Mary Ware's Promised Land, Part 2, Chapter 4: "Pink" Or Diamond Row

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part II


THE long hot summer was followed by a September so dry and dusty that the town lay parched in the sweltering heat.

"Doesn't it make you feel likes a wilted lettuce leaf?" Mary said to Sandford Berry one noon when they met at they boarding-house gate on their way in to dinner. "I've been down to Myrtle Street all morning, and some of those crowded rooms are so stifling that I don't see how the inmates breathe."

"You ought to keep away from them," advised Sandford with a critical glance at her. "They're making you pale and thin. They're getting on your nerves."

"I know it," admitted Mary, "but the more they get on my nerves, the more I feel obliged to go."

She took her place at the table languidly, and merely tasted the iced bouillon which the waitress put before her. She felt faint and needed food, but it was hard to force herself to swallow while the smell of the unwholesome places she had visited seemed still in her nostrils. The remembrance of some of them rose sickeningly before her and she pushed her plate aside.

"You take my advice and stay away from those places," said Sandford again, noticing the movement. "What's the use of wearing your sympathies to a frazzle over what can't be helped? They're sapping the life out of you, and you're doing them no good --- that is, no lasting good. It only affords temporary relief."

"You know nothing about what I am doing," retorted Mary, irritated by his comments and provoked at herself for feeling irritation over what she knew was prompted by friendly interest. Yet when she went to her room after having barely tasted her dinner, she stood a moment in front of the mirror, recalling his remarks. She had to admit that the first was true. There were blue shadows under her eyes. All the fresh color and the sparkle was gone from her face. She looked as she felt, worn and exhausted.

"But I am doing them some good," she protested to herself, and in proof of it took from a drawer the little memorandum book in which she set down her daily expenses. She went back over the accounts of the month just past. Nothing for herself except board and carfare, but the other entries filled several pages:" Ice, fresh eggs, cream, beef juice, ice, alcohol, towels, ice---"

Each time the word ice met her eye she recalled the parched lips that had moaned for it, the feverish hands that had clutched it so greedily when she brought it, and she thought if Sandford Berry could only see what she had done for some of the poor souls who "got on her nerves" he'd change his opinion about her efforts to help them being of no avail. But the next moment a mood of depression seized her, weighing down on her so heavily that hot tears started to her eyes.

"He's right! It isn't of any lasting good," she thought. "It's like the ice that brings relief for a moment, but is melted and gone the next! And my salary is all gone, and so is nearly everything that I saved the month before. There isn't a dollar left to my credit in the savings bank. What is the use of going on this way, when all one can do amounts to no more than a drop in the bucket?"

Mary had sat up late the night before finishing a lot of letters that Mrs. Blythe was anxious to have mailed as soon as possible. It was midnight when she covered her typewriter, and the heat and a stray mosquito which had eluded both Mrs. Crum and the screens, made her wakeful and restless. That accounted for her physical exhaustion, while the experiences of the morning were enough to send her spirits to the lowest ebb.

She told herself over and over, as she lay across the bed and tried to reason herself into a more cheerful frame of mind, that it was only natural that she should feel as she did, and that when she was rested the world would look as bright as usual. On account of her late work the night before, Mrs. Blythe had given her nothing to do to-day. It was to see protégés of her own that Mary had gone to the tenements. She might have passed the morning with a book, down on the bank of the river under the willows, where there was a cooling breath now and then from the water. But, haunted by Elsie Whayne's hollow-eyed little face, she could not go off and enjoy her holiday alone in comfort.

For weeks Elsie had seemed burning up with a slow fever, and it was for her Mary had spent the last of her salary on alcohol for cooling rubs, and for ice and for some thin, soft ready-made gowns. Poor little country-bred Elsie, who had cried over her line of gray clothes because she could not wash them clean in the scanty amount of water allotted to each room in the crowded house, cried again over the snowy whiteness of the new gowns. They were such a joy to her that it was pitiful to hear her exclamations over them.

And Mary, seeing the wreck that fever had made of the pretty child, who had come to the tenement abloom with health, wrote down one more black crime against the man who was responsible for the fever, because he would not clean up the plague-infested spots on which it fed and grew.

