Copyright 1912 by The Century Company
The first Wednesday in every month was a Perfectly Awful Day--a day tobe awaited with dread, endured with courage and forgotten with haste.Every floor must be spotless, every chair dustless, and every bedwithout a wrinkle. Ninety-seven squirming little orphans must bescrubbed and combed and buttoned into freshly starched ginghams; andall ninety-seven reminded of their manners, and told to say, 'Yes,sir,' 'No, sir,' whenever a Trustee spoke.
It was a distressing time; and poor Jerusha Abbott, being the oldestorphan, had to bear the brunt of it. But this particular firstWednesday, like its predecessors, finally dragged itself to a close.Jerusha escaped from the pantry where she had been making sandwichesfor the asylum's guests, and turned upstairs to accomplish her regularwork. Her special care was room F, where eleven little tots, from fourto seven, occupied eleven little cots set in a row. Jerusha assembledher charges, straightened their rumpled frocks, wiped their noses, andstarted them in an orderly and willing line towards the dining-room toengage themselves for a blessed half hour with bread and milk and prunepudding.
Then she dropped down on the window seat and leaned throbbing templesagainst the cool glass. She had been on her feet since five thatmorning, doing everybody's bidding, scolded and hurried by a nervousmatron. Mrs. Lippett, behind the scenes, did not always maintain thatcalm and pompous dignity with which she faced an audience of Trusteesand lady visitors. Jerusha gazed out across a broad stretch of frozenlawn, beyond the tall iron paling that marked the confines of theasylum, down undulating ridges sprinkled with country estates, to thespires of the village rising from the midst of bare trees.
The day was ended--quite successfully, so far as she knew. TheTrustees and the visiting committee had made their rounds, and readtheir reports, and drunk their tea, and now were hurrying home to theirown cheerful firesides, to forget their bothersome little charges foranother month. Jerusha leaned forward watching with curiosity--and atouch of wistfulness--the stream of carriages and automobiles thatrolled out of the asylum gates. In imagination she followed first oneequipage, then another, to the big houses dotted along the hillside.She pictured herself in a fur coat and a velvet hat trimmed withfeathers leaning back in the seat and nonchalantly murmuring 'Home' tothe driver. But on the door-sill of her home the picture grew blurred.
Jerusha had an imagination--an imagination, Mrs. Lippett told her, thatwould get her into trouble if she didn't take care--but keen as it was,it could not carry her beyond the front porch of the houses she wouldenter. Poor, eager, adventurous little Jerusha, in all her seventeenyears, had never stepped inside an ordinary house; she could notpicture the daily routine of those other human beings who carried ontheir lives undiscommoded by orphans.
Je-ru-sha Ab-bott You are wan-ted In the of-fice, And I think you'd Better hurry up!
Tommy Dillon, who had joined the choir, came singing up the stairs anddown the corridor, his chant growing louder as he approached room F.Jerusha wrenched herself from the window and refaced the troubles oflife.
'Who wants me?' she cut into Tommy's chant with a note of sharp anxiety.
Mrs. Lippett in the office, And I think she's mad. Ah-a-men!
Tommy piously intoned, but his accent was not entirely malicious. Eventhe most hardened little orphan felt sympathy for an erring sister whowas summoned to the office to face an annoyed matron; and Tommy likedJerusha even if she did sometimes jerk him by the arm and nearly scrubhis nose off.
Jerusha went without comment, but with two parallel lines on her brow.What could have gone wrong, she wondered. Were the sandwiches not thinenough? Were there shells in the nut cakes? Had a lady visitor seenthe hole in Susie Hawthorn's stocking? Had--O horrors!--one of thecherubic little babes in her own room F 'sauced' a Trustee?
The long lower hall had not been lighted, and as she came downstairs, alast Trustee stood, on the point of departure, in the open door thatled to the porte-cochere. Jerusha caught only a fleeting impression ofthe man--and the impression consisted entirely of tallness. He waswaving his arm towards an automobile waiting in the curved drive. Asit sprang into motion and approached, head on for an instant, theglaring headlights threw his shadow sharply against the wall inside.The shadow pictured grotesquely elongated legs and arms that ran alongthe floor and up the wall of the corridor. It looked, for all theworld, like a huge, wavering daddy-long-legs.
Jerusha's anxious frown gave place to quick laughter. She was bynature a sunny soul, and had always snatched the tiniest excuse to beamused. If one could derive any sort of entertainment out of theoppressive fact of a Trustee, it was something unexpected to the good.She advanced to the office quite cheered by the tiny episode, andpresented a smiling face to Mrs. Lippett. To her surprise the matronwas also, if not exactly smiling, at least appreciably affable; shewore an expression almost as pleasant as the one she donned forvisitors.
'Sit down, Jerusha, I have something to say to you.' Jerusha droppedinto the nearest chair and waited with a touch of breathlessness. Anautomobile flashed past the window; Mrs. Lippett glanced after it.
'Did you notice the gentleman who has just gone?'
'I saw his back.'
'He is one of our most affluential Trustees, and has given large sumsof money towards the asylum's support. I am not at liberty to mentionhis name; he expressly stipulated that he was to remain unknown.'
