THE FIFTH WHEEL
THE FIFTH WHEEL
BY OLIVE HIGGINS PROUTY
AUTHOR OF "BOBBIE, GENERAL MANAGER"
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG
NEW YORK FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1916, by FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY
Copyright, 1915, 1916, by THE PHILLIPS PUBLISHING COMPANY
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages.
DEDICATED TO MY MOTHER
I. RUTH VARS COMES OUT 1
II. BRECKENRIDGE SEWALL 10
III. EPISODE OF A SMALL DOG 18
IV. A BACK-SEASON DEBUTANTE 27
V. THE UNIMPORTANT FIFTH WHEEL 36
VI. BRECK SEWALL AGAIN 44
VII. THE MILLIONS WIN 50
VIII. THE HORSE-SHOW 56
IX. CATASTROPHE 69
X. A UNIVERSITY TOWN 80
XI. A WALK IN THE RAIN 90
XII. A DINNER PARTY 101
XIII. LUCY TAKES UP THE NARRATIVE 112
XIV. BOB TURNS OUT A CONSERVATIVE 124
XV. ANOTHER CATASTROPHE 135
XVI. A FAMILY CONFERENCE 142
XVII. RUTH GOES TO NEW YORK 156
XVIII. A YEAR LATER 166
XIX. RUTH RESUMES HER OWN STORY 177
XX. THE FIFTH WHEEL GAINS WINGS 181
XXI. IN THE SEWALL MANSION 198
XXII. THE PARADE 206
XXIII. AN ENCOUNTER WITH BRECK 212
XXIV. THE OPEN DOOR 222
XXV. MOUNTAIN CLIMBING 232
XXVI. THE POT OF GOLD 239
XXVII. VAN DE VERE'S 248
XXVIII. A CALL FROM BOB JENNINGS 258
XXIX. LONGINGS 266
XXX. AGAIN LUCY NARRATES 274
XXXI. RUTH DRAWS CONCLUSIONS 282
XXXII. BOB DRAWS CONCLUSIONS TOO 291
"'Why, Breck, don't be absurd! I wouldn't marry you for anything in the world'" Frontispiece
"'Men seem to want to make just nice soft pussy-cats out of us, with ribbons round our necks, and hear us purr'" 128
"Straight ahead she gazed; straight ahead she rode; unafraid, eager, hopeful; the flag her only staff" 170
"I was the only one in her whole establishment whom she wasn't obliged to treat as a servant and menial" 202
THE FIFTH WHEEL
RUTH VARS COMES OUT
I spend my afternoons walking alone in the country. It is sweet and clean out-of-doors, and I need purifying. My wanderings disturb Lucy. She is always on the lookout for me, in the hall or living-room or on the porch, especially if I do not come back until after dark.
She needn't worry. I am simply trying to fit together again the puzzle-picture of my life, dumped out in terrible confusion in Edith's sunken garden, underneath a full September moon one midnight three weeks ago.
Lucy looks suspiciously upon the portfolio of theme paper I carry underneath my arm. But in this corner of the world a portfolio of theme paper and a pile of books are as common a part of a girl's paraphernalia as a muff and a shopping-bag on a winter's day on Fifth Avenue. Lucy lives in a university town. The university is devoted principally to the education of men, but there is a girls' college connected with it, so if I am caught scribbling no one except Lucy needs to wonder why.
I have discovered a pretty bit of woods a mile west of Lucy's house, and an unexpected rustic seat built among a company of murmurous young pines beside a lake. Opposite the seat is an ecstatic little maple tree, at this season of the year flaunting all the pinks and reds and yellows of a fiery opal. There, sheltered by the pines, undisturbed except by a scurrying chipmunk or two or an inquisitive, gray-tailed squirrel, I sit and write.
I heard Lucy tell Will the other day (Will is my intellectual brother-in-law) that she was really anxious about me. She believed I was writing poetry! "And whenever a healthy, normal girl like Ruth begins to write poetry," she added, "after a catastrophe like hers, look out for her. Sanitariums are filled with such."
Poetry! I wish it were. Poetry indeed! Good heavens! I am writing a defense.
I am the youngest member of a large grown-up family, all married now except myself and a confirmed bachelor brother in New York. We are the Vars of Hilton, Massachusetts, cotton mill owners originally, but now a little of everything and scattered from Wisconsin to the Atlantic Ocean. I am a New England girl, not the timid, resigned type one usually thinks of when the term is used, but the kind that goes away to a fashionable boarding-school when she is sixteen, has an elaborate coming-out party two years later, and then proves herself either a success or a failure according to the number of invitations she receives and the frequency with which her dances are cut into at the balls. She is supposed to feel grateful for the sacrifices that are made for her debut, and the best way to show it is by becoming engaged when the time is right to a man one rung higher up on the social ladder than she.
I had no mother to guide me through these intricacies. My pilot was my ambitious sister-in-law, Edith, who married Alec when I was fifteen, remodeled our old 240 Main Street, Hilton, Mass., into a very grand and elegant mansion and christened it The Homestead. Hilton used to be just a nice, typical New England city. It had its social ambitions and discontents, I suppose, but no more pronounced than in any community of fifty or sixty thousand people. It was the Summer Colony with its liveried servants, expensive automobiles, and elaborate entertaining that caused such discontent in Hilton.
I've seen perfectly happy and good-natured babies made cross and irritable by putting them into a four-foot-square nursery yard. The wall of wealth and aristocracy around Hilton has had somewhat the same effect upon the people that it confines. If a social barrier of any sort appears upon the horizon of my sister-in-law Edith, she is never happy until she has climbed over it. She was in the very midst of scaling that high and difficult barrier built up about Hilton by the Summer Colonists, when she married Alec.
It didn't seem to me a mean or contemptible object. To endeavor to place our name—sunk into unjust oblivion since the reverses of our fortune—in the front ranks of social distinction, where it belonged, impressed me as a worthy ambition. I was glad to be used in Edith's operations. Even as a little girl something had rankled in my heart, too, when our once unrestricted fields and hills gradually became posted with signs such as, "Idlewold, Private Grounds," "Cedarcrest, No Picnickers Allowed," "Grassmere, No Trespassing."
I wasn't eighteen when I had my coming-out party. It was decided, and fully discussed in my presence, that, as young as I was, chance for social success would be greater this fall than a year hence, when the list of debutantes among our summer friends promised to be less distinguished. It happened that many of these debutantes lived in Boston in the winter, which isn't very far from Hilton, and Edith had already laid out before me her plan of campaign in that city, where she was going to give me a few luncheons and dinners during the month of December, and possibly a Ball if I proved a success.
If I proved a success! No young man ever started out in business with more exalted determination to make good than I. I used to lie awake nights and worry for fear the next morning's mail would not contain some cherished invitation or other. And when it did, and Edith came bearing it triumphantly up to my room, where I was being combed, brushed and polished by her maid, and kissed me ecstatically on the brow and whispered, "You little winner, you!" I could have run up a flag for relief and joy.
I kept those invitations stuck into the mirror of my dressing-table as if they were badges of honor. Edith used to make a point of having her luncheon and dinner guests take off their things in my room. I knew it was because of the invitations stuck in the mirror, and I was proud to be able to return something for all the money and effort she had expended.
It appeared incumbent upon me as a kind of holy duty to prove myself a remunerative investment. The long hours spent in the preparation of my toilette; the money paid out for my folderols; the deceptions we had to resort to for the sake of expediency; everything—schemes, plans and devices—all appeared to me as simply necessary parts of a big and difficult contest I had entered and must win. It never occurred to me then that my efforts were unadmirable. When at the end of my first season Edith and I discovered to our delight, when the Summer Colony returned to our hills, that our names had become fixtures on their exclusive list of invitations, I felt as much exaltation as any runner who ever entered a Marathon and crossed the white tape among the first six.
There! That's the kind of New England girl I am. I offer no excuses. I lay no blame upon my sister-in-law. There are many New England girls just like me who have the advantage of mothers—tender and solicitous mothers too. But even mothers cannot keep their children from catching measles if there's an epidemic—not unless they move away. The social fever in my community was simply raging when I was sixteen, and of course I caught it.
Even my education was governed by the demands of society. The boarding-school I went to was selected because of its reputation for wealth and exclusiveness. I practised two hours a day on the piano, had my voice trained, and sat at the conversation-French table at school, because Edith impressed upon me that such accomplishments would be found convenient and convincing. I learned to swim and dive, play tennis and golf, ride horseback, dance and skate, simply because if I was efficient in sports I would prove popular at summer hotels, country clubs and winter resorts. Edith and I attended symphony concerts in Boston every Friday afternoon, and opera occasionally, not because of any special passion for music, but to be able to converse intelligently at dinner parties and teas.
