This etext was produced from the 1905 Gay and Bird edition by David Price, email email@example.com
by Kate Douglas Wiggin
CHAPTER I—EDEN PLACE
Eden Place was a short street running at right angles with Eden Square, a most unattractive and infertile triangle of ground in a most unattractive but respectable quarter of a large city. It was called a square, not so much, probably, because it was triangular in shape, as because it was hardly large enough to be designated as a park. As to its being called 'Eden,' the origin of that qualifying word is enveloped in mystery; but it is likely that the enthusiastic persons who projected it saw visions and dreamed dreams of green benches under umbrageous trees, of a green wire fence, ever green, and of plots of blossoming flowers filling the grateful air with unaccustomed fragrance.
As a matter of fact, the trees had always been stunted and stubby, the plants had never been tended, and all the paint had been worn off the benches by successive groups of working-men out of work. As for the wire fence, it had been much used as a means of ingress and egress by the children of the neighbourhood, who preferred it to any of the gateways, which they considered hopelessly unimaginative and commonplace, offering no resistance to the budding man of valour or woman of ambition.
Eden Place was frequented mostly by the children, who found it an admirable spot to squabble, to fight, and to dig up the hapless earth; and after them, by persons out of suits with fortune. These (generally men) adorned the shabby benches at all times, sleeping, smoking, reading newspapers, or tracing uncertain patterns in the gravel with a stick,—patterns as uncertain and aimless as themselves. There were fewer women, because the unemployed woman of this class has an old-fashioned habit, or instinct, of seeking work by direct assault; the method of the male being rather to sit on a bench and discuss the obstacles, the injustices, and the unendurable insults heaped by a plutocratic government in the path of the honest son of toil.
The corner house of Eden Place was a little larger than its neighbours in the same row. Its side was flanked by a sand-lot, and a bay window, with four central panes of blue glass, was the most conspicuous feature of its architecture. In the small front yard was a microscopic flower-bed; there were no flowers in it, but the stake that held up a stout plant in the middle was surmounted by a neat wooden sign bearing the inscription, 'No Smoking on these Premises.' The warning seemed superfluous, as no man standing in the garden could have put his pipe in his mouth without grazing either the fence or the house, but the owner of the 'premises' possibly wished to warn the visitor at the very threshold.
All the occupied houses in Eden Place were cheerful and hospitable in their appearance, and were marked by an air of liveliness and good- fellowship. Bed linen hung freely from all the windows, for there was no hard and fast law about making up beds at any special hour, though a remnant of superstition still existed that it was a good thing to make up a bed before you slept in it. There were more women on their respective front steps, and fewer in their respective kitchens, in Eden Place than in almost any other locality in the city. That they lived for the most part in close and friendly relations could be seen from the condition of the fences between the front yards, whose upper rails fairly sagged with the weight of gossip.
One woman, living in the middle of the row, evidently possessed somewhat different views, for she had planted vines on each of her division fences, rented her parlour to a lodger who only slept there, kept all her front curtains drawn, and stayed in the hack of her house. Such retribution as could legally be wreaked upon this offensive and exclusive person was daily administered by her two neighbours, who stood in their doors on either side and conversed across her house and garden with much freedom and exuberance. They had begged the landlord to induce her to take up her abode elsewhere; but as she was the only tenant who paid her rent regularly, he refused to part with her.
Any one passing the 'No Smoking' sign and entering the front door of Mrs. Grubb's house, on the corner, would have turned off the narrow uncarpeted hall into the principal room, and, if he were an observing person, would have been somewhat puzzled by its appearance. There were seven or eight long benches on one side, yet it had not the slightest resemblance to a schoolroom. The walls were adorned with a variety of interesting objects. There was a chart showing a mammoth human hand, the palm marked with myriads of purple lines. There were two others displaying respectively the interior of the human being in the pink-and-white purity of total abstinence, and the same interior after years of intemperance had done their fatal work; a most valuable chart this last, and one that had quenched the thirst of many a man.
The words 'Poverty Must Go' were wrought in evergreen letters over the bay window, and various texts were printed in red and black and tacked to the wall in prominent places. These were such as -
To be a Flesh-Eater is to be a Shedder of Blood and a Destroyer of God's Innocent Creatures.'
'Now that Man has Begun to Ascend in the Scale of Being, let Woman Reach Down a Strong, Tender Hand and Aid him in his Struggle for Moral and Spiritual Elevation.'
'Let the Pleasure Field be as Large as Possible. Pains and Fears Lessen Growth.'
'I Believe that to Burden, to Bond, to Tax, to Tribute, to Impoverish, to Grind, to Pillage, to Oppress, to Afflict, to Plunder, to Vampire the Life Labouring to Create Wealth is the Unpardonable Sin.'
Over the mantel-shelf was a seaweed picture in a frame of shells, bearing the inscription, 'Unity Hall, Meeting-Place of the Order of Present Perfection.' On a table, waiting to be hung in place, was an impressive sort of map about four feet square. This, like many of the other ornaments in the room, was a trifle puzzling, and seemed at first, from its plenitude of coloured spots, to be some species of moral propaganda in a state of violent eruption. It proved, however, on closer study, to be an ingenious pictorial representation of the fifty largest cities of the world, with the successful establishment of various regenerating ideas indicated by coloured discs of paper neatly pasted on the surface. The key in the right-hand corner read -
Temperance Blue. Single Tax Green. Cremation Orange. Abolition of War Red. Vegetarianism Purple. Hypnotism Yellow. Dress Reform Black. Social Purity Blush Rose. Theosophy Silver. Religious Liberty Magenta. Emancipation of } Crushed Strawberry. Woman }
A small gold star, added to the coloured spot, hovering over the name of a city, was explained, in the lower left-hand corner, as denoting the fact that the Eldorado face-powder was exclusively used there, and that S. Cora Grubb was the sole agent for the Pacific coast.
Joseph's coat faded into insignificance in comparison with the city of Mrs. Grubb's present residence, which appeared to be a perfect hot-bed of world-saving ideas, and was surrounded by such a halo of spots that it would have struck the unregenerate observer as an undesirable place in which to live, unless one wished to be broken daily on the rack of social progress.
This front room was Mrs. Grubb's only parlour. The seven benches were rather in the way and seemingly unnecessary, as the lady attended meetings morning, noon, and night in halls hired for that purpose; but they gave her a feeling of security, as, in case one of her less flourishing societies should be ejected from its hall, or in case she should wake up in the middle of the night and want to hold a meeting of any club when all the halls were closed, the benches in the parlour would make it possible without a moment's loss of time.
The room connecting with this was the family banquet-hall and kitchen in one, and as Mrs. Grubb's opinions on diet were extremely advanced, it amply served the purpose.
There were three bedrooms upstairs, and the whole establishment was rather untidy in its aspect; but, though it might have been much cleaner, it is only fair to say that it might also have been much dirtier.
The house was deserted. The only sound came from the back yard, and it was the echo of children's voices. It was not at all a merry prattle; it was a steady uproar interrupted by occasional shrieks and yells, a clatter of falling blocks, beatings of a tin pan, a scramble of feet, a tussle, with confusion of blows and thumps, and then generally a temporary lull in the proceedings, evidently brought about by some sort of outside interference. If you had pushed open the wire door, you would have seen two children of four or five years disporting themselves in a sand-heap. One was a boy and one a girl; and though they were not at all alike in feature or complexion, there was an astonishing resemblance between them in size, in figure, in voice, in expression, and, apparently, in disposition.
Sitting on a bench, watching them as a dog watches its master's coat, was a girl of some undeterminable age,—perhaps of ten or twelve years. She wore a shapeless stout gingham garment, her shoes were many sizes too large for her, and the laces were dangling. Her nerveless hands and long arms sprawled in her lap as if they had no volition in them. She sat with her head slightly drooping, her knees apart, and her feet aimlessly turned in. Her lower lip hung a little, but only a little, loosely. She looked neither at earth nor at sky, but straight at the two belligerents, with whose bloodthirsty play she was obliged to interfere at intervals. She held in her lap a doll made of a roll of brown paper, with a waist and a neck indicated by gingham strings. Pieces of ravelled rope were pinned on the head part, but there was no other attempt to assist the imagination. She raised her dull eyes; they seemed to hold in their depths a knowledge of aloofness from the happier world, and their dumb sorrow pierced your very heart, while it gave you an irresistible sense of aversion. She smiled, but the smile only gave you a new thrill; it was vacant and had no joy in it, rather an uncommunicable grief. As she sat there with her battered doll, she was to the superficial eye repulsive, but to the eye that pierces externals she was almost majestic in her mysterious loneliness and separation.
