Miss Hester of Sunset Valley
by Guie Leo Deliglio
[from The Silent Worker
The deaf of Sunset Valley date all important events from the day Miss Hester Gregory became a permanent resident of the town. None of us can explain just why she has dominated us since the first day of her invasion, but it is a fact, and one which we are not ashamed to own up to. Even Bill Salstrom, the big Swedish deaf farmer, proudly admits that Miss Hester can twist him around her little finger.
One morning in early June my employer at the real estate office where I was a typist, sent for me to have a business talk with a deaf woman in search of a good boarding house to rent. He knew I understood renting a house as well as he did, and being deaf myself, I could naturally discuss all the details with her in our sign language. I was glad to do this, for I knew it meant a big commission, and money just then was scarce with me.
I was not prepared to meet the little lady in the outer office. My first impression was that what she needed to rent was a doll cottage, for she was scarcely over five feet tall, and very slender of built. I had always thought the landlady of a boarding house should be tall, strong, and loud-voiced; to say nothing of smelling of cabbage and dirt. This little lady would surely meet failure inside a week. Forgetting the big commission in wait for me, I set out at once to warn her against starting a boarding house.
"But, my dear child," she interrupted, as I started to tell her she would never succeed in her project, "I have kept a boarding house in the city for ten years. I sold it only last month to a friend of mine, and am out here to open a new one on a smaller scare just to show that it is much pleasanter for us deaf to board together than living apart in town. Ten or twelve boarders are all I expect to look after here, and after having over two dozen for ten years, I expect to have a great deal of leisure time on my hands."
Of course, there was nothing for me to do now but show her half a dozen places we had listed for rent. The first five proved either too dirty, too far from the business district, or too large to allow her the leisure time she expected to get. The sixth was a gem.
We were walking down Elm Avenue when we discovered this old gabled house. At one time the Flemming family had lived here for two summers, but the fashion of spending vacations at the seashore came into vogue about the second summer they passed in Sunset Valley, so they had let the house go, renting it once in a while when any one cared to be burdened with a large, three storied mansion, and it was seldom any one in the Valley desired to rent it. Although not listed on our books as a boarding house, we had permission to rent it to any responsible party, and could remodel it to suit a tenant if taken on a five-year lease.
I was lucky to have the key in the front door on my key-ring, and soon we stood in the musty hallway of the big, barn-like affair. It was amusing to watch Miss Hester poke around in the different rooms. I knew she was pleased with almost everything she saw.
"Just the place I want," she signed enthusiastically. "When the wall of the study is cut out, the dining room will be large enough for all the boarders. We will cut the partition out between the hall and the living room, and then we will have a lovely room for parties. This little room must have been built for a child's play room. What a lovely little private parlor it will make. Why, I never knew there was such a lovely house in the world. I am going to have it if I have to buy it outright!"
We hurried up the second and third floor. Six medium sized bedrooms were found on each floor. Two bathrooms and an additional toilet was on the second floor. Besides the regular sleeping rooms we found large linen closets, broom closets, and storage space. No wonder the enormous house was a white elephant on its owners hands. The present Flemmings' seaside cottage was only a little more than half as large.
down the stairs again. "The door must be on the first floor though I don't remember seeing one."
We found it at last leading from the side of the kitchen. It was so tiny that we had taken it for a broom closet in our hasty examination.
Miss Hester was fairly dancing with joy as we passed into the wing. This additional part had probably been built to the house the numerous servants such a large house required. A small dining room, living room and good sized bedroom were on the lower floor. The second floor contained three small bedrooms.
"Just what we need!" exclaimed Miss Hester. "This lower floor will be my private apartment. I am glad the stairway is near the main part of the house. I can make three dainty bedrooms up stairs, and with a doorway cut through to the second story, the whole house will be so convenient. We must hurry back to the office and sign the lease before someone else gets it!"
Seeing that no one had rented it for two years, I saw no need of rushing back to the office and work, but hurried as fast as my one hundred and seventy-five pounds could take me.
There is no need to dwell upon the renovation of Miss Hester's dream house. Everything she wanted done was finished in less than a month. When the new painting, papering, and remodeling was accomplished, no one would have recognized the old Flemming mansion. Even the name was changed, for Miss Hester insisted upon calling it REST HAVEN. Only the deaf were to board there, and Miss Hester soon found three deaf women to help her with the house-work.
No trouble was encountered by Miss Hester in filling her house with the young folks working in the shops and factory. Five young men and seven girls soon left comfortable boarding houses for REST HAVEN. Needless to say I was one of the seven, and being much older than the other six girls I was looked upon as a sort of monitor and companion to Miss Hester. I admit I was proud of this position.
