Serena Ann's First Valentine

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Pocket Magazine Vol. III No. 6 (April, 1897)

Saint Valentine's Day came on a Thursday, that year. Tuesday, the twelfth, was very warm, almost spring-like; people listened involuntarily for bluebirds and robins, and looked at the elm branches against the sky, as if they expected to see leaves. All that winter, so far, had been a very mild one. That morning, Serena Ann Wells had found two ladies'-delights blooming in a sheltered spot, near the doorstep in the south yard, and carried them to school to give to the teacher. The scholars crowded up to the desk to see them, and the teacher said she would call them her valentine. That set Serena Ann to thinking. After school began, she wrote a little note — it was against the rules, but her curiosity was suddenly too much for her — on her slate, and held it under cover of her desk, so Tabitha Green, who sat next, could read.

“Did you ever hav a valintin?” she inquired in plain round characters. Serena Ann's penmanship was unusually good, but she was a naturally poor speller.

Tabitha nodded. Serena Ann looked impressed. Presently Tabitha wrote on her own slate one word, “You.” She omitted the interrogation point, which she could not make very well. Instead, she raised her eyebrows, which was really more eloquent.

Serena Ann shook her head. Tabitha Green held up one hand, with fingers and thumb spread, and the other with the small index finger extended, and the fingers and thumb curled under; that meant she had received six valentines. Serena Ann began to write on her slate again, when suddenly, soft folds of blue cashmere swept against her face, and a slim white hand reached out for the slate. The teacher, Miss Cornelia Little, had come softly to her other side. “Communicating, Serena Ann?” inquired Miss Little, gently. Miss Little never raised nor quickened her voice, still she had the reputation of being a very strict teacher.

Serena Ann gave a little sigh, which was almost a sob, of assent. The teacher held up the slate, and read: “Were they pretty?”

The scholars craned their necks to see. Serena Ann's writing was so large, and plain, that those who sat near could read easily. There was a chuckle, which Miss Little quieted instantly with a look. “Were you communicating also?” she said to Tabitha Green.

“Yes, ma'am,” replied Tabitha disconsolately.

“Hold up your slate.”

Tabitha obeyed. There was nothing on the slate, however. Tabitha was very quick; she had erased the “You” with as much speed as she lowered her interrogative eyebrows.

“You may write what you had on the slate over again,” said Miss Little with quiet decision, and Tabitha wrote.

Then the two little girls were bidden to go out in front of the school, and there they stood for a half hour, with their slates suspended from their necks by twine strings, hanging over their pinafores, like breastplates.

Tabitha did not mind the punishment half as much as Serena Ann did. She was rather a privileged character, both at home and in school, and was sustained under correction by an unshaken confidence in the love and admiration of all around her. She was a very pretty little girl, with long smooth yellow curls tied back with a blue ribbon, and exceedingly pink cheeks. She looked, as she stood there, at her mates, and received open glances of commiseration from the girls, and shamefaced ones from the boys. She toed out prettily, with one dainty little foot pointing out from the hollow of the other, clasped her small hands meekly, and saw with great complacency herself reflected in her schoolmates' eyes. Tabitha Green, child though she was, was almost impenetrable to punishment. But poor Serena Ann raised her blue pinafore, with her little piteous hands, to her face, and sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed, and shook as if she were caught in a very whirlwind of grief. It was the first time she had ever stood in the floor, the first time she had ever been punished in school, and she had given two ladies'-delights to the teacher that very morning. Somehow, that last stung her worst of all. It was, to her, the first prick of the serpent's tooth of ingratitude. It seemed to her that, if she were the teacher, and a little girl had brought her flowers in February, when flowers were scarce, that she would not have made her stand in the floor for a first offence. Then there was another reason for Serena Ann's grief: her Grandfather Judd had promised her a book, if she were not punished in school all that year.

“There is no use in offering her a reward, father, she never is punished,” Serena Ann's mother had said proudly, and Serena Ann had heard her. Now she would lose the book, and her grandfather and mother would lose all confidence in her, and all through her curiosity about valentines, and she had never even had one.

