From Harper's Monthly Magazine Vol. CVIII No. DCXLIV (January, 1904)
There was a great storm. Fidelia Nutting was too frightened and excited to go to bed. It was eleven o'clock; three hours before, at eight o'clock, she had opened the door into her bedroom in order that the warmth of the sitting-room should temper the freezing atmosphere before she retired. She sat where she could see the peaceful white slope of the feather bed; her head was heavy with sleep, but the strain of her nerves kept her awake. Fidelia was exceedingly timid, and even overawed, by any unusual stress of nature. Summer thunder-storms had always rendered her for the time a mild maniac; winds seemed to penetrate her soul, winter snows to enter and sift into the farthest crannies of her thoughts. This storm was sleet rather than snow. The wind raged. It seemed to pounce upon the house and shake it like a wild beast, then retreat, muttering, to some awful lair of storm, to return with a new gathering of fury.
Fidelia cowered and shivered, with a roll of fearful eyes. She was a large, elderly woman with the soul of a child. She was entirely alone in her little house; over across the street, in the large old mansion-house of the Nuttings, her sister Diantha was also alone. Now and then Fidelia went to her window that looked across the street, and saw with a thrill of half-resentful comfort her sister Diantha's light. She reflected that Diantha also had always been afraid in a storm, though not as afraid as she — or not owning to it.
“She always used to keep her lamp burning when there was a thunder-storm and when the wind was high,” reflected Fidelia. Diantha's lamp was set on a table in the centre of her sitting-room, in a direct line with Fidelia's window. A great beam of yellow light shone through the window — through the shreds of snow which clung like wool to the sashes, through the icy veil of sleet, through the foliage of the geraniums in Fidelia's beautiful window garden. Fidelia was a little afraid that the cold wind might injure her flowers, but she would not lower her curtain, because she was shamefacedly desirous of the company of Diantha's light.
Suddenly she heard a gathering flurry of sleigh-bells. They increased until they seemed in the room; then they stopped suddenly. Fidelia's heart leaped for fear.
“Something has stopped here,” she gasped. It was unprecedented for anything to stop there at that hour and in such a storm. She shaded her eyes, and peered fearfully and cautiously from the window around her geraniums. She could see a dark shape at the opposite window, blotting out the lamplight, and she knew that Diantha was also looking. A man's figure, gigantic in a fur coat, lumbered slantingly through the drifts of the path to the front door. Fidelia put a little worsted shawl over her head, took her lamp, and crept tremblingly through the freezing front entry in response to the knock. Her bell was out of order.
“Who's there?” she asked.
“Express,” he shouted, in an angry voice, and Fidelia turned the key and opened the door. The fur of the expressman's coat stood out, stiffly pointed with ice; his cap looked like an ice helmet. “Express, ma'am,” he said, in a hoarse voice, and the package was in Fidelia's hand and he was gone. Then the wind came in a wild gust, and Fidelia fled before it with her streaming lamp. Back in the warm sitting-room she set the lamp safely on the table; then she stood gazing at her package. It was a long box, very nicely wrapped in thick paper and securely tied. Fidelia did not connect it with Christmas; Christmas presents were not within her present environments. She examined the package carefully, and saw that the address was correct — Miss Fidelia Nutting, North Abbot, and it was marked paid, with a blue pencil. She laid the package on the table, and seated herself near it in her rocking-chair. Another gust of wind came, and the bombardment of the sleet upon the window was frightful; it seemed as if the panes must be shattered. She looked at the package on the table, and a curious fear of it came over her. The unwontedness of that and the unwontedness of the storm seemed one, and instinct with terror.
