Mary Ware's Promised Land, Part 2, Chapter 7: Her Great Renunciation

by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Published 1912
Illustrated by John Goss

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Part II


MARY went back to her work next day, but not to the same old treadmill. It could never be that again. The thought that Phil was waiting for her, working to provide a home for her, glorified the most commonplace day, and came between her and her most disagreeable tasks. It was uppermost in her mind when she made her visits to the tenements, and often caused her to pause and ask herself why the gods had picked her out to make her the most blessed among mortals. What had she done that life should bestow so much more on her than it had on poor Dena and Elsie Whayne?

Somehow the sharp contrast between her lot and theirs hurt her more each time that it was forced upon her notice. It began to make her feel personally responsible, if not for the difference between them, at least for making that difference less. Why she owed it to them to do anything to make their lives more livable, she could not tell, but the obligation to do so weighed upon her more heavily every day.

Maybe if her endeavors had not been so effectual she might not have felt the obligation so keenly, but she could not fail to see the difference that her visits made to the families in the Row. Sometimes she counted over the things she accomplished, as one might count the beads of a rosary, not from any sense of pride in what she had done, but as a sort of self-justification; asking herself, since she had done that much, could more be reasonably expected.

It was through her efforts that Dena was sent to a hospital and some one provided to take care of the invalid father and demented mother. It was because she had interested charitable people in their behalf that Elsie Whayne found a home in the country once more, and old Mrs. Donegan's eyes had such skilful treatment from a specialist that she was able to use them again. There were a dozen instances like that, but best of all, she realized that she was responsible in a direct way for the miraculous change that took place in Diamond Row itself.

The morning that Phil went away she was too much occupied to care for such trivial matters as the daily papers. She did not even glance at the Riverville Herald to sea if it mentioned the fact that she had taken Mrs. Blythe's place on the programme. It was not until late that afternoon that she found there was quite a glowing tribute to her ability as a speaker. Sandford Berry had written it. He had also done more. In a way they have in newspaper offices he had taken the paper that Mary loaned him, traced the article denouncing Burke Stoner to its source, and found that the man who had written it was now a prominent lawyer in Riverville. He had been employed on the editorial staff of the Herald for a short time ten years before. Armed with permission to use his name if necessary, in verifying the article, Sandford Berry had electrified the town the morning after Mary's talk, by printing her description of Diamond Row, and her burning appeal to the people of Riverville to rise up and wipe out the disgrace in their midst. She had not mentioned Burke Stoner's name, nor was her name mentioned in connection with this article. It was for political reasons solely that the Herald made capital of it, stringing sensational headlines across the front page in startling black letters: "One of to-morrow's candidates responsible for death of one tenant and maybe two. Shameful condition of Tenth and Myrtle Street tenements, from which millionaire owner collects many thousands a year rental."

There was a picture of Burke Stoner, surrounded by a circle of condemning snapshots of the basement room which had filled Mary with such horror on her first visit, the stairway labelled "Death-trap of ten years'standing," and a portrait of little Terence Reilly, reproduced from the first paper.

Next morning Sandford Berry called hear over the telephone to say gleefully, "Well, it did the work! Coming as it did the last minute before election it simply wiped Stoner off the map. He was defeated overwhelmingly, and, between you and me and the gate-post, it was your speech that did it. I took the liberty of appropriating it without giving you any credit, for I knew that you wouldn't want to be mixed up in a mess like that. Didn't I tell you that you'd be the biggest beacon fire in the lot when you once got a-going? Well, you've started a blaze now that'll rage a bit. Tell Mrs. Blythe that she'll have no trouble now in getting the city ordinance she wanted, providing building inspectors. This Board of Aldermen is hot for it, now that Stoner is out of they way, and losing this election is going to cripple his influence through all this part of the state. It'll help the bill you want to put through the next session more than you realize. You didn't have any idea how far your little candle was throwing its beams when you made that speech, did you, Miss Mary? Well, it's indeed a good deed you did for this naughty world."

"That's just Orphant Annie's extravagant way of putting things," thought Mary, as she hung up the receiver. "My part in it wouldn't have amounted to a row of pins if he hadn't written it up so vividly with all those scare headlines. But, still, I did start it all," she acknowledged to herself, "and it's something to have done that."

