Mary Ware's Promised Land, Part 2, Chapter 2: Towards The Canaan Of Her Desire

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part II


IN Phil Tremont's office desk, in an inner drawer reserved for private papers, lay a package of letters fastened together by a broad rubber band. "From the Little Vicar," it was labelled, and Mary's astonishment would have been great, could she have known that every letter she had ever written him was thus preserved. He had kept the first ones, written in a childish, painstaking hand, because they chronicled the doings of the family at Ware's Wigwam in such an amusing and characteristic way. The letters after that time had been few and far between until her final return to Lone-Rock, but each one had been kept for some different reason. It had contained a particularly laughable description of some of her Warwick Hall escapades, or some original view of life and the world in general which made it worth preserving.

Then when Mrs. Ware's letters ceased, and at Phil's urgent request Mary took up her mother's custom of writing regularly to him, he kept them because they revealed so much of herself. So brave, so woManley, so strong she had grown, bearing her great sorrow as the Jester did his hidden sword, to prove that "undaunted courage was the jewel of her soul." All during the lonely summer after her mother's death he expected to go to see her in the fall, but the work which held him in Mexico was not finished, and too much depended upon its successful completion for him to ask for leave of absence.

Then, just as he was about to start back to the States, his chief was taken ill, and asked him to stay and fill his place in another engineering enterprise which he had made a contract for. It was an opportunity too big for Phil to thrust aside, even if his sense of obligation had not been so great to the man who had helped make him what he was. So he consented to stay on another year. The place to which he was sent, where the great new dam was to be constructed, was further in the interior. His papers, brought over on mule back, were a week old when they reached him, and Mary's letters attained an importance they might not have had otherwise, had he been in a less lonely region.

It was with great satisfaction that he heard of Jack's marriage. He felt that Mary would be more satisfied to stay on in Lone-Rock indefinitely now that she had Betty's companionship. Her letters were enthusiastic about the new sister, whom she had long loved, first with the admiration of a little girl for an older one, then with that of a pupil for an adored teacher. Now they seemed of the same age, and of the same mind about essential things, especially the pedestal on which they both placed Jack.

Betty fitted into the family as beautifully as if she had always been a part of it, Mary wrote soon after her arrival. She loved Lone-Rock the moment she laid eyes on it, and made friends with everybody right away. She thought it an ideal place in which to write, and already was at work on the series which the publishers had asked for. Norman was "simply crazy" about her, and Jack was so happy and proud that it did one's heart good to see him.

As for Mary herself, it was easy for Phil to see the vast difference that Betty's coming had made in heir life. He laid these letters aside with the others as they came, thankful for the happy spirit that breathed through them, for now he was convinced that she "really felt the gladness she had only feigned before." She was all aglow once more with her old hopes and ambitions. Despite her efforts to hide it he had discerned how dreary the days had been for her hitherto, and now he was glad he could think of her with the background she pictured for him. Betty's coming had brightened it wonderfully. But just as he was beginning to be sure she was satisfied and settled, a little note came to disturb his comfort in that belief. It was evidently scrawled in haste and began abruptly without address or data.

"'And it came to pass . . . when the cloud was taken up . . . they journeyed!'  Oh, Phil, the signal to move on has come at last! I have no idea what it will lead to. It may be to the wells of some Elim, it may be to that part of the wilderness 'where there is no water to drink.' But wherever it may be I'm convinced that Providence is pointing the way, for the call came without my lifting so much as a little finger. It came through Madam Chartley. I'm to be secretary for a friend of hers, a Mrs. Dudley Blythe of Riverville, at a big salary --- at least it seems big to me --- and I'm leaving in the morning. That's all I know now, but I'll write you full particulars as soon as I'm settled.

"Manuella, the clever little Mexican maid who has tided us over various emergencies, is coming to help Betty with the work, so that the writing may not be interfered with. Yours, once more on the march towards the Canaan of her desire,

"M. W."

The next was a note scribbled at some junction near the end of her journey.