It was not until I had been out two seasons that I met Breckenridge Sewall. When Edith introduced me to society I was younger than the other girls of my set, and to cover up my deficiency in years I affected a veneer of worldly knowledge and sophistication that was misleading. It almost deceived myself. At eighteen I had accepted as a sad truth the wickedness of the world, and especially that of men. I was very blase, very resigned—at least the two top layers of me were. Down underneath, way down, I know now I was young and innocent and hopeful. I know now that my first meeting with Breckenridge Sewall was simply one of the stratagems that the contest I had entered required of me. I am convinced that there was no thought of anything but harmless sport in my encounter.
Breckenridge Sewall's mother was the owner of Grassmere, the largest and most pretentious estate that crowns our hills. Everybody bowed down to Mrs. Sewall. She was the royalty of the Hilton Summer Colony. Edith's operations had not succeeded in piercing the fifty thousand dollar wrought-iron fence that surrounded the acres of Grassmere. We had never been honored by one of Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall's heavily crested invitations. We had drunk tea in the same drawing-room with her; we had been formally introduced on one occasion; but that was all. She imported most of her guests from New York and Newport. Even the Summer Colonists considered an invitation from Mrs. Sewall a high mark of distinction.
Her only son Breckenridge was seldom seen in Hilton. He preferred Newport, Aix les Bains, or Paris. It was reported among us girls that he considered Hilton provincial and was distinctly bored at any attempt to inveigle him into its society. Most of us had never met him, but we all knew him by sight. Frequently during the summer months he might be seen speeding along the wide state road that leads out into the region of Grassmere, seated in his great, gray, deep-purring monster, hatless, head ducked down, hair blown straight back and eyes half-closed to combat the wind.
One afternoon Edith and I were invited to a late afternoon tea at Idlewold, the summer residence of Mrs. Leonard Jackson. I was wearing a new gown which Edith had given me. It had been made at an expensive dressmaker's of hers in Boston. I remember my sister-in-law exclaimed as we strolled up the cedar-lined walk together, "My, but you're stunning in that wistaria gown. It's a joy to buy things for you, Ruth. You set them off so. I just wonder who you'll slaughter this afternoon."
It was that afternoon that I met Breckenridge Sewall.
It was a week from that afternoon that two dozen American Beauties formed an enormous and fragrant center-piece on the dining-room table at old 240 Main Street. Suspended on a narrow white ribbon above the roses Edith had hung from the center light a tiny square of pasteboard. It bore in engraved letters the name of Breckenridge Sewall.
The family were deeply impressed when they came in for dinner. The twins, Oliver and Malcolm, who were in college at the time, were spending part of their vacation in Hilton; and my sister Lucy was there too. There was quite a tableful. I can hear now the Oh's and Ah's as I sat nonchalantly nibbling a cracker.
"Not too fast, Ruth, not too fast!" anxious Alec had cautioned.
"For the love o' Mike! Hully G!" had ejaculated Oliver and Malcolm, examining the card.
"O Ruth, tell us about it," my sister Lucy in awed tones had exclaimed.
I shrugged. "There's nothing to tell," I said. "I met Mr. Sewall at a tea not long ago, as one is apt to meet people at teas, that's all."
Edith from the head of the table, sparkling, too joyous even to attempt her soup, had sung out, "I'm proud of you, rascal! You're a wonder, you are! Listen, people, little sister here is going to do something splendid one of these days—she is!"
When I was a little girl, Idlewold, the estate of Mrs. Leonard Jackson where I first met Breckenridge Sewall, was a region of rough pasture lands. Thither we children used to go forth on Saturday afternoons on marauding expeditions. It was covered in those days with a network of mysteriously winding cow-paths leading from shadow into sunshine, from dark groves through underbrush and berry-bushes to bubbling brooks. Many a thrilling adventure did I pursue with my brothers through those alluring paths, never knowing what treasure or surprise lay around the next curve. Sometimes it would be a cave appearing in the dense growth of wild grape and blackberry vines; sometimes a woodchuck's hole; a snake sunning himself; a branch of black thimble-berries; a baby calf beside its mother, possibly; or perhaps even a wild rabbit or partridge.
Mrs. Leonard Jackson's elaborate brick mansion stood where more than once bands of young vandals were guilty of stealing an ear or two of corn for roasting purposes, to be blackened over a forbidden fire in the corner of an old stone wall; and her famous wistaria-and-grape arbor followed for nearly a quarter of a mile the wandering path laid out years ago by cows on their way to water. What I discovered around one of the curves of that path the day of Mrs. Jackson's garden tea was as thrilling as anything I had ever chanced upon as a little girl. It was Mr. Breckenridge Sewall sitting on the corner of a rustic seat smoking a cigarette!
I had seen Mr. Sewall enter that arbor at the end near the house, a long way off beyond lawns and flower beds. I was standing at the time with a fragrant cup of tea in my hand beside the wistaria arch that forms the entrance of the arbor near the orchard. I happened to be alone for a moment. I finished my tea without haste, and then placing the cup and saucer on a cedar table near-by, I decided it would be pleasant to escape for a little while the chatter and conversation of the two or three dozen women and a handful of men. Unobserved I strolled down underneath the grape-vines.
I walked leisurely along the sun-dappled path, stopped a moment to reach up and pick a solitary, late wistaria blossom, and then went on again smiling a little to myself and wondering just what my plan was. I know now that I intended to waylay Breckenridge Sewall. His attitude toward Hilton had had somewhat the same effect upon me as the No Trespassing and Keep Off signs when I was younger. However, I hadn't gone very far when I lost my superb courage. A little path branching off at the right offered me an opportunity for escape. I took it, and a moment later fell to berating myself for not having been bolder and played my game to a finish. My impulses always fluctuate and flicker for a moment or two before they settle down to a steady resolve.
I did not think that Mr. Sewall had had time to reach the little path, or if so, it did not occur to me that he would select it. It was grass-grown and quite indistinct. So my surprise was not feigned when, coming around a curve, I saw him seated on a rustic bench immediately in front of me. It would have been awkward if I had exclaimed, "Oh!" and turned around and run away. Besides, when I saw Breckenridge Sewall sitting there before me and myself complete mistress of the situation, it appeared almost like a duty to play my cards as well as I knew how. I had been brought up to take advantage of opportunities, remember.
I glanced at the occupied bench impersonally, and then coolly strolled on toward it as if there was no one there. Mr. Sewall got up as I approached.
"Don't rise," I said, and then as if I had dismissed all thought of him, I turned away and fell to contemplating the panorama of stream and meadow. Mr. Sewall could have withdrawn if he had desired. I made it easy for him to pass unheeded behind me while I was contemplating the view. However, he remained standing, looking at me.
"Don't let me disturb you," I repeated after a moment. "I've simply come to see the view of the meadows."
"Oh, no disturbance," he exclaimed, "and say, if it's the view you're keen on, take the seat."
"No, thank you," I replied.
"Go on, I've had enough. Take it. I don't want it."
"Oh, no," I repeated. "It's very kind, but no, thank you."
"Why not? I've had my fill of view. Upon my word, I was just going to clear out anyway."
"Oh, were you?" That altered matters.
Then, "Thank you," I said, and went over and sat down.
Often under the cloak of just such innocent and ordinary phrases is carried on a private code of rapid signs and signals as easily understood by those who have been taught as dots and dashes by a telegraphic operator. I couldn't honestly say whether it was Mr. Sewall or I who gave the first signal, but at any rate the eyes of both of us had said what convention would never allow to pass our lips. So I wasn't surprised, as perhaps an outsider will be, when Mr. Sewall didn't raise his hat, excuse himself, and leave me alone on the rustic seat, as he should have done according to all rules of good form and etiquette. Instead he remarked, "I beg your pardon, but haven't I met you before somewhere?"
"Not that I know of," I replied icily, the manner of my glance, however, belying the tone of my voice. "I don't recall you, that is. I'm not in Hilton long at a time, so I doubt it."
"Oh, not in Hilton!" He scoffed at the idea. "Good Lord, no. Perhaps I'm mistaken though. I suppose," he broke off, "you've been having tea up there in the garden."
"I suppose so," I confessed, as if even the thought of it bored me.
He came over toward the bench. I knew it was his cool and audacious intention to sit down. So I laid my parasol lengthwise beside me, leaving the extreme corner vacant, by which I meant to say, "I'm perfectly game, as you see, but I'm perfectly nice too, remember."
He smiled understandingly, and sat down four feet away from me. He leaned back nonchalantly and proceeded to test my gameness by a prolonged and undisguised gaze, which he directed toward me through half-closed lids. I showed no uneasiness. I kept right on looking steadily meadow-ward, as if green fields and winding streams were much more engrossing to me than the presence of a mere stranger. I enjoyed the game I was playing as innocently, upon my word, as I would any contest of endurance. And it was in the same spirit that I took the next dare that was offered me.
