The Unlived Life
of Little Mary
Ellen by Ruth McEnery Stuart
WHEN Simpkinsville sits in shirt-sleeves along her store fronts in
summer, she does not wish to be considered en déshabillé.
Indeed, excepting in extreme cases, she would—after requiring that
you translate it into plain American, perhaps—deny the soft
Simpkinsville knows about coats, and she knows about ladies, and she
knows that coats and ladies are to be taken together.
But there are hot hours during August when nothing should be
required to be taken with anything—unless, indeed, it be ice—with
everything excepting more ice.
During the long afternoons in fly-time no woman who has any
discretion—or, as the Simpkinsville men would say, any “management”—
would leave her comfortable home to go “hangin' roun' sto'e counters to
be waited on.” And if they will—as they sometimes do—why, let them
take the consequences.
Still, there are those who, from the simple prestige which youth and
beauty give, are regarded in the Simpkinsville popular mind-masculine
as belonging to a royal family before whom all things must give way—
For these, and because any one of them may turn her horse's head
into the main road and drive up to any of the stores any hot afternoon,
there are coat-pegs within easy reach upon the inside door-frames—
pegs usually covered with the linen dusters and seersucker cutaways of
the younger men without.
Very few of the older ones disturb themselves about these trivial
matters. Even the doctors, of whom there are two in town, both “leading
physicians,” are wont to receive their most important “office patients"
in this comfortable fashion as, palmetto fans in hand, they rise from
their comfortable chairs, tilted back against the weather-boarded
fronts of their respective drugstores, and step forward to the buggies
of such ladies as drive up for quinine and capsules, or to present
their ailing babies for open-air glances at their throats or gums,
without so much as displacing their linen lap-robes.
When any of the village belles drive or walk past, such of the
commercial drummers as may be sitting trigly coated, as they sometimes
do, among the shirt-sleeves, have a way of feeling of their ties and
bringing the front legs of their chairs to the floor, while they sit
forward in supposed parlor attitudes, and easily doff their hats with a
grace that the Simpkinsville boys fiercely denounce while they vainly
strive to imitate it.
A country boy's hat will not take on that repose which marks the
cast of the metropolitan hatter, let him try to command it as he may.
It was peculiarly hot and sultry to-day in Simpkinsville, and
business was abnormally dull—even the apothecary business—this
being the annual mid-season's lull between spring fevers and green
Old Dr. Alexander, after nodding for an hour over his fan beneath
his tarnished gilt sign of the pestle and mortar, had strolled
diagonally across the street to join his friend and confrère
, Dr. Jenkins, in a friendly chat.
The doctors were not much given to this sort of sociability, but
sometimes when times were unbearably dull and healthy, and neither was
called to any one else, they would visit one another and talk to keep
“Well, I should say so!” The visitor dropped into the vacant chair
beside his host as he spoke. “I should say so. Ain't it hot enough
for you? Ef it ain't, I'd advise you to renounce yo' religion an'
prepare for a climate thet'll suit you.”
This pleasantry was in reply to the common summer-day greeting. “Hot
enough for you to-day, doc'?”
“Yas,” continued the guest, as he zigzagged the back legs of his
chair forward by quick jerks until he had gained the desired leaning
angle—“Yas, it's too hot to live, an' not hot enough to die. I reckon
that's why we have so many chronics a-hangin' on.”
“Well, don't let's quarrel with sech as the Lord provides, doctor,”
replied his host, with a chuckle. “Ef it wasn't for the chronics, I
reckon you an' I'd have to give up practisin' an' go to makin' soap.
Ain't that about the size of it?”
“Yas, chronics an'—an' babies. Ef they didn't come so
punctual, summer an' winter, I wouldn't be able to feed mine thet 're
a'ready here. But talkin' about the chronics, do you know, doctor, thet
sometimes when I don't have much else to think about, why, I think
about them. It's a strange providence to me thet keeps people a-hangin'
on year in an' year out, neither sick nor well. I don't doubt the
Almighty's goodness, of co'se; but we've got Scripture for callin' Him
the Great Physician, an' why, when He could ef He would, He don't—”
“I wouldn't dare to ask myself sech questions as that, doctor, ef I
was you. I wouldn't, I know. Besides”—and now he laughed—
“besides, I jest give you a reason for lettin' 'em remain as they are—
to feed us poor devils of doctors. An' besides that, I've often seen
cases where it seemed to me they were allowed to live to sanctify them
thet had to live with 'em. Of co'se in this I'm not speakin' of
great sufferers. An' no doubt they all get pretty tired an' wo'e out
with themselves sometimes. I do with myself, even, an' I'm well. Jest
listen at them boys a-whistlin' 'After the Ball' to Brother Binney's
horse's trot! They haven't got no mo' reverence for a minister o' the
gospel than nothin'. I s'pose as long as they ricollect his preachin'
against dancin' they'll make him ride into town to that sort o' music.
They've made it up among 'em to do it. Jest listen—all the way up the
street that same tune. An' Brother Binney trottin' in smilin' to it.”
While they were talking the Rev. Mr. Binney rode past, and
following, a short distance behind him, came a shabby buggy, in which a
shabby woman sat alone. She held her reins a trifle high as she-drove,
and it was this somewhat awkward position which revealed the fact, even
as she approached in the distance, that she carried what seemed an
infant lying upon her lap.
