Anna Balmer Myers.

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Until then,



If ever I needed the cheerfulness of the Emerald
Isle folk it was after my visit to you. That dreadful
place! And you have lived there six years, it makes


me choke and have the funny hurt in my throat like I
had when I first discovered the presence of a conscience.
The only thing makes the matter bearable is the knowl-
edge that in several more years you'll be out, counting
the time off for good behavior. You'll be free, free!
The first thing you must do is come to Sunset Mountain
and stand on the summit, then you'll know you are free
at last. I pitied the chewink in his cage at the Zoo
what do you think I feel for you ! Of course, the worst
is over. Three years are not very many compared with
the six you have spent there already. See, I can find
some little crumb of comfort. I knew I would if I dug
deep enough. It took me ten minutes to think of that
but I have Irish ingenuity and kept at it.

Father, won't you tell me about my mother? I want
so to know who she was and whether she has any people.
Of course I'm' happy here, probably happier than I
should be with her relatives, but I am always wondering
who I am, if I have any aunts, uncles, cousins and the
like. I think you said once that your people didn't like
my mother. If that is so I'd like to have a chance to
tell them what I think of them! Perhaps it's a case of
" better let sleeping dogs lie " and I might be sorry if I
discovered my family. Aunts and cousins are interfer-
ing things, at any rate, so I don't care if I have any or
not sour grapes !

Speaking of grapes, we have wild ones on our moun-
tain now and they are fine. There's an old stone wall
in one of the fields near the house and it's covered with
grapes, those little ones that smell as good as they taste.
There are bittersweet berries on that same wall and every
fall we pick them and have them in the house all winter.
I asked Miss Hughes where they got such a mixed name


sounds like an Irishman named them. She said if you
chew the root it will be bitter at first, then change to a
sweetish taste. And she added that life is very often
like that. I say the world missed a good priest, preacher
or rabbi when Miss Hughes was born a woman. She
can take the homeliest thing and read a lesson that you'll
like and remember.

But I am wondering what sweetness even she could
discover in an experience I had an hour ago. Miss
Hughes went to the city and Miss Mary and I were left
in charge. Early in the afternoon a big car came round
the driveway and a woman, fine as her car, stepped out.
It was up to me to find out what she wanted.

Oh, she had a honeyed voice ! " May I see the matron,
please ? "

I told her Miss Hughes was out and would not return
for several hours but I'd be glad to be of service.

" You are employed here ? " she looked at me closely
and I put on my grandest front and told her I was, that
I was an assistant of course I didn't tell her it was in
the kitchen! Was afraid she would be permanently
shocked if she knew she were talking with one of the

She informed me that she was interested in child wel-
fare and juvenile court reform and was gathering data
for a book on the subject, so it would be a great favor
if I should be kind enough to supply her with some in-
formation of the work being done in that reformatory.

I assured her I was " willing as Barkus " and we
started off on a tour of the place. Thank goodness I
look older than I am, else she would have questioned me
more closely.

I led the haughty lady about in the big building, ex-


plained the work, the routine, while she made notes in a
leather bound book that must have cost more than a
Bible. " The girls do all the work splendid for them,
that takes some of the villainy from them, at least sup-
presses it for a time " she added her comments on what
I told her as she wrote the information in the little book.
" They clean, sew, cook, bake, wash and iron what
capital servants they should become! Really, my dear,
that is about all they can hope to become. No position
of trust will ever be open for reformatory girls. Um,
the hall bears evidence of indefatigable labor." She
looked at the big hall, which was always polished until
it shone like glass, then back to her notes once more.
" Go to school until they reach the eighth grade really
more than they need. My dear, education of incorrigi-
bles merely tends to increase their power for evil. They
are taught basketry, sewing,, and spend much spare time
outdoors studying flowers and birds. My dear, what a
mistake ! I should say that is a case of ' Pearls before
swine.' Surely they do not appreciate the glories of
nature, their depraved souls are sunken too low for that.
It is a great pity."

