Uncle Phil's Thimble by Elinor Elliott
"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
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
"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
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
"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?
THE WRECK OF A COASTER.