Mary Ware's Promised Land, Part 2, Chapter 3: The Supreme Call

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part II


THAT was the last letter which Phil received from Mary for many weeks, although he wrote regularly to the address she gave of the boarding-house on the sycamore-shaded street. Several times she sent a postal with a scribbled line of acknowledgment, but the days were too full for personal affairs, and at night she was too tired to attend to her own correspondence, after pounding on the typewriter so many hours.

She had attacked her new duties with all the zeal and force that had characterized her "snake-killings" on the desert. Habit alone made her do that, and pride added another motive. She was determined to justify Madam Chartley's opinion of her. Not being able to write shorthand she worked overtime to gain extra speed on the typewriter, so that she might take dictation directly on the machine. Now, all the neatness and system which had made her housekeeping so perfect in its way made her a painstaking and methodical little business woman. Her neatly typed pages were a joy to Mrs. Blythe. Her system of filing and indexing brought order out of confusion in the topsy-turvy desk, and she soon had the various reports which they referred to daily, labelled and arranged in the different pigeon-holes as conveniently as the spice boxes and cereal jars had been in the kitchen cabinet at home.

It was not long before Mrs. Blythe began handing letters over to her as Jack had done, saying briefly, tell them this or thus, and leaving her to frame the answer in the best style she could. This spurred her on to still greater effort, and she made up her mind to become so familiar with every branch of the subject that she could give an intelligent answer to any question that might be asked. Once she wrote home to Jack:

"I am beginning to see now some of the things that my Desert of Waiting in Lone-Rock taught me. I couldn't fill this position half so satisfactorily if I hadn't had the training that you gave me in your office in all sorts of business forms and details. I am especially thankful for the letters you made me answer in my own words. Mrs. Blythe turns over two-thirds of heir mail to me now to be answered in that way. She has had many invitations lately from clubs in neighboring towns, asking her to go and explain what it is she wants them to do, and she feels that she can't afford to miss a single opportunity of the kind. Every time she gives a talk she gets more people interested in the cause, and they in turn interest other people, and that sends the ball rolling still farther. Really, it is getting to be as exciting as a game of 'Prisoners' Base,' seeing how many we can get on 'our side,' and when she is out of town and I am left to 'guard base,' I surely feel as if I am 'It,' and had the whole responsibility on my shoulders."

It must be confessed that it was Mary's pride in doing her work well which made her a competent helper, more than any personal interest which she took in Mrs. Blythe's plans. After the first round of visits to the tenements she kept away from them as much as possible. The first month's salary was accorded a silent jubilee in her room. Most of it had to go for board and some few things she needed, but she started a savings account and locked away her bank-book with the feeling that she was laying the corner-stone of her home in the Happy Valley. True, there wasn't the same joy in planning for it that there had been when she lookedforward to her mother sharing it with her, but it was with a sense of deep satisfaction that she opened her account and carried home the little book with its first entry.

On one of the occasions when Mrs. Blythe was away from home for several days, an indignant letter came from some one in a town where she had spoken the previous week, demanding to know why she was making such a fight to have a law passed which would work hardship to worthy landlords who were good citizens and prominent in all public charities. It named a man in Riverville as a sample of the kind of citizen she was trying to injure, and demanded so threateningly her reasons for doing so, that Mary was troubled by its covert threats. Mrs. Blythe would not be back till the end of the week, Mr. Blythe was in New York, and there was no one in Riverville whom she knew well enough to discuss the situation with. After worrying over it all one day and night, quite unexpectedly she found out what she wanted to know from Sandford Berry.

He came out on the side porch where she was sitting after an early lunch, and paused to light a cigar. Something prompted her to refer casually to the man who had been spoken of in the letter as a model citizen, and to ask if the reporter knew him.

"Oh, yes, he's a charitable old cuss," was Mr. Berry's elegant answer. "His name leads all the subscription lists agoing; but I'll give you a tip on the side, if you're after him to get a bit of local color for any of your documents. Just make some excuse to visit some lodging houses he owns on the corner of Myrtle and Tenth Streets. Diamond Row they call it, because they say he gets the worth of his wife's gorgeous diamonds out of it in rents every year, and she has the most notable ones in town. It's the worst ever! I don't think Mrs. Blythe has discovered it yet. I didn't get into it myself until the other day, whew I had to go to report an accident, but we newspaper men unearth all the sights that are to be seen, eventually."

