Miss Nelly, Spinster
"And don't ever cut your hair." That was Clem's farewell. For 17 years Miss Nelly remembered
THERE were some things about Miss Nelly that would have surprised the people who thought they knew her—the children she taught, and the men and women who had once been the children she taught. And those who were neither, but thought they knew her well because they had heard all about her ever since they could remember.
For instance, there was the matter of her hair. She wore it so simply—just caught back in a heavy bun low on her neck—that no one would have supposed she was very proud of it. If they had seen her brushing it and brushing it, 10 minutes by the clock every morning and evening, they would have wondered why. After all, no one ever noticed Miss Nelly’s hair, even though she wore no hat on it, winter or summer.
But all the same she brushed it religiously, and then she let it hang loose while she dressed, right up to the very last minute. And every once in a while she stopped to look at it in the mirror and smile admiringly at the thick long mass of it, almost to her waist, its shining black untouched by grey.
Just before she left her room, she caught it up and twisted it expertly into the neat low bun, and instantly she was the Miss Nelly everybody knew—small, trim, her features nice but plain, looking much older than the prettified mothers of the children she taught, yet in some ways looking younger.
She was the first, one at the breakfast table, but Jenny Tucker came down five minutes later. Jenny was the young, attractive kindergarten teacher in the school where Miss Nelly taught sixth grade, and had taught it when Jenny was in it. Muss Nelly had been boarding with the Tuckers for 18 years, and if anyone should have really known her, it was Jenny and her mother.
“Good morning, Mias Nelly,” Jenny said.
She had deep dimples when she smiled, and her eyes were never still. They darted all around, taking everything in, and they kept squeezing shut with pleasure or blinking rapidly with excitement. “Isn’t it a wonderful day?”
Miss Nelly looked out of the window. Her eyes were quiet, dark and steady. “Every day is wonderful for somebody,” she said.
Jenny put her head on one side like a puzzled bird. “That’s one of your enigmatic remarks, Miss Nelly. What does it mean?”
“Nothing very enigmatic. Just what I said. My mother, for instance, used to love rainy days. She always said there was nothing like a rainy day to make her feel she could conquer the world.” Miss Nelly smiled. “Her way of conquering the world was to pull the house apart and put it back together again, shining clean.”
“But I wasn’t thinking only of the weather,” Jenny said. “This is the day.”
“So it is.”
They finished their breakfast and walked across the field into town where the school stood. For more than 15 years they had been walking to school together, first the tiny, fair-headed girl and the quiet young teacher—now the gay, pretty young teacher and the quiet middle-aged one.
“Don’t pretend you’re not excited,” Jenny said. “You must be excited. Why, this is the first thing
that’s really happened in this town since I can remember.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Miss Nelly said.
But Jenny did not hear her. “And you are going to be one of the central figures,” she said, her voice hurrying in little breathy gallops. “Just think! You’re going to sit up on the platform with Randolph Camden, and he’s going to introduce you as the person who had the greatest influence on his life. Just imagine, Miss Nelly! Randolph Camden!”
“He was always a politician,” Miss Nelly said. “Even when he was 11 years old. He used to make platform promises way back then—such as that he’d get the best marks in the class next time,, if I’d just pass him this time.” She laughed, a very nice, warm, almost young laugh, and swung her handbag in a vigorous, oddly girlish manner. “I wonder what he wants now.”
Jenny looked shocked. “Why, Miss Nelly, this
is a visit to his old home town. It’s a matter of sentiment.”
Miss Nelly did not answer. They had almost reached the school grounds by now, and her mind was running agilely ahead to the day’s lessons. The little new boy who had just come from the city needed some special help on fractions. He didn’t understand their meaning—he had no feeling at all for the orderly beauty of numbers—but she thought maybe she could give it to him. She thought he had the bright, questing look that always excited her—the look of the knowledge-thirsty. What was his name? Jake something . . .
“You know who else is coming?” Jenny was saying, and her voice, rather than the words, caught Miss Nelly’s attention. She was almost whispering, and the words ran together as though they were afraid to stand alone. Miss Nelly knew that voice from away back. It meant Jenny was about to tell something she shouldn’t.
