The Pumpkin
A Thanksgiving Story

Mary E. Wilkins

From Harper's Bazar Vol. XXXIII No. 47 (November 24, 1900)

It was Indian summer, and the hot air, instead of being sweet with the breaths of flowers, was scented with apples and grapes from the heaps ready for the cider-mills, and the sparse clusters still left on the vines. It was also blue and pungent with the smoke of bonfires. They were a thrifty folk in Evantown, and made a clean sweep of the débris of the summer before the winter set in, being, as far as the seasons were concerned, well off with the old love before they were on with the new. Sophia Bagley was not outdone by her neighbors, though in every house except hers for a quarter of a mile down the village street there were men. She herself stood out in the south yard raking a bonfire.

Sophia had never been married; until three years ago her eldest brother had lived with her; since then she had lived alone and managed the farm. After Jonas Bagley died everybody thought that Sophia would sell out and go to live with her married sister at the Centre. They were surprised and disapproving when she announced her intention to remain on the farm. “I'd like to know why I shouldn't?” said she. “I guess I have lived here ever since I was born, and I am not going to leave now to live with a half-sister young enough to be my daughter, with half a dozen children, and no land at all except a little front yard. I am going to stay right where I am.”

“You ain't going to run the farm?” said the calling neighbor, who was a sort of scout of village gossip, having come in advance to spy out the land.

“Why not?” demanded Sophia Bagley. “Why can't I run the farm? I'm going to sell all the cows but one, and the Wilder boy is going to come over when the weather is too bad for me to get to the barn, and help me about her, and when it's haying-time I shall hire, and hire a man to plough and plant the garden. Jonas 'ain't been able to do much of the work himself of late years. I don't see why I can't do as much as he has. I enjoy good health, and I've got common-sense, and I ain't afraid to work.”

“I should think you would be afraid to live alone,” ventured the woman. Although she was as curiously insinuating as a screw, she was always more or less intimidated by Sophia Bagley, whose nerves were strung to such a ready response that it seemed aggressiveness. Whoever asked Sophia a question was exceedingly apt to jump at the reply, it was delivered with such impetus. Sophia Bagley was, however, very mild and gentle to see, being small and blue-eyed and fair-haired, with a curious sidewise inclination of her head and shoulders, as if all her life she had leaned for support upon somebody else. People had always thought she had leaned on Jonas, and were astonished that after he died she did not lop in the dust. They were even a little aggrieved that she did not; people do not like their theories disproved, even to the advantage of their fellow-men, and moreover, an incongruity like Sophia's manner and deep decisive voice and small gentle personality always irritates. When the visiting woman went home to report she was distinctly censorious. “I believe Sophia Bagley is crazy,” said she; “a woman who has always depended on her brother the way she did on Jonas Bagley, to live alone, and try to run that farm herself!”

At first the neighbors used to look anxiously of a morning to make sure that the smoke was coming from Sophia's chimney and nothing had happened to her in the night, then after a while, when nothing did happen, they got tired of it. Sophia, to all intents and purposes, managed the farm as well as her brother had done, and her solitary estate did not seem to wear upon her. Sophia's dependent inclination of body had never extended to her spirit. She was never timid alone in the house, and she never kept the Wilder boy overnight for protection, as some people advised. “I don't know what good that boy could do, unless I threw him at a burglar,” said she. “I'd enough sight rather have the broom.”

