Thoroughly mystified now, Miss Polly hurried upstairs to Pollyanna’s room.
«Pollyanna, do you know a Mrs. Tarbell?»
«Oh, yes. I love Mrs. Tarbell. She’s sick, and awfully sad; and she’s at the hotel, and takes long walks. We go together. I mean, we used to.» Pollyanna’s voice broke, and two big tears rolled down her cheeks.
Miss Polly cleared her throat hurriedly.
«Well, she’s just been here, dear. She left a message for you but she wouldn’t tell me what it meant. She said to tell you that Mrs. Tarbell is glad now.»
Pollyanna clapped her hands softly.
«Did she say that — really? Oh, I’m so glad!»
«But, Pollyanna, what did she mean?»
«Why, it’s the game, and -» Pollyanna stopped short and put her fingers to her lips.
«Nothing much, Aunt Polly; I can’t tell it unless I tell other things that I’m not to speak of.»
Miss Polly wanted to question her niece further; but the obvious distress on the little girl’s face stopped the words before they were uttered.
Not long after Mrs. Tarbell’s visit, the climax came. It came in the shape of a call from a certain young woman with unnaturally pink cheeks and yellow hair; a young woman who wore high heels and cheap jewelry; a young woman whom Miss Polly knew very well by reputation but whom she was angrily amazed to meet beneath the roof of the Harrington homestead.
Miss Polly did not offer her hand. She drew back, indeed, as she entered the room.
The woman rose at once. Her eyes were very red, as if she had been crying. Half defiantly she asked if she might, for a moment, see the little girl, Pollyanna.
Miss Polly said no. She began to say it very sternly, but something in the woman’s pleading eyes made her add the civil explanation that no one was allowed yet to see Pollyanna.
The woman hesitated; then she spoke a little brusquely.
«My name is Mrs. Tom Payson. I presume you’ve heard of me — most of the good people in the town have. And maybe some of the things you’ve heard aren’t true. But never mind that. It’s about the little girl I came. I heard about the accident, and it broke me all up. Last week I heard how she couldn’t ever walk again, and I wished I could give up my two uselessly healthy legs for hers.»
She paused, and cleared her throat; but when she resumed her voice was still husky.
«Maybe you don’t know it, but I’ve seen a good deal of your little girl. We live on the Pendleton Hill road, and she used to go by often. She always came in and played with the kids and talked to me and my man, when he was home. She seemed to like it, and to like us. She didn’t know, I suspect, that we didn’t belong to her kind of folks. Still she did us a lot of good.
«We have had hard times this year. We’ve been blue and discouraged — my man and me, and ready for almost anything. We were thinking of getting a divorce and we didn’t know what to do with the kids. Then the accident came, and we heard that the little girl would never walk again. And she used to come and sit on our doorstep and play with the kids, and laugh, and — and just be glad. One day she told us about the game, you know; and tried to coax us to play it.
«Well, we’ve heard now that she’s suffering, because she can’t play it anymore — there’s nothing to be glad about. And that’s what I came to tell her today: maybe she can be a little glad for us, because we’ve decided to stick to each other, and play the game ourselves. Will you tell her?»
«Yes, I will tell her,» promised Miss Polly, a little faintly. Then, with a sudden impulse, she stepped forward and held out her hand. «And thank you for coming, Mrs. Payson,» she said simply.
The woman’s lips trembled visibly. Mrs. Payson mumbled something, blindly clutched at the outstretched hand, turned, and fled.
The door closed behind her, and Miss Polly went to talk to Nancy in the kitchen.
Miss Polly spoke sharply. Those puzzling, disconcerting visits of the last few days had strained her nerves to the snapping point. Nancy had never heard her mistress speak so sternly.
«Nancy, will you tell me what this absurd ‘game’ is that the whole town seems to be talking about? And what has my niece to do with it? Why does everybody, from Milly Snow to Mrs. Tom Payson, send word to her that they’re ‘playing it’? I tried to ask the child herself about it, but I didn’t make much headway, and of course I don’t like to worry her — now. But from something I heard her say to you last night, I guess you were one of them, too. Now will you tell me what it all means?»
To Miss Polly’s surprise and dismay, Nancy burst into tears.
«It means that ever since last June that blessed child has just been making the whole town glad, and now they’re trying to make her a little glad, too.»
«Glad of what?»
«Just glad! That’s the game.»
Miss Polly actually stamped her foot.
«There you go like all the rest, Nancy. What game?»
Nancy lifted her chin. She faced her mistress and looked her squarely in the eye.
«It’s a game Miss Pollyanna’s father taught her to play. She got a pair of crutches once in a missionary barrel instead of a doll; and she cried, of course, like any child would. Then her father told her that there was always something in everything that you could be glad about; and that she could be glad about those crutches.»