Jean Webster.

Dear enemy online

. (page 1 of 16)
Online LibraryJean WebsterDear enemy → online text (page 1 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Mike Lynch


By Jean Webster



December 27.

Dear Judy:

Your letter is here. I have read it twice, and with amazement. Do I
understand that Jervis has given you, for a Christmas present, the
making over of the John Grier Home into a model institution, and that
you have chosen me to disburse the money? Me - I, Sallie McBride, the
head of an orphan asylum! My poor people, have you lost your senses, or
have you become addicted to the use of opium, and is this the raving of
two fevered imaginations? I am exactly as well fitted to take care of
one hundred children as to become the curator of a zoo.

And you offer as bait an interesting Scotch doctor? My dear
Judy, - likewise my dear Jervis, - I see through you! I know exactly
the kind of family conference that has been held about the Pendleton

"Isn't it a pity that Sallie hasn't amounted to more since she left
college? She ought to be doing something useful instead of frittering
her time away in the petty social life of Worcester. Also [Jervis
speaks] she is getting interested in that confounded young Hallock, too
good-looking and fascinating and erratic; I never did like politicians.
We must deflect her mind with some uplifting and absorbing occupation
until the danger is past. Ha! I have it! We will put her in charge of
the John Grier Home." Oh, I can hear him as clearly as if I were there!
On the occasion of my last visit in your delectable household Jervis and
I had a very solemn conversation in regard to (1) marriage, (2) the low
ideals of politicians, (3) the frivolous, useless lives that society
women lead.

Please tell your moral husband that I took his words deeply to heart,
and that ever since my return to Worcester I have been spending one
afternoon a week reading poetry with the inmates of the Female Inebriate
Asylum. My life is not so purposeless as it appears.

Also let me assure you that the politician is not dangerously imminent;
and that, anyway, he is a very desirable politician, even though
his views on tariff and single tax and trade-unionism do not exactly
coincide with Jervis's.

Your desire to dedicate my life to the public good is very sweet, but
you should look at it from the asylum's point of view.

Have you no pity for those poor defenseless little orphan children?

I have, if you haven't, and I respectfully decline the position which
you offer.

I shall be charmed, however, to accept your invitation to visit you in
New York, though I must acknowledge that I am not very excited over the
list of gaieties you have planned.

Please substitute for the New York Orphanage and the Foundling Hospital
a few theaters and operas and a dinner or so. I have two new evening
gowns and a blue and gold coat with a white fur collar.

I dash to pack them; so telegraph fast if you don't wish to see me for
myself alone, but only as a successor to Mrs. Lippett. Yours as ever,

Entirely frivolous,

And intending to remain so,


P.S. Your invitation is especially seasonable. A charming young
politician named Gordon Hallock is to be in New York next week. I am
sure you will like him when you know him better. P.S. 2. Sallie taking
her afternoon walk as Judy would like to see her:

I ask you again, have you both gone mad?


February 15.

Dear Judy:

We arrived in a snowstorm at eleven last night, Singapore and Jane and
I. It does not appear to be customary for superintendents of orphan
asylums to bring with them personal maids and Chinese chows. The night
watchman and housekeeper, who had waited up to receive me, were thrown
into an awful flutter. They had never seen the like of Sing, and thought
that I was introducing a wolf into the fold. I reassured them as to his
dogginess, and the watchman, after studying his black tongue, ventured a
witticism. He wanted to know if I fed him on huckleberry pie.

It was difficult to find accommodations for my family, Poor Sing was
dragged off whimpering to a strange woodshed, and given a piece of
burlap. Jane did not fare much better. There was not an extra bed in
the building, barring a five-foot crib in the hospital room. She, as you
know, approaches six. We tucked her in, and she spent the night folded
up like a jackknife. She has limped about today, looking like a decrepit
letter S, openly deploring this latest escapade on the part of her
flighty mistress, and longing for the time when we shall come to our
senses, and return to the parental fireside in Worcester.

I know that she is going to spoil all my chances of being popular with
the rest of the staff. Having her here is the silliest idea that was
ever conceived, but you know my family. I fought their objections step
by step, but they made their last stand on Jane. If I brought her along
to see that I ate nourishing food and didn't stay up all night, I might
come - temporarily; but if I refused to bring her - oh, dear me, I am not
sure that I was ever again to cross the threshold of Stone Gate! So here
we are, and neither of us very welcome, I am afraid.

