John Henry

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Round Table Vol. XVIII No. 895 (December 22, 1896)

Two days before Christmas John Henry sat on the top rail of the fence which separated the seven-acre lot from the oat-field. There were five rails in the fence, on account of two cows addicted to jumping being kept in the seven-acre lot, and consequently John Henry was perched at quite a dizzy height from the ground. His mother would have been exceedingly nervous had she seen him there. He was her only child, his two older brothers had died in infancy; he had himself been very delicate, and it had been hard work to rear him. The neighbors said that Martha Anne Lewis had brought up John Henry wrapped in cotton-wool under a glass shade, and that she believed him to be both sugar and salt as far as sun and rain were concerned. “Never lets him go out in the hot sun without an umbrella,” said they, “and never lets him out at all on a rainy day — always keeps him at home, flattening his nose against the window-pane.”

Poor John Henry's mother was afraid to have him climb trees or coast down hill, and he might never have enjoyed these boyish sports had it not been for his father. When he was quite small, his father took him out in the pine woods and taught him how to climb a tall tree.

“Don't you be afraid, sonny. A boy can't live in this world and not be picked on unless he can climb.”

John Henry went to the top of the tree in triumph, and when his mother turned pale at the recital, his father only laughed.

“I'd have caught him if he'd fallen, Martha Anne,” he said; “and John Henry has got to climb a tree, unless you want to set him up for a girl and done with it.”

However, Mrs. Lewis stipulated that John Henry should not climb unless his father was with him, and also that he should not go coasting without him. The result was that until John Henry was twelve he had had very few boy-mates. He went to the district school, but that was only a quarter of a mile from his home, and he did not have to carry his dinner, and he always came straight home, because his mother was so anxious if he was late.

“Better humor your mother, sonny, and not stay to play with the boys, she gets so worried,” his father told him.

So John Henry always trudged faithfully home, in spite of cajoling shouts, and sometimes taunts about being tied to mother's apron-strings. However, the taunts were rather cautiously given; John Henry, mother's boy though he was, had still a pretty spirit of his own, and his small fists were harder than they looked. Once or twice there had been a scuffle, in which he had not been worsted. His mother had chided and wept over him on his return, and held anxious consultations with the teachers and the other boys' mothers, but John Henry had gained his firm footing in school, in spite of his pink face, his smooth hair, his little ruffled shirts, and the cake and sugared doughnuts which he brought to eat at recess. None of the other boys brought such luncheons; indeed, the most of them were dependent upon spruce gum and the cores of their friends' apples, and none of them wore such fine clothes.

It was quite a grief to Mrs. Lewis that she could not exercise as much taste upon a son's personal adornment as she could have done upon a daughter's, but she did all she was able. John Henry wore ruffled shirts, and carried hem-stitched pocket-handkerchiefs, his mittens were knitted in fancy stitches, and he had little slippers with roses embroidered on the toes to wear in the house. She also feather-stitched his blue-jean overalls.

John Henry's father, who was a farmer, insisted that his son should learn to work on the farm, and his mother, though she would have preferred to have had him in the house with her making quilts and pin-cushions, had to consent. Every day John Henry was arrayed in overalls, and did his task in field and garden; but his mother feather-stitched the overalls with white linen thread, though all the neighbors laughed, and John Henry was privately ashamed of them. However, his father bade him humor poor mother, and he never objected to the decoration. John Henry wore the overalls now, for he had been working with his father all the morning. There was no school all the next week, on account of Christmas holidays. It was only a half-hour before noon — John Henry's father had sent him home, lest his mother should think he was working too long, and the boy had sat down on the fence to take an observation on the way. John Henry was rather given to pauses for reflection and observation upon his little way of life.

Although it was late in December, the day was quite mild; there was a warm haze in the horizon distances, and the wind blew in soft puffs from the south. John Henry had taken his jacket off — it lay on the ground beside the fence. He shrugged his blue-jean knees up to his chin, clasped his hands around them, and stared ahead with blue reflective eyes. He did not see a boy coming across the field; he did not even hear him whistle, though it was a loud pipe of “Marching through Georgia.” He did not notice him until he had reached the fence and hailed with a gruff “Hullo!” Then he looked down and saw Jim Mills.

“Hullo!” responded John Henry.

Jim Mills was carrying a sack of potatoes; he let it slip to the ground, and leaned against the fence with a sigh.

“Heavy?” inquired John Henry.

“Try it an' see.”

“Where did you bring it from?”

“Thatcher's. Thought I'd come across lots, 'cause it was shorter. Where you been?”

“Been workin' in the wood-lot.”

Jim Mills looked mournfully at the potato-sack. “Well, I've got to be goin',” said he. “Mother wants these for dinner.”

John Henry jumped down from the fence and gave the sack a manful tug from the ground. “I'll carry it as far as my house,” said he.

“You can't.”

“Can, too.”

The two boys moved on across the old plough ridges of the field, John Henry a little in the rear, swung sideways by the potato-bag like a ship by its anchor.

“Going to the tree Tuesday night?” he panted, presently.

“Ketch me!” responded Jim Mills, surlily.

