A Plain Case

Mary E. Wilkins

From Wide Awake Vol. 29 No. 1 (June, 1889)

Willy had his own little bag packed — indeed it had been packed for three whole days — and now he stood gripping it tightly in one hand, and a small yellow cane which was the pride of his heart in the other. Willy had a little harmless, childish dandyism about him which his mother rather encouraged. “I'd rather he'd be this way than the other,” she said when people were inclined to smile at his little fussy habits. “It won't hurt him any to be nice and particular, if he doesn't get conceited.”

Willy looked very dainty and sweet and gentle, as he stood in the door this morning. His straight fair hair was brushed very smooth, his white straw hat with its blue ribbon was set on exactly, there was not a speck on his best blue suit.

“Willy looks as if he had just come out of the bandbox,” Grandma had said. But she did not have time to admire him long; she was not nearly ready herself. Grandma was always in a hurry at the last moment. Now she had to pack her big valise, brush Grandpa's hair, put on his “dicky” and cravat, and adjust her own bonnet and shawl.

Willy was privately afraid she would not be ready when the village coach came, and so they would miss the train, but he said nothing. He stood patiently in the door and looked down the street whence the coach would come, and listened to the bustle in Grandma's room. There was not an impatient line in his face although he had really a good deal at stake. He was going to Exeter with his Grandpa and Grandma, to visit his aunt Annie, and his new uncle Frank. Grandpa and Grandma had come from Maine to visit their daughter Ellen who was Willy's mother, and now they were going to see Annie. When Willy found out that he was going too he was delighted. He had always been very fond of his aunt Annie, and had not seen her for a long time. He had never seen his new uncle Frank who had been married to Annie six months before, and he looked forward to that. Uncles and aunts seemed a very desirable acquisition to this little Willy, who had always been a great pet among his relatives.

“He won't make you a bit of trouble, if you don't mind taking him. He never teases nor frets, and he won't be homesick,” his mother had told his grandmother.

“I know all about that,” Grandma Stockton had replied. “I'd just as soon take him as a doll-baby.”

Willy Norton really was a very sweet boy. He proved it this morning by standing there so patiently and never singing out, “Ain't you most ready, Grandma?” although it did seem to him she never would be.

His mother was helping her pack too; he could hear them talking. “I guess I sha'n't put in father's best coat,” Grandma Stockton remarked, among other things. “He won't be in Exeter over Sunday, and won't want it to go to meetin', and it musses it up so to put it in a valise.”

“Well, I don't know as I would as long as you're coming back here,” said his mother.

After a while she remarked further, “If father should want that coat, you can send for it, and I can put in Willy's other shoes with it.”

Willy noticed that, because he himself had rather regretted not taking his other shoes. He had only his best ones, and he thought he might want to go berrying in Exeter and would spoil them tramping through the bushes and briers, and he did not like to wear shabby shoes.

“Well, I can; but I guess he won't want it,” said Grandma.

At last the coach came in sight, and Grandma was all ready excepting her bonnet and gloves, and Grandpa had only to brush his hat very carefully and put it on; so they did not miss the train.

Willy's mother hugged him tight and kissed him. There were tears in her eyes. This was the first time he had ever been away from home without her. “Be a good boy,” said she.

“There isn't any need of tellin' him that,” chuckled Grandpa, getting into the coach. He thought Willy was the most wonderful child in the world.

It was quite a long ride to Exeter. They did not get there until tea-time, but that made it seem all the pleasanter. Willy never forgot how peaceful and beautiful that little, elm-shaded village looked with the red light of the setting sun over it. There was Aunt Annie, too, in the prettiest blue-sprigged white cambric, standing in her door watching for them; and she was so surprised and delighted to see Willy, and they had tea right away, and there were berries and cream, and cream-tartar biscuits and frosted cake.

Uncle Frank, Willy thought, was going to be the nicest uncle he had. There was something about the tall curly-headed, pleasant-eyed young man which won his boyish heart at once.

“Glad to see you, sir,” Uncle Frank said in his loud, merry voice; then he gave Willy's little slim hand a big shake, as if it were a man's.

He was further prepossessed in his favor when, after tea, he begged to take him over to the store and show him around before he went to bed. Grandma had suggested his going directly to bed, as he must be fatigued with the journey. But Uncle Frank pleaded for fifteen minutes' grace, so Willy went to view the store.

