Chapter VII--The Comet and the Fixed Star
 

'I don't feel that I can part with Lisa now, just as she's beginning to be a help to me,' argued Mrs. Grubb, shortly after she had been welcomed and ensconced in a rocking-chair. 'As Madame Goldmarker says, nobody else in the world would have given her a home these four years, and a good many wouldn't have had her round the house.'

'That is true,' replied Mary, 'and your husband must have been a very good man from all you tell me, Mrs. Grubb.'

'Good enough, but totally uninteresting,' said that lady laconically.

'Well, putting aside the question as to whether goodness ought to be totally uninteresting, you say that Lisa's mother left Mr. Grubb three hundred dollars for her food and clothing, and that she has been ever since a willing servant, absolutely devoted to your interests.'

'We never put a cent of the three hundred dollars into our own pockets,' explained Mrs. Grubb. 'Mr. Grubb was dreadfully opposed to my doing it, but every penny of it went to freeing our religious society from debt. It was a case of the greatest good of the greatest number, and I didn't flinch. I thought it was a good deal more important that the Army of Present Perfection should have a roof over its head than that Lisa Bennett should be fed and clothed; that is, if both could not be done.'

'I don't know the creed of the Army, but it seems to me your Presently Perfect soldiers would have been rather uncomfortable under their roof if Lisa Bennett had been naked and starving outside.'

'Oh, it would never have come to that,' responded Mrs. Grubb easily. 'There is plenty of money in the world, and it belongs equally to the whole human race. I don't recognise anybody's right to have a dollar more than I have; but Mr. Grubb could never accept any belief that had been held less than a thousand years, and before he died he gave some money to a friend of his, and told him to pay me ten dollars every month towards Lisa's board. Untold gold could never pay for what my pride has suffered in having her, and if she hadn't been so useful I couldn't have done it,--I don't pretend that I could. She's an offence to the eye.'

'Not any longer,' said Mary proudly.

'Well, she was up to a few months ago; but she would always do anything for the twins, and though they are continually getting into mischief she never lets any harm come to them, not so much as a scratch. If I had taken a brighter child, she would have been for ever playing on her own account and thinking of her own pleasure; but if you once get an idea into Lisa's head of what you expect her to do, she will go on doing it to the end of the world, and wild horses couldn't keep her from it.'

'It's a pity more of us hadn't that virtue of obedience to a higher law.'

'Well, perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn't; it's a sign of a very weak mind.'

'Or a very strong one,' retorted Mary.

'There are natural leaders and natural followers,' remarked Mrs. Grubb smilingly, as she swayed to and fro in Mary's rocking-chair. Her smile, like a ballet-dancer's, had no connection with, nor relation to, the matter of her speech or her state of feeling; it was what a watchmaker would call a detached movement. 'I can't see,' said she, 'that it is my duty to send Lisa away to be taught, just when I need her most. My development is a good deal more important than hers.'

'Why?'

'Why? Because I have a vocation and a mission; because, if I should falter or faint by the wayside, hundreds of women who depend on me for inspiration would fall back into error and suffer permanent loss and injury.'

'Do you suppose they really would?' asked Mary rather maliciously, anxious if possible to ruffle the surface of Mrs. Grubb's exasperating placidity. 'Or would they, of course after a long period of grief-stricken apathy, attach themselves to somebody else's classes?'

'They might,' allowed Mrs. Grubb, in a tone of hurt self-respect; 'though you must know, little as you've seen of the world, that no woman has just the same revelation as any other, and that there are some who are born to interpret truth to the multitude. I can say in all humility that it has been so with me from a child. I've always had a burning desire to explore the secret chambers of Thought, always yearned to understand and explain the universe.'

'I have never tried to explain it,' sighed Mary a little wearily; 'one is so busy trying to keep one's little corner clean and sweet and pleasant, a helpful place where sad and tired souls can sit down and rest.'

'Who wants to sit down and rest? Not I!' exclaimed Mrs. Grubb. 'But then, I'm no criterion, I have such an active mind.'

'There are just a few passive virtues,' said Mary teasingly. 'We must remember that activity doesn't always make for good; sometimes it is unrest, disintegration; not growth, Mrs. Grubb, but fermentation.'