The steam-whistle of a factory near by blew a long note for twelve o'clock, and she rose from her bench, took the children by the hand, and dragged them, kindly but firmly, up the steps into the kitchen. She laid her doll under a towel, but, with a furtive look at the boy, rolled it in a cloth and tucked it under her skirt at the waist-line. She then washed the children's faces, tied on their calico bibs, and pushed them up to the pine table. While they battered the board and each other with spoons and tin mugs, she went automatically to a closet, took a dish of cold porridge and turned it into three bowls, poured milk over it, spread three thick slices of wheat bread with molasses from a cup, and sat down at the table. After the simple repast was over, she led the still reluctant (constitutionally reluctant) twins up the staircase and put them, shrieking, on a bed; left the room, locking the door behind her in a perfunctory sort of way as if it were an everyday occurrence, crouched down on the rug outside, and, leaning her head back against the wall, took her doll from under her skirt, for this was her playtime, her hour of ease.
Poor little 'Marm Lisa,' as the neighbours called her! She had all the sorrows and cares of maternity with none of its compensating joys.
CHAPTER II—MISTRESS MARY'S GARDEN
'"Mistress Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow?" "With silver bells and cockle shells, And little maids all in a row."'
Mistress Mary's Garden did grow remarkably well, and it was wonderfully attractive considering the fact that few persons besides herself saw anything but weeds in it.
She did not look in the least a 'contrary' Miss Mary, as she stood on a certain flight of broad wooden steps on a sunshiny morning; yet she was undoubtedly having her own way and living her own life in spite of remonstrances from bevies of friends, who saw no shadow of reason or common-sense in her sort of gardening. It would have been foolish enough for a young woman with a small living income to cultivate roses or violets or lavender, but this would at least have been poetic, while the arduous tilling of a soil where the only plants were little people 'all in a row' was something beyond credence.
The truth about Mistress Mary lay somewhere in the via media between the criticisms of her sceptical friends and the encomiums of her enthusiastic admirers. In forsaking society temporarily she had no rooted determination to forsake it eternally, and if the incense of love which her neophytes for ever burned at her shrine savoured somewhat of adoration, she disarmed jealousy by frankly avowing her unworthiness and lack of desire to wear the martyr's crown. Her happiness in her chosen vocation made it impossible, she argued, to regard her as a person worthy of canonisation; though the neophytes were always sighing to
'have that little head of hers Painted upon a background of pale gold.'
She had been born with a capacity for helping lame dogs over stiles; accordingly, her pathway, from a very early age, had been bestrewn with stiles, and processions of lame dogs ever limping towards them. Her vocation had called her so imperiously that disobedience was impossible. It is all very well if a certain work asks one in a quiet and courteous manner to come and do it, when one has time and inclination; but it is quite another matter if it coaxes one so insistently that one can do nothing else properly, and so succumbs finally to the persuasive voice. Still, the world must be mothered somehow, and there are plenty of women who lack the time or the strength, the gift or the desire, the love or the patience, to do their share. This gap seems to be filled now and then by some inspired little creature like Mistress Mary, with enough potential maternity to mother an orphan asylum; too busy, too absorbed, too radiantly absent-minded to see a husband in any man, but claiming every child in the universe as her very own. There was never anywhere an urchin so dirty, so ragged, so naughty, that it could not climb into Mistress Mary's lap, and from thence into her heart. The neophytes partook of her zeal in greater or less degree, and, forsaking all probability of lovers (though every one of them was young and pretty), they tied on their white aprons and clave only unto her. Daily intercourse with a couple of hundred little street Arabs furnished a field for the practice of considerable feminine virtue, and in reality the woman's kingdom at the top of the broad wooden steps was a great 'culture engine' of spiritual motherhood.
It certainly was a very merry place, and if its presiding geniuses were engaged in conscious philanthropy, the blighting hallmark was conspicuous by its absence. Peals of laughter rang through the rooms; smiling faces leaned from the upstairs windows, bowing greeting to the ashman, the scissors-grinder, the Italian and Chinese vegetable-vendors, the rag-sack-and-bottle man, and the other familiar figures of the neighbourhood.
It was at the end of a happy, helpful day that Mistress Mary stood in the front door and looked out over her kingdom.
There was a rosy Swedish girl sitting on the floor of a shop window opposite and washing the glass. She had moved the fresh vegetables aside and planted herself in the midst of them. There she sat among the cabbages and turnips and other sweet things just out of the earth; piles of delicate green lettuce buds, golden carrots bursting into feathery tops, ruddy beets, and pink-checked. It was pretty to see the honest joy of her work and the interest of her parted lips, when, after polishing the glass, it shone as crystal clear as her own eyes. A milkman stopping to look at her (and small wonder that he did) poured nearly a quart of cream on the ground, and two children ran squabbling under the cart to see if they could catch the drippings in their mouths. They were Atlantic and Pacific Simonson with Marm Lisa, as usual, at their heels. She had found her way to this corner twice of late, because things happened there marvellous enough to stir even her heavy mind. There was a certain flight of narrow, rickety steps leading to a rickety shanty, and an adjacent piece of fence with a broad board on top. Flower-pots had once stood there, but they were now lying on the ground below, broken into fragments. Marm Lisa could push the twins up to this vantage-ground, and crawl up after them. Once ensconced, if they had chosen the right time of day, interesting events were sure to be forthcoming. In a large playground within range of vision, there were small children, as many in number as the sands of the seashore. At a given moment, a lovely angel with black hair and a scarlet apron would ring a large bell. Simultaneously, a lovely angel with brown hair and a white apron would fly to the spot, and the children would go through a mysterious process like the swarming of bees around a queen. Slowly, reluctantly, painfully, the swarm settled itself into lines in conformance with some hidden law or principle unknown to Marm Lisa. Then, when comparative order had been evolved from total chaos, the most beautiful angel of all would appear in a window; and the reason she always struck the onlookers as a being of beauty and majesty was partly, perhaps, because her head seemed to rise from a cloud of white (which was in reality only a fichu of white mull), and partly because she always wore a slender fillet of steel to keep back the waves of her fair hair. It had a little point in front, and when the sun shone on its delicate, fine-cut prisms it glittered like a halo. After the appearance of this heavenly apparition the endless lines of little people wended their was into the building, and enchanting strains of music were wafted through the open windows, supplemented sometimes by the inspiring rattle of drums and the blare of instruments hitherto indissolubly associated with street parades.
Who? Why? Whence? Whither? What for? These were some of the questions that assailed Marm Lisa's mind, but in so incoherent a form that she left them, with all other questions, unanswered. Atlantic and Pacific were curious, too, but other passions held greater sway with them; for when the children disappeared and the music ceased, they called loudly for more, and usually scratched and pinched Marm Lisa as they were lifted down from the fence; not seeing daily how anybody else could be held answerable for the cessation of the entertainment, and scratches and pinches being the only remedial agencies that suggested themselves.
On this particular occasion there were no bells, no music, and no mysterious swarming; but the heavenly apparition sat on the broad steps. Yes, it was she! Blue-grey eyes with darker lashes sweeping the warm ivory of her cheeks, sweet true lips for ever parting in kind words, the white surplice and apron, and the rememberable steel fillet. She had a little child in her lap (she generally had, by the way), and there were other tots clinging fondly to her motherly skirts. Marm Lisa stood at the foot of the steps, a twin glued to each side. She stared at Mistress Mary with open-mouthed wonder not unmixed with admiration.
'That same odd child,' thought Mary. 'I have seen her before, and always with those two little vampires hanging to her skirts. She looks a trifle young to have such constant family cares; perhaps we had better "lend a hand."'
'Won't you come in?' she asked, with a smile that would have drawn a sane person up the side of a precipice.
Atlantic turned and ran, but the other two stood their ground.
'Won't you come up and see us?' she repeated. 'There are some fishes swimming in a glass house; come and look at them.'
