Annie Johnston.

Mary Ware in Texas



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"Then come and play with us," demanded Sister, seizing her by the hands, after one keen glance at her to see if she really was in earnest. "Come on, Brud, and help me pull. We'll make her come!"

"Sh!" warned Mary, attempting to free herself, as they began shouting and tugging at her. "I came out here to visit Mrs. Barnaby, and I'll not play with you till to-morrow. If you don't want to make pictures or cut paper or work the puzzle games you'll have to go outdoors and amuse yourselves. But you must not make such a noise. Mr. Barnaby is asleep."

"Then if you don't want us to wake him up you've got to play with us to keep us still!" cried Brud. "Hasn't she, Sister?"

"Call me Nancy when I tell you!" screamed Sister, in an exasperated tone, stamping her foot. Then, fired by Brud's suggestion, she dropped Mary's hands and darted across the room to the piano, which was standing open in the corner. It was an old-fashioned one, its rosewood case inlaid above the keyboard with mother-of-pearl. The yellow keys were out of tune, but they had never been touched save by careful fingers, for it was one of Mrs. Barnaby's cherished treasures. Now she rose as if she had been struck herself, as both children began pounding upon it ruthlessly with their fists, making a hideous, discordant din.

"Stop, children! Stop, I say!" she demanded. But her commands fell on unheeding ears, and they pounded away until she laid vigorous hands on them and forcibly dragged them away from the piano. Instantly they struggled out of her grasp, and rushing back, pounded the keys harder than before. Mary, who had never seen them act like this, was distressed beyond measure that she had been the cause, even though the unwilling one, of such an invasion. She started to the rescue, thinking savagely that they would have to be gagged and tied, hand and foot, and that she would take pleasure in helping do it.

Old Sammy reached them first, however, his Puritanical soul resenting both the disobedience and the Sabbath-breaking uproar. With one swoop he caught up a child under each arm, and carried them kicking and struggling out-of-doors.

"Here ye'll stay the rest of the afternoon!" he announced, in a gruff voice, as he put them down. "There's all out-of-doors to play in, and if you so much as step over the door-sill into that room until I give ye leave, I'll withe ye!"

It was a mysterious threat, since neither child had ever heard the word withe before, and he said it in a deep, awful voice that made Brud think creepily of the Fee-fi-fo-fum giant in his picture-book at home, who went about smelling blood and saying, "Dead or alive, I will have some!"

For a moment they stood in awed silence, gaping at the only person who had ever intimidated them; then Sister, in a blind rage, seized his clay pipe that he had put down on the bench, and threw it with all her force on the stone floor of the porch.

"You let me alone!" she shrieked, as she darted away from him.

"You – you – you old Billygoat, you!" It was the sight of his gray beard that finally suggested to her choking wrath a name ugly enough to hurl at him. Then she took to her heels down the grassy lane, Brud following as fast as possible.

"There's nothing for me to do but follow them," said Mary, starting into the bedroom for her hat and coat, which had been laid away in there. "I'd feel so responsible if they should get hurt, and there are so many things on a big place like this that they are not used to."

"Now, don't you worry," interrupted old Sammy. "I'll keep my eye on them."

He was quite red in the face with vexation over the loss of his pipe, which lay in several pieces on the floor, and Mrs. Barnaby, knowing him well, prevailed on Mary to come back to her easy-chair.

"You leave them to him," she insisted, in a laughing aside. "He's so mad that he'll watch them like a hawk, just for the pleasure of pouncing down on them again if they cut up any more didoes; but his bark is worse than his bite, and they'll be perfectly safe with him."

So Mary allowed herself to be drawn back to their interrupted conversation, but she could not rid herself of an uneasy feeling that kept obtruding itself into her thoughts, even when she was most interested.

If Brud and Sister had deliberately planned a revenge on the old man who had forced them into exile and temporary obedience, they could not have chosen anything which would have hurt him worse than their next prank. Their wild chase down the lane had been brought to a sudden stop by the sight of the lordly peacock, strutting back and forth in the barn-yard, his beautiful tail spread wide in the sun. They climbed up on the gate to watch it, and, hanging over the top bar, admired it in almost breathless ecstasy for several minutes. The iridescent shimmer of the gorgeous eyes in its tail started a dispute.

"That's why you can't ever catch a peacock," Brud asserted, "'cause with all those eyes in its tail it can see you coming up behind it."

"Aw, goosey," contradicted Nancy, "it sees with its two little head eyes. Those feather eyes in its tail can't see."

