D. J.: A Christmas Story

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Mail and Express Illustrated Saturday Magazine (December 5, 1903)

The scholars of District School No. 5 had sat very still while the teacher, Miss Annie Maria Hope, had been speaking. When she concluded with “We will have the Christmas tree in this room on Christmas eve; each pupil will ask his or her mother to permit him or her to furnish for the occasion cake, fruit or candy, and I will supply the coffee; each pupil will bring one gift for another pupil, and each pupil will bring to me a week before the occasion a slip of paper bearing the name of the other pupil to whom he or she proposes to offer the gift, that I may be sure that none are omitted from the distribution,” they all clapped loud and long.

D. J. Hapgood, otherwise Daniel Jacobs Hapgood, but familiarly known as D. J., to distinguish him from his father, known as D. A., for Daniel Anderson, ran out of the room ahead of the other boys, as usual, but little Caroline Evans stopped him. She put a pretty little hand out and pulled his flying jacket gently, and said in the prettiest little lisping voice:

“D. J., the teacher wanth to speakh to you.”

Then a number of shriller, louder voices took it up: “D. J.! Hi, D. J.! D. J. Hapgood, teacher wants to speak to you. D. J., hallo!”

D. J. turned and went pell-mell to the teacher's desk, pulled off his cap with a jerk and stood waiting. Miss Annie Maria Hope was a very pretty girl, and very young for a teacher, but she tried hard to act old and prim.

“Daniel Jacobs,” said the teacher — she never called him D. J. — “I have a request to make of you. I wish you to provide the tree. Of course you will have no difficulty in so doing. Your father will be willing.”

D. J. turned very red, and made a little gasping sound.

“Your father has plenty of young trees suitable for the purpose, has he not?” asked the teacher.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Well, please ask him to allow you to have one for the Christmas festivities, and you can cut it down. You are big enough, are you not, Daniel Jacobs?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Well, select a young symmetrical tree not too high for this room and cut it down, and you can drag it here. You can get a double runner?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“One of the other boys will help you; have it here the day before Christmas, and you and William can set it up, can you not?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Well, that is all. You can go.” D. J. went out of the schoolroom very slowly and soberly. The other boys called to him, but he did not seem to hear them. He had about a mile to walk along the snowy country road. On the way he passed a beautiful tract of land covered with a fine growth of hemlock. He stopped and stared over at the dark trees. He saw one which he decided would make a splendid Christmas tree. Then he shook his head, sighed, and passed on. Presently he came in sight of the large white farmhouse where he lived. It was a very prosperous looking place, standing in its great reach of cultivated fields, with a long stretch of barns and stables at the left. D. A. Hapgood was a rich man. D. J. went into the house by the south door, which led directly into the kitchen. The family never used any room but the kitchen for a sitting room in winter, in order to save firewood, and they never used the front door because there was a store carpet on the front entry.

When D. J. entered, his mother was standing over the stove frying griddle-cakes for supper, and his grandmother was sitting in the old rocking chair by the window, picking over dried apples for pies, and his father was just coming in from the barn with the milk pail. D. J. wiped his feet carefully on the door mat, and took off his cap and red tippet and jacket, and hung them up on the peg behind the door. Then he sat down.

“You needn't think you're goin' to sit the minute you come into the house,” said his father. “Go right out and split up the kindling wood for breakfast before you eat your supper.” “Do let the boy rest a minute,” said his mother. “He's had a long walk.”

“Good land, Martha! you'd spoil him in a day if I wasn't around,” said D. A. Hapgood. “What's a mile to a good healthy boy? I used to walk five to school, and come home and milk ten cows and split up kindlings when I wasn't as old as he is.”

D. A. spoke very decidedly in a loud voice, but not exactly with ill nature. He looked at the same time rather proudly at D. J., who was a pretty boy, with very red cheeks and bright eyes, and bright brown hair, which curled tightly. He rose, put on his cap again, and went out soberly into the cold shed to split up kindlings.

The grandmother looked up from the dried apples. “These dried apples is poor,” said she, “dretful poor. I wish you hadn't sold so many of them baldwins, D. A.” “Can't afford to eat apples when they can cell for four dollars a barrel,” said D. A. “I never did set much by dried apple pies,” said the grandmother. She flung away as she spoke a poor quarter of dried apple with a sniff of disgust. “D. J. is too young a boy to work so hard,” said she then, with an air of defiance. “You was two year older when you milked them ten cows, and you wouldn't have done it then if I'd had my way. It was your father's doin's.”