Jerusha's eyes widened slightly; she was not accustomed to beingsummoned to the office to discuss the eccentricities of Trustees withthe matron.
'This gentleman has taken an interest in several of our boys. Youremember Charles Benton and Henry Freize? They were both sent throughcollege by Mr.--er--this Trustee, and both have repaid with hard workand success the money that was so generously expended. Other paymentthe gentleman does not wish. Heretofore his philanthropies have beendirected solely towards the boys; I have never been able to interesthim in the slightest degree in any of the girls in the institution, nomatter how deserving. He does not, I may tell you, care for girls.'
'No, ma'am,' Jerusha murmured, since some reply seemed to be expectedat this point.
'To-day at the regular meeting, the question of your future was broughtup.'
Mrs. Lippett allowed a moment of silence to fall, then resumed in aslow, placid manner extremely trying to her hearer's suddenly tightenednerves.
'Usually, as you know, the children are not kept after they aresixteen, but an exception was made in your case. You had finished ourschool at fourteen, and having done so well in your studies--notalways, I must say, in your conduct--it was determined to let you go onin the village high school. Now you are finishing that, and of coursethe asylum cannot be responsible any longer for your support. As itis, you have had two years more than most.'
Mrs. Lippett overlooked the fact that Jerusha had worked hard for herboard during those two years, that the convenience of the asylum hadcome first and her education second; that on days like the present shewas kept at home to scrub.
'As I say, the question of your future was brought up and your recordwas discussed--thoroughly discussed.'
Mrs. Lippett brought accusing eyes to bear upon the prisoner in thedock, and the prisoner looked guilty because it seemed to beexpected--not because she could remember any strikingly black pages inher record.
'Of course the usual disposition of one in your place would be to putyou in a position where you could begin to work, but you have done wellin school in certain branches; it seems that you
r work in English haseven been brilliant. Miss Pritchard, who is on our visiting committee,is also on the school board; she has been talking with your rhetoricteacher, and made a speech in your favour. She also read aloud anessay that you had written entitled, "Blue Wednesday".'
Jerusha's guilty expression this time was not assumed.
'It seemed to me that you showed little gratitude in holding up toridicule the institution that has done so much for you. Had you notmanaged to be funny I doubt if you would have been forgiven. Butfortunately for you, Mr.--, that is, the gentleman who has justgone--appears to have an immoderate sense of humour. On the strengthof that impertinent paper, he has offered to send you to college.'
'To college?' Jerusha's eyes grew big. Mrs. Lippett nodded.
'He waited to discuss the terms with me. They are unusual. Thegentleman, I may say, is erratic. He believes that you haveoriginality, and he is planning to educate you to become a writer.'
'A writer?' Jerusha's mind was numbed. She could only repeat Mrs.Lippett's words.
'That is his wish. Whether anything will come of it, the future willshow. He is giving you a very liberal allowance, almost, for a girlwho has never had any experience in taking care of money, too liberal.But he planned the matter in detail, and I did not feel free to makeany suggestions. You are to remain here through the summer, and MissPritchard has kindly offered to superintend your outfit. Your boardand tuition will be paid directly to the college, and you will receivein addition during the four years you are there, an allowance ofthirty-five dollars a month. This will enable you to enter on the samestanding as the other students. The money will be sent to you by thegentleman's private secretary once a month, and in return, you willwrite a letter of acknowledgment once a month. That is--you are not tothank him for the money; he doesn't care to have that mentioned, butyou are to write a letter telling of the progress in your studies andthe details of your daily life. Just such a letter as you would writeto your parents if they were living.
'These letters will be addressed to Mr. John Smith and will be sent incare of the secretary. The gentleman's name is not John Smith, but heprefers to remain unknown. To you he will never be anything but JohnSmith. His reason in requiring the letters is that he thinks nothingso fosters facility in literary expression as letter-writing. Since youhave no family with whom to correspond, he desires you to write in thisway; also, he wishes to keep track of your progress. He will neveranswer your letters, nor in the slightest particular take any notice ofthem. He detests letter-writing and does not wish you to become aburden. If any point should ever arise where an answer would seem tobe imperative--such as in the event of your being expelled, which Itrust will not occur--you may correspond with Mr. Griggs, hissecretary. These monthly letters are absolutely obligatory on yourpart; they are the only payment that Mr. Smith requires, so you must beas punctilious in sending them as though it were a bill that you werepaying. I hope that they will always be respectful in tone and willreflect credit on your training. You must remember that you arewriting to a Trustee of the John Grier Home.'
Jerusha's eyes longingly sought the door. Her head was in a whirl ofexcitement, and she wished only to escape from Mrs. Lippett'splatitudes and think. She rose and took a tentative step backwards.Mrs. Lippett detained her with a gesture; it was an oratoricalopportunity not to be slighted.
'I trust that you are properly grateful for this very rare good fortunethat has befallen you? Not many girls in your position ever have suchan opportunity to rise in the world. You must always remember--'
'I--yes, ma'am, thank you. I think, if that's all, I must go and sew apatch on Freddie Perkins's trousers.'
