The Life of Nancy
Atlantic Monthly Text
THE LIFE OF NANCY.
Sarah Orne Jewett
The wooded hills and pastures of eastern Massachusetts are so close to Boston that from upper windows of the city, looking westward, you can see the tops of pine-trees and orchard-boughs on the high horizon. There is a rustic environment on the landward side; there are old farmhouses at the back of Milton Hill and beyond Belmont which look as unchanged by the besieging suburbs of a great city as if they were forty miles from even its borders. Now and then, in Boston streets, you can see an old farmer in his sleigh or farm wagon as if you saw him in a Berkshire village. He seems neither to look up at the towers nor down at any fashionable citizens, but goes his way alike unconscious of seeing or being seen.
On a certain day a man came driving along Beacon Street, who looked bent in the shoulders, as if his worn fur cap were too heavy for head and shoulders both. This type of the ancient New England farmer in winter twitched the reins occasionally, like an old woman, to urge the steady white horse that plodded along as unmindful of his master's suggestions as of the silver-mounted harnesses that passed them by. Both horse and driver appeared to be conscious of sufficient wisdom, and even worth, for the duties of life; but all this placidity and self-assurance were in sharp contrast to the eager excitement of a pretty, red-cheeked girl who sat at the driver's side. She was as sensitive to every new impression as they were dull. Her face bloomed out of a round white hood in such charming fashion that those who began to smile at an out-of-date equipage were interrupted by a second and stronger instinct, and paid the homage that one must always pay to beauty.
It was a bitter cold morning. The great sleighbells on the horse's shaggy neck jangled along the street, and seemed to still themselves as they came among the group of vehicles that were climbing the long hill by the Common.
As the sleigh passed a clubhouse that stands high on the slope, a young man who stood idly behind one of the large windows made a hurried step forward, and his sober face relaxed into a broad, delighted smile; then he turned quickly, and presently appearing at the outer door, scurried down the long flight of steps to the street, fastening the top buttons of his overcoat by the way. The old sleigh, with its worn buffalo skin hanging unevenly over the back, was only a short distance up the street, but its pursuer found trouble in gaining much upon the steady gait of the white horse. He ran two or three steps now and then, and was almost close enough to speak as he drew near to the pavement by the State House. The pretty girl was looking up with wonder and delight, but in another moment they went briskly on, and it was not until a long pause had to be made at the blocked crossing of Tremont Street that the chase was ended.
The wonders of a first visit to Boston were happily continued to Miss Nancy Gale in the sudden appearance at her side of a handsome young gentleman. She put out a most cordial and warm hand from her fitch muff, and her acquaintance noticed with pleasure the white knitted mitten that protected it from the weather. He had not yet found time to miss the gloves left behind at the club, but the warm little mitten was very comfortable to his fingers.
"I was just thinking -- I hoped I should see you, when I was starting to come this morning," she said, with an eager look of pleasure; then, growing shy after the unconscious joy of the first moment, "Boston is a pretty big place, isn't it?"
"We all think so," said Tom Aldis with fine candor. "It seems odd to see you here."
"Uncle Ezra, this is Mr. Aldis that I have been telling you about, who was down at our place so long in the fall," explained Nancy, turning to look appealingly at her stern companion. "Mr. Aldis had to remain with a friend who had sprained his ankle. Is Mr. Carew quite well now?" she turned again to ask.
"Oh yes," answered Tom. "I saw him last week; he's in New York this winter. But where are you staying, Nancy?" he asked eagerly, with a hopeful glance at uncle Ezra. "I should like to take you somewhere this afternoon. This is your first visit, isn't it? Couldn't you go to see Rip Van Winkle to-morrow? It's the very best thing there is just now. Jefferson's playing this week."
"Our folks ain't in the habit of attending theatres, sir," said uncle Ezra, checking this innocent plan aseffectually as an untracked horse-car was stopping traffic in the narrow street. He looked over his shoulder to see if there were any room to turn, but was disappointed.
Tom Aldis gave a glance, also, and was happily reassured; the street was getting fuller behind them every moment. "I beg you to excuse me, sir," he said gallantly to the old man. "Do you think of anything else that Miss Gale ought to see? There is the Art Museum, if she hasn't been there already; all the pictures and statues and Egyptian things, you know."
There was much deference and courtesy in the young man's behavior to his senior. Uncle Ezra responded by a less suspicious look at him, but seemed to be considering this new proposition before he spoke. Uncle Ezra was evidently of the opinion that while it might be a misfortune to be an old man, it was a fault to be a young one and good looking where girls were concerned.
"Miss Gale's father and mother showed me so much kindness," Tom explained, seizing his moment of advantage, "I should like to be of some use: it may not be convenient for you to come into town again in this cold weather."
"Our folks have plenty to do all the time, that's a fact," acknowledged uncle Ezra less grimly, while Nancy managed to show the light of a very knowing little smile. "I don't know but she'd like to have a city man show her about, anyways. 'T ain't but four miles an' a half out to our place, the way we come, but while this weather holds I don't calculate to get into Boston more 'n once a week. I fetch all my stuff in to the Quincy Market myself, an' I've got to come in day after to-morrow mornin', but not till late, with a barrel o' nice winter pears I've been a-savin'. I can set the barrel right for'ard in the sleigh here, and I do' know but I can fetch Nancy as well as not. But how'd ye get home, Nancy? Could ye walk over to our place from the Milton depot, or couldn't ye?"
