Sarah Orne Jewett
Once there were two persons who lived in one room of a house in a narrow court in Boston. They were both named Nancy, and old Nancy, as the neighbors called her, was little Nancy's aunt. The house was very old and dingy. In old times one rich family had lived there, instead of four or five poor ones, and there had been a beautiful great garden, with fruit and flowers growing in it; but now, instead of this garden, shabby little tenement-houses were built close around it on every side. Old Nancy used to go away to work early every morning but Sunday; so the child was left alone nearly all the time. The week days used to seem very long to her, for she was shy, and lame besides; so she hardly ever went out to play with the other children in the court. She was afraid of all the boys and of some of the girls; so she used to stay by herself in the house, and watch them play hopscotch and marbles, from the window. There was one girl, named Katy Donnell, whom she liked better than any of the rest, and Katy often came up to see her. There were two things for which she wished every day. One was a doll and the other a sister. For every child in the court had a sister, and Nancy, of all the children, was the only one who was lonely.
She never had seen many dolls; but she was sure they must be very nice to play with. And, though she had made one from a roll of cloth, and wrapped it in a bit of an old shawl, and carried it to bed with her every night, still this did not take the place of a real doll, with a face, and clothes which could be taken off. Katy Donnell's cousin, who lived in Salem, had such a doll as this, and had brought it with her the summer before, when she had come to make a visit.
Nancy had some playthings, which were great treasures. There were three shells, -- two just alike and one odd one; and she was more fond of this than of anything else, because she made believe it was lonely, like herself, and had no sister. The other two always looked so comfortable side by side. Besides these, she had a little bottle of bright red Guinea peas, which her aunt had kept in her trunk for a great many years. But sometimes old Nancy would be afraid of their being lost, and would keep them locked up for a long time. But that only made little Nancy like them all the better when she had them again. She used to ask about them; but all her aunt ever told her was that somebody had brought them home to her from sea. It was such fun to put them in a long and orderly procession on the window-sill, two by two, with the shells for captains. And the odd shell was always the last, or else stood at one side, to see the rest march by.
I told you that Nancy wished for a doll; but I did not tell you that there was one which she had seen and for which she longed with all her heart. She had known it several weeks at the time this story begins, and had been down the street several times to see it where it stood in a shop-window, looking out with wide-open blue eyes. One day our friend had been so courageous as to go into the shop and ask how much it would cost. Mrs. Ahern was a pleasant woman, and this day she was pleasanter than ususal, for her son had come home from his first voyage at sea.
"I'll sell this doll to you for eight cents," said she . "She's the last of the lot, and I got fifteen cents for the rest. The back of her head is cracked a bit; but it'll break no more, and she's a fine bargain."
Nancy took the doll into her own hands, and oh, dear! she did want to keep her so much; but she had only one cent, and eight seemed like a fortune. This dear doll had on a bright red dress, and she smiled all the time, and our friend was sure she never had seen anything so beautiful. It was very hard to give her back to the woman.
"Don't ye like her?" asked Mrs. Ahern. And Nancy sadly answered, "Yes; but I have only one cent." And she reached up to lay the doll on the counter; and in a minute she asked if she might come and see it again if she didn't get the money.
"Bless your heart, yes, indeed," said Mrs. Ahern. "See here, I'll stand her in the window, where she was before; and you can come and look at her any day. Maybe your folks will give you the money. She's a pretty doll, that's a fact."
"Thank you. Good-by, ma'am," said Nancy. And the woman said good-by, and came and stood in the doorway watching the child go down the street. "She's a real old-fashioned bit of a little thing," said she; "and lame too. And, my heart, didn't she look wishful at the doll! If I was rich, I'd give it to her this minute. Perhaps I'll see her some day and let her come into the shop to play with it awhile. She looks as if she'd never lift her finger to touch anything; and as neat as a nun she is, too."
But she forgot about it soon, and never happened to notice Nancy when she came, and a jar of tobacco was pushed into that corner of the window, which hid the doll itself, so you would hardly notice it, even from the outside. The dust grew thicker and thicker over it and the red dress was crumpled and dirty; but Nancy loved the dolly just the same and came to look at her whenever she could.
