Mary Ware's Promised Land, Part 2, Chapter 5: Mary And The "Big Opportunity"

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

Return to Table of Contents

Part II


THE cheerful frame of mind came soon, but it was nearly a month before that letter was written. Unlike the others which preceded it, this one was not thrust under the rubber band that held the many missives from "The Little Vicar." It was slipped into Phil's pocket; for the package, with all the rest of the contents of the private drawer in his desk, reposed in the bottom of his trunk. His work in Mexico was done and he was starting back to the States.

He had expected to buy his ticket straight through to New York, and retrace his steps as far as Lloydsboro Valley later. Rob Moore had written him that Lloyd was arranging for a house party during the Thanksgiving holidays, and that he and Alex Shelby and Mary Ware were to be included among the guests, and for him to make his plans accordingly.

Mary's letter also mentioned this house-party.  She had been invited but could not accept. She had been too extravagant the month before, she told him in a joking way.

"I have squandered my princely income on paltry trifles, and now must pay the penalty. I must see the door of Paradise slam in my face and shut me away into outer darkness. But, seriously, even if I could afford the trip, I could not take so much time. Mrs. Blythe needs me. We are straining every nerve to accomplish certain things before the next session of the Legislature, when the bill for better housing is to be brought up. Oh, I am sure that you understand, knowing how I love the Valley and the blessed people in it, that a house-party at Oaklea, just that alone, would be little short of heaven for me. But to meet the Best Man there, and Kitty Walton and Katie Mallard and all the rest --- well, I can't talk about it calmly. The thought of missing it is too grievous to mention in public. Enough said. Only the lonely pillow and the midnight hour shall hear my plaint.

"I couldn't possibly bear the disappointment if we were not so busy. Mrs. Blythe is massing her forces, like a major-general, and I am too deeply interested in the fight to let my personal affairs stand in the way. Three months ago, in my innocence and ignorance, I could not have believed that any fight would be necessary. I would have taken it for granted that all one had to do was to put the plain facts before the public and show what a danger and disgrace such houses are to a community, and it would rise up of its own accord to change conditions. I was utterly amazed when I found that there are respectable men who not only will do nothing to help, but will throw all their weight on the other side, and spend hundreds of dollars to prevent the passage of such a law.

"And I've learned a lot about politics, too. I've come to see that it's just a great, greedy hand, reaching out to get the best of everything for itself. You don't see how it could want to interfere with anything like giving people decenter houses to live in, and wiping the causes of disease out of they world, but it does, and it dips in just where you'd least expect it. That is why Mrs. Blythe is so anxiously watching the results of the city election, which is to be held next week.

"Mr. Stoner, the owner of Diamond Row, is one of the candidates for office, and if he gets in he'll have it in his power to pull lots of wires against us in the Legislature. There is almost no hope of defeating him. Don't think that Mrs. Blythe has gone in personally for politics or anything like that, because she hasn't. But she has waked up a lot of influential people to work for her cause, and induced one of the foremost men in the senate to introduce the bill. Also she has managed to get an invitation to explain it all to a big audience that will be in the Opera House next week, before the election.

"We are so excited over that, for it is one of the Big Opportunities that we hope will count for a great deal. She has a love of a new gown to wear, and a big black hat with plumes, and her speech is certainly soul-stirring. I wish you could hear her. It's nothing but 'the short and simple annals of the poor.' but when she gets done there won't be 'a dry eye in the house.' That's the highest praise that the Riverville Herald can give, and it gives it to her so often that it has becomes a household joke at the Blythes."

When Phil slipped this letter into his pocket he had changed his mind about buying a ticket to New York. He had decided to take a roundabout route by way of Riverville, with the privilege of a short stop-over. He intended that Mary should be one of the guests at the house-party, and he knew that the only way to persuade her was to go in person and answer each objection as it was raised. She had written jokingly of her disappointment, but her very effort to make light of it seemed pathetic to him, and showed him how deeply she felt it.

