The School-girl

Elizabeth Jordan

From The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1908)
Chapter V.

Except for Billy, who is a boy and does not count, I am the youngest person in our family; and when I tell you that there are eleven of us — well, you can dimly imagine the kind of a time I have. Two or three days ago I heard Grandma Evarts say something to the minister about “the down-trodden and oppressed of foreign lands,” and after he had gone I asked her what they were. For a wonder, she told me; usually when Billy and I ask questions you would think the whole family had been struck dumb. But this time she answered and I remember every word — for if ever anything sounded like a description of Billy and me it was what Grandma Evarts said that day. I told her so, too; but, of course, she only looked at me over her spectacles and didn't understand what I meant. Nobody ever does except Billy and Aunt Elizabeth, and they're not much comfort. Billy is always so busy getting into trouble and having me get him out of it, and feeling sorry for himself, that he hasn't time to sympathize with me. Besides, as I've said before, he's only a boy, and you know what boys are and how they lack the delicate feelings girls have, and how their minds never work when you want them to. As for Aunt Elizabeth, she is lovely sometimes, and the way she remembers things that happened when she was young is simply wonderful. She knows how girls feel, too, and how they suffer when they are like Dr. Denbigh says I am — very nervous and sensitive and high-strung. But she admitted to me to-day that she had never before really made up her mind whether I am the “sweet, unsophisticated child” she calls me, or what Tom Price says I am, The Eastridge Animated and Undaunted Daily Bugle and Clarion Call. He calls me that because I know so much about what is going on; and he says if Mr. Temple could get me on his paper as a regular contributor there wouldn't be a domestic hearth-stone left in Eastridge. He says the things I drop will break every last one of them, anyhow, beginning with the one at home. That's the way he talks, and though I don't always know exactly what he means I can tell by his expression that it is not very complimentary.

Aunt Elizabeth is different from the others, and she and I have inspiring conversations sometimes — serious ones, you know, about life and responsibility and careers; and then, at other times, just when I'm revealing my young heart to her the way girls do in books, she gets absent-minded or laughs at me, or stares and says, “You extraordinary infant,” and changes the subject. At first it used to hurt me dreadfully, but now I'm beginning to think she does it when she can't answer my questions. I've asked her lots and lots of things that have made her sit up and gasp, I can tell you, and I have more all ready as soon as I get the chance.

There is another thing I will mention while I think of it. Grandma Evarts is always talking about “rules of life,” but the only rule of life I'm perfectly sure I have is to always mention things when I think of them. Even that doesn't please the family, though, because sometimes I mention things they thought I didn't know, and then they are annoyed and cross instead of learning a lesson by it and realizing how silly it is to try to keep secrets from me. If they'd tell me, and put me on my honor, I could keep their old secrets as well as anybody. I've kept Billy's for years and years. But when they all stop talking the minute I come into a room, and when mamma and Peggy go around with red eyes and won't say why, you'd better believe I don't like it. It fills me with the “intelligent discontent” Tom is always talking about. Then I don't rest until I know what there is to know, and usually when I get through I know more than anybody else does, because I've got all the different sides — Maria's and Tom's and Lorraine's and Charles Edward's and mamma's and papa's and grandma's and Peggy's and Aunt Elizabeth's. It isn't that they intend to tell me things, either; they all try not to. Every one of them keeps her own secrets beautifully, but she drops things about the others. Then all I have to do is to put them together like a patch-work quilt.

You needn't think it's easy, though, for the very minute I get near any of the family they waste most of the time we're together by trying to improve me. You see, they are all so dreadfully old that they have had time to find out their faults and youthful errors, and every single one of them thinks she sees all her faults in me, and that she must help me to conquer them ere it is too late. Aunt Elizabeth says they mean it kindly, and perhaps they do. But if you have ever had ten men and women trying to improve you, you will know what my life is. Tom Price, who married my sister Maria, told Dr. Denbigh once that “every time a Talbert is unoccupied he or she puts Alice or Billy, or both, on the family moulding-board and kneads awhile.” I heard him say it and it's true. All I can say is that if they keep on kneading and moulding me much longer there won't be anything left but a kind of a pulpy mass. I can see what they have done to Billy already; he's getting pulpier every day, and I don't believe his brain would ever work if I didn't keep stirring it up.