She sobbed so hard, that she disturbed the school; she was almost hysterical.

Miss Little came and took her gently by the arm. She pitied her so, that she wished she had not made her stand in the floor, and yet it would not do for her to yield. “Serena Ann,” she whispered, “you must calm yourself, and not cry so. I cannot have it. I shall have to send you home, if you are not more quiet.” That would be more than Serena could bear, to be sent home from school. She quieted her sobs, with a convulsive effort. After a while she peered pitifully over her pinafore, and her tearful eyes met Johnny Starr's compassionate ones.

Johnny Starr was a new boy, whose parents had moved into Serena Ann's neighborhood the summer before. He was a pretty, quiet boy, and Serena Ann's mother had told his mother that she had just as soon have him come over to see Serena Ann, as a girl. Serena Ann, herself, thought him almost as good as a girl. She went coasting and sliding with him — he was better than a girl, in that kind of sport, because he always dragged her up hill on her sled, and that another girl would not do. Johnny Starr had even been known to play dolls, to please Serena Ann, although he had made her promise never to tell the other boys.

Now, when Serena Ann met his handsome brown eyes, she felt a comforting sense of championship. Johnny Starr, moreover, gave his head an indignant jerk toward Miss Little, which did her good, though she loved Miss Little.

Recess came soon after the girls were released from their position in the floor, and everybody went out, the weather was so warm. Johnny Starr followed Serena Ann into the north-east corner of the school yard, where there was a little clump of pine-trees.

He took out his jackknife, and began cutting a “J. S.” in a pine-trunk, as if that were what he had come there for.

“Say, what did you write that about — what did she send you out in the floor for?” he whispered, as he cut away, industriously. Serena Ann explained.

“It's mean,” declared Johnny Starr. “Say, Serena Ann —”


“It's too warm to go sliding after school, we'd slump through, and there ain't enough snow to coast on. If you won't say anything about it, and your mother's willing, I'd jest as lief come over and play dolls.”

Serena Ann smiled gratefully at him. It seemed to her, at that moment, that he was better than a girl. Then Johnny Starr snapped his jackknife together, and went off to the other boys, and Tabitha Green, and Miranda Sall, the doctor's daughter, joined Serena Ann. Miranda was one of the big girls, very bright-eyed and red-cheeked. She was quite a belle, and a power in the school. She wore finer clothes than any other girl, too, and looped up her black curls with a comb, and had spending money.

She put a plump protecting arm around Serena Ann.

“Don't you feel bad one bit,” said she. “I had stood in the floor, dozens of times, before I was as old as you. Didn't you ever have a valentine, Serena Ann?”

Serena Ann shook her head, and looked up gratefully into the girl's handsome, glowing face. No words could express her admiration for Miranda.

“Well, maybe you'll get one this year — stranger things have happened,” Miranda remarked meaningly, as she turned away.

“I don't believe but what she'll send you one,” whispered Tabitha Green, and Serena Ann was seized with delightful, though tremulous anticipation.

She looked across at Miranda, after school began, and thought that she must be the most beautiful girl in the whole world.

Serena Ann's spirits revived, as the forenoon wore on. She was perfect in her arithmetic, did an example on the blackboard, which no one else could do, and she went to the head in the spelling class. At noon the teacher called her to the desk, gave her a seed cake out of her own dinner basket, and told her how sorry she had felt to be obliged to punish her, when she had always been such a good girl, and Serena Ann, though she wept a little more, was sweetly comforted.

Moreover, the teacher suggested that her Grandfather Judd might be willing, since it was only the twelfth of February, to let her start afresh in her efforts to win the book, and Serena Ann felt quite sure that he would. She could not remember that her grandfather had ever refused her anything. Her mother often said that she feared he would spoil her.

Serena Ann had, during all the rest of that day, a vague impression of a kindly intent toward her from everybody. She could not have expressed it plainly, but she felt a delightful surprise, as if she had a present, when people looked at her, especially Johnny Starr, and the teacher, Miranda, her cousin Sam Wells, who was one of the biggest boys in school — quite a young man — and, when she got home, her Grandfather Judd.

