Read CHAPTER I of Nancy of Paradise Cottage, free online book, by Shirley Watkins, on


“Let’s see bacon, eggs, bread, sugar, two cans of corn, and jam. Have I gotten everything, Alma?” Nancy, checking off the items in her marketing list, looked over toward her sister, who had wandered to the door and stood gazing out into the street where a gentle September rain was falling. Alma did not answer, seeming to have gone into a dream, and the grocer waited patiently, his pencil poised over his pad.

“Alma, do wake up! Have I forgotten anything? I’m sure there was something else,” said Nancy, frowning, and studying her list, with her under lip thrust forward. “I regularly go and forget something every Saturday night, when there’s no Hannah to concoct something out of nothing for Sunday luncheon.”

“You said you were going to bake a cake a chocolate layer cake,” suggested Alma, turning, and viewing the proceeding disinterestedly with her hands in her pockets.

“That’s it. I have to get flour, and some cooking chocolate, and vanilla. Alma, you’ve got to help me carry these things. I’m not Goliath.”

“Mercy, Nancy, we don’t have to take all that home with us, do we? Can’t you send them, Mr. Simpson?”

The grocer shrugged apologetically.

“It’s Saturday, Miss Prescott, and the last delivery went out at three all my boys have gone home now or I’d try to accommodate you.”

“I do hate to go about looking like an old market woman, with my arms full of brown paper parcels,” murmured Alma, sotto voce to her sister.

“Goodness, I don’t imagine there’ll be a grand stand along the way, with thousands watching us through opera glasses,” laughed Nancy. “Would you mind telling me whom you expect to meet who’d faint with genteel horror because we take home our Sunday dinner? I don’t intend to starve to spare anybody’s feelings.”

“Last week I was dragging along a bag of potatoes and and I met Frank Barrows. And the bag split while I was talking to him, and those hateful potatoes went bumping around all over the pavement. I never was so mortified in my life,” said Alma, sulkily.

Nancy shot a keen glance at her sister’s pretty face, and her eyes twinkled. Alma’s shortage of the American commodity called humor was a source of continual quiet joy to Nancy, who was the only member of the Prescott family with the full-sized endowment of that gift.

“Dear me, whatever did Frank do? Scream and cover his eyes from the awful sight? Had he never seen a raw potato in all his sheltered young life?”

Alma shrugged her shoulders a slight gesture with which she and her mother were wont to express their hopeless realization of Nancy’s lack of finer feelings.

“I don’t suppose you would have minded it. But I hate to look ridiculous, particularly before anyone like Frank Barrows.”

“But, Alma, you funny girl, don’t you see that you look a thousand times more ridiculous when you act as if a few potatoes bouncing about were something serious? Don’t tell me you stood there gazing off haughtily into the blue distance while Frank gathered up your silly old potatoes? Or did you disown them? Or did you play St. Elizabeth, and expect a miracle to turn them into roses so that they would be less offensive to Frank’s aristocratic eyes? Come on now, help me shoulder our provisions. We’re members of the Swiss Family Robinson, going back to our hut with our spoils. Pretend we’re savages, and this is a desert island, and not respectable Melbrook at all. Next time we go marketing you can disguise yourself with a beard and blue goggles.”

Alma laughed unwillingly. She was a dainty and singularly pretty girl a little bit foolish, and a good bit of a snob, but Nancy adored her, though she enjoyed making good-natured digs at Alma’s weak spots.

They took up their bundles, said good-night to Mr. Simpson, and went out.

It was a walk of three miles from the village or, as it preferred to be called the town of Melbrook to the Prescotts’ house, which lay in the country beyond, a modest little nest enough, where the two girls had grown up almost isolated by their poverty from the gay life of the younger Melbrookians. Alma chafed unhappily against this isolation, chafed against every reminder of their poverty, and, like her mother, once a beauty and a belle, craved the excitement of admiration, luxury and fine things. She was ashamed of the little house, which was shabby, it is true, ashamed of having to wear old clothes, and made herself wretched by envying the richer girls of the neighborhood their beautiful houses, their horses and their endless round of gay times. As Nancy once told her mother, in affectionate reproof, they were always trying to “play rich” Mrs. Prescott and Alma. She had tried to teach Alma her own secret of finding life pleasant; but Alma did not love books, nor long solitary walks through the summer woods; and Nancy’s ambition of fitting herself to meet the world and make her own living seemed to both Alma and her mother dreary and unfeminine. Somewhere, in the back of her pretty head, Mrs. Prescott cherished the hope and the belief that the two girls would find some way of coming into what she called “their own” not by Nancy’s independent plan of action, but through some easier, pleasanter course. She shuddered at the idea of their making their own living, and opposed Nancy’s wish to go to college on the ground that no men liked blue-stocking women, and that therefore Nancy would be an old maid.

