The Dickey Boy

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From St. Nicholas Magazine Vol. XIX. No. 1 (November, 1891)

“I should think it was about time for him to be comin',” said Mrs. Rose.

“So should I,” assented Miss Elvira Grayson. She peered around the corner of the front door. Her face was thin and anxious, and her voice was so like it that it was unmistakably her own note. One would as soon expect a crow to chick-a-dee as Miss Elvira to talk in any other way. She was tall, and there was a sort of dainty angularity about her narrow shoulders. She wore an old black silk, which was a great deal of dress for afternoon. She had considerable money in the bank and could afford to dress well. She wore also some white lace around her long neck, and it was fastened with a handsome gold and jet brooch. She was knitting some blue worsted, and she sat back in the front entry, out of the draft. She considered herself rather delicate.

Mrs. Rose sat boldly out in the yard in the full range of the breeze, sewing upon a blue-and-white gingham waist for her son Willy. She was a large, pretty-faced woman in a stiffly starched purple muslin, which spread widely around her.

“He 's been gone 'most an hour,” she went on; “I hope there 's nothin' happened.”

“I wonder if there 's snakes in that meadow?” ruminated Miss Elvira.

“I don't know; I 'm gettin' ruther uneasy.”

“I know one thing — I should n't let him go off so, without somebody older with him, if he was my boy.”

“Well, I don't know what I can do,” returned Mrs. Rose uneasily. “There ain't anybody to go with him. I can't go diggin' sassafras-root, and you can't, and his uncle Hiram 's too busy, and grandfather is too stiff. And he is so crazy to go after sassafras-root, it does seem a pity to tell him he sha'n't. I never saw a child so possessed after the root and sassafras-tea, as he is, in my life. I s'pose it 's good for him. I hate to deny him when he takes so much comfort goin'. There he is now!”

Little Willy Rose crossed the road, and toiled up the stone steps. The front yard was terraced, and two flights of stone steps led up to the front door. He was quite breathless when he stood on the top step; his round, sweet face was pink, his fair hair plastered in flat locks to his wet forehead. His little trousers and his shoes were muddy, and he carried a great scraggy mass of sassafras-roots. “I see you a-settin' out here,” he panted softly.

“You ought not to have stayed so long. We began to be worried about you,” said his mother in a fond voice. “Now go and take your muddy shoes right off, and put on your slippers; then you can sit down at the back door and clean your sassafras, if you want to.”

“I got lots,” said Willy, smiling sweetly and wiping his forehead. “Look-a-there, Miss Elviry.”

“So you did,” returned Miss Elvira. “I suppose now you think you 'll have some sassafras-tea.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“I guess I 'll steep him a little for supper, he 's so crazy for it,” said Mrs. Rose when Willy had disappeared smilingly around the corner.

“Yes, I would. It 's real wholesome for him. Who 's that comin'?”

Mrs. Rose stared down at the road. A white horse with an open buggy was just turning into the driveway, around the south side of the terraces. “Why, it 's brother Hiram,” said she, “and he 's got a boy with him. I wonder who 't is.”

The buggy drew up with a grating noise in the driveway. Presently a man appeared around the corner. After him tagged a small white-headed boy, and after the boy Willy Rose, with a sassafras-root and an old shoe-knife in his hands.

The man, who was Mr. Hiram Fairbanks, Mrs. Rose's brother, had a somewhat doubtful expression. When he stopped, the white-headed boy stopped, keeping a little behind him in his shadow.

“What boy is that, Hiram?” asked Mrs. Rose. Miss Elvira peered around the door. Mr. Fairbanks was tall and stiff-looking. He had a sunburned, sober face. “His name is Dickey,” he replied.

“One of those Dickeys?” Mrs. Rose said “Dickeys” as if it were a synonym for “outcasts” or “rascals.”

Mr. Fairbanks nodded. He glanced at the boy in his wake, then at Willy. “Willy, s'pose you take this little boy 'round and show him your rabbits,” he said in an embarrassed voice.

“Willy Rose!” cried his mother, “you have n't changed those muddy shoes! Go right in this minute, 'round by the kitchen door, and take this boy 'round with you; he can sit down on the door-step and help you clean your sassafras-root.”

Willy disappeared lingeringly around the house, and the other boy, on being further bidden by Mr. Fairbanks, followed him. “Willy,” his mother cried after him, “mind you sit down on the door-step and tie your shoes! I ain't goin' to have that Dickey boy left alone; his folks are nothin' but a pack of thieves,” she remarked in a lower tone. “What are you doing with him, Hiram?”

