Anna Balmer Myers.

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man. His loan of books to me is just one of the many
kind ways he has of helping others. I do devour a book !
Sometimes when Aunt Sybilla calls me I don't hear her
if I am reading. She refuses to believe that, says it is
absolutely impossible not to hear her, but then she has
never read a book of fiction in her life. I read something
like this once upon a time, " If I had two loaves of bread
I'd sell one and buy white hyacinths for my soul." I
think that is the whole trouble with this family of mine.
There is too much bread and not enough white hyacinths.
But Aunt Mary could easily be won over to my way of
thinking ; she is after " me own heart."

I am kept rather busy. Sometimes I wonder how the
place ran before I came. Those poor aunts almost work
themselves to death and I know it is so unnecessary.
What's the use scrubbing a porch that is clean? Why
waste energy sweeping the garden walks? Why bake
stacks of pies and cakes when simpler food is more
wholesome? If they heard me I'd probably be called un-
grateful and critical, but then it's the truth. Not that I
mind working. I'm glad to do it so long as it's in my
own home. Even the scrubbing seems a glorified task
when I stop to think that it is the home of my ancestors
and my own long-lost home that I am helping to scrub.
Guess the girls that had to do it all their years aren't so
crazy about it !

I must tell you about Mrs. Roth. This morning she
came over. She said she was after a recipe for crullers
bet you she knew how to make them ! She had seen
the rector on our porch last evening and probably had a
mental fit about it. If it had been her Dan she'd fetched
him home by the ear! Dan tries so hard to be nice to
me and if he weren't worse than an uncoated quinine pill



210 THE MADONNA OF THE CURB

to swallow, I'd let him run over here and take me for
sodas just to pay her back for some of the gossip she
spread about me. But even the sweetness of that re-
venge would not pay for the ordeal of having Dan
around me.

Mrs. Roth managed to bring the conversation round to
the rector and I saw the crafty gleam of satisfaction steal
across her face as she said, " I suppose you have heard
that Reverend Snavely has a habit of making girls care
for him and then toss them over for a new face. Isn't it
too bad! They say that where he went to school there
were two who were positively crazy over him, that one
girl had her trousseau started, thinking he meant business
by his love-making and that ever so many others were
dead in love with him, but he made fools of them all. If
he ever tries it on any of the girls at St. Paul's he'll be
asked to resign, but I guess he knows better than to do it.
I often say it's a pity those attractive, magnetic men al-
ways do such tricks. Thank goodness my Dan would
never do that ! "

Her Dan I never heard her speak that she didn't
thank God her Dan was so honorable. But he's not dead
yet. She may be living in a glass house some of these
days and her bricks will do damage to her own building.

I am sorry she said that about the rector, for I like him.
Of course she wouldn't dare say a lie about him. But
then why should I concern myself about his affairs ? He
is kind to me and entertaining when he jumps across the
hedge and no matter how many hearts he has broken he
hasn't the ghost of a chance to break mine. So much for
the rector!

Grandfather is keeping me on at the store. I'm to get
more money next month. Aunt Sybilla is teaching me to



LETTERS 211

save something for a rainy day, for she says it comes to
everybody and I shall be prepared for it.

They are so good to me. I earn my board, so they say,
by helping with the work after the store closes and Satur-
day and so the money I earn is mine to spend for clothes
and put to bank. It seems too funny to have a pocket-
book with money in it ! After six years without a blessed
penny to spend I have money of my own and can buy
candy or a magazine or something else entirely unneces-
sary. I feel like Croesus.

I am counting the months until we can be together.
Have you any plans ? Shall we live in New Jersey or in
your own Lancaster County? I can work and keep a
home for you. Do you know you and I have never had a
real one together since I can remember that's the sad-
dest thing ! I shove it from my thoughts as far as I can
but sometimes it comes back like a cat you cart away and
gets home before you do. Never mind, father, we'll
make up for the precious time we lost together. I am
sorry you are not feeling better but hope you are much
improved by this time.

I just thought of Johnny Maloney, the time his father
died and the priest came to Red Rose Court to see them.
Johnny as usual had a terribly dirty face and his mother
rubbed her apron over it to get off the top layer. Johnny
yelled and said, " I don't care who's here ! I won't have
my face washed with spit ! " The priest laughed like
anything, for he was Irish too. Hope you feel better
now. I always do after I send you a letter. But when
we are together again and there'll be no need of letters
then Sarah Burkhart will be the happiest girl in seven
states! With love,

SADE.