“But, Mother darling, we can’t just sit back and wait for some young millionaire to come and carry us off?” Nancy would plead, shaking her head. Time was flying, and Nancy was seventeen, and eager to begin her own life. “Let me go I can work my way through, and Alma can stay at home with you.”

“I need you to help me with Alma,” was Mrs. Prescott’s answer. Nancy felt helpless. Her father, before her, had to his sorrow recognized the hopelessness of driving any common-sense views into Mrs. Prescott’s pretty, silly little head. She had never realized that the decline of the family’s fortune had been, in no small measure, due to her. She accounted for it on the grounds of old Mr. Thomas Prescott’s inhuman stubbornness and selfishness.

The two girls, leaving the village behind them, were walking briskly through the rain, down the main road, bordered by the imposing country estates of people who had gradually settled on the pretty countryside. Nancy could remember when the hill, where now stood a staring white stone mansion, surrounded by close-clipped lawns and trim gardens, had been a wild, lovely swell of meadow, dotted with clusters of oaks and elms; when in place of the smug little bungalow, with its artificial pond and waterfall, and ornate stone fences, there had been a wooded copse, where squirrels scuttled about among branches of trees, since fallen in the path of a moneyed civilization. Other of the houses, of haughty Mansard architecture, had stood there before she had been born, and it had often seemed to her that the huge, solemn, beautiful old place of Mr. Thomas Prescott had been there since the Creation. As they passed it, they slackened their pace, and despite the weight of bundles which grew heavier every minute, stopped and peered through the bars of the great, wrought-iron gates.

A broad drive, meticulously raked and weeded, wound away from them under magnificent arching trees, to the portals Nancy said it would have been impossible to consider Uncle Thomas’s door anything but a portal which were just visible under the low-hanging branches. The rest of the old stone house was screened from the rude gaze of prying eyes, like the face of a faded dowager of the harem; save for the upper half of a massive Norman tower, which thrust itself up out of the nest of green leaves, like the neck of some inquisitive, prehistoric bird.

“I don’t believe Uncle Thomas has passed through these gates in fifteen years,” said Nancy. “One could almost believe that he had really died and had had himself buried on the grounds, like the eccentric old recluse he is.”

“Well, they would have had to have done something with all his money,” replied Alma, pressing her forehead against the iron bars; “unless he left everything to his butler, and had the will read in secret. It would be just like him. Oh, Nancy, why are there such selfish old misers in the world? Just think if he’d just give us the least little bit of all his money. Just enough to get a horse and carriage, and buy some nice clothes, and and get a pretty house. It wouldn’t be anything to him. Mamma says she is sure that he will relent some day.”

Nancy shrugged her shoulders. To her mind, it was foolish of her mother to put any hopes on the whims of an old eccentric. Mrs. Prescott was one of those poor optimists who believe earnestly in the miracles of chance, always forgetting that chance works its miracles as a rule only when the way has been prepared for them by the plodding labor of common sense.

“We mustn’t count on that, Alma,” she said soberly. “There is no use in living on the possibility that Uncle Thomas will relent, and make us rich. It isn’t just for the pure love of money that he has been so stingy toward us, I believe. He was never a miser toward Father, you know. I I think he would have given us everything in the world if if ” She hesitated, unwilling to state her private opinion to Alma.

“If what?”

“Well, you see, I think the trouble was this. Come along, we mustn’t wait here, or you’ll catch cold.”

“What do you think the trouble was?” prompted Alma, padding after her sister, and sloshing placidly through the puddles, in all the nonchalant confidence of sound rubbers.

“Well, Alma, you mustn’t misunderstand me. I’m afraid you will. You know how I adore Mother. She’s so pretty, and and childlike, and funny that nobody on earth could ever blame her ”

“Blame her? For what?” cried Alma, with sudden fire.

“Nothing. Only, Alma, we must realize that sometimes Mother makes little mistakes, and I believe that she has had to pay more heavily for them than she deserves. We’ve got to try to protect her against them, by looking at life squarely, and wisely, Alma ”

“Are you going to preach a sermon? What were you going to say about Uncle Thomas?”