I woke by a gong at six this morning, and lay for a time listening to
the racket that twenty-five little girls made in the lavatory over my
head. It appears that they do not get baths, - just face-washes, - but
they make as much splashing as twenty-five puppies in a pool. I rose and
dressed and explored a bit. You were wise in not having me come to look
the place over before I engaged.

While my little charges were at breakfast, it seemed a happy time
to introduce myself; so I sought the dining room. Horror piled on
horror - those bare drab walls and oil-cloth-covered tables with tin
cups and plates and wooden benches, and, by way of decoration, that one
illuminated text, "The Lord Will Provide"! The trustee who added that
last touch must possess a grim sense of humor.

Really, Judy, I never knew there was any spot in the world so
entirely ugly; and when I saw those rows and rows of pale, listless,
blue-uniformed children, the whole dismal business suddenly struck
me with such a shock that I almost collapsed. It seemed like an
unachievable goal for one person to bring sunshine to one hundred little
faces when what they need is a mother apiece.

I plunged into this thing lightly enough, partly because you were too
persuasive, and mostly, I honestly think, because that scurrilous Gordon
Hallock laughed so uproariously at the idea of my being able to manage
an asylum. Between you all you hypnotized me. And then of course, after
I began reading up on the subject and visiting all those seventeen
institutions, I got excited over orphans, and wanted to put my own ideas
into practice. But now I'm aghast at finding myself here; it's such a
stupendous undertaking. The future health and happiness of a hundred
human beings lie in my hands, to say nothing of their three or four
hundred children and thousand grandchildren. The thing's geometrically
progressive. It's awful. Who am I to undertake this job? Look, oh, look
for another superintendent!

Jane says dinner's ready. Having eaten two of your institution meals,
the thought of another doesn't excite me.


The staff had mutton hash and spinach, with tapioca pudding for dessert.
What the children had I hate to consider.

I started to tell you about my first official speech at breakfast this
morning. It dealt with all the wonderful new changes that are to come to
the John Grier Home through the generosity of Mr. Jervis Pendleton,
the president of our board of trustees, and of Mrs. Pendleton, the dear
"Aunt Judy" of every little boy and girl here.

Please don't object to my featuring the Pendleton family so prominently.
I did it for political reasons. As the entire working staff of the
institution was present, I thought it a good opportunity to emphasize
the fact that all of these upsetting, innovations come straight from
headquarters, and not out of my excitable brain.

The children stopped eating and stared. The conspicuous color of my
hair and the frivolous tilt of my nose are evidently new attributes in a
superintendent. My colleagues also showed plainly that they consider me
too young and too inexperienced to be set in authority. I haven't seen
Jervis's wonderful Scotch doctor yet, but I assure you that he will have
to be VERY wonderful to make up for the rest of these people, especially
the kindergarten teacher. Miss Snaith and I clashed early on the subject
of fresh air; but I intend to get rid of this dreadful institution
smell, if I freeze every child into a little ice statue.

This being a sunny, sparkling, snowy afternoon, I ordered that dungeon
of a playroom closed and the children out of doors.

"She's chasin' us out," I heard one small urchin grumbling as he
struggled into a two-years-too-small overcoat.

They simply stood about the yard, all humped in their clothes, waiting
patiently to be allowed to come back in. No running or shouting or
coasting or snowballs. Think of it! These children don't know how to


I have already begun the congenial task of spending your money. I bought
eleven hot-water bottles this afternoon (every one that the village drug
store contained) likewise some woolen blankets and padded quilts. And
the windows are wide open in the babies' dormitory. Those poor little
tots are going to enjoy the perfectly new sensation of being able to
breathe at night.

There are a million things I want to grumble about, but it's half-past
ten, and Jane says I MUST go to bed.

Yours in command,


P.S. Before turning in, I tiptoed through the corridor to make sure that
all was right, and what do you think I found? Miss Snaith softly closing
the windows in the babies' dormitory! Just as soon as I can find
a suitable position for her in an old ladies' home, I am going to
discharge that woman.

