Mary Ware in Texas
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She ironed all morning and took the children out in the afternoon, as usual, and nothing made the day different from an ordinary one, only that she felt very old and grown up, and thought now and then a little pityingly of her early expectations and the way they had turned out. In a vague sort of way she was sorry for herself, till Mrs. Barnaby came in with the baby wildcat, which she jokingly offered as a St. Patrick's day greeting.
Mary immediately named it Matilda, for Mrs. Barnaby, and for the civilizing effect such a tame, gentle sort of name ought to have on a wild creature. In watching it and laughing over its playful antics she forgot to feel middle-aged and sorry for herself.
As long as someone could keep an eye on it to prevent its straying away after any animal that passed the house, it could be allowed the liberty of the place, but whenever Mary went off for a long time it had to be fastened in its cage. This was the first time she had taken it with her for an afternoon's outing, and as she hurried down the road with it in her arms, the knowledge of what she was carrying gave her the first feeling of adventure that she had had since coming to Texas. "It's all been as tame as an old Tabby and a teapot," she thought. She had pictured Texas as a land of cowboys and round-ups and thrilling frontier experiences. She had found only the commonplace and conventional, so that there was a source of satisfaction in the fact that, at last, she had captured something untamed and savage.
As she reached the foot-bridge a party on horseback came down the opposite bank to cross the ford. She recognized the young fellow in the lead as a boy from the East who had been staying at the Williams House several months. Evidently he also had expected to find Texas a land of adventure. Soon after his arrival he appeared in the quiet streets of Bauer attired like the cowboy of a Wild West show. That he was a tenderfoot was amusingly apparent to the natives. Everything proclaimed it, from his awkward seat in his creaking new saddle to the new rope coiled around the horn of it. He could have no more use for a lariat than for a tomahawk, but he never rode without it. He had his picture taken in full paraphernalia, from his spurs to the rattlesnake skin band on his rakish sombrero, to send back home to show what a sport he had become; and his cup of satisfaction brimmed over when a still more recent tenderfoot took a snapshot of him, evidently considering him the "real thing."
He had three Eastern girls with him this morning, whom he was trying to impress with stories of his recklessness and prowess, and of the dangers one daily encountered in a new country. He had met Norman and he knew Mary by sight, and had heard of her odd pet. As they approached her he said, in a tone which she could not fail to hear, although he lowered his voice:
"There's mighty little out here that is tame. Lots of people keep foxes running around their premises instead of rat-terriers, and when they can get a wildcat they always prefer them to tame mousers."
"Now, Dexter, stop stuffing us," one of the girls exclaimed."I don't believe a word of it!"
"It's the truth," he insisted. "That very young lady over yonder on the foot-bridge could tell you so. That isn't a kitten she is carrying. It is a young wildcat."
The next instant the girl was splashing through the water across to Mary, calling, "Excuse me, but is that a wildcat? I can't believe it!"
Mary had heard the conversation, and her face dimpled with amusement as she held Matilda up to view, saying, "Certainly. See how beautifully she is marked." She pointed out the various signs which proved her claim.
The girl gave a little shriek. "For mercy sakes!" she exclaimed. "Suppose it should get loose! What a dreadful country! Aren't you afraid?"
Assured that Mary was not in the least afraid, she dashed up the bank after her laughing escort, who thereafter had no trouble in convincing her that his most daring tales were true, since Matilda had proved the truth of his first one.
Mary looked after them almost enviously. When she first came to Bauer she had had faint hopes of sometime being able to join a riding party like that. She had seen girls going by often from the hotel, and had told herself that, before the winter was over, she intended to find some way to earn enough to hire a horse one afternoon of every week. And that time when she visited Gay, and Roberta talked of saddles while she combed Mary's hair, Roberta had said that she would ride up to Bauer sometime after Christmas; all her "crowd" would go, and they would stay several days at the Williams House, and Mary was to show them the country.
Gay had promised several visits, and Mary had looked forward to them more eagerly than she knew, till word came soon after New Year that the Bauer trips would have to be postponed indefinitely. Roberta had gone to the coast for the rest of the winter, and Gay expected to spend several months with her sister Lucy, Mrs. Jameson Harcourt, in Florida.
It seemed to Mary that there had been disappointment for her in her Texas winter every way she turned. True, Gay was home now, and they had had two pleasant days with her, once when she and Alex Shelby came up to announce their engagement, and cheered Jack up so wonderfully. But Gay wasn't interested in horseback riding with "the crowd" any longer. Besides, the Ware fortunes had taken such a turn that the money she had succeeded in earning had to go for more necessary things than saddles and horse-hire and a pretty habit.
