The Patchwork School

Mary E. Wilkins

From Wide Awake Vol. 18 No. 1 (December, 1883)

Once upon a time there was a city which possessed a very celebrated institution for the reformation of unruly children. It was, strictly speaking, a Reform School, but of a very peculiar kind.

It had been established years before by a benevolent lady, who had a great deal of money and wished to do good with it. After thinking a long time, she had hit upon this plan of founding a school for the improvement of children who tried their parents and all their friends by their ill behavior. More especially was it designed for ungrateful and discontented children; indeed it was mainly composed of this last class.

There was a special set of police in the city, whose whole duty was to keep a sharp lookout for ill-natured, fretting children, who complained of their parents' treatment, and thought other boys and girls were much better off than they, and to march them away to the school. These police all wore white top boots, tall peaked hats, and carried sticks with blue ribbon bows on them, and were very readily distinguished. Many a little boy on his way to school has dodged round a corner to avoid one, because he had just been telling his mother that another little boy's mother gave him twice as much pie for dinner as he had. He wouldn't breathe easy till he had left the white top boots out of sight; and he would tremble all day at every knock on the door.

There was not a child in the city but had a great horror of this School, though it may seem rather strange that they should; for the punishment, at first thought, did not seem so very terrible. Ever since it was established, the school had been in charge of a very singular little old woman. Nobody had ever known where she came from. The benevolent lady who founded the institution, had brought her to the door one morning in her coach, and the neighbors had seen the little brown, wizened creature, with a most extraordinary gown on, alight and enter. This was all any one had ever known about her. In fact, the benevolent lady had come upon her in the course of her travels in a little German town, sitting in a garret window, behind a little box-garden of violets, sewing patchwork. After that, she became acquainted with her, and finally hired her to superintend her school. You see, the benevolent lady had a very tender heart, and though she wanted to reform the naughty children of her native city, and have them grow up to be good men and women, she did not want them to be shaken, nor have their ears cuffed; so the ideas advanced by the strange little old woman just suited her.

“Set 'em to sewing patchwork,” said this little old woman, sewing patchwork vigorously herself as she spoke. She was dressed in a gown of bright-colored patchwork, with a patchwork shawl over her shoulders. Her cap was made of tiny squares of patchwork, too. “If they are sewing patchwork,” went on the little old woman, “they can't be in mischief. Just make 'em sit in little chairs and sew patchwork, boys and girls alike. Make 'em sit and sew patchwork, when the bees are flying over the clover, out in the bright sunlight, and the great blue-winged butterflies stop with the roses just outside the windows, and the robins are singing in the cherry-trees, and they'll turn over a new leaf, you'll see!”

So the school was founded, the strange little old woman placed over it, and it really worked admirably. It was the pride of the city. Strangers who visited it were always taken to visit the Patchwork School, for that was the name it went by. There sat the children, in their little chairs, sewing patchwork. They were dressed in little patchwork uniforms; the girls wore blue and white patchwork frocks and pink and white patchwork pinafores, and the boys blue and white patchwork trousers, with pinafores like the girls. Their cheeks were round and rosy, for they had plenty to eat — bread and milk three times a day — but they looked sad, and tears were standing in the corners of a good many eyes. How could they help it? It did seem as if the loveliest roses in the whole country were blossoming in the garden of the Patchwork School, and there were swarms of humming-birds flying over them, and great red and blue-winged butterflies. And there were tall cherry-trees a little way from the window, and they used to be perfectly crimson with fruit; and the way the robins would sing in them! Later in the season there were apple and peach trees, too, the apples and great rosy peaches fairly dragging the branches to the ground, and all in sight from the window of the schoolroom.