212 THE MADONNA OF THE CURB

Away in New Jersey the man who read the last letter
closed his eyes as if to shut out a cruel agony; his thin
body shook in a spasm of pain as he lay back on his pil-
lows, white and worn. He was dying of the White
Plague! Haunting memories and torturing remorse
gripped his soul.

" I can't die without seeing her ! " he said at length to
himself. " I must write to her. The poor child it will
be a sorrow for her, but youth recovers quickly and then
I'm thinking dying will be the best thing I've done in
many years." A little later he called a nurse and asked
for writing materials. Then he began a letter, not to
Sarah, but to the father whose face he had not seen in
many years.

DEAR FATHER:

I scarcely know whether I have the right to call
you that or if you wish me to do so, but we can't get
away from the fact that you are my father, no matter
how I have disgraced the name you gave me. And I
have done that. Sarah can tell you more than you want
to know about me. I shudder when I think of what the
child was exposed to during those years in the slums
how can I expect to be forgiven ? But what I am writing
about is this I am out of jail, pardoned and in a hospital
to die ! I decided not to tell the poor child, to let her
be happy and go on dreaming of our little home, but
somehow I can't do it. Consumption has me in its
clutches and the doctors say I have just a little while
longer to live. Sarah has written such sweet letters to
me if you knew what they mean to me ! To have kept
her love and devotion through all my sins is more than I
could have hoped for and yet, if there be any spark of



LETTERS 213

repentance in me, any of the good lights my mother kin-
dled in my heart, their survival is due to the great pure
heart of Sarah, who has in her make-up all that is noble
and fine of my mother and her own. I can't do less than
tell her the truth so that the shock of my death will not
be too sudden. I'd like to live just for her sake, that the
little home she had dreamed of might be real, but it can't
be. She has written to me about the old home, how
wonderful it seems to her, how kind you are to her. Oh,
father, don't be too hard on her, too strict ! She is young
and the ways of youth are changed from the time when
you were young. Don't be too strict ! I can't blame my
wasted life on you. It was my fault, and mine alone, for
I was always weak of will and did not try to grow strong.
So long as my wife lived and I had her to lean on I was
all right, but when trouble came my way I tottered. That
is my fault, I admit it. But, father, I do say you were
wrong in turning against me because I married the girl I
did. I want to say I was never sorry for one minute
that I married her. That's the one thing J do not re-
gret. She was as good and fine as ever walked this old
world. But I am ashamed I brought disgrace on you and
Sarah, her child and mine. I know how you always up-
held your honor, how you wanted, above all else, to keep
the Burkhart name free from shame. I am sorry I failed
you there. I ask your forgiveness for all the sorrow I
have caused you, not for marrying the girl I did, but for
the sins I committed after she died. My last favor I ask
from you may I come home to die ? Will you deny me
that? I thought this morning of the roses that used to
grow by the kitchen door, against the porch rail, and
scent the whole place in June. Each morning as I ran
down for breakfast and the open door let in the sunlight



THE MADONNA OF THE CURB

I smelled the roses first thing. I never seem to have got-
ten that smell out of my nostrils. Father, I want to see
the old place once more. The gardens, the flower-beds
with the swept, weeded earthen walks between, the old
trees I used to climb, and the house oh, how I have
longed to wander through it! Even the parlor with its
haircloth sofa and the plush album on the marble-top
table would look fine to me. And the girls and you
there is something binds us to our own no matter how far
we roam or how little we deserve the kindness. But the
roses call me most these June days. I think if I could
bury my face in them I'd die happier. Somehow they
make me feel again more like the innocent boy who used
to think his father, though strict, was the best father in
all the wide world. We have both wandered far from
those old days of confidence and love but I am hoping we
can have a few before I go. If you can find it possible
to forgive me and let me come home I can't write what
it will mean to me. If not, then send Sarah to me that I

may see her once more.

Your son,

JERRY.