Mrs. Grubb took out a small blank-book and made a note, for she had an ear for any sentence that might be used in a speech.

'That is true. "Distrust the activity which is not growth, but fermentation" that will just hit some ladies in my classes, and it comes right in with something I am going to say this evening. We have a Diet Congress here this week, and there's a good deal of feeling and dispute between the various branches. I have two delegates stopping with me, and they haven't spoken to each other since yesterday morning, nor sat down to eat at the same table. I shall do all I can, as the presiding officer, to keep things pleasant at the meetings, but it will be difficult. You've never been in public life and can't understand it, but you see there are women among the delegates who've suffered the tyranny of man so long that they will cook anything their husbands demand; women who believe in eating any kind of food, and hold that the principal trouble lies in bad cooking; women who will give up meat, but still indulge in all sorts of cakes, pastries, and kickshaws; and women who are strong on temperance in drink, but who see no need of temperance in food. The whole question of diet reform is in an awful state, and a Congress is the only way to settle it.'

'How do men stand on the diet question?' asked Mary, with a twinkle in her eye.

'They don't stand at all,' answered Mrs. Grubb promptly. 'They sit right still, and some of them lie down flat, you might say, whenever it's mentioned. They'll do even more for temperance than they will for reformed diet, though goodness knows they're fond enough of drinking. The Edenites number about sixty-seven in this city, and nine is the largest number of gentlemen that we've been able to interest. Those nine are the husbands and sons of the lady members, and at the next meeting two of them are going to be expelled for backsliding. I declare, if I was a man, I'd be ashamed to confess that I was all stomach; but that's what most of them are. Not that it's easy work to be an Edenite: it's impossible to any but a highly spiritual nature. I have been on the diet for six months, and nothing but my position as vice-president of the society, and my desire to crush the body and release the spirit, could have kept me faithful. I don't pretend to like it, but that doesn't make me disloyal. There's nothing I enjoy better than a good cut of underdone beef, with plenty of dish gravy; I love nice tender porter- house steaks with mushrooms; I love thick mutton-chops broiled over a hot fire: but I can't believe in them, and my conscience won't allow me to eat them. Do you believe in meat?'

'Certainly.'

'I don't see why you say "certainly." You would be a good deal better off without it. You are filling yourself full of carnal, brutal, murderous passions every time you eat it. The people who eat meat are not half so elevated nor half so teachable as the Edenites.'

'The Edenites are possibly too weak and hungry to resist instruction,' said Mary.

'They are neither weak nor hungry,' replied their vice-president, with dignity. 'They eat milk, and stewed fruit, and all the edible grains nicely boiled. It stands to reason that if you can subdue your earthly, devilish, sensual instincts on anything, you can do it on a diet like that. You can't fancy an angel or a Mahatma devouring underdone beef.'

'No,' agreed Mistress Mary; 'but for that matter, the spectacle of an angel eating dried-apple sauce doesn't appeal to my imagination.'

'It's no joking matter,' said Mrs. Grubb, with real tears in her eyes. 'It was my interest in Theosophy that brought me to the Edenic diet. I have good and sufficient motives for denying my appetite, for I've got a certain goal to reach, and I'm in earnest.'

'Then here's my hand, and I respect you for it. Oh, how I should like a hot mutton-chop at this moment!--Do forgive me.'

'I forgive you, because I can see you act up to all the light that has been revealed to you. I don't know as I ought to be proud because I see so much truth. My classes tell me I get these marvellous revelations because I'm so open-minded. Now Mr. Grubb wouldn't and couldn't bear discussion of any sort. His soul never grew, for he wouldn't open a clink where a new idea might creep in. He'd always accompany me to all my meetings (such advantages as that man had and missed!), and sometimes he'd take the admission tickets; but when the speaking began, he'd shut the door and stay out in the entry by himself till it was time to wait upon me home. Do you believe in vaccination?'

'Certainly.'

'Well, it passes my comprehension how you can be so sure of your beliefs. You'd better come and hear some of the arguments on the opposite side. I am the secretary of the Anti-Vaccination League.' (Mrs. Grubb was especially happy in her anti-societies; negatives seemed to give her more scope for argument.) 'I say to my classes, "You must not blame those to whom higher truths do not appeal, for refusing to believe in that which they cannot understand; but you may reprove them for decrying or ridiculing those laws or facts of nature which they have never investigated with an unprejudiced mind." Well, I must be going. I've sat longer than I meant to, this room is so peaceful and comfortable.'