“Just this. You know Uncle Thomas was a very clever man. He made every bit of his money himself. Father told me long ago that when Uncle Thomas began in life he did not have a cent in the world; he started out as a plain mill-hand, and then he became a mechanic, and he worked his way up from one rung to another, until through his own talent and pluck he became very, very rich. Well, it’s only natural that a man like that should give money its full value when he’s toiled for years at so many cents an hour, he knows just exactly how many cents there are in a dollar. Perhaps he puts too great a value upon it, but certainly we aren’t judges of that. You know that Uncle Thomas never married, and when Grandfather died, Uncle Thomas became Daddy’s guardian. I believe he loved Father better than anyone in the world. Who could help it?” Nancy’s voice trembled slightly, and she winked back the tears which rose to her eyes at the memory of her father’s handsome merry face, which had grown so unaccountably saddened and worn before his early death.

“He gave Father everything he wanted, when he was a boy you know how Daddy used to tell us how Uncle Thomas would tiptoe up to his room at night and slip gold pieces into his stocking, so that he could find them in the morning, and then when Daddy asked him about it, he would shrug his shoulders, and his eyes would twinkle, and he’d say, ’It must have been Brownies.’”

“I can’t imagine how a man who used to be like that could ever have grown so hard and bitter,” said Alma.

“Well then, you see, when Father grew up, Uncle wanted him to be successful for himself. And he was terribly proud of Father when Daddy first came back and told him that he had made five thousand dollars in his first year at business. Then Father told him that he was going to be married. Uncle didn’t want him to not until he had definitely settled himself in life. And then, Father was very young, and Mother only a girl of seventeen think of it, just my age. But when Uncle saw Mother, he adored her, of course.” Nancy paused, and seemed to have forgotten the rest of her story, but Alma prompted her curiously. She had never heard this tale before, for Nancy had gleaned it bit by bit from her father, when they used to take long walks together through the country, and, putting two and two together, she had been able to get rather close to the real truth of things.

“I know Uncle adored Mother,” said Alma, kicking through a pile of wet leaves. “He gave her those lovely Italian earrings, which I’m to have when I’m eighteen. And all that wonderful Venetian lace, which the first one of us to be married is going to have for her wedding gown.”

“Yes. Well, then then after Father and Mother were married things didn’t go so very well. Mother was just a girl just my age, you know, only she was pretty, like you, and, I suppose, a little extravagant. At least, they weren’t able to make ends meet very well, although Daddy made a good income and, anyhow, Uncle Thomas would have thought her extravagant. He didn’t see why it was necessary for her to send for her clothes to Paris, and why Father was always worried about bills, when he should have been able to live well within his income. Anyway, Father wasn’t able to save a cent, and one day Uncle Thomas came to him and said that he had a very good opportunity for him to invest his savings, so that they would draw a much better income than what they were giving. The only trouble was that Father didn’t have any savings. Then Uncle became furious; he asked Father and Mother what kind of future they thought they were laying up for us, and he scolded Mother terribly for not helping Father. He quoted the Bible about women being the helpmeet of their husbands, and about the parents eating sour grapes and setting the children’s teeth on edge. He said that they were taking the path to ruin, and that Father could expect no help from him unless he and Mother economized. But you see, poor Mother always considered Paris dresses and jewellery and expensive dainties the necessities and not just the luxuries of life. I don’t suppose she really understood how to economize at all. And anyway, things got worse instead of better. Then, one year, Daddy lost an awful lot of money trying to make some quickly so that he could get his debts cleared up, and start fresh. Instead, he only got in deeper. And and then he fell ill. And you remember, Alma, when poor Father was dying, Uncle came. And he cried and cried. But when Mother came into the room, he got up and went out, and shut the door behind him. Then he shut the gates of his house against us, too. I think he feels that we we girls must learn to look at life seriously, to work out our own futures so that poverty will teach us to be wiser than than poor, darling little Mother ” Nancy’s voice had sunk, as if she were talking to herself, so that Alma barely heard the last words. She was thinking of Alma, wondering how she could teach her luxury-loving little sister to see life practically, without taking away the joy of it from her.

“We mustn’t rely on Uncle Thomas, Alma,” she said presently. “We mustn’t count on anything but what we can do for ourselves. Remember that, dear. We’ve got to realize that our lives must run a different course from those of richer girls we can never do the things they do but surely they will be richer lives, and happier lives, if if we rely on no one, ask nothing from anyone, but what we earn” her head went up “never struggle for, or want the things that lie beyond our means, but make always the opportunities that lie within our grasp, or the ones that we can make for ourselves, serve as stepping stones.”

Alma glanced at her sister’s sober, handsome face. There were times when Nancy looked to her like some brave, gallant, sturdy lad, and there were times when she agreed with Nancy in spite of herself, and against her own inclinations.

“Here we are home again. And if it isn’t the snuggest, cosiest, most cheerful burrow between here and Melbrook, why” Nancy strode gaily up the little brick walk with her long, boyish strides, and breaking into a laugh, finished, “I’ll beard the Prescott himself tower, donjon-keep and all!”