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Uncle Phil's Thimble by Elinor Elliott


"A rag-picker!"

"That's just what I am," sighed a poor girl who stood at one of the long tables in the rag-room of a large paper-mill. Down each side the table stood a row of girls, some older, some younger, than herself, all miserably clothed, and all with worn, pinched faces.

These girls came each day to their work with an eager look in their eyes, which burned brightly in the morning, flickered fitfully through the day, and faded out at night, leaving the patient, tired look which want and hunger and disappointment bring, and which is always ready to take courage and look forward once more; for in a pile of rags there sometimes lay a treasure—an odd penny, an old knife, a pair of scissors—something that might be taken to the little pawn shop round the corner and sold.

A little while ago a girl—a lucky girl—had a "find," a bright silver quarter. Her good luck had been whispered up and down the row, but no one betrayed her fortune. When the overseer came through the room, no exultant look nor envious glance suggested anything unusual, for this band of "rag-pickers" had its honor, which it held to as closely as the most compact trades-union in the land.

To some of the girls the thought sometimes came, "Is what we find really ours?" but long generations of workers in the mill had appropriated these "finds," and it had become a custom if not a right.

To-day Nance, at the head of the table, felt a keener longing than usual to secure something. She had never felt the utter dreariness of her loneliness and poverty so strongly as she had in the last bright Christmas season, which had been to her only a vision; not the sweet reality that it becomes to us, who bring it close to us in happy anticipation weeks before it really comes, who live in its light and peace and cheer, in its sweet givings and receivings, and keep its memory with us throughout the year.

For a whole year Nance had been at work in the mill, and had had nothing but her regular five-cent salary. Now her long nervous fingers ran rapidly through the pieces, making four divisions, as she called; "Linen, cotton, woollen, silk—linen, cotton, woollen, silk," and the different bits dropped into their proper piles like falling leaves; while the girl on her right took the cottons, and assorted them, and the girl on her left went through the woollens in the same way, and a girl further on took the silks.

A stranger was always amused to watch the long rows of quiet bodies, nimble fingers, and moving lips, and to hear the half-whispered counting and calling of colors as they divided the pieces.

To-day Nance had a bag to pick from. Here lay her chance. The girls who took the rags from the bags were the most apt to find treasures, and their turn came only once a month.

She was fast nearing the bottom of the last bag. Every time she thrust her hand in, her heart beat fast, and she thought, "Shall I keep it, if I find anything?"

Once more, and her hand touches something cold; her fingers close round it, and she draws it out. Her head swims, she clutches the table with her other hand to keep from falling—perhaps, after all, it is only a button. She collects herself, and peeps slyly into her hand.

A gold thimble!

No one has seen it, no one knows, and Nance slips it into her pocket, and goes on with her work; but somehow it doesn't run smoothly. It is "Silk, cotton, woollen, linen," and then "Cotton, woollen, linen, silk," and the girls find fault because the piles are "mixed," and then the bell rings, and they are free for to-day.

Cautiously Nance makes inquiries about the "finds." How much did they sell things for, if they found any?

"My aunt," said one girl, "onst foun' a gol' ring, an' the jew'ler give her a dollar for 't."

"He melted it down," explained another. "They allus does that. He told me one day that if ever I found a gold breas'pin or a bracelet, 'which 'tain't noways likely you will,' sez he, 'fetch it to me, an' I'll give you what's right for it.'"

So Nance's "find" was really worth money. More money, too, than she could earn in many days' steady toil. What would it not buy! Food, clothing, warmth, everything, seemed within her reach now that she held that source of wealth in her hand.

"'Tain't stealin', I hope," thought Nance. "Course not. I don' know who it belongs to."

When alone, Nance took out the thimble. What a dainty little thing it was! She tried it on each of her hard, bony fingers, and laughed to see the poor grimy things wearing a golden crown.

Why, there were letters on it!

"Reel writin'!" cried Nance, as she paused under a street lamp to spell the word by its light.

"Onst I could read writin'. That first mus' be a capertin—that's what they call them big fellers that stands first—a kin' of a Gennyrel with his soljers. Oh! I don' know the capertins—never got acquainted when I went to school; common letters was good enough for me.

"That tall one, that's l, an' there's round o, then r, an' then i with a dot. L-o lo, r-i ri, lori; m, e, an' then another tall l on the end—that's m-e-l mel, lorimel. Now what's the capertin's name?—lorimel, lorimel; I've heerd that name some'eres. Why, it's her that came that day mother lay a-dyin' an' spoke so soft like; an' the gennelman with her he called her 'lorimel'—no that warn't it—Florimel, Florimel, that's the name!

"Tain't yourn now, Nance. You know where it belongs. You ain't got no right to it now."

And then came other thoughts.

