Mary Ware in Texas
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But the puzzle now was, who was good enough and sweet and high and fine enough to follow Lloyd? Mary was positive that there was nobody. He might hunt the whole world over, but she was sure he would be doomed to disappointment in the end. Her motherly concern over that was almost as great as her sympathy had been when she thought of him as doomed to carry a secret sorrow with him to the grave.
After that the conversation was not so personal. It was nearly noon when they reached Bauer, and in that time they had exchanged views on enough subjects to have filled an encyclop?dia. Twice after that they talked together alone. The first time was when they went out in the boat just before sunset. Mary wanted him to see Fernbank in all its glory of fresh April greenness, with the little waterfalls splashing their fine mist over the walls of delicate maiden-hair.
She insisted on poling the boat, although he protested that it made him uncomfortable to sit still and see her doing the work. He refused to go at all, until she compromised by saying he might pole on the way back.
"It isn't work," she insisted. "It's one of the greatest pleasures I have, and about the only one I've had in this benighted place."
"You always did love to 'paddle your own canoe' and strike out and do things for yourself," he remarked, as they shot swiftly up the stream. "By the way, what are you going to do next? Will you be starting back to Warwick Hall again in September, now that Jack is sure of taking his old position in the mines then?"
"No," was her decided answer. "We've scrapped about that a lot lately. He insists that I must. But it's this way. He's lost a whole year out of his life, and although he's never said so, I know the time is coming when he'll want to settle down and have a home of his own. And he's the kind who'd never ask a girl to marry him until he'd provided for her future in case anything should happen to him. Joyce's plans have been put back a year, too. She has her heart set on going to Paris with Miss Henrietta to study, just as soon as she can afford it. Of course, Jack will pay back his part of what she's spent on us this winter, but it will take a good while for him to do it. I've made up my mind I'm not going to stand in their way. I'll not be a drag on either one of them. There's lots of things that I can do. The summer is already provided for. When Mrs. Mallory found that we are going to stay on here till September, till Jack is strong enough to go back to work, she made up her mind to stay, too, no matter how hot it gets, because the children are so happy here. They can't bear the idea of stopping their lessons. They're beginning to learn to read now, and are as wild over that as if it were a new game. Mrs. Rochester says it does get frightfully hot here in the summers, but that we can stand it if we have the lessons in the morning instead of afternoon."
"And then," asked Phil, "after that?"
"After that I don't know, but there'll be something.It's all uncertain, but it's interesting just to wonder what will come next. I'm like the wolf in the last of the Mowgli stories."
She turned to glance over her shoulder as she quoted, laughingly, "'The stars are thin,' said Gray Brother, sniffing at the dawn wind. 'Where shall we lair to-day? For, from now, we follow new trails.' I don't know where the new trails will lead, but from all that's happened in the past, I've faith to believe that there'll be 'good hunting' in them."
"There will always be that for you," said Phil, warmly. "You'll never strike one where you'll not find friends and interests and – "
He started to say more, but checked himself, and after an instant's pause, stood up, almost upsetting the boat, and laughingly took the oar away from her, insisting that he couldn't sit still another minute. He had to work off some of his surplus energy.
What he had come near saying when he checked himself was, "And you'll never strike a trail where you won't be the bravest, jolliest, dearest little comrade a man could have; one that he would never tire of, one who could inspire him to do and be his best."
The impulse to say all this came upon him so suddenly that it startled him. Then a sober second thought told him that after all she was scarcely more than a child, that she had always looked upon him as an elderly brother, and that it would be better not to destroy that old intimate relationship until he was sure of being able to establish a new one. A strange feeling of humility took possession of him. It suddenly seemed that he had so little to offer one who could give so much. Even her opinion which he had laughed at at the stone quarry, about providing a financial umbrella, carried weight now, and made him hesitate, no longer confidant of himself.
His strong, quick sweeps of the oar sent the boat upstream at twice the speed it had been going before, and Mary, from her seat in the stern, called out that it was as good as flying, and that she'd have to acknowledge that she'd never known before how delightful it was to sit still and let somebody else do the paddling. But that was because nobody else had taken her along so fast.
