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Marm Lisa
Kate Wiggin

Marm Lisa
Kate Wiggin

Kate Douglas Smith Wiggin

Marm Lisa



Eden Place was a short street running at right angles with Eden Square, a most unattractive and infertile triangle of ground in a most unattractive but respectable quarter of a large city.  It was called a square, not so much, probably, because it was triangular in shape, as because it was hardly large enough to be designated as a park.  As to its being called ‘Eden,’ the origin of that qualifying word is enveloped in mystery; but it is likely that the enthusiastic persons who projected it saw visions and dreamed dreams of green benches under umbrageous trees, of a green wire fence, ever green, and of plots of blossoming flowers filling the grateful air with unaccustomed fragrance.

As a matter of fact, the trees had always been stunted and stubby, the plants had never been tended, and all the paint had been worn off the benches by successive groups of working-men out of work.  As for the wire fence, it had been much used as a means of ingress and egress by the children of the neighbourhood, who preferred it to any of the gateways, which they considered hopelessly unimaginative and commonplace, offering no resistance to the budding man of valour or woman of ambition.

Eden Place was frequented mostly by the children, who found it an admirable spot to squabble, to fight, and to dig up the hapless earth; and after them, by persons out of suits with fortune.  These (generally men) adorned the shabby benches at all times, sleeping, smoking, reading newspapers, or tracing uncertain patterns in the gravel with a stick,—patterns as uncertain and aimless as themselves.  There were fewer women, because the unemployed woman of this class has an old-fashioned habit, or instinct, of seeking work by direct assault; the method of the male being rather to sit on a bench and discuss the obstacles, the injustices, and the unendurable insults heaped by a plutocratic government in the path of the honest son of toil.

The corner house of Eden Place was a little larger than its neighbours in the same row.  Its side was flanked by a sand-lot, and a bay window, with four central panes of blue glass, was the most conspicuous feature of its architecture.  In the small front yard was a microscopic flower-bed; there were no flowers in it, but the stake that held up a stout plant in the middle was surmounted by a neat wooden sign bearing the inscription, ‘No Smoking on these Premises.’  The warning seemed superfluous, as no man standing in the garden could have put his pipe in his mouth without grazing either the fence or the house, but the owner of the ‘premises’ possibly wished to warn the visitor at the very threshold.

All the occupied houses in Eden Place were cheerful and hospitable in their appearance, and were marked by an air of liveliness and good-fellowship.  Bed linen hung freely from all the windows, for there was no hard and fast law about making up beds at any special hour, though a remnant of superstition still existed that it was a good thing to make up a bed before you slept in it.  There were more women on their respective front steps, and fewer in their respective kitchens, in Eden Place than in almost any other locality in the city.  That they lived for the most part in close and friendly relations could be seen from the condition of the fences between the front yards, whose upper rails fairly sagged with the weight of gossip.

One woman, living in the middle of the row, evidently possessed somewhat different views, for she had planted vines on each of her division fences, rented her parlour to a lodger who only slept there, kept all her front curtains drawn, and stayed in the hack of her house.  Such retribution as could legally be wreaked upon this offensive and exclusive person was daily administered by her two neighbours, who stood in their doors on either side and conversed across her house and garden with much freedom and exuberance.  They had begged the landlord to induce her to take up her abode elsewhere; but as she was the only tenant who paid her rent regularly, he refused to part with her.

Any one passing the ‘No Smoking’ sign and entering the front door of Mrs. Grubb’s house, on the corner, would have turned off the narrow uncarpeted hall into the principal room, and, if he were an observing person, would have been somewhat puzzled by its appearance.  There were seven or eight long benches on one side, yet it had not the slightest resemblance to a schoolroom.  The walls were adorned with a variety of interesting objects.  There was a chart showing a mammoth human hand, the palm marked with myriads of purple lines.  There were two others displaying respectively the interior of the human being in the pink-and-white purity of total abstinence, and the same interior after years of intemperance had done their fatal work; a most valuable chart this last, and one that had quenched the thirst of many a man.

The words ‘Poverty Must Go’ were wrought in evergreen letters over the bay window, and various texts were printed in red and black and tacked to the wall in prominent places.  These were such as—

‘To be a Flesh-Eater is to be a Shedder of Blood and a Destroyer of God’s Innocent Creatures.’

‘Now that Man has Begun to Ascend in the Scale of Being, let Woman Reach Down a Strong, Tender Hand and Aid him in his Struggle for Moral and Spiritual Elevation.’

‘Let the Pleasure Field be as Large as Possible.  Pains and Fears Lessen Growth.’

‘I Believe that to Burden, to Bond, to Tax, to Tribute, to Impoverish, to Grind, to Pillage, to Oppress, to Afflict, to Plunder, to Vampire the Life Labouring to Create Wealth is the Unpardonable Sin.’

