Mary Ware in Texas
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"Oh, but I'm not going to leave you until you're safely settled," was the comforting assurance. "James has some business at the court-house that will keep him in town for an hour or so. As soon as we drop him there I'll drive around with you to make arrangements about the cottage. There's Pedro now."
They were on the platform by this time, and she indicated by a nod the slim young Mexican who had driven the carriage from the ranch to meet them. It was a roomy, old-fashioned carriage drawn by two big gray mules, with much shining nickel-plating on their stout black harness. The station was half a mile away from the village, and as they swung down the sunny white road towards it, at a rapid gait, both Norman and Mary looked out eagerly at the place that was to be their home for a whole long winter, and maybe more.
From a distance it looked almost like a toy village, with its red roofs, blue barns and flashing windmills nestled against the background of misty hills. Low mountain peaks rose here and there on the far horizon beyond.
"This is distinctly a German village, you know," explained Mrs. Barnaby, as they passed a group of little flaxen-haired Teutons on the roadside, who were calling to each other and their dog in a tongue which Mary could not understand.
"Bauer was settled by an old German count and a baron or two, who came over here with their families and followers. They made it as much like a corner of the Fatherland as they could, and their descendants still cling to their language and customs. They don't want any disturbing, aggressive Americans in their midst, so they never call on new-comers, and never return their visits if any of them try to make the advances. They will welcome you to their shops, but not to their homes. Even the English and Scotch people who have owned the out-lying ranches as long as they have owned the town are looked upon as aliens and strangers, in a way."
Mary gave an exclamation of dismay. "Texas certainly is full of surprises," she said, in a disappointed tone. "One thinks of it as being young and crude, and with the proverbial hospitality of a new country. I've always thought of it as having the latch-string out for everybody."
"Oh, Texas has," Mrs. Barnaby hastened to assure her. "Its doors are wide open, and its welcome corresponds to its size, the biggest in the Union. But Bauer is different. It has a few families who will not look on you with suspicion. The old couple who own the cottage which I hope to get for you will be good neighbors, and if you were to live here a long time there are others who would be friendly. Then there are several American families who have found a foothold in the town, and as I said, English-speaking people on the ranches hereabout. They are cultured, refined people, interesting to know, but strangers coming here rarely make their acquaintance. You see we have so many transients coming for their health, staying just a few weeks or months and going on again – it's hardly to be expected we'd – "
Her sentence was interrupted by a dashing girl in khaki and a cowboy hat, astride a fiery little mustang.She rode past the carriage, calling out a greeting as she passed. Norman turned around exclaiming, "Did you see that? A cartridge belt around her waist and a six-shooter in her holster! That's the wild West for you."
"That's the sheriff's daughter," explained Mrs. Barnaby. "She's his deputy, and meets the trains when it's necessary and he's out of town."
"I'd like to know her," said Mary. "I'm glad that there's something to give one the kind of a thrill you naturally expect to have out here. I was beginning to have such a foreign, far-away feeling, seeing all these picturesque little German gardens with old women weeding in them. We can imagine we are abroad this winter in Cologne or Pottsdam or Bingen on the Rhine. Oh, oh! How quaint and dear!"
The exclamation escaped her as the gray mules stopped at the gate of an old garden, over whose stone walls arched a row of great pecan trees. A straight path ran from the gate to the kitchen door, stiffly bordered by coxcombs and princes' feather, while on each side chrysanthemums and roses and a host of old-fashioned autumn flowers made the little plot a tangle of colors and sweet smells. There were some bee-hives under the bare peach trees, and at one side beyond them, a small vineyard where the mockingbirds still sang noisily although the grapes had all been gathered and pressed into wine. An old man with a flowing white beard and a high black hat sat on a bench by the kitchen door placidly smoking a long pipe.
"That's Mr. Metz," said Mrs. Barnaby, preparing to alight. "Come in with me."
"It's all just like one of the pictures in Joyce's studio," commented Mary, as they followed the straight walk to the door, "and this is just like one of those lovely old-master, Dutch interiors," she added, in a whisper, as Mr. Metz ushered them into the big, clean kitchen, where his wife sat knitting.
On the deep window-sill a cat lay asleep in the sun beside a pot of glowing red geraniums, and there was such an air of cleanliness and thrift and repose about the room that Mary could not help exclaiming aloud over it. As she glanced around with admiring glances her bright face showed its appreciation also, and Mrs. Metz watched it shrewdly while she talked with Mrs. Barnaby, in English so broken as to be almost unintelligible.