“There comes the saddest sight in Simpkinsville, doctor. I notice
them boys stop their whistlin' jest as soon as her buggy turned into
the road. I'm glad there's some things they respect,” said Dr.
“Yas, and I see the fellers at Rowton's sto'e are goin' in for their
coats. She's drawin' rein there now.”
“Yas, but she ain't more'n leavin' an order, I reckon. She's comin'
The shabby buggy was bearing down upon them now, indeed, and when
Dr. Jenkins saw it he too rose and put on his coat. As its occupant
drew rein he stepped out to her side, while his companion, having
raised his hat, looked the other way.
“Get out an' come in, Mis' Bradley.” Dr. Jenkins had taken her hand
as he spoke.
“No, thanky, doctor. 'Taint worth while. I jest want to consult you
about little Mary Ellen. She ain't doin' well, some ways.”
At this she drew back the green barége veil that was spread over the
bundle upon her lap, exposing, as she did so, the blond head and chubby
face of a great wax doll, with eyes closed as if in sleep.
The doctor laid the veil back in its place quickly.
“I wouldn't expose her face to the evenin' sun, Mis' Bradley,” he
said, gently. “I'll call out an' see her to-morrow; an' ef I was you I
think I'd keep her indoors for a day or so.” Then as he glanced into
the woman's haggard and eager face, he added: “She's gettin' along as
well as might be expected, Mis' Bradley. But I'll be out to-morrow, an'
fetch you somethin' thet 'll put a little color in yo' face.”
“Oh, don't mind me, doctor,” she answered, with a sigh of relief, as
she tucked the veil carefully under the little head. “Don't mind me. I
ain't sick. Ef I could jest see her pick up a little, why, I'd
feel all right. When you come to-morrer, better fetch somethin' she
can take, doctor. Well, good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Mis' Bradley.”
It was some moments before either of the doctors spoke after Dr.
Jenkins had returned to his place. And then it was he who said:
“Talkin' about the ways o' Providence, doctor, what do you call
“That's one o' the mysteries thet it's hard to unravel, doctor. Ef
anything would make me doubt the mercy of God Almighty, it would be
some sech thing as that. And yet—I don't know. Ef there ever was a
sermon preached without words, there's one preached along the open
streets of Simpkinsville by that pore little half-demented woman when
she drives into town nursin' that wax doll. An' it's preached where
it's much needed, too—to our young people. There ain't many preachers
that can reach 'em, but—Did you take notice jest now how, as soon as
she turned into the road, all that whistlin' stopped? They even
neglected to worry Brother Binney. An' she's the only woman in town
thet 'll make old Rowton put on a coat. He'll wait on yo' wife or mine
in his shirt-sleeves, an' it's all right. But there's somethin' in that
broken-hearted woman nursin' a wax doll thet even a fellow like Rowton
'll feel. Didn't you ever think thet maybe you ought to write her case
“Yas; an' I've done it—as far as it goes. I've called it 'A
Psychological Impossibility.' An' then I've jest told her story. A heap
of impossible things have turned out to be facts—facts that had to be
argued backward from. You can do over argiments, but you can't undo
facts. Yas, I've got her case all stated as straight as I can state it,
an' some day it 'll be read. But not while she's livin'. Sir? No, not
even with names changed an' everything. It wouldn't do. It couldn't
help bein' traced back to her. No; some day, when we've all passed
away, likely, it'll all come out in a medical journal, signed by me.
An' I've been thinkin' thet I'd like to have you go over that paper
with me some time, doctor, so thet you could testify to it. An' I
thought we'd get Brother Binney to put his name down as the minister
thet had been engaged to perform the marriage, an' knew all the ins and
outs of it. And then it 'll hardly be believed.”
Even as they spoke they heard the whistling start up again along the
street, and, looking up, they saw the Rev. Mr. Binney approaching.
“We've jest been talkin' about you, Brother Binney—even before the
boys started you to dancin'.” Dr. Jenkins rose and brought out a third
“No,” answered the dominie, as with a good-natured smile he
dismounted. “No, they can't make me dance, an' I don't know as it's a
thing my mare 'll have to answer for. She seems to take naturally to
the sinful step, an' so, quick as they start a-whistlin', I try to ride
as upright an' godly as I can, to sort o' equalize things. How were you
two discussin' me, I'd like to know?”
He put the question playfully as he took his seat.
“Well, we were havin' a pretty serious talk, brother,”said Dr.
Jenkins—“a pretty serious talk, doc and me. We were talkin' about
pore Miss Mary Ellen. We were sayin' thet we reckoned ef there were any
three men in town thet were specially qualified to testify about her
case, we must be the three—you an' him an' me. I've got it all
written out, an' I thought some day I'd get you both to read it over
an' put your names to it, with any additions you might feel disposed to
make. After we've all passed away, there ought to be some authorized
account. You know about as much as we do, I reckon, Brother Binney.”
“Yes, I s'pose I do—in a way. I stood an' watched her face durin'
that hour an' a quarter they stood in church waitin' for Clarence
Bradley to come. Mary Ellen never was to say what you'd call a purty
girl, but she always did have a face that would hold you ef you ever
looked at it. An' when she stood in church that day, with all her
bridesmaids strung around the chancel, her countenance would 'a' done
for any heavenly picture. An' as the time passed, an' he didn't show up
—Well, I don't want to compare sinfully, but there's a picture I saw
once of Mary at the Cross—Reckon I ought to take that back, lest it
might be sinful; but there ain't any wrong in my telling you here thet
as I stood out o' sight, waitin' that day in church, behind the pyramid
o' flowers the bridesmaids had banked up for her, with my book open in
my hand at the marriage service, while we waited for him to come, as
she stood before the pulpit in her little white frock and wreath, I
could see her face. An' there came a time, after it commenced to get
late, when I fell on my knees.”
