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Dolly Phone by Susan Coolidge

 

A dusty workshop, dark except where one broad ray of light streamed through a broken shutter, a row of mysterious objects, with a tiny tin funnel fitted into the front of each, and a cloth over their tops, odd designs in wood and brass hanging on the wall, a carpenter's bench, a small furnace, a general strew of shavings, iron scrape, and odds and ends, and a little girl sitting on the floor, crying. It does not sound much like the beginning of a story, does it? And no one would have been more surprised than Amy Carpenter herself if any one had come as she sat there crying, and told her that a story was begun, and she was in it.

Yet that is the way in which stories in real life often do begin. Dust, dulness, every-day things about one, tears, temper; and out of these unpromising materials Fate weaves a “happening” for us. She does not wait till skies are blue and suns shine, till the room is dusted, and we are all ready, but chooses such time as pleases her, and surprises us.

Amy was in as evil a temper as little girls of ten are often visited with. Things had gone very wrong with her that day. It began with a great disappointment. All Miss Gray's class at school was going on a picnic. Amy had expected to go too, and at the last moment her mother had kept her at home.

“I'm real sorry about it,” Mrs. Carpenter had said, “but you see how it is. Baby's right fretty with his teeth, and your father's that worried about his machine that I'm afraid he'll be down sick. If we can't keep Baby quiet, father can't eat, and if he don't eat he won't sleep, and if he can't sleep he can't work, and then I don't see what will become of us. I've all that sewing to finish for Mrs. Judge Peters, and she's going away Monday; and if she don't have it in time, she'll be put out, and, as like as not, give her work to some one else. Now, don't cry, Amy. I'm right sorry to disappoint you, but all of us must take our turn in giving up things. I'm sure I take mine,” with a little patient sigh.

“Father's sure that this new machine of his is going to make our fortune,” she went on, after an interval of busy stitching. “But I don't know. He said just the same about the alarm-clock, and the Imferno Reaper and Binder, and that thing-a-my-jig for opening cans, and the self-registering Savings Bank, and the Minute Egg-Beater, and the Tuck Measurer, and none of them came to anything in the end. Perhaps it'll be the same with this.” Another sigh, a little deeper than the last.

Some little girls might have been touched with the tired, discouraged voice and look, but Amy was a stormy child, with a hot temper and a very strong will. So instead of being sorry and helpful, she went on crying and complaining, till her mother spoke sharply, and then subsided into sulky silence. Baby woke, and she had to take him up, but she did it unwillingly, and her unhappy mood seemed to communicate itself to him, as moods will. He wriggled and twisted in her arms, and presently began to whimper. Amy hushed and patted. She set him on his feet, she turned him over on his face, nothing pleased him. The whimper increased to a roar.

“Dear! dear!” cried poor Mrs. Carpenter, stopping her machine in the middle of a long seam. “What is the matter? I never did see anybody so unhandy with a baby as you are. Here I am in such a hurry, and you don't try to amuse him worth a cent. I'm really ashamed of you, Amy Carpenter.”

Amy's back and arms ached; she felt that this speech was cruelly unjust. What she did not see was that it was her own temper which was repeated in her little brother. Like all babies, he knew instinctively the difference between loving tendance and that which is bestowed from a cold sense of duty, and he resented the latter with all his might.

“Do walk up and down and sing to him,” said Mrs. Carpenter, who hated to have her child unhappy, but still more to leave her sewing,—“sing something cheerful. Perhaps he'll go to sleep if you do.”

So Amy, feeling very cross and injured, had to walk the heavy baby up and down, and sing “Rock me to sleep, Mother,” which was the only “cheerful” song she could think of. It quieted the baby for a while, then, just as his eyelids were drooping, a fresh attack of fretting seized upon him, and he began to cry; Amy was so vexed that she gave him a furtive slap. It was a very little slap, but her mother saw it.

“You naughty, bad girl!” she cried, jumping up; “so that's the way you treat your little brother, is it? Slapping him on the sly! No wonder he doesn't like you, and won't go to sleep!” She snatched the child away, and gave Amy a smart box on the ear. Mrs. Carpenter, though a good woman, had a quick temper of her own.

“You can go up-stairs now,” she said in a stern, exasperated tone. “I don't want you any more this afternoon. If you were a good girl, you might have been a real comfort to me this hard day, but as it is, I'd rather have your room than your company.”