No wonder the poor little culprits cooped up in doors sewing red and blue and green pieces of calico together, looked sad. Every day bales of calico were left at the door of the Patchwork School, and it all had to be cut up in little bits and sewed together again. When the children heard the heavy tread of the porters bringing in the bales of new calico, the tears would leave the corners of their eyes and trickle down their poor little cheeks, at the prospect of the additional work they would have to do. All the patchwork had to be sewed over and over, and every crooked or too long stitch had to be picked out; for the Patchwork Woman was very particular. They had to make all their own clothes of patchwork, and after those were done, patchwork bed quilts, which were given to the city poor; so the benevolent lady killed two birds with one stone, as you might say.

Of course, children staid in the Patchwork School different lengths of time, according to their different offenses. But there were very few children in the city who had not sat in a little chair and sewed patchwork, at one time or another, for a greater or less period. Sooner or later, the best children were sure to think they were ill treated by their parents, and had to go to bed earlier than they ought, or did not have as much candy as other children; and the police would hear them grumbling, and drag them off to the Patchwork School. The Mayor's son, especially, who might be supposed to fare as well as any little boy in the city, had been in the school any number of times.

There was one little boy in the city, however, whom the white-booted police had not yet found any occasion to arrest, though one might have thought he had more reason than a good many others to complain of his lot in life. In the first place, he had a girl's name, and any one knows that would be a great cross to a boy. His name was Julia; his parents had called him so on account of his having a maiden aunt who had promised to leave her money to him if he was named for her.

So there was no help for it, but it was a great trial to him, for the other boys plagued him unmercifully, and called him “missy,” and “sissy,” and said “she” instead of “he” when they were speaking of him. Still he never complained to his parents, and told them he wished they had called him some other name. His parents were very poor, hard-working people, and Julia had much coarser clothes than the other boys, and plainer food, but he was always cheerful about it, and never seemed to think it at all hard that he could not have a velvet coat like the Mayor's son, or carry cakes for lunch to school like the lawyer's little boy.

But perhaps the greatest cross which Julia had to bear, and the one from which he stood in the greatest danger of getting into the Patchwork School, was his Grandmothers. I don't mean to say that grandmothers are to be considered usually as crosses. A dear old lady seated with her knitting beside the fire, is a pleasant person to have in the house. But Julia had four, and he had to hunt for their spectacles, and pick up their balls of yarn so much that he got very little time to play. It was an unusual thing, but the families on both sides were very long-lived, and there actually were four grandmothers; two great ones, and two common ones; two on each side of the fireplace, with their knitting work, in Julia's home. They were nice old ladies, and Julia loved them dearly, but they lost their spectacles all the time, and were always dropping their balls of yarn, and it did make a deal of work for one boy to do. He could have hunted up spectacles for one Grandmother, but when it came to four, and one was always losing hers while he was finding another's, and one ball of yarn would drop and roll off, while he was picking up another — well, it was really bewildering at times. Then he had to hold the skeins of yarn for them to wind, and his arms used to ache, and he could hear the boys shouting at a game of ball outdoors, maybe. But he never refused to do anything his Grandmothers asked him to, and did it pleasantly too; and it was not on that account he got into the Patchwork School.

It was on Christmas day that Julia was arrested and led away to the Patchwork School. It happened in this way: As I said before, Julia's parents were poor, and it was all they could do to procure the bare comforts of life for their family; there was very little to spend for knickknacks. But I don't think Julia would have complained at that; he would have liked useful articles just as well for Christmas presents, and would not have been unhappy because he did not find some useless toy in his stocking, instead of some article of clothing, which he needed to make him comfortable.

But he had had the same things over and over, over and over, Christmas after Christmas. Every year each of his Grandmothers knit him two pairs of blue woollen yarn stockings, and hung them for him on Christmas Eve, for a Christmas present. There they would hang — eight pairs of stockings with nothing in them, in a row on the mantel shelf, every Christmas morning.

Every year Julia thought about it for weeks before Christmas, and hoped and hoped he would have something different this time, but there they always hung, and he had to go and kiss his Grandmothers, and pretend he liked the stockings the best of anything he could have had; for he would not have hurt their feelings for the world.