“It’s supposed to be a secret,” Jenny went on.
“But I think you should have a chance to—well, to —fix yourself up, and all.”
Miss Nelly would not spoil Jenny’s surprise. She would not say that she had had a letter three days ago.
“What on earth are you talking about?” she asked.
Jenny took a deep breath. “That newspaper man’s coming too, today—that Clement Hartley. He’s going to cover the event for his paper. He’ll be here in a few hours, Miss Nelly!” Jenny stood still and gave Miss Nelly’s arm a squeeze. “Oh, will you let me fix you up a little? Will you? I could make you look perfectly lovely!”
Miss Nelly turned her eyes away. “All right,” she said quietly, “if you’d like to.”
She knew how Jenny thought it was—how everybody in town had always thought it was. When people talked about Miss Nelly they said it was a shame she had never married, wonderful as she was with children, and not at all badlooking; much homelier women had got good men. Probably she had never wanted anybody but Clem Hartley. Some women were like that. They loved one man, and if they couldn’t get him—if he went away and never popped the question—that was the end of everything.
Now Clem was coming back to cover Randolph Camden’s home-coming for the big city paper he worked on. And he wasn’t married—he had never married.
“I’ll meet you right after school,” Jenny said, “and we’ll hurry home and get ready. Oh, I’m so excited! Wait till you see yourself when I’ve finished with you!”
ISS NELLY went on into her classroom. It was very noisy, but the noise stopped the moment she entered, and a little knot of boys dissolved from the corner where they had been standing. Only one boy was left. He stood huddled against the blackboard, his eyes too big in his small, white face, his legs limp-looking, as though they could never carry him away from there.
“Sit down, Jake,” Miss Nelly said kindly, casually, and her voice conquered his paralysis so that he moved and found his seat.
Miss Nelly did not go to her own chair. She sat where she was, on a corner of the nearest child’s desk, and she began talking as though she had just dropped in to have a chat with them, as though they were friends.
“You know, it’s a funny thing about people,” she said. “The clever ones are always trying to find out something new, meet new people, learn about strange new things. The stupid ones, on the other hand, are afraid of anything new—of anybody they don’t know or understand very well. Sometimes they even hate somebody just because he’s strange to them, or different—and all the while the clever ones are having a wonderful time with this new person, learning all about him, getting even cleverer than they were before.”
She got up then and went to her own desk and called the roll. After that she sat back and looked up at the ceiling, and although it seemed as if she ’couldn’t have seen anything that was going on in the room, no one stirred. Miss Nelly was well known to have eyes everywhere.
“Let’s see,” she said. “I wonder if there’s anybody here who can tell us something he’s seen or done that nobody else in the class has—something strange and new.”
There was a timid smattering of hands.
“I plowed a whole field by myself.”
“Good work, Bill—but it’s not strange or new. Everyone here has helped plow a field, or at least seen one plowed. I mean something that nobody else in the class knows anything about.”
The hands faded. Miss Nelly waited a minute.
“Jake, you should be able to help us,” she said then. “You come from the city. There are things in the city that none of us has ever seen.”
The boy stood up. He glanced around the room rapidly, doubtfully, and then said, his voice so low that it could barely be heard, “The subway, maybe?”
“The subway !” Miss Nelly echoed triumphantly. “Now there’s something. Nobody here has ever been on the subway. Please do tell us about it, Jake.”
He started haltingly, but after a moment his head came up and he began to talk quickly, using long, descriptive gestures, warmed by all the fascinated eyes, giving a Jules Verne flavor to his recital . . .
“Way under the ground,” he said, “where it’s all dark, but you can see because all the cars and stations are lit up like anything—and it goes so fast, rushing and roaring, way way under the ground like that, you’re like on a rocket, flying, only it’s not in the air. You can go miles and miles.” He paused consideringly, and then added, “And all it costs is a nickel.”
Miss Nelly made her face into a mask of wonder, but she was thinking: he knew what to do. He knew—he understood. I wasn’t wrong about him.
