An eccentric old woman who lives with chickens and a thoughtful little girl are the subject of this story from the Victorian Christmas book “Here and There and Everywhere: Illustrated Stories and Poems for Little Folks” published in 1895. I’ve restored both illustrations from the story — charming Victorian woodcuts both — that you may use as royalty-free clip art.
Breakfast was late, to be sure, but the children did not want any; it was enough to feast their eyes upon what came out of their Christmas stockings.
On the floor sat little May and Paul, still in their night-dresses, just perfectly happy with their hearts’ desires,– a doll and a go-cart.
But this was the third time their mother had said, “Now, let me dress you, my dears, and you shall have your toys beside you at the breakfast-table.”
Little May jumped up briskly, and was soon ready. Paul followed suit, though it was trying to have him cling so to that horse and cart, as if they could follow him through his sleeves.
“Well, I’m thankful,” said the weary mother, “that you are dressed at last. What, if children had as many arms or legs as caterpillars?”
It was a happy sight, as we all know,— bright little faces at the Christmas-table!
What if dolls and carts may get broken the next day, the children’s delight is so gay while it does last?
This morning, May’s mother wanted to teach her another kind of happiness, — that of making other people happy. So she asked her how she would like to put aside her doll for a little while, and take a mince-pie to Mrs. Fowler, a poor old lady who lived quite alone in a little, brown house at the end of the long village street.
There was just half a sigh at first, but somehow the real Christmas feeling filled the little girl’s heart, and made her want to make somebody else as happy as she herself was.
In a minute she raced out of the room, and then came back to be wrapped up like a little Red Riding Hood in her winter scarlet.
When she was fairly out of doors, she stood breathless a moment at the beauty of everything, for last night the first real snow-storm had come, covering with its soft white all the unlovely frozen ground, draping the skeleton trees with down and diamonds, and, best of all, making first-rate sleighing.
As the child printed her new rubber-boots daintily upon the untrodden snow by the roadside, she thought how very nice it would be to ride instead; and, suddenly, as if a fairy had flown from the snow-crystals and granted her wish, up the hill dashed a horse and sleigh. Not alone, however. The pretty young lady in the sleigh was Squire Denny’s daughter, Jennie, and the driver was Jennie’s brother, Ralph, just returned from California.
Little May’s eyes were not for them so much as for the great prancing gray horse, and the gay sleigh, just a dazzle of gilt and red, and jingling bells.
Miss Denny had to speak twice before May fairly understood.
“Would you like to ride with us, dear? We are going the rounds to collect goodies for poor Mrs. Fowler. Won’t you come, too? And do you think your mother would like to send anything?”
May, for answer, showed them her mince-pie; then Mr. Ralph lifted the little girl into the sligh, turned a charmingly short corner, then dashed off towards Mrs. Fowler’s little cottage.
At last, the gray horse stood still, and Miss Jennie, little May, and the rest of the “goodies,” were unloaded at Mrs. Fowler’s door.
The first creak of the hinges roused a cackling, crowing, and fluttering, and they found themselves with a dusty crowd of hens. In the midst of all was a little chirruping old woman, much like a motherly hen herself, as she cried, “Cut, cut, cut! There, there! Go to your roost again and show your manners. Let the good people in, will you?”
“Ralph, I declare for’t! You didn’t lose the crinkles out of your pooty hair while you was abroad. What! Something for Christmas! Nice turkey, all roasted, too. Well, I’m obleeged to you, I’m sure.”
“Marthy-Jane, —I won’t ‘Jennie’ you! No, no! That’s a name for a bar-main,— tell you ‘ma I’m obleeged to her for her victuals, and to you for bringing them. And little May, too! Your ‘ma is another good one. Present my duty to all the good neighbors that remembered the lone, old woman. Not so lonesome, either, as I might be. My hens are my children,— roost on my foot-board, wake up before you want ‘em, just like children; want their breakfast, too, before it’s ready for them, and never appear their best before strangers,— like children again. But, there, chickens will be children! My black Polly there, I might say, is my favorite child,— can’t help it.”
“Haven’t you some curiosities to show us, auntie?” Said Miss Jennie.
“Not as I know of,” replied the old lady, rather crossly. “There’s the same old things you’ve seen,— the petrified toad, the skin of the sea-serpent, the bottle of holy water” (“I saw her myself when she filled that bottle from the Kennebec,” whispered Miss Jennie, impolitely); “then,” continued Mrs. Fowler, “there’s a piece of the boat Arnold, the treasoner, sailed to Canada in. You know it got around down by my shoemack bush, and slivered off a piece.” And the old lady looked up with innocent eyes as she gave this bit of history.
“She has told that story so many times,” thought Ralph, “that she believes it herself.”
“But what’s under here, auntie?” said Miss Jennie, gently touching the curiously-covered table.
“Shu! shu! child! That’s a show! Admission ten cents; children half price.”
Tickets, with reserved seats, were secured at once.
“Well, then,” said the old lady, taking off the cover, “if you must know, it is American History to instruct the villagers — (drive that little bantam away, will you, Marthy-Jane)?— there, then. This is George Washington holding up—”
“Not a hatchet, I hope,” interrupted Ralph.
“It is presumed he kept it even when he was a president; and, at any rate,” continued the old lady, who disliked interruption, “it gives me a chance to teach little boys to let cherry-trees alone.
“Most of the characters are in pasteboard, but the prominent ones I make out of dough.
“The military men are my favorites, for they look well on a horse; but there’s no rhyme or reason in mounting a lawyer, or a tailor, or any such character. General Scott, now! What a fine appearance he makes. I wish I could give these great men a voice; but the most I can do is to make them move.” And, then, in some mysterious way, she caused the General’s horse to cross the parade-ground.
“This is the best of all,” said the old lady, as she started up another dough-puppet, who bore a small hat, which he jerked back and forth among historical Americans; and then, coming to the verge of the stage, held it appealingly to Mr. Ralph and Miss Jennie. They took it, and filled it with silver coin.
“Oh, did you not notice Benjamin Franklin, with his kite. Where is Franklin? O! That sly Polly! She has eaten him ‘most up!” It was too true. The great philosopher had come to an untimely end.
The visitors hastened to leave, knowing that the old lady’s temper could not bear much.
Charming to be out again in the snow and sunshine, with the dancing bells.
Not till little May stood by her own door did she think of her Christmas-doll. But it was all the more precious, because she had forgotten it for a little while in striving to make someone else happy.