Jane takes the pen from my hand.

Good night.


February 20.

Dear Judy:

Dr. Robin MacRae called this afternoon to make the acquaintance of the
new superintendent. Please invite him to dinner upon the occasion of his
next visit to New York, and see for yourself what your husband has done.
Jervis grossly misrepresented the facts when he led me to believe
that one of the chief advantages of my position would be the daily
intercourse with a man of Dr. MacRae's polish and brilliancy and
scholarliness and charm.

He is tall and thinnish, with sandy hair and cold gray eyes. During the
hour he spent in my society (and I was very sprightly) no shadow of a
smile so much as lightened the straight line of his mouth. Can a shadow
lighten? Maybe not; but, anyway, what IS the matter with the man? Has he
committed some remorseful crime, or is his taciturnity due merely to his
natural Scotchness? He's as companionable as a granite tombstone!

Incidentally, our doctor didn't like me any more than I liked him. He
thinks I'm frivolous and inconsequential, and totally unfitted for this
position of trust. I dare say Jervis has had a letter from him by now
asking to have me removed.

In the matter of conversation we didn't hit it off in the least. He
discussed broadly and philosophically the evils of institutional care
for dependent children, while I lightly deplored the unbecoming coiffure
that prevails among our girls.

To prove my point, I had in Sadie Kate, my special errand orphan. Her
hair is strained back as tightly as though it had been done with a
monkey wrench, and is braided behind into two wiry little pigtails.
Decidedly, orphans' ears need to be softened. But Dr. Robin MacRae
doesn't give a hang whether their ears are becoming or not; what he
cares about is their stomachs. We also split upon the subject of
red petticoats. I don't see how any little girl can preserve any
self-respect when dressed in a red flannel petticoat an irregular inch
longer than her blue checked gingham dress; but he thinks that red
petticoats are cheerful and warm and hygienic. I foresee a warlike reign
for the new superintendent.

In regard to the doctor, there is just one detail to be thankful for: he
is almost as new as I am, and he cannot instruct me in the traditions
of the asylum. I don't believe I COULD have worked with the old doctor,
who, judging from the specimens of his art that he left behind, knew as
much about babies as a veterinary surgeon.

In the matter of asylum etiquette, the entire staff has undertaken my
education. Even the cook this morning told me firmly that the John Grier
Home has corn meal mush on Wednesday nights.

Are you searching hard for another superintendent? I'll stay until she
comes, but please find her fast.


With my mind made up,




February 27.

Dear Gordon:

Are you still insulted because I wouldn't take your advice? Don't you
know that a reddish-haired person of Irish forebears, with a dash of
Scotch, can't be driven, but must be gently led? Had you been less
obnoxiously insistent, I should have listened sweetly, and been saved.
As it is, I frankly confess that I have spent the last five days in
repenting our quarrel. You were right, and I was wrong, and, as you
see, I handsomely acknowledge it. If I ever emerge from this present
predicament, I shall in the future be guided (almost always) by your
judgment. Could any woman make a more sweeping retraction than that?

The romantic glamour which Judy cast over this orphan asylum exists only
in her poetic imagination. The place is AWFUL. Words can't tell you
how dreary and dismal and smelly it is: long corridors, bare walls;
blue-uniformed, dough-faced little inmates that haven't the slightest
resemblance to human children. And oh, the dreadful institution smell!
A mingling of wet scrubbed floors, unaired rooms, and food for a hundred
people always steaming on the stove.

The asylum not only has to be made over, but every child as well, and
it's too herculean a task for such a selfish, luxurious, and lazy person
as Sallie McBride ever to have undertaken. I'm resigning the very first
moment that Judy can find a suitable successor, but that, I fear, will
not be immediately. She has gone off South, leaving me stranded, and of
course, after having promised, I can't simply abandon her asylum. But in
the meantime I assure you that I'm homesick.

Write me a cheering letter, and send a flower to brighten my private
drawing room. I inherited it, furnished, from Mrs. Lippett. The wall
is covered with a tapestry paper in brown and red; the furniture is
electric-blue plush, except the center table, which is gilt. Green
predominates in the carpet. If you presented some pink rosebuds, they
would complete the color scheme.

