Mary Ware's Promised Land, Chapter 8: A Great Sorrow

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part I


NORMAN cut his foot the following day, which was Saturday; not seriously, yet deep enough to need a couple of stitches taken in it, and to necessitate the wearing of a bandage instead of a shoe for awhile. Sunday morning, by the aid of a broom stick, he hopped out to the hammock in the shady side yard, and proceeded to enjoy to the fullest his disabled condition. For some reason there was no service in the little school-house which usually took the place of a chapel on the Sabbath, and he openly rejoiced that his family would be free to minister to his comfort and entertainment all day long.

The hammock hung so near the side window of the kitchen that he could look in and see Mary and his mother washing up the breakfast china in their deft, dainty way. Jack was doing the morning chores usually allotted to his younger brother. It was with a sense of luxurious ease that Norman lolled in the hammock, watching Jack bring in wood and water, carry out ashes and sweep the porch. In his role of invalid he felt privileged to ask to be waited upon at intervals, also to demand his favorite dessert for dinner. He did this through the kitchen window, taking part in the conversation which went on as a brisk accompaniment to the quick movements of busy hands.

It was a perfect June day, the kind that makes one feel that with a sky so fair and an earth so sweet life is too full to ask anything more of heaven. Time and again in the pauses that fell between their remarks, Mary's voice jubilantly broke out in the refrain of an old hymn that they all loved: "Happy day, oh, happy day!" And when Jack's deep bass out on the porch and Mrs. Ware's sweet alto in the pantry took up the words to the accompaniment of swishing broom and clattering cups. Norman hummed them too, like a big, contented bumblebee in a field of clover.

Years afterward Mary used to look back to that day and fondly re-live every hour of it. Somehow every little incident stood out so vividly that she could recall even the feeling of unusual well-being and contentment which seemed to imbue them all.

They had spread the table out under the trees at Norman's insistence, and she had only to close her eyes to recall how each one looked as they gathered around it. She could remember even the pearl gray tie that Jack wore, and the way Norman's hair curled in little rings around his forehead. And she could see her mother's quick smile of appreciation when Jack slipped a cushion into her chair, and her affectionate glance when Norman reached out and fingered a fold of her white dress. Both the boys liked to see her in white, and never failed to comment on it admiringly when she put it on to please them.

All afternoon they stayed out-doors, part of the time reading aloud in turn; and that evening in the afterglow, when the western mountain tops were turning from gold to rose and pearl and purple, they sat out on the front porch watching the glory fade, and ending the day with Jack's favorite song, "Pilgrims of the Night."

And the reason that this day stood out so vividly from all the others in her life was because it was the last day that they had their mother with them. That night the old pain came again, just for an instant, but long enough to stop the beating of the brave heart which would never feel its clutch again.

There are some pages in every one's life better skipped than read. What those next few hours brought to Mary and the boys can never be told. She found herself in her own room, after awhile, lying across the foot of her bed and trying to thrust away from her the awful truth that was gradually forcing itself upon her consciousness. Dazed and bewildered, like one who has just had a heavy blow on the head, she could not adjust herself to the new conditions. She could not imagine an existence in which her mother had no part. She wondered dully how it would be possible to go on living without her. Aunt Sally Doane came in presently and took her in her arms and said the comforting things people usually say at such times, and Mary submitted dumbly, as if it were a part of a bewildering dream. At times she was sure that she must wake up presently and find that she had been in the grip of a dreadful nightmare. It was that certainty which helped her through the next few hours.

It helped her to a strange calmness when Jack came in to ask her about the trip to Plainsville. She was the one to decide that he must go alone to the quiet little God's Acre at their old home, because Norman's foot would not allow him to travel, and she could not leave him behind with just the neighbors at such a time. It was the sound of Norman's sobbing in the next room which made her decide this, and yet at the same time she was thinking, "This is one of the most vivid dreams I ever had in my whole life, and the most horrible."

Hours after, when all the neighbors had gone but Aunt Sally and the old Captain, who stayed to keep faithful vigil, Mary stole out of her room to look at the clock. It seemed as if the night would never end. A dim light burning in the living-room showed that everything there was unchanged, while the old clock ticked along with its accustomed clatter of "All right! All right!" Surely, with the daylight everything would be all right, and would awaken to the usual round of life. Anything else was unbelievable, unthinkable!

On the way back to her room Mary's glance fell on her mother's sewing basket in its accustomed corner. A long strip of exquisitely wrought embroidery lay folded on top. It was the piece which she had finished for Betty on the day that Mrs. Downs was taken ill, that afternoon when they sat and watched the little procession file over the hill to the grove of cedars. How plainly Mary could recall the scene. How clearly she could hear her mother saying, "It is a happy way for the one who goes, dear, to go suddenly. It is the way of all others I would choose for myself."