However, the thing I want to say while I think of it is this. It is a question, and I will ask it here because there is no use of asking it at home: Why is it that grown-up men and women never have anything really interesting to say to a girl fifteen years old? Then, if you can answer that, I wish you would answer another: Why don't they ever listen or understand what a girl means when she talks to them? Billy and I have one rule now when we want to say something serious. We get right in front of them and fix them with a glittering eye, the way the Ancient Mariner did, you know, and speak as slowly as we can, in little bits of words, to show them it's very important. Then, sometimes, they pay attention and answer us, but usually they act as if we were babies gurgling in cunning little cribs. And the rude way they interrupt us often and go on talking about their own affairs — well, I will not say more, for dear mamma has taught me not to criticise my elders, and I never do. But I watch them pretty closely, just the same, and when I see them doing something that is not right my brain works so hard it keeps me awake nights. If it's anything very dreadful, like Peggy's going and getting engaged, I point out the error, the way they're always pointing errors out to me. Of course it doesn't do any good, but that isn't my fault. It's because they haven't got what my teacher calls “receptive minds.”

I'm telling you all this before I tell you what has happened, so you will be sorry for Billy and me. If you are sorry already, as well indeed you may be, you will be a great deal more sorry before I get through. For if ever any two persons were “down-trodden and oppressed” and “struggling in darkness” and “feeling the chill waters of affliction,” it's Billy and me to-night — all because we tried to help Peggy and Lorraine and Aunt Elizabeth after they had got everything mixed up! I told them I was just trying to help, and Tom Price said right off that there was only one thing for Billy and me to do in future whenever the “philanthropic spirit began to stir” in us, and that was to get on board the suburban trolley-car and go as far away from home as our nickels would take us, and not hurry back. So you see he is not a bit grateful for the interesting things I told Maria.

I will now tell what happened. It began the day Billy heard the station agent at Whitman read Aunt Elizabeth's telegram to Harry Goward. The telegram had a lot of silly letters and words in it, so Billy didn't know what it meant, and, of course, he didn't care. The careless child would have forgotten all about it if I hadn't happened to meet him at Lorraine's after he got back from Whitman. He is always going to Lorraine's for some of Sallie's cookies — she makes perfectly delicious ones, round and fat and crumbly, with currants on the top. Billy had taken so many that his pockets bulged out on the sides, and his mouth was so full he only nodded when he saw me. So, of course, I stopped to tell him how vulgar that was, and piggish, and to see if he had left any for me, and he was so anxious to divert my mind that as soon as he could speak he began to talk about seeing Aunt Elizabeth over in Whitman. That interested me, so I got the whole thing out of him, and the very minute he had finished telling it I made him go straight and tell Peggy. I told him to do it delicately, and not yell it out. I thought it would cheer and comfort Peggy to know that some one was doing something, instead of standing around and looking solemn, but, alas! it did not, and Billy told me with his own lips that it was simply awful to see Peggy's face. Even he noticed it, so it must have been pretty bad. He said her eyes got so big it made him think of the times she used to imitate the wolf in Red Riding-Hood and scare us 'most to death when we were young.

When Billy told me that, I saw that perhaps we shouldn't have told Peggy, so the next day I went over to Lorraine's again to ask her what she thought about it. I stopped at noon on my way home from school, and I didn't ring the bell, because I never do. I walked right in as usual, falling over the books and teacups and magazines on the floor, and I found Lorraine sitting at the tea-table with her head down among the little cakes and bits of toast left over from the afternoon before. She didn't look up, so I knew she hadn't heard me, and I saw her shoulders shake, and then I knew that she was crying. I had never seen Lorraine cry before, and I felt dreadfully, but I didn't know just what to do or what to say, and while I stood staring at her I noticed that there was a photograph on the table with a lot of faded flowers. The face of the photograph was up and I saw that it was a picture of Mr. Wilde — the one that usually stands on the mantel-piece. Lorraine is always talking about him, and she has told me ever and ever so much about how nice and kind he was to her when she was studying art in New York. But, of course, I didn't know she cared enough for him to cry over his picture, and it gave me the queerest feelings to see her do it — kind of wabbly ones in my legs, and strange, sinking ones in my stomach. You see, I had just finished reading Lady Hermione's Terrible Secret. A girl at school lent it to me. So when I saw Lorraine crying over a photograph and faded flowers I knew it must mean that she had learned to love Mr. Wilde with a love that was her doom, or would be if she didn't hurry and get over it. Finally I crept out of the house without saying a word to her or letting her know I was there, and I leaned on the gate to think it over and try to imagine what a girl in a book would do. In Lady Hermione her sister discovered the truth and tried to save the rash woman from the sad consequences of her love, so I knew that was what I must do, but I didn't know how to begin. While I was standing there with my brain going round like one of Billy's paper pinwheels some one stopped in front of me and said, “Hello, Alice,” in a sick kind of a way, like a boy beginning to recite a piece at school. I looked up. It was Harry Goward!

