Dalkins’ Little Indulgence — A Christmas Story

Dalkins’ Little Indulgence — A Christmas Story

Author and poet Robert Frost wrote a short story titled “Dalkins’ Little Indulgence — A Christmas Story” for the December 15, 1905 issue of Farm-Poultry Semi-Monthly magazine. It’s about a chicken fancier who is goaded into thinking he sold his chicken for less than her worth. The chicken’s buyer is irked at a troublemaker spreading talk that he’d taken advantage of the original owner. The buyer arranges to bring both the original owner and the troublemaker to the Fancy Chicken exhibition at Madison Square Garden to resolve the issue. 

Frost uses the farmers and their chickens to tell a story of human nature. 20th-century writer James Herriott mastered the art of short stories with a human-interest message, usually involving animals. For a veterinarian, “…even if you are a positive genius,” he wrote in one story, “humiliation and ridicule are lurking just round the corner.” 

At the end of the 19th century, the American Poultry Association (APA) was grappling with issues of licensing judges. Contention was fierce. Poultry breeders were deeply committed to their breeds, and fiery disagreements flared as to what constituted a perfect bird.  

After the uproar that followed the initial licenses issued in 1875, the nascent organization pulled back. One of the early pillars of poultry, Philander Williams, said that “some of us decided that we had made a mistake in licensing judges.” 

The leaders of the APA continued their commitment to establishing their poultry breed standards. In 1907, the APA again issued licenses to judges and has ever since. Poultry keepers have strong feelings about their birds. The APA and other poultry groups continue to manage the contention that those strong feelings can engender. Some things never change. On that note, we can all enjoy a happy holiday season.  

—Christine Heinrichs 

Dalkins’ Little Indulgence – A Christmas Story by Rober Frost

Enjoy this story, transcribed below.

It is no matter how much Dalkins paid for the bird; the point is that the man who sold it to him somehow got the impression that he did not pay enough — that he would have paid more. He could not have denied that Dalkins paid him all he asked. So that he had himself to blame if it was not enough. But he got to talking as if he had been cheated — and badly cheated. He enlarged upon the bird until he said he shouldn’t wonder if Dalkins would get a cool fifty for it. He groomed it, so to speak, as he thought of it. He made it a little whiter than white, a little more symmetrical than symmetry. 

As a matter of fact, it was the kind of bird that is worth what one can get for it. It transcended scoring, as it was better than any score reputable judges are willing to sign. It was a bird framed by nature for comparison judging. 

If the man who sold it to Dalkins made the mistake of parting with it for a cent less than fifty dollars, he deserved sympathy, but he was the only one who could see that Dalkins deserved blame. He showed himself a poor loser. He talked early and late to all comers about his misfortune that was another man’s fault. But almost all comers had been in the same fix themselves, and knew how to make allowances. They did not believe too heartily in the pricelessness of his bird — a suspicion of which made him but talk all the more. 

The wonderful part of this story is that this fellow had picked the bird up away over back in Peacham, Vt., for one dollar and fifty cents. These figures I am willing to vouch for. In that case he did fairly well if he got a five for it. Mind you, I don’t say what he got. At the time I heard the various rumors. This part of the story must remain shrouded in mystery — men are such liars. I vouch for nothing that you cannot safely believe. 

Dalkins’ Little Indulgence

Though he was far enough away from this man and his troubles, the facts here stated somehow or other reached Dalkins. He had come by the bird through an agent of his who had spotted it by the merest accident from his carriage in passing. He had not been too curious about its history and antecedents at the outset; with him the bird in the hand was the thing. But a certain letter aroused his interest. It was anonymous, doubtless from someone in no way concerned, but bent on mischief making, and informed him that the remarkable bird had been raised by the writer’s next door neighbor, and had been started on its career for one dollar and fifty cents. He questioned his agent about it. The agent had heard some such tale. Evidently gossip had been buzzing in the hill town of Peacham. He had heard also that the bird was of the Dalkins strain direct. That was calculated to please Dalkins. He wondered if they couldn’t find out who raised it. He would have liked the poor benighted fellow who would part with such a jewel for one fifty to know by its fruits what a thing the Dalkins strain was.  

