Read Pearl Online

Authors: Lauraine Snelling

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Pearl (2 page)

BOOK: Pearl
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That night as she prepared for bed, Pearl opened her Bible to Psalm 91, one of her favorites. She recited it aloud as she loosened her corset, sliding the bone-ridged garment down so she could step out of it. She hung it in the chifforobe, lifting her dressing gown off the hook at the same time. ‘‘‘He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust. Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence. He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings thou shalt trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.’’’ She turned the pages to verses fourteen and sixteen, her latest verses to consign to memory. She read one verse aloud, reciting it again as she sat to brush her hair the required one hundred strokes. Dark like honey, left in the hive over winter, that glinted fire when sparked by sunlight, the strands rippled down her back. She could call one of the maids to come brush it for her, but she knew they were busy cleaning up from supper. The pitcher of water, still warm for her to wash her face, was a luxury. Bathing in the bathroom was also a luxury, but there was something special about the privacy of her own room. And besides, this was the time she used to spend with her mother, a sacred hour just before bedtime, when Anna asked about her day, told her stories of when she was little after coming from Norway, and always, the most delicious, brushed her hair. And allowed her daughter to brush hers. Ah, the rippling gold of her mother’s hair. Pearl’s had never held the sheen and silkiness of her mother’s.

She stared at the face in the slightly wavy mirror. She knew she looked like her mother—straight nose, full lips, and eyebrows with a tendency to arch, both in question or amusement. Except for the side she kept turned from the light. Always there was an
. But her mother had been a beauty, so why didn’t the similar features do the same for her daughter?

Was it the touch of her father’s square chin? His wider brow? The tiny gap between her two front teeth? Beauty was in the eyes of the beholder, or so the old saying went. And her eyes always saw only the almost, the not quite.

She folded back the covers and stroked her hand over the warmed sheets. Marlene had been busy with the warming pan, a long-handled round pan filled with coals that she stroked between the sheets. Settled with two pillows propped behind her so she could read, Pearl opened her book, carefully placing the leather bookmark beyond where she was reading. Nothing gave her more pleasure than a good book. Even though she’d read Jane Austen’s
Sense and Sensibility
before, she lost herself in the story, finally turning off the gaslight when her eyes grew too heavy to stay open. In the darkness of her room she watched the branches outside her window dance in the wind. As a child they’d frightened her, but now they’d become old friends.

‘‘Lord, what is to become of me? Am I to remain here in my father’s house, doing his bidding for the rest of my life? Is there not another place for me? Perhaps even a husband? I hate to sound like a whining woman, but I’m nearly twenty-three, an old maid in everyone’s eyes. Is that your will for me?’’ She paused, a heaviness settling on her chest. A sigh sent it scurrying. ‘‘I surely do hope not, pray not. Have I been remiss lately in saying how I love you? Forgive me for being so wrapped up in my own concerns. I do love you. I honor you and praise your most holy name. Amen.’’ She turned on her side and tucked the quilts up about her shoulders.

Sometime later, she woke from a dream of traveling on a train.
I wonder where I was going


Pearl stared across her fifth-grade class at the settlement house. Half of them belonged at home in bed if their coughing and runny noses were any indication. But they were at least warm here and had a hot meal at noon.

‘‘Miss Hossfuss, I gotta go,’’ one of the boys said.

‘‘You may be excused.’’ She gave him an arched eyebrow look. ‘‘But come straight back.’’ She refrained from adding ‘‘this time,’’ but he knew. One more trip to the principal, and he would be out on the streets.

No one with even a lick of brains wanted to be out on the sleety streets of Chicago. The wind seared skin and sucked the juice out of one, leaving a person reeling. And yesterday had been the first fine taste of spring.

‘‘All right class, since we cannot go outside for recess, we will play a game in here. Now count off by twos.’’ She pointed to the girl on the far left side of the room. ‘‘Start with you, Sadie.’’

Sighs and groans accompanied the numbering as the sides took shape. Letting them choose took far too long and always left the last one standing feeling as though no one liked him, or her, as the case may be.

‘‘You’re here with us,’’ someone called when the boy reentered the room.

‘‘All right now, form up behind the line. We’re going to do a relay. The person at the head of the line runs to the front of the room, grabs an eraser off the blackboard, and runs back, handing it off to the next runner. The first team to finish wins.’’

‘‘What is our prize?’’ Several children asked at the same time.

Pearl kept a jar of peppermint candies for such a time as this. She reached down in the drawer and set the jar on her desk. ‘‘The winning team each gets two pieces, the other team one.’’ As soon as the cheers quieted, she counted, ‘‘One, two. . . .’’ and paused. They groaned. ‘‘I forgot to tell you that you cannot cross the line until the runner ahead of you does.’’ She pointed to the line she’d painted on the worn floorboards. When they nodded, she began again, ‘‘One, two, three, go.’’

Yelling and jumping as they cheered their teammates on did more to warm kids up than the actual running. The teams were neck and neck when they hit the tenth and last person. The last two runners, the two weakest class members, grabbed their erasers and scrambled to keep their footing as they headed for the blackboard.

Pearl stood at the side to judge fairly. The blue team won by such a slight margin that she shook her head. ‘‘I declare a tie.’’ Now she hoped she had forty pieces of candy in the jar. ‘‘You two can each count out how many pieces?’’

They scrunched their faces.

‘‘Ah . . . ten,’’ one boy said. His team groaned, but no one shouted out the answer. They’d all learned a hard lesson one game when someone shouted the answer and their team went without the treat. Keeping to her decision had been one of Pearl’s more difficult moments.

‘‘Think again, Ean. Two for each person on your team.’’

‘‘I know.’’ A girl on the other team nearly burst her skin with excitement.

‘‘Now write down your answer.’’ Pearl pointed at a piece of paper and pencil on the edge of her desk.