I do not know how long it was that Breckenridge Sewall continued to gaze at me, how long I sat undisturbed beneath the fire of his eyes. At any rate it was he who broke the tension first. He leaned forward and drew from his waistcoat pocket a gold cigarette case.
"Do you object?" he asked.
"Certainly not," I replied, with a tiny shrug. And then abruptly, just as he was to return the case to his pocket, he leaned forward again.
"I beg your pardon—won't you?" And he offered me the cigarettes, his eyes narrowed upon me.
It was not the custom for young girls of my age to smoke cigarettes. It was not considered good form for a debutante to do anything of that sort. I had so far refused all cocktails and wines at dinners. However, I knew how to manage a cigarette. As a lark at boarding-school I had consumed a quarter of an inch of as many as a half-dozen cigarettes. In some amateur theatricals the winter before, in which I took the part of a young man, I had bravely smoked through half of one, and made my speeches too. What this man had said of Hilton and its provincialism was in my mind now. I meant no wickedness, no harm. I took one of the proffered cigarettes with the grand indifference of having done it many times before. Mr. Sewall watched me closely, and when he produced a match, lit it, and stretched it out toward me in the hollow of his hand. I leaned forward and simply played over again my well-learned act of the winter before. Instead of the clapping of many hands and a curtain-call, which had pleased me very much last winter, my applause today came in a less noisy way, but was quite as satisfying.
"Look here," softly exclaimed Breckenridge Sewall. "Say, who are you, anyway?"
Of course I wasn't stupid enough to tell him, and when I saw that he was on the verge of announcing his identity, I exclaimed:
"Oh, don't, please. I'd much rather not know."
"Oh, you don't know then?"
"Are you Mr. Jackson?" I essayed innocently.
"No, I'm not Buck Jackson, but he's a pal of mine. I'm——"
"Oh, please," I exclaimed again. "Don't spoil it!"
"Spoil it!" he repeated a little dazed. "Say, will you talk English?"
"I mean," I explained, carelessly tossing away now into the grass the nasty little thing that was making my throat smart, "I mean, don't spoil my adventure. Life has so few. To walk down a little path for the purpose of looking at a view, and instead to run across a stranger who may be anything from a bandit to an Italian Count is so—so romantic."
"Romantic!" he repeated. He wasn't a bit good at repartee. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Why, I'm any one from a peasant to an heiress."
"You're a darned attractive girl, anyhow!" he ejaculated, and as lacking in subtlety as this speech was, I prized it as sign of my adversary's surrender.
Five minutes later Mr. Sewall suggested that we walk back together to the people gathered on the lawn. But I had no intention of appearing in public with a celebrated person like Breckenridge Sewall, without having first been properly introduced. Besides, my over-eager sister-in-law would be sure to pounce upon us. I remembered my scarf. I had left it by my empty cup on the cedar table. It seemed quite natural for me to suggest to this stranger that before rejoining the party I would appreciate my wrap. It had grown a little chilly. He willingly went to get it. When he returned he discovered that the owner of the bit of lavender silk that he carried in his hand had mysteriously disappeared. Thick, close-growing vines and bushes surrounded the bench, bound in on both sides the shaded path. Through a network of thorns and tangled branches, somehow the owner of that scarf had managed to break her way. The very moment that Mr. Sewall stood blankly surveying the empty bench, she, hidden by a row of young firs, was eagerly skirting the west wall of her hostess's estate.
EPISODE OF A SMALL DOG
During the following week Miss Vars often caught a fleeting glimpse of Mr. Sewall on his way in or out of town. She heard that he attended a Country Club dance the following Saturday night, at which she chanced not to be present. She was told he had actually partaken of refreshment in the dining-room of the Country Club and had allowed himself to be introduced to several of her friends.
It was very assuming of this modest young girl, was it not, to imagine that Mr. Sewall's activities had anything to do with her? It was rather audacious of her to don a smart lavender linen suit one afternoon and stroll out toward the Country Club. Her little dog Dandy might just as well have exercised in the opposite direction, and his mistress avoided certain dangerous possibilities. But fate was on her side. She didn't think so at first when, in the course of his constitutional, Dandy suddenly bristled and growled at a terrier twice his weight and size, and then with a pull and a dash fell to in a mighty encounter, rolling over and over in the dirt and dust. Afterward, with the yelping terrier disappearing down the road, Dandy held up a bleeding paw to his mistress. She didn't have the heart to scold the triumphant little warrior. Besides he was sadly injured. She tied her handkerchief about the paw, gathered the dog up in her arms, turned her back on the Country Club a quarter of a mile further on, and started home. It was just then that a gray, low, deep-purring automobile appeared out of a cloud of dust in the distance. As it approached it slowed down and came to a full stop three feet in front of her. She looked up. The occupant of the car was smiling broadly.
"Well!" he ejaculated. "At last! Where did you drop from?"
"How do you do," she replied loftily.
"Where did you drop from?" he repeated. "I've been hanging around for a week, looking for you."
"For me?" She was surprised. "Why, what for?"
"Say," he broke out. "That was a mean trick you played. I was mad clean through at first. What did you run off that way for? What was the game?"
"Previous engagement," she replied primly.
"Previous engagement! Well, you haven't any previous engagement now, have you? Because, if you have, get in, and I'll waft you to it."
"Oh, I wouldn't think of it!" she said. He opened the door to the car and sprang out beside her.
"Come, get in," he urged. "I'll take you anywhere you're going. I'd be delighted."
"Why," she exclaimed, "we haven't been introduced. How do I know who you are?" She was a well brought-up young person, you see.
"I'll tell you who I am fast enough. Glad to. Get in, and we will run up to the Club and get introduced, if that's what you want."
"Oh, it isn't!" she assured him. "I just prefer to walk—that's all. Thank you very much."
"Well, walk then. But you don't give me the slip this time, young lady. Savvy that? Walk, and I'll come along behind on low speed."
She contemplated the situation for a moment, looking away across fields and green pastures. Then she glanced down at Dandy. Her name in full appeared staring at her from the nickel plate of the dog's collar. She smiled.
"I'll tell you what you can do," she said brightly. "I'd be so grateful! My little dog has had an accident, you see, and if you would be so kind—I hate to ask so much of a stranger—it seems a great deal—but if you would leave him at the veterinary's, Dr. Jenkins, just behind the Court House! He's so heavy! I'd be awfully grateful."
"No, you don't," replied Mr. Sewall. "No more of those scarf games on me! Sorry. But I'm not so easy as all that!"
The girl shifted her dog to her other arm.
"He weighs fifteen pounds," she remarked. And then abruptly for no apparent reason Mr. Sewall inquired:
"Is it yours? Your own? The dog, I mean?"
"My own?" she repeated. "Why do you ask?" Innocence was stamped upon her. For nothing in the world would she have glanced down upon the collar.
"Oh, nothing—nice little rat, that's all. And I'm game. Stuff him in, if you want. I'll deliver him to your vet."
"You will? Really? Why, how kind you are! I do appreciate it. You mean it?"
"Of course I do. Stuff him in. Delighted to be of any little service. Come on, Towzer. Make it clear to your little pet, pray, before starting that I'm no abductor. Good-by—and say," he added, as the car began to purr, "Say, please remember you aren't the only clever little guy in the world, Miss Who-ever-you-are!"
"Why, what do you mean?" She looked abused.
"That's all right. Good-by." And off he sped down the road.
Miss "Who-ever-you-are" walked the three miles home slowly, smiling almost all the way. When she arrived, there was a huge box of flowers waiting on the hall-table directed to:
"Miss Ruth Chenery Vars The Homestead, Hilton, Mass. License No. 668."
Inside were two dozen American Beauty roses. Tied to the stem of one was an envelope, and inside the envelope was a card which bore the name of Breckenridge Sewall.
* * * * *
"So that's who he is!" Miss Vars said out loud.
I saw a great deal of the young millionaire during the remainder of the summer. Hardly a day passed but that I heard the approaching purr of his car. And never a week but that flowers and candy, and more flowers and candy, filled the rejoicing Homestead.
I was a canny young person. I allowed Mr. Sewall very little of my time in private. I refused to go off alone with him anywhere, and the result was that he was forced to attend teas and social functions if he wanted to indulge in his latest fancy. The affair, carried on as it was before the eyes of the whole community, soon became the main topic of conversation. I felt myself being pointed out everywhere I went as the girl distinguished by the young millionaire, Breckenridge Sewall. My friends regarded me with wonder.
