Mary Ware In Texas, Chapter 6: On The Creek Bank

MARY WARE IN TEXAS
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1910

Illustrated by Frank T. Merrill

Title Page

 

CHAPTER VI.
ON THE CREEK BANK

THERE IS only a partial account of that evening in Mary's Good Times book. She recorded the fact that the General himself came and talked to her a few minutes, and laughed several times at her replies till people turned to see who it was that he found so amusing. The handsome officer of the day in sword and spurs was brought up to be introduced, and there was a most gratifying list of names on her well-filled program. Lieutenant Boglin had dutifully seen to that.

Had it not been for one circumstance the evening would have been a succession of thrills, and she could have filled several pages with enthusiastic recollections of it. That one little happening, however, marred the whole occasion. She made no record of it in her Good Times book, and she made up her mind never to speak of it, but to seal it up in its particular memory cell as the bees do any intruding object which threatens to poison their honey.

There was so much else to tell about her visit, that for several days after her return she kept the family amused by her lively descriptions. She and Gay had had a whole string of adventures the morning after the hop, when they went down town together to finish her shopping. There had been some interesting guests from New Zealand at luncheon, who had vied with each other in telling marvelous yarns, and Mary had stored them all away to repeat at home.

With so much else to talk about she might have succeeded in keeping her resolution, had not she and Jack gone off to the creek one afternoon, instead of taking their usual excursion towards the village. The spot where they paused was a place which seemed to invite confidences. She wheeled his chair along the bank, close to the water's edge, until they came to a secluded circle of shade under an ancient cypress tree. There she sat down opposite him on a big boulder.

They were some distance from the main road. Except when a wagon rattled down the hill and across the ford it was so very still that the rush of water over the pebbles sounded almost brawling. The constant gurgle and swish seemed to have a sort of hypnotic effect on them both, for neither of them spoke for a long time. Then Jack broke the silence.

"This monotony is getting on my nerves," he said in a low tense voice. "You're a wonder to me, Mary. I don't see how you can come back to such a deadly stupid place as this is, after the taste of gay times you've had, and settle down again as cheerfully as you do. It makes me desperate whenever I think that if it wasn't for my being in such a fix you needn't be tied here. You could be where you'd have the social opportunities you ought to have."

Mary looked up quickly. This tone of bitterness was a new note in Jack's speech. He had drawn his hat down over his eyes, and was gripping the arms of his chair with both hands, as if trying to keep his resentment against fate in check.

"Just let me tell you something," cried Mary, so anxious to smooth the grim lines of suffering out of the beloved face that she recklessly broke her resolution. "I didn't have as good a time at that hop as I made out! The last part o f it was perfectly ghastly, and I never want to go to another as long as I live!"

Then, seeing the look of blank amazement that spread over Jack's face, she hastened to explain.

"Oh, it started out beautifully. I was simply ecstatic when we climbed out of the 'bus and were ushered into that long room with the flags and the evergreens, and the military music. And you already know how much it meant to me to have the General so nice to me and the officer of the day so attentive and complimentary; and how happy I was to have my programme filled up so that there was no danger of my being a wall-flower. I was having the loveliest time imaginable, when I went up to Gay to ask if any of the safety-pins showed below my girdle. The polo man I had met at dinner, that Mr. Mills, had been dancing with me, and, when he left me with Gay, went over to speak to a pretty butterfly sort of girl, a little brunette all in frilly pink and white; I'd been admiring her at a distance. Of course he didn't know his voice carried so far. He was protesting because she had left no place for him on her programme, and I heard him say

"'It wasn't my fault that I didn't get to you in time. Bogey roped me in first thing for a turn with that kindergarten kid he's got in tow. She's Miss Melville's guest and I couldn't get out of it, but really, Juliet --- that was punishment enough without your -'"

"I didn't hear the rest of it. Some people beside me laughed just then and drowned his voice, but the girl looked over at me, and gave me a long, searching glance, sort of out of the corner of her eye, and then turned away with a little shrug of her shoulders and smiled up at him quite as if she agreed with him and had forgiven him because he had such a good excuse.

