Jurldeen

I

JURLDEEN’S mother was doing for me that season when I sprained my ankle. ‘Doing’ she did not use in any pugilistic sense, I am glad to say. In her phrase it indicated the whole congeries of performances which a woman who ‘comes in’ may offer by way of ministry — sweeping and shaking (transitive) and oil-mopping and dutch-cleansing and low dusting and high dusting and far more than you would think could go into a word so soon spoken. At least she had engaged to do all this, but the most of it was always to be done the next week. I am not a good director of labor. There was, I confess, a kind of slackness, a detachment, in our relations. But now, as a halt and chair-fast person, I seemed for the first time to be worthy of definite and fixed attention from Jurldeen’s mother. Leaning on the dust mop which I had often asked her to use more thoroughly, she considered my case, anecdotally, hortatorily, and at last futuristically.

‘I guess you need somebody t’ roustabout fur you.’

I guessed so too. I was certain of it.

‘I reckon you c’d have one of the girls.’ ‘The girls’ evidently meant her own. I had heard of them in other conversations.

‘Seems like you need somebody t’ foot round fur you.’

Jurldeen’s mother never commits anything so daring, so glaringly positive, as explicit predication. ‘Seems like’ is almost the only finite verb she knows.

I considered. She enumerated.

‘They’s Gen’veeve and Jurldeen and Gladys and G’zelle. They’s all a goin’ size. Gen’veeve she’s fannin’ old Mis’ Shaw nowadays and gettin’ her drinks. She’s mighty bad. But seems like the rest’s foot-loose.’

‘They all begin with G.’ That seemed really obvious to any person as literate as Jurldeen’s mother and I, but I was postponing the word which would commit me to an engagement.

‘Yes, seems like. Their pa’s name’s Gassoway.’

‘Are n’t there any boys?’

‘No, seems like.’ Jurldeen’s mother described a sudden arc with her mop, to obliterate a triangular dusty island her curvilinear brushings had omitted, and returned to position. ‘I got Glory, too, and Gemeline — fur her aunt Emeline.’ She dashed the mop under a table, where a gray arc-enclosed quadrilateral had hidden. ‘Seems like I’d ought to call the baby Gassoway even if she is a girl. If she’s the last. I guess I’ll wait and see. I’d thought of Joy, but seems like you got to spell it with a J instead of a G.

‘What do you call her now?’

‘Babe. We call ’em all Babe until we get ’em named. Seems like it took a good while sometimes, after Gladys. Sometimes we had two Babes to oncet. Gen’veeve and Jurldeen and Gladys was easy. That’s the way I got started, and then it seemed like I’d ought to keep it up. Their pa might ’a’ felt bad. He’s kind-a sensitive anyway about Gassoway. But I always said if I could n’t give my children anything else I’d give’em names to be proud of, no matter how much trouble it was. I was named Mary myself and I like to never got over it.’ She paused on that, droopingly, leaning on her mop handle like a Mourning Athena. ‘And then you ’ve got t’ have a name that ’ll be a mouthful when you holler fur ’em to come home. Some names that sound all right is just a squeak when you yell ’em.’

I considered unthought-of burdens in life. Beside the responsibility of pleasing seven daughters with names, and names which could be shouted to the street, a sprained ankle and delayed work seemed a light thing.

But Jurldeen’s mother left me brief space for thinking. ‘I’ll send Jurldeen and G’zelle up and you c’n take your pick.’

I was glad she did n’t propose to send Gladys too. To choose from three would have been overwhelming. And G’zelle — I never had nursed a dear Gazelle. What if, when she learned to know me well, she refused to do for me!

‘I think one will be enough,’ I said, and tried to think of a way to say that one would be too many.

But — ‘I’ll send Jurldeen. She’s the spryest,’ said Jurldeen’s mother.

II

And thus I won my Geraldine, my footmaiden; though it was not until I tried to say ‘Jurldeen’ myself that I discovered its vestigial state. Geraldine emerged syllabically from Jurldeen.

‘I ’ll call you Jerry,’ I said. Jurldeen stood before me and we looked at each other. She went through a convulsive movement arising from her feet. I have seen boys scratch one foot with the other, but Jurldeen could apparently scratch each foot with the other coincidently.

‘Ma don’t like no short’nin’ of names,’ she said. ‘She says if she’d ’a’ wanted us to have short names she’d ’a’ give us short names.’ Jurldeen made a dash and picked up a pencil from one side of my chair and a handkerchief from the other and placed them on my lap. Then she returned to position and again applied friction to her feet.

