Through This Door
By Margery S. Stewart
Synopsis: Mary Ruth Grayson tries to care for her father and her motherless brothers and sisters. Rachel Marriott, who had once been wealthy, comes to live in the shabby old house across the street, and with much effort manages to make the place homelike and attractive for her husband and her daughter Lora. Mrs. Marriott takes an interest in Mary Ruth and teaches her some of the arts of housekeeping, as well as giving her love and companionship. Mrs. Marriott is very much worried over her financial situation, and one day, in town with Mary Ruth and Lora, she meets an old friend, Thelma Williams.
Something deep in me knew that Mrs. Marriott was aware both of our stares and our thoughts. I knew she was stealing herself to endure them as she had steeled herself to endure many things. She introduced me as her friend.
Thelma Williams lifted her brows. “How do you do,” she said as from a great height. She turned immediately to Mrs. Marriott. “Charles has been made manager of the bank here, and we’re stuck in this dreadful hole. I made him buy a ranch out of town. I try to keep it filled with people from town. Otherwise, I would perish of boredom.” Her narrowed, discontented eyes happened to fall on Lora and they widened.
“What an utterly exquisite little dress! One of your creations, I suppose?”
Mrs. Marriott nodded, smiling.
“You used to drive me quite mad, the way you knew just how to fix your daughter, and my Connie such a problem. She still is …” Thelma Williams hesitated, she looked again at Mrs. Marriott’s gloves. She said, “If you will make some clothes for Constance I’ll pay you well.”
There was a small coldness where we stood, as though an icy wind had blown out of Mrs. Williams’ mouth. There was a great pressure in my chest as though the wind moved strongly against me. But Mrs. Marriott grew taller and straighter. I waited for her to shrivel Thelma Williams with a word. I knew the words were in her. But she said, with careful gentleness, “I would be happy to make them. My charge is five dollars a dress, that is, if you furnish the materials.”
Mrs. Williams became very brisk. “That’s fine. I’ll bring the materials and Connie to your house tomorrow. Just write down the address, will you, dear?”
It was as if Thelma Williams had climbed three steps to stand above us.
Mrs. Marriott wrote down her address on an old envelope in her purse, and we went on. But at the yard goods counter she sat suddenly on one of the little round stools and leaned her head on her hand. She was trembling all over.
I said, “I forgot an errand I promised to do for Dad.” I went away and left her. I passed Thelma Williams again, but she was with another woman. She looked through me, not speaking.
I prayed hard for Mrs. Marriott all the way home. I prayed that some relative, very rich, would die and leave her all his money, that she could drive past Thelma Williams in a beautiful red convertible and splash mud all over her.
But my prayer was not answered. Thelma Williams came to Mrs. Marriott’s house one afternoon while I was there sewing. She looked all around the room in a way that made the crack in the wallpaper seem longer than it really was, and the worn place in the rug wider. She brought her daughter, Connie, who wriggled and twisted and whined while Mrs. Marriott took her measurements. When Mrs. Marriott finished, Thelma Williams sent her daughter out to the car. “I brought Judy along just to look after her,” she said. “Connie makes me so nervous.”
“You mean you’ve left someone sitting in the car all this time, in this heat. Bring her in and I’ll make some lemonade.” Mrs. Marriott was all concern.
“It’s just the maid,” Mrs. Williams said, “and, anyway, I must be going.”
The maid. I went to the window to look at the creature who bore this name. I caught a glimpse of a thin-faced girl, my age, in the back seat of the car reading to Connie. Because I was thirsty myself, I imagined her throat parching from the heat, and slipped out in the kitchen for a glass of water. I took it out to the car. The girl reached for the glass thirstily, but Connie whined, “I want it … I want it.” The maid gave her the glass. There was no time to get more because Mrs. Williams had come down the path and was climbing in the car.
“Thank you,” the girl said quickly and gave me back the glass. I watched the car drive away and took a deep breath of air, glad of my freedom.
Mrs. Marriott came down the path. I said, “I hope she falls in the river.”
“No,” said Mrs. Marriott. “It’s all right, Mary Ruth, sometimes blessings come in the blackest disguises.”
She made the five dresses. They were cunningly made, with ruffles and puffs that disguised Connie’s thin bones. She looked adorable in them, like a child in a magazine.