The door closed behind her, and Mrs. Lippett watched it with droppedjaw, her peroration in mid-air.
The Letters of
Miss Jerusha Abbott
Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs Smith
215 FERGUSSEN HALL 24th September
Here I am! I travelled yesterday for four hours in a train. It's afunny sensation, isn't it? I never rode in one before.
College is the biggest, most bewildering place--I get lost whenever Ileave my room. I will write you a description later when I'm feelingless muddled; also I will tell you about my lessons. Classes don'tbegin until Monday morning, and this is Saturday night. But I wantedto write a letter first just to get acquainted.
It seems queer to be writing letters to somebody you don't know. Itseems queer for me to be writing letters at all--I've never writtenmore than three or four in my life, so please overlook it if these arenot a model kind.
Before leaving yesterday morning, Mrs. Lippett and I had a very serioustalk. She told me how to behave all the rest of my life, andespecially how to behave towards the kind gentleman who is doing somuch for me. I must take care to be Very Respectful.
But how can one be very respectful to a person who wishes to be calledJohn Smith? Why couldn't you have picked out a name with a littlepersonality? I might as well write letters to Dear Hitching-Post orDear Clothes-Prop.
I have been thinking about you a great deal this summer; havingsomebody take an interest in me after all these years makes me feel asthough I had found a sort of family. It seems as though I belonged tosomebody now, and it's a very comfortable sensation. I must say,however, that when I think about you, my imagination has very little towork upon. There are just three things that I know:
I. You are tall.
II. You are rich.
III. You hate girls.
I suppose I might call you Dear Mr. Girl-Hater. Only that's ratherinsulting to me. Or Dear Mr. Rich-Man, but that's insulting to you, asthough money were the only important thing about you. Besides, beingrich is such a very external quality. Maybe you won't stay rich allyour life; lots of very clever men get smashed up in Wall Street. Butat least you will stay tall all your life! So I've decided to call youDear Daddy-Long-Legs. I hope you won't mind. It's just a private petname we won't tell Mrs. Lippett.
The ten o'clock bell is going to ring in two minutes. Our day isdivided into sections by bells. We eat and sleep and study by bells.It's very enlivening; I feel like a fire horse all of the time. Thereit goes! Lights out. Good night.
Observe with what precision I obey rules--due to my training in theJohn Grier Home.
Yours most respectfully, Jerusha Abbott
To Mr. Daddy-Long-Legs Smith
I love college and I love you for sending me--I'm very, very happy, andso excited every moment of the time that I can scarcely sleep. Youcan't imagine how different it is from the John Grier Home. I neverdreamed there was such a place in the world. I'm feeling sorry foreverybody who isn't a girl and who can't come here; I am sure thecollege you attended when you were a boy couldn't have been so nice.
My room is up in a tower that used to be the contagious ward beforethey built the new infirmary. There are three other girls on the samefloor of the tower--a Senior who wears spectacles and is always askingus please to be a little more quiet, and two Freshmen named SallieMcBride and Julia Rutledge Pendleton. Sallie has red hair and aturn-up nose and is quite friendly; Julia comes from one of the firstfamilies in New York and hasn't noticed me yet. They room together andthe Senior and I have singles. Usually Freshmen can't get singles;they are very scarce, but I got one without even asking. I suppose theregistrar didn't think it would be right to ask a properly brought-upgirl to room with a foundling. You see there are advantages!
My room is on the north-west corner with two windows and a view. Afteryou've lived in a ward for eighteen years with twenty room-mates, it isrestful to be alone. This is the first chance I've ever had to getacquainted with Jerusha Abbott. I think I'm g
oing to like her.
Do you think you are?
They are organizing the Freshman basket-ball team and there's just achance that I shall get in it. I'm little of course, but terriblyquick and wiry and tough. While the others are hopping about in theair, I can dodge under their feet and grab the ball. It's loads of funpractising--out in the athletic field in the afternoon with the treesall red and yellow and the air full of the smell of burning leaves, andeverybody laughing and shouting. These are the happiest girls I eversaw--and I am the happiest of all!
I meant to write a long letter and tell you all the things I'm learning(Mrs. Lippett said you wanted to know), but 7th hour has just rung, andin ten minutes I'm due at the athletic field in gymnasium clothes.Don't you hope I'll get in the team?
Yours always, Jerusha Abbott
PS. (9 o'clock.)
Sallie McBride just poked her head in at my door. This is what shesaid:
'I'm so homesick that I simply can't stand it. Do you feel that way?'
I smiled a little and said no; I thought I could pull through. Atleast homesickness is one disease that I've escaped! I never heard ofanybody being asylum-sick, did you?
Did you ever hear of Michael Angelo?
He was a famous artist who lived in Italy in the Middle Ages.Everybody in English Literature seemed to know about him, and the wholeclass laughed because I thought he was an archangel. He sounds like anarchangel, doesn't he? The trouble with college is that you areexpected to know such a lot of things you've never learned. It's veryembarrassing at times. But now, when the girls talk about things thatI never heard of, I just keep still and look them up in theencyclopedia.