Anna Balmer Myers.

The madonna of the curb online

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" Yes, ma'am, I mean, Aunt Mary," she answered the
call over the stairway.

" Are you soon comin' ? "

" Right away. I was dreaming."

" Ach, then it's all right. I just thought mebbe you
didn't know you should come down when you get done."

Sarah ran down the stairs and out to the kitchen. She
felt less restraint in the presence of the gentle aunt who
had inherited the mother's traits rather than the paternal

" Let me help you, Aunt Mary," she begged ; " the cook
at school said I was real handy." Aunt Mary took her
at her word and the girl was soon busy with preparations
for supper. A feeling of friendliness sprang up in her
heart. With her impulsive Irish quickness she said to
the white-capped woman as they worked together in the
kitchen, " I like you, Aunt Mary, and feel we are going
to be friends. But that other aunt with the queer name
say, can she smile at all?"

" Hush," warned the woman. " Sybilla is always quiet-
like and sad. She's had a big trouble in her life. She
never got over it right. But it's most twenty years ago
and I think still I'd kinda forgot all about it by now, but
then abody thinks still you would do so and so till you
get to the same place."


" Trouble," echoed Sarah, " had trouble twenty years
ago and still looks like a funeral about it! Who ever
heard of such a thing? That's just like Mrs. Maloney
used to say, some people hold on to their troubles so hard
they couldn't slip away if they wanted to."

"But, ach," Aunt Mary's face was soft with sym-
pathy, " poor Sybilla had an awful big trouble."

"What kind?"

" Sh ! " cautioned the woman, " we don't talk about it
at all! But abody can see Sybilla thinks about it and
ain't goin' to ever get over it right."

" But what was it, what dreadful thing happened to

" Sh ! Mebbe some day I might tell you about it.
But you must bear with her and not mind when she is a
little cross or strict. She is so unhappy all the time, but
she's so good, much better than I. If trouble hits the
worst one in the family I would got it stead of poor
Sybilla, but me, I never had much trouble in my life.
Sybilla says still that if the Lord loved them He chasten-
eth, like it says in the Bible, then He must love her an
awful lot to give her such a burden."

" Um," Sarah was thoughtful, " Miss Hughes used to
say that she knew some people who held on to burdens
that would roll away if the people only had sense enough
to let go."

" Yes ? I never heard anything like that now, mebbe,
for all, that might be true. But I know that Sybilla is a
good woman and she's kinda boss round here, being the
oldest and all. So if you do what she tells you she'll
treat you right."

" Say," said Sarah, " isn't that the way of most
of us ? We're nice to them who are nice to us but when


it comes to sinners and those who go against us

Her words set the woman thinking. " Sarah," she said
softly, " it wouldn't wonder me none if we learned a few
things yet from you before you get done with us ! "

The girl laughed, but she remembered the words.
" Mrs. Maloney, a woman who lived in the same street
when I was little, used to say that children and fools
speak the truth, so perhaps I do hit the nail on the head

The evening meal in the Burkhart home was a simple
one in their opinion but to Sarah, accustomed to the
plain fare of the reformatory, it was a feast. She helped
to carry it to the big table in the kitchen, then sat down
where she was directed by Sybilla. During a long grace
said by her grandfather she kept her head bowed as low
as the others. Then when it was ended she sat up ex-
pectantly, ready for the first meal in her new home.
Something of the sacredness of a love-feast seemed to
hover round the table for the girl, but Aunt Sybilla
began very matter-of-factly to pass the food and settle
to the task of consuming it.

" You know," began Sarah, " when I first went to to
the mountain I thought it was the funniest thing to say
grace every meal-time."

" What ! " exclaimed Aunt Sybilla. " Didn't you get
learned to do that at home when you was little ? "

"In Red Rose Court?" laughed the girl. "If you
could see that place ! " Then her face grew serious, her
voice was filled with the appealing tenderness that played
such havoc upon heart-strings. " You people can't know
what it means to me to have a real home after so many
years of being without one ! "


" Sarah," the grandfather told her, " you be a good girl
and you will always have a good home here."