“Well, thank you, Jake,” she said. “In return, maybe one of the boys will show you how a plow works. That’s the fun of new people—you can find out what they know that you don’t and tell them what you know that they don’t.”
She went on with the regular lesson then, but she kept thinking about Jake. He would be all right now—no one would bother him any more. And he was good material—she was sure of it. Maybe she could never give him a real feeling for numbers— you couldn’t, with some of them. But words—he had an instinct for the power of words. There was no telling how far a boy with that instinct might be guided.
She thought of Randolph Camden, who had had it too. Randy. He’d been a fighter, that boy, until she’d showed him how to use words instead of fists. He was still a fighter, only smooth now, smiling, so that you couldn’t tell unless you knew him the way she did—recognized the itching fists under the soft, persuasive words. Randy Camden, running for Parliament. She thought of Clem
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Miss Nelly, Spinster
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Hartley. Not one of her pupils, certainly. Yet once on a hot summer night she had told him he would never be a good newspaperman, and so now he was a good one, tops.
“You write like a small-town fariner, she had told him. “You are a small-town farmer. Why not make up your mind to it, and forget this newspaper foolishness, and settle down?”
“I can’t forget it,” he replied, his eyes dark, searching, like little Jake’s.
It’s what I want. If I can’t find the way here, I’ll go somewhere else—I’ll go everywhere.”
“Of course you won’t. You’ll stay on and on, the way your father did, and his father, and you’ll be a happy farmer in the end, the way they were.”
“No,” he said. “You’ll see.”
AND HE had gone. He had been all over the world, cabling his news from London and Paris and Algiers. But now he was coming back here to cover the story of Randolph Camden’s home town visit.
“They don’t get it, here at the office, *ny wanting this story,” he’d written her. “It’s not very big, as stories go. But you’ll understand, Eleanor, why I wanted it.”
He was the only one who had ever called her Eleanor since her father had
died. Nobody else knew—or remembered, if they had once known-—that her name was anything but Nelly— Miss Nelly. But she always thought of herself as Eleanor. When she was alone in her room, brushing her thick, beautiful black hair, she sometimes spoke to herself softly, “You’re not such a bad number, Eleanor. You’ve kept your figure better than most, and you’ve got good skin and clear eyes. You’ll pass, Eleanor, my girl . . .”
Jenny, “fixing her up” later that afternoon, said, “Why don’t you give this perfectly beautiful hair a chance to be seen? It’s a crime to wear it so plain.”
“Nonsense! Who cares about my hair? I’m a schoolteacher, and I believe in dressing for my job—simply, neatly, with the least possible fuss.”
“But I’m a schoolteacher too, and I don’t—”
“Of course not.” Miss Nelly smiled. “Because for you teaching is just a way of marking time until the right man comes along. It isn’t really your vocation, your life.”
“Well, it needn’t be your life either, Miss Nelly.” Jenny stepped back from the dressing table. She turned Miss Nelly around to face the mirror. “Look at yourself!”
THE high-school auditorium was draped with bunting, and a ribbon stretching across the front of the plat-
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form said, WELCOME RANDOLPH CAMDEN, but the decorations were cautious, not overdone. After all, Randy had not yet been elected. He was still just a young man people were talking about, a young politician who might or might not make good. Some of the talk about him was favorable, and some was definitely doubtful. He was so young, for one thing—and so butter-smooth.
Miss Nelly sat up on the platform and watched his back as he spoke. She wore her best dress, a simple navy blue, to which Jenny had insisted on sewing a frothy lace collar, and at her shoulder were pinned two gardenias of which even Jenny knew nothing. Her cheeks and lips were becomingly pinkened, and her hair was soft around her face.
She was aware that people were staring at her and whispering, but she was not thinking of them. She was watching Randy’s back, and thinking that his speeches read better in the paper than they sounded when he spoke them. There was something else in his voice now besides the soft persuasiveness she remembered — some suave, opulent falseness that he had picked up along the way. His face was still boyish, with the angry eyes she knew, the stubborn mouth, the'melting smile—but the voice did not fit.
