Mary Ware, The Little Colonel's Chum, Chapter 3: Room Mates

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1908
Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Table Of Contents



UP in her orderly room, on opening day, Mary listened to the bustle of arrivals, and the stir of unpacking going on all over the house. The cordial greetings called back and forth from the various rooms and the laughter in the halls made her long to have a part in the general sociability. She wished that it were necessary for her to borrow a hammer or to ask information about the trunk-room and the porter, as the other new girls were doing. That would give her an excuse for going into some of the rooms and making acquaintance with their occupants. But everything was in absolute order, and she was already familiar with the place and its rules. There was nothing for her to do but take out her bead-work and occupy herself with that as best she could until the arrival of her room-mate.

She set her door invitingly open, ready to meet more than half way any advances her neighbours might choose to make. While she sorted her beads she amused herself by fitting together the scraps of conversation which floated her way, and making guesses as to the personality of the speakers. Twice her open door brought the reward of a transient visitor. Once a jolly Sophomore glanced in to say "I just wanted to see who has the American Beauty room. That's what we called it last term when Kitty Walton and Lloyd Sherman had it."

Soon after, a girl across the hall whom Mary had already identified as one Dora Irene Derwent, called Dorene for short, darted in unceremoniously with an agonized plea for a bit of court-plaster.

"I cut my finger on a piece of glass in a picture frame that got broken in my trunk," she explained, unwinding her handkerchief to see if the bleeding had stopped. "I can't find my emergency case, and Cornie Dean never was known to keep anything of the sort. All the other rooms are so upset I knew it was of no use to apply to them."

Happy that such an opportunity had come at last and that she could supply the demand, Mary examined the injured finger and began to trim a strip of plaster the required size. At the moment of cutting herself Dorene had dropped the broken glass, but for some unaccountable reason had thrust the frame under her arm, and was holding it hugged tight to her side by her elbow. Now as she put out her hand for Mary's inspection, she sat down on the edge of the bed, and let the frame slip from her grasp to the counterpane. The photograph side lay uppermost, and Mary, glancing at it casually, gave an exclamation of surprise.

"Why, it's Betty! Betty Lewis! Do you know her?"

"Well, rather!" was the emphatic answer. "She was my crush all my Freshman year. I suppose you know what that means if you've ever had a case yourself. I simply adored her, and could hardly bear to come back the next year because she was graduated and gone. I haven't seen her since, but you can imagine my delight when I found her name in this year's catalogue, as one of the teachers. We never imagined she'd teach, for she has such a wonderful gift for writing; but it will be simply delightful to have her back again. She's such a dear. But where did you happen to know her?" she added as an afterthought. "Are you from Lloydsboro Valley, too?"

"No, but I visited there once at Lloyd Sherman's home where Betty lives. Lloyd's mother is Betty's god-mother, you know, and Betty's mother was my sister Joyce's god-mother. We're all mixed up that way on account of our mothers being old school friends, as if we were related. Of course, I shall call her Miss Lewis before the other girls. Mamma says it wouldn't be showing proper respect not to. But it's such a comfort to be able to call her Betty behind the scenes. She came yesterday. Last night she was up in my room for more than an hour with me, talking about the places and people we both know in the valley. It made me so happy I could hardly go to sleep. Elise Walton came with her, Kitty's sister, you know."

"Oh, is she as bright and funny as Kitty?" demanded Dorene. "If she is we certainly shall lay siege to you two for our sorority. We ought to have first claim, for all the other Lloydsboro Valley girls belong to us. Come over and see Cornie."

Conscious that as a friend of the Valley girls she had gone up many degrees in Dorene's estimation, Mary put away her scissors and plaster-case, and followed her newfound acquaintance across the hall. Her cordial reception gave her what she had been longing for all morning, the sense of being in intimate touch with things in the inner circle of school life. Because she knew Lloyd and Betty so well, they took her in as one of themselves, gave her a seat on a suit-case, the chairs all being full, and climbed over her and around her as they went on with their unpacking. Mary was in her element,  and blossomed out into such an interesting visitor, that Dorene was glad that she had discovered her. This was the beginning of the fourth year that she and Cornie had roomed together, and to Mary their companionship seemed ideal.