The Wilder boy was very small of his age, which was fourteen; he was the eldest of Henry Wilder's large family who lived on the back road. The back road ran parallel with the main one, and the Wilder house was the width of the field away from Sophia's. Henry Wilder owned quite a large farm of his own, and he had grubbed thereon steadily all his life, but with small results. His family was large, and misfortune seemed to pursue him. Once his barn was burned and no insurance. Twice he lost by fires all his standing wood which was just ready to cut. Once a tornado which harmed no other building in the village hurled a great elm-tree onto the roof of his house, demolishing a chimney. He had also a deal of illness in his family, and once he broke his own leg. The Wilder boy, whose name was Henry, after his father — but he was seldom called by it — was very glad of the chance to do chores for Sophia Bagley. He had left school, and had plenty of time aside from his work for his father, as the next boy was only a year younger and stronger than he, and Henry Wilder in spite of his small progress in life was a prodigious worker. The Wilder boy had ambition. He was small and puny, underfed on salt pork and pie, his eyes were blue and steady, his mouth thin but firm; he looked as if he could split fate with his wedge of a face. He worked with a fury which was pathetic. “I'm going to get ahead,” he said to his mother, who was not sympathetic.

“You can't,” said she. “You can work all you are a mind to. Your father has worked, and he used to talk just as you do. It ain't work which puts folks ahead, it's the Lord.”

“Well, I'm going to work with the wind, anyhow,” said the boy, who had a streak of poetry in him, though he had been a poor scholar. The teacher said that she did not feel as badly about his leaving school to go to work as she did about some boys. “He looks smart enough, and he is smart enough, too,” said she; “but he thinks more about selling a few apples and earning a little money than learning anything in books.”

Sophia Bagley approved of the Wilder boy. His vehement way of working pleased her. When she saw him plunging furiously across the field to her barn through a blinding snowstorm, she nodded approbation to herself. When she asked him if he was tired, and he shook his head angrily, she admired him. There was the spirit of a born fighter in herself, and she recognized it in another. When he would not drink the hot coffee which she poured out for him on such a bitter morning that he had stamped and swung all the way over the field to keep from freezing his hands and feet, she looked at him with actual enthusiasm. A boy who would not be coddled appealed to her as nothing else could do. She had coddled her brother Jonas a good deal, though everybody had supposed it to be the other way around. Sophia herself had often waded through a snow drift to milk the cows rather than allow Jonas to venture out. Jonas had indeed been ailing in his later years, but she knew that the Wilder boy would not weaken if he were ailing. Unconsciously the woman began to depend on the boy as she had never depended on any living thing, began to love him as she had never loved any one, not even her brother. Jonas Bagley had been an uncouth, taciturn man, who had not the ability to awaken, or feel, a very active affection.

Sophia had never been in love in her life; no man had ever wanted to marry her. Now for the first time she felt her heart stirred to a passion half maternal, half fraternal, for the two had much in common. Although the boy would not be coddled and she loved him for it, she used to watch him anxiously across the field. She made excuses for giving him some choice tidbits by telling him that she would otherwise have to throw them away. Sometimes she used to long to stroke his little sunburnt fair head as he ate, but the boy was no more to be stroked than some little fierce animal intent on his bone. The Wilder boy, warped by circumstances into one abnormal slant, had but one purpose in life: to get ahead. To get ahead meant, with everybody, in the little struggling New England village one thing — money enough to live without fear of the poor-house, and the worst greed of all: the greed for money as money. There was no craving for luxuries or pleasures, which were known only by their names, never having been translated into actualities, but there was the fierce instinct of the poor, ground always on the wheel of fruitless labor, for money. The Wilder boy's eyes when he held a coin in his little grimy hand were something terrible. Sophia Bagley, though she herself had something of the taint, began to see it.

“You'd ought to think of somethin' beside money,” she said to him, severely, one day.

“What else is there?” he demanded, with wise, keen eyes on hers. Then he looked again at a great silver dollar which she had just paid him, and the terrible look of ignoble greed brutalized his face.

“There's a good deal beside,” said she. “You ought to have an education.”

“All I want is money,” replied the boy. He thrust the silver dollar into his pocket and there was an answering clink. When he left Sophia that afternoon he went to the savings-bank and deposited his wealth. His father allowed him to save all he earned, since his work at home more than paid for his keep.