"Would it be all right for me to go --- I mean safe?" asked Mary hesitatingly.

"Sure!" was the cheerful answer. "It's safe as far as the people you'll meet are concerned. I can't say as much for the germs."

"But I haven't a shadow of excuse for going," faltered Mary. "I couldn't walk into a hovel out of sheer curiosity without some reason for intruding, any more than I could into a rich person's home. I haven't any more right to do the one than the other."

"That's what they all say," answered Sandford Berry. "But there is a difference. You'll find that those tenants are glad of a chance to tell their troubles to some one. Oh, of course, they'd spot you if you went poking in for no reason but curiosity, but anybody with tact and a desire to get at the real inwardness of things for the purpose of bettering them would find a welcome. Those people know the difference."

He puffed away in silence a moment, considering a way to help her as he had often helped Mrs. Blythe, and taking it for granted that Mary was just as eager for his suggestions as the other one had been.

"You might tell them you are looking for an old woman from the country who knits some sort of lace for sale. There used to be one there. At least, I've seen an old woman who used to be always knitting, sitting at a corner window. I don't know whether she sold it or not, or whether she was from the country. But it will do for an opening wedge, and with her to start on you can easily get into conversation with any of them." Then, as Mary still hesitated, he added, "If you really want to investigate and feel anyways backward about it, I'll walk down that far with you and show you where it is. It happens to be on my beat."

Mary really had no wish to go. She shrank from contact with something which the experienced Mr. Berry pronounced "the worst ever." But he was waiting so confidently for her to put on her hat and accompany him, that there seemed nothing else for her to do.

"Get an eye on those basement rooms," he advised her as he left her at the corner of Myrtle and Tenth Streets, and pointed out the steps leading to the underground rooms in Diamond Row. With the helpless feeling of one who cannot swim, yet is left to plunge alone into icy water, Mary stood at the top of the steps until she was afraid her hesitation would attract attention. Then plucking up her courage, she forced herself to walk down and knock at the open door.

What she saw in her first quick glance was a girl no older than herself, lying on a dirty bare mattress, a woman bending over a wash-tub, and a baby crawling around the floor. What she saw in her second horrified glance was that a green mould stood out on the walls, that both plaster and lath were broken away in places, so that one could peer through into an adjoining cellar. Evidently the cellar had water standing in it, from the foul, dank odor which came in through the holes. And the water must have seeped through into this room at times, for some of the planks in the floor nearest the wall were rotting.

The woman looked up listlessly without taking her arms from the tub, as Mary made her faltering inquiry for the old lady who made lace, and answered in some foreign tongue. Then she bent again to her rubbing, in stolid indifference to the stranger who had made a sudden descent on her home. Mary was too inexperienced to know that one cause of her indifference was that she was too underfed and overworked and mentally stunted by her hideous surroundings to care who came and went around her.

Mary turned to the girl on the musty mattress. It wasn't actual starvation which drew the skin so tightly over her cheek-bones and gave the pinched look to her face, for there was food still left on the cluttered table, where flies buzzed over the unwashed dishes in sickening swarms. It was the disease which had claimed a victim, sometimes several, from every family in turn who occupied the room, because it had never been properly disinfected. Not even the sunlight could get in to do its share towards making it fit for a human dwelling, for the only windows of this half-underground room were narrow transoms near the ceiling, and the only air reached it through the door at the bottom of the steps.

The girl was evidently asleep, and, after one more glance, Mary turned with a shudder and hurried back up the steps. She hesitated to make a second attempt but nerved herself to it by the thought of the questions Sandford Berry was sure to ask of her. On the first floor she knocked at several doors, and although she found no clue to the old lace knitter, she soon found a welcome from a voluble old Irish woman, who hospitably invited her in. Her eyes were that bad, she explained, that she couldn't see to do much. Her family worked in the factory all day, and she was glad of some one to talk to.

