CHAPTER XIV—MORE LEAVES
'It has been one of the discouraging days. Lisa was wilful; the twins had a moral relapse; the young minister came again, and, oh, the interminable length of time he held Rhoda's hand at parting! Is it not strange that, with the whole universe to choose from, his predatory eye must fall upon my blooming Rhoda? I wonder whether the fragrance she will shed upon that one small parsonage will be as widely disseminated as the sweetness she exhales here, day by day, among our "little people all in a row"? I am not sure; I hope so; at any rate, selfishness must not be suffered to eclipse my common- sense, and the young minister seems a promising, manly fellow.
'When we have had a difficult day, I go home and sit down in my cosy corner in the twilight, the time and place where I always repeat my credo, which is this:-
'It is the children of this year, of every new year, who are to bring the full dawn, that dawn that has been growing since first the world began. It is not only that children re-create the world year by year, decade by decade, by making over human nature; by transforming trivial, thoughtless men and women into serious, earnest ones; by waking in arid natures slumbering seeds of generosity, self- sacrifice, and helpfulness. It is not alone in this way that children are bringing the dawn of the perfect day. It is the children (bless them! how naughty they were to-day!) who are going to do all we have left undone, all we have failed to do, all we might have done had we been wise enough, all we have been too weak and stupid to do.
'Among the thousands of tiny things growing up all over the land, some of them under my very wing—watched and tended, unwatched and untended, loved, unloved, protected from danger, thrust into temptation, among them somewhere is the child who will write a great poem that will live for ever and ever, kindling every generation to a loftier ideal. There is the child who will write the novel that is to stir men's hearts to nobler issues and incite them to better deeds. There is the child (perhaps it is Nino) who will paint the greatest picture or carve the greatest statue of the age; another who will deliver his country in an hour of peril; another who will give his life for a great principle; and another, born more of the spirit than the flesh, who will live continually on the heights of moral being, and, dying, draw men after him. It may be I shall preserve one of these children to the race—who knows? It is a peg big enough on which to hang a hope, for every child born into the world is a new incarnate thought of God, an ever fresh and radiant possibility.'
Another day.—'Would I had the gift to capture Mrs. Grubb and put her between the covers of a book!'
'It tickles Rhoda's fancy mightily that the Vague Lady (as we call her) should take Lisa before the Commissioners of Lunacy! Rhoda says that if she has an opportunity to talk freely with them, they will inevitably jump at the conclusion that Lisa has brought HER for examination, as she is so much the more irrational of the two! Rhoda facetiously imagines a scene in which a reverend member of the body takes Lisa aside and says solemnly, "My dear child, you have been wise beyond your years in bringing us your guardian, and we cannot allow her to be at large another day, lest she becomes suddenly violent."
'Of late I have noticed that she has gradually dropped one club and society after another, concentrating her attention more and more upon Theosophy. Every strange weed and sucker that can grow anywhere flourishes in the soil of her mind, and if a germ of truth or common- sense does chance to exist in any absurd theory, it is choked by the time it has lain there among the underbrush for a little space; so that when she begins her harvesting (which is always a long while before anything is ripe), one can never tell precisely what sort of crop was planted.
'It seems that the Theosophists are considering the establishment of a colony of Mahatmas at Mojave, on the summit of the Tehachapi Mountains. Their present habitat is the Himalayas, but there is no reason why we should not encourage them to settle in this country. The Tehachapis would give as complete retirement as the Himalayas, while the spiritual advantages to be derived from an infusion of Mahatmas into our population are self-evident. "Think, my sisters," Mrs. Grubb would say, "think, that our mountain ranges may some time be peopled by omniscient beings thousands of years old and still growing!" Up to this last aberration I have had some hope of Grubb o' Dreams. I thought it a good sign, her giving up so many societies and meetings. The house is not any tidier, but at least she stays in it occasionally. In the privacy of my own mind I have been ascribing this slight reformation to the most ordinary cause,—namely, a Particular Man. It would never have occurred to me in her case had not Edith received confidential advices from Mrs. Sylvester.