“Seems as if he was most too young,” said Mrs. Hapgood, looking up from her griddle cakes. She was a gentle, pretty woman, with a very soft voice.

“Nonsense,” said D. A., going out with another milk pail. He did not keep a hired man in the winter.

Pretty soon D. J. came in with a basket of kindlings. He looked doubtfully at his mother, then at his grandmother. Then he addressed his grandmother. “Grandma,” said he. She scowled at him in an indulgent fashion over her spectacles. “Well, what is it, D. J.?”

“Teacher wants me to give the tree for the Christmas tree.”

“What kind of a tree?” asked his mother.

“Nice hemlock.”

“Your father 'll ask a pretty price for it,” said Grandma Hapgood, grimly.

D. J. rubbed his eyes with his jacket sleeves.

“Now, don't you be a baby,” said his grandmother, sharply — “a great big boy like you. Mebbe he won't ask anythin'.”

“You ask him, grandma.”

“Well, I'll ask him.”

When D. A. came in with another pail of milk, Grandma Hapgood waited until he had strained it, then she began.

“D. A.,” said she, with spirit.

“Well, what is it, mother?”

“The teacher wants D. J. to get a hemlock for the Christmas tree at the schoolhouse.”

“Well, what is she willin' to pay for it?” asked D. A., promptly.

“Good land! D. A., you ain't goin' to charge her for a Christmas tree?”

“I ain't goin' to let her or anybody else have one of them young hemlocks in the south lot for nothin'.”

“A Christmas tree,” said Mrs. Hapgood, faintly.

“I should think you'd be ashamed of yourself, forehanded as you be,” said Grandma Hapgood, stoutly, with indignant old eyes on her son.

“That's the way I got forehanded,” said D. A.; “and that's the way I keep forehanded.” Then he turned to D. J. “You tell the teacher she can have that tree if she's willin' to pay me what it's wuth,” said he.

“What do you call it wuth?” asked Grandma Hapgood.

“Five dollar.”

“Good land! Annie Hope can't afford to pay five dollar for a Christmas tree. She ain't got a cent except what she earns, and that ain't much.”

“She can't have the tree then. D. J., I want you to go out in the barn and throw down some hay for beddin'. You can tell the teacher just what I say, and I ain't goin' to have any glum looks about it, either; I'm lookin' out for you as well as myself, and one of these days, when I'm dead and gone, you'll thank me.”

D. J. went out. He gave a little sob when the door was closed, and he saw the hay through a mist of tears when he was pitching it down into the horse-stall below. Nobody knew how he dreaded telling Miss Annie Maria Hope that his father wanted pay for the Christmas tree.

The next morning he stayed out of doors, although it was bitterly cold, and snowing, until it was time for school to begin; then the teacher spoke to him before all the others. “Daniel Jacobs,” said she, “I suppose you spoke to your father about the Christmas tree?”

“Yes, ma'am,” replied D. J., in a choking voice.

“What did he say?”

There was a hush; all the school looked at D. J., wondering why he did not speak. He could not tell the teacher that his father was going to charge five dollars for a Christmas tree. He could not. D. J., for the first time in his life, lied. “He said you were welcome,” he replied.

“Very well,” said Miss Annie Maria Hope. “The first class in arithmetic may take places.” She struck her little bell and the class filed out, while D. J. sat down, feeling as if the floor ought by good right to open and swallow him up. That noon he was so glad that his mother had insisted upon his taking his dinner on account of the storm. He ate it moodily, sitting at his desk. He refused to run out in the snow with the other boys and play. He had no heart for anything; even a bit of cake with frosting, which his mother had put in his pail, and which was a rarity. All the afternoon he dreaded going home, and he failed in his English grammar lesson.

He had not been in the house half an hour that night before that which he was dreading came to pass.

“Well, what did the teacher say about the tree?” asked his father.

D. J. lied again. “She said she would take it,” he replied. He was quite white.

His mother looked at him in a frightened way.

“Are you sick, D. J.?” she asked.

“No, ma'am.”