It was almost directly opposite Uncle Frank's house, and Uncle Frank and his father kept it. It was in a large old building, half of which was a dwelling-house where Uncle Frank's parents lived, and where he had lived himself before he was married. The store was a large country one, and there was a post-office and an express office connected with it. Uncle Frank and his father were store-keepers and postmasters and express-agents.

The jolly new uncle gave Willy some sticks of peppermint and winter-green candy out of the glass jars, in the store-window, and showed him all around. He introduced him to his father, and took him into the house to see his mother. They made much of him, as strangers always did.

“They said I must call them Grandpa and Grandma Perry,” he told his own grandmother when he got home.

He told her, furthermore, privately, when she came upstairs after he was in bed to see if everything was all right, that he thought Annie had shown very good taste in marrying Uncle Frank. She told of it, downstairs, and there was a great laugh. “I don't know when I have taken such a fancy to a boy,” Uncle Frank said warmly. “He is so good, and yet he's smart enough, too.”

“Everybody takes to him,” his grandmother said proudly.

In a day or two Willy wrote a letter to his mother, and told her he was having the best time that he ever had in his life.

Willy was only seven years old and had never written many letters, but this was a very good one. His mother away down in Ashbury thought so. She shed a few tears over it. “It does seem as if I couldn't get along another day without seeing him,” she told Willy's father, “but I'm glad if it is doing the dear child good, and he is enjoying it.”

One reason why Willy had been taken upon the trip was his health. He had always been considered rather delicate. It did seem as if he had every chance to grow stronger in Exeter. The air was cool and bracing from the mountains; aunt Annie had the best things in the world to eat, and as he had said, he was really having a splendid time. He rode about with Uncle Frank in the grocery wagon, he tended store, he fished, and went berrying. There were only two drawbacks to his perfect comfort. One came from his shoes. Grandpa Perry had found an old pair in the store, and he wore them on his fishing and berrying-jaunts; but they were much too large and they slipped and hurt his heels. However he said nothing; he stumped along in them manfully, and tried to ignore such a minor grievance. Willy had really a stanch vein in him, in spite of his gentleness and mildness. The other drawback lay in the fact that the visit was to be of such short duration. It began Monday and was expected to end Saturday. Willy counted the hours; every night before he went to sleep he heaved a regretful sigh over the day which had just gone. It had been decided before leaving home, that they were to return on Saturday, and he had had no intimation of any change of plan.

Friday morning he awoke with the thought “this is the last day.” However Willy was a child and, in the morning, a day still looked interminable to him, especially when there were good times looming up in it. To-day he expected to take a very long ride with Uncle Frank, who was going to Keene to buy a new horse.

“I want Willy to go with me, to help pick him out,” he told Grandma Stockton, and Willy took it in serious earnest. They were going to carry lunch and be gone all day. This promised pleasure looked so big to the boy, as he became wider awake, that he could see nothing at all beyond it, not even the sad departure and end of this delightful visit on the morrow. So he went down to breakfast as happy as ever.

“That boy certainly looks better,” Grandpa Stockton remarked, as the coffee was being poured.

“We must have him weighed before he goes home,” Grandma said, beaming at him.

“That's one thing I thought of, 'bout stayin' a week longer,” Grandpa went on. “It seems to be doin' Sonny, here, so much good.” Grandpa had a very slow, deliberate way of speaking.

Willy laid down his spoon and stared at him, but he said nothing.

“I don't see what you were thinking of not to plan to stay longer in the first place,” said aunt Annie. “I don't like it much.” She made believe to pout her pretty lips.

“Well,” said Uncle Frank, “I'll send for that coat, right away this morning, so you'll be sure to get it to-morrow night.”

“Yes,” said Grandpa, “I'd like to hev it to wear to meetin'. Mother thinks my old one ain't just fit.”

“No, it ain't,” spoke up Grandma. “It does well enough when you're at home, where folks know you, but it's different among strangers. An' you've got to have it next week, anyhow.”

Willy looked wildly up at his grandmother. “Grandma,” said he tremblingly, “ain't we going home to-morrow?”

“Why, bless the child!” said she. “I forgot he didn't know. We talked about it last night after he'd gone to bed.”

Then she explained. They were going to stay another week. Next week Wednesday, Grandpa and Grandma Perry had been married twenty-five years, and they were going to have a silver wedding. So they were going to remain and be present at it, and Grandpa was going to send for his best coat to wear.

