This is a short story written by Katherine Mansfield. How do people act when they are trying to join the “in” crowd? Sometimes they behave badly by bragging about new possessions or by making fun of others. In this story, you will read about a group of girls whose pursuit of popularity brings out the worst in their nature.
The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield
When dear old Mrs Hay went back to London after staying with the Burnells, she sent the children a doll’s house. It was so big that it had to be left in the courtyard, and there it stayed on two wooden boxes. No harm could come to it; it was summer. And perhaps the smell of paint would have gone off by the time it had to be taken in. For, really, the smell of paint coming from that doll’s house was quite enough to make anyone seriously ill, in Aunt Beryl’s opinion.
There stood the doll’s house, a dark, oily green. Its two solid little chimneys, fixed to the roof, were painted red and white, and the door was yellow Four windows, real windows, were divided into four again by broad lines of green.
The perfect, perfect little house! Who could possibly object to the smell? It was part of the joy, part of the newness.
‘Open it quickly, someone!’
The hook at the side was stuck. Pat opened it with his knife and the whole house front swung back, and — there you were, looking at one and the same moment into the sitting room and dining room, the kitchen and two bedrooms. That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than looking through a half-open door like that? How much more exciting than looking through a half open door into a little hall.! That is — isn’t it — what you want to know about a house when you come to the door?
The Burnell children thought it was wonderful; they had never seen anything like it in their lives. There was wallpaper on the walls. There were pictures on the walls, painted on the paper, complete with gold frames. All the floors were red except in the kitchen; red chairs in the sitting room, green in the dining room; tables, beds with real bedclothes, furniture, little plates. But what Kezia liked more than anything was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining-room table, a beautiful yellow lamp with white glass over it. It was even filled all ready for lighting, though, of course, you couldn’t light it. But there was something inside that looked like oil and moved when you shook it.
The father and mother dolls, who lay very stiff in the sitting room, and their two children asleep upstairs, were really too big for the doll’s house. They didn’t look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say, ‘I live here.’ The lamp was real.
The Burnell children could hardly walk to school fast enough the next morning..
‘I must tell,’ said Isabel, ‘because I’m the oldest. And you two can join in after. But I must tell first.’
Isabel always gave orders, but she was always right, and Lottie and Kezia knew too well the powers that went with being oldest. They walked through the thick flowers at the edge of the road and said nothing.
‘And I must choose who’s to come and see it first. Mother said I could.’
It had been arranged that while the doll’s house stood in the courtyard they could ask the girls at school, two at a time, to come and look. Not to stay to tea, of course, or to come wandering through the house. But just to stand quietly in the courtyard while Isabel showed them the attractions of the doll’s house, and Lottie and Kezia looked pleased.
But although they hurried, by the time they had reached the fence of the boys’ playground the bell had begun to ring. They only just had time to take off their hats and get into line before their names were called. Never mind. Isabel tried to look very important and whispered behind her hand to the girls near her, ‘I’ve got something to tell you at playtime.’
Playtime came and Isabel was surrounded. The girls of her class nearly fought to put their arms around her, to walk away with her, to be her special friend. She received them like a queen under the great trees at the side of the playground. Laughing together, the little girls pressed close to her. And the only two who stayed outside the ring were the two who were always outside, the little Kelveys. They knew that they must not come anywhere near the Burnells.
The fact was, the school the Burnell children went to was not the kind of place their parents would have chosen if there had been a choice. But it was the only school for miles. And the result was that all the children of the neighbourhood, the judge’s little girls, the doctor’s daughters, the shopkeeper’s children, the milkman’s, were forced to mix together. There was an equal number of rough little boys as well. But some children could never become friends; there was a limit. The line was drawn at the Kelveys. Many of the children, including the Burnells, were not allowed even to speak to them. They walked past the Kelveys with their heads in the air, and as the other children always copied what the Burntills did, the Kelveys were avoided by everybody. Even the teacher had a special voice for them, and a special smile for the other children when Lil Kelvey came up to her desk with a bunch of cheap-looking flowers.
They were the daughters of a hard-working little washerwoman, who went from house to house. This was bad enough. But where was Mr Kelvey? No one knew. But everybody said he was in prison. So they were the daughters of a washerwoman and a criminal. Very nice company for other people’s children! And they looked it! Why Mrs Kelvey made them wear such strange clothes was hard to understand. The truth was they were dressed in ‘bits’ given to her by the people for whom she worked. Lil, for example, who was a fat, plain child, came to school in a dress made from a green tablecloth of the Burnells’, with red arms from the Logans’ curtains. Her hat, resting on top of her high forehead, was a grownup woman’s hat, once the property of Miss Lecky, the postmistress. It was turned up at the back. How silly she looked! It was impossible not to laugh. And her little sister, Else, wore a long white dress, rather like a nightdress, and a pair of little boy’s boots. But whatever Else wore, she would have looked strange. She was a very small child, with short hair and big, sad eyes. Nobody had ever seen her smile; she hardly ever spoke. She went through life holding on to Lil, with a piece of Lil’s dress between her fingers. Where Lil went, Else followed. In the playground, on the road going to and from school, there was Lil marching in front and Else holding on behind. Only when she wanted anything, or when she was out of breath, Else gave Lil a pull, and Lil stopped. The Kelveys never failed to understand each other.
Now they waited at the edge; you couldn’t stop them listening. When the little girls turned round and laughed at them, Lil, as usual, gave her silly, embarrassed smile, but Else only looked.
And Isabel’s voice, so very proud, went on telling about the doll’s house. The coloured chairs caused great excitement, but so did the beds with real bedclothes.