" Yes " her peculiarly characteristic reasoning fol-
lowed " I believe that, but don't you think that some-
times when people don't behave is just the time they need
the good home most?" Her words left the others
strangely silent. What manner of girl was this? Was
she, indeed, of their own flesh and blood? Ah, that
despised, detested Irish strain in her must be responsible
for her strange beliefs and sayings ! The meal was rather
a silent one. Evidently talking and eating did not seem
to be in favor at the same time in that home.

" Oh," thought Sarah, " I'll change a few things around
here if I stay long enough ! Perhaps if I lick them into
shape they'll be a first-class family ! " Her face lighted
with a whimsical smile.

That night after the girl had been piloted up-stairs by
Aunt Mary, taught to light the oil lamp and extinguish
it, there was a family conference in the sitting-room

" She's of our flesh and blood and it's our duty to keep
her," said the old man. " But she don't seem just like
the girls here in Fairview. It might be that she was sent
to us just to be converted and pointed to the light. We
don't want another Burkhart goin' to the bad."

Mary nodded quiet approval. But Sybilla was slower
to acquiesce. " Well," she deliberated, " it looks like a
big job to make a quiet, refined girl out of her, but mebbe
like pop says she was sent here for the salvation of her
soul. It's plain she had no religious teachin', such queer
things like she says, such dumb ones, and kinda makin'
fun of holy things. Mebbe we can make a Christian
outa her."


And so began the reformation of Sarah Burkhart, the
child of Red Rose Court and Sunset Mountain and
simultaneously began the reformation of Jeremiah Burk-
hart and his daughters !



SYBILLA BURKHART had spoken truly when she said
that in a little town like Fairview the news of the new
arrival in their home would travel rapidly. The majority
of residents had little sympathy for the father of Sarah.
In many households youths prone to error were held in
check by the dreadful prediction, " If you don't do better
you'll go to the bad like young Jerry Burkhart ! " Thanks
to the derelictions of the said Jerry Burkhart many
youthful propensities to evil were curbed among the ris-
ing generation of Fairview, which proves the theory that
even in wickedness may dwell some glimmer of good,
some valuable by-product be derived from apparent use-
lessness. But the town had long since listed young Jerry
among the black, hopelessly black, sheep of its fold and
wondered how it had come to pass that so righteous a
man as Jeremiah senior could be the father of so wicked
a son. After his departure from Fairview the people
felt as though an evil influence had been lifted from the
place. They knew of his marriage with the dreadful
woman, but of his later life and incarceration were as
ignorant as his own people had been until the coming of

Several neighbors had seen the stranger enter and
formed various conjectures as to the nature of her er-
rand. The driver of the Transfer spread the news that
a fine, stylish young lady had asked him where Jeremiah


Burkhart lived and she had a bag and looked like she
came to stay a while. But all doubt as to the transient-
ness of the visitor was answered that night when watch-
ing neighbors saw the screens placed in the windows of
the front spare room and a lamp standing on the bureau.
That settled it ; the young lady had come to stay, at least
a while. For everybody knew that one-or-two-night visi-
tors to the Burkhart house were placed invariably in the
little spare room to the south side of the house ; it was
only the lengthy visit that caused the opening of the big
spare room facing the street.

Urgent, consuming inquisitiveness was rampant among
the people on the street near by. It was the neighbor di-
rectly opposite the big Burkhart house who undertook to
gather the information. She discovered very opportunely
that she had in her kitchen a plate belonging to the Burk-
hart girls so she decided, " It's about time to take that
there plate back once."

Hence, on the second day of Sarah's stay in her new
home, while she and Aunt Mary were washing the break-
fast dishes, there was a step on the back porch and a
breezy voice called, " I brought back your plate once.
Guess you thought we eat it with the cake but land,
you got company! If I'd knowed that I'd dressed!"
She swung back her apron and tried to look surprised.

" Come in, Mrs. Roth," invited Mary Burkhart. " You
might just as good meet our company now. This is
Sarah, our Jerry's girl."

" Jeremiah's girl ! " Even the gossiping Mrs. Roth was
surprised. She had never dreamed of that identity for
the stranger ! " Why, I didn't know he had any chil-
dren. My, my, that's a surprise ! Abody don't get many
in this little town, but here's one once ! "


"Yes, it will give Fairview something to talk over.
Some folks got ears like buckets anyhow, always ready
to catch something. Now I guess they'll have a good
time tellin' all about poor Jerry and that his girl is with
us. Jeremiah was married, you knew that."