"Why, of course I could!" answered his niece, with a joy calmed by discretion.
"'T ain't but a mile an' three quarters; 't won't hurt a State o' ['o] Maine girl," said the old man, smiling under his great cap, so that his cold, shrewd eyes suddenly grew blue and boyish. "I know all about ye now, Mr. Aldis; I used to be well acquainted with your grandfather. Much obliged to you. Yes, I'll fetch Nancy. I'll leave her right up there to the Missionary Building, corner o' Somerset Street. She can wait in the bookstore; it's liable to be open early. After I get through business to-day, I'm goin' to leave the hoss, an' let her see Faneuil Hall, an' the market o' course, and I don't know but we shall stop in to the Old South Church; or you can show her that, an' tell her about any other curiosities, if we don't have time."
Nancy looked radiant, and Tom Aldis accepted his trust with satisfaction. At that moment the blockade was over and teams began to move.
"Not if it rains!" said uncle Ezra, speaking distinctly over his shoulder as they started. "Otherwise expect her about eight or a little" -- but the last of the sentence was lost.
Nancy looked back and nodded from the tangle to Tom, who stood on the curbstone with his hands in his pockets. Her white hood bobbed out of sight the next moment in School Street behind a great dray.
"Good gracious! eight o'clock!" said Tom, a little daunted, as he walked quickly up the street. As he passed the Missionary Building and the bookstore, he laughed aloud; but as he came near the clubhouse again, in this victorious retreat, he looked up at a window of one of the pleasant old houses, and then obeyed the beckoning nod of an elderly relative who seemed to have been watching for his return.
"Tom," said she, as he entered the library, "I insist upon it that I am not curious by nature or by habit, but what in the world made you chase that funny old horse and sleigh?"
"A pretty girl," said Tom frankly.
The second morning after this unexpected interview was sunshiny enough, and as cold as January could make it. Tom Aldis, being young and gay, was apt to keep late hours at this season, and the night before had been the night of a Harvard assembly. He was the kindest-hearted fellow in the world, but it was impossible not to feel a little glum and sleepy as he hurried toward the Missionary Building. The sharp air had urged uncle Ezra's white horse beyond his customary pace, so that the old sleigh was already waiting, and uncle Ezra himself was flapping his chilled arms and tramping to and fro impatiently.
"Cold mornin'!" he said. "She's waitin' for you in there. I wanted to be sure you'd come. Now I'll be off. I've got them pears well covered, but I expect they may be touched. Nancy counted on comin', an' I'd just as soon she'd have a nice time. Her cousin's folks'll see her to the depot," he added as he drove away, and Tom nodded reassuringly from the bookstore door.
Nancy looked up eagerly from beside a counter full of gayly bound books, and gave him a speechless and grateful good-morning.
"I'm getting some presents for the little boys," she informed him. "They're great hands to read. This one's all about birds, for Sam, and I don't know but this Life o' Napoleon'll please Asa as much as anything. When I waked up this morning I felt homesick. I couldn't see anything out o' the window that I knew. I'm a real home body."
"I should like to send the boys a present, myself," said Tom. "What do you think about jack-knives?"
"Asa'd rather have readin' matter; he ain't got the use for a knife that some boys have. Why, you're real good!" said Nancy.
"And your mother, -- can't I send her something that she would like?" asked Tom kindly.
"She liked all those things that you and Mr. Carew sent at Christmas time. We had the loveliest time opening the bundles. You oughtn't to think o' doing anything more. I wish you'd help me pick out a nice large-print Bible for grandma; she's always wishing for a large-print Bible, and her eyes fail her a good deal."
Tom Aldis was not very fond of shopping, but this pious errand did not displease him in Nancy's company. A few minutes later, when they went out into the cold street, he felt warm and cheerful, and carried under his arm the flat parcel which held a large-print copy of the Scriptures and the little boys' books. Seeing Nancy again seemed to carry his thoughts back to East Rodney, as if he had been born and brought up there as well as she. The society and scenery of the little coast town were so simple and definite in their elements that one easily acquired a feeling of citizenship; it was like becoming acquainted with a friendly individual. Tom had an intimate knowledge, gained from several weeks' residence, with Nancy's whole world.
The long morning stretched before them like a morning in far Cathay, and they stepped off down the street toward the Old South Church, which had been omitted from uncle Ezra's scheme of entertainment by reason of difficulty in leaving the horse. The discovery that the door would not be open for nearly another hour only involved a longer walk among the city streets, and the asking and answering of many questions about the East Rodney neighbors, and the late autumn hunting and fishing which, with some land interests of his father's, had first drawn Tom to that part of the country. He had known enough of the rest of the world to appreciate the little community of fishermen-farmers, and while his friend Carew was but a complaining captive with a sprained ankle, Tom Aldis entered into the spirit of rural life with great zest; in fact he now remembered some boyish gallantries with a little uneasiness, and looked to Nancy to befriend him. It was easy for a man of twenty-two to arrive at an almost brotherly affection for such a person as Nancy; she was so discreet and so sincerely affectionate.
Nancy looked up at him once or twice as they walked along, and her face glowed with happy pride. "I'd just like to have Addie Porter see me now!" she exclaimed, and gave Tom a straightforward look to which he promptly responded.