On his way home, travelling across the field, the Wilder boy stopped in Sophia's corn-field to look at the prize pumpkin. That it was a prize pumpkin he had no doubt. It was a wonderful sphere of vegetable gold. There was a monstrous pumpkin of his own growth in the patch which his father had given him to cultivate, but it was not like this. He walked around it, he stooped over it, finally he knelt before it. It looked larger than ever. He touched its glossy orange surface; it was fairly hot in the October sunlight. He stood up, and looked away over the fields which seemed to be swimming in a blue mist from the bonfires. He sniffed the burning leaves and the scent of apples and grapes. Then he looked again at the golden vegetable among the ranks of dry rustling corn. “Fifty cents,” he said, to himself. That was the prize which the pumpkin would probably bring at the county fair the next week.

As he said fifty cents the Wilder boy saw before him the coin. He felt it in his little grimy clutching fingers, and again that look of terrible greed came into his eyes.

When he got home he visited his own corn-field, and examined his own largest pumpkin. There was no question but it was inferior in size to Sophia's. “Fifty cents,” said he, again.

When he went into the house for supper after he and his brother had done the barn chores, there was not much to eat except bread and molasses and strong poor tea. After supper his father sat in the kitchen husking corn with a sort of fury, as if somehow he would outstrip fate, and all the children except the two little girls and the baby helped, emulating his zeal. As for the mother, after she had put the children to bed, and washed up the supper dishes, and set the bread to rise, she mended with a knitting of her brows and a compression of her mouth, as if she would have rather torn. But there was no retreat in her any more than in her husband. Both of them flew around their treadmill of existence as if it had been a race-course.

That evening Sophia Bagley, sitting alone in her sitting-room sewing, was conscious suddenly of a flash of light from the window. She looked up and saw a monstrous grinning jack-a-lantern with golden candle-light streaming from the grotesque slits of eyes and the crooked bow of the mouth. Then she turned her eyes upon her sewing again. Sophia Bagley was impregnable to all such attacks of youthful wits. Even bean-shooters who bombarded the village houses in the spring, to the futile rage of nervous women, retreated dismayed by her utter calm. It was no sport at all teasing a woman who would not be teased. Sophia sewed away as if a jack-a-lantern staring in at her window was an every-day occurrence; even a loud boyish whoop failed to move her rigid calm. When she heard the retreating feet and saw the flash of disappearing light she smiled a little to herself. “They needn't think they can pick on me, if I am an old maid,” said she. Then she thought that it could not possibly have been the Wilder boy. “He would never have been guilty of such a prank. Catch him wasting pumpkins that way,” she reflected. Then she thought of her own giant pumpkin over in the east field, and she thought of the county fair, and how the Wilder boy was to drive her there in company with some superb bunches of grapes, some remarkable specimens of pears, and — the pumpkin. “It will take the prize, sure,” she said. She had an ambition of her own which gave a zest to life. The county fair was her Field of the Cloth of Gold. She looked forward to exhibiting the products of her farm, and her brother had done so in his day. Many a prize had they brought home together with a greater warmth of sympathy than over any other occurrence of life. Once Sophia had won a prize for a crazy-quilt. This year she was making a wonderful sofa pillow of bits of silk no larger than her thumb-nail. “This ought to take a prize, too,” she considered, as she sewed in another tiny bit. The boys outside who were retiring, completely worsted, conferred on the situation with wonder.

“There she went on sewing them little bits of silk,” said one.

“Don't believe a cannon cracker would start her,” said the other.

But Sophia, sewing beside the lamp in her peaceful sitting-room, felt presently disturbed in her mind. She laid down her work and reflected with bent brows. “You don't suppose that jack-a-lantern was — my big pumpkin,” she said, to herself. Then she dismissed the idea. “They wouldn't dare,” said she, and sewed on.

Meantime the boys with the jack-a-lantern had gone across the field to the Wilder house, though with trepidation. There were too many boys there. Their specialty when abroad with jack-a-lanterns was nervous solitary females. “We've got to watch out, and be all ready to skip,” they charged one another before they elevated the grinning pumpkin outside the lighted window of the kitchen.