Her grandfather, of his own accord, proposed giving her another trial to win his offered reward. “Might just as well call it the year begins the thirteenth of February, as the first of January,” said he, and Serena Ann was radiant. Then her father asked if she didn't want to go a sleigh ride with him. He had to go to the gristmill before supper.

“The two will spoil that child,” Mrs. Wells said, when Serena Ann had gone to put on her hood and hat. “By good rights she ought to be punished at home when she has been punished at school, and here they are rewarding her.” However, if the truth had been told, Serena Ann's mother would have much preferred to punish the teacher. When Serena Ann came in, all ready for her sleigh ride, she looked at the soft innocent face peeping out of the red hood, and wondered indignantly how Miss Little could have punished such a dear child for a first offence.

Grandfather Judd turned to her, when the sleigh bells had dingled out of the yard. “Tell you one thing, Maria,” said he, “that child's goin' to have a valentine to pay for havin' so much trouble.”

“Now, father, I don't know. I'm afraid it's kind of foolish —”

“No, it ain't foolish, either. Child's been cryin' her eyes out.”

“Yes, I guess she has been crying; her eyes were red, and she cries easy,” admitted her mother. “I don't like to have her enter, she is so nervous.”

“She's goin' to have the handsomest valentine in Solomon Badger's store,” declared Grandfather Judd, rising as he spoke.

“Now, father, don't you to go to paying all creation for it; a cheap one will please her just as well,” charged his daughter, but she got his great coat and cap and mittens for him, with alacrity.

Grandfather Judd was a heavy man, and subject to rheumatism, which seized him in his right knee, before he had gone far on the snowy ground. He limped stiffly and painfully on, however. Solomon Badger's little store was about a half mile distant, and when he got there he had to sit down, and get his breath, before he looked at the valentines.

There was quite a stock of valentines in the boxes on the counter, and Solomon Badger's grandson, 'Lonzo, was waiting to sell them. The trade had been quite brisk since morning, though it was the day before Valentine's Day.

'Lonzo Badger waited for Grandfather Judd to inspect the valentines, and sucked a lemon drop the while. 'Lonzo was fifteen, very stout, and considered not very bright. However, he could sell valentines, for the prices were all marked on the back, and his grandfather was not afraid to trust him. Solomon Badger's eyes were poor, and his granddaughter Sophia, 'Lonzo's sister, though she was called “bright enough,” was decidedly uncertain, and more given to thinking about her mittens and her curls, than a good trade. So, when Solomon Badger could press 'Lonzo into service with safety, he was glad to do so.

Presently Grandfather Judd got up with an effort, and went over to look at the valentines. One immediately caught his eye. It was much the largest and handsomest there, a beautiful combination of lace paper, embossed doors, roses and angels.

“How much is this one?” inquired Grandfather Judd.

“Marked on back,” mumbled 'Lonzo sucking his lemon drop.

Grandfather Judd looked, and saw that the valentine was marked fifty cents. That seemed to him rather an extravagant price. He made up his mind never to tell how much he gave, and to scratch out the mark. But he could not resist the temptation, it was so decidedly the handsomest valentine there.

He bought it and started out with it, then suddenly changed his mind. He remembered that the post-office was a quarter of a mile farther; that his rheumatism was bad, and that it was a day too early to post the valentine. He remembered, also, that his son-in-law was going to Westdale to trade a cow the next day, and that it would perhaps not be convenient to get to the post-office before Valentine's Day. So he gave 'Lonzo Badger five cents; told him to buy a one-cent stamp for the valentine and put it in the office the next day, and he might keep the remaining four cents for himself. “Guess he's smart enough for that,” said the old man to himself, as he toiled home. He never reflected that the envelope was not directed and that he had not told 'Lonzo for whom it was intended.

As for 'Lonzo, there was a certain kind of red and white peppermint confection which he very much favored, called a kiss. Five cents would just purchase one. His appetite for sweets was abnormal, and his conscience somewhat sluggish, possibly as a result.

