Marm Lisa by Kate Douglas Wiggin
Chapter V--The New Plant Grew
'Now, Rhoda dear,' said Mistress Mary one day, when Lisa had become somewhat wonted to her new surroundings, 'you are to fold your hands respectfully in your lap and I will teach you things,--things which you in your youth and inexperience have not thought about as yet. The other girls may listen, too, and catch the drippings of my wisdom. I really know little about the education of defective children, but, thank heaven, I can put two and two together, as Susan Nipper said. The general plan will be to train Lisa's hands and speak to her senses in every possible way, since her organs of sense are within your reach, and those of thought are out of it. The hardest lesson for such a child to learn is the subordination of its erratic will to our normal ones. Lisa's attention is the most hopeful thing about her and encourages me more than anything else. It is not as if there were no mental processes existing; they are there, but in a very enfeebled state. Of course she should have been under skilled teaching the six years, but, late as it is, we couldn't think of giving up a child who can talk, use her right hand, dress herself, go upon errands, recognise colours, wash dishes; who is apparently neither vicious nor cunning, but who, on the contrary, has lived four years under the same roof with Mrs. S. Cora Grubb without rebellion or violence or treachery! Why, dear girls, such a task, if it did not appeal to one on the moral, certainly would on the intellectual, side. Marm Lisa will teach us more in a year, you may be sure, than we shall teach her. Let us keep a record of our experiments; drop all materials that seem neither to give her sensations nor wake her discriminative power, and choose others that speak to her more clearly. Let us watch her closely, both to penetrate the secret of her condition and to protect the other children. What a joy, what a triumph to say to her some dear day, a few years hence, "You poor, motherless bairn, we have swept away the cobwebs of your dreams, given you back your will, put a clue to things in your hand: now go on and learn to live and be mistress of your own life under God!"'
It was at such a moment, when Mary's voice trembled, and her eyes shone through a mist of tears like two victorious stars, that a hush fell upon the little group, and the spirit of the eternal child descended like a dove, its pure wings stirring the silence of each woman's heart. At such a moment, their daily work, with its round of harsh, unlovely, beautiful, discouraging, hopeful, helpful, heavenly duties, was transfigured, and so were they. The servant was transformed by the service, and the service by the servant. They were alone together, each heart knit to all the others by the close bond of a common vocation; and though a heretofore unknown experience, it seemed a natural one when Mistress Mary suddenly bent her head, and said softly:
'Father in heaven, it is by the vision of Thy relation to us that we can apprehend our relation to these little ones. As we have accepted that high trust, so make us loyal to it. When our feet grow weary and our faith grows dim, help us to follow close after the ever perfect One who taught even as we are trying to teach. He it was whom the common people heard gladly. He it was who disdained not the use of objects and symbols, remembering it was the childhood of the race. He it was who spake in parables and stories, laying bare soul of man and heart of nature, and revealing each by divine analogy. He it was who took the little ones in His arms and blessed them; who set the child in the midst, saying, "Except ye become as one of these." May the afterglow of that inspired teaching ever shine upon the path we are treading. May we bathe our tired spirits in its warmth and glory, and kindle our torches at the splendour of its light. We remember that He told us to feed His lambs. Dear Lord, help all the faithful shepherds who care for the ninety-and-nine that lie in the safe cover of the fold; help us, too, for we are the wandering shepherds whose part it is to go out over the bleak hills, up the mountain sides and rocky places, and gather in out of the storm and stress of things all the poor, unshepherded, wee bit lammies that have either wandered forlornly away from shelter, or have been born in the wilderness, and know no other home. Such an one has just strayed into the fold from the dreary hill-country. It needs a wiser shepherd than any one of us. Grant that by gentleness, patience, and insight we may atone somewhat for our lack of wisdom and skill. We read among Thy mysteries that the divine Child was born of a virgin. May He be born again and born daily in our hearts, already touched by that remembrance and consecrated by its meaning. And this we ask for love's sake. Amen.'
Then there was a space of silence--one of those silences in which we seem to be caught up into the heart of things, when hidden meanings are revealed, when the soul stretches itself and grows a little.
