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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman (1852–1930)

Timothy Samson, the Wise Man

From “The People of Our Neighborhood”

TIMOTHY SAMSON is not a college graduate; not more than three men in this village are. I never heard that he was remarkable as a boy for his standing in the district school, but he is the village sage. Nobody disputes it. The doctor, the lawyer, and the minister all have to give precedence to him. The doctor may know something about physic, the lawyer about law, and the minister about theology, but Timothy Samson knows something about everything.

The doctor’s practise suffers through Timothy. If any of the neighbors or their children are ill, they are very apt to call in Timothy instead of the doctor. For one reason, they have nearly as much confidence in him; for another reason, it saves the doctor’s fee.

Timothy Samson seems able to tell almost at a glance whether a child is coming down with a simple cold or the whooping-cough, with measles or scarlet fever, with mumps or quinsy. He has a little stock of medicines in his chimney closet in his kitchen. Timothy’s medicine bottles, which hold a good quart apiece, are always kept replenished. Nothing is ever lacking in case of need. Most of them he concocts himself, from roots and herbs, with a judicious use of stimulants. For this last he is forced to make a slight charge when medicine is taken in large quantities. “I ask jest enough to cover the cost of the stimulants,” he says, and little enough it is—only a few cents upon a quart. Timothy’s ministrations are simply for humanity’s sake and love of the healing art, and not for gain.

He is a cobbler, a mender of the cheap rustic shoes that wear out their soles and stub their toes on our rough country roads. He used, until machine-work came in vogue, to make all the shoes for the neighborhood by hand. Indeed, there are now some few conservative mothers of families who employ him twice a year to fit out their children with his coarse, faithful handiwork. Timothy owns his little cottage house, and his little garden, and his little apple orchard. He paid for them long ago with his small savings, and now he earns just enough by cobbling to pay his taxes and keep himself and his old wife in their plain and simple necessaries of life.

Timothy’s shoe-shop forms a tiny L of his tiny house. In it he has a little rusty box-stove, which is usually red-hot through the winter months, for Timothy is a chilly man; his work-bench with its sagging leather seat, a rude table heaped with lasts, and three or four stools and backless chairs for callers. The hot air is stifling with leather and the reek of ancient tobacco-smoke, for Timothy smokes a pipe. A strange atmosphere, it seems, for wisdom to thrive in.

Often an anxious mother is seen to scuttle down the road with her shawl thrown over her head, and disappear from the eyes of neighbors in Timothy’s shoe-shop, and reappear with Timothy ambling at her heels.

Timothy is a small, spare old man, and he has a curious gait, but he gets over the ground rapidly when he goes on such errands.

The children like Timothy; they are not as afraid of him as of the doctor. Sometimes one sets up a doleful lament when the doctor is proposed, but is comforted when his mother says: “Well, I’ll run over an’ get Timothy Samson. I guess he’ll do jest about as well.”

The children run out their tongues quite readily for Timothy to inspect; they even stretch their mouths obediently for his potent doses. There may, however, be reasons for their preference. All of Timothy’s medicines are tinctured high with flavors which are pleasant and even delectable to childish palates, and they are well sweetened. So much peppermint and sassafras and wintergreen, indeed, does Timothy infuse in his remedies that the doctor has been known to be very sarcastic over it. “Might as well take sassafras-tea and done with it,” he said once with a sniff at the dregs of Timothy’s medicine when Mrs. Harrison White called him in to see her Tommy, after Timothy had attended him for two weeks. But the doctor was three weeks curing Tommy after that, and she called in Timothy the next time the child was sick.

Aside from the pleasant flavors of Timothy’s medicines there is another inducement for taking them. Always after the patient has swallowed his dose he tucks into his mouth a most delicious little molasses drop made by Mrs. Timothy.

She makes these drops as no one in the village can; indeed, she holds jealously to the receipt, and cannot be coaxed to disclose it. She keeps her husband’s pockets filled with the drops; for some occult reason they never seem to stick, even in hot weather.

Mrs. Timothy is a tall, shy, pale old woman, who scarcely ever speaks unless she is asked a direct question. There is a curious lack of active individuality about her. At times she seems like nothing so much as a sort of spiritual looking-glass for the reflection of Timothy, and yet he is not an imperious or unpleasantly self-assertive man. Still, great self-confidence he undoubtedly has, and that may eliminate a weaker nature without designing to do so. Perhaps the whole village reflects Timothy more or less, after the manner of his wife.

Many a tale is told of a triumph of his sagacity over the doctors, and people listen with pride and chuckling delight. The doctor is a surly, gruff, and not very popular old man, and everybody loves to relate how “the doctor said Mis’ Nehemiah Stockwell had erysipelas, and doctored her for that several months, and she got worse. Then they called in Timothy Samson on the sly, and he said, jest as soon as he see her, ’twa’n’t erysipelas; ’twas poison ivy, an’ put on plantain leaves and castor oil, and cured her right up.”

