The Nursery Maid
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1869
I did not feel in a very good humor either with myself or with Polly, my nursery maid. The fact is, Polly had displeased me; and I, while under the influence of rather excited feelings, had rebuked her with a degree of intemperance not exactly befitting in a Christian gentlewoman, or just to a well-meaning, though not perfect servant.
Polly had taken my sharp words without replying. They seemed to stun her. She stood for a few moments, after the vials of my wrath were emptied, her face paler than usual, and her lips almost colorless. Then she turned and walked from my room with a slow but firm step. There was an air of purpose about her, and a manner that puzzled me a little.
The thermometer of my feelings was gradually falling, though not yet reduced very far below fever-heat, when Polly stood again before me. A red spot now burned on each cheek, and her eyes were steady as she let them rest in mine.
"Mrs. Wilkins," said she, firmly, yet respectfully, "I am going to leave when my month is up."
Now, I have my own share of willfulness and impulsive independence. So I answered, without hesitation or reflection,
"Very well, Polly. If you wish to leave, I will look for another to fill your place." And I drew myself up with an air of dignity.
Polly retired as quickly as she came, and I was left alone with my not very agreeable thoughts for companions. Polly had been in my family for nearly four years, in the capacity of nurse and chambermaid. She was capable, faithful, kind in her disposition, and industrious. The children were all attached to her, and her influence over them was good. I had often said to myself in view of Polly's excellent qualities, "She is a treasure!" And, always, the thought of losing her services had been an unpleasant one. Of late, in some things, Polly had failed to give the satisfaction of former times. She was neither so cheerful, nor so thoughtful, nor had she her usual patience with the children. "Her disposition is altering," I said to myself, now and then, in view of this change; "something is bothering her."
"You have indulged her too much, I suppose," was the reason given by my husband, whenever I ventured to introduce to his notice the shortcomings of Polly. "You are an expert at the business of spoiling servants."
My good opinion of myself was generally flattered by this estimate of the case; and, as this good opinion strengthened, a feeling of indignation against Polly for her ingratitude, as I was pleased to call it, found a lodging in my heart.
And so the matter had gone on, from small beginnings, until a state of dissatisfaction on the one part, and coldness on the other, had grown up between mistress and maid. I asked no questions of Polly, as to the change in her manner, but made my own inferences, and took, for granted, my own conclusions. I had spoiled her by indulgence — that was clear. As a thing of course, this view was not very favorable to a just and patient estimate of her conduct, whenever it failed to meet my approval.
On the present occasion, she had neglected the performance of certain services, in consequence of which I suffered some small inconvenience, and a great deal of annoyance.
"I don't know what's come over you, Polly!" said I to her sharply. "Something has spoiled you outright; and I tell you now, once for all, that you'll have to mend your ways considerably, if you expect to remain much longer in this family."
The language was harsh enough, but the manner harsher and more offensive. I had never spoken to her before with anything like the severity now used. The result of this intemperance of speech on my part, the reader has seen. Polly gave notice that she would leave, and I accepted the notice. For a short time after the girl retired from my room, I maintained a state of half indignant independence; but, as to being satisfied with myself — that was out of the question. I had lost my temper, and, as is usual in such cases, had been harsh, and it might be, unjust. I was about to lose the services of a servant, whose good qualities so far overbalanced all defects and shortcomings — that I could hardly hope to supply her place. How could the children give her up? This question came home with a most unpleasant suggestion of consequences. But, as the disturbance of my feelings went on subsiding, and thought grew clearer and clearer, that which most troubled me was a sense of injustice towards Polly. The suggestion came stealing into my mind, that the something wrong about her, might involve a great deal more than I had, in a narrow reference of things to my own affairs, imagined. Polly was certainly changed; but, might not the change have its origin in mental conflict or suffering, which entitled her to pity and consideration, instead of blame?
This was a new thought, which in no way tended to increase a feeling of self-approval.
"She is human, like the rest of us," said I, as I sat talking over the matter with myself, "and every human heart has its portion of bitterness. The weak must bear in weakness, as well as the strong in strength; and the light burden rests as painfully on the back that bends in feebleness — as does the heavy one on Atlas-shoulders. We are too apt to regard those who serve us as mere working machines. Rarely do we consider them as possessing like needs and weaknesses, like sympathies and yearnings with ourselves. Anything will do for them. Under any external circumstances, is their duty to be satisfied."
I was wrong in this matter. Nothing was now clearer to me than this. But, how was I to get right? That was the puzzling question. I thought, and thought — looking at the difficulty first on this side, and then on that. No way of escape presented itself, except through some open or implied acknowledgment of wrong; that is, I must have some plain, kind talk with Polly, to begin with, and thus show her, by an entire change of manner, that I was conscious of having spoken to her in a way that was not met by my own self-approval. Pride was not slow in vindicating her own position among the mental powers. My pride was not willing to see me humble myself to a servant. Polly had given notice that she was going to leave, and if I made concession, she would, at once conclude that I did so basely, from self-interest, because I wished to retain her services. My naturally proud spirit revolted under this view of the case, but I marshaled some of the better forces of my mind, and took the field bravely on the side of right and duty. For some time the conflict went on; then the better elements of my nature gained the victory.
When the decision was made, I sent a message for Polly. I saw, as she entered my room, that her cheeks no longer burned, and that the fire had died out in her eyes. Her face was pale, and its expression sad, but enduring.
"Polly," said I, kindly, "sit down. I would like to have a talk with you."
The girl seemed taken by surprise. Her face warmed a little, and her eyes, which had been turned aside from mine, looked at me with a glance of inquiry.