"Why?" he asked.
Nancy drew a long breath of relief, and began to smile.
"Oh, nothing," she answered; "only she kept telling me that you wouldn't have much of anything to say to me, if I should happen to meet you anywhere up to Boston. I knew better. I guess you're all right, aren't you, about that?" She spoke with sudden impulse, but there was something in her tone that made Tom blush a little.
"Why, yes," he answered. "What do you mean, Nancy?"
"We won't talk about it now while we're full of seeing things, but I've got something to say by and by," said the girl soberly.
"You're very mysterious," protested Tom, taking the bundle under his other arm, and piloting her carefully across the street.
Nancy said no more. The town was more interesting now that it seemed to have waked up, and her eyes were too busy. Everything proved delightful that day, from the recognition of business signs familiar to her through newspaper advertisements, to the Great Organ, and the thrill which her patriotic heart experienced in a second visit to Faneuil Hall. They found the weather so mild that they pushed on to Charlestown, and went to the top of the monument, which Tom had not done since he was a very small boy. After this they saw what else they could of historic Boston, on the fleetest and lightest of feet, and talked all the way, until they were suddenly astonished to hear the bells in all the steeples ring at noon.
"Oh dear, my nice mornin' 's all gone," said Nancy regretfully. "I never had such a beautiful time in all my life!"
She looked quite beautiful herself as she spoke: her eyes shone with lovely light and feeling, and her cheeks were bright with color like a fresh-bloomed rose, but for the first time that day she was wistful and sorry.
"Oh, you needn't go back yet!" said Tom. "I've nothing in the world to do."
"Uncle Ezra thought I'd better go up to cousin Snow's in Revere Street. I'm afraid she'll be all through dinner, but never mind. They thought I'd better go there on mother's account; it's her cousin, but I never saw her, at least not since I can remember. They won't like it if I don't, you know; it wouldn't be very polite."
"All right," assented Tom with dignity. "I'll take you there at once: perhaps we can catch a car or something."
"I'm ashamed to ask for anything more when you've been so kind," said Nancy, after a few moments of anxious silence. "I don't know that you can think of any good chance, but I'd give a great deal if I could only go somewhere and see some pretty dancing. You know I'm always dreamin' and dreamin' about pretty dancing!" and she looked eagerly at Tom to see what he would say. "It must be goin' on somewhere in Boston," she went on with pleading eyes. "Could you ask somebody? They said at uncle Ezra's that if cousin Abby Snow wanted me to remain until to-morrow it might be just as well to stay; she used to be so well acquainted with mother. And so I thought -- I might get some nice chance to look on."
"To see some dancing," repeated Tom, mindful of his own gay evening the night before, and of others to come, and the general impossibility of Nancy's finding the happiness she sought. He never had been so confronted by social barriers. As for Nancy's dancing at East Rodney, in the schoolhouse hall or in Jacob Parker's new barn, it had been one of the most ideal things he had ever known in his life; it would be hard to find elsewhere such grace as hers. In seaboard towns one often comes upon strange foreign inheritances, and the soul of a Spanish grandmother might still survive in Nancy, as far as her light feet were concerned. She danced like a flower in the wind. She made you feel light of foot yourself, as if you were whirling and blowing and waving through the air; as if you could go out dancing and dancing over the deep blue sea water of the bay, and find floor enough to touch and whirl upon. But Nancy had always seemed to take her gifts for granted; she had the simplicity of genius. "I can't say now, but I am sure to find out," said Tom Aldis definitely. "I'll try to make some sort of plan for you. I wish we could have another dance, ourselves."
"Oh, not now," answered Nancy sensibly. "It's knowing 'most all the people that makes a party pleasant."
"My aunt would have asked you to come to luncheon to-day, but she had to go out of town, and was afraid of not getting back in season. She would like to see you very much. You see, I'm only a bachelor in lodgings, this winter," explained Tom bravely.
"You've been just as good as you could be. I know all about Boston now, almost as if I lived here. I should like to see the inside of one of those big houses," she added softly; "they all look so noble as you go by. I think it was very polite of your aunt; you must thank her, Mr. Aldis."
It seemed to Tom as if his companion were building most glorious pleasure out of very commonplace materials. All the morning she had been as gay and busy as a brook.
By the middle of the afternoon he knocked again at cousin Snow's door in Revere Street, and delivered an invitation. Mrs. Annesley, his aunt, and the kindest of women, would take Nancy to an afternoon class at Papanti's, and bring her back afterwards, if cousin Snow were willing to spare her. Tom would wait and drive back with her in the coupé; then he must hurry to Cambridge for a business meeting to which he had been suddenly summoned.
Nancy was radiant when she first appeared, but a few minutes later, as they drove away together, she began to look grave and absent. It was only because she was so sorry to think of parting.
"I am so glad about the dancing class," said Tom. "I never should have thought of that. They are all children, you know; but it's very pretty, and they have all the new dances. I used to think it a horrid penance when I was a small boy."
"I don't know why it is," said Nancy, "but the mere thought of music and dancin' makes me feel happy. I never saw any real good dancin', either, but I can always think what it ought to be. There's nothing so beautiful to me as manners," she added softly, as if she whispered at the shrine of confidence.