“I'd like to know what's in that bundle,” she whispered, with fearful eyes on it. She got up and gazed across the street at her sister's lamp, which still shone to comfort her. The dark figure, however, moved before it in a second. “She's looking out,” she thought, with that curious mixture of timidity and anger and affection with which she always thought of her sister. She and Diantha had quarrelled over the distribution of the property after their mother died. Diantha had taken the old homestead and less money, and gone to live there alone. Fidelia had taken more money and the small cottage, and gone to live there. They spoke sternly when they met; they never exchanged visits; there was between them a sort of dignified enmity, to which they did not own. Although all the village knew that there was enmity between the sisters, none knew which of the two originated it, which had demanded the peculiar arrangement of property and the living part. Fidelia felt a certain sympathy with Diantha because of the express package. She knew how curious Diantha was, though she would not own to it. Curiosity at its extreme is like unslaked thirst. “Poor Diantha, she's just dying to know what is in that bundle,” she said to herself. She, aside from her vague alarm over it, was loath to open it in the face of this eager, unsatisfied curiosity over the way. She watched her sister's light opposite. She had a desperate hope that she would keep it burning all night; but about half past ten it went suddenly out. “Oh dear,” groaned Fidelia. Loneliness went over her like a deep sea. New terror of the package seized her. She felt that nobody would send it to her with any good purpose. Her nervous terror had fairly for the time being unsettled her reason. Then she heard someone at the door. She waited, hoping that she might be mistaken, that it was the wind. But it came again. There was a sharp pounding on the door panels; it was impossible to think it was anything else.
Fidelia pulled her little shawl closely over her head, took up her lamp, and went forth into the cold front entry. The pounding came on the door with redoubled impetus. The caller had seen the lamp through the side-lights.
“Who is it?” cried Fidelia, in a voice which rang strange to her own ears. She was almost in convulsions of terror.
“Diantha,” responded a shrill voice from outside. “Let me in quick; it's a terrible storm.”
Then Fidelia set her lamp on the entry table, and fumbled in a tumult of surprise and delight with the bolt and the key and a chain. As the door opened, the lamp blazed high and went out. Diantha and Fidelia rushed upon the door, and together forced it back and locked it.
“Come into the sitting-room, Diantha,” said Fidelia, in a trembling voice. “Look out you don't run into anything; it's very dark.” Fidelia felt timidly for her sister's hand, and led her, feeling her way carefully, into the sitting-room.
Fidelia got a match and fumbled her way back to the entry, got the lamp and lighted it, and put it in its usual place on the sitting-room table. Then the sisters looked at each other. Each looked curiously shamefaced. Diantha was smaller than Fidelia, but more incisive. She was rather pretty, with a sharply cut cameolike face framed in white hair, which was now indecorously tossed about her temples. She began smoothing it impatiently.
“I never saw a worse night,” said she.
“It's a terrible storm,” assented Fidelia. It was pleasant to find a common grievance. “Do you want a brush and comb?” asked she.
“Yes, I guess I'd better smooth my hair a little,” said Diantha; and Fidelia got her brush and comb from the bedroom. She watched her sister standing before the sitting-room mirror, which hung between the front windows, and her whole face was changed. Whatever bitterness had been in her heart toward Diantha was lost sight of in her joy over companionship in this night of storm.
“It's a dreadful storm,” said she.
“Yes, it is,” assented Diantha. “I could hardly get over here. The telephone-wire is down, and the branches are crashing off the trees. There's a big maple branch right 'side of your front gate. I had to step over the end of it. It's awful.”
“It's worse than it was,” said Fidelia.
“Yes, it's worse than it was when the expressman came.” Diantha looked hard at the package on the table.
Fidelia was slow to wrath, but all at once she had an impulse of indignation. So that was all her sister had come over there for, — just curiosity to see what was in that package, when she knew how frightened she was in a storm, how frightened she had always been. She sat down in the rocking-chair, and her large face took on an expression at once sulky and obstinate.
“Yes,” she said, dryly, “I guess it is worse than it was when the expressman came.” Then she said no more. She rocked slowly back and forth; a fierce rattle of sleet came on the window-panes. Diantha carried the brush and comb back to the bedroom; her white hair shone like silver; then she returned, and stood looking out at the black night pierced by the whiteness of the storm.
