Chapter XII--Flotsam and Jetsam
 

It may be said in justice to Mrs. Grubb that she was more than usually harassed just at this time.

Mrs. Sylvester, her voluble next-door neighbour, who had lifted many sordid cares from her shoulders, had suddenly become tired of the 'new method of mental healing,' and during a brief absence of Mrs. Grubb from the city had issued a thousand embossed gilt-edged cards, announcing herself as the Hand Reader in the following terms

TO THE ELITE LADIES AND GENTLEMEN OF THE CITY!

I take this method of introducing myself to your kind consideration as a Hand Reader of rare and genuine merit; catering merely to the Creme du le Creme of this city. No others need apply.

Having been educated carefully and refinedly, speaking French fluently, therefore I only wish to deal with the elite of the bon- ton.

I do not advertise in papers nor at residence.
Ladies $1.50. Gents $2.
Yours truly,

MRS. PANSY SYLVESTER,
3 Eden Place near 4th,
Lower bell

PS. Pupil of S. CORA GRUBB.

Inasmuch as Mrs. Sylvester had imbibed all her knowledge from Mrs. Grubb, that prophet and scholar thought, not unnaturally, that she might have been consulted about the enterprise, particularly as the cards were of a nature to prejudice the better class of patients, and lower the social tone of the temple of healing.

As if this were not vexatious enough, her plans were disarranged in another and more important particular. Mrs. Sylvester's manicure had set up a small establishment for herself, and admitted as partner a certain chiropodist named Boone. The two artists felt that by sharing expenses they might increase profits, and there was a sleeping thought in both their minds that the partnership might ripen into marriage if the financial returns of the business were satisfactory. It was destined, however, to be a failure in both respects; for Dr. Boone looked upon Madame Goldmarker, the vocal teacher in No. 13 Eden Place, and to look upon her was to love her madly, since she earned seventy-five dollars a month, while the little manicure could barely eke out a slender and uncertain twenty. In such crises the heart can be trusted to leap in the right direction and beat at the proper rate.

Mrs. Grubb would have had small interest in these sordid romances had it not been that Madame Goldmarker had faithfully promised to look after Lisa and the twins, so that Mrs. Grubb might be free to hold classes in the adjoining towns. The little blind god had now overturned all these well-laid plans, and Mrs. Grubb was for the moment the victim of inexorable circumstances.

Dr. Boone fitted up princely apartments next his office, and Madame Goldmarker Boone celebrated her nuptials and her desertion of Eden Place by making a formal debut at a concert in Pocahontas Hall. The next morning, the neighbourhood that knew them best, and many other neighbourhoods that knew them not at all, received neat printed circulars thrust under the front door. Upon one side of the paper were printed the words and music of 'Home, Sweet Home,' 'as sung by Madame Goldmarker Boone at her late concert in Pocahontas Hall.' On the reverse side appeared a picture of the doctor, a neat cut of a human foot, a schedule of prices, and the alluring promise that the Madame's vocal pupils would receive treatment at half the regular rates.

Many small disputes and quarrels were consequent upon these business, emotional, and social convulsions, and each of the parties concerned, from Mrs. Grubb to the chiropodist, consulted Mistress Mary and solicited her advice and interference.

This seemed a little strange, but Mistress Mary's garden was the sort of place to act as a magnet to reformers, eccentrics, professional philanthropists, and cranks. She never quite understood the reason, and for that matter nobody else did, unless it were simply that the place was a trifle out of the common, and she herself a person full of ideas, and eminently sympathetic with those of other people. Anybody could 'drop in,' and as a consequence everybody did-- grandmothers, mothers with babes in arms, teachers, ministers, photographers, travellers, and journalists. A Russian gentleman who had escaped from Siberia was a frequent visitor. He wanted to marry Edith and open a boarding-house for Russian exiles, and was perfectly confident of making her happy, as he spoke seven languages and had been a good husband to two Russian ladies now deceased. An Alaskan missionary, home on a short leave, called periodically, and attempted to persuade Mary to return with him to his heathen. These suitors were disposed of summarily when they made their desires known; but there were other visitors, part of the flotsam and jetsam of a great city, who appeared and disappeared mysteriously--ships passing Mistress Mary in the night of sorrow, and, after some despairing, half-comprehended signal, vanishing into the shadows out of which they had come. Sometimes, indeed, inspired by the good cheer of the place, they departed, looking a little less gloomy; sometimes, too, they grew into a kind of active if transitory relation with the busy little world, and became, for a time, a part of it.