“Randy Camden, I could spank you!” she found herself thinking. “If I only had you in my classroom—”
Her indignation must have showed in her face, because at that moment she met Clem Hartley’s eye, and she saw that he was looking at her with amusement, almost as if he knew what she was thinking. He was sitting in the front row with the other newspapermen, a pad and pencil in his hand, but she could see from where she sat that he had not written down one word.
He had not changed very much, really, considering how many years it was. He was thinner, if anything, and harder, and so brown that it was difficult to see the lines in his face. The grey in his hair was properly distributed and he wore a small clipped mustache that became him very well.
He tried toget to her as soon as the speeches were over, but Randy was closer and reached her first. He bent over her with a courtly bow, as though thanking her, and whispered, “Where can we be alone, Miss Nelly? I must speak to you.”
She led him into the principal’s office and shut the door. She sat behind the desk, feeling natural there, and comfortable, and let Randy stand in front of her, the way he had stood in sixth grade.
“Miss Nelly, look—I want to ask you a favor—”
It may have been because of the way he was standing, as though he were a small boy again, asking the teacher to pass him—but his voice was different now, the voice she remembered, soft and earnest.
“I’ll do it if I can,” she said.
He leaned forward and put his hands on the desk. “I’m not very secure, Miss Nelly—not yet. I need all the backing I can get, from every source. Newspaper backing would help a lot.” He paused, and then smiled his melting, ingratiating smile. “You have an influential friend on an influential newspaper.”
She must not make it too easy for him. He did better, always, if things were not too easy.
“I suppose you mean Clem Hartley,” she said, and shrugged. “I haven’t seen him in years. I’m sure nothing I could say to him would have the slightest effect. After all, he’s a big man now, and I’m just a small-town
schoolteacher.” She put back her head and looked up at him with her quiet, dark eyes. “You flatter me, Randy, suggesting that I can influence affairs of state.”
He put his hand up to his hair and twisted a forelock, the way he had done when he was worried about something at school. “I don’t know,” he said. ’ “I don’t want to leave any stone unturned. This is my chance, you see, mÿ start.” He smiled again. “If you help me, Miss Nelly, I’ll be good, I’ll get to be Premier some day, maybe; and I’ll be the best Premier this province ever had—I promise.”
If you pass me this time, Miss Nelly, I’ll get the best marks in the class next time ...
“Why don’t you talk to the voters that way, Randy, the way you talk to me? Why do you use that oily, pontifical voice?”
He continued to smile at her, but now he was smiling down at a small middleaged woman in a teacher’s chair. “You can’t talk to an audience the way you talk to a friend,” he explained.. “I’ve studied this. I’ve been taught.”
“Not by me!” She stood, and brought her hand down on the desk. “I taught you to be yourself, to use your own charm, your own nice, convincing way of speaking. Of course you should talk to an audience the way you talk to a friend. Anyone who has told you otherwise is a fool.”
“But Miss Nelly—”
“Go along now.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “Find yourself a pretty girl and relax. I’d recommend Jenny Tucker—she thinks you’re terrific.”
She sat for a while after he had gone, staring out of the window. Presently she saw him walking down toward the river with Jenny, and she thought they looked very well together. Randy would do better, now that she had talked to him. He was stubborn, but he had always listened to her, always improved after she gave him a talkingto. It wouldn’t surprise her if he really did get to be Premier one day. Jenny would make a good wife for a Premier— it would be just the kind of thing she’d fancy.
She ought to be going. She had papers to correct—history papers. They were studying the Crusades, and before the test she had let them act out the lessons, with Christians galloping around the room on imaginary horses, hurling imaginary spears, and then taking their turn at being Saracens and falling dead. They had covered everything, even making a battle cry out of the dates . . .
“We’ll fight and fight until we’ve done,
Though it may take till 1271.”
That was not very good. There were no poets in this year’s class. But it served the purpose. She didn’t believe in dates, anyway, and it was just a matter of getting them down somehow, to satisfy the syllabus.
