Chapter XIII--Leaves from Mistress Mary's Garden
 

'We have an unknown benefactor. A fortnight ago came three bushels of flowers: two hundred tiny nosegays marked "For the children," half a dozen knots of pink roses for the "little mothers," a dozen scarlet carnations for Lisa, while one great bunch of white lilies bore the inscription, "For the Mother Superior." Last week a barrel of apples and another of oranges appeared mysteriously, and to-day comes a note, written in a hand we do not recognise, saying we are not to buy holly, mistletoe, evergreens, Christmas tree, or baubles of any kind, as they will be sent to us on December 22. We have inquired of our friends, but have no clue as yet, further than it must be somebody who knows our needs and desires very thoroughly. We have certainly entertained an angel unawares, but which among the crowd of visitors is it most likely to be? The Solitary, I wonder? I should never have thought it, were it not for the memory of that last day, the scene at the piano, the "song of him that overcometh," and the backward glance from the corner as he sprang, absolutely sprang, on the car. There was purpose in it, or I am greatly mistaken. Mr. Man's eyes would be worth looking into, if one could find purpose in their brown depths! Moreover, though I am too notorious a dreamer of dreams to be trusted, I cannot help fancying he went back to something; it was not a mere forward move, not a sudden determination to find some new duty to do that life might grow nobler and sweeter, but a return to an old duty grown hateful. That was what I saw in his face as he stood on the crossing, with the noon sunshine caught in his tawny hair and beard. Rhoda, Edith, and I have each made a story about him, and each of us would vouch for the truth of her particular version. I will not tell mine, but this is Rhoda's; and while it differs from my own in several important particulars, it yet bears an astonishing resemblance to it. It is rather romantic, but if one is to make any sort of story out of the Solitary it must be a romantic one, for he suggests no other.

'Rhoda began her tale with a thrilling introduction that set us all laughing (we smile here when still the tears are close at hand; indeed, we must smile, or we could not live): the prelude being something about a lonely castle in the heart of the Hartz Mountains, and a prattling golden-haired babe stretching its arms across a ruined moat in the direction of its absent father. This was in the nature of an absurd prologue, but when she finally came to the Solitary she grew serious; for she made him in the bygone days a sensitive child and a dreamy, impetuous youth, with a domineering, ill-tempered father who was utterly unable and unwilling to understand or to sympathise with him. His younger brother (for Rhoda insists on a younger brother) lived at home, while he, the elder, spent, or misspent, his youth and early manhood in a German university. As the years went on, the relations between himself and his father grew more and more strained. Do as the son might, he could never please, either in his line of thought and study or in his practical pursuits. The father hated his books, his music, his poetry, and his artist friends, while he on his part found nothing to stimulate or content him in his father's tasks and manner of life. His mother pined and died in the effort to keep peace between them, but the younger brother's schemes were quite in an opposite direction. At this time, Mr. Man flung himself into a foolish marriage, one that promised little in the shape of the happiness he craved so eagerly. (Rhoda insists on this unhappy marriage; I am in doubt about it.) Finally his father died, and on being summoned home, as he supposed, to take his rightful place and assume the management of the estate, he found himself disinherited. He could have borne the loss of fortune and broad acres better than this convincing proof of his father's dislike and distrust, and he could have endured even that, had it not befallen him through the perfidy of his brother. When, therefore, he was met by his wife's bitter reproaches and persistent coldness he closed his heart against all the world, shook the dust of home from off his feet, left his own small fortune behind him, kissed his little son, and became a wanderer on the face of the earth.

'This is substantially Rhoda's story, but it does not satisfy her completely. She says, in her whimsical way, that it needs another villain to account properly for Mr. Man's expression.

'Would it not be strange if by any chance we have brought him to a happier frame of mind? Would it not be a lovely tribute to the secret power of this place, to the healing atmosphere of love that we try to create--that atmosphere in which we bathe our own tired spirits day by day, recreating ourselves with every new dawn? But whether our benefactor be the Solitary or not, some heart has been brought into new relation with us and with the world. It only confirms my opinion that everybody is at his or her best in the presence of children. In what does the magic of their influence consist? This morning I was riding down in the horse-cars, and a poor ragged Italian woman entered, a baby in her arms, and two other children following close behind. The girl was a mite of a thing, prematurely grave, serious, pretty, and she led a boy just old enough to toddle. She lifted him carefully up to the seat (she who should have been lifted herself!), took his hat, smoothed his damp, curly hair, and tucked his head down on her shoulder, a shoulder that had begun its life-work full early, poor tot! The boy was a feeble, frail, ill-nourished, dirty young urchin, who fell asleep as soon as his head touched her arm. His child-nurse, having made him comfortable, gave a sigh of relief, and looked up and down the car with a radiant smile of content. Presto, change! All the railroad magnates and clerks had been watching her over their newspapers, and in one instant she had captured the car. I saw tears in many eyes, and might have seen more had not my own been full. There was apparently no reason for the gay, winsome, enchanting smile that curved the red mouth, brought two dimples into the brown cheeks, and sunny gleams into two dark eyes. True, she was riding instead of walking, and her charge was sleeping instead of waking and wailing; but these surely were trifling matters on which to base such rare content. Yet there it was shining in her face as she met a dozen pairs of eyes, and saw in each of them love for her sweet motherly little self, and love for the "eternal womanly" of which she was the visible expression. There was a general exodus at Brett Street, and every man furtively slipped a piece of silver into the child's lap as he left the car; each, I think, trying to hide his action from the others.

'It is of threads such as these that I weave the fabric of my daily happiness,--a happiness that my friends never seem able to comprehend; the blindest of them pity me, indeed, but I consider myself like Mary of old, "blessed among women."'