Before a month had passed a paragraph appeared in a certain periodical in regard to the exciting affair. I burst into flattering notoriety. What had before been slow and difficult sailing for Edith and me now became as swift and easy as if we had added an auxiliary engine to our little boat. We found ourselves receiving invitations from hostesses who before had been impregnable. Extended hands greeted us—kindness, cordiality.
Finally the proud day arrived when I was invited to Grassmere as a guest. One afternoon Breck came rushing in upon me and eagerly explained that his mother sent her apologies, and would I be good enough to fill in a vacancy at a week-end house-party. Of course I would! Proudly I rode away beside Breck in his automobile, out of the gates of the Homestead along the state road a mile or two, and swiftly swerved inside the fifty thousand dollar wrought-iron fence around the cherished grounds of Grassmere. My trunks followed, and Edith's hopes followed too!
It was an exciting three days. I had never spent a night in quite such splendid surroundings; I had never mingled with quite such smart and fashionable people. It was like a play to me. I hoped I would not forget my lines, fail to observe cues, or perform the necessary business awkwardly. I wanted to do credit to my host. And I believe I did. Within two hours I felt at ease in the grand and luxurious house. The men were older, the women more experienced, but I wasn't uncomfortable. As I wandered through the beautiful rooms, conversed with what to me stood for American aristocracy, basked in the hourly attention of butlers and French maids, it occurred to me that I was peculiarly fitted for such a life as this. It became me. It didn't seem as if I could be the little girl who not so very long ago lived in the old French-roofed house with the cracked walls, stained ceilings and worn Brussels carpets, at 240 Main Street, Hilton, Mass. But the day Breck asked me to marry him I discovered I was that girl, with the same untainted ideal of marriage, too, hidden away safe and sound under my play-acting.
"Why, Breck!" I exclaimed. "Don't be absurd. I wouldn't marry you for anything in the world."
And I wouldn't! My marriage was dim and indistinct to me then. I had placed it in a very faraway future. My ideal of love was such, that beside it all my friends' love affairs and many of those in fiction seemed commonplace and mediocre. I prized highly the distinction of Breckenridge Sewall's attentions, but marry him—of course I wouldn't!
Breck's attentions continued spasmodically for over two years. It took some skill to be seen with him frequently, to accept just the right portion of his tokens of regard, to keep him interested, and yet remain absolutely free and uninvolved. I couldn't manage it indefinitely; the time would come when all the finesse in the world would avail nothing. And come it did in the middle of the third summer.
Breck refused to be cool and temperate that third summer. He insisted on all sorts of extravagances. He allowed me to monopolize him to the exclusion of every one else. He wouldn't be civil even to his mother's guests at Grassmere. He deserted them night after night for Edith's sunken garden, and me, though I begged him to be reasonable, urging him to stay away. I didn't blame his mother, midsummer though it was, for closing Grassmere, barring the windows, locking the gates and abruptly packing off with her son to an old English estate of theirs near London. I only hoped Mrs. Sewall didn't think me heartless. I had always been perfectly honest with Breck. I had always, from the first, said I couldn't marry him.
Not until I was convinced that the end must come between Breck and me, did I tell the family that he had ever proposed marriage. There exists, I believe, some sort of unwritten law that once a man proposes and a girl refuses, attentions should cease. I came in on Sunday afternoon from an automobile ride with Breck just before he sailed for England and dramatically announced his proposal to the family—just as if he hadn't been urging the same thing ever since I knew him.
I expected Edith would be displeased when she learned that I wasn't going to marry Breck, so I didn't tell her my decision immediately. I dreaded to undertake to explain to her what a slaughter to my ideals such a marriage would be. Oh, I was young then, you see, young and hopeful. Everything was ahead of me. There was a splendid chance for happiness.
"I can't marry Breck Sewall, Edith," I attempted at last. "I can't marry any one—yet."
"And what do you intend to do with yourself?" she inquired in that cold, unsympathetic way she assumes when she is angry.
"I don't know, yet. There's a chance for all sorts of good things to come true," I replied lightly.
"You've been out three years, you know," she reminded me icily.
The Sewalls occupied their English estate for several seasons. Grassmere remained closed and barred. I did not see my young millionaire again until I was an older girl, and my ideals had undergone extensive alterations.
A BACK-SEASON DEBUTANTE
Debutantes are a good deal like first novels—advertised and introduced at a great expenditure of money and effort, and presented to the public with fear and trembling. But the greatest likeness comes later. The best-sellers of one spring must be put up on the high shelves to make room for new merchandise the next. At the end of several years the once besought and discussed book can be found by the dozens on bargain counters in department stores, marked down to fifty cents a copy.
The first best-seller I happened to observe in this ignominious position was a novel that came out the same fall that I did. It was six years old to the world, and so was I. I stopped a moment at the counter and opened the book. It had been strikingly popular, with scores of reviews and press notices, and hundreds of admirers. It had made a pretty little pile of money for its exploiters. Perhaps, too, it had won a few friends. But its day of intoxicating popularity had passed. And so had mine. And so must every debutante's. By the fourth or fifth season, cards for occasional luncheons and invitations to fill in vacancies at married people's dinner parties must take the place of those feverish all-night balls, preceded by brilliantly lighted tables-full of debutantes, as excited as yourself, with a lot of gay young lords for partners and all the older people looking on, admiring and taking mental notes. Such excitement was all over with me by the time I was twenty-two. I had been a success, too, I suppose. Any girl whom Breckenridge Sewall had launched couldn't help being a success.
During the two or three years that Breck was in Europe I passed through the usual routine of back-season debutantes. They always resort to travel sooner or later; visit boarding-school friends one winter; California, Bermuda or Europe the next; eagerly patronize winter resorts; and fill in various spaces acting as bridesmaids. When they have the chance they take part in pageants and amateur theatricals, periodically devote themselves to some fashionable charity or other, read novels, and attend current event courses if very desperate.
I used to think when I was fifteen that I should like to be an author, more specifically, a poet. I used to write verses that were often read out loud in my English course at the Hilton High School. And I designed book plates, too, and modeled a little in clay. The more important business of establishing ourselves socially interrupted all that sort of thing, however. But I often wish I might have specialized in some line of art. Perhaps now when I have so much time on my hands it would prove my staunchest friend. For a girl who has no established income it might result in an enjoyable means of support.
I have an established income, you see. Father kindly left me a little stock in some mines out West, stock or bonds—I'm not very clear on business terms. Anyhow I have an income of about eight hundred dollars a year, paid over to me by my brother Tom, who has my affairs in charge. It isn't sufficient for me to live on at present, of course. What with the traveling, clothes—one thing and another—Edith has had to help out with generous Christmas and birthday gifts. This she does lavishly. She's enormously rich herself, and very generous. My last Christmas present from her was a set of furs and a luxurious coon-skin motor coat. Perhaps I wouldn't feel quite so hopeless if my father and mother were living, and I felt that my idleness in some way was making them happy. But I haven't such an excuse. I am not necessary to the happiness of any household. I am what is known as a fifth wheel—a useless piece of paraphernalia carried along as necessary impedimenta on other people's journeys.
There are lots of fifth wheels in the world. Some are old and rusty and out of repair, and down in their inmost hubs they long to roll off into the gutter and lie there quiet and undisturbed. These are the old people—silver-haired, self-effacing—who go upstairs to bed early when guests are invited for dinner. Some are emergency fifth wheels, such as are carried on automobiles, always ready to take their place on the road, if one of the regular wheels breaks down and needs to be sent away for repairs. These are the middle-aged, unmarried aunts and cousins—staunch, reliable—who are sent for to take care of the children while mother runs over to Europe for a holiday. And some are fifth wheels like myself—neither old nor self-effacing, neither middle-aged nor useful, but simply expensive to keep painted, and very hungry for the road. It may be only a matter of time, however, when I shall be middle-aged and useful, and later old and self-effacing; when I shall stay and take care of the children, and go upstairs early when the young people are having a party.
A young technical college graduate told me once, to comfort me, I suppose, that a fifth wheel is considered by a carriage-maker a very important part of a wagon. He tried to explain to me just what part of a wagon it was. You can't see it. It's underneath somewhere, and has to be kept well oiled. I am not very mechanical, but it sounded ignominious to me. I told that young man that I wanted to be one of the four wheels that held the coach up and made it speed, not tucked out of sight, smothered in carriage-grease.
It came as a shock to me when I first realized my superfluous position in this world. The result of that shock was what led me to abandon my ideals on love in an attempt to avoid the possibility of going upstairs early and having dinners off a tray.