Frightened and angry both, Amy rushed up-stairs, and into her father's workshop, the door of which stood open. He had just gone out, and the confusion and dreariness of the place seemed inviting to her at the moment. Flinging the door to with a great bang, she threw herself on the floor, and gave vent to her pent-up emotions.

“It's unjust!” she sobbed, speaking louder than usual, as people do who are in a passion. “Mamma is as mean as she can be! Scolding me because that old baby wouldn't go to sleep! I hate everybody! I wish I was dead! I wish everybody else was dead!”

These were dreadful words for a little girl to use. Even in her anger, Amy would have been startled and ashamed at the idea of any one's ever hearing them.

But Amy had a listener, though she little suspected it, and, what was worse, a listener who was recording every word that she uttered!

The “new machine” of which Mrs. Carpenter had spoken was really a very clever and ingenious one. It was the adaptation of the phonographic principle to the person of a doll. Mr. Carpenter had succeeded in interesting somebody with capital in his project, and the dolls were at that moment being manufactured for the apparatus, the construction of which he kept in his own hands. This apparatus was held in small cylinders, just large enough to fit into the body of a doll and contain, each, a few sentences, which the doll would seem to speak when set in an upright position.

These cylinders were just ready, and standing in a row waiting to receive their “charges,” which were to be put into them through the tin funnels fitted for the purpose. Amy, as she sat on the floor, was exactly opposite one of these funnels, and all her angry words passed into, and became a part of, the mechanism of the doll. After this, no matter how many pretty words might be uttered softly into that cylinder, none of them could make any impression; the doll was full. It could hold no more.

But no one knew that the doll was full. Amy, her fit of passion over, fell asleep on the floor, and when her father's step sounded below, waked in a calmer mood. She was sorry that she had been so naughty, and tried to make up for it by being more helpful and patient in the evening and next day. Her mother easily forgave her, and she did not find it hard to forgive herself, and soon forgot the event of that unhappy afternoon. Mr. Carpenter sat down in front of his cylinders that night, and filled them all, as he supposed, with nice little sentences to please and surprise small doll owners, such as “Good morning, Mamma. Shall I put on my pink or my olive frock this morning?” or “Good-night, Mamma. I'm so sleepy!” or bits of nursery rhymes,—Bo Peep or Jack and Jill or Little Boy Blue. Then, when the phonographs were filled, the machinery went away to be put in the dolls, and Mr. Carpenter began on a fresh set.

Mrs. Carpenter, meanwhile, had finished her big job of sewing, so she felt less hurried, and had more time for the baby. The weather was beautiful, things went well at school, and altogether life seemed pleasant to Amy, and she found it easy to be kind and good-natured.

This agreeable state of things lasted through the autumn. The Dolliphone, as Mr. Carpenter had christened his invention, proved a hit. Orders poured in from all over the United States, and from England and France, and the manufactory was taxed to its utmost extent. At last one of Mr. Carpenter's inventions had turned out a success, and his spirits rose high.

“We've fetched it this time, Mother,” he told his wife. “The stock's going up like all possessed, and the dolls are going out as fast as we can get them ready. Why, we've had orders from as far off as Australia! China'll come next, I suppose, or the Cannibal Islands. There's no end to the money that's in it.”

“I'm glad, Robert, I'm sure,” returned Mrs. Carpenter; “but don't count too much upon it all. I've thought a heap of that self-acting churn, you remember.”

“Pshaw! the churn never did amount to shucks anyhow,” said her husband, who had the true inventor's faculty for forgetting the mischances of the past in the contemplation of the hopes of the future. “It was just a little dud to make folks open their eyes, any way. This Dolliphone is different. It's bound to sell like wild-fire, once it gets to going. We'll be rich folks before we know it, Mother.”

“That'll be nice,” said Mrs. Carpenter, with a dry, unbelieving cough. She did not mean to be as discouraging as she sounded, but a woman can scarcely be the wife of an unsuccessful genius for fifteen years, and see the family earnings vanish down the throat of one invention after another, without becoming outwardly, as well as inwardly, discouraged.

“Now, don't be a wet blanket, Mother,” said Mr. Carpenter, good-humoredly. “We've had some upsets in our calculation, I confess, but this time it's all coming out right, as you'll see. And I wanted to ask you about something, and that is what you'd think of Amy's having one of the dolls for her Christmas? Don't you think it'd please her?”