Willy looked so radiant that they all laughed, and Uncle Frank said he was going to keep him always, and let him help him in the store.

Before they started off to buy the horse, Uncle Frank telegraphed to Ashbury about the coat; he also mentioned Willy's shoes.

The two had a beautiful ride, and bought a handsome black horse. Uncle Frank consulted Willy a great deal about the purchase, and expatiated on his good judgment in the matter after they got home. One of Willy's chief charms was that he stood so much flattery of this kind, without being disagreeably elated by it. His frank childish delight was always pretty to see.

The next afternoon he went berrying with a little boy who lived next door. About five o'clock aunt Annie ran over to the store to see if the coat had come.

“It has,” she told her mother when she returned; “it came at one o'clock, and Mother Perry gave it to Willy to bring home.”

“To Willy? Why, what did the child do with it?” Grandma said wonderingly. “He didn't bring it home.”

“Maybe he carried it over to Josie Allen's and left it there.” Josie Allen was the boy with whom Willy had gone berrying. His house stood very near Uncle Frank's, and both were nearly across the road from the store.

“Well, maybe he did, he was in such a hurry to go berrying,” said Grandma assentingly.

About six o'clock, when the family were all at the tea-table, Willy came clumping painfully in his big shoes into the yard. There were blisters on his small, delicate heels, but nobody knew it. His little fair face was red and tired, but radiant. His pail was heaped and rounded up with the most magnificent berries of the season.

“Just look here,” said he, with his sweet voice all quivering with delight.

He stood outside on the piazza, and lifted the pail on to the window-sill. He could not wait until he came in to show these berries. He would have to walk way around through the kitchen in those irritating shoes.

They all exclaimed and admired them as much as he could wish, then Grandma said suddenly: “But what did you do with the coat, Willy?”

“The coat?” repeated Willy in a bewildered way.

“Yes; the coat. Did you take it over to Josie's an' leave it? If you did, you must go right back and get it. Did you?”


“Why, what did you do with it?”

“I didn't do anything with it.”

“William Dexter Norton! what do you mean?”

Everybody had stopped eating, and were staring out at Willy, who was staring in. His happy little red face had suddenly turned sober.

“Come in, Sonny, an' we'll see what all the trouble's about, an' straighten it out in a jiffy,” spoke up Grandpa. The contrast between Grandpa's slow tones and the “jiffy” was very funny.

Willy crept slowly down the long piazza, through the big kitchen into the dining-room.

“Now, Sonny, come right here,” said his grandfather, “an' we'll have it all fixed up nice.”

The boy kept looking from one face to another in a wondering frightened way. He went hesitatingly up to his grandfather, and stood still, his poor little smarting feet toeing in, after a fashion they had, when tired, the pail full of berries dangling heavily on his slight arm.

“Now, Sonny, look up here, an' tell us all about it. What did you do with Grandpa's coat, boy?”

“I — didn't do anything with it.”

“William,” began his grandmother, but Grandpa interrupted her. “Just wait a minute, mother,” said he. “Sonny an' I air goin' to settle this. Now, Sonny, don't you get scared. You jest think a minute. Think real hard, don't hurry — now, can't you tell what you did with Grandpa's coat?”

“I — didn't — do anything with it,” said Willy.

“My sakes!” said his grandmother. “What has come to the child?” She was very pale. Aunt Annie and Uncle Frank looked as if they did not know what to think. Grandpa himself settled back in his chair, and stared helplessly at Willy.

Finally aunt Annie tried her hand. “See here, Willy dear,” said she, “you are tired and hungry and want your supper; just tell us what you did with the coat after Grandma Perry gave it to you” —

“She didn't,” said Willy.

That was dreadful. They all looked aghast at one another. Was Willy lying — Willy!

“Didn't — give — it — to you — Sonny!” said Grandpa, feebly, and more slowly than ever.

“No, sir.”

Grandma Stockton had been called quick-tempered when she was a girl, and she gave proof of it sometimes, even now in her gentle old age. She spoke very sternly and quickly: “Willy, we have had all of this nonsense that we want. Now you just speak right up an' tell the truth. What did you do with your grandfather's coat?”

“I didn't do anything with it,” faltered Willy again. His lip was quivering.


“I — didn't” — began the child again, then his sobs checked him. He crooked his little free arm, hid his face in the welcome curve, and cried in good earnest.

“Stop crying and tell me the truth,” said Grandma pitilessly.