He put Grandfather Judd's five cents in his pocket, and as soon as his grandfather finished supper and came in to tend store, he slipped out, raced down the road to the shop where his favorite sweetmeat was on sale, and bought one. As for the valentine, he had taken that out from the envelope, and placed it back in stock.

It was about half past seven o'clock when Miss Little, the school-teacher, came in with the young man who was paying her attention. They had been taking a little stroll in the moonlight, and she had been telling him how she had punished that dear little Serena Ann Wells for whispering about a valentine; how sorry she was, and how she had wished to send her a valentine, to atone — and the young man had been thinking how sweet and tender-hearted she must be.

Miss Little at once selected the same valentine which had pleased Grandfather Judd.

“This is the prettiest,” said she, “I will take this.” She furthermore decided, as Grandfather Judd had done, that, since it was a day too soon and there might be difficulty about having the valentine posted, if she took it home, she would leave it at the store and have it sent from there.

“I suppose some of you will be going to the post-office to-morrow,” said she.

“Oh, yes, ma'am,” replied Solomon Badger, blinking at her. He had not the least idea who she was.

The school-teacher did not repeat Grandfather Judd's mistake, but she made one of her own. She borrowed a pen and ink of Solomon Badger, and carefully directed the envelope which was to hold the valentine, to Miss Serena Ann Dodd, Riggsville, N. Y.

Dodd was the name of the young man who was waiting upon the school-teacher, and when she married him she was to go to Riggsville, N. Y., to live.

After the envelope was directed, Miss Little gave Solomon Badger a penny to buy a stamp, and she and Mr. Dodd bade him good-evening and went out. After they had gone, Solomon Badger spied the envelope; discovered that the valentine was not enclosed and began to search for the one she had chosen. He held up many to the light, and finally thought he had it, but he was mistaken. It was quite another valentine than the one Miss Little had purchased. It was posted next day, went to Riggsville, N. Y., and finally brought up in the dead letter office, where it must be now.

It was eight o'clock when the valentine was sold for the third time to Miranda Sall. She came in with another girl, Lottie Goodwin, and both had their heads together over some valentines which Lottie had received, early as it was. They were so much interested in them that Miranda did not hurry about her purchase, but finally she selected the same valentine which had suited Grandfather Judd and Miss Little, and addressed the envelope properly this time, and gave it to Lottie Goodwin to post, because her way home lay past the office. Miranda never thought about it being a day too soon.

The girls parted at Solomon Badger's door, Miranda going one way and Lottie another.

Lottie put the new valentine in a silk bag which she carried on her arm. It contained, also, her other valentines which she had just received. When she reached the office, it was closed, and she had to deposit the valentine in the outside letter-box on the door. It was dark, and just then she caught sight of a man coming, and that startled her. Thus it happened that she drew out of her silk bag, Serena Ann's new valentine, and one of her old ones; dropped the old one in the letter-box, and the new one on the snow, and sped along home, never dreaming what she had done.

The next morning Serena Ann's cousin, Sam Wells, drove over from the east village, where he lived, very early, in order to get the horse shod before school, and passing the post-office saw something white on a snow-bank. He stopped; got out, whoaing all the time, because his horse was restive, and investigated. “I declare, it's a valentine,” cried Sam Wells. He tried to pick it up, but it was frozen down. There had been quite a thaw the day before, and the weather had grown colder during the night. Sam was very careful, but he had to leave the addressed part of the envelope in the snow.

He got in the sleigh, gathered up the reins, and examined the valentine as he went along. “Declare, I'll take it in to Badger's and if they don't know anything about it, I'll send it to Serena Ann,” said he.

Sam Wells went to Solomon Badger's about fifteen minutes before school time and found Sophia in attendance. She blushed and smiled, when he entered. She considered Sam quite a desirable beau.

“Hullo, Sophia,” said he, “ever see this before!”

Sophia bent her pink face over the valentine, then raised it. “No, I guess not,” said she, looking up in Sam's face.

