The Silver Hen by Mary E. Wilkins
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 on 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
"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
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
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.
TWO BY TWO.
"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
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
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.
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 encyclopedia, 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
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 haven'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
"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
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
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
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
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, 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
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
"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
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,"
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
"Give me back my company," shouted the Snow Man in a
"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 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
"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
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
"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,
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
"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
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.