Mrs. Williams was very pleased. “They’re just what I wanted. You are a genius. I’ll tell all our friends.” Her eyes narrowed. “They’ve been asking about you … you dropped from sight so suddenly … I remember I used to envy you that ability to draw the loveliest people to you …”
Mrs. Marriott folded the dresses quickly and hurried them into the box.
“They’ve been meaning to come and see you for ever so long … but you know how it is …”
“I know,” said Mrs. Marriott. “I’ve learned many things this summer.”
After that, Mrs. Marriott was busier than ever. Passing her house at night we would hear the hum of her treadle machine or see her through the window bent over the sewing in her hands.
But I had many things other than Mrs. Marriott to consume my mind and my time in the months that followed. They sped so fast, the days, the weeks … It hardly seemed that I had come to high school before I was nearing the end of my time there. When I was a senior and seventeen, I fell in love.
Tom Mack was the king of every girl’s heart. He was greased lightning on the basketball floor. He was the hero of boys, they were around him always, patting him on the back, calling his name from doorways or across the street. Tom Mack was tall and dark, with heavy brows over blue eyes and thick dark hair, cut very short. When he stopped his battered car on the high school road one day in October and asked me if I wanted a ride home, stars floated by me like apple blossoms in April. I could only nod dumbly and climb in clumsily beside him. He started the car with a roar and we drove past all the shouting boys and girls. I sat tense with delight in the aura of his magnificence. He was forthright. When he stopped to let me out, he looked at me carefully, appraisingly. “What do you want to wear those braids for, Mary Ruth? They make you look like some darned kid.”
“I … I don’t know.” I reached up my hands to the despised tresses that, until this hour, had been my pride.
“You cut them off and come to the game tomorrow night, and I’ll drive you home after.”
I heard no more of what he said. I remember thanking him, drifting into the house on veils of pink mist and hunting frantically for the scissors. I couldn’t find them. It turned out afterwards that one of the boys had taken them out to the sheep pen to do some shearing on his own.
I raced madly up the street to Mrs. Marriott’s. “You cut it,” I gasped. “I’d be sure to make a mess of it.” Even while I pleaded I was undoing the long ropes of hair.
I will never forget the look on Mrs. Marriott’s face when she took the scissors in one hand and lifted up the long strands of blond hair with the other. Laughter, tenderness, rue, they were all written in her sensitive face, though it took many years before I could transcribe them.
I went to the game and Tom Mack singled me out of all the girls there. He smiled at me from the bench. He came to me directly he was dressed. The other girls drew back in deference to him, the boys looked at me with a new and awed interest. Tom Mack took my hand and pulled me to my feet. His eyes were on my hair. “You know, I had a hunch you would look like this. Golly!”
Happiness was butterflies dipping about in my chest. He took my hand and I went with him, blindly, gladly, not caring where.
“There’s a place I always go,” he said, “the Purple Pigeon, want to come along?”
“Dad said I mustn’t.”
He looked down on me, frowning. “Where then?”
I didn’t know. “Oh, he won’t mind,” I said.
We drove past all the houses where pretty girls sat with their friends in neat little living rooms, with fireplaces and pianos and television sets. But at home Dad would be sleeping in the one good chair, the evening paper still in his hand, and the girls and my brothers would giggle and point and play their fiendish tricks. We went to the Purple Pigeon. We went many times.
Mrs. Marriott was sweeping snow from her sidewalk when I went to school one morning. It was a bitter morning, cold and windy. I had the strange feeling that she had placed herself there deliberately, but her manner was calm and friendly.
“Hello, Mary Ruth, haven’t seen you for a long time.”
I scrubbed my toe in the cleared sidewalk. “Nope, busy as all get out.”
“Having a nice time at school?”
“Oh, just simply marvelous!” I squirmed impatiently. Tom was waiting for me at the corner.
She coughed. ‘Mrs. Callister says you’ve been spending a lot of time at the Purple Pigeon.”
I looked at her suspiciously, but there was no reproof at all that I could see. I figured she had no idea about the place.
“A lot of nice people go there,” I said defensively.
She learned on her broom. “Mary Ruth, I’ve been wanting to see you and talk to you for such a long time. Why don’t you and Tom Mack come to dinner, say Friday, at seven?”
I could have knelt and kissed her dress. I said thickly, “Thank you, Mrs. Marriott, thank you a thousand times.” I ran toward Tom, music in me all the way.