'"We're going to lose her, I feel it!" said Mrs. Sylvester. "I feel it, and she alludes to it herself. There ain't but two ways of her classes losing her, death and marriage; and as she looks too healthy to die, it must be the other one. She's never accepted any special attentions till about a month ago, when the Improved Order of Red Men held their Great Council here. You see she used to be Worthy Wenonah of Pocahontas Lodge years ago, when my husband was Great Keeper of the Wampum, but she hasn't attended regularly; a woman is so handicapped, when it comes to any kind of public work, by her home and her children.—I do hope I shall live long enough to see all those kind of harassing duties performed in public, co-operative institutions.—She went to the Council to keep me company, mostly, but the very first evening I could see that William Burkhardt, of Bald Eagle No. 62, was struck with her; she lights up splendidly, Mrs. Grubb does. He stayed with her every chance he got during the week: but I didn't see her give him any encouragement, and I should never have thought of it again if she hadn't come home late from one of the Council Fires at the Wigwam. I was just shutting my bedroom blinds. I tried not to listen, for I despise eavesdropping, of all things, but I couldn't help hearing her say, "No, Mr. Burkhardt, you are only a Junior Sagamore, and I am ambitious. When you are a Great Sachem, it will be time enough to consider the matter."'
'Mrs. Sylvester, Edith, and I agreed that this was most significant, but we may have been mistaken, according to her latest development. The "passing away" so feelingly alluded to by Mrs. Sylvester is to be of a different sort. She has spoken mysteriously to me before of her reasons for denying herself luxuries; of the goal she expected to reach through rigid denial of the body and training of the spirit; of her longing to come less in contact with the foul magnetism of the common herd, so detrimental to her growth; but she formally announced to me in strict confidence to-day her ambition to be a Mahatma. Of course she has been so many things that there are comparatively few left; still, say whatever we like, she has the spirit of all the Argonauts, that woman! She has been an Initiate for some time, and considers herself quite ready for the next step, which is to be a Chela. It is unnecessary to state that she climbs the ladder of evolution much faster than the ordinary Theosophist, who is somewhat slow in his movements, and often deals in centuries, or even aeons.
'I did not know that there were female Mahatmas, reasoning unconsciously from the fact that an Adept is supposed to hold his peace for many years before he can even contemplate the possibility of being a Mahatma. (The idea of Grubb o' Dreams holding her peace is too absurd for argument.) There are many grades of Adepts, it seems, ranging from the "topmost" Mahatmas down. The highest of all, the Nirmanakayas, are self-conscious without the body, travelling hither and thither with but one object, that of helping humanity. As we descend the scale, we find Adepts (and a few second-class Mahatmas) living in the body, for the wheel of Karma has not entirely revolved for them; but they have a key to their "prison" (that is what Mrs. Grubb calls her nice, pretty body!), and can emerge from it at pleasure. That is, any really capable and energetic Adept can project his soul from its prison to any place that he pleases, with the rapidity of thought. I may have my personal doubts as to the possibilities of this gymnastic feat, but Mrs. Grubb's intellectual somersaults have been of such thoroughness and frequency that I am sure, if anybody can perform the gyration, she can! Meantime, there are decades of retirement, meditation, and preparation necessary, and she can endure nothing of that sort in this present incarnation, so the parting does not seem imminent!
'She came to consult me about Soul Haven for the twins. I don't think it a wholly bad plan. The country is better for them than the city; we can manage occasional news of their welfare; it will tide to get over the brief interval of time needed by Mrs. Grubb for growing into a Chela; and in any event, they are sure to run away from the Haven as soon as they become at all conscious of their souls, a moment which I think will be considerably delayed.
'Mrs. Grubb will not yield Lisa until she is certain that the Soul Haven colonists will accept the twins without a caretaker; but unless the matter is quietly settled by the new year I shall find some heroic means of changing her mind. I have considered the matter earnestly for many months without knowing precisely how to find sufficient money for the undertaking. My own income can be stretched to cover her maintenance, but it is not sufficient to give her the proper sort of education. She is beyond my powers now, and perhaps— nay, of a certainty, if her health continue to improve—five years of skilful teaching will make her—what it will make her no one can prophesy, but it is sure to be something worth working for. No doubt I can get the money by a public appeal, and if it were for a dozen children instead of one I would willingly do it, as indeed I have done it many times in the past.
'That was a beautiful thought of Pastor Von Bodelschwingh, of the Colony of Mercy in Germany. "Mr. Man" told me about him in one of the very few long talks we had together. He had a home for adults and children of ailing mind and body, and when he wanted a new house for the little ones, and there was no money to build or equip it, he asked every parent in Germany for a thank-offering to the Lord of one penny for each well child. Within a short fortnight four hundred thousand pennies flowed in—four hundred thousand thank-offerings for children strong and well. The good pastor's wish was realised, and his Baby Castle an accomplished fact. Not only did the four hundred thousand pennies come, but the appeal for them stimulated a new sense of gratitude among all the parents who responded, so that there came pretty, touching messages from all sides, such as: "Four pennies for four living children; for a child in heaven, two." "Six pennies for a happy home." "One penny for the child we never had." "Five pennies for a good wife."
