A Guest For Mary Ellen
Even when Mary Ellen saw the face in her pretty teacher’s locket, she didn’t understand. But perhaps Mom and Dad did
MARY ELLEN ran gleefully down Sand Hill. Her feet hopped and skipped of their own volition—like the silly, black-faced lambs in Dowks pasture field that, for no reason at all, would suddenly kick up their heels and frolic around in circles. Gambolled was the word, but Mary Ellen didn’t know that—Mary Ellen was only seven years old. And anyway, it was in the spring lambs acted so, and this wasn’t spring—-this was fall, nearly winter. The trees had most all lost their leaves, and the little berries the wild roses left were red as red. M’ssevans had a bouquet of them on her desk.
At the thought of M’ssevans Mary Ellen’s heart swelled near to bursting, and she swung her lunch pail high as she ran. And in her lunch pail, glory be, were salmon sandwiches. She made a song about it— “Salmon sandwiches for lu-unch, Salmon sandwiches for lunch,” and it mattered not that the words sang themselves to a hymn time Mary Ellen learned in Sunday school. It was the salmon that occupied her thoughts, and the salmon loaf Mom would make, and, most important of all, who would eat the salmon loaf. Mary Ellen always knew that when Mom made salmon loaf there’d be company for supper, but never before had Mom made it specially for her, Mary Ellen’s, company. And never before, Mary Ellen was convinced on that score, had there been such important company. True the minister and his wife took supper with them three-four times a year; the Molson man, who peddled medicines and baking powder and suchlike, always stayed to supper and overnight; visiting evangelists always took one meal with the Carters; but never had anyone so pretty, so altogether perfect as M’ssevans, ever graced the Carter’s table.
And M’ssevans would actually walk up Sand Hill with her tonight. Today she’d be able to have M’ssevans all to herself and have to share her with no one. She hugged the thought, and it was as though someone had lighted a Christmas candle inside of her. Funny, Miss Crocker last year never made her feel like that. But Miss Crocker wasn’t like candles herself— she was like the unshaded electric light that hung outside Perkins’ store down to the village. It was bright and hard and hurt your eyes if you stared at it. Her cheeks were bright pink, her lips bright red, her hair bright yellow, and even her nails were bright red, too. Some of the girls thought Miss Crocker’s bright silk dresses a sight prettier than M’ssevans’, hut not Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen loved the smoky-looking greys and greens and browns M’ssevans wore. Some of them were wool, M’ssevans said, but so soft—to Mary Ellen they felt like velvet. M’ssevans’ cheeks were never pink all the time like Miss Crocker’s; they just seemed to get pink sometimes, all on their own. And her skin was like the littlest Jones baby’s—all soft and dewy looking—and made you want to rub your finger on it to see if it felt like pansy petals.
Mary Ellen loved M’ssevans so—and oh, how she hoped Mom and Dad would, too. Dad hadn’t liked Miss Crocker, Mom hadn’t either—she’d never even invited her home for supper, and Dad said, “Take my word for it, that girl’ll come to a bad end.”
There was another thing Mary Ellen liked about
M’ssevans—her smell. Whenever she stooped over to show you how to write in your book, or when you stood beside her at the desk, she smelled so good—sort of like sweet clover, or Mom’s lilacs after it rained— so sweet and yet so faint it made you want to sniff up right hard so you could fill yourself with it. But you never could. Mary Ellen once sniffed, audibly, and M’ssevans said, “Mary Ellen, haven’t you a handkerchief?” and Mary Ellen blushed and could have died, but she couldn’t tell M’ssevans that she sniffed, not because her nose was runny, but because she wanted to store up M’ssevans’ lovely smell.
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A Guest For Mary Ellen
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M’ssevans was kind, too. She never shouted at you when you didn’t get things right, or made fun of you in class. And the week of the School Fair, when Janey and Etta’s big sister took them to town and treated them to permanent waves and they came back with their hair all curly and Mary Ellen felt ashamed of her straight locks that Mom always parted right down the middle, front and back, and braided tight—just as she’d done Gertie’s and Bess’s and Maud’s—and she felt so miserable she cried, M’ssevans soon found out what the trouble was and told her not to worry—that anybody could pay money and have curls made, but it was only a few that could look nice and sweet with straight hair; “distinguished” was the word M’ssevans used.
