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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 she finally sealed the envelope 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 _his_ 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 acc.u.mulation of letters on Mrs. Blythe's desk kept her busy at the typewriter all morning, and that some investigating for the a.s.sociated 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 appet.i.te, 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 pa.s.sed 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, pa.s.sing through the lower end of the hall, she saw Mary sitting at the typewriter in the alcove that had been 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 pa.s.s 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, das.h.i.+ng 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 att.i.tude 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 n.o.ble 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 the 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 pa.s.sed. 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 p.r.o.nounced 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 professional 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 endors.e.m.e.nt 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 att.i.tude 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 att.i.tude.
"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 pa.s.sed 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!"
HOW IT ALL ENDED
When Mary's letter with the ring reached Phil, he was making preparations to leave New York that very day. Mr. Sherman had offered him a partners.h.i.+p in one of his enterprises, with headquarters in Louisville. It was a very flattering offer, still Phil hesitated.
Personally, he preferred the position in the far West, which his former chief had been urging him all winter to accept. His previous training fitted him for one as well as the other, but he had always loved the West, always felt its lure.
It was when he considered Mary, that Mr. Sherman's offer appealed to him most. When he thought of the radiant delight with which she would receive the news that they could cross over and take possession of her long-desired land, he was almost persuaded to choose Kentucky, for that one reason alone. He was fully persuaded the morning her letter arrived, and had just telegraphed Mr. Sherman that he was starting for Louisville to arrange matters at once.
It was well for both Phil and Mary that he had known her so long and understood so thoroughly the ins and outs of her honest little heart.
This was not the first time that he had known her to make some renunciation for conscience' sake, and although the letter, in his own forcible parlance, "gave him a jolt" for an hour or so, after several readings he folded it up with a smile and slipped it into the package with the others marked "From the Little Vicar."
He hadn't the faintest intention of being "renounced." Moreover, he was positive that he had only to see her and urge a few good arguments in his favor, which would convince her that he would never be in the way of what she considered her duty.
But a very tender regard lay under his smile of amus.e.m.e.nt, for the att.i.tude she had taken, and a feeling of reverence possessed him as he saw her in the new light which this revelation of her spiritual life gave him. "n.o.body is good enough for little Mary Ware," he had said once, when she was a romping child. He was thinking of her unselfishness, her st.u.r.dy sincerity, her undaunted courage. Now he repeated it, thinking of her as this letter revealed her, a white-souled vestal maiden who took the stars as a symbol of her duty, and who would not swerve a hair's-breadth from the orbit which she thought was heaven appointed.
Knowing that he could reach her almost as quickly as a letter, and confident that a personal interview would be a thousandfold more effective, Phil did not write. But he took the first train to Louisville, and after a few days with Mr. Sherman left for Riverville, armed with an argument and a promise which he was sure would carry weight in his behalf. The argument was that he needed her. He was about to take charge of an important business entrusted to him, and he could not do it half so well without the inspiration of the little home she had agreed to help him make. The promise was that marrying him should not interfere with what she considered her tryst. She should have his hearty help and cooperation in trying to do for any state which they might move to, what Mrs. Blythe was doing for hers.
All this and much more he said in the first impetuous words of meeting, and almost before Mary had recovered from the overwhelming surprise of seeing him, the ring was back on her finger and she was listening to the plans which he rapidly outlined to her. He wasn't going to give her a chance to change her mind again, he insisted. There was no reason why they should not be married right there in the library the following day, as soon as he could make the necessary arrangements.
"Oh, but there is a reason," gasped Mary, aghast at the sudden demand.
Then she hesitated, loath to tell what it was. For though it was a weighty one with her, she knew that he would smile at it as childish.
But, after all, it was easier to confess to Phil than any one else. He seemed to understand perfectly what she meant, even when the words halted and failed to express her innermost feelings.
So, presently, she found herself explaining to him that it had always been one of her beliefs from the time of her earliest knowledge of such things, that one couldn't properly be a bride without a certain ceremony of preparation. The filling of a dower chest was one part of it, and the setting of infinite st.i.tches, each as perfect as a tiny pearl, in much "fair and broidered raiment" was another. The princesses in the fairy tales did their fine needlework to the accompaniment of songs upon a lute; so one set st.i.tches in one's wedding garments, to the romance of fancies--and so--