Marm Lisa felt herself dragged up the steps as by invisible chains, and even Pacific did not attempt to resist the irresistible. Atlantic, finding himself deserted by his comrades, gave a yell of baffled rage, and scrambled up the steps after them. But his tears dried instantly at the sight of the room into which they were ushered; as large as any of the halls in which Aunt Cora spent her days, and how much more beautiful! They roved about, staring at the aquarium, and gazing at the rocking-horse, the piano, the drum, the hanging gardens, with speechless astonishment. Lisa shambled at their heels, looking at nothing very long; and when Rhoda (one of the neophytes), full of sympathy at the appearance of the wild, forlorn, unkempt trio, sat herself down on a sofa and gathered them about a wonderful picture-book, Mistress Mary's keen eyes saw that Lisa's gaze wandered in a few minutes. Presently she crept over the floor towards a table, and, taking a string from it, began to blow it to and fro as it hung from her fingers. Rhoda's glance followed Mary's; but it was only a fleeting one, for the four eyes of the twins were riveted on hers with devouring eagerness, while they waited for her explanation of the pictures. At the end of half an hour, in which the children had said little or nothing, they had contrived to reveal so many sorrowful and startling details of their mental, moral, and physical endowment, that Mistress Mary put on her hat.
'I will go home with them,' she said. 'There is plenty of work here for somebody; I could almost hope that it won't prove ours.'
'It will,' replied Rhoda, with a stifled sigh. 'There is an old Eastern legend about the black camel that comes and lies down before the door of him upon whom Heaven is going to lay her chastening hand. Every time I have seen that awful trio on the fence-top, they were fairly surrounded by black camels in my imagination. Mistress Mary, I am not sure but that, in self-defence, we ought to become a highly specialised SOMETHING. We are now a home, a mother, a nursery, a labour bureau, a divorce court, a registry of appeals, a soup kitchen, an advisory hoard, and a police force. If we take HER, what shall we be?'
'We will see first where she belongs,' smiled Mary. (Nobody could help smiling at Rhoda.) 'Somebody has been neglecting his or her duty. If we can make that somebody realise his delinquencies, all the better, for the responsibility will not be ours. If we cannot, why, the case is clear enough and simple enough in my mind. We certainly do not want "Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin" written over this, of all doors.'
Rhoda's hand went up to an imaginary cap in a gesture of military obedience. 'Very well, my general. I fly to prepare weapons with which to fight Satan. You, of course, will take HER; oh, my dear, I'm almost afraid you oughtn't! I choose the bullet-headed blonde twin who says his name is "Lanty," and reserve for Edith the bursting-with-fat brunette twin who calls herself "Ciffy." Edith's disciplinary powers have been too much vaunted of late; we shall see if Ciffy ruffles her splendid serenity.'
CHAPTER III—A FAMILY POLYGON
Mrs. Grubb's family circle was really not a circle at all; it was rather a polygon—a curious assemblage of distinct personages.
There was no unity in it, no membership one of another. It was four ones, not one four. If some gatherer of statistics had visited the household, he might have described it thus:-
Mrs. S. Cora Grubb, widow, aged forty years.
'Alisa Bennett, feeble-minded, aged ten or twelve years.
'Atlantic and Pacific Simonson, twins, aged four years.'
The man of statistics might seek in vain for some principle of attraction or cohesion between these independent elements; but no one who knew Mrs. Grubb would have been astonished at the sort of family that had gathered itself about her. Queer as it undoubtedly was at this period, it had, at various times, been infinitely queerer. There was a certain memorable month, shortly after her husband's decease, when Mrs. Grubb allowed herself to be considered as a compensated hostess, though the terms 'landlady' and 'boarder' were never uttered in her hearing. She hired a Chinese cook, who slept at home; cleared out, for the use of Lisa and the twins, a small storeroom in which she commonly kept Eldorado face-powder; and herself occupied a sofa in the apartment of a friend of humanity in the next street. These arrangements enabled her to admit an experimenter on hypnotism, a mental healer who had been much abused by the orthodox members of her cult, and was evolving a method of her own, an ostensible delegate to an Occidental Conference of Religions, and a lady agent for a flexible celluloid undershirt. For a few days Mrs. Grubb found the society of these persons very stimulating and agreeable; but before long the hypnotist proved to be an unscrupulous gentleman, who hypnotised the mental healer so that she could not heal, and the Chinese cook so that he could not cook. When, therefore, the delegate departed suddenly in company with the celluloid-underwear lady, explaining by a hurried postal card that they would 'remit' from Chicago, she evicted the other two boarders, and retired again to private life.
This episode was only one of Mrs. Grubb's many divagations, for she had been a person of advanced ideas from a comparatively early age. It would seem that she must have inherited a certain number of 'views,' because no human being could have amassed, in a quarter of a century, as many as she held at the age of twenty-five. She had then stood up with Mr. Charles Grubb, before a large assembly, in the presence of which they promised to assume and continue the relation of husband and wife so long as it was mutually agreeable. As a matter of fact it had not been mutually agreeable to Mr. Grubb more than six months, but such was the nobility of his character that he never disclosed his disappointment nor claimed any immunity from the responsibilities of the marriage state. Mr. Grubb was a timid, conventional soul, who would have given all the testimony of all the witnesses of his wedding ceremony for the mere presence of a single parson; but he imagined himself in love with Cora Wilkins, and she could neither be wooed nor won by any of the beaten paths that led to other women. He foolishly thought that the number of her convictions would grow less after she became a wife, little suspecting the fertility of her mind, which put forth a new explanation of the universe every day, like a strawberry plant that devotes itself so exclusively to 'runners' that it has little vigour left for producing fruit.
The town in New York where they lived proving to be too small, narrow, and bigoted to hold a developing soul like Mrs. Grubb's, she persuaded her husband to take passage for California, where the climate might be supposed more favourable to the growth of saving ideas. Mr. Grubb would, of course, be obliged to relinquish his business, but people could buy and sell anywhere, she thought, and as for her, she wanted nothing but unlimited space in which to expand.
There was money enough for an economical journey and a month or two of idleness afterwards; and as Mrs. Grubb believed everything in the universe was hers, if she only chose to claim it, the question of finances never greatly troubled her. They sailed for the golden West, then, this ill-assorted couple, accompanied by Mrs. Grubb's only sister, who had been a wife, was now a widow, and would shortly become a mother. The interesting event occurred much sooner than had been anticipated. The ship became the birthplace of the twins, who had been most unwelcome when they were thought about as one, and entirely offensive when found to be two. The mother did not long survive the shock of her surprise and displeasure, and after naming the babies Atlantic and Pacific, and confiding them distinctly to the care of Mr., not Mrs., Grubb, she died, and was buried at sea, not far from Cape Horn. Mrs. Cora enjoyed at first the dramatic possibilities of her position on the ship, where the baby orphans found more than one kindly, sentimental woman ready to care for them; but there was no permanent place in her philosophy for a pair of twins who entered existence with a concerted shriek, and continued it for ever afterwards, as if their only purpose in life was to keep the lungs well inflated. Her supreme wish was to be freed from the carking cares of the flesh, and thus for ever ready to wing her free spirit in the pure ether of speculation.
You would hardly suppose that the obscure spouse of Mrs. Grubb could wash and dress the twins, prepare their breakfast, go to his work, come home and put them to bed, four or five days out of every seven in the week; but that is what he did, accepting it as one phase of the mysterious human comedy (or was it tragedy?) in which he played his humble part.
Mrs. Grubb was no home spirit, no goddess of the hearth. She graced her family board when no invitation to refresh herself elsewhere had been proffered, and that she generally slept in her own bed is as strong a phrase as can be written on the subject. If she had been born in Paris, at the proper time, she would have been the leader of a salon; separated from that brilliant destiny by years, by race, and by imperious circumstance, she wielded the same sort of sceptre in her own circumscribed but appreciative sphere. No social occasion in Eden Place was complete without Mrs. Grubb. With her (and some light refreshment), a party lacked nothing; without her, even if other conditions were favourable, it seemed a flat, stale, and unprofitable affair. Like Robin Adair,
'She made the ball so fine; She made th' occasion shine.'
Mrs. Grubb hanging on her front gate, duster in hand (she never conversed quite as well without it, and never did anything else with it), might have been a humble American descendant of Madame de Stael talking on the terrace at Coppet, with the famous sprig of olive in her fingers. She moved among her subjects like a barouche among express wagons, was heard after them as a song after sermons. That she did not fulfil the whole duty of woman did not occur to her fascinated constituents. There was always some duller spirit who could slip in and 'do the dishes,' that Mrs. Grubb might grace a conversazione on the steps or at the gate. She was not one of those napkin people who hide their talents, or who immure their lights under superincumbent bushels. Whatever was hers was everybody's, for she dispensed her favours with a liberal hand. She would never have permitted a child to suffer for lack of food or bed, for she was not at heart an unkind woman. You could see that by looking at her vague, soft brown eyes,—eyes that never saw practical duties straight in front of them,—liquid, star-gazing, vision-seeing eyes, that could never be focussed on any near object, such as a twin or a cooking-stove. Individuals never interested her; she cared for nothing but humanity, and humanity writ very large at that, so that once the twins nearly died of scarlatina while Mrs. Grubb was collecting money for the children of the yellow-fever sufferers in the South.