"What's a gold thimble to her? She can buy all she wants—gold thimbles, and gold scissors, and gold needles; and sit in a gold chair, and sew on a gold gown. She hadn't no business leavin' a gold thimble in a rag bag. Them that's careless has to pay for it."

The curtains were drawn in an elegant house on the Avenue. A bright fire burned in the grate, throwing a warm glow on the delicate walls, the beautiful pictures, and the snowy marble statues, and reflecting itself in the long mirrors, seemed, as it sparkled and glowed, the only thing of life in the room; for the young girl who lay back in the luxurious depths of the large chair by the hearth, with her fair hands lying listlessly in her lap, was as white and motionless as the statues around her.

Now and then her lip quivered, and an occasional tear stole from under her long lashes, but she did not look up till a gentleman entered the room. Then she sprang into his arms, and sobbed out, in reply to his question of how she had spent the day,

"I've been perfectly miserable, papa. I've lost my thimble—the thimble Uncle Phil gave me. I'd give everything in the world to see it again."

"Why, my dear little girl, that would hardly be worth while, when you can get another for a few dollars. We'll go to-morrow and buy the prettiest—"

"Ah! papa, you don't understand. All the money in the world can't buy a thimble to take the place of the one Uncle Phil gave me. It was the last thing he ever bought."

"Was it, darling?"

"Yes; and he said that morning, 'Florimel, can you sew pretty well?' and I laughed, and said, 'Of course not, Uncle Phil; what's the need of my sewing?' 'Great need, great need, little niece,' he said. 'Sewing is woman's most womanly work, and though you may never need to sew for yourself, if you knew how, you might teach hundreds of poor girls to sew and clothe themselves and their families.'"

"My little daughter teaching a sewing-school! How funny it would be!"

"So that afternoon we went into Shreve's and selected one, and had my name engraved on it; and that night Uncle Phil was taken ill. So of course I feel badly, papa; don't you see why?"

"Yes, Florimel; but perhaps we shall find this thimble. Have you had Janet search for it?"

"Indeed I have, all day long. I had it yesterday at work on my Kensington, and think Janet must have taken it up among the bits of worsted when she put them into the scrap bag; and Ann sold all the scraps last night to the ragman. Oh dear! I shall never see it again."

"Hif you please, sir," said Jacobs, appearing in the doorway, "there's a vagrant at the basement door. Three times hi've sent 'er away, han' three times she 'as returned, hevery time hasking for Miss Florimel, han' sayin' she must see 'er."

"To see me? At the basement door? How strange!" and Florimel forgot her tears in her eagerness to see what the poor child at the door could want.

Her papa hurried down stairs after her, and saw her face radiant with joy as she held in her hand a gold thimble, while a scantily clothed girl stood beside her awkwardly twisting the corner of her shabby shawl.

"Oh, papa! this girl Nancy found my thimble among some rags, and brought it back to me. Oh, what can I do for her, papa?"

"How did you know whose the thimble was, my child?"

"I warn't sure, sir," faltered Nance, whose honor had outweighed her longing for money and the comfort it would bring, and had brought her through the long city to seek the rightful owner of the thimble—"I warn't sure; but I knew her name, for herself an' a gennelman came onst to see mother long ago."

"That was Uncle Phil," said Florimel. "He used often to take me when he went to visit the poor. But how did you know where I lived?"'

"I knew the house, 'cause he told me to come here onst for some soup for mother, an' I came an' got it."

"How is your mother now?"

"She's dead, miss," sobbed Nance.

"And so is Uncle Phil;" and the two girls—the one so fair and beautiful and carefully guarded, the other so pale and pinched and friendless—forgot for a moment all but their sorrow, their longing for the dear dead faces they could never see again.

But Florimel's papa called Janet to see that Nancy was warmed and fed after her long cold walk, and took Florimel into the library to see what they really could do for this poor but honest girl.

Florimel at first insisted upon having her for her own little maid, but her papa convinced her that Nancy was too ignorant for such a position; and they finally decided that the best thing to do for her would be to give her a good home, where she could learn to do all kinds of nice work, and could also go to school.

"Why, papa, I know the very place for Nancy. Nurse Susan lives all alone, now her niece has gone out to service, and Nancy could live with her."

"That is a very bright thought, little daughter. It would be a comfort to Susan to have a young girl with her, and the money we should pay for Nancy's board would lighten her expenses. Let us send now for Nancy, and see if she likes the idea."

Did Nance like the idea?

Did she like to think she need never go back to the bustling, dusty mill; that she need not go again to that miserable tenement-house which she called home, where she shared one tiny room with seven other girls; that she need not know again what it was to battle with hunger and cold? Did she like to feel that she should have a home in the sweet fresh country; that her work should be in a garden, in a dairy, in a neat little cottage; that clothing, food, and the learning to be a good woman would lie within her reach?