'Ah! never, surely, was a Baby Castle framed of such lovely timber as this! It seems as if heaven's sweet air must play about the towers, and heaven's sunshine stream in at every window, of a house built from turret to foundation-stone of such royal material. The Castle might look like other castles, but every enchanted brick and stone and block of wood, every grain of mortar, every bit of glass and marble, unlike all others of its kind, would be transformed by the thought it represented and thrilled with the message it bore.
'Such an appeal I could make for my whole great family, but somehow this seems almost a private matter, and I am sensitive about giving it publicity. My love and hope for Lisa are so great, I cannot bear to describe her "case," nor paint her unhappy childhood in the hues it deserves, for the sake of gaining sympathy and aid. I may have to do it, but would I were the little Croesus of a day! Still, Christmas is coming, and who knows?
"Everywhere the Feast o' the Babe, Joy upon earth, peace and good-will to men! We are baptized."
Merry Christmas is coming. Everybody's hand-grasp is warmer because of it, though of course it is the children whose merriment rings truest.
'There are just one or two things, grown up as I am, that I should like to find in the toe of my stocking on Christmas morning; only they are impalpable things that could neither be put in nor taken out of real stockings.
'Old as we are, we are most of us mere children in this, that we go on hoping that next Christmas all the delicious happenings we have missed in other Christmases may descend upon us by the old and reliable chimney-route! A Santa Claus that had any bowels of compassion would rush down the narrowest and sootiest chimney in the world to give me my simple wishes. It isn't as if I were petitioning nightly for a grand house, a yacht, a four-in-hand, a diamond necklace, and a particular man for a husband; but I don't see that modesty finds any special favour with St. Nick. Now and then I harbour a rascally suspicion that he is an indolent, time-serving person, who slips down the widest, cleanest chimneys to the people who clamour the loudest; but this abominable cynicism melts into thin air the moment that I look at his jolly visage on the cover of a picture-book. Dear, fat, rosy, radiant Being! Surely he is incapable of any but the highest motives! I am twenty-eight years old, but age shall never make any difference in the number or extent of my absurdities. I am going to write a letter and send it up the chimney! It never used to fail in the long-ago; but ah! then there were two dear, faithful go-betweens to interpret my childish messages of longing to Santa Claus, and jog his memory at the critical time!'
CHAPTER XV—'THE FEAST O' THE BABE'
It was sure to be a green Christmas in that sunny land, but not the sort of 'green Yule' that makes the 'fat kirkyard.' If the New Englanders who had been transplanted to that shore of the Pacific ever longed for a bracing snowstorm, for frost pictures on the window-panes, for the breath of a crystal air blown over ice-fields— an air that nipped the ears, but sent the blood coursing through the veins, and made the turkey and cranberry sauce worth eating,—the happy children felt no lack, and basked contentedly in the soft December sunshine. Still further south there were mothers who sighed even more for the sound of merry sleigh-bells, the snapping of logs on the hearth, the cosy snugness of a fire-lit room made all the snugger by the fierce wind without: that, if you like, was a place to hang a row of little red and brown woollen stockings! And when the fortunate children on the eastern side of the Rockies, tired of resisting the Sand Man, had snuggled under the great down comforters and dropped off to sleep, they dreamed, of course, of the proper Christmas things—of the tiny feet of reindeer pattering over the frozen crust, the tinkle of silver bells on their collars, the real Santa Claus with icicles in his beard, with red cheeks, and a cold nose, and a powder of snow on his bearskin coat, and with big fur mittens never too clumsy to take the toys from his pack.
Here the air blew across orange groves and came laden with the sweetness of opening buds; here, if it were a sunny Christmas Day, as well it might be, the children came in to dinner tired with playing in the garden: but the same sort of joyous cries that rent the air three thousand miles away at sight of hot plum-pudding woke the echoes here because of fresh strawberries and loquats; and although, in the minds of the elders, who had been born in snowdrifts and bred upon icicles, this union of balmy air, singing birds, and fragrant bloom might strike a false note at Christmastide, it brought nothing but joy to the children. After all, if it were not for old associations' sake, it would seem that one might fitly celebrate the birthday of the Christ-child under sunshine as warm and skies of the same blue as those that sheltered the heavenly Babe in old Judea.
