Undertow by Kathleen Thompson Norris
The week dragged by. The undercurrent of longing to see Nancy flowed on and on. Bert wanted nothing else--just Nancy. He had been spending the summer with a friend, at the friend's uptown house, but now he thought he would go out to the Venables, and show some interest in his newly-papered room and hear them speak of her.
He rang their bell with a thumping heart. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. She might even be here! Or they might tell him she was engaged to Clark Belknap of Maryland. ... Bert felt so sick at the thought that it seemed a fact. He wanted to run away.
Miss Augusta, red-eyed, opened the door. Beyond her he was somehow vaguely aware of darkness, and weeping, and the subdued rustling of gowns. Po' Nancy Barrett was here--he knew that? Well, didn't he know that the dea' old Colonel had passed away suddenly--Miss Augusta's tears flowed afresh. Nancy had come in unexpectedly to lunch, and the telegram from her aunt had come while she was there. "Tell Nancy Brother Edward passed on at five o'clock. Come home at once."
Bert listened dazedly, in the shabby old parlour with the scrolled flowery carpet, and the statues, and the square piano. He comforted Miss Augusta, he even put one arm about her. Was there something he could do?--he asked the forlorn, empty question merely as a matter of course.
"I don't suppose yo' could send some telegrams..." Miss Augusta said, blowing her nose damply. "Po' child, she hasn't got a brother, nor anyone to depend on now in the hour of her bitteh need!"
Bert's heart leaped.
"Just tell me!" he begged. "And what about trains, and arrangements? Will she go down? And clothes?--would she need something--"
This last item had been attended. Mama and Sis' Sally Anne had gone down town, po' child, she didn't want much. And yes, she was going down, to-morrow--that night, if it could be managed.
"But Nancy herself had better see yo'," Miss Augusta said disappearing. Bert waited, his heart thundering. Murmuring and tears came from some remote region. Then quietly and slowly Nancy, in new black, came in. And Bert knew that to the end of the world, as long as he should breathe, life would mean Nancy's life to him; and the world was only Nancy.
They sat down on the slippery horsehair, and talked softly and quickly. Ticket--train--telegrams--the little money that was necessary--he advised her about them all. He called her "Nancy" to-day, for the first time. He remembered afterward that she had called him nothing. She went to get Mrs. Venable, after a while, and later Sis' Sally Anne drew him aside and told him to make Nancy drink her good hot tea. She drank it, at his command. Clark Belknap came that evening; others came--all too late. Before the first of them, Bert had taken her to the train, had made her as comfortable as he could, had sat beside her, with her soft gloved hand tight in his, murmuring to her that she had so much to be thankful for--no pain, no illness, no real age. But she had left him, she said, her lip trembling and her eyes brimming again. He reminded her of her pretty, dependent step-mother, of the two little half-brothers who were just waiting for Nancy to come and straighten everything out.
"Yes--I've got to keep up for them!" she said, smiling bravely. And in a tense undertone she added, "You're wonderful to me!"
"And will you have some supper--just to break the evening?"
"I had tea." She leaned back, and shut her eyes. "I couldn't-- eat!" she whispered pitifully. His response was to put his clean, folded handkerchief into her hand, and at that she opened the wet eyes, and smiled at him shakily.
"Just some soup--or a salad," he urged. "Will you promise me, Nancy?"
"I promise you I'll try," she said in parting.
Walking home with his head in a whirl, Bert said to himself: "This is the second of October. I'll give her six months. On the second of April I'll ask her."
However, he asked her on Christmas night, after the Venables' wonderful Christmas dinner, when they all talked of the Civil War as if it were yesterday, and when old laces, old jet and coral jewelry, and frail old silk gowns were much in evidence. They were sitting about the coal fire in the back drawing-room, when Nancy and Bert chanced to be alone. Mrs. Venables had gone to brew some punch, with Sis' Sally Anne's help. The other young men of the party were assisting them, Augusta had gone to the telephone.
Bert always remembered the hour. The room was warm, fragrant of spicy evergreen. There was a Rogers group on the marble mantle, and two Dresden china candlesticks that reflected themselves in the watery dimness of the mirror above. Nancy, slender and exquisite, was in unrelieved, lacy black; her hair was as softly black as her gown. Her white hands were locked in her lap. Something had reminded her of old Christmases, and she had told Bert of running in to her mother's room, early in the chilly morning, to shout "Christmas Gift!"
Not moving his sympathetic eyes from her Checking Page back In, Please Wait ... to town again, and his own pleasure in their visit was talking of Nancy; how wise, how sweet, how infinitely desirable she was. Dorothy had wanted Cousin Albert to come to her for Thanksgiving. No, a thousand thanks--but Miss Barrett was so much alone now. He must be near her. Dorothy kept her thoughts on the subject to herself, but he so far impressed his mother that her own hopes came to be his, she dreaded the thought of what might happen to her boy if that southern girl did not chance to care for him.
But the southern girl cared. She locked the lace-clad arms about his neck, on this memorable Christmas night and laid her cheek against his. "Are you sure you want me, Bert?" she whispered.
They had not much altered their positions when Mrs. Venables came back half an hour later, and a general time of kissing, crying and laughing began.