These three tales from Mary Day's Story Book (1855) offer a sample of Phoebe Harris Phelps's fiction. All are clearly designed to convey moral instruction; characters exist only as types, with roles reinforced by authorial comments (e.g., "good boy," "bad boy"), and the lesson is made explicit in the final paragraph. Their brevity is also typical of Phelps' work: none of the sixteen stories in the book reach twenty pages; eleven contain fewer than ten pages of text.

Phelps dedicated the collection to her second child, Delia, "with the love and blessing of her mother." She also used Delia's name in "The Red Apple," the second story in the book, bestowing it on a character whose kindness begins a chain of favorable events. "The Red Apple" offers an interesting contrast with another tale, "The Broken Tulip": the earlier story highlights the benefits of good behavior, while "Tulip" depicts exaggerated and tragic consequences of misconduct. As with "Apple," the protagonist in "Tulip" shares his name with one of Phelps's children, in this case, her eldest son Charles. (Characters named Charles also appear in two other stories in the book, both of which have more cheerful outcomes.) The third narrative, "Who Was the Best?," is set in a schoolroom and introduces an idea Phelps, a former principal, reworked almost ten years later for the magazine story "The Best Girl in School."*

The title figure, Mary Day, is the main character in another of Phelps's books but makes no appearance here.

*"The Best Girl in School" appeared in Student and Schoolmate in 1864 and is available online at Pat Pflieger's Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read site.

The Wood Sawyer lifting Little Delia over the Woodpile

LITTLE Delia was one day sent by her mother to do an errand in the yard. A wood sawyer was at work there, and a pile of wood was thrown up directly before the door. Little Delia climbed carefully over the wood and did her errand. When she was on her way back, the wood sawyer took her up in his strong arms and set her down safely in the doorway, smiling as he did so, and saying to her in a soft tone, "There, my little girl! I was afraid you might fall, and I didn't want you to."

Delia thanked him very pleasantly, and went up stairs to tell her mother. "Now, mother, I like the woodman very much, for he was so good to me," she said. " He lifted me kindly over the wood, so that I wouldn't get hurt. I thanked him pleasantly; but mayn't I give him something?"

"If you want to," said her mother.

"What shall I give him? " asked Delia.

"What would you like to give him?"

"That large, red apple that you gave me this morning. Wouldn't that be nice ? " said Delia.

"Yes; that would do very well," her mother answered.

Delia ran down and gave the apple, quite delighted.

" Thank you! You're a good dear," said the wood sawyer as he received it.

"And what shall I do with it? "

"Why, look at it and see how fine it is, and then eat it," said Delia.

"Well, wouldn't you like to have me give it to my poor little Johnny?"

"Johnny? And who is Johnny?"

"My poor little boy that is all burned and crippled by the fire."

"How came he so?" asked Delia.

"Why, when he was a baby," said the wood sawyer, "the poor thing was tied into a chair and left alone for a minute; and he was a bright and strong baby and I suppose he stretched and pulled for something, and tipped himself over against the hot stove, and his clothes took fire, and he was sadly burned indeed. But he's a good little thing, and so loving. Shall I give him the apple?"

"Yes, indeed," said Delia. And she ran quickly back into the house, and, with her mother's permission, brought out a little brown, wooden horse, with a soldier on his back. "There, give that to Johnny too," said she; "for I'm sorry that he's so burned."

When the wood sawyer returned home at night little Johnny sat watching for him at the window; and when he gave him the horse and apple, Johnny thought he had never seen so fine a plaything as the horse, nor so large and red an apple before. He kissed his father and thanked him heartily; and then he kissed the horse, and the soldier, and the apple too. When he learned who sent them to him, he said, " How good she is to me! How I should like to see her!"

"What are you going to do with your presents?" said his father.

Johnny thought a moment. "I know what I shall do with the apple," he said. "Don't you know that big boy that looks in here and makes me cry sometimes, looking so bad, shrivelling up one side of his face and drawing his head down to his shoulder, as if trying to make fun of me because I am so burned and my head is all drawn to one side by the fire? Don't you know that boy?"