During the late days of October and the early days of November the long drought of summer had been broken, and it had rained steadily, copiously, refreshingly. Since then there had been day after day of brilliant, cloudless sunshine, and the moist earth, warmed gratefully through to the marrow, stirred and trembled and pushed forth myriads of tender shoots from the seeds that were hidden in its bosom; and the tender shoots themselves looked up to the sun, and, with their roots nestled in sweet, fragrant beds of richness, thought only of growing tall and green, dreamed only of the time when pink pimpernels would bloom between their waving blades, and when tribes of laughing children would come to ramble over the hillsides. The streets of the city were full of the fragrance of violets, for the flower-vendors had great baskets of them over their arms, and every corner tempted the passers-by with the big odorous purple bunches that offered a royal gift of sweetness for every penny invested.
Atlantic and Pacific Simonson had previously known little, and Marm Lisa less, of Christmas-time, but the whole month of December in Mistress Mary's garden was a continual feast of the new-born Babe. There was an almost oppressive atmosphere of secrecy abroad. Each family of children, working in the retirement of its particular corner, would shriek, 'Oh, don't come!' and hide small objects under pinafores and tables when Mary, Rhoda, Edith, or Helen appeared. The neophyte in charge was always in the attitude of a surprised hen, extending her great apron to its utmost area as a screen to hide these wonderful preparations. Edith's group was slaving over Helen's gift, Rhoda's over Edith's, and so on, while all the groups had some marvellous bit of co-operative work in hand for Mistress Mary. At the afternoon council, the neophytes were obliged to labour conscientiously on presents destined for themselves, rubbing off stains, disentangling knots, joining threads, filling up wrong holes and punching right ones, surreptitiously getting the offerings of love into a condition where the energetic infants could work on them again. It was somewhat difficult to glow and pale with surprise when they received these well-known and well-worn trophies of skill from the tree at the proper time, but they managed to achieve it.
Never at any other season was there such a scrubbing of paws, and in spite of the most devoted sacrifices to the Moloch of cleanliness the excited little hands grew first moist, and then grimy, nobody knew how. 'It must leak out of the inside of me,' wailed Bobby Baxter when sent to the pump for the third time one morning; but he went more or less cheerfully, for his was the splendid honour of weaving a frame for Lisa's picture, and he was not the man to grudge an inch or two of skin if thereby he might gain a glorious immortality.
The principal conversation during this festival time consisted of phrases like: 'I know what you're goin' to have, Miss Edith, but I won't tell!' 'Miss Mary, Sally 'most told Miss Rhoda what she was makin' for her.' 'Miss Helen, Pat Higgins went right up to Miss Edith and asked her to help him mend the leg of his clay frog, and it's his own Christmas present to her!'
The children could not for the life of them play birds, or butterflies, or carpenter, or scissors-grinder, for they wanted to shout the live-long day -
'Christmas bells are ringing sweet, We too the happy day must greet';
'Under the holly, now, Sing and be jolly, now, Christmas has come and the children are glad';
'Hurrah for Santa Claus! Long may he live at his castle in Somewhere-land!'
There was much whispering and discussion about evergreens and garlands and wreaths that were soon to come, and much serious planning with regard to something to be made for mother, father, sister, brother, and the baby; something, too, now and then, for a grandpapa in Sweden, a grandmamma in Scotland, a Norwegian uncle, an Irish aunt, and an Italian cousin; but there was never by chance any cogitation as to what the little workers themselves might get. In the happier homes among them, there was doubtless the usual legitimate speculation as to doll or drum, but here in this enchanted spot, this materialised Altruria, the talk was all of giving, when the Wonderful Tree bloomed in their midst—the Wonderful Tree they sang about every morning, with the sweet voice
'telling its branches among Of shepherd's watch and of angel's song, Of lovely Babe in manger low, - The beautiful story of long ago, When a radiant star threw its beams so wide To herald the earliest Christmastide.'
The Tree was coming—Mistress Mary said so; and bless my heart, you might possibly meddle with the revolution of the earth around the sun, or induce some weak-minded planet to go the wrong way, but you would be helpless to reverse one of Mistress Mary's promises! They were as fixed and as unchangeable as the laws of the Medes and Persians, and there was a record of their fulfilment indelibly written in the memories of two hundred small personages—personages in whom adult caprice and flexibility of conduct had bred a tendency to suspicion.