All the way up from Mexico his thoughts kept drifting back to hear. He wondered if he would find her greatly changed. She had passed through so much in the time he had been away, yet he was sure that he would find her the same sturdy, valiant little soul that had challenged his admiration when she was a child. He wondered what effect her mother's death had had upon her, and what had been the outcome of her association with a woman like Mrs. Blythe, one who made addresses in public. He hoped that Mary wouldn't imbibe any strong-minded, women's rights notions to detract from her feminine charm. He was glad she had mentioned so enthusiastically the "love of a gown, and the big, black plumed hat" that Mrs. Blythe was to wear.

It would take a great deal to eradicate Mary's love of pretty clothes. That trait of hers had always amused him. He recalled more than one Sunday at Ware's Wigwam when she insisted on putting on her "rosebud sash" to wear walking on the desert, when there was nothing but the owls and the jack-rabbits to take notice. And he recalled the big hat-box she had squeezed into the automobile that day in New York, when he took the girls out to the Wayside Inn, and how blissfully she peeped at the lilac-trimmed concoction within from time to time.

A hot box delayed Phil's train awhile on the first day of his journey, and a disabled engine on another, so that he missed the St. Louis connection, and was a day late getting into Riverville. It happened most unfortunately for his plans and the limited time he had to spare, that it was the very day of the "Big Opportunity," when Mrs. Blythe was to speak in the Opera House, to a crowd which would assemble to hear several other speakers, one of national importance.

Phil did not discover this until after he had reached the hotel. He wanted his meeting with Mary to be as great a surprise to her as it had been the day he met her coming across the field of bluebonnets in Bauer. But he also wanted to be sure of finding her at home when he called. So while he waited for his late luncheon to be served, he walked into the telephone booth and called up the boarding-house. Mrs. Crum took his message, with the answer that Miss Ware had not been at the house for over a week. She had been so busy that she was spending her nights as well as her days with Mrs. Blythe, and probably would not return to her room for another week. She advised him to call up Mr. Dudley Blythe's residence.

The maid answered his ring at that place, and asked that he leave a message for Mrs. Blythe, who was resting and could not be disturbed, as she was to speak at the Opera House in a little while. Miss Ware? No, the maid could not say where she was, but had heard her say something had happened which called her down on Myrtle Street. She knew that Mrs. Blythe had arranged to meet her there in her auto on her way to the Opera House. Probably they would be back about six o'clock.

Phil hung up the receiver impatiently. He hadn't come all the way from Mexico to listen to a speech on housing reform, but, under the circumstances, he had no other choice if he was to find Mary before dark. Then he laughed outright, thinking of her amazement if she should happen to catch sight of him in the audience. He supposed she would naturally sit near they front, and he could easily locate her. He didn't dare run the risk of suddenly sitting down beside her. One never knew what Mary would say or do when very much surprised. It would be better to send an usher with a note, asking her to meet him at the entrance and then --- well, Mary should decide how and where they should spend the rest of the afternoon together. It was a chilly, gray day in early November, a trifle cold either for an auto spin or a ride on the river. But they must go to some place where they could have a long, uninterrupted talk, and he could tell her all he had come to Riverville to say.

With his pulses quickening at the thought, he left the hotel for a brisk walk along the river, until time to go to the place of meeting.

Meanwhile Mary was having an exciting experience down at Diamond Row. A message had called her there just as they arose from the lunch-table.

"Oh, why couldn't it have come sooner," she mourned, "before I was all dressed up so spick and span for your grand speechifying occasion? I always feel as if I ought to be fumigated when I come back from there. More than likely it's just another complaint that old Mrs. Donegan wants to lodge against the universe. She seems to think lately that it owes her a special grudge, and that my ears are Heaven-ordained funnels for her to pour her troubles into."

But it was not Mrs. Donegan's troubles this time which summoned her, although that excitable old woman met her, crying and wringing her hands. It was for a neighbor's misfortunes that she invoked Mary's aid. Dena Barowsky, a frail girl in the room above hers, who supported a family by her work in the factory, had had a bad fall.

"Both legs broken and all hurted inside she is!" wailed Mrs. Donegan, eager to be the first to tell the bad news.

"Where is she?" asked Mary. "Where did it happen? At the factory?"

