Miss Polly Harrington entered her kitchen a little hurriedly this June morning.
Nancy, washing dishes at the sink, looked up in surprise. Nancy had been working in Miss Polly’s kitchen for two months only, but she knew already that her mistress did not usually hurry.
«Yes, madam,» Nancy answered cheerfully, wiping the pitcher in her hand.
«Nancy,» Miss Polly’s voice was very stern now, «when I’m talking to you, I want you to stop your work and listen to what I have to say.»
Nancy flushed and set the pitcher down at once, with the cloth still about it, thereby nearly tipping it over.
«Yes, madam; I will, madam,» she stammered, turning hastily. «I was only keeping on with my work because you told me this morning to hurry with my dishes.»
Her mistress frowned.
«That will do, Nancy. I did not ask for explanations. I asked for your attention.»
«Yes, madam.» Nancy stifled the sigh. She was wondering if ever in any way she could please this woman. Nancy had never «worked out» before; but her sick mother, suddenly widowed and left with three younger children besides Nancy herself, had forced the girl into doing something to support them. Nancy had been so pleased when she found a place in the kitchen of the great house on the hill. She knew Miss Polly Harrington only as the mistress of the old Harrington homestead, and one of the wealthiest residents of the town. That was two months before. Now she knew Miss Polly as a stern, severe — faced woman who frowned if a knife clattered to the floor, or if a door banged, but who never thought to smile even when knives and doors were still.
«When you’ve finished your morning work, Nancy,» Miss Polly was saying now, «you may clear the little room in the attic, and make up the bed. Sweep the room and clean it, of course, after you clear out the trunks and boxes. My niece, Miss Pollyanna Whittier, is coming to live with me. She is eleven years old, and will sleep in that room.»
«A little girl is coming here, Miss Harrington? Oh, won’t that be nice!» cried Nancy, thinking of the sunshine her own little sisters made in their home.
«Nice? Well, that isn’t exactly the word I would use,» rejoined Miss Polly, stiffly. «However, I intend to make the best of it, of course. I am a good woman, I hope; and I know my duty.»
Nancy coloured hotly.
«Of course, madam; it was only that I thought a little girl here might brighten things up for you,» she faltered.
«Thank you,» rejoined the lady, dryly. «I can’t say, however, that I see any need for that.»
«But, of course, you’d want her, your sister’s child,» ventured Nancy, vaguely feeling that somehow she must prepare a welcome for this lonely little stranger.
Miss Polly lifted her chin haughtily.
«Well, really, Nancy, just because I happened to have a sister who was silly enough to marry and bring unnecessary children into a world that was already full enough, I don’t think I should want to take the care of them myself. However, as I said before, I hope I know my duty. See that you clean the corners, Nancy,» she finished sharply, as she left the room.
«Yes, madam,» sighed Nancy.
In her own room, Miss Polly took out once more the letter which she had received two days before from the faraway Western town, and which had been an unpleasant surprise to her. The letter was addressed to Miss Polly Harrington, Beldingsville, Vermont; and it read as follows:
Dear Madam: — I regret to inform you that the Rev. John Whittier died two weeks ago, leaving one child, a girl eleven years old. He left practically nothing else but a few books; for, as you know, he was the pastor of this small mission church, and had a very meagre salary.
I believe he was your deceased sister’s husband, but he gave me to understand the families were not on the best of terms. He thought, however, that for your sister’s sake you might wish to take the child and bring her up among her own people in the East. Hence I am writing to you.
The little girl will be ready to start by the time you get this letter; and if you can take her, we would appreciate it very much if you would write that she might come at once. There is a man and his wife here who are going East very soon, and they would take her with them to Boston, and put her on the Beldingsville train. Of course you would be notified what day and train to expect Pollyanna on.
Hoping to hear favourably from you soon, I remain,
Jeremiah O. White
With a frown Miss Polly folded the letter and tucked it into its envelope. She had answered it the day before, and she had said she would take the child, of course. She hoped she knew her duty well enough, no matter how disagreeable the task was.
Her thoughts went back to her sister, Jennie, who had been this child’s mother, and to the time when Jennie, as a girl of twenty, had insisted upon marrying the young minister, in spite of her family’s remonstrance. There had been a man of wealth who had wanted her — and the family had much preferred him to the minister; but Jennie had not. The man of wealth had more years, as well as more money, to his credit, while the minister had only a young head full of ideals and enthusiasm, and a heart full of love. Jennie had preferred him — quite naturally, perhaps; so she had married the minister, and had gone south with him.