Robina's Doll by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews
Massive, sprawling, uncertain writing, two sentences to the page; a violent slant in the second line, down right, balanced by a drastic lessening of the letters, up right, in the line underneath; spelling not as advised in the Century Dictionary--a letter from Robina, aged eight. Robina's Aunt Evelyn, sitting in her dress and cap of a Red Cross nurse in the big base hospital in Paris, read the wandering, painstaking, very unsuccessful literary effort, laughing, half-crying, and kissed it enthusiastically.
"The darling baby! She shall have her doll if it takes--" Aunt Evelyn stopped thoughtfully.
It would take something serious to buy and equip the doll that Robina, with eight-year-old definiteness, had specified. The girl in the Red Cross dress read the letter over.
"Dear Aunt Evelyn," began Robina and struck no snags so far. "I liked your postcard so much." (The facilis descensus to an averni of literature began with a swoop down here.) "Mother is wel. Fother is wel. The baby is wel. The dog has sevven kitens." (Robina robbed Peter to pay Paul habitually in her spelling.) "Fother sais they lukk like choklit eclares. I miss you, dere Aunt Evelyn, because I lov you sew. I hope Santa Claus wil bring me a doll. I want a very bigg bride doll with a vale and flours an a trunk of close, and all her under-close to buton and unboton and to have pink ribons run into. I don't want anythig sode on. Come home, Aunt Evelyn, becaus I miss you. But if the poor wundead soljers ned you then don't come. But as soone as you can come to yure loving own girl--ROBINA."
The dear angel! Every affectionate, labored word was from the warm little heart; Evelyn Bruce knew that. She sat, smiling, holding the paper against her, seeing a vision of the faraway, beloved child who wrote it. She saw the dancing, happy brown eyes and the shining, cropped head of pale golden brown, and the straight, strong little figure; she heard the merry, ready giggle and the soft, slow tones that were always full of love to her. Robina, her sister's child, her own god-daughter had been her close friend from babyhood, and between them there was a bond of understanding which made nothing of the difference in years. Darling little Robina! Such a good, unspoiled little girl, for all of the luxury and devotion that surrounded her!
But--there was a difficulty just there. Robina was unspoiled indeed, yet, as the children of the very rich, she was, even at eight, sophisticated in a baby way. She had been given too many grand dolls not to know just the sort she wanted. She did not know that what she wanted cost money, but she knew the points desired--and they did cost money. Aunt Evelyn had not much money.
"This one extravagant thing I will do," said Evelyn Bruce, "and I'll give up my trip to England next week, and I'll do it in style. Robina won't want dolls much longer and this time she's got to have her heart's desire."
Which was doubtless foolish, yet when one is separated by an ocean and a war from one's own, it is perhaps easier to be foolish for a child's face and a child's voice, and love sent across the sea. So Evelyn Bruce wrote a letter to her cousin in England saying that she could not come to her till after Christmas. Then she went out into Paris and ordered the doll, and reveled in the ordering, for a very gorgeous person indeed it was, and worthy to journey from Paris to a little American. It was to be ready in just two weeks, and Miss Bruce was to come in and look over the fine lady and her equipment as often as desired, before she started on her ocean voyage.
"It would simply break my heart if she were torpedoed."
Evelyn confided that, childlike, to the black-browed, stout Frenchwoman who took a personal interest in every "buton," and then she opened her bag and brought out Robina's photograph, standing, in a ruffled bonnet, her solemn West Highland White terrier dog in her arms, on the garden path of "Graystones" between tall foxgloves. And the Frenchwoman tossed up enraptured hands at the beauty of the little girl who was to get the doll, and did not miss the great, splendid house in the background, or the fact that the dog was of a "chic" variety.
The two weeks fled, every day full of the breathless life--and death--of a hospital in war-torn France. Every day the girl saw sights and heard sounds which it seemed difficult to see and hear and go on living, but she moved serene through such an environment, because she could help. Every day she gave all that was in her to the suffering boys who were carried, in a never-ending stream of stretchers, into the hospital. And the strength she gave flowed back to her endlessly from, she could not but believe it, the underlying source of all strength, which stretches beneath and about us all, and from which those who give greatly know how to draw.
Two or three times, during the two weeks, Evelyn had gone in to inspect the progress of Robina's doll, and spent a happy and light-hearted quarter of an hour with friendly Madame of the shop, deciding the color of the lady's party coat, and of the ribbons in her minute underclothes, and packing and repacking the trunk with enchanting fairy foolishnesses. Again and again she smiled to herself, in bed at night, going about her work in the long days, as she thought of the little girl's rapture over the many and carefully planned details. For, with all the presents showered on her, Robina's aunt knew that Robina had never had anything as perfect as this exquisite Paris doll and her trousseau.
The day came on which Evelyn was to make her final visit to "La Marquise," as Madame called the doll, and the nurse was needed in the hospital and could not go. But she telephoned Madame and made an appointment for tomorrow.
"'La Marquise' finds herself quite ready for the voyage," Madame spoke over the telephone. "She is all which there is of most lovely; Paris itself has never seen a so ravishing doll. I say it. We wait anxiously to greet Mademoiselle, I and La Marquise," Madame assured her. Evelyn, laughing with sheer pleasure, made an engagement for the next day, without fail, and went back to her work.