And then with a force that made her heart give a great jump and go on throbbing wildly, Mary realized that she was not dreaming, that her mother was really gone; that this bit of embroidery with the needle sticking just where she had left it after the final stitch, was the last that the patient fingers would ever do. Dear tired fingers, that through so many years had wrought unselfishly for her children; so unfailing in their gentleness, in their power to comfort!

With a rush of tears that blinded her so that she could no longer see the beautiful handiwork which seemed such a symbol of her mother's finished life, Mary rushed back to her room to throw herself across the bed again, and sob herself into a state of exhaustion. Then after a long time, sleep came mercifully to her relief.

When she awakened, the early light of a June dawn was stealing into the room, and the birds were singing jubilantly. She lay there a moment, wondering why she was so stiff and uncomfortable. Then she was aware that she was still dressed, and memory came back in a rush, with a pain so overwhelming that she felt utterly powerless to get up and face the day which lay ahead of her, and all the stretch of dreary existence beyond it.

An irresistible impulse seemed drawing her towards her mother's room. Presently she opened the door a little way and stood looking in. Then step by step she advanced into the room. It looked just as it had the day before in its spotless Sabbath orderliness, except that the rosebuds in the glass vase on the table had opened into full bloom in the night. The white dress that Mrs. Ware had worn the day before lay across a chair, the sleeves still round and creased with the imprint of the arms that had slipped out of them.

As Mary stood by the bed, looking down on the still form with the smile of ineffable peace on its sweet face, her first thought was that she had never seen such gentle sleep; and then the knowledge slowly dawned on her, overwhelmingly, with a great feeling of awe that stilled her into utter calm, that that was not her mother lying there; only the familiar and beloved garment that had clothed her. She had slipped out of it as her body had slipped out of the white dress lying there across the chair. A holy thing it was, to be sure, hallowed by the beautiful spirit which had tabernacled in it so long, and bearing her mother's imprint in every part, as the white gown still held the imprint of the form that had worn it; but no more than that.

Somehow there was a deep strange comfort in the knowledge, even while the mystery of it baffled her. And her mother's words came back to her as forcibly as if she were hearing them for the first time:

"She is still ours. Her love flows out to us just the sane. The separation cannot make her any less our own! . . . That's all that death is, Mary, just a going away into another country, as Joyce has done . . . . A beautiful mystery through which we pass as through an open gate, with glad surprise at the things that shall be made plain to us, and with a great sense of triumph!"

Now, as Mary faced this mystery, a belief began to grow up in her heart, so soothing, so comforting, that she felt it was surely heaven-sent. Somewhere in God's universe, this sunny June morning, her mother was alive and well. She was loving them all just as tenderly and deeply as she had loved them yesterday, when they all worked together, singing "Happy Day." And just as it would have grieved her then to have seen these mourning over any sorrow, so it would grieve her now to know that they were heart-broken over her going away.

Mary picked up the white dress with reverent fingers and laid her cheek against its soft folds a moment before she hung it away in the closet. Then she turned again to that other garment which had clothed her mother so long; the form which was so like her, and yet so mysteriously different, now that her warm, living personality no longer filled it.

"Dear," she whispered, her eyes brimming over, "you were too unselfish to let me see your loneliness when I wanted to go away to my Happy Valley; now that you have gone to a happier one to be with papa, I mustn't think of my part of it, only of yours."

There was untold comfort in that thought. She clung to it all through the hours that followed, through the simple service, and through Jack's going away, and she brought it out to comfort Norman when the two were left alone together.

"She's just away," she repeated, trying to console him with the belief which was beginning to bring a peace that passed her understanding. Every room in the house seemed to bear the imprint of the beloved presence, just as they had done during those weeks when she waited every day for her mother to come home from the Downs.

"We must think of her absence in that way," she repeated, "as if it is only till nightfall. We can bear almost anything that long, if we take it only one day at a time. It's when we get to piling up all the days ahead of us and thinking of the years that we'll have to do without her that it seems so unbearable. And you know, Norman, if she were here she'd say by all means for you to go with Billy when he comes along with the buggy. She'd want you to spend all this afternoon in the bright out of doors instead of grieving here at home."

"But what about leaving you here alone?" asked Norman, with a new consideration for her which touched her deeply.

"Oh, I shall be busy every minute of the time until you get back. I must write to Joyce and Holland. They'll want to know every little thing. I feel so sorry for them, so far away---"

"They'll never get done being thankful now, that they came home last Christmas," said Norman in the pause that followed her unfinished sentence.