CHAPTER XIII

THE PRODIGAL

JEREMIAH BURKHART looked long at the letter of his
son. So the boy was dying dying, and he asked for-
giveness and the privilege of dying at home. Memory
unveiled pictures of the little lad, the first born of the
home. Once the boy had disobeyed and received merited
punishment and the father had never forgotten the child's
frank confession, " Pop, there's something in me that
says I'm to be bad and there's another something that
tells me to be good. How am I going to make the good
one talk loudest ? " Was that an early evidence of the
weakness of the boy? Had they helped the good to
" talk loudest " ? How the mother had rejoiced when the
first child was a boy and how proudly she had named him
Jeremiah! Little pictures of those happy days came
back to the old man like flecks of light upon a darkened
way the first school bag with its mysteries of pencils,
books and so forth; the first money earned in the store
and proudly spent for an aluminum saucepan for mother ;
the shouts of joy at the first ice skates brought from the
store as a reward for faithful shoveling of snow ; the first
long trousers and the teasing of Mary and Sybilla as the
abashed boy blushed and tried to look important ; the first
days of his absence from the old home while he' pursued
knowledge in the big city the stormy scene when the
discovery of that dreadful woman blighted the beauty of
their serene, harmonious lives. How the gentle mother



216 THE MADONNA OF THE CURB

had clung to her boy even in the midst of his disgrace,
how she trammeled her own hurts in the dust and thought
only of him and how to assuage the pain in the hearts of
the others who shared the burden of shame! She had
tried to soften the father's heart, to make him see that all
was not lost, that perhaps, after all, the woman Jerry
loved would be so much better than they feared, that she
might be redeemed and be worthy of acceptance in the
home of the Burkhart family. Had it been a mistake to
attempt supervision, control, over the young man? Had
they been too quick to condemn? For the first time in
the years of estrangement Jeremiah, senior, felt a doubt
as to the wisdom of his method of dealing with the boy.
Might it be possible that if the boy had had his old home
to turn to for refuge in his great sorrow he might have
been brought into the fold once more and lived a useful,
commendable life among his own people?

Brought face to face with doubt and sensing the truth
that he had so long hidden from his own soul the old man,
rigorous in his worship and unshakable in his duty as he
saw it delineated, suddenly bowed his head and pondered
over the years that were gone. That hour he examined
his soul, his actions, his words to the erring son, as mi-
nutely and unflinchingly as the student with a microscope
in search of life-destroying elements. When he raised
his face there were new lines graven upon it. After a
moment he rose, walked to the stairs and looked up, a
purpose deepening in his heart.

The letter in hand, he mounted the steps in his slow
way and tapped on Sarah's door.

" Come in," she called.

As the door was opened and her grandfather stood
there she gasped. What had happened? He had never



THE PRODIGAL 217

before sought her there. What was in the wind, what
meant that new look upon his face ?

"Anything wrong ? " she asked, noting the letter in his
hand.

The man's gaze was fixed on the two pictures on her
bureau, the ones she had found that day in the attic and
taken without leave.

" Where'd you get them ? " he asked.

She faced him with the rigidity of a mother tigress at
bay. Her face flamed with the pent-up pain of her heart
for her father. " They are mine ! " she cried. " I found
them on the attic where you had put them when there was
no room for them among the rest of the family pictures
in the plush album in the parlor. I found them and took
them so they might be in the sight of the only person in
this world who loves him my father's daughter! You
needn't try to make me hide them, or stop loving him!
I'll love my father no matter what he has done. He is
my father still, and he loved my lovely Irish mother even
if you didn't, and he made her happy and no matter how
good you are to me I'd give everything up just to see him
happy again."

She ended pantingly, on the verge of tears.

" Sarah " The man's voice trembled and it was

so unusual that it compelled the attention of the girl.

" What's the matter ? " she asked, scenting some alarm
in the manner of the old man.

" Read this letter."

He watched her as she read. When the import of the
writing reached her she turned and looked at him.
" Oh," she cried, " my poor father ! Dying really dy-
ing! Never to have that little home we planned to enjoy
when he was free ! Never to have happiness to make up



218 THE MADONNA OF THE (CURS

for these horrible years! To die without " The

pathos of it overwhelmed her and she flung herself on a
chair, hid her head upon her arms and wept.