Dates. There were some you remembered without trying — some you couldn’t forget. There was Aug. 14, for instance—Aug. 14, 1929. Girls wore their skirts long and their hair very short, and everybody had a car—• everybody had money. Not schoolteachers, of course, but almost everybody else. And Aug. 14 was hot, so hot that you couldn’t move without an effort, and the air was heavy, pressing against your chest, making it hard for you to breathe . , .
“Well then, I’m going, Eleanor. I’m going right away, tomorrow. This is good-by.”
“Good-by, Clem—good luck.”
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It was dark on the Tucker’s porch, but he sat on the steps, where the street light silhouetted his thin young face, his thick, crisp, unruly hair. He turned a little, and she could see a glistening in his eyes.
“I suppose you’ll be married by the time I come hack.”
“No, Clem, I won’t he married.”
He did not speak. Neither of them spoke for a while. Then finally she said, “You’ll make good, Clem. I’ll be reading your name in the papers.”
“It takes a long time to get a byline.”
“Maybe. But you’ll get it.”
He got up then, jerkily, and stood facing her, his head thrust forward a little, his hands hanging at his sides.
“Listen,” he said. “Listen, Eleanor, don’t ever cut your hair, will you?”
He went after that. That was his farewell. She stood against the porch pillar and watched him go and she thought, It’s Aug. 14—Aug. 14, 1929.
SOMEONE knocked softly on the door of the principal’s office, and Miss Nelly started and sat up straight. She had forgotten where she was, how long she had been sitting.
“Miss Nelly? Are you in there?” “Come in, Jenny.”
The girl slipped into the room, and her feet scarcely seemed to touch the floor. While she talked, her dimples kept flickering, like the little ripples on a pond in a breeze. A little spray of wild flowers had been stuck into her fair hair and now hung over one ear.
“Have you been here all this time, Miss Nelly?”
“I’ve been dreaming, I suppose.” “But everyone’s been looking for you —everyone’s been wondering—” She hopped up on the principal’s big desk and swung her legs like a little girl. “The whole town’s talking about you, do you know that? They’re saying they never knew how attractive you were, and that it takes a man every time to bring out the best in a woman.” She stopped and looked out of the window, her cheeks reddening and the dimples showing deep. “I guess that’s right, Miss Nelly, isn’t it?”
Miss Nelly smiled. “Has Randy gone?” she asked.
“No, he hasn’t gone. He’s—he’s
coming to dinner.” She turned swiftly, and her hands came together in an unconscious little gesture that was almost like praying. “Oh, Miss Nelly, he’s wonderful!”
“Is he?” The dark, quiet eyes were warm. “Aren’t you lucky, Jenny!”
“But you needn’t envy me! I’m sure you needn’t!” Jenny slid off the desk and took Miss Nelly’s hands, pulling her to her feet. “Come on. This is what I came for —I almost forgot . . .” “Where are you taking me?”
“That handsome Clement Harley has been asking for you everywhere. I knew if I got. you fixed up . . . Oh, Miss Nelly, he’s interested—I’m sure he is. Now let me tell you . . .” She walked along next to Miss Nelly, more sedately now, her mouth pursed up judicially, her smooth forehead blemished a little with the tracery of a frown. Her teacher’s expression, Miss Nelly thought . . . something she has to put on especially.
“It’s best to allow him to make the advances,” Jenny was saying, “but you can encourage him a hit. You can let him see you like him. Sometimes just a little thing like a look is very effective.” She blushed a little, and lowered her voice. “Cne way to do—I wouldn’t tell this to anybody hut you, Miss Nelly—is to stare at the ground for a while and then suddenly look up at him, full into his eyes for a second, and then down again. If you practice it
once or twice you’ll find it awfully effective.”
“Thank you, Jenny,” Miss Nelly said gravely. “I certainly appreciate your interest.”
“Well heavens, of course I’m interested.” She squeezed Miss Nelly’s hand. “For one thing, I’m so happy I want you to be happy too. I—shh-hh! There he is, talking to Randy. You wait a minute and I’ll—”
She sped across the grass, without finishing her sentence. Miss Nelly stood still, watching, and she saw her go close to Randy and smile and then smile at Clem and say something, her head moving quickly from one to the other, her hair gleaming in the sun as she turned it. Presently Jenny and Randy moved off together, and Clem came walking toward her, his eyes on her face.