The Tree, therefore, had been coming for a fortnight, and on the 22nd it came! Neither did it come alone, for it was accompanied by a forest of holly and mistletoe, and ropes of evergreen, and wreaths and garlands of laurel, and green stars by the dozen. And in a great box, at present hidden from the children, were heaps of candles, silver and crystal baubles, powdered snowflakes, glass icicles, gilded nuts, parti-coloured spheres, cornucopias full of goodies, and, above all, two wonderful Christmas angels, and a snow-white dove!
Neither tree, nor garlands, nor box contained any hint of the donor, to the great disappointment of the neophytes. Rhoda had an idea, for Cupid had 'clapped her i' the shoulder,' and her intuitions were preternaturally keen just now. Mary almost knew, though she had never been in love in her life, and her faculties were working only in their every-day fashion; but she was not in the least surprised when she drew a letter from under the white dove's wing. Seeing that it was addressed to her, she waited until everybody had gone, and sat under the pepper-tree in the deserted playground, where she might read it in solitude.
'DEAR MISTRESS MARY,' it said, 'do you care to hear of my life?
"Pas Ewig-Weibliche Zieht uns hinan,"
and I am growing olives. Do you remember what the Spanish monk said to the tree that he pruned, and that cried out under his hook? "It is not beauty that is wanted of you, nor shade, but olives." The sun is hot, and it has not rained for many a long week, it seems to me, but the dew of your influence falls ever sweet and fresh on the dust of my daily task.
'Enclosed please find the wherewithal for Lisa's next step higher. As she needs more it will come. I give it for sheer gratitude, as the good folk gave their pennies to Pastor Von Bodelschwingh. Why am I grateful? For your existence, to be sure! I had lived my life haunted by the feeling that there was such a woman, and finally the mysterious wind of destiny blew me to her, "as the tempest brings the rose-tree to the pollard willow."
'Do not be troubled about me, little mother-of-many! There was once upon a time a common mallow by the roadside, and being touched by Mohammed's garment as he passed, it was changed at once into a geranium; and best of all, it remained a geranium for ever after.
CHAPTER XVI—CLEANSING FIRES
It was the afternoon of the day before Christmas, and all the little people had gone home, leaving the room vacant for the decking of the Wonderful Tree. Edith, Helen, and others were perched on step- ladders, festooning garlands and wreaths from window to window and post to post. Mary and Rhoda were hanging burdens of joy among the green branches of the tree.
The room began to look more and more lovely as the evergreen stars were hung by scarlet ribbons in each of the twelve windows, and the picture-frames were crowned with holly branches. Then Mistress Mary was elevated to a great height on a pyramid of tables and chairs, and suspended the two Christmas angels by invisible wires from the ceiling. When the chorus of admiration had subsided, she took the white dove from Rhoda's upstretched hands (and what a charming Christmas picture they made—the eager, upturned rosy face of the one, the gracious fairness of the other!), and laying its soft breast against her cheek for a moment, perched it on the topmost branch of waving green with a thought of 'Mr. Man,' and a hope that the blessed day might bring him a tithe of the cheer he had given them. The effect of the dove and the angels was so electrical that all the fresh young voices burst into the chorus of the children's hymn:
'He was born upon this day In David's town so far away, He the good and loving One, Mary's ever-blessed Son.
Let us all our voices lend, For he was the children's Friend, He so lovely, He so mild, Jesus, blessed Christmas Child!'
As the last line of the chorus floated through the open windows, an alarm of fire sounded, followed by a jangle of bells and a rumble of patrol wagons. On going to the west window, Edith saw a blaze of red light against the sky, far in the distance, in the direction of Lone Mountain. Soon after, almost on the heels of the first, came another alarm with its attendant clangings, its cries of 'Fire!' its chatterings and conjectures, its rushing of small boys in all directions, its tread of hurrying policemen, its hasty flinging up of windows and grouping of heads therein.
The girls were too busy labelling the children's gifts to listen attentively to the confused clamour in the streets,—fires were common enough in a city built of wood; but when, half an hour after the first and second alarms, a third sounded, they concluded it must be a conflagration, and Rhoda, dropping her nuts and cornucopias, ran to the corner for news. She was back again almost immediately, excited and breathless.