"Five hours late, so we've missed connection and are side-tracked here, waiting for the fast express to pass us. Nothing at all has happened as there usually does on my travels, and I've met no interesting people. But I've had a really thrilling time just guessing what my future is to be like. I've imagined Mrs. Dudley Blythe to be every kind of a woman that would be likely to employ a secretary, from a stern-eyed suffragette to a modern Mrs. Jellyby interested in the heathen. All I've had to build on was Madam Chartley's night letter and Mrs. Blythe's telegram in answer to mine, and naturally that was slim material.

"What I'm hoping is, that Mrs. Blythe is a grand society dame, who needs a secretary to attend to her invitations and list of engagements. I'd like for her to be that, or else a successful writer who wanted me to type her manuscript. It would be so lovely to be behind the scenes at the making of a book, and maybe to meet a lot of literary lions at close range. I've blocked out enough scenes from those two situations to fill a two-volume Duchess novel. But, in order to keep from being too greatly disappointed, I tell myself that it's not at all probable that Mrs. Blythe will be either of those things. Most likely she's in a big mail-order business of some kind that requires a large correspondence, and I'll be tamely quoting prices on hats, hair-goods or imported trimmings for the next dozen years. I am 'minded that

"'There are two moments in a diver's life.
One when, a beggar, he prepares to plunge, 
One when, a prince, he rises with his pearl. 
        Festus, I plunge!'

"More anon.                                                               MARY."



"Here I am, bobbing up serenely with something, but still unable to say whether it be pearl or pebble. Mrs. Blythe is not the grand personage I pictured her to be, for there was no liveried footman to meet me at the station, no carriage in waiting. Nor is she an author. Mrs. Crum, the landlady of this caravansary, told me that. I rattled up in a 'bus to the number of the house given in Mrs. Blythe's telegram, and found it to be a comfortable looking boarding-house on a quiet side street, shaded by scraggly old sycamores. Mrs. Blythe had engaged a room for me here, and left a note telling me where and how to find her in the morning.

"It was so near supper-time that Mrs. Crum had to go right down-stairs before I could ask any more questions, and I followed in a very few moments. I am disappointed in one thing. I had hoped to be in an interesting private family. I had hoped that Mrs. Blythe would want me to stay in her house, but I think I shall like it here.

"My room is big and airy and simply furnished, the supper was good, and as far as I can see I'm lots better off than Jo was in 'Little Women,' when she left home to be a governess. For one thing, there is no old bearded professor in the background to work on one's sympathies and get interested in, in lieu of some one better. Of course Professor Baher was dear in lots of ways, but I never could forgive Jo for marrying that bewhiskered old Tueton.

"So far as I have discovered, the boarders are all widows and orphans, though the oldest orphan is old enough to vote, and is a reporter on the Riverville Herald. He sat next to me at the table, at supper, and I found out from him that my first guess was partly correct, even if there was no liveried footman to meet me at the station. Mrs. Blythe is one of the social leaders of Riverville and has a lovely home. But this city isn't large enough to justify any one's keeping a social secretary. He said so. It's just a big, commonplace, hustling manufacturing town like a hundred others in the middle West. I didn't like to ask any personal questions about Mrs. Blythe of Orphant Annie. (That's the name I couldn't help giving the young reporter in my own mind. He was introduced as Mr. Sandford Berry.) He looks the character to perfection; sort of old for his years, spry and capable, as if he'd spent his youth in doing the chores and shooing the hens away. Besides, he gave me a lot of wise advice, as if he were a full-fledged man of the world and I a little hayseed from the West who didn't know enough to get out of the way of a go-cart. He has pale blue pop eyes, and an alert little blond mustache, and his whole air seems to say, 'The gobelins'll git you, if you don't watch out.'

"He took it for granted that I knew all about my future employer, and, of course, I didn't tell him any better. I just tried in a roundabout way to lead him on to talk of her. He is very enthusiastic about her work, though I gathered only a vague idea of what it is, despite my clever manoeuvring to find out. He called her a grand little woman. As he has interviewed her several times he knows her personally. What he said was certainly encouraging, but he finished his supper so soon after he began to talk about her that I came up-stairs still knowing very little more than when I went down.