“I see you haven’t cut your hair,” he said, as soon as he was close enough.
She shook her head, smiling quietly. “So you remember.”
“Of course I remember.” He took her hand and tucked it under his arm the way he had always done, and they began to walk and talk, and 17 years fell away.
“You’re a success, Clem. I knew you would be.”
“Nobody else knew it. Four generations of farmers, and then suddenly, for no reason, with no background for it, a newspaperman. Who would have believed in such a thing?”
“You and I.”
“I didn’t. I wanted it, but I didn’t believe in it. If you hadn’t shamed me into it, bullied me into it . . .” He looked down at her and smiled, and she saw that he had long creases in his cheeks that he had not had before. “I should have been up there on the platform with young Camden—there should have been a cordon of us. Does he think he’s the only man whose life you’ve influenced?”
“Randy’s a fine boy,” she said, irrelevantly. “He’ll make a fine statesman.”
His face changed, and she remembered this look—his careful, considering look. “I don’t know,” he said. “There’s something about him that doesn’t ring true. All the talk—the fine words—you know how little they can amount to.” “Yes, of course, but Randy means what he says. He’s aiming to be Premier some day, and he’s promised me he’ll be the best Premier we’ve ever had.”
Clem did not laugh. “You believe his promise?” he asked her.
“He has kept every promise he ever made to me,” she said. “He won’t break this one.”
Clem asked her nothing more. “That changes things,” he said. “If you believe in him . . . That changes what I was going to write.’
They came to a bench in the town square, and they both moved toward it and sat down, and then sat looking each other over frankly, without selfconsciousness.
Miss Nelly spoke first. “You look wonderful, Clem. This age becomes you, I think, better than youth.” She smiled slowly. “You look like a fugitive from an ad for fine whisky.”
He threw back his head and laughed. She had forgotten this large, contagious laugh of his. “You haven’t changed, have you, Eleanor?” He looked at her, his face sober again. “I’ll tell you something—I’ll confess. I rather expected to find a little dried up schoolmarm. But you’ve changed less in all these years than any woman I know.”
“The years have been so full,” she said. “It’s when you’re bored that you dry up, I think. But just imagine, Clem—I’ve known intimately almost 600 minds and personalities—each one
different, each one a lesson and a challenge and . . .” She broke off, shaking her head, her eyes glowing. “How could I ever be bored, Clem?”
He did not speak for a moment. Then he took her hand, stroking it gently, absently, and said, “You always talked like this. I used to think you’d get over it. But you wouldn’t marry me now either, would you, Eleanor?”
She leaned back against the seat, smiling quietly within herself. “No, Clem.”
“Still—” His voice was a little bewildered, boyish. “Still, you didn’t cut your hair.”
No, never, she said to herself. My hair, and Aug. 14, when you asked me to marry you and go away with you, and now today, when I’m very much past my youth, and you’re asking me again.
“It wouldn’t be becoming,” she said.
MISS NELLY stood on the station platform with Jenny, watching the train pull out.
“He’s coming back next week,” Jenny said. “He’s going to fly back, just to take me out Saturday night.” She stood still until the train had rounded the bend. Then she looked at Miss Nelly. “Is Clement Hartley coming back too?”
“No, he won’t be back.”
“Oh Miss Nelly, I’m sorry!”
But you needn’t be. He’d come back if I’d asked him—he would never have gone away if I’d wanted it that way, or I could have gone with him It’s enough to know that, don’t you see? It’s enough to know that nothing was ever forced on me—that I’ve always had a choice.
“It’s all right,” she said to Jenny. “I suppose I was always meant to be nothing but an old spinster schoolteacher.’ She smiled and patted Jenny’s hand. “You know—I shouldn’t be surprised if you were the wife of a Premier some day ...”
She lifted her head and gazed across the village to the schoolhouse, and she did not see Jenny’s pitying look. She was thinking of the new boy, Jake, and wondering whether he was old enough for “Treasure Island.” ir