The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X

A UNIVERSITY TOWN

I DID not think I would be seated here on my rustic bench writing so soon again. I finished the history of my catastrophe a week ago. But something almost pleasant has occurred, and I'd like to try my pencil at recording a pleasant story. Scarcely a story yet, though. Just a bit of a conversation—that's all—fragmentary. It refers to this very bench where I am sitting as I write, to the hills I am seeing out beyond the little maple tree stripped now of all its glory. I cannot see a dash of color anywhere. The world is brown. The sky is gray. It is rather chilly for writing out-of-doors.

The conversation I refer to began in an ugly little room in a professor's house. There was a roll-top desk in the room, and a map, yellow with age, hanging on the wall. The conversation ended underneath a lamp-post on a street curbing, and it was rainy and dark and cold. And yet when I think of that conversation, sitting here in the brown chill dusk, I see color, I feel warmth.

When I first came here to Lucy's three weeks ago, she assumed that I was suffering from a broken heart. I had been exposed and showed symptoms—going off alone for long walks and consuming reams of theme paper as if I was half mad. I told Lucy that my heart was too hard to break, but I couldn't convince her. There wasn't a day passed but that she planned some form of amusement or diversion. Even Will, her husband, cooperated and spent long evenings playing rum or three-handed auction, so I might not sit idle. I tried to fall in with Lucy's plans.

"But, please, no men! I don't want to see another man for years. If any man I know finds out I'm here, tell him I won't see him, absolutely," I warned. "I want to be alone. I want to think things out undisturbed. Sometimes I almost wish I could enter a convent."

"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Lucy would exclaim.

"You needn't be. You didn't break my engagement. For heaven's sake, Lucy, you needn't take it so hard."

But she did. She simply brooded over me. She read to me, smiled for me, and initiated every sally that I made into public. In conversation she picked her way with me with the precaution of a cat walking across a table covered with delicate china. She made wide detours to avoid a reference or remark that might reflect upon my engagement. Will did likewise. I lived in daily surprise and wonder. As a family we are brutally frank. This was a new phase, and one of the indirect results, I suppose, of my broken engagement.

What I am trying to arrive at is the change of attitude in me toward Lucy. Usually when I visit Lucy I do just about as I please; refuse to attend a lot of stupid student-teas and brain-fagging lectures, or to exert myself to appear engrossed in the conversation of her intellectual dinner guests.

I used to scorn Lucy's dinners. They are very different from Edith's, where, when the last guest in her stunning new gown has arrived and swept into the drawing-room, followed by her husband, a maid enters, balancing on her tray a dozen little glasses, amber filled; everybody takes one, daintily, between a thumb and forefinger and drains it; puts it nonchalantly aside on shelf or table; offers or accepts an arm and floats toward the dining-room. At Edith's dinners the table is long, flower-laden, candle-lighted. Your partner's face smiles at you dimly. His voice is almost drowned by the chatter and the laughter all about, but you hear him—just barely—and you laugh—he is immensely droll—and then reply. And he laughs, too, contagiously, and you know that you are going to get on!

Incidentally at Edith's dinners silent-footed servants pass you things; you take them; you eat a little, too—delicious morsels if you stopped to consider them; but you and your partner are having far too good a time (he is actually audacious, and so, if you please, are you) to bother about the food.

There's a little group of glasses beside your water, and once in a while there appears in your field of vision a hand grasping a white napkin folded like a cornucopia, out of which flows delicious nectar. You sip a little of it occasionally, a very little—you are careful of course—and waves of elation sweep over you because you are alive and happy and good to look upon; waves of keen delight that such a big and splendid life (there are orchids in the center of the table, there are pearls and diamonds everywhere)—that such a life as this is yours to grasp and to enjoy.

At Lucy's dinners the women do not wear diamonds and pearls. Lucy seldom entertains more than six at a time. "Shall we go out?" she says when her Delia mumbles something from the door. You straggle across the hall into the dining-room, where thirteen carnations—you count them later, there's time enough—where thirteen stiff carnations are doing duty in the center of the prim table. At each place there is a soup plate sending forth a cloud of steam. You wait until Lucy points out your place to you, and then sit down at last. There is a terrible pause—you wonder if they say grace—and then finally Lucy picks up her soup-spoon for signal and you're off! The conversation is general. That is because Lucy's guests are usually intellectuals, and whatever any one of them says is supposed to be so important that every one else must keep still and listen. You can't help but notice the food, because there's nothing to soften the effect of it upon your nerves, as it were. There are usually four courses, with chicken or ducks for the main dish, accompanied by potatoes cut in balls, the invariable rubber stamp of a party at Lucy's. Afterward there's coffee in the living-room, and you feel fearfully discouraged when you look at the clock and find it's only eight-thirty. You're surprised after the guests have gone to find that Lucy considers her party a success.

"Why," she exclaims, cheeks aglow, "Dr. Van Breeze gave us the entire résumé of his new book. He seldom thinks anybody clever enough to talk to. It was a perfect combination!"

As I said, I usually visit Lucy in rather a critical state of mind and hold myself aloof from her learned old doctors and professors. On this visit, though, she is so obviously careful of me and my feelings, that I find myself going out of my way to consider hers a little. One day last week when she so brightly suggested that we go to a tea given by the wife of a member of the faculty, instead of exclaiming, "Oh, dear! it would bore me to extinction," I replied sweetly, "All right, if you want to, I'll go."