"A street light glimmered in the front windows, so that I did not turn on the gas at first, but sat looking down at the people strolling along the pavement below. The house stands very close to the street, so that I could hear everything any one said in passing, and it seemed to bring me right into the thick of things, as I so often wished to be, back there in the desert. The warm, wet smell of the freshly sprinkled streets, the whiff of an occasional cigar, the sound of a street piano in the next block, all seemed so strange yet so friendly and sociable. It made me feel for a little while --- oh, I can hardly explain it --- as if the old Mary Ware that I used to be was a million miles away, and as if the Mary Ware sitting here in Riverville was an entirely different person. I couldn't make it seem possible that the 'me' who was sitting there in the hot June dusk, looking down on the lively streets, was the same person who only a few days before had no other excitement in life than making Jack's coffee or ironing Norman's shirts back in the hills of Arizona.

"I wasn't homesick or lonesome in the least, but I had such a queer, untied, set-adrift sensation, like the man must have had who wrote that hymn, 'Lo, on a narrow neck of land, 'Twixt two unbounded seas I stand.'  The yesterdays are one sea, and the to-morrows another, and me, waiting between them, just a scrap of humanity --- a stranger in a strange city --- wondering and wondering and wondering what the next day would bring.

"Then I began to be almost afraid of what I'd undertaken, and all of a sudden grew so cold and depressed that I wished I was back in my own little room in Lone-Rock. The shutters of the back window had been closed all this time, and when I got up to light the gas and write to Jack of my safe arrival, I'opened them to see what kind of an outlook I was to have from that window. You can imagine my surprise when I found that it gave me a glimpse of the river. Such a wide, full, sweeping river, with just enough of a young moon over it to define its banks, and remind me of the beautiful silvery Potomac that I used to watch from my window at Warwick Hall.

"A big steamboat came gliding around the bend, with a deep musical whistle that sent the same kind of an echo booming along the water, and there were lights twinkling from every deck and from the wharves along shore to which it was headed. Somehow it made me think of a song that we used to sing at the Wigwam, and that Holland always sang wrong, for some unaccountable reason insisting on saying 'shining' instead of  'margin.'

"'At the shining of the river, lay we every burden down.'

"The wide silvery tracks that the crescent moon and the wharf lights made reassured me, and I stopped worrying about the future, and laid my burden of apprehension and depression right down, and just sat and enjoyed the sight. Presently I saw a little launch put out from the wharf and go chugging merrily over towards the far side, and suddenly I realized that that other shore was Kentucky. I was in sight of my Promised Land, although my particular portion of it was several hundred miles away. I had been so occupied with other things that I had forgotten what part of the map I was on.

"I stood right up, so excited that I could hardly keep from squealing and whirling around on my toes, as I used to do. My first impulse was to rim and tell somebody of my discovery. Then I remembered with a sort of shock that there wasn't anybody I could tell. Not a soul in the whole city who cared. For a moment that thought made me utterly and wretchedly homesick. But it all passed away the moment I began my letter to Jack and Betty. I think the reason that this epistle to you has grown longer and more garrulous than usual, is because you have assured me so often of your interest in all my comings and goings, and it seems so good to pour out everything to somebody who cares to hear. So, I am sure, you will rejoice with me in the discovery that my back window looks away to the dim shores of my Promised Land, and that that view will help me 'to hold out faithful to the end,' as old Brother Petree used to say in prayer meeting."


"June 22.

"I didn't intend to write so soon again, but your letter has just come with all those kodak pictures of your bachelor quarters, and the big dam, and the different views of your mountain background. I am so glad to have them, especially the ones that have you in them, and most especially that one of you in the camp chair with the hat on the back of your head. You look exactly as if you were about to speak, and I have stood that one on my table, and am looking at it now as I write. I am glad you sent it, for really I am becoming so engrossed with my new work, that I need some reminder of my past life to keep me from forgetting what manner of person I used to be. I have had such an absorbing week.