When she finished, Kezia added, ‘You’ve forgotten the lamp, Isabel.’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Isabel, ‘and there’s a little lamp, made of yellow glass, with a white top, that stands on the dining room table. It’s just like a real one.’
‘The lamp’s best of all,’ cried Kezia. She thought Isabel wasn’t saying enough about the little lamp. But nobody paid any attention. Isabel was choosing the two who would come back with them that afternoon and see it. She chose Emmie Cole and Lena Logan. But when the others knew that they were all going to have a chance to see it, they couldn’t be nice enough to Isabel. One by one they put their arms around Isabel and walked away with her.
Only the little Kelveys moved away, forgotten; there was nothing more for them to hear.
Days passed, and as more children saw the dolls house, the fame of it spread. It became the one subject of talk. The one question was, ‘Have you seen the Burnells’ doll’s house? Oh, isn’t it lovely!’ ‘Haven’t you seen it? Oh, dear!’
Even the dinner hour was given up to talking about it.The little girls sat under the trees eating their lunch, while always, as near as they could get, sat the Kelveys, Else holding on to Lil, listening too.
‘Mother,’ said Kezia,‘can’t I ask the Kelveys just once?’
‘Certainly not, Kezia.’
‘But why not?’
‘Run away, Kezia; you know quite well why not.’
At last everybody had seen it except them. On that day they were all rather tired of the subject. It was the dinner hour. The children stood together under the trees, and suddenly, as they looked at the Kelveys eating out of their paper, always by themselves, always listening, they wanted to hurt them. Emmie Cole started the whisper.
‘Lil Kelveys going to be a servant when she grows up.’
‘O-oh, how terrible!’ said Isabel Burnell, looking Emmie in the eye.
Emmie swallowed in a very special way and looked at Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions.
‘It’s true — it’s true — it’s true,’ she said.
‘Shall I ask her?’ Lena Logan whispered.
‘You’re afraid to,’ said Jessie May.
‘I’m not frightened,’ said Lena. Suddenly she gave a litde cry and danced in front of the other girls. ‘Watch! Watch me! Watch me now!’ said Lena. And slowly, dragging one foot, laughing behind her hand, Lena went over to the Kelveys.
Lil looked up from her dinner. She wrapped the rest quickly away. Else stopped eating. What was coming now?
‘Is it true you’re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?’ cried Lena at the top of her voice.
Dead silence. But instead of answering, I il only gave her silly, embarrassed smile. She didn’t seem to object to the question at all. What a disappointment for Lena. The girls began to laugh.
Lena couldn’t bear that.‘Your father’s in prison!’ she cried.
This was such a wonderful thing to have said that the little girls rushed away together, deeply, deeply excited, wild with joy. Someone found a long rope and they began jumping over it. And never did they play so happily as on that morning.
In the afternoon Pat came for the Burnell children and took them home. There were visitors. Isabel and Lottie, who liked visitors, went upstairs to change their dresses. But Kezia went secretly out at the back. Nobody was there; she began to swing on the big white gates of the courtyard. Soon, looking along the road, she saw two little dots.They grew bigger; they were coming towards her. Now she could see that one was in front and one close behind. Now she could see that they were the Kelveys. Kezia stopped swinging. She got off the gate as if she was going to run away. Then she waited. The Kelveys came nearer, and beside them walked their shadows, very long, stretching right across the road with their heads in the flowers. Kezia climbed back on the gate; she had made up her mind; she swung out.
‘Hullo,’ she said to the passing Kelveys.
They were so astonished that they stopped. Lil gave her silly smile. Else just looked at her.
‘You can come and see our doll’s house if you want to,’ said Kezia, and she dragged one toe on the ground. But when she heard that, Lil turned red and shook her head quickly.
‘Your mother told our mother you weren’t allowed to speak to us.’
‘Oh, well,’ said Kezia. She didn’t know what to reply. ‘It doesn’t matter. Come on. Nobody’s looking.’
But Lil shook her head even harder.
‘Don’t you want to?’ asked Kezia.
Suddenly there was a pull at Lil’s dress. She turned round. Else was looking at her with big, begging eyes; she wanted to go. For a moment Lil looked at Else very doubtfully. But then Else pulled her dress again. She started to go forward. Kezia led the way. Like two little lost cats they followed across the courtyard to where the doll’s house stood.
‘There it is,’ said Kezia.
There was a pause. Lil breathed loudly; Else was as still as stone.
‘I’ll open it for you,’ said Kezia kindly. She undid the hook and they looked inside.
‘There’s the sitting room and the dining room, and that’s the -’
It was Aunt Beryl’s voice.They turned round. At the back door stood Aunt Beryl, looking as if she couldn’t believe what she saw.
‘How dare you ask the little Kelveys into the courtyard?’ said her cold, angry voice. ‘You know as well as I do, you’re not allowed to talk to them. Run away, children, run away immediately. And don’t come back again,’ said Aunt Beryl. And she stepped into the yard and sent them away as if they were chickens.
‘Away you go immediately!’ she called, cold and proud.
They did not need telling twice. Burning with shame, somehow they crossed the big courtyard and went out through the white gate.
‘Bad, disobedient little girl!’ said Aunt Beryl to Kezia, and she shut the doll’s house noisily.
When the Kelveys were well out of sight of the Burnells’, they sat down to rest on a big red pipe by the side of the road. Lil’s face was still burning; she took off her hat and held it on her knee. Dreamily they looked over the fields, past the stream, to where the Logans’ cows stood waiting to be milked. What were their thoughts?
Soon Else moved close to her sister. By now she had forgotten the angry lady. She smiled her rare smile.
‘I saw the little lamp,’ she said softly.
Then both were silent once more.