The good man stopped speaking for a minute to steady his voice.
“You see,” he resumed, presently, “we'd all heard things. I knew
he'd seemed completely taken up with this strange girl; an' when
at last he came for me to marry him and Mary Ellen, I never was so
rejoiced in my life. Thinks I, I've been over-suspicious. Of co'se I
knew he an' Mary Ellen had been sweethearts all their lives. I tell
you, friends, I've officiated at funerals in my life—buried little
children an' mothers of families—an' I've had my heart in my throat
so thet I could hardly do my duty; but I tell you I never in all my
life had as sad an experience as I did at little Mary Ellen Williams's
weddin'—the terrible, terrible weddin' thet never came off.”
“An' I've had patients,” said Dr. Jenkins, coming into the pause—
“I've had patients, Brother Binney, thet I've lost—lost 'em because
the time had come for 'em to die—patients thet I've grieved to see go
more as if I was a woman than a man, let alone a doctor; but I never in
all my life come so near clair givin' way an' breakin' down as I
did at that weddin' when you stepped out an' called me out o' the
congregation to tell me she had fainted. God help us, it was terrible!
I'll never forget that little white face as it lay so limpy and still
against the lilies tied to the chancel rail, not ef I live a thousand
years. Of co'se we'd all had our fears, same as you. We knew Clarence's
failin', an' we saw how the yaller-haired girl had turned his head;
but, of co'se, when it come to goin' into the church, why, we thought
it was all right. But even after the thing had happened—even knowin'
as much as I did—I never to say fully took in the situation till the
time come for her to get better. For two weeks she lay 'twixt life an'
death, an' the one hope I had was for her to recognize me. She hadn't
recognized anybody since she was brought out o' the church. But when at
last she looked at me one day, an' says she, 'Doctor—what you reckon
kep' him—so late?' I tell you I can't tell you how I felt.”
“What did you say, doctor?”
It was the minister who ventured the question.
“What can a man say when he 'ain't got nothin' to say? I jest said,
'Better not talk any to-day, honey.' An' I turned away an' made
pertence o' mixin' powders— an' mixed 'em, for that matter—
give her sech as would put her into a little sleep. An' then I set by
her till she drowsed away. But when she come out o' that sleep an' I
see how things was—when she called herself Mis' Bradley an' kep'
askin' for him, an' I see she didn't know no better, an' likely never
would—God help me! but even while I prescribed physic for her to
live, in my heart I prayed to see her die. She thought she had been
married, an' from that day to this she 'ain't never doubted it. Of
co'se she often wonders why he don't come home; an' sence that doll
“Didn't it ever strike you as a strange providence about that doll—
thet would allow sech a thing, for instance, doctor?”
Dr. Jenkins did not answer at once.
“Well,” he said, presently, “yas—yas an' no. Ef a person looks at
it close-t enough, it 'ain't so hard to see mercy in God's
judgments. I happened to be at her bedside the day that doll come in—
Christmas Eve four years ago. She was mighty weak an' porely. She
gen'ally gets down in bed 'long about the holidays, sort o' reelizin'
the passin' o' time, seein' he don't come. She had been so worried and
puny thet the old nigger 'Pollo come for me to see her. An', well,
while I set there tryin' to think up somethin' to help hor, 'Pollo, he
fetched in the express package.”
“I've always blamed her brother, Brother Binney,” Dr. Alexander
interposed, “for allowin' that package to go to her.”
“Allowin'! Why, he never allowed it. You might jest as well
say you blame him for namin' his one little daughter after her aunt
Mary Ellen. That's how the mistake was made. No, for my part I never
thought so much of Ned Williams in my life as I did when he said to me
the day that baby girl was born, 'Ef it's a girl, doctor, we're a-goin'
to name it after sis' Mary Ellen. Maybe it'll be a comfort to her.' An'
they did. How many brothers, do you reckon, would name a child after a
sister thet had lost her mind over a man thet had jilted her at the
church door, an' called herself by his name ever sence? Not many, I
reckon. No, don't blame Ned—for anything. He hoped she'd love the
little thing, an' maybe it would help her. An' she did notice it
consider'ble for a while, but it didn't seem to have the power to bring
her mind straight. In fact, the way she'd set an' look at it for hours,
an' then go home an' set down an' seem to be thinkin', makes me
sometimes suspicion thet that was what started her a-prayin' God to
send her a child. She's said to me more than once-t about that time—
she'd say, 'You see, doctor, when he's away so much—ef it was God's
will—a child would be a heap o' company to me while he's away.' This,
mind you, when he hadn't shown up at the weddin'; when we all knew he
ran away an' married the yaller-hair that same night. Of co'se it did
seem a strange providence to be sent to a God-fearin' woman as she
always was; it did seem strange thet she should be allowed to make
herself redic'lous carryin' that wax doll around the streets; an' yet,
when you come to think—”
“Well, I say what I did befo',” said Dr. Alexander. “Her brother
should 'a' seen to it thet no sech express package intended for
his child should 'a' been sent to the aunt—not in her state o' mind.”