Once at school the day dragged for Mary Ellen, she thought four o’clock would never come. Usually she left early with the other little ones, but today she was to wait until four, and Mary Ellen’s eyes kept wandering to the big clock, for never did a minute hand move slower.
At last it reached the hour M’ssevans said, “Class dismissed,” and the big boys went whooping out into the yard and the girls followed. They didn’t hang around today, waiting to walk home with M’ssevans, ’cos they knew, everyone knew, that today M’ssevans was going home with Mary Ellen. Mary Ellen pulled on her coat and cap and M’ssevans took down her outdoor clothes from their peg beside the blackboard—the soft, fleecy coat almost the color of the sand on Sand Hill, and the little woolly brown hat. An orange scarf knotted around her throat and she was ready to leave.
Through the schoolyard, out onto Back Street, past the Mortons’ and the Andrews’—Mary Ellen hoped they were looking through their windows— by the church and the old driving shed, around the corner and on, with Sand Hill and home in the distance. Mary Ellen danced along beside M’ssevans— walk was not the word to describe her progress—and when M’ssevans reached out and took her hand Mary Ellen’s cup was to overflowing.
Halfway up Sand Hill George Dowks drove up in a car and stopped beside them. He opened the car door and raised his hat as polite as could be— could he give them a ride home? The little song in Mary Ellen’s heart sank to a whisper—why, oh why, did George Dowks have to come by just then? If they rode with him M’ssevans would have to talk to him and Mary Ellen would sit in the back and think of all the things she wanted to tell M’ssevans.
But Mary Ellen didn’t need to worry, because M’ssevans said, “Oh, thank you, that’s awfully kind of you, but it’s such a lovely day I think Mary Ellen and I will walk. I’ve never been on this road before and I’m enjoying it so much.”
And the little song started up again, and the Christmas candle glowed, and she gripped M’ssevans’ hand tight.
BUT as they neared home Mary Ellen became uneasy and was filled with dark forebodings. Perhaps M’ssevans wouldn’t like their house. She thought of the fun Maud and Bess made of it—Maud and Bess who were married now and had homes of their own in the city. And she thought of what Mom said when she asked could she take M’ssevans home to supper; of how Mom grumbled to Dad that she didn’t have a fit place to invite company to. Now if she could have a parlor suite, and new linoleum for the floor, and some nice new dishes and silver knives and forks like Bess’s and Maud’s, she wouldn’t mind. But when folks was used to having things stylish they’d likely laugh at things as homely as the Carter’s had ’em.
Mary Ellen had piped up in a tiny voice that she was sure M’ssevans wouldn’t laugh, but Mom paid no attention and kept right on with her grumbling, and Dad 'got so mad he went off to the barn and banged the kitchen door behind him and said something about “Danged women, never satisfied!”
It wasn’t often Dad used bad words and it kind of scared Mary Ellen. And since then Mom had gone round with a miserable look and when Dad was around she’d sniff a lot and toss her head in the air. Dad didn’t stay ’round the kitchen much, he’d just get his meals and go off back to the barn. And when Mom did talk she’d talk to Mary Ellen in front of Dad, and say that some folks had no sense at all—just let a young whippersnapper of a salesman talk ’em into buying new lightning rods for the barn, when the old one« were still good—yes, the barn could get new lightning rods, the driving shed new shingles, but just let her ask for anything and see what she got— nothing but abuse. All her life she’d just made do and made over, never a new stick of furniture and precious few clothes, and she was just good and tired of it.
Mary Ellen thought of these things now, and hoped with all her heart that today Mom and Dad would be over being mad. It always made the house seem sort of different someway—more like a strange place where folks just boarded.
