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The Making of Mary
A sturdy northeast wind was rattling the doors and windows of a deserted farmhouse in Western Michigan. The building was not old, measured by years, but it had never been painted or repaired, and its wooden face, prematurely lined with weather stains, looked as if it had borne the wear and tear of centuries. The windows, like lidless eyes, stared vacantly at the flat stubble fields and the few spindling trees, a dreary apology for an orchard. There were plenty of shingles off the roof to allow the inquisitive rain-drops to follow one another through the rafters, and thence to the floor of the room below, where the darkness was creeping out of the corners to take possession.
The house had been but recently vacated, for there was still a "slab" smoldering on the hearth of the wide fireplace in the outer kitchen, and something that looked almost human, wrapped in a ragged bedquilt, was lying much too near it for safety. A friendly gust of wind came down the chimney, bringing back the smoke, and drawing a faint cough from the bundle. Another gust and another cough, and then a sneeze which burst open the quilt, to disclose an ill-clad little girl, six or seven years old.
She gazed about with drowsy blue eyes till terror of the darkness made her draw the tattered comforter over her head again, and crouching nearer to the smoldering log, she tried to warm her fingers and toes. More wind down the chimney made more smoke, and sent the child coughing back from the fireplace. She was wide awake now, and stood listening. Sounds there were, indeed, but not one that could be associated with any living thing in the house. She felt her way around the walls to where the candle used to be, but it was gone. There was no furniture to stumble over, and when she came to the side of the wall in the inner room from which the stairway crept up, she mounted it on her hands and knees, trembling, partly with cold, partly with fear at the noise made by the flapping of the sole of one of her old shoes. There was a step missing at the turn of the stairs, but the child knew where the vacancy was, and pulling herself over it, she reached the landing, felt all around the walls there, and made the circuit of the three small rooms in the same fashion. They were entirely empty.
Cautiously the girl stole down the broken stairs and back to her former place by the smoking slab, where she curled herself up into the old quilt again, as into a mother's arms, and spoke aloud, though there was none to listen but the obstreperous wind:
"Anyhow she won't be here to lick me no more!" That thought seemed to compensate for darkness and loneliness. The voices of wind and rain were apparently more kindly than the human tones to which she had been accustomed, and soothed by their stormy lullaby, the little maid fell asleep.
The sunshine poured freely into the forsaken house next morning, drying up the damp floors, and turning to gold the scrap of yellow hair that showed through a hole in the old quilt. Presently the small girl shook the covering away from her and stood up, to yawn and stretch herself out of the stiffness from a night spent on the hard floor. She was not a pretty child, unless naturally curling fair hair, that would be fairer when it was washed, could make her so. The long, thin legs that came below her torn dress made her too tall for her age, and what might have been a passable mouth was spoiled by the departure of two of the front "baby" teeth and the tardy arrival of the later contingent.
Part of the day the child seemed satisfied with her new-found liberty. Having discovered a stale crust or two in a cupboard, she wanted no more, for her diet had never been luxurious. Into every corner of the house she intruded her small freckled nose, pulling down from shelves all sorts of odds and ends that had been left behind as worthless at the flitting.
There was an old straw bonnet with a pair of dirty strings, and therewith the damsel elected to adorn the tousled head, which evidenced but slight acquaintance with comb or brush. She could not find any feminine garments to please her fancy, but there was a boy's jacket, out at elbows and ragged round the edges, which she proudly donned, and as a finishing touch she popped her long slim legs, old shoes and all, into a worn-out pair of man's top-boots that reached to her knees.
"I just wish Mawm Mason had lef' a lookin'-glass behin', so's I could see how I look. My! Wouldn't she whack me if she seen me with this bonnet on!" The child smiled broadly as she continued her confidential address to the other valueless things left behind. "I allays knowed she warn't my own mother, an' I'm glad Pete nor Matty aint my own brother nor sister neither. I'd like him to see me in his jacket!"
She pulled the coat across her narrow little chest to where it met in the days when there were buttons on it, and marched up and down the room, making as much noise as possible with the big boots.