Hiram hesitated. “Well, 'Mandy, you was sayin' the other day that you wished you had a boy to run errands, and split up kindlin's, and be kind of company for Willy.”

“You ain't brought that Dickey boy?”

“Now, look here, 'Mandy —”

“I ain't going to have him in the house.”

“Jest look here a minute, 'Mandy, till I tell you how it happened, and then you can do jest as you 're a mind to about it. I was up by the Ruggles's this afternoon, and Mis' Ruggles, she come out to the gate, and hailed me. She wanted to know if I did n't want a boy. Seems the Dickey woman died last week; you know the father died two year ago. Well, there was six children, and the oldest boy 's skipped, nobody knows where, and the oldest girl has just got married, and this boy is the oldest of the four that 's left. They took the three little ones to the poorhouse, and Mis' Ruggles she took this boy in, and she wanted to keep him, but her own boy is big enough to do all the chores, and she did n't feel as if she could afford to. She says he 's a real nice little fellow, and his mother wa' n't a bad woman; she was jest kind of sickly and shiftless. I guess old Dickey wa' n't much, but he 's dead. Mis' Ruggles says this little chap hates awful to go to the poorhouse, and it ain't no kind of risk to take him, and she 'd ought to know. She 's lived right there next door to the Dickeys ever since she was married. I knew you wanted a boy to do chores 'round, long as Willy was n't strong enough, so I thought I 'd fetch him along. But you can do jest as you 're a mind to.”

“Now, Hiram Fairbanks, you know the name those Dickeys have always had. S'pose I took that boy, and he stole?”

“Mis' Ruggles says she 'd trust him with anything.”

“She ain't got so much as I have to lose. There I 've got two dozen solid silver teaspoons, and four table-spoons, and my mother's silver creamer, and Willy's silver napkin-ring. Elviry 's got her gold watch, too.”

“I 've got other things I would n't lose for anything,” chimed in Miss Elvira.

“Well, of course, I don't want you to lose anything,” said Mr. Fairbanks helplessly, “but Mis' Ruggles, she said he was perfectly safe.”

“I s'pose I could lock up the silver spoons and use the old pewter ones, and Elviry could keep her watch out of sight for a while,” ruminated Mrs. Rose.

“Yes, I could,” assented Miss Elvira, “and my breast-pin.”

“I s'pose he could draw the water, and split up the kindlin'-wood, and weed the flower-garden,” said Mrs. Rose. “I set Willy to weedin' this morning, and it gave him the headache. I tell you one thing, Hiram Fairbanks, if I do take this boy, you 've got to stand ready to take him back again the first minute I see anything out of the way with him.”

“Yes, I will, 'Mandy; I promise you I will,” said Mr. Fairbanks eagerly. He hurried out to the buggy, and fumbled under the seat; then he returned with a bundle and a small wooden box.

“Here 's his clothes. I guess he ain't got much,” said he.

Mrs. Rose took the newspaper bundle; then she eyed the box suspiciously. It was a wooden salt-box, and the sliding cover was nailed on.

“What 's in this?” said she.

“Oh, I don't know,” replied Mr. Fairbanks; “some truck or other — I guess it ain't worth much.”

He put the box down on the bank, and trudged heavily and quickly out to the buggy. He was anxious to be off; he shook the reins, shouted “ge lang” to the white horse, and wheeled swiftly around the corner.

“I 'd like to know what 's in that box,” said Mrs. Rose to Miss Elvira.

“I hope he ain't got an old pistol or anything of that kind in it,” returned Miss Elvira. “Oh, 'Mandy, I would n't shake it, if I were you!” For Mrs. Rose was shaking the wooden box, and listening with her ear at it.

“Something rattles in it,” said she, desisting; “I hope it ain't a pistol.” Then she entered with the newspaper-bundle and the box, and went through the house with Miss Elvira following. She set the bundle and box on the kitchen table, and looked out of the door. There on the top step sat the Dickey boy cleaning the sassafras-roots with great industry, while Willy Rose sat on the lower one chewing some.

“I do believe he 's goin' to take right hold, Elviry,” whispered Mrs. Rose.

“Well, maybe he is,” returned Miss Elvira.