For a moment she was elated by the sense of power that thrilled her. But the thought that followed had a queer chilling effect. If she could start such forces in motion for the betterment of the human beings around her, had she any right to turn her back on this work which she knew she was called to, just as definitely as Joan of Arc was called to her mission?

Phil's coming had made her forget for a little space what she had been so very sure of for many months, that she had been set apart for some high destiny, too great to allow her own personal considerations to interfere. Now, at his call, she was about to forsake her first tryst and turn to him. In just a little while she would leave it all and give herself wholly to him. Was it right? Was it right?

That question troubled her oftener as the days went by. Not when his letters came and his strong personality seemed to fold protectingly about her while she read, shutting out the doubts which troubled her. Not when she sat with his picture before her, tracing its outlines over and over with adoring eyes. Not when she gave herself up to dreams of the little home he wrote about frequently. The little home she would know so well how to make into a real hearts' haven. She blessed the old days of hard times and hard work now, for the valuable lessons they had taught her.

But "is it right? Is it right to fail in the keeping of my first tryst for this one of purely selfish pleasure?" she asked herself when she saw the changes that were being wrought in Diamond Row. Before the winter went by it had been transformed. It was not the sting of defeat which drove Burke Stoner to do it, nor the sting of public opinion aroused against him, but the pride of his own daughter, a girl of Mary's age, when she learned the facts in the case.

She chanced to be in the audience the day when Mary made her appeal, and unaware that it was her father's property that was being described, was one of the most thoroughly aroused listeners in the whole audience. But when she saw her father's picture in the paper next day, set in the midst of others, proclaiming him a disgrace to good citizenship, her mortification at being thus publicly shamed was something pitiful to see. Hitherto it had been her pride to see his name heading popular subscription lists, and to hear him spoken of as the friend of the poor, on account of liberal donations.

Nobody knew what kind of a scene took place when she read the condemning headlines, but it was reported that she locked herself in her room and refused to see her father for several days. She was his only child and his idol, and she had to be pacified at any cost. So she had her way as usual, this time to the transforming of the whole of Diamond Row, and the comfort of its inmates.

It began with drains and city water-works to supplant the infected cistern. It moved on to paint and plaster and new floors, to the putting in of a skylight in two dark rooms, and the cutting of windows in the third. And, more than that, it led to the opening of both skylight and windows into the sympathies of Burke Stoner's petted daughter, and led her out of her round of self-centred thoughts to unselfish interest in her unfortunate neighbors. It is a question which of the two gained the greatest inrush of sunshine by those openings.

Mary, watching all this, felt alternately exultant that she had been the means of starting these blessed changes, and depressed by the thought that she would be doing wrong if she turned her back on the opportunity of continuing such work. Thanksgiving went by and the first of December. As the shops began to put on holiday dress Mary began to be more depressed than ever. The burden of her poor people pressed upon her more sorely each day that she listened to their stories of the hard winter and their struggle to make both ends meet. But more depressing still were the times when old Mrs. Donegan begged her to come often, and called down the blessing of all the saints in the calendar upon her head, and told her tearfully that it would be a sorry day for they Row that took her away from it.

"It's God's own blessing you've been to the whole tenement!" she proclaimed volubly on every occasion, and, remembering the changes that had been brought about directly and indirectly by her efforts, Mary knew that it was so, and felt all the more strongly that she would be doing wrong to abandon the work.

Mr. Blythe was able to be out again by Christmas time. The two boys came home for the holidays, and for two weeks Mary helped with the entertaining that went on in the big house. There was no question now of her going back to the boarding-house at Mrs. Crum's. Mrs. Blythe said that having once experienced the comfort of having a daughter in the house, she could not dispense with her. She could go off to the capital now with a free conscience, leaving Mary in charge of the establishment. So, in January she went, and for several weeks waited for the bill to come up before the Legislature; busy weeks in which she was occupied all day long in making new friends for her cause.

Then she wrote home cheerfully that the bill had come up. There had been much opposition, and it had been cut down and amended till it would fit only the larger cities of the state. They had gained only a part of what they had asked for, but that was something, and they would go on awakening public sentiment until the next session, and bring it up again. The fight would have to be made all over again, but they would make it valiantly, hoping for absolute victory next time. She would be home in a few days.