“Don't you feel afraid that your geraniums will get frozen, quite so close to the window?” she asked. “That Lady Washington lays right against the pane, and it is so cold that the window is frosting, beside the sleet.”
Fidelia softened a little. “Maybe there is some danger,” she said.
“Suppose we move them back a little?” said Diantha. “We can move them together, I guess.”
Fidelia rose, and she and Diantha took hold of the flower-stand and moved it slightly away from the window.
“I guess that is safer,” said Diantha. She looked at the package on the table again, but Fidelia was rocking back and forth with the old look of obstinacy on her face. Diantha also sat down near the stove. A great gust of wind shook the house; a tree crashed somewhere.
“It is an awful storm,” remarked Diantha.
Fidelia felt such a thrill of thankfulness for companionship in the midst of that terrible attack of wind that she melted. “Yes,” she said, “it is awful.”
“It makes me think of stories I used to read of folks in a fort being besieged by Indians,” said Diantha, looking at the package.
Fidelia's eyes followed hers. “Yes,” she said, “it does.”
“I suppose you don't want to go to bed yet?” said Diantha, rather formally. “I am not keeping you up?”
“No,” said Fidelia.
“I thought you didn't use to go to bed in a hard storm,” said Diantha, “and I felt kind of nervous alone, and I saw your light burning.”
Fidelia's face lightened. So Diantha had not come over wholly for the sake of curiosity. Fidelia felt pleased to think her sister had felt the need of her, even selfishly. Her eyes and Diantha's both fell upon the package at the same time; then they met.
“I haven't opened it yet,” said Fidelia, quite easily. She laughed.
Diantha laughed too. “You don't seem to be in much of a hurry to see your Christmas present,” said she.
“Oh, I don't believe it can be a Christmas present.”
“It must be.”
“Who could have sent me one?”
“I don't know, but somebody must have.”
“Perhaps I had better see what it is,” said Fidelia. She rose, and Diantha hesitated a second; then she rose, and both women stood over the package on the table. Fidelia began carefully untying the string.
“Why don't you cut it?” asked Diantha.
“It's a very nice string,” replied Fidelia, who was thrifty. Her thrift had made some of the difference between herself and her sister.
She strove hard with the knot, which was difficult. Diantha pushed her away, and untied it herself with firm, nervous fingers. Then she flung the string to her sister.
“Here's your string,” said she, but with entire good-nature. She even laughed indulgently. Fidelia then wound the string carefully, while Diantha lifted the lid from the box. Both women gave little gasps of astonishment.
“Goodness!” cried Diantha. “Who ever could have?”
“I don't know,” responded Fidelia, feebly. They both stared a second at each other, then again at the box. In the box, in a nest of tissue-paper, lay a large doll. The doll's eyes were closed, but she smiled in her doll-sleep — a smile of everlasting amiability and peace. Golden ringlets clustered around her pink and white countenance, her little kid arms and hands lay supine at her side, her little kid toes stuck up meekly side by side. The doll was entirely undressed, except for a very brief under-garment of coarse muslin.
“It's a doll,” gasped Diantha.
“Yes, Diantha,” gasped Fidelia.
“Who could have sent you a doll?” inquired Diantha, with some sternness.
“I don't know,” replied Fidelia.
“There must be some mistake,” said Diantha.
Fidelia's face, which had worn an expression of secret delight, fell. “I suppose so,” she said.
But both women stared at the doll, as if under a species of fascination. The storm roared harder, the sleet beat against the window as if it would break the glass, another tree branch crashed, but they did not heed it. They continued to stare at the doll.
“She isn't dressed,” said Fidelia, finally, with a tender cadence in her voice.
“No, she isn't,” returned Diantha.
Diantha then lifted the doll very carefully and delicately by the middle of its small back. The doll's eyes immediately flew open, and seemed to survey them with intelligent and unswerving joy.
“Her eyes open and shut,” remarked Diantha. She then pressed the small body a little harder, and there came a tiny squeaking cry. “It cries,” proclaimed Diantha.
