Marm Lisa by Kate Douglas Wiggin
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
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.'