Mrs. Rose stowed away the boy's belongings in the little bedroom off the kitchen where she meant him to sleep; then she kindled the fire and got supper. She made sassafras-tea, and the new boy, sitting beside Willy, had a cup poured for him. But he did not drink much, nor eat much, although there were hot biscuits, and berries, and custards. He hung his forlorn head with its shock of white hair, and only gave fleeting glances at anything with his wild blue eyes. He was a thin boy, smaller than Willy, but he looked wiry and full of motion, like a wild rabbit.

After supper Mrs. Rose sent him for a pail of water; then he split up a little pile of kindling-wood. After that he sat down on the kitchen door-step in the soft twilight, and was silent.

Willy went into the sitting-room, where his mother and Miss Elvira were. “He 's settin' out there on the door-step, not speakin' a word,” said he, in a confidential whisper.

“Well, you had better sit down here with us, and read your Sunday-school book,” said his mother. She and Miss Elvira had agreed that it was wiser that Willy should not be too much with the Dickey boy until they knew him better.

When it was nine o'clock Mrs. Rose showed the Dickey boy his bedroom. She looked at him sharply; his small pale face showed red stains in the lamplight. She thought to herself that he had been crying, and she spoke to him as kindly as she could — she had not a caressing manner with anybody but Willy. “I guess there 's clothes enough on the bed,” said she. She looked curiously at the bundle and the wooden box. Then she unfastened the bundle. “I guess I 'll see what you 've got for clothes,” said she, and her tone was as motherly as she could make it toward this outcast Dickey boy. She laid out his pitiful little wardrobe, and examined the small ragged shirt or two and the fragmentary stockings. “I guess I shall have to buy you some things if you are a good boy,” said she. “What have you got in that box?” — the boy hung his head — “I hope you ain't got a pistol?”

“No, marm.”

“You ain't got any powder, nor anything of that kind?”

“No, marm.” The boy was blushing confusedly.

“I hope you 're tellin' me the truth,” Mrs. Rose said, and her tone was full of severe admonition.

“Yes, marm.” The tears rolled down the boy's cheeks, and Mrs. Rose said no more. She told him she would call him in the morning, and to be careful about his lamp. Then she left him. The Dickey boy lay awake, and cried an hour; then he went to sleep, and slept as soundly as Willy Rose in his snug little bedroom, leading out of his mother's room. Miss Elvira and Mrs. Rose locked their doors that night, through distrust of that little boy down-stairs who came of a thieving family. Miss Elvira put her gold watch, and her breast-pin, and her pocket-book with seventeen dollars in it, under the feather-bed; and Mrs. Rose carried the silver teaspoons up-stairs, and hid them under hers. The Dickey boy was not supposed to know they were in the house, — the pewter ones had been used for supper, — but that did not signify; she thought it best to be on the safe side. She kept the silver spoons under the feather-bed for many a day, and they all ate with the pewter ones, but finally suspicion was allayed if not destroyed. The Dickey boy had shown himself trustworthy in several instances. Once he was sent on a test errand to the store, and came home promptly with the right change. The silver spoons glittered in the spoon-holder on the table, and Miss Elvira wore her gold watch and her gold breast-pin.

“I begin to take a good deal more stock in that boy,” Mrs. Rose told her brother Hiram. “He ain't very lively, but he works real smart; he ain't saucy, and I ain't known of his layin' hands on a thing.”

But the Dickey boy, although he had won some confidence and good opinions, was, as Mrs. Rose said, not very lively. His face, as he did his little tasks, was as sober and serious as an old man's. Everybody was kind to him, but this poor little alien felt like a chimney-sweep in a queen's palace. Mrs. Rose, to a Dickey boy, was almost as impressive as a queen. He watched with admiration and awe this handsome, energetic woman moving about the house in her wide skirts. He was overcome with the magnificence of Miss Elvira's afternoon silk, and gold watch; and dainty little Willy Rose seemed to him like a small prince. Either the Dickey boy, born in a republican country, had the original instincts of the peasantry in him, and himself defined his place so clearly that it made him unhappy, or his patrons did it for him. Mrs. Rose and Miss Elvira tried to treat him as well as they treated Willy. They dressed him in Willy's old clothes, they gave him just as much to eat; when autumn came, he was sent to school as warmly clad and as well provided with luncheon; but they could never forget that he was a Dickey boy. He seemed in truth to them like an animal of another species, in spite of all they could do, and they regarded his virtues in the light of uncertain tricks. Mrs. Rose never thought at any time of leaving him in the house alone without hiding the spoons, and Miss Elvira never left her gold watch unguarded.