‘Jerry would be just a kind of — friendly name,’ I pleaded.

She was firm. ‘I ain’t never been called no Jerry,’ she repeated.

I sighed. ‘Well then, Gerald — ’ I could n’t do it. ‘Jurldeen, what can you do?’

‘I c’n speak a piece,’ said Jurldeen.

It was enough to bring pause to anyone. She had seemed all vibration and readiness before, like an india-rubber string of which you are pulling both ends. Now she became animation directed, as if a spring had been released within her. She waited for orders, one foot in the stirrup. I had intended to tell her to wipe up the tiles in the hearth, and for myself I had an idea on the tip of my pencil, right between pencil and paper, in fact. But, ‘I c’n speak a piece,’ said Jurldeen, all abroach with elocution.

‘Very well,’ I said temperately. There were more ideas where that one had come from. I knew, alas, that there were more where it had gone. Perhaps this was the best way after all to inaugurate a domestic relation — by letting the domestic express herself.

‘There ain’t no motions in this.’ Jurldeen vibrated convulsively upward and abruptly broke into rhythm, her words fitting as solidly together as bricks in plaster. She spoke in a very deep, deep voice. ‘Miss I ’ll give you a paper of pins and that’s the way our love begins if you will marry me me me if you will marry me.’

Jurldeen breathed, changed the position of her feet, and feminized her voice. ‘I won’t excep’ your paper of pins if that’s the way your love begins and I won’t marry you you you and I won’t marry you.’

With increasing enthusiasm Jurldeen brought up the lover’s offer of dress of red bound all round with golden thread and his dress of blue bound all round with silver too, and let the lady scorn them. It really was an admirable recitation because there was no reason why it should ever stop while Jurldeen could speak or I could listen. I think it was with reluctance that she finally allowed him to offer the key to his chest and the lady agreed to marry him him him and the tale ended. She paused for applause.

‘I c’n say it again with motions,’ she suggested modestly.

I postponed performance and mentioned the hearthstones. Jurldeen was disappointed. ‘Ma said you needed spiritin’ up. She said you just set and wrote and wrote.’ She dispatched the tiles with a rapidity she had never learned from her mother and returned to the fundamental business of spiritin’.

‘I c’n sing that piece too,’ she made offer and avoided objection by opening at once, in a tune which showed the original ballad air sadly damaged by association with Gospel Hymns. Jurldeen threw back her head, closed her eyes, and shouted out the old dialogue with more than gusto. Tradition was naught to her in melody.

I hesitated to bring in a hint regarding front steps after this, but it must be done. Jurldeen reluctantly disappeared, broom on shoulder. I clutched the tail of an idea from the air and led it firmly paperward. Midway of the sentence I looked up and Jurldeen was standing before me. ‘I swep’ the stoop,’ she said. ‘I know a dance,’ she said. ‘I know a Maypole dance.’ She looked about. ‘I c’d tie a string to the chandelier and do it.’

There was something so firm and conscientious about Jurldeen that, though I was but one of one instead of one of three, I could only submit. I could have beaten my breast. But Jurldeen had already mounted a chair, taken a string — this was too evidently premeditated — from her pocket, tied it to a pendant from a light fixture, and taken her position.

‘One, two, three, four,’ she chanted. ‘One, two, three, four,’ and was off. An imaginary pole was in the centre, from which she kept her distance, a ribbon-wound pole. Imaginary gay dancers threaded in and out with her and she lightly intertwined her bright ribbon — a pink one, surely — with theirs. Hand on hip she swung herself featly through the steps, some bright ideal in her eye. Someone, for her, stepped airily, debonairly, through these mazes. Why might it not be she?

One could not but give a responding sparkle. Jurldeen bowed to right and left and, whirling graciously, to left and right behind her. Then without pause she led the end of her string over and secured it behind a picture. ‘I might want it again,’ she announced.

I rushed at the opening. There was one art more. What if she should wish to draw my picture! ‘Jurldeen,’ I said quickly and very very firmly, ‘get a duster and dust all the books on those shelves at the far end of the room.’

Jurldeen reluctantly moved over to examine the shelves. ‘They ain’t dirty,’ she pronounced.

‘Yes,’ I insisted, ‘they are very dusty.’

‘It’s only on top and it don’t show none.’ I knew guiltily how long dust had sometimes remained on the unseen tops of books. But I continued to be firm and Jurldeen went for a duster.

