The Silver Hen

Mary E. Wilkins

From Wide Awake Vol. 28 No. 1 (December, 1888)

Dame Dorothea Penny kept a private school. It was quite a small school, on account of the small size of her house. She had only twelve scholars and they filled it quite full; indeed one very little boy had to sit in the brick oven. On this account Dame Penny was obliged to do all her cooking on a Saturday when school did not keep; on that day she baked bread, and cakes, and pies enough to last a week. The oven was a very large one.

It was on a Saturday that Dame Penny first missed her silver hen. She owned a wonderful silver hen, whose feathers looked exactly as if they had been dipped in liquid silver. When she was scratching for worms out in the yard, and the sun shone on her, she was absolutely dazzling, and sent little bright reflections into the neighbors' windows, as if she were really solid silver.

Dame Penny had a sunny little coop with a padlocked door for her, and she always locked it very carefully every night. So it was doubly perplexing when the hen disappeared. Dame Penny remembered distinctly locking the coop-door; several circumstances had served to fix it in her mind. She had started out without her overshoes, then had returned for them because the snow was quite deep and she was liable to rheumatism. Then Dame Louisa who lived next door had rapped on her window, and she had run in there for a few moments with the hen-coop key dangling on its blue ribbon from her wrist, and Dame Louisa had remarked that she would lose that key if she were not more careful. Then when she returned home across the yard a doubt had seized her, and she had tried the coop-door to be sure that she had really fastened it.

The next morning when she fitted the key into the padlock and threw open the door, and no silver hen came clucking out, it was very mysterious. Dame Louisa came running to the fence which divided her yard from Dame Penny's, and stood leaning on it with her apron over her head.

“Are you sure that hen was in the coop when you locked the door?” said she.

“Of course she was in the coop,” replied Dame Penny with dignity. “She has never failed to go in there at sundown for all the twenty-five years that I've had her.”

Dame Penny carefully searched everywhere about the premises. When the scholars assembled she called the school to order, and told them of her terrible loss. All the scholars crooked their arms over their faces and wept, for they were very fond of Dame Penny, and also of the silver hen. Every one of them wore one of her silver tail-feathers in the best bonnet, or hat, as the case might be. The silver hen had dropped them about the yard, and Dame Penny had presented them from time to time as rewards for good behavior.

After Dame Penny had told the school, she tried to proceed with the usual exercises. But in vain. She whipped one little boy because he said that four and three made seven, and she stood a little girl in the corner because she spelled hen with one n.

Finally she dismissed the scholars, and gave them permission to search for the silver hen. She offered the successful one the most beautiful Christmas present he had ever seen. It was about three weeks before Christmas.

The children all put on their things, and went home and told their parents what they were going to do; then they started upon the search for the silver hen. They searched with no success till the day before Christmas. Then they thought they would ask Dame Louisa, who had the reputation of being quite a wise woman, if she knew of any more likely places in which they could hunt.

The twelve scholars walked two by two up to Dame Louisa's front door, and knocked. They were very quiet and spoke only in whispers because they knew Dame Louisa was nervous, and did not like children very well. Indeed it was a great cross to her that she lived so near the school, for the scholars when out in their own yard never thought about her nervousness, and made a deal of noise. Then too she could hear every time they spelled or said the multiplication-table, or bounded the countries of Africa, and it was very trying. To-day in spite of their efforts to be quiet they awoke her from a nap, and she came to the door, with her front-piece and cap on one side, and her spectacles over her eyebrows, very much out of humor.

“I don't know where you'll find the hen,” said she peevishly, “unless you go to the White Woods for it.”

“Thank you, ma'am,” said the children with curtesies, and they all turned and went down the path between the dead Christmas-trees.

Dame Louisa had no idea that they would go to the White Woods. She had said it quite at random, although she was so vexed in being disturbed in her nap that she wished for a moment that they would. She stood in her front door and looked at her dead Christmas-trees, and that always made her feel crosser, and she had not at any time a pleasant disposition. Indeed, it was rumored among the towns-people that that had blasted her Christmas-trees, that Dame Louisa's scolding, fretting voice had floated out to them, and smote their delicate twigs like a bitter frost and made them turn yellow; for the real Christmas-tree is not very hardy.