They’d reached the gate now and turned in on the long lane that led to the house. The unpainted frame building with the woodshed that was great-grandad’s log cabin nestled close to the earth under shelter of the three tall spruce trees. The sun was setting, sort of glowy looking, and the front windows shone as though they’d orange lights in them. The fall wheat in the south field was green as the colored stone in Gertie’s ring, and beyond that, way down the hill, lay the swamp, tall trees and little ones, mostly darkish brown, ’cept where the cedars grew— they were darkish green—and way off beyond the swamp were the far-off hills, all bluish purple now and hazy. M’ssevans stopped dead in her tracks and squeezed Mary Ellen’s hand hard. “Why, Mary Ellen, it’s beautiful, beautiful,” she said.
It made Mary Ellen awful happy to think M’ssevans found it beautiful; Bess and Maud, they always said it was lonesome as all get out, and when Mom said she liked the view and would feel lonesome without it, they just laughed at her.
“And your house,” M’ssevans said, “why, it’s like a picture out of a book—
it can’t be real.” “Oh, but it Ls,” Mary Ellen hastened I to assure her, “as real as anything.”
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She looked hard at it herself, just to : make quite sure. Yes, there were Mom’s red geraniums in the windows, and, glory be, smoke rising from the front chimney—Mom had a fire in the parlor!
“ ’Spose I should take you in the i front door,” said Mary Ellen, “but it kind of sticks—we ain’t had it opened since summer.”
“Oh, no,” M’ssevans said, “take me \ in the way you always go; I’ll feel more ! at home then.”
So Mary Ellen led her around the j back and in through the woodshed j that had been great-grandad’s log cabin, by the old table with its threadbare oilcloth, where the upturned milk j pails and separator stood, all ready for Dad to take to the barn. On the low bench just back of the kitchen door stood the washbowl and soft-water pail, and on the wall above hung the bracket with the mirror that held Dad’s comb. The mirror was too high for Mary Ellen and much too low for Dad. He had to stoop way down to see, but he always looked in awful careful when lie parted his hair, and when ; Bob, Bess’s man, was up from the city Dad would look round and tease i him and say that Bob’s head was like | Heaven—there was no parting there! And everybody would laugh every time, just as though it was a brandnew joke.
Mary Ellen was going to tell M’ssevans that, but Mom had heard them and opened the kitchen door and was saying, “Now come right in,” and M’ssevans was saying, “You’re Mary : Ellen’s mother—I’d have known you I anywhere,” and was shaking Mom’s ! hand and smiling, and Mom was smiling back at her.
Mary Ellen’s eyes went big when she saw the table. The oilcloth, although Í it was nice and new, with apples and j plums painted all over it, was covered with Mom’s best white cloth. The new dishes—the ones Mom got with tea down at Perkins’ store—were set out; the best bone-handled knives, and the shiny forks Mom got with the soap coupons; the flowered spoon holder i with cream and sugar to match, the very best ones, and the fruit set with 1 the funny little Chinese figures all over • them. Oh, Mom was good—M’ssevans : was going to have things even better ! than the minister! And Mom had on I her best brown dress, and the new print Í apron Maud had sent. She was taking M’ssevans up to the spare room now, to lay oft her things, and Mary Ellen tagged along behind.
The spare room was right over the parlor and real warm ’count of the drum of stovepipes. M’ssevans had never seen a rig like that before, and Mom explained how it warmed the ! room a sight more than if just the straight pipes went through. And then M’ssevans laid her coat on the bed and saw the Log Cabin quilt Mom had made when she was young, and wanted to hear all about it—she couldn’t figure out how the pattern went, and Mom folded over her handkerchief to show I how. They talked quite a while about quilts and Mom opened up the big j chest and showed M’ssevans a whole pile of them, and right in the middle I she remembered, and said, “Land’s j sakes, them taters ’ll be burned, sure enough,” and ran off down to the j kitchen, M’ssevans and Mary Ellen close on her heels.
WHEN the oven door was opened Mary Ellen knew Mom had made scalloped potatoes—the lovely oniony smell filled the kitchen. Nobody ever fixed scalloped potatoes like Mom— that’s what all the family said. Dad came in right then and Mom introduced him to M’ssevans. He took her little hand in his big one and said, “Pleased to meet you,” and he meant it too, you could see that. But he and Mom were still mad, Mary Ellen could sort of feel it in the air and it made her sad.