Fidelia simply stared.
Diantha looked speculative. “Most probably this doll belongs to the little Merrill girl that lives next door,” said she.
“Perhaps it does,” replied Fidelia.
“I guess you had better take it over there to-morrow morning and ask her mother.”
“I suppose I had.”
Diantha and Fidelia sat down after Diantha had placed the doll carefully back in the box, but she did not replace the lid. The two women rocked, and listened to the storm, which seemed to increase.
“There's no going to bed to-night, I suppose,” said Diantha, with an angry inflection. She scowled at the storm beating at the windows.
The two rocked awhile longer. It was past midnight.
“That doll makes me think of that one I had when I was a child,” said Diantha, in a tone of indignant reminiscence.
“It looks a good deal like mine too,” said Fidelia, in a softer tone.
“It seems,” said Diantha, still in an indignant tone, “a pity to give away a doll to any child, not dressed.”
Fidelia, looking at Diantha, blushed all over her delicate old face, and Diantha also blushed.
“Yes, it does,” said Fidelia, in a hesitating voice.
“It's a shame,” said Diantha.
“Yes,” said Fidelia — “yes, I think it is a shame.”
“I suppose you have a lot of pieces in the house?” said Diantha. She did not look at Fidelia then; she gazed out of the window. “It is a dreadful storm,” she murmured, before Fidelia had a chance to reply, as if her mind were really not upon the doll at all.
“Yes, I have,” replied Fidelia, with subdued eagerness.
“Well, I suppose the little Merrill girl would think a lot more of the doll if it was dressed; it would be a shame to give her one that wasn't, and if we've got to sit up for the storm we may as well do something. It wasn't ever my way to sit idle.”
“I know it wasn't, sister,” agreed Fidelia, falling insensibly into her old manner of addressing Diantha. “I've got a great many real pretty pieces,” she said.
“They are up-garret.”
“Well, what if they are? I ain't afraid to go up-garret for them. You'd better light the lantern, that's all. I don't think we'd better carry a lamp up there; the wind blows too hard.”
“I'll get it right away,” said Fidelia, fairly tremulous with excitement.
“Have you got any pieces of that blue silk dress you had when you were nineteen years old?”
“Yes, I have some nice pieces.”
“My green silk would make something handsome, but the pieces of that are all over at my house.”
“I've got a big piece of that,” said Fidelia. “You gave me some for patchwork years ago, and I did not begin to use it up; and I've got some of that pink satin I had when Abigail Upham was married; and I've got some dotted muslin, and some of that sprigged muslin, and plenty of old linen, and some narrow lace, and some ribbon.”
“You'd better get the lantern, and we'll get the pieces and go right to work,” said Diantha, rising with alacrity.
The two women went forthwith to the garret, stepping cautiously over the loose flooring, and peering timorously into the recumbent shadows beneath the eaves by the flashing light of the lantern which Fidelia carried. The pieces were in two old trunks and a blue cotton bag. They collected a quantity of remnants of silk and satin and linen, and went back down-stairs to the sitting-room. Fidelia was trembling with the cold.
“You'd better sit close to the stove, or you'll catch your death,” said Diantha, and she looked kindly at her sister.
“Yes, I will,” replied Fidelia, gratefully.
“I'll set the lamp on the stand, and then you can see,” said Diantha.
The two sisters, seated close to the warm stove, with the stand between them, went to work with half-shamed delight. They cut and made the tiny garments for the smiling doll, while the storm raged outside. They paid very little attention to it. They were absorbed.
“Suppose we make the pink satin just the way yours was made,” suggested Diantha.
“With a crosswise flounce,” said Fidelia, happily.
“And a little lace spencer cape.”
“My old doll had one,” said Fidelia.
“And so did mine.”
“All our dolls used to dress alike.”
“Yes, I know they did.”
“We used to take a sight of comfort playing with them, sister.”
“Yes, we did,” agreed Diantha, harshly; “but those days are over.”
Fidelia felt a little rebuked. “Yes, I know they are,” she replied, meekly.
