THE DEATH OF THE DOLL.
Twenty-three years ago I was at the village of Bocage, in central France.
In one of the little cottages of that village, into which hunger had accidentally driven me—this story is not an invention, it actually occurred as I relate it—a little girl of perhaps 7 years of age was dying. She was it seems the child of a Parisian, but a Parisian who was born and grew to young womanhood at Bocage.
One morning in May a carriage stopped before the door of Mother Gerard, who now took care of a vineyard, but in her younger days had been a nurse for little children.
A young woman alighted from the carriage, followed by a maid and a little girl, delicate and feeble, but very pretty, nevertheless.
“Mother Gerard,” said the young woman to the peasant, “I have brought my little girl to you; she needs the country air and goat’s milk. Will you keep her for a few months?”
The husband of Mother Gerard made an impatient movement, but before he could speak the young woman said “I will pay you a thousand francs.”
“A thousand francs,” said the man; “she is very sick, and the doctor will have to be paid.”
“Doctor or no doctor,” said Mother Gerard brusquely, “I will take care of your child, Nini; I will care for her as tenderly as I did for you, my nurseling.”
“I am sure of it.”
“Kiss me, little one,” continued the good woman, taking the child in her arms.
The little girl did not wait to be urged, but kissed her affectionately. “You will pay in advance?” said the man.
“Here are the thousand francs; give me a receipt.”
The young mother then brought from the carriage the child’s clothing daintily arranged in a small trunk.
The maid brought a large paper box in which lay a beautiful doll that could say “Mamma!” when one pressed a spring.
The little girl had been perfectly silent during this time, but the great tears were rolling down her thin, white cheeks.
When her mother noticed that the child was crying she made an impatient gesture, which she quickly suppressed, but not before Mother Gerard saw it. The little girl also saw her mother’s displeasure, and stretched toward her the little, emaciated hands.
It was a touching appeal, a mute caress, a silent prayer, but irresistible in its eloquence. The maid turned, away her head to conceal her tears. The mother was greatly moved, and taking the child in her arms kissed her again and again.
“My dear Nini, do not cry, do not cry any more. I shall come back for you very soon.”
“Will you surely come?” said the child between her sobs, and covering her mother’s face with kisses; “surely, surely,” she added, clasping her little hands as she did when she said her prayers.
Mother Gerard looked sharply at her former foster child, who turned away her head with a flushed face.
“Will you really come back for her, Nini?” she said in a low tone.
“Do not be too long about it,” Mother Gerard said significantly.
“Truly, mamma, you will return.”
“Surely, yes, but do not be impatient. Good-by; take good care of dolly. Listen how beautifully she says ‘mamma!’ ” and the mother made the doll repeat many times its ono word, mamma! The child was silent.
“She will be your little girl, and you will love her very much!”
“Oh! yes,” said the child with a deep sigh, almost a sob, and she pressed the doll to her heart. The doll murmured “mamma.”
She really loved the little inanimate thing that called her “mamma!” She spent hours in looking at it, in rocking it, and in talking to it in n low tone, at the same time crying for her own mamma.
“Do not fear, Nini”–she had named it for herself. I will never leave you, never! I am your very own mamma, do you hear? Your real mamma! And she pressed the spring and the doll repeated “mamma!”
Then Nini took it in her arms and hugged it tightly, as if she feared that some one would take it from her.
The consumption was slowly but surely accomplishing its deadly work. Her eyes became more and more brilliant, the bones of her checks more and more prominent. A little dry cough constantly shook the narrow, hollow chest, and her voice became feebler day by day. They wrote to her mother, but received no response.
There is nothing, I think, more pitiful than to witness the slow fading out of a little life, which nothing can arrest, neither science, nor love, nor prayers. This martyrdom of infancy inflicts upon those who must witness it the keenest torture.
Mother Gerard had learned to love this poor victim of filial affection, for Nini was dying of grief–because she was separated from her mother– much more than of disease, and Mother Gerard knowing this nursed her with the utmost tenderness. Nini came to her in May, and it was now October.
The poor child, feeling that she was no longer a daughter, tried to console herself by imagining that she was the mother of her doll. She lavished upon it all the love that she formerly had for her mother. She was unwilling to be separated from it even at night, and the poor little brain had conceived a singular idea–it was that she was not sick, but that it was the doll, her “dear Nini.”
“She has coughed all night,” she would say to Mother Gerard when she had passed a restless night herself. “You suffer, my dear Nini, but I will cure you. We will cure her, nurse, will we not? How feeble her voice is!” she would add, in listening to the weak sound which the doll made, because the pressure upon the spring grow weaker as the little hands grow thinner.
