Mary Ware in Texas
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All that day and the next she worried over the matter, and finally decided to go to Mrs. Rochester and ask her advice. On the way up to the rectory she stopped at the post-office. The mail was being distributed, and while she stood waiting for the delivery window to open, the rector himself came in. As he turned away from his locked box, in which only papers had been deposited so far, he saw Mary and went over to her with a cordial greeting.
"I'm looking for something," he said with a twinkle of fun in his eyes. "Maybe you can help me. It is as hard to find as the proverbial needle in the haystack, but I must have it before sundown if possible. Some one as patient as Job, as tactful as a diplomat, with the nerve of a lion-tamer and the resources of a sleight-of-hand performer – the kind who can draw rabbits out of a silk hat if necessary."
Mary laughed. "What are you going to do with such a wonderful creature when you find it?"
"Turn it loose on those Mallory children," answered Mr. Rochester, lowering his tone. "I was sent for yesterday, presumably to see their mother who is an invalid, but I found that the real reason was to give some advice to Mr. Mallory about the children. The hotel refused to harbor them any longer, and he had been summoned hastily by telegraph. He has moved his family to a furnished cottage near the hotel. Their meals will be sent in to them, and his mother can look after his wife, but he is desperate about the children.
"He acknowledges he could not cope with them even if he could stay here all the time away from his business. His wife has never allowed them to be punished, and has foolishly humored them till they are past being controlled. He besought me to find some one who could take them in hand for a part of the day at least."
"But what could an outsider do with them if their own family has failed?" queried Mary.
"Ah, that's where the lion-tamer and the sleight-of-hand performer combination gets in his work. He must quell them with his eye, and draw ways and means out of his silk hat. Mrs. Mallory would like to have them taught to read and write if it can be done without crossing the little dears, but I inferred that their father would be glad simply to have them taken in hand and tamed sufficiently to keep them from being public nuisances."
Mary's pulses began to pound with the excitement of a daring thought, but she managed to appear unconcerned, and asked him in a joking way, "And if you can't find this Job-like, diplomatic lion-tamer they want, they'll have to take some ordinary person?"
"They'll be obliged to. But I'm afraid that a quest even in that direction will prove fruitless. It's a field for real missionary effort, though. Some one might be willing to approach it in that spirit."
The delivery window flew up, and as the waiting line began moving along towards it, Mr. Rochester lifted his hat and turned away. But before he could fit his key in the lock of his box, Mary was at his side.
"One moment, please," she exclaimed, her face flushing.She spoke very fast. "If you think that I can fill that position will you tell them about me? I've really got lots of patience with children, and" – laughing nervously – "last summer I partly tamed a young wild-cat. I could at least tell the children stories, and teach them all sorts of wood-lore that would keep them busy and interested out of doors. Besides," she flushed still deeper, "I must find some way to earn some money soon. My very need of it would make me try all the harder to fill the place. I am on my way now to see Mrs. Rochester and ask her advice about what to do."
A few minutes later she and Mr. Rochester were walking rapidly along the road in the direction of the Williams House. As they crossed the wide foot-bridge which spans the creek, and climbed the hill on the other side, she told him of the work she had done the previous summer under the noted naturalist, Professor Carnes.
"He had arranged to send his fifteen-year-old niece to Lone Rock this winter," she added, "but her physicians decided at the last moment that she needed a milder climate. She was to have boarded near us, and I had promised to devote my mornings to keeping her out of doors and teaching her in an indirect way that would not suggest books or study hours. Maybe the fact that such a man as Professor Carnes thought me competent to do that, and was willing to pay me a grown teacher's salary, might have some weight with the Mallorys. Oh, I hope they won't think seventeen and a half is too young," she exclaimed, with an anxious glance at her companion, as if to discover his opinion.
"If I'd only known such an important interview was ahead of me I'd have worn my blue suit. I look lots older in that because it's longer than this one."
"I don't think you need worry about that," the rector answered. He spoke gravely, but the face he turned away from her twitched with suppressed amusement.
They passed the Williams House, and turned in at the gate of a gray cottage, where Mr. Mallory himself met them at the door. He was a prosperous young broker with an affable manner and the self-confident air that some people acquire from the carrying of a fat bank-book. He ushered them into the room where Mrs. Mallory was lying on a couch. She was very young and blue-eyed and soft-haired. Curled up among the cushions under a blue and white afghan, she made Mary think of a kitten. She seemed so helpless and incapable, as if she had never known anything but cushions and cream, all her life.
Two children were playing quietly under a table, in the corner. Mary could not see what they were doing, for they were lying on their stomachs with their heads towards the wall. Only their little black-stockinged legs and slippered feet protruded from under the table, and they were waving back and forth in mid-air above their backs.