It is bad enough to be ill when one has every luxury in a quiet room to oneself, where deft-fingered nurses keep noiseless watch to minister to the slightest need; but to suffer as the children of the tenements must, with not even a whole bed to oneself sometimes, oh, the pity of it! And to have to lie as some of them do, all through the stifling days, panting and gasping in the fumes of an ill-smelling lamp, because the four dark walls have not a single window --- oh, the shame of it!

Mary never encountered the first sight without wishing impulsively that her eyes had never been opened to such things. She was so much happier before she knew that such conditions existed in the world. But she never came across the second that a sort of fierce joy did got take possession of her at the thought that she did know, and that she was helping in a fight to wipe out such dreadful holes, which are all that some families have to call home.

She fell asleep presently, and lay motionless until a banana man went by in the street below, with loud cries of his wares underneath her window. Then she roused up with a start, to find herself cramped from long lying in one position with her clothes on.

"I might as well make myself comfortable and spend the whole afternoon resting," she concluded; so slipping off her dress, she opened the closet door to take down a long white kimono which hung on one of the back hooks. In reaching around to get it she upset a pile of boxes on the corner shelf, and one of them tumbled open at her feet. It was full of odds and ends which she did not use often, and as she replaced them her attention was called to the box itself. It was the big one that Lieutenant Boglin had brought to the train filled with candy, the morning that they left San Antonio.

How far away that time seemed, and how far Bogey had dropped out of her life: Bogey and Gay and Roberta and all those other good friends who had filled such a big place in her thoughts. She hadn't heard from any of them for months, and lately she had scarcely thought of them. For that matter Jack and Norman and Joyce and Phil had dropped far into the background. They were no longer her first thought on waking, and the most constant thought throughout the day. It was a different world she was living in now. She wondered what old Captain Doane would think of it; and Pink Upham --- Then she smiled, remembering that it had been weeks since she had given a thought to either of them. And yet, only three months before they had been a part of her daily living and thinking at Lone-Rock.

All at once a longing for the clean, quiet little haven up in the hills came over her like an ache. She was homesick for the restful mountains, where there were no slums, no fever-infested spots such as she had been in all morning, no loathsome mouldy walls,  no dank, foul odors. She pictured the little home not as it stood when last she saw it, brightened with all Betty's bridal gifts, with Betty as mistress, but as it was at that last Christmas reunion, in all its dear shabby homeliness. The sun shone in across the clean faded carpet, and every old chair held out its arms in friendly welcome.

She could see herself stepping around the, kitchen getting supper. How shiningly clean everything was! What peace brooded over the place, and what a deep sense of calm and well-being and contentment pervaded it. And her mother sat by the window, looking up from her sewing now and then to smile or speak. Sometimes she hummed softly to herself some old tune like Hebron:

"Thus far the Lord hath led me on 
Thus far His power prolongs my days!"

Burying her face in the pillow, Mary cried softly for what could never be again. It seemed to her, for that heartbreaking little while, that all the heaven she could ever ask would be just to go back to the little home and find it as it used to be, with her mother there, and Jack and Norman, nothing changed. She longed to spend the rest of her life right there in that cottage which she had once been so anxious to get away from, doing the same tasks, day after day, that had once seemed so trivial and monotonous. She lay there picturing the whole scene, making herself more miserable every instant, yet finding a sorrowful sort of pleasure in thus torturing herself.

She could recall the very pattern of the oil-cloth on the kitchen floor, the brown crocks, the yellow mixing-bowl, the little black-handled knife she always pared the vegetables with. One by one she took them up. She went they whole narrow round of things, from kindling the fire in the stove with the fresh-smelling pine chips in the box, to putting the tea to brew in the fat little earthenware pot that had been one of Grandmother Ware's treasures. She drew the biscuits from the oven, and brought up the cream and butter from the spotless white cellar. How good and fresh they looked! How good and fresh they tasted!

Faint from having eaten no dinner, it made her sob to think how hungry she was, with a hunger that nothing could appease, since what she wanted most existed only in memory now. She went on with her pictures, summoning the family to the table, hearing Norman's answering whoop from the woodshed, and Jack's hearty "All right! I'll be there in a jiffy, Sis!" Then she sobbed harder than ever, remembering that her summons could never again be answered by an unbroken circle.