“How could he see to it when he didn't send it—didn't know it was
comin'? Of co'se we Simpkinsville folks, we all know thet she's called
Mary Ellen, an' thet Ned's child has been nicknamed Nellie. But his
wife's kin, livin' on the other side o' the continent, they couldn't be
expected to know that, an' when they sent her that doll, why, they
nachelly addressed it to her full name; an' it was sent up to Miss Mary
Ellen's. Even then the harm needn't to 've been done exceptin' for her
bein' sick abed, an' me, her doctor, hopin' to enliven her up a little
with an unexpected present, makes the nigger 'Pollo set it down by her
bedside, and opens it befo' her eyes, right there. Maybe I'm to blame
for that— but I ain't. We can't do mo' than try for the
best. I thought likely as not Ned had ordered her some little Christmas
things—as he had, in another box.”
The old doctor stopped, and, taking out his handkerchief, wiped his
“Of co'se, as soon as I see what it was, I knew somebody had sent it
to little Mary Ellen, but—
“You say, Brother Binney, thet the look in her face at the weddin'
made you fall on yo' knees. I wish you could 'a' seen the look thet
come into her eyes when I lifted that doll-baby out of that box.
Heavenly Father! That look is one o' the things thet 'll come back to
me sometimes when I wake up too early in the mornin's, an' I can't get
back to sleep for it. But at the time I didn't fully realize it,
somehow. She jest reached an' took the doll out o' my hands, an'
turnin' over, with her face to the wall, held it tight in her arms
without sayin' a word. Then she lay still for so long that-a-way thet
by-an'-bye I commenced to get uneasy less'n she'd fainted. So I leaned
over an' felt of her pulse, an' I see she was layin' there cryin' over
it without a sound—an' I come away. I don't know how came I to be so
thick-headed, but even then I jest supposed thet seein' the doll
nachelly took her mind back to the time she was a child, an' that in
itself was mighty sad an' pitiful to me, knowin' her story, and I
confess to you I was glad there wasn't anybody I had to speak to on my
way out. I tell you I was about cryin' myself—jest over the
pitifulness of even that. But next day when I went back of co'se I see
how it was. She never had doubted for a minute thet that doll was the
baby she'd been prayin' for—not a minute. An' she don't, not to
this day—straight as her mind is on some things. That's why I
call it a psychological impossibility, she bein' so rational an' so
crazy at the same time. Sent for me only last week, an' when I got
there I found her settin' down with it a-layin' in her lap, an'
she lookin' the very picture of despair. 'Doctor,' says she, 'I'm sure
they's mo' wrong with Mary Ellen than you let on to me. She don't
grow, doctor.' An' with that she started a-sobbin' en' a-rockin'
back an' fo'th over it. 'An' even the few words she could say, doctor,
she seems to forget 'em,' says she. 'She 'ain't called my name for a
week.' It's a fact; the little talkin'-machine inside it has got out o'
fix some way, an' it don't say 'mamma' and 'papa' any mo'.”
“Have you ever thought about slippin' it away from her, doctor, an'
seein' if maybe she wouldn't forget it? If she was my patient I'd try
“Yas, but you wouldn't keep it up. I did try it once-t. Told old
Milly thet ef she fretted too much not to give her the doll, but to
send for me. An' she did—in about six hours. An' I—well, when I see
her face I jest give it back to her. An' I'll never be the one to take
it from her again. It comes nearer givin' her happiness than anything
else could—an' what could be mo' innocent? She's even mo' contented
since her mother died an' there ain't anybody to prevent her carryin'
it on the street. I know it plegged Ned at first to see her do it, but
he's never said a word. He's one in a thousand. He cares mo' for his
sister's happiness than for how she looks to other folks. Most brothers
don't. There ain't a mornin' but he drives in there to see ef she wants
anything, an', of co'se, keepin' up the old place jest for her to live
in it costs him consider'ble. He says she wouldn't allow it, but she
thinks Clarence pays for everything, an' of co'se he was fully able.”
“I don't think it's a good way for her to live, doctor, in that big
old place with jest them two old niggers. I never have thought so. Ef
she was my patient—”
“Well, pardner, that's been talked over between Ned an' his wife,
an' they've even consulted me. An' I b'lieve she ought to be let alone.
Those two old servants take about as good care of her as anybody could.
Milly nursed her when she was a baby, an' she loves the ground she
walks on, an' she humors her in everything. Why, I've gone out there
an' found that old nigger walkin' that doll up an' down the po'ch,
singing to it for all she was worth; an' when I'd drive up, the po' ol'
thing would cry so she couldn't go in the house for ten minutes or mo'.
No, it ain't for us to take away sech toys as the Lord sends to comfort
an' amuse his little ones; an' the weak-minded, why, they always seem
that-a-way to me. An' sometimes, when I come from out of some of our
homes where everything is regular and straight accordin' to our way o'
lookin' at things, an' I see how miserable an' unhappy everything is
, an' I go out to the old Williams place, where the birds are singin' in
the trees an' po' Miss Mary Ellen is happy sewin' her little
doll-clo'es, an' the old niggers ain't got a care on earth but to look
after her—Well, I dun'no'. Ef you'd dare say the love o' God wasn't
there, I wouldn't. Of co'se she has her unhappy moments, an' I
can see she's failin'as time passes; but even so, ain't this for
the best? They'd be somethin' awful about it, to me, ef she kep'
a-growin' stronger through it all. One of the sweetest providences o'
sorrow is thet we poor mortals fail under it. There ain't a flower thet
blooms but some seed has perished for it.”