As Mary glanced after the departing cavalcade once more the sight of them suggested a new picture that appealed to her as an interesting way to meet Phil in case he should come. It would be so picturesque to be galloping down the road on a mettlesome black horse in a pretty white riding habit like those girls were wearing. White, with a scarlet four-in-hand and a soft fold of scarlet silk around the crown of her wide-brimmed white hat. Phil had been such a dashing horseman himself, and had owned such a beautiful animal when they were out on the desert, that maybe he would be more interested in an approach made that way, than one in a boat with a cargo of wild flowers. She walked along slowly, considering the question, till Brud and Sister hailed her.
Meanwhile Jack was saying to his mother that it wouldn't have been fair to the kid to let her get away without some inkling of the truth.
"She'd have been terribly upset if I'd have told her that they are due here this afternoon, and she'd have been equally upset if they had walked in on her without any warning. But the hint I gave her will start her to thinking about them, so she will not be altogether surprised when she sees them."
He had waited until Mary left the house before breaking the news to his mother that he expected Alex Shelby to come sometime during the afternoon, bringing Doctor Tremont and Phil. But even then he did not mention the faint hope which had buoyed him up night and day since Alex's first visit. He had faith in the young physician's ability, but not until the older one confirmed his opinion would he allow himself to share that hope with any one else, lest it prove without foundation.
With his eyes on the clock he lay counting the minutes until their arrival. He was deliberately forcing himself to be calm; to take slow, even breaths, to think of everything under the sun save the one thing which set his pulses to beating wildly and sent a thrill like fire tingling through him. He lay there like a prisoner in his dungeon who hears footsteps and new voices approaching. They might mean that deliverance is at hand, or they might pass on, leaving him to the blackness and despair of his dungeon for the rest of his life. In a like agony of apprehension he watched the pendulum swing back and forth, and listened to the slow tick! tock! till his suspense grew almost unendurable.
One hand clasped and unclasped a corner of the counterpane in a paroxysm of nervousness. He lay with his face turned away from his mother, and she, busy with her endless sewing over by the side window, did not guess what great effort he was making to retain his outward composure. She saw his eyes fixed on the clock, however, when she rose to get a spool that had rolled away, and feeling his restrained restlessness she tried to think of something to talk about which would make him forget how slowly time was passing. Subjects of that kind are rare, when two people have been constantly shut in together for a year, and while she considered, a long silence fell between them. It was broken by a demand, almost querulous, from Jack; the same cry that had aroused her in the night, when he was a little boy, suddenly awakening from a scary dream.
"Sing to me, mother!"
It had been years since she had heard that cry, and the long form stretched out under the white covers bore small resemblance to the little one that had summoned her then, but she answered in the same soothing way:
"All right, little son, what shall I sing?"
She smiled as the same tremulous answer came now as it had then.
"Why, sing my song! Of course!"
She did not rise as had been her custom, to go to his bedside and hold his hand while she lulled him back to sleep with her low humming, and the blessed consciousness of her nearness. He was a grown man now, and it was broad daylight. But instinctively she felt his need was greater than it had ever been, and her voice took on its tenderest soothing quality as she began to croon the old hymn that had always been his chosen lullaby, when he was tucked to sleep in a little crib bed. "Pilgrims of the Night," she sang:
Glancing across, she saw his drawn face relax a trifle, and he snuggled his thin cheek contentedly against the pillow. High and sweet her voice rose tremulously:
The song had many associations for them both. What he was thinking about she could not guess, but when she began the third verse:
her own thoughts were back in that time when she rocked in her arms the dearest little son that ever cuddled against a mother's shoulder. She was recalling time after time when she had held him so, telling him good-night stories, listening to his funny little questions and baby confidences, and kissing the dimpled fingers clasped in her own when he knelt to lisp his evening prayer.
He had always been a comfort to her, even in the boisterous outbreaking days that are the most trying in a boy's growing-up time. There had never been a noisier boy, or one who threw himself into his play with more headlong vigor, but, in a flash, scene after scene passed through her mind, showing him both at work and play as she had prayed he might be, strong and manly and clean and absolutely fearless either of fists or opinions. Then she thought of his touching consideration of her when he tried "to take father's place behind the plow." He had been a tower of strength to her from that day on. What a future she had dreamed for him, and now in the high tide of his young manhood, when he should have years of conquest and achievement ahead of him, here he was a helpless cripple!
Her voice faltered almost to breaking now, as she sang on, rebelling at the thought that his life which promised so fair, should have been made long and dreary, changed so hopelessly and so suddenly into darksome night. It seemed so cruel, she thought, with a tightening of the throat which made it almost impossible to finish the song. But supposing from the peaceful expression of Jack's face that he was falling asleep, she sang bravely on to the end, although the tears were dropping down on the seam in her now idle hands.
