by Davis Grubb
IT WAS NOT that Nell hadn’t done everything she could. Many’s the windy, winter afternoon she had spent reading to the child from Pilgrim’s Progress and Hadley’s Comportment for Young Ladies and from the gilded, flowery leaves of A Spring Garland of Noble Thoughts. And she had countless times reminded the little girl that we must all strive to make ourselves useful in this life and that five years old wasn’t too young to begin to learn. Though none of it had helped. And there were times when Nell actually regretted ever taking in the curious, gold-haired child that tragic winter when Nell’s brother Amos and his foolish wife had been killed. Eva stubbornly spent her days dreaming under the puzzle-tree or sitting on the stone steps of the ice-house making up tunes or squatting on the little square carpet stool in the dark parlor whispering softly to herself.
“Eva!” cried Nell one day, surprising her there. “Who are you talking to?”
“To my friends,” said Eva quietly, “Mister Peppercorn and Sam and—”
“Eva!” cried Nell. “I will not have this nonsense any longer! You know perfectly well there’s no one in this parlor but you!”
“They live under the davenport,” explained Eva patiently. “And behind the Pianola. They’re very small so it’s easy.”
“Eva! Hush that talk this instant!” cried Nell.
“You never believe me,” sighed the child, “when I tell you things are real.”
“They aren’t real!” said Nell. “And I forbid you to make up such tales any longer! When I was a little girl I never had time for such mischievous nonsense. I was far too busy doing the bidding of my fine God-fearing parents and learning to be useful in this world!”
Dusk was settling like a golden smoke over the willows down by the river shore when Nell finished pruning her roses that afternoon. And she was stripping off her white linen garden gloves on her way to the kitchen to see if Suse and Jessie had finished their Friday baking. Then she heard Eva speaking again, far off in the dark parlor, the voice quiet at first and then rising curiously, edged with terror.
“Eva!” cried Nell, hurrying down the hall, determined to put an end to the foolishness once and for all. “Eva! Come out of that parlor this very instant!”
Eva appeared in the doorway, her round face streaming and broken with grief, her fat, dimpled fist pressed to her mouth in grief.
“You did it!” the child shrieked. “You did it!”
Nell stood frozen, wondering how she could meet this.
“They heard you!” Eva cried, stamping her fat shoe on the bare, thin carpet. “They heard you say you didn’t want them to stay here! And now they’ve all gone away! All of them—Mister Peppercorn and Mingo and Sam and Popo!”
Nell grabbed the child by the shoulders and began shaking her, not hard but with a mute, hysterical compulsion.
“Hush up!” cried Nell, thickly. “Hush, Eva! Stop it this very instant!”
“You did it!” wailed the golden child, her head lolling back in a passion of grief and bereavement. “My friends! You made them go away!”
All that evening Nell sat alone in her bedroom trembling with curious satisfaction. For punishment Eva had been sent to her room without supper and Nell sat listening now to the even, steady sobs far off down the hall. It was dark and on the river shore a night bird tried its note cautiously against the silence. Down in the pantry, the dishes done, Suse and Jessie, dark as night itself, drank coffee by the great stove and mumbled over stories of the old times before the War. Nell fetched her smelling salts and sniffed the frosted stopper of the flowered bottle till the trembling stopped.
Then, before the summer seemed half begun, it was late August. And one fine, sharp morning, blue with the smoke of burning leaves, the steamboat Samantha Collins docked at Cresap’s Landing. Eva sat, as she had been sitting most of that summer, alone on the cool, worn steps of the ice-house, staring moodily at the daisies bobbing gently under the burden of droning, golden bees.
“Eva!” Nell called cheerfully from the kitchen window. “Someone’s coming today!”
Eva sighed and said nothing, glowering mournfully at the puzzle-tree and remembering the wonderful stories that Mingo used to tell.
“Grandfather’s boat landed this morning, Eva!” cried Nell. “He’s been all the way to New Orleans and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he brought his little girl a present!”