Mistress Mary went down to the street corner with the children one noon to see them safely over the crossing. There was generally a genial policeman who made it a part of his duty to stand guard there, and guide the reckless and stupid and bewildered ones among the youngsters over the difficulties that lay in their path. Sometimes he would devote himself exclusively to Atlantic and Pacific Simonson, who really desired death, though they were not spiritually fitted for it, and bent all their energies towards getting under trucks rather than away from them. Marm Lisa never approached the spot without a nervous trembling and a look of terror in her eyes, and before the advent of the helpful officer had always taken a twin by each arm, and the three had gone over thus as a solid body, no matter how strong the resistance.

On this special morning there was no guardian of the peace in evidence, but standing on the crossing was a bearded man of perhaps forty years. Rather handsome he was, and well though carelessly dressed, but he stood irresolutely with his hands in his pockets, as if quite undecided what to do next. Mary simply noted him as an altogether strange figure in the neighbourhood, but the unexpected appearance of a large dog on the scene scattered the babies, and they fell on her in a weeping phalanx.

'Will you kindly help a little?' she asked after a moment's waiting, in which any chivalrous gentleman, she thought, should have flung himself into the breach.

'I?' he asked vaguely. 'How do you mean? What shall I do?'

She longed to say, 'Wake up, and perhaps an idea will come to you'; but she did say, with some spirit, 'Almost anything, thank you. Drive the dog away, and help some of the smallest children across the street, please. You can have these two' (indicating the twins smilingly), 'or the other ninety-eight--whichever you like.'

He obeyed orders, though not in a very alert fashion, but showed a sense of humour in choosing the ninety-eight rather than the two, and Mary left him on the corner with a pleasant word of thanks and a cheery remark.

The next morning he appeared at the garden gate, and asked if he might come in and sit a while. He was made welcome; but it was a busy morning, and he was so silent a visitor that everybody forgot his existence.

He made a curious impression, which can hardly be described, save that any student of human nature would say at once, 'He is out of relation with the world.' He had something of the expression one sees in a recluse or a hermit. If you have ever wandered up a mountain side, you may have come suddenly upon a hut, a rude bed within it, and in the door a man reading, or smoking, or gazing into vacancy. You remember the look you met in that man's eyes. He has tasted life and found it bitter; has sounded the world and found it hollow; has known man or woman and found them false. Friendship to him is without savour, and love without hope.

After watching the children for an hour, the stranger slipped out quietly. Mistress Mary followed him to the door, abashed at her unintentional discourtesy in allowing him to go without a good morning. She saw him stand at the foot of the steps, look first up, then down the street, then walk aimlessly to the corner. There, with hands in pockets, he paused again, glancing four ways; then, with a shrug and a gait that seemed to say, 'It makes no difference,' he slouched away.

'He is simply a stranger in a strange city, pining for his home,' thought Mary, 'or else he is a stranger in every city, and has nowhere a home.'

He came again a few days later, and then again, apologising for the frequency of his visits, but giving no special reason for them. The neophytes called him 'the Solitary,' but the children christened him after a fashion of their own, and began to ask small favours of him. 'Thread my needle, please, Mr. Man!' 'More beads,' or 'More paper, Mr. Man, please.'

It is impossible to keep out of relation with little children. One of these mites of humanity would make a man out of your mountain hermit, resist as he might. They set up a claim on one whether it exists or not, and one has to allow it, and respond to it at least in some perfunctory fashion. More than once, as Mr. Man sat silently near the circle, the chubby Baker baby would fall over his feet, and he would involuntarily stoop to pick her up, straighten her dress, and soothe her woe. There was no hearty pleasure in his service even now. Nobody was certain that he felt any pleasure at all. His helpfulness was not spontaneous; it seemed a kind of reflex action, a survival of some former state of mind or heart; for he did his favours in a dream, nor heard any thanks: yet the elixir was working in his veins.

'He is dreadfully in the way,' grumbled Edith; 'he is more ever- present than my ardent Russian.'

'So long as he insists on coming, let us make him supply the paternal element,' suggested Rhoda. 'It may be a degrading confession, but we could afford to part with several women here if we could only secure a really fatherly man. The Solitary cannot indulge in any day-dreams or trances, if we accept him as the patriarch of the institution.'

Whereupon they boldly asked him, on his subsequent visits, to go upon errands, and open barrels of apples, and order intoxicated gentlemen off the steps, and mend locks and window-fastenings, and sharpen lead-pencils, and put on coal, and tell the lady in the rear that her parrot interfered with their morning prayers by shrieking the hymns in impossible keys. He accepted these tasks without protest, and performed them conscientiously, save in the parrot difficulty, in which case he gave one look at the lady, and fled without opening the subject.

It could not be said that he appeared more cheerful, the sole sign of any increased exhilaration of spirits being the occasional straightening of his cravat and the smoothing of his hair-- refinements of toilet that had heretofore been much neglected, though he always looked unmistakably the gentleman.