Miss Hester was right when she said she could run a boarding house, though to tell the truth none of us thought of REST HAVEN as an ordinary boarding house. In the latter one has no place to entertain callers. At REST HAVEN the little private parlor could be used at any hour up to ten P.M. However it was usually empty, for whenever we had company we could not bear to take them away from the home-like atmosphere of the big living room. Every evening we gathered before the huge fireplace shelling peanuts, popping corn, roasting chestnuts, or just watching the flames as they roared up the chimney. At other times we rolled up the rugs and danced. Was it very strange that we did not care to be shut up alone in the little parlor, no matter how cosy and comfortable it was furnished. Unless the girls were engaged, or we wanted a quiet talk with some out-of town friends, we seldom made use of the less cheerful room.
You have now seen what a wonderful time we deaf girls and boys were having. Yet no less a good time was Miss Hester giving the older deaf of the town. If there were too many of us young folks using the living room, Miss Hester entertained her older friends in the large dining room. Nor was this room any inferior to the front room, for the study of the old Flemming home thrown into the dining room, another large fireplace was now at one end. Sometimes we younger girls, tiring of the lively games, came out here and entered the more quiet enjoyment of the married deaf who lived in the town.
Inside a year Miss Hester had made friends with the entire deaf population of the town. All told there was something like eighty-five deaf men and women so Miss Hester had her hands full giving advice, helping those in trouble, and kind of overseeing all that went well with the boarding house. Sarah, Jane, and Isabel, the three women who did the housework for Miss Hester, proved jewels worth their weight in gold. In spite of doing the housework we never thought of looking down on them. They donned their aprons in the morning, did all that was required of them (if not more) and after the evening dishes were finished and work done for the night, they rolled down their sleeves and took their place among the rest of us. And why not? They too, were deaf, had as much education as most of us girls who were employed in the offices and factories of the town, drew the same wages, worked about the same number of hours, and were our equal in every way. That they worked where we boarded instead of in some other place, made not a particle of difference. If a thoughtless girl came to board with us and talked insultingly to one of our working girls, Miss Hester gently took her into another room and gravely reproved her. In many cases one reproval was enough and the girl soon looked upon the house girls as her equal. There was only one girl we seemed unable to get along with. Her name was Enid Brandon.
Enid came to live with us about a year after Miss Hester started REST HAVEN. All we knew about her was that she came from a private school for exceptionally rich children in the east. Although she knew the signs fairly well, she prided herself on reading lips perfectly, and her voice seemed to be perfect, or so a hearing lady told me. Naturally she looked down on most of us who were unable to read lips and peak intelligibly. Miss Hester she treat with the usual deference paid to her, but whether she liked our little landlady, I was unable to find out.
Norma Knowlton came angrily into my room one evening a week after Enid made her appearance.
"I hate her, Ruth, I hate her!" she cried, coming over to where I stood before my dresser.
"Hate who?" I asked, but guessing instantly.
"Enid Brandon. Why did Miss Hester take such a girl to board here?"
"What has Enid done to you, Norma? You have a respectable position, so she couldn't have insulted you like I saw her insult Jane last night."
"She is trying to flirt with Arthur. I saw her signing to him this evening. She said she wondered how a deaf man could care for a girl who was not his equal. She meant me, of course."
"Surely not. You are every bit Arthurs Putman's equal. Even your salary almost equals his"
"But Arthur can talk and understand lip reading. He has only been deaf six years. He can even hear a little out of one ear when he uses an ear-phone. I can't help it if I was born deaf and never was taught lipreading and speech. I don't care! She can have him if he'd rather have her. I don't want him!"
"Yes, you do want him. You know that you are in love with him, and I am sure he loves you, too. If he is infatuated with Enid, and I don't believe he is, it won't last long."
"And if I marry him he will always be running after other girls."
I knew I couldn't reason with Norma when she was in this mood. Suddenly, I thought of Miss Hester. She would be the only one to help Norma if Arthur really found Enid interesting. Personally I couldn't imagine sensible Arthur Putman being interested seriously in a girl like Enid. In both dress and manner she was extremely immodest.
"Let's tell Miss Hester," I suggested to Norma. "She will know just what to do."
Norma brightened. It was clear that she, too, had unfaltering faith in our little house-mother, for we seldom thought of Miss Hester as a regular landlady. She was too closet o us to be called by such an undignified name.
Miss Hester comforted Norma as well as she could and soon sent her off to bed more quiet.
"I really don't know what to do in this case," she confessed to me, as we sat alone together in the dining room. "I have seen Enid and Arthur together, and I am afraid he is deeply infatuated with our new boarder. And I am afraid she isn't the girl for him."
"You know she isn't! Why, she isn't for any decent man. She is horribly immodest and crude. I often wondered why you invited her to board here when she first came to town. She had a nice room over at the hotel."
Miss Hester shook her head and smiled gently at me.
"I see you do not like Enid," she said. I knew she was going to reprove me for making such a speech about her, but I didn't care, for every word I said was true.
"You and Enid may not be able to live well together. Her ideas may not be as refined as yours are, but I am sure our dear Lord sent her here for some special purpose, and we should not question her worth. We may look even as unworthy in her eyes. Yet you should not say she is unfit for a good man. If she married one who could rule her gently and firmly, but with great kindness and understanding, I am she would be happy all her life with him."
