Mary Ware in Texas
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"But we've simply got to get out of this expensive hotel," she answered, desperately. "Do you realize that we could keep house for a week on what it costs the four of us to stay here just one day?"
Mrs. Ware broke the long silence that followed, by suggesting, "Maybe for the present we'd better try to get a few rooms somewhere, just for light housekeeping. It's a last resort, I know, but Mary is right. Every day we spend here is taking a big mouthful out of our little capital."
Nobody liked the suggestion, for whatever else they had lacked in their Arizona homes there had been no lack of space, but they all saw the wisdom of Mrs. Ware's suggestion, and agreed to try it until they could look around and do better.
"How lovely it must be to have an ancestral roof-tree," thought Mary that night, as she tossed, restlessly, kept awake by the noises of the big hotel. "I can't think of anything more heavenly than to always live in the house where you were born, and your fathers and grandfathers before you, as the Lloyds do at The Locusts. It must be so delightful to feel that you've got an attic full of heirlooms and that everything about the place is connected with some old family tradition, and to know that you can take root there, and not have to go wandering around from pillar to post as we Wares have always had to do. I wonder if Lloyd Sherman knows how much she has to be thankful for!"
Next day in her shortest skirt and rain-coat, and under a dripping umbrella, Mary started to look for rooms. She was alone this time. Company was too expensive a luxury to afford more than one day, since it meant extra car-fare. She paddled blithely off, however, never minding the weather. This rain made the little home she was seeking seem all the more desirable. Whenever a window showed her a cozy interior with the light of an open fire shining cheerily over it, she thought it would not be long till she would be making afternoon tea over just such a fire, or popping corn or toasting marsh-mallows. She could think of a dozen ways to make it attractive for the girls when they dropped in of rainy afternoons.
Occupied with such plans she tramped along through the mud and slush as happily as she had gone through the sunshine the day before. But by the end of the morning repeated failures began to bring a worried line between her eyes and a sharp note of anxiety into her voice when she made her inquiries. Once, finding herself in the neighborhood of a house which she had refused the day before because it did not quite measure up to the standards she had set, she went to look at it again, thinking, after all, they might manage to be more comfortable in it than in a few rooms. To her disappointment she found a family already moving in. It had been rented almost immediately after her refusal to take it.
In her search for rooms a new difficulty faced her. Invariably one of the first questions asked her was, "Anyone sick in your family?"
"Yes, my brother," she would say."He has rheumatism. That is why we are particular about getting a sunny south room for him."
"Well, we can't take sick people," would be the positive answer, and she would turn away with an ache in her throat and a dull wonder why Jack's rheumatism could make him objectionable in the slightest degree as a tenant. The morning was nearly gone before she found the reason. She was shown into a dingy parlor by a child of the family, and asked to wait a few moments. Its mother had gone around the corner to the bakery, but would be right back.
There were two others already waiting when Mary entered the room, a stout, middle-aged woman and a delicate-looking girl. The woman looked up with a nod as Mary took a chair near the stove and spread out her damp skirts to dry.
"I reckon you're on the same errand as us," said the woman, "but it's first come, first served, and we're ahead of you."
"Yes," answered Mary, distantly polite, and wondering at the aggressive tone. When the child left the room the woman rose and shut the door behind it, and then came back to Mary, lowering her voice confidentially.
"It's just this way. We're getting desperate. We came down here for my daughter's health – the doctor sent us, and we've gone all over town trying to get some kind of roof over our heads. We can't get in anywhere because Maudie has lung trouble. People have been coming down here for forty years to get cured of it, and folks were glad enough to rent 'em rooms and take their money, till all this talk was stirred up in the papers about lung trouble being a great white plague, and catching, and all that. Now you can't get in anywhere at a price that poor folks can pay. I've come to the end of my rope. The landlady at the boarding-house where we've been stopping, told me this morning that she couldn't keep us another day, because the boarders complained when they found what ailed Maudie. I was a fool to tell 'em, for she doesn't cough much. It's only in the first stages. After this I'm just going to say that I came down here to look for work, and goodness knows, that's the truth! What I want to ask of you is that you won't stand in the way of our getting in here by offering more rent or anything like that."