But there were many things to prevent her seeing the doll often, though she thought of it every day. There was a cross dog at some stables which she had to pass; and she could not go out unless the weather was pleasant, for she was ill a good deal; and she did not like to go down into the court when all the children were there, for lately she had grown more lame and some of the boys had laughed at her. She had only one cent still. It was no use to ask her aunt, for she had told her she had no money to spare. It was hard times that winter, and she was already behindhand with the rent; and when little Nancy had asked her if she could have the doll next week she had said, sadly, that she should have no money for dolls that week nor the week after, and they would be lucky to keep from starving and freezing in such hard times.
Just at this time Nora Hewlin came home to take care of her mother, who was old and sick and who lived in some rooms just opposite. Nancy liked Nora very much, for she was always so kind to her, and once she had brought her an orange. Nora was a servant in a fine house in another part of the city, and every week she used to spend the afternoon with her mother, and Nancy used to see her there. But when she came in the evening, which she often did, the child was asleep. Old Mrs. Hewlin was very sick; and Nora used to come in sometimes, when her mother was asleep, and cry about her.
One day Nancy was down at the foot of the stairs, sitting in the doorway in the sun, and she saw such a pretty carriage stop at the end of the court, and a young lady opened the door and came out. She came hurrying down the court, looking at the houses, and when she saw Nancy, asked if that was where Mrs. Hewlin lived. She said "Thank you" in such a pleasant way, when the little girl showed her the door, that our friend could not help waiting until she came down-stairs, so she could see her again, and she was so pleased because the young lady had not forgotten about her, and nodded and smiled as she went away. One evening, not long afterward, Nora came in to see Nancy's aunt a few minutes, and she talked a great deal about this visitor.
"She's an angel. The saints bless her!" said Nora. "There's no telling you how kind she is, and thinking of every little thing. And it's herself brought some red roses with her to-day, and my old mother doesn't leave them out of her sight. My father was gardener to a gentleman at home, and my mother is always minded of the old days when she sees a flower. It's a great deal she's given us; but the most of it is in her pleasant ways. And 'Oh! It's no trouble to me,' she says always. I was afraid she would be shaming me for not having anything laid up; but it was this same morning she said why hadn't I told her before that I was trying to keep my mother and myself too out of my wages."
"She would be sure to buy my doll for me, if she only knew," said Nancy to herself.
One day, when there was nobody in the court except some little bits of children, who were playing together, Nancy went out to play with Katy Donnell awhile, for it was so sunshiny and warm and not nearly time for the big boys to be home from school. Katy had brought out some little houses which had belonged to a Swiss toy village, and they were playing with them, when Nora's young lady came in the little carriage. She spoke to them as she went by to Mrs. Hewlin's. And Nancy wished she knew about the doll; but she did not dare to tell her. Some one else had come with her and was still in the carriage, and she watched the children while she waited for her friend. They did not see her and went on playing with the little houses. Katy was putting them together in rows, and the young lady noticed that she placed them close together, as city houses are built; and it made her sorry, for she lived in the country. She remembered that she used to play with a Swiss toy village in her own childhood, and that she always put the houses far apart and made believe that each had a garden round it. She pitied the pale little girls, and thought how much she should like to take them out into a wide green field in summer and let them wander about and play in the grass. Presently she opened the carriage-door and called them, and they went slowly toward her, half afraid of her and of the coachman too.
"Do you like candy?" asked the young lady; and she gave them each a bright five-cent piece. Katy said, "Thank you." And Nancy did not say anything; but she looked so happy as she limped away, that somehow the girl in the carriage could not forget how her eyes had shone, and she was so glad she had thought of those five-cent pieces in her pocket. Katy Donnell ran away round the corner; but Nancy thought only of her doll, and sat down on the step and opened her hand to look at the money, which she held fast, for fear it might slip out and be lost. She never had had so much money at once before, and there were only two more cents to get, and then it was certain she need wait no longer for the doll. She went down to Mrs. Ahern's shop and stood looking in at the window for a long time, and she held the new five-cent piece up against the glass, so that the doll could see it and take courage.