"Jim Norton, do you mean?" asked the father; " that bad fellow that I drove away from the window last week?"

"Yes; that boy."

"Why, you don't like him so much, do you?"

"Not so much; but I want him to like me. I wan't [sic] to show him that I don't hate him because he tries to make me feel bad and makes fun of what I can't help and what I am sometimes so sorry for: though I know I oughtn't to complain; for God did it, and he knew it was best for me.

"I'm going to give Jim this beautiful apple, to show him that it's only my face and leg that's burned; that I ain't bad looking inside."

"No, nor outside neither to your father, you dear darling!" said the poor man, clasping the boy to his breast.

"And what will you do with the horse and soldier?" he asked.

"Why, I think I'll keep them," said Johnny, " they're so pretty; but I shall show them to the baby, to stop her from crying; and I shall let some little boys I know play with them. I shall let Jim play with them, too, if he gets good. I sha'n't keep them all to myself."

The next day little Johnny watched at the window; and, when he saw the bad boy that tried to make fun of his misfortune, he beckoned to him to come nearer. Jim did not know what to make of it, and thought perhaps Johnny meant to play him a trick in return for all his unkindness ; so he staid where he was, and did not seem to notice Johnny's gesture. But Johnny's purpose of good towards Jim was fixed; and he raised up the tempting apple, and again beckoned to him to come to his window.

"Here, Jim," said Johnny; " here's a nice apple. I don't hate you. Won't you love me now, Jim?"

The bad boy reddened with shame and guilt. To use Bible words, Johnny had " heaped coals of fire upon his head." He could not take the apple.

"No, little boy," he said; " I don't want your apple. I can get apples."

"Yes; I want you to take it," said Johnny. " Then you won't hate me, perhaps."

The apple was tempting, and Jim took it; but, as he went away looking at it, he could not help feeling ashamed of himself.

" What a good boy that Johnny is, when I've acted so to him! " he thought. "I am sorry I took his apple, for I don't s'pose he gets half as many as I do. I wish he had it back again. It was mean to take it from him. What shall I do with it?"

He could not eat the apple; so he took it home and divided it among his brothers and sisters. This was a new thing for him, and they did not know what it meant; for, instead of giving to them, he had always tried to get from them; and they now asked him if he were not sick.

Jim could not forget the apple. Johnny's goodness was so strange to him that he could not keep it out of his mind ; and, the more he thought of it, the more it seemed to soften him. He made no more bad faces at Johnny, and soon began to smile as he passed his window; and Johnny, as you might know, was very glad to see the change in him, and always smiled pleasantly in return. He never was sorry for having given away his fine apple, though it was indeed a rare thing with him, and highly prized, perhaps more than the rarest fruit would be by you.

Jim Norton sometimes thought, "I wish I had something to give Johnny. I ought to give to him rather than he to me." Then he thought, "I have sometimes earned a few cents for myself by selling shavings. Why can't I earn some for Johnny?"

He set about it, and sold two baskets of shavings. With the cents so gained he bought a few hickory nuts and some sugar plums. He gave them to Johnny, and was never so happy in his life before. He was now by degrees growing generous and kind to every body, but particularly to Johnny; for he felt something like gratitude towards him, and he was learning to pity him and love him. When the spring came he brought him green boughs and flowers, which he gathered for him whenever he went into the fields beyond the city.

One day he told Johnny of a plan he had to snare a little bird and bring it to him, so that he might hear its fine song in his own room, since he was lame, and could not go out into the fields and woods, and was so often alone; but Johnny said, "No, Jim; it is hard enough for me to be so shut up here, and I'm used to it since I was a baby. The bird isn't used to it, and it would be very dreadful for it. I don't want any thing to be miserable for me; I shouldn't be happy. I'd rather not, Jim. The flowers you bring me are enough."

So Jim left the birds to sing in freedom in the pleasant woods; but he took up a root of pretty sweet brier, and planted it in a little pot, and set it in Johnny's window ; and, though it does not bloom very often, it is always fresh and sweet, like the odor of good deeds.