"They can!"

"They can't!"

The two words were bandied back and forth, the dispute promising to go on indefinitely, till Brud's triumphant, "Ten million times can," was answered by Nancy's final, "Million billion times can't! So there."

"We'll prove it," was Brud's next taunt. "Try and see if you can catch him."

"All right," was the willing assent. "And if the feathers come out of his tail as easy as they did out of Mis' Williams' red rooster, won't that old man be mad!"

In the meantime Sammy had gone into the house to hunt among his possessions for a certain corncob pipe, to take the place of the clay one just broken. The mantel-shelf in his room was as crowded as the corner of an old junk shop, so it took some time for him to find what he was searching for. He had taken it down and was slowly filling it, when the sound of a wild commotion in the barn-yard made him hurry to the door. Turkeys, guineas, ducks, hens, – everything that could gobble or flutter or squawk, were doing their utmost to attract someone's attention. And the cause of it all, or, rather, the two causes, were standing by the watering-trough, comparing the spoils of the chase. They had crept up behind the peacock, despite his thousand eyes, and caught him by the tail. Each proudly clutched a handful of long, trailing feathers, and the bird, miserably conscious that his glory had been torn from him, had taken refuge under the corn-crib.

"You outrageous little Hittites!" roared old Sammy, coming upon them suddenly and seeing the feathers. Then a real chase began.

A little while later, Mary paused in the middle of a sentence to say, "Listen! Didn't that sound like the children crying or calling?"

Mrs. Barnaby, who was slightly deaf, shook her head. "No, I think not. Anyhow, Sammy is looking after them. He won't let them come to any real harm. What was it we were talking about? Oh, yes! Those heirloom candlesticks."

More than an hour afterward a shadow darkened the doorway for an instant as Sammy strode past it on his way across the porch.

"Mr. Bradford," called Mary. "Do you know where the children are?"

At her call he turned back to the door, holding out a great handful of peacock feathers which he was taking sorrowfully to his room.

"Those pesky little varmints!" he exclaimed, still wrathful, "They've teetotally ruined that cock's looks. Yes, I know where they are. I've had them shut up in the corn-crib till a minute ago."

"Shut up in the corn-crib!" echoed Mary and Mrs. Barnaby in the same breath.

"Yes, as I told 'em, they haven't any more idea of other people's rights than weasels, and it's high time they are being taught."

"Well, do you think they've learned their lesson in one dose, Sammy?" asked Mr. Barnaby, dryly, coming out from his room in time to hear his cousin's speech.

"That remains to be seen," spluttered Sammy, as he strode on to his room. "They were sniffling and snubbing considerable when I let them out. I don't think they'll chase my peacock any more."

The "sniffling and snubbing" changed into out-and-out crying as soon as they reached Mary's side, and that was followed by heart-broken wails and demands to be taken home. Nothing comforted them. Nothing could turn them aside from their belief that they had been abused and must be taken back immediately to mommey.

After nearly half an hour spent in vain attempts to silence them, Mrs. Barnaby said in sheer desperation, "Well, James, you'll just have to hitch up and take them back, even if it is so early. I hate to have Mary's visit cut short, but they'd spoil it worse if they stayed. If I only felt free to give them a good sound spanking now – "

She did not finish the sentence, but looked over her spectacles so sternly that the children backed away, lest a feeling of liberty might suddenly descend upon her.

As Mary pinned on her hat before the mirror in the bedroom, she turned to her hostess with a hunted look in her eyes.

"Do you ever get desperate over things?" she asked. "That's the way I am now. I'm so tired of those children that the very sound of their voices sets my teeth on edge. If I only could have had this one whole day away from them I might have been able to go on with them to-morrow, but now it seems as if I can't! I just can't!"

"I don't wonder, you poor child," was the sympathetic answer.

"The worst of it is, I'm utterly discouraged," confessed Mary, almost tearfully. "I've been pluming myself on the fact that my two weeks' work had amounted to something; that I'd really made an impression, and given them all sorts of good ideas. But you see it isn't worth a row of pins. They are good only so long as I'm exercising like an acrobat, mind and body, to keep them entertained. The minute I stop they don't pay the slightest attention to my wishes."

"Maybe you've done too much for them," said Mrs. Barnaby, shrewdly guessing the root of the trouble. "You told them it was a surprise school. Let the next surprise be a different sort. Turn them loose and make them hunt their own entertainment."