“We might make a dress of dotted muslin over the blue silk, like those our dolls used to have,” said Diantha, in a softer voice.
“Yes, we might,” Fidelia said, delighted.
As the two women worked, their faces seemed to change. Tall and bent though they were, with a rigorous bend of muscles not apparently so much from the feebleness and relaxing of age as from defiance to the stresses of life. Both sisters' backs had the effect of stern walkers before fierce winds. Their hair was sparse and faded, brushed back from thin temples, with nothing of the grace of childhood, and yet there was something of the immortal child in each as she bent over her doll-clothes. The contour of childhood was evident in their gaunt faces, which suddenly appeared like transparent masks of age; the light of childhood sparkled in their eyes; when they chattered and laughed one would have sworn there were children in the room. And, strangest of all, all rancor and difference seemed to have vanished; they were in the most perfect accord.
They worked all night, until the triumphant pallor of dawn overcame the darkness, and the window-panes were outlined in blue through the white shades. It cleared just before daylight.
“I declare, it's morning,” said Diantha.
“We've worked all night,” said Fidelia, in an awed tone.
“Better work than sit still,” said Diantha. “You'd better put the lamp out.”
Fidelia put out the lamp and pulled up a window-curtain.
“The storm is over,” said she, “but it is awful! Just look, sister.”
Diantha and Fidelia stood at the window and surveyed the ruin outside. The yard and the road were strewn with the branches of the trees; the trees, lopped and mutilated, stood cased in a glittering white mail over their lost members. It was a sylvan battle-field, where the victors had barely come off with their lives.
“It's dreadful; you can't get home yet a while,” said Fidelia.
“I guess I can manage,” said Diantha, suspiciously. She wondered if Fidelia wanted to be rid of her.
But Fidelia was looking at her with the expression of a child who wants to make up. “I thought I'd make some of those light biscuits you used to like for breakfast,” said she.
“I don't see as I can get home before breakfast,” said Diantha. Then she added, in another voice, “Yes, I always did like those light biscuits, sister.”
“I've got some honey, too,” said Fidelia.
“If there is anything I do like it is light biscuit and honey,” said Diantha.
“We can finish dressing the doll after breakfast,” ventured Fidelia, radiantly.
“Yes, we can. It's a shame to give a child a doll that ain't dressed.”
The sisters worked until late afternoon on the doll's small wardrobe. Everything was complete, from the tiny stockings and slippers to the hat of drawn pink silk, after the style of one which Diantha's doll had owned a half-century before. When at last the doll was arrayed in her pink silk frock, her lace spencer cape, her pink hat trimmed with a fall of lace, under which her rosy face with its unswerving smile looked at her benefactors, they were radiant.
“I call that a very beautiful doll, sister,” said Fidelia.
“She certainly is,” agreed Diantha.
Fidelia looked at Diantha, and Diantha returned the look. A sudden cloud was over both faces.
“I suppose,” said Fidelia, slowly, “we had better —”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Diantha, harshly.
“Before it gets any later,” said Fidelia, with a sigh.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“To-morrow is Christmas. Maybe her mother wants to hang it on the tree.”
“Well, will you take it over, or will I?”
“I had just as lief.”
“I will if you don't feel like it.”
Still neither offered to move. Both regarded the doll, then again each other.
“That Merrill child is not nearly old enough to have a doll like that,” said Diantha, suddenly.
“I don't think she is either,” said Fidelia.
“No, she is not. It is strange people will buy such dolls for children who are no older.”
“Especially since she has such handsome clothes.”
“She would spoil the clothes in no time.”
“Yes; she would let her wear that pink silk and her best hat every day.”
“That little Merrill girl is not old enough to take care of that doll,” said Diantha, with emphasis, and with much the same tone as if she had spoken of a baby. She gathered up the doll with determination.
Fidelia sighed. “Are you going to take her over there now?” said she. It was noticeable that both sisters now spoke of the doll as she and her.