But Providence had an eye for Mr. Grubb's perplexities. It does not and cannot always happen, in a world like this, that vice is assisted to shirk, and virtue aideth to do, its duty; but any man as marvellously afflicted as Mr. Grubb is likely to receive not only spiritual consolation, but miraculous aid of some sort. The spectacle of the worthy creature as he gave the reluctant twins their occasional bath, and fed them on food regularly prescribed by Mrs. Grubb, and almost as regularly rejected by them, would have melted the stoniest heart. And who was the angel of deliverance? A little vacant-eyed, half-foolish, almost inarticulate child, whose feeble and sickly mother was dragging out a death-in-life existence in a street near by. The child saw Mr. Grubb wheeling the twins in a double perambulator: followed them home; came again, and then again, and then again; hung about the door, fell upon a dog that threatened to bite them, and drove it away howling; often stood over the perambulator with a sunshade for three hours at a time, without moving a muscle; and adored Mr. Grubb with a consuming passion. There was no special reason for this sentiment, but then Alisa Bennett was not quite a reasonable being. Mr. Grubb had never been adored before in his life; and to say the truth, his personality was not winning. He had a pink, bald head, pale blue eyes, with blond tufts for eyebrows, and a pointed beard dripping from his chin, which tended to make him look rather like an invalid goat. But as animals are said to have an eye for spirits, children have an eye for souls, which is far rarer than an eye for beautiful surfaces.
Mr. Grubb began by loathing Alisa, then patiently suffered her, then pitied, then respected, then loved her. Mrs. Grubb seldom saw her, and objected to nothing by which she herself was relieved of care. So Lisa grew to be first a familiar figure in the household, and later an indispensable one.
Poor Mrs. Bennett finally came to the end of things temporal. 'Dying is the first piece of good luck I ever had,' she said to Mr. Grubb. 'If it turns out that I've brought a curse upon an innocent creature, I'd rather go and meet my punishment half-way than stay here and see it worked out to the end.'
'"In my Father's house are many mansions,"' stammered Mr. Grubb, who had never before administered spiritual consolation.
She shook her head. 'If I can only get rid of this world, it's all I ask,' she said; 'if the other one isn't any better, why, it can't be any worse! Feel under the mattress and you'll find money enough to last three or four years. It's all she'll ever get, for she hasn't a soul now to look to for help. That's the way we human beings arrange things,—we, or the Lord, or the Evil One, or whoever it is; we bring a puzzle into the world, and then leave it for other people to work out—if they can! Who'll work out this one? Who'll work out this one? Perhaps she'll die before the money's gone; let's hope for the best.'
'Don't take on like that!' said Mr. Grubb despairingly,—'don't! Pray for resignation, can't you?'
'Pray!' she exclaimed scornfully. 'Thank goodness, I've got enough self-respect left not to pray!—Yes, I must pray, I MUST . . . Oh, God! I do not ask forgiveness for him or for myself; I only beg that, in some way I cannot see, we may be punished, and she spared!'
And when the stricken soul had fled from her frail body, they who came to prepare her for the grave looked at her face and found it shining with hope.
It was thus that poor little Alisa Bennett assumed maternal responsibilities at the age of ten, and gained her sobriquet of 'Marm Lisa.' She grew more human, more tractable, under Mr. Grubb's fostering care; but that blessed martyr had now been dead two years, and she began to wear her former vacuous look, and to slip back into the past that was still more dreadful than the present.
It seemed to Mrs. Grubb more than strange that she, with her desire for freedom, should be held to earth by three children not flesh of her flesh—and such children. The father of the twins had been a professional pugilist, but even that fact could never sufficiently account for Pacific Simonson. She had apparently inherited instincts from tribes of warlike ancestors who skulked behind trees with battle-axes, and no one except her superior in size and courage was safe from her violent hand. She had little, wicked, dark eyes and crimson, swollen cheeks, while Atlantic had flaxen hair, a low forehead, and a square jaw. He had not Pacific's ingenuity in conceiving evil; but when it was once conceived, he had a dogged persistency in carrying it out that made him worthy of his twin.
Yet with all these crosses Mrs. Grubb was moderately cheerful, for her troubles were as nebulous as everything else to her mind. She intended to invent some feasible plan for her deliverance sooner or later, but she was much more intent upon development than deliverance, and she never seemed to have the leisure to break her shackles. Nothing really mattered much. Her body might be occasionally in Eden Place, but her soul was always in a hired hall. She delighted in joining the New Order of Something,—anything, so long as it was an Order and a new one,—and then going with a selected committee to secure a lodge-room or a hall for meetings. She liked to walk up the dim aisle with the janitor following after her, and imagine brilliant lights (paid for by collection), a neat table and lamp and pitcher of iced water, and herself in the chair as president or vice-president, secretary or humble trustee. There was that about her that precluded the possibility of simple membership. She always rose into office the week after she had joined any society. If there was no office vacant, then some bold spirit (generally male) would create one, that Mrs. Grubb might not wither in the privacy of the ranks. Before the charter members had fully learned the alphabet of their order and had gained a thorough understanding of the social revolution it was destined to work, Mrs. Grubb had mastered the whole scheme and was unfolding it before large classes for the study of the higher theory. The instant she had a tale to tell she presumed the 'listening earth' to be ready to hear it. The new Order became an old one in course of time, and, like the nautilus. Mrs. Grubb outgrew her shell and built herself a more stately chamber. Another clue to the universe was soon forthcoming, for all this happened in a city where it is necessary only for a man to open his lips and say, 'I am a prophet', and followers flock unto him as many in number as the stars. She was never disturbed that the last clue had brought her nowhere; she followed the new one as passionately as the old, and told her breathless pupils that their feet must not be weary, for they were treading the path of progress; that these apparently fruitless excursions into the domain of knowledge all served as so many milestones in their glorious ascent of the mountain of truth.
CHAPTER IV—MARM LISA IS TRANSPLANTED
It was precisely as Rhoda thought and feared. The three strange beings who had drifted within Mistress Mary's reach had proved to belong to her simply because they did not belong to anybody else. They did not know their names, the streets in which they lived, or anything else about which they were questioned, but she had followed them home to the corner house of Eden Place, although she failed, on the occasion of that first visit, to find Mrs. Grubb within. There was, however, a very voluble person next door, who supplied a little information and asked considerable more. Mrs. Sylvester told Mary that Mrs. Grubb was at that moment presiding over a meeting of the Kipling Brothers in Unity Hall, just round the corner.
'They meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at four o'clock,' she said, 'and you'd find it a real treat if you like to step over there.'
'Thank you, I am rather busy this afternoon,' replied Mary.
'Do you wish to leave any name or message? Did you want a setting?'
'A sitting?' asked Mary vaguely. 'Oh no, thank you; I merely wished to see Mrs. Grubb—is that the name?'
'That's it, and an awful grievance it is to her—Mrs. S. Cora Grubb. You have seen it in the newspapers, I suppose; she has a half column "ad." in the Sunday Observer once a month. Wouldn't you like your nails attended to? I have a perfectly splendid manicure stopping with me.'
'No, thank you. I hoped to see Mrs. Grubb, to ask if her children can come and spend the morning with me to-morrow.'
'Oh, that'll be all right; they're not her children; she doesn't care where they go; they stay in the back yard or on the sand-lot most of the time: she's got something more important to occupy her attention. Say, I hope you'll excuse me, but you look a little pale. If you were intending to get some mental healing from Mrs. Grubb, why, I can do it; she found I had the power, and she's handed all her healing over to me. It's a new method, and is going to supersede all the others, we think. My hours are from ten to twelve, and two to four, but I could take you evenings, if you're occupied during the day. My cures are almost as satisfactory as Mrs. Grubb's now, though I haven't been healing but six months last Wednesday.'
'Fortunately I am very well and strong,' smiled Mistress Mary.
