Time for another serial, a much more readable and enjoyable one than the last, I promise you! In this one, we meet Rachel Marriott, whose fall from wealth and privilege will reveal her true character … and that of the narrator, 15-year-old Mary Ruth Grayson.
From the Relief Society Magazine, 1951 –
Through This Door
By Margery S. Stewart
I remember the day I first heard that Mrs. Marriott was coming to Danielville to live. I remember it as plain as if it were yesterday. I can feel the gray, dusty boards of Mrs. Callister’s porch under me, and my bare toes scrubbing in the gray dust … hot dust. It was August.
I remember the street with its gray-board houses across from me and the one on the corner that was ours, more shabby, more cluttered, more woebegone than any. I remember how the ho grayness stretched away from the street to the gray, bare hills. I sat, as I always sat, with my face uplifted to the lovely blueness of the sky.
Mrs. Callister and Mrs. Olsen were talking about the high prices, the low wages of their men, about their physical discomforts. Their voices were high and tired and dragging.
Then, suddenly, Mrs. North, she lived next door to us, came racing across the street. She was carrying Phillip, the baby, under her arm, and I remember laughing at his indignant face as he bounced furiously on her ample hip.
Mrs. Callister couldn’t wait. She shouted, “You know something new, Mrs. North?”
We all leaned forward thirstily.
Mrs. North plopped Phillip down on the porch, sank down beside him, and panted for a minute. We all waited politely.
“It’s that Mrs. Marriott! The one whose husband lost all their money. She’s coming here to live!”
“Mrs. Marriott!” I cried. “Oh, she couldn’t. There isn’t any place for her.”
Mrs. North sniffed. “No place good enough for the likes of her, but it’s the last place she has. It’s her grandfather’s old place right next door to where you are sitting.”
I couldn’t believe it. I leaned forward, my long braid flipped over my shoulder. I stared at the house next door as if I had never seen it before. The old Emerson house. The Emersons had moved out last Christmas, saying as how it wasn’t fit for man nor beast. It had been a grand house once, with its round tower on the south and its two stories and an attic, and its fancy woodwork on the front porch. But it hadn’t been painted in my lifetime, and I was fifteen. The Emersons had left an old stove sitting on the front porch and the weather had rusted it. An old rocker lay under the ancient apple tree, its wood bleached white as bone.
I said, “But I’ve seen Mrs. Marriott’s house in town. It’s … it’s beautiful. She can’t come here to live. She can’t!” Suddenly I was crying, because I was that age, I suppose, and was finding out for the first time that the princess could lose her kingdom. It didn’t seem fair nor right to me.
Mrs. Callister said, “Hush, now, Mary Ruth. There’re a lot of things in this life that are mighty hard to take. But we have to learn to take them. You let Mis’ Marriott shed her own tears, you’ll have use for yours.”
“But I saw her once,” I cried, furious at my tears, and trying helplessly to explain. “It was last summer. I went to Stapleton for a pair of shoes, and she was in the store buying a pair for her little girl, and oh, she looked so beautiful, so tall and cool. I don’t want her to come here! I don’t want her to come here!”
Mrs. North moved over and patted my shoulder. “It’s trying to be mother to all those brothers and sisters of hers that’s unsettling her, all those Grayson children,” she said, aside to the others. “She’s too young for so much work.” Then, addressing me, “Now, Mary Ruth … Now, Mary Ruth, don’t cry any more.”
But I shrugged out of her arms and jumped to my feet and ran home. They didn’t understand at all. It wasn’t the work. I was young and strong and willing. It wasn’t my three young sisters and my two wild little brothers, nor my father, tired and quiet since Mother’s death, tired and quiet with the life gone out of him, and living in the past when “things were different, Mary Ruth.”
It wasn’t any of these things. It was just that the lady I had dreamed I should one day become like, had been robbed of her castles and would now become as myself and the others, gray, drab, beaten. Mrs. Marriott. I thought of her dark, shining hair, so smoothly rolled on the back of her neck, even though every other woman’s hair was cut short, her white, smooth hands. Mrs. Marriott had “help” all the time, not just one girl, but two, and sometimes three for parties. I loved her voice, though I had heard it only four times. It was low and gentle, and she did not slur away the words but gave them endings.
I shook down the ashes in the old kitchen stove with furious intensity. Would Mrs. Marriott have to use the old range in the tumble-down kitchen? I thought of her husband, Mr. Marriott, and I hated him, because he had not been strong enough, nor wise enough to keep her in the golden tower.