Half a dozen eager voices interrupted each other to tell her. It seemed as if all the inmates of the tenement had gathered on the stairs and the landing to discuss the accident in sympathizing little groups. It was something which might have happened to any one of them. Dena Barowsky had come home from the factory at noon to fix a bite and sup for her old father, who was worse than usual, and while going down the rickety stairs to the cellar for some reason, had fallen. A loose board had tripped her, so that she pitched against the bannister, which was so rotten that it broke under her weight, and she fell headlong into the cellar.

A doctor was in the room with her now, examining to find how badly she was hurt, Mrs. Donegan explained. The saints only knew what would become of the family if it should be so that she was laid up long. Her father was bedridden, and her mother so queer in her head that she did nothing but sit in a corner and mutter to herself all day long. Luckily there wasn't more than a foot of water in the cellar, and they got her out right away. It had been half full when little Terence Reilly fell in, for that was the time of the backwater in the spring freshets.

Following half a dozen self-appointed guides, Mary picked her way to the stairway and looked down. The broken piece of rotten timber, the gaping hole in the splintered bannister, the dark gleam of the water beneath, told their own story. One long, horrified look was enough for Mary. The others hung over the spot as if it held some unexplainable fascination, pointing out the step which tripped her first, the rusty nail to which still clung a shred of her dress torn out in falling, the jagged splinter that must have been the one which made the gash in her face.

With a shudder Mary turned away and asked to be taken to Dena's room. At the opening of the door a strong odor of anaesthetics rose above the mouldy smell of the unventilated apartment, which was made still closer by the inquisitive neighbors whom the doctor's orders had not been able to bar out. Despite his sternness they gathered in the corners, watching the white-faced girl on the bed. She was moaning, though unconscious. This was not the first time Mary had met the young doctor in such places. He looked up with evident relief at her entrance.

"It's a case for a district nurse," he said, when he had explained briefly in a low tone the seriousness of the injuries. He spoke purposely in medical terms so that the old father, sobbing childishly on the opposite bed, could not understand the gravity of the situation.

"I'll find the nurse at once and send her just as soon as possible," promised Mary. "I can telephone from the corner grocery."

She hurried out, thankful for the Organized Charities which made such help possible, and remembering with a queer mixture of resentment and gratitude that it was the owner of this disgraceful Diamond Row, Mr. Stoner himself, who had made such a generous contribution to the Association that they were able to hire an extra nurse for this part of town.

"If he had only gone at the root of the matter," wailed Mary, inwardly, "and used the 'ounce of prevention,' there would have been no need for this great 'pound of cure.' There wouldn't have been this dreadful accident."

At the foot of the landing she was halted again by old Mrs. Donegan, who was haranguing an interested crowd while she waited for Mary's appearance. She was waving a time-yellowed and tattered newspaper in their faces, and calling attention to the headlines and pictures on the front page.

"We want you should take it to Mrs. Blythe, and let her put it in the great speech she'll be after making this day. The whole town ought to know what happened this ten years gone on account of that same stairway. Mrs. Reilly didn't want to let the paper go. She couldn't bear the thought of losing that picture of little Terence. But I took it from her, and told her you'd never let it out of your hands till you brought it back safe to her. That it was for the good of us all you'd be using it."

The telephone was in use when Mary entered the grocery, and while she waited for her turn, she glanced through the paper that Mrs. Donegan had thrust into her hands. She had already seen the marked account of the funeral on one of her visits to old Mrs. Reilly, for she had been asked on that trying occasion to read it aloud; but she had not read until now the article on the opposite page, which gave a graphic description of the tenement in which the accident occurred, and which indignantly called attention to the criminal negligence which had caused the death of a tenant. No names were given, but Mary knew that Burke Stoner owned the premises then, and that in the ten years he had collected nearly fifty thousand dollars in rents from the inmates of Diamond Row. She had been busy collecting statistics as well as other kinds of information since her first interview with his agent, and the recording angel was not the only one who had a long list of black figures set down against his name. Mary kept hers on a page by itself in a neat little memorandum book, biding her time to sound the promised trumpet before him.

