Mary Ware's Promised Land, Chapter 4: The Witch With A Wand

MARY WARE's PROMISED LAND
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
L. C. PAGE & CO
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part I

CHAPTER IV.
THE WITCH WITH A WAND

SNOW lay deep over Lone-Rock, muffling every sound. It was so still in the cozy room where Jack sat reading by the lamp, that several times he found himself listening to the intense silence, as if it had been a noise. No one moved in the house. He and Mary were alone together, and she on the other side of the table was apparently as interested in a pile of letters which she was re-reading as he was in his story. But presently, when he finished it and tossed the magazine aside, he saw that his usually jolly little sister was sitting in a disconsolate bunch by the fire, her face buried in her hands.

She had pushed the letters from her lap, and the open pages lay scattered around her on the floor. There were five of them, from different employment agencies. Jack had read them all before supper, just as he had been reading similar ones at intervals for the last two months and a half. The answers had always been disappointing, but until to-day they had come singly and far apart. Undismayed, she had met them all in the spirit of their family motto, insisting that fortune would be compelled to change in her favor soon. She'd be so persistent it couldn't help itself.

Five disappointments, however, all coming by the same post, were more than she could meet calmly. Besides, these were the five positions which seemed the most promising. The thought that they were the last on her list, and that there was no clue now left for her to follow, was the thought that weighed her down with the heaviest discouragement she had ever felt in all her life. She had made a brave effort not to show it when Jack came home to supper earlier in the evening. The two ate alone for the first time that she could remember, Mrs. Ware and Norman having been invited to take supper with the Downs family. It was a joint birthday anniversary, Billy Downs and his mother happening to claim the same day of the month, though many years apart.

Mary talked cheerfully of the reports Billy had brought of the two cakes that were to adorn the table, one with fifteen candles for him and the boys, and one with forty-eight icing roses for his mother and her friends. She had put on a brave, even a jolly front, until this last re-reading of her letters. Now she had given away to such a sense of helplessness and defeat that it showed in every line of the little figure huddled up in front of they fire.

Jack noticed it as he tossed aside his magazine and sat watching her a moment. Then he exclaimed sympathetically, "Cheer up, Mary. Never mind the old letters. You'll have better luck next time."

There was no answer. A profound silence followed, so deep that he could hear the ticking of a clock across the hall, coming faintly through closed doors.

"Cheer up, Sis !" he exclaimed again, knowing that if he could only start her to talking she would soon drag herself out of her slough of despond.

"Don't all the calendars and cards nowadays tell you to smile, no matter what happens? Don't you know that

"'The man worth while is the man who can smile 
When everything goes dead wrong?'"

His question drew the retort he hoped for, and she exclaimed savagely, "I hate those silly old cheerfulness calendars! And deliver me from people who follow their advice! It's just as foolish to go through life smiling at every kind of circumstances that fate hands out as it would be to wear furs in all kinds of weather, even the dog-days. What's the use of pretending that the sun is shining when everybody can see that the rain's simply drenching you and that you're as bedraggled as a wet hen?"

"Well, the sun is shining," persisted Jack. "Always, somewhere. Our little rain clouds don't stop it. All they can do is to hide it from us awhile."

"You tell that to old Noah," grumbled Mary, her face still hidden in her hands. "Much good the sun behind his rain clouds did him! If he hadn't had an ark he'd have been washed off the face of the earth like the other flood sufferers.  Seems to me it's sort of foolish to smile when you've been swept clean down and out. Five turndowns in one day---"

Her voice broke, and she gave the scattered letters an impatient push with her foot. Her tone of unusual bitterness stopped Jack's playful attempt to console her. He sat looking into the fire a little space, considering what to say. When he spoke again it was in a firm, quiet tone, almost fatherly in its kindness.

"There's no reason, Mary, for you to be so utterly miserable over your disappointments. There is no actual need for you to go out into the world to snake your own living and fight your own way. It was different when I was a helpless cripple. Then I had to sit by and watch you and Joyce and mother struggle to keep us all afloat. But I'm able to furnish a very comfortable little ark for you now, and I'd be glad to have you stay in it always. I didn't interfere when you first announced your intention of starting out to seek your fortune, because I knew you'd never be satisfied to settle down in this quiet mining camp until you'd tried something different. But now the question of your staying here seems to have been settled for you, there's no use letting the disappointment down you so completely. What's your big brother for if not to take care of you?"

