Mary Ware in Texas
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After a long time the swirl of the water past them was lost in the sound of a wagon, rattling noisily down the hill and across the ford. Then a long line of cattle passed down the same road, accompanied by the hoarse calls of their drivers on horseback. Mary looked up.
"Jack," she said hesitatingly, "did you ever hear this verse?
"Do you believe that is true?"
"Not for me," he answered in a hoarse voice, so bitter, so resentful that it startled her, coming as it did after long silence. He gripped the arms of his chair again, as if in pain too great to endure, and then burst out vehemently, "Every road is closed to me now! It wouldn't be so hard if there was any prospect of the end coming soon, but I may have to hang on this way for years – just a living death! Caged in this helpless hulk of a body, a drag on every one and a misery to myself! Heavens! If I could only end it all!"
"Oh, Jack!" begged Mary, starting up, tears in her eyes. "Don't talk that way! You're not a drag on anybody! We couldn't live without you! You've been so brave – just like Aldebaran in the Jester's Sword. 'So bravely did he bear his lot, it seemed a kingly spirit dwelt among us!' Don't you know that just having you with us is more to us than anything else in the whole world?"
She was fairly wringing her hands in her distress over this revelation of the overwhelming bitterness of Jack's soul. For months he had been so cheerful, hiding his real feelings under a playfulness of manner, that it was a shock to her to find that his cheerfulness was only assumed. Because he "had met his hurt so bravely and made no sign" she, like the Jester, thought "the struggle had grown easier with time, and that he really felt the gladness that he feigned." Like the Jester, too, she was "at her wit's end for a reply." She could think of no word of comfort.
The loud halloo which sounded just then in a familiar voice from up the creek, was a welcome interruption. The next instant Norman came in sight around the curve. He was standing up in a flat-bottomed boat, poling down stream towards them, with the vigor and skill of a young Indian. It was a clumsy, home-made affair, with "The Swan" painted in blue letters on the side.
"She's mine for the winter!" he announced joyfully, as soon as he was within speaking distance. "A man who lives up past Klein's crossing rented it to me. I'm to chop wood awhile every Saturday to pay for the use of it."
Norman was so interested in his new possession that he could not see that he had interrupted a conversation of tragic seriousness.
"Come on and get in, Mary," he urged. "It's great. Beats those old rafts you used to pole at Lee's ranch, all hollow.Don't you want to try it?"
Mary hesitated. To go off and leave Jack sitting on the creek-bank, unable to accompany her, would emphasize his crippled condition. To refuse to leave him would only be added proof in his present sensitive mood that he was a "drag on every one."
"The sun is dropping so low we ought to be starting home before it begins to get chilly," she said with a meaning glance towards Jack, which to her relief Norman interpreted aright. He answered cheerfully,
"Oh, go on! It's a cinch you won't get chilly if you push that old boat along as fast as I did, and if we get cold waiting for you, it won't be many minutes till we'll be 'seen, a-rolling down the Bowling Green' towards home."
"All right, then," said Mary, climbing in as he climbed out to hold the boat steady for her. "I won't go far, but I'm surely glad to get out on the water again."
She took the oar he handed her, and with a skilful push against the bank she sent the boat gliding out into the stream. As she went off she thought: "That was considerate of Norman, to put it the way he did – to include Jack with himself as a matter of course, and not to remind him of his helplessness by saying he'd stay and take care of him. Norman has lots of tact for a boy of his age; more than I have. I must have hurt Jack many a time by my inconsiderate speeches, but I had no idea he felt so horribly sensitive about being dependent."
All the way up the creek she was so occupied with thinking of what Jack had said, and so depressed over the depths of mental suffering which his exclamations revealed, that she plied her oar mechanically, only partly awake to the scenes about her. But the long even strokes, first on one side and then the other, sent her darting forward through the water so rapidly that she soon reached a turn in the creek which she had never passed before, and as she rounded the curve such a beautiful sight greeted her that she cried out in pleased surprise, "How perfectly heavenly!"
On one side the bank towered up into a high, steep cliff, straight as a wall. It was completely covered with ferns; delicate, feathery maiden-hair ferns, as luxuriantly green as in mid-summer. In this sheltered spot they were still left untouched by the frost, although it was now December. Everywhere else vegetation was dry and sere, but the green freshness of this bank was accounted for by a number of tiny water-falls splashing down from unseen springs above, and sending a light spray in every direction, as fine as mist.
"I'm coming straight back here in the morning," she said to herself, "and dig up a lot of these ferns before the frost gets them. I can't think of anything lovelier to send to Gay for a Christmas greeting than a clump of them growing in a box – a rustic box covered with bark and dainty lichens. One would be nice for Mrs. Rochester, too. She's just the kind that would appreciate such a gift. Well, that solves two of my hardest problems of what to give." That trip up the creek in The Swan was a voyage of discovery in more ways than one, for Mary came upon the fact that she had grown older in the last quarter of an hour, quite as suddenly and unexpectedly as she had come upon the fern-bank. That cry of Jack's, "Heavens! If I could only end it all!" had shocked her into a deeper understanding of pain, and human limits of endurance.