As the girl wrote her answer, Ean’s grin lit his face, like a gas jet flaring.

Pearl held up her hand as if stopping traffic. She checked the girl’s writing, nodded, and turned to nod at Ean.

‘‘Twenty,’’ he said triumphantly.

‘‘Very good.’’ Pearl poured the red-and-white striped candy pieces from the jar onto a napkin. ‘‘Count them out.’’

With everyone sucking on peppermint candies, she motioned them to sit on the floor in front of her closer to the radiators where it was warmer. As soon as they were settled, she opened the book she’d been reading a chapter at a time.
Oliver Twist
took off on another adventure with his gang, each child sitting spellbound as Pearl read to the class.

When the dismissal bell rang, Pearl closed the book. ‘‘Now remember that we have a test tomorrow in arithmetic, and you must all be ready to recite your poem.’’ Knowing that few of them had more than a candle or lamp for light in the evenings, she hesitated to give homework assignments during the long winter nights. Not that many of the parents paid much attention to the assignments she did give.

If half of her fifth-grade class returned in the fall, she’d be surprised. Too many families needed the older children to be out working, especially those with no fathers.

Three children stayed after the bell to help her clean the classroom, chatting and laughing as they washed the blackboard, swept the floor, and banged the chalk out of the erasers on the lee side of the building.

‘‘Miss Hossfuss, are we going to do a play this year?’’ one of the girls asked. Her brother had been in Pearl’s class the year before.

‘‘I believe we will start work on it next week. What fairy tale do you think we should do?’’ Nothing like a snap decision.


‘‘I want
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,
and I get to be a dwarf.’’

Pearl wasn’t up to making a decision at that point. She wasn’t even sure she was up to all the work it would take to put on a play.

‘‘You need to hurry home now before it gets dark. Thank you for your help.’’ Pearl waved them out the door, took her outer things from the cupboard and, coat over her arm, shut the door to her classroom behind her. She’d think about it overnight and if she felt up to it she’d put the play story to a vote in class tomorrow.

Pearl stood on the steps for a few moments, feeling like the children must. She’d rather be here than at home.

‘‘Miss Pearl!’’ A male voice broke into her thoughts. Of course, her stepmother had sent their family carriage for her.

‘‘I could have taken the trolley.’’ While she knew there was no sense in taking out her ire on one of the servants, nevertheless, she failed to keep the grumble from her voice.

‘‘Now, you know the missus. I picked up the children too and will go back for the mister.’’ He tucked a robe about her lap and smiled up at her. ‘‘You wouldn’t be wanting me to be out of a job, now, would you?’’ The wind had whipped his cheeks red, but his smile took the sting from her thoughts.

‘‘I should be grateful,’’
Pearl reminded herself. But the self scolding did not brighten her mood.

An air of suppressed excitement met her at the door. Two maids were tittering in the hall when she entered but broke off and hurried about their duties as if she were the head housekeeper. Jorge Jr. met her on the stairs. ‘‘You must wear your newest frock to dinner. Mother said so.’’


He shrugged. ‘‘I think we are having company.’’

‘‘But nothing was said at breakfast.’’ They reached the landing of the second floor.

‘‘I know. I think it is someone important Father is bringing home.’’

‘‘Oh, brother. I thought to take a long bath and go to bed early.’’

‘‘Are you sick?’’ He peered up at her, concern darkening his blue eyes.

Sick of . . . no, you agreed you would find things to be thankful for,
‘‘Just tired.’’

‘‘I think you better look your best.’’ He didn’t add anything further, but Pearl could without effort.
Or Father will be angry
. And no one in the household wanted to make Father angry.

‘‘Hurry, Miss Pearl, I’ll run the bath for you,’’ said Marlene, one of the family servants, meeting her in the hallway.

‘‘Thank you, Marlene. Please use the lavender bath salts. Perhaps the steam will make me feel better.’’

‘‘Are you ill?’’

‘‘No, just droopy.’’

‘‘You’ll catch your death from all those settlement children. You mark my words,’’ Marlene commented as she rushed to run the bath.

Jorge snorted under his breath and rolled his eyes. ‘‘If she had her way, none of us would leave the house. Life is too dangerous out there.’’ He mimicked Marlene’s voice perfectly.

‘‘You need to think of a life in the theater. You’re already better than Barrymore.’’ Pearl stopped in her doorway. ‘‘Will you be dining in the dining room?’’

‘‘No!’’ Delight danced in his eyes. ‘‘I am relegated to the nursery where I shall—’’ ‘‘Master Jorge, come here this instant!’’ Marlene’s voice echoed down the hallway.

‘‘Oh no, I forgot to get Herman out of the bathtub.’’ He hotfooted it down the hall, his chuckle floating out behind him.

Pearl shook her head as she shut her door. Herman was a turtle, and every once in a while, Jorge took him from his sandy box and let him loose in the bathtub for a real swim. Obviously he’d forgotten to put him back in his swampy home. Marlene didn’t care for turtles or any other creepy-crawly creatures. All of which were beloved by the younger children.

Pearl could take them or leave them. As she undressed and donned her wrapper, she thought again of her students.
I could
take Herman in for a few days. They most likely have never seen a live
. Rats like Arnet’s Peabody they saw in abundance. Most likely not spotted white, however.

After her bath she returned to her room to find her new aqua dress with the slightly darker overskirt and matching shawl hanging on the chifforobe door. Lace the same color filled in the heart-shaped bodice, while intricate beading and stitching covered the required high collar. A lovely frock for a command performance, no less.

She rang for Marlene when she was ready to have her corset tied, but Bernadette, her mother’s maid, appeared instead.

‘‘Ah, is there some secret going on that I’m unaware of?’’

BOOK: Pearl
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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