I really was obnoxious that last evening, but you are avenged.

Remorsefully yours,


P.S. You needn't have been so grumpy about the Scotch doctor. The man is
everything dour that the word "Scotch" implies. I detest him on sight,
and he detests me. Oh, we're going to have a sweet time working together


February 22.

My dear Gordon:

Your vigorous and expensive message is here. I know that you have plenty
of money, but that is no reason why you should waste it so frivolously.
When you feel so bursting with talk that only a hundred-word telegram
will relieve an explosion, at least turn it into a night lettergram. My
orphans can use the money if you don't need it.

Also, my dear sir, please use a trifle of common sense. Of course I
can't chuck the asylum in the casual manner you suggest. It wouldn't
be fair to Judy and Jervis. If you will pardon the statement, they have
been my friends for many more years than you, and I have no intention
of letting them go hang. I came up here in a spirit of - well, say
adventure, and I must see the venture through. You wouldn't like me if
I were a short sport. This doesn't mean, however, that I am sentencing
myself for life; I am intending to resign just as soon as the
opportunity comes. But really I ought to feel somewhat gratified that
the Pendletons were willing to trust me with such a responsible post.
Though you, my dear sir, do not suspect it, I possess considerable
executive ability, and more common sense than is visible on the surface.
If I chose to put my whole soul into this enterprise, I could make the
rippingest superintendent that any 111 orphans ever had.

I suppose you think that's funny? It's true. Judy and Jervis know it,
and that's why they asked me to come. So you see, when they have
shown so much confidence in me, I can't throw them over in quite the
unceremonious fashion you suggest. So long as I am here, I am going to
accomplish just as much as it is given one person to accomplish every
twenty-four hours. I am going to turn the place over to my successor
with things moving fast in the right direction.

But in the meantime please don't wash your hands of me under the belief
that I'm too busy to be homesick; for I'm not. I wake up every morning
and stare at Mrs. Lippett's wallpaper in a sort of daze, feeling as
though it's some bad dream, and I'm not really here. What on earth was I
thinking of to turn my back upon my nice cheerful own home and the good
times that by rights are mine? I frequently agree with your opinion of
my sanity.

But why, may I ask, should you be making such a fuss? You wouldn't be
seeing me in any case. Worcester is quite as far from Washington as the
John Grier Home. And I will add, for your further comfort, that whereas
there is no man in the neighborhood of this asylum who admires red hair,
in Worcester there are several. Therefore, most difficult of men, please
be appeased. I didn't come entirely to spite you. I wanted an adventure
in life, and, oh dear! oh dear! I'm having it! PLEASE write soon, and
cheer me up. Yours in sackcloth,



February 24. Dear Judy:

You tell Jervis that I am not hasty at forming judgments. I have a
sweet, sunny, unsuspicious nature, and I like everybody, almost. But no
one could like that Scotch doctor. He NEVER smiles.

He paid me another visit this afternoon. I invited him to accommodate
himself in one of Mrs. Lippett's electric-blue chairs, and then sat
down opposite to enjoy the harmony. He was dressed in a mustard-colored
homespun, with a dash of green and a glint of yellow in the weave, a
"heather mixture" calculated to add life to a dull Scotch moor. Purple
socks and a red tie, with an amethyst pin, completed the picture.
Clearly, your paragon of a doctor is not going to be of much assistance
in pulling up the esthetic tone of this establishment.

During the fifteen minutes of his call he succinctly outlined all the
changes he wishes to see accomplished in this institution. HE forsooth!
And what, may I ask, are the duties of a superintendent? Is she merely a
figurehead to take orders from the visiting physician?

It's up wi' the bonnets o' McBride and MacRae!

I am,

Indignantly yours, SALLIE.



Dear Dr. MacRae:

I am sending this note by Sadie Kate, as it seems impossible to reach
you by telephone. Is the person who calls herself Mrs. McGur-rk and
hangs up in the middle of a sentence your housekeeper? If she answers
the telephone often, I don't see how your patients have any patience

As you did not come this morning, per agreement, and the painters did
come, I was fain to choose a cheerful corn color to be placed upon the
walls of your new laboratory room. I trust there is nothing unhygienic
about corn color.