Tom opened the door of his car for me, his smile wide and clean in the snowy morning. “Someone leave you a million, Mary Ruth?”
I told him about the dinner. “Please, Tom, you’ll come?”
He pulled my hair. “If Dad will let me off early at the store.”
I slid down in the seat, so happy, songs poured out of me. I looked at Tom and loved him so much it hurt.
For that Friday I wore my new sweater, navy blue, and the new red skirt. My hair was curled to my shoulders and I had painted my nails with a new silver shade. Tom said I looked smooth. Tom looked handsome and untidy, and already slightly bored with the prospect of the evening ahead. We shook off the youngsters, who adored Tom, and went across the street to the Marriotts.
Mr. Marriott opened the door and welcomed us. For once there was no book in his hand. He looked frail and immaculate. “I’ve missed you very much, Mary Ruth. No one else seems to have quite your knack for choosing books.”
He ushered us into the living room as though we were visiting royalty. I saw Tom’s eyes widen a little.
A stranger was sitting on the couch in the living room. He leaped to his feet when we entered. He was an older man, about twenty-two, tall and very slim, with black hair in a crew cut, and black, sparkling eyes.
Mr. Marriott introduced him proudly as “our nephew.” I found out later he was Mrs. Marriott’s sister’s son.
“Hello,” Chris Jordan said. His smile was like Mrs. Marriott’s, a smile that said, “I’m very glad to know you.”
It seemed my hand lay a long time in his warm, brown fingers. “I’ve heard so much about you,” he said. His bright eyes searched my face. “In fact, I came down to see if it were all true.”
Tom bristled beside me.
Mrs. Marriott came in on a wave of her own laughter. “Forgive me, Mary Ruth, I did mention you in my letters.”
“In every one,” said Chris Jordan. “I had to come and see for myself.”
Mrs. Marriott put her arm through his and hugged him briefly. “One of my favorite people, Mary Ruth.” She smiled at Tom. “We saw your last game. Lora cheered herself hoarse. You played very well.”
To my relief I felt Tom relax beside me.
The conversation quickened, and through the talk and the laughter I hunted for scraps of information about Chris Jordan. He had been in medical school, a throat infection had forced him out and had brought him here to Mrs. Marriott’s to convalesce. He was quick in his actions and his thoughts, and it was fascinating to me to watch him with the others. He reminded me of one of the fleet, wild horses aback in the canyons running easily beside first one and then another of the horses and then going fast as the wind to his own mountain top. He knew some of the best basketball teams, had seen them play. He knew all Mrs. Marriott’s friends and fed her hungry heart with good, rich tales of their doings. He seemed to have read everything in the world, and he and Mr. Marriott were soon launched on Mr. Marriott’s latest excitement, scientists and doctors who had done great things.
They were still at it when we went into the dining room. I listened with all my mind and heart, not knowing what I ate, because I had never really known such men and women as they spoke about this night. Even Tom was spellbound, asking questions, urging them to go on … Lavoisier, the Frenchman who first announced that air consists of “two elastic fluids, one respirable and the other poisonous,” who was brought to his death by Marat in the French revolution … The words Lavoisier’s friend pronounced at the guillotine stuck in my heart, “Only a moment to cut off his head, and perhaps a century before we shall have another like it.” Steinmetz, Marie Curie … After tonight they would never be people out of books, but people like myself who had found the reason for the curious hunger in themselves, the ceaseless gnawing to make their lives count for something. Oh, not that I would ever come near to the hem of their garments for greatness. It was only that in my sphere, in the place where I was, I had to reach out and become as great as I could.
“Mary Ruth, you are so quiet tonight,” Mrs. Marriott said.
I blushed and looked up to find Chris Jordan’s bright black eyes probing my face.
“I’m not quiet inside,” I said, and felt my face go redder still, and wished more furiously than ever that the bright silver polish on my nails was gone.
After dinner was over and we had said goodbye, Tom wanted to go down to the Purple Pigeon. “I’ve had too much long hair,” he growled.
But I couldn’t go. I couldn’t bear to have the juke box, the greasy smell of frying things, cover the hours that lay behind me.
“You’ve fallen in love with him!” Tom Mack bellowed, outraged.
“No,” I said, which was true. It was Tom I loved, Tom, the dear, the familiar, the part of all the springtime, the kind and the blundering. It was Tom I loved. But tonight a new way of life had lifted its curtains for me.