“Why, of course; but do you think you can afford it, Robert? The dolls are five dollars, aren't they?”

“Yes, to customers they are, but I shouldn't have to pay anything like that, of course. I can have one for cost price, say a dollar seventy-five; so if you think the child would like it, we'll fix it so.”

“Well, I should be glad to have Amy get one,” said Mrs. Carpenter, brightening up. “And it seems only right that she should, when you invented it and all. She's been pretty good these last weeks, and she'll be mightily tickled.”

So it was settled, but the pile of orders to be filled was so incessant that it was not till Christmas Eve that Mr. Carpenter could get hold of a doll for his own use, and no time was left in which to dress it. That was no matter, Mrs. Carpenter declared; Amy would like to make the clothes herself, and it would be good practice in sewing. She hunted up some pieces of cambric and flannel and scraps of ribbon for the purpose, and when Amy woke on Christmas morning, there by her side lay the big, beautiful creature, with flaxen hair, long-lashed blue eyes, and a dimple in her pink chin. Beside her was a parcel containing the materials for her clothes and a new spool of thread, and on the doll's arm was pinned a paper with this inscription:—

    “For Amy, with a Merry Christmas from Father and Mother.

    “Her name is Dolly Phone.

Amy's only doll up to this time had been a rag one, manufactured by her mother, and you can imagine her delight. She hugged Dolly Phone to her heart, kissed her twenty times over, and examined all her beauties in detail,—her lovely bang, her hands, and her little feet, which had brown kid shoes sewed on them, and the smile on her lips, which showed two tiny white teeth. She stood her up on the quilt to see how tall she was, and as she did so, wonder of wonders, out of these smiling red lips came a voice, sharp and high-pitched, as if a canary-bird or a Jew's-harp were suddenly endowed with speech, and began to talk to her!

What did the voice say? Not “Good-morning, Mamma,” or “I'm so sleepy!” or “Mistress Mary quite contrary,” or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,”—none of these things. Her sister dolls might have said these things; what Dolly Phone said, speaking fast and excitedly, was,—

“It's unjust! Mamma is as mean as she can be! Scolding me because that old baby wouldn't go to sleep! I hate everybody! I wish I was dead! I wish everybody else was dead!” And then, in a different tone, a good deal deeper, “Good-morning, ma-m—” and there the voice stopped suddenly.

Amy had listened to this remarkable address with astonishment. That her beautiful new baby could speak, was delightful, but what horrible things she said!

“How queerly you talk, darling!” she cried, snatching the doll into her arms again. “What is the matter? Why do you speak so to me? Are you alive, or only making believe? I'm not mean; what makes you say I am? And, oh! why do you wish you were dead?”

Dolly stared full in her face with an unwinking smile. She looked perfectly good-natured. Amy began to think that she was dreaming, or that the whole thing was some queer trick.

“There, there, dear!” she cried, patting the doll's back, “we won't say any more about it. You love me now, I know you do!”

Then, very gently and cautiously, she set Dolly on her feet again. “Perhaps she'll say something nice this time,” she thought hopefully.

Alas! the rosy lips only uttered the self-same words. “Mean—unjust—I hate everybody—I wish everybody was dead,” in sharp, unpitying sequence. Worst of all, the phrases began to have a familiar sound to Amy's ear. She felt her cheeks burn with a sudden red.

“Why,” she thought, “that was what I said in the workshop the day I was so cross. How could the doll know? Oh, dear! she's so lovely and so beautiful, but if she keeps on talking like this, what shall I do?”

Deep in her heart struggled an uneasy fear. Mother would hear the doll! Mother might suspect what it meant! At all hazards, Dolly must be kept from talking while mother was by.

She was so quiet and subdued when she went downstairs to breakfast, with the doll in her arms, that her father and mother could not understand it. They had looked forward to seeing her boisterously joyful. She kissed them, and thanked them, and tried to seem like her usual self, but mothers' eyes are sharp, and Mrs. Carpenter detected the look of trouble.

“What's the matter, dear?” she whispered. “Don't you feel well?”

“Oh, yes! very well. Nothing's the matter.” Amy whispered back, keeping the terrible Dolly sedulously prone, as she spoke.