When my brother Alec married Edith Campbell, and Edith came over to our house and remodeled it, I didn't feel supplanted. There was a room built especially for me with a little bath-room of its own, a big closet, a window-box filled with flowers in the summer, and cretonne hangings that I picked out myself. My sister Lucy had a room too—for she wasn't married then—and the entire attic was finished up as barracks for my brothers, the twins, who were in college at the time. They were invited to bring home all the friends they wanted to. Edith was a big-hearted sister-in-law. To me her coming was like the advent of a fairy godmother. I had chafed terribly under the economies of my earlier years. It wasn't until Alec married Edith that fortune began to smile.
One by one the family left the Homestead—Lucy, when she married Dr. William Maynard and went away to live near the university with which Will was connected, and Oliver and Malcolm when they graduated from college and went into business. I alone was left living with Alec and Edith. I was so busy coming-out and making a social success of myself that it never occurred to me but that I was as important a member in that household as Edith herself. I wasn't far from wrong either. When I was a debutante and admired by Breckenridge Sewall, I was petted and pampered and kept in sight. When I became a back-season number of some four or five years' staleness, any old north room would do for me!
I used to dread Hilton in the winter, with nothing more exciting going on than a few horrible thimble parties with girls who were beginning to discuss how to keep thin, the importance of custom-made corsets, and various other topics of advancing years. I soon acquired the habit of interrupting these long seasons. I was frequently absent two months at a time, visiting boarding-school friends, running out to California, up to Alaska, or down to Mexico with some girl friend or other, with her mother or aunt for a chaperon. Traveling is pleasant enough, but everybody likes to feel a tie pulling gently at his heartstrings when he steps up to a hotel register to write down the name of that little haven that means home. It is like one of those toy return-balls. If the ball is attached by an elastic string to some little girl's middle finger how joyfully it springs forth from her hand, how eagerly returns again! When suddenly on one of its trips the elastic snaps, the ball becomes lifeless and rolls listlessly away in the gutter. When my home ties broke, I, too, abandoned myself.
I had been on a visiting-trip made up of two-week stands in various cities between Massachusetts and the Great Lakes, whither I had set out to visit my oldest brother, Tom, and his wife, Elise, who live on the edge of one of the Lakes in Wisconsin. I had been gone about six weeks and had planned not to return to Hilton until the arrival of Hilton's real society in May.
When I reached Henrietta Morgan's, just outside New York, on the return trip, I fully expected to remain with her for two weeks and stop off another week with the Harts in New Haven. But after about three days at Henrietta's, I suddenly decided I couldn't stand it any longer. My clothes all needed pressing—they had a peculiar trunky odor—even the tissue paper which I used in such abundance in my old-fashioned tray trunk had lost its life and crispness; I had gotten down to my last clean pair of long white gloves; everything I owned needed some sort of attention—I simply must go home!
I woke up possessed with the idea, and after putting on my last really respectable waist and inquiring of myself in the mirror how in the world I expected to visit Henrietta Morgan with such a dreary trunkful of travel-worn articles, anyhow, I went down to the breakfast table with my mind made up.
Henrietta left me after breakfast for a hurried trip to town. I didn't go with her. I had waked up with a kind of cottony feeling in my throat, and as hot coffee and toast didn't seem to help it, I made an examination with a hand-mirror after breakfast. I discovered three white spots! I wasn't alarmed. They never mean anything serious with me, and they offered an excellent excuse for my sudden departure. It didn't come to my mind that the white spots might have been the cause of my sudden longing for my own little pink room. I simply knew I wanted to go home; and wake up in the morning cross and disagreeable; and grumble about the bacon and coffee at the breakfast table if I wanted to.
While Henrietta and her mother were out in the morning, I clinched my decision by engaging a section on the night train and telegraphing Edith. Although I was convinced that my departure wouldn't seriously upset any of the small informal affairs so far planned for my entertainment, I was acquainted with Mrs. Morgan's tenacious form of hospitality. By the time she returned my packing was finished, and I was lying down underneath a down comforter on the couch. I told Mrs. Morgan about the white spots and my decision to return home.
She would scarcely hear me through. She announced emphatically that she wouldn't think of allowing me to travel if I was ill. I was to undress immediately, crawl in between the sheets, and she would call a doctor. I wasn't rude to Mrs. Morgan, simply firm—that was all—quite as persistent in my resolve as she in hers.
When finally she became convinced that nothing under heaven could dissuade me, she flushed slightly and said icily, "Oh, very well, very well. If that is the way you feel about it, very well, my dear," and sailed out of the room, hurt. Even Henrietta, though very solicitous, shared her mother's indignation, and I longed for the comfort and relief of the Pullman, the friendly porters, and my own understanding people at the other end.
So, you see, when in the middle of the afternoon I was summoned to the telephone to receive a telegram from Hilton, I wasn't prepared for the slap in the face that Edith's message was to me.
"Sorry," it was repeated. "Can't conveniently have you until next week. House packed with company. Better stay with the Morgans." Signed, "Edith."
THE UNIMPORTANT FIFTH WHEEL
Better stay with the Morgans! Who was I to be bandied about in such fashion? Couldn't have me! I wasn't a seamstress who went out by the day. House packed with company! Well—what of that? Hadn't I more right there? Wasn't I Alec's own sister? Wasn't I born under the very roof to which I was now asked not to come? Weren't all my things there—my bed, my bureau, my little old white enameled desk I used when I was a child? Where was I to go, I'd like to ask? Couldn't have me! Very well, then, I wouldn't go!
I called up my brother Malcolm's office in New York. Perhaps he would be kind enough to engage a room in a hospital somewhere, or at least find a bed in a public ward. "Sorry, Miss Vars," came the answer finally to me over the long distance wire, "but Mr. Vars has gone up to Hilton, Massachusetts, for the week-end. Not returning until Monday."
I sat dumbly gazing into the receiver. Where could I go? Lucy, I was sure, would squeeze me in somewhere if I applied to her—she always can—but a letter received from Lucy two days before had contained a glowing description of some celebrated doctor of science and his wife, who were to be her guests during this very week. She has but one guest room. I couldn't turn around and go back to Wisconsin. I couldn't go to Oliver, now married to Madge. They live in a tiny apartment outside Boston. There is nothing for me to sleep on except a lumpy couch in the living-room. Besides there is a baby, and to carry germs into any household with a baby in it is nothing less than criminal.
Never before had I felt so ignominious as when, half an hour later, I meekly passed my telegram to Mrs. Morgan and asked if it would be terribly inconvenient if I did stay after all.
"Not at all. Of course not," she replied coldly. "I shall not turn you out into the street, my dear. But you stated your wish to go so decidedly that I have telephoned Henrietta's friends in Orange to come over to take your place. We had not told you that tickets for the theater tonight and matinee tomorrow had already been bought. The friends are coming this evening. So I shall be obliged to ask you to move your things into the sewing-room."
I moved them. A mean little room it was on the north side of the house. Piles of clothes to be mended, laundry to be put away, a mop and a carpet sweeper greeted me as I went in. The floor was untidy with scraps of cloth pushed into a corner behind the sewing machine. The mantel was decorated with spools of thread, cards of hooks and eyes, and a pin-cushion with threaded needles stuck in it. The bed was uncomfortable. I crawled into it, and lay very still. My heart was filled with bitterness. My eyes rested on the skeleton of a dressmaker's form. A man's shirt ripped up the back hung over a chair. I staid for three days in that room! Mrs. Morgan's family physician called the first night, and announced to Mrs. Morgan that probably I was coming down with a slight attack of tonsilitis. I thought at least it was diphtheria or double pneumonia. There were pains in my back. When I tried to look at the dressmaker's skeleton it jiggled uncomfortably before my eyes.
I didn't see the new guests once. Even Henrietta was allowed to speak to me only from across the hall.
"Tonsilitis is catching, you know, my dear," Mrs. Morgan sweetly purred from heights above me, "and I'd never forgive myself if the other two girls caught anything here. I've forbidden Henrietta to see you. She's so susceptible to germs." I felt I was an unholy creature, teeming with microbes.
The room was warm; they fed me; they cared for me; but I begged the doctor for an early deliverance on Monday morning. I longed for home. I cried for it a little. Edith couldn't have known that I was ill; she would have opened her arms wide if she had guessed—of course she would. I ought to have gone in the beginning. I poured out my story into that old doctor's understanding ears, and he opened the way for me finally. He let me escape. Very weak and wobbly I took an early train on Monday morning for Hilton. At the same time I sent the following telegram to my sister-in-law: "Arrive Hilton 6:15 tonight. Have been ill. Still some fever, but doctor finally consents to let me come."
Six fearful hours later I found myself, weak-kneed and trembling, on the old home station platform. I was on the verge of tears. I looked up and down for Edith's anxious face, or for Alec's—they would be disturbed when they heard I had a fever, they might be alarmed—but I couldn't find them. The motor was not at the curb either. I stepped into a telephone-booth and called the house. Edith answered herself. I recognized her quick staccato "Hello."