"To begin with, I found that Mrs. Blythe, who is comparatively a young woman, although she has two sons away at school, is one of the old Warwick Hall girls. She wears the alumni pin, with Edryn's crest on it and the motto 'I keep tryste.' And she adores Madam Chartley and everything connected with the school. After I discovered that I knew everything would be all right no matter what she set me to doing.

"She had a dressmaker there fitting a gown for her, when I was ushered into her room, and there wasn't a thing in it to suggest her need of a secretary except a frivolous looking little desk in one corner. She talked to me about Warwick Hall all they time she was being fitted until a neighbor dropped in to ask her to pour tea for her at an informal reception next day. I 'sized her up,' as the boys say, as a pretty little woman fond of dainty clothes and good times, one who would always shine at a social function and be popular because she is such a winsome, sweet little thing, but not much more than that.

"When the dressmaker left, Mrs. Blythe crossed over to the desk and opened it, and it was so chuck full of papers and letters and business-like looking legal documents, that they began to pour out all over the floor.

"She said in a laughing way that that was the reason she needed another pair of hands, and then turned and gave me a searching look with those dark eyes of her, as if she were taking my measure, and said

"'I hope that Madam Chartley was not mistaken and that you will prove equal to the task, for it is a big undertaking I've called you to help me with --- The awakening of a State!'

"I was as astonished as if a fluffy little kitten had opened its mouth, and instead of gently mewing, had roared out, 'Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!' Luckily she was so busy sorting the papers and stuffing them back into pigeon-holes that she didn't see my face, or she couldn't have gone on in such a matter of course way to explain what she wanted me to do. She said I must become so thoroughly familiar with the situation that I could answer most of the letters that come to her, without her dictation, and in order to do that she'd have to take me over the ground that she had been over, and let me see for myself just what had aroused her to undertake the work she was engaged in. That just as soon as she could give the cook her daily orders we'd start right out.

"While she put on her hat and little face veil, she explained that she had become interested in the first place while taking flowers to a crippled child in the tenement district. Seeing how absorbed she seemed in getting her hat and veil on 'just so,' I couldn't help thinking that she must have taken up her charities as so many society women do, who are impulsive and kind-hearted, just as a fad to help occupy their leisure hours. But it wasn't long before I found how mistaken I was in my judgment of her.

"We took a street-car, and on the way she explained that she was going to show me what might be seen in almost any town of its size in the United States, and in many of its villages. We stopped on a shady street corner and passed a row of houses on a respectable looking street. She told me that she had grown up in Riverville and had walked up and down that street nearly every day of her life, and that she never knew till last year that those respectable fronts of houses opened on to interiors and into back yards that were a disgrace to any civilization. The other property owners on that block were perfectly horrified when she published a description of it, with photographs of the worst spots. It stirred up a great deal of talk and indignation, but nobody did anything to make it better, and soon the interest died out and people forgot.

"I wish you could have seen her face when she told me that and when she said, 'But I made up my mind that I would change conditions if I had to fight a lifetime and fight single-handed, and I'll fight to the death!'

"When I saw the determination in her face, not only did I wonder how I could have been so mistaken in my first estimate of her, but I felt a queer responsive thrill at her enthusiasm, that made me sure she can succeed in anything she attempts.

"Well, I've read of slums and have always taken it as a matter of course that it was one of the evils to be expected in a larger city, but I never thought to see with my own eyes what I saw that day, in an ordinary town like Riverville. Maybe living so long as I have done on the clean, fresh desert and in the pure air of the hills, made it seem worse to me, but anybody would have been horrified at what she showed me. When I exclaimed over the filth and foul odors, as we picked our way over the ash-piles and garbage and slimy pools in one back yard, and said that people might at least keep themselves clean, even if they were poor, she turned on me, her eyes fairly blazing.

"'That's what everybody says!' she exclaimed. 'That's why I brought you here, to prove to you that these tenants are not to blame. Look! This house was originally built for two families, but ten families are crowded into it now, with only one cistern to provide water for the whole lot. And every drop of it has to he carried to the different stories in buckets. No wonder they have to be "sparin' of water," as little Elsie Whayne complained, when I found her crying over her line full of yellow-gray, half-clean clothes. She had come from the country, where she had had an unlimited supply, and couldn't get used to hoarding every drop. The landlord won't provide city water, and there is no law to make him do it.'