She returned with a glass of water. ‘Here’s a drink,’ she said. I didn’t want a drink and I did want to write. But I drank docilely while Jurldeen waited beside me like a clock about to strike.

‘Now go to the books, Jurldeen,’ I said gently.

Jurldeen slowly took the glass away, but was back in a moment radiating fresh interest. ‘ Don’t you have to take no medicine?’ she asked hopefully.

‘There is no internal remedy for a sprained ankle, Jurldeen.’

‘Mis’ Thomas she takes Stop That Pain when she has a misery. She says it makes her a lot pearter no matter where she hurts.’

‘But I have n’t any Stop That Pain.’

‘I c’d go and borrow you some. She lives next door to us.’

‘No, Jurldeen. The only thing I need is to have those books dusted. That will help my ankle much.’

Draggingly Jurldeen retired toward the end of the room. I fixed my mind on language and a little on ideas.

Jurldeen was beside me once more. ‘I c’d rub your foot,’ she said. ‘Or would you like to play cat’s cradle?’

III

Finally I saw Jurldeen slowly take out a book, wipe it, blow on it, rub her sleeve over it, lay it down. I hoped it would take her hours to do them, well or badly. When I heard her say, ‘Guess I’ll just straighten ’em up while I’m at it,’ I paid little heed, pleased that she was occupied. Silence reigned. The finger of my pencil began to move. I forgot Jurldeen. I almost forgot my foot.

‘There!’ said Jurldeen explosively, and I looked up from my bemusement. She waved a hand toward her completed work. The pride of deeds well done was in her gesture.

I looked at the shelves. Had I been in a story I should have rubbed my eyes. Certainly I cried, ‘What!’ Orderly rows of books had once been there, evenly grouped in sets and sizes, arranged with view to content, reasonably disposed as to color. I love the modified but live variegation of an area of mellowed bindings. Only this morning I had noted those shelves and thought that they had something of a Paisley combination, accidental though it was.

‘They’s different ways to set books,’ said Jurldeen. ‘You c’n put all one color together or you c’n put all one letter together.’

‘Yes,’ I said feebly. The top shelf was a solid block of red. Every red book had been torn from its associations and its kind and moved up here with other rednesses. And below these — Jurldeen’s method was eclectic.

‘They’s all by letter like the phone book. It took a good while,’ she sighed. ‘So’s’t you can find anything easy. It’s a lot better.’

Prose and verse, ancient and modern, fat and lean, male and female, sense and nonsense, stood together in uneasy literary democracy. Octavo and sixteenmo alternated in prophylactic variety. No two sisters of a set grew side by side. Meredith and Arnold had been torn limb from limb. I could see Austin Dobson moving airily from level to level, jauntily neighboring all kinds and conditions. Even that little handy cyclopædia which I had indulgently allowed to live in literary quarters stood in fragments, illustrating a disrupted alphabet.

‘They’s more T’s than anything else,’ said Jurldeen, prolonging the subject. But she recalled herself and brought me another drink. This time I needed it. On those shelves I could have found any book in the dark.

‘Want I should do them other shelves? They look kind of messed.’

‘No,’ I answered faintly.

‘Want to play cat’s cradle?’ said Jurldeen again. ‘If you had a victrola I c’d put on records for you. Mis’ Thomas she’s got a victrola and some Harry Lauder records.’

‘But I have n’t a victrola.’

She brought me another drink. ‘ Want I should read to you? Have you got anything to read?’ She looked about for a probable magazine.

‘No, thank you. I must write just now. You may take out the drawer of that little table out in the sun room and arrange all the things in it.’ That drawer never had been in order and I had never had even a remote purpose that it should ever be. But an original arrangement could not harm it. And the table was out of my sight and hearing. As I heard the drawer slide out of its place I sighed and took a fresh sheet of paper for a new beginning.

Jurldeen appeared bearing the drawer. With a prehensile foot she dragged a chair over beside me, put the drawer on it, and settled on her knees before it. ‘I c’n keep you company too,’ she said sociably.

I determinedly tossed my mind to great distances. It could be done. Jane Austen and Mrs. Stowe — what had they done amid family sounds! And Mrs. Meynell with her ‘avalanche of children tumbling down the stairs.’

‘My, you got lots of things,’ said Jurldeen, her hands plunged into the mass of hoardings before her — a collection which by no means spoke well for my economy or my sense of order. ‘I bet you would n’t give any of them away. Ain’t that pretty! What’d it come off?’ She held a piece of onetime trimming between me and my paper.