"Oh, Jack! You're an old darling!" she cried, with tears in her eyes. "It's dear of you to put it that way, and I do appreciate it even if I don't seem to. But --- there's something inside of me that just won't let me settle down to be taken care of by my family. I have my own place to make in the world. I have my own life to live!"

She saw his amused, indulgent smile and cried out indignantly, "Well, you'd scorn a boy who'd be satisfied with that kind of life. Just because I'm a girl is no reason that I should be dependent on you the rest of my days. You wouldn't want Norman to."'

"No," admitted Jack, "but that is different. I should think you could understand how a fellow feels about his little sister when he's the head of the family. He regards her as one of his first responsibilities, to look out for her and take care of her."

Mary straightened up in her chair and looked at him with a perplexed expression, saying in a slow, puzzled way, "Jack, it makes me almost cross-eyed trying to see your way and my way at the same time. Your way is so dear and sweet and generous that I feel like a dog to say a word against it, and yet --- please don't get mad --- it is an old-fashioned way. Nowadays girls don't want to be kept at home on a shelf like a piece of fragile china. When they're well and strong and capable of taking care of themselves they want a chance to strike out and realize their ambitions just as a boy would. Joyce did it, and look what she's doing for herself and how happy she is."

"Yes," he admitted. "Her work is her very life, and her success in it means just as much to her as mine here at the mines does to me. But I can't see what particular ambition you'd be realizing in filling any of the positions you've applied for. You couldn't do more than drudge along and make a bare living at first. There'd be very little time and energy left for ambitions."

"Well, I'd be satisfying one of them at any rate," she persisted. "I'd be at least 'paddling my own canoe' and making a place for myself where I'd be really needed. Oh, yes, I know what you're going to say," she added hurriedly, as he tried to interrupt her. "Just what mamma said, that you do need me here to keep things stirred up and lively. That might be all right if we were going to live along this way always. If you'd settle down to be a nice comfortable old bachelor, I could try to be an ideal old-fashioned spinster sister. But you'll be getting married some day, and then I won't be needed at all, and it'll be too late for me to strike out then and be a modern, up-to-date bachelor maid like Miss Henrietta Robbins. I know that Captain Doane says that old maid aunts are the salt of the earth," she added, a twinkle in her eyes taking the place of the tear which she hastily dashed away with the back of her hand, "but I don't want to be one in somebody else's home. If I have to be one at all I want to be the Miss Henrietta kind. But," she admitted honestly, "I'd rather marry some day, after I'd done all the other things I've planned to, and no Prince Charming will ever find his way to Lone-Rock. You know that perfectly well."

Jack threw back his head to laugh at the dolorous tone of her confession, and then grew suddenly sober, staring into the fire, as if her remarks had started a very serious train of thoughts. The snow-muffled silence was so deep that again the ticking of the distant clock sounded through closed doors.

"Sometimes," he began presently, "when I see they way you chafe at the loneliness here, and hate the monotony and long so desperately to get away, I wonder if any girl would be happy here. If I would have a right even to ask one to share such a life with me."

Mary gave him a keen, penetrating glance, her pulses throbbing at this beginning of a confidence. She hesitated to say anything, for fear her reply might stop him, but when he seemed waiting for her answer she said with a worldly-wise air, "That depends on the girl. If it were Kitty Walton or Gay or Roberta, they'd be simply bored to death up here. They're so used to constant entertainment. But if it were somebody like Betty, it would be different. Lone-Rock isn't any lonesomer than the Cuckoo's Nest was, and she loved that place. And this would be a good quiet spot where she could go on with her writing, so she wouldn't have to give up her ambition."

Then, feeling that perhaps she was expatiating too much in the direction of Betty, she added hastily, "But there's one thing I hadn't thought of. Of course that would make it all right for any kind of a girl, even for a Gay or a Roberta. You'd be her Prince Charming, so of course you'd 'live happily ever after."'

Again Jack laughed heartily, lying back in the big Morris chair. Then reaching out for the paper cutter on the table, he began toying with it as he often did when he talked. But this time, instead of saying anything, he sat looking into the fire, slowly drawing the ivory blade in and out through his closed fingers.

The fore-log .burned through, suddenly broke apart between the andirons, and falling into a bed of glowing coals beneath, sent a puff of ashes out on to the hearth. Mary leaned forward to reach for the turkey-wing hanging beside the tongs. There had always been a turkey-wing beside her Grandmother Ware's fireplace. That is why Mary insisted on using one now instead of a modern hearth-broom. It suggested so pleasantly the house-wifedy thrift and cleanliness of an earlier generation which she loved to copy. She had prepared this wing herself, stretching and drying it under a heavy weight, and binding the quill ends into a handle with a piece of brown ribbon.