You'd better believe I was surprised, for, of course, when he went away nobody expected he would come back so soon; and after all the fuss and the red eyes and the mystery I hoped he wouldn't come back at all. But here he was in three days, so I said, very coldly, “How do you do, Mr. Goward,” and bowed in a distant way; and he took his hat off quickly and held it in his hand, and I waited for him to say something else. All he did for a minute was to look over my head. Then he said, in the same queer voice: “Is Mrs. Peter in? I wanted to have a little talk with her,” and he put his hand on the gate to open it. I suppose it was dreadfully rude, but I stayed just where I was and said, very slowly, in icy tones, that he must kindly excuse my sister-in-law, as I was sure she wouldn't be able to receive him. Of course I knew she wouldn't want him or any one else to come in and see her cry, and besides I never liked Harry Goward and I never expect to. He looked very much surprised at first, and then his face got as red as a baby's does when there's a pin in it somewhere, and he asked if she was ill. I said, “No, she is not ill,” and then I sighed and looked off down the street as if I would I were alone. He began to speak very quickly, but stopped and bit his lip. Then he turned away and hesitated, and finally he came back and took a thick letter from his pocket and held it out to me. He was smiling now, and for a minute he really looked nice and sweet and friendly.

“Say, Alice,” he said, in the most coaxing way, “don't you get down on me, too. Do me a good turn — that's a dear. Take this letter home and deliver it. Will you? And say I'm at the hotel waiting for an answer.”

Now, you can see yourself that this was thrilling. The whole family was watching every mail for a letter from Harry Goward and here he was offering me one! I didn't show how excited I was; I just took the letter and turned it over so I couldn't see the address and slipped it into my pocket, and said, coldly, that I would deliver it with pleasure. Harry Goward was looking quite cheerful again, but he said, in a worried tone, that he hoped I wouldn't forget, because it was very, very important. Then I dismissed him with a haughty bow, the way they do on the stage, and this time he put his hat on and really went.

Of course after that I wanted to go straight home with the letter, but I knew it wouldn't do to leave Lorraine bearing her terrible burden without some one to comfort her. While I was trying to decide what to do I saw Billy a block away with Sidney Tracy, and I whistled to him to come, and beckoned with both hands at the same time to show it was important. I had a beautiful idea. In that very instant I “planned my course of action,” as they say in books. I made up my mind that I would send the letter home by Billy, and that would give me time to run over to Maria's and get something to eat and ask Maria to go and comfort Lorraine. Maria and Lorraine don't like each other very much, but I knew trouble might bring them closer, for Grandma Evarts says it always does. Besides, Maria is dreadfully old and knows everything and is the one the family always sends for when things happen. If they don't send she comes anyhow and tells everybody what to do. So I pinned the letter in Billy's pocket, so he couldn't lose it, and I ordered him to go straight home with it. He said he would. He looked queer and I thought I saw him drop something near a fence before he came to me, but I was so excited I didn't pay close attention. As soon as Billy started off I went to Maria's.

She was all alone, for Tom was lunching with some one at the hotel. When we were at the table I told her about Lorraine, and if ever any one was excited and really listened this time it was sister Maria. She pushed back her chair, and spoke right out before she thought, I guess.

“Charles Edward's wife crying over another man's picture!” she said. “Well, I like that! But I'm not surprised. I always said no good would come of that match!”