'Yes, that's all right, but you don't know how soon sickness may overtake you, if you haven't learned to cast off fear and practise the denials. Those who are living in error are certain to be affected by it sooner or later, unless they accept the new belief. Why don't you have your nails done, now you're here? My manicure has the highest kind of a polish,—she uses pumice powder and the rose of Peru lustre; you ought to try her; by taking twenty tickets you get your single treatments for thirty-five cents apiece. Not this afternoon? Well, some other time, then. It will be all right about the children and very good of you to want them. Of course you can't teach them anything, if that's your idea. Belief in original sin is all against my theories, but I confess I can't explain the twins without it. I sometimes wonder I can do any healing with them in the next house throwing off evil influences. I am treating Lisa by suggestion, but she hasn't responded any yet. Call again, won't you? Mrs. Grubb is in from seven to eight in the morning, and ten-thirty to eleven-thirty in the evening. You ought to know her; we think there's nobody like Mrs. Grubb; she has a wonderful following, and it's growing all the time; I took this house to be near her. Good afternoon. By the way, if you or any of your friends should require any vocal culture, you couldn't do better than take of Madame Goldmarker in No. 17. She can make anybody sing, they say. I'm taking of her right along, and my voice has about doubled in size. I ought to be leading the Kipling Brothers now, but my patients stayed so late to-day I didn't get a good start. Good afternoon.'
The weeks wore on, and the children were old friends when Mary finally made Mrs. Grubb's acquaintance; but in the somewhat hurried interviews she had with that lady at first, she never seemed able to establish the kind of relation she desired. The very atmosphere of her house was chaotic, and its equally chaotic mistress showed no sign of seeking advice on any point.
'Marm Lisa could hardly be received in the schools,' Mary told the listening neophytes one afternoon when they were all together. 'There ought of course to be a special place for her and such as she, somewhere, and people are beginning to see and feel the importance of it here; but until the thought and hope become a reality the State will simply put the child in with the idiots and lunatics, to grow more and more wretched, more hopeless, more stupid, until the poor little light is quenched in utter darkness. There is hope for her now, I am sure of it. If Mrs. Grubb's neighbours have told me the truth, any physical malady that may be pursuing her is in its very first stages; for, so far as they know in Eden Place, where one doesn't look for exact knowledge, to be sure, she has had but two or three attacks ("dizziness" or "faintness" they called them) in as many years. She was very strange and intractable just before the last one, and much clearer in her mind afterwards. They think her worse of late, and have advised Mrs. Grubb to send her to an insane asylum if she doesn't improve. She would probably have gone there long ago if she had not been such a valuable watch-dog for the twins; but she does not belong there,—we have learned that from the doctors. They say decisively that she is curable, but that she needs very delicate treatment. My opinion is that we have a lovely bit of rescue-work sent directly into our hands in the very nick of time. All those in favour of opening the garden gates a little wider for Marm Lisa respond by saying "Ay!"'
There was a shout from the neophytes that shook the very rafters— such a shout that Lisa shuttled across the room, and, sitting down on a stool at Mistress Mary's feet, looked up at her with a dull, uncomprehending smile. Why were those beloved eyes full of tears? She could not be displeased, for she had been laughing a moment before. She hardly knew why, but Mistress Mary's wet eyes tortured her; she made an ejaculation of discomfort and resentment, and taking the corner of her apron wiped her new friend's face softly, gazing at her with a dumb sorrow until the smile came back; then she took out her string and her doll and played by herself as contentedly as usual.
It was thus that heaven began to dawn on poor Marm Lisa. At first only a physical heaven: temporary separation from Atlantic and Pacific; a chair to herself in a warm, sunshiny room; beautiful, bright, incomprehensible things hanging on the walls; a soft gingham apron that her clumsy fingers loved to touch; brilliant bits of colour and entrancing waves of sound that roused her sleeping senses to something like pleasure; a smile meeting her eyes when she looked up—oh! she knew a smile—God lets love dwell in these imprisoned spirits! By-and-by all these new sensations were followed by thoughts, or something akin to them. Her face wore a brooding, puzzled look, 'Poor little soul, she is feeling her growing-pains!' said Mistress Mary. It was a mind sitting in a dim twilight where everything seems confused. The physical eye appears to see, but the light never quite pierces the dimness nor reflects its beauty there. If the ears hear the song of birds, the cooing of babes, the heart- beat in the organ tone, then the swift little messengers that fly hither and thither in my mind and yours, carrying echoes of sweetness unspeakable, tread more slowly here, and never quite reach the spirit in prison. A spirit in prison, indeed, but with one ray of sunlight shining through the bars,—a vision of duty. Lisa's weak memory had lost almost all trace of Mr. Grubb as a person but the old instinct of fidelity was still there in solution, and unconsciously influenced her actions. The devotion that first possessed her when she beheld the twins as babies in the perambulator still held sway against all their evil actions. If they plunged into danger she plunged after them without a thought of consequences. There was, perhaps, no real heroism in this, for she saw no risks and counted no cost: this is what other people said, but Mistress Mary always thought Marm Lisa had in her the stuff out of which heroes and martyrs are made. She had never walked in life's sunny places; it had always been the valley of the shadow for her. She was surrounded by puzzles with never any answer to one of them, but if only she had comprehended the truth, it was these very puzzles that were her salvation. While her feeble mind stirred, while it wondered, brooded, suffered,—enough it did all these too seldom,—it kept itself alive, even if the life were only like the flickering of a candle. And now the candle might flicker, but it should never go out altogether, if half a dozen pairs of women's hands could keep it from extinction; and how patiently they were outstretched to shield the poor apology for a flame, and coax it into burning more brightly!
'Let the child choose her own special teacher,' said Mistress Mary; 'she is sure to have a strong preference.'
'Then it will be you,' laughed Helen.
'Don't be foolish; it may be any one of us and it will prove nothing in any case, save a fancy that we can direct to good use. She seldom looks at anybody but you,' said Edith.
'That is true,' replied Mary thoughtfully. 'I think she is attracted by this glittering steel thing in my hair. I am going to weave it into Helen's curly crop some day, and see whether she misses it or transfers her affection. I have made up my mind who is the best teacher for her, and whom she will chose.'
Rhoda gave a comical groan. 'Don't say it's I,' she pleaded. 'I dread it. Please I am not good enough, I don't know how; and besides, she gives me the creeps!'
Mistress Mary turned on Rhoda with a reproachful smile, saying, 'You naughty Rhoda, with the brightest eyes, the swiftest feet, the nimblest fingers, the lightest heart among us all, why do you want to shirk?'
Mistress Mary had noted the fact that Lisa had refused to sit in an unpainted chair, but had dragged a red one from another room and ensconced herself in it, though it was uncomfortably small.
Now Rhoda was well named, for she was a rose of a girl, with damask cheeks that glowed like two Jacqueminot beauties. She was much given to aprons of scarlet linen, to collars and belts of red velvet, and she had a general air of being fresh, thoroughly alive, and in a state of dewy and perennial bloom. Mary was right in her surmise, and whenever she herself was out of Lisa's sight or reach the child turned to Rhoda instinctively and obeyed her implicitly.
CHAPTER V—THE NEW PLANT GREW
'Now, Rhoda dear,' said Mistress Mary one day, when Lisa had become somewhat wonted to her new surroundings, 'you are to fold your hands respectfully in your lap and I will teach you things,—things which you in your youth and inexperience have not thought about as yet. The other girls may listen, too, and catch the drippings of my wisdom. I really know little about the education of defective children, but, thank heaven, I can put two and two together, as Susan Nipper said. The general plan will be to train Lisa's hands and speak to her senses in every possible way, since her organs of sense are within your reach, and those of thought are out of it. The hardest lesson for such a child to learn is the subordination of its erratic will to our normal ones. Lisa's attention is the most hopeful thing about her and encourages me more than anything else. It is not as if there were no mental processes existing; they are there, but in a very enfeebled state. Of course she should have been under skilled teaching the six years, but, late as it is, we couldn't think of giving up a child who can talk, use her right hand, dress herself, go upon errands, recognise colours, wash dishes; who is apparently neither vicious nor cunning, but who, on the contrary, has lived four years under the same roof with Mrs. S. Cora Grubb without rebellion or violence or treachery! Why, dear girls, such a task, if it did not appeal to one on the moral, certainly would on the intellectual, side. Marm Lisa will teach us more in a year, you may be sure, than we shall teach her. Let us keep a record of our experiments; drop all materials that seem neither to give her sensations nor wake her discriminative power, and choose others that speak to her more clearly. Let us watch her closely, both to penetrate the secret of her condition and to protect the other children. What a joy, what a triumph to say to her some dear day, a few years hence, "You poor, motherless bairn, we have swept away the cobwebs of your dreams, given you back your will, put a clue to things in your hand: now go on and learn to live and be mistress of your own life under God!"'