“No, I am not. I am going to take her home,” declared Diantha.
“You are not going to take her over to the Merrills, sister?”
“No, I am not. That child is not old enough.”
Fidelia looked scared, and also aggrieved. “But,” she said, “that doll was left here; I don't think you have any right to take her away, Diantha. If either of us is going to keep her, it ought to be the one to whom it was sent.”
Diantha surveyed her sister with an injured expression. “Fidelia Nutting,” said she, “you don't think — you don't really think — I would do such a thing as that? Of course I wasn't going to take the doll away from you, although she does not really belong to either of us. Of course I know that you have the first claim. I was just going to take her to my house for a while, and I thought you would come over and have tea with me. I have some of that damson sauce you like, and the pound-cake and a mince pie, and I will make some of those griddle-cakes with butter and sugar and nutmeg on them. It's lonesome for you here alone, with the roads not cleared enough so anybody can get in very easy, and it's lonesome for me. I thought maybe you'd come over, but if — you don't want to —”
“Oh, sister, I shall be very happy to come over, and I haven't had any of those griddle-cakes since mother died. I never got the knack of making them myself. I'll get my shawl and hood.”
“You'd better wrap up warm,” said Diantha; “it's cleared off cold by the looks. And you'd better fix your fire so you can leave it. Maybe you'll feel as if you could stay all night.”
When the two sisters crossed the road together, stepping among the débris of the storm, which had not yet been fully cleared away, the neighbors within range stared. In the Merrill house, next to Fidelia's, the width of a wide yard distant three faces were in the sitting-room window — Mrs. Merrill's, her unmarried sister's, and little Abby Merrill's, round and rosy, flattened against the glass.
“Did you ever!” cried Annie Bennett, Mrs. Merrill's sister. “There go the Nuttings across the street together. I wonder if they have made up.”
“They are going into Diantha's house,” said Mrs. Merrill, with wonder. “I wonder if they have made up. I don't believe one has been into the other's house since their mother's funeral.”
“Maybe they have,” said Annie Bennett.
“Mamma,” said little Abby Merrill, “what do you spect Miss Nutting is carrying under her shawl?”
“I don't know, dear,” said Mrs. Merrill.
“It looks like a dolly,” said little Abby Merrill, wisely.
Mrs. Merrill and Annie Bennett laughed. “I guess Miss Diantha Nutting isn't going around carrying dollies,” said Mrs. Merrill. “I guess you must be mistaken, darling.”
Annie Bennett could scarcely stop laughing at the idea of Diantha Nutting carrying about a doll. But she suddenly remembered something. “Why, there's that parcel that came here for Fidelia by mistake last night,” she said, chokingly. “Seeing her carry a parcel makes me remember that. I had quite forgotten it. She ought to have it, I suppose. Perhaps it is a Christmas present.”
“Yes, she ought to have it,” said Mrs. Merrill, turning away from the window as the door of the opposite house closed after Diantha's and Fidelia's shawled and hooded figures.
“I'll run over there and carry it,” said Annie Bennett.
But little Abby interposed. She was wild to get out-of-doors after her imprisonment by the storm, and she was wild to carry a Christmas present. “Oh, mamma, let me carry it,” she begged.
Her mother looked doubtful. “I don't know whether you can get over all those tree branches without falling and hurting yourself, darling,” she said.
“Oh yes, I can,” pleaded little Abby.
“I don't believe it will hurt her any if she wants to go,” said her aunt Annie Bennett.
So little Abby Merrill, carefully wrapped against the cold, went across the street, picking her way among the fallen branches, with her mother watching anxiously, and carried the parcel to Diantha Nutting's door. “My mamma sent me over wif zis,” said she — for Abby could not say “th” — “My mamma sent me over wif zis, zat was left at our house by a spressman by mistake last night.” Little Abby Merrill never knew why Miss Diantha Nutting's face looked suddenly very strange to her, but she felt vaguely alarmed, and shrank back when Diantha spoke.
