Marm Lisa 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.