Also, if you can spare a moment this afternoon, kindly motor yourself
to Dr. Brice's on Water Street and look at the dentist's chair and
appurtenances which are to be had at half-price. If all of the pleasant
paraphernalia of his profession were here, - in a corner of your
laboratory, - Dr. Brice could finish his 111 new patients with much more
despatch than if we had to transport them separately to Water Street.
Don't you think that's a useful idea? It came to me in the middle of
the night, but as I never happened to buy a dentist's chair before, I'd
appreciate some professional advice. Yours truly,



March 1.

Dear Judy:

Do stop sending me telegrams!

Of course I know that you want to know everything that is happening, and
I would send a daily bulletin, but I truly don't find a minute. I am so
tired when night comes that if it weren't for Jane's strict discipline,
I should go to bed with my clothes on.

Later, when we slip a little more into routine, and I can be sure that
my assistants are all running off their respective jobs, I shall be the
regularest correspondent you ever had.

It was five days ago, wasn't it, that I wrote? Things have been
happening in those five days. The MacRae and I have mapped out a plan of
campaign, and are stirring up this place to its sluggish depths. I like
him less and less, but we have declared a sort of working truce. And the
man IS a worker. I always thought I had sufficient energy myself, but
when an improvement is to be introduced, I toil along panting in his
wake. He is as stubborn and tenacious and bull-doggish as a Scotchman
can be, but he does understand babies; that is, he understands their
physiological aspects. He hasn't any more feeling for them personally
than for so many frogs that he might happen to be dissecting.

Do you remember Jervis's holding forth one evening for an hour or so
about our doctor's beautiful humanitarian ideals? C'EST A RIRE! The man
merely regards the J. G. H. as his own private laboratory, where he
can try out scientific experiments with no loving parents to object.
I shouldn't be surprised anyday to find him introducing scarlet fever
cultures into the babies' porridge in order to test a newly invented

Of the house staff, the only two who strike me as really efficient are
the primary teacher and the furnace-man. You should see how the children
run to meet Miss Matthews and beg for caresses, and how painstakingly
polite they are to the other teachers. Children are quick to size up
character. I shall be very embarrassed if they are too polite to me.

Just as soon as I get my bearings a little, and know exactly what we
need, I am going to accomplish some widespread discharging. I should
like to begin with Miss Snaith; but I discover that she is the niece
of one of our most generous trustees, and isn't exactly dischargeable.
She's a vague, chinless, pale-eyed creature, who talks through her nose
and breathes through her mouth. She can't say anything decisively and
then stop; her sentences all trail off into incoherent murmurings. Every
time I see the woman I feel an almost uncontrollable desire to take her
by the shoulders and shake some decision into her. And Miss Snaith is
the one who has had entire supervision of the seventeen little tots aged
from two to five! But, anyway, even if I can't discharge her, I have
reduced her to a subordinate position without her being aware of the

The doctor has found for me a charming girl who lives a few miles from
here and comes in every day to manage the kindergarten. She has big,
gentle, brown eyes, like a cow's, and motherly manners (she is just
nineteen), and the babies love her.

At the head of the nursery I have placed a jolly, comfortable
middle-aged woman who has reared five of her own and has a hand with
bairns. Our doctor also found her. You see, he is useful. She is
technically under Miss Snaith, but is usurping dictatorship in a
satisfactory fashion. I can now sleep at night without being afraid that
my babies are being inefficiently murdered.

You see, our reforms are getting started; and while I acquiesce with
all the intelligence at my command to our doctor's basic scientific
upheavals, still, they sometimes leave me cold. The problem that keeps
churning and churning in my mind is: How can I ever instil enough love
and warmth and sunshine into those bleak little lives? And I am not sure
that the doctor's science will accomplish that.

One of our most pressing INTELLIGENT needs just now is to get our
records into coherent form. The books have been most outrageously
unkept. Mrs. Lippett had a big black account book into which she jumbled
any facts that happened to drift her way as to the children's family,
their conduct, and their health. But for weeks at a time she didn't
trouble to make an entry. If any adopting family wants to know a child's
parentage, half the time we can't even tell where we got the child!

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryJean WebsterDear enemy → online text (page 1 of 16)