While Dad talked to M’ssevans Mom set out the vittles. There was salmon loaf, cabbage salad and scalloped potatoes; little baby pickled carrots, that Mary Ellen loved, and Mom’s special corn relish; biscuits, doughnuts, homemade bread and fresh-churned butter; sour cream pie and chocolate cake; and into the Chinese fruit dish was emptied a sealer of wild strawberry preserves. It sure took Mom to put on a supper.
Seated at the table they all bowed their heads and Dad said grace—a special company one. When he and Mom and Mary Ellen w'ere alone he just said, “For what we are about to receive, Lord, make us truly thankful, Amen,” all in one breath, but when there was company he took special pains and started off, “Oh, Lord,” and said a long one—more like the sort of, prayer he said in church.
M’ssevans’ plate was soon heaping, she said she didn’t know when she’d ever had such a supper. Mom and Dad seemed sort of scared to talk at first, as though they thought M’ssevans might be too stylish, but that didn’t last long. M’ssevans asked so many questions all about the farm and the house, and great-grandad being the first settler, that it kept Mom and Dad busy answering her.
Then Mom served the wild strawberry preserves . . . Mary Ellen well remembered the day she and Mom had gathered them down in the south pasture. It sure was a scorcher and Dad said they were crazy, working away in the heat like that when you could get tame ones from Morton’s just a piece down the road, and Mom said yes, she’d get some of them too but they didn’t have the flavor same’s the wild ones, and Mom was right.
The spoon holder was passed to M’ssevans and when she took a spoon you should have heard her exclaim. “Oh, Mrs. Carter,” she said, “I’m awfully rude, but where on earth did you ever manage to get these spoons?”
“Why, great-grandmother brought them from England,” said Mom. “Real silver they are—grandma was awful choice of them.”
“She might well be,” agreed M’ssevans. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten from a lovelier spoon—the workmanship’s exquisite.”
Dad spoke up then. “I’m right glad you said that Miss Evans; this woman of mine was afeared she wouldn’t have things fancy enough for you.”
M’ssevans laughed. “Why if I had silver like this I’d envy no one,” she said, and then went on to say how good the cake was.
Supper over, Dad went to the barn to milk and Mom and Mary Ellen cleared off the table. M’ssevans would insist on drying dishes, so Mom got out her best dish towels. Mary Ellen trotted back and forth, from pantry to kitchen, her heart still singing a little song, a new one now—Mom liked M’ssevans, M’ssevans liked Mom. Oh, if only Mom and Dad wouldn’t be mad Mary Ellen’s happiness would be complete, but always that lay at the back of her mind like some nasty black shadow.
The last dish away, the dishwater emptied, Mom took matches from the tin box back of the door and went into the parlor. Mary Ellen knew what she was going to do— she was going to light the big lamp with the painted shade the family had given them for their silver wedding anniversary that Mary Ellen could barely remember. Dad usually ’tended to it, Mom was always scared of breaking the funny little mantle thing, but tonight, because they were still mad, Mom would do it herself. She did it all right, too. Soon the room was filled with soft, white light and Mom called for Mary Ellen and M’ssevans to come on in.
Mary Ellen always loved the parlor, though Mom grumbled and said it wasn’t fit to be seen. Tonight, with the old box stove good and warm, the light from the big lamp making everything nice and cheery, the comfortable rockers — complete with woolwork cushions and chair backs—gathered around the stove, it seemed pretty near perfect to Mary Ellen. Over in the south window the goose egg table held Mom’s best plants — geraniums, begonias, a patience, a resurrection and a dear little pot of baby tears; a spider plant and an angel’s wing. Mom had awful good luck with plants, and all the folks from the village would come up to get cuttings.
On the wall next the front door hung the big gold frame which held Mom’s feather wreath. Dear little fluffy white feathers, all curled and made into flowers. The velvet at the back was faded now but Mom said at first it had been deep rose-colored. M’ssevans spotted it right away. “Oh, a feather wreath,” she said, “I’ve heard of them, but, do you know, I’ve never seen one before.” So Mom had to explain just how she’d made it.