Over the mantel-shelf was a seaweed picture in a frame of shells, bearing the inscription, ‘Unity Hall, Meeting-Place of the Order of Present Perfection.’  On a table, waiting to be hung in place, was an impressive sort of map about four feet square.  This, like many of the other ornaments in the room, was a trifle puzzling, and seemed at first, from its plenitude of coloured spots, to be some species of moral propaganda in a state of violent eruption.  It proved, however, on closer study, to be an ingenious pictorial representation of the fifty largest cities of the world, with the successful establishment of various regenerating ideas indicated by coloured discs of paper neatly pasted on the surface.  The key in the right-hand corner read—

A small gold star, added to the coloured spot, hovering over the name of a city, was explained, in the lower left-hand corner, as denoting the fact that the Eldorado face-powder was exclusively used there, and that S. Cora Grubb was the sole agent for the Pacific coast.

Joseph’s coat faded into insignificance in comparison with the city of Mrs. Grubb’s present residence, which appeared to be a perfect hot-bed of world-saving ideas, and was surrounded by such a halo of spots that it would have struck the unregenerate observer as an undesirable place in which to live, unless one wished to be broken daily on the rack of social progress.

This front room was Mrs. Grubb’s only parlour.  The seven benches were rather in the way and seemingly unnecessary, as the lady attended meetings morning, noon, and night in halls hired for that purpose; but they gave her a feeling of security, as, in case one of her less flourishing societies should be ejected from its hall, or in case she should wake up in the middle of the night and want to hold a meeting of any club when all the halls were closed, the benches in the parlour would make it possible without a moment’s loss of time.

The room connecting with this was the family banquet-hall and kitchen in one, and as Mrs. Grubb’s opinions on diet were extremely advanced, it amply served the purpose.

There were three bedrooms upstairs, and the whole establishment was rather untidy in its aspect; but, though it might have been much cleaner, it is only fair to say that it might also have been much dirtier.

The house was deserted.  The only sound came from the back yard, and it was the echo of children’s voices.  It was not at all a merry prattle; it was a steady uproar interrupted by occasional shrieks and yells, a clatter of falling blocks, beatings of a tin pan, a scramble of feet, a tussle, with confusion of blows and thumps, and then generally a temporary lull in the proceedings, evidently brought about by some sort of outside interference.  If you had pushed open the wire door, you would have seen two children of four or five years disporting themselves in a sand-heap.  One was a boy and one a girl; and though they were not at all alike in feature or complexion, there was an astonishing resemblance between them in size, in figure, in voice, in expression, and, apparently, in disposition.

Sitting on a bench, watching them as a dog watches its master’s coat, was a girl of some undeterminable age,—perhaps of ten or twelve years.  She wore a shapeless stout gingham garment, her shoes were many sizes too large for her, and the laces were dangling.  Her nerveless hands and long arms sprawled in her lap as if they had no volition in them.  She sat with her head slightly drooping, her knees apart, and her feet aimlessly turned in.  Her lower lip hung a little, but only a little, loosely.  She looked neither at earth nor at sky, but straight at the two belligerents, with whose bloodthirsty play she was obliged to interfere at intervals.  She held in her lap a doll made of a roll of brown paper, with a waist and a neck indicated by gingham strings.  Pieces of ravelled rope were pinned on the head part, but there was no other attempt to assist the imagination.  She raised her dull eyes; they seemed to hold in their depths a knowledge of aloofness from the happier world, and their dumb sorrow pierced your very heart, while it gave you an irresistible sense of aversion.  She smiled, but the smile only gave you a new thrill; it was vacant and had no joy in it, rather an uncommunicable grief.  As she sat there with her battered doll, she was to the superficial eye repulsive, but to the eye that pierces externals she was almost majestic in her mysterious loneliness and separation.

The steam-whistle of a factory near by blew a long note for twelve o’clock, and she rose from her bench, took the children by the hand, and dragged them, kindly but firmly, up the steps into the kitchen.  She laid her doll under a towel, but, with a furtive look at the boy, rolled it in a cloth and tucked it under her skirt at the waist-line.  She then washed the children’s faces, tied on their calico bibs, and pushed them up to the pine table.  While they battered the board and each other with spoons and tin mugs, she went automatically to a closet, took a dish of cold porridge and turned it into three bowls, poured milk over it, spread three thick slices of wheat bread with molasses from a cup, and sat down at the table.  After the simple repast was over, she led the still reluctant (constitutionally reluctant) twins up the staircase and put them, shrieking, on a bed; left the room, locking the door behind her in a perfunctory sort of way as if it were an everyday occurrence, crouched down on the rug outside, and, leaning her head back against the wall, took her doll from under her skirt, for this was her playtime, her hour of ease.

Poor little ‘Marm Lisa,’ as the neighbours called her!  She had all the sorrows and cares of maternity with none of its compensating joys.



‘“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
Painted upon a background of pale gold.’

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.’
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