Nobody knew whether the Dickey boy was aware of these lurking suspicions or not; he was so subdued that it was impossible to tell how much he observed. Nobody knew how homesick he was, but he went about every day full of fierce hunger for his miserable old home. Miserable as it had been, there had been in it a certain element of shiftless ease and happiness. The Dickey boy's sickly mother had never chided him; she had not cared if he tracked mud into the house. How anxiously he scraped his feet before entering the Rose kitchen. The Dickey boy's dissipated father had been gentle and maudlin, but never violent. All the Dickey children had done as they chose, and they had agreed well. They were not a quarrelsome family. Their principal faults were idleness and a general laxity of morals which was quite removed from active wickedness. “All the Dickeys needed was to be bolstered up,” one woman in the village said; and the Dickey boy was being bolstered up in the Rose family.

They called him Dickey, using his last name for his first, which was Willy. Mrs. Rose straightened herself unconsciously when she found that out. “We can't have two Willies in the family, anyhow,” said she; “we 'll have to call you Dickey.”

Once the Dickey boy's married sister came to see him, and Mrs. Rose treated her with such stiff politeness that the girl, who was fair and pretty and gaudily dressed, told her husband when she got home that she would never go into that woman's house again. Occasionally Mrs. Rose, who felt a duty in the matter, took Dickey to visit his little brothers and sisters at the almshouse. She even bought some peppermint-candy for him to take them. He really had many a little extra kindness shown him; sometimes Miss Elvira gave him a penny, and once Mr. Hiram Fairbanks gave him a sweet-apple tree — that was really quite a magnificent gift. Mrs. Rose could hardly believe it when Willy told her. “Well, I must say I never thought Hiram would do such a thing as that, close as he is,” said she. “I was terribly taken aback when he gave that tree to Willy, but this beats all. Why, odd years it might bring in twenty dollars!”

“Uncle Hiram gave it to him,” Willy repeated. “I was a-showin' Dickey my apple-tree, and Uncle Hiram he picked out another one, and he give it to him.”

“Well, I would n't have believed it,” said Mrs. Rose.

Nobody else would have believed that Hiram Fairbanks, careful old bachelor that he was, would have been so touched by the Dickey boy's innocent, wistful face staring up at the boughs of Willy's apple-tree. It was fall, and the apples had all been harvested. Dickey would get no practical benefit from his tree until next season, but there was no calculating the comfort he took with it from the minute it came into his possession. Every minute he could get, at first, he hurried off to the orchard and sat down under its boughs. He felt as if he were literally under his own roof-tree. In the winter, when it was heavy with snow, he did not forsake it. There would be a circle of little tracks around the trunk.

Mrs. Rose told her brother that the boy was perfectly crazy about that apple-tree, and Hiram grinned shamefacedly.

All winter Dickey went with Willy to the district school, and split wood and brought water between times. Sometimes of an evening he sat soberly down with Willy and played checkers, but Willy always won. “He don't try to beat,” Willy said. Sometimes they had pop-corn, and Dickey always shook the popper. Dickey said he was n't tired, if they asked him. All winter the silver spoons appeared on the table, and Dickey was treated with a fair show of confidence. It was not until spring that the sleeping suspicion of him awoke. Then one day Mrs. Rose counted her silver spoons, and found only twenty-three teaspoons. She stood at her kitchen table, and counted them over and over. Then she opened the kitchen door. “Elviry!” she called out, “Elviry, come here a minute! Look here,” she said in a hushed voice, when Miss Elvira's inquiring face had appeared at the door. Miss Elvira approached the table tremblingly.

“Count those spoons,” said Mrs. Rose.

Miss Elvira's long slim fingers handled the jingling spoons. “There ain't but twenty-three,” she said finally, in a scared voice.

“I expected it,” said Mrs. Rose. “Do you s'pose he took it?”

“Who else took it, I 'd like to know?”

It was a beautiful May morning; the apple-trees were all in blossom. The Dickey boy had stolen over to look at his. It was a round hill of pink-and-white bloom. It was the apple year. Willy came to the stone wall and called him. “Dickey,” he cried, “Mother wants you”; and Dickey obeyed. Willy had run on ahead. He found Mrs. Rose, Miss Elvira, Willy, and the twenty-three teaspoons awaiting him in the kitchen. He shook his head to every question they asked him about the missing spoon. He turned quite pale; once in a while he whimpered; the tears streamed down his cheeks, but he only shook his head in that mute denial.