Up till this time Mary had not realized how anxiously she was looking forward to the passage of the bill. Upon its fate depended her own, for ,as one draws straws to decide a matter, she had made up her mind to let its outcome settle they question which had troubled her so long. If it went through successfully, and the State thus proved that it was fully awake to its duty, then she would feel that her obligation was ended. That was the specific work she had pledged herself to do. But if it failed --- well, it would break her heart, but she'd have to keep the tryst, no matter what it cost her.

Her intense desire for its success gradually led her to feel that it was assured, and the news of only a partial victory left her as undecided as before. To escape the mood of depression which seized her the snowy Sunday night before Mrs. Blythe's return, she put on her wraps and slipped out to a little church in the next block, hoping to find some word to quiet her unrest, either in song, service or sermon. She sat listening almost feverishly till the minister announced his text:  "No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."

It was a sermon extolling sacrifice. The minister, a young man with a thin, earnest face and deep-set eyes that burned like two dark fires, seemed to know no call of the flesh. It was all of the spirit. One after another he cited the examples of the Father Damiens, the Florence Nightingales of the world, till the whole noble army of martyrs, the goodly company of the Apostles were marshalled before Mary's accusing conscience, and she felt herself condemned as unfit to stand with them, wholly unfit for the kingdom. The closing hymn was as accusing as the sermon

"The Son of God goes forth to war. Who follows in His train?
   .       .      .     .      .      .      .     .      .     .     .       .      .     .      .
Who best can drink his cup of woe, triumphant over pain, 
Who patient bears his cross below, he follows in His train."

She went away with those lines repeating themselves in her ears. It was still early when she went home, but Mr. Blythe had retired, so telling the maid to close the house for the night, she went up to her own room, where the fire burned cheerfully in the grate. She drew up a little table before it and brought out her writing material. She had made up her mind to make the supreme sacrifice of her life, even if it killed her.

"Keep tryst or die!" she sobbed, as she took up her pen." Oh, Phil! How can I write it, that I must give you up?"

It took a long time to tell him. She wanted to make it perfectly clear to him that it was breaking her heart to do it. She was afraid he wouldn't understand how she felt about not being fit for the kingdom, and it was hard to put down in black and white such a deeply personal, such a spiritual thing as that experience of hearing the voices and answering the call. But in no other way could she explain. Twice she broke down utterly, and with her head on her arms on the little table, cried and sobbed with long shuddering gasps that shook her convulsively. Once she threw the half-finished letter into the fire, saying fiercely in a low tone, "I can't! Oh, I can't! It would be giving up more than Father Damien did. It's more than I can bear!"

But she remembered again those awful words, "No man, putting his hand to the plough" --- This was looking back. She took another sheet of paper and patiently rewrote all that was on the sheets she had just burned. It was nearly morning when shefinally sealed the envelopes and crept into bed exhausted by the ordeal. There was no sense of "rising triumphant over pain" to reward her for her sacrifice, but her stern little Puritan conscience found a dreary sort of comfort in the thought that she had followed duty, and that nothing else mattered.

"One doesn't have to be happy," she told herself, over and over.

When she awoke next morning and remembered what she had done, the bottom seemed to drop out of the whole universe, and she felt a hundred years old as she moved languidly about the room at her dressing.

"But I can't go on this way," she exclaimed, catching a glimpse of her wan-eyed reflection in the mirror." Such a half-hearted sort of giving won't do any good. I shall have to do as the nuns do when they shut their convent gate on the world, shut it entirely and forever. I shall have to put away everything that reminds me of Phil."

She glanced around the room. How many reminders there were, for she had always treasured everything he had ever sent her; books, pictures, little curios picked up on his travels. Even an odd stone he had found on the desert and brought into the Wigwam one day, she used now as a paperweight. An Indian basket he had bought from an old squaw at Hole-in-the-rock held her sewing materials. Just under her hand on the table lay the little book he had given her to read on the train when she was starting home after Jack's accident, "The Jester's Sword." As she fingered it caressingly, it seemed to open of its own accord to the fly-leaf, where was printed the line from Stevenson: "To renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered." And then on the opposite page --- "Because he was born in Mars' month the bloodstone became his signet, sure token that undaunted courage would be the jewel of his soul."