At Fernbank they did not get out of the boat. Phil took the seat facing her, while they drifted around the deep pool for a little while. It was almost twilight there, for the high bank shut out the glow of the sunset, and it was deliciously cool and green and still. Presently some remark of Phil's made Mary exclaim:
"That reminds me, although I don't know why it should, of something I've been intending to tell you, that Joyce wrote recently. You've heard her talk of little Jules Ciseaux, the boy who played such an important part in her winter in France. He lived in the house with the giant scissors on the gables, and over the great gate, you know. Well, he's over here in America now. He's always wanted to come ever since Joyce told him so much about it. His mother was an American and I think he was born in this country. At any rate, he's here now, sightseeing and trying to hunt up his mother's family.
"He's come into quite a large fortune lately, ever so many hundred thousand francs. As he is of age, he can do as he pleases. Joyce says he wants to come out to Lone Rock to see us, because she used to entertain him by the hour with tales of us, and he used to envy us our good times together in the little brown house at Plainsville. He never knew any home life like ours. I'm wild to see him. Joyce says he is charming! Such lovely manners, and such a sensitive, refined face, like one's ideal of a young poet. He's really something of an artist. Joyce says he's done some really creditable work, and all her friends have taken him up and are making it nice for him while he is in New York."
"That is interesting," said Phil. "I'll look him up as soon as I get back. Wouldn't it be romantic if the friendship that started between them as children should grow into something more? All those inherited francs would provide the fine, large umbrella which you seem to think is necessary."
"Oh, it never can be anything but friendship in this case," exclaimed Mary. "Jules is two years younger than Joyce."
"By the same token he is three years older than you. Maybe it's Joyce's little sister he will be taking an interest in."
"Humph! You're as bad as Norman!" replied Mary, calmly. "That's what he said. He thought he had something new to tease me about, but he soon found out that it wouldn't work."
Despite her indifference, Phil thought of the possibility again many times that night before he fell asleep. Knowing the limited space of the cottage, he had taken a room at the Williams House, despite Mrs. Ware's protests, saying he would be over early in the morning for breakfast. But it seemed for awhile that breakfast-time would arrive before he could fall asleep.
Things assume formidable proportions in the darkness and dead quiet of the night that they never have by day. Away after midnight he was still thinking of what Mary had said about the young Frenchman who had lately come into his fortune, and of what Roberta had said about Lieutenant Boglin. The face of the latter rose up before him. Not a particularly good-looking face, he thought, but it was a strong, likable one, and he had a sense of humor which made him good company, and a blarney-stone turn of the tongue that would take with any girl. As for Jules Ciseaux, who had envied the Wares their home life, Phil knew all about the childhood of the lonely little lad left to the mercies of a brutal caretaker. Jules would only need to see Mary once, dear little home-maker that she was, to want to carry her away with him to his chateau beside the Loire.
Before Phil finally fell asleep he had decided just what he would say to Mary next morning, and that he would go early enough to make an opportunity to say it. It was early when he went striding down the road, across the foot-bridge, and took the short cut through a meadow to the back of the Ware cottage; but the preparations for breakfast were well under way. When he reached the back porch, screened by morning-glory vines, he saw the table set out there, with fresh strawberries at each place, wreathed in their own green leaves.
Judging from the odors wafted through the door, chickens were broiling within to exactly the right degree of delectable crispness, and coffee which would be of amber clearness, was in the making. But the noises within the kitchen were not to be interpreted as easily as the odors. There was a banging and scuffling over the floor, muffled shrieks and broken sentences in high voices, choking with laughter. Not till he reached the open window and looked in could he imagine the cause of the uproar. Norman and Mary were wrestling and romping all over the kitchen, having a tug-of-war over something he was trying to take away from her.
Unconscious of a spectator, they dragged each other around, bumping against walls amid a clatter of falling tinware, stumbling over chairs and coming to a deadlock in each others' arms in a corner, so full of laughter they could scarcely hold their grip.
"Dare me again! will you?" gasped Norman, thinking he had her pinned to the wall. But wrenching one hand free, she began to tickle him until he writhed away from her with a whoop, and dashed out of the door.
"Yah! 'Fraid cat!" she jeered after him. "Afraid of a tickle!"
"You just wait till I get back with the milk," he cried, catching up a shining tin pail that stood on the bench, and starting down the path over which Phil had just come.
"You'll have to hurry," she called after him. "Breakfast is almost ready."