When Mr. Rochester introduced Mary as the young lady they were so desirous of finding, one pair of small legs stopped waving, and their owner backed hastily out into the room. Humping along on all fours until she reached her mother's couch, she sat on the floor beside it and began studying the visitors with a quiet intense gaze. She was an attractive child, with rather a wistful little face. Her hair was cut short in Buster Brown fashion, and she was remarkably strong and sturdy looking for a girl. Otherwise there was nothing in her appearance to justify one's belief that she had done all the tom-boy things ascribed to her.
To Mary's surprise Mrs. Mallory discussed the children as freely as if they were not present, repeating their pranks and smart sayings as if they were too young to understand what was being said, and frankly admitting her inability to control them.
"Mr. Mallory and I agree on every subject but the proper way to rear children, and we almost come to blows over that," she said, smiling up at him till the dimples in her cheeks made her seem more childish and appealing than ever.
"I believe in letting children do exactly as they please as far as possible. The time will come soon enough when they can't, poor little dears. We have not imposed our wishes on them even in the matter of names. It has been a life-long regret with me that my mother burdened me with a name that I despised, and I made up my mind that my children should be allowed to choose their own. Little brother, there, has chosen his father's name, Herbert. But we're slow about adopting it. We've called him Brud so long, his sister's baby name for him, when she was learning to talk, that it is hard to break the habit."
"And the little girl?" asked Mary politely, beginning to feel that she had hastened to shoulder a load which she might not be able to carry.
"Really it's too cunning the way Little Sister does," exclaimed Mrs. Mallory. "One week she announces she's Genevive and the next that she's Bessie or Maud or Irma – whatever happens to strike her fancy, and she gets simply furious if we don't remember every time she changes. That was one thing that Miss Edna fell out with us about. She kept calling her Bessie the week that she wished to be known as Marion. Of course the child naturally resented it, and Miss Edna actually caught her and shook her, when she hadn't done a thing but throw a biscuit or some little article like that in her direction."
Mary cast a half-frightened glance at Mr. Rochester, aghast at the prospect before her. The soft voice went on.
"We don't believe in being harsh with children, do we, Beautiful?" She reached down to stroke the little head nestled against her couch. "I want my children to have it to remember of their mother that she never scolded or punished them. You can say that. Can't you, pet?"
Pet only nodded in reply, but she caught the slim white hand in both her own and pressed it lovingly against her cheek. It made a pretty tableau, and Mary found it hard to realize that this affectionate little creature was one of the "kleinen teufel" of Norman's report. But she noticed the satisfied gleam in the child's eyes when her mother went on to retail other instances of Miss Edna's harshness.
Mr. Rochester saw the expression also, and the shrewd, knowing glance that followed when he finally broached the terms of a settlement, asking them to specify exactly what would be expected of Mary and what salary would be paid in return. He mildly suggested that it might be wiser to dispense with a juvenile audience at this point.
He had chosen words that he thought far beyond Little Sister's comprehension, and there was something startling as well as uncanny in the way she spoke up for the first time since his entrance.
"I aren't a-going to leave this room! Nobody can make me!"
Mrs. Mallory looked up at her husband with an amused simper and shook her head as if to say, "Now, isn't that the smartest thing you ever saw?" and Mr. Rochester's suggestion was ignored.
When they rose to go it had been arranged that Mary was to take the children in charge every afternoon, except Sundays, from one o'clock till five, at the same salary Professor Carnes had offered her. She was to teach them anything she could in any way she chose, provided her methods did not conflict with their happiness. The chief thing was that they should be kept interested and amused.
"Then to-morrow at one," said Mr. Mallory, rising with them, "they will take their first lesson. Come out from under that table, Brud, and get acquainted with your new teacher."
Brud waved one leg in token that he heard, but made no further response. Suddenly Sister found her voice again.
"What you going to teach us first? 'Cause if we don't like it we won't go."
Taken thus suddenly, without having had a moment in which to form any plan of action, Mary groped wildly around in her mind for an answer. She recognized this as a crucial moment. She could not hesitate long, for Mrs. Mallory's appealing blue eyes were fixed on her also, the while she patted the child's cheek and purred, "Why, of course little Sister will go when the nice lady is planning to give her such a happy time."
"Happy time adoing what?" was the persistent question.
Just then, Meliss, the colored nurse-girl, opened the side door, and there floated in from the hotel kitchen the appetizing smell of pies – hot mince pies just being lifted from the oven. Mary caught eagerly at the straw of suggestion which the odor offered. At the same time some instinct prompted her that it was foolishness to address this child of eight as if she were an infant, or to talk down to her as her family made a practise of doing. So speaking directly to her as if she were addressing an intelligent and reasonable being she said gravely:
"The kind of school we are going to have is so different from any you've ever heard of, that I can't explain it beforehand. I can only tell you this, – it is somewhat like a Jack Horner pie. Each day you'll put in your thumb and pull out a plum. But what that particular plum will be depends on so many things that I could not possibly give it a name before it actually happens. It will be a surprise school."