Presently, exhausted by the heat, her long fast and her crying spell, she fell into a deep sleep. The banana man passed back again under her window, calling his wares as loudly as before, but she did not hear him. An Italian with a hand-organ stopped in front of the house and ground out several popular noisy airs, but no note of it reached her. There was a dog fight on the corner, a terrific pow-wow of yelps and snarls; still she did not stir. Two, three hours went by. Then she was aroused by a rustling sound at her door, and opening her eyes, saw that some one was slipping a letter under it.

She lay blinking at it lazily far a moment, then, hanging over the side of the bed as far as she could without falling out, tried to pick it up. It was just beyond her reach, but with the aid of a slipper she managed to touch it and drag it near enough to get her fingers on to it. Doubling up the pillow under her head, she lay back, leisurely scanning the envelope. It was post-marked Lone-Rock, and she knew by a glance at the heavily shaded flourishes of the address that it was from Pink Upham.

Earlier in the week, when Riverville was the boundary of her interests, a letter from him would have had scant attention. But coming at this time, when a homesick mood brought the old life so vividly before her that it had suddenly become very dear and desirable, she opened it eagerly. It was the first one she had received from him, for she had told him on leaving Lone-Rock that she could not correspond with him; that she would be too busy with Mrs. Blythe's letters to write many of her own.

 As she glanced down the first page she saw why he had disregarded her wishes. He had news of such great importance to himself that he naturally expected her to take a friendly interest in it. She smiled with pleasure as she read. Good old Pink! He deserved to have things come his way. If she hadn't spent so much for the relief of Diamond Row, she would have been tempted to send him a telegram of congratulation. It would please him immensely, she knew. A mine in which he had a small amount of stock that was regarded as almost worthless, had suddenly proved to be valuable, and he had been offered so much for his shares that he could buy out the Company's store at Lone-Rock and build a house bigger and better in every way than Mr. Moredock's. He had closed the deal and bought the store, and he would build the house if --- here Mary turned another page --- if she would consent to become Mrs. Pinckney Upham.

Mary sat straight up in bed, the better to reread this startling paragraph. Her face colored slowly as she rapidly scanned what followed. It was a Manley letter, although here and there it sounded as if phrases and whole sentences had been copied from some Guide to Etiquette and Social Correspondence. She had filled his life entirely from the first day of their acquaintance, he told her. She had been an inspiration, a guiding star to all that was high and noble. He loved her devotedly, humbly and more greatly than any woman had ever been loved before, and his whole life should be given to making her happy.

When she had finished, Mary lay back on the pillow and stared out of the window into the branches of a sycamore tree that leaned across it. A very tender feeling crept up into her heart for this man who was offering her so much. She had not realized before what a beautiful, what a solemn thing it was to be counted first in somebody's life; to know that she really was its guiding star, its inspiration. At this distance Pink's little mannerisms, which had always annoyed her, shrank out of sight, and she remembered only how considerate he was, how carefully he remembered every wish, how important he regarded her slightest word. It would be lovely to be taken care of always by one who would do it in such fashion; to be shielded and considered, and surrounded with every comfort that a boundless affection could suggest.

Again it came over Mary with overwhelming force how good it would be to go back to the clean, sweet life of the hills; the simple, wholesome country life that she loved, and never again have to help lift the burden of other people's poverty, or puzzle over the problem of their wrongs. For a little space she lay and imagined what it would be like to be back in Lone-Rock, in the new house Pink would build for her. She could picture that, for she knew that every detail would be planned to accord with her wishes, and she could see just the way it would be furnished, and how she would make it the centre of hospitality and good cheer for all of Lone-Rock; and how she and Betty would visit back and forth, and the family celebrations they'd have on anniversaries and holidays. All this she could see quite clearly and pleasantly. She could even see Pink on the other side of a little table spread for two, praising her muffins, and carefully cutting out the choicest parts of the tenderloin for her. She was positive he would do both.