"Was? Is he dead then? Or her?"

" She's dead, but he's livin' " the woman was re-
luctant to place on exhibition another part of the family
skeleton. But the curiosity of Mrs. Roth was as a
ravenous beast and hard to be appeased.

" Then if he's living why is his girl here only on a

" No, she come to stay."

"Oh," cried Sarah, "let me tell her. Don't try to
keep it a secret on my account." Poor, innocent child
had no knowledge of the workings of small-town gossips
or the sharp tools of their trade.

" Well," said Aunt Mary hesitatingly, " I guess abody
might as good tell it for it will come out anyhow soon.
Jerry he he done wrong and is in jail! "

" Jail ! You don't mean it ! " Mrs. Roth's eyes posi-
tively danced with amazement. What a rare bit of gos-
sip she was unearthing that day ! " Jail, that's just where
I thought he'd wind up! My, my, how hard for your
pop and you girls to have such a disgrace. It must be
awful to know your brother is in a place like that!
That's one thing I can say about my family, there ain't
been a real bad one in that I remember."

" Oh, tell that to the Marines," said the girl, tossing
her head. " I guess every tree has some rotten branches.
But I'll tell you, Mrs. Roth, my father isn't real bad.
He made money by counterfeiting and is paying for it all
right more than lots of people pay for the money they


make dishonestly. There's lots worse than my poor fa-
ther floating around loose."

Mrs. Roth looked at the girl, aghast. Her glib tongue
failed her unaccountably for a moment. What manner
of girl was this ? So bold, strange in speech, disrespect-
ful of her elders and betters but what else could be ex-
pected of a daughter of young Jerry Burkhart !

" Poor Mary," she sighed, " you have my sympathy.
It's bad enough to have a brother in jail but to have to
be afflicted with his girl my, my ! But mebbe it's good
for her you got her in time, then you can reform her."

" Oh, no," interrupted Sarah, determined to shock the
busybody further. " I have been reformed ! I spent the
last six years in a reformatory in New Jersey, so you see
I am all right now."

" A reformatory ! Six years ! " What an orgy of
gossip-dispensing was in store for Mrs. Roth ! " My, my,
what a cross for you good people ! It wonders me some-
times why you got such troubles when you are all such
good people. If there is anything I can do to help you
don't mind letting me know. Me and Dan are only too
glad to help the neighbors in trouble." Then she looked
at Sarah as though the girl were some hitherto undis-
covered specie of utter depravity. It might have been
the first time she was privileged with a close look into the
face of a girl who was not only the daughter of a jail-
bird, but the recent inmate of a reformatory. She ap-
peared to suspect that the girl would poke out a mocking
tongue or screw up her face in derision of her betters,
but Sarah looked at her and smiled a cryptic smile that
left the gossip wondering what it meant, as the thou-
sands who look at Mona Lisa each year are wondering
whence and why that smile.


" Well, I must hurry home, I got work to do," and the
neighbor took her leave, thrilling with importance, for
she carried in her brain the details of the star gossip
scoop of years.

But the work was evidently not in her own home. If
Mary or Sarah had been in the parlor fifteen minutes
later they would have seen Mrs. Roth hurrying up the
street. She meant to call at five or six stores, the post-
office, the bank, the dressmaker's, the cobbler shop and at
the homes of several close friends and casually mention
the news Jeremiah Burkhart was in jail for counter-
feiting and his daughter, about eighteen, was in Fairview
with his people and going to stay. She had been in a
reformatory for six years it was very important to add
that, for of all the wayward youths of Fairview none
ever set foot in a reformatory. Some had gotten into
scrapes but if it had concerned money their parents had
paid the damages and the youths were left free. Not
one, of all the long list of boys and girls born and reared
in Fairview, had ever been bad enough to be confined in
a place like the one in which Sarah had spent six years.
Six years that proved how very, very bad she must have
been ! " No wonder she was a bold, brazen thing, talk-
ing so to me," was the thought of Mrs. Roth as she
hurried to the home of a friend.