The door into the hall stood open, and presently another woman strayed in, scenting entertainment of some kind, and then a much younger woman followed, a slatternly creature with a sickly looking baby in her arms. Old Mrs. Donegan talked freely of her neighbors after Mary had tactfully won her confidence. She told her that most of them worked in the factory. The Polish woman in the basement washed for some of the factory hands, and although she worked all day and often far into the night, it took nearly all she could make to pay the rent. There wasn't enough to buy medicine for the girl, who was dying of consumption.

"Why don't they leave here and go out to the country?" asked Mary. "People out there need help, and they could at least have clean water, and clean grass to lie on. They'd be better off out under the trees than in that basement."

"Mrs. Donegan's dim eyes narrowed shrewdly. "Did you ever see a rat caught in a trap?" she asked. "It can't help itself. It can't get out. No more can they. They can't even speak English."

"Don't you go to telling the landlord we complained," whined the woman with the baby. "He'd turn us out. Rents are so high everywhere that I tramped for days to find this place. The others was worse than this."

Mary's evident friendliness and warmly expressed interest soon started all three of the women to telling tales of Diamond Row. Mrs. Donegan's were the worst, as she claimed the distinction of being the oldest inhabitant. The one that aroused Mary's greatest indignation was of a child which had been drowned in the cellar ten years ago. The inside staircase going to the basement ran down over the cellar in some way, and it was so rotten in parts that it gave way one day and he fell through. It was in the spring, when the river was so high that the cellar was half full of backwater, and the child drowned before they could get him out.

Mrs. Donegan gave a dramatic account of it, omitting none of the gruesome details, for she had been fond of the pretty golden-haired boy of three, and sympathized with all the ardor of her warm Irish heart with the old grandmother, who was one of her best friends.

"That's sorrow for you," she exclaimed, shaking her head dismally. "If you could only see the poor old creature now, so crippled up with the misery in her bones that she can't leave her chair, and nothing for her to do all day but sit and eat her heart out with longing for little Terence. Ah, he was the fine lad, always hanging on his granny's chair and putting his little curly head on her shoulder to be petted. She keeps one of those curls always by her in a little box on the table, and like the sunshine it is. Come in and see it now. Do," she urged hospitably. "It's always glad she is to talk about him and cry over the sad end he come to."

 Mary drew back, protesting that she couldn't bear to. It was all so horrible. "What did they do about it afterwards?" she asked.

"Nothing," was the answer. "The lad's father, Tim Reilly, was too poor to bring suit, and it cost something to move, and they couldn't get anything better for the same price. So they just stayed on, although his wife and the poor old granny almost wept their eyes out at the sight of that staircase for many a month. It was all written up in the papers, with pictures of Terence and the cellar. Lots of people came to look at the house, and there was a piece in the paper saying that the stairway was a death-trap, and that the owner ought to have the charge of murder laid at his door, and that an indignant public demanded that he put in a new one. Mrs. Reilly keeps one of these same papers by her to this day. She keeps it for the picture of Terence that's in it."

"How long was it before he put in they new stairway?" asked Mary, seeing that some response was expected of her.

The old woman leaned over and shook her finger impressively. "It's the gospel truth I'm telling you, never a one has been put in to this day. They just patched up the old one with a few new planks, and all rotten it is and tearing loose again, as you may see for yourself if you'll follow me."

But Mary refused this invitation also, and a little later took her leave, unutterably depressed by all that she had seen and heard. Mrs. Donegan, with the other women to refresh her memory, had counted up forty funerals which had taken place in Diamond Row in the eleven years that she had lived under its leaky roof.

Mary was through supper that night when Sandford Berry strolled in. "Well," he said, pausing to put .his head in at the parlor door, where she sat glancing over the evening paper. "What luck?"

"Oh, it was perfectly hideous!" she exclaimed, and proceeded to pour out the story of her visit so indignantly that he nodded his approval.

"I see that you got your local color all right. It's fairly lurid."

"And I did something else," confessed Mary. "I tried to find the owner of the place, Mr. Stoner, and paint the picture for him. But he was in Europe. So was his wife. And then I found out who his agent was, and I went to him and asked him why he didn't fix the place up. He was as coolly polite as an iceberg, but he told me in so many words that it was none of my business. That it was his business to look after the interests of his employer and collect the rents, and not to humor the whims of a few fussy women who had more sentiment than sense."

"Then what did you say?" laughed Sandford.

