Anna Balmer Myers.

The madonna of the curb online

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That devil of a stepmother'd twist his neck right off to
make up for what she didn't dare do to me. Guess I
wouldn't went no place he can't go. Say, this is some
climb. We goin' up there ? Gee, them steps reach clean
to heaven?"

She stopped at the foot of the hill where the lights
from the boys' cottages shone through the darkness and
threw gleams on a steep flight of mountain steps leading,
it seemed t into the heart of a dense woods.


" Up we go," said the man. " Miss Hughes is expect-
ing us. I 'phoned that we'd get out late."

"Who's she?"

" The matron of the girls' cottage. You'll like her."

" Huh, mebbe I will, mebbe I won't. Ain't everybody
I like I'm choicy."

The officer laughed at the child, but his eyes held mus-
ing tenderness as he looked into the face of the little girl
who had been placed in his care to be taken to Sunset
Mountain. He had taken many girls to the reformatory
but none quite like Sarah. She was an odd one, all right,
he told himself.

The numerous steps cut into the side of the hill ended
in a huge bank where a wide road curved upward, mean-
dering to the summit in a circuitous manner. It termi-
nated in a wide plain where the great building known as
the girls' cottage stood outlined against the night.

" Cottage," said Sarah scornfully as the building
loomed before them, " some cottage ! "

The twenty-five girls of the reformatory were sleeping
when the bell jingled and Miss Hughes went to the door
to admit the new girl.

" Good-evening, Miss Hughes," the man greeted the
white-haired woman who opened the big door. " I've
brought you a new girl, Sarah Burkhart, and she wouldn't
move without that dog so the judge said let her bring it
for you might be glad to have it, long as you got so much
grounds round the place. Looks like the makings of a
fine collie. Sarah, this is Miss Hughes. You be a good
girl and do what Miss Hughes tells you and you'll have a
fine home here."

Sarah looked very white and thin as she stood beside
the tall officer on the wide piazza, but the moonlight shone


on her and softened her unkempt little figure. She
looked up at Miss Hughes and a ray of light played upon
her and revealed more plainly the narrow face and the
questioning gray eyes.

As the child neither smiled nor spoke, but looked up
steadily at Miss Hughes, the man asked half sternly,
"Can't you talk?"

" Yep, when I got somethin' to say."

The man laughed. " Here, Miss Hughes, take her in,
you're welcome to her ! "

Miss Hughes drew the girl into the wide hall and after
the door had closed upon the officer she turned to Sarah
and looked at her under the revealing electric light.

" Well, Sarah, why have you been sent here ? " she
asked kindly.

" Um, guess 'cause I got nowheres else to go. Ma
squealed on pa for makin' money with machines and the
cop said he'll be in jail for long. There's nobody wants
me and they said down to City Hall that the place for me
is here and if I behave I'll have a good home and be kept
from goin' bad. So they sent me and the dog up."

Miss Hughes smiled sympathetically. " You'll be
happy here, Sarah," she said.

" Humph, mebbe so. If you let me keep my dog I'll
try it for a while."

" We'll keep him. What's his name ? "

" Ain't named him yet."

" What is in the grip ? " She pointed to the shabby
brown bag.

" Jest some clothes, but they ain't much good. Guess
they're lousy, for Red Rose Court is the darndest place
for crawlers."

Miss Hughes suppressed a smile as she replied, " We'll


burn them. You won't need your old clothes here, for
you must wear blue dresses like the other girls."

" Gee, I'm glad. I ain't had a new dress in a coon's

" Now come with me," Miss Hughes directed and led
the way to the laundry. " We'll put the dog to bed in a
box here. Then I'll examine your hair and comb it and
you'll take a bath and go to bed."

" Gee, this is excitin' ! " the child exclaimed as she laid
the puppy into his new bed. " Close them eyes, puppy,
and go to sleep," Sarah said with all the tenderness of her
big heart. Miss Hughes marveled at the sudden richness
of the voice, the quick transition from half mockery to
gentle interest and sincerity.

" Good-night, puppy," she whispered again as the door
closed. Then she turned to the matron and said imp-
ishly, " Now you want to catch me crawlers, don't

Miss Hughes looked down at the little figure and a
smile spread upon her face.

" I am going to comb your hair," she said kindly.

" You comb every kid's hair that comes up here ? "

" Yes, I do."

" And you never keep no bugs here ? "

" No, indeed."

" Gee, this must be a swell place to live ! "

" It is. But come, child, it is time you were in bed."