" Now, now," she felt the hand of the old man laid
upon her hair. " You mustn't cry that way, Sarah
don't cry " emotion caused his own voice to quaver
" don't cry, now. You and me will go and fetch him
home."

At that she raised her tear-smeared face. There was
gladness in her voice despite the sorrow. " You'll let him
come home ? "

" It's where he belongs. I been a hard old man, a
hard old man! What you said to me Easter made me
think but I wouldn't do it to listen to you right. Now I
wish I had. I guess I never learned what the word for-
give means. Mebbe I need to ask your pop what he's
askin' me in the letter to forgive."

The girl flung her arms around the neck of the man
and their tears mingled. Such demonstrations of feeling
were foreign to him but he met them effectually. Some
part of his starved, cold heart must have been awakened
by the girl's caress. He held her close to him and whis-
pered, " You're a blessin' sent from God." Then he
kissed her.

" Grandpap," she said tremulously, " if my father
weren't dying I'd be as happy as seven heavens could
make me ! It's the first time you ever kissed me and the
first time I feel you like me. You do like me a little,
even if I had an Irish mother ? " she asked.

" Sarah, don't say that ! I wish I had known your
mom. I'd like to have known the woman that could take
my boy from his home and have him be so satisfied with
just her that after all he went through since then he can



THE PRODIGAL 219

still say he is glad he married her. I guess she must
have been better than I knew* If abody can judge from
you any your mom must have been all right."

" Grandpap," smiles and tears mingled in the face of
the girl, " I'll love you all the rest of my life for that
speech! I'm glad I'm half Irish but I'm proud to-day
that the other half of me is Pennsylvania Dutch. That
keeps the Irish anchored to the earth and, I hope, fur-
nishes me with a little sense. Then father will be coming
home, back to the old home he never forgot or ceased to
want you'll bring him back ? "

" We'll fetch him, you and me."

Several days later the Burkhart house in Fairview
sheltered another member of the family, the prodigal who
had come home to die. The meeting between father and
son, who had not met in twenty years, was pathetic. The
elder man, thoroughly eager to become reconciled, seeing
his former blindness and injustice and repentant concern-
ing them, stood aghast before the son. Emaciated, with
the marks of his relentless disease upon him, the younger
man rose to meet the father he had so sorely grieved.
Like the prodigal of yore he humbled himself but was
quickly drawn into the arms of the parent.

Sarah's eyes filled with tears as she saw the reunion of
the two men who had come to mean so much in her life.
Some intuition of her sex made her see how unhappy the
life of the grandfather must have been through the years
of estrangement, how deeply the repentance ploughed
into his heart. Old Jeremiah did nothing by half meas-
ures. He gathered his son to his bosom as a mother
might have done.

" Father," she said after the misunderstandings were
swept away, "you don't look as sick as I feared you



220 THE MADONNA OF THE CURB

would. I know after you get home and have that good
Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and your own people to care
for you you will feel much better ! "

The father smiled at the delusion. She would know
soon enough, poor child!

It was June when the three returned to Fairview. The
old-fashioned roses were blooming by the kitchen door.
Sarah brought to the sick man, propped in a chair on the
balcony, great armfuls of the pink blossoms. Aunt Mary
sat long hours by the side of the returned brother, trying
to fill the gap of years, telling him bits of news of old
school friends and acquaintances, bringing back to him
some of the rosy dreams of his boyhood. Aunt Sybilla
seldom sat on the balcony ; she was less willing to accept
the long estranged brother as one of the family. Of
course she knew that it was perfectly right, Christian and
only decent, to take him back after he expressed a desire
to die in the old home, but she was merely paying him
stereotyped kindness. She cooked dishes nourishing and
palatable for him that was her duty, but she did not
feign a welcome she did not feel. In the man's hours of
utter desolation and crushing unhappiness he never had
any consolation from the stern, uncompromising Sybilla.
She had not yet learned to include in her vocabulary the
magnificent word forgive. She accepted his presence as
a last addition to the burden he had laid upon them by his
wil fulness. Sarah marveled at her. How could the
woman remain so steely when the angel of death was
hovering over the home? But the girl had ample cause
for joy in the miracle she beheld each time she looked
into the face of her grandfather. He was no longer
stern, cold, critical. The softening influence of the rec-
onciliation with his son changed his very countenance.