That might be very pleasant for a few times, but suppose they should live to celebrate their silver wedding? Alack for Pink, that a mental arithmetic problem suddenly popped into her mind!

If there are three meals in ones day, and three hundred and sixty-five days in one year, in twenty-five years through how many meals would they have to sit opposite each other? She did not try to multiply the numbers, only whispered in a sort of groan, "there'd be thousands and thousands! I don't believe I could stand it, for no matter how good and kind he is, there's no denying it, his visits always begin to bore me before they're half over!"

She got up and began to dress presently, stopping twice in the process to reread the letter, once with her hair hanging, once with her dress slipped half way on. She wanted to make sure of some sentences which she could not entirely recall.

"I wonder what mamma would say," she thought, wistfully. She walked over to the mantel, where a photograph of Mrs. Ware stood in a silver frame. It was one which Joyce had colored, and was so life-like that Mary's eyes often sought it questioningly. Now she leaned towards it, gazing into the sweet face that seemed to smile helpfully back at her until she found the answer to her own question.

"You always liked him," she whispered. "You always saw the best in him and made excuses for him. You would have been so happy to have had me settle in Lone-Rock if you had been there. But I couldn't care for him as you did for papa, and it wouldn't be right unless I did."

She did not answer the letter then. Just as she was sitting down to supper a telephone message came from Mrs. Blythe, saying that they would call for her in a little while to take her out on the river for a moonlight ride. Mary was glad that the excursion was on one of the big steamboats instead of a little launch, for in the larger party gathered on it, no one noticed when she wandered off by herself and sat apart, leaning against the deck railing, and gazing dreamily over the shining water. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to think of some way to answer Pink, which would hurt him as little as possible. She knew just how he would stride into the post-office and unlock the drawer that held her letter, and how his face would brighten when he saw it. He always did show so plainly everything he felt. And them the grim hurt look would come into his eyes, and she knew just how his mouth would straighten into a grim line when he read it. Oh, for his sake she wished that she didn't have to tell him that what he wanted with all his good, big, generous heart could never be.

Was it the band playing Kathleen Mavourneen, or was it something else that suddenly made her think of Phil and her parting promise to him at Bauer. Some one had come asking her to join his trail, just as Phil had prophesied, but she needn't keep her promise in this case, because there was only one answer possible. She would stick to her own trail and go on her way alone. But --- there was a queer little thrill of comfort in the thought --- somehow it was nice to know that somebody wanted you, and that you didn't have to be an old maid. She would keep that letter always, her first and, probably, her last proposal.

Again the band was repeating that refrain of Kathleen Mavourneen, and the notes rang out tremulously sweet over the water:

"Oh, why art thou silent, thou voice of my heart?"

She recalled the scrap of music Phil had torn out and sent to her with that question on it, and that suggested the other song, Bonnie Eloise, whose name he had given to the girl with the greyhound. She wondered if Phil ever wrote to her now. Maybe at this very moment he was sitting in his bachelor quarters down in Mexico, looking out at the moonlight and dreaming about Eloise. She hoped not, for somehow, without cause or reason, she had conceived a strong dislike for her.

Some friends of Mrs. Blythe's came hunting Mary just then, to carry her off to the hurricane deck, where something of especial interest was going on. There was no more time for serious meditation, and the combination of youth and mirth and moonlight worked its magical charm. By the time the boat had made its return trip, Mary was restored to her usual normal self, and to the equanimity that the heat and the slums and Pink's letter had upset. When the lights of the town streamed out across the river to meet them, she was rested and refreshed, ready to take up the next day's work with her usual enthusiasm.

It was late when she reached home, but her long sleep in the afternoon made her wakeful, and she sat up till after midnight trying to compose a satisfactory answer to Pink's letter. It was a depressing task, and she tore up page after page, in her effort to make her refusal as kind as possible, and yet to make him understand that it was final.

When it was finished and sealed she drew another envelope towards her, intending to address it to Phil. Then she hesitated and pushed it aside, saying:

"I'd better wait until I'm in a more cheerful frame of mind. If I write now it'll be so full of slums and disappointments that it'll give him the doldrums."

Chapter 3   Part II   Chapter 5 >