What the old woman saw must have satisfied her, for she accepted Mrs. Barnaby's offer after a very short parley with her husband in German, and when they rose to go she bade them wait while she made a stiff little nosegay for each of them, culled from her garden borders and edged with strong-smelling mint. In the center of Mary's was one of her handsomest coxcombs. Mrs. Barnaby smiled meaningly when she saw it, and when they had climbed back into the carriage, said in a pleased tone, "That shows that she has weighed you in the balance and is satisfied with the result. You'll get along famously with her, I'm sure, and we'll soon have you settled now, in fine shape."
An hour later Mary stood on the threshold of the cottage she had rented, with the keys of possession in her hand. Thanks to Mrs. Barnaby and the rapid gait of the gray mules, much had been accomplished in that time. The groceries they had ordered were already piled on the table in the kitchen. A load of wood was on its way. The new mattresses they had bought at the furniture shop (kept by the undertaker of the village) were promised for delivery early in the afternoon, and they had been introduced at each place as friends of the Barnabys, who were to be charged home prices, and not the ones usually asked of strangers. Mrs. Barnaby was what she called plain-spoken, and although she made a jest of her demands they carried weight.
Their trunks, three of which contained bedclothes and dishes, stood on the front gallery waiting to be unpacked. Inside, the house looked as clean as soapsuds and fresh paint could make it. Mrs. Metz herself had attended to the scrubbing after the last tenant left. But Mary decided that she would feel more comfortable, moving in after strangers, if she should give the furniture a personal washing before they began to use it. While Norman built a fire in the kitchen stove, she unlocked one of the trunks and changed her travelling suit for a gingham dress and apron.
"Let's eat picnic fashion," called Norman, "and unpack afterward. It's nearly one o'clock, and I'm too hungry to wait. I've found a cup I can boil some eggs in, and if we don't use any dishes we won't have any to wash afterwards."
"That's a bright suggestion," Mary called back. "We haven't any time to lose if we are to get everything ready for mamma and Jack by to-morrow afternoon."
When she came dancing out into the kitchen a few minutes later Norman had already begun his luncheon, and was walking around with a cheese sandwich in one hand and a pickle in the other, investigating the premises while he ate. Mary followed his example, and wandered from the open doorway to the open windows, looking at the view from each, and exclaiming over each new discovery. The house was on a slight knoll with a wide cotton-field stretching down between it and the little village. From this distance it looked more than ever like a toy village, against the background of low hills.
"You ought to see it from the top of the windmill," said Norman. "I climbed up while you and Mrs. Barnaby were talking so long at the gate. I'm glad we've got a windmill. It'll save me a lot of pumping, and it makes such a fine watch-tower. You ought to see how far you can look across the country. You can see the creek. It's just a little way back of our place."
"I'm going up this minute!" answered Mary. Slipping her unfinished sandwiches into her apron pocket, she ran out to the windmill and began to swing herself from one cross-piece of the tower to another, as lightly as Norman had done.
"It's perfectly lovely!" she called back from the top. "I'd like to perch up here all afternoon if there wasn't so much to do. I'm going to come up here often. It gives you such a high-up-above-all-your-earthly-ills feeling! There's St. Peter's," she called, "over at the south end of town. I recognize the little stone belfry. What do you suppose that square tower is at the other end of town?"
Norman came out and climbed half-way up the windmill, swinging there below her by one arm, as he slowly munched a ginger-snap.
"Oh, that," he said, as he looked in the direction which she pointed. "That's the Sisters' school. I asked Pedro this morning. It's the Academy of the Holy Angels."
Mary's face glowed as she shook back the hair which the wind kept blowing into her eyes. "That's perfectly fascinating!" she declared. "There's something beautiful to me in the thought that the little town we've come to lies between two such guardians. It's a good omen, and I'm not sorry now that we had to come."
She stayed perched on the windmill, enjoying the view and eating her sandwiches until Norman called her that the wash-water was boiling over on the stove. Then she climbed nimbly down and started towards the kitchen door. The kitchen was in an ell of the house, and from its front window she could see the road which ran in front of the house. Just across it, half hidden by a row of bushy umbrella trees, stood two little blue cottages. They were within easy calling distance, and the voices of half a dozen children at play came cheerfully across to her. Although they spoke in a foreign tongue the chatter gave her a sense of companionship.
"Norman," she suddenly suggested, "let's stay here to-night, instead of going to the boarding-house as mamma and Mrs. Barnaby arranged. I'm not afraid with neighbors so near, and I'm sure mamma wouldn't care if she could see how quiet and peaceful it is here. We'd be saving considerable – a night's lodging for two, and we can make this real comfortable and homey by bedtime."
With the promise of hot biscuit and honey for supper Norman agreed to her plan. He was to call at the boarding-house and cancel the arrangements Mrs. Barnaby had made for them, when he went for the milk which Mr. Metz had promised to sell them. It was from the Metz bee-hives they were to have the honey, too. She had engaged it as a special treat for Jack.