“He didn’t suspect what he was doing,” he said. 

“It isn’t likely,” said the agent. 

“And the fellow who sold him to you?” 

“He had some idea, because he’s kicking himself for having sold it. I have seen him since. He is talking at a great rate.” 

“The bird has made some stir already, then; that’s what they call the fatal gift of beauty, isn’t it?” 

The agent was duly embarrassed. Dalkins was thinking. 

“Say,” he said at last, “I want you to find that original owner and bring him to the New York show on me. And bring the other fellow, too — both of them. I guess I’m good for it. Tell them ‘tis a Christmas notion of mine — the show is near enough to Christmas for that. It’ll make it easier for you. We’ll show them a thing or two and we’ll show the kicker that he only knows a little bit more than the other fellow. And I think I’ll show you something. Not a word of this to anyone outside, and not too many words to them. Just say ‘tis my treat — consolation treat. ‘Tis an order.” 

Dalkins’ agent found the original owner away over in Peacham one bitter cold morning a day or two after Christmas. Peacham is a New England street town, that is to say, it consists of but one street, which runs north and south along a sharp ridge that looks like the back of a razor backed world. The railroad, when it was built, missed it by about eight miles on the right, and that seemed to send it into a decline — such a close call, no doubt. Many of its fine old houses are going to ruin and there is never a new one to take their place. The age and size of its shade trees suggested that it might do very well in summer, but on such a day in winter it made the agent fairly groan at the patience of the people who could abide there. He inquired at the post office store for his man, and was sent to the woods for him. He came upon him snaking out logs in a grove recently laid waste, as seriously at work as if he had entirely given up seeing Santa Claus that year. He laid before him his invitation, and while not persuading him on the spot to accept it, succeeded in making him regard it as worth considering. At any rate, he carried him away in triumph from his toil like a Cincinnatus,1 a Putnam,2 or a Parker.3 He left his ox team standing in a brush pile in the care of his fellow workmen.  

Before he left he had dinner with him, and it was all arranged. The fellow was a little sheepish at first, as one accused of deliberately circulating counterfeit money — only in this case it would have been a counterfeit bird. He suspected that his punishment was going to take the form of a practical joke. But he decided he was equal to it if only it wasn’t to cost him anything, and the return ticket the agent laid down for him set at rest his fears on that score. 

The agent had less trouble with the other fellow — Durgin, if the name must out. He considered the invitation his due. “Aw yes,” he yawped, “he knew how it all was. Nobody probably intended to do him. It was business, just business. Only he thought,” etc. Of course he wasn’t a fool. He knew a good bird when he saw one. Only sometimes his mind didn’t work quick enough, etc. Yes, he’d be glad to meet Mr. Dalkins. He bore no grudge. He wasn’t that kind. Only he thought, etc. The main thing was that he accepted the ticket. 

Scene, the New York show. Mr. Dalkins is doing the honors. When I say doing, I mean doing. He never let those two importations of his out of his sight for three days, and he never gave them a restful half hour. And it was not all inside the Garden. But let us draw a veil over anything that was irrelevant to the show proper. What have I to do with the Rialto and the Bowery?4 Suffice it to say that he gave two simple souls the time of their lives, and beat them out in his own enjoyment of it, in spite of the fact that it was on him and it came high.  

The grand finale Mr. Dalkins had all prearranged, and he looked forward to it with the anticipation of a boy. No one had an inkling of what was coming, unless it was his agent to whom he once said in an aside: “The bird, the bird, was sold, I suppose you didn’t know, before anything was placed, but he’s not to change hands till the last day of the show. I want you to be there when he does.” 

Dalkins’ Little Indulgence

And once he had said to the second in line of possession, “So it sticks in your crop that you should have had fifty for your trade. Well, we won’t let that spectre intrude on our festivities. Time enough for discussion afterward. There’s always a way to settle such matters between gentlemen.” 