" I tell you," she confided to the friend, " it means that
we keep our young people away from her. She'll spoil
them all. I remember having the teacher in Sunday
school tell us once about a man who had a whole barrel
of good apples and put a rotten one in with them to see
if the good ones would make the rotten one all right.
But of course, the one rotten one spoiled the whole barrel
of good ones! I won't have my Dan running around


with any girl like Sarah Burkhart. Even if she is related
to that nice family, she must know lots of bad things our
girls and boys don't dream of, and we don't want to have
them spoiled by her."

After Mrs. Roth left Aunt Mary sighed.

" What's the trouble? " asked Sarah. " Don't you like
her, either ? "

" What why " The girl's insight was uncanny.

" I was just thinkin' that she talks too much."

" Yes," agreed Aunt Sybilla who had been told about
the early morning visitor. " I guess she does. She'll be
goin' up town soon to tell the news."

Sarah laughed. " Walking newspaper, like lots of
women ! But I wrote a poem once about too much talk-
ing. I'll recite it to you.

" The owl looks wise and never says a word,
So folks pronounce it a wise old bird.
If we talked less while going to and fro
No one could tell how little 'tis we know ! "

" Now, that ain't no lie ! " declared Aunt Sybilla.
" Abody does talk too much ! "

So Sarah returned to the home of her father, the home
where she had dreamed of a welcome; happy times like
parties, Christmas trees, Easter nests, jolly visitors. Poor
little girl, whose only recollection of a home was the en-
graving of the squalid hovels in Red Rose Court ! How
long until her hopes be materialized, her vaporous rain-
bows be crystallized into reality ?

The girl, quick to detect hostility or suspicion, made
wise by long contact with trouble and misfortune, was
not slow in finding the true state of mind concerning her.


The double stigma branded her above all hope of re-
demption or fitness for friendship with the correct young
people of Fairview. So thought many of the good peo-
ple of that little town, people who religiously paid tithe in
anise and mint but omitted the weightier matters of char-
ity and forbearing and understanding. It was the same
old story of intolerant, narrow human nature. Wasn't
it too great a risk to take into their homes a girl like
Sarah, and invite contamination for the girls who had
been so carefully taught and guarded from all evil!
That was the natural attitude of every mother and is not
without justification. Of course the newcomer was en-
titled to any help they could give her the missionary
spirit was alive in the little town. She came in for the
same consideration as the heathens in Zanzibar or the
cannibals of the ocean isles. But when it came to loving
her, associating with her, taking her into the intimacy of
their fine homes she was without the pale. The first
Saturday no less than six persons called at the Burkhart
house and offered to take Sarah to Sunday school if she
cared to go. But she saw through the ruse and shocked
them by saying she didn't think she wanted to go, she
had to go to church every Sunday in New Jersey and
she thought a change would be pleasant. At any rate,
she had joined the Episcopal Church over in Jersey and
if she wanted to go to any service she could go alone, for
that church stood just around the corner from her house.

Her apparent lack of interest in church matters did
not tend to lessen the prejudice against her. She was
spoken of as a little heathen, probably one of the infidels
who have no thought about their souls.

But Aunt Sybilla settled for Sarah the matter of
church attendance. The first Sunday was a typical Lan-


caster County spring day, with robins caroling, sunshine
spilling gold over the great outdoors, soft winds laden
with perfumes like the scents of Araby. It was a day
that called, invited, lured responsive hearts away from
walls and roofs. Sarah heard its call. Such a day she
loved, but how minor the portions of enjoyment if it had
to be spent indoors.

When Aunt Sybilla asked at breakfast, " Sarah, is it
true what you told Mrs. Roth and them other ladies what
came to ask you go along to church, that you are a

" Yes. I was confirmed two years ago in the little
church at the foot of Sunset Mountain."

" Well, then I guess you want to go to that church.
But anyhow, you got to go somewheres every Sunday.
Long as you live in our house you keep the Sabbath
right. You dare go to your own or whenever you want a
simple service that mebbe might do you more good than
all that funny Tiscopal foolin' with gettin' up and down
all the time, then you come along with us to Mennonite

" I'll go with you this morning," she decided, not so
much in the hope of enjoying or profiting by a simple
service as with the youthful desire to find something

" I'm glad," said the aunt, " for in this house every-
body goes to church anyhow once on Sunday unless
they're sick or something."

" Well, I generally have a weak spell every Sunday,"
said the girl roguishly, but her aunt failed to see the
humor of it. There was not one spark of Irish in Aunt
Sybilla, that was plain !