"I never had anything make me so uncomfortable in all my life as his speech and then her sidelong look and nasty little shrug. It was the way he said it, and the way she answered, that hurt. After that I never forgot for a moment that my dress was a borrowed one and that it didn't fit, and that I was the plain little country mouse that they were polite to, merely because I was Gay's guest and Lieutenant Boglin asked them to be. And I couldn't help feeling that every man who danced with me was as bored as Mr. Mills had been; even more so, for I had been perfectly natural and at ease when I was talking to him, and after I overheard his remark I was so stiff and self-conscious that such a state of mind was bound to have its effect all the rest of the evening. I was perfectly aware that I was boring my partners."

"But that was such a little thing to let spoil your whole evening," interrupted Jack. "It was awfully rude of the fellow to make such a speech, but he probably said it just to square himself with the other girl. 'All's fair in love and war,' they say, and you don't know how much it might have meant to him to keep in her good graces. I don't believe he really meant it."

Oh, I know better!" insisted Mary dismally. "He did mean it! I felt it!"

She slowly gathered up a handful of pebbles and sent them skipping across the water at intervals as she continued

"It gave me the same sensation that I had years ago, when I had my first toy balloon. That is one of my earliest and most vivid recollections. One moment I was hugging it to me because it was such a dear, gay, red bubble, fairly entranced with the beauty of it. The next I was looking down in a scared, puzzled way at what was left-just a dull scrap of wrinkled rubber. That one remark and glance and shrug made all the pleasure ooze out of the evening as quickly as my hugging squeezed the air out of that collapsed balloon."

Jack smiled at her comparison. He remembered that time, and how they had all laughed at her bewildered expression when the balloon burst in her hands. She could not be convinced at first that her beautiful, red bubble had ceased to be, and hopefully peered under tables and chairs, even while she held the wreck of it in her hands.

Jack had always been her comforter. He had dried her tears then with the promise of another balloon as soon as he could find the man who sold them, and now he hurried to lift the gloom that had settled down on her usually cheerful features. Having thrown away all her pebbles, she bunched herself up into a disconsolate little heap, on the boulder, her elbows on her knees, and her chin in her hand.

"No, it's no use your trying to comfort me," she said presently in response to his repeated attempts. "Every time I think about that evening I'm so mortified that I could cry. My mind's made up. I am a dead failure socially, and I never want to go to another function as long as I live!"

"You're a little goose! That's what you are," said Jack. "And I know what's at the root of the whole trouble. You've done a lot of imagining about your social career at one time and another. You've looked forward to it and seen yourself in the role of an irresistible charmer. You've felt like a dowager duchess inwardly, and forgotten that you've no marks outwardly to show that you've grown up to take such a part. You have your own individual charm, but so far it is only the charm of an unsophisticated little school-girl, and naturally grown men find older girls more interesting, just as you would prefer Phil Tremont's company for instance, to that of little Billy Downs. But that's not saying that you dislike Billy Downs, or that he won't grow up to be a social lion some day. So may you. Now own up. You always have pictured yourself as cutting quite a wide swath on your first appearance in society, haven't you? That's one reason you were so disappointed at the hop."

"Well," admitted Mary, smiling in spite of herself, "I own I did expect to once, a long time ago, and maybe that had a sort of sub-conscious influence on me. It was when we first moved to Arizona. Hazel Lee and I found a book that a boarder had left behind in his tent. It was called 'The Lady Agatha's Career; A Novel.' We took it out on the desert, a little way, and spelled it out between us, sitting on the sand behind a clump of greasewood bushes, that hid us from view of the ranch house. Hazel was allowed only juvenile books, and she knew her mother would take this away from us on account of the word novel.

"It was such a horribly sentimental story that we found it embarrassing to read the tenderest parts of it aloud, and I suppose because it was the first one of the kind we had ever come across, it made a deeper impression on us than it would have done otherwise. We fairly devoured it. For days we thought and talked of nothing else, and we used to take turns playing we were the Lady Agatha, about to burst on society like a dazzling star, and win the heart of the proud scion of the House of de Hoverly."

Jack threw back his head and laughed so heartily that Mary was forced to smile again herself, as she went on with her confession.