"My aunt thinks there are going to be some pretty figure dances to-day," announced Tom in a matter-of-fact way. There was something else than the dancing upon his mind. He thought that he ought to tell Nancy of his engagement, -- not that it was quite an engagement yet, -- but he could not do it just now. "What was it you were going to tell me this morning? About Addie Porter, wasn't it?" He laughed a little, and then colored deeply. He had been somewhat foolish in his attentions to this young person, the beguiling village belle of East Rodney and the adjacent coasts. She was a pretty creature and a sad flirt, with none of the real beauty and quaint sisterly ways of Nancy. "What was it all about?" he asked again.
Nancy turned away quickly. "That's one thing I wanted to come to Boston for; that's what I want to tell you. She don't really care anything about you. She only wanted to get you away from the other girls. I know for certain that she likes Joe Brown better than anybody, and now she's been going with him almost all winter long. He keeps telling round that they're going to be married in the spring; but I thought if they were, she'd ask me to get some of her best things while I was in Boston. I suppose she's intendin' to play with him a while longer," said Nancy with honest scorn, "just because he loves her well enough to wait. But don't you worry about her, Mr. Aldis!"
"I won't indeed," answered Tom meekly, but with an unexpected feeling of relief as if the unconscious danger had been a real one. Nancy was very serious.
"I'm going home the first of the week," she said as they parted; but the small hand felt colder than usual, and did not return his warm grasp. The light in her eyes had all gone, but Tom's beamed affectionately.
"I never thought of Addie Porter afterward, I'm afraid," he confessed. ["]What awfully good fun we all had! I should like to go down to East Rodney again sometime."
"Oh, shan't you ever come?" cried Nancy, with a thrill in her voice which Tom did not soon forget. He did not know that the young girl's heart was waked, he was so busy with the affairs of his own affections; but true friendship does not grow on every bush, in Boston or East Rodney, and Nancy's voice and farewell look touched something that lay very deep within his heart.
There is a little more to be told of this part of the story. Mrs. Annesley, Tom's aunt, being a woman whose knowledge of human nature and power of sympathy made her a woman of the world rather than of any smaller circle, -- Mrs. Annesley was delighted with Nancy's unaffected pleasure and self-forgetful dignity of behavior at the dancing-school. She took her back to the fine house, and they had half an hour together there, and only parted because Nancy was to spend the night with cousin Snow, and another old friend of her mother's was to be asked to tea. Mrs. Annesley asked her to come to see her again, whenever she was in Boston, and Nancy gratefully promised, but she never came. "I'm all through with Boston for this time," she said, with an amused smile, at parting. "I'm what one of our neighbors calls `all flustered up,'" and she looked eagerly in her new friend's kind eyes for sympathy. "Now that I've seen this beautiful house, and you and Mr. Aldis, and some pretty dancin', I want to go right home where I belong."
Tom Aldis meant to write to Nancy when his engagement came out, but he never did; and he meant to send a long letter to her and her mother two years later, when he and his wife were going abroad for a long time; but he had an inborn hatred of letter-writing, and let that occasion pass also, though when anything made him very sorry or very glad, he had a curious habit of thinking of these East Rodney friends. Before he went to Europe he used to send them magazines now and then, or a roll of illustrated papers; and one day, in a bookstore, he happened to see a fine French book with colored portraits of famous dancers, and sent it by express to Nancy with his best remembrances. But Tom was young and much occupied, the stream of time floated him away from the shore of Maine, not toward it, ten or fifteen years passed by, his brown hair began to grow gray, and he came back from Europe after a while to a new Boston life in which reminiscences of East Rodney seemed very remote indeed.
One summer afternoon there were two passengers, middle-aged men, on the small steamer James Madison, which attended the comings and goings of the great Boston steamer, and ran hither and yon on errands about Penobscot Bay. She was puffing up a long inlet toward East Rodney Landing, and the two strangers were observing the green shores with great interest. Like nearly the whole stretch of the Maine coast, there was a house on almost every point and headland; but for all this, there were great tracts of untenanted country, dark untouched forests of spruces and firs, and shady coves where there seemed to be deep water and proper moorings. The two passengers were on the watch for landings and lookouts; in short, this lovely, lonely country was being frankly appraised at its probable value for lumbering or for building-lots and its relation to the real estate market. Just now there appeared to be no citizens save crows and herons, the sun was almost down behind some high hills in the west, and the Landing was in sight not very far ahead.
"It is nearly twenty years since I came down here before," said the younger of the two men, suddenly giving the conversation a personal turn. "Just after I was out of college, at any rate. My father had bought this point of land with the islands. I think he meant to come and hunt in the autumn, and was misled by false accounts of deer and moose. He sent me down to oversee something or other; I believe he had some surveyors at work, and thought they had better be looked after; so I got my chum Carew to come along, and we found plenty of trout, and had a great time until he gave his ankle a bad sprain."
"What did you do then?" asked the elder man politely, keeping his eyes on the shore.
"I stayed by, of course; I had nothing to do in those days," answered Mr. Aldis. "It was one of those nice old-fashioned country neighborhoods where there was plenty of fun among the younger people, -- sailing on moonlight nights, and haycart parties, and dances, and all sorts of things. We used to go to prayer-meeting nine or ten miles off, and sewing societies. I had hard work to get away! We made excuse of Carew's ankle joint as long as we could, but he'd been all right and going everywhere with the rest of us a fortnight before we started. We waited until there was ice alongshore, I remember."