Timothy Samson’s triumphs in law and theology are even greater than in medicine. He draws up wills, free of charge, which stand without a question; he collects bills with wonderful success. Everybody knows how he made Mr. Samuel Paine pay the twenty-five dollars and sixty-three cents which he had been owing John Leavitt over a year for wood. John had asked and asked, but he began to think he should never get a cent. Samuel Paine is one of the most prosperous men in the village, too; he owns the grist-mill. Finally poor John Leavitt sought aid from Timothy Samson, who bestowed it.

Mrs. Samuel Paine had company to tea that afternoon—the minister and his wife, and some out-of-town cousins of hers who have married well. They wore stiff black silks trimmed with jet, and carried gold watches; the neighbors saw them out in the yard.

They had taken their seats at the tea-table, which Mrs. Paine had bedecked with her best linen and china; the minister had asked the blessing, and Mrs. Paine was about to pour the tea, and Mr. Paine to pass the biscuits, when Timothy Samson walked in without knocking.

He bade the company “Good day,” and then, with no preface at all, addressed Mr. Samuel Paine upon the subject of his long-standing debt to John Leavitt. He told him that John Leavitt was a poor man, and in sore need of a barrel of flour.

“Poor John Leavitt, he can’t afford to have no sech fine company as you’ve got to-night, an’ give ’em no sech hot biscuits an’ peach sauce, an’ frosted cake,” said Timothy, pitilessly eying the table; “he can’t have what he actu’ly needs, ’cause you don’t pay your just debt.”

Samuel Paine, thus admonished, turned red, then white, but said not a word, only pulled his old leather wallet stiffly out of his pocket, and poor John Leavitt had his barrel of flour that night.

And all the village knows how Timothy settled the dispute between Lysander Mann and Anson White. Anson’s hens encroached upon Lysander’s young garden; he would not shut them up, and Lysander threatened to go to law. They had hot words about it. But Timothy said to Lysander, with that inimitably shrewd wink of his handsome blue eyes, which must have been seen by everybody hearing the story who knows Timothy, “Why don’t you fix up a nice leetle coop, an’ some nice leetle nests in your yard, Lysander?”

And Lysander did, and Anson shut up his hens when they took to laying eggs upon his neighbor’s premises instead of scratching up his peas and beans.

When theology is in question there is a popular belief in the village that the minister is indebted to Timothy for many a good point in his sermon.

In fact, the minister, who is an old and somewhat prosy man, seldom gets credit among many of his congregation for any bright and original thought of his own. People nod meaningly at each other, as much as to say, “That’s Timothy Samson.” It is universally conceded that if Timothy had been properly educated he would have made a much better parson than the parson. Timothy is especially gifted in prayer, and often seems to bear the whole burden of the conference-meeting upon his shoulders.

He is one of the deacons, and he passes the sacramental bread and wine with the stately and solemn bearing of an apostle. Indeed, there is something which approaches the apostolic ideal in the appearance of Timothy Samson, with his handsome, benignantly beaming old face, and his waving gray locks. There is only one thing which conflicts with it, and that is the twinkle of acute worldly wisdom and shrewdness in his blue eyes. One cannot imagine an apostle twinkling upon his fellow men after that fashion.

Besides the wisdom comprised under the three heads of medicine, law, and theology, Timothy has more of varied kinds in stock. He is strangely weatherwise. He seems to read the clouds and the winds like the chapters of a book. We all believe he could write an almanac as good as the “Old Farmers’” if he were so disposed. If the Sunday-school thinks of having a picnic, Timothy is consulted, and the day he selects is invariably fair. He has even been known to name the wedding-day instead of the bride.

Not a woman in the village dreams of going abroad in best bonnet and gown if Timothy Samson says it will storm. On the other hand, one sets forth in her finest array, and carries no umbrella, no matter how lowering the clouds are, if Timothy gives the word that it will be fair.

Timothy knows when there will be a drought and when a frost. Often we should lose our grapes or our melons were it not for Timothy’s timely warning to cover them before nightfall with old blankets and carpets. Timothy is a master gardener, and knows well how to make refractory plants bud and blossom. He grafts sour and stubborn old fruit-trees into sweet and luscious bearing; he knows how to prune vines and hedges and rose-bushes.

Timothy always knows where the blueberries and blackberries grow thickest, and pilots the children thither; and he knows the haunt of the partridge if an invalid has a longing for delicate wild meat.

Timothy’s wisdom can apply itself to small matters as well as great, and fit the minutest needs of daily life. If a housewife’s carpet will not go down, if her curtains will not roll up, if the stove-pipe will not fit, his aid is sought and never fails. If any one of the thousand little household difficulties beset her, Timothy runs over in his shoemaker’s apron and sets the matter right.

If there is any matter which Timothy’s wisdom can fail to cover, we have yet to find it.

If this sage did not live in our village, what should we all be? Should we ever go anywhere without spoiling our best bonnets? Should we have any wisdom at all unless we paid the highest market price for it? And we could not do that, because we are all poor. What shall we do when our wise man is gathered to his fathers? We dare not contemplate that.