But the victim, though disliking the tone of banter in this, smelt not a rat. He and the original owner came to the final catastrophe as unprepared as the babe new born. They were so absorbed in the pleasure of the hour that it never occurred to either that he might be destined in the mind of the master to point a moral or adorn a tale. When it suited Dalkins’ sense of dramatic fitness, they were led like lambs to the slaughter. 

He towed the brace of them round to a certain much beribboned coop in the last hours of the show. He had made it a point to take them there several times a day during their stay to punctuate their experiences and keep them from forgetting to whom they were indebted for their popularity. He had never said much in the feathery presence. He found it more impressive to look in silence. His charges divided their hushed regard between him and the bird, awed by the thought of what great things might be passing in the mind of such a man at such a moment. 

Now he led them there for the last time. Tomorrow it was good-bye. The tumult and the crowing would die away. He told them that they must have a last look at the prize they had let slip through their fingers. Might it be a lesson to them! 

As it happened they found someone there before them. He showed himself more than usually interested, and they hung back until he should have completed his scrutiny. Upon lifting his head from the note book he employed, he recognized Dalkins. He had been about to move off. He stood still. There may have been a momentary gleam of fun in his eye. It passed unnoticed. 

“Splendid,” he said, with an indicative wave of the hand, “I want him. I thought of you, Wilson, when I put him in here. Isn’t he what you were looking for in the fall? I thought you would want him.” 

“I do. Your price?” 

Dalkins made a movement with his fingers as if he despaired of having enough to give the sign. He ended by holding up, side by side, and far forward, one finger on each hand. 

The agent, Durgin, and the original owner, turned pale. The first thought he was insane, the second that he was making a fake sale, the third that he hadn’t been so far wrong in his estimate of the bird. To these three the two fingers meant two dollars. 

“Shade it,” said Mr. Wilson. 

“Will you give me a dollar fifty?” laughed Dalkins. 

“What are a few dollars here or there when it is a question of such a bird?” said Wilson as he went down for his wad. 

“This is the payee,” Dalkins obtruded the original owner. 

“His bird, is it?” 

“In a way, yes. He raised it up back here a few hundred miles, and I don’t consider that he was ever honestly separated from it.” This with a withering eye to Durgin. 

“It wasn’t stolen?” 

“It comes to that. He was induced to sell it for one dollar and fifty cents.” 

For a moment Wilson hesitated and drew back, but it was only a moment. He looked at the bird again. “Well,” he said, “I’m not supposed to know that. A bargain’s a bargain.” 

At the moment of being thrust into prominence by the collar, the original owner, somewhat taken by surprise, had mechanically tuned up a hand. Now Dalkins seized upon this and held it as in a vice, while Wilson heaped bills upon it till the count should have been lost, though it wasn’t. The sum total was two hundred dollars. All the time Durgin had been opening wider and wider at the mouth. 

“If I let go,” said Dalkins to the original owner, “can I trust you to put that money where it belongs, and not bother me with arguments? Remember it is Christmas, or was a week or so since.” 

The original owner smiled weakly, but made no remonstrance. 

“Where do I come in?” piped up poor Durgin. 

“For a good time, and a valuable lesson,” snapped Dalkins. “If there’s anything else you want but can’t seem to lay your hands on, just take it out in kicking.”  

Then Dalkins gently but forcibly closed the original’s fingers over the paper in his hand, and headed him down the aisle. Durgin followed with a rattling in his throat that suggested roup, but merely indicated the impulse to speak without the ability. 

Everybody followed, the little procession attracting considerable attention in the hall. It was thought someone had been arrested by a plain clothes man for stealing ribbons from the cages. The original had almost lost consciousness of what was going on around him. He heard as in a dream amid the uproar of roosters, that sounded like a dying yell that wouldn’t die, the voice of Dalkins saying, “Go tell that up in the hills, and make them stop breeding mongrel stock.”  


Originally published in the December 2022/January 2023 issue ofBackyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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