Have you not noticed, little reader, how, in this story, one little good act brought along another and another, till there was quite a chain of them? There are little good acts for you to do all the time. Be sure you do them; and who knows what may come of them? A little seed makes a great tree when God smiles on it.


CHARLIE had a little flower bed in his mother's garden, which he took care of himself. He had in it two crocuses, some lilies of the valley, a hyacinth, and a tulip. These he had planted in the autumn ; and, as soon as the snow was off the ground, he looked to see if his crocuses would blossom. No; they only showed a few green shoots. But the lilies of the valley rolled up their inner leaves very tightly, as if they had something it was well worth while to keep; and the tulip shot up her bud of promise, as if she had no fears for it and was not ashamed to show it. Charlie watched and waited to see them open; and finally the lilies smiled out coyly, and the tulip laid down one bright-red leaf, and then another. O, how gay and splendid was the flower she boasted for her winter's work! Charlie thought it was the most beautiful he had ever seen. He prized it the more because it was the earliest in the whole garden. His mother's tulips were still in bud.

One day his little sister Annie, only two years old, went alone into the garden; and she thought, as Charlie did, that his tulip was the finest thing there, and picked it from. its stem without knowing she was doing any harm. The mischief was but just done when Charlie went to admire its glory. It was gone. What a blow for him! He turned to Annie, who held it crushed in her little hand. Full of grief and anger, he snatched it from her, exclaiming, --

"You naughty girl! What did you do so for? You've picked my tulip; and I don't like you!"

"I'm torry! I'm very torry!" said little Annie, who could not talk plainly. She meant that she was very sorry. Yet Charlie struck her, in his passion.

Poor thing! She cried as if her heart would break; and, running to her mother, poured out her complaint. "Tarlie tipped me! Tarlie tipped me!"

Charlie, too, went to his mother with his complaint. She reproved him for his anger and the wrong he had done his baby sister, and bade him kiss her and soothe her grief. He obeyed reluctantly and with an unkind feeling at his heart.

The very next day little Annie was taken violently ill with the scarlet fever. The disease soon assumed its worst form, and her life was despaired of. Most of the time she lay insensible; and, when she roused, she seemed to have lost her reason. When she saw Charlie, she would lift her arms to kiss him, and say, in the most touching way, "I'm torry, Tarlie! I'm torry!" as if she had the broken tulip in mind. He would kiss her tenderly and try to make her forget her sorrow; but he could not forget his own remorse. He picked the finest of his lilies of the valley, and put them in her little hot hand, and bade her smell them; but she scarcely noticed them. O, how many tulips he would now have given if so he could have wiped out the wrong he had done for the sake of one -- if he could have made up for it! But he could not ; it was too late.

"If Annie would only get well," he said to his mother, "I'd plant her a whole bed of tulips."

But Annie was to be gathered to the garden above. She died; and, when they had made her ready for the coffin, Charlie went to look at her. The broken tulip and the angry blow came to his mind; and his distress seemed more than he could bear. He hurried away and gathered every flower in his little garden, hyacinth and all, and laid them on her breast. But it was of no use; she could not know it; she was dead.

They prayed above the little corpse for blessings on the loving who wept over it, and then laid it away in a pretty spot. Charlie prayed most of all for forgiveness of his sins; and, ere the grass had formed a covering for the mound where Annie slept, the sweetest summer flowers bloomed there, planted by his hand; and, when the next spring came, the tulip which had been the pride of his garden bloomed fairer than before on the little grave -- the offering of Charlie, in his sorrow for his sin. Vain offering! Show kindness to the living; the dead cannot heed it.


IT was the day before the vacation in a certain school; and the girls were in high spirits and full of plans about what they were going to do.

"I'm going to have a fine time!" "So am I!" "And so am I!" "Won't we be happy?b" they were saying to each. other during the recess, and seemed to think they could crowd more pleasure into four short weeks than they had had during the whole of the last half year.

When they took leave of Miss Porter, their teacher, she wished them all a pleasant vacation, but told them to be careful that it should be well spent; for vacation time is as precious as any other, and ought not to be wasted away, but wisely used; and God will require an account of it.

The four weeks soon passed away ; and the girls again met, almost as gay and joyous as when they had parted.