It was well they did, for there was a wild whoop inside, the sound of scurrying feet, and the door opened with a bang. The Wilder boy was upon them. As it happened, he was all alone in the kitchen. His elders had gone to evening meeting, and the next younger boy and his sister had gone on errands. The Wilder boy in that hurried glance had recognized by some occult sense his own pumpkin. He waited for nothing, but sped to the charge.

The boys with the jack-a-lantern fled like wild things. They snatched out the candle and extinguished it as they ran, otherwise the bobbing fiery globe might have betrayed their whereabouts. The Wilder boy was fleeter of foot than they, but they had plenty of cunning. Finally he passed them like the wind where they were hiding in his own corn-field with the pumpkin between them.

“Jest lay low,” whispered one to the other, and they did. They, peeping, saw presently the Wilder boy returning muttering futile vengeance; they saw him go to the place where had flourished his great pumpkin, and they shrank within themselves when they heard his howl of despair when he discovered that it was gone.

Suddenly they saw, to their great astonishment, the Wilder boy run violently across the field toward Miss Sophia Bagley's corn, which showed a pale rustling patch some way beyond. “He's going to tell her,” whispered one boy, fearfully. They were quite small boys.

“Had we better get out?” whispered the other.

“Hush!” said the first. “'Fraid he'll spot us when we cross the bare field. Better keep still. Lay low.”

So they lay low, and presently the Wilder boy returned, bringing with difficulty Miss Sophia Bagley's great prize pumpkin, which he deposited close to the stem whence his own had been lopped. Two pairs of furtive eyes watched him. When he had returned to the house two boys, slinking from shadow to shadow, sought the pumpkin and verified it. Then they went home aghast.

The next morning there was a change in the weather, the wind blew from the northwest. All objects had clearly defined outlines and could be seen from afar. Sophia Bagley, looking from her sitting-room window, could plainly see the round gleams of gold among the withered stalks of her corn-field. “Those pumpkins must be brought in this morning,” said she, and again she thought of the jack-a-lantern, and the possibility which had entered her mind the night before. The Wilder boy was out in the barn milking. He had crossed the field in the dusk of dawn in his little thin jacket, sternly holding back the shivers. Sophia thought that she would set him to work gathering the pumpkins.

Finally she put her thick shawl over her head and went across to the corn-field, bending her head before the wind which stiffened as with life all the fringed points of her shawl.

Her face gathered wrath when she saw the empty nest of her great pumpkin. She blew home across the field to the barn. “Some boys stole my prize pumpkin last night,” said she to the Wilder boy, “and if I can find out who they be, I'll prosecute them.”

The Wilder boy looked sidewise at her from behind the Jersey cow. He was very white.

“Yes I will,” said she. “I don't suppose you know who they were.”

“Some boys were up to our house with a jack-a-lantern last night,” said the Wilder boy, feebly.

“And you don't know who they were?”

“No, ma'am.”

“Well, I'll prosecute them if I find out,” said Sophia. “I wish you'd watch out.”

“Yes, ma'am,” said the Wilder boy, miserably. He had been brought up to rectitude, and this was his first offence. He had been led astray by the lust of wealth. Golden disks as large as full moons, and silver disks as large as fifty-cent pieces had so dazzled his eyes that he had lost the narrow way. When Sophia had gone into the house he fairly groaned, but he had no thought of retreat.

Later in the day his brother who had been set to gathering the Wilder pumpkins came into the house staggering beneath the large one which his arms could scarcely encompass. “Gee!” said he, “didn't know your pumpkin was so big. Bet you it will get the prize instead of Miss Bagley's. Don't believe hers can be as big as this. Funny thing, it was broke off the stem.”

“That often happens,” said his father. “It is a great pumpkin. I guess it will take the prize.”