“Why ain't you going?”

“What would I be going for, I'd like to know?”

“There's going to be a Christmas tree, an' you'll have something.”

“What'll I have?” demanded Jim Mills, fiercely.

He turned around in the cart path and faced John Henry. He was a thin boy, very small for his age, with a fringe of pale hair blowing under his old cap, over big gray eyes sunken in pathetic hollows. Many people thought that Jim Mills looked as if he did not have enough to eat.

“What d'yer s'pose I had last year?” asked he.

John Henry shook his head.

“Well, I'll tell you. I had a candy-bag and an orange and a girl's book from the teacher. She said she was sorry there wasn't enough boys' books to go round. When I got home I gave the candy-bag to the baby, and the orange to little Hattie and 'Melia, and 'Liza Ann she had the book. I ain't going to any more Christmas trees.”

“Maybe you'll get something more this year,” ventured John Henry, feebly.

“Where'll I get it? Tell me that, will you? Father an' mother can't give me anything. There's nobody but the teacher. Reckon I'll get another girl's book from her, an' then I'll have the candy-bag an' the orange, same as all the others, out of the school money. What would you think, John Henry Lewis, if that was all you was goin' to have?”

John Henry shook his head vaguely.

“Guess you wouldn't go to the Christmas tree any more than some other folks,” said Jim Mills. “There you've got your father and your mother, and your uncle Joe and your aunt Jane, and your aunt Louisa and your grandfather and grandmother Lewis and your grandmother Atkins, to bring presents to the tree for you. How'd you feel if you had to go there and hark for your name to be called, and hear it: ‘John Henry Lewis’ — then you march out before 'em all and git a little candy-bag; ‘John Henry Lewis’ — then you march out and get an orange; ‘John Henry Lewis’ — then you march out and get a girl's book, and all of them things that everybody else has? Guess you'd be ashamed to go to Christmas trees as much as me. If your folks be poor and can't have things, I guess you don't want to tell of it before everybody.”

Jim Mills turned about and went on with a defiant stride; John Henry followed, tugging the potato-sack. When the boys reached the house his mother called out of the window to set it down directly, he would lame his shoulders, and Jim Mills flushed all over his little pinched face.

“Told you it was too heavy for you,” he muttered.

“It's as light as a feather, mother,” called John Henry.

He ran around to the wood-shed and got a little wheelbarrow and loaded the potato-sack into that.

“There! you can carry it easier this way,” he said; and Jim Mills trundled off, without any thanks save an acquiescent grunt. Jim Mills had so few favors shown him that sometimes they seemed to awaken within him an indignant surprise, instead of gratitude.

John Henry was so abstracted during dinner that his mother feared he was ill, and wished him to take some tincture of rhubarb. After dinner he went out in the barn, and curled himself up in the hay-mow to think. During the next two days he seemed to be in a brown-study. Monday, the day before Christmas, Jim Mills brought the wheelbarrow home, and John Henry beckoned him into the barn.

“Look here, Jim; you'd better go to that tree to-morrow night.”

“What for, I'd like to know?”

“Oh, 'cause you'd better.”

“Why had I better? I ain't going to tramp half a mile to that old school-house to get a candy-bag and an orange and a girl's book.”

“Say, Jim, you go.”

“What for?”

“Oh, something,” replied John Henry, mysteriously and evasively.

Jim Mills's gray eyes took on a sudden sharpness. “What d'yer mean?”

“Oh, nothing. I rather guess you'll get something more this time, though.”

“Say what you heard, John Henry Lewis!” Jim Mills questioned, eagerly.

“I didn't say I'd heard anything. You just better go to the Christmas tree, though; if you don't, you'll be sorry.”

“You're fooling?”

“No, I ain't fooling!”

Finally Jim Mills agreed to go to the Christmas tree; in fact, John Henry made him promise solemnly, though he would not give his reason. However, Jim Mills went home in a state of bewildered expectation and elation. He was finally convinced that somebody was going to hang something fine on the Christmas tree for him, that John Henry knew it, and had promised not to tell. The tree was to be in the district school-house. All Tuesday afternoon John Henry, with some other boys and girls, worked hard decorating the school-house with evergreen. The tree had been set up in the morning, and people had begun to bring the presents; the teacher and some of the older girls were tying them on. Now and then John Henry made a détour in that direction, and peeped furtively. Before he went home he made quite sure that all the presents which he expected were there. He counted them over as he trudged home over the moonlit snow-crust. A deep snow had fallen on Sunday, and so averted the danger of a green Christmas. The moon was full, and considerably above the horizon, though it was still early. John Henry hurried, for he had much to do.

Supper was all ready when he reached home, and he ate it so hastily that his mother was afraid he would have indigestion. After supper he went up to his room and put on his best clothes, which his mother had laid out on the bed for him. Then he watched his chance — standing at the head of the stairs, and making sure that the doors below were shut — of stealing softly down and out of the front door.

It was about an hour before the time set for the Christmas festivities. He sped along through the moonlight. Twice he saw some one coming far down the road, and slunk to the cover of a bush, like a rabbit. One man went crunching past without a pause, but the other stopped when he neared the bush, and stared about him incredulously.