The teacher prayed to God for his blessing, and then said, " I should like to know how you spent your vacation, my little friends. Were you all as happy as you hoped to be?"

One little girl said she had had a pleasant time; she had been travelling and visiting with her father and mother, and had seen a great many strange sights. Another had staid at home, but had had all the time she wanted to play. Another had read a great many interesting story books.

"But did you live only for yourselves?" asked the teacher of these. "Did you do nothing for others or for God ? "

The girls hung their heads and blushed; their consciences reproved them.

One little girl, named Susan, had sewed a great deal for her mother and had made herself some new clothes. She had tried to be very industrious.

"Then," said Miss Porter, "you obeyed part of a command -- 'Be diligent in business.' I hope you did not forget the rest of it -- 'fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.'"

Mary Bond had gone out almost every day into the streets where poor people live, carrying with her little garments for the children, and had got some of them to go to the Sunday school with her. She had given away a great many little papers and books to those who could read, and had tried to teach the alphabet to one poor, ignorant woman who was willing to learn.

"Hasn't she been good!" "Hasn't she been good!" the children whispered to each other.

"She has followed the example of our Savior, who went about doing good," said the teacher.

Lucy Hart had been sewing for the Home Mission Society, making clothes for the families of the missionaries who have gone to the far west to preach the gospel to the poor emigrants.

"Hasn't she been good!" was again whispered.

"I am glad," said the teacher, "that Lucy has been working for the poor servants of God who have given up so much that we enjoy that they may carry the bread of life to those who are ready to perish."

"Well, Jane Allen," said she, as her eye rested on a pleasant-faced girl before her, "I hope you did something good."

"I hadn't any time to do good," said little Jane. "Mother was so sick, and I had all the children to take care of and father's dinner to get. I hadn't any time, Miss Porter; for I had to keep the children very good natured, or mother would be pained."

"I should think, from what you say, Jane, that all your time was spent in doing good. 'Honor thy father and mother,' and, 'Children, obey your parents,' are commandments which God likes to have kept as well as any others. One of the last thoughts of Jesus, before he died upon the cross, was to take care of his mother."

"And, Sarah, how have you been busy?" asked Miss Porter of a pale, little thing, who trembled as she answered, "I haven't done any thing. I have been very sick, and could only just come out to-day. I didn't expect to be sick the last day of school; but I knew it was God's will, and so it was best. I could not do any thing but be patient and try to be cheerful."

"Whether we do God's will, or suffer it with a loving, willing spirit, we serve him. He does not want us to act always, but sometimes to lie still and bear; and this is generally the hardest for us."

"I think so too, Miss Porter," said Sarah.

"But if we have the right spirit in bearing, we please God and show forth his praise."

When the other girls in the school had told how they had spent their vacation, several voices asked at once, " Who was the best?" "Who did the best, Miss Porter?"

"God alone knows," said the teacher. "He alone knows the motive; and it is that which makes our conduct good or bad."

"Will you please to tell us what you mean by that?" asked one of the children.

"The motive is what makes us do a thing; it is the reason why we do it. If we help the poor that we may be praised by them and others, our motive is selfish, and there is little, if any, goodness in the act; but if we do it because we love them, and because we love God, we do well, and God is pleased with us. If we stay at home and serve our parents, or do any other duty, or bear well any suffering out of love to God, he is equally well pleased with us. If we have an eye single to his glory, we shall do right. Now, listen, children, and take this command with you to direct you and help you to decide on the goodness of your conduct. 'Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.'"

"I wish we had that for one of our cards," said little Jane.

Several large cards, with texts of Scripture printed on them, were hung around the school room, so that when the girls raised their eyes they could not help reading them.

"Yes; we will have it for one," said Miss Porter, in answer to Jane; "but be sure and write it on your memories, each one of you, so that it may be with you when you are absent as well as when you are here."

Phoebe Harris Phelps, Mary Day's Story Book, Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1855: 22-34, 45-50, 144-51.

Back to main page

Copyright 2005 - Deidre Johnson
Scanned for 19th-Century Girls' Series webpage. Please do not use on other pages without permission.