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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 impeachment.

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— even shirt-sleeves.

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 chinquapins.

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 awake.

“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. Alexander.

“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' this way.”

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?”

“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 up, doctor?”

“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 chair.

“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 come, she—”

“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 eyes.

“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 it.”

“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 indeed.”

“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 imagination.”

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 peculiar interest.

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 bosom.

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 fancied improvement.

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 “miseries.”

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 Unknowable.

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?”

“Yes—or for—”

“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 enacting within.

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 nay.

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 following day.

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 face heavenward.

“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.”

 
 
 

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