Old Tom and Nancy
In the little attic room Nancy swept and scrubbed vigorously, paying particular attention to the corners. There were times, indeed, when the vigor she put into her work was more of a relief to her feelings than it was an ardor to efface dirt—Nancy, in spite of her frightened submission to her mistress, was no saint.
"I—just—wish—I could—dig—out the corners—of—her—soul!" she muttered jerkily, punctuating her words with murderous jabs of her pointed cleaning-stick. "There's plenty of 'em needs cleanin' all right, all right! The idea of stickin' that blessed child 'way off up here in this hot little room—with no fire in the winter, too, and all this big house ter pick and choose from! Unnecessary children, indeed! Humph!" snapped Nancy, wringing her rag so hard her fingers ached from the strain; "I guess it ain't children what is most unnecessary just now, just now!"
For some time she worked in silence; then, her task finished, she looked about the bare little room in plain disgust.
"Well, it's done—my part, anyhow," she sighed. "There ain't no dirt here—and there's mighty little else. Poor little soul!—a pretty place this is ter put a homesick, lonesome child into!" she finished, going out and closing the door with a bang, "Oh!" she ejaculated, biting her lip. Then, doggedly: "Well, I don't care. I hope she did hear the bang,—I do, I do!"
In the garden that afternoon, Nancy found a few minutes in which to interview Old Tom, who had pulled the weeds and shovelled the paths about the place for uncounted years.
"Mr. Tom," began Nancy, throwing a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure she was unobserved; "did you know a little girl was comin' here ter live with Miss Polly?"
"A—what?" demanded the old man, straightening his bent back with difficulty.
"A little girl—to live with Miss Polly."
"Go on with yer jokin'," scoffed unbelieving Tom. "Why don't ye tell me the sun is a-goin' ter set in the east ter-morrer?"
"But it's true. She told me so herself," maintained Nancy. "It's her niece; and she's eleven years old."
The man's jaw fell.
"Sho!—I wonder, now," he muttered; then a tender light came into his faded eyes. "It ain't—but it must be—Miss Jennie's little gal! There wasn't none of the rest of 'em married. Why, Nancy, it must be Miss Jennie's little gal. Glory be ter praise! ter think of my old eyes a-seein' this!"
"Who was Miss Jennie?"
"She was an angel straight out of Heaven," breathed the man, fervently; "but the old master and missus knew her as their oldest daughter. She was twenty when she married and went away from here long years ago. Her babies all died, I heard, except the last one; and that must be the one what's a-comin'."
"She's eleven years old."
"Yes, she might be," nodded the old man.
"And she's goin' ter sleep in the attic—more shame ter her!" scolded Nancy, with another glance over her shoulder toward the house behind her.
Old Tom frowned. The next moment a curious smile curved his lips.
"I'm a-wonderin' what Miss Polly will do with a child in the house," he said.
"Humph! Well, I'm a-wonderin' what a child will do with Miss Polly in the house!" snapped Nancy.
The old man laughed.
"I'm afraid you ain't fond of Miss Polly," he grinned.
"As if ever anybody could be fond of her!" scorned Nancy.
Old Tom smiled oddly. He stooped and began to work again.
"I guess maybe you didn't know about Miss Polly's love affair," he said slowly.
"Love affair—her! No!—and I guess nobody else didn't, neither."
"Oh, yes they did," nodded the old man. "And the feller's livin' ter-day—right in this town, too."
"Who is he?"
"I ain't a-tellin' that. It ain't fit that I should." The old man drew himself erect. In his dim blue eyes, as he faced the house, there was the loyal servant's honest pride in the family he has served and loved for long years.
"But it don't seem possible—her and a lover," still maintained Nancy.
Old Tom shook his head.
"You didn't know Miss Polly as I did," he argued. "She used ter be real handsome—and she would be now, if she'd let herself be."
"Handsome! Miss Polly!"
"Yes. If she'd just let that tight hair of hern all out loose and careless-like, as it used ter be, and wear the sort of bunnits with posies in 'em, and the kind o' dresses all lace and white things—you'd see she'd be handsome! Miss Polly ain't old, Nancy."
"Ain't she, though? Well, then she's got an awfully good imitation of it—she has, she has!" sniffed Nancy.
"Yes, I know. It begun then—at the time of the trouble with her lover," nodded Old Tom; "and it seems as if she'd been feedin' on wormwood an' thistles ever since—she's that bitter an' prickly ter deal with."
"I should say she was," declared Nancy, indignantly. "There's no pleasin' her, nohow, no matter how you try! I wouldn't stay if 'twa'n't for the wages and the folks at home what's needin' 'em. But some day—some day I shall jest b'ile over; and when I do, of course it'll be good-by Nancy for me. It will, it will."
Old Tom shook his head.
"I know. I've felt it. It's nart'ral—but 'tain't best, child; 'tain't best. Take my word for it, 'tain't best." And again he bent his old head to the work before him.
"Nancy!" called a sharp voice.
"Y-yes, ma'am," stammered Nancy; and hurried toward the house.