Daddy-Long-LegsJean Webster / Romance & Love
Copyright 1912 by The Century Company
The first Wednesday in every month was a Perfectly Awful Day--a day tobe awaited with dread, endured with courage and forgotten with haste.Every floor must be spotless, every chair dustless, and every bedwithout a wrinkle. Ninety-seven squirming little orphans must bescrubbed and combed and buttoned into freshly starched ginghams; andall ninety-seven reminded of their manners, and told to say, 'Yes,sir,' 'No, sir,' whenever a Trustee spoke.
It was a distressing time; and poor Jerusha Abbott, being the oldestorphan, had to bear the brunt of it. But this particular firstWednesday, like its predecessors, finally dragged itself to a close.Jerusha escaped from the pantry where she had been making sandwichesfor the asylum's guests, and turned upstairs to accomplish her regularwork. Her special care was room F, where eleven little tots, from fourto seven, occupied eleven little cots set in a row. Jerusha assembledher charges, straightened their rumpled frocks, wiped their noses, andstarted them in an orderly and willing line towards the dining-room toengage themselves for a blessed half hour with bread and milk and prunepudding.
Then she dropped down on the window seat and leaned throbbing templesagainst the cool glass. She had been on her feet since five thatmorning, doing everybody's bidding, scolded and hurried by a nervousmatron. Mrs. Lippett, behind the scenes, did not always maintain thatcalm and pompous dignity with which she faced an audience of Trusteesand lady visitors. Jerusha gazed out across a broad stretch of frozenlawn, beyond the tall iron paling that marked the confines of theasylum, down undulating ridges sprinkled with country estates, to thespires of the village rising from the midst of bare trees.
The day was ended--quite successfully, so far as she knew. TheTrustees and the visiting committee had made their rounds, and readtheir reports, and drunk their tea, and now were hurrying home to theirown cheerful firesides, to forget their bothersome little charges foranother month. Jerusha leaned forward watching with curiosity--and atouch of wistfulness--the stream of carriages and automobiles thatrolled out of the asylum gates. In imagination she followed first oneequipage, then another, to the big houses dotted along the hillside.She pictured herself in a fur coat and a velvet hat trimmed withfeathers leaning back in the seat and nonchalantly murmuring 'Home' tothe driver. But on the door-sill of her home the picture grew blurred.
Jerusha had an imagination--an imagination, Mrs. Lippett told her, thatwould get her into trouble if she didn't take care--but keen as it was,it could not carry her beyond the front porch of the houses she wouldenter. Poor, eager, adventurous little Jerusha, in all her seventeenyears, had never stepped inside an ordinary house; she could notpicture the daily routine of those other human beings who carried ontheir lives undiscommoded by orphans.
Je-ru-sha Ab-bott You are wan-ted In the of-fice, And I think you'd Better hurry up!
Tommy Dillon, who had joined the choir, came singing up the stairs anddown the corridor, his chant growing louder as he approached room F.Jerusha wrenched herself from the window and refaced the troubles oflife.
'Who wants me?' she cut into Tommy's chant with a note of sharp anxiety.
Mrs. Lippett in the office, And I think she's mad. Ah-a-men!
Tommy piously intoned, but his accent was not entirely malicious. Eventhe most hardened little orphan felt sympathy for an erring sister whowas summoned to the office to face an annoyed matron; and Tommy likedJerusha even if she did sometimes jerk him by the arm and nearly scrubhis nose off.
Jerusha went without comment, but with two parallel lines on her brow.What could have gone wrong, she wondered. Were the sandwiches not thinenough? Were there shells in the nut cakes? Had a lady visitor seenthe hole in Susie Hawthorn's stocking? Had--O horrors!--one of thecherubic little babes in her own room F 'sauced' a Trustee?
The long lower hall had not been lighted, and as she came downstairs, alast Trustee stood, on the point of departure, in the open door thatled to the porte-cochere. Jerusha caught only a fleeting impression ofthe man--and the impression consisted entirely of tallness. He waswaving his arm towards an automobile waiting in the curved drive. Asit sprang into motion and approached, head on for an instant, theglaring headlights threw his shadow sharply against the wall inside.The shadow pictured grotesquely elongated legs and arms that ran alongthe floor and up the wall of the corridor. It looked, for all theworld, like a huge, wavering daddy-long-legs.
Jerusha's anxious frown gave place to quick laughter. She was bynature a sunny soul, and had always snatched the tiniest excuse to beamused. If one could derive any sort of entertainment out of theoppressive fact of a Trustee, it was something unexpected to the good.She advanced to the office quite cheered by the tiny episode, andpresented a smiling face to Mrs. Lippett. To her surprise the matronwas also, if not exactly smiling, at least appreciably affable; shewore an expression almost as pleasant as the one she donned forvisitors.
'Sit down, Jerusha, I have something to say to you.' Jerusha droppedinto the nearest chair and waited with a touch of breathlessness. Anautomobile flashed past the window; Mrs. Lippett glanced after it.
'Did you notice the gentleman who has just gone?'
'I saw his back.'
'He is one of our most affluential Trustees, and has given large sumsof money towards the asylum's support. I am not at liberty to mentionhis name; he expressly stipulated that he was to remain unknown.'