I replied, "Hello, that you, Edith?"
"Yes. Who is this?" she called.
"Ruth," I answered feebly.
"Ruth! Where in the world are you?" she answered.
"Oh, I'm all right. I'm down here at the station. Just arrived. I'm perfectly all right," I assured her.
"Well, well," she exclaimed. "That's fine. Awfully glad you're back! I do wish I could send the limousine down for you, Ruth. But I just can't. We're going out to dinner—to the Mortimers, and we've just got to have it. I'm awfully sorry, but do you mind taking the car, or a carriage? I'm right in the midst of dressing. I've got to hurry like mad. It's almost half-past six now. Jump into a taxi, and we can have a nice little chat before I have to go. Got lots to tell you. It's fine you're back. Good-by. Don't mind if I hurry now, do you?"
I arrived at the house ten minutes later in a hired taxicab. I rang the bell, and after a long wait a maid I had never seen before let me in. Edith resplendent in a brand new bright green satin gown was just coming down the stairs. She had on all her diamonds.
"Hello, Toots," she said. "Did you get homesick, dearie? Welcome. Wish I could kiss you, Honey, but I can't. I've just finished my lips. Why didn't you telegraph, Rascal? It's a shame not to have you met."
"I did," I began.
"Oh, well, our telephone has been out of order all day. It makes me tired the way they persist in telephoning telegrams. We do get the worst service! I had no idea you were coming. Why, I sent off a perfect bunch of mail to you this very morning. You weren't peeved, were you, Toots, about my telegram, I mean? I was right in the midst of the most important house-party I've ever had. As it was I had too many girls, and at the last minute had to telegraph Malcolm to come and help me out. And he did, the lamb! The house-party was a screaming success. I'm going to have a regular series of them all summer. How do you like my gown? Eighty-five, my dear, marked down from a hundred and fifty."
"Stunning," I replied, mingled emotions in my heart.
"There!" exclaimed Edith abruptly. "There's your telegram now. Did you ever? Getting here at this hour!"
A telegraph boy was coming up the steps. I was fortunately near the door, and I opened it before he rang, received my needless message myself, and tore open the envelope.
"You're right," I said. "It is my telegram. It just said I was coming. That's all. It didn't matter much. Guess I'll go up to my room now, if you don't mind."
"Do, dear. Do," said Edith, "and I'll come along too. I want to show you something, anyhow. I've picked up the stunningest high-boy you ever saw in your life. A real old one, worth two hundred and fifty, but I got it for a hundred. I've put it right outside your room, and very carefully—oh, most carefully—with my own hands, Honey, I just laid your things in it. I simply couldn't have the bureau drawers in that room filled up, you know, with all the house-parties I'm having, and you not here half the time. I knew you wouldn't mind, and the high-boy is so stunning!" We had gone upstairs and were approaching it now. "I put all your underclothes in those long shallow drawers; and your ribbons and gloves and things in these deep, low ones. And then up here in the top I've laid carefully all the truck you had stowed away in that little old white enameled desk of yours. The desk I put up in the store-room. It wasn't decent for guests. I've bought a new one to take its place. I do hope you'll like it. It's a spinet desk, and stunning. Oh, dear—there it is now ten minutes of seven, and I've simply got to go. I promised to pick up Alec at the Club on the way. I don't believe I've told you I've had your room redecorated. I wish I could wait and see if you're pleased. But I can't—simply can't! You understand, don't you, dear? But make yourself comfy."
She kissed me then very lightly on the cheek, and turned and tripped away downstairs. When I caught the purr of the vanishing limousine as it sped away down the winding drive, I opened the door of my room. It was very pretty, very elegant, as perfectly appointed as any hotel room I had ever gazed upon, but mine no more. This one little sacred precinct had been entered in my absence and robbed of every vestige of me. Instead of my single four-poster were two mahogany sleigh beds, spread with expensively embroidered linen. Instead of my magazine cut of Robert Louis Stevenson pinned beside the east window was a signed etching. Instead of my own familiar desk welcoming me with bulging packets of old letters, waiting for some rainy morning to be read and sentimentally destroyed, appeared the spinet desk, furnished with brand new blotters, chaste pens, and a fresh book of two-cent stamps. All but my mere flesh and bones had been conveniently stuffed into a two-hundred and fifty dollar high-boy!
I could have burst into tears if I had dared to fling myself down upon the embroidered spreads. And then suddenly from below I heard the scramble of four little feet on the hardwood floor, the eager, anxious pant of a wheezy little dog hurrying up the stairs. It was Dandy—my Boston terrier. Somehow, down behind the kitchen stove he had sensed me, and his little dog heart was bursting with welcome. Only Dandy had really missed me, sitting long, patient hours at a time at the living-room window, watching for me to come up the drive; and finally starting out on mysterious night searches of his own, as he always does when days pass and I do not return. I heard the thud of his soft body as he slipped and fell, in his haste, on the slippery hall floor. And then a moment later he was upon me—paws and tongue and half-human little yelps and cries pouring out their eloquence.
I held the wriggling, ecstatic little body close to me, and wondered what it would be like if some human being was as glad to see me as Dandy.
BRECK SEWALL AGAIN
As I stood there in my devastated room, hugging to me a little scrap of a dog, a desire to conceal my present poverty swept over me, just as I had always wanted to hide the tell-tale economies of our household years ago from my more affluent friends. I did not want pity. I was Ruth, of whom my family had predicted great things—vague great things, I confess. Never had I been quite certain what they were to be—but something rather splendid anyhow.
We become what those nearest to us make us. The family made out of my oldest brother Tom counselor and wise judge; out of my sister Lucy chief cook and general-manager; out of me butterfly and ornament. In the eyes of the family I have always been frivolous and worldly, and though they criticize these qualities of mine, underneath their righteous veneer I discover them marveling. They disparage my extravagance in dressing, and then admire my frocks. In one breath they ridicule social ambition, and in the next inquire into my encounters and triumphs. A desire to remain in my old position I offer now as the least contemptible excuse of any that I can think of for the following events of my life. I didn't want to resign my place like an actress who can no longer take ingenue parts because of wrinkles and gray hairs. When I came home that day and discovered how unimportant I was, how weak had become my applause, instead of trying to play a new part by making myself useful and necessary—helping with the housework, putting away laundry, mending, and so on—I went about concocting ways and methods of filling more dazzlingly my old role.
Although my fever had practically disappeared by the time I went to bed that night, I lolled down to the breakfast table the next morning later than ever, making an impression in a shell-pink tea-gown; luxuriously dawdled over a late egg and coffee; and then lazily borrowed a maid about eleven o'clock and allowed her to unpack for me. Meanwhile I lay back on the couch, criticized to Edith the tone of gray of the paper in my room, carelessly suggested that there were too many articles on the shelf from an artistic point of view, and then suffered myself to be consulted on an invitation list for a party Edith was planning to give. The description of my past two months' gaieties, recited in rather a bored and blase manner, lacked none of the usual color. My references to attentions from various would-be suitors proved to Edith and Alec that I was keeping up my record.
One Saturday afternoon not long after my return to Hilton, Edith and I attended a tea at the Country Club. The terrace, open to the sky and covered with a dozen small round tables, made a pretty sight—girls in light-colored gowns and flowery hats predominating early in the afternoon, but gradually, from mysterious regions of lockers and shower-baths below, joined by men in white flannels and tennis-shoes.
Edith's and my table was popular that day. I had been away from Hilton for so long that a lot of our friends gathered about us to welcome me home. I was chatting away to a half dozen of them, when I saw two men strolling up from the seventeenth green. One of the men was Breckenridge Sewall. I glanced over the rim of my cup the second time to make certain. Yes, it was Breck—the same old blase, dissipated-looking Breck. I had thought he was still in Europe. To reach the eighteenth tee the men had to pass within ten feet of the terrace. My back would be toward them. I didn't know if a second opportunity would be offered me. Grassmere, the Sewall estate, was not open this year. Breck might be gone by the next day. I happened at the time to be talking about a certain tennis tournament with a man who had been an eye-witness. I rose and put down my cup of tea.
"Come over and tell me about it, please," I said, smiling upon him. "I've finished. Take my chair, Phyllis," I added sweetly to a young girl standing near. "Do, dear. Mr. Call and I are going to decorate the balustrade."
I selected a prominent position beside a huge earthen pot of flowering geraniums. It was a low balustrade with a flat top, designed to sit upon. I leaned back against the earthen jar and proceeded to appear engrossed in tennis. Really, though, I was wondering if Breck would see me after all, and what I should say if he did.
What I did say was conventional enough—simply, "Why, how do you do," to his eager, "Hello, Miss Vars!" while I shook hands with him as he stood beneath me on the ground.