His parents might have bettered matters a little, but they did not wish to cross the old ladies either, and they had to buy so much yarn they could not afford to get anything else.

The worst of it was, the stockings were knit so well, and of such stout material, that they never wore out, so Julia never really needed the new ones; if he had, that might have reconciled him to the sameness of his Christmas presents, for he was a very sensible boy. But his bureau drawers were full of the blue stockings rolled up in neat little hard balls — all the balls he ever had; the tears used to spring up in his eyes every time he looked at them. But he never said a word till the Christmas when he was twelve years old. Somehow that time he was unusually cast down at the sight of the eight pairs of stockings hanging in a row under the mantel shelf; but he kissed and thanked his Grandmothers just as he always had.

When he was out on the street a little later, however, he sat down in a doorway and cried. He could not help it. Some of the other boys had such lovely presents, and he had nothing but these same blue woollen stockings.

“What's the matter, little boy?” asked a voice.

Without looking up, Julia sobbed out his troubles; but what was his horror when he felt himself seized by the arm and lifted up, and found that he was in the grasp of a policeman in white top boots. The policeman did not mind Julia's tears and entreaties in the least, but led him away to the Patchwork School, waving his stick with its blue ribbon bow as majestically as a drum major.

So Julia had to sit down in a little chair, and sew patchwork with the rest. He did not mind the close work as much as some of the others, for he was used to being kept in doors, attending to his Grandmothers' wants; but he disliked to sew. His term of punishment was a long one. The Patchwork Woman, who fixed it, thought it looked very badly for a little boy to be complaining because his kind grandparents had given him some warm stockings instead of foolish toys.

The first thing the children had to do when they entered the school, was to make their patchwork clothes, as I have said. Julia had got his finished and was busily sewing on a red and green patchwork quilt, in a tea-chest pattern, when, one day, the Mayor came to visit the school. Just then his son did not happen to be serving a term there; the Mayor never visited it with visitors of distinction when he was.

To-day he had a Chinese Ambassador with him. The Patchwork Woman sat behind her desk on the platform and sewed patchwork, the Mayor in his fine broadcloth sat one side of her, and the Chinese Ambassador, in his yellow satin gown, on the other.

The Ambassador's name was To-Chum. The children could not help stealing glances occasionally at his high eyebrows and braided queue, but they cast their eyes on their sewing again directly.

The Mayor and the Ambassador staid about an hour; then after they had both made some remarks — the Ambassador made his in Chinese; he could speak English, but his remarks in Chinese were wiser — they rose to go.

Now, the door of the Patchwork School was of a very peculiar structure. It was made of iron of a great thickness, and opened like any safe door, only it had more magic about it than any safe door ever had. At a certain hour in the afternoon, it shut of its own accord, and opened at a certain hour in the morning, when the Patchwork Woman repeated a formula before it. The formula did no good whatever at any other time; the door was so constructed that not even its inventor could open it after it shut at the certain hour of the afternoon, before the certain hour the next morning.

Now the Mayor and the Chinese Ambassador had staid rather longer than they should have. They had been so interested in the school that they had not noticed how the time was going, and the Patchwork Woman had been so taken up with a very intricate new pattern that she failed to remind them, as was her custom.

So it happened that while the Mayor got through the iron door safely, just as the Chinese Ambassador was following it suddenly swung to, and shut in his braided queue at a very high point.

Then there was the Ambassador on one side of the door, and his queue on the other, and the door could not possibly be opened before morning. Here was a terrible dilemma! What was to be done? There stood the children, their patchwork in their hands, staring, open-mouthed, at the queue dangling through the door, and the Patchwork Woman pale with dismay, in their midst, on one side of the door, and on the other side was the terror-stricken Mayor, and the poor Chinese Ambassador.

“Can't anything be done?” shouted the Mayor through the keyhole — there was a very large keyhole.