" Yes, it is a pity," I spoke up. The woman looked
up from her leather bound book and her notes about
juvenile reform. My face must have looked about as
peaceful as a thunder cloud. " It is a pity," I repeated,
" a pity that in all this great big world with its thousands
of churches and people who frequent them there are so
few who have one spark of sympathy for the girls who
live in reformatories. We haven't grown very far above
those people who wanted to stone the sinner long ago,
have we ? Of course you have read Tennyson's ' Maud '
but perhaps you have forgotten those wonderful lines :


" ' Ah yet, we cannot be kind to each other here for an

We whisper, and hint, and chuckle, and grin at a

brother's shame ;
However we brave it out, we men are a little breed.'

What right has one person to judge another? How
can we know the evil influence that wrought the havoc
in the life of any one of these girls? Are not you and
I, and the whole race, bound by infirmity and at times
yielding to evil? Would you want your entire life, all
its action, thoughts, words, photographed and displayed
to the world? Is there any mortal under the sky who
has not some indiscretions or faults or weakness they
want to hide from the gaze of the curious and the gos-
siping? We don't like to admit it, it is so much more
comfortable to our minds to be able to feel above the
common run of humanity, but I wonder I wonder "

" My dear," the woman said wonderingly, " what pe-
culiar ideas you harbor! It is unusual for a young girl
to have that view, but you have not lived long enough
to have an opinion of value to us. A sheltered, unso-
phisticated girl like you can't have any possible idea of
the evil in the world. When you are older and have
seen more of life "

I laughed, rude as it was. I had to laugh! Then I
explained, " I have seen life, in the raw, madam, with the
varnish all licked off like a child's toy."

" You must have had a strange education. May I ask
the name of your college ? "

" The Slums and Reformatory," I answered, like I
was naming some highfalutin' thousand-dollars-a-year se-
lect school for girls.

She surveyed me through her glasses as though I


were speaking Hindustan. " I don't think I under-

" No, you don't," I agreed heartily. " Neither do you
understand any other reformatory girls. What can you
know about Red Rose Court and worse places! Have
you ever lived in the slums? I am one of the girls who
can never hold a position of trust, a REFORMATORY GIRL ! "

She moved away from me as though afraid to breathe
the same pestilential air. " I thought, I understood
you gave me the impression you were employed here."

" I am. But I was committed here six years ago as an
inmate. Now I have been appointed assistant in the
kitchen." I faced her as though I were addressing a
regiment of soldiers and I purposely used slang " You
take it from me, there's more in the hearts of these girls
than wickedness. Some of them are headed straight for
the dogs and nothing this side of the blue sky can stop
them, but some of them still have a glimmer of refine-
ment, some spark of divine faith, that will help them to
conquer themselves and crawl from the pit of darkness
to the light. But you would push them back, wouldn't
you? I'm thinking that darkness where there is going
to be so much wailing and gnashing of teeth will hold
some who were not in a reformatory. But I beg your
pardon, I didn't mean to interrupt your valuable taking
of notes about juvenile reform. Is there anything more
I could tell you about this school ? "

She swept her lofty eyes over me as though I were a
speck of dust to be brushed aside. I could see that my
eloquence was wasted upon her. " No, I thank you,"
came the cold reply. " I have all the essential informa-
tion. Good-afternoon."

" Good-afternoon," I answered back, like I was one


of those stiff-necked butlers you read about in English
books. Then I bowed her out. I shut the door and did
a sailor's hornpipe and told myself I bet I gave her
something in her bean to think about. But I'm wonder-
ing now whether I really did. She's out to learn the
worst about us. Her taking notes about reform it's
like the whiskered rabbi who gave a beggar a quarter
for a shave and the latter shoved the money back and
said, " Keep it yourself, boob, you need it worse than I

You called me your ray of sunshine when I was there
to see you. How I wish I could be something nice like
that for you ! Won't you think about the thing I asked
you to do for me tell me about my mother and relatives ?
Guess relatives are like a husband, you are never happy
till you get one and after that you often wish you had
been satisfied without. But I'll take a chance.