“Thank you, child,” said she, in rather a deep voice, and she took the parcel.
Miss Fidelia Nutting's face was visible behind her sister's, and it wore a similar expression. “Oh, sister,” she gasped, when little Abby Merrill had gone trotting, stepping high in her little red leggings, across the street. She was a stout little girl, and planted her little feet in a sturdy fashion. “Oh, sister!”
Diantha clutched her hard. “Come into the house,” said she.
The two returned to the warm sitting-room, and then they looked at each other like two confederates in crime.
“Oh, sister, it is dreadful!” said Fidelia, faintly. “That doll must belong to little Abby Merrill, and this bundle she brought must be a Christmas present that somebody has sent me, and somehow the expressman made a mistake. She ought to have her, sister.”
“Well,” said Diantha, “go over there and carry her if you want to, then.”
Fidelia hung her head. “She is a pretty small child to have such a doll, I suppose,” she faltered.
“Then don't talk about it,” said Diantha. “Why don't you open your parcel?”
Fidelia opened the parcel; inside the brown wrapping-paper was a nice white one tied with lavender ribbon. She untied the dainty bows, and unfolded a fleecy white shawl.
“Who gave it to you?” said Diantha.
Fidelia looked at the slip of paper pinned to a corner of the shawl. On it was written, “With Xmas greetings from Salome H. May.”
“It's Salome May,” she said.
“She always makes a sight of Christmas,” said Diantha.
“I suppose she sent it because I gave her old-fashioned pinks out of my garden last summer,” said Fidelia.
“It's a pretty shawl,” said Diantha, with no enthusiasm.
“Yes, it is,” said Fidelia; “but I never was in the habit of wearing a knit shawl in the house much.” She laid the shawl on the table. “I suppose she sent the doll to the little Merrill girl,” she added, after a pause.
“Very likely. She and Annie Bennett are intimate.”
“Diantha, don't you suppose we are doing a dreadful thing?”
“No, I don't. I don't see why we are. We are not stealing that doll, are we?”
“No-o, I don't suppose we are stealing her,” said Fidelia, hesitatingly.
“I am not stealing her, anyway. My conscience is clear. All I am doing is keeping her a little while, until the little Merrill girl is old enough to play with her and not destroy her.”
“Oh, of course, that is all I am doing, too, sister.”
Diantha Nutting prepared tea in the old dining-room, and she set the table with her mother's old blue Canton china and the best silver teapot and creamer. There were the griddle-cakes piled in a golden mound sprinkled with sugar and nutmeg; there was the damson sauce; there the pound-cake; but neither sister could eat much. The doll in her brave attire lay on the sitting-room table beside the shawl. Both felt, though they would not confess it to each other or herself, like greedy and dishonest children stealing another child's doll on Christmas eve. But they were yet firm. Fidelia remained with Diantha that night, and Fidelia occupied her old room out of Diantha's. Neither slept much. Often one called to the other in the darkness of the night: “Fidelia, are you asleep?” “Diantha, are you asleep?” Both were thinking of the doll and the little Merrill girl, and their consciences, which were their New England birthrights, never slumbered nor slept.
The next morning at breakfast — which they did not care for, although it was as desirable as the tea of the night before, being composed of hot biscuits and honey, and ham and eggs and coffee — they looked at each other.
“Sister, I can't do it. I can't keep it up any longer,” said Fidelia, suddenly and piteously.
“Well, I suppose she'll have to have her, if she does destroy her,” said Diantha, grimly. Then she took another biscuit.
“I guess I'll have another biscuit too,” said Fidelia.
After breakfast Fidelia crossed the road to the Merrill house. She rang the bell, trembling, and Annie Bennett came to the door.
“Here is a doll,” said Fidelia, trembling. She extended the doll in her pink silk hat and her spencer cape. “Here is a doll that was left at my house by mistake. My name was on the paper, but I guess she made a mistake on account of sending so many presents. Salome H. May sent me a shawl, and I guess she must have meant the doll for little Abby.”