Now as she flirted it briskly across the hearth, a tiny fluff of down detached itself from one of the stiff quills, and floated to the rug. When she picked it up it clung to her fingers, and only after repeated attempts did she succeed in dislodging it, and in blowing it into the fire.

"I wish we could settle things by a feather, as they used to in the old fairy tales," she said wistfully, looking after the bit of down. "Just say

 "'Feather, feather, when I blow
  Point the way that I should go.'

Then there would be no endless worry and waiting and indecision. It would be up to the feather to settle the matter."

"Why not wish for your 'witch with a wand,' as you used to do?" asked Jack. "There used to be a time when scarcely a day passed that you did not make that wish."

Mary's answer was a sudden exclamation and a clasping of her hands together as she turned towards him, her face radiant.

"Jack, you've given me an idea! Don't you remember that's what we took to calling Cousin Kate after she gave Joyce that trip abroad, and did so many lovely things for all of us --- our witch with a wand! I've a notion to write to her and ask her if she can't help me get a position of some kind. Didn't she endow a library in the little village where she was born? Seems to me I remember hearing something about it a long time ago. Maybe I could get a position in it."

Jack shook his head decidedly. "No, Mary, I don't like your idea at all. She did endow a library, and she's interested in so many things of the kind that she could doubtless pull strings in all directions. But mother wouldn't like to have you ask any favors of her, I'm sure. I wouldn't do it myself, and I shouldn't think you'd want to, after all she's done for us."

"But I'd not be asking her for money or things," declared Mary. "I'd only ask her to use her influence, and I don't see why she wouldn't be as willing to do it for her own 'blood and kin' as she would for working girls and Rest Cottage people and fresh-air babies. I'm going to try it anyhow.  I'll take all the blame myself. I'll tell her that mamma doesn't know I'm writing, and that you told me not to."

"But she's been out of touch with us for so long," persisted Jack, frowning. "She promised once, that if Joyce reached a certain point in her work she'd give hear a term or two in Paris, and Joyce reached it a year ago. Cousin Kate knows it, for she was at the studio and saw for herself what Joyce was doing, but she was so interested in two blind children that she had taken under her wing, that she couldn't talk of anything else. She had gone down to New York to consult some specialist about them, and she was considering adopting them. She told Joyce that she wouldn't hesitate, only she had made such inroads on her capital to keep up her social settlement work, that there was danger of her ending her own days in some kind of an asylum or old ladies' home. She nearly lost hear own sight several years ago. That is why she takes such an especial interest in those two children."

Mary considered his news in silence a moment, then remarked stubbornly, "She might like to have me come on and help take care of the blind children.  At any rate it will cost only a postage stamp to find out, and I can afford that much of an investment. I'll write now, before mamma gets back."

Knowing that the composition of such a letter would be a long and painstaking affair, Mary did not risk beginning it on her precious monogram stationery. She brought out some scraps of paper instead, and with the arm of her chair for a desk, scribbled down with a pencil a rough draft of all she wanted to say to this Cousin Kate, who had been the good fairy of her childhood. Many erasures and changes were necessary, and it was nearly an hour later when she read it all over, highly pleased with her own production. She wondered how it would affect Jack, and glanced over at him, so sure of its excellence that she was tempted to read it aloud. But Jack, having read himself drowsy, had gone to sleep in his chair, and she knew that even if she should waken him by clashing the tongs or upsetting the rocker, he would not be in a mood to appreciate her epistle as it deserved.

So she sat jabbing the paper with her pencil till it had a wide border of dots and dashes, while she pictured to herself the probable effect of the letter on her Cousin Kate.  Hope sprang up again as buoyant as if it had not been crushed to earth a score of times in the last few months, and she thought exultingly, "Now this will surely bring a satisfactory reply!"

A far-away jingle of sleigh-bells sounded presently, coming nearer and nearer down the snowy road, then stopped in front of the' house. Mr. Downs was bringing the birthday banqueters home in his sleigh, according to promise.

Mary sprang up to open the door. At the first faint sound of the bells she had folded the sheet of paper into a tiny square, and tucked it into her belt. She had a feeling that Jack was wrong about her writing to Cousin Kate, and that her mother would not disapprove as strongly as he seemed to think she would, if the matter could be put properly before her. But she intended to take no risks. There would be time enough to confess what she had done when the answer came, promising her the coveted position.

