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Mary-'Gusta By Joseph Crosby Lincoln Characters: 14612

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

The main street of South Harniss looked natural enough as the motor car buzzed along it. It was but a few months since Mary had been there, yet it seemed ever so much more. She felt so much older than on those Christmas holidays. When the store of Hamilton and Company came in sight she sank down on the back seat in order not to be seen. She knew her uncles were, in all probability, there at the store, and she wished to see Isaiah and talk with him before meeting them.

Isaiah was in the kitchen by the cookstove when she opened the door. He turned, saw her, and stood petrified. Mary entered and closed the door behind her. By that time Mr. Chase had recovered sufficiently from his ossification to speak.

"Eh-eh-by time!" he gasped. "I snum if it ain't you!"

Mary nodded. "Isaiah," she asked quickly, "are you alone? Are my uncles, both of them, at the store?"

But the cook and steward had not yet completely got over the effect of the surprise. He still stared at her.

"It IS you, ain't it!" he stammered. "I-I-by time, I do believe you've come home, same as I asked you to."

"Of course I've come home. How in the world could I be here if I hadn't? DON'T stare at me like that, with your mouth open like a-like a codfish. Tell me, are Uncle Shad and Uncle Zoeth at the store?"

"Eh-Yes, I cal'late they be. Ain't neither of 'em come home to dinner yet. I'm expectin' one of 'em 'most any minute. I'll run up and fetch 'em. Say! How in the nation did you get here this time of day?"

"I shall tell you by and by. No, I don't want you to get my uncles. I want to talk with you alone first. Now, Isaiah, sit down! Sit down in that chair. I want you to tell me just how bad things are. Tell me everything, all you know about it, and don't try to make the situation better than it is. And please HURRY!"

Isaiah, bewildered but obedient, sat down. The command to hurry had the effect of making him so nervous that, although he talked enough to have described the most complicated situation, his ideas were badly snarled and Mary had to keep interrupting in order to untangle them. And, after all, what he had to tell was not very definite. Business was bad at the store; that was plain to everyone in town. "All hands" were trading at the new stores where prices were lower, stocks bigger and more up-to-date, and selling methods far, far in advance of those of Hamilton and Company.

"About the only customers that stick by us," declared Isaiah, "are folks like 'Rastus Young and the rest of the deadbeats. THEY wouldn't leave us for nothin'-and nothin's what they pay, too, drat 'em!"

The partners had not told him of their troubles, but telling was not necessary. He had seen and heard enough.

"They are right on the ragged edge of goin' on the rocks," vowed Isaiah. "Zoeth, he's that thin and peaked 'twould make a sick pullet look fleshy alongside of him. And Cap'n Shad goes around with his hands rammed down in his beckets-"

"In his what?"

"In his britches pockets, and he don't scurcely speak a word for hours at a stretch. And they're up all times of the night, fussin' over account books and writin' letters and I don't know what all. It's plain enough what's comin'. Everybody in town is on to it. Why, I was up to the store t'other day settin' outside on the steps and Ab Bacheldor came along. He hates Cap'n Shad worse'n pizen, you know. 'Hello, Isaiah!' he says to me, he says. 'Is that you?' he says. 'Course it's me,' says I. Who'd you think 'twas?' 'I didn't know but it might be the sheriff,' he says. 'I understand he's settin' round nowadays just a-waitin'.' And Zoeth was right within hearin', too!"

"Oh!" exclaimed Mary indignantly.

"Yup, that's what he said," went on Isaiah. "But I got in one dig on my own hook. 'The sheriff don't wait much down to your house, Abner, does he?' says I. 'You bet he don't,' says he; 'he don't have to.' 'Well, he'd starve to death if he waited there long,' says I. Ho, ho! His wife's the stingiest woman about her cookin' that there is on the Cape. Why, one time she took a notion she'd keep boarders and Henry Ryder, that drives the fruit cart, he started to board there. But he only stayed two days. The fust day they had biled eggs and the next day they had soup made out of the shells. Course that probably ain't true-Henry's an awful liar-but all the same-"

"Never mind Henry Ryder, or Abner Bacheldor, either," interrupted Mary. "How did you happen to send for me, Isaiah?"