"I hope my room-mate will prove as congenial as you two," she said, after listening half an hour to their laughing repartee and their ridiculous discussions as to the arrangement of their pictures and bric-à-brac. "I've been looking forward all morning to her coming. Every time I think of her I have the same excited, creepy feeling that I used to have when I opened a prize pop-corn box. My little brother and I used to save all our pennies for them when we were little tots back in Kansas. We didn't eat the pop-corn, that is I didn't. It was the flutter and thrill I wanted, that comes when you've almost reached the bottom of the box, and know the next grab will bring the prize into your fingers. I was always hoping I might find one of those little rings with a red setting that I could pretend was a real garnet. No matter if it did always turn out to be nothing but a toy soldier or a tin whistle, there wasalways some kind of a surprise, and that delicious uncertain creepy feeling first."

"Well, you don't always draw a prize in your pop-corn when you're drawing room-mates, I can tell you that!" announced Cornie emphatically.

"I was at a school the year before I came here, where I had to room with a girl who almost drove me to distraction. She was a mild, modest little thing, who, as Cowper says

"'Would not with a peremptory tone
Assert the nose upon her face her own.'

Yet she'd do things that would provoke me beyond endurance. Sometimes I could hardly keep from choking her."

"What kind of things for instance?" asked Mary.

"Well, for one thing, and it does seem a little one when you tell it, we had about a thousand photographs, more or less, perched around on the mantel and walls. Essie was so painfully modest that she couldn't bear to undress with them looking at her, so she'd turn their faces to the wall, and then next morning she'd be so slow about getting down to breakfast that there wouldn't be time to turn them back. There my poor family and friends would have to stay with their faces to the wall all day as if they were in disgrace, unless I went around and turned them all back myself.

"Then she was such a queer little mouse; didn't really come out of her hole and get sociable until after dark. As soon as the lights were out and we were in bed, she'd want to talk. No matter how sleepy I was, that was the time to tell all her troubles. She was so humble and respectful in asking my advice that I couldn't throw a pillow at her and shut her up, so there she'd lie and talk in a stage whisper till after midnight. Then it was like pulling teeth to get her up in the morning. She took to setting an alarm clock for awhile, to rouse her early and give her half an hour to wake up in. It never made the slightest difference to her, but always wakened me. Finally I unscrewed the alarm key and hid it. She was so sensitive that I couldn't scold and fuss about things. Now with Dorene here, I simply gag her when she talks too much, shut her in the closet when she gets in my way, and scalp her when she doesn't do as she is bid."

Without any reason for forming such a mental picture of her prospective room-mate, Mary had imagined her to be a blue-eyed, golden-haired little creature, with a sort of wax-doll prettiness: a girl made to be petted and considered and shielded like a delicate flower. The type appealed to her. Independent and capable herself, she was prepared to be almost motherly in her care for Ethelinda's comfort. With this preconceived notion it was somewhat of a shock when she went back to her room and found the real Ethelinda being ushered into it.

She was not blue-eyed and appealing. She was large, she was self-assured, and she took possession of the room in an expansive all-pervading sort of way that made Mary feel very small and insignificant. The room itself that heretofore had been so spacious suddenly seemed to shrink, and when a huge trunk was brought in, it was fairly crowded.

Mary drew her chair into the narrow space between the bed and the window, but even there she felt in the way. "I don't see why I should," she thought with vague resentment. "It's as much my room as hers."

It was one of the requirements of the school that all trunks must be emptied and sent to the storeroom on arrival, and presently, as Ethelinda seemed ignorant of the rule, Mary told her and offered to help her unpack. The answer was excessively polite, so polite that it left Mary at greater arm's length than before.

Fanchon was to do the unpacking. She had come on purpose for that. In a few moments Fanchon came in, a middle-aged woman who had accompanied her from home, and who was to return as soon as her charge was properly settled. The two conversed in French, as Ethelinda, with her hands clasped behind her head, tipped back in a rocking chair and lazily watched proceedings. She was utterly regardless of Mary's presence.

"I might as well be the door-knob for all the notice she takes of me," thought Mary resentfully. "Well, she may prove to be as much as a tin whistle, but she certainly isn't the prize I had hoped to find."

She cast another furtive glance at her over her bead-stringing, slowly making up her estimate of her.

"She's what Joyce would call a drab blonde --- washed out complexion and sallow hair. She looks drab all the way through to me, but she may be the kind that improves on acquaintance. She certainly has a good figure, and looks as stylish as one of those fashion ladies in Vogue."

From time to time Mary proffered bits of information as occasion offered, as to which of the drawers were empty and how to pull the wardrobe door a certain way when it stuck, but her friendly advances were so coldly received, that presently she slipped out of the room and went over to the East wing to see what Elise Walton was doing.