"As they did to-day," Mary answered, with a shrug. "They'd run home howling and their mother would think I was incapable and give my place to someone else. No, we must have the money, so I'll have to go on and put in my best licks, no matter how I detest it."

When she drew on her gloves she was so near to tears that the little bloodstone ring on her hand looked so dim she could scarcely see it. But it made her glance up with a smile into the benevolent old face above her, and she stripped back the glove from her finger with a dramatic gesture.

"See?" she said, brightly, exhibiting the ring. "By the bloodstone on my finger, I'll keep my oath until the going down of one more sun."

"You're a brave little girl. That's what you are!" said Mrs. Barnaby, stooping to kiss her good-bye. Only that week she had read The Jester's Sword, from which Mary was quoting, and she knew what grim determination lay beneath the light tone.

"I guess it will help you the same way it did the poor Jester, to remember that it's only one day at a time you're called on to endure. And another thing," she added, trying to put as many consoling thoughts into their parting as possible, "If you do succeed in teaching them anything that'll help to snatch them as brands from the burning, it will count for a star in your crown just as much as if you'd gone out and converted the heathen on 'India's coral strand.'"

"It's not stars in my crown I'm working for," laughed Mary. "It's for pence in my purse." Nevertheless the suggestion stayed with her all the way home. When conversation flagged, she filled the silences with pleasant snatches of day-dreams, in which she saw herself becoming to these benighted little creatures, asleep on either side of her, the inspiration that Madam Chartley was to everyone who crossed the threshold of Warwick Hall.

"I've just got to do something to make them see themselves as they look to other people," she thought, desperately. "But the question is, what?"

A hard problem indeed for one who, in many ways, was still only a child herself.

CHAPTER X
IN JOYCE'S STUDIO

It was a wild, blustery day in March, two months after Mary's interrupted visit at the ranch. Joyce Ware, sitting before the glowing wood fire in the studio, high up on the top floor of a New York apartment house, had never known such a lonesome Sunday. The winds that rattled the casements and sent alternate dashes of rain and snow against the panes had kept her house-bound all day.

Usually she was glad to have one of these shut-in days, after a busy week, when she could sit and do nothing with a clear conscience. Every moan of the wind in the chimney and every glimpse of the snow-whitened roofs below her windows, emphasized the luxurious comfort of the big room. She had had a hard week, trying to crowd into it some special orders for Easter cards. A year ago she would not have added them to her regular work, but now she was afraid to turn anything away which might help to swell the size of the check she must send home every month. If the days were not long enough to do the tasks she set for herself at a comfortable pace, she simply worked harder – feverishly, if need be, to finish them.

She had been practically alone the entire day, for the two members of the household who were at home were staying in their own rooms. Lucy Boyd had a cold, and her devoted little aunt was nursing her with the care of the traditional hen for its one chicken. Mrs. Boyd had not allowed Lucy to leave her room even for her Sunday dinner, but had carried it in to her with her own on a tray. As Miss Henrietta Robbins was spending the week-end in the country, Joyce did not take the trouble to set the table for herself, but ate her own dinner in the little kitchenette.

Afterward, to make the day as different as possible from the six others in the week, in which she sat at her easel from morning till night in a long-sleeved gingham apron, she went into her room and put on a dress of her own designing, soft and trailing and of a warm wine-red. Pushing a great sleepy-hollow chair close enough to the hearth for the tips of her slippers to rest on the shining brass fender-rail, she settled herself among the cushions with a book which she had long been trying to find time to read.

The story, like the bleak outdoor world, seemed to accentuate her sense of shelter and comfort, but at the same time it somehow emphasized her loneliness. Now and then, when her eyes grew tired, she paused for a moment to look around her. There were several things which gave her keen pleasure every time her attention was called to them, which she felt ought to be enough of themselves to dispel her vague depression: the odor of growing mignonette, the sunny yellow of the pot of daffodils on the black teakwood table, the gleam of firelight on the brasses, and the warm shadows it cast on the trailing folds of her wine-red dress.

That lighting was exactly what she wanted for some drapery folds which she would be putting on a magazine cover next week. She studied the effect, thinking lazily that if it were not her one day of rest, she would get out palette and brushes, and make a sketch of what she wanted to keep, while it was before her.

She read for over two hours. When the story came to an unhappy ending she dropped the book, wishing she had never come across such a tale of misfortune and misunderstanding. It depressed her strangely, and presently, as she sat looking into the fire, the unbroken quiet of the big room gave her an overwhelming sense of loneliness that was like an ache.

