Marm Lisa by Kate Douglas Wiggin
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;
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.