It was at a meeting of the woman's prayer-meeting, about a week
after the conversation just related, that Mrs. Blanks, the good sister
who led the meeting, rose to her feet, and, after a silence that
betokened some embarrassment in the subject she essayed, said:
“My dear sisters, I've had a subjec' on my mind for a long time, a
subjec' thet I've hesitated to mention, but the mo' I put it away the
mo' it seems to come back to me. I've hesitated because she's got
kinfolks in this prayer-meetin', but I don't believe thet there's
anybody kin to Miss Mary Ellen thet feels any nearer to her than what
the rest of us do.”
“Amen!” “Amen!” and “Amen!” came in timid women's voices from
different parts of the room.
“I know how you all feel befo' you answer me, my dear sisters,” she
continued, presently. “And now I propose to you thet we, first here as
a body of worshippers, an' then separately as Christian women at home
in our closets, make her case a subjec' of special prayer. Let us ask
the good Lord to relieve her—jest so— unconditionally; to
take this cloud off her life an' this sorrow off our streets, an' I
believe He'll do it.”
There were many quiet tears shed in the little prayer-meeting that
morning as, with faltering voice, one woman after another spoke her
word of exhortation or petition in behalf of the long-suffering sister.
That this revival of the theme by the wives and mothers of the
community should have resulted in renewed attentions to the poor
distraught woman was but natural. It is sound orthodoxy to try to help
God to answer our prayers. And so the faithful women of the churches—
there were a few of every denomination in town in the union
prayer-meeting—began to go to her, fully resolved to say some
definite word to win her, if possible, from her hallucination, to break
the spell that held her; but they would almost invariably come away
full of contrition over such false and comforting words as they had
been constrained to speak “over a soulless and senseless doll.”
Indeed, a certain Mrs. Lynde, one of the most ardent of these good
women, but a sensitive soul withal, was moved, after one of her visits,
to confess in open meeting both her sin and her chagrin in the
following humiliating fashion:
“I declare I never felt so 'umbled in my life ez I did after I come
away from there, a week ago come Sunday. Here I goes, full of clear
reasonin' an' Scripture texts, to try to bring her to herself, an' I
'ain't no mo'n set down sca'cely, when I looks into her face, as she
sets there an' po's out her sorrers over that ridic'lous little doll,
befo' I'm consolin' her with false hopes, like a perfec' Ananias an'
Sapphira. Ef any woman could set down an' see her look at that old
doll's face when she says, 'Honey, do you reckon I'll ever raise her,
when she keeps so puny?'—I say ef any woman with a human heart in her
bosom could hear her say that, an' not tell her, 'Cert'n'y she'd raise
her,' an' that 'punier children than that had growed up to be healthy
men an' women'—well, maybe they might be better Christians than I am,
but I don't never expec' to be sanctified up to that point. I know I'm
an awful sinner, deservin' of eternal punishment for deceit which is
the same as a lie, but I not only told her I thought she could raise
her, but I felt her pulse, an' said it wasn't quite what a reel hearty
child's ought to be. Of co'se I said that jest to save myself from
p'int-blank lyin'. An' then, when I see how it troubled her to think it
wasn't jest right, why, God forgive me, but I felt it over
again, an' counted it by my watch, an' then I up an' told her it was
all right, an' thet ef it had a-been any different to the way it
was under the circumstances, I'd be awful fearful, which, come to think
of it, that last is true ez God's word, for ef I'd a-felt a pulse in
that doll's wrist—which, tell the truth, I was so excited while she
watched me I half expected to feel it pulsate—I'd 'a' shot out o'
that door a ravin' lunatic. I come near enough a-doin' it when she
patted its chest an' it said 'mamma' an' 'papa' in reply. I don't know,
but I think thet the man thet put words into a doll's breast, to be
hugged out by a poor, bereft, weak-minded woman, has a terrible sin to
answer for. Seems to me it's a-breakin' the second commandment, which
forbids the makin' of anything in the likeness of anything in the
heavens above or the earth beneath, which a baby is if it's anything,
bein' the breath o' God fresh-breathed into human clay. I don't know.
but I think that commandment is aimed jest as direct at talkin' dolls
ez it is at heathen idols, which, when you come to think of it, ain't
p'intedly made after the image of anything in creation thet
we've seen samples of, after all. Them thet I've seen the pictures of
ain't no mo'n sech outlandish deformities thet anybody could conceive
of ef he imagined a strange-figgured person standin' befo' a cracked
merror so ez to have his various an' sundry parts duplicated,
promiscuous. No, I put down the maker of that special an' partic'lar
doll ez a greater idolitor than them thet, for the want o' knowin'
better, stick a few extry members on a clay statute an' pray to it
in faith. Ef it hadn't a-called her 'mamma' first time she
over-squeezed it, I don't believe for a minute thet that doll
would ever 'a' got the holt upon Mary Ellen thet it has—I don't
“Still”—it was Mrs. Blanks who spoke up in reply, wiping her eyes
as she began—“still, Sister Lynde, you know she frets over it jest ez
much sence it's lost its speech.”