"Daniel R. Carew, was it, of the New York Stock Exchange?" asked the listener. "He strikes you as being a very grave sort of person now; doesn't like it if he finds anybody in his chair at the club, and all that."
"I can stir him up," said Mr. Aldis confidently. "Poor old fellow, he has had a good deal of trouble, one way and another. How the Landing has grown up! Why, it's a good-sized little town!"
"I'm sorry it is so late," he added, after a long look at a farm on the shore which they were passing. "I meant to go to see the people up there," and he pointed to the old farmhouse, dark and low and firm-rooted in the long slope of half-tamed, ledgy fields. Warm thoughts of Nancy filled his heart, as if they had said good-by to each other that cold afternoon in Boston only the winter before. He had not been so eager to see any one for a long time. Such is the triumph of friendship: even love itself without friendship is the victim of chance and time.
When supper was over in the Knox House, the one centre of public entertainment in East Rodney, it was past eight o'clock, and Mr. Aldis felt like a dim copy of Rip Van Winkle, or of the gay Tom Aldis who used to know everybody, and be known of all men as the planner of gayeties. He lighted a cigar as he sat on the front piazza of the hotel, and gave himself up to reflection. There was a long line of lights in the second story of a wooden building opposite, and he was conscious of some sort of public interest and excitement.
"There is going to be a time in the hall," said the landlord, who came hospitably out to join him. "The folks are going to have a dance. The proceeds will be applied to buying a bell for the new schoolhouse. They'd be pleased if you felt like stepping over; there has been a considerable number glad to hear you thought of coming down. I ain't an East Rodney man myself, but I've often heard of your residin' here some years ago. Our folks is makin' the ice cream for the occasion," he added significantly, and Mr. Aldis nodded and smiled in acknowledgment. He had meant to go out and see the Gales, if the boat had only got in in season; but boats are unpunctual in their ways, and the James Madison had been unexpectedly signaled by one little landing and settlement after another. He remembered that a great many young people were on board when they arrived, and now they appeared again, coming along the street and disappearing at the steep stairway opposite. The lighted windows were full of heads already, and there were now and then preliminary exercises upon a violin. Mr. Aldis had grown old enough to be obliged to sit and think it over about going to a ball; the day had passed when there would have been no question; but when he had finished his cigar he crossed the street, and only stopped before the lighted store window to find a proper bank bill for the doorkeeper. Then he ran up the stairs to the hall, as if he were the Tom Aldis of old. It was an embarrassing moment as he entered the low, hot room, and the young people stared at him suspiciously; but there were also elderly people scattered about who were meekly curious and interested, and one of these got clumsily upon his feet and hastened to grasp the handsome stranger by the hand."
"Nancy heard you was coming," said Mr. Gale delightedly. "She expected I should see you here, if you was just the same kind of a man you used to be. Come let 's set right down, folks is crowding in; there may be more to set than there is to dance."
"How is Nancy, isn't she coming?" asked Tom, feeling the years tumble off his shoulders.
"Well as usual, poor creatur," replied the old father, with a look of surprise. "No, no; she can't go nowhere."
At that moment the orchestra struck up a military march with so much energy that further conversation was impossible. Near them was an awkward-looking young fellow, with shoulders too broad for his height, and a general look of chunkiness and dullness. Presently he rose and crossed the room, and made a bow to his chosen partner that most courtiers might have envied. It was a bow of grace and dignity.
"Pretty well done!" said Tom Aldis aloud.
Mr. Gale was beaming with smiles, and keeping time to the music with his foot and hand. "Nancy done it," he announced proudly, speaking close to his companion's ear. "That boy give her a sight o' difficulty; he used to want to learn, but 'long at the first he'd turn red as fire if he much as met a sheep in a pastur'. The last time I see him on the floor I went home an' told her he done as well as any. You can see for yourself, now they're all a-movin'."
The fresh southerly breeze came wafting into the hall and making the lamps flare. If Tom turned his head, he could see the lights out in the bay, of vessels that had put in for the night. Old Mr. Gale was not disposed for conversation so long as the march lasted, and when it was over a frisky-looking middle-aged person accosted Mr. Aldis with the undimmed friendliness of their youth; and he took her out, as behoved him, for the Lancers quadrille. From her he learned that Nancy had been for many years a helpless invalid; and when their dance was over he returned to sit out the next one with Mr. Gale, who had recovered a little by this time from the excitement of the occasion, and was eager to talk about Nancy's troubles, but still more about her gifts and activities. After a while they adjourned to the hotel piazza in company, and the old man grew still more eloquent over a cigar. He had not changed much since Tom's residence in the family; in fact, the flight of seventeen years had made but little difference in his durable complexion or the tough frame which had been early seasoned by wind and weather.
"Yes, sir," he said, "Nancy has had it very hard, but she's the life o' the neighborhood yet. For excellent judgment I never see her equal. Why, once the board o' selec'men took trouble to meet right there in her room off the kitchen, when they had to make some responsible changes in layin' out the school deestricts. She was the best teacher they ever had, a master good teacher; fitted a boy for Bowdoin College all except his Greek, that last season before she was laid aside from sickness. She took right holt to bear it the best she could, and begun to study on what kind o' things she could do. First she used to make out to knit, a-layin' there, for the store, but her hands got crippled up with the rest of her; 't is the wust kind o' rheumatics there is. She had me go round to the neighborin' schools and say that if any of the child'n was backward an' slow with their lessons to send 'em up to her. Now an' then there'd be one, an' at last she'd see to some class there wasn't time for: an' here year before last the town voted her fifty dollars a year for her services. What do you think of that?"