Mary's eyes flashed angrily, and her cheeks grew redder and redder as she talked.

"I told him it was not rents alone he was collecting, but blood-money, and that the owner of that tenement was as responsible for the forty deaths inside its walls as if he'd deliberately poisoned them. And I told him I'd make it my business from now on to see that the people knew the truth about him. And then I got so mad that I knew I'd burst out crying if I stayed another minute, so I flounced out and left him staring after me open-mouthed, as if I'd flown at him and pecked him."

The reporter laughed again and started on towards the dining-room, but paused to look back with a wise nod of the head, which aggravated Mary quite as much as the knowing tone with which he exclaimed, "I told you so! I told you that when the torch once set you to blazing you'd be the biggest beacon fire in they bunch!"

That night Mary dreamed of that basement room with the mould on the walls and the water seeping in from the adjoining cellar, and of the girl dying of consumption on the musty mattress. And all the forty sufferers who had sickened and died from the unsanitary conditions of the tenement trooped through her dream, and held out their feverish thin hands to her, imploring her to help. And she answered them as she had answered the agent, "I'll make it my business. I'll tell your story all over the state and all over the land until the people demand a law to save you."

It was a hot July night, and Mary, waking in her big many-windowed room, sat up almost gasping. She wondered what the heat must be like in those tenement rooms without any windows, with half a dozen or more people crowded into each one. Slipping out of bed she drew a low rocker to the window overlooking the river, and with her arms crossed on the sill, looked out into the darkness. There was only the starlight to-night, and the colored lights of the wharf boats along the bank. She could not see the dim outline of the Kentucky shore, but it was a comfort to know that it was there.

Presently she lifted her head and looked up, her lips parted and a half frightened throbbing in her ears. It had come over her with an almost overpowering realization that those voices she was hearing were like those which Joan of Arc heard. It was the King's Call summoning her again as it had summoned her at Warwick Hall. Then it was all vague and shadowy, the thing she was to do. Now she knew with what great task she was to keep tryst. She was to help in this struggle to free these poor people from the conditions which bound them. She was to help them reach out for their birthright, which was nothing more than a fair chance to help themselves.

Gazing up at the stars, a great wonder swept over her, that she, little Mary Ware, had been called to a destiny even greater than that of the Maid of Orleans. For was it not greater to enlist a nation in such warfare than to ride at the head of an army and spur men on to bloodshed? This battle, once won, would give not only this generation of helpless poor their chance for health and decent homes, but would lift the handicap from their children and all their children's children who might come after them.

Once, as she sat there, the thought came to her that if she devoted herself to this cause she might be an old woman before it was accomplished, and that she would have to give up all hope of the home she had long planned to have eventually in the Happy Valley. Even in her exalted mood it seemed a great sacrifice to make, and a long time she sat there, counting the cost.

"To live in scorn of miserable aims that end in self---" She started as if a real voice had spoken in her ear. "That is what mamma used to say so often," she thought. "That is the way she lived. But can I keep it up for a whole lifetime, clear to the end?"

It was the years that lay behind her which helped her to an answer. The years, which, could they have been marked like Edryn's would have been bejewelled with the tokens of little duties faithfully performed. No pearls showed white like his to mark them, no diamond gleamed where Sorrow's tear had fallen, no amethyst glowed in purple splendor to mark her patient meeting with Defeat, yet she had earned them as truly as he, and in the earning had fitted herself for this fuller fealty.

The sky had lightened until the far shore of the river was dimly visible when she stood up and held out her hands towards it in a mute gesture of surrender. Like Edryn she had heard the supreme call, and like him she answered it:

"Oh, heart, and hand of mine, keep tryst! 
          Keep tryst or die!"

She was still in the same exalted mood when she sat down next day to answer the angry letter which had started her on her search after "local color." All her indignation of the previous day came back, and she pictured the foul conditions of the basement room as realistically as a photographer could have done, ending with the underscored statement:

"The man you are defending is living luxuriously on the rents he collects from this death-trap and others like it, and yet refuses through his agent to drive one nail in it to make it more fit to live in. A man who gives out as alms, with one hand, what he wrings with the other as blood-money from the victims of his miserly greed, deserves to have a trumpet sounded before him as the hypocrites do, and we shall continue to sound it until public sentiment compels him to be as humane as his pretensions."