Under her direction Norman fell to work making a kitchen cabinet out of two old boxes, while she scrubbed away at the chairs and tables.
"Isn't it funny the way history repeats itself?" she remarked. "This makes me think of the time that Joyce and Jack had getting settled in the Wigwam. I felt so defrauded then because I couldn't have a hand in it, and this seems a sort of compensation for what I missed then."
The exercise seemed to loosen her tongue, for as she worked she went on, "I'm truly glad that I can enjoy both the top and bottom crusts of things. Nobody, I am sure, could have squeezed more pleasure out of this last week than I did. I fairly revelled in all the luxuries we had as Mr. Robeson's guests. It comes so easy to be waited on and to be the fine lady. And on the other hand, it is a real joy to be working this way, blacking stoves and filling lamps and making things look spick and span. I can spend like a lord and I can skimp like a scrubwoman, and I really don't know which I enjoy most."
She did not attempt to put any finishing touches to the house that day, but left such things as the hanging of curtains and the few pictures they had brought until next morning. But before she stopped everything was shining, her room was ready for the night, and a cot was made up for Norman in the room which he was to share with Jack. Later, while she waited for the biscuits to bake and for him to come home with the milk and honey, she wrote a letter to Joyce. She did not take time to go to the bottom of her trunk for writing material, but emptying the sugar from a large paper sack, cut it into several square sheets. With a big tin pan turned bottom upwards in her lap for a desk, she hastily scribbled the events of the day with a lead-pencil, which she sharpened with the carving-knife.
Joyce has that letter yet. It was scribbled in the most careless, commonplace way, just as Mary would have told it had they been together; but Joyce, who could read her little sister like a book, read between the lines and divined the disappointments she had conquered, and saw the courage it took to make the most of every amusing incident in such a cheery way, while she touched only lightly on the serious ones.
"We had a visitor a little while ago," wrote Mary, in closing. "The Reverend Paul Rochester came to call, and where, of all awkward impossible places, do you suppose he found me? Up on the windmill tower. I had gone up again to watch the sunset, – for just a minute. The glow on the roofs of the town and the hills beyond was so lovely! If Norman had had any sense he would have ignored my high perch. He was splitting kindling by the back door, making such a noise that we could not hear Mr. Rochester's knock at the front door, so he came around.
"Mrs. Barnaby had stopped at the rectory on her way home to tell them about our coming to town, and Mrs. Rochester thought that we were all here, and that we would be so busy getting settled that we wouldn't have much time to cook things for an invalid, and she had sent the most tempting basketful of good things you ever saw. There was orange gelatine and charlotte russe, and some delicious nut sandwiches. The rector had walked all the way up here and carried the basket himself. You know I've always stood in awe of clergymen. At first this one seemed fully as dignified and reverend as all the others, and I nearly fell off my perch with embarrassment when he looked up and saw me hanging there like a monkey on a stick. But the next moment we both laughed, and he seemed almost as young and boyish as Jack.
"I scuttled down in a hurry, I assure you. He only stayed a minute, just long enough to deliver the basket and his wife's message, but you've no idea how that little incident changed the whole atmosphere. I'd been looking down the white road that leads from our place into the town, thinking how lonely and foreign everything was, and how hard it would be to live all winter in a place where nobody wanted to be neighborly, and where the only people we knew were slightly old like the Barnabys or awfully old like the Metzes, and then Mr. Rochester appeared, young and so nice-looking and with a jolly twinkle in his eyes that makes you forget the clerical cut of his clothes.
"His wife must be young, too, or she couldn't be married to him, and she must be dear or she wouldn't have sent such a dainty, altogether charming basket with her message of greeting. You've no idea how their cordial welcome changed everything. Now as I look through the open door at the same road leading to the town, it doesn't look lonely and foreign any more. It makes me think of a verse that dear old Grandmother Ware taught me once. You remember how she used to take us up in her lap and make us spell the words out to her from her big Bible with the terrible pictures. 'The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth!'
"Well, grandmother's verse is coming true. It was all so crooked and uncertain and rough yesterday. But now everything is being smoothed out for us so beautifully. I have just looked out to see if Norman is coming. I can hear him whistling away down the road.
"I wish you, with your artist's eye for effect, could see the little town now, spread out below the hills in the twilight, with the windmills silhouetted against the sky. At one end is the little stone belfry of St. Peter's, at the other the square gray tower of the Academy of the Holy Angels; and just between, swinging low over the hills in the faint afterglow, the pale golden crescent of the new moon. After all, it's a good old world, Joyce, and I 'feel it in my bones' that little old Bauer is going to bring us some great good that shall make us thankful always for having come. In some way, I am sure, all our 'rough ways shall be made smooth.'"