Eva smelled suddenly the wave of honeysuckle that wafted sweet and evanescent from the tangled blooms on the stone wall and sighed, recalling the high, gay lilt to the voice of Mister Peppercorn when he used to sing her his enchanting songs.
“Eva!” called Nell again. “Did you hear what Aunt Nell said? Your grandpa’s coming home this afternoon!”
“Yes’m,” said Eva lightly, hugging her fat knees and tucking her plain little skirt primly under her bottom.
And supper that night had been quite pleasant. Jessie made raspberry cobblers for the Captain and fetched in a prize ham from the meat-house, frosted and feathery with mould, and Suse had baked fresh bread that forenoon till the ripe, yeasty smell of hot bread seemed everywhere in the world. Nobody said a word while the Captain told of his trip to New Orleans and Eva listened to his stern old voice and remembered Nell’s warnings never to interrupt when he was speaking and only to speak herself when spoken to. When supper was over the Captain sat back and sucked the coffee briskly from his white moustache. Then rising without a word he went to the chair by the crystal umbrella stand in the hallway and fetched back a long box wrapped in brown paper.
Eva’s eyes rose slowly and shone over the rim of her cup.
“I reckon this might be something to please a little girl,” said the old man gruffly, thrusting the box into Eva’s hands.
“For me?” whispered Eva.
“Well now!” grunted the Captain. “I didn’t fetch this all the way up the river from N’Orleans for any other girl in Cresap’s Landing!”
And presently string snapped and paper rustled expectantly and the cardboard box lay open at last and Eva stared at the creature which lay within, her eyes shining and wide with sheerest disbelief.
“Numa!” she whispered.
“What did you say, Eva?” said Nell. “Don’t mumble your words!”
“It’s Numa!” cried the child, searching both their faces for the wonder that was hers. “They told me she’d be coming but I didn’t know Grandpa was going to bring her! Mister Peppercorn said—”
“Eva!” whispered Nell.
Eva looked gravely at her grandfather, hoping not to seem too much of a tattle-tale, hoping that he would not deal too harshly with Nell for the fearful thing she had done that summer day.
“Aunt Nell made them all go away,” she began.
Nell leaned across the table clutching her linen napkin tight in her white knuckles. “Father!” she whispered. “Please don’t discuss it with her! She’s made up all this nonsense and I’ve been half out of my mind all this summer! First it was some foolishness about people who live under the davenport in the parlor—”
Eva sighed and stared at the gas-light winking brightly on her grandfather’s watch chain and felt somewhere the start of tears.
“It’s really true,” she said boldly. “She never believes me when I tell her things are real. She made them all go away. But one day Mister Peppercorn came back. It was just for a minute. And he told me they were sending me Numa instead!”
And then she fell silent and simply sat, heedless of Nell’s shrill voice trying to explain. Eva sat staring with love and wonder at the Creole doll with the black, straight tresses and the lovely coffee skin.
Whatever the summer had been, the autumn, at least, had seemed the most wonderful season of Eva’s life. In the fading afternoons of that dying Indian summer she would sit by the hour, not brooding now, but holding the dark doll in her arms and weaving a shimmering spell of fancy all their own. And when September winds stirred, sharp and prescient with new seasons, Eva, clutching her dark new friend would tiptoe down the hallway to the warm, dark parlor and sit by the Pianola to talk some more.
Nell came down early from her afternoon nap one day and heard Eva’s excited voice far off in the quiet house. She paused with her hand on the newel post, listening, half-wondering what the other sound might be, half-thinking it was the wind nudging itself wearily against the old white house. Then she peered in the parlor door.
“Eva!” said Nell. “What are you doing?”
It was so dark that Nell could not be certain of what she saw. She went quickly to the window and threw up the shade.
Eva sat on the square carpet stool by the Pianola, her blue eyes blinking innocently at Nell and the dark doll staring vacuously up from the cardboard box beside her.