She had thought those lines were wonderfully helpful when she offered them to Jack as an inspiration to renew leis courage, but what a hollow mockery they seemed now that the time had come to apply them to her own case. Still, the thought of the brave jester persisted, and was with her when she went down to breakfast, and later when she went to the station to meet Mrs. Blythe. She, too, would wear her sword of conquest so hidden, and unbeknown, even to those who walked closest to her side.

Almost feverishly she threw herself into the duties of the next few days, glad that an accumulation of letters on Mrs. Blythe's desk kept her busy at the typewriter all morning, and that some investigating for the Associated Charities kept her tramping about the streets the rest of the time, until nightfall. She thought that she was hiding her secret so successfully that no one imagined she had one. She talked more than usual at the table, she laughed at the slightest excuse, she joined spiritedly in the repartee at dinner, a time when they nearly always had guests. But keen-eyed Mrs. Blythe saw several things in the course of the week. She noticed her lack of appetite, the long spells of abstraction that came sometimes after her merriest outbursts; the deep shadows under her eyes of a morning, as if she had passed many sleepless hours.

Then going into her room one day it occurred to her that Phil's pictures were missing. There had been several, so prominently placed on mantel, dressing-table and desk that one saw them the first thing on entering. Then she noticed that the solitaire was gone from Mary's finger, and was tempted to ask the reason, but resisted the impulse, thinking that it was probably 'because of some trivial misunderstanding which would right itself in time.

One afternoon, passing through the lower end of the hall, she saw Mary sitting at the typewriter in the alcove that had bean curtained off for an office. She was about to call to her to stop and get ready for a tramp before dark, when the postman's whistle sounded across the street. He was making his four o'clock rounds. It was a rare occurrence for him to pass the house at this time of day without leaving something. All winter it had been the hour at which Phil's daily letter was most likely to arrive. Mrs. Blythe recalled the big, dashing hand in which they were always addressed, and Mary's radiant face when they arrived.

Now, at the sounding of the whistle, the clicking of keys stopped and Mary leaned forward to look out of the window, and watch the progress of the postman down the avenue. He did not cross over. As the cheerful whistle sounded again, further down the street, she suddenly leaned her arms on the typewriter in front of her and dropped her head upon them in such an attitude of utter hopelessness that Mrs. Blythe hesitated no longer.

"What's the matter, dear?" she asked kindly, putting her arms around her, and Mary, surprised into confession, sobbed out the story of her renunciation on her sympathetic shoulder.

If there was one person in the world whom Mary thought would understand, who would heartily approve of what she had done, and who would comfort her with due appreciation and praise, that person would be Mrs. Blythe. But, to her astonishment, although the arm that encircled her closed around her with an affectionate embrace, the exclamation that accompanied it was only, "Oh, you dear little, blessed little goose!"

It was a shock, and yet there was some note in it that gave Mary a glad, swift sense of relief and comfort. She straightened up and wiped her eyes. Mrs. Blythe hurried to say:

"Don't think for a moment that I don't appreciate to the very fullest your motive in making such a sacrifice. I think it is very fine and noble of you, but --- my dear little girl, I don't believe it is wholly necessary. You see, it's this way. The work we are trying to do can't be accomplished by any one person. If it could you would be gloriously justified in giving your whole life up to it. But it must be the work of many. One little torch can't possibly lighten every town in the country. Even that greatest of beacons, the statue of Liberty, lightens only one harbor. All we can hope to do is to kindle the unlit torches next to us, and keep the circle of light widening in every direction till the farthest boundary of the farthest state is aglow. And you can do that wherever you go, Mary. Very few states have their homes safeguarded by the law we are trying to get for this one. And every town and village in the United States has the beginning of a city slums in some of its corners.

