Chapter IX--Marm Lisa's Quest
 

It was not long after this conversation that the twins awoke one morning with a very frenzy of adventure upon them. It was accompanied by a violent reaction against all the laws of God and man, and a desire to devour the tree of knowledge, fruit, limbs, and trunk, no matter at what cost.

We have no means of knowing whether there was an excess of electricity in the atmosphere, whether their youthful livers were disordered, or whether the Evil One was personally conducting the day's exercises; judged by the light of subsequent events, all of these suppositions might easily have been true. During the morning they so demeaned themselves that all Mistress Mary's younger neophytes became apostates to the true faith, and went over in a body to the theory of the total depravity of unbaptized infants.

In the afternoon they did not appear, nor did Marm Lisa. This was something that had never occurred before, save when Pacific had a certain memorable attack of mumps that would have carried off any child who was fitted for a better world, or one who was especially beloved.

'Do you suppose anything is wrong?' asked Mary nervously.

'Of course not,' said Edith. 'I remember seeing Lisa in the playground at one o'clock, but my impression is that she was alone, and stayed only a moment. At any rate, I was very busy and did not speak to her. Mrs. Grubb has probably taken the twins to have their hair cut, or something of that sort.'

'What a ridiculous suggestion!' exclaimed Rhoda. 'You know perfectly well that Mrs. Grubb would never think of cutting their hair, if it swept the earth! She may possibly have taken them to join a band; they must be getting to a proper age for membership. At any rate, I will call there and inquire, on my way home, although I can never talk to Mrs. Grubb two minutes without wanting to shake her.'

Rhoda made her promised visit, but the house was closed and the neighbours knew nothing of the whereabouts of the children beyond the fact that Mrs. Grubb was seen talking to them as she went into the yard, a little after twelve o'clock. Rhoda naturally concluded, therefore, that Edith's supposition must be correct, and that Mrs. Grubb had for once indulged in a family excursion.

Such was not the case, however. After luncheon, Marm Lisa had washed the twins' hands and faces in the back-yard as usual, and left them for an instant to get a towel from the kitchen. When she returned, she looked blankly about, for there was no sign of the two dripping faces and the uplifted streaming hands. They had a playful habit of hiding from her, knowing that in no other way could they make her so unhappy; so she stood still for some moments, calling them, at first sharply, then piteously, but with no result. She ran to the front gate; it was closed; the rope-fastening was out of reach, and plainly too complicated even for their preternatural powers. She hurried back to the house, and searched every room in a bewildered sort of fashion, finding nothing. As she came out again, her eye caught sight of a kitchen chair in the corner of the yard. They had climbed the picket fence, then. Yes; Atlantic, while availing himself of its unassuming aid, had left a clue in a fragment of his trousers. She opened the gate, and ran breathlessly along the streets to that Garden of Eden where joy had always hitherto awaited her. Some instinct of fear or secrecy led her to go quietly through all the rooms and search the playground without telling any one of her trouble. That accomplished fruitlessly, she fled home again, in the vain hope of finding the children in some accustomed haunt overlooked in her first search. She began to be thoroughly alarmed now, and thoroughly confused. With twitching hands and nervous shaking of the head, she hurried through the vacant rooms, growing more and more aimless in her quest. She climbed on a tall bureau and looked in a tiny medicine cupboard; then under the benches and behind the charts in the parlour; even under the kitchen sink, among the pots and pans, and in the stove, where she poked tremulously among the ashes. Her newfound wit seemed temporarily to have deserted her, and she was a pitiable thing as she wandered about, her breath coming in long-drawn sighs, with now and then a half-stifled sob.

Suddenly she darted into the street again. Perhaps they had followed their aunt Cora. Distance had no place in her terror-stricken heart. She traversed block after block, street after street, until she reached Pocahontas Hall, a building and locality she knew well. She crept softly up the main stairs, and from the landing slipped into the gallery above. Mrs. Grubb sat in the centre of the stage, with a glass of water, a bouquet of roses, and a bundle of papers and tracts on the table by her side. In the audience were twenty or thirty women and a dozen men, their laps filled, and their pockets bulging, with propaganda. They stood at intervals to ask superfluous or unanswerable questions, upon which Mrs. Grubb would rise and reply, with cheeks growing pink and pinker, with pleasant smile and gracious manner, and a voice fairly surcharged with conviction. Most of the ladies took notes, and a girl with a receding chin was seated at a small table in front of the platform, making a stenographic report.

All this Marm Lisa saw, but her eyes rested on nothing she longed to see. Mrs. Grubb's lecture voice rose and fell melodiously, floating up to her balcony heights in a kind of echo that held the tone, but not the words. The voice made her drowsy, for she was already worn out with emotion, but she roused herself with an effort, and stole down the stairs to wander into the street again. Ah, there was an idea! The coat-shop! Why had she not thought of it before?