Another day.--'God means all sorts of things when he sends men and women into the world. That he means marriage, and that it is the chiefest good, I have no doubt, but it is the love forces in it that make it so. I may, perhaps, reach my highest point of development without marriage, but I can never do it unless I truly and deeply love somebody or something. I am not sure, but it seems to me God intends me for other people's children, not for my own. My heart is so entirely in my work that I fancy I have none left for a possible husband. If ever a man comes who is strong enough and determined enough to sweep things aside and make a place for himself willy- nilly, I shall ask him to come in and rest; but that seems very unlikely. What man have I ever seen who would help me to be the woman my work helps me to be? Of course there are such, but the Lord keeps them safely away from my humble notice, lest I should die of love or be guilty of hero-worship.

'Men are so dull, for the most part! They are often tender and often loyal, but they seldom put any spiritual leaven into their tenderness, and their loyalty is apt to be rather unimaginative. Heigho! I wish we could make lovers as the book-writers do, by rolling the virtues and graces of two or three men into one! I'd almost like to be a man in this decade, a young, strong man, for there are such splendid giants to slay! To be sure, a woman can always buckle on the sword, and that is rather a delightful avocation, after all; but somehow there are comparatively few men nowadays who care greatly to wear swords or have them buckled on. There is no inspiration in trying to buckle on the sword of a man who never saw one, and who uses it wrong end foremost, and falls down on it, and entangles his legs in it, and scratches his lady's hand with it whenever he kisses her! And therefore, these things, for aught I see, being unalterably so, I will take children's love, woman's love, and man's friendship; man's friendship, which, if it is not life's poetry, is credible prose, says George Meredith,--"a land of low undulations, instead of Alps, beyond the terrors and deceptions." That will fill to overflowing my life, already so full, and in time I shall grow from everybody's Mistress Mary into everybody's Mother Mary, and that will be the end of me in my present state of being. I am happy, yes, I am blessedly happy in this prospect, and yet--'

Another day.--'My beloved work! How beautiful it is! Toniella has not brought little Nino this week. She says he is ill, but that he sits every day in the orchard, singing our songs and modelling birds from the lump of clay we sent him. When I heard that phrase "in the orchard," I felt a curious sensation, for I know they live in a tenement house; but I said nothing, and went to visit them.

'The orchard is a few plants in pots and pans on a projecting window- sill!

'My heart went down on its knees when I saw it. The divine spark is in those children; it will be a moving power, helping them to struggle out of their present environment into a wider, sunnier one-- the one of the real orchards. How fresh, how full of possibilities, is the world to the people who can keep the child heart, and above all to the people who are able to see orchards in window-boxes!'

Another day.--'Lisa's daily lesson is just finished. It was in arithmetic, and I should have lost patience had it not been for her musical achievements this morning. Edith played the airs of twenty or thirty games, and without a word of help from us she associated the right memory with each, and illustrated it with pantomime. In some cases, she invented gestures of her own that showed deeper intuition than ours; and when, last of all, the air of the Carrier Doves was played, a vision of our Solitary must have come before her mind. Her lip trembling, she held an imaginary letter in her fingers, and, brushing back the hair from her forehead (his very gesture!), she passed her hand across her eyes, laid the make-believe note in Rhoda's apron, and slipped out of the door without a word.

"'Mr. Man! Mr. Man! It is Mr. Man when he couldn't read his letter!" cried the children. "Why doesn't he come to see us any more, Miss Rhoda?"

'"He is doing some work for Miss Mary, I think," answered Rhoda, with a teasing look at me.

'Lisa came back just then, and rubbed her cheek against my arm. "I went to the corner," she whispered, "but he wasn't there; he is never there now!"

'It was the remembrance of this astonishing morning that gave me courage in the later lesson. She seems to have no idea of numbers-- there will be great difficulty there,--but she begins to read well, and the marvel of it is that she has various talents! She is weak, uneducated; many things are either latent or altogether missing in her as yet, and I do not know how many of them will appear, nor how long a process it will be; but her mind is full of compensations, and that is the last thing I expected. It is only with infinite struggle that she learns anything, though she is capable of struggle, and that is a good deal to say; but she has besides a precious heritage of instincts and insights, hitherto unsuspected and never drawn upon. It is precisely as if there had been a bundle of possibilities folded away somewhere in her brain, but hidden by an intervening veil, or crushed by some alien weight. We seem to have drawn away that curtain or lifted that weight, and the faculties so long obscured are stretching themselves and growing with their new freedom. It reminds me of the weak, stunted grass-blades under a stone. I am always lifting it and rolling it away, sentimentally trying to give the struggling shoots a chance. One can see for many a long day where the stone has been, but the grass forgets it after a while, when it breathes the air and sunshine, tastes the dew and rain, and feels the miracle of growth within its veins.'

Another day.--'The twins are certainly improving a trifle. They are by no means angelic, but they are at least growing human; and if ever their tremendous energy--a very whirlwind--is once turned in the right direction, we shall see things move, I warrant you! Rhoda says truly that the improvement cannot be seen with the naked eye; but the naked eye is never in use with us, in our work, nor indeed with the Father of Lights, who teaches us all to see truly if we will.

'The young minister has spent a morning with us. He came to make my acquaintance, shook me warmly by the hand, and--that was the last I saw of him, for he kept as close to Rhoda's side as circumstances would permit! The naked eye is all one needs to discern his motives! Psychological observations, indeed! Child study, forsooth! It was lovely to see Rhoda's freshness, spontaneity, and unconsciousness, as she flitted about like a pretty cardinal-bird. Poor young minister, whose heart is dangling at the strings of her scarlet apron! Lucky young minister, if his arm ever goes about that slender red-ribboned waist, and his lips ever touch that glowing cheek! But poor me! what will the garden be without our crimson rose?'