“I swan, I thought I see somebody ahead here,” John Henry heard him say. He hugged close to the shadow of the bush until the squeaking crunch of the man's footsteps were out of hearing, then he came out and ran for the school-house, which was not far distant.

The windows were quite dark, an the door was locked. John Henry, however, was not dependent upon a door: he raised a window, and climbed in easily enough. The little interior was full of the spicy fragrance of evergreen, which had also a subtle festive suggestiveness. John Henry stole across to the desk, took a match from his pocket, and lighted a lamp, and then the tree blazed out. It was a fine tall tree, festooned with garlands of pop-corn, and grafted, as it were, into splendid and various fruit bearing. John Henry was not long in the school-house. He had brought a lead-pencil and rubber, and had noted the exact hanging places of his presents. It was barely ten minutes before the windows were again dark and John Henry was hurrying home.

His mother, who was very busy putting on a new brown cashmere dress, and his father, who was shaving, had not missed him. He stole in quietly, and sat down by the sitting-room stove. He was elated, but he had some misgivings. He was quite sure of his good motives, and yet there was a little sense of guilt.

When at length he started again, with his father and mother, he was very quiet. His mother asked him two or three times on the way if he did not feel well, and pulled his scarf more closely around his neck.

The district school-house was packed that evening; all the scholars and their families had come. Jim Mills was already there when John Henry entered, and rolled his eyes about at him with a curious expression of mingled hope and doubt.

Poor Jim Mills turned pale when the distribution of gifts began, and listened intently, every nerve strained, for his own name. He had not long to wait. He went down the aisle, his knees shaking, and received — not an orange, not a candy-bag, not the girl's book, of which he had still a bitter suspicion, but a parcel which at the first touch he knew, with a bewilderment of rapture, to contain skates. He had scarcely reached his seat before his name was called again, and forth he went for the second time, and was given a jack-knife with many blades. Then he went up to receive a top, then a boy's book, then another boy's book, then a pair of beautiful red mittens, then a sled. Jim Mills started up at the sound of his name and traversed the school-room until everybody stared, and the teacher began to look puzzled and anxious. She consulted with the committee-man who was distributing the presents, and his wife, who had been helping her that afternoon. Then she went to John Henry's father and mother, and one of his aunts who was there, and they all whispered together. Finally she bent over Jim Mills and whispered to him, and he immediately crooked his arm around his face, leaned forward upon his desk, and began to cry. He was a nervous boy; he had not eaten much that day, and the fall from such an unwonted height of joyful possession was a hard one.

“You must tell me the truth, Jim Mills,” the teacher whispered, sharply.

“I — didn't,” responded Jim Mills, with a painful cry, as if she had struck him.

“If you did come in here while we were gone and mark John Henry Lewis's presents over for yourself, tell me at once, if you do not want to be very severely punished,” said the teacher, quite aloud.

Jim Mills did not repeat his denial; he only gave a great heaving sob. The scholars stood up in their seats to see.

“What a wicked boy!” exclaimed a woman near John Henry.

“He ought to be put in jail,” returned another.

“He didn't do it!” John Henry cried out, wildly.

“He must have,” said the first woman.

“Yes; you're a real good boy to stand up for him, but he must have,” agreed the second woman.

“I tell you he didn't!” almost screamed John Henry; but they paid no more attention. He called the teacher, waving his arms frantically, but she was still busy with Jim Mills, and did not hear or see him. He tried to get up the aisle to her, but it was now blocked. He could not reach his father and mother for the same reason.

Finally John Henry Lewis made a desperate plunge down the aisle, and into the middle of the floor beside the tree. He raised his hand, and everybody stared at him. He was very pale, and his voice almost failed him, but he persisted in the first speech of his life.

“I did it,” said he. “He mustn't be blamed. He didn't know anything about it. I told him he'd better come to-night, 'cause he'd get something nice, but that was all he knew about it. All he had last Christmas was an orange and a candy-bag and a girl's book, and he wasn't coming again. I had all the presents and he didn't have anything, and so I swapped. He ain't the one to be blamed; I am.”

John Henry, pretty little mother's boy that he was, stood before them all, tingling with the rare shame of a generous action, meeting the astonished faces with the courage of one who invites punishment for guilt.

There was a pause — some one said afterwards that there were five minutes during which you might have heard a pin drop — then a woman caught her breath with something like a sob, and the teacher spoke.

“You may go to your seat, John Henry,” said she.

After the Christmas tree that night there was great speculation as to whether Jim Mills would be allowed to keep John Henry Lewis's presents, and as to what John Henry's folks would say to him.

It was ascertained beyond doubt that Jim Mills did keep the presents, and it was reported that all John Henry's father said to him was that in future he mustn't lay his plans to do anything like that without telling his folks about it. As for John Henry's mother, she and his grandmother Atkins bought him a little silver watch for a New-Year's present, because they felt uneasy about letting him sacrifice quite so much. His grandmother, who was superstitious, said that John Henry had always been delicate, and she was afraid it was a bad sign.