Mrs. Ware and Norman came in glowing from their sleigh-ride.

"You certainly must have had a good time," exclaimed Mary, noticing the unusual animation of her mother's face. "You ought to go to a birthday dinner every night if it can shake you up and make you look as young and bright-eyed as you do now."

"Oh, it isn't that," laughed Mrs. Ware, as Jack took her heavy coat from her and Mary her furs. "We did have a beautiful time, but it is this which has gone to my head."

She took a letter from the muff which Mary had just laid on a chair, and as soon as she could slip off heir gloves, began to unfold it without waiting to lay aside her hat.

"It's a letter from Joyce which that naughty Norman has been carrying around all day. He didn't remember to give it to me until he was putting on his overcoat to start home, and discovered it in one of the pockets. I just had to open it while the other guests were making their adieus, and I've read enough to set me all in a whirl. Joyce's long dreamed of happiness has come at last! She's to go to Paris in a few weeks, but first --- she's coming home to sped Christmas with us!"

Mrs. Ware paused to enjoy the effect of her announcement. She was in such a quiver of delight herself that Mary's happy cry of astonishment and Jack's excited exclamation did not do justice to the occasion. Only long-legged Norman's demonstration seemed adequate. Standing on his head he turned one somersault after another across the room, till he landed perilously near Mary, who gave him a sharp tweak of the ear as he came up in a sitting posture beside her.

"Oh, you wretch!" she exclaimed. "To keep such news in your pocket all day! I'm going to tell Captain Doane never to give you any letters again, if you can't deliver them more promptly than that!"

"Sh!" she added, as Norman began a string of excuses for his forgetfulness. "Mamma is going to read it aloud."

"BELOVED FAMILY," the letter began. "Ere you have recovered from the shock of the announcement I am about to make, we shall be dismantling the studio, packing our trunks and making preparations to shift our little establishment from New York to Paris. At least, Miss Henrietta and I expect to go to Paris and carry on the same kind of studio-apartment housekeeping that we have done here. Mrs. Boyd and Lucy have gone to Florida, but they may join us next summer.

"But first, before I put the ocean between us, I'm going home for a glimpse of you all. It is a long journey for such a short visit, but I can't go so far without seeing you all once more, just at Christmas time too, when we've been separated so many Christmases. It is Cousin Kate who has made all this possible. She did not adopt those little blind children after all. She was taken with a spell of typhoid fever while she was trying to make up her mind, and has never been well enough since to consider burdening herself in such a way. She sailed yesterday with her maid for the south of France, by the doctor's orders. Later, if she is better, she is going back to Tours, where she and I had such a happy year. Old Madame Gréville is no longer living in the villa near the Gate of the Giant Scissors, but Cousin Kate hopes to find lodgings near there. She has just spent a week with us while she was making preparations for heir journey, and the visit revived all her old interest in my work. She was pleased to find that I am doing  practical money-making things like designing book-covers, etc., but she wants me to widen my field, she says.

"She insists on giving me this year abroad, and says it is pure selfishness on her part, because she may want to attach herself to our Paris establishment later on. She is so alone in the world. I am sure that I can make it up to her some day, all that she is doing for me now, in the way that will make her very happy. So I am accepting as cor dially as she is giving. When I told her how long I have been away from you all, and that I thought I'd take part of my savings for a flying visit home, she thought I ought to do so by all means, and said that she wanted to add to the happiness of the family, especially mamma's, by sending a handsome Christmas present back with me.

"For several days it seemed as if she would not be able to get exactly what she wanted, but it was finally arranged, just at the last moment, after much trouble on her part. It's perfectly grand, but I've sworn not to even hint at what it is. So expect me Christmas Eve with The Surprise. I'll not write again in the meantime, as I am so very, very busy. Till then good-bye.

"Yours lovingly and joyfully,

"JOYCE."

As Mrs. Ware looked up from her reading, everybody spoke at once. "It's almost too good to be true," was Jack's quick exclamation. "What do you suppose the surprise will be?" Norman's eager question. While Mary, clasping her elbow with her hands, as if hugging herself in sheer ecstasy, cried, "Oh, I just love to be knocked flat and have my breath taken away with unexpected news like that! It makes you tingle all over and at the same time have a queer die-away feeling too, like when you swoop down in a swing!"