"Certainly not," Mary answered, drawing back a little, almost intimidated by the fierceness which desperation gave to the other's manner.
The landlady bustled in at that moment, and as she threw the rooms open for inspection, she asked the question that Mary had heard so often that morning, – "Any sick in your family?"
"No," answered the woman, glibly. "I'm down in the city looking for work. I do plain sewing, and if you know of any likely customers I'd be glad if you'd mention me."
The landlady glanced shrewdly at Maudie, who kept in the background.
"She does embroidery," explained her mother. "Needle-work makes her a little pale and peaked, sitting over it so long. I ain't going to let her do so much after I once get a good start."
"Well, a person in my place can't be too careful," complained the landlady. "We get taken in so often letting our rooms to strangers. They have all sorts of names for lung trouble nowadays, malaria and a weak heart and such things. The couple I had in here last said it was just indigestion and shortness of breath, but she died all the same six weeks later, in this very room, and he had to acknowledge it was her lungs all the time, and he knew it."
Mary looked around the room with a shiver. Its old wallpaper, dingy paint and worn carpet proclaimed too plainly that its renovation since the last lodgers' departure had been only a superficial one, barely what the law demanded.
"No, thank you," she replied to the landlady, who had turned to her with the hope of finding a more desirable tenant. "I couldn't consider these rooms at all. There are only two, and we need three at least."
Out on the street again a tear or two splashed down and mingled with the rain on her face as she walked away. She was growing desperate herself. If two rooms had been all they needed, she could have found them a number of times over. Or, if they could have afforded some of the flats or the sunny suites she discovered on pleasant streets, her search would have been soon over. But it was the same old circle she kept coming back to. When the rooms were large enough and within their means, either they were unsanitary or the owners objected to invalids. In vain she explained that Jack's helplessness was due to an accident, and that rheumatism is not contagious. Too many people like Maudie's mother had been ahead of her and bred suspicion of all strangers in quest of rooms for light housekeeping.
Mary had told her mother not to expect her back for lunch. She would go into some tea-room or restaurant wherever she happened to be. But one o'clock found her in a part of the town where nothing of the kind was in sight. She bought an apple and some crackers at a grocery, and ate them under cover of her umbrella while she stood on a corner, waiting for a car to take her to another part of the city.
What a different place it seemed to be from the one they had seen the day of their arrival! Then it was a world of hospitable homes and sunshine and kindly faces. The very shop windows looked friendly and inviting. Now, plodding along in the wet, to the tired, homesick girl it seemed only a great, desolate place full of lonely, discouraged strangers and sick people and dingy boarding-houses, whose doors shut coldly in anxious faces.
All afternoon she kept up the search. The electric lights were beginning to gleam through the rain, throwing long, quivering reflections in the puddles when she finally turned back to the hotel, bedraggled and utterly discouraged.
"I won't cry!" she said, fiercely, to herself. "I can't! For Jack would see that I had been at it, and he is getting so sensitive lately. It would hurt him dreadfully to know that we are barred out of all the desirable places because he is an invalid."
The habit of years is strong. Mary had persisted so long in applying the good Vicar of Wakefield's motto to her childish difficulties and disappointments, that it had taught her remarkable self-control. Instead of bursting impulsively into the room as so many girls of her age would have done, and giving vent to her over-taxed nerves and discouragement in a tearful report of the day's adventures, she walked slowly from the elevator to her room, trying to think of some careless way in which to announce her failure. She paused with her hand on the knob, thinking, "I'll just tell them that I've come back like Noah's dove did the first time it was sent out from the ark, because I could find no rest for the sole of my foot; at least a rest which fitted both our ideas and our income."
To her relief, the room was empty when she entered. The only light streamed through the transom and keyhole from Jack's room, where a low murmur told that her mother was reading aloud. Opening the door just a crack so that her face was not visible, she called, gaily, "I'm back, mamma, but you can just go on with your reading; I'll not tell a single thing till I'm all dried and dressed. I'm as wet as a frog."