"That all came back to me the other night when we climbed out of the 'bus, and I almost giggled when I remembered that this was what Hazel and I had looked forward to as such a grand event being escorted for the first time by a grown man. It was on a similar occasion that the Lady Agatha made such a hit in society. Our ideas of society were so crude and funny then," Mary went on, beginning to relish her own reminiscences. "All we knew about it we gathered from that book. It seemed to be made up principally of haughty earls and dowager duchesses who lived in castles and wore coronets. I didn't know what a dowager wasthen, but I privately resolved to be one when I was grown. The name seemed so grand and high-sounding, and in the story they always had everything their own way. I couldn't help laughing a bit ago when you used the word, for you had hit the nail on the head."

"Then you won't mind when I say 'I told you so,'" laughed Jack. "If you hadn't gone that night expecting to create a sensation, you'd have been satisfied to have people nice to you simply because you were their friend's friend, and wouldn't have been so cut up over that remark you overheard."

"I'm not so sure about the last part," Mary insisted, her face clouding again. "It was nasty of him to say it, and the mere thought of that man will always be an abomination to me."

There was silence for a little while. Everything was so still that a bird hopped fearlessly out on a limb above them, and began to call to its mate. When Mary spoke again there was a whimsical expression on her face that soon reflected itself in Jack's.

"I can't help picturing things out beforehand, the way I'd like to have them be. I've done it all my life. The rehearsing is always more fun, though, than the actual happening. Now when I went away to school last year, every time I'd wake up that last night in the sleeping-car, I'd plan just what I'd say and how I'd act to make my entrance to Warwick Hall imposing. I could actually see myself sweeping in to make a good impression on Madam Chartley, and you know what happened! My hat was cocked over one ear, the wire sticking out through the loops of ribbon, and Madam caught me jumping up and down to try every seat in the reception-room, one after the other."

Jack chuckled, glad to see some of Mary's cheerfulness returning.

"And then," she continued, "you remember when we met Phil and Elsie Tremont on the train, as we were going out to Arizona to live?"

Jack nodded.

"I was only nine years old then, but for weeks I thought of Phil as a sort of young god --- a regular Apollo, and I pictured all sorts of scenes in which I should be a prominent personage at our next meeting. And when he did come I was sprinting down the road in a cloud of dust, hatless and breathless and purple in the face, crying, and crazy with fright, because I thought that a harmless old Indian who chanced to be riding down the same road, was chasing me. How Phil does laugh every time that is mentioned!"

Mary was sitting up straight on the boulder now, her face dimpling as she recalled these various predicaments.

"Then there's the time the Little Colonel visited us at the Wigwam. Hadn't I dreamed of that first meeting for weeks --- what we'd say and what she'd say? Me in my rosebud sash and best embroidered white gown. But she caught you and Joyce at the wash-tub, and I had to take my first peep at her, crouched down in an irrigating ditch on my way home from school, all inky and dirty and torn.

"But I don't think I've done quite so much romancing since Betty gave me my Good Times book and preached me that little sermon on being self-conscious," Mary chattered on. "She said that my always thinking of the impression I was making on people, and being so eager to please was what made me miserable when I fell short of my expectations. She said that I ought to copy Lloyd. That her greatest charm was her utter unconsciousness of self. I think that is Betty's too. She's such a darling."

There was no response to this. The mention of Betty's name brought up so many pleasing scenes to Mary, that she sat living them over, unmindful of the long silence that fell between her and Jack. He sat with his hat pulled still farther over his eyes, in a revery as deep as hers. Betty's name recalled the picture that was often before him in these long, idle days. He was seeing her as he had seen her the first time, now over a year ago, when he made his memorable visit to Kentucky. She was standing at the end of the long locust avenue, all in white, between the stately white pillars, with her godmother's arm about her, as they awaited his approach.

Slim and girlish and winsomely sweet she was, and when he looked into her wistful brown eyes, he felt in some strange way that he had come to the end of all pilgrimage. The world held nothing beyond worth seeking for.

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?

"'For should he come not by the road, and come not by the hill,
And come not by the far sea-way, yet come he surely will. 
Close all the roads of all the world --- Love's road is open still.'

"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 dawn 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 waterfalls 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 in 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 sugar-plum 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 an 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 aver 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.

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