The coat-shop was a sort of clothing manufactory on a small scale, a tall, narrow building four stories high, where she had often gone with Atlantic and Pacific. There were sewing-machines on the ground- floor, the cutters and pressers worked in the middle stories, and at the top were the finishers. It was neither an extensive nor an exciting establishment, and its only fascination lay in the fact that the workwomen screamed with laughter at the twins' conversation, and after leading them to their utmost length, teasing and goading them into a towering passion, would stuff them with nuts or dates or cheap sweetmeats. The coat-shop was two or three miles from the hall, and it was closing time and quite dark when Lisa arrived. She came out of the door after having looked vainly in every room, and sat down dejectedly in the entrance, with her weary head leaning against the wall. There was but a moment's respite for her, for the manager came out of his office, and, stumbling over her in the dusk, took her by the shoulders and pushed her into the street with an oath.

'Go and sit on your own doorstep, can't you?' he muttered, 'and not make me break my legs over you!'

She was too spent to run any further. She dragged her heavy feet along slowly, almost unconsciously, neither knowing nor caring whither they led her. Home she could not, dared not go, bearing that heavy burden of remorse! Mrs. Grubb would ask for Atlantic and Pacific, and then what would become of her? Mr. Grubb would want to give Pacific her milk. No, Mr. Grubb was dead. There! she hadn't looked in the perambulator. No, there wasn't any perambulator. That was dead, too, and gone away with Mr. Grubb. There used to be babies, two babies, in the perambulator. What had become of them? Were they lost, too? And the umbrella that she used to hold until her arm ached, and the poor, pale, weeping mother always lying on a bed,--were they all gone together? Her head buzzed with worrying, unrelated thoughts, so that she put up her hands and held it in place on her shoulders as she shuffled wearily along. A heavy, dripping mist began to gather and fall, and she shivered in the dampness, huddling herself together and leaning against the houses for a shelter. She sat down on the curb-stone and tried to think, staring haggardly at the sign on the corner fruit-shop. In that moment she suddenly forgot the reason of her search. She had lost--what? She could not go home to Eden Place, but why? Oh yes! It came to her now: there was something about a perambulator, but it all seemed vague to her. Suddenly a lamplighter put his ladder against a post in front of her, and, climbing up nimbly, lighted the gas-jet inside of the glass frame. It shone full on a flight of broad steps, a picture so much a part of her life-dream that she would go up to the very gate of heaven with its lines burned into her heart and brain.

She crept up and turned the knob of the outer door. It was unlocked, and she stole into the inner room, the Paradise, place of joy and sweet content, heart's rest, soul's heaven, love's own abode. The very atmosphere soothed her. She heard the janitress clatter through the halls, lock the door, and descend the stairs to her own rooms in the basement. The light from the street lamps shone in at the two end windows, so that the room was not in utter darkness. She would lie down here and die with Mr. Grubb and the babies and the umbrella. Atlantic and Pacific would be sure to come back; nobody who had ever known it could live without this place. Miss Mary would find them. She would make everything right. The mere thought of Mistress Mary brought a strange peace into poor Lisa's over-wrought, distraught mind.

She opened the closet door. It was as dainty and neat as Mistress Mary herself, and the mere sight of it bred order in Lisa's thoughts. On the top of a pile of envelopes lay the sewing-picture that Atlantic had spoiled that day. It had been a black morning, and the bit of cardboard was torn and soiled and bent. Lisa looked at it with a maternal and a prophetic eye. She could see the firm line of Rhoda's lip as she bore down upon the destructive urchin. She could almost hear the bright challenging tone as Rhoda would say: 'Now, Atlantic, let us see what we can do! Cut off the chewed edges with these scissors, paste these thin pieces of paper over the torn places, and rub the card with this crust of bread. A new one? Certainly not, my young friend!'

Lisa took the poor little object in her hand, and, seeing Mistress Mary's white apron, pressed her cheek against it in a transport of tenderness and hung it over her arm. Just then she caught sight of the clay bird's-nest that Pacific had modelled--such a lovely bird's- nest that it had been kept for the cabinet. She carried her treasures over to the old-fashioned lounge where the babies took their occasional nap, put them carefully in a small red chair close beside it, and then, stretching her weary length on the cushions, she kissed the smooth folds of the apron, and clasped it in her arms.

Mistress Mary would come soon. She would come in her cloud of white, and her steel fillet would gleam and shine when the sunshine fell upon it, and make star-rays and moonbeams and lightning-flashes; and the tiny points would twinkle and wink and laugh and blink whenever she turned her head. She would smile, and everything would suddenly be clear; she would speak, and the weary buzzing of windmills in the brain would be hushed. Under her touch the darkness and heaviness would vanish, and there would be no more night there--no more night.

As these healing visions stole upon Marm Lisa, the torture and the anguish, the long hours of bewilderment, faded little by little, little by little, till at length a blessed sleep crept over her eyelids, blotting into a merciful nothingness the terror and the misery of the day.