"Oh, I was afraid you'd be," came the anxious answer. "I'll come and get – "
"No," interrupted Mary, decidedly. "I don't want anything but time." Closing the door between the rooms, she switched on the light and began slipping out of her wet clothes into dry ones. In a moment or two she was in her soft, warm kimona and Turkish slippers, standing on the threshold of the bathroom, intending to plunge her face into a basin of hot water. It was the best thing she could think of to remove the traces of tears, and she was so tired that now she was safe in the harbor of her own room the tears would come, no matter how hard she tried to keep them back.
But before she could turn the faucet, a tap at the hall door made her dab her handkerchief hastily across her eyes, for Mrs. Barnaby's voice followed the tap.
"I surely hate to trouble you," she began, apologetically, as soon as Mary had admitted her, "but if you could only hook me up this one more time – I've been waiting for James with this shawl over my shoulders for nearly half an hour. Then I heard you come in and I thought maybe you wouldn't mind doing it once more. We're going home in the morning."
Then with a keen look into Mary's face, she added, kindly, "Why, you poor child, what's the matter? Your brother isn't worse, I hope!"
There was such a note of real concern in the sympathetic voice that Mary's lip trembled and her eyes brimmed over again. When the next moment she found herself drawn into Mrs. Barnaby's capacious embrace with a plump hand patting her soothingly on the back, the story of her discouragement seemed to sob itself out of its own accord. The performance left Mary's eyes very red and tear-swollen, but the outburst brought such relief that she could laugh the moment it was over. It was Mrs. Barnaby's surprise which brought the laugh.
"I can't get over it!" she kept exclaiming. "To think that all this time I supposed that you were enormously wealthy – actually rolling in riches! Well, well!"
"I didn't know that my 'short and simple annals of the poor' would be so upsetting," giggled Mary, hysterically. "You were so sweet and sympathetic I couldn't help telling you. But don't take it to heart, please. We Wares never stay discouraged long. I'll be all right now after I get my face washed. As soon as I fasten your dress I'll run in and turn on the hot water."
The hooking proceeded in silence, Mrs. Barnaby so absorbed in thought that she forgot her usual sigh of relief and expression of thanks at the end. Instead she said, abruptly, "You come and go up on the train with us in the morning to Bauer. It's only thirty miles from here and it's up in the hills, high and dry, and there's the Metz cottage I'm sure you can get, all freshly scrubbed and ready to move into. Mrs. Metz is the cleanest little German woman you ever saw, – scrubs even the under sides of her tables as white as the tops. It wasn't rented when we came down here last Saturday. Let me talk to your mother about it. I'm sure it is just the place for you."
"Oh, no," began Mary. "We couldn't possibly go there! We've counted so much on living here in San Antonio this winter and meeting some of our friends' friends – "
Then she stopped with a little gasp, and after an instant's pause said, apologetically, "I didn't mean to refuse so abruptly, and now I take it all back. Changing plans so suddenly is somewhat of a shock to one's system, isn't it! After all, I'm like a drowning man catching at straws, and I'd be very glad, indeed, if you would talk to mamma about it. You can go right in now while I finish dressing, if you like."
It was not the first time Mrs. Barnaby had been ushered into Jack's room. Their acquaintance had begun over the railing of their adjoining balconies the first day of Mary's house-hunting, and had rapidly deepened into a mutual liking. So strongly had Mrs. Barnaby been attracted to the young fellow who bore his crippled condition so lightly that he made others forget it, that she induced James to go in and make his acquaintance also. The two men had spent several hours of the long, rainy morning together, each greatly interested in the other's conversation.
Mary, who had been gone all day, did not know of this, but she knew that her mother had met and liked Mrs. Barnaby, and that the story of the day's unsuccessful search would not sound half so serious if that cheerful old lady told it, especially if it were followed immediately by her offer to find them a home in Bauer.
Bauer was an uncharted country on Mary's map, but if Mrs. Barnaby thought of it as their desired haven, she could trust her capable hands to take them safely into it. So it was with a sigh of relief that she opened the door between the rooms, saying, "Here's Mrs. Barnaby, mamma," and left her to make explanations while she finished dressing.