"Eh? Oh, that just came of itself, as you might say. I kept gettin' more and more tittered up and worried as I see how things was goin' and I kept wishin' you was here, if 'twas only to have somebody to talk it over with. But I didn't dast to write and when you was home Christmas I never dast to say nothin' because Cap'n Shad had vowed he'd butcher me if I told tales to you about any home troubles. That's it, you see! All through this their main idea has been not to trouble you. 'She mustn't know anything or she'll worry,' says Zoeth, and Cap'n Shad he says, 'That's so.' They think an awful sight of you, Mary-'Gusta."

Mary did not trust herself to look up.

"I know," she said. "Go on, Isaiah."

"Well, I kept thinkin' and thinkin' and one day last week Ezra Hopkins, that's the butcher cart feller, he and me was talkin' and he says: 'Trade ain't very brisk up to the store, is it?' he says. 'Everybody says 'tain't.' 'Then if everybody knows so much what d'ye ask me for?' says I. 'Oh, don't get mad,' says he. 'But I tell you this, Isaiah,' he says, 'if Mary-'Gusta Lathrop hadn't gone away to that fool Boston school things would have been different with Hamilton and Company. She's a smart girl and a smart business woman. I believe she'd have saved the old fellers,' he says. 'She was up-to-date and she had the know-how,' says he. Well, I kept thinkin' what he said and-and-well, I wrote. For the land sakes don't tell Shad nor Zoeth that I wrote, but I'm glad I done it. I don't know's you can do anything, I don't know's anybody can, but I'm mighty glad you're here, Mary-'Gusta."

Mary sighed. "I'm glad I am here, too, Isaiah," she agreed, "although I, too, don't know that I can do anything. But," she added solemnly, "I am going to try very hard. Now we mustn't let Uncle Shad or Uncle Zoeth know that I have heard about their trouble. We must let them think I am at home for an extra holiday. Then I shall be able to look things over and perhaps plan a little. When I am ready to tell what I mean to do I can tell the rest. . . . Sshh! Here comes one of them now. It's Uncle Zoeth. Look happy, Isaiah! HAPPY-not as if you were choking to death! Well, Uncle Zoeth, aren't you surprised to see me?"

Surprised he certainly was; at first, like Isaiah, he could scarcely believe she was really there. Then, naturally, he wished to know WHY she was there. She dodged the questions as best she could and Zoeth, innocent and truthful as always, accepted without a suspicion her vague explanation concerning an opportunity to run down and see them for a little while. Dinner was put on the table and then Isaiah hastened up to relieve Shadrach at the store in order that the partners and Mary might eat together.

The Captain arrived a few minutes later, red-faced, vociferous, and joyful.

"Well," he shouted, throwing his arms about her and kissing her with a smack which might have been heard in Abner Bacheldor's yard, "if THIS ain't a surprise! Zoeth said this mornin' he felt as if somethin' was goin' to happen, and then Isaiah upset the tea kittle all over both my feet and I said I felt as if it HAD happened. But it hadn't, had it! Well, if it ain't good to look at you, Mary-'Gusta! How'd you happen to come this time of year? Has the schoolhouse foundered?"

Mary repeated the excuse she had given Mr. Hamilton. It was sufficient. The partners were too happy at having her with them to be overcurious concerning her reasons for coming. Captain Shad talked and joked and laughed and Zoeth nodded and smiled in his quiet way. If Mary had not known their secret she would not have guessed it but, as it was, she noticed how pale and worn Mr. Hamilton looked and how the Captain had become prone to fits of unwonted silence from which he seemed to arouse himself with an effort and, after a glance at her, to talk and laugh louder than ever, Once she ventured to ask how business was and it would have been almost funny if it had not been so pathetic, the haste with which they both assured her that it was about the same.

After dinner she announced her intention of going up to the store. Her uncles exchanged looks and then Zoeth said:

"What makes you do that, Mary-'Gusta? Nice day like this I'd be out of door if I was you. We don't need you at the store, do we, Shadrach?"

"Not more'n a fish needs a bathin' suit," declared the Captain, with conviction. "You go see some of the girls and have a good time, Mary-'Gusta."

But Mary declined to go and see any of the girls. She could have a better time at the store than anywhere else, she said. She went to the store and spent the afternoon and evening there, watching and listening. There was not much to watch, not more than a dozen customers during the entire time, and those bought but little. The hardest part of the experience for her was to see how eager her uncles were to please each caller and how anxiously each watched the other's efforts and the result. To see Zoeth at the desk poring over the ledger, his lips moving and the pencil trembling in his fingers, was as bad as, but no worse than, to see Captain Shadrach, a frown on his face and his hands in his pockets, pace the floor from the back door to the front window, stop, look up the road, draw a long breath that was almost a groan, then turn and stride back again.