“Who was here with you?” said Nell. “I distinctly heard two voices.”
Eva sat silent, staring at Nell’s stiff high shoes. Then her great eyes slowly rose.
“You never believe me,” the child whispered, “when I tell you things are real.”
OLD SUSE, AT least, understood things perfectly.
“How’s the scampy baby doll grandpappy brought you, lamb?” the old Negro woman said that afternoon as she perched on the high stool by the pump, paring apples for a pie. Eva squatted comfortably on the floor with Numa and watched the red and white rind curl neatly from Suse’s quick, dark fingers.
“Life is hard!” Eva sighed philosophically. “Yes oh yes! Life is hard! That’s what Numa says!”
“Such talk for a youngster!” Suse grunted, plopping another white quarter of fruit into the pan of spring water. “What you studyin’ about life for! And you only five!”
“Numa tells me,” sighed Eva, her great blue eyes far away. “Oh yes! She really does! She says if Aunt Nell ever makes her go away she’ll take me with her!”
“Take you!” chuckled Suse, brushing a blue-bottle from her arm. “Take you where?”
“Where the woodbine twineth,” sighed Eva.
“Which place?” said Suse, cocking her head.
“Where the woodbine twineth,” Eva repeated patiently.
“I declare!” Suse chuckled. “I never done heard tell of that place!”
Eva cupped her chin in her hand and sighed reflectively.
“Sometimes,” she said presently, “we just talk. And sometimes we play.”
“What y’all play?” asked Suse, obligingly.
“Doll,” said Eva. “Oh yes, we play doll. Sometimes Numa gets tired of being doll and I’m the doll and she puts me in the box and plays with me!”
She waved her hand casually to show Suse how really simple it all was. Suse eyed her sideways with twinkling understanding, the laughter struggling behind her lips.
“She puts you in that little bitty box?” said Suse. “And you’s a doll?”
“Yes oh yes!” said Eva. “She really does! May I have an apple, Suse?”
When she had peeled and rinsed it, Suse handed Eva a whole, firm Northern Spy. “Don’t you go and spoil your supper now, lamb!” she warned.
“Oh!” cried Eva. “It’s not for me. It’s for Numa!”
And she put the dark doll in the box and stumped off out the back door to the puzzle-tree. Nell came home from choir practice at five that afternoon and found the house so silent that she wondered for a moment if Suse or Jessie had taken Eva down to the landing to watch the evening Packet pass. The kitchen was empty and silent except for the thumping of a pot on the stove and Nell went out into the yard and stood listening by the rose arbor. Then she heard Eva’s voice. And through the failing light she saw them then, beneath the puzzle-tree.
“Eva!” cried Nell. “Who is that with you!”
Eva was silent as Nell’s eyes strained to piece together the shadow and substance of the dusk. She ran quickly down the lawn to the puzzle-tree. But only Eva was there. Off in the river the evening Packet blew dully for the bend. Nell felt the wind, laced with autumn, stir the silence round her like a web.
“Eva!” said Nell. “I distinctly saw another child with you! Who was it?”
Eva sighed and sat cross-legged in the grass with the long box and the dark doll beside her.
“You never believe me—” she began softly, staring guiltily at the apple core in the grass.
“Eva!” cried Nell, brushing a firefly roughly from her arm so that it left a smear of dying gold. “I’m going to have an end to this nonsense right now!” And she picked up the doll in the cardboard box and started towards the house.
Eva screamed in terror. “Numa!” she wailed.
“You may cry all you please, Eva!” said Nell. “But you may not have your doll until you come to me and admit that you don’t really believe all this nonsense about fairies and imaginary people!”
“Numa!” screamed Eva, jumping up and down in the grass and beating her fists against her bare, grass-stained knees, “Numa!”
“I’m putting this box on top of the Pianola, Eva,” said Nell. “And I’ll fetch it down again when you confess to me that there was another child playing with you this afternoon. I cannot countenance falsehoods!”