When Mrs. Blythe came back and found this fiery response on her desk awaiting her signature, she smiled at first, then recognized gratefully that this burst of indignation meant that a new ally had been born to the cause. But she had to explain tactfully to Mary that while her answer was a just one, it was not wise to anger the man still farther by sending it.

"I shall have to ask you to rewrite that last page," she said regretfully. "Send your description of Diamond Row, just as it is, and the agent's refusal to do anything to better it, but leave out the personal tirade that follows. It may relieve your feelings but it will do the cause harm by arousing an opposition which means the loss of many votes when the question comes up before the Legislature next winter.

"But I'll tell you what I'd like," she added, seeing the shade of disappointment that clouded Mary's face for a second. "I'd like to have that description published in The Survey, and I'd like to take you with me this afternoon to the meeting of a committee of the Commercial Club, and have you tell them about this visit, just as you have told it in this letter. It's one of the most realistic things I ever read. It fairly makes my flesh creep in places."

Mary gave a gasp of astonishment, unable to believe at first that Mrs. Blythe was serious. To be pushed forward as a magazine writer and a public speaker, both in one day, was too much for her comprehension.

"Oh, Mrs. Blythe! I couldn't make a speech in public!" protested Mary, half frightened at they mere thought.

"I don't want you to," was the placid answer. "I merely want you to come with me and sit at a big table with a dozen or more people around it, and answer the questions that we put to you about what you've seen. You're not afraid to do that, are you?"

"No, if that's all," admitted Mary hesitatingly. "It's never been any trouble for me to do just plain talking. It used to be that my difficulty was I never knew when to quit."

"I'll attend to that part of it," laughed Mrs. Blythe.

So it came about that afternoon that Mary sat at the big directors' table in an upper room of the Commercial Club building, and told once more the story of her visit to the tenement on Myrtle and Tenth Streets. She began it a little hesitatingly, with a quicker beating of pulses and a deepening of color, but gradually she lost her self-consciousness. The inspiration of many interested listeners gave her a sense of power. She was conscious of the breathless silence in which her story held them. She felt rather than saw that no one stirred, and that they were all moved by the story of the old blind grandmother, grieving over the golden curl that was all that was left to her of the child who was heir sunshine. When she mimicked the agent's voice and manner, the ripple of appreciation which passed around the table gratified her more than the applause which followed. It showed that she had made what Sandford Berry would have called "a decided hit."

"You will do it again," Mrs. Blythe said when the meeting was over and they were on their way home, and Mary nodded assent. She didn't mind any amount of "just plain talking," especially when it succeeded in arousing such interest as this first effort had done. She told the same story several times that week in Riverville to small audiences, and then again in Maysport, in a room so large that she had to stand in order to make herself heard. But even then she was not embarrassed, for Mrs. Blythe was standing too. She had turned in the midst of her own talk to say quite naturally, "You tell them about that part of it, Miss Ware. You can make them see it more plainly than I"

Again Mary, in the midst of profound silence, saw eyes grow misty with sympathy and saw faces light up with indignation at her recital. It never occurred to her to write home that she had spoken in public. She didn't really count it as such, for, as she told Sandford Berry, it wasn't a real speech. It was just as if she had seen a case that needed the attention of a Humane officer, and had stopped in off the street to report it. It was Mrs. Blythe who made the real speeches, who put their duty so clearly before the people of Riverville that before August was over a Better Homes society had been organized, and a score of members enrolled as active workers.

When Mary had time to stop and think, she realized that she was truly in the thick of things at last, for the more she tried to interest people the more necessary she found it to go often to the tenements for fresh pictures of their need. And sometimes a day that began by sending her to a needy family on Myrtle Street, ended by taking her to a musicale or a lawn fete in one of the most beautiful homes of the city. Mrs. Blythe's introduction of her everywhere as her friend, rather than her secretary, would have opened Riverville doors to her of its own self, but, aside from that, Mary won an entrance to many a friendship on her own account. She was so sincerely interested in everything and everybody, so glad to make friends, so fresh in her enthusiasm, and so attractive in all the healthy vigor of heart and body which a sturdy outdoor life had given her.

Chapter 2  Part II   Chapter 4 >