Hour by hour she would tell her own sufferings, but always attributing them to the doll. At times she would yield to an indefinite despair. She did not know what death meant, but she would cry out with indescribable anguish: “No, I do not want you to die, even to go to heaven.”
She never spoke of her mother to the nurse; but sometimes, when she thought herself alone, they would hear her murmur to her doll: “If mamma would come back Nini would be well.”
In the village the arrival of the talking doll had produced a great sensation. All the children wished to see it, and Sunday most of the little girls came to admire the marvelous toy.
To go to see the little girl from Paris and hear her doll talk had become a sort of fete, and then, Nini was so sweet, so caressing to all who showed friendship for her, or who loved her doll, that she had become the idol of the whole village. The vicar came to relate to her beautiful stories of heaven, where there lived a mamma marvelously beautiful and adorably good.
The good sister who had charge of the village school brought her little images of saints and angels.
One of Nini’s greatest pleasures was to see all little friends come with their doll–dolls of wood, of cardboard, of rags; but she thought them all charming, and talked to them in the most delightful manner and as if they could understand her, and replied to her,
The 15th of August was the doll’s birthday, and all the little girls came with their dolls and brought the doll Nini a bouquet, and one for the real Nini. What a merry day it was for them all!
The bed was covered with flowers, and the doll was so happy that she said again and again, “Mamma!”
Alas! the care of Mother Gerard, the love and caresses of all, the healthful air of the country had been able only to prolong the days of the little sufferer, but altogether were not able to cure her.
They began to count the weeks, then the days that she could be with them.
“She is very ill, mamma’s Nini,” she said, caressing the doll. “She suffers greatly there,” she said, touching the doll’s chest.
One evening she sat up suddenly, seized her doll in both arms, looked at it with yearning, shining eyes, and tried to press the spring. The sound came feebly and weakly articulated, “Mamma!”
The child repeated “Mamma” with a voice still more feeble, and fell back on her pillow, but still clasping her doll.
She was dead.
And singular as it may seem, the spring in the doll was broken; the doll, too, was dead!
During all the next day the two Ninis, the two little dead bodies, were left with uncovered faces, surrounded with the last flowers of autumn, white and yellow, mingled with branches of red leaves.
When they dressed little Nini for the last time they found that they would have to use much force to take the doll from her grasp. Mother Gerard would not permit it. She kissed the child once more, and, without trying to account for the strange impulse, she kissed the doll also. Both were put into the coffin, with all that belonged to them dresses and bonnets, little shoes and stockings, and playthings of all sorts.
Then upon the bier, carried by the strongest little girls of the village– alas! it was not very heavy–they put all the flowers they could find; and it was the strangest funeral that one could imagine. All the little girls of the school marched behind, two by two, holding their dolls; and on the way they were joined by others, and each new arrival had her doll. Those who had two dolls gave one to those who had none. All the dolls were dressed in their finest clothes.
When they arrived at the cemetery the children formed a circle around the grave, with their dolls in their arms, and listened to the last prayer for poor Nini. Among the children who had come to bid a last farewell to their little friend and the talking doll–for they regretted the wonderful doll quite as much as they did Nini–there was one who had been a particular favorite of the little invalid.
It was a sickly little cripple, nearly her own age, with a sorrowful, pale face. She almost adored the doll, and when Nini permitted her to rock it she was perfectly happy. She, like the others, had a doll which she loved devotedly.
No one can know what thought passed through that little brain, but at the moment that the sexton threw the first spadeful of earth upon the coffin she kissed her doll convulsively and threw it into the grave, saving, “Go with Nini!”
This impulsive act so impressed the other children that one after another followed her example.
It was a touching spectacle.
“Go with Nini!” each little one repeated in letting her doll fall into the grave.
One only drew back unable to make the sacrifice. She was 5 years old, perhaps, the child of a poor woman. Her doll was of cardboard, old, dirty and worn, and had lost one arm. She clasped it in her arms and sobbingly said: “No! not in the hole! not in the hole, my Nini! She would be cold!”
The return to the village was, perhaps, sadder than the walk to the grave. The next day the vicar went to Neville and brought back with him fifteen new dolls and gave them to the children in the name of the two Ninis.
In this village for many years after a doll was called a Nini in remembrance of the one which was buried.
Translated from the French for Chicago Inter-Ocean.
Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 21 January 1890: p. 2
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil’s readers will excuse her. She has something in her eye….
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.