She stooped to open the oven door and peep at the pan of biscuit within, just beginning to turn a delicate brown. Then she looked up and caught sight of Phil. He was leaning against the window looking in, his arms crossed on the sill as if he had been enjoying the spectacle for some time.
"For mercy sakes!" she exclaimed. "How long have you been there?"
The coast was clear. Norman was well on his way to the Metz place, and Mrs. Ware was helping Jack get ready for breakfast. It was as good an opportunity as Phil could have hoped for, to repeat the speech he had rehearsed so many times the night before. And she looked so fresh and wholesome and sweet, standing there in her pink morning dress with the big white apron, that she was more like an apple-blossom than anything else he could think of. He wanted to tell her so; to tell her she had never seemed so dear and desirable as she did at this moment, when he must be going away to leave her.
Yet how could he tell her, when she was all a-giggle and a-dimple and aglow from her romp with Norman? Clearly she was too far from his state of mind to share it now, or even to understand it. After all, she was only a little girl at heart – only eighteen. It wasn't fair to her to awaken her quite yet – to hurry her into giving a promise when she couldn't possibly know her own mind. He would wait —
So he only leaned on the window-sill and laughed at her for having been caught in such an undignified romp, and asked her when she intended to grow up, and if she ever expected to outgrow her propensity for scrapping. But when he had joked thus a few minutes, he said, quite suddenly and seriously, "Mary, I want you to promise me something."
She was taking the chickens from the broiler and did not look at him until they were safely landed in the hot platter awaiting them, but she said lightly, "Yes, your 'ighness. To the 'arf of me kingdom. Wot is it?"
"Well, I'm going away and I may not see you again for a long time. The chief wants me to take a position, engineering the construction of a big dam down in Mexico. It would keep me down there two
years, but it would be the biggest thing I've had yet, in every way. Last night I just about made up my mind I'd take it.
"While I'm gone you will be striking out into all sorts of new trails, and I am afraid that on some of them somebody will come along and try to persuade you to join him on his, even if you are such a little girl. Now I want to have a hand in choosing the right man, and I want you to promise me that you won't let anybody persuade you to do that till I come back. Or at least if they do try, that you'll send me word that they're trying, and give me a chance to come back and have a look at the fellow, and see if I think he is good enough to carry you off."
"Why, the idea!" she laughed, a trifle embarrassed, but immensely pleased that he should think it possible for her to have numerous suitors or to have them soon, and flattered that he should take enough interest in her future to want to be called back from Mexico to direct her choice.
"But will you promise?" he urged.
"Yes; that is not much to promise."
"And you'll give me your hand on it?" he persisted.
"Yes, and cross my heart and body in the bargain," she added, lightly, "if that'll please you any better."
For all his gravity, she thought he was jesting until she reached her hand through the window to seal the compact.
"You know," he said, as his warm fingers closed over it, "I've never yet seen anybody whom I considered good enough for little Mary Ware."
Her eyes fell before the seriousness of his steady glance, and she turned away all in a flutter of pleasure that the "Best Man" should have said such a lovely thing about her. It was the very thing she had always thought about him.
Mrs. Ware came out just then, wheeling Jack in his chair, and soon after Norman was back with the milk, and breakfast was served out on the porch among the morning-glories. "A perfect breakfast and a perfect morning," Phil said. The 'bus which was to call for him came while they were still lingering around the table, and there was only time for a hasty good-by all around.
"Come and walk out to the gate with me, Mary, and give me a good send-off," he said, hurriedly snatching up his suit-case.
Now in this last moment, when there was much to say, neither had a word, and they walked along in silence until they reached the gate. There he turned for one more hand-clasp.
"Remember your promise," he said, gravely, as his fingers closed warmly over hers. "I meant every word I said."
"I'll remember," she answered, dimpling again as if he had reminded her of a good joke; "and I'll keep my word. Honest, I will!"
With that he went away, carrying with him a picture which he recalled a thousand times in the months that followed; Mary, standing at the gate in the pink and white dress that had the freshness of a spring blossom, with her sweet, sincere eyes and her dear little mouth saying, "I'll keep my word! Honest, I will!"