Then she stopped and made herself quiet down, but I could see how hard it was, and she added: “So that was the matter with Charles Edward when I met him this morning rushing along the street like a cyclone.”

I got dreadfully worried then and begged her to go to Lorraine at once, for I saw things were even more terrible than I had thought. But Maria said: “Certainly not! I must consult with father and mother first. This is something that affects us all. After I have seen them I will go to Lorraine's.” Then she told me not to worry about it, and not to speak of it to any one else. I didn't, either, except to Billy and Aunt Elizabeth; and when I told Aunt Elizabeth the man's name I thought she would go up into the air like one of Billy's skyrockets. But that part does not belong here, and I'm afraid if I stop to talk about it I'll forget about Billy and the letter.

After luncheon Maria put her hat on and went straight to our house to see mother, and I went back to school. When I got home I asked, the first thing, if Billy had delivered the letter from Harry Goward, and for the next fifteen minutes you would have thought every one in our house had gone crazy. That wretched boy had not delivered it at all! They had not even seen him, and they didn't know anything about the letter. After they had let me get enough breath to tell just how I had met Harry and exactly what he had said and done, mother rushed off to telephone to father, and Aunt Elizabeth came down-stairs with a wild, eager face, and Grandma Evarts actually shook me when she found I didn't even know whom the letter was for. I hadn't looked, because I had been so excited. Finally, after everybody had talked at once for a while, Grandma Evarts told me mamma had said Billy could go fishing that afternoon, because the weather was so hot and she thought he looked pale and overworked. The idea of Billy Talbert being overworked! I could have told mamma something about that.

Well, I saw through the whole thing then. Billy hadn't told me, for fear I would want to go along; so he had sneaked off with Sidney Tracy, and if he hadn't forgotten all about the letter he had made up his mind it would do as well to deliver it when he came home. That's the way Billy's mind works — like Tom Price's stop-watch. It goes up to a certain instant and then it stops short. You'd better believe I was angry. And it didn't make it any easier for me to remember that while I was having this dreadful time at home, and being reproached by everybody, Billy and Sidney Tracy were sitting comfortably under the willows on the edge of the river pulling little minnows out of the water. I knew exactly where they would be — I'd been there with Billy often enough. Just as I thought of that I looked at poor Peggy, sitting in her wrapper in papa's big easy-chair, leaning against a pillow Grandma Evarts had put behind her back, and trying to be calm. She looked so pale and worn and worried and sick that I made up my mind I'd follow those boys to the river and get that letter and bring it home to Peggy — for, of course, I was sure it was for her. I wish you could have seen her face when I said I'd do it, and the way she jumped up from the chair and then blushed and sank back and tried to look as if it didn't matter — with her eyes shining all the time with excitement and hope.

I got on my bicycle and rode off, and I made good time until I crossed the bridge. Then I had to walk along the river, pushing the bicycle, and I came to those two boys so quietly that they never saw me until I was right behind them. They were fishing still, but they had both been swimming — I could tell that by their wet hair and by the damp, mussy look of their clothes. When Billy saw me he turned red and began to make a great fuss over his line. He didn't say a word; he never does when he's surprised or ashamed, so he doesn't speak very often, anyhow; but I broke the painful silence by saying a few words myself. I told Billy how dreadful he had made everybody feel and how they were all blaming me, and I said I'd thank him for that letter to take home to his poor suffering sister. Billy put down his rod, and all the time I talked he was going through his pockets one after the other and getting redder and redder. I was so busy talking that I didn't understand at first just what this meant, but when I stopped and held out my hand and looked at him hard I saw in his guilty face the terrible, terrible fear that he had lost that letter; and I was so frightened that my legs gave way under me, and I sat down on the grass in my fresh blue linen dress, just where they had dripped and made it wet.