If she had seen Mrs. Ahern that day, I think she would have asked for the doll; but there was another woman in the shop, and she did not like to go in. So she went home and had her dinner of bread and milk, which old Nancy left for her when she went away in the morning. And she put the five cents and the once cent together in the shell, and felt so proud and so rich. And she wished to see Nora to tell her, but she did not, and that afternoon she went to sleep, in spite of her happiness.
When she waked up there was a terrible pain in her lame foot, and by the time old Nancy came home she felt so ill and so tired, and she could not walk at all. Perhaps she had taken cold while she and Katy were playing; at any rate, she was ill, and her aunt put her to bed and called Nora in. And then Nancy fell asleep again, and late at night she opened her eyes and wondered why her aunt was keeping the light burning and why Nora stayed so late.
The next morning Nora was there again, and Nancy tried to sit up. But her foot ached worse and worse, and she coughed almost every minute and had never felt so badly. Old Nancy was staying at home from work, although it was not Sunday; and she brought her some medicine in a cup. It was very bad-tasting medicine. Nora was standing near by, and just then the child thought of her new five-cent piece, and whispered to Nora to bring the shell from the window, - "the brown shell at the end," she said. But alas! when she took it in her hand there were no cents there. She shook it twice, and there was no sound.
"Why, they have dropped out," said she. "Please get me the cents, Nora."
"What is it you want?" asked her aunt. "Oh! you shall have the six cents again. I hadn't enough money to get your medicine. Don't fret, there's a good child." But it seemed to Nancy that now she never in all this world could have the doll; and it was the saddest thing that had happened in all her life. She cried more and more, and could not be comforted.
"Poor thing!" said Nora. "Her head is silly. She doesn't know what she says. Why, you'll have the money again, Nancy; and don't fret about it, and don't mind about the doll. Did you lose her?" and she wrapped the little girl in her own shawl and held her in her lap, and sang to her, for old Nancy had stayed from her work as long as she could, and had gone away, as Nora had promised to look in every little while.
The next day Nancy was not much better, but she was quiet; and, though they did not know it, she was mourning about the money all the time, and she told Nora all about it. And it was some comfort to have her say that in two or three weeks she should go back to work, and she would buy the doll for Nancy herself, though it would still be a long time to wait.
By and by, when Nora went down-stairs for a pail of water, who should be just coming in at the door but the young lady.
"I was in the neighborhood," said Miss Helen, "and I thought I would stop for a minute and see how your mother is getting on."
"Indeed, she's very comfortable this morning, after a fine night's sleep."
"Perhaps I will not stop to go up to see her this morning, then," said the young lady.
"She has been better these three days than she has at all," said Nora, eagerly. "And it's all your goodness and the doctor's and the things you've given us. And may God bless you, Miss Helen, and light your path to heaven. And oh! it's sorry I am to be troubling you, and ashamed too; but there's a bit of a little girl up-stairs, and she's very sick, and she was asking me but a minute ago would you be coming again. She watches for you always; and she is grieving her heart out about a bit of money she had saved up for a doll, and her aunt spent it for medicine, being but a poor woman, and they not a bit of coal or bread in the place this morning, though it's herself never complains, though she's growing old, and has gone off to work now," and Nora stopped for breath and wiped her eyes with her apron.
"Poor little thing!" said Miss Helen. "Of course, I'll go up to see her. Is this the way?"
And Nora said, as she followed her, "I know it'll be a blessing to her to see you and cheer her up a bit. Yes, it will, I'm sure, ma'am."
When Nora had gone out, Nancy had felt more sorrowful than ever, and she began to cry again, softly; but in a few minutes the door opened again, and somebody said, "Where is she?" in such a cheerful way. And there stood Nora's young lady, looking down at the little girl so kindly that Nancy felt better already, and was so pleased and happy that she forgot all about crying any more; and, strange to say, she was not a bit afraid, and in a few minutes she had told about the cents and the doll. And Miss Helen had said she knew where Mrs. Ahern's shop was, and she would go and buy the doll at once. "I think you will get well fast when you have her for medicine," said the young lady. And Nancy looked as pleased as a queen.