Miss Hughes led her to the bathroom on the second
floor and when Sarah found herself in the spotless room
with its glistening white tub and tile floor she looked
about in frank wonder.

" Do I take a wash in here ? " she asked, a perplexed
frown on her face.


" Yes."

" But won't it get dirty and spoiled? "

Again the matron smiled. " No, child, this is a bath-
room. Have you never been in a bathtub ? "

" No, but I seen 'em lots o' times in the windows. At
home I used to wash in an old tin basin, when I did
wash. But I had to wash real often winters when I went
to school for the teachers raise hell if you come too dirty
them teachers is fussy things."

Miss Hughes ignored the comment on the teachers.
" Sit here," she told Sarah and drew a small white chair
from against the wall.

The child submitted quietly to the combing of her thick
black hair. After a careful search among the tresses
Sarah suddenly burst into laughter.

" Find any crawlers ? " she asked.

" No. I thought you said "

" I was jest foolin' to scare you. I ain't got no bugs.
Did it scare you ? "

" Not at all." Miss Hughes repressed a strong desire
to shake the child. " I should have combed your hair
just the same. It is a rule of the institution to examine
the hair of every new girl. Now I'll show you how to fix
your bath and then you'll be ready for bed."

" You goin' to stand and watch me take a wash ? "

" No. I'll wait for you across the hall. When you are
bathed slip into this nightgown and call me. I'll take you
to the room where you'll sleep to-night."

Later came the child's voice in a cheery, " I'm ready,"
and Miss Hughes found the new girl rosy from a vigor-
ous application of water and a towel. " That white swim-
min' pool's bully! Can I go in again sometime if I


" You take a bath twice a week."

" Gee, I won't have no hide left on me, with that much
scrubbin' ! You must act like rich folks here ! "

" Child, how do you wear your gown? " Miss Hughes
asked. The girl, unacquainted with the manner of night-
gown fastening, had put it on as though it were a dress
and buttoned it down the back !

" Ain't it right ? I never had none on before."

" It should button down the front."

" Well, ain't that the limit ! But I'll keep it on this
way for luck."

Miss Hughes led the new girl to a little room furnished
with a bureau, chair and a single white bed, immaculate
with snowy spread.

" You may sleep here to-night. To-morrow we'll give
you a bed in the dormitory with the other little girls.
You won't be afraid in here alone ? I'll be just across the

" Me afraid ? I ain't afraid of nobody nor nothin' but
snakes ! "

Once more the matron smiled at the strange originality
of the child, but Sarah, not noticing the amused smile,
went on talking.

" I seen beds like this a'ready," she said proudly. " I
like clean white things."

Miss Hughes turned back the counterpane. " Now,
Sarah, kneel and say your prayers."

" Don't know none oh, yes, I do too," she added
quickly. " Here goes ! "

She knelt down, a ridiculous little figure in her white
nightgown buttoned down the back and her dark hair
streaming over her thin shoulders. Then she prayed
aloud :


" Now I lay me down to sleep,
I hope the bugs will quiet keep,
For if they bite and make me wake,
The coodles out o' them I'll shake !
God bless my pa and my dog. Amen."

She rose from her knees and looked at Miss Hughes.
There was not the slightest hint of a smile about her large
mouth or in her gray eyes as she looked innocently into
the face of the matron.

" Did you like my prayer ? " she asked meekly.

" The last line was very beautiful," Miss Hughes said
quietly. " You should pray for your father every night."

" Will that help him how'll he know about it ? " came
the skeptical reply. " Mrs. Maloney, down to Red Rose
Court, where I used to live, prayed her man'd get well
and he died, and she prayed her baby would get strong
and it died looks to me like this prayin' stuff don't help
much. Guess it's all bluff. The Catholics go to mass
and pray on a rosary and the Jews go to synagogue and
they pray and the 'Piscopals put on things like a China-
man wears, I mean those that sing do, and I guess they
pray when they sing so a person can't understand what
they sing, and I don't see what good any of it does. You
got to show me. How can it help my pa when he's in
jail ? I don't see, do you ? "

" Yes, I can see. Some day I'll try to make you under-
stand. In the meantime take my word for it it does
help. Now creep into bed and sleep. Good-night."

" Good-night," answered the child as she slipped under
the covers.

That night Miss Hughes thought long and hard about
the new girl. " I've a problem on my hands this time,"
she decided. " That girl requires careful handling.