It was a few minutes later when Rhoda said, 'I am fired with zeal, I confess it. Henceforth my single aim shall be to bring Marm Lisa into her lost kingdom and inheritance. But meanwhile, how, oh how shall I master the hateful preliminaries? How shall I teach her to lace her shoes and keep them laced, unless I invent a game for it? How shall I keep her hair from dangling in her eyes, how keep her aprons neat?--though in those respects she is no worse than Pacific Simonson. I promised her a doll yesterday, and she was remarkably good. Do you object, Mistress Mary?'
'I don't know how much rewards are used in these cases,' answered Mary, 'but why do you begin with them when the problem presents no insuperable difficulties as yet? Whenever she herself, her awkward hands, her weak will, her inattention, her restlessness, give her some task she likes, some pleasure or occupation for which she has shown decided preference, and thus make happiness follow close upon the heels of effort. We who see more clearly the meaning of life know that this will not always happen, and we can be content to do right for right's sake. I don't object to your putting hosts of slumbering incentives in Lisa's mind, but a slumbering incentive is not vulgar and debasing, like a bribe.'
A plant might be a feeble and common thing, yet it might grow in beauty and strength in a garden like Mistress Mary's. Such soil in the way of surroundings, such patient cultivation of roots and stems, such strengthening of tendrils on all sorts of lovely props, such sunshine of love, such dew of sympathy, such showers of kindness, such favouring breezes of opportunity, such pleasure for a new leaf, joy for a bud, gratitude for a bloom! What an atmosphere in which to grow towards knowledge and goodness! Was it any wonder that the little people 'all in a row' responded to the genius of Mistress Mary's influence? They used to sing a song calleth The Light Bird,' in which some one, all unknown to the children, would slip into the playground with a bit of broken looking-glass, and suddenly a radiant fluttering disk of light would appear on the wall, and dance up and down, above and below, hither and yon, like a winged sunbeam. The children held out longing arms, and sang to it coaxingly. Sometimes it quivered over Mistress Mary's head, and fired every delicate point of her steel tiara with such splendour that the Irish babies almost felt like crossing themselves. At such times, those deux petits coeurs secs, Atlantic and Pacific, and all the other full-fledged and half-fledged scape-graces, forgot to be naughty, and the millennium was foreshadowed. The neophytes declared Mistress Mary a bit of a magician. Somehow or other, the evil imps in the children shrank away, abashed by the soft surprise of a glance that seemed to hope something better, and the good angels came out of their banishment, unfolded their wings, and sunned themselves in the warmth of her approving smile. Her spiritual antennae were so fine, so fine, that they discerned the good in everything; they were feeling now after the soft spot in the rocky heart of Atlantic Simonson; they had not found it yet, but they would--oh, they would in time; for if hope is the lover's staff, it is no less that of the idealist.
Marm Lisa looked upon the miracles that happened under Mistress Mary's roof with a sort of dazed wonder, but her intelligence grew a little day by day; and though she sadly taxed everybody's patience, she infused a new spirit into all the neophytes.
Had not improvement been rapid, their untrained zeal might perhaps have flagged. Had the mental symptoms, by their obscurity, baffled them or defied them on every side, their lack of systematic, scientific training for such a task might have made them discouraged: but delicate and exacting as the work was, their love and enthusiasm, their insight and patience, their cleverness and ingenuity, triumphed over all obstacles; and luckily for their youth and comparative inexperience, they were rewarded in marvellous measure.
Not that every day was bright and hopeful. The carefully kept record was black enough on occasions, beginning with the morning when Helen, sitting in the circle, felt a rough hand on her head, and Marm Lisa, without the slightest warning of her intention, snatched Mary's steel band forcibly from her hair, and, taking it across the room, put it in its accustomed place on its owner's head. Everybody was startled, but Mary rose from her chair quietly, and, taking the ornament in one hand and Marm Lisa in the other, she came to Helen's side.
'I like to have my shining crown in Miss Helen's hair,' she said; 'it is such pretty, curly hair--stroke it softly, Lisa; she must wear it this morning to please me, and then I will take it again for my own. Dear Miss Helen, who is so sweet and good to the children, I love her,' and she kissed her fondly on each cheek.
Marm Lisa did not attempt to rebel but she was sullen, and refused her work when it was offered her later.
Such occurrences were rare, however, for her obliquity always seemed mental rather than moral.