“Talk about anything of ours taking a prize,” said his wife. But she looked with awe at the great sphere of gold. “How much will they give if it does take the prize?” asked she.

“Fifty cents,” replied her husband, impressively.

As for the Wilder boy, he cast one comprehensive glance at the pumpkin; then he went out to the barn. He had just finished gathering the Bagley pumpkins.

“Think Miss Bagley has got one bigger than that?” his brother called after him.

“No, I guess not,” the Wilder boy called back.

The county fair came off, and the pumpkin took the first prize. Sophia did not go; she was laid up with a cold. Her grapes took a prize, her pears failed that year, but she won two dollars with her sofa pillow.

“I should have had another prize if my great pumpkin had not been stolen to make a jack-a-lantern with,” she told one of the neighbors, hoarsely, the day after the fair.

“The Wilder boy took the prize for the biggest pumpkin,” said the neighbor.

“Well, I don't wonder. I knew it was 'most as big as mine,” replied Sophia. “I wish I could get hold of those boys, that's all.”

The neighbor looked uneasy. She had a boy.

It was Thanksgiving week, two days before Thanksgiving, when the neighbor came in again. She looked rather pale, but she sat down in a determined fashion. Sophia was making cake, and the kitchen was redolent with spices. “Look here,” she said; “I've got something to tell you, Sophia Bagley.”

“What?” said Sophia. She herself paled a little. “If it's bad news out with it,” said she, in her peremptory way, and she looked as if ready to face a charge.

“Land! don't bite my head off,” said the other woman. “I've got something to tell you. I don't know as it's such very bad news, only you may be able to see that some boys ain't any worse than other boys.”

She spoke with meaning. Sophia's partiality for the Wilder boy was openly criticised among the neighbors.

“Well?” said Sophia, and again her voice rang like a pistol.

“Well,” repeated the other woman, “you remember your prize pumpkin, how you thought it was stolen for a jack-a-lantern?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well, it wasn't stolen for a jack-a-lantern, but that Wilder boy's was, and then — he jest cut across the field, and — got yours, and put it where his was, and — took it to the fair, and got the prize.”

“I don't believe one word of it,” said Sophia.

“I can't help it whether you do or not, it's so.”

“How do you know?” asked Sophia, suddenly, with keen eyes on the face of the other woman, who winced.

“The — the boys who — who took the Wilder boy's pumpkin — they would never have thought of taking your pumpkin — hid in the corn, and — and saw him,” she said.

“I suppose one of the boys was your boy?”

“He wouldn't have thought of taking your pumpkin,” said the other woman, feebly.

“What difference do you think it makes whose pumpkin he took? I think you'd better go home and whip him, if you don't want him to do something worse when he grows up.”

“I'm going up to see Mr. Wilder, if you ain't,” said the woman.

Then Sophia faced her. “Jest the minute you go up there and say one word about that pumpkin to Mr. Wilder, I'll tell him how your boy stole his,” said she.

The other woman gasped. “It was all in sport,” said she.

“I'll tell of it, if it was all in sport; and what's more, I'll tell Mr. Wilder that the pumpkin was a part of the Wilder boy's pay.”

“Then you'll tell a lie, and you a church member.”

“Telling lies in a good cause is enough sight better than tale-bearing in a bad one,” said Sophia Bagley, with the emphasis of a philosopher.

“Well, if you want to shield that boy, you can,” said the neighbor, as she went out.

“Well, if you want to shield your boy, you can,” returned Sophia.

The next morning when the Wilder boy came to milk the cow and do the chores, Sophia waited until he had finished, then she called him into the house. “Look here; I want to see you a minute,” said she.

The boy stood before her small and blue with the cold, shifting on his chilblained feet, his stiff hands thrust into his pockets, a pathetic fringe hanging from one elbow of his jacket, a pathetic hole on each knee interloping upon more pathetic patches. He felt that his guilt was discovered, but he never quailed. Something untamable looked at her out of his blue eyes weakened and watery with the cold wind. The woman, who had in herself something untamable, recognized it as she had done before, but this time from the vantage point of victory. “Look here,” she said; “I know all about that pumpkin.”