All this time Sidney Tracy was going through his pockets, too, and just as I was getting up again in a hurry he took off his cap and emptied his pockets into it. I wish you could have seen what that cap held then — worms, and sticky chewing-gum, and tops, and strings, and hooks, and marbles, and two pieces of molasses candy all soft and messy, and a little bit of a turtle, and a green toad, and a slice of bread-and-butter, and a dirty, soaking, handkerchief that he and Billy had used for a towel. There was something else there, too — a dark, wet, pulpy, soggy-looking thing with pieces of gum and molasses candy and other things sticking to it. Sidney took it out and held it toward me in a proud, light-hearted way:

“There's your letter, all right,” he said, and Billy gave a whoop of joy and called out, “Good-bye, Alice,” as a hint for me to hurry home. I was so anxious to get the letter that I almost took it, but I stopped in time. I hadn't any gloves on, and it was just too dreadful. If you could have seen it you would never have touched it in the world. I got near enough to look at it, though, and then I saw that the address was so dirty and so covered with gum and bait and candy that all I could read was a capital “M” and a small “s” at the beginning and an “ert” at the end; the name between was hidden. I covered my eyes with my hand and gasped out to the boys that I wanted the things taken off it that didn't belong there, and when I looked again Sidney had scraped off the worst of it and was scrubbing the envelope with his wet handkerchief to make it look cleaner. After that you couldn't tell what any letter was, so I just groaned and snatched it from his hands and left those two boys in their disgusting dirt and degradation and went home.

When I got back mamma and Grandma Evarts and Tom Price and Peggy and Aunt Elizabeth were in the parlor, looking more excited than ever, because Maria had been there telling the family about Lorraine. Then she had gone on to Lorraine's and Tom had dropped in to call for her and was waiting to hear about the letter. They were all watching the door when I came in, and Peggy and Aunt Elizabeth started to get up, but sat down again. I stood there hesitating because, of course, I didn't know who to give it to, and Grandma Evarts shot out, “Well, Alice! Well, Well!” as if she was blowing the words at me from a little pea-shooter. Then I began to explain about the address, but before I could say more than two or three words mamma motioned to me and I gave the letter to her.

You could have heard an autumn leaf fall in that room. Mamma put on her glasses and puzzled over the smear on the envelope, and Peggy drew a long breath and jumped up and walked over to mamma and held out her hand. Mamma didn't hesitate a minute.

“Certainly it must be for you, my dear,” she said, and then she added, in a very cold, positive way, “For whom else could it possibly be intended?” No one spoke; but just as Peggy had put her finger under the flap to tear it open, Aunt Elizabeth got up and crossed the room to where mamma and Peggy stood. She spoke very softly and quietly, but she looked queer and excited.

“Wait one moment, my dear,” she said to Peggy. “Very probably the letter is for you, but it is just possible that it may be for some one else. Wouldn't it be safer — wiser — for me to open it?”

Then Peggy cried out, “Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, how dreadful! How can you say such a thing!” Mother had hesitated an instant when Aunt Elizabeth spoke, but now she drew Peggy's head down to her dear, comfy shoulder, and Peggy stayed right there and cried as hard as she could — with little gasps and moans as if she felt dreadfully nervous. Then, for once in my life, I saw my mother angry. She looked over Peggy's head at Aunt Elizabeth, and her face was so dreadful it made me shiver.

“Elizabeth,” she said, and she brought her teeth right down hard on the word, “this is the climax of your idiocy. Have you the audacity to claim here, before me, that this letter from my child's affianced husband is addressed to you?”

Aunt Elizabeth looked very pale now, but when she answered she spoke as quietly as before.

“If it is, Ada,” she said, “it is against my wish and my command. But — it may be.” Then her voice changed as if she were really begging for something.

“Let me open it,” she said. “If it is for Peggy I can tell by the first line or two, even if he does not use the name. Surely it will do no harm if I glance at it.”

Mother looked even angrier than before.

“Well,” she said, “it could do no harm, you think, if you read a letter intended for Peggy, but you don't dare to risk letting Peggy read a letter addressed by Harry Goward to you. This is intolerable, Elizabeth Talbert. You have passed the limit of my endurance — and of my husband's.”

She brought out the last words very slowly, looking Aunt Elizabeth straight in the eyes, and Aunt Elizabeth looked back with her head very high. She has a lovely way of using such expressions as “For the rest” and “As to that,” and she did it now.

“As to that,” she said, “my brother must speak for himself. No one regrets more bitterly than I do this whole most unpleasant affair. I can only say that with all my heart I am trying to straighten it out.”

