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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
384 pages
Aug 2006
Bethany House Publishers

Letter Perfect

by Cathy Marie Hake

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Jefferson City, Missouri, 1859

Exactly how much damage can one tiny fish bone do? Ruth Caldwell wondered if she simply ought to swallow the wretched little thing. Knowing my luck, it'll get stuck and I'll choke to death.

Just as she decided to lift her napkin and discreetly get rid of the pickery little nuisance, Miss Pettigrew looked at her. Ruth's blood ran cold, and she plastered a smile on her closed lips.

Well, at least my mouth is shut.

The headmistress of Pettigrew Academy graced Ruth with a chilly nod. After her afternoon debacle, Ruth didn't expect any better. A mere slip of the tongue and she'd managed to introduce the new pastor to the Garden Society as "Reverend Mark Clumsy" instead of "Reverend Clark Mumsy." In doing so, she'd embarrassed herself and reflected poorly on the Academy.

Oh, how can I get rid of this bone?

She lifted her napkin. The silver candlesticks teetered precariously, then fell onto Miss Pettigrew's prized snowy Irish linen tablecloth. It wasn't until her plate began to tip and girls started squealing that Ruth realized she hadn't grabbed her napkin—she'd been pulling on the tablecloth!

Whoosh! The artfully spiraled ribbons cascading from the centerpiece caught fire, and the squeals turned to screams. Ruth sloshed water from her goblet onto the flames, then followed it by emptying the contents of the nearest teapot. Three other students followed suit with their glasses. Soon the once-beautiful table became a sodden, sooty wreck.

Ruth patted out the last embers. Deep in her heart she knew even if the tea stains came out of Miss Pettigrew's cherished tablecloth, the singed spots relegated it to the ragbag.

"Miss Caldwell, come to my office, if you please." Miss Pettigrew rose, then turned and marched from the dining room.

Ruth knew the "if you please" wasn't a request. Of course it didn't please her to follow the headmistress, but an order was an order. She squared her shoulders and pretended not to see the pity on her classmates' faces.

Once in the hallway, before she turned the corner and entered the office, Ruth slipped the fish bone from her mouth and stuck it in the potted fern.

I'm about to find out exactly how much damage one tiny fish bone can do.

Glancing down, Ruth let out a silent sigh at the sight of her soiled pin-tucked bodice. She quickly brushed off the slivered, fishy-smelling almonds and disposed of them in the fern, too. Unfortunately, her sooty hands left streaks on her best dress. Large wet splotches on it added to the bedraggled effect. The only good thing about her skirts being wet was that they draped lower, hiding her scuffed shoes.

To top the whole disaster off, Ruth felt her hairpins slipping. Miss Pettigrew put great stock in a woman tending her "crown of glory" and wouldn't understand if Ruth's hair came unbound. She glanced about and assured herself that no one was in sight, hiked up her skirts, wiped her hands as best she could on her petticoats, and dropped the skirts back in place. That done, she shoved her hairpins in yet again and marched into the dragon's lair.

"Miss Caldwell," Miss Pettigrew began, "please shut the door."

"Yes, ma'am." As Ruth turned to obey, she couldn't quell a shudder. She'd been through this at other schools. The humiliation of being dismissed ought to be enough to mortify any decent girl, but Ruth felt the crushing guilt of knowing she'd tried her best here and still failed.

I wanted to make Mama proud, and I've botched everything again. She'll welcome me home and act as if nothing went wrong, but she wants me to become a polished woman and marry well. I keep messing up. Would it be so bad for me to stay home and become a spinster?

"Miss Caldwell."

Miss Pettigrew's voice cut through her thoughts. Ruth turned to face her fate.

The headmistress wilted artfully into the seat behind her desk. "I've tried to do my best by you."

"I'm sure you have," Ruth agreed sincerely. Indeed, she'd been here for almost six months—twice as long as she'd lasted anywhere else.

"Everyone deserves a chance, and the Bible instructs us to be longsuffering. However, Ruth, dear, I'm afraid I've suffered long enough."

Ruth stood in respectful silence. At least that way, she figured, she wouldn't open her mouth and make matters worse.

"Pettigrew's Academy for Fine Young Ladies cannot weather the storms you bring. Reputation is all," the headmistress intoned. "Yes, I've tried to impress upon you that reputation is all. Once besmirched, it cannot be recovered. I fear for your reputation, my dear; but even more, I fear for my school and all of the other students. All it takes is for one of you to indulge in hoydenish escapades to make the whole community frown upon the entire institution.

"Dignity. Comportment. Grace. A woman must cultivate these qualities. You, on the other hand, entertain wild, headstrong notions and follow your impulses. This can only lead to ruin."

Ruth fought the impulse to balance on one leg and scratch her calf with the toe of her boot. Miss Pettigrew was warming to her subject, and Ruth figured the woman had a right to a final tirade.

"I forgave you for stealing the cook's best roasting pan since your intention to save those little robin hatchlings showed compassion."

"Two of the three survived," Ruth remembered.

"Yes, but you brought worms into the room to feed them." Miss Pettigrew shuddered. "And it was only the beginning of inappropriate things you carried through my doors. While I'm thinking of it ..." She stood, unlocked a drawer from a cabinet, and withdrew an item. Pinching the suffrage sash between her forefinger and thumb as if the satin might otherwise soil her, Miss Pettigrew extended it toward Ruth. "Here. Take this. I wouldn't have it said I'm a thief."

"Thank you." Ruth accepted her sash. Having slipped out of school that day to participate in the march was transgression enough, but to return wearing the scandalous sash nearly sent Miss Pettigrew into a fit of the vapors. Her reaction would have convinced a stranger that Ruth had stormed into Mr. Buchanan's White House and used the sash to swing from his elegant chandeliers. Miss Pettigrew had promptly confiscated the red satin piece and locked it away, as if doing so would contain the "outrageous" notion that women ought ever be free-thinking enough to vote.

"A young woman of your vivacity and intellect should be an asset to the community." Miss Pettigrew went back to her desk, only this time she sat ramrod straight. The resolve on her pinched face warned Ruth that the softer portion of the exit speech had ended. "In the twenty-seven years I've run my school, I've never seen a young woman I couldn't coax into being finer, better, more polished." She paused significantly, then tacked on, "Until you.

"I've examined my heart and am certain the fault does not lie with me. Why, I am a descendant of King Henry VIII."

Why does she think that's such a fine thing to claim? He was a mean, fat, old man who killed off several wives and wreaked havoc in the church just to satisfy his own needs!

"Each Pettigrew girl develops into a royal swan who glides through life with all of the essential social graces. You, Ruth, paddle mud into the pond and ruffle everyone's feathers."

Which makes me the clumsy, ugly duckling.

"Simply put, you're a misfit."

Ruth's chin jerked up. The abrupt action caused her hairpins to shift. Misfit. That description hurt. From the day she arrived, Ruth strove to fit in. She'd tamped down her impulsive nature and assiduously prayed for self-control to make this work—not because she wanted to be properly finished, but because she wanted to please her mother.

"The truth is far from flattering, Miss Caldwell, but you cannot deny it."

As if on cue, Ruth's hair broke free and splayed out around her shoulders.

Either unaware or uncaring of the pain her words inflicted, Miss Pettigrew made a disgusted sound, then continued. "For the sake of the others and my school's reputation, I'm sending you home."

Excerpted from:
Letter Perfect by Cathy Marie Hake
Copyright 2006; ISBN 0764201654
Published by
Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.