DAD came in then. Mary Ellen was pleased to see he’d combed his hair and parted it, and actually put on his Sunday sweater. Mom didn’t know what to do then to entertain M’ssevans, so she asked her if she’d care to see some magazines Bess and Maud had brought up from the city, and M’ssevans said, “Oh, no thank you. 1 can look at magazines any time but I don’t often have the chance to look around a room as nice as this one.”
“Oh, now,” Mom said, “you’re just saying that. Why, I’m right ashamed of it. ’Twouldn’t look so bad if I could get me a new linoleum and a nice parlor suite, but,” she looked at Dad and kind of nipped her lips, “dear knows when that’ll be.”
“But, Mrs. Carter,”said M’ssevans then, “you wouldn’t take up this lovely carpet to put down linoleum, would you?”
“Why, this ain’t a regular carpet at all,” Mom laughed, “it’s just a rag one Dad’s ma made. Least she cut the rags and wound ’em and then Aunt «Janey made it.”
“I know, but you’d never get anything to suit the room so well,” insisted M’ssevans. “It’s perfect for it. But if ever you do decide to take it up, let me know—a friend of mine would jump at the chance to have it.”
She looked over at the horsehair couch and around the room at the chairs that matched it. “And this furniture, some of it is quite choice— a friend of mine has an antique shop, and I know. That chest there,” she pointed to the one by the stair door, “I’d cheerfully give my next month’s salary cheque for it.”
Mom was flabbergasted. “Why, that old thing. Land’s sakes, child (she must have been awful excited or she’d never have called M’ssevans “child”), I’ve always been ashamed of it stood there—but it was too big to get upstairs and there just seemed no place else to put it. It was one of great-grandad’s—he had it in the log cabin.” She looked at M’ssevans kind of suspicious, “You’re sure you’re not just saying that, a purpose to make me feel good?”
“No, Mrs. Carter, I wouldn’t do that. I’m being quite honest with you. I could introduce you to somebody who would be willing to pay quite a lot of money for some of these pieces, but I’d rather not. It would be a crime to deprive you of them—they fit the house so beautifully.”
Mom just gasped and sat back, but Mary Ellen saw her stick out her chest and set her head sort of cocky, and imagined just what she’d have to say next time Maud and Bess came home and made fun of the parlor. Dad didn’t say a word—he just sat back and kept his mouth shut, but you could see his eyes kind of crinkle up at the corners and a twinkle come in them.
M’ssevans noticed the plants then, and asked Mom how ever did she manage to keep them so nice. And Mom told her all about them, and how, when frosty nights came, she’d take ’em all out of the windows, put ’em on the centre table and cover ’em down with quilts. There were some plants older than Mary Ellen. Mom said when Mary Ellen was born—that was in January and it was awful cold, ’way below zero—the only thing that worried her when she took to bed was that her plants would get froze. “And did they?” asked M’ssevans. “No,” said Mom, “not a one. Dan, he looked after ’em. Used to take ’em out of the windows every night, and wrap ’em up, and then put ’em back in the morning.”
M’ssevans looked at Dad then—he looked so big sitting there, and Mary Ellen saw her glance at his big, rough hands and then over at the plants— and some of them were awful tiny—and a lovely, misty look came on her face— like when she read poetry out loud at school—and she said, “How lovely!”
And Mary Ellen thought that’s what M’ssevans was, with her cheeks flushed and rosy and her eyes ashining. As she leaned forward in her chair the little gold locket she always wore dangled down loose and Mary Ellen, sitting on a footstool beside her, reached up and touched it. “My, that’s pretty,” she said. It was like a little gold book and as Mary Ellen stroked it with her finger it suddenly popped open, and there inside was the picture of a man. “Oh, M’ssevans,” cried Mary Ellen, “I betcha that’s your beau, ain’t it?” and the color seemed to leave M’ssevans’ face and Mary Ellen saw a tiny pulse start throbbing in M’ssevans’ throat. “No, Mary Ellen,” she said, “not my beau,” and she looked so sort of sad Mary Ellen was feared she was going to cry. Mom looked over at that and said, “Well, if that locket ain’t the dead spit of one I had. Dan bought it for me afore we was married, didn’t you, Dan?” and she looked over at Dad just as if she wasn’t mad at him at all. And Dad grinned and said, “Yes. Seems to me you had your picture took with it on—time we went to Whitmarch Fair.”
