Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch
HOW SPRING CAME TO THE CABBAGE PATCH
"The roads, the woods, the heavens, the hills
WHEN the last snow of the winter had melted, and the water was no longer frozen about the corner pump, the commons lost their hard, brown look, and a soft green tinge appeared instead. There were not many ways of telling when spring came to the Cabbage Patch; no trees shook forth their glad little leaves of welcome, no anemones and snow-drops brought the gentle message, even the birds that winged their way from the South-land hurried by, without so much as a chirp of greeting.
But the Cabbage Patch knew it was spring, nevertheless; something whispered it in the air, a dozen little signs gave the secret away; weeds were springing up in the fence corners, the puddles which a few months ago were covered with ice now reflected bits of blue sky, and the best token of all was the bright, warm sunshine that clung to the earth as if to love it back into beauty and life again.
One afternoon Mrs. Wiggs stood at her gate talking to Redding. It was the first time he had been there since Christmas day, for his first visit had been too painful for him to desire to repeat it.
"Yes, indeed, Billy kin go," Mrs. Wiggs was saying. "I'm mighty glad you drove him by home to git on his good coat. He never was to the fair grounds before; it'll be a big treat. How's Mr. Dick to-day?"
"No better," said Redding; "he coughed all night."
"He was takin' a nap o' sleep when I went to clean up this mornin'," said Mrs. Wiggs, "so I didn't disturb him. He ain't fer long, pore feller!"
"No, poor chap," said Redding, sadly.
Mrs. Wiggs saw the shadow on his face, and hastened to change the subject. "What do you think of Asia's fence?" she asked.
"What about it?"
"She done it herself," said Mrs. Wiggs. "That an' the pavement, too. Mrs. Krasmier's goat et up her flowers las' year, an' this year she 'lowed she'd fix it different. Chris Hazy, that boy over yonder with the peg-stick, helped her dig the post-boles, but she done the rest herself."
"Well, she is pretty clever!" said Redding, almost incredulously, as he examined the fence and sidewalk. "How old is she?"
"Fourteen, goin' on to fifteen. Asia, come here."
The girl left the flower-bed she was digging, and came forward.
"Not a very big girl, are you?" said Redding, smiling at her. "How would you like to go up to the tile factory, and learn to do decorating?"
Her serious face lit up with great enthusiasm; she forgot her shyness, and said, eagerly: "Oh, yes, sir! Could I?"
Before Redding could answer, Mrs. Wiggs broke in:
"You'd be gittin' a artist, Mr. Bob! Them fingers of hers kin do anything. Last fall she built that there little greenhouse out of ole planks, an' kep' it full of flowers all winter; put a lamp in durin' the cold spell. You orter see the things she's painted. And talk about mud pictures! She could jes' take some of that there mud under that hoss's feet, an' make it look so much like you, you wouldn't know which was which."
Billy's appearance at this moment saved Redding from immediate disgrace.
"You come to the office with Billy in the morning," he called to Asia, as they started off; "we'll see what can be done."
Asia went back to her digging with a will; the prospect of work, of learning how to do things right, and, above all, of learning how to paint, filled her with happiness.
"If I was you I'd make that bed in the shape of a star," said her mother, breaking in on her rejections. "Why don't you make it a mason star? Yer pa was a fine mason; it would be a sort of compliment to him."
"What is a mason star like?" asked Asia.
"Well, now I ain't right sure whether it 'a got five points or six. Either way will do. Lands alive, I do believe there comes Miss Lucy!"
Lucy Olcott had been a frequent visitor of late. Through Mrs. Wiggs she had gotten interested in Mrs. Schultz, and often stopped in to read to the bedridden old lady. Here, of course, she heard a great deal about the Eichorns, the elite of the Cabbage Patch, whose domestic infelicities furnished the chief interest in Mrs. Schultz's life. Lucy had even stood on a chair, at the invalid's earnest request, to count the jars of preserves in the Eichorn pantry. Later she had become acquainted with Miss Hazy, the patient little woman in monochrome, whose whole pitiful existence was an apology when it might have been a protest.
In fact, Lucy became an important personage in the neighborhood. She was sought for advice, called upon for comfort, and asked to share many joys. Her approach was usually heralded by a shout, "That's her a-comin'!" and she was invariably escorted across the commons by a guard of ragged but devoted youngsters. And the friendship of these simple people opened her eyes to the great problems of humanity, and as she worked among them and knew life as it was, the hard little bud of her girlhood blossomed into the great soft rose of womanhood.
"Didn't you meet Mr. Bob up the street?" asked Mrs. Wiggs, as she led the way into the kitchen. "Him an' Billy have jes' left, goin' out to the fair grounds. Mr. Bob's jes' naturally the best man I ever set eyes on, Miss Lucy! Got the biggest heart, an' always doin' something kind fer folks. Jes' now talkin' 'bout gittin' Asia a place at the tile fact'ry. I don't see how you missed 'em! If he'd a sawn you with them vi'lets in yer belt, an' them roses in yer cheeks, I bet he wouldn't 'a' went."
"Oh, yes, he would!" said Lucy, emphatically. "My roses don't appeal to Mr. Bob."
"Well, he likes yer eyes, anyway," said Mrs. Wiggs, determined to carry her point.
"Who said so?" demanded Lucy.
"He did. I ast him. I said they was regular star-eyes, jes' shining blue with them black eyelashes rayin' out all 'round, an' he said yes, that was the right name fer 'em—star-eyes."
There was a mist over the star-eyes as Lucy turned away.