'Oh, Mary!' she exclaimed, her hand on her panting side, 'unless they are mistaken, it is three separate fires: one, a livery-stable and carriage-house out towards Lone Mountain; another fearful one on Telegraph Hill—a whole block of houses, and they haven't had enough help there because of the Lone Mountain fire; now there's a third alarm, and they say it's at the corner of Sixth and Dutch streets. If it is, we have a tenement house next door; isn't that clothing- place on the corner? Yes, I know it is; make haste! Edith and Helen will watch the Christmas things.'
Mary did not need to be told to hasten. She had her hat in her hand and was on the sidewalk before Rhoda had fairly finished her sentence.
They hurried through the streets, guided by the cloud of smoke that gushed from the top of a building in the near distance. Almost everybody was running in the opposite direction, attracted by the Telegraph Hill fire that flamed vermilion and gold against the grey sky, looking from its elevation like a mammoth bonfire, or like a hundred sunsets massed in one lurid pile of colour.
'Is it the Golden Gate tenement house?' they asked of the neighbourhood locksmith, who was walking rapidly towards them.
'No, it's the coat factory next door,' he answered hurredly. ''Twouldn't be so much of a blaze if they could get the fire company here to put it out before it gets headway; but it's one o' those blind fires that's been sizzling away inside the walls for an hour. The folks didn't know they was afire till a girl ran in and told 'em- -your Lisa it was,—and they didn't believe her at first; but it warn't a minute before the flames burst right through the plastering in half a dozen places to once. I tell you they just dropped everything where it was and run for their lives. There warn't but one man on the premises, and he was such a blamed fool he wasted five minutes trying to turn the alarm into the letter-box on the lamp- post, 'stead of the right one alongside. I'm going home for some tools—Hullo! there's the flames coming through one corner o' the roof; that's the last o' the factory, I guess; but it ain't much loss, any way; it's a regular sweatin'-shop. They'll let it go now, and try to save the buildings each side of it—that's what they'll do.'
That is what they were doing when Mary and Rhoda broke away from the voluble locksmith in the middle of his discourse and neared the scene of excitement. The firemen had not yet come, though it was rumoured that a detachment was on the way. All the occupants of the tenement house were taking their goods and chattels out—running down the narrow stairways with feather-beds, dropping clocks and china ornaments from the windows, and endangering their lives by crawling down the fire-escapes with small articles of no value. Men were scarce at that hour in that locality, but there was a good contingent of small shopkeepers and gentlemen-of-steady-leisure, who were on the roof pouring-water over wet blankets and comforters and carpets. A crazy-looking woman in the fourth story kept dipping a child's handkerchief in and out of a bowl of water and wrapping it about a tomato-can with a rosebush planted in it. Another, very much intoxicated, leaned from her window, and, regarding the whole matter as an agreeable entertainment, called down humorous remarks and ribald jokes to the oblivious audience. There was an improvised hook-and-ladder company pouring water where it was least needed, and a zealous self-appointed commanding officer who did nothing but shout contradictory orders; but as nobody obeyed them, and every man did just as he was inclined, it did not make any substantial difference in the result.
Mary and Rhoda made their way through the mass of interested spectators, not so many here as on the cooler side of the street. Where was Lisa? That was the first, indeed the only question. How had she come there? Where had she gone? There was a Babel of confusion, but nothing like the uproar that would have been heard had not part of the district's population fled to the more interesting fire, and had not the whole thing been so quiet and so lightning- quick in its progress. The whole scene now burst upon their view. A few harassed policemen had stretched ropes across the street, and were trying to keep back the rebellious ones in the crowd who ever and anon would struggle under the line and have to be beaten back by force.
As Mary and Rhoda approached, a group on the outskirts cried out, 'Here she is! 'Tain't more 'n a minute sence they went to tell her! Here she is now!'
The expected fire-brigade could hardly be called 'she,' Mary thought, as she glanced over her shoulder. She could see no special reason for any interest in her own movements. She took advantage of the parting of the crowd, however, and as she made her way she heard, as in a waking dream, disjointed sentences that had no meaning at first, but being pieced together grew finally into an awful whole.
'Why didn't the factory girls bring 'em out? Didn't know they was there?'
'Say, one of 'em was saved, warn't it?'
'Which one of 'em did she get down before the roof caught?'
'No, 'tain't no such thing; the manager's across the bay; she gave the alarm herself.'
'She didn't know they was in there; I bet yer they'd run and hid, and she was hunting 'em when she seen the smoke.'
'Yes, she did; she dropped the girl twin out of the second-story window into Abe Isaac's arms, but she didn't know the boy was in the building till just now, and they can't hardly hold her.'