"There, Polly" — and I pointed to a chair — "sit down."
She obeyed, but with a weary, patient air, like one whose feelings were painfully oppressed.
"Polly," said I, with kindness and interest in my voice, "has anything troubled you of late?"
Her face flushed and her eyes reddened.
"If there has, Polly, and I can help you in any way, speak to me as a friend. You can trust me."
I was not prepared for the sudden and strong emotion that instantly manifested itself. Her face fell into her hands, and she sobbed out, with a violence that startled me. I waited until she grew calm, and then said, laying a hand kindly upon her as I spoke —
"Polly, you can talk to me as freely as if I were your mother. Speak plainly, and if I can advise you or aid you in any way, be sure that I will do it."
"I don't think you can help me any, ma'am, unless it is to bear my trouble more patiently," she answered, in a subdued way.
"Trouble, child! What trouble? Has anything gone wrong with you?"
The manner in which this inquiry was made, aroused her, and she said quickly and with feeling:
"Wrong with me? O no, ma'am!"
"But you are in trouble, Polly."
"Not for myself, ma'am — not for myself," was her earnest reply.
"For whom, then, Polly?"
The girl did not answer for some moments. Then with a long, deep sigh, she said:
"You never saw my brother Tom, ma'am. Oh, he was such a nice boy, and I was so fond of him! He had a hard place where he worked, and they paid him so little that, poor fellow! if I hadn't spent half my wages on him, he'd never have looked fit to be seen among folks. When he was eighteen he seemed to me perfect. He was so good and kind. But — " and the girl's voice almost broke down — "somehow, he began to change after that. I think he fell into bad company. Oh, ma'am! It seemed as if it would have killed me the first time I found that he had been drinking, and was not himself. I cried all night for two or three nights. When we met again I tried to talk with Tom about it, but he wouldn't hear a word, and, for the first time in his life, got angry with me. It has been going on from bad, to worse ever since, and I've almost given up hope."
"He's several years younger than you are, Polly."
"Yes, ma'am. He was only ten years old when our mother died. I am glad she is dead now, what I've never said before. There were only two of us — Tom and I; and I being nearly six years the oldest, felt like a mother as well as a sister to him. I've never spent much on myself as you know, and never had as good clothes as other girls with my wages. It took nearly everything for Tom. Oh, dear! What is to come of it all? It will kill me, I'm afraid."
A few questions on my part brought out particulars in regard to Polly's brother that satisfy me of his great lapse from virtue and sobriety. He was now past twenty, and from all I could learn, was moving swift-footed along the road to destruction.
There followed a dead silence for some time after all the story was told. What could I say? The case was one in which it seemed that I could offer neither advice nor consolation. But it was in my power to show interest in the girl, and to let her feel that she had my sympathy. She was sitting with her eyes cast down, and a look of sorrow on her pale, thin face — I had not before re-marked the signs of emaciation — that touched me deeply.
"Polly," said I, with as much kindness of tone as I could express, "it is the lot of all to have trouble, and each heart knows its own bitterness. But on some, the trouble falls with a weight that seems impossible to be borne. And this is your case. Yet it only seems to be so, for as our day is — so shall our strength be. If you cannot draw your brother away from the dangerous paths in which he is walking — you can pray for him."
Polly looked at me with a light flashing in her face, as if a new hope had dawned upon her heart.
"Oh, ma'am," she said, "I have prayed, and do pray for him daily. But then a chill falls over me, and everything grows dark and hopeless — for, of myself, I can do nothing."
"Our prayers cannot change the purposes of God towards any one; but God works by means, and our prayers may be the means through which he can help another."
In the silence that followed this last remark, Polly arose and stood as if there was something yet unsaid in her mind. I understood her, and made the way plain for both of us.
"If I had known of this before, it would have explained to me some things that gave my mind an unfavorable impression. You have not been like yourself for some time past."
"How could I, ma'am?" Polly's voice trembled and her eyes again filled with tears. "I never meant to displease you; but — "
"All is explained," said I, interrupting her. "I see just how it is; and if I have said a word that hurt you, I am sorry for it. No one could have given better satisfaction in a family than you have given."
"I have always tried to do right," murmured the poor girl, sadly.
"I know it, Polly." My tones were encouraging. "And if you will forget the unkind way in which I spoke to you this morning, and let things remain as they were, it may be better for both of us. You are not fit, taking your state of mind as it now is, to go among strangers."
Polly looked at me with gratitude and forgiveness in her wet eyes. There was a motion of reply about her lips, but she did not trust herself to speak.
"Shall it be as it was, Polly?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am! I don't wish to leave you; and particularly, not now. I am not fit, as you say, to go among strangers. But you must bear with me a little; for I can't always keep my thoughts about me."
When Polly retired from my room, I set myself to thinking over what had happened. The lesson went deeply into my heart. Poor girl! what a heavy burden rested upon her weak shoulders. No wonder that she bent under it! No wonder that she was changed! She was no subject for angry reproof; but for pity and forbearance. If she had come short in service, or failed to enter upon her daily tasks with the old cheerfulness, no blame could attach to her, for the defect was of force and not of will.
"Ah," said I, as I pondered the matter, "how little inclined are we to consider those who stand below us in the social scale, or to think of them as having like passions, like weaknesses, like hopes and fears with ourselves. We deal with them too often as if they were mere working machines, and grow impatient if they show signs of pain, weariness, or irritation. We are quick to blame and slow to praise — wary of kind words, but voluble in reproof — holding ourselves superior in station — but not always showing ourselves superior in thoughtfulness, self-control, and kind forbearance. Ah me! Life is a lesson-book, and we turn a new page every day!"