It was at such a moment, when Mary's voice trembled, and her eyes shone through a mist of tears like two victorious stars, that a hush fell upon the little group, and the spirit of the eternal child descended like a dove, its pure wings stirring the silence of each woman's heart. At such a moment, their daily work, with its round of harsh, unlovely, beautiful, discouraging, hopeful, helpful, heavenly duties, was transfigured, and so were they. The servant was transformed by the service, and the service by the servant. They were alone together, each heart knit to all the others by the close bond of a common vocation; and though a heretofore unknown experience, it seemed a natural one when Mistress Mary suddenly bent her head, and said softly:
'Father in heaven, it is by the vision of Thy relation to us that we can apprehend our relation to these little ones. As we have accepted that high trust, so make us loyal to it. When our feet grow weary and our faith grows dim, help us to follow close after the ever perfect One who taught even as we are trying to teach. He it was whom the common people heard gladly. He it was who disdained not the use of objects and symbols, remembering it was the childhood of the race. He it was who spake in parables and stories, laying bare soul of man and heart of nature, and revealing each by divine analogy. He it was who took the little ones in His arms and blessed them; who set the child in the midst, saying, "Except ye become as one of these." May the afterglow of that inspired teaching ever shine upon the path we are treading. May we bathe our tired spirits in its warmth and glory, and kindle our torches at the splendour of its light. We remember that He told us to feed His lambs. Dear Lord, help all the faithful shepherds who care for the ninety-and-nine that lie in the safe cover of the fold; help us, too, for we are the wandering shepherds whose part it is to go out over the bleak hills, up the mountain sides and rocky places, and gather in out of the storm and stress of things all the poor, unshepherded, wee bit lammies that have either wandered forlornly away from shelter, or have been born in the wilderness, and know no other home. Such an one has just strayed into the fold from the dreary hill-country. It needs a wiser shepherd than any one of us. Grant that by gentleness, patience, and insight we may atone somewhat for our lack of wisdom and skill. We read among Thy mysteries that the divine Child was born of a virgin. May He be born again and born daily in our hearts, already touched by that remembrance and consecrated by its meaning. And this we ask for love's sake. Amen.'
Then there was a space of silence—one of those silences in which we seem to be caught up into the heart of things, when hidden meanings are revealed, when the soul stretches itself and grows a little.
It was a few minutes later when Rhoda said, 'I am fired with zeal, I confess it. Henceforth my single aim shall be to bring Marm Lisa into her lost kingdom and inheritance. But meanwhile, how, oh how shall I master the hateful preliminaries? How shall I teach her to lace her shoes and keep them laced, unless I invent a game for it? How shall I keep her hair from dangling in her eyes, how keep her aprons neat?—though in those respects she is no worse than Pacific Simonson. I promised her a doll yesterday, and she was remarkably good. Do you object, Mistress Mary?'
'I don't know how much rewards are used in these cases,' answered Mary, 'but why do you begin with them when the problem presents no insuperable difficulties as yet? Whenever she herself, her awkward hands, her weak will, her inattention, her restlessness, give her some task she likes, some pleasure or occupation for which she has shown decided preference, and thus make happiness follow close upon the heels of effort. We who see more clearly the meaning of life know that this will not always happen, and we can be content to do right for right's sake. I don't object to your putting hosts of slumbering incentives in Lisa's mind, but a slumbering incentive is not vulgar and debasing, like a bribe.'
A plant might be a feeble and common thing, yet it might grow in beauty and strength in a garden like Mistress Mary's. Such soil in the way of surroundings, such patient cultivation of roots and stems, such strengthening of tendrils on all sorts of lovely props, such sunshine of love, such dew of sympathy, such showers of kindness, such favouring breezes of opportunity, such pleasure for a new leaf, joy for a bud, gratitude for a bloom! What an atmosphere in which to grow towards knowledge and goodness! Was it any wonder that the little people 'all in a row' responded to the genius of Mistress Mary's influence? They used to sing a song calleth The Light Bird,' in which some one, all unknown to the children, would slip into the playground with a bit of broken looking-glass, and suddenly a radiant fluttering disk of light would appear on the wall, and dance up and down, above and below, hither and yon, like a winged sunbeam. The children held out longing arms, and sang to it coaxingly. Sometimes it quivered over Mistress Mary's head, and fired every delicate point of her steel tiara with such splendour that the Irish babies almost felt like crossing themselves. At such times, those deux petits coeurs secs, Atlantic and Pacific, and all the other full-fledged and half-fledged scape-graces, forgot to be naughty, and the millennium was foreshadowed. The neophytes declared Mistress Mary a bit of a magician. Somehow or other, the evil imps in the children shrank away, abashed by the soft surprise of a glance that seemed to hope something better, and the good angels came out of their banishment, unfolded their wings, and sunned themselves in the warmth of her approving smile. Her spiritual antennae were so fine, so fine, that they discerned the good in everything; they were feeling now after the soft spot in the rocky heart of Atlantic Simonson; they had not found it yet, but they would—oh, they would in time; for if hope is the lover's staff, it is no less that of the idealist.
Marm Lisa looked upon the miracles that happened under Mistress Mary's roof with a sort of dazed wonder, but her intelligence grew a little day by day; and though she sadly taxed everybody's patience, she infused a new spirit into all the neophytes.
Had not improvement been rapid, their untrained zeal might perhaps have flagged. Had the mental symptoms, by their obscurity, baffled them or defied them on every side, their lack of systematic, scientific training for such a task might have made them discouraged: but delicate and exacting as the work was, their love and enthusiasm, their insight and patience, their cleverness and ingenuity, triumphed over all obstacles; and luckily for their youth and comparative inexperience, they were rewarded in marvellous measure.
Not that every day was bright and hopeful. The carefully kept record was black enough on occasions, beginning with the morning when Helen, sitting in the circle, felt a rough hand on her head, and Marm Lisa, without the slightest warning of her intention, snatched Mary's steel band forcibly from her hair, and, taking it across the room, put it in its accustomed place on its owner's head. Everybody was startled, but Mary rose from her chair quietly, and, taking the ornament in one hand and Marm Lisa in the other, she came to Helen's side.
'I like to have my shining crown in Miss Helen's hair,' she said; 'it is such pretty, curly hair—stroke it softly, Lisa; she must wear it this morning to please me, and then I will take it again for my own. Dear Miss Helen, who is so sweet and good to the children, I love her,' and she kissed her fondly on each cheek.
Marm Lisa did not attempt to rebel but she was sullen, and refused her work when it was offered her later.
Such occurrences were rare, however, for her obliquity always seemed mental rather than moral.
Straws and bright papers, beads and pretty forms to thread on stout laces, were given her to wean her from her favourite but aimless string-play. There were days of restlessness which she wandered up and down stairs, and could not be kept in her chair nor persuaded to stand in her place in the circle. There were days, too, when she tore the bright cardboards and glossy weaving-mats that ordinarily gave her such keen pleasure; but this carelessness grew more and more infrequent, until it ceased altogether, so that it had probably come more from her inability to hold and move the materials and needles properly than from a wanton instinct of destruction; for they would often see the tears drop from her eyes upon her clumsy fingers as she strove to make them obey her feeble behests. At such a moment there was always some one to fling herself with passionate ardour and sympathy into this latest difficulty. A stouter weaving-needle was invented, and a mat of pretty coloured morocco substituted for the fragile paper; while the poor inert hands were held and coaxed and strengthened every day by finger gymnastics.
As Lisa grew in power Rhoda grew in ingenuity, and failure in any one particular only stimulated her genius of invention the more. Did she spill paste, mucilage, water on her gingham aprons, and wipe anything and everything on them that came in her way, Rhoda dressed her in daintier ones of white cambric, with a ruffle at the neck and sleeves; the child's pleasure knew no bounds, and she kept the aprons clean. With Mrs. Grubb's permission her hair was cut shorter, and brushed back under a round comb. No regiment of soldiers could have kept the comb in place. It was taken away and a blue ribbon substituted. She untied the ribbon every five minutes for two days, when Mary circumvented her by sewing a blue ribbon on each sleeve. This seemed to divert her attention from the head-band, and after a week or two she allowed it to remain without interference. Mary gave her low shoes, hoping that the lessened trouble of lacing them would make the task a possibility. There was no improvement. If she laced them, it was only under supervision, and they were always untied within the hour, the dangling laces tripping her awkward feet. Slippers or old-fashioned shoes with elastic at the side would have been an easy way out of the difficulty, but to Rhoda's mind that would have been a humiliating confession of failure. As a last resort she bought brown shoes and brown laces.