No one else in the village, probably no one else in the county, owned any such tree, alive or dead. Dame Louisa's husband, who had been a sea-captain, had brought them from foreign parts. They were mere little twigs when they planted them on the first day of January, but they were full-grown and loaded with fruit by the next Christmas-day. Every Christmas they were cut down and sold, but they always grew again to their full height, in a year's time. They were not, it is true, the regulation Christmas-tree. That is they were not loaded with different and suitable gifts for every one in a family, as they stood there in Dame Louisa's yard. People always tied on those, after they had bought them, and had set them up in their own parlors. But these trees bore regular fruit like apple, or peach, or plum-trees, only there was a considerable variety in it. These trees when in full fruitage were festooned with strings of pop-corn, and weighed down with apples and oranges and figs and bags of candy, and it was really an amazing sight to see them out there in Dame Louisa's front yard. But now they were all yellow and dead, and not so much as one pop-corn whitened the upper branches, neither was there one candle shining out in the night. For the trees in their prime had borne also little twinkling lights like wax candles.

Dame Louisa looked out at her dead Christmas-trees, and scowled. She could see the children out in the road, and they were trudging along in the direction of the White Woods. “Let 'em go,” she snapped to herself. “I guess they won't go far. I'll be rid of their noise, any way.”

She could hear poor Dame Penny's distressed voice out in her yard, calling “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy;” and she scowled more fiercely than ever. “I'm glad she's lost her old silver hen,” she muttered to herself. She had always suspected the silver hen of pecking at the roots of the Christmas-trees and so causing them to blast; then, too, the silver hen had used to stand on the fence and crow; for, unlike other hens, she could crow very beautifully, and that had disturbed her a great deal.

Dame Louisa had a very wise book, which she had consulted to find the reason for the death of her Christmas-trees, but all she could find in it was one short item, which did not satisfy her at all. The book was on the plan of an encyclopædia, and she, having turned to the “ch's,” found:

“Christmas-trees — very delicate when transplanted, especially sensitive, and liable to blast at any change in the moral atmosphere. Remedy: discover and confess the cause.”

After reading this, Dame Louisa was always positive that Dame Penny's silver hen was at the root of the mischief, for she knew that she herself had never done anything to hurt the trees.

Dame Penny was so occupied in calling “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy,” and shaking a little pan of corn, that she never noticed the children taking the road toward the White Woods. If she had done so she would have stopped them, for the White Woods was considered a very dangerous place. It was called white because it was always white even in midsummer. The trees and bushes, and all the undergrowth, every flower and blade of grass, were white with snow and frost all the year round, and all the learned men of the country had studied into the reason of it, and had come to the conclusion that the Woods lay in a direct draught from the North Pole and that produced the phenomenon. Nobody had penetrated very far into the White Woods, although many expeditions had been organized for that purpose. The cold was so terrible that it drove them back.

The children had heard all about the terrors of the White Woods. When they drew near it they took hold of one another's hands and snuggled as closely together as possible.

When they struck into the path at the entrance the intense cold turned their cheeks and noses blue in a moment, but they kept on, calling “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy,” in their shrill sweet trebles. Every twig on the trees was glittering white with hoar-frost, and all the dead blackberry-vines wore white wreaths, the bushes brushed the ground, they were so heavy with ice, and the air was full of fine white sparkles. The children's eyes were dazzled, but they kept on, stumbling through the icy vines and bushes, and calling “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy.”

It was quite late in the afternoon when they started, and pretty soon the sun went down and the moon arose and that made it seem colder. It was like traveling through a forest of solid silver then, and every once in a while a little frozen clump of flowers would shine so that they would think it was the silver hen and dart forward, to find it was not.

About two hours after the moon arose as they were creeping along, calling “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy,” more and more faintly, a singular, hoarse voice replied suddenly. “We don't keep any hens,” said the voice, and all the children jumped and screamed, and looked about for the owner of it. He loomed up among some bushes at their right. He was so dazzling white himself, and had such an indistinctness of outline, that they had taken him for an oak-tree. But it was the real Snow Man. They knew him in a moment, he looked so much like his effigies that they used to make in their yards.

“We don't keep any hens,” repeated the Snow Man. “What are you calling hens for in this forest?”

The children huddled together as close as they could, and the oldest boy explained. When he broke down the oldest girl piped up and helped him.

“Well,” said the Snow Man, “I have n't seen the silver hen. I never did see any hens in these woods, but she may be around here for all that. You had better go home with me and spend the night. My wife will be delighted to see you. We have never had any company in our lives, and she is always scolding about it.”

The children looked at each other and shook harder than they had done with cold.

“I'm — afraid our mothers — wouldn't — like to have us,” stammered the oldest boy.

“Nonsense,” cried the Snow Man. “Here I have been visiting you, time and time again, and stood whole days out in your front yards, and you've never been to see me. I think it is about time that I had some return. Come along.” With that the Snow Man seized the right ear of the oldest boy between a finger and thumb, and danced him along, and all the rest, trembling, and whimpering under their breaths, followed.