What a strange mixture she is sharp and alert as a
money-lender, untrained and wild as the animals of the
plains, devoted anc} tender to the two objects of her affec-
tion: her father and her dog. There'll be trouble if I
lead her unwisely, she'll be all that is lovely and lovable if
I win her confidence and guide her skilfully."

The next morning when Sarah awoke the light was
streaming through her open window. She rubbed her
eyes and sat up in bed.

" Huh, I ain't dreamin' after all ! Gee, things is white
and clean round this joint! A fellow got to be afraid to
touch things. Looks like a horspital for it's cleaner than
any house I ever seen. Wonder what kind o' joint this
is. She that took me in last night ain't so bad, but it was
no use tryin' to get her goat for she's slick. Guess she
knows how us kids act. Good thing she likes dogs and
is lettin' me keep mine, or me and he'd be goin' down that
hill. Here, who's got the nerve to come into my room ? "
she asked crossly as the door opened and a tall girl en-

" You be careful how you speak to me," the intruder
answered, " I'm the monitress."

" So," Sarah said mockingly, " the monitress ? How
did you get that way born one ? "

" Oh, be sensible," the monitress advised, " or you'll get
into trouble first thing and get all the girls down on you.
I came to tell you to get up and dress. Here are your
clothes. You want to hurry now for we'll form line in
half an hour and go down to prayers."

" Prayers again ? I said some last night. Is this a
Sunday school ? "

" No, but we ain't heathens here. We have prayers
every morning and evening."


" Gee, the Lord's kept busy here, ain't he ? "

The monitress suddenly burst into laughter as Sarah
stepped out of bed.

" What you laughin' at? " demanded the little girl.

" You ! Don't you know how to wear a nightgown, you
goose ? "

Sarah faced the tall girl angrily. " Don't you call me
names ! " she cried, " I'll, I'll "

" What is the trouble ? " came the calm voice of Miss
Hughes as she entered the room opportunely. " Lettie,
what is wrong ? "

" I laughed at the way she put on her gown, Miss

" Well, well," said the matron soothingly, " we won't
begin the day like this. Lettie, get the other girls ready.
Sarah, can you comb your hair ? "

" Sure Mike, but mebbe not to suit. Say, that girl's
too darned fresh! She laughed at me. I could smash
her face ! "

" You mustn't be too quick to anger, child. There are
twenty-five girls here with you and you must learn to get
along with them without quarreling."

" Yeh where's my dog ? " she asked irrelevantly.
" May I see him now and play with him? "

"After breakfast."

Later on, when the new girl stood in line with the
twenty-five other inmates, she divided her attention be-
tween her new blue chambray dress and the many other
girls dressed in similar style. Leaning forward she whis-
pered to the girl next in line, " Say, don't youse all get
mixed up, wearin' the same kind o' dresses ? "

The other girl snickered and the monitress directed
sternly, " Sarah, no talking in line."


Sarah turned and looked at the monitress, puckered up
her face disdainfully, but the absolute order and quiet of
the others restrained her from retort. She marched si-
lently into the schoolroom, sat in the seat assigned to her
and listened to the prayers and hymns of the girls.

After breakfast the girls formed into line, then, at a
word from the monitress, disbanded and went to their
respective morning tasks. The oldest ones hurried to the
kitchen, others took up brooms and brushes and began to
clean and polish the wide halls, still others cleared the
tables and washed the dishes, and the little girls started
up the stairs to make beds.

" What shall Sarah do ? " asked Lettie as the new girl
stood in the hall and watched the others depart.

" She may go with Helen," said Miss Hughes, " and
learn to make beds. Sarah, go with this girl. She will
teach you to make beds properly. Every morning you
will help to do it in the dormitory. That will be your
share of work for the present."

But Sarah hung back. " You ain't fair ! " she said to
Miss Hughes. " You said I dared see my dog after
breakfast and now you ain't lettin' me. Gee, who wants
to make beds ! "

" Sarah," the matron answered very slowly, " you will
do just as I tell you. Every girl helps with the work of
the house and there is no play until that work is done.
When the beds are made you may see your dog and play
with him. Now go with Helen."

Sarah, unaccustomed to obey commands of others ex-
cept in school and then in a desultory manner, stood ir-
resolute for a moment. She looked up at Miss Hughes,
at the clear blue eyes gazing steadily down into hers she
turned and without a word started up the stairs.