'If these do not succeed,' she said, 'I will have red ones made, paint the tips blue, and give her yellow laces; but I will fix her mind on her feet and arouse her pride in them, or die in the attempt.'
This extreme, fortunately, proved unnecessary, since for some unknown reason the brown foot-gear appealed to Marm Lisa, and she kept the laces tied. The salient peculiarity and encouraging feature of the child's development was that, save in rare cases, she did not slip back into her old habits when the novelty of the remedy wore off; with her, almost every point gained was a point kept. It was indeed a high Hill Difficulty that she was climbing—so high that had she realised it she would never have taken the first step of her own unaided will; but now this impelling force behind her was so great, and the visions for ever leading her on were so beautiful, that she ran nor grew weary, she walked yet did not faint.
The other children, even the youngest of them, were more or less interested in the novel enterprise, too, though they scarcely knew the nature of it or how much was at stake. That a human mind was tottering to its fall, and that Mistress Mary was engaged in preventing it, was beyond their ken. They could see certain details, however, for they were all one great family of little people, and it was no unaccustomed thing for them to watch a moral conquest, though they had no conception of an intellectual one.
Accordingly, there was a shout of triumph from a corner of the room one morning,—such a shout that seventy or eighty youngsters held their breath to see what was happening.
After weeks upon weeks of torn cards, broken threads, soiled patterns, wrong stitches, weak hand held in place by strong hand, Marm Lisa had sewed without help, and in one lesson, the outline of a huge red apple; and there she stood, offering her finished work to Mistress Mary. The angels in heaven never rejoiced more greatly over the one repentant sinner than the tired shepherdesses over their one poor ewe lamb, as she stood there with quivering hands and wet eyes, the first sense of conscious victory written on her inscrutable brow, and within the turbid, clouded brain the memory of a long struggle, and a hint, at least, of the glory she had achieved.
Rhoda took the square of neat cardboard with the precious red circle that meant so much, and ran into the playground with it, hugging it to her heart, and crying and laughing over it like a child.
When she came back Mistress Mary put her arm round Lisa's waist and said to the whole great family: 'Children, after trying hard, for ever so long, Lisa has sewed this lovely picture all by herself. There is not a wrong stitch, and one side is as neat as the other. What shall we say?'
'Three cheers! The Chinese must go!' shouted Pat Higgins, a patriotic person of five years, whose father was an organiser of sand-lot meetings.
All the grown-ups laughed at this unexpected suggestion, but the cheers were given with a good will, and Marm Lisa, her mind stirred to its depths by the unwonted emotion, puzzled out the meaning of them and hid it in her heart.
CHAPTER VI—FROM GRUBB TO BUTTERFLY
The children were all nearly a year older when Mrs. Grubb one day climbed the flight of wooden steps heading to Marm Lisa's Paradise, and met, as she did so, a procession of Mistress Mary's neophytes who were wending their way homeward.
The spectacle of a number of persons of either sex, or of both sexes, proceeding in hue or grouped as an audience, acted on Mrs. Grubb precisely as the taste of fresh blood is supposed to act on a tiger in captivity. At such a moment she had but one impulse, and that was to address the meeting. The particular subject was not vital, since it was never the subject, but her own desire to talk, that furnished the necessary inspiration. While she was beginning, 'Ladies and gentlemen,' in her clear, pheasant voice, her convictions, opinions, views, prejudices, feelings, experiences, all flew from the different corners of what she was pleased to call her brain, and focussed themselves on the point in question.
If the discussion were in a field in which she had made no excursions whatever, that trifling detail did not impose silence upon her. She simply rose, and said:
'Ladies and gentlemen, though a stranger in your midst, I feel I must say a word of sympathy to you, and a word of encouragement for your cause. It is a good and worthy movement, and I honour you for upholding it. Often and often have I said to my classes, it matters not what face of truth is revealed to you so long as you get a vision that will help you to bless your fellow-men. To bless your fellow- men is the great task before each and every one of us, and I feel to urge this specially upon occasions like this, when I see a large and influential audience before me. Says Rudyard Kipling, "I saw a hundred men on the road to Delhi, and they were all my brothers." Yes, all our brothers! The brotherhood of man and the sisterhood of woman, those are the subjects that include all others. I am glad to have met with you, and to have heard the eloquent words of your speakers. If any of you would like to know more of my work, I will gladly meet you in Room A at the close of this meeting.'
She then sat down amid applause. Never did Mrs. S. Cora Grubb cease speaking without at least a ripple of approval that sometimes grew into a positive ovation. What wonder, then, that she mistook herself for an inspired person? It was easy to understand her popularity with her fellow-men. Her eyes were as soft and clear as those of a child, her hair waved prettily off her low, serene brow, her figure was plump and womanly, and when her voice trembled with emotion (which in her was a shallow well very near the surface) the charmingest pink colour came and went in her cheeks. On such occasions more than one member of the various brotherhoods thought what a cosy wife she would make, if removed from the public arena to the 'sweet, safe corner of the household fire.' To be sure, she had not much logic, but plenty of sentiment; rather too great a fondness for humanity, perhaps, but that was because she had no husband and family of her own to absorb her superfluous sympathy and energy. Mrs. Grubb was not so easily classified as these 'brothers' imagined, however, and fortunately for them she had no leanings towards any man's fireside. Mr. Grubb had died in the endeavour to understand her, and it is doubtful whether, had he been offered a second life and another opportunity, he would have thought the end justified the means.
This criticism, however, applies only to the family circle, for Mrs. Grubb in a hall was ever winning, delightful, and persuasive. If she was illogical, none of her sister-women realised it, for they were pretty much of the same chaotic order of mind, though with this difference: that a certain proportion of them were everywhere seeking reasons for their weariness, their unhappiness, their poverty, their lack of faith and courage, their unsatisfactory husbands and their disappointing children. These ladies were apt to be a trifle bitter, and much more interested in Equal Suffrage, Temperance, Cremation, and Edenic Diet than in subjects like Palmistry, Telepathy, and Hypnotism, which generally attracted the vague, speculative, feather-headed ones. These discontented persons were always the most frenzied workers and the most eloquent speakers, and those who were determined to get more rights were mild compared with those who were determined to avenge their wrongs. There was, of course, no unanimity of belief running through all these Clubs, Classes, Circles, Societies, Orders, Leagues, Chapters, and Unions; but there was one bond of aversion, and that was domestic service of any kind. That no woman could develop or soar properly, and cook, scrub, sweep, dust, wash dishes, mend, or take care of babies at the same time—to defend this proposition they would cheerfully have gone to the stake. They were willing to concede all these sordid tasks as an honourable department of woman's work, but each wanted them to be done by some other woman.
Mrs. Grubb really belonged to neither of these classes. She was not very keen about more rights, nor very bloodthirsty about her wrongs. She inhabited a kind of serene twilight, the sort that follows an especially pink sunset. She was not wholly clear in her mind about anything, but she was entirely hopeful about the world and its disposition to grow and move in ever ascending spirals. She hated housework as much as any of her followers, although she was seldom allowed to do anything for herself. 'I'll step in and make your beds, Mrs. Grubb; I know you're tired.' 'I'll sweep the front room, Mrs. Grubb; you give yourself out so, I know you need rest.' 'Let me cook your supper while you get up strength for your lecture; there are plenty of people to cook, but there's only one Mrs. Grubb!' These were the tender solicitations she was ever receiving.
As for theories, she had small choice. She had looked into almost every device for increasing the sum of human knowledge and hastening the millennium, and she thought them all more or less valuable. Her memory, mercifully, was not a retentive one, therefore she remembered little of the beliefs she had outgrown; they never left even a deposit in the stretch of wet sand in which they had written themselves.
She had investigated, or at any rate taught, Delsarte, Physical Culture, Dress-Reform, the Blue-glass Cure, Scientific Physiognomy, Phrenology, Cheiromancy, Astrology, Vegetarianism, Edenic Diet, Single Tax, Evolution, Mental Healing, Christian Science, Spiritualism, Theosophy, and Hypnotism. All these metamorphoses of thought had Mrs. S. Cora Grubb passed through, and was not yet a finished butterfly. Some of the ideas she had left far behind, but she still believed in them as fragments of truth suitable for feeble growing souls that could not bear the full light of revelation in one burst. She held honorary memberships in most of the outgrown societies, attended annual meetings of others, and kept in touch with all the rest by being present at their social reunions.