THE PRODIGAL 221

Fairview fairly tingled with the new subject for its
backyard-conversation-exchange, its parlor confidences
and store-news-dispensaries.

Young Jeremiah Burkhart was home to die! The
news was sent around in record time. Mrs. Roth ran
across the street immediately to offer her help and bring
some lamb broth. She was so thankful there was no
criminal in her family that she felt like doing some
real acts of charity to show her appreciation and grati-
tude.

The rector came across the hedge one evening and
Sarah mentally blessed him for his natural, friendly
greeting to her father.

" Father is anxious to meet you, Reverend Snavely. I
have told him all about you."

"All that's not fair! You should have allowed him
to draw his own conclusions instead of telling what a
paragon I am."

" There, that sounds Irish ! " she exclaimed. " I bet
you are part Irish."

They laughed, as people under high tension are glad to
laugh at trifles. The rector shook hands with the man
and sat down. A soft summer breeze, invigorating and
health-renewing, blew across the lawn, but the pallid
cheeks of the man, with their hectic daub of crimson,
presaged the advent of the Unbidden Guest. The rec-
tor's heart swelled with pity at the sight, the face was so
strikingly emblematic of the man's life wasted ! That a
human life could be so squandered

Sarah's voice recalled him and the Reverend Snavely
turned to the ex-convict. A new regard for her neighbor
sprang to the girl's heart as she saw how friendly and en-
tertaining he could be to the wrecked, wretched man on



222 THE MADONNA OF THE CURB

the balcony. She did not go beyond that he was a man
one could admire and like.

After the rector left the sick man lay pondering. So
Jimmie Snavely had grown into a fine man like that ! A
preacher and attractive what an ideal mate for Sarah.
Then he groaned. Would ever a preacher want to marry
the daughter of a convict? His heart contracted with a
new pain as he realized anew how hardly is it possible for
the sower of the whirlwind to reap the whirlwind alone.
Others, innocent, must share in the harvest of tears and
regrets.

In the days that followed Sarah clung to her father like
a shadow. Her grandfather had insisted she leave the
work at the store to others and devote her time to the
man who was so surely dying. At first she hoped against
hope, -but gradually she realized that for the man who
had paid the penalty of the law for his crime there was
being exacted another, greater penalty. Life was slip-
ping away from him like sand through the fingers of a
child.

Many afternoons the old man also left the busy store
and sat with the little company on the balcony. The girl
sensed how strong was the renewed affection between the
two men. Over and over she had them tell her about the
dear grandmother who had been so like gentle Aunt
Mary. Over and over tales of the man's boyhood were
told for her enjoyment. And more, the grandfather en-
couraged the younger man to tell of those wonderful days
when the Irish mother of Sarah had brightened his life.
When old Jeremiah Burkhart could sit and hear the ac-
tress daughter-in-law extolled and shake his head approv-
ingly some radical change had surely been effected in
him. A mellow tenderness touched the face of old Jere-



THE PRODIGAL 223

miah those days, as the rugged lines softened under the
communion with his son.

The days, for all their lovely June sounds and sights,
were chimerical to the people who waited while one of
their flock drifted into the valley of the shadow. What
hope was in the heart of the man as he neared the disso-
lution of body and spirit? Once the father asked him
whether he would like to see a Mennonite preacher, but
the ill man smiled and said no, he was all right. Only
the Reverend Snavely, a frequent visitor to the balcony,
could have told what transpired in the heart of the dying
man those last days.

The end came in July. The heat of the little town sent
the man gasping. He lay inertly on his pillows. Sarah,
hovering about him as a mother round a child, caught his
whispered desire to have her come closer. She bent over
him and he told her, " Sarah, you don't have to be told,
but I want to tell you, it doesn't pay to do wrong. What
if God forgives, there is still the bitter remorse to drive
one almost insane. It bites into me when I think of what
might have been what might have been ! "

" But, father, you know, haven't you read, ' Though
your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow ' ? "

" Yes, yes, I know ! But the scarlet remains in your
memory. It's hard to forget the wasted years. Sarah,
you should be glad for me I am hoping that death for
me means going to her."

In Fairview attendance at funerals is considered a sol-


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Online LibraryAnna Balmer MyersThe madonna of the curb → online text (page 14 of 22)