“He looks dretful pale. He'd better take some castor oil right away,” said Grandma Hapgood.

“I ain't sick,” declared D. J., feebly. He loathed castor oil beyond anything, but he made no resistance. He also went without his supper, though there were hot pancakes, of which he was very fond. He sat miserably beside the stove toasting his feet in the oven.

His father went on instructing D. J. about cutting the tree. He himself was to select it, and D. J. and William Dagget were to cut it, and haul it to the schoolhouse on William's double runner. “Then you can go round to the teacher and get the money,” said D. A. Hapgood.

D. J. simply did not see his way out of the maze of falsehood and dilemma into which he had plunged. What would his father say when he discovered that the pay was not forthcoming? Visions of his father dragging away the unpaid-for tree boldly, with all the presents thereon, passed through his mind. As Christmas drew near he was conscious of a feeling of almost desperation. He even wished he might fall ill. Perhaps if he were very sick, with the doctor coming twice a day, his father might not be hard on him, even when he found out. Anyway, he would not have to take that tree to the schoolhouse and ask for the money.

But he did not fall ill, and he was quite able to go with William Dagget and cut the tree. School had not kept all that week. Christmas came on a Thursday. On Tuesday afternoon D. J., his father, and William went forth to the south lot to cut the hemlock for the Christmas tree. William dragged his double runner, Mr. Hapgood walked beside him, D. J. lagged behind. His father kept hurrying him.

“I can't be all day getting the tree,” said he. “It ain't goin' to pay me enough.”

D. J. saw William Dagget, who was a tall boy for his age, with a sharp face, stare wonderingly at his father. They reached the south lot, and Mr. Hapgood selected a tree. It was a very good one. He was a strictly honest man. He expected good value for his money, and he gave it. Then he left the boys to cut the tree down. D. J. breathed easier.

It was almost dusk when the tree was cut down. The two boys dragged it to the schoolhouse on the double runner, and set it up on the platform in the soap box provided for it. Then D. J. went soberly up the road.

When D. J. got home he entered the barn and looked for his father. It was milking time, but his father was not there. The cows stood in a row, and all was still except for the gentle grinding noise which they made. Then — D. J.'s eyes roved from the cows to the floor, and there lay a five-dollar bill. It was like a miracle or a fairy tale. D. J. picked it up. He went swiftly out of the barn and up to the side door. His mother stood over the stove preparing supper, his grandmother was at the window in her usual place. As he entered his father turned round from the old secretary. He had locked up a drawer and was putting the key in his pocket. “I'm glad I've got that money,” he said, with a chuckle.

“What money?” asked his mother.

“The money for that wood I sold Abner Green two months ago, twenty odd dollars. He just paid it to me out in the barn.”

J. D. knew where the five-dollar bill had come from, but not who dropped it — whether it had been his father or Abner Green.

Mr. Hapgood looked at D. J. “Hullo!” he said. “Get the tree all right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Got the money?”

D. J. handed his father the money.

“What money is that?” asked Grandma Hapgood, sharply.

“The money for that Christmas tree,” said Mr. Hapgood.

The next morning dawned, and for the first time in his life D. J. had had an almost sleepless night. He felt light-headed and could not eat much breakfast. He helped his father all day, and did not go near the schoolhouse. As night drew near he really wondered if he were not too sick to go to the tree. He went into the house and told his mother he did not feel very well, but for once she was not quick to take alarm. She had on her silk dress and grandma her best cap, and both were going to the tree.

Mr. D. A. Hapgood also was going. They all set out at half-past six o'clock. D. J.'s mother carried a cake wrapped in a white towel; her husband had consented that she should make one. D. J. could hardly believe that he was not in an awful dream as he trudged along over the creaking snow in the bright moonlight.

Pretty soon they came in sight of the lighted schoolhouse, and they could smell coffee. His mother said the teacher was going to provide the coffee. “Ain't as nigh as some folks,” said Grandma Hapgood.

They entered the schoolhouse and exclaimed with admiration. It was beautifully trimmed with evergreen, and on the platform stood the Christmas tree festooned with popcorn and loaded with presents.