It was a very grim and determined Mary who came out of the corner grocery five minutes later. She had been able to locate the nurse much sooner than she expected to, and was on her way back to Dena's room to report that help was coming. And when a little later the honk of Mrs. Blythe's machine sounded at the curbstone in front of Diamond Row, she climbed into her seat beside her friend without a glance at the new gown and the picture hat she was wearing for the first time. That omission in itself showed Mrs. Blythe that something was wrong, for usually Mary was keenly interested in her appearance, and never failed to express her admiration of anything which she especially admired.

"What's gone wrong?" asked Mrs. Blythe, as they whirled around a corner and turned into a pleasanter part of the town.

For once Mary waited before speaking, taking a deep breath and pressing her lips tightly together. Then she answered in a tense way

"I feel as if I'd witnessed a murder! I can't get poor Dena's moans out of my ears, nor the sight of that broken stairway with the water underneath out of my mind!" Then reminded by the perplexed expression of Mrs. Blythe's face that she was talking in riddles, she gave an account of the accident, and repeated old Mrs. Donegan's plea that the story of the staircase with its double tragedy be told that afternoon, in order that public sentiment might be aroused in behalf of the people of the tenements.

"I wish it had been Mr. Stoner himself who fell through those rotten stairs!" stormed Mary, her face white with indignation and her eyes blazing angrily. "I never felt such a mighty wrath rise up in me before! I could stop right here on the street corner and call out his name so all the town could hear. I'd like to shout 'Here's your model citizen! Here's the kind, benevolent man who buys your praise with his gifts to the poor. Look what he has done for the Reillys and for Dena!' It isn't as if he didn't know what condition the place is in. He'd been warned that the steps were unsafe, even before the first accident. And to think he let it go on ten years after it had been condemned and cost one life---"

She stopped abruptly, finding words futile to express her feelings, and Mrs. Blythe, taking the crumpled sheet, hastily scanned it. They were turning into Main Street when she finished, and with a glance at the clock in the front of the car she told the chauffeur to go around by Mr. Blythe's office.

"It may make us a little late for the first speech," she said, "but I must ask Mr. Blythe's advice. I shall tell this story of the two accidents of course. It will illustrate ones point I am trying to make better than anything else I could say. But I don't know how personal I ought to make it. It would be a centre shot at the enemy, and might help to defeat Stoner in the election day after to-morrow if I could mention him by name, and emphasize the big rents he collects from those working girls and factory men, but it may not be wise for me to do it, in they interest of the bill. It might antagonize all his party, as he is one of the most influential of the local bosses. I must ask Mr. Blythe just how far I can go."

Two minutes later they stopped at the office, and Mary, watching from her seat in the car, saw Mrs. Blythe go in and the stenographer rise hurriedly from her desk beside the big front window, and come forward. Evidently what she was telling Mrs. Blythe was very unexpected and agitating, for she came out looking pales and frightened, and spoke only the one word, "Home," as she sank back limply in her seat.

"Dudley was taken suddenly ill a little while ago," she explained in hurried gasps. "Miss Nellie says it was something like an apoplectic stroke. They have been telephoning everywhere to find me.

It must have happened just as I left the house. They have taken him home in an ambulance. Hurry, Hardy!"

Except for Mary's shocked exclamation of sympathy and alarm, no word was spoken until the house was reached. Mary ran up the stairs with Mrs. Blythe, stood a moment in the upper hall when the other left her, and then went on to the alcove at the end, which had been fitted up as a little office. There she sat down to wait. Three physicians, personal friends of Dudley Blythe, were in the room with him. The housemaid was running back and forth getting what was necessary, and the next door neighbor had come in.

There was nothing that Mary could do, and the moments of waiting seemed endless. A programme of the afternoon's meeting lay on the desk, and from time to time she glanced at it nervously, and then at the clock. The time for the first speech passed. The second one must have been well under way when Mrs. Blythe came out into the hall and saw her sitting in the alcove. Mary started up and went towards her impulsively, both hands out.

"Oh, isn't there something I can do?" she whispered.

"Not in there," was the answer in a low tone.  "The doctors give me every encouragement to believe that he will come out of this all right, but I don't know --- I'm so frightened and upset."