“Of co'se,” said another sister; “an' why shouldn't she? Ef yo'
little Katie had a-started talkin' an' then stopped of a suddent,
wouldn't you 'a' been worried, I like to know?”
“Yas, I reckon I would,” replied Mrs. Blanks; “but it's hard to put
her in the place of a mother with a reel child—even in a person's
There had been in Simpkinsville an occasional doll whose eyes would
open and shut as she was put to bed or taken up, and the crying doll
was not a thing unknown.
That the one which should play so conspicuous a part in her history
should have developed the gift of speech, invested it with a weird and
It was, indeed, most uncanny and sorrowful to hear its poor piping
response to the distraught woman's caresses as she pressed it to her
To the little doll-loving girls of Simpkinsville it had always been
an object of semi-superstitious reverence—a thing half doll, half
human, almost alive.
When her little niece Nellie, a tall girl of eight years now, would
come over in the mornings and beg Aunt Mary Ellen to let her hold the
baby, she never quite knew, as she walked it up and down the yard,
under the mulberry-trees, with the green veil laid lovingly over its
closed lids, whether to look for a lapse from its human quality into
ordinary dollhood, or to expect a sudden development on the life side.
She would, no doubt, long ago have lost this last hope, in the lack
of progression in its mechanical speech, but for the repeated
confidences of her aunt Mary Ellen.
“Why, honey, she often laughs out loud an' turns over in bed, an'
sometimes she wakes me up cryin' so pitiful.” So the good aunt, who had
never told a lie in all her pious life, often assured her—assured her
with a look in her face that was absolutely invincible in its
expression of perfect faith in the thing she said.
There had been several serious conferences between her father and
mother in the beginning, before the child had been allowed to go to see
Aunt Mary Ellen's dolly—to see and hold it, and inevitably to love it
with all her child heart; but even before the situation had developed
its full sadness, or they had realized how its contingencies would
familiarize every one with the strange, sad story, the arguments were
in the child's favor. To begin with, the doll was really hers, though
it was thought best, in the circumstances, that she should never know
it. Indeed, at first her father had declared that she should have one
just like it; but when it was found that its price was nearly equal to
the value of a bale of cotton, the good man was moved to declare that
“the outlandish thing, with its heathenish imitations, had wrought
sorrer enough in the family a'ready without trying to duplicate it.”
Still, there couldn't be any harm in letting her see the beautiful
toy. And so, as she held it in her arms, the child came vaguely to
realize that a great mystery of anxious love hovered about this
strange, weird doll, a mystery that, to her young perception, as she
read it in the serious home faces, was as full of tragic possibilities
as that which concerned the real baby sister that lay and slept and
waked and grew in the home cradle—the real, warm, heavy baby that she
was sometimes allowed to hold “just for a minute” while the nurse-mammy
followed close beside her.
If the toy-baby gave her the greater pleasure, may it not have been
because she dimly perceived in it a meeting-point between the real and
the imaginary? Here was a threshold of the great wonder-world that
primitive peoples and children love so well. They are the great
mystics, after all. And are they not, perhaps, wise mystics who sit and
wonder and worship, satisfied not to understand?
Summer waned and went out, and September came in—September, hot
and murky and short of breath, as one ill of heart-failure. Even the
prayer-meeting women who had taken up Miss Mary Ellen's case in strong
faith, determined not to let it go, were growing faint of heart under
the combined pressure of disappointed hope and the summer's weight. The
poor object of their prayers, instead of seeming in any wise improved,
grew rather more wan and weary as time wore on. Indeed, she sometimes
appeared definitely worse, and would often draw rein in the public road
to lift the doll from her lap and discuss her anxieties concerning it
with any passing acquaintance, or even on occasion to exult in a
This was a thing she had never done before the women began to pray,
and it took a generous dispensation of faith to enable them to continue
steadfast in the face of such discouragement. But, as is sometimes the
case, greater faith came from the greater need, and the prayer-meeting
grew. In the face of its new and painful phases, as the tragedy took on
a fresh sadness, even a few churchly women who had stood aloof at the
beginning waived their sectarian differences and came into the meeting.
And there were strange confessions sometimes at these gatherings, where
it was no uncommon thing for a good sister to relate how, on a certain
occasion, she had either “burst out cryin' to keep from laughin',” or
“laughed like a heathen jest to keep from cryin'.”
The situation was now grown so sad and painful that the doctors
called a consultation of neighboring physicians, even bringing for the
purpose a “specialist” all the way from the Little Rock Asylum, hoping
little, but determined to spare no effort for the bettering of things.
After this last effort and its discouraging result, all hope of
recovery seemed gone, and so the good women, when they prayed,
despairing of human agency, asked simply for a miracle, reading aloud,
for the support of their faith, the stories of marvellous healing as
related in the gospels.
It was on a sultry morning, after a night of rain, near the end of
September. Old Dr. Jenkins stood behind the showcase in his drug-store
dealing out quinine pills and earache drops to the poor country folk
and negroes, who, with sallow faces or heads bound up, declared
themselves “chillin' ” or “painful” while they waited. Patient as cows,
they stood in line while the dispensing hand of healing passed over to
their tremulous, eager palms the promised “help” for their assorted
It was a humble crowd of sufferers, deferring equally, as they
waited, to the dignitary who served them and to his environment of
mysterious potencies, whose unreadable Latin labels glared at them in
every direction as if in challenge to their faith and respect. To the
thoughtful observer it seemed an epitome of suffering humanity—
patient humanity waiting to be healed by some great and mysterious
It may have been their general attitude of unconscious deference
that moved the crowd to fall quickly back at the entrance of the first
assertive visitor of the morning, or perhaps old 'Pollo, the negro, as
he came rushing into the shop, would have been accorded right of way in
a more pretentious gathering. There was certainly that in his
appearance which demanded attention.