It was not long before they reached the Snow Man's house, which was really quite magnificent: a castle built of blocks of ice fitted together like bricks, and with two splendid snow-lions keeping guard at the entrance. The Snow Man's wife stood in the door, and the Snow Children stood behind her and peeped around her skirts. They were smiling from ear to ear. They had never seen any company before, and they were so delighted that they did not know what to do.

“We have some company, wife,” shouted the Snow Man.

“Bring them right in,” said his wife with a beaming face. She was very handsome, with beautiful pink cheeks and blue eyes, and she wore a trailing white robe, like a queen. She kissed the children all around, and shivers crept down their backs, for it was like being kissed by an icicle. “Kiss your company, my dears,” she said to the Snow Children, and they came bashfully forward and kissed Dame Penny's scholars with these same chilly kisses.

“Now,” said the Snow Man's wife, “come right in and sit down where it is cool — you look very hot.”

“Hot,” when the poor scholars were quite stiff with cold! They looked at one another in dismay, but did not dare say anything. They followed the Snow Man's wife into her grand parlor.

“Come right over here by the north window where it is cooler,” said she, “and the children shall bring you some fans.”

The Snow Children floated up with fans — all the Snow Man's family had a lovely floating gait — and the scholars took them with feeble curtesies, and began fanning. A stiff north wind blew in at the windows. The forest was all creaking and snapping with the cold. The poor children, fanning themselves, on an ice divan, would certainly have frozen if the Snow Man's wife had not suggested that they all have a little game of “puss-in-the-corner” to while away the time before dinner. That warmed them up a little, for they had to run very fast indeed to play with the Snow Children who seemed to fairly blow in the north wind from corner to corner.

But the Snow Man's wife stopped the play a little before dinner was announced; she said the guests looked so warm that she was alarmed, and was afraid they might melt.

A whistle, that sounded just like the whistle of the north wind in the chimney, blew for dinner, and Dame Penny's scholars thought with delight that now they would have something warm. But every dish on the Snow Man's table was cold and frozen, and the Snow Man's wife kept urging them to eat this and that, because it was so nice and cooling, and they looked so warm.

After dinner they were colder than ever, even. Another game of “puss-in-the-corner” did not warm them much; they were glad when the Snow Man's wife suggested that they go to bed, for they had visions of warm blankets and comfortables. But when they were shown into the great north chamber, that was more like a hall than a chamber, with its walls of solid ice, its ice floor, and its ice beds, their hearts sank. Not a blanket nor comfortable was to be seen; there were great silk bags stuffed with snow flakes instead of feathers on the beds, and that was all.

“If you are too warm in the night, and feel as if you were going to melt,” said the Snow Man's wife, “you can open the south window and that will make a draught — there are none but the north windows open now.”

The scholars curtesied and bade her good-night, and she kissed them and hoped they would sleep well. Then she trailed her splendid robe, which was decorated with real frost embroidery, down the ice stairs and left her guests to themselves. They were frantic with cold and terror, and the little ones began to cry. They talked over the situation and agreed that they had better wait until the house was quiet and then run away. So they waited until they thought everybody must be asleep, and then cautiously stole toward the door. It was locked fast on the outside. The Snow Man's wife had slipped an icicle through the latch. Then they were in despair. It seemed as if they must freeze to death before morning. But it occurred to some of the older ones that they had heard their parents say that snow was really warm, and people had been kept warm and alive by burrowing under snow-drifts. And as there were enough snow-flake beds to use for coverlids also, they crept under them, having first shut the north windows, and were soon quite comfortable.

In the meantime there was a great panic in the village; the children's parents were nearly wild. They came running to Dame Penny, but she was calling “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy,” out in the moonlight, and knew nothing about them. Then they called outside Dame Louisa's window, but she pretended to be asleep and not hear them, although she was really awake, and in a terrible panic.

She did not tell the parents how the children had gone to the White Woods, because she knew that they could not extricate them from the difficulty as well as she could herself. She knew all about the Snow Man and his wife and how very anxious they were to have company.

So just as soon as the parents were gone and she heard their voices in the distance, she dressed herself, harnessed her old white horse into the great box-sleigh, got out all the tubs and pails that she had in the house and went over to Dame Penny, who was still standing out in her front yard calling the silver hen and the children by turns.

“Come, Dame Penny,” said Dame Louisa, “I want you to go with me to the White Woods and rescue the children. Bring out all the tubs and pails you have in the house, and we will pump them full of water.”

“The pails — full of water — what for?” gasped Dame Penny.

“To thaw them out,” replied Dame Louisa; “they will very likely be wholly or partly frozen, and I have always heard that cold water was the only remedy to use.”

Dame Penny said no more. She brought out all her tubs and pails, and they pumped them and Dame Louisa's, full of water, and packed them into the sleigh — there were twelve of them. Then they climbed into the seat, slapped the reins over the back of the old white horse, and started off for the White Woods.