This killing of time was all very well while the daylight lasted and the sun warmed up the frosty November air, but when the darkness began to assert itself once more the small waif did not feel so contented.
"There aint no use goin' over to Mis' Morgan's. She don't want me no more'n Mis' Mason did. I guess I'll sleep upstairs to-night with some o' them things over me. I'll be warm anyhow."
In the middle of the front bedroom she heaped up all the débris and crawled beneath it. A fantastic pile it seemed to the moon when he looked in after the rain had stopped, the childish head resting on the cover of an old bandbox at one side and a pair of man's boots sticking out at the other.
The last scrap of bread was finished next day, and the two potatoes picked up in the yard proved uneatable without the softening influence of fire, so there was nothing for it but Mrs. Morgan's. After sunset, when the rapidly falling temperature and the heavy bank of clouds in the west gave warning of a snow-storm, the little girl, still wearing the old bonnet, boy's jacket, and man's boots, left the only home she could remember, and made her way slowly over the hard rough fields and snake fences to the next farmhouse.
Mrs. Morgan was running in from the barn with a shawl over her head.
"Good sakes alive! Mary Mason! I hardly knowed you. What you got on? I thought you was one o' them scarecrows out o' the fall wheat. Mis' Mason moved to Californy three days ago. Didn't she take you with her?"
"So it 'pears. Wal, she hadn't any call to, I s'pose. You aint none o' hers."
By this time they were in the kitchen of the farmhouse, Mrs. Morgan rubbing her hands above the stove, and Mary Mason also venturing near, stretching out her thin arms to the heat, for the adopted jacket was somewhat short in the sleeves.
"What's that mark on yer wrist?"
"Bruise—but it don't hurt now."
"Who done it?"
"Ma—Mis' Mason. I've lots worse'n that on me," said the small girl with some vanity.
"There, now! I jest knew that Mis' Mason was a hard case, though my man would never hear to it. What you going to do now?"
"I dunno." The accent implied that to be a matter of small moment.
"I don't s'pose we can turn you out to-night. There's room in the attic for you to sleep, but don't you go near one o' my girls' beds with that head o' yourn."
As a hostess, Mrs. Morgan was a slight improvement upon Mrs. Mason. She never took stick or strap to the foundling, and if she occasionally gave her a cuff on the ear it was never strong enough to knock the girl down. But the Morgan children bullied Mary Mason, the Morgan father grumbled at an extra mouth to feed, and when she had been about a month in the house the mistress of it told her she must move on.
"There's an old dress of Ellie's you can have, an' a pair of Sue's cast-off boots, and Tom's old cap."
"Where am I to go, mawm?"
"You jest go on from one farmhouse to another, till you find a place where they'll keep you all winter. It's comin' on to Christmas, an' people won't be hard on ye. Tell 'em you aint got no folks."
The forlorn little pilgrim took up her march down the snow-covered road.
My wife is a theosophist. This fact may account for her numerous eccentricities or be simply one of them. I incline to the latter opinion, because she preferred the unbeaten to the beaten track, both in walk and conversation, long before Modern Buddhism was ever heard of in the small Western town of whose chief newspaper (circulation largest in Michigan) I have the honor to be editor and proprietor.
How such a hot-house plant as Theosophy ever took root in the swamps and sands of the Wolverine State may seem surprising at the first glance, but let the second rest upon our environment—the absence of mountain or swift-flowing river, the presence of fever and ague and half-burnt pine woods—and it will be seen that this Eastern lore with its embarrassment of symbols supplies a long-felt want to starving imagination. We of the West are forever reaching beyond our grasp, have intelligence and perception, but lack the culture necessary for discrimination, and therefore the romantic souls among us who rise above the rampant materialism of the majority go to the other extreme, and hail with enthusiasm the new-old religion.
"It's better to believe too much than too little, but you theosophists swallow an awful lot," I say to Belle when she tries to convert me.