“Look sharp and see —”

“I did look sharp.”

“No, you didn't. You were looking at me.”

“You great, conceited boy, you. I'll never speak to you again.”

“Well, you did,” returned Sam, honestly. “Did you ever see it before, Sophia? I found it out by the post-office. I thought if you knew anything about it, if it came from here, I would bring it back, but if you didn't I'd send it to my cousin, Serena Ann.”

“I never set eyes on it before,” replied Sophia, shortly. But she still smiled coquettishly at Sam.

“Well, then, I want to buy an envelope, and I wish you'd address it —”

“Address it yourself,” Sophia interrupted saucily.

“Now, Sophia, my hands are cold, and I can't write fine enough to go on a valentine. You do it and send it down to the office by 'Lonzo, that's a good girl. I've got to hurry, because it's school time, too.”

“Well,” said Sophia, with a pout of sham reluctance. “Leave it here, then.”

And Sam left the valentine, and a penny for postage, with the envelope which he had selected, and hastily went his way. Sophia took up the envelope to address it, and then a sleigh stopped at the door, and a young man from the east village came in and asked her to go a little way for a drive. Sophia called her grandfather in to mind the store, got herself ready, jumped into the sleigh with the young man, and was away. And that was the last she thought of Sam Wells and Serena Ann's valentine. Her grandfather shook the envelope, when he came in, discovered the valentine in it, took it out, and returned it to its old place.

It was not sold again until after school that night, and then Johnny Starr was the purchaser. He had shaken the iron savings-bank, in which he had deposited his money, earned by selling berries the summer before, until he got fifty-two cents, all in pennies. He gave them to Solomon Badger, for the valentine and an envelope, and watched anxiously while the old man counted them; it took him a long while. Then he trudged off with his purchase. There was no question of posting it, in Johnny Starr's mind, because he had not shaken out enough pennies to buy a stamp.

He gave it to Serena Ann, the next morning before school, slipping it into her hands when nobody was looking. Serena Ann looked at it, colored high, then turned white. She was almost ready to cry. To think she had a valentine, and such a valentine! She showed it to one, then another; by noon everybody in school had seen that valentine, teacher and all. “Johnny gave it to me,” she admitted innocently, with a grateful loving glance at Johnny.

“Who did you say gave it to you, Serena Ann?” asked Sam Wells, with an astonished air.

“Johnny Starr.” Sam Wells whistled. At noon Miss Little called her up to the desk, and questioned her. Then she called up Johnny Starr, and asked where he got the valentine. “At Mr. Solomon Badger's,” replied Johnny stoutly. Serena Ann did not know what it all meant. She was bewildered, when Miranda Sall, and Lottie Goodwin, and the other big girls came to her at afternoon recess, and told her that Miranda gave her that valentine, and not Johnny. She was more bewildered, when she got home and found that her Grandfather Judd had given it to her. It began to seem to poor little Serena Ann as if everything was out of proportion, and topsy-turvey, and people were behaving like fairy stories. However, Serena Ann was not the only person who was bewildered. Her elders were as much nonplussed as she. For several days the whole village was in a turmoil over Serena Ann's valentine. Everybody questioned wildly, who had or had not bought it. Johnny Starr was accused of stealing it; Sam Wells for finding it and keeping it unlawfully, and both were acquitted. Sam, because he did not seem to have kept it, after all, and Johnny because of the testimony of his parents and Solomon Badger. 'Lonzo Badger was discovered to be guilty of petty dishonesty, and whipped with a birch stick, but that did not go far toward the solution of the whole mystery. Some of it was always dark in the minds of the village. It seemed unquestionable that one valentine had been sold several times, and Solomon Badger offered to refund money. But it was difficult to ascertain to whom it was due, and he was poor, so all concerned refused any restitution.

At all events, Serena Ann had her valentine, her first one. And she never had any doubt as to who had given it to her: it was Johnny Starr, and he had bought it with his huckleberry money, which he had shaken out of his iron bank.