lockerbie Street he is one of the folks." SOMETIMES, when the summer sun is hot, he hears June and the bees and the clover calling, calling him back where he was a boy.He starts for Greenfield, finds a gray-haired man, and the two are off with fishing poles, wandering along the Brandywine looking for the old swimming hole and the long ago. At night they come back bramble scratched and happy. "Lacks the lickin" though, to make it real," says one. "Remember, Jim, how that always put the finishin' touches to a day's sport when we'd run away from school?"
Then they have gone home to Jesse Millikan's kitchen. Soon there was a clatter and a rattle of frying pans and the sound of sizzling fat, and James Whitcomb Riley was doing a fish to as beautiful a turn as he does a poem! "Now this is a meal to do a man's heart good," he used to say, as they sat down to the oilcloth covered table. Jesse Millikan died recently. He was a painter and paperhanger. Mr. Riley paid all his hospital and funeral expenses. It was he who always got the first copy off the press when the poet had out a new book. And it was to Jesse Millikan he wrote to announce his first success when the world began to recognize Riley as really great. "I'm so damfoolishly happy, Jess" was what he said.
NOTHING less attractive than a trip to Greenfield lures Mr. Riley out of Lockerbie Street. He never takes a vacation. "There isn't so much in a vacation as some folks think," he says. "I like home best." It is with the greatest difficulty that he can be induced to go anywhere, even in Indianapolis. Hostesses at high functions lament the absence of the celebrity they'd planned to lionize. He simply won't accept their invitations. But let Trustin Igoe call out of the side window, "I say, J. W., there's 'wortermelon' at our house this evenin'. Come on over!" And he doesn't miss the engagement.
"The best dressed man in town." Even his own relatives usually come to Lockerbie Street to see him. There is his sister, Mrs. Henry Eitel, and her family; another sister, Mrs. Payne, and her daughter; a brother, John, and an aunt, Mrs. Frank Riley. With them also he is something more or less than a poet. "Aunt," he will say to Mrs. Riley when she comes on Sunday afternoons, "How well I recollect first time I saw you. I was a little tad at a church picnic, and Uncle Frank told me the pretty young lady in the white dress was going to be my aunt. My, but you looked nice, as nice as,—um, as nice as lemon pie!" And the lady flutters pleasantly and looks over her glasses and says, "You always were my boy, Jim." He likes that. There aren't many people left now to call him Jim.
Much as he enjoys playing at being a boy, though, there are times when he can't. Not long ago he met Trustin Igoe coming out of his yard one morning and said, "Lord, Trustin, what you going to raise next? Those ducks are just about more'n I can stand!" Mr. Igoe has had dogs and cats and chickens and pigeons and ducks. And the pigeons coo over Mr. Riley's chamber window and the ducks quack under it.
"Why, J. W! Thought you was raised in rural scenes," Mr. Igoe answers. Ah, he was. But then he was a boy, and now he's a poet And country sounds have a way of interrupting the making of poetry though they read so beautifully in it.
UP there in the upper chamber is where Mr. Riley writes. When the light burns late the neighbors know a poem is coming. Mr. Riley is shut in there alone, and no material interruption must be allowed to call him back to earth. It is said that his face is shining, illumined. His secretary, who sees it coming, goes quietly out and closes the door. Down stairs, Mr. Igoe feeds the ducks bran till they are full to their necks, to stop their quacking. It may last for hours, perhaps all night. And Mr. Riley neither eats nor sleeps. But when he comes down from the heights where he's been, he holds a revelation that is vital with the throb of life. And people who love Riley and his wonderful verse believe that God still meets his chosen seers on the mountain top of transfiguration, even in Lockerbie Street.
Now listen to Mr. Riley's "Prayer Perfect."
Dear Lord, kind Lord,
Gracious Lord, I pray
Thou wilt look on all I love
Weed their hearts of weariness
Scatter every care
Down a wake of angels' wings
Winnowing the air.
Bring unto the sorrowing
All release from pain;
Let the lips of laughter
And with all the needy
O divide, I pray
This vast treasure of content
That is mine to-day.