Ten minutes later while Helen was instructing her in
the mysteries of correct bed-making, Sarah suddenly re-
pented her yielding to the matron's command and burst
out with a vehement, " She's a liar, that's what ! "

" Who ? Who are you talking about ? " asked Helen
and several other little girls in unison.

" Her, that lady in a white dress," elucidated Sarah.
" She said I could go to my dog after breakfast and now
she ain't lettin' me. I won't make no beds ! "

Her burst of anger was cut short by a storm from the
others. " Don't you dare talk like that about Miss
Hughes! If Lettie hears you you'll be put on punish-
ment. Why, Miss Hughes is dandy to us ! "

" You bet, she's awful nice ! " said another. " When I
came here I was bad and she had to put me in the Medi-
tation Room and when Lettie came to bring me my sup-
per I threw the cup at her and almost hit her. Then
Miss Hughes came up and she wasn't afraid, not even
when I held up the saucer and wanted to throw it at her.
I don't know what happened, but when Miss Hughes
looked at me the saucer just got heavy and all of a sudden
I couldn't throw it. I was ashamed of myself and I
never had to be put in that awful room again. You
don't want to get fresh around here and say such things
about Miss Hughes or all of us will hate you. She is nice
to us, but if you get too bad she has to punish you on the
Homestead and if you get awful bad she'll put you in that
Meditation Room."

"What's them?" asked Sarah, her aroused curiosity
superseding for the time her sense of injury.

" Why," Helen informed her, " if you get put on the
Homestead it means you stand in the hall with your face
turned to the wall and you stand that way until Miss


Hughes gives you permission to get off, sometimes an
hour, sometimes longer. And if you're getting punished
in the Meditation Room whew! that's awful! On the
third floor is a little room with just one window and
there's a bed, chair and nothing else in it. You get put
in, the door is locked and they leave you alone to medi-
tate. It's spooky quiet there, you can't even hear the
other girls, and it makes you creep and wish you'd be-
haved. See, you might as well be good, for you don't
gain anything by being bad."

" Humph," said Sarah slowly, " this is a funny place !
Don't know if I want to stay or not. I might run away."

" But if you run away," continued Helen, " you'll be
caught and brought back. The truant officer goes after
all who skiddo. But there ain't many try it, for we like it
here on Sunset Mountain. Last year two girls got smart
and tried it, climbed on the coping one night and jumped
off the porch roof and ran off. The next day the officer
brought them back. So you see the best thing to do when
you get put here is to behave and see what a nice time you
will have. Miss Hughes is good to us. There," she
gave a pillow a pat, " the last bed is made. You remem-
ber how to tuck in the corners ? "

" Guess so. I'm goin' to my dog now.'*

" Well, so you can ; your work is done for a while. Let
me tell you don't you talk so about Miss Hughes that
Lettie hears you, for she thinks Miss Hughes is the
grandest thing that ever lived. You better keep on the
good side of Lettie, for she's the monitress."

" Huh, I ain't afraid o' Lettie ! Ain't afraid of nobody
nor nothin' but snakes ! " And with bearing correspond-
ing to the brave avowal Sarah marched down the stairs.

When the children reached the laundry they found


Miss Hughes stooping over the dog. It responded to her
petting by exaggerated wagging of its tail, but when
Sarah appeared it forgot the presence of all others and
ran to her.

" You dear puppy," she greeted it, " are you glad to
see me ? "

" He is, Sarah," Miss Hughes told her, " he is trying to
tell you that. Take him out on the grass a while. The
girls will show you what a beautiful home you have found
our mountain, the loveliest spot in New Jersey."

What the new girl saw as she stood with the little girls
near the reformatory on Sunset Mountain was indeed, as
the matron described it, the loveliest spot in New Jersey.

The building stood on the very summit of the highest
point in that county. It was large and substantial, with
its red brick front relieved and beautified by a great pil-
lared piazza. But the spacious building sank into insig-
nificance beside the beauty and magnificence of the scene
around it.

To the rear of the house were fields and woods ; to the
west a dusty gray road went twisting past peach and
apple orchards, narrowed to a tiny trail through the heart
of a dense woodland, and emerged at last at the edge of a
broad highway leading to the city. Before the building
was a wide, sloping field where daisies and buttercups
grew among the grasses. This field merged into another
one dotted with scrubby bushes of sassafras and huckle-
berry, and taller growths of hawthorn and birch. Be-
yond this field lay wooded tracts, hollows and hills, and
one great mountain that lifted its head high into the blue
heavens. A little south of the house was a narrow, well-
trodden path that led straight from the gravel walk which
was around the building and down through the flower-


dotted field into a dense woods. There it twisted and
turned among the trees and underbrush until, by a great
boulder at the base of a giant oak, it lost itself in the wide
dusty road that wound down the side of the steep moun-
tain. To right and left the mountain road turned and
twisted until it reached the foot of the hill and joined the
wide straight road that led to the little town nestling un-
der the shadow of Sunset Mountain.