"Perhaps the very greatest thing you can do for the cause is to show other girls that they don't have to be like nuns in order to help. They don't have to take any sort of vow or veil that shuts them away from a normal, usual life. It is something in which social influence counts for a very great deal. Because I have a home of my own, and a recognized social position, and am a happy wife and mother, people listen to me far more readily when I go to them with a plea for less fortunate homes and wives and mothers. Mrs. Philip Tremont will be able to accomplish even more than little Mary Ware. I cannot see where loyalty to Phil and loyalty to your conception of what you owe humanity conflict in the slightest. Marriage may take away the leisure that you have now. Few women have the time to give to a public cause what I am giving. It is only of late years that I have had it myself. But a torch is a torch, no matter where you put it, and sometimes the lights streaming from cheerful home windows make better guides for the benighted traveller than they street lamp, whose sole purpose is to give itself to the public."

"I hadn't thought about it that way," said Mary slowly, looking out of the window in order to keep her face averted. "Maybe you're right, but it's too late for me to take your point of view, much as I'd like to. I wrote to Phil a week ago, and sent back his ring, and I made it so clear that it was a matter of conscience with me, that I'm very sure that I convinced him that I was doing the right thing. At any rate, there has been plenty of time for a reply, and I haven't had a word. 'Silence gives consent,' you know."

She spoke drearily and kept on looking out of the window so long that Mrs. Blythe was sure that her eyes were full of tears which she wanted to hide. So she rose briskly, saying, as if the matter were ended:

"Well, at any rate, come on and let's have our walk. We can tramp out to the Turnpike Inn and come back by trolley before dark if we start immediately."

All the way out and back Mrs. Blythe could see what an effort Mary was making to appear interested in the conversation, but she knew by intuition that her thoughts were not on the people and places they passed. Each way she turned she was seeing, not the bare February landscape, but the handsome, laughing face she was trying so hard to put out of her memory. It was doubly hard now that Mrs. Blythe had pronounced her renunciation of it unnecessary. The more Mary thought about it, the more reasonable Mrs. Blythe's viewpoint seemed. It was true that Dudley Blythe's position in the professsional world gave his wife a certain prestige with many people, and her words a weight they would not have had otherwise, despite her own personal charm and ability. And his hearty endorsement and cooperation was her strongest support.

"Maybe Mrs. Blythe was right," thought Mary. Maybe giving herself to Phil wouldn't be looking back from the "plough" to which she had consecrated herself. Maybe it would only be giving it a strong, guiding hand. She certainly needed it herself, judging from the mess she had made of her life and Phil's.

Oddly enough, it was not until that moment that she thought of him as being particularly affected by her decision. Probably it was because she had always taken such an humble attitude in her mind towards the Best Man that she had not realized it might be as hard for him to be "renounced" as for her to make the sacrifice.

On their return Mrs. Blythe saw her quick glance at the silver tray on the hall table. Any letters arriving while they were out were always placed there. It was impossible that there should be any now, for the postman had made his last rounds before they started out. Nevertheless, she glanced hopefully towards it, and was turning away in disappointment when the maid, who had heard their latchkey in the door, came into the hall.

"There's a caller in the library for Miss Ware," she announced. "Been waiting nearly an hour."

"It's probably Electa Dunn," said Mary listlessly, to whom the word "waiting" brought up the figure of an unfortunate little seamstress who had spent a large part of her life in that attitude.

"I left word that I had some sewing for her to do and would send the material to-morrow. She must be more eager than ever for work, else she wouldn't come a day ahead of time and wait till dark to get it."

The library door stood open and the firelight shone out cheerfully across the hall, now almost dark with the shadows of the February twilight.

Just that way it had shone out to meet her three months before when she came down and found Phil there. That room had seemed sacred to her ever since. She wished the maid had not sent Electa in there to wait for her. It hurt so to have to go into it and recall all that had happened since that meeting. For an instant her eyes closed and her lips pressed together as if an actual physical pain had gripped her. Then she forced herself to go on. At the doorway she paused again and passed the back of her hand across her eyes, sure that she was dreaming.

It was all as it had been that never-to-be-forgotten night. Some one stood before the fire gazing down into the dancing flames. It was not the patient little seamstress, however. The tall, masterful man that stood there had never waited patiently for anything in his life. Now, at the sound of her entrance, he turned and came impetuously towards her, his face alight, his hands outstretched.

Mrs. Blythe, half-way up the stairs, heard Mary's surprised cry,"Oh, Phil!" and nodded sagely to herself. "He's come instead of writing, just as I thought he would. Wise man!"

Chapter 6   Part II   Chapter 8 >