With love,



What you told me about my mother made me
happy, but I knew without being told that she was the
dearest person on the earth. I am sorry she had no
people, for that leaves me with as many cousins as I had
before you told me about her, unless there are some of
your folks still living. It would be so exciting to have
a new family suddenly to get acquainted with. Are you
an orphan too? It would be too bad if I had no one on
either side of the house to be proud of me when I be-
come famous as I am destined to do. But I suppose I
could very easily find a family then, some distant cousins.
Miss Hughes and I went to Red Rose Court the day


before Christmas to take some presents. Oh, father, how
could we ever live there? The squalor and pity of it!
Poor Mrs. Maloney has a second husband and the ninth
baby and is as jolly as ever. How she can be I don't see ;
she deserves a better place than Red Rose Court. We
saw a ragged little girl sitting out on the cold curb with
a baby in her arms and I shut my eyes and saw myself
six years ago. I have been fortunate, I saw that when
we went back to that dreadful place. Schlotzbergers
moved to the country so I suppose Jakey is happy. But
there are always others to take the place of those who
leave. I suppose Red Rose Court will stay as it is for-
ever, the same dirty place with miserable people in it. If
some persons cleaned it up would it stay cleaned? It
made me heart sick. I saw what I escaped. And surely,
even the place you have been these years is not worse
than that old home of ours. But home is too fine a
word hovel !

I was glad to get back to our mountain. We went out
for our Christmas greens that same day so I could get
the taste of Red Rose Court out of my mouth. I wish I
could paint Sunset Mountain as it was then, with the
white snow upon it, the lovely filigree on the twigs and
weeds, the beauty of the unsullied white flakes as they
cover everything in sight. It makes you want to forget
there is any place as unlovely as Red Rose Court.

We donned sweaters, caps and mittens and started out.
In the field beyond the daisy one there are many cedar
and pine trees and there we cut our greens, away from
the road where the stumps won't be eyesores. Among
so many fine trees it was difficult to select those we liked
best but after fussing we decided and started to saw.
Back and forth went the saw in the hands of some of the


oldest girls, eating into the pungent wood of the cedar or
the fragrant heart of the pine. There came excited cries
to clear the path, the trees swayed, and as we shouted and
danced, they fell to the snowy ground. As each tree fell
eager hands tugged at it and dragged it to the edge of
the field.

" Oh, look at that crooked little cedar," exclaimed one
of the girls and pointed to a tree that had grown in a
tangle of encroaching branches so that it was forced to
curve and grow bent.

" Yes," some of Miss Hughes' philosophy cropped
out, " it is crooked, but it had a hard time to grow even
as straight as it has. See that big cedar that is perfect,
that had nothing to interfere with it, to make it go in the
wrong direction, but this poor little one was almost
choked to death."

" Ah, poor little tree," cried the girls, quick to pity.
Perhaps they felt an intuitive sympathy for the struggling
inhabitant of the woods, saw their own lives symbolized
by it. " Let's take it home and trim it up for Christmas,"
suggested one.

So we cut down the crooked little cedar and placed it
with the others. Then we cut pine branches, scratched
away the snow and pulled up trailing crowfoot until yards
of it lay in a heap near the other greens.

" Now," I cried, " all ready for the homeward march ! "
If I could paint I'd do a masterpiece, Bringing in the
Christmas Greens. It was a picture. Each tree was
partly lifted, partly dragged, along in the snowy field.
Some of the girls had their arms filled with pine boughs,
others trailed the crowfoot, and the sunset glow came up
and tinged us all with gold. I looked at the girls, their
faces were ruddy as their crimson sweaters and caps.