"Saw you on Fifth Avenue a week ago," he went on, "hiking for some place in a taxi. Lost you in the crowd at Forty-second. Thought you might be rounding up here before long. So decided I'd run up and say howdy. Look here, wait for me, will you? I've got only one hole more to play. Do. Wait for me. I'll see that you get home all right."
Edith returned alone in the automobile that afternoon.
"I'll come along later," I explained mysteriously.
She hadn't seen Breck, thank heaven! She would have been sure to have blundered into a dinner invitation, or some such form of effusion. But she surmised that something unusual was in the air, and was watching for me from behind lace curtains in the living-room when I returned two hours later. She saw a foreign-made car whirl into the drive and stop at the door. She saw me get out of it and run up the front steps. The features of the man behind the big mahogany steering-wheel could be discerned easily. When I opened the front door my sister-in-law was in the vestibule. She grasped me by both my arms just above my elbows.
"Breck Sewall!" she ejaculated. "My dear! Breck Sewall again!"
The ecstasy of her voice, the enthusiasm of those hands of hers grasping my arms soothed my hurt feelings of a week ago. I was led tenderly—almost worshipfully—upstairs to my room.
"I believe he is as crazy as ever about you," Edith exclaimed, once behind closed doors. "I honestly think"—she stopped abruptly—"What if——" she began again, then excitedly kissed me. "You little wonder!" she said. "There's no one in the whole family to match you. I'll wager you could become a veritable gateway for us all to pass into New York society if you wanted to. You're a marvel—you are! Tell me about it." Her eyes sparkled as she gazed upon me. I realized in a flash just what the splendid thing was that I might do. Of course! How simple! I might marry Breck!
"Well," I said languidly, gazing at my reflection in the mirror and replacing a stray lock, "I suppose I'd rather be a gateway than a fifth wheel."
The next time that Breck asked me to marry him, I didn't call him absurd. I was older now. I must put away my dolls and air-castles. The time had come, it appeared, for me to assume a woman's burdens, among which often is an expedient marriage. I could no longer offer my tender years as an excuse for side-stepping a big opportunity. I musn't falter. The moment had arrived. I accepted Breck, and down underneath a pile of stockings in the back of my lowest bureau drawer I hid a little velvet-lined jewel-box, inside of which there lay an enormous diamond solitaire—promise of my brilliant return to the footlights.
THE MILLIONS WIN
Some people cannot understand how a girl can marry a man she doesn't love. She can do it more easily than she can stay at home, watch half her friends marry, and feel herself slowly ossifying into something worthless and unessential. It takes more courage to sit quietly, wait for what may never come, and observe without misgiving the man you might have had making some other woman's life happy and complete.
I couldn't go on living in guest-rooms forever. I was tired of traveling, and sick to death of leading a life that meant nothing to anybody but Dandy. As a debutante I had had a distinct mission—whether worthy or unworthy isn't the point in question—worked for it hard, schemed, devised, and succeeded. As Mrs. Breckenridge Sewall I could again accomplish results. Many women marry simply because they cannot endure an arid and purposeless future.
Some people think that a girl who marries for position is hard and calculating. Why, I entered into my engagement in the exalted mood of a martyr! I didn't feel hard—I felt self-sacrificing, like a girl in royal circles whose marriage may distinguish herself and her people to such an extent that the mere question of her own personal feelings is of small importance. The more I considered marrying Breck the more convinced I became that it was the best thing I could do. With my position placed upon my brow, like a crown on a king, freed at last from all the mean and besmirching tricks of acquiring social distinction, I could grow and expand. When I looked ahead and saw myself one day mistress of Grassmere, the London house, the grand mansion in New York; wise and careful monitor of the Sewall millions; gracious hostess; kind ruler; I felt as nearly religious as ever before in my life. I meant to do good with my wealth and position and influence. Is that hard and calculating?
I accepted Breck's character and morals as a candidate chosen for the honorable office of governor of a state must accept the condition of politics, whether they are clean or rotten. Clean politics are the exception. So also are clean morals. I knew enough for that. Way back in boarding-school days, we girls had resigned ourselves to the acceptance of the deplorable state of the world's morals. We had statistics. I had dimly hoped that one of the exceptions to the rule might fall to my lot, but if not, I wasn't going to be prudish. Breck's early career could neither surprise nor alarm me. I, like most girls in this frank and open age, had been prepared for it. So when Lucy, who is anything but worldly wise, and Will, her husband, who is a scientist and all brains, came bearing frenzied tales of Breck's indiscretions during his one year at the university where Will is now located, I simply smiled. Some people are so terribly naive and unsophisticated!
The family's attitude toward my engagement was consistent—deeply impressed, but tainted with disapproval. Tom came way on from Wisconsin to tell me how contemptible it was for a girl to marry for position, even for so amazingly a distinguished one. Elise, his wife, penned me a long letter on the emptiness of power and wealth. Malcolm wrote he hoped I knew what I was getting into, and supposed after I became Mrs. Breckenridge Sewall I'd feel too fine to recognize him, should we meet on Fifth Avenue. Oliver was absolutely "flabbergasted" at first, he wrote, but must confess it would save a lot of expense for the family, if they could stop with Brother Breck when they came down to New York. "How'd you pull it off, Toots?" he added. "Hope little Cupid had something to do with it."
Alec waited until Edith had gone to Boston for a day's shopping, and took me for a long automobile ride. Alec, by the way, is one of this world's saints. He has always been the member of the Vars family who has resigned himself to circumstances. It was Tom who went West and made a brilliant future for himself; Alec who remained in Hilton to stand by father's dying business. It was the twins who were helped to graduate from college in spite of difficulties; Alec who cheerfully gave up his diploma to offer a helping hand at home. When Alec married Edith Campbell it appeared that at last he had come into his own. She was immensely wealthy. Father's business took a new lease of life. At last Alec was prosperous, but he had to go on adapting and resigning just the same. With the arrival of the Summer Colony Edith's ambitions burst into life, and of course he couldn't be a drag on her future—and mine—any more than on Tom's or the twins'. He acquiesced; he fitted in without reproach. Today in regard to my engagement he complained but gently.
"We're simple New England people after all," he said. "A girl is usually happier married to a man of her own sort. You weren't born into the kind of life the Sewalls lead. You weren't born into even the kind of life you're leading now. Edith—Edith's fine, of course, and I've always been glad you two were so congenial—but she does exaggerate the importance of the social game. She plays it too hard. I don't want you to marry Sewall. I'm afraid you won't be happy."
When Edith came home that night I asked her if she knew how Alec felt.
"Of course I do. The dear old fogey! But this is the way I look at it, Ruth. Some people not born into a high place get there just the same through sheer nerve and determination, and others spend their whole worthless lives at home on the farm. It isn't what a person is born into, but what he is equal to, that decides his success. Mercy, child, don't let a dear, silly, older brother bother you. Sweet old Al doesn't know what he's talking about. I'd like to know what he would advise doing with his little sister, if, after all the talk there is about her and Breck, he could succeed in breaking off her engagement. She'd be just an old glove kicking around. That's what she'd be. Al is simply crazy. I'll have to talk to him!"
"Don't bother," I said, "I'm safe. I have no intention of becoming an old glove."
Possibly in the privacy of my own bed at night, where so often now I lay wide-awake waiting for the dawn, I did experience a few misgivings. But by the time I was ready to go down to breakfast I had usually persuaded myself into sanity again. I used to reiterate all the desirable points about Breck I could think of and calm my fears by dwelling upon the many demands of my nature that he could supply—influence, power, delight in environment, travel, excitement.
When I was a child I was instructed by my drawing-teacher to sketch with my stick of charcoal a vase, a book, and a red rose, which he arranged in a group on a table before me. I had a great deal of difficulty with the rose; so after struggling for about half an hour I got up and, unobserved, put the rose behind the vase, so that only its stem was visible to me. Then I took a fresh page and began again. The result was a very fair portrayal of the articles as they then appeared. So with my ideal of marriage—when I found its arrangement impossible to portray in my life—I simply slipped out of sight that for which the red rose is sometimes the symbol (I mean love) and went ahead sketching in the other things.
I explained all this to Breck one day. I wanted to be honest with him.
"Say, what are you driving at? Red roses! Drawing lessons! What's that got to do with whether you'll run down to Boston for dinner with me tonight? You do talk the greatest lot of stuff! But have it your own way. I'm satisfied. Just jump in beside me! Will you? Darn it! I haven't the patience of a saint!"
THE HORSE SHOW
Conventions may sometimes appear silly and absurd, but most of them are made for practical purposes. Ignore them and you'll discover yourself in difficulty. Leave your spoon in your cup and your arm will unexpectedly hit it sometime, and over will go everything on to the tablecloth. If I had not ignored certain conventions I wouldn't be crying over spilled milk now.