‘You may have it,’ I said, waving it away.

‘Gee!’ said Jurldeen gratefully. ‘My, you got lots of cute things! What’s this?’ She dangled something else under my eye.

‘You may have it,’ I murmured.

‘Gee! I’m sure glad I’m doing this. What’n a tiling’s that?’

IV

An inspiration rose out of my despair. Why not do a bit of good in the world? Was not the great cause of education also mine?

‘Don’t say “sure glad,” Jurldeen. Say, “I am certainly glad.”’

Jurldeen blinked at me amazedly.

‘Wouldn’t you like to speak correctly?’ I pursued insinuatingly.

‘Like you do, you mean?’ said Jurldeen, unflatteringly dubious.

‘Or like persons who speak better,’ I answered modestly.

‘What good’d it do?’ demanded Jurldeen.

What good would it do? I should have prepared myself before opening the subject. ‘When you grow up you will wish to speak correctly,’ — I doubted it, — ‘ and the time to learn is when you are little.’

‘I guess I ain’t got no time to learn.’ She went and got me another drink. I accepted it, but, the sense of duty having taken hold of me, I was not to be diverted.

‘You should not say “ain’t,” Jurldeen. And you used “got” out of place. You meant to say, “I think I have n’t time to learn.”’

‘No, I did n’t,’ said Jurldeen.

‘ Well, say it anyway.’ I was growing a little testy.

She repeated her transformed speech, but with no pleasure in it. She promptly added, ‘Say, you got lots of beads, all broke.’

‘“All broken.” And you said “got” again.’

‘Aw ri’.’ Jurldeen had a certain patience with childishness. ‘What ’n a thing’s that?’

‘Not “ what’n.” That is n’t a word. “What kind of?”’

‘Wat kin’ o’! Gee, it must take a lot o’ your time thinkin’ how to say things!’ She was not without compassion.

‘Sometimes it does.’ I looked sadly at the misshaped phrases I had been struggling with.

‘I don’ hafto talk nicey-nice. I just talk the way I wanno.’

‘But it sounds better,’ I pleaded.

‘’T ain’t no better to me,’ airily. ‘C’n I have this scrap?’

‘No, I need that. You don’t mean “’t ain’t.” You mean to say “ it is n’t.”’

‘No, I don’t. I don’ see no differnce.’ Jurldeen was growing unmistakably pert. ‘Say, that’s a cute thing. What’s it fur?’ Gone was the picture of herself as nurse or caretaker. She hung avariciously over scraps and bits and leavings, over little boxes and rolls and cases. A use for each hoarding rose in her mind. Covetousness expanded. ‘I c’d make a hat fur G’zelle’s doll out o’ that.’ ‘Gee, that’s nice lace to have!’ She rolled and folded and classified, adding steadily to her own spoils. ‘They ain’t enough beads here fur a string fur you. C’n I have ’em?’

V

And ever I, armed and armored with grammar, dogged her words. In one half hour we had a whole betterspeech week. But that half hour was punctuated steadily with ‘C’n I take this?’ and the addition of a bit of lace or ornament or ribbon to her growing heap.

The drawer began to take on an aspect of order. I nervously began to wonder what I should suggest next — something remote and silent. I couldn’t have a Jurldeen picking out the vitals of my time for the whole day. Jurldeen rolled the last bit of ribbon over her agile lingers and held it off for admiration.

‘I never seen no sweller ribbon,’ she piped. ‘C’n I —’

My ears would endure no more. Even my ankle gave an extra twitch at the sound. ‘Jurldeen!’ uncontrollably. ‘Don’t say “I seen”! And don’t put in “no” after “never”!’

Jurldeen rose abruptly, but with consummate stateliness, and carried the drawer away. I heard it slam into place and she came back and stood before me. No friction of feet or vibration of spine. With the full force of natural language she addressed me.

‘I ain’t never heard no such finickin’. I ain’t never been took up every which word I said. They ain’t no use in bein’ so nasty-nice. I guess I ain’t goin’ to be no school-teacher. I guess anybody that ain’t too stuck up c’n tell what I mean aw right enough. I ain’t goin’ to have nobody puttin’ in all the time when I’m talkin’. I guess I ain’t no book.’

She went rapidly toward the door, but turned on her heel to come back and gather up her heap of profits and look carefully around to see that she was missing nothing.

‘Goo’bye,’ she said firmly and conclusively.

And so I lost my Geraldine, footmaiden briefly mine.