“That’s right,” said Mom, “so I did. Mary Ellen you bring me the big album from under Dad’s desk.”
SHE pulled her chair over beside M’ssevans and, the album on her lap, turned the pages quickly till she came to the right one. Mary Ellen stared. Why, Mom was pretty then. Her hair was fixed sort of queer and she wore a funny kind of dress, hut there were dimples in her cheeks and she looked awful cute. She reminded Mary Ellen of someone—but she couldn’t think who — until M’ssevans said, “Why, it’s Mary Ellen over again. You couldn’t have been more than 16 then, could you, Mrs. Carter?”
“Nineteen,” said Mom. “I always was kind of small for my age.” That was right, Mary Ellen thought, Mom wasn’t very big even now—not nearly so tall as M’ssevans—and when they walked into church, why Mom didn’t come near up to Dad’s shoulder. Dad was awful big; bigger than Ben or John or Alec. Only Jim could beat Dad when it came to size.
Mom was going to move the album when M’ssevans had seen the picture, but M’ssevans said, “Oh, please, if you don’t mind—could I look through it? Photograph albums always fascinate me.” And she started right in at the first page. Mom started in to tell her who all the folks were, but it wasn’t long before Dad hitched over his chair and joined in too. They all laughed at Uncle Joel’s long whiskers, and Dad told the tale of how Aunt Janey and Uncle Jim eloped and took Aunt Janey’s Dad’s best horse and cutter so’s he couldn’t take after ’em. And M’ssevans kept on asking questions and Mom and Dad were fairly falling over each other to tell her—and what one couldn’t remember the other could, and sometimes they’d argue, ’bout which year it was they went to Niagara or when they had the Sunday school picnic up to the lake and a man came up from the city to take their pictures, or where the baby pictures were taken.
When the book was finished M’ssevans looked at her watch and said, “My goodness, how time flies. It’s 10.30—I’m sure I must have kept you all up past your bedtimes.” Mom said, “Oh, no. Only Mary Ellen, and seeing as you’re her company I thought she might stay up tonight. Now while Dad gets the horse out I’ll just fix you a bite to eat.”
“No, please,” said M’ssevans, “I couldn’t eat another mouthful,” and she wouldn’t let Mom get a thing. When Dad came in he said, “Well, we’re all ready,” and Mary Ellen looked at him with pleading in her eyes and he said, “Well, I guess Mary Ellen might as well come along too. What do you say, Ma?” And Mary Ellen turned her big eyes on Mom and Mom couldn’t but say, “Why, yes. Guess another half hour won’t hurt none.”
And then M’ssevans got her coat and shook Mom’s hand and thanked her for the lovely time, and Dad took them out and helped them into the buggy, tucking the buffalo robe tight around ’cos the night was real chilly. Mary Ellen snuggled up beside M’ssevans and M’ssevans put her arm around Mary Ellen and held her close, and Mary Ellen grew drowsier and drowsier, and Dad’s and M’ssevans’ voices just mumbled and mumbled and she never knew when they did stop and M’ssevans got out, for she was fast asleep.
She sort of half wakened when they reached home again and Dad carried her in and set her down on Mom’s knee, as Mom sat on the rocker by the kitchen stove, and said, “Well, Nellie, here’s your young ’un,” and Mary Ellen wondered vaguely who Nellie might be, but she didn’t bother much ’cos she was too sleepy, but she did take notice when Dad said, “That’s a right smart young woman,” and Mom said, “Yes, she’s a mighty sweet girl—she’ll be good for Mary Ellen.”
And Mary Ellen snuggled her head into Mom’s shoulder, and the little song sang drowsily, just a whisper now, but a happy one—Mom and Dad weren’t mad any more, Mom and Dad liked M’ssevans, M’ssevans liked Mom and Dad.