Elise had already made friends with her roommate, a little dumpling of a girl by the name of Agnes Olive Miggs, and was calling her A.O. as every one else did. In five minutes Mary was calling her A.O. too, and wishing a little enviously that either one of these bright friendly girls could have fallen to her lot instead of the polite iceberg she had run away from.

"But I won't complain of her to them," she thought loyally. "Maybe she'll improve on acquaintance and be so nice that I'd be sorry some day that I said anything against her."

Several other girls came in while she sat there, and a box of candy was passed around. Finding herself in the company of congenial young spirits was a new experience for Mary.

"Now I know what it means to be 'in the swim,'" she thought exultantly. "I feel like a duck who has found a whole lake to swim in, when it has never had anything bigger than a puddle before."

The sensation was so exhilarating that it prompted her to exert herself to keep on saying funny things and send her audience off into gales of laughter. And all the time the consciousness deepened that they really liked her, that she was really entertaining them.

After lunch the day went by in a rush. Each teacher met her classes, programmes were arranged and lessons assigned. By night Mary had made the acquaintance of every girl in the Freshman class and many of the others. She started to her room all aglow with the new experiences, thinking that if she could only find Ethelinda responsive it would put the finishing touch to a perfect day. Betty was in the upper hall surrounded by an admiring circle, for all the old girls who remembered her as the star of her class, and all the new ones who had been attracted to her from the moment they saw her were crowding around her as if she were holding some kind of court. It was a moment of triumph for Mary when Betty laughingly excused herself from them all and drew her aside.

"Come into my room a few minutes," she said. "I've something to show you." While she was looking through her desk to find it she asked, "Well, how goes it, little girl? Is school all you dreamed it would be?"

"Betty, she won't thaw out a bit."

"Who, dear?"

"That Miss Ethelinda Hurst. When I went up stairs to dress for dinner I tried my best to be sociable, and brought up every subject that I thought would interest her. She barely answered till she found that I had come out to Warwick Hall from the city alone. That horrified her, to think I'd taken a step without a chaperon, and she said it in such a way that I couldn't help saying that I thought one must feel like a poodle tied to a string -always fastened to a chaperon. As for me give me liberty or give me death. And she answered, 'Oh, aren't you queer!' Then after awhile I tried again, but she wouldn't draw out worth a cent. Said she had never roomed with any one before, but supposed it was one of the disagreeable things one had to put up with when one went away to school. Imagine! Pleasant for me, wasn't it!"

"Try letting her alone for awhile," advised Betty. "Beat her at her own game. Play dumb for --- say a week."

"But that is so much good time wasted, when we might be chums from the start. When you're going to bed is the cream of the day. You see you always had Lloyd, so you don't know what it is like to room with an oyster."

" Here it is," announced Betty, unwrapping the package she had just found, and passing it to Mary. "Lloyd's latest photograph, the best she has ever had taken, in my opinion. It's so lifelike you almost wait to hear her speak. And I like it because it's so simple and girlish. I suppose the next one will be taken in evening gown after she makes her debut."

"Oh, is it for me?" was the happy cry.

"Yes, frame, picture, nail to hang it on and all. Lloyd sent it with her love. The day the photographs came home, she found that funny slip of paper with all the questions on it Jack was to ask. And you wanted so especially to know just how the Princess looked and how she was wearing her hair and all that, that she said, 'I believe I'll send one of these to Mary. She'll admire it whether any one else does or not.'"

"Tell me about her," begged Mary, propping the frame up in front of her that she might watch the beloved face while she listened.

Nothing loath, Betty sat down and began to talk of the gay summer just gone, of the picnics and the barn parties, the moonlight drives, the rainy days at the Log Cabin, the many knights who came a-riding by to pay court to the fair daughter of the house. Then she told of her own good times and the disappointment when her manuscript had been returned, and the reason for her coming to Warwick Hall to teach.

"I have come to serve my apprenticeship," she explained. "The old Colonel advised me to. He said I must live awhile --- have some experiences that go deeper than the carefree existence I have been living, before I can write anything worth while. I am sure he is right."

When Mary had heard all that Betty could remember to tell, she took her departure, carrying the picture and the nail on which to hang it. She wanted to show it to Ethelinda, she was so proud of it, but heroically refrained. Early as it was Ethelinda was undressing.

Mary had intended to do many things before bedtime, write in her journal, mend the rip in her skirt, start a letter to Jack, and maybe make some break in the wall of reserve which Ethelinda still kept persistently between them. But when she saw the preparations for retiring she hesitated, perplexed.