I am well aware that many of my fellow-citizens consider me a subject for commiseration because I have lived for twenty years with so erratic a house-mate, for I have not deemed it necessary to explain to them that without the stimulus of her enlivening spirit, without the element of surprise constantly contributed by my wife's love of variety, the daily life, and therefore the daily paper, of their favorite editor would partake of that flatness which is the predominant characteristic of this western part of the State of Michigan.
Our four sons and two daughters enjoy their mother fully as much as I do, for is she not the most fascinating romancer they ever knew? Now that they are all of an age to be attending school and looking out for themselves, after the manner of independent young Americans, they require from her nothing but sympathy, for their grandmother sews their buttons on. Grandma!—Ay, there's the rub.
I have no hesitation in owning that I am Scotch by birth. My mother left her native land to make her home with us entirely too late in life to allow Western ideas regarding Sabbath observance, the rearing of children, or the amount of respect due to the opinion of elders, to become ingrafted upon Scottish prejudice concerning these matters.
Mrs. Gemmell Senior has, however, the national peculiarity of judging "blood thicker than water," and whatever her convictions may be concerning the methods of Mrs. Gemmell Junior, she restricts the expression of them to our family circle—in fact, I may say, to myself. She generally seizes me when I lie at my ease on the well-worn lounge in our sitting room, more properly dubbed the "nursery," for it is Liberty Hall for the youngsters. Two rooms have been knocked into one to accommodate their dolls' houses, bookshelves, toys, and printing machines. Belle had the whole side torn out of the house to build an open fire-place, on purpose to burn slabs, over which the children roast pop-corn to their hearts' content.
"A body wad think," said my mother one cold night five or six years ago, when I lay on the sofa, trying to send my weariness off in smoke, "A body wad think there had been nae cherritable wark dune in the toon ava, till they theossiphies set aboot it. If yer provost and baillies lookit efter things as they ocht, there wad be a dacent puirs-house for the idignant folk, an' a wheen daft leddies like Eesabel needna gang roun' speirin' at yon infeedels for their siller tae build a hoose o' refuse."
"There is a county poorhouse, mother, but it doesn't happen to be located in this city, and they won't take in anybody there that hasn't been a resident of the county for a certain time."
"Aweel! There's plenty o' kirks, though ye never darken the door o' ane. Do they no' leuk efter their ain puir folk?"
"Yes; but after nobody else's. This House of Refuge is to be non-sectarian, non-religious, humanitarian, in the broadest sense of the term. Ah! There's Belle now," and I gave a sigh of relief as I heard my wife's latch-key in the front door.
She came in with an out-of-door breeze, her dark face glowing from the wintry wind, flakes of newly fallen snow resting like diamonds upon her prematurely white hair, and her brown eyes sparkling with the animation of twenty summers rather than of forty-two.
"Children all gone to bed? That's right! Don't go, mother! I'm sure you'll like to hear about the House of Refuge. We've got it fixed at last! Those rich old lumbermen that won't give a cent to a church, or any charity connected with one, have gone to the bottom of their pockets this time. Fancy Peter Wood, Dave—five hundred dollars! And Jeff Henderson, five hundred. I have the list in my bag. Like to see it?"
"No' the nicht, thenk ye," said my mother stiffly, but I added:
"Hand it over to me, and I'll put it in to-morrow's Echo. That's what they want."
"Nothing of the kind, you old cynic! I shan't tell you another thing about it." But still she went on: "We've taken the old Laurence house on the corner of Garfield Avenue and Pine Street, and it's to be fitted up to accommodate any sort of refugees."
"Irrespective of race, creed, sex, or color," I whispered parenthetically.
"No one is ever to be turned from the door without a good square meal, and there's to be a back, outside stair erected, up which a tramp can go at any hour of the night, and find a nice clean bed awaiting him—locked away from the rest of the house, of course."
"Oh, why?" I innocently inquired. "Surely you have enough faith in your brother man to believe that he would not commit any breach of hospitality?"
"I have," replied Belle, squeezing my recumbent form further against the back of the sofa, upon which she had seated herself. "But remember we are not all theosophists on the Board."