Grandma Evarts sniffed just then so loudly that we all looked at her, and then, of course, mamma suddenly remembered that I was still there, regarding the scene with wide, intelligent young eyes, and she nodded toward the door, meaning for me to go out. My, but I hated to! I picked up grandma's ball of wool and drew the footstool close to her feet, and looked around to see if I couldn't show her some other delicate girlish attention such as old ladies love, but there wasn't anything, especially as grandma kept motioning for me to leave. So I walked toward the door very slowly, and before I got there I heard Tom Price say:

“Oh, come now; we're making a lot of fuss about nothing. There's a very simple way out of all this. Alice says Goward's still at the hotel. I'll just run down there and explain, and ask him to whom that letter belongs.”

Then I was at the door, and I had to open it and go out. The voices went on inside for a few minutes, but soon I saw Tom come out and I went to him and slipped my arm inside of his and walked with him across the lawn and out to the sidewalk. I don't very often like the things Tom says, but I thought it was clever of him to think of going to ask Harry Goward about the letter, and I told him so to encourage him. He thanked me very politely, and then he stopped and braced his back against the lamp-post on the corner and “fixed me with a stern gaze,” as writers say.

“Look here, Clarry,” he said (“Clarry” is short, he says, for Daily Bugle and Clarion Call, which is “too lengthy for frequent use”), “you're doing a lot of mischief to-day with your rural delivery system for Goward and your news extras about Lorraine. What's this cock-and-bull story you've got up about her, anyway?”

I told him just what I had seen. When I got through he said there was “nothing in it.”

“That bit about her head being among the toast and cake,” he went on, “would be convincing circumstantial evidence of a tragedy if it had been any other woman's head, but it doesn't count with Lorraine — I mean it doesn't represent the complete abandonment to grief which would be implied if it happened in the case of any one else. You must remember that when Lorraine wants to have a comfortable cry she's got to choose between putting her head in the jam on the sofa, or among the wet paint and brushes in the easy-chair, or among the crumbs on the tea-table. As for that photograph, it probably fell off the mantel-piece to the tea-table, instead of falling, as usual, into the coal-hod. To sum up, my dear Clarry, if you had remembered the extreme emotionalism of your sister Lorraine's temperament and the — er — eccentricity of her house-keeping, you would not have permitted yourself to be so sadly misled. Not remembering it, you've done a lot of mischief. All these things being so, no one will believe them. And to-night, when you are safely tucked into your little bed, if you hear the tramping of many feet on the asphalt walks you may know what it will mean. It will mean that your mother and father, and Elizabeth, and Grandma Evarts and Maria and Peggy will be dropping in on Lorraine, each alone and quite casually, of course, to find out what there really is in this terrible rumor. And some of them will believe to their dying day that there was something in it.”

Well, that made me feel very unhappy. For I could see that under Tom's gay exterior and funny way of saying things he really meant every word. Of course I told him that I had wanted to help Lorraine and Peggy because they were so wretched, and he made me promise on the spot that if ever I wanted to help him I'd tell him about it first. Then he went off to the hotel looking more cheerful, and I was left alone with my sad thoughts.

When I got into the house the first thing I saw was Billy sneaking out of the back door. I had meant to have a long and earnest talk with Billy the minute he got home, and point out some of his serious faults, but when I looked at him I saw that mamma or grandma had just done it. He looked red eyed and miserable, and the minute he saw me he began to whistle. Billy never whistles except just before or just after a whipping, so my heart sank, and I was dreadfully sorry for him. I started after him to tell him so, but he made a face at me and ran; and just then Aunt Elizabeth came along the hall and dragged me up to her room and began to ask me all over again about Mr. Goward and all that he said — whether I was perfectly sure he didn't mention any name. She looked worried and unhappy. Then she asked about Lorraine, but in an indifferent voice, as if she was really thinking about something else. I told her all I knew, but she didn't say a word or pay much attention until I mentioned that the man in the photograph was Mr. Lyman Wilde. Then — well, I wish you had seen Aunt Elizabeth! She made me promise afterwards that I'd never tell a single soul what happened, and I won't. But I do wish sometimes that Billy and I lived on a desert island, where there wasn't anybody else. I just can't bear being home when everybody is so unhappy, and when not a single thing I do helps the least little bit!