Dr. Abbot, the chairman of the school committee, was to distribute the presents. He was a small man with a very large voice. He took the presents as they were handed to him by a tall boy, and announced the names. D. J. had the third present, he had the fourth, then the seventh. The truth was D. J. was a great favorite in the school, and people were sorry for him because he had so few of the possessions of boyhood. His name was called so often that he was standing to receive presents most of the time, but he grew more and more disturbed. Every present seemed to him like an additional reproach. If they knew what a boy he was, would they give him all these things? But the climax was reached when Miss Annie Maria Hope stood forward on the edge of the platform in her pretty blue dress, and said that there was one more present which she had been asked by some friends outside to present to one of the scholars who had the best record for good behavior during the last six months.

Miss Hope went on to say that she was happy to be able to announce that the fortunate recipient of this gift, the one who had the largest number of credit marks for good behavior during the past six months, was one who was beloved by all, and would be judged worthy by all his schoolmates, and that was Daniel Jacobs Hapgood.

D. J. got up. He saw dimly Dr. Abbot dragging a splendid double runner across the floor.

All around him people were whispering and saying out loud: “Go to the platform, D. J.”

D. J. went; his knees knocked together; the ringing sound was louder. He went out before them all, and Dr. Abbot put the rope of that splendid double runner in his hand.

D. J. looked about wildly for a minute. Then — the inborn honesty of the boy, his great inheritance from generations of truthful ancestors, asserted itself. He stood before them all, and spoke:

“I can't take it,” he said. “I ain't good enough. I told lies. Father said teacher couldn't have that tree unless she paid him five dollars, and I told her he said she was welcome to it, and I told him she said she would pay it. And I told him she had paid it, and she didn't. It wasn't her five dollars. I found it on the barn floor. It was some money that Mr. Abner Green had paid father. I stole it, and I gave it to father to pay for the tree.”

D. J.'s voice quavered into silence. There was a subdued sigh, then a chuckle over the schoolroom. People, instead of looking reproachfully at D. J., looked with malicious amusement at his father. Mr. Hapgood's face was burning red. He half rose, stammering involuntarily in his mortification and astonishment: “Why — why. I counted that money not half an hour ago, and it was all there. I — counted it through this afternoon, and — thought there was five missing; then I went back and counted it again and it was all there.” He looked with a puzzled scowl at D. J. He was forgetting everything else in the mystery.

Then Grandma Hapgood spoke unflinchingly:

“Yes,” said she, “I put it there, D. A. Hapgood. I knew when you missed that five dollar where it was. I see D. J. go into the barn that day. I was setting at the winder, and I thought he acted dreadful queer, and scart. So I got another five-dollar bill out of your wallet. I knew where you kept it, and I put it in there, and I think you'd better be ashamed of yourself. I don't care if you be my son. Here's all of them giving that boy presents that you ought to have bought him, and here he has been obliged to tell wicked lies because his father was so dreadful nigh, Christmas time, when everybody had ought to give, if they never did before.”

There was a gasp over the schoolroom. One could have heard a pin drop. All these people were old friends and neighbors of D. A. Hapgood. They had all known his one failing for years; otherwise he had been a good and upright man. A feeling of pity and kindness for him, standing humiliated in their midst, came over them. Suddenly he went forward and stood beside his boy.

“Look here, neighbors,” said he, “I guess mother's about right. I guess I've thought most too much about money. I guess maybe it ain't worth quite so much as some other things.” Then he turned to D. J. “Look here,” he said, “you did wrong to tell lies, but I guess your father was some considerable to blame, too, and I'm glad you owned up.”

D. A. Hapgood grasped the rope of the double runner, and he motioned to the boy who had come next in the list of good behavior.

“Here,” he said, “this belongs to you. No matter what excuse he had, my son didn't tell the truth, and he don't deserve it. You take this sled.”

Mr. D. A. Hapgood then fumbled in his pocket, while they all watched breathlessly. He drew out his wallet and counted out a number of bills. Then he turned to the teacher:

“Here, ma'am,” said he. “Here is twenty-two dollars and fifty cents that I was paid for that wood, and I want you to take it and put it in the bank, and spend every cent next Fourth of July for lemons, and peanuts, and fireworks to give these scholars the biggest Fourth of July picnic they ever had in their lives.”

There was a great clapping, and D. A. Hapgood went back to his seat, and he led D. J. with him, holding fast to his small hand with a grasp of love and protection. “Father 'll buy you a double runner to-morrow,” he whispered in his ear.