“Numa said,” screamed Eva, “that if you made her go away—!”
“I don’t care to hear another word!” said Nell, walking ahead of the wailing child up the dark lawn towards the house.
But the words sprang forth like Eva’s very tears. “—she’d take me away with her!” she screamed.
“Not another word!” said Nell. “Stop your crying and go up to your room and get undressed for bed!”
And she went into the parlor and placed the doll box on top of the Pianola next to the music rolls.
A WEEK LATER the thing ended. And years after that autumn night Nell, mad and simpering, would tell the tale again and stare at the pitying, doubting faces in the room around her and she would whimper to them in a parody of the childish voice of Eva herself: “You never believe me when I tell you things are real!”
It was a pleasant September evening and Nell had been to a missionary meeting with Nan Snyder that afternoon and she had left Nan at her steps and was hurrying up the tanbark walk by the ice-house when she heard the prattling laughter of Eva far back in the misty shadows of the lawn. Nell ran swiftly into the house to the parlor—to the Pianola. The doll box was not there. She hurried to the kitchen door and peered out through the netting into the dusky river evening. She did not call to Eva then but went out and stripped a willow switch from the little tree by the stone wall and tip-toed softly down the lawn. A light wind blew from the river meadows, heavy and sweet with wetness, like the breath of cattle. They were laughing and joking together as Nell crept soundlessly upon them, speaking low as children do, with wild, delicious intimacy, and then bubbling high with laughter that cannot be contained. Nell approached silently, feeling the dew soak through to her ankles, clutching the switch tightly in her hand. She stopped and listened for a moment, for suddenly there was but one voice now, a low and wonderfully lyric sound that was not the voice of Eva. Then Nell stared wildly down through the misshapen leaves of the puzzle-tree and saw the dark child sitting with the doll box in its lap.
“So!” cried Nell, stepping suddenly through the canopy of leaves. “You’re the darkie child who’s been sneaking up here to play with Eva!”
The child put the box down and jumped to its feet with a low cry of fear as Nell sprang forward, the willow switch flailing furiously about the dark ankles.
“Now scat!” cried Nell. “Get on home where you belong and don’t ever come back!”
For an instant the dark child stared in horror first at Nell and then at the doll box, its sorrowing, somnolent eyes brimming with wild words and a grief for which it had no tongue, its lips trembling as if there were something Nell should know that she might never learn again after that autumn night was gone.
“Go on, I say!” Nell shouted, furious.
The switch flickered about the dark arms and legs faster than ever. And suddenly with a cry of anguish the dark child turned and fled through the tall grass toward the meadow and the willows on the river shore. Nell stood trembling for a moment, letting the rage ebb slowly from her body.
“Eva!” she called out presently. “Eva!”
There was no sound but the dry steady racket of the frogs by the landing.
“Eva!” screamed Nell. “Come to me this instant!”
She picked up the doll box and marched angrily up towards the lights in the kitchen.
“Eva!” cried Nell. “You’re going to get a good switching for this!”
A night bird in the willow tree by the stone wall cried once and started up into the still, affrighted dark. Nell did not call again for, suddenly, like the mood of the autumn night, the very sound of her voice had begun to frighten her. And when she was in the kitchen Nell screamed so loudly that Suse and Jessie, long asleep in their shack down below the ice-house, woke wide and stared wondering into the dark. Nell stared for a long moment after she had screamed, not believing, really, for it was at once so perfect and yet so unreal. Trembling violently Nell ran back out onto the lawn.
“Come back!” screamed Nell hoarsely into the tangled far off shadows by the river. “Come back! Oh please! Please come back!”
But the dark child was gone forever. And Nell, creeping back at last to the kitchen, whimpering and slack-mouthed, looked again at the lovely little dreadful creature in the doll box: the gold-haired, plaster Eva with the eyes too blue to be real.