He had galloped up to the front door, his horse in a lather from the
long, hot ride from the Williams homestead, four miles away, and,
throwing his reins across the pommel of his saddle, had burst into the
drug-store with an excited appeal:
“Doctor Jinkins, come quick! For Gord's sake! Miss Mary Ellen
need you, Marse Doctor—she need you— right off!“
He did not wait for a response. He had delivered his summons, and,
turning without another word, he remounted his horse and rode away.
It was not needed that the doctor should offer any apologies to his
patients for following him. He did not, indeed, seem to remember that
they were there as he seized his coat, and, without even waiting to put
it on, quickly unhitched his horse tied at the front door, and followed
the negro down the road.
It was a matter of but a few moments to overtake him, and when the
two were riding abreast the doctor saw that the old man was crying.
“De dorg, he must 'a' done it, Marse Doctor,” he began, between
sobs. “He must 'a' got in las' night. It was so hot we lef' all de do's
open, same lak we been doin'—But it warn't we-alls fault,
doctor. But de dorg, he must 'a' snatch de doll out'n de cradle an' run
out in de yard wid it, an' it lay a-soakin' in de rain all night. When
Miss Mary Ellen fust woked up dis mornin', she called out to Milly to
fetch de baby in to her. Milly she often tecks it out'n de cradle early
in de mornin' 'fo' missy wakes up, an' make pertend lak she feeds it in
de kitchen. An' dis mornin', when she call for it, Milly, she 'spon'
back, 'I 'ain't got her, missy!' jes dat-a-way. An' wid dat, 'fo' you
could bat yo' eye, missy was hop out'n dat bed an' stan' in de middle
o' de kitchen in her night-gownd, white in de face as my
whitewash-bresh. An' when she had look at Milly an' den at me, she
sclaim out, 'Whar my child?' I tell you, Marse Doctor, when I
see dat look an' heah dat inquiry, I trimbled so dat dat kitchen flo'
shuck tell de kittle-leds on de stove rattled. An' Milly, she see how
scarified missy look, an' she commence to tu'n roun' an' seek for
words, when we heah pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, on de po'ch; an', good Gord,
Marse Doctor! heah come Rover, draggin' dat po' miser'ble little
doll-baby in his mouf, drippin' wid mud an' sopped wid rain-water.
Quick as I looked at it I see dat bofe eyes was done soaked out an' de
paint gone, an' all its yaller hair it had done eve'y bit soaked off.
Sir? Oh, I don't know, sir, how she gwine teck it. Dey ain't no sayin'
as to dat. She hadn't come to when I come away. She had jes
drapped down in a dead faint in the mids' o' de kitchen, an' I holp
Milly lif' her on to de bed, an' I come for you. Co'se I had to stop
an' ketch de horse; an' de roads, dey was so awful muddy an'—”
It was a long ride over the heavy roads, and as the good doctor
trotted along, with the old darky steadily talking beside him, he
presently ceased to hear.
Having once realized the situation, his professional mind busied
itself in speculations as to the probable result of so critical an
incident to his patient. Accident, chance, or mayhap a kind providence,
had done for her the thing he had long wished to try but had not dared.
The mental shock, with the irreparable loss of the doll, would probably
have a definite effect for good or ill—if, indeed, she would consent
even now to give it up. Of course there was no telling.
This question was almost immediately answered, however, for when,
presently, the old negro led the way into the lane leading to the
Williams gate, preceding the doctor so as to open the gate for him, he
leaned suddenly over his horse's neck and peered eagerly forward. Then
drawing rein for a moment, he called back:
“Marse Doctor, look hard, please, sir, an' see what dat my ol' 'oman
Milly is doin' out at de front gate.”
The doctor's eyes were little better than his companion's. Still, he
was able in a moment to reply:
“Why, old man, she is tying a piece of white muslin upon the
gate-post. Something has happened.”
“White is for babies, ain't it, Marse Doctor?”
“Den it mus' be she's give it up for dead.”
The old man began sobbing again.
“Yes; thank God!” said the doctor. And he wiped his eyes.
The bit of fluttering white that hung upon the gate at the end of
the lane had soon told its absurd and pitiful little tale of woe to the
few passers-by on the road—its playful announcement of half the
story, the comedy side, pathetically suggesting the tragedy that was
Before many hours all Simpkinsville knew what had happened, and the
little community had succumbed to an attack of hysteria.
Simpkinsville was not usually of a particularly nervous or
hysterical temper, but a wholesome sense of the ludicrous, colliding
with her maternal love for her afflicted child, could not do less than
find relief in simultaneous laughter and tears.
And still, be it said to their credit, when the good women
separated, after meeting in the various houses to talk it over, it was
the mark of tears that remained upon their faces.
But when it was presently known that their nerve poise was to be
critically tested by a “funeral” announced for the next day, there was
less emotion exhibited, perhaps, and there were more quiet
consultations among the serious-minded.