"She's tired from her long journey," she thought, "so maybe I ought not to sit up and keep the light burning. Maybe she'll appreciate it if I go to bed, too. I can lie and think even if I'm not sleepy."

The rip in the skirt had to be mended, however, or she would not be presentable in the morning. It was a small one, and she did not sit down to the task, but in order that she might work faster stood up and took short hurried stitches. Next, taking off her shoe to use the heel as a hammer, she drove the nail in the wall over the side of her bed, and hung the picture where she could see it the last thing at night and the first in the morning. Then, retiring behind her screen, she made her preparations for the night. They were completed long before Ethelinda's, and climbing into bed she lay looking at the new picture, glad for this opportunity to gaze at it to her heart's content.

It made her think of so many things that she loved to recall --- little incidents of her visit to The Locusts; and the smiling lips seemed to be saying, "Don't you remember" in such a friendly companionable way that she whispered to herself, "Oh, you dear! If you were only here this year, what an angel of a chum you would make!"

Then she looked across at Ethelinda, who had arranged the windows to her satisfaction and was now stretching the electric light cord from her dressing table to her bed, so that the bulb would hang directly over it. In another moment she had propped herself comfortably against the pillows, and settled down with a book.

Mary sat up astonished. She had sacrificed her own plans and come to bed for Ethelinda's sake, and now here was the electric light blazing full in her eyes, utterly regardless of her comfort. She was about to sputter an indignant protest when she looked up at the picture. It seemed to smile back at her as if it were a real person with whom she might exchange amused glances. "Did you ever see such colossal unconcern?" she whispered, as if the pictured Lloyd could hear.

For a moment she thought she would get up and do the things she had intended doing when she came up stairs, but it required too much of an effort to dress again, and she was more tired than she had realized after her exciting day. So she lay still. She began to get drowsy presently, but she could not go to sleep with that irritating light in her eyes. She threw a counterpane over the footboard, but it was too low to shield her. Finally in desperation she slipped out of bed and got her umbrella. Then opening it over her she thrust its handle under the pillow to hold it in place, and lay back under its sheltering canopy with a suppressed giggle.

Again she looked up at Lloyd's picture, thinking, "I'd have been awfully mad if you hadn't been here to smile with me over it."

The bulb began to sway, throwing shadows across the wall. Ethelinda had struck the cord in reaching up to pull her pillows higher. The flickering shadows made Mary think of something --- a verse that Lloyd had written in her autograph album once, because it was the motto of the Seminary Shadow Club.

This learned I from the shadow of a tree 
That to and fro did sway upon the wall, 
Our shadow selves---our influence, 
may fall Where we can never be."

She repeated it drowsily, peering out from under her umbrella at the swaying shadows, till something the lines suggested made her sit up, wide awake.

"Why, I can take you for my chum, of course," she thought. " Your shadow-self. Then it won't make any difference whether Miss Haughtiness Hurst talks to me or not. You'll understand and sympathize with me."

All her life when Mary's world did not measure up to her expectations, she had been in the habit of making a world of her own; a beautiful make-believe place that held all her heart's desires. It had given her gilded coaches and Cinderella ball-attire in her nursery days, and enchanted orchards whose trees bore all manner of confections. It had bestowed beauty and fortune and accomplishments on her, and sent dashing cavaliers to seek her hand when she came to the romance-reading age. Friends and social pleasures were hers at will when the lonely desert life grew irksome. Whatever was dull the Midas touch of her imagination made golden, so now it was easy to close her eyes and conjure up a make-believe chum that for the time was as good as a real one.

Absorbed in her book, Ethelinda read on until the signal sounded for lights out. Never before accustomed to such restrictions, she looked up impatiently. She had forgotten where she was for the moment in the interest of her book. When her glance fell on the umbrella, spread over Mary's bed like a tent, she raised herself on her elbow with a look of astonishment. It took her some time to understand why it had been put there.

Never having roomed with any one before, and never having had to consider any one's convenience besides her own, it had not occurred to her that she might be making Mary uncomfortable. The mute umbrella called attention to the fact more eloquently than any protest could have done. Ethelinda had endured having a room-mate as she endured all the other disagreeable requirements of the school. Now for the first time it dawned upon her that there might be two sides to this story, also that this strange girl who seemed so eager to intrude herself on her notice might be worth knowing after all. If Mary could have seen her bewildered stare and then the amused expression which twitched her mouth for an instant, she would have had hopes that the thawing out process had begun.

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