Tall Jane

Mary E. Wilkins

From The Daily Standard Union: Brooklyn January 28, 1899

“You don't mean that's Jane's skirt, Mrs. Ward?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why, it's larger than yourn.”

“I know it. She's taller than I be. She's grown all out of everything lately. I've let down tucks an' hems an' pieced at the top, an' now her pink gingham is most up to her knees. I had to buy her this new, so she'd look decent to go to school. Jane, come here a minute.”

Jane was out on the doorstep making crocheted trimming. She did not seem to hear.

“Jane,” her mother called again.

Then Jane came in hesitatingly. Her small head, with its mat of fair braids, dropped forlornly; her slender shoulders were bent. She pulled down her pink skirt nervously, trying to make it longer.

“Stand up here 'side of me,” ordered her mother. “I want Mrs. Mason to see how much taller you be.”

Jane's pretty young face flushed pink. She stood beside her mother, and the tears started in her eyes, although she tried to smile.

“There, you see she's a good half head taller,” said her mother.

“You can't get through the door if you don't stop pretty soon, Jane,” laughed Mrs. Mason, who was visiting the Wards. “I never see such a sight. An' she ain't over 14?”

“She ain't 15 till next month,” replied Mrs. Ward. “An' if she don't git her growth till she's 18 I don't know where she'll be. Her father tells her he's going to hire her out by an' by for a telegraph pole.”

Jane laughed feebly when her mother and Mrs. Mason did. Then she stole back to the doorstep, and the tears rolled down her cheeks, and she made a mistake in her edging. It was nearly time for her to start for school. Presently her mother came with her dinner pail. “Here's your dinner,” said she. “You'd better start before long, so as not to hurry. It's a pretty warm mornin'.”

“Yes'm,” said Jane. She kept her face turned away from her mother so her tear-stained eyes should not be noticed. Before she went into the house to get her hat and her schoolbooks she ran across the yard to the well and put some water on her eyes while she pretended to be drinking out of the tin dipper.

“You shall have your new dress to wear to-morrow,” said her mother, as she finally started with her schoolbooks under her arm and the dinner pail swinging. “You shan't wear that short thing again.”

Jane tugged at her pink dress skirt as she went out of the yard. She even stooped a little to make it look longer. Nobody knew how sore Jane's heart was over her height. She had a mile to walk to school, and she never thought of anything else all the way. She had done all her arithmetic examples, and learned to bound the countries of South America, so her mind was quite free for personal worries. As she went on, she kept looking at the green branches of the trees beside the road. Once in a while she reached up and tried to touch one. When she could her heart sank. “There ain't another girl in school could,” she reflected, miserably.

Presently she came to a large white house, with a crab apple tree in the front yard. Mary Etta and Maria Starr lived there, and she saw the flutter of their blue dresses at the gate. They were waiting for her.

“Hello!” said Mary Etta, as Jane drew near.

“Hello,” responded Jane, trying to make her voice sound cheerful.

Maria was eating a crab apple, and did not say “Hello!” but presently both she and her sister stared wonderingly at Jane.

“What's the matter?” asked Mary Etta, finally.

“Nothin's the matter.”

“Yes, there is, too. You've been cryin'.”

Jane said nothing.

Maria offered her a crab apple. Jane shook her head at it impatiently.

“She's mad,” said Maria, who was quick tempered herself.

“I ain't,” returned Jane.

“Yes, you are. Come, Mary Etta. I ain't goin' to walk with her.”

But Mary Etta lingered. “What's the matter?” she asked again, quite lovingly.

“Nothin's the matter. I wish you'd let me alone,” cried Jane, with a burst of tears. That was enough. Mary Etta and Maria both hurried up the road with curt switches of their blue starched skirts, and Jane plodded miserably on behind. She was no older than the Starr girls, but she was head and shoulders above them, and she had to have her hair done up, while they wore theirs down their backs. She was so large for her age her mother thought it looked better.

Poor Jane was the tallest girl in school, and not only that, but the tallest scholar. Not one of the boys was as tall as she, and not only that, but she was taller than the teacher. It did seem to Jane that the committee ought to have chosen a teacher who was taller, just out of regard to the becoming and suitable appearance of the school. A stranger might almost have taken her for the teacher, especially since her hair was done up.

When she reached the schoolhouse she hung her hat on one high, lone peg above the two regular rows on the girls' side of the entry. This had been especially allotted to her because she was the only one who could reach it. Every time Jane hung up her hat she felt a little foolish pang of mortification.

When the bell had rung, Jane sat at her desk, her pink shoulders and her pretty pink face above all the others. She looked like a tall, pink hollyhock in a bed of daisies. This was a trying moment for her. The committee came to visit the school, and a strange gentleman and his wife came with them. The wife wore a changeable silk dress, with flowers and a white plume in her bonnet, and all the children stared at her. Jane distinctly saw this strange lady turn her white plumed head toward her, then whisper to her husband. Then she saw him look at her and ask one of the committeemen who that tall girl was. She could tell what he said by the motion of his lips. Then he told his wife, and a little smile stole over her serene face between its soft curls of black hair. Jane thought she was laughing at her. She did not dream that the lady had noticed her because her face was so pretty and not because she was so tall.

The arithmetic class was called, and Jane had to put an example on the blackboard. She begun quite low down.

“Put your sum higher on the board so as to leave room for those who cannot reach,” the teacher called out suddenly. “Height has its advantages,” remarked one of the committeemen affably. The scholars tittered.

Jane rubbed out her example and stretched her slender arm up to the top of the board. Her face was blushing painfully, and there was such a lump in her throat she could hardly speak when she explained her example, and everyone looked up curiously at the sound of her changed voice.