Jerusha's eyes widened slightly; she was not accustomed to beingsummoned to the office to discuss the eccentricities of Trustees withthe matron.
'This gentleman has taken an interest in several of our boys. Youremember Charles Benton and Henry Freize? They were both sent throughcollege by Mr.--er--this Trustee, and both have repaid with hard workand success the money that was so generously expended. Other paymentthe gentleman does not wish. Heretofore his philanthropies have beendirected solely towards the boys; I have never been able to interesthim in the slightest degree in any of the girls in the institution, nomatter how deserving. He does not, I may tell you, care for girls.'
'No, ma'am,' Jerusha murmured, since some reply seemed to be expectedat this point.
'To-day at the regular meeting, the question of your future was broughtup.'
Mrs. Lippett allowed a moment of silence to fall, then resumed in aslow, placid manner extremely trying to her hearer's suddenly tightenednerves.
'Usually, as you know, the children are not kept after they aresixteen, but an exception was made in your case. You had finished ourschool at fourteen, and having done so well in your studies--notalways, I must say, in your conduct--it was determined to let you go onin the village high school. Now you are finishing that, and of coursethe asylum cannot be responsible any longer for your support. As itis, you have had two years more than most.'
Mrs. Lippett overlooked the fact that Jerusha had worked hard for herboard during those two years, that the convenience of the asylum hadcome first and her education second; that on days like the present shewas kept at home to scrub.
'As I say, the question of your future was brought up and your recordwas discussed--thoroughly discussed.'
Mrs. Lippett brought accusing eyes to bear upon the prisoner in thedock, and the prisoner looked guilty because it seemed to beexpected--not because she could remember any strikingly black pages inher record.
'Of course the usual disposition of one in your place would be to putyou in a position where you could begin to work, but you have done wellin school in certain branches; it seems that your work in English haseven been brilliant. Miss Pritchard, who is on our visiting committee,is also on the school board; she has been talking with your rhetoricteacher, and made a speech in your favour. She also read aloud anessay that you had written entitled, Blue Wednesday.'
Jerusha's guilty expression this time was not assumed.
'It seemed to me that you showed little gratitude in holding up toridicule the institution that has done so much for you. Had you notmanaged to be funny I doubt if you would have been forgiven. Butfortunately for you, Mr.--, that is, the gentleman who has justgone--appears to have an immoderate sense of humour. On the strengthof that impertinent paper, he has offered to send you to college.'
'To college?' Jerusha's eyes grew big. Mrs. Lippett nodded.
'He waited to discuss the terms with me. They are unusual. Thegentleman, I may say, is erratic. He believes that you haveoriginality, and he is planning to educate you to become a writer.'
'A writer?' Jerusha's mind was numbed. She could only repeat Mrs.Lippett's words.
'That is his wish. Whether anything will come of it, the future willshow. He is giving you a very liberal allowance, almost, for a girlwho has never had any experience in taking care of money, too liberal.But he planned the matter in detail, and I did not feel free to makeany suggestions. You are to remain here through the summer, and MissPritchard has kindly offered to superintend your outfit. Your boardand tuition will be paid directly to the college, and you will receivein addition during the four years you are there, an allowance ofthirty-five dollars a month. This will enable you to enter on the samestanding as the other students. The money will be sent to you by thegentleman's private secretary once a month, and in return, you willwrite a letter of acknowledgment once a month. That is--you are not tothank him for the money; he doesn't care to have that mentioned, butyou are to write a letter telling of the progress in your studies andthe details of your daily life. Just such a letter as you would writeto your parents if they were living.
'These letters will be addressed to Mr. John Smith and will be sent incare of the secretary. The gentleman's name is not John Smith, but heprefers to remain unknown. To you he will never be anything but JohnSmith. His reason in requiring the letters is that he thinks nothingso fosters facility in literary expression as letter-writing. Since youhave no family with whom to correspond, he desires you to write in thisway; also, he wishes to keep track of your progress. He will neveranswer your letters, nor in the slightest particular take any notice ofthem. He detests letter-writing and does not wish you to become aburden. If any point should ever arise where an answer would seem tobe imperative--such as in the event of your being expelled, which Itrust will not occur--you may correspond with Mr. Griggs, hissecretary. These monthly letters are absolutely obligatory on yourpart; they are the only payment that Mr. Smith requires, so you must beas punctilious in sending them as though it were a bill that you werepaying. I hope that they will always be respectful in tone and willreflect credit on your training. You must remember that you arewriting to a Trustee of the John Grier Home.'
Jerusha's eyes longingly sought the door. Her head was in a whirl ofexcitement, and she wished only to escape from Mrs. Lippett'splatitudes and think. She rose and took a tentative step backwards.Mrs. Lippett detained her with a gesture; it was an oratoricalopportunity not to be slighted.
'I trust that you are properly grateful for this very rare good fortunethat has befallen you? Not many girls in your position ever have suchan opportunity to rise in the world. You must always remember--'
'I--yes, ma'am, thank you. I think, if that's all, I must go and sew apatch on Freddie Perkins's trousers.'
The door closed behind her, and Mrs. Lippett watched it with droppedjaw, her peroration in mid-air.