Aldis manifested his admiration, but he could not help wishing that he had not seemed to forget so pleasant an old acquaintance, and above all wished that he had not seemed to take part in nature's great scheme to defraud her. She had begun life with such distinct rights and possibilities.
"I tell you she was the most cut up to have to stop dancin'," said Mr. Gale gayly, "but she held right on to that, same as to other things. `I can't dance myself,' she says, `so I'm goin' to make other folks.' You see right before you how she's kep' her word, Mr. Aldis? What always pleased her the most, from a child, was dancin'. Folks talked to her some about letting her mind rove on them light things when she appeared to be on a dyin' bed. `David, he danced afore the Lord,' she'd tell 'em, an' her eyes would snap so, they didn't like to say no more."
Aldis laughed, the old man himself was so cheerful.
"Well, sir, she made 'em keep right on with the old dancin'-school she always took such part in (I guess 't was goin', wa'n't it, that fall you stopped here?); but she sent out for all the child'n she could get and learnt 'em their manners. She can see right out into the kitchen from where she is an' she has 'em make their bows an' take their steps till they get 'em right an' feel as good as anybody. There's boys an' girls comin' an' goin' two or three times a week in the afternoon. It don't seem to be no hardship: there ain't no such good company for young or old as Nancy."
"She'll be dreadful glad to see you," the proud father ended his praises. "Oh, she's never forgot that good time she had up to Boston. You an' all your folks couldn't have treated her no better, an' you give her her heart's desire, you did so! She's never done talkin' about that pretty dancin'-school with all them lovely little child'n, an' everybody so elegant and pretty behaved. She'd always wanted to see such a lady as your aunt was. I don't know but she's right: she always maintains that when folks has good manners an' good hearts the world is their'n, an' she was goin' to do everything she could to keep young folks from feelin' hoggish an' left out."
Tom walked out toward the farm in the bright moonlight with Mr. Gale, and promised to call as early the next day as possible. They followed the old shore path, with the sea on one side and the pointed firs on the other, and parted where Nancy's light could be seen twinkling on the hill.
It was not very cheerful to look forward to seeing a friend of one's youth crippled and disabled; beside, Tom Aldis always felt a nervous dread in being where people were ill and suffering. He thought once or twice how little compassion for Nancy these country neighbors expressed. Even her father seemed inclined to boast of her, rather than to pity the poor life that was so hindered. Business affairs and conference were appointed for that afternoon, so that by the middle of the morning he found himself walking up the yard to the Gales' side door.
There was nobody within call. Mr. Aldis tapped once or twice, and then hearing a voice he went through the narrow unpainted entry into the old kitchen, a brown, comfortable place which he well remembered.
"Oh, I'm so glad to see you," Nancy was calling from her little bedroom beyond. "Come in, come in!"
He passed the doorway, and stood with his hand on hers, which lay helpless on the blue-and-white coverlet. Nancy's young eyes, untouched by years or pain or regret, looked up at him as frankly as a child's from the pillow.
"Mother's gone down into the field to pick some peas for dinner," she said, looking and looking at Tom and smiling; but he saw at last that tears were shining, too, and making her smile all the brighter. "You see now why I couldn't write," she explained. "I kept thinking I should. I didn't want anybody else to thank you for the books. Now sit right down," she begged her guest. "Father told me all he could about last night. You danced with Addie Porter."
"I did," acknowledged Tom Aldis, and they both laughed. "We talked about old times between the figures, but it seemed to me that I remembered them better than she did."
"Addie has been through with a good deal of experience since then," explained Nancy, with a twinkle in her eyes.
"I wish I could have danced again with you," said Tom bravely, "but I saw some scholars that did you credit."
"I have to dance by proxy," said Nancy; and to this there was no reply.
Tom Aldis sat in the tiny bedroom with an aching heart. Such activity and definiteness of mind, such power of loving and hunger for life, had been pent and prisoned there so many years. Nancy had made what she could of her small world of books. There was something very uncommon in her look and way of speaking; he felt like a boy beside her, -- he to whom the world had given its best luxury and widest opportunity. As he looked out of the small window, he saw only a ledgy pasture where sheep were straying along the slopes among the bayberry and juniper; beyond were some balsam firs and a glimpse of the sea. It was a lovely bit of landscape, but it lacked figures, and Nancy was born to be a teacher and a lover of her kind. She had only lacked opportunity, but she was equal to meeting whatever should come. One saw it in her face.
"You don't know how many times I have thought of that cold day in Boston," said Nancy from her pillows. "Your aunt was beautiful. I never could tell you about the rest of the day with her, could I? Why, it just gave me a measure to live by. I saw right off how small some things were that I thought were big. I told her about one or two things down here in Rodney that troubled me, and she understood all about it. `If we mean to be happy and useful,' she said, 'the only way is to be self-forgetful.' I never forgot that!"