She passed her hand across her eyes, as if trying to remember something, then exclaimed, "It's just come to me! I had forgotten about that meeting. It's almost time for me to go on to speak, but, of course, I can't do that now. I couldn't leave him in the critical condition he is in, no matter what is at stake. There's only one thing to do, and that is to send you in my place. You'll have to go, Mary, and tell them why I couldn't come, and explain what it is that---"

"Oh, Mrs. Blythe!" interrupted Mary, aghast. "I couldn't! I couldn't possibly! There's not a moment to prepare for it!"

"But you must," was the answer in a tone so firm and compelling that it brooked no denial.

"There's no other way out --- you know every phase of the situation. You've explained it over and over in your letters and to small audiences. Your sympathies have just been worked up to white heat by Dena's accident --- Oh, you're splendidly prepared, and you can't fail me now, Mary. Not at a times like this!"

Her voice broke and the tears came into her eyes, at which sight Mary drew one deep breath and surrendered.

"Well --- I'll do the best I can," she promised, "but I've barely time to get there."

With one squeeze of the hands which she had caught in hers, Mrs. Blythe released her, saying gratefully," Oh, I knew you wouldn't fail me! Go --- and Godspeed!"

Breathless, speechless, Mary found herself climbing into the automobile, with a dazed feeling, as if some one had sounded an alarm of fire and she was blindly fumbling her way through smoke. In a vague way she was conscious that she was facing one of the big moments of her life, and she wondered why, when she needed to centre all her thoughts on the ordeal that confronted her, they should slip backward to a trivial thing that had happened years ago at Lloydsboro Valley.

It was at the tableau at The Beeches, when the curtain was rising on the scene of Elaine the Lily Maid, lying on her funeral barge, in her right hand the lily, in her left the letter. Miss Casey, the reader, had lost her copy of the poem, and everything was going wrong because there was no one to explain the tableau, and Mary sprang to the rescue. She could hear her own voice ringing out,beginning the story: "And that day there was dole in Astalot !" And she could feel the Little Colonel's arms around her afterward, as she cried, "You were a perfect darling to save the day that way." And Phil had come up and called her a brick and the heroine of the evening. Now she wondered why that scene in detail should come back so vividly, until something seemed to tell her she was to take it as a sort of prophecy that she was to be as successful in her second rising to meet an emergency as she was in her first.

When she entered the side door of the hall, the speaker whose place on the programme immediately preceded Mrs. Blythe's had just taken his seat in the midst of hearty applause, and the orchestra had begun a short selection. In the shelter of some large palms at the side of the stage she gave the chairman Mrs. Blythe's message, and sat down to wait. The orchestra sounded as if it were miles away. She had often used the expression, a sea of face. As she looked across the expanse of those upturned before her now, they seemed indeed a sea, and took on a wave-like motion that made her dizzy. Then she happened to glance down at the little signet ring she always wore. "By the bloodstone on her finger" she must fail not in proving that undaunted courage was the jewel of her soul.

When she looked out again, through the screen of palms, she could distinguish individual faces in the great mass. There was judge Brown and Senator Ripley and Doctor Haverhill. And down in front, at the reporters' table, was Orphant Annie. She couldn't help smiling as she anticipated his surprise when he should see her taking Mrs. Blythe's place. He was so close that he had already caught sight of her, and his pale, prominent eyes were gazing at her with a solemn, quizzical expression which made her smile. The thought of the surprise in store for him steadied her nerves, and as she began to enjoy the humor of the situation, gradually the loud knocking at her heart quieted. The buzzing in her ears stopped. Her icy cold hands, which she had been holding clenched, relaxed and grew warm again, and she came consciously out of what seemed to be a waking dream.

Then the call of the hour marshalled all the forces of her mind in orderly array. The vital words to say, the vital thing to do stood clearly before her. With her fear all gone she looked out across the house waiting for her summons to speak. When she rose it was with Mrs. Blythe's "Godspeed" giving her courage. When she went forward, it was with the exalted feeling of a soldier into whose hand a falling general has thrust a sword, and commanded him to take a rampart. She would do it or die.

Chapter 4   Part II   Chapter 6 >