On the way Dame Louisa wept, and confessed what she had done to Dame Penny. “I have been a cross, selfish old woman,” said she, “and I think that is the reason why my Christmas-trees were blasted. I don't believe your silver hen touched them.”

She and Dame Penny called “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy,” and the names of the children, all the way. Dame Louisa drove straight to the Snow Man's house.

“They are more likely to be there than anywhere else, the Snow Man and his wife are so crazy to have company,” said she.

When they arrived at the house, Dame Louisa left Dame Penny to hold the horse, and went in. The outer door was not locked and she wandered quite at her will, through the great ice saloons, and wind-swept corridors. When she came to the door with the icicle through the latch, she knew at once that the children were in that room, so she drew out the icicle and entered. The children were asleep, but she aroused them, and bade them be very quiet and follow her. They got out of the house without disturbing any of the family; but, once out, a new difficulty beset them. The children had been so nearly warm under their snow-flake beds that they began to freeze the minute the icy air struck them.

But Dame Louisa promptly seized them, while Dame Penny held the horse, and put them into the tubs and pails of water. Then she took hold of the horse's head, and backed him and turned around carefully, and they started off at full speed.

But it was not long before they discovered that they were pursued. They heard the hoarse voice of the Snow Man behind them calling to them to stop.

“What are you taking away my company for?” shouted the Snow Man. “Stop, stop!”

The wind was at the back of the Snow Man, and he came with tremendous velocity. It was evident that he would soon overtake the old white horse who was stiff and somewhat lame. Dame Louisa whipped him up, but the Snow Man gained on them. The icy breath of the Snow Man blew over them. “Oh!” shrieked Dame Penny, “what shall we do, what shall we do?”

“Be quiet,” said Dame Louisa with dignity. She untied her large poke-bonnet which was made of straw — she was unable to have a velvet one for winter, now her Christmas-trees were dead — and she hung it on the whip. Then she drew a match from her pocket, and set fire to the bonnet. The light fabric blazed up directly, and the Snow Man stopped short. “If you come any nearer,” shrieked Dame Louisa, “I'll put this right in your face and — melt you!”

“Give me back my company,” shouted the Snow Man in a doubtful voice.

“You can't have your company,” said Dame Louisa, shaking the blazing bonnet defiantly at him.

“To think of the days I've spent in their yards, slowly melting and suffering everything, and my not having one visit back,” grumbled the Snow Man. But he stood still; he never took a step forward after Dame Louisa had set her bonnet on fire.

It was lucky that Dame Louisa had worn a worsted scarf tied over her bonnet, and could now use it for a bonnet. The cold was intense, and had it not been that Dame Penny and Dame Louisa both wore their Bay State shawls over their beaver sacques, and their stone-marten tippets and muffs, and blue worsted stockings drawn over their shoes, they would certainly have frozen. As for the children, they would never have reached home alive if it had not been for the pails and tubs of water.

“Do you feel as if you were thawing?” Dame Louisa asked the children after they had left the Snow Man behind.

“Yes, ma'am,” said they.

Dame Louisa drove as fast as she could, with thankful tears running down her cheeks. “I've been a wicked, cross old woman,” said she again and again, “and that is what blasted my Christmas-trees.”

It was the dawn of Christmas-day when they came in sight of Dame Louisa's house.

“Oh! what is that twinkling out in the yard?” cried the children.

They could all see little fairy-like lights twinkling out in Dame Louisa's yard.

“It looks just as the Christmas-trees used to,” said Dame Penny.

“Oh! I can't believe it,” cried Dame Louisa, her heart beating wildly.

But when they came opposite the yard, they saw that it was true. Dame Louisa's Christmas-trees stood there all twinkling with lights, and covered with trailing garlands of pop-corn, oranges, apples, and candy-bags; their yellow branches had turned green and the Christmas-trees were in full glory.

“Oh! what is that shining so out in Dame Penny's yard?” cried the children, who were entirely thawed, and only needed to get home to their parents and have some warm breakfast, and Christmas-presents, to be quite themselves. “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy,” cried Dame Penny, and Dame Louisa and the children chimed in, calling, “Biddy, Biddy, Biddy!”

It was indeed the silver hen, and following her were twelve little silver chickens. She had stolen a nest in Dame Louisa's barn and nobody had known it until she appeared on Christmas morning with her brood of silver chickens.

“Every scholar shall have one of the silver chickens for a Christmas-present,” said Dame Penny.

“And each shall have one of my Christmas-trees,” said Dame Louisa.

Then all the scholars cried out with delight, the Christmas-bells in the village began to ring, the silver hen flew up on the fence and crowed, the sun shone broadly out, and it was a merry Christmas-day.