Though, as it turned out, I was wrong in that. For in the days that followed when every morsel concerning the Marriotts was devoured greedily by us all, we heard that Mr. Marriott had been a sick man for a long time, so ill he could not attend to his business affairs. An unscrupulous friend had defrauded him. Mr. Marriott wouldn’t let anyone suffer because of him. Mrs. North said he sold everything he had to pay people back, until there wasn’t anything at all except the old Emerson house that had been Mrs. Marriott’s grandfather’s.
It was on a Tuesday evening the Marriotts came. It was a sultry night, oppressive, with a thunder storm growling in the west. Dishes were done and the young ones were playing hide-and-seek in the back field. I slipped into the yard and sat on the old rocker under the apple tree and looked at the Emerson house. The door was open, blown open by the wind, long ago, and never closed. I could see into the hallway. The battered staircase had lost the second step. The ancient wallpaper in the hall was watermarked. A car, beautiful and long, came to a smooth halt before the house. The car door opened and a woman’s voice said, “I’ll go see if the moving men have come yet. You keep Lora with you, John.”
It was Mrs. Marriott. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing, but sat in the hiding the shadows of the tree afforded me and stared.
Mrs. Marriott was wearing a navy blue linen suit with a hat to match and white gloves and a white scarf at her neck. Her shoes were lovely. I tucked my own battered Oxfords under me. Her shoes were blue linen pumps, lovely and slim. I watched them pick their careful way over the broken path. She called back. “I wrote and told them to turn on the electricity, John, but I forgot to buy globes.”
I jumped to my feet. “Mrs. Marriott, I’ll run and get Dad’s flashlight if you want me to.”
She turned and looked at me, not seeing me. Her lips turned up at the corners but there was no laughter in her smile. “Would you mind?”
I dashed home and was back in a moment or two flushed and panting. “Here you are, Ma’am.”
I was dismissed, but I couldn’t go. I leaned against the porch railing while she climbed the battered three steps. I listened to the sounds the beautiful linen shoes made on the ancient boards. I heard their reluctant tapping as they went from room to room, the long, long silence they made in the dreadful kitchen. I cried again, remembering the home she had left, the home I had seen in the little glimpses a passerby achieved. The steps grew slower and slower and heavier.
When she came out on the porch, I lifted my eyes to her face and drew back. I did not dream a few moments could so age a woman, could so suck out the life, that only a casing of clay was left of what once had been beauty and laughter.
“Mrs. Marriott!” I whispered, the tears running into my lips.
She walked stiffly down the stairs and out to the car. her voice was harsh and dry. “Come along, John. We may as well get used to it. Come, Lora.”
Mr. Marriott got out of the car slowly and stopped to lean against it. “That bad?” He looked at her. “I’m sorry, Rachel.”
She did not answer him. A little girl about nine stumbled sleepily out of the car. She rubbed her eyes and looked at the house. “Oh, Mother! Not this awful place.”
Mrs. Marriott did not answer her either, only held her for a long time. Then she said, “You two, walk around and stretch your legs for a minute. The moving men should be here any minute.”
They walked unhappily away from her. She stood still watching them, and then she turned back to the car. She leaned against it, her face in her hands. I saw her shoulders shake. I crept away.
It was quite dark now. In the shadows I stumbled against someone, who put a warning hand over my mouth.
It was Mrs. Callister. “She mustn’t know we saw,” she whispered, and then, “poor, poor woman. I know what she’s suffering. That’s how I felt when I came here.”
I recoiled, knowing without seeing that Mrs. Callister’s dress was the same she had worn for three days, torn and spotted. I thought of Mrs. Marriott’s blue linen suit, the immaculate gloves, the white, white scarf.
I rose early the next morning, and fed the youngsters and saw them off to play. Then I made a batch of popovers. I covered them carefully with one of mother’s linen napkins, the ones we never used at all except on Christmas. I waited until I saw the first gray spiral of smoke circle above the Marriotts’ chimney, then I ran over with the steaming plate.
I knocked at the back door and Mrs. Marriott came, after a long time. She looked at me with distaste, and I realized in my hurry I had forgotten to brush and rebraid my hair, that my face had not been washed since yesterday. I held out the plate. “I … I made them for you.”
“Thank you …” She took the plate. Habit was strong. “How kind. Won’t you come in?”
I went in. She had a great picnic basket on the rickety kitchen table, and she had been getting plates and silver from that. She was wearing a blue polka-dot cotton dress, but I saw that the morning battle with the ancient range had already left its sooty imprints. Soot lay in an angry line across her cheek. Her eyes were red and swollen, and her lips were set in a straight, hard line. Smoke poured from the lids of the range.
“It’s your damper,” I said. “You have to leave it open until the wood is really burning.” I showed her how. “Now you won’t have any trouble with it, if you can remember that little trick.”
She said thinly, “I won’t have to worry about it much longer. We’re leaving.”