"And I'll never get done being thankful that I didn't go away," rejoined Mary. "There comes Billy now. You can hop out and show him what to do."

It had been arranged that Billy Downs should stay with them during the few days of Jack's absence, to keep them company and to do Norman's chores, which his disabled foot prevented him doing himself. Soon after dinner the two boys started off in the old rattle-trap of a buggy to drive along the shady mountain roads all afternoon in the sweet June weather, and Mary went to her letter-writing. It was a hard task, and she was thankful that she was alone, for time and again in telling of that last happy day together she pushed the paper aside to lay her head on the table and sob out, not only her own grief, but her sympathy for Holland and Joyce so far away among strangers at this heart-breaking time. She had one thing to console her which they had not, and which she treasured as her dearest memory: her mother's softly spoken commendation, "You've always been a comfort. I've leaned on you so."

By the time the boys came back she had regained her usual composure, for she spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden, weeding borders and doing some necessary transplanting, and finding "the soft mute comfort of green things growing," which gardens always hold. Next day in folding away some of her mother's things she came across a yellowed envelope which contained something of more permanent consolation than even her garden had given. It was a copy of Kemble's beautiful poem, Absence, traced in her mother's fine clear handwriting. The ink was faded and the margin bore the date of her father's death. Several of the lines were underscored, and Mary, reading these in the light of her own experience, suddenly found the key to the great courage and serenity of soul with which her mother had faced the desolation of her early widowhood.

"What shall 1 do with all the days and hours 
That must be counted ere I see thy face?
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

"I'll tell thee; for thy sake I will lay hold 
Of all good aims, and consecrate to thee
In worthy deeds, each moment that is told 
While thou, beloved one! art far from me.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

"I will this dreary blank of absence make 
A noble task time. . .
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .

"So may my love and longing hallowed be, 
And thy dear thought an influence divine."

Up till this moment there had been one element in Mary's grief which she had not recognized plainly enough to name. That was a sort of pity for the incompleteness of her mother's life; the bareness of it. The work-worn hands folded in their last rest seemed infinitely pathetic to her, and some of her hardest crying spells had been when she thought how little they had grasped of the good things of life, and how they had been taken away before she had a chance to fill them herself as she shad so long dreamed of doing. But now, in the light of these underscored lines, the worn hands no longer looked pathetic. They seemed rather to have been folded with a glad sense of triumph that they had made such "a noble task time" out of the dreary blank.

"And I shall do the same, "whispered Mary resolutely, pressing her lips together in a tight line, as she slipped the paper back into its yellowed envelope and laid it aside to show it to Jack on his return.

So many household duties filled her time, that it was over a week before she resumed her daily trips to the post-office. The first time she went the old Captain's first question was 

"Of course you'll stay right on here in LoneRock."

"Oh, yes," was the quick answer. "As long as the boys need me." Then with a wan little smile, "I've begun to think it was never intended that I should reach my Promised Land, Captain Doane."

"Does look like it," assented the Captain gravely.  "About everything there is has stepped in to stop you. Well, your staying here is surely Lone-Rock's gain."

"I shall certainly try to make it so," was Mary's answer. "Next week I'm going to start a cooking class for the little Mexican girls. Mamma and I had been talking it over for several weeks, and she was so interested in the plan that I couldn't bear not to carry it out now, for it was her idea. We found ten that will be glad to learn. I'm to have the class in our kitchen, and Mr. Moredock has promised to donate the materials for the first half-term and Mr. Downs for the second. I'm going down to the store now to order the first lot."

"Make Pink donate something, too," suggested the Captain.

"Oh, he has, already. He's given a keg of nails and some tools to Norman and Billy, so that they can teach practical carpentry to some of the Mexican boys by showing them how to patch up their leaky shanties. Norman is a first-class carpenter for his age. It was Pink's suggestion that they should do that. I'm so grateful to him for getting Norman interested in something of the sort. It seemed as if he could never get over the dreadful shock --- and --- everything."


"I know," nodded the Captain, understandingly." And there's nothing like using your hands for other people to lift the load off your own heart."

The lessons in cooking and carpentry were only a few of the things that went to the making of "a noble task time" out of the little mother's absence. They kept her always in their lives by loving mention of her name, quoting her daily, recalling this preference and that wish, and settling everything by the question "would mamma want us to do it?" And gradually time brought its slow healing, as God has mercifully provided it shall, to all wounds, no matter how deep, and the daily round of living went on.

Chapter 7  Part I   Part II   Chapter 1 >