“No,” the Patchwork Woman said. “The door won't open till six o'clock to-morrow morning.”

“Oh, try!” groaned the Mayor. “Say the formula.”

She said the formula, to satisfy them, but the door staid firmly shut. Evidently the Chinese Ambassador would have to stay where he was until morning, unless he had the Mayor snip his queue off, which was not to be thought of.

So the Mayor, who was something of a philosopher, set about accommodating himself, or rather his friend, to the situation.

“It is inevitable,” said he to the Ambassador. “I am very sorry, but everybody has to conform to the customs of the institutions of the countries which they visit. I will go and get you some dinner, and an extra coat. I will keep you company through the night, and morning will come before you know it.”

“Well,” sighed the Chinese Ambassador, standing on tiptoe so his queue should not pull so hard. He was a patient man, but after he had eaten his dinner the time seemed terribly long.

“Why don't you talk?” said he to the Mayor, who was dozing beside him in an easy-chair. “Can't you tell me a story?”

“I never did such a thing in my life,” replied the Mayor, rousing himself; “but I am very sorry for you, dear sir, and perhaps the Patchwork Woman can.”

So he asked the Patchwork Woman through the keyhole.

“I never told a story in my life,” said she; “but there's a boy here that I heard telling a beautiful one the other day. Here, Julia,” called she, “come and tell a story to the Chinese Ambassador.”

Julia really knew a great many stories which his Grandmothers had taught him, and he sat on a little stool and told them through the keyhole all night to the Chinese Ambassador.

He and the Mayor were so interested that morning came and the door swung open before they knew it. The poor Ambassador drew a long breath, and put his hand around to his queue to see if it was safe. Then he wanted to thank and reward the boy who had made the long night hours pass so pleasantly.

“What is he in here for?” asked the Mayor, patting Julia, who could hardly keep his eyes open.

“He grumbled about his Christmas presents,” replied the Patchwork Woman.

“What did you have?” inquired the Mayor.

“Eight pairs of blue yarn stockings,” answered Julia, rubbing his eyes.

“And the year before?”

“Eight pairs of blue yarn stockings.”

“And the year before that?”

“Eight pairs of blue yarn stockings.”

“Didn't you ever have anything for Christmas presents but blue yarn stockings?” asked the astonished Mayor.

“No, sir,” said Julia meekly.

Then the whole story came out. Julia, by dint of questioning, told some, and the other children told the rest; and finally, in the afternoon, orders came to dress him in his own clothes, and send him home. But when he got there, the Mayor and Chinese Ambassador had been there before him, and there hung the eight pairs of blue yarn stockings under the mantel-shelf, crammed full of the most beautiful things — knives, balls, candy — everything he had ever wanted, and the mantel-shelf piled high also.

A great many of the presents were of Chinese manufacture; for the Ambassador considered them, of course, superior, and he wished to express his gratitude to Julia as forcibly as he could. There was one stocking entirely filled with curious Chinese tops. A little round head, so much like the Ambassador's that it actually startled Julia, peeped out of the stocking. But it was only a top in the shape of a little man in a yellow silk gown, who could spin around very successfully on one foot, for an astonishing length of time. There was a Chinese lady-top too, who fanned herself coquettishly as she spun; and a mandarin who nodded wisely. The tops were enough to turn a boy's head.

There were equally curious things in the other stockings. Some of them Julia had no use for, such as silk for dresses, China crape shawls and fans, but they were just the things for his Grandmothers, who, after this, sat beside the fireplace, very prim and fine, in stiff silk gowns, with China crape shawls over their shoulders, and Chinese fans in their hands, and queer shoes on their feet. Julia liked their presents just as well as he did his own, and probably the Ambassador knew that he would.

The Mayor had filled one stocking himself with bon-bons, and Julia picked out all the peppermints amongst them for his Grandmothers. They were very fond of peppermints. Then he went to work to find their spectacles, which had been lost ever since he had been away.