But Annie Bennett stared wonderingly at the doll. “Why, no,” said she. “Salome sent a doll for Abby two days ago. She can't have sent this to Abby. Abby has five dolls this Christmas, anyway. It can't be Abby's. I don't know of any one else who could have sent her a doll. Was your name on the wrapper?”
“Yes, it was,” admitted Fidelia, a great shamefaced hope in her heart.
Annie Bennett laughed. “Well,” she said, “as near as I can find out, the doll is yours, Miss Fidelia. I guess somebody thought you and your sister needed a doll to play with.”
Fidelia was aware of the friendly sarcasm, but quite unmoved by it. She blushed, but she smiled happily. “It is queer who could have sent it,” said she, “but I guess it can't belong to little Abby.”
“No, I know it can't,” said Annie Bennett.
Annie Bennett and Mrs. Merrill and little Abby Merrill, with her new doll from Salome H. May in her arms, all watched Fidelia Nutting cross the street to Diantha's.
“She skips along like a child,” said Mrs. Merrill.
“She is a good deal spryer than Abby,” laughed Annie Bennett. “You ought to have seen how that doll was dressed: the funniest old-fashioned things. I wonder if she and Miss Diantha dressed it. I didn't know but she would leave it for Abby anyhow.”
“I suppose they will give it to some child,” said Mrs. Merrill. “I suppose she thought Abby had dolls enough. I'd like to know who sent her that doll.”
“I know what I think,” said Annie Bennett. “I think Salome May had a doll left over, and sent it to Fidelia Nutting for a joke. It's just like her.”
“Maybe she did,” said Mrs. Merrill, laughing.
But Fidelia and Diantha themselves were the children who loved the doll, and they could not spare her to another child. When Fidelia ran into the sitting-room of her sister's house with the doll in her arms, Diantha stared.
“What have you brought her back for?” she asked, shortly.
“Oh, sister, the little Merrill girl has a doll from Salome H. May. This isn't her doll. It must have been sent to me.”
“Fidelia Nutting, who do you suppose did such a silly thing as to send a doll to you?”
“I don't know, sister.”
“Well,” said Diantha, “There's one thing certain: if we don't know whom she belongs to, there's nothing to do but keep her. If she wasn't meant for you, it's the fault of the sender.”
“Maybe we shall find out sometime about her,” said Fidelia. But they never did.
“Well, you had better stay to dinner,” said Diantha. “I hailed the butcher and got a chicken, and I've got pudding on boiling.”
When the two sat at dinner, casting stray glances at the doll on the sitting-room table, Diantha spoke.
“Look here, Fidelia,” said she. “I've been thinking. Suppose you rent that house you live in, and come and live with me. Nobody knows how much longer we've got to live, anyhow, and we can put our means together and have a girl to wait on us; we ain't either of us fit to live alone, and I guess we can get along. We used to get along well enough when we were children.”
“Yes, we did,” said Fidelia, cheerfully. “I'll come if you want me to, sister.”
In the afternoon the sisters sat together in the sitting-room of the Nutting house. They were making some more clothes for a doll — a lavender silk frock from an old one of Diantha's, and a little black silk mantilla. They sat close to the window to catch the waning wintry sunlight — two old sisters, come together after years of estrangement, through the mediation of the universal plaything of childhood, which had come to them out of a mystery, and into a common ground of old love and memories.
“I suppose we ought to name this doll,” said Diantha. “We always did name our dolls.”
“Yes, I guess we had better name it,” agreed Fidelia.
“We will keep her for little girls to play with if any happen in with their mothers,” said Diantha. “And if a child asks what her name is, we ought to have something to say.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Well?” said Diantha, interrogatively.
Fidelia blushed redly before her own sentiment; then she spoke. “I guess Peace would be a good name,” said she, with a soft little shamed laugh at her sister.
“Well,” said Diantha.
The two sisters continued sewing on the doll's clothes while the light lasted, their heads bent close together with loving accord, and the doll was between them, smiling with inscrutable inanity.