“Come, Amy, let's see your new baby,” said Mr. Carpenter. “She's a beauty, ain't she? Half of her was made in this house, did you know that? Set her up, and let's hear her talk.”

“She's asleep now,” faltered Amy. “But she's been talking up-stairs. She talks very nicely, Papa. She's tired now, truly she is.”

“Nonsense! she isn't the kind that gets tired. Her tongue won't ache if she runs on all day; she's like some little girls in that. Stand her up, Amy, I want to hear her. I've never seen one of 'em out of the shop before. She looks wonderfully alive, doesn't she, Mother?”

But Amy still hesitated. Her manner was so strange that her father grew impatient at last, and, reaching out, took the doll from her, and set it sharply on the table. The little button on the sole of the foot set the curious instrument within in motion. As prepared phrases were rolled off in shrill succession, Mr. Carpenter leaned forward to listen. When the sounds ended, he raised his head with a look of bewilderment.

“Why—why—what is the creature at?” he exclaimed. “That isn't what I put into her. 'I Wish I was dead! Wish everybody else was dead!' I can't understand it at all. I charged all the dolls myself, and there wasn't a word like that in the whole batch. If the others have gone wrong like this, it's all up with our profits.”

He looked so troubled and down-hearted that Amy could bear it no longer.

“It's all my fault!” she cried, bursting into tears. “Somehow it's all my fault, though I can't tell how, for it was I who said those things. I said those very things, Papa, in your workshop one day when I was in a temper. Don't you recollect the day, Mother,—the day when I didn't go to the picnic, and Baby wouldn't go to sleep, and I slapped him, and you boxed my ears? I went up-stairs, and I was crying, and I said,—yes, I think I said every word of those things, though I forgot all about them till Dolly said them to me this morning, and how she could possibly know, I can't imagine.”

“But I can imagine,” said her father. “Where did you sit that day, Amy?”

“On the floor, by the door.”

“Was there a row of things close by, with tin funnels stuck in them and a cloth over the top?”

“I think there was. I recollect the funnels.”

“Then that's all right!” exclaimed Mr. Carpenter, his face clearing up. “Those were the phonographs, Mother, and, don't you see, she must have been exactly opposite one of the funnels, and her voice went in and filled it. It's the best kind of good luck that that cylinder happened to be put into her doll. If all that bad language had gone to anybody else, there would have been the mischief to pay. Folks would have been writing to the papers, as like as not, or the ministers preaching against the dolls as a bad influence. It would have ruined the whole concern, and all your fault, Amy.”

“Oh, Papa, how dreadful! how perfectly dreadful!” was all Amy could say, but she sobbed so wildly that her father's anger melted.

“There, don't cry,” he said more kindly; “we won't be too hard on you on Christmas Day. Wipe your eyes, and we'll try to think no more about it, especially as the spoiled doll has fallen to your own share, and no real harm is done.”

In his relief Mr. Carpenter was disposed to pass lightly over the matter. Not so his wife. She took a more serious view of it.

“You see, Amy,” she said that night when they chanced to be alone, “you see how a hasty word sticks and lasts. You never supposed that day that the things you said would ever come back to you again, but here they are.”

“Yes—because of the doll,—of her inside, I mean. It heard.”

“But if the doll hadn't heard, some one would have heard all the same.”

“Do you mean God?” asked Amy, in an awe-struck voice.

“Yes. He hears every word that we say, the minister tells us, and writes them all down in a book. If it frightened you to have the doll repeat the words you had forgotten, think how much more it will frighten you, and all of us, when that book is opened and all the wrong things we have ever said are read out for the whole world to hear.”

Mrs. Carpenter did not often speak so solemnly, and it made a great impression on Amy's mind. She still plays with Dolly Phone, and loves her, in a way, but it is a love which is mingled with fear. The doll is like a reproach of conscience to her. That is not pleasant, so she is kept flat on her back most of the time. Only, now and then, when Amy has been cross and said a sharp word, and is sorry for it, she solemnly takes Dolly, sets her on her feet, and, as a penance, makes herself listen to all the hateful string of phrases which form her stock of conversation.

“It's horrid, but it's good for me,” she tells the baby, who listens with a look of fascinated wonder. “I shall have to keep her, and let her talk that way, till I'm such a good girl that there isn't any danger of my ever being naughty again. And that must be for a long, long time yet,” she concludes with a sigh.