Straws and bright papers, beads and pretty forms to thread on stout laces, were given her to wean her from her favourite but aimless string-play. There were days of restlessness which she wandered up and down stairs, and could not be kept in her chair nor persuaded to stand in her place in the circle. There were days, too, when she tore the bright cardboards and glossy weaving-mats that ordinarily gave her such keen pleasure; but this carelessness grew more and more infrequent, until it ceased altogether, so that it had probably come more from her inability to hold and move the materials and needles properly than from a wanton instinct of destruction; for they would often see the tears drop from her eyes upon her clumsy fingers as she strove to make them obey her feeble behests. At such a moment there was always some one to fling herself with passionate ardour and sympathy into this latest difficulty. A stouter weaving-needle was invented, and a mat of pretty coloured morocco substituted for the fragile paper; while the poor inert hands were held and coaxed and strengthened every day by finger gymnastics.
As Lisa grew in power Rhoda grew in ingenuity, and failure in any one particular only stimulated her genius of invention the more. Did she spill paste, mucilage, water on her gingham aprons, and wipe anything and everything on them that came in her way, Rhoda dressed her in daintier ones of white cambric, with a ruffle at the neck and sleeves; the child's pleasure knew no bounds, and she kept the aprons clean. With Mrs. Grubb's permission her hair was cut shorter, and brushed back under a round comb. No regiment of soldiers could have kept the comb in place. It was taken away and a blue ribbon substituted. She untied the ribbon every five minutes for two days, when Mary circumvented her by sewing a blue ribbon on each sleeve. This seemed to divert her attention from the head-band, and after a week or two she allowed it to remain without interference. Mary gave her low shoes, hoping that the lessened trouble of lacing them would make the task a possibility. There was no improvement. If she laced them, it was only under supervision, and they were always untied within the hour, the dangling laces tripping her awkward feet. Slippers or old-fashioned shoes with elastic at the side would have been an easy way out of the difficulty, but to Rhoda's mind that would have been a humiliating confession of failure. As a last resort she bought brown shoes and brown laces.
'If these do not succeed,' she said, 'I will have red ones made, paint the tips blue, and give her yellow laces; but I will fix her mind on her feet and arouse her pride in them, or die in the attempt.'
This extreme, fortunately, proved unnecessary, since for some unknown reason the brown foot-gear appealed to Marm Lisa, and she kept the laces tied. The salient peculiarity and encouraging feature of the child's development was that, save in rare cases, she did not slip back into her old habits when the novelty of the remedy wore off; with her, almost every point gained was a point kept. It was indeed a high Hill Difficulty that she was climbing--so high that had she realised it she would never have taken the first step of her own unaided will; but now this impelling force behind her was so great, and the visions for ever leading her on were so beautiful, that she ran nor grew weary, she walked yet did not faint.
The other children, even the youngest of them, were more or less interested in the novel enterprise, too, though they scarcely knew the nature of it or how much was at stake. That a human mind was tottering to its fall, and that Mistress Mary was engaged in preventing it, was beyond their ken. They could see certain details, however, for they were all one great family of little people, and it was no unaccustomed thing for them to watch a moral conquest, though they had no conception of an intellectual one.
Accordingly, there was a shout of triumph from a corner of the room one morning,--such a shout that seventy or eighty youngsters held their breath to see what was happening.
After weeks upon weeks of torn cards, broken threads, soiled patterns, wrong stitches, weak hand held in place by strong hand, Marm Lisa had sewed without help, and in one lesson, the outline of a huge red apple; and there she stood, offering her finished work to Mistress Mary. The angels in heaven never rejoiced more greatly over the one repentant sinner than the tired shepherdesses over their one poor ewe lamb, as she stood there with quivering hands and wet eyes, the first sense of conscious victory written on her inscrutable brow, and within the turbid, clouded brain the memory of a long struggle, and a hint, at least, of the glory she had achieved.
Rhoda took the square of neat cardboard with the precious red circle that meant so much, and ran into the playground with it, hugging it to her heart, and crying and laughing over it like a child.
When she came back Mistress Mary put her arm round Lisa's waist and said to the whole great family: 'Children, after trying hard, for ever so long, Lisa has sewed this lovely picture all by herself. There is not a wrong stitch, and one side is as neat as the other. What shall we say?'
'Three cheers! The Chinese must go!' shouted Pat Higgins, a patriotic person of five years, whose father was an organiser of sand-lot meetings.
All the grown-ups laughed at this unexpected suggestion, but the cheers were given with a good will, and Marm Lisa, her mind stirred to its depths by the unwonted emotion, puzzled out the meaning of them and hid it in her heart.