He seemed more attracted by Lisa than by any of the smaller children; but that may have been because Mary had told him her story, thinking that other people's stories were a useful sort of thing to tell people who had possible stories of their own.

Lisa was now developing a curious and unexpected facility and talent in the musical games. She played the tambourine, the triangle, the drum, as nobody else could, and in accompanying the marches she invented all sorts of unusual beats and accents. It grew to be the natural thing to give her difficult parts in the little dramas of child life: the cock that crowed in the morn to wake the sleeping birds and babies, the mother-bird in the nest, the spreading willow- tree in the pond where the frogs congregated,--these roles she delighted in and played with all her soul.

It would have been laughable, had it not been pathetic, to watch her drag Mr. Man into the games, and to see him succumb to her persuasions with his face hanging out flaming signals of embarrassment. In the 'Carrier Doves' the little pigeons flew with an imaginary letter to him, and this meant that he was to stand and read it aloud, as Mary and Edith had done before him.

'It seems to be a letter from a child,' he faltered, and then began stammeringly, '"My dear Mr. Man"'--there was a sudden stop. That there was a letter in his mind nobody could doubt, but he was too greatly moved to read it. Rhoda quickly reached out her hand for the paper, covering his discomfiture by exclaiming, 'The pigeons have brought Mr. Man a letter from some children in his fatherland! Yes' (reading), 'they hope that we will be good to him, because he is far away from home, and they send their love to all Mistress Mary's children. Wasn't it pretty of the doves to remember that Mr. Man is a stranger here?'

The Solitary appeared for the last time a week before Thanksgiving Day, and he opened the door on a scene of jollity that warmed him to the heart.

In the middle of the floor was a mimic boat, crowded from stem to stern with little Pilgrim fathers and mothers trying to land on Plymouth Rock, in a high state of excitement and an equally high sea. Pat Higgins was a chieftain commanding a large force of tolerably peaceful Indians on the shore, and Massasoit himself never exhibited more dignity; while Marm Lisa was the proud mother of the baby Oceanus born on the eventful voyage of the Mayflower.

Then Mistress Mary told the story of the festival very simply and sweetly, and all the tiny Pilgrims sang a hymn of thanksgiving. The Solitary listened, with his heart in his eyes and a sob in his throat; then, Heaven knows under the inspiration of what memory, he brushed Edith from the piano-stool, and, seating himself in her place, played as if he were impelled by some irresistible force. The hand of a master had never swept those keys before, and he held his hearers spellbound.

There was a silence that could be felt. The major part of the audience were not of an age to appreciate high art, but the youngsters were awed by the strange spectacle of Mr. Man at the piano, and with gaping mouth and strained ear listened to the divine harmonies he evoked. On and on he played, weaving the story of his past into the music, so it seemed to Mistress Mary. The theme came brokenly and uncertainly at first, as his thoughts strove for expression. Then out of the bitterness and gall, the suffering and the struggle--and was it remorse?--was born a sweet, resolute, triumphant strain that carried the listeners from height to height of sympathy and emotion. It had not a hint of serenity; it was new-born courage, aspiration, and self-mastery the song of 'him that overcometh.'

When he paused, there was a deep-drawn breath, a sigh from hearts surcharged with feeling, and Lisa, who had drawn closer and closer to the piano, stood there now, one hand leaning on Mr. Man's shoulder and the tears chasing one another down her cheeks.

'It hurts me here,' she sighed, pressing her hand to her heart.

He rose presently and left the room without a word, while the children prepared for home-going with a subdued air of having assisted at some solemn rite.

When Mistress Mary went out on the steps, a little later, he was still there.

'It is the last time! Auf wiedersehen!' he said.

'Auf wiedersehen,' she answered gently, giving him her hand.

'Have you no Thanksgiving sermon for me?' he asked, holding her fingers lingeringly. 'No child in all your flock needs it so much.'

'Yes,' said Mary, her eyes falling, for a moment, beneath his earnest gaze; but suddenly she lifted them again as she said bravely, 'I have a sermon, but it is one with a trumpet-call, and little balm in it. "Unto whomsoever anything is given, of him something shall be required."'

When he reached the corner of the street he stopped, but instead of glancing four ways, as usual, he looked back at the porch where Mistress Mary stood. She carried Jenny Baker, a rosy sprig of babyhood, in the lovely curve of her arm; Bobby Baxter clasped her neck from behind in a strangling embrace; Johnny, and Meg, and Billy were tugging at her apron; and Marm Lisa was standing on tiptoe trying to put a rose in her hair. Then the Solitary passed into the crowd, and they saw him in the old places no more.