"I never met a man like you described," I am afraid my face looked a little cross. I know my signs were sharp and imperative.
"Are you sure, my dear?" Miss Hester smiled. "Have you ever met Fred Jordan?"
Fred Jordan was a young man who roomed across from me. I liked him, and had tried to couple him off with Elsie Reese, a quiet little girl I liked very much.
"What has he to do with Enid?" I asked. For the life of me I couldn't see any connection between the two.
"He is madly in love with her, but she does not know it. He was here to see me the other night, and I found out he came mostly to inquire about Enid. Last night he saw her insult Jane, and I know it hurt him deeply. This more he apologized for her."
"How funny!" I laughed when I mentally saw a picture of him trying to excuse Enid's rudeness to another girl.
"Men in love do queer things. If we found some way to open Enid's eyes to Fred, and show Arthur the true worth of Norma, all would end well."
"And how do you suppose we are going to show them?"
"I don't know yet, but time will come if God wishes them to find each other. If we have faith in Him, we will at least find a way to do His will."
I went away, ashamed of my unbelief. But I felt it would be wrong for a good man like Fred Jordan to marry such a scatter-brained little vixen as Enid. Surely there were many better girls for him. Elsie Reese would make an ideal wife. For one thing she was a fine cook, and I could not image Enid keeping house and cooking for any man.
A week passed, and I saw no way of reuniting Arthur and Norma. Fred Jordan still looked after Enid wistfully whenever she passed him, but Enid, I am sure never knew he was anywhere near her.
Miss Hester looked worried as she saw Norma's empty seat that evening as we were sitting down to dinner. This was the first time Norma had been absent, and as it was Saturday, and a half holiday, we wondered what could have kept her out so long after business hours.
"Have you seen Norma, Arthur?" she asked.
Arthur, who was busy signing with Enid, shook his head.
"Would you mind running down to the store where she works and see if she has been kept overtime."
Of course, he did seem to mind but no one thought of refusing Miss Hester's requests, so he put on his hat and left the house.
All that evening we worried about Norma and Arthur, for he had not returned two hours after he had started out. Enid, who had become tired of waiting for an absent suitor, was talking to Fred, and though he kept glancing out the window every few minutes, I could see he was making the most of his opportunity to talk with the girl he loved so much.
As Miss Hester had just decided to take the matter up with the authorities, the door opened and Arthur, carrying Norma in his arms, entered. As he placed her on the sofa, we saw she was conscious but very pale. Arthur told us the tale.
"The manager of the firm sent Norma out to deposit the money in the bank after the store closed this noon. He had sprained his ankle and couldn't go himself, and as the bank officials knew Norma, she was the only one he could trust to go. Of course, some crooks had to find it out, we think now they are responsible for the managers accident. Anyway they knew Norma couldn't hear, so one of them went up and stopped her as she was starting out. She didn't understand him, so when he motioned toward the auto they had, she stepped forward to see what they wanted with her. She said she thought the manager might be in it, and had decided not to send her on alone. It was easy then to force her in the car and run away with her. Two men saw it all, but not knowing Norma, they just gave chase without notifying any one. They found about a dozen ruffians hanging around a shack about five miles from town, so one kept watch while the other came for help. They were just starting out with the police when I got there, and went along too. Gee Norma's a plucky girl. Can you guess what she did?"
Of course, we couldn't.
"She didn't hand over the money when they asked for it. She is sure a quick thinker. When they started to grab her, she threw out her hand and thrust the money into one of the trash cans. Most of her fears, so she says, was that she wouldn't get back in time to save it before the garbage man made his round. When the crooks couldn't find the money, even after they had one of the women search her, they tried to beat her. Bus," he drew a long breath, "We got there just before they harmed her."
None of us could fail to see the look of love glowing in his eyes, and Miss Hester glanced at me and smiled. "It's all right," I knew what she meant.
Enid saw too, and for once I was surprised. Instead of the look of defeated hate I expected to see in her face, she smiled at Arthur and Norma. Suddenly she bent down and kissed the girl on the couch.
"I am glad you were there to save her, Arthur," she signed to him, and Norma saw the signs. "She is such a wonderful girl for you!"
She would have quietly left the room then, but Fred Jordan, a light in his eyes that I had never seen there before, put his arm masterfully through hers, and led her into the private parlor. Though it was nearly midnight, neither Miss Hester nor I thought of upholding the rules that unmarried couples should not use this room alone after ten o'clock. Instead we turned back to hear more of Norma's exciting adventure.
I can never doubt Miss Hester again when she says God always finds a way to bring real lovers together. Yesterday I received an engraved invitation to a double wedding, Norma and Enid to be the two blushing brides. Miss Hester goes around as blithe as a lark. She has what Riley calls, "The simple, soul-reposing, glad belief in everything." Some day, if I continue to live with her, I feel sure I, too, shall find some of her faith in my fellow-men.