"The seed fell upon good ground, didn't it?" said Mr. Aldis with a smile. He had been happy enough himself, but Nancy's happiness appeared in that moment to have been of another sort. He could not help thinking what a wonderful perennial quality there is in friendship. Because it had once flourished and bloomed, no winter snows of Maine could bury it, no summer sunshine of foreign life could wither this single flower of a day long past. The years vanished like a May snowdrift, and because they had known each other once they found each other now. It was like a tough little sprig of gray everlasting; the New England edelweiss that always keeps a white flower ready to blossom safe and warm in its heart.
They entertained each other delightfully that late summer morning. Tom talked of his wife and children as he had seldom talked of them to any one before, and afterward explained the land interests which had brought him back at this late day to East Rodney.
"I came down meaning to sell my land to a speculator," he said, "or to a real estate agency which has great possessions along the coast; but I'm very doubtful about doing it, now that I have seen the bay again and this lovely shore. I had no idea that it was such a magnificent piece of country. I was going on from here to Mount Desert, with a half idea of buying land there. Why isn't this good enough that I own already? With a yacht or a good steam launch we shouldn't be so far away from places along the coast, you know. What if I were to build a house above Sunday Cove, on the headland, and if we should be neighbors! I have a friend who might build another house on the point beyond; we came home from abroad at about the same time, and he's looking for a place to build, this side of Bar Harbor." Tom was half confiding in his old acquaintance, and half thinking aloud. "These real estate brokers can't begin to give a man the value of such land as mine," he added.
"It would be excellent business to come and live here yourself, if you want to bring up the value of the property," said Nancy gravely. "I hear there are a good many lots staked out between here and Portland, but it takes more than that to start things. There can't be any prettier place than East Rodney," she declared, looking affectionately out of her little north window. ["]It would be a great blessing to city people, if they could come and have our good Rodney air."
The friends talked on a little longer, and with great cheerfulness and wealth of reminiscence. Tom began to understand why nobody seemed to pity Nancy, though she did at last speak sadly, and make confession that she felt it to be very hard because she never could get about the neighborhood to see any of the old and sick people. Some of them were lonesome, and lived in lonesome places. "I try to send word to them sometimes, if I can't do any more," said Nancy. "We're so apt to forget 'em, and let 'em feel they aren't useful. I can't bear to see an old heart begging for a little love. I do sometimes wish I could manage to go an' try to make a little of their time pass pleasant."
"Do you always stay just here?" asked Tom with sudden compassion, after he had stood for a moment looking out at the gray sheep on the hillside.
"Oh, sometimes I get into the old rocking-chair, and father pulls me out into the kitchen when I'm extra well," said Nancy proudly, as if she spoke of a yachting voyage or a mountaineer's exploits. "Once a doctor said if I was only up to Boston" -- her voice fell a little with a touch of wistfulness -- "perhaps I could have had more done, and could have got about with some kind of a chair. But that was a good while ago: I never let myself worry about it. I am so busy right here that I don't know what would happen if I set out to travel."
A year later the East Rodney shore looked as green as ever, and the untouched wall of firs and pines faithfully echoed the steamer's whistle. In the twelve months just past Mr. Aldis had worked wonders upon his long-neglected estate, and now was comfortably at housekeeping on the Sunday Cove headland. Nancy could see the chimneys and a gable of the fine establishment from her own little north window, and the sheep still fed undisturbed on the slopes that lay between. More than this, there were two other new houses, to be occupied by Tom's friends, within the distance of a mile or two. It would be difficult to give any idea of the excitement and interest of East Rodney, or the fine effect and impulse to the local market. Tom's wife and children were most affectionately befriended by their neighbors the Gales, and with their coming in midsummer many changes for the better took place in Nancy's life, and made it bright. She lost no time in starting a class, where the two eldest for the first time found study a pleasure, while little Tom was promptly and tenderly taught his best bow, and made to mind his steps with such interest and satisfaction that he who had once roared aloud in public at the infant dancing-class, now knew both confidence and ambition. There was already a well-worn little footpath between the old Gale house and Sunday Cove; it wound in and out among the ledges and thickets, and over the short sheep-turf of the knolls; and there was a scent of sweet-brier here, and of raspberries there, and of the salt water and the pines, and the juniper and bayberry, all the way.
Nancy herself had followed that path in a carrying-chair, and joy was in her heart at every step. She blessed Tom over and over again, as he walked, broad-shouldered and strong, between the forward handles, and turned his head now and then to see if she liked the journey. For many reasons, she was much better now that she could get out into the sun. The bedroom with the north window was apt to be tenantless, and wherever Nancy went she made other people wiser and happier, and more interested in life.
On the day when she went in state to visit the new house, with her two sober carriers, and a gay little retinue of young people frisking alongside, she felt happy enough by the way; but when she got to the house itself, and had been carried quite round it, and was at last set down in the wide hall to look about, she gave her eyes a splendid liberty of enjoyment. Mrs. Aldis disappeared for a moment to give directions in her guest's behalf, and the host and Nancy were left alone together.
"No, I don't feel a bit tired," said the guest, looking pale and radiant. "I feel as if I didn't know how to be grateful enough. I have everything in the world to make me happy. What does make you and your dear family do so much?"
"It means a great deal to have friends, doesn't it?" answered Tom in a tone that thanked her warmly. "I often wish" --
He could not finish his sentence, for he was thinking of Nancy's long years, and the bond of friendship that absence and even forgetfulness had failed to break; of the curious insistence of fate which made him responsible for something in the life of Nancy and brought him back to her neighborhood. It was a moment of deep thought; he even forgot Nancy herself. He heard the water plashing on the shore below, and felt the cool sea wind that blew in at the door.