“It won't make it any easier for you, holding out this way,” said Mrs. Rose, harshly. “Stop cryin' and go out and split up some kindlin'-wood.”

Dickey went out, his little convulsed form bent almost double. Willy, staring at him with his great, wondering blue eyes, stood aside to let him pass. Then he also was sent on an errand, while his mother and Miss Elvira had a long consultation in the kitchen.

It was a half hour before Mrs. Rose went out to the shed where she had sent the Dickey boy to split kindlings. There lay a nice little pile of kindlings, but the boy had disappeared.

“Dickey, Dickey!” she called. But he did not come.

“I guess he 's gone, spoon and all,” she told Miss Elvira when she went in; but she did not really think he had. When one came to think of it, he was really too small and timid a boy to run away with one silver spoon. It did not seem reasonable. What they did think, as time went on and he did not appear, was that he was hiding to escape a whipping. They searched everywhere. Miss Elvira stood in the shed by the wood-pile, calling in her thin voice, “Come out, Dickey; we won't whip you if you did take it,” but there was not a stir.

Toward night they grew uneasy. Mr. Fairbanks came, and they talked matters over.

“Maybe he did n't take the spoon,” said Mr. Fairbanks uncomfortably. “Anyhow, he 's too young a chap to be set adrift this way. I wish you 'd let me talk to him, 'Mandy.”

You,” said Mrs. Rose. Then she started up. “I know one thing,” said she; “I 'm goin' to see what 's in that wooden box. I don't believe but what that spoon 's in there. There 's no knowin' how long it 's been gone.”

It was quite a while before Mrs. Rose returned with the wooden box. She had to search for it, and found it under the bed. The Dickey boy also had hidden his treasures. She got the hammer and Hiram pried off the lid, which was quite securely nailed. “I 'd ought to have had it opened before,” said she. “He had n't no business to have a nailed-up box 'round. Don't joggle it so, Hiram. There 's no knowin' what 's in it. There may be a pistol.”

Miss Elvira stood farther off. Mr. Fairbanks took the lid entirely off. They all peered into the box. There lay an old clay pipe and a roll of faded calico. Mr. Fairbanks took up the roll and shook it out. “It 's an apron,” said he. “It 's his father's pipe, and his mother's apron — I — swan!”

Miss Elvira began to cry. “I had n't any idea of anything of that kind,” said Mrs. Rose huskily. “Willy Rose, what have you got there?”

For Willy, looking quite pale and guilty, was coming in, holding a muddy silver teaspoon. “Where did you get that spoon? Answer me this minute,” cried his mother.

“I — took it out to — dig in my garden with the — other day. I — forgot —”

“Oh, you naughty boy!” cried his mother. Then she too began to weep. Mr. Fairbanks started up. “Something 's got to be done,” said he. “The wind 's changed, and the May storm is comin' on. That boy has got to be found before night.”

But all Mr. Fairbanks's efforts, and the neighbors' who came to his assistance, could not find the Dickey boy before night or before the next morning. The long cold May storm began, the flowering apple-trees bent under it, and the wind drove the rain against the windows. Mrs. Rose and Miss Elvira kept the kitchen fire all night, and hot water and blankets ready. But the day had fairly dawned before they found the Dickey boy, and then only by the merest chance. Mr. Fairbanks, hurrying across his orchard for a short cut, and passing Dickey's tree, happened to glance up at it, with a sharp pang of memory. He stopped short. There, among the blossoming branches, clung the Dickey boy, like a little drenched, storm-beaten bird. He had flown to his one solitary possession for a refuge. He was almost exhausted; his little hands grasped a branch like steel claws. Mr. Fairbanks took him down and carried him home. “He was up in his tree,” he told his sister brokenly, when he entered the kitchen. “He 's 'most gone.”

But the Dickey boy revived after he had lain awhile before a fire and been rolled in hot blankets and swallowed some hot drink. He looked with a wondering smile at Mrs. Rose when she bent over him and kissed him just as she kissed Willy. Miss Elvira loosened her gold watch with its splendid long gold chain and put it in his hand. “There, hold it a while,” said she, “and listen to it tick.” Mr. Fairbanks fumbled in his pocket-book and drew out a great silver dollar. “There,” said he, “you can have that to spend when you get well.”

Willy pulled his mother's skirt. “Mother,” he whispered.

“What say?”

“Can't I pop some corn for him?”

“By and by.” Mrs. Rose smoothed the Dickey boy's hair; then she bent down and kissed him again. She had fairly made room for him in her stanch, narrow New England heart.