It was only a little while before Miss Helen came back, with the doll wrapped in paper, and some oranges besides; and nobody can tell how happy the child was. While Miss Helen peeled one of the oranges and talked about the doll, she said that when she came next time she should bring some cloth to make her some new dresses and they would have Nora for dressmaker, so she must look for the new fashions. She told Nancy a story before she went away, and when she found how few playthings there were, she said nothing aloud, but told herself she must remember next time to bring some picture-books.
Outside the door Nora said: "She's better already, but I'm thinking she will never get well, Miss Helen. She has been failing away these many weeks, and she always was a pale little thing, and so lame in that foot she told you about. She never plays with the other children, but goes creeping out by herself while they are away."
"Oh, I hope she will be well again," said Miss Helen; "I'm going to send a doctor to see her, and we will hear what he says."
I cannot tell you much more, only that the doctor made Nancy feel better, and that she was more and more happy with the doll and her kind new friend. By and by the doctor thought it was possible that she could be cured entirely of her lameness, and Miss Helen came one day and carried her to the Children's Hospital, where she spent a great many weeks in bed, and suffered a great deal at first, but it was such a pleasant place, and everybody was so kind, that it was not so hard after all. Nora and Katy Donnell came to see her, and old Nancy came twice a week, and Miss Helen was at the hospital every few days, and almost everybody knew her and looked so glad when she spoke to them. It was Miss Helen whom Nancy asked one day to tell her what the picture meant that hung at the end of the room. It was "Christ blessing Little Children." Nancy had heard about Christ, but she had always thought before that he was very far off, for she knew he had died. And it was so strange to find out that he knew all about her and loved her, and was sorry when she was naughty and glad when she was good. Miss Helen talked about him as if she loved him very much, and Nancy wondered if it was that which made her so kind and so beautiful, and if she did not know him better than most people do.
After Nancy had been there a long time, one day her aunt came in, looking happy for once, and told her that she had had a letter from her sister, and that she wished them both to come into the country and live with her. "Her husband is dead, and she is all alone, and she owns a snug little farm and is left well off. I can get work to do there, sewing, and the like, and it will be a good home for us," said she to the nurse who stood by. "I don't mind saying that there has been trouble between us in times past, but, as Marthy says, we'll let by-gones be by-gones."
"I'm so glad Nancy can go into the country," said the nurse. "We shall miss her, for we have all grown fond of the child, but the fresh air and sunshine are just what she needs."
I do not know certainly that Miss Helen had anything to do with this good fortune, too, but I suspect she had something to do in bringing it about, for one day, while little Nancy was at the hospital, she went to tell her aunt how well the doctors said she was getting on. And I think the tired old woman told this good friend more about her affairs than she had told any one for a long time, and that Nancy was the only one left of all her family except this sister with whom she had quarreled. I know that it would be like Miss Helen to wish them to be friends again, and at any rate the letter was written and sent soon afterward. And now our two friends have left the noisy, dirty, city tenement-house for a quiet home in the country, where the two old sisters forget their troubles, and are growing more and more fond of each other as the weeks go by, and they work together pleasantly. And as for Nancy, she grows taller and stronger every day, and still thinks there is nobody so good as Miss Helen.
If you were to go into my friend's room you would see a brown shell on the edge of the book-case, but you might not know that Nancy gave it to her one day. It was the one she liked best, because she imagined it had no sister and was lonely like herself, -- the same shell in which she kept the cents. "Please take it," said the little girl, pleadingly. "I want to give something to you because you bought my doll for me. I used to feel so bad when I saw her in the window getting all dusty and I hadn't but one cent. I wanted to give you my shell before I went away. And I'm not going to forget what you told me about being a good girl; truly, Miss Helen."
"Nancy's Doll" first appeared in The Independent (28:25-6) on August 31, 1876 and was collected in Play Days, from which this text is taken. If you find errors or items needing annotation, please contact the site manager.
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Guinea peas: What Guinea peas are is a mystery. Given their color it is likely they are cayenne pepper seeds. But they could also be cardamom (spice) seeds, Guinea corn or even sorghum seeds. Help is welcome.
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Christ blessing Little Children: See Matthew 19:13-15.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.