"That's right; set right down there by the winder. It's so pretty out today it makes you feel good clean down yer back."
"I believe you always feel that way," said Lucy, pulling off her gloves. "Don't you ever worry over things?"
Mrs. Wiggs grew serious. "I'm lonesome fer Jimmy all the time," she said simply. "Some folks goes right under when trouble comes, but I carry mine fur an' easy."
"I don't mean grieving," said Lucy; "I mean worrying and fretting."
"Well, yes," admitted Mrs. Wiggs, taking a hot iron from the stove, "I 've done that, too. I remember onct last winter I was tooken sick, an' I got to pesterin' 'bout what the childern 'ud do if I died. They wasn't no money in the house, an' they didn't know where to git none. All one night I laid there with my head 'most bustin', jes' worryin' 'bout it. By an' by I was so miserable I ast the Lord what I mus' do, an' he tole me." There was absolute conviction in her tone and manner. "Nex' mornin'," she went on, "soon's I could I went over to the 'spensary an' ast fer the chief doctor.
"'Doctor,' I sez, 'don't you buy corpses?'
"'Yes,' sez he, lookin' kinder funny.
"'Well,' sez I, 'I want to sell mine.'
"Then I tole him all 'bout it, an' ast him if he wouldn't take my body after I was gone, an' give the money to the childern.
"'Will you put it in writin',' sez he.
"'Yes,' sez I, 'if you'll do the same.'
"So he drawed up the papers, an' we both signed, an' a man with a spine in his back an' a lady with the rheumatiz witnessed it. So you see," concluded Mrs. Wiggs, "I didn't die; you mark my words, it ain't never no use puttin' up yer umbrell' till it rains!"
Lucy laughed. "Well, you certainly practise what you preach."
"Not always," said Mrs. Wiggs. "I'm 'feared I use' to worry some over Mr. Wiggs. T'words the last he uster pretty often—" Here Mrs. Wiggs tipped an imaginary bottle to her lips, and gave Lucy a significant wink. Even in the strictest confidence, she could not bear to speak of the weakness of the late lamented.
"But no matter how bad he done, he always tried to do better. Mr. Dick sorter puts me in mind of him 'bout that."
"Who is Mr. Dick?"
"He's Mr. Bob's friend. Stays at his rooms sence he was took down."
"Is Mr. Redding sick?" asked Lucy, the color suddenly leaving her face.
"No, it's Mr. Dick; he's consumpted. I clean up his room ever' mornin' He coughs all the time, jes' like Mr. Wiggs done. Other day he had a orful spell while I was there. I wanted to git him some whisky, but he shuck his head. 'I'm on the water-cart,' sez he. 'Bob's drivin' it.' He ain't no fatter 'n a knittin'-needle, an' weaker 'n water. You orter see him watch fer Mr. Bob! He sets by the winder, all propped up with pillars, an' never tecks his eyes offen that corner. An' when Mr. Bob comes in an' sets down by him an' tells him what's goin' on, an' sorter fools with him a spell, looks like he picks up right off. He ain't got no folks nor nothin'—jes, Mr. Bob. He shorely does set store by him—jes' shows it ever' way. That's right, too. I hold that it's wrong to keep ever'thing bottled up inside you. Yer feelin's is like ras'berry vineger: if you 're skeered to use 'em an' keep on savin' 'em, first thing you know they 've done 'vaporated!"
Lucy's experience had proved the contrary, but she smiled bravely back at Mrs. Wiggs, with a new tenderness in her face.
"You have taught me lots of things!" she said impulsively. "You are one of the best and happiest women I know."
"Well, I guess I ain't the best by a long sight, but I may be the happiest. An' I got cause to be: four of the smartest childern that ever lived, a nice house, fair to middlin' health when I ain't got the rheumatiz, and folks always goin' clean out of the way to be good to one! Ain't that 'nough to make a person happy? I'll be fifty years old on the Fourth of July, but I hold there ain't no use in dyin' 'fore yer time. Lots of folks is walkin' 'round jes' as dead as they'll ever be. I believe in gittin' as much good outen life as you kin—not that I ever set out to look fer happiness; seems like the folks that does that never finds it. I jes' do the best I kin where the good Lord put me at, an' it looks like I got a happy feelin' in me 'most all the time."
Lucy sat silent for a while, gazing out of the window. Mrs. Wiggs's philosophy was having its effect. Presently she rose and untied the bundle she held.
"Here is a dress I brought for Asia," she said, shaking out the folds of a soft crepon.
"Umph, umph! Ain't that grand?" exclaimed Mrs. Wiggs, coming from behind the ironing-board to examine it. "It does seem lucky that your leavin's jes' fits Asia, an' Asia's jes' fits Austry; there ain't no symptoms of them bein' handed down, neither! We all model right after you, but it looks like Asia's the only one that ketches yer style. Oh, must you go?" she added, as Lucy picked up her gloves.
"Yes; I promised Mrs. Schultz to read to her this afternoon."
"Well, stop in on yer way back—I'll have a little present ready for you." It was an unwritten law that no guest should depart without a gift of some kind. Sometimes it was one of Asia's paintings, again it was a package of sunflower seed, or a bottle of vinegar, and once Lucy had taken home four gourds and a bunch of paper roses.
"I declare I never will git no work done if this weather keeps up!" said Mrs. Wiggs, as she held the gate open. "If I wasn't so stove up, an' nobody wasn't lookin', I'd jes' skitter 'round this here yard like a colt!"