'She's foolish, anyhow, ain't she?'
Mary staggered beyond Rhoda to the front of the crowd.
'Let me under the rope!' she cried, with a mother's very wail in her tone—'let me under the rope, for God's sake! They're my children!'
At this moment she heard a stentorian voice call to some one, 'Wait a minute till the firemen get here, and they'll go for him! Come back, girl, d-n you! you shan't go!'
'Wait? No! NOT wait!' cried Lisa, tearing herself dexterously from the policeman's clutches, and dashing like a whirlwind up the tottering stairway before any one else could gather presence of mind to seize and detain her.
Pacific was safe on the pavement, but she had only a moment before been flung from those flaming windows, and her terrified shrieks rent the air. The crowd gave a long-drawn groan, and mothers turned their eyes away and shivered. Nobody followed Marm Lisa up that flaming path of death and duty: it was no use flinging a good life after a worthless one.
'Fool! crazy fool!' people ejaculated, with tears of reverence in their eyes.
'Darling, splendid fool!' cried Mary. 'Fool worth all the wise ones among us!'
'He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it!' said a pious Methodist cobbler with a patched boot under his arm.
In the eternity of waiting that was numbered really but in seconds, a burly policeman beckoned four men and gave them a big old-fashioned counterpane that some one had offered, telling them to stand ready for whatever might happen.
'Come closer, boys,' said one of them, wetting his hat in a tub of water; 'if we take a little scorchin' doin' this now, we may git it cooler in the next world!'
'Amen! Trust the Lord!' said the cobbler; and just then Marm Lisa appeared at one of the top windows with a child in her arms. No one else could have recognised Atlantic in the smoke, but Rhoda and Mary knew the round cropped head and the familiar blue gingham apron.
Lisa stood in the empty window-frame, a trembling figure on a background of flame. Her post was not at the moment in absolute danger. There was hope yet, though to the onlookers there seemed none.
'Throw him!' 'Drop him!' 'Le' go of him!' shouted the crowd.
'Hold your jaws, and let me do the talking!' roared the policeman. 'Stop your noise, if you don't want two dead children on your consciences! Keep back, you brutes, keep back o' the rope, or I'll club you!'
It was not so much the officer's threats as simple, honest awe that caused a sudden hush to fall. There were whisperings, sighs, tears, murmurings, but all so subdued that it seemed like silence in the midst of the fierce crackling of the flames.
'Drop him! We'll ketch him in the quilt!' called the policeman, standing as near as he dared.
Lisa looked shudderingly at the desperate means of salvation so far below, and, turning her face away as much as she could, unclasped her arms despairingly, and Atlantic came swooping down from their shelter, down, down into the counterpane; stunned, stifled, choked by smoke, but uninjured, as Lisa knew by the cheers that greeted his safe descent.
A tongue of fire curled round the corner of the building and ran up to the roof towards another that was licking its way along the top of the window.
'Jump now yourself!' called the policeman, while two more men silently joined the four holding the corners of the quilt. Every eye was fixed on the motionless figure of Marm Lisa, who had drawn her shawl over her head, as if just conscious of nearer heat.
The wind changed, and blew the smoke away from her figure. The men on the roof stopped work, not caring for the moment whether they saved the tenement house or not, since a human life was hanging in the balance. The intoxicated woman threw a beer-bottle into the street, and her son ran up from the crowd and locked her safely in her kitchen at the back of the house.
'Jump this minute, or you're a dead girl!' shouted the officer, hoarse with emotion. 'God A'mighty, she ain't goin' to jump—she's terror-struck! She'll burn right there before our eyes, when we could climb up and drag her down if we had a long enough ladder!'
'They've found another ladder and are tying two together,' somebody said.
'The fire company's comin'! I hear 'em!' cried somebody else.
'They'll be too late,' moaned Rhoda, 'too late! Oh, Mary, make her jump!'
Lisa had felt no fear while she darted through smoke and over charred floors in pursuit of Atlantic—no fear, nothing but joy when she dragged him out from under bench and climbed to the window-sill with him,—but now that he was saved she seemed paralysed. So still she was, she might have been a carven statue save for the fluttering of the garments about her thin childish legs. The distance to the ground looked impassable, and she could not collect her thoughts for the hissing of the flame as it ate up the floor in the room behind her. Horrible as it was, she thought it would be easier to let it steal behind her and wrap her in its burning embrace than to drop from these dizzy heights down through that terrible distance, to hear her own bones snap as she touched the quilt, and to see her own blood staining the ground.