It was a long, long, hot summer that followed. The drought dried up the creek so that the boat lay idle on the bank. The dust grew deeper and deeper in the roads and lay thick on the wayside weeds. Even the trees were powdered with it; all the green of the landscape took on an ashen grayness. Meadows lay parched and sere. Walking ceased to be a pleasure, and as they gasped through the tropical heat of the endless afternoons, they longed for the dense shade of the pines at Lone Rock, and counted the days till they could go back.
But as soon as the sun dropped behind the hills each day, and the breeze started up from the far-away Gulf, their discomfort was forgotten. In the wonderful brilliance of the starry nights when there was no moon, or in the times when one hung like a luminous pearl above a silver world, the air grew fresh and cool, and they sat late in the open, making the most of every minute. In the early mornings there was that same crisp freshness of the hills again, so one could endure the merciless, yellow glare and the panting heat of the afternoons, for the sake of the nights and dawns.
Even without that, however, they would have been content to stay on, enduring it gladly, for Jack was daily growing stronger; and to see him moving about the house on his own feet, no matter how falteringly at first, was a cause for hourly rejoicing.
Mary still played the part of Baloo with Brud and Sister, starting early in the morning and taking them over to the old mill-dam, in the shade of some big cypress and sycamore trees. She was teaching them to read and write, but there was little poring over books for them. They built their letters out of stones, and fashioned whole sentences of twigs; wrote them in the sand and modelled them in mud, scratched them on rocks with bits of flint, as Indians do their picture language, and pricked them in the broad sycamore leaves with thorns. By the end of the summer they had enough of a vocabulary to write a brief letter to their father, and their pride knew no bounds when each had achieved one entirely alone, from date to stamp, and dropped it into the box at the post-office. His pride in them was equally great, and the letter that he sent Mary with her final check was one of the few things which she carried away from Texas as a cherished memento.
She did not write often in her Good Times book. There was so little to chronicle. An occasional visit from the Barnaby's, a call at the rectory, a few minutes spent in neighborly gossip in the Metz garden; never once in the whole summer a happening more exciting than that, except when the troops from Fort Sam Houston were ordered out on their annual "hike" and passed through Bauer in July. Each of the different divisions camped a day and a night in the grove back of the cottage, near enough for the Wares to watch every man?uvre. The Artillery band played at sunset when it was in camp, and gave a concert that night in the plaza. When the Cavalry passed through, Lieutenant Boglin came to supper and spent the evening. Gay was up for a day twice, and Mary went once to San Antonio. That was all. Yet stupid as it was for a girl of her age, and much as she missed young companionship, Mary managed to get through the summer very happily. All its unpleasantness was atoned for one day in early September, when she looked out to see Jack going down the road, straight and strong, pushing his own wheeled chair in front of him. He was taking it down to Doctor Mackay's office to leave "for the first poor devil who needs it," he said.
In the last few weeks he had discovered what he had not known before, that the town was full of invalids in quest of health, attracted from all over the country by the life-giving air of its hills. He had made the acquaintance of a number of them since he had been able to ride around with the doctor. Now, as he went off down the road with the chair, with all of the family at the window to see the happy sight, Mrs. Ware repeated to Mary what the doctor had said about Jack's effect on his other patients, and what the rector had told her of the regard all the villagers had for Jack.
"The dear boy's year of suffering has done one thing for the world," she added. "It has given it another Aldebaran. Don't you remember in The Jester's Sword– " She quoted it readily, because ever since she had first seen it she had always read Jack's name in place of Aldebaran's:
"'It came to pass whenever he went by, men felt a strange, strength-giving influence radiating from his presence, a sense of hope. One could not say exactly what it was, it was so fleeting, so intangible, like warmth that circles from a brazier, or perfume that is wafted from an unseen rose.' That's what one feels whenever Jack comes near."
"Yes, I know," assented Mary. "Even old Mr. Metz tried to say as much to me about him. He didn't choose those words, of course, but in his own broken way he meant the same thing."
When the day came to leave, there was no one to go with them to the station. The Rochesters were away on their vacation, and it was too early in the morning for the Barnabys to come in from the ranch. They had bidden each other good-by the day before, with deep regrets on both sides. It seemed so good to both Mary and her mother to see Jack attending to the tickets and the trunks in his old way, so quick and capable. While he was getting the checks, Mary walked down the track a little piece to a place where she could look back at the town for one more picture to carry away in her memory.
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