To the northeast of this mountain was spread a grand
sweep of country. One turned instinctively from the
near view of fields and woods, however beautiful, and
gazed admiringly at the panorama that spread out its
glory in the fertile valley beyond the mountain. Like a
sharply defined etching the picture held a constant fasci-
nation. Miles of green country, dotted with villages and
farms, where at night lights gleamed like phosphorescent
fireflies; white church steeples pointed upward among
the trees and roofs; then, farther on, blue rolling hills
hemmed in the fair valley and two rivers, shimmering in
the sunlight like silver threads, showed in a gap between
two mountain ranges. Sunset Mountain, where the wild
wood breath sweeps over the heights, where the clouds
hang low behind the stalwart poplars, where Nature is at
her best and loveliest Sarah looked at her new home and
its surroundings and drew a prolonged breath of ecstasy.
A deep appreciation of the place stirred in her as she
stood on the summit that first morning.

" Gee," she cried, " it's bully here ! Must be like that
heaven I fixed for the Maloney baby and after I made it
all up God went and made it come true. Hope I ain't
goin' to die this is too bully to last guess ma'll be
yellin' soon for me to get up and chase myself to the store
or some place. Say, pinch me."


The girls laughed. " It is real, and there's lots of nice
places here you ain't seen yet."

" Well, I kinda think me and the dog'll stay a while.
Looks soft to me."

" What's the dog's name ? " asked one.

" Ain't named him yet."

" Call him Jack," suggested one.

" Naw ! " the owner of the animal rejected the sugges-
tion contemptuously. " That's a common name. I want
a real fine word for that there dog, for he ain't no com-
mon trash."

" Urn," said Helen, " if I had a dog I'd call him after
some one I liked."

" That's the ticket ! Ain't nobody I like but me pa, so
I guess I'll call him Jerry."

" Oh, let's christen him," suggested one of the girls.

"What's that? Will it hurt him? I ain't havin'
nothin' hurt that there dog."

" Aw, christenin' won't hurt him. I went to the church
when my little sister was christened and they just put
water on her head and a man said a prayer and then she
was named and nobody can ever change it."

"All right," agreed Sarah, " I think it would be good to
do that to the dog, then he'll be named proper."

Helen ran for water and the children gathered in a
circle round the animal. Sarah dipped her fingers in the
bowl, sprayed a few drops on the head of the patient dog,
then said, " You're Jerry, that's your name."

" Oh, say a prayer, quick before the water dries off,"
prompted Helen.

So, while the dog wriggled about in wonder his little
mistress held him tightly in her arms and prayed hur-
riedly, " Dear God, I want my dog to be named Jerry like


my pa. But I want him to have a better time than my pa,
for he got pinched, but I guess you know about it. Please
fix it so that me pa can come out o' jail and live in a nice
place like I got sent to. Pa ain't the right kind o' bad,
not like some of the men in Red Rose Court. You fixed
the heaven for the Maloney baby, can't you fix something
good for my pa and I guess that's all."

" Amen," prompted Helen.

"Amen," said Sarah solemnly.

" That's a funny prayer for a christening, but I guess
it don't matter long as it's only a dog," was the comment
of one of the girls.

" Sure not," agreed the owner of the animal. "All
that's necessary is to have a prayer, don't matter what



Miss HUGHES, the matron of the cottage on Sunset
Mountain, was Irish, pure and unadulterated. This fact
might be named as a contributing cause for her big heart.
In her youth she had taken to herself two motherless chil-
dren of her elder brother, . taught them, loved them and
worked for them until they were grown into womanhood
and left her home for new ones of their own making.
Then Miss Hughes found herself, a woman of forty-five,
with strong hands and a courageous heart, eager to find
some niche in which she could labor for the good of hu-
manity. She found that niche in the city reformatory,
and a big place it was, with troubled waters about it.
But the dauntless courage that had lived in her Irish

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Online LibraryAnna Balmer MyersThe madonna of the curb → online text (page 3 of 22)