Willy again gasped out his one reply; he shook so that he could scarcely hold his berry pail. Aunt Annie took it out of his hand and set it on the table. Uncle Frank rose with a jerk. “I'll run over and get mother,” said he, with an air that implied, “I'll soon settle this matter.”

But the matter was very far from settled by Mrs. Perry's testimony. She only repeated what she had already told her daughter-in-law.

“The bundle came on the noon express,” said she, “and I told Mr. Perry to set it down in the kitchen, and I would see that it got over to you. He didn't know how to stop just then. It laid there on one of the kitchen-chairs while I was clearing away the dinner-dishes. Then about two o'clock I was changing my dress, when I heard Willy whistling out in the yard, and I ran into the kitchen, and got the bundle, and called him to take it. I opened the south door and gave it to him, and told him to take it right home to his grandpa. He said he guessed he'd open it and see if his shoes had come, and I told him ‘no,’ he must go straight home with it.”

That was Mrs. Perry's testimony. Willy heard in the presence of all the family; then when the question as to the whereabouts of the coat was put to him, he made the same answer. He also repeated that Grandma Perry had not given it to him.

“Don't you let me hear you tell that wicked lie again,” said his Grandma Stockton. She was nearly as much agitated as the boy. She did not know what to do, and nobody else did.

Grandpa Perry came over with three sticks of twisted red and white peppermint candy, and three of barley. He caught hold of Willy and swung him on to his knee. He was a fleshy, jolly man.

“Now, sir,” said he, “let's strike a bargain — I'll give you these six whole sticks of candy for your supper, and you tell me what you did with Grandpa's coat.”

“I — didn't do — any” — Willy commenced between his painful sobs, but his grandmother interrupted — “Hush! don't you ever say that again,” said she. “You did do something with it.”

“I'll throw in a handful of raisins,” said Mr. Perry. But it was of no use.

“Well, if the little chap was mine,” said Mrs. Perry finally, “I should give him his supper and put him to bed, and see how he would look at it in the morning.”

“I think that would be the best way,” chimed in Aunt Annie eagerly. “He's all tired out and hungry, and doesn't know what he does know — do you, dear?”

So she poured out some milk, and cut off a big slice of cake, but Willy did not want any supper. It was hard work to induce him to swallow a little milk before he went upstairs. His grandmother heaved a desperate sigh after he was gone.

“If it was in the days of the Salem witches,” said she, “I'd know just what to think; as 'tis, I don't.”

“That boy was never known to tell a lie before in his whole life — his mother said so. He never pestered her the way some children do, lyin'; an' as for stealin' — why, I'd trusted him with every cent I've got in the world.” That was Grandpa Stockton.

During the next two or three days every inducement was brought to bear upon Willy. He was scolded and coaxed, he was promised a reward if he would tell the truth, he was assured that he should not be punished. Monday he was kept in his room all day, and was given nothing but bread and milk to eat. Severer measures were hinted at, but Grandpa Stockton put his foot down peremptorily. “That boy has never been whipped in his whole life,” said he, “an' his own folks have got to begin it, if anybody does.”

All the premises were searched for the missing coat, but no trace of it was found. The mystery thickened and deepened. How could a boy lose a coat going across a road in broad daylight? Why would he not confess that he had lost it?

Finally it was decided to take him home. He was becoming all worn out with excitement and distress. He was too delicate a child to long endure such a strain. They thought that once at home his mother might be able to do what none of the rest had.

All the others were getting worn out also. A good many tears had been shed by the older members of the company. Poor Mrs. Perry took much blame to herself for giving the coat to the boy, and so opening the way for the difficulty.

“Mr. Perry says he thinks I ought not to have given the coat to him, he's nothing but a child, any way,” she said tearfully once.

It was Monday afternoon when Willy was shut up in his room, and all the others were talking the matter over down stairs.

Tears stood in Aunt Annie's blue eyes. “He's nothing but a baby,” said she, “and if I had my way I'd call him downstairs and give him a cookie and never speak of the old coat again.”

“You talk very silly, Annie,” said Grandmother Stockton. “I hope you don't want to have the child to grow up a wicked, deceitful man.”

Willy's grandparents gave up going to the silver wedding. Grandpa had no good coat to wear, and indeed neither of them had any heart to go.

So the morning of the wedding-day they started sadly to return to Ashbury. Willy's face looked thin and tear-stained. Somebody had packed his little bag for him, but he forgot his little cane.