“I'll tell father, and get a licking,” said the boy, unexpectedly and defiantly.

“Well, maybe you had better,” said Sophia; “I don't know but you'll feel better afterward, but you've got to take something else from me.”

The Wilder boy undoubtedly quailed. He could face whippings with the courage of a savage, but when it came to the mysterious terrors of the law, that was a different thing. He remembered what she had said about prosecuting the boy who had stolen her pumpkin. He waited, shifting involuntarily on his chilblained feet. His wild eyes were ever so little averted from hers.

“Well, I'll tell you what you've got to take from me,” said Sophia. “You've got to take some warm red mittens I've been making, and a Thanksgiving dinner, and your living here right along with me after Thanksgiving, and — you've got to go to school, and learn that there's something in this world beside money to be sought after.”

The Wilder boy stared at her.

“If you don't, I'll prosecute you,” she said.

The two continued to look at each other. Finally the ruling passion in the boy quailed before the dominant maternal wisdom and love of the woman. His eyes fell. “Well,” said he, sullenly. He was very pale, and he could hear his heart beat.

That evening the Wilder boy's father walked into Sophia's sitting-room without any ceremony of knocking. “Well, he has told me about stealing your big pumpkin, and I guess I have given him a whipping that he will remember,” said he. “I never knew him to steal before, and I shouldn't be surprised if he never wanted to steal again. Now, I want to know how much truth there is about what you want to do for him?”

“It's all true,” replied Sophia, defiantly, as if she were accused of something shameful. “I've got money enough to do it with. That boy ought to be made something of.”

“He wanted to leave school,” returned the man, in a somewhat aggrieved tone. “I was willing for him to go longer, but all he seemed to think of was making money. He wanted to go to work, and earn money, but now he seems willing to go to school if you want him to.”

“I've got enough to do it with,” said Sophia, still defiantly; her face was quite red.

When the Wilder boy's father went home across the field he reflected how at one time he had some thoughts of marrying Sophia, although he had never courted her.

“She did mean it,” he told his wife, when he entered the kitchen. “She really seems to set by him, and she says she's got plenty to do it with.”

“Well, if the Lord sends folks more children than he gives them means to support, I suppose they've got to let other people do it,” responded Mrs. Wilder. “How much do you suppose Sophia Bagley is worth?”

“I don't know,” replied the man, shortly. He sat down and began shelling corn furiously. Somehow old dreams about Sophia reasserted themselves, and he estimated mentally her worth in something besides the coin of the realm. “You look out you behave yourself when you're with that woman, and she doing all that for you,” he said to the boy. “Don't you go to cutting up and not treating her right, and you learn your lessons, you mind.”

“Yas,” replied the Wilder boy, sullenly, and yet there was an undercurrent of response to his father's charge in his warped little soul. A sense of gratitude and a new ambition began to ennoble him. He realized himself with more respect.

Thanksgiving morning he went across the field to Sophia's. He wore his new red mittens. He had fifty cents in his pocket, and both arms were clasped around the great pumpkin.

“It is a mercy we hadn't cut into it,” said his mother. She had brushed his hair with a hard old brush that morning for the first time for years, and that although she was very busy. Sophia had sent her a great turkey.

As the Wilder boy drew near Sophia's house he could smell spice and roasting turkey, and onions, and stewing fruit; a special atmosphere of love and plenty seemed to surround it. It was a very clear cold morning, the snow glittered like a crust of diamonds, the sky was like a concave of sapphire, the gold of the great pumpkin blazed in the boy's eyes. Somehow, carrying it, and being himself just twisted aside in his own growth to another course, as the vine which had borne the pumpkin might have been, he began to look over the great golden sphere which he was bearing so painfully, as if he were looking above all the golden dross of earth.