"I'd give anything to walk in and see what they're all doing at home right now," she thought, as she stared into the red embers, "but I can't even picture them as they really are, because they are no longer living in any place that I ever called home."

The thought of their being off in a strange little Texas town that she had never seen made her feel far more forlorn and apart than she would have felt could she have imagined them with any of the familiar backgrounds she had once shared with them. They seemed as far away and out of reach as they had been that winter in France, when she used to climb up in Monsieur Greyville's pear tree and cry for sheer homesickness. That was years ago, and before the Gate of the Giant Scissors had opened to give her a playmate, but she recalled, as if it were but yesterday, the performance that often took place in the pear tree.

She began by repeating that couplet from Snowbound, —

 
"The dear home faces, whereupon
The fitful firelight paled and shone."
 

It was like a charm, for it always brought a blur of tears through which she could see, as in a magic mirror, each home face as she had seen it oftenest in the little brown house in Plainsville. There was her mother, so patient and gentle and tired, bending over the sewing which never came to an end; and Jack, charging home from school like a young whirlwind to do his chores and get out to play. She could see Mary, with her dear earnest little freckled face and beribboned pigtails, always so eager to help, even when she was so small that she had to stand on a soap-box to reach the dish-pan. Such a capable, motherly little atom she was then, looking after the wants of Holland and the baby untiringly.

Despite the ache in her throat, a smile crossed Joyce's face now and then, as she went on calling up other scenes. They had had hard work at the Wigwam, and had felt the pinch of poverty, but she had never known a family who found more to laugh over and enjoy when they looked back over their hard times. But now – the change was more than she could bear to think of. Jack a hopeless cripple, Mary tied down to the uncongenial work that she had to take up as a breadwinner, when she ought to be free to enjoy the best part of her girlhood as other girls were doing. Tears came into Joyce's eyes as she brooded over the pictures she had conjured up. Then she rose, and trailing into her bedroom, came back with a lapful of letters; all that the family had written her since leaving Lone Rock four months ago. Dropping on the hearth-rug, she arranged them in little piles beside her, according to their dates, and beginning at the first, proceeded to read them through in order. They did bring the family nearer, as she had expected them to do, but the later ones brought such a weight of foreboding with their second reading, that presently she buried her face in the cushions of the chair against which she was leaning, and began to cry as she had not cried for nearly a year. Not since the first news of Jack's accident, had she given way to such a storm of tears.

It was some time before she sobbed herself quiet, and then she still sat with her head in the cushions, till she heard the faint buzz of an electric doorbell. It sounded so far away that she thought it was the bell of the adjoining apartment, and gave it no more than a passing thought. So, too, the sound of an opening door, of an umbrella dropped into a hat-rack, of voices, seemed to have but a vague connection with her world. Then she was startled by hearing Mrs. Boyd's voice at the porti?re saying:

"Joyce, dear, here is Mr. Tremont to see you. Ah! I knew you were asleep. He rang twice, so I answered the bell."

Phil Tremont, pausing between the porti?res as Mrs. Boyd slipped back to Lucy, caught only a glimpse of Joyce's red dress trailing through the opposite doorway. The scattered letters on the rug bore witness to her hurried flight.

"Come on in to the fire, Phil," she called, through the partly closed door. "Poke it up and make yourself at home. I'll be out in a minute. I never dreamed of such joy as a caller on this dreadful day, or I should have been sitting up in state, waiting to receive you!"

The laughing reply he sent back brightened her spirits as if by magic. The next best thing to having one of her own family suddenly appear, was the pleasure of seeing the friend who had made one of their home circle so often and so intimately in the old Wigwam days which she had just been crying over. Hastily smoothing her rumpled hair, bathing her eyes and fluffing a powder-puff over her nose to take away the shine which her tear-sopped handkerchief had left on it, she came out to find him standing before the fire, looking down suspiciously at the scattered letters.

As he stepped forward with a hearty hand-clasp, she felt that the keen glance he gave her was a question, and answered as if he had spoken aloud.

"No, I wasn't asleep, as Mrs. Boyd thought. I was just having a good old-fashioned cry – a regular bawl! I don't get a chance to indulge in such an orgy of weeps often, but now the storm is over and it has cleared the atmosphere for another year or so."

"What is it, Joyce? Bad news from home? Is Jack worse?"

Phil's voice was so sympathetic, his real concern so evident, that Joyce could not trust herself to answer immediately. She stooped and began to pick up the letters.



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