When he was seated in the cars beside his grandmother, he began to cry. She looked at him a moment, then she put her arm around him, and drew his head down on her black cashmere shoulder.

“Tell Grandma, can't you,” she whispered, “What you did with Grandpa's coat?”

“I didn't — do — any” —

“Hush,” said she, “don't you say that again, Willy!” But she kept her arm around him.

Willy's mother came running to the door to meet them when they arrived. She had heard nothing of the trouble. She had only had a hurried message that they were coming to-day.

She threw her arms around Willy, then she held him back and looked at him. “Why, what is the matter with my precious boy!” she cried.

“O, mamma, mamma, I didn't, I didn't do anything with it!” he sobbed, and clung to her so frantically that she was alarmed.

“What does he mean, mother?” she asked.

Her mother motioned her to be quiet. “Oh! it isn't anything,” said she. “You'd better give him his supper, and get him to bed; he's all tired out. I'll tell you by and by,” she motioned with her lips.

So Willy's mother soothed him all she could. “Of course you didn't, dear,” said she. “Mamma knows you didn't. Don't you worry any more about it.”

It was early, but she got some supper for him, and put him to bed, and sat beside him until he went to sleep. She told him over and over that she knew he “didn't,” in reply to his piteous assertions, and all the time she had not the least idea what it was all about.

After he had fallen asleep she went downstairs, and Grandma Stockton told her. Willy's father had come, and he also heard the story.

“There's some mistake about it,” said he. “I'll make Willy tell me about it, to-morrow. Nothing is going to make me believe that he is persisting in a deliberate lie in this way.”

Willy's mother was crying herself, now. “He never — told me a lie in his whole dear little life,” she sobbed, “and I don't believe he has now. Nothing will ever — make me believe so.”

“Don't cry, Ellen,” said her husband. “There's something about this that we don't understand.”

It was all talked over and over that night, but they were no nearer understanding the case.

“I'll see what I can do with Willy in the morning,” his father said again, when the discussion was ended for the night.

Willy was not awake at the breakfast hour next morning, so the family sat down without him. They were not half through the meal when there were some quick steps on the path outside; the door was jerked open, and there was Aunt Annie and Uncle Frank.

She had Willy's little yellow cane in her hand, and she looked as if she did not know whether to laugh or cry.

“It's found!” she cried out, “it's found! Oh! where is he? He left his cane, poor little boy!”

Then she really sank into a chair and began to cry. There were exclamations and questions and finally they arrived at the solution of the mystery.

Poor little Willy had not done anything with Grandpa's coat. Mrs. Perry had not given it to him. She had — given it to another boy.

“Last night about seven o'clock,” said Uncle Frank, “Mr. Gilbert Hammond brought it into the store. It seems he sent his boy, who is just about Willy's age, and really looks some like him, for a bundle he expected to come by express. The boy was to have some shoes in it.

“I suppose mother caught a glimpse of him, and very likely she didn't have on her glasses, and can't see very well without them, and she thought he was Willy. She was changing her dress, too, and I dare say only opened the door a little way. Then the Hammond boy's got a grandfather, and the shoes and the whole thing hung together.

“Mr. Hammond said he meant to have brought the bundle back before, but they had company come the next day, and it was overlooked.

“Father and mother both came running over the minute they heard of it, and nothing would suit Annie but we should start right off on the night train, and come down here and explain. And, to tell the truth, I wanted to come myself — I felt as if we owed it to the poor little chappie.”

Uncle Frank's own voice sounded husky. The thought of all the suffering that poor little innocent boy had borne was not a pleasant one.

Everything that could be done to atone to Willy was done. He was loved and praised and petted, as he had never been before; in a little while he seemed as well and happy as ever.

The next Christmas Grandpa Perry sent a beautiful little gold watch to him, and he was so delighted with it that his father said, “He doesn't worry a bit now about the trouble he had in Exeter. That watch doesn't seem to bring it to mind at all. How quickly children get over things. He has forgotten all about it.”

But Willy Norton had not forgotten all about it. He was just as happy as ever. He had entirely forgiven Grandma Perry for her mistake. Next summer he was going to Exeter again and have a beautiful time; but a good many years would pass, and whenever he looked at that little gold watch, he would see double. It would have for him a background of his grandfather's best coat.

Innocence and truth can feel the shadow of unjust suspicion when others can no longer see it.