"As she spoke the nasty, greasy contents of a dishpan came splashing over the railing of the porch above us, into the court where we were standing, and we barely escaped being drenched with it. A few drops did reach me, and when I expressed my disgust most forcibly, Mrs. Blythe said apologetically, 'Don't blame the poor woman. She has no other place to throw it. The landlord won't provide drains and there is no law to make him do it. And up-stairs, I am going to show you three rooms without windows, where people live and eat and sleep by lamplight, without a ray of sunshine or a breath of fresh air. All that they get of either air or light must filter through other stale, overcrowded rooms. And if you wonder, as I did, why the landlords do not cut windows in these dark rooms, and mend the leaky roofs and the dangerous stairways, you'll find the answer is the same. There is no law to make them do it. The houses bring good rents as they stand, and the public is not awake to the fact that these places in their midst are responsible for the greater part of infection and disease that menace the whole town. That is the cause I am giving myself to, and the cause that I want to make yours also. We must wake up the State. We must make them pass a law that will wipe out these plague spots already existing and prevent the growth of .any more. A law that will allow no renter to make money off a house that is not decent to shelter human beings.'

"That is a sample of the places she showed me, places where the plaster was off the walls in great patches, and the paper hung in greasy tatters, and where we encountered so many nauseating sights and smells that by the time we were back at her house I didn't have any appetite for lunch. She told me that it affected heir that way too, at first, and it got so that a procession of white-faced, wailing babies began to appear to her in the dead of night and cry for her to help them; to give them a chance to breathe in the stifling midnight, a chance to claim their birthright of clean water and air and sun. And she added, 'When you get to seeing things at night you're ready for work.'

"Already she has written hundreds of letters on the subject, to individuals and to clubs who have influence, and I am to help her with hundreds more. We are to send one to each member of the Legislature. I think it is great fun to be mixed up with 'affairs of State,' and I shall feel so grand having a hand in writing to senators and representatives. I'm going with her to some of the near-by towns to take photographs of the worst places. We're to have a collection representing every town and city in the State, and mount them on large posters for the public to see. That part of the work will be intensely interesting. I don't mind pounding away at the typewriter from daylight till dark, but I must confess to you what I'll not tell any one at home. The other part of the work, the contact with the suffering and misery and dirt that we see daily simply makes me sick.

"I asked Orphant Annie how he supposed a dainty little woman like Mrs. Blythe stands it, and he said she had answered that question herself in a poem that she had written by request for the Riverville Herald. I was so surprised to know that she is a poet too, that he said he'd look up the verses for me. He did, and brought me a copy of them when he came that night at dinner. He doesn't seem as pop-eyed now that I know him better, and he says some very bright things occasionally. This is the poem. I am sending it so that you'll see how mistaken I was at first in assuming that Mrs. Blythe was just a kind-hearted little social butterfly, who had taken up housing betterment as a fad. Someof the divine fire that inspired the great reformers of all the ages must burn in her soul, or she couldn't have written this poem that she calls The Torch.

"Make me to be a torch for feet that grope 
Down Truth's dim trail; to bear for wistful eyes 
Comfort of light; to bid great beacons blaze, 
And kindle altar fires of sacrifice!

"'Let me set souls aflame with quenchless zeal 
For great endeavors, causes true and high. 
So would I live to quicken and inspire, 
So would I, thus consumed, burn out and die.'

"Mr. Berry says that is just what Mrs. Blythe is, a torch to set others aflame. He has heard her talk to clubs and societies about her work, and he says that she is so convincing that before the summer is over she'll have me blazing like a house afire, the biggest beacon in the bunch. But I don't think much of Orphant Annie as a prophet. It is just one of his ways of always saying the gobelins'll git you. I know they'll never get me to the extent of making me 'speak in meetin'.' Now you know just what it is I have gone into, and can picture the daily life quite accurately of Yours as ever, Mary Ware, late of Lone-Rock, now Reformer of Riverville."

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