We worked all evening putting the trees and greens
into place in the big sewing room. Miss Hughes and
Miss Mary enjoyed it as much as we did. The teacher
had gone home for the holidays, but we promised to
leave the decorations so she can see them. What fun we
had decorating the trees ! Pink and white popcorn Miss
Mary helped us pop and sugar and string, paper orna-
ments the teacher taught us to make, a few balls and the
like left over from previous trees, and the dear little angel
Miss Hughes bought for the top branch. On the crooked
little cedar we hung our gifts for each other. I bet Miss
Hughes received no less than two dozen pen wipers made
from braided raffia and cloth she need never again wipe
a pen on her petticoat ! But the girls' gifts to her, crude
and home-made though they were, told her so eloquently
of their regard for her that it brought tears to her eyes.
Dear Miss Hughes, she is the nearest thing I know to a
mother. If a real mother could bring greater joy to me
then I'd have to enlarge my heart to hold it all. Miss
Hughes and Miss Mary gave each girl a box of candy
and if you had ever been a girl with a sweet tooth and
shut in a place where never a snitch of candy reached you
then you could know how every girl shouted at the gift.
Everybody seemed to have the Christmas spirit. I had a
lovely day with the rest, but that night as I left the school-
room after prayers and sat a while in the sitting-room
with Miss Hughes and Miss Mary I'm privileged now,
being an employee I felt depressed, all the Irish cheer-
fulness drowned in unhappiness.

" Sarah, aren't you happy ? " Miss Hughes asked me.

" Why " I tried to lie, but I couldn't do it when

she looked at me. Instead I had to bite my lips to keep
the tears back. Seemed like I was all teary and sobby, a


whole ocean inside of me wanting to get spilled. " Oh,"
I said after a little, " how can I be really happy ? You
are lovely to me, the girls, too everybody ! Don't
think I'm ungrateful for all you have done and are doing
for me, but I seem to always want more, just one thing
more. I'm wanting a home, a real home, with my own
people in it to love me and fix me a tree, even if it's the
meanest tree in the world, and to give me presents on
Christmas though a kiss were all they could afford to
give. It's that I'm wanting. And I guess it's that I'll
never get."

Miss Hughes smiled, then was serious and dear.
" Never's a long time, Sarah, a long, long time. But I
think you'll get all those things some day. A home is
different from an institution, God bless us, yes ! " I think
she must have been thinking of her own childhood for her
eyes were starry when she looked at me again.

" Sarah, you have a right to know whether you have
any other relatives besides your father. You are a young
lady now, and it is not right to keep you here if you have
people who would be glad to have you. You were made
for a home, a happy home with all its love. If your fa-
ther should die without telling you just who you are and
where you come from it would haunt you all your days ;
there would be that mystery to darken your life. I sup-
pose your father has never thought of it from that angle.
I am going to see him and talk it over." So, father, when
Miss Hughes comes to see you, please listen to her. She's
a pretty good arguer, though. Bet she could sell an Es-
kimo a fan if she set out to do it. But, father, be ready
for her and do as she asks you. Let it be my Christmas
present from my father. If I don't like my relatives
after I have them trust me to shake the dust of them


from my feet. Perhaps they would be glad to have me
live with them and know how to act in a real home, then
when you come out to me and we have that little home
together I'll know just how to do. Please, please !
With love,

SARAH (poor lonely girl without a
home. Pity the homeless).



Your last letter woke me up. It is your right to
know who and where your people are. Heaven knows I
have sinned enough against you without adding another
black mark. All these years I have kept the thing from
you, but I am going to tell you the names and addresses
of your aunts and grandfather. Once, long ago, I was a
boy who went to Sunday school and there I learned about
Pilate who was going to commit a crime and washed his
hands first, hoping to keep the stain of it from him, but
all the water in the world couldn't keep his hands clean
when he sinned. So I have tried to keep you in igno-
rance, hoping that I might escape some of the condemna-
tion I deserve, but I see now that it is only right to tell
you. Then you have the privilege of ignoring the revela-
tion and forgetting all about your relatives or of going to
them and see what manner of people you have.

I told you the truth when I said your mother was an
orphan and has not, to my knowledge, one relative near
enough to be called that. She lost her parents at an early
age, was taken care of if you can dignify it by that
phrase by a distant cousin, shoved into the world upon
her own resources at fourteen. After a checkered ca-
reer, checkered only in variety of experiences, not with


sin, she went on the stage. She had a natural talent for
dancing and singing; anything that rhymed appealed to
her. That is where you get your love for music and
poetry, I suppose.