" What for dumb talk is that ? " she asked, frowning.


" We don't make fun at church goin' ! Get yourself
ready soon so we can start early, Sarah. We don't get
late to church, we don't ! "

The girl's interest in new things was fully alive that
Sunday morning as she sat in the Mennonite Meeting
House with her new-found family. What a strange place
it was, in her opinion ! Bare, white walls, no musical
instrument, no cushioned seats or carpeted aisles ! It
brought her a curious sense of peace. Through the wide
open windows came the sound of singing robins, the
twitter of busy sparrows, and occasionally the sweet call
of a song sparrow as it swayed on a branch within sight
of the girl. As the service progressed the girl's feeling
of peace deepened. How wonderful it must be to go
through life with the calm serenity of the white-capped
women, but the disturbing thought intruded were not
the lives of the plain women sometimes at variance with
the very calmness they sought to express by their plain
clothes? Did not storms rage, passions trouble, sorrows
burden the hearts under the plain dresses? Ah, life was
such a riddle, thought the child who had seen so many
of its worst aspects.

Once as she looked at her grandfather her heart
thrilled. How strong he appeared, how like a prophet,
a veritable Jeremiah! And he was hers, a part of her
family, her ancestor of whom she might boast as she had
read people sometimes did! A man like that to be the
father of a a she could not think the word in the quiet
Mennonite Church! In that same place her father had
sat and swung his legs impatiently at the tediousness of
the preachers, now he languished behind barred windows
and heavy doors. What was wrong, whose the fault ?

Some idea of what it cost her grandfather to sit there


calmly under the gaze of pitying friends who must be
thinking of the son, came to her. Poor grandfather, for
the first time she began to see that perhaps he had done
his duty as he saw it, that his heart must ache for the
erring boy. He looked sadder than upon that first day
when she had surprised him by announcing her relation-
ship to him. " Poor grandfather, I am going to try hard
to like him and please him. Guess this business of havin'
a son wander off hasn't been a very happy one for him,
either. These are my people and it seems to be my duty
to adapt myself to their ways so far as I can ever do
that, if I want to stay with them. After all, it's hard
luck to have a girl drop from the skies and say, ' I'm
your granddaughter, so take care of me and love me.' I
did have a nerve ! But I'm here and goin' to stay for a
while and get acquainted."

The coming of the new member of the family did not
disturb the household to any visible extent. Old Jere-
miah went to his hardware store as usual, cane in hand,
face set and solemn. Sybilla capably managed the af-
fairs of the home, worked in the garden and house, while
Mary was content to do the tasks the elder sister left to
her and Sarah fitted in at so many places that she won-
dered, after a few weeks, how they ever got along with-
out her. Her willing hands could relieve the women of
many tasks and earned for her the first praise of Aunt
Sybilla, " You're real handy. They had some sense up
there where you lived, for they learned you to cook and
work and be of some use."

" I'm glad I can help you, then I shall feel less like a

"What's that?"

" Things that live off others."


*.. a

" Um, well, there's plenty of them around without you
bein' one yet ! "

Her commendation was sweet to the girl and gave her
courage to ask a question she had longed to ask during
the week and more of her stay in the new home " Aunt
Sybilla "

"Well, what?"

" Why, when will I learn to know some girls ? I see
some pass in the evenings, some nice-looking ones who I
think I'd like, but how am I going to get acquainted with

" Guess not at all unless they take it in their heads to
come and see you. But I don't believe they want to meet
you very bad, seein' how it's all around town that your
pop is in jail and you was in a place for bad girls for
six years." The bluntness of the words almost staggered
the girl, who knew so little of some of the ways of the

" You mean, you think, that because my father is where
he is I must be treated like a leper ? "

" Ach, don't talk so dumb! Like a leper! I guess if
you was that you'd find something else out ! "

" Well," cried the girl, her old childish temper mount-
ing, " I'd just as soon be one as to be treated like you
say ; everybody runs from me ! "

Some innate sympathy stirred in the woman as she
saw the distress on the face of the girl. It was too bad !
" Now," she said soothingly, " you wait a while, mebbe
some of the nice girls will come round. I guess they
ain't all afraid of you. You must act nice and show

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Online LibraryAnna Balmer MyersThe madonna of the curb → online text (page 10 of 22)