At the mention of pies the legs under the table hastily came down out of the air, and the small boy attached hastily backed out into general view. Planting himself in front of Mary with a swaggering air, his feet wide apart, he announced aggressively:
"I'll bring my new hatchet if I want to, and nobody can make me leave it at home!"
There was something so impertinent in his manner that Mary longed to shake him and say, "Don't be so sure of that, Mr. Smarty!" But remembering the dignified position she now had to maintain, she only remarked in a matter of fact tone:
"If your hatchet has a good sharp edge it will probably be one of the first things you'll need. And you'll find use for a pocket full of medium sized nails, too."
"What for?" he demanded, drawing a little closer to begin a thorough cross examination. But Mary, who had turned to listen to a question of Mr. Mallory's, paid no heed.
"I say," Brud repeated, calling as if she were deaf. "What for? What for? WHAT FOR?"
Mary paid not the slightest attention until she had answered his father, then said deliberately, "I've already explained that in a surprise school you can't know what is going to happen till the time comes."
"Why?" he whined.
"Because," she said, pausing impressively, and then lowering her voice as if she were imparting a mysterious secret, "it's the Law of the Jungle."
The unexpectedness of this mystifying answer and the sepulchral voice in which she gave it, was so different from anything Brud had ever encountered before, that it took him some seconds to recover, and she was gone before he could think of another question.
Mr. Mallory walked to the gate with them. "You've certainly started out well, Miss Ware," he remarked admiringly. "At first I thought we might have some difficulty in getting their consent to go, but they'll be on hand to-morrow all right. You've aroused their curiosity to such a pitch that a regiment armed to the teeth couldn't keep them from satisfying it now." After an instant's pause he added a trifle awkwardly, seeming to feel some explanation was due, "Their mother never sees a fault in them, and my business keeps me away from them so much that – well, you see yourself how it is."
On the way home neither Mary nor Mr. Rochester spoke till they were halfway down the hill. Then they looked at each other and laughed.
"I hope I haven't got you into too deep water, Miss Mary," he said. "It's a big undertaking. I must confess to a curiosity as great as Brud's. What are you going to do with them?"
"Oh, I don't know!" exclaimed Mary desperately. "Did you see me fencing for time when Little Sister demanded to be told what I'd teach them first? Things had happened so fast that I hadn't had a moment to think, so I had to say the first thing that came into my head. I tremble to think what a long pause there might have been if the smell of those pies had not suggested an answer. I think the first week I'll just play with them as hard as I can. Play Indian maybe, so that if they get too obstreperous it will be part of the game to tie them to a tree and torture them. But after all I can't help being sorry for the little things after hearing their mother talk to them and about them."
At the end of the foot-bridge where she turned to take the lower road which was the short cut home, she started to thank him, but he stopped her earnest words with an uplifted hand and an amused protest.
"Wait and see how it turns out before you thank me. You may want to wreak dire vengeance on me before the week's over, for getting you into such a predicament."
With a cordial word of parting Mary hurried down the road, and burst into the house with the breathless announcement that she'd consented to go as a missionary; that Mr. Rochester had persuaded her to take the step. She waited a moment to give them a chance to guess what special field it was she was about to enter, but was so eager to tell that she had to burst out with the answer herself:
"It's to the heathen at home I am going, I'm to be an apostle to 'die kleinen teufel'!"
Jack gave a loud whistle of surprise and then burst out laughing, but Mrs. Ware looked across at him soberly, with a triumphant nod of the head.
"There! What did I tell you?" she asked. "Didn't I say that she'd soon adjust herself – find something to amuse herself and all the rest of us as well?"
Mary, who had been wondering all the way home how her news would be received, had never imagined this – that her venture would be looked upon merely as an outlet for her surplus energy, but after one gasp of surprise she was glad that her mother had put it that way.
"She did it on purpose," Mary thought. "So that Jack need not have added to his other ills the tormenting thought that he had driven his little sister to a disagreeable task, in order that she might help support him."
An understanding glance from her mother, full of approval and tender appreciation, flashed on her as she drew her chair up to the stove, but all she said was, "I'm sure you had an amusing interview." Then Mary proceeded to recount it, giving a graphic and laughable description of her half hour in the gray cottage. But all the time she was talking and mimicking she was looking forward to the moment when she could escape to a corner of the kitchen, and calculate with pencil and paper what she could never do in her head, the height of prosperity to which this tidal wave of a salary would lift them.