She was Irish, pure and sweet as a daisy, and when I
met her but I am getting ahead of my story. You want
to know about me I am Pennsylvania Dutch. That
means nothing to you, for there are no settlements of
them in the part of the country where you live, but
briefly: there are in Pennsylvania some sections of coun-
try where the majority of the inhabitants cling to a quaint
old dialect, half English, partly German, the remainder
hodge-podge Swiss, Dutch I don't know just what.
It's a queer language and their English is usually flavored
with its accent, idioms, expressions, and substitution of
w for v and d for t, so that it is easy to distinguish the
Pennsylvania Dutch, especially to those who have lived
in that section. But many of them speak English per-
fectly these days ; education, reading, study, have brought
them what their grandparents never had. Among the
Pennsylvania Dutch are numerous religious sects called
plain people. They are called that because their religion
calls for a distinctive form of dress, extremely plain and
not conforming to the fashions and vanities of the world.
These plain people are called Mennonites, Amish, River
Brethren, Brethren, and a half dozen similar names.
There are some points of difference but all are character-
ized by plainness of dressing and living, avoidance of all
frivolity and worldliness, such as dancing, card playing,
attendance at theatres or motion pictures.

I was born and raised in such a peaceful atmosphere.
My mother, father, aunts, grandparents, cousins, and two
sisters were Mennonites, the women wearing the plain


garb something like the Quakers' of whom you must have
studied in school, and the men also dressed in plain suits
and broad-brimmed hats to distinguish them from the

My mother I want to say it now so you won't ever
forget it my mother was the dearest mother in the
world! If she had lived well, ever since Adam we like
to shift the blame on other shoulders, but I am sure that
if she had lived your life and mine would have been
vastly different.

I had a boyhood busy, happy, care- free, like many other
children in that section of the country. My father owned
a big hardware store and was reputed to be " well-off,"
as they say up there. Surely I had many good times,
some healthy exercise working, and no more troubles than
most boys. My father was a quiet, sober man. I can't
remember seeing him play with his children or bouncing
them on his knees. But he was good to us, provided us
with comforts and never objected to buying books or any-
thing necessary for school-work. Besides being serious
he was strict as a judge when it came to keeping the Sab-
bath, attending church service, dealing fairly with neigh-
bors, helping people in trouble. There was no possible
way of escaping his dictates. Other boys I knew fooled
their fathers sometimes and managed to get out of doing
chores or going to church, but I never could do that with
mine. Sunday was the Lord's Day and he ordered it
kept as he thought it should be and we kept it so. We
could spend the odd hours of it in quiet conversation,
serious reading or visiting in families where he knew the
holiness of the day would be observed. I sat during
many long hours in the Mennonite church, my feet
swinging, my back tired from the hard wooden benches


Mennonites leave cushioned pews for the easy-going

Narrow, uncompromising as father was in religious
matters, he was liberal enough in others. When I asked
him to send me to school so I could become a trained
mechanic he consented without any arguments. He'd
educate me and after I earned money I could pay it back
so that my sisters might fare as well as I. I went off to
Philadelphia to school, a happy young man, looking for-
ward to a bright future, a useful life of which my parents
would be proud.

The last year of my stay in the city I met your mother.
She was, as I told you, an actress. Now, all my life I
had been taught that absolutely everything connected
with the stage and footlights was utterly wrong, evil, to
be shunned by all except the wicked and depraved who
did not care for the safety of their souls. My parents'
religion strictly forbids attendance at theatres or dances.
All that had been drummed into my brain from the cradle
but when I met your mother at a boarding-house where
she was respected and loved, something seemed to call to
me, something stronger than the teachings and warnings
of my father, even stronger than the pleadings of my
mother. I was of another generation from the old folks
in the little town up-state. My few years in the city had
taught me to smile in amusement at some of the stand-
ards set up there, and I had come to the conclusion that
surely some of the theatrical profession must be good.
So when I found myself in love with your mother her
name was Sarah, too and learned to my delight that she
had the same feeling for me, I was as happy as though
she had been a girl from home in a plain Mennonite
dress. Of course, I was a bit troubled about the opinion


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Online LibraryAnna Balmer MyersThe madonna of the curb → online text (page 7 of 22)