I wasn't feeling happy. I didn't want to go. I had been roaming the woods and country roads round about for a month in search of an excuse for existence. I had been autobiographing for days in the faint hope that I might run across something worth while in my life. But no. It was hopeless. I had lost all initiative. I couldn't see what reason there was for me to eat three meals a day. It seemed as foolish as stoking the furnaces of an ocean liner when it is in port. In such a mood, and through the drifting mist of a complaining October afternoon, in rubbers and a raincoat, I started out with Lucy for her afternoon tea.

The other guests wore raincoats, too—we met a few on the way—with dull-colored suits underneath, and tailored hats. There wasn't a single bright, frivolous thing about that tea. Even the house was dismal—rows of black walnut bookcases with busts of great men on top, steel engravings framed in oak on the walls, and a Boston fern or two in red pots sitting about on plates. When I looked up from my weak tea, served in a common stock-pattern willow cup, and saw Lucy sparkling with pleasure, talking away for dear life with a white-haired old man who wore a string tie and had had two fingers shot off in the Civil War (I always hated to shake hands with him) a wave of intolerance for age and learning swept over me. I told Lucy if she didn't mind I'd run along home, and stepped across the hall into a little stupid room with a roll-top desk in it, where we had left our raincoats and rubbers. I put on my things and then stood staring a moment at a picture on the wall. I didn't know what the picture was. I simply looked at it blindly while I fought a sudden desire to cry. I hadn't wept before. But this dreadful house, these dry, drab people were such a contrast to my all-but-realized ambitions that it brought bitter tears to my eyes. Life at Grassmere—that was living! This was mere existence.

Just as I was groping for a handkerchief some little fool of a woman exclaimed, "Oh, there she is—in the study! I thought she hadn't gone. O Miss Vars, there's somebody I want you to meet, and meet you. Here she is, Mr. Jennings. Come in. Miss Vars," I was still facing the wall, "Miss Vars, I want to introduce Mr. Jennings." I turned finally, and as I did so she added, "Now, I must go back to Dr. Fuller. I was afraid you'd gone," and out she darted. I could have shot her.

Mr. Jennings came straight across the room. Through a blur I caught an impression of height, breadth and energy. His sudden hand-grasp was firm and decisive. "How do you do?" he said, and then abruptly observed my tears.

"You've caught me with my sails all down," I explained.

"Have I?" he replied pleasantly. "Well, I like sails down."

"Please do not think," I continued, "that I am often guilty of such a thing as this. I'm not. Who was that woman anyhow?"

"Oh, don't blame her," he laughed, and he stepped forward to look at the picture which I had been staring at. I was busy putting away my handkerchief. "Who was that woman?" Mr. Jennings repeated, abruptly turning away from the picture back to me, "Who was she? I'll tell you who she was—a good angel. Why," he went on, "I'd got into the way of thinking that sympathy as expressed by tears had gone out of style with the modern girl. They never shed any at the theater nowadays, I notice. I'm glad to know there is one who hasn't forgotten how."

I stepped forward then to find out what manner of picture it was to cause such a tribute to be paid me. It was called "The Doctor." A crude bare room was depicted. The light from a lamp on an old kitchen table threw its rays on the turned-aside face of a little girl, who lay asleep—or unconscious—on an improvised bed made of two chairs drawn together. Beyond the narrow confines of the cot the little girl's hand extended, wistfully upturned. Seated beside her, watching, sat the big kind doctor. Anxiety, doubt were in his intelligent face. Near an east window, through which a streak of dawn was creeping, sat a woman, her face buried in the curve of her arms folded on the table. Beside her stood a bearded man, brow furrowed, his pleading eyes upon the doctor, while his hand, big, comforting, rested on the woman's bowed shoulders. A cup with a spoon in it, a collection of bottles near-by—all the poor, human, useless tools of defense were there, eloquent of a long and losing struggle. Every one who recalls the familiar picture knows what a dreary, hopeless scene it is—the room stamped with poverty, the window stark and curtainless, the woman meagerly clad, the man bearing the marks of hardship.

Suddenly in the face of all that, Mr. Jennings softly exclaimed, "That's living."

Only five minutes ago I had said the same thing of life at Grassmere.

"Is it?" I replied. "Is that living? I've been wondering lately. I thought—I thought—it's so poor and sad!" I remonstrated.

"Poor! Oh, no, it's rich," he replied quickly, "rich in everything worth while. Anyhow, only lives that are vacuums are free from sadness."

"Are lives that are vacuums free from happiness, too?" I enquired.

He took my question as if it was a statement. "That's true, too, I suppose," he agreed.

"How hopeless," I murmured, still gazing at the picture, but in reality contemplating my own empty life. He misunderstood.

"See here," he said. "I believe this little girl here is going to pull through after all. Don't worry. I insist she is. That artist ought to paint a sequel—just for you," he added, and abruptly he unfolded his arms and looked at me squarely for the first time. "I didn't in the least get your name," he broke off. "The good angel flew away so soon."

I told him.

"Oh, yes, Miss Vars. Thank you. Mine's Jennings. People mumble names so in introductions." He glanced around at the piles of raincoats and racks of umbrellas. I already had my coat on. "You weren't just going, were you?" he inquired brightly. "For if you were, so was I, too. Perhaps you will let me walk along—unless you're riding."

I forgot just for a minute that I didn't want to see another man for years and years. He wasn't a man just then, but a bright and colorful illumination. He stood before me full of life and vigor. He was tall and straight. His close-cropped hair shone like gold in the pale gas-light, and there was a tan or glow upon his face that made me think of out-of-doors. His smile, his straightforward gaze, his crisp voice, had brightened that dull little room for me. I went with him. Of course I did—out into the rainy darkness of the late October afternoon, drawn as a child towards the glow of red fire.