'She'll burn, sure,' said a man. 'Well, she's half-witted—that's one comfort!'
Mary started as if she were stung, and forced her way still nearer to the window; hoping to gain a position where she could be more plainly seen.
Everybody thought something was going to happen. Mary had dozens of friends and more acquaintances in that motley assemblage, and they somehow felt that there were dramatic possibilities in the situation. Unless she could think of something, Marm Lisa's last chance was gone: that was the sentiment of the crowd, and Mary agreed in it.
Her cape had long since dropped from her shoulders, her hat was trampled under foot, the fair coil of hair had loosened and was falling on her neck, and the steel fillet blazed in the firelight. She stepped to the quilt and made a despairing movement to attract Lisa's attention.
'Li-sa!' she called, in that sweet, carrying woman's voice that goes so much further than a man's.
The child started, and, pushing back the shawl, looked out from under its cover, her head raised, her eyes brightening.
Mary chanced all on that one electrical moment of recognition, and, with a mien half commanding and half appealing, she stretched out both her arms and called again, while the crowd held its breath:
'Come to me, darling! Jump, little sister! NOW!'
Not one second did Marm Lisa hesitate. She would have sprung into the fire at that dear mandate, and, closing her eyes, she leaped into the air as the roof above her head fell in with a crash.
Just then the beating of hoofs and jangling of bells in the distance announced the coming of the belated firemen; not so long belated actually, for all the emotions, heart-beats, terrors, and despairs that go to make up tragedy can be lived through m a few brief moments.
In that sudden plunge from window to earth Marm Lisa seemed to die consciously. The grey world, the sad world, vanished, 'and the immortal light, all young and joyful, million-orbed, million- coloured,' beamed on her darkness. She kept on falling, falling, falling, till she reached the abysmal depths of space—then she knew no more: and Mary, though prone on the earth, kept falling, falling, falling with her into so deep a swoon that she woke only to find herself on a friendly bed, with Rhoda and Lisa herself, weeping over her.
At five o'clock, Mrs. Grubb, forcibly torn from a meeting and acquainted with the afternoon's proceedings, hurried into a lower room in the tenement house, where Mary, Rhoda, and the three children were gathered for a time. There were still a hundred people in the street, but they showed their respect by keeping four or five feet away from the windows.
The twins sat on a sofa, more quiet than anything save death itself. They had been rocked to the very centre of their being, and looked like nothing so much as a couple of faded photographs of themselves. Lisa lay on a cot, sleeping restlessly; Mary looked pale and wan, and there were dark circles under her eyes.
As Mrs. Grubb opened the door softly, Mary rose to meet her.
'Have you heard all?' she asked.
'Yes, everything!' faltered Mrs. Grubb with quivering lips and downcast eyelids.
Mary turned towards Lisa's bed. 'Mrs. Grubb,' she said, looking straight into that lady's clear, shallow eyes, 'I think Lisa has earned her freedom, and the right to ask a Christmas gift of you. Stand on the other side of the cot and put your hand in mine. I ask you for the last time, will you give this unfinished, imperfect life into my keeping, if I promise to be faithful to it unto the end, whatever it may be?'
I suppose that every human creature, be he ever so paltry, has his hour of effulgence, an hour when the mortal veil grows thin and the divine image stands revealed, endowing him, for a brief space at least with a kind of awful beauty and majesty.
It was Mistress Mary's hour. Her pure, unswerving spirit shone with a white and steady radiance that illuminated Mrs. Grubb's soul to its very depths, showing her in a flash the feeble flickerings and waverings of her own trivial purposes. At that moment her eye was fitted with a new lens, through which the road to the summit of the Tehachapi Mountains and Mahatmadom suddenly looked long, weary, and profitless, and by means of which the twins were transferred from the comfortable middle distance they had previously occupied to the immediate foreground of duty. The lens might slip, but while it was in place she saw as clearly as another woman.
'Will you?' repeated Mistress Mary, wondering at her silence.
Mrs. Grubb gave one last glance at the still reproach of Lisa's face, and one more at the twins, who seemed to loom more formidably each time she regarded them; then drawing a deep breath she said, 'Yes, I will; I WILL, no matter what happens; but it isn't enough to give up, and you needn't suppose I think it is.' And taking a passive twin by either hand, she passed out of the door into the crowded thoroughfare, and disappeared in the narrow streets that led to Eden Place.