Looking across as the last note died away, she thought he was asleep, and rose to draw down the window-shade. But as she tiptoed past him he opened his eyes and held out his hand to draw her to him.
"Little mother," he said with a wistful smile that made her bend hastily over him and kiss his forehead to hide the trembling of her lips. "I'd like you to know in case anything should happen – sooner than we expect – that that's the way I think of death. It's a going out into the dark – but it's only going as a 'Pilgrim of the night.' I don't mind it. It'll not be lonesome. They'll be singing to welcome me."
In answer to her cry, "Oh, Jack! Don't!" he drew her cheek down against his, and as he felt it wet with tears he said, lightly:
"Why, mother mine, that's nothing to cry about. I've always looked forward in a way to that ever since I can remember. That song always brings up the most comforting picture to me – a procession of friendly white angels coming down the dark road to meet a frightened little boy and lead him home!"
She held him close a moment, not finding words wherewith to answer him, but feeling that he understood all that was left unspoken in her heart. She wanted to hold him thus, always, so tightly that he could not slip away on that pilgrimage he faced so confidently, that pilgrimage from which he could never return to her.
While she clung to him thus, a noise outside brought them back to the things of earth. An automobile, speeding up the road, had stopped at the gate. Mrs. Ware glanced out hastily. As she saw the three men striding up the path her first thought was one of housewifely dismay. She wondered how she could stretch the simple supper she had planned for that evening, into enough for these unexpected guests. If Jack had only given her a little longer notice —
But that thought was immediately thrust aside in her pleasure at seeing Phil again. It was the first time since the day she bade him good-bye in the little wigwam sitting-room, and sent him out with her Godspeed to make a man of himself. His waywardness had given her a motherly interest in him, and now, her quick glance showed that he had not disappointed her, that he had kept every promise. She welcomed him with a welcome that made him feel that this was a real home-coming, so that he called out to the distinguished-looking, gray-haired old doctor just behind him, "Now, Daddy, you see for yourself how it was!"
Mrs. Ware ushered them at once into Jack's room. She knew he was waiting impatiently to see them, but did not dream how much was at stake. It was nearly half an hour later when Phil discovered that he was thirsty, and asked the way to the well. Mrs. Ware led him out through the kitchen, picking up a pitcher and tumbler as she went. The windmill was in motion, and while the water was gushing from the pump spout into the pitcher Phil said, meaningly, "Well, Aunt Emily, your prodigal has come back."
"Yes," she responded. "It makes me glad and proud to see how my faith in him has been justified. But, oh, boy, why didn't you give me a little warning, so that we might have had time to make ready a 'fine, fatted calf?' Jack never told me until a few minutes before you arrived that he expected you."
"I'd rather have the pleasure of surprising you all than to share in a fatted calf, any day. Besides, there won't be an occasion for trotting out such a commodity. Alex will be going back to San Antonio in less than an hour. You see he has only a few more days to spend with his lady love, as he is due in Kentucky the last of this week. He can't afford to miss even one of these gorgeous moonlight nights. Daddy is so tired with his trip and thinking of the strain ahead of him that he is in no trim for visiting. On the way here we stopped at the Williams House and engaged rooms for to-night. I promised him that he needn't stay up for supper, could take it in his room and turn in soon after we had made a short call here. You see he didn't sleep at all coming out here, so he is considerably worse for wear. He's very much interested in Jack's case, and thinks something may be done to relieve his suffering, so maybe it will be as well for us to stay out here a bit and give them a chance to look him over."
From the quick lighting up of Mrs. Ware's face it was evident that such a hope was a new one to her. Jack had not mentioned the prospect of an operation, so Phil left the subject as quickly as possible, beginning to tell her of his last visit to Joyce. As he had come directly from her Mrs. Ware found so much to question him about, that she was surprised, when Alex Shelby joined them, to find that they had been leaning against the windmill tower for more than half an hour, too interested to think of finding a seat.
Alex's face was glowing, and he looked across at Phil with a nod of elation. "Your father confirms my opinion, Phil, so I'll be starting back at once."
When Mrs. Ware found out Doctor Tremont's real purpose in coming, she was thankful that Jack had spared her all those days of anxiety and apprehension that would have been hers had she known of the operation earlier. As it was there would be only one night in which to dread it. Alex was coming back in the morning with a nurse and it would all be over by noon of the next day. Now she understood their consideration in going to a hotel. It was not so much that Doctor Tremont was in no condition for visiting, as that they knew that any guests, no matter how much desired, would be a burden on the eve of such an event.
Jack's room was already nearly as bare and clean as a hospital ward, but there would still be much to do before the surgeons could begin their delicate and vital task. So when Alex Shelby went away, Doctor Tremont went with him as far as the hotel. Phil was to follow later after he had seen Mary and had the pleasure of "surprising" her.