The geography class came next. The visitors were still there. Jane filed out with the rest and then stood in the centre of a long row like the apex of a pyramid. She thought she had her lesson perfectly, but she missed in bounding Uruguay and had to go down. A little bit of a girl in a long sleeved apron went above her, and she had a conviction that the visitors were saying, “What, that great, tall, grown up girl, with her hair done up, missing!”

However, the change brought her next to Robert Carnes, who gave a sympathetic glance at Jane, which she felt rather than saw, but it comforted her. She and Robert were near neighbors and when they were children had played together a great deal.

When Jane went back to her desk, Maria Starr passed over a slate slyly. There was a picture on it. Jane knew directly what it was meant for, although the drawing was very bad indeed. There was a long row of figures in triangular skirts and parallelogrammic trousers with their feet turned out at right angles on a line. These figures were of a uniformly small height; but passing them with her handkerchief to her eyes, and tears, represented by little dabs of the slate pencil, falling plentifully, was a very tall girl indeed. There was not quite room for her on the slate, and the top of her head was left to the imagination.

Jane did not smile nor look at Maria; she simply rubbed the picture out and handed back the slate. She wanted to cry, but she would not let the tears come. She pretended to be studying her spelling lesson very intently.

But the worst came when one of the committeemen addressed the school and in the course of his remarks said distinctly that intellect was not to be measured by size, and he often noticed that the smallest scholars had their lessons much better than those who were taller and older. Jane felt that he referred to her and little Hattie Baker and the bounding of Uruguay. Her cheeks burned hotter and hotter. Maria Starr, who was three desks off in the same row, leaned forward until she could see her and tittered. Mary Etta, in the seat behind, pulled her sister's arm to make her stop, but she did not heed.

Jane saw the committee and the strange lady and gentleman go out, while the teacher stood courtesying at the door, and all through a nearing cloud of tears. When the door closed after the company, she hooped her arms around her face and laid it down on the desk. The teacher came and stood beside her and asked her what the matter was. Jane only shook her head and wept.

“Are you sick?” asked the teacher, bending low over her.

“No, ma'am,” sobbed Jane. She would not say another word, and the teacher went back to her desk and called a class. She was a pretty little woman, with black hair arranged in cunning little scallops all around her temples. She kept looking at Jane's bent head and shaking pink shoulders. “Jane,” she said presently in a clear, authoritative voice, “you may go out and get a pail of water.”

The teacher meant it very kindly. It was considered quite a privilege to get a pail of water and then pass it around in a tin dipper. She thought it would serve to distract Jane's mind from her grief, whatever it might be. But it was dreadful for poor Jane to pull herself up to her full height and crawl slowly down the aisle, with her arms crooked in a pink ring around her face, and all the school looking. She stumbled over a protruding nail, and everybody tittered, and the teacher called out “Hush!” sharply.

Jane went out with the water pail, but instead of filling it from the pump near the schoolhouse she set it down on the platform and fled desperately down the road to a little bridge over a brook. She ran around the corner under the bridge and crawled into some bushes on the bank of the brook. Her mind was made up. She would not go back to school. She had never been as miserable in her life, and the misery was all the greater because she was ashamed of it and ashamed to confess it. She did not want to tell even her mother that she minded so much because she was tall. She crouched low down in the bushes and wept. She was almost concealed by the coarse weeds and foliage of late summer. Some little flowers like orange butterflies danced in her face. Presently she heard a quick patter of bare feet on the bridge, then a break in the bushes.

“Hello!” called a hesitating voice. Jane made no sound.

“Ho, you needn't play you ain't there!” said the voice. “I see you come in here. I was looking out of the window. I raised my hand when teacher asked where you was, and she sent me out to fetch the water and tell you to come in.”

Jane looked up and saw a boy's face peering down at her from the top of the bank, his brown cheeks flushing, his red lips parting in a bashful laugh.

“I ain't ever goin' back to school, Robbie,” said Jane, with a sob. All the old childish comradeship seemed to come back to her. She had not seen much of him for a year or two. She had played more with girls.

“Why ain't you?” asked Robert.

“Oh, 'cause I ain't!”

“I saw that picture on the slate,” said Robert.

Jane sobbed.

“I don't care. You're the prettiest girl in school anyhow,” said Robert in a shamefaced way.

“Why, Robert Carnes! I ain't!”

“Yes, you are.”

“Oh, Robbie! Maybe I shall be — taller than I am now.”

“I don't care if you are, you'll always be the prettiest. Come along.”

“I ain't goin' back to school.”

“Teacher won't like it.”

“I can't help it.”

“Oh, come along.”

“I won't.” The girl's pink face turned up toward him like a pink flower from the bushes. There was a look in it that the boy knew well. He knew that when his old playmate said “I won't” in that tone she didn't.

Robert seated himself on the bank and began to whistle. Jane looked at him. She could see his slender shoulders in his little homemade blue and white shirt, and his handsome face gazing ahead abstractedly as he whistled.

“Why don't you go back to school?” she asked hesitatingly.

“Oh, I ain't going back if you ain't.”

“Why not, I'd like to know?”

“'Cause I ain't. Say, Mary Etta has got her head down on her desk crying 'cause you don't come in, and I seen Maria passing along some crab apples to put in your desk.”

Jane said nothing. Robert whistled again.

“Robert Carnes, you go right straight back to school!” ordered Jane.

Robert went on with his tune.

“Teacher won't like it,” said Jane.

“I know it. I s'pose she'll lick me, 'cause I'm a boy. I don't care.” Robert whistled.

Jane waited a minute. “Well, I'll come,” said she. “You go ahead and get the water.”

There was a leap of bare feet over the bridge, and Jane came out from the swarm of flower butterflies, with undefined conviction that brought comfort in her childish heart, that, however tall she grew, although she might outgrow all her dresses, she would never outgrow love.