There was a badly wounded poilu in her ward, whom the girl had come to know well. He was young, perhaps twenty-seven, and his warm brown eyes were full of a quality of gentleness which endeared him to everyone who came near him. He was very grateful, very uncomplaining, a simple-minded, honest, common, young peasant, with a charm uncommon. The unending bright courage with which he made light of cruel pain, was almost more than Evelyn, used as she was to brave men's pain, could bear. He could not get well--the doctors said that--and it seemed that he could not die.
"If Corporal Duplessis might die," Evelyn spoke to the surgeon.
He answered, considering: "I don't see what keeps him alive."
"I believe," said Evelyn, "there's something on his mind. He sighs constantly. Broken-heartedly. I believe he can't die until his mind is relieved."
"It may be that," agreed Dr. Norton. "You could help him if you could get him to tell you." And moved on to the next shattered thing that had been, so lately, a strong, buoyant boy.
Evelyn went back to Duplessis and bent over him and spoke cheerful words; he smiled up at her with quick French responsiveness, and then sighed the heavy, anxious sigh which had come to be part of him. With that the girl took his one good hand and stroked it. "If you could tell the American Sister what it is," she spoke softly, "that troubles your mind, perhaps I might help you. We Americans, you know," and she smiled at him, "we are wonderful people. We can do all sorts of magic--and I want to help you to rest, so much. I'd do anything to help you. Won't you tell me what it is that bothers?" Evelyn Bruce's voice was winning, and Duplessis' eyes rested on her affectionately.
"But how the Sister understands one!" he said. "It is true that there is a trouble. It hinders me to die"--and the heavy sigh swept out again. "It would be a luxury for me--dying. The pain is bad, at times. Yet the Sister knows I am glad to have it, for France. Ah, yes! But--if I might be released. Yet the thought of what I said to her keeps me from dying always."
"What you said 'to her,' corporal?" repeated Evelyn. "Can't you tell me what it was? I would try so hard to help you. I might perhaps."
"Who knows?" smiled the corporal, "It is true that Americans work magic. And the Sister is of a goodness! But yes. Yet the Sister may laugh at me, for it is a thing entirely childish, my trouble."
"I will not laugh at you, Corporal," said Evelyn, gravely, and felt something wring her heart.
"If--then--if the Sister will not think it foolish--I will tell." The Sister's answer was to stroke his fingers. "It is my child, my little girl," Duplessis began in his deep, weak tones. "It was to her I made the promise."
"What promise?" prompted Evelyn softly, as he stopped.
"One sees," the deep voice began again, "that when I told them goodbye, the mother and Marie my wife, and the petite, who has five years, then I started away, and would not look back, because I could not well bear it, Sister. And suddenly, as I strode to the street from our cottage, down the brick walk, where there are roses and also other flowers, on both sides--suddenly I heard a cry. And it was the voice of little Jeanne, the petite. I turned at that sound, for I could not help it, Sister, and between the flowers the little one came running, and as I bent she threw her arms about my neck and held me so tight, tight that I could not loosen the little hands, not without hurting her. 'I will not let you go--I will not let you go.' She cried that again and again. Till my heart was broken. But all the same, one had to go. One was due to join the comrades at the station, and the time was short. So that, immediately, I had a thought. 'My most dear,' I spoke to her. 'If thou wilt let me go, then I promise to send thee a great, beautiful doll, all in white, as a bride, like the cousin Annette at her wedding last week.' And then the clinging little hands loosened, and she said, wondering--for she is but a baby--'Wilt thou promise, my father?' And I said, 'Yes,' and kissed her quickly, and went away. So that now that I am wounded and am to die, that promise which I cannot keep to my petite, that promise hinders me to die."
The deep, sad voice stopped and the honest eyes of the peasant boy looked up at Evelyn, burning with the pain of his body and of his soul. And as Evelyn looked back, holding his hand and stroking it, it was as if the furnace of the soldier's pain melted together all the things she had ever cared to do. Yet it was a minute before she spoke.
"Corporal," she said, "your little girl shall have her doll, I will take it to her and tell her that her father sent it. Will you lie very still while I go and get the doll?"
The brown eyes looked up at her astounded, radiant, and the man caught the hem of her white veil and kissed it. "But the Americans--they do magic. You shall see, Sister, if I shall be still. I will not die before the Sister returns. It is a joy unheard of."
The girl ran out of the hospital and away into Paris, and burst upon Madame. Somehow she told the story in a few words, and Madame was crying as she laid "La Marquise" in a box.
"It is Mademoiselle who is an angel of the good God," she whispered, and kissed Evelyn unexpectedly on both cheeks.
Corporal Duplessis lay, waxen, starry-eyed, as the American Sister came back into the ward. His look was on her as she entered the far-away door, and he saw the box in her arms. The girl knelt and drew out the gorgeous plaything and stood it by the side of the still, bandaged figure. An expression as of amazed radiance came into the fast-dimming eyes--into those large, brown, childlike eyes which had seen so little of the gorgeousness of earth. His hand stirred a very little--enough, for Evelyn quickly moved the gleaming satin train of the doll under the groping fingers. The eyes lifted to Evelyn's face and the smile in them was that of a prisoner who suddenly sees the gate of his prison opened and the fields of home beyond. It mattered little, one may believe, to the welcoming hosts of heaven that the angel at the gate of release for the child-soul of Corporal Duplessis, the poilu, was only Robina's doll!