One of her present enthusiasms was her 'Kipling Brothers,' the boys' band enlisted under the motto, 'I saw a hundred men on the road to Delhi, and they were all my brothers.' She believed that there was no salvation for a boy outside of a band. Banded somehow he must be, then badged, beribboned, bannered, and bye-lawed. From the moment a boy's mother had left off her bye-lows, Mrs. Grubb wanted him put under bye-laws. She often visited Mistress Mary with the idea that some time she could interest her in one of her thousand schemes; but this special call was to see if the older children, whose neat handiwork she had seen and admired, could embroider mottoes on cardboard to adorn the Kipling room at an approaching festival. She particularly wanted 'Look not upon the Wine' done in blood-red upon black, and 'Shun the Filthy Weed' in smoke-colour on bright green. She had in her hand a card with the points for her annual address noted upon it, for this sort of work she ordinarily did in the horse- cars. These ran:
1st. Value of individuality. 'I saw.'
2nd. Value of observation. 'I SAW.'
3rd. Value of numbers. 'I saw a HUNDRED men.'
4th. Importance of belonging to the male sex. It was MEN who were seen on the road.
5th. What and where is Delhi?
6th. Description of the road thither.
7th. Every boy has his Delhi.
8th. Are you 'on the road'?
9th. The brotherhood of man.
10th. The Kipling Brothers' Call to Arms.
She intended to run through the heads of this impassioned oration to Mistress Mary, whom she rather liked; and, in truth, Mary had difficulty in disliking her, though she thoroughly disapproved of her. She was so amiable, and apparently so susceptible to teaching, that Mary always fancied her on the verge of something better. Her vagaries, her neglects, and what to Mary's mind were positive inhumanities, seemed in a way unconscious. 'If I can only get into sufficiently friendly relations,' thought Mary, 'so that I can convince her that her first and highest duty lies in the direction of the three children, I believe she will have the heroism to do it!' But in this Mistress Mary's instinct was at fault. Mrs. Grubb took indeed no real cognisance of her immediate surroundings, but she would not have wished to see near duties any more clearly. Neither had she any sane and healthy interest in good works of any kind; she simply had a sort of philanthropic hysteria, and her most successful speeches were so many spasms.
CHAPTER VII—THE COMET AND THE FIXED STAR
'I don't feel that I can part with Lisa now, just as she's beginning to be a help to me,' argued Mrs. Grubb, shortly after she had been welcomed and ensconced in a rocking-chair. 'As Madame Goldmarker says, nobody else in the world would have given her a home these four years, and a good many wouldn't have had her round the house.'
'That is true,' replied Mary, 'and your husband must have been a very good man from all you tell me, Mrs. Grubb.'
'Good enough, but totally uninteresting,' said that lady laconically.
'Well, putting aside the question as to whether goodness ought to be totally uninteresting, you say that Lisa's mother left Mr. Grubb three hundred dollars for her food and clothing, and that she has been ever since a willing servant, absolutely devoted to your interests.'
'We never put a cent of the three hundred dollars into our own pockets,' explained Mrs. Grubb. 'Mr. Grubb was dreadfully opposed to my doing it, but every penny of it went to freeing our religious society from debt. It was a case of the greatest good of the greatest number, and I didn't flinch. I thought it was a good deal more important that the Army of Present Perfection should have a roof over its head than that Lisa Bennett should be fed and clothed; that is, if both could not be done.'
'I don't know the creed of the Army, but it seems to me your Presently Perfect soldiers would have been rather uncomfortable under their roof if Lisa Bennett had been naked and starving outside.'
'Oh, it would never have come to that,' responded Mrs. Grubb easily. 'There is plenty of money in the world, and it belongs equally to the whole human race. I don't recognise anybody's right to have a dollar more than I have; but Mr. Grubb could never accept any belief that had been held less than a thousand years, and before he died he gave some money to a friend of his, and told him to pay me ten dollars every month towards Lisa's board. Untold gold could never pay for what my pride has suffered in having her, and if she hadn't been so useful I couldn't have done it,—I don't pretend that I could. She's an offence to the eye.'
'Not any longer,' said Mary proudly.
'Well, she was up to a few months ago; but she would always do anything for the twins, and though they are continually getting into mischief she never lets any harm come to them, not so much as a scratch. If I had taken a brighter child, she would have been for ever playing on her own account and thinking of her own pleasure; but if you once get an idea into Lisa's head of what you expect her to do, she will go on doing it to the end of the world, and wild horses couldn't keep her from it.'
'It's a pity more of us hadn't that virtue of obedience to a higher law.'
'Well, perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn't; it's a sign of a very weak mind.'
'Or a very strong one,' retorted Mary.
'There are natural leaders and natural followers,' remarked Mrs. Grubb smilingly, as she swayed to and fro in Mary's rocking-chair. Her smile, like a ballet-dancer's, had no connection with, nor relation to, the matter of her speech or her state of feeling; it was what a watchmaker would call a detached movement. 'I can't see,' said she, 'that it is my duty to send Lisa away to be taught, just when I need her most. My development is a good deal more important than hers.'
'Why? Because I have a vocation and a mission; because, if I should falter or faint by the wayside, hundreds of women who depend on me for inspiration would fall back into error and suffer permanent loss and injury.'
'Do you suppose they really would?' asked Mary rather maliciously, anxious if possible to ruffle the surface of Mrs. Grubb's exasperating placidity. 'Or would they, of course after a long period of grief-stricken apathy, attach themselves to somebody else's classes?'
'They might,' allowed Mrs. Grubb, in a tone of hurt self-respect; 'though you must know, little as you've seen of the world, that no woman has just the same revelation as any other, and that there are some who are born to interpret truth to the multitude. I can say in all humility that it has been so with me from a child. I've always had a burning desire to explore the secret chambers of Thought, always yearned to understand and explain the universe.'
'I have never tried to explain it,' sighed Mary a little wearily; 'one is so busy trying to keep one's little corner clean and sweet and pleasant, a helpful place where sad and tired souls can sit down and rest.'
'Who wants to sit down and rest? Not I!' exclaimed Mrs. Grubb. 'But then, I'm no criterion, I have such an active mind.'
'There are just a few passive virtues,' said Mary teasingly. 'We must remember that activity doesn't always make for good; sometimes it is unrest, disintegration; not growth, Mrs. Grubb, but fermentation.'
Mrs. Grubb took out a small blank-book and made a note, for she had an ear for any sentence that might be used in a speech.
'That is true. "DISTRUST THE ACTIVITY WHICH IS NOT GROWTH, BUT FERMENTATION" that will just hit some ladies in my classes, and it comes right in with something I am going to say this evening. We have a Diet Congress here this week, and there's a good deal of feeling and dispute between the various branches. I have two delegates stopping with me, and they haven't spoken to each other since yesterday morning, nor sat down to eat at the same table. I shall do all I can, as the presiding officer, to keep things pleasant at the meetings, but it will be difficult. You've never been in public life and can't understand it, but you see there are women among the delegates who've suffered the tyranny of man so long that they will cook anything their husbands demand; women who believe in eating any kind of food, and hold that the principal trouble lies in bad cooking; women who will give up meat, but still indulge in all sorts of cakes, pastries, and kickshaws; and women who are strong on temperance in drink, but who see no need of temperance in food. The whole question of diet reform is in an awful state, and a Congress is the only way to settle it.'
'How do men stand on the diet question?' asked Mary, with a twinkle in her eye.
'They don't stand at all,' answered Mrs. Grubb promptly. 'They sit right still, and some of them lie down flat, you might say, whenever it's mentioned. They'll do even more for temperance than they will for reformed diet, though goodness knows they're fond enough of drinking. The Edenites number about sixty-seven in this city, and nine is the largest number of gentlemen that we've been able to interest. Those nine are the husbands and sons of the lady members, and at the next meeting two of them are going to be expelled for backsliding. I declare, if I was a man, I'd be ashamed to confess that I was all stomach; but that's what most of them are. Not that it's easy work to be an Edenite: it's impossible to any but a highly spiritual nature. I have been on the diet for six months, and nothing but my position as vice-president of the society, and my desire to crush the body and release the spirit, could have kept me faithful. I don't pretend to like it, but that doesn't make me disloyal. There's nothing I enjoy better than a good cut of underdone beef, with plenty of dish gravy; I love nice tender porter- house steaks with mushrooms; I love thick mutton-chops broiled over a hot fire: but I can't believe in them, and my conscience won't allow me to eat them. Do you believe in meat?'
'I don't see why you say "certainly." You would be a good deal better off without it. You are filling yourself full of carnal, brutal, murderous passions every time you eat it. The people who eat meat are not half so elevated nor half so teachable as the Edenites.'