At six o'clock Mary, who had reasons of her own for wishing to be left alone in the store, suggested that she remain there while her uncles went home for supper. Neither Mr. Hamilton nor the Captain would consent, so she was obliged to go to the house herself and send Isaiah up once more to act as shopkeeper. But at eleven that night, after unmistakable sounds from their rooms were furnishing proofs that both partners of Hamilton and Company were asleep, she tiptoed downstairs, put on her coat and hat, took the store keys from the nail where Zoeth always hung them, and went out. She did not return until almost three.

The next day she spent, for the most part, at the store. She wrote several letters and, in spite of her uncles' protests, waited upon several customers. That evening, as she sat behind the counter thinking, a boy whom Captain Shadrach identified as Zenas Atkins' young-one rushed breathlessly into the store to announce between gasps that "Mary-'Gusta Lathrop's wanted on the phone. It's long distance, too, and-and-you've got to scrabble 'cause they're holdin' the wire." Mary hurried out and to the telephone office. She had not answered Shadrach's question as to who she thought was calling. She did not know, of course, but she suspected, and for a cool-headed young business woman, a girl who had ruthlessly driven all thoughts except those of business from her mind, her heart beat surprisingly fast as she entered the closet which acted as a substitute for a telephone booth, and took down the receiver. Yet her tone was calm enough as she uttered the stereotyped "Hello."

The wire hummed and sang, fragments of distant conversation became audible and were lost, and then a voice, the voice which she was expecting but, in a way, dreading to hear, asked: "Hello! Is this Miss Lathrop?"

"Yes, Crawford."

"Mary, is that you?"


"I have just called at Mrs. Wyeth's and learned that you had gone. I am awfully disappointed. I leave for home tomorrow and I had counted on seeing you before I went. Why did you go without a word to me?"

"Didn't Mrs. Wyeth tell you?"

"She told me a good deal, but I want to know more. Is it true-that about your uncles?"

"I am afraid it is."

"Great Scott, that's too bad! I am mighty sorry to hear it. Look here, isn't there something I can do? Do they need-"

"Sshh! we mustn't talk about it over the phone. No, there is nothing you can do. I have some plans partially worked out; something may come of them. Please don't ask more particulars now."

"All right, I understand; I won't. But mayn't I come down and see you? I can start West the day after tomorrow just as well and that would give me time-"

"No, Crawford, no. You mustn't come."

"I've a good mind to, whether or no."

"If you do I shall not see you-then or at any other time. But you won't, will you?"

"No, Mary, I won't. It's mighty hard, though."

Perhaps it was quite as hard for her, but she did not reply.

"Will you write me-every day?" he went on. . . . "Why don't you answer?"

"I was thinking what would be best for me to do," she said; "best for us both, I mean. I shall write you one letter surely."


"One surely. I want you to understand just what my coming here means and what effect it may have upon my future. You should know that. Afterward, whether I write you or not will depend."

"Depend! Of course you'll write me! Depend on what?"

"On what seems right to me after I have had time to think, and after you have seen your father. I must go, Crawford. Thank you for calling me. I am glad you did. Good-by."

"Wait! Mary, don't go! Let me say this-"

"Please, Crawford! I'd rather you wouldn't say any more. You understand why, I'm sure. I hope you will have a pleasant trip home and find your father's health much improved. Good-by."

She hung up the receiver and hastened back to the store. Shadrach and Zoeth looked at her questioningly. Finally the former said:

"Anything important, was it?"

"No, Uncle Shad, not very important."


A short interval of silence, then-

"Mrs. Wyeth callin', I presume likely, eh?"

"No, Uncle Shad."

Shadrach asked no more questions, and Zoeth asked none. Neither of them again mentioned Mary's call to the phone, either to her or to each other. And she did not refer to it. She had promised her Uncle Shadrach, when he questioned her the year before concerning Crawford, to tell him "when there was anything to tell." But was there anything to tell now? With the task which she had set herself and the uncertainty before her she felt that there was not. Yet to keep silence troubled her. Until recently there had never been a secret between her uncles and herself; now there were secrets on both sides.

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