Nancy reached out her bent and twisted hand and began to speak; then she hesitated, and glanced at her hand again, and looked straight at him with shining eyes.
"There never has been a day when I haven't thought of you," she said.
Jewett comments on "The Life of Nancy"
From a letter to Horace Scudder of 23 November, 1894, in Cary, Sarah Orne Jewett Letters, p. 92.
I send you the story [identified by Cary as "The Life of Nancy"] but I hope to make it still better when I have the proof to work upon. I hope that you will like it, and that I shall like it better when I see it again! Just now I have been working over it too long, which always seems a pity, or rather makes the story itself seem a pity!"
"The Life of Nancy" was first published in Atlantic (75:175-187) in February 1895. The text is from the 1969 Books for Libraries Press reprinting of The Life of Nancy (1895). Errors in the text have been corrected and indicated with brackets. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
[ Back ]
Milton Hill and beyond Belmont: then on the edge of Boston.
[ Back ]
Berkshire village: The Berkshire mountains are in western Massachusetts.
[ Back ]
Beacon Street: a principle thoroughfare in Boston, the location of business and government buildings.
[ Back ]
the common: Boston Common is a 48 acre tract originally reserved in 1634 as pasture and training field.
[ Back ]
Rip Van Winkle . . . this week: Joseph Jefferson and Dion Boucicault wrote a popular dramatization of `Rip Van Winkle,' Washington Irving's well-known story from The Sketch Book (1819-1820). The play was first performed in 1865, and Jefferson was enormously successful in the role of Rip.
[ Back ]
horse-car: horse-drawn trolley or street car.
[ Back ]
Missionary Building: There was a Missionary House at 33 Pemberton Square; the building backed up to Somerset Street. There were the offices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, whose purpose was `to send out consecrated men to all parts of the world and establish schools, churches and powerful native ministries.' Missionary Magazine had its offices at 33 Somerset Street.
[ Back ]
Faneuil Hall: This two-story building with a bronze dome is called `The Cradle of Liberty' because mass meetings were held there in the years before the American Revolution.
[ Back ]
Old South Church: The Old South Meeting House on Washington Street, home of a Congregational church, was the site of pre-revolutionary town meetings, including the one that began the Boston Tea Party. In 1875, the congregation erected a new building in Copley Square, which became known as ‘New' Old South Church. The old meeting house, however, was preserved and became a museum. (Research assistance: Wendy Pirsig; Source: Charles Bahne, The Complete Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail, 1993).
[ Back ]
Harvard assembly: That Tom has attended an assembly suggests that he is a member of one of the exclusive Harvard Clubs or of the alumni Harvard Club and, therefore, ranks high in Boston society. Ronald Story reports in The Forging of an Aristocracy (1980) that `Boston Assemblies' were held beginning in the 1830's at Papanti's ballroom (see below), providing an opportunity for Harvard students to socialize.
[ Back ]
Great Organ: This would almost certainly be the organ in King's Chapel, which was installed in 1713 despite local opposition to such an instrument in a church. Beginning in the late Eighteenth Century the organ was used for concerts. The current organ in King's Chapel is a replica of the original. (Research assistance: Wendy Pirsig).
[ Back ]
The Monument: Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, a 221-foot granite obelisk, with a public spiral staircase one can ascend for the view. The monument commemorates an American Revolutionary battle (1775) — actually fought at Breed's Hill; even though American forces were driven from the hill, their fierce resistance
prevented the British from breaking the American siege of Boston.
[ Back ]
Papanti's: Though opposed by local clergy, Lorenzo Papanti founded a dancing academy in Boston which became an institution. In Boston and the Boston Legend (1935) Lucius Beebe says, "All good Boston children went to Papanti's, where his lean figure, glossy wig and elegant patent leather dancing pumps, and above all his pointed fiddle-bow, used both as an instrument of correction and harmony, struck terror to all juvenile hearts."
[ Back ]
James Madison: James Madison (1751-1836) was the fourth president of the United States.
[ Back ]
Penobscot Bay: This bay is at the mouth of the Penobscot River on the south-central coast of Maine.
[ Back ]
Lancer's quadrille: a type of square dance of French origin.
[ Back ]
David danced before the lord: see 2 Samuel 6:14.
[ Back ]
bayberry: Bayberry is a short, thick wild bush which grows along the coast in New England; the wax from its berries is used to make scented candles; represents `instruction' in the nineteenth-century language of flowers. (Research: Ted Eden).
[ Back ]
seed fell upon good ground: see Matthew 13:8.
[ Back ]
Mount Desert: This island east of Penobscot Bay was the site of early French settlement in North American; it is now better known as the main island of Acadia National Park. The town of Bar Harbor is on the island. Portland is roughly 140 miles by sea south-west of Bar Harbor.
[ Back ]
Sweet-brier: a European rose with big, strong thorns and a single pink blossom; rose hips (the fruit) are a source of vitamin C and are used for jellies and sauces; stands for `poetry' in the nineteenth-century language of flowers. (Research: Ted Eden).
[ Back ]
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College
The Life of Nancy
Atlantic Monthly Text