Mrs. Ware took down the almanac hanging in the chimney corner, and began to turn the pages, looking for the one marked December.

"Oh, you needn't count the days till Christmas," said Mary. "I've been marking them off my calendar every morning and can tell you to a dot. Not that I had expected to take much interest in celebrating this year, but just from force of habit, I suppose. But now we'll have to 'put the big pot in the little one,' as they say back in Kentucky, in honor of our being all together once more."

"All but Holland," corrected Mrs. Ware sadly, with the wistful look which always came into her eyes whenever his name was mentioned. "That's the worst of giving up a boy to the Navy. One has to give him up so completely."

There was such a note of longing in her voice that Jack hastened to say, "But the worst of it is nearly over now, little mother. He'll be home on his first furlough next summer."

"Yes, but the years will have made a man of him," answered Mrs. Ware. "He'll not be the same boy that left us, and he'll be here such a short time that we'll hardly have time to make his acquaintance."

"Oh, but think of when he gets to be a high and mighty Admiral," exclaimed Mary, comfortingly. "You'll be so proud of him you'll forget all about the separation. Between him and the Governor I don't know what will happen to your pride. It will be so inflated."

Mary had laughingly called Jack the Governor ever since Mrs. Ware's complacent remark that day on the train, that it would not surprise her to have such an honor come to her oldest son some day.

"And Joyce, don't forget her," put in Norman, feeling in his pocket for a handful of nuts which he had carried away from the birthday feast. "The way she's started out she'll have a place in your hall of fame, too. And me --- don't forget this Abou Ben Adhem. Probably my name'll lead all the rest. Where do you expect to come in, Mary? What will you do?"

As he spoke he placed a row of pecans under the rocker of his chair, and bore down on them until the shells cracked. When he had picked out a handful of kernels, he popped them into his mouth all at once.

"We'll write your name as the Great American Cormorant," laughed Mary, ignoring his question about herself." You remember that verse, don't you ?

"'C, my dear, is the Cormorant.
When he don't eat more it's because he can't.'

"Mamma, didn't he eat anything at all at the Downs'? He's been stuffing ever since he came back --- cake and candy, and now those nuts. It's positively disgraceful to carry food away in your pockets the way you do, Norman Ware."

"I always do when I go to Billy's house," answered Norman, undisturbed by her criticism, and crashing his rocker down on a row of almonds. "And Billy always does the same here. We're not company. We're home folks at both places."

The shells which he threw toward the fire missed their aim and fell on the hearth. Mary pointed significantly toward the turkey-wing, and he as significantly shrugged his shoulders, in token that he would not sweep up the mess he had made. They kept up a playful pantomime some time, while Jack and his mother went on discussing Joyce's home-coming, before he finally obeyed her peremptory gesture. He thought she was in one of her jolliest moods, induced by the glorious news of the letter. But all the time she was silently repeating his question, "Where do you expect to come in, Mary? What will you do?"

Here she was, baffled again. The time she had spent in writing that letter, now tucked away under her belt, was wasted. It was out of the question to appeal to Cousin Kate now, just when she had done so much for another member of the family, and especially when she had sailed away to so vague a place as the south of France, by the doctor's orders. Even if Mary had her address, she felt it would be wrong to bother her with a request which would require any "pulling of strings." For that could not be done without letter writing, and in her state of health even that might be some tax on her strength, which she had no right to ask. Hope, that had soared so buoyantly an hour before, once more sank despairingly to earth. What was she to do? Which way could she turn next?

When bedtime came a little later, Mrs. Ware went in to Norman's room to take some extra cover. Mary lingered to pin some newspapers around her potted plants and move them away from the windows. Jack, standing in front of the fireplace, winding the clock on the mantel, saw her slip a folded paper from under her belt, and toss it into the fire with such a tragic gesture, that he knew without telling that it was the letter on which she had worked so industriously. She saw that he understood and she was grateful that he said nothing.

While they ware undressing, Mrs. Ware talked so happily of Joyce's return, that Mary's own glow of anticipation came back. She was not jealous of her sister's good fortune. She had never been that. She was wholly, generously glad for every good thing that had ever come into Joyce's life, and she was so thrilled with the thought of her coming home that she was sure she should lie awake all night thinking about it. But when she snuggled down under the warm covers, it was Norman's question which kept her awake. "Where do you expect to come in, Mary? What are you going to do?"

Chapter 3  Part I   Chapter 5 >