I allowed myself to become engaged to Breck; accepted his ring and hid it in my lowest bureau drawer; told my family my intentions; let the world see me dining, dancing, theater-ing and motoring like mad with Breck and draw its conclusions; and all this, mind you, before I had received a word of any sort whatsoever from my prospective family-in-law. This, as everybody knows, is irregular, and as bad form as leaving your spoon in your cup. No wonder I got into difficulty!
My prospective family-in-law consisted simply of Breck's mother, Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall—a very elegant and perfectly poised woman she seemed to me the one time I had seen her at close range, as she sat at the head of the sumptuous table in the tapestry-hung dining-room at Grassmere. I admired Mrs. Sewall. I used to think that I could succeed in living up to her grand manners with better success than the other rather hoidenish young ladies who chanced to be the guests at Grassmere the time I was there. Mrs. Sewall is a small woman, always dressed in black, with a superb string of pearls invariably about her neck, and lots of brilliant diamonds on her slender fingers. Breck with his heavy features, black hair brushed straight back, eyes half-closed as if he was always riding in a fifty-mile gale, deep guffaw of a laugh, and inelegant speech does not resemble his mother. It is strange, but the picture that I most enjoyed dwelling upon, when I contemplated my future life, was one of myself creeping up Fifth Avenue on late afternoons in the Sewalls' crested automobile, seated, not beside Breck, but in intimate conversation beside my aristocratic mother-in-law.
As humiliating as it was to me to continue engaged to a man from whose mother there had been made no sign of welcome or approval, I did so because Breck plead that Mrs. Sewall was on the edge of a nervous break-down, and to announce any startling piece of news to her at such a time would be unwise. I was foolish enough to believe him. I deceived myself into thinking that my course was allowable and self-respecting.
Breck used to run up from New York to Hilton in his car for Sunday; and sometimes during the week, in his absurd eagerness, he would dash up to our door and ring the bell as late as eleven o'clock, simply because he had been seized with a desire to bid me good-night.
When Edith and I went to New York for a week's shopping we were simply deluged with attentions from Breck—theater every night, luncheons, dinners and even breakfasts occasionally squeezed in between. All this, I supposed, was carried on without Mrs. Sewall's knowledge. I ought to have known better than to have excused it. It was my fault. I blame myself. Such an unconventional affair deserved to end in catastrophe. But to Edith it ended not in spilled milk, but in a spilled pint of her life's blood.
One night in midsummer when I was just dropping off to sleep, Edith knocked gently on my door, and then opened it and came in. She was all ready for bed with her hair braided down her back.
"No," I replied. "What's the matter?"
"Did you know Grassmere was open?"
"Why?" I demanded.
"Because, just as I was fixing the curtain in my room I happened to look up there. It's all lit up, upstairs and down. Even the ball-room. Did you know about it?"
I had to confess that I didn't. Breck had told me that his mother would remain in the rented palace at Newport for the remainder of the season, under the care of a specialist.
"Looks as if they were having a big affair of some sort up there. I guess Mrs. F. Rockridge has recovered from her nervous break-down! Come, get up and see."
"Oh, I'll take your word for it," I replied indifferently. But I won't say what my next act was after Edith had gone out of the room. You may be sure I didn't immediately drop off to sleep.
I looked for one of Breck's ill-penned letters the next morning, but none came. No wire or telephone message either. Not until five o'clock in the afternoon did I receive any explanation of the lights at Grassmere. Edith had been to her bridge club, and came rushing up on the veranda, eager and excited. There were little bright spots in the center of each cheek. Edith's a handsome woman, thirty-five or eight, I think, and very smart in appearance. She has dark brilliant eyes, and a quality in her voice and manner that makes you feel as if there were about eight cylinders and all in perfect order, too, chugging away underneath her shiny exterior.
"Where's the mail?" she asked of me. I was lying on the wicker couch.
"Oh, inside, I guess, on the hall table. I don't know. Why?"
"Wait a minute," she said, and disappeared. She rejoined me an instant later, with two circulars and a printed post-card.
"Is this all there is?" Edith demanded again, and I could see the red spots on her cheeks grow deeper.
"That's all," I assured her. "Expecting something?"
"Have you had any trouble with Breck?" she flashed out at me next.
"What are you driving at, Edith?" I inquired. "What's the matter?"
"Mrs. Sewall is giving a perfectly enormous ball at Grassmere on the twenty-fourth, and we're left out. That's the matter!" She tossed the mail on the table.
"Oh," I said, "our invitations will come in the morning probably. There are often delays."
"No, sir, I know better. The bridge club girls said their invitations came yesterday afternoon. I can't understand it. We certainly were on Mrs. Sewall's list when she gave that buffet-luncheon three years ago. And now we're not! That's the bald truth of it. It was terribly embarrassing this afternoon—all of them telling about what they were going to wear—it's going to be a masquerade—and I sitting there like a dummy! Helene McClellan broke the news to me. She blurted right out, 'Oh, do tell us, Edith,' she said to me, 'is Mrs. Sewall's ball to announce your sister's engagement to her son? We're crazy to know!' Of course I didn't let on at first that we weren't even invited, but it had to leak out later. Oh, it is simply humiliating!"
"Is she at Grassmere now—Mrs. Sewall, I mean?" I asked quietly.
"Yes, she is. There's a big house-party going on there this very minute. The club girls knew all about it. Mrs. Sewall has got a niece or somebody or other with her, for the rest of the summer, and the ball is being given in her honor. Gale Oliphant, I believe the girl's name is. But look here, it seems very queer to me that I'm the one to be giving you this information instead of Breck. What does it all mean anyhow? Come, confess. You must have had a tiff or something with Breck."
"I don't have tiffs, Edith," I said, annoyed.
"Well, you needn't get mad about it. There must be some reason for our being slighted in this fashion. I'm sure I've done nothing. It's not my fault. I wouldn't care if it was small, but everybody who isn't absolutely beyond the pale is invited."
"There's no use losing your nerve, Edith," I said in an exasperatingly calm manner.
"Good heavens!" Edith exclaimed. "You seem to enjoy slights, but if I were in your place I shouldn't enjoy slights from my prospective mother-in-law, anyhow!"
"You needn't be insulting," I remarked, arranging a sofa-pillow with care underneath my head and turning my attention to my magazine.
Edith went into the house. The screen door slammed behind her. I didn't stir, just kept right on staring at the printed page before me and turning a leaf now and again, as if I were really reading.
Gale Oliphant! I knew all about her. I had met her first at the house-party at Grassmere—a silly little thing, I had thought her, rather pretty, and a tremendous flirt. Breck had said she was worth a million in her own name. I remembered that, because he explained that he had been rather keen about her before he met me. "That makes my eight hundred dollars a year look rather sickly, doesn't it?" I replied. "Yes," he said, "it sure does! But let me tell you that you make her look like a last year's straw hat." However, the last year's straw hat possessed some attraction for Breck, because during the three years that Grassmere was closed and the Sewalls were in Europe, Breck and Gale Oliphant saw a lot of each other. Breck told me that she really was better than nothing, and his mater was terribly keen about having her around.
I tried in every way I could to explain away my fears. I mustn't be hasty. Well-mannered thoughts didn't jump to foolish conclusions. Breck would probably explain the situation to me. I must wait with calmness and composure. And I did, all the next day, and the next, and the third, until finally there arrived one of Breck's infrequent scrawls.
The envelope was post-marked Maine. I opened it, and read:
"I am crazy to see you. It seems like a week of Sundays. The mater got a notion she wanted me to come up to Bar Harbor and bring down the yacht. I brought three fellows with me. Some spree! But we're good little boys. The captain struck. Waiting for another. Won't round up at your place for another week. I'm yours and don't forget it. It seems like a week of Sundays. Mater popped the news she's going to open up old Grassmere pretty soon. Then it will be like a week of holidays for yours truly, if you're at home to sit in that pergola effect with. Savvy? Showed the fellows the snapshots tonight but didn't tell them. Haven't touched a drop for four weeks and three days. Never did that stunt for any queen before. Good-night, you little fish. Don't worry about that though. I'll warm you up O.K. Trust Willie."
I used to feel apologetic for Breck's letters, and tear them up as quickly as possible, before any one could see how crude and ill-spelled they were. But I wasn't troubled about such details in this letter. It brought immense relief. Breck was so natural and so obviously unaware of trouble brewing at home. Surely, I needn't be alarmed. The invitation for the masquerade might have been misdirected or have slipped down behind something. Accidents do take place. Of course it was most unfortunate, but fate performs unfortunate feats sometimes.