When Miss Mary Ellen, prostrate and wan with the burden of her
long-borne sorrow, had from her pillow quietly given instructions for
the burial, the old doctor, who solicitously watched beside her, in the
double capacity of friend and physician, had not been able to say her
And when on the next day he had finally invited a conference on the
subject with her brother, the minister, his fellow-doctor, and several
personal friends of the family, there were heavy lines about his eyes,
and he confessed that before daring his advice on so sensitive a point
he had “walked the flo' the live-long night.”
And then he had strongly, unequivocally, advised the funeral.
“We've thought it best to humor her all the way through,” he began,
“an' now, when the end is clairly in sight, why, there ain't any
consistency in changin' the treatment. Maybe when it's buried she'll
forget it, an' in time come to herself. Of co'se it 'll be a tryin'
ordeel, but there's enough of us sensible relations an' friends thet
'll go through it, if need be.” He had walked up and down the room as
he spoke, his hands clasped behind him, and now he stopped before the
minister. “Of co'se, Brother Binney”—he spoke with painful hesitation
—“of co'se she'll look for you to come an' to put up a prayer, an'
maybe read a po'tion o' Scripture. An' I've thought that over.
Seems to me the whole thing is sad enough for religious services—ef
anything is. I've seen reel funerals thet wasn't half so mo'nful, ef
I'm any judge of earthly sorrers. There wouldn't be any occasion to
bring in the doll in the services, I don't think. But there ain't any
earthly grief, in my opinion, but's got a Scripture tex' to match it,
ef it's properly selected.”
A painful stillness followed this appeal. And then, after closing
his eyes for a moment as if in prayer, the good minister said:
“Of course, my dear friends, you can see thet this thing
can't be conducted as a funeral. But, as our good brother has
jest remarked, for all the vicissitudes of life—and death—for our
safety in joy and our comfort in sorrow, we are given precious words of
sweet and blessed consolation.”
The saddest funeral gathering in all the annals of Simpkinsville—
so it is still always called by those who wept at the obsequies—was
that of Miss Mary Ellen's doll, led by the good brother on the
The prayer-meeting women were there, of course, fortified in their
faith by the supreme demand laid upon it, and even equipped with fresh
self-control for this crucial test of their poise and worthiness. Their
love was deep and sincere, and yet so sensitive were they to the
dangers of this most precarious situation that when presently the
minister entered, book in hand, a terrible apprehension seized them.
It was as a great wave of indescribable fright, so awful that for a
moment their hearts seemed to stop beating, so irresistible in its
force that unless it should be quickly stayed it must presently break
in some emotion.
No doubt the good brother felt it too, for instead of opening his
book, as had been his intention, he laid it down upon the table before
him—the small centre-table upon which lay what seemed a tiny mound
heaped with flowers—and, placing both hands upon the bowed head of
the little woman who sat beside it, closed his eyes, and raised his
“Dear Lord, Thou knowest,” he said, slowly. Then finding no other
words, perhaps, and willing to be still, he waited a moment in silence.
When he spoke again the wave had broken. The air seemed to sway with
the indescribable vibrations that tell of silent weeping, and every
face was buried in a handkerchief.
“Thou knowest, O Lord,” he resumed, presently, raising his voice a
little as if in an access of courage—“Thou knowest how dear to our
hearts is Thy handmaiden, this beloved sister who sits in sorrow among
us to-day. Thou knowest how we love her. Thou knowest that her
afflictions are ours. And oh, dear Father, if it be possible, grant
that when we have reverently put this poor little symbol of our common
sorrow out of sight forever, Thy peace may descend and fill her heart
and ours with Thy everlasting benediction.”
The words, which had come slowly, though without apparent effort,
might have been inspired. Surely they sounded to the women who waited
as if uttered by a voice from Heaven, and to their spiritually attuned
ears it was a voice comforting, composing, quieting.
After this followed a reading of Scripture—a selection taken for
its wide application to all God's sorrowing people—and the singing of
the beautiful hymn,
“God shall charge His angel legions
Watch and ward o'er thee to keep.”
This was sung, without a break, from the beginning clear through to
the end, with its sweet promise to the grief-stricken of “life beyond
the grave.” Then came the benediction—the benediction of the churches
since the days of the apostles, used of all Christians the world over,
but ever beautiful and new—“The peace of God, which passeth all
understanding, keep your hearts and minds,” etc.
All the company had risen for this—all excepting Miss Mary Ellen,
who during the entire ceremony had not changed her position—and when
it was finished, when the moment of silent prayers was over and one by
one the women rose from their knees, there came an awkward interval
pending the next step in this most difficult and exceptional service.
The little woman in whose behalf it had been conducted, for whom all
the prayers had been said, made no sign by which her further will
should be made known. It had been expected that she would herself go to
the burial, and against this contingency a little grave had been
prepared in the family burial-ground, which, happily, was situated upon
her own ground, in a grove of trees a short distance from the house.
After waiting for some moments, and seeing that she still did not
move, the reverend brother finally approached her and laid his palm as
before upon her head. Then, quickly reaching around, he drew her hand
from beneath her cheek, felt her pulse, and now, turning, he motioned
to the doctor to come.
The old man, Dr. Jenkins, lifted her limp arm tenderly and felt her
wrist, listened with his ear against her bosom, waited, and listened
again—and again. And then, laying back the hand tenderly, he took his
handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.
“Dear friends,” he said, huskily, “your prayers have been answered.
Sister Mary Ellen has found peace.”