'But what about Lisa's future? We haven't settled that, although we've had a most interesting and illuminating conversation.'

'Why, I've told you how I feel about her, and you must respect my feeling. The world can only grow when each person allows his fellow- man complete liberty of thought and action. I've kept the child four years, and now when my good care and feeding, together with the regular work and early hours I've always prescribed, have begun to show their fruits in her improved condition, you want she should be put in some institution. Why, isn't she doing well enough as she is? I'm sure you've had a wonderful influence over her.'

'Nothing could induce me to lose sight of her entirely,' said Mistress Mary, 'but we feel now that she is ready to take the next step. She needs a skilled physician who is master both of body and mind, as well as a teacher who is capable of following out his principles. I will see to all that, if you will only give me the privilege.'

Mrs. Grubb sank down in the rocking-chair in despair. 'Don't I need some consideration as well as that little imbecile? Am I, with my ambitions and aspirations, to be for ever hampered by these three nightmares of children? Oh, if I could once get an astral body, I would stay in it, you may be sure!'

'You do not absolutely need Lisa yourself,' argued Mary. 'It is the twins to whom she has been indispensable. Provide for them in some way, and she is freed from a responsibility for which she is not, and never was, fit. It is a miracle that some tragedy has not come out of this daily companionship of three such passionate, irresponsible creatures.'

'Some tragedy will come out of it yet,' said Mrs. Grubb gloomily, 'if I am not freed from the shackles that keep me in daily slavery. The twins are as likely to go to the gallows as anywhere; and as for Lisa, she would be a good deal better off dead than alive, as Mrs. Sylvester says.'

'That isn't for us to decide,' said Mistress Mary soberly. 'I might have been careless and impertinent enough to say it a year ago, but not now. Lisa has all along been the victim of cruel circumstances. Wherever she has been sinned against through ignorance, it is possible, barely possible, that the fault may be atoned for; but any neglect of duty now would be a criminal offence. It does not behove us to be too scornful when we remember that the taint (fortunately a slight one) transmitted to poor little Lisa existed in greater or less degree in Handel and Moliere, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Petrarch, and Mohammed. The world is a good deal richer for them, certainly.'

Mrs. Grubb elevated her head, the light of interest dawned in her eye, and she whipped her notebook out of her pocket.

'Is that a fact?' she asked excitedly.

'It is a fact.'

'Is it generally known?'

'It must be known by all who have any interest in the education of defective persons, since it touches one of the bug-bears which they have to fight.'

'Is there any society in this city devoted to the study of such problems?'

'There is a society which is just on the point of opening an institution for the training of defective children.'

Mrs. Grubb's face fell, and her hand relaxed its grasp upon the pencil. (If there was anything she enjoyed, it was the sensation of being a pioneer in any movement.) Presently she brightened again.

'If it is just starting,' she said, 'then it must need more members, and speakers to stir up the community. Now, I am calculated, by constant association with a child of this character, to be of signal service to the cause. Not many persons have had my chance to observe phenomena. Just give me a letter to the president,--have they elected officers yet?--where do they meet?--and tell him I'll call on him and throw all the weight of my influence on his side. It's wonderful! Handel, Moliere, Buddha, was it--Buddha?--Caesar, Petrarch, and Wellington,--no, not Wellington. Never mind, I'll get a list from you to-morrow and look it all up,--it's perfectly marvellous! And I have one of this great, unhappy, suffering class in my own family, one who may yet be transformed into an Elizabeth Browning or a Joan of Arc!'

Mistress Mary sighed in her heart. She learned more of Mrs. Grubb with every interview, and she knew that her enthusiasms were as discouraging as her apathies.

'How unlucky that I mentioned Napoleon, Caesar, and Mohammed!' she thought. 'I shall be haunted now by the fear that she will go on a lecturing-tour through the country, and exhibit poor Lisa as an interesting example. Mrs. Grubb's mind is like nothing so much as a crazy-quilt.'