She had always prided herself on her ability to imagine herself in other people's places, and until now had believed that she fully understood and appreciated the depths of Jack's suffering. Now she saw that she had not even begun to fathom it. His bravery had deceived her. All the while that she had been thinking that he was growing accustomed to his lot and that time was making it easier for him to bear, a fire of rebellion was smouldering fiercely within him, making each day one of new torture.
Because she could plaster up her own small hurts with platitudes and proverbs, and ease her disappointments by counting her blessings "as one would count the beads upon a rosary" she had vainly imagined that all this would be balm for him. How many times she had offered him such comfort, feeling with childish complacency that she was helping to ease his pain. She understood now. A sugarplum may help one to forget a bee-sting, but a death-thrust is another matter.
Absorbed in her thoughts, she sent the boat down stream with long, swift strokes, not noticing how fast it was going. Helped by the current, she came in sight of Jack and Norman before she had mentally adjusted herself to her new view-point. She was afraid that as soon as she and Jack were left alone again they would find themselves facing the same wall of blank despair, and she dreaded it. So to gain time, she began calling to them about the wonderful bank of ferns she had discovered, and made several awkward thrusts of the oar in an attempt to land, before she finally ran the boat up on the bank.
But Norman did not leave them alone. Deciding that that secluded spot would be a good place to chain the boat, and that it was time to be doing his evening chores, he slipped the padlock key in his pocket and handed the oar over to Mary, saying, "You carry this and I'll wheel the chair."
Jack had taken a new grip on his courage, and if Mary could have but known it, it was by the help of one of the very means she had branded as futile, a few moments before. The sight of the bloodstone on his watch-fob, as he glanced at the time, recalled the story of the poor Jester who had been born in Mars month, like himself, and for that reason had cause to claim undaunted courage as the "jewel of his soul." The merest flicker of a smile crossed Jack's grimly-set lips as he looked down at the bloodstone and thought of all it stood for; and pulling himself together he whispered the Jester's
vow between clenched teeth: "I'll keep my oath until the going down of one more sun."
When Mary joined them he was chaffing Norman quite as usual, and immediately began to joke about the awkward landing she had made. On the way home Norman laughed often, thinking that Jack was in one of his jolliest moods; but Mary walked beside them, the oar over her shoulder, saying to herself, "And under all this brave show, he's feeling every minute that he'd be glad to die!"
When she reached the house Mrs. Ware met them at the door, and Mary, passing in quietly as Norman began telling about the boat, suddenly remembered that that was not the natural way for her to come home. Whenever she had any news she fairly tumbled into the house in her haste to tell it. The boys knew that she had discovered the bank of ferns, and that it was as exciting as Norman's discovery of a boat, because it would provide some of her Christmas presents without cost. Yet here she was walking in as calmly as if she were fifty years old and had outgrown her girlish enthusiasms. It certainly was not natural.
So she turned back and interrupted Norman, because that was what she always did when she was in a hurry to tell things, and she tried to make her description as full of life and color as she usually did; but all the time she had a feeling that she was acting.
Mrs. Ware expressed her interest with many pleased exclamations as she always did when Mary came to her with any new-found cause for rejoicing, but Mary, suddenly grown keen of vision, saw the look of anxiety and weariness that seemed to lie in the back of her eyes behind the smile. "I wonder," she mused, "if mamma is acting, too, if her gladness is only on the surface, and she smiles to keep up her courage and ours, as they say little boys whistle in the dark. Oh, it's dreadful to grow up if one has to lose faith in this being a good old world. It used to seem so happy all the time, and now it's all so sorrowful and out of joint."
She went into her room to wash her hands and get an apron before going out into the kitchen to help prepare supper. As she stood tying the apron-strings, she looked up at Lloyd Sherman's picture which hung over her bed, as it used to hang in Warwick Hall and at Lone Rock, when she pretended that it was Lloyd's shadow-self, the chum to whom she could carry all her troubles, sure of silent sympathy. But somehow, while the beautiful eyes smiled down into hers as kindly as they had always done, they did not bring the sense of her presence. They did not speak to her as they had done those other times when she turned to them for the imagined communion that always brightened her spirits.
"It's never seemed the same since I knew she was engaged," Mary thought with a sigh. "Of course I know she's just as fond of me as she was before, but I can't help feeling that she's so taken up with other things now, her life so heavenly full since she has found her prince, that she can't take the same interest in my affairs."
As she passed the mirror she turned back for a second glance. The first had shown her the fresh unlined face of a girl of seventeen, but judging by the way she felt she was sure there should be wrinkles. The weight of world-weariness and disillusionment and foreboding which depressed her, certainly could not belong to youth. They must be the property of an old woman, in her sixties at least.