The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 12

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CHAPTER XII

A DINNER PARTY

ROBERT JENNINGS sees the plainest and commonest things of life through the eyes of an artist. He never goes anywhere without a volume of poetry stuffed into his pocket, and if he runs across anything that no one else has endowed with beauty, then straightway he will endow it himself. Crowded trolleys, railroad stations, a muddy road—all have some hidden appeal. Even greed and discord he manages to ignore as such by looking beneath their exteriors for hidden significance. The simpler a pleasure, the greater to him its joy.

He is tall, broad; of light complexion; vigorous in every movement that he makes. Upon his face there is a perpetual glow, whether due to mere color, or to expression, I cannot make up my mind. He enters the house and brings with him a feeling of out-of-doors. His smile is like sunshine on white snow, his seriousness like a quiet pool hidden among trees, his enthusiasm like mad whitecaps on a lake stirred by a gale, his tenderness like the kind warmth of Indian summer caressing drooping flowers. I have never known any one just like him before. Instead of inviting me in town to luncheon and the matinée, or to dinner and the opera, he takes me out with him to drink draughts of cold November air, and to share the glory of an autumn sunset.

The first time he called he mentioned a course at Shirley offered to special students. I told him if he would use his influence and persuade the authorities to accept me, I believed I should like to take a course in college. I thought it would help to kill time while I was making up my mind how better to dispose of myself. I have therefore become what Mr. Jennings thought I was in the beginning—a student at Shirley; not a full-fledged one but a "special" in English. I attend class twice a week and in between times write compositions that are read out loud in class and criticized. Also in between times I occasionally see Mr. Jennings.

Last week each member of the class was required to submit an original sonnet. Mine is not finished yet. I am trying a rhapsody on the autumn woods. This is the way I work. Pencil, pad, low rocking-chair by the window. First line:

"I see the saffron woods of yesterday!" Then fixedly I gaze at the rubber on the end of my pencil. "I see the saffron woods of yesterday!" (What a young god he looked the day he called for me to go chestnutting! How his eyes laughed and his voice sang, and as we scuffled noisily through the leaf-strewn forest, how his long, easy stride put me in mind of the swinging meter of Longfellow's Hiawatha!)

"I see the saffron woods of yesterday!" (I see, too, the setting sun shining on the yellow leaves, clinging frailly. I see myself standing beneath a tree holding up an overcoat—his overcoat, thrown across my outstretched arms to catch the pelting burrs that he is shaking off. I see his eyes looking down from the tree into mine. Later as we lean over a rock to crack open the prickly burrs, I feel our shoulders touch! Did he feel them, too, I wonder? If he were any other man I would say that he meant that our eyes should meet too long, our shoulders lean too near, and our silence, as we walked home in the dark, continue too tense. But he is different. He is not a lover. He is a friend—a comrade.) "I see the saffron woods of yesterday!"

Abruptly I lay aside my pad and pencil. I put on my coat and hat, pull on my gloves, and in self-defense plunge out into the cold November afternoon. I avoid the country, and try to keep my recreant thoughts on such practical subjects as trolley cars, motor-trucks and delivery wagons, rumbling noisily beside me along the street. A sudden "To Let" card appears in a new apartment. I wonder how much the rent is. I wonder how much the salary of an assistant professor is. Probably something under five thousand a year. The income from the investments left me by my father amounts to almost eight hundred dollars. Clothes alone cost me more than a thousand. Of course one wouldn't need so many, but what with rent, and food, and service, and—what am I thinking of? Why, I've known the man only four weeks, and considering my recent relations with Breckenridge Sewall such mad air-castling is lacking in good taste. Besides, a teacher—a professor! I've always scorned professors. I was predestined to fill a high and influential place. A professor's wife? It is unthinkable! And then abruptly appears a street vender beside me. I smell his roasting chestnuts. And again—again, "I see the saffron woods of yesterday!"

About two days after I went chestnutting with Mr. Jennings, I went picnicking. We built a fire in the corner of two stones and cooked chops and bacon. Two days after that we tramped to an old farm-house, five miles straight-away north, and drank sweet cider—rather warm—from a jelly tumbler with a rough rim. Once we had some tea and thick slabs of bread in a country hotel by the roadside. Often we pillage orchards for apples. Day before yesterday we stopped in a dismantled vegetable garden and pulled a raw turnip from out of the frosty ground. Mr. Jennings scraped the dirt away and pared off a little morsel with his pocket knife. He offered it to me, then took a piece himself.

"Same old taste," I laughed.

"Same old taste," he laughed back. And we looked into each other's eyes in sympathetic appreciation of raw turnip. As he wiped the blade of his knife he added, "If I didn't know it wasn't so, I would swear we played together as children. Most young ladies, of this age, do not care for raw turnips."

A thrill passed through me. I blessed my brothers who had enriched my childhood with the lore of out-of-doors. I blessed even the difficult circumstances of my father's finances, which had forced me as a little girl to seek my pleasures in fields and woods and tilled gardens. Had I once said that my nature required a luxurious environment? I had been mistaken. I gazed upon Robert Jennings standing there before me in the forlorn garden. Bare brown hills were his background. The wind swept down bleakly from the east, bearing with it the dank odor of frostbitten cauliflower. Swift, sharp memories of my childhood swept over me. Smothered traditions stirred in my heart. All the young sweet impulses of my youth took sudden possession of me, and through a mist that blurred my eyes I recognized with a little stab in my breast—that was half joy, half fear—I recognized before me my perfect comrade!

Last night Lucy had one of her dinners and one of the men invited was Robert Jennings. She had increased the usual number of six to eight. "A real party," she explained to me, "with a fish course!"

For no other dinner party in my life did I dress with more care or trembling expectation. Lucy's dinners are always at seven o'clock. I was ready at quarter of, with cold hands and hot cheeks. I knew the very instant that Mr. Jennings entered the room that evening. I was standing at the far end with my back toward the door, talking to the war veteran. At the first sound of Mr. Jennings' greeting as he met Lucy, I became deaf to all else. I heard him speaking to the others near her—such a trained and cultured voice—but I didn't turn around. I kept my eyes riveted on the veteran. It was enough, at that instant, to be in the same room with Robert Jennings. And when Lucy finally said, "Shall we go out?" I wondered if I could bear the ordeal of turning around and meeting his eyes. I needn't have been afraid. He spared me that. There was no greeting of any kind between us until we sat down.

Lucy had placed him at the end of the table farthest away from me, and after the guests were all settled, I dared at last to look up. A swift, sweeping glance I meant it to be, but his eyes were waiting for mine, and secretly, concealed by the noise and chatter all around, somewhere among Lucy's carnations in the center of the table, we met. Only for an instant. He returned immediately to his partner, and I to mine. He answered her, we both selected a piece of silver—and then, abruptly, ran away to each other again. Frequently, during that dinner, as we gained confidence and learned the way, we met among the carnations.

Never before was I so glad of what good looks heaven had bestowed upon me as when I saw this man's eyes examine and approve. Never before did I feel so elated at a dinner, so glad to be alive. My pulse ran high. My spirits fairly danced. And all without cocktails, too! Not only did our eyes meet in stolen interviews, but our voices, too. He couldn't speak but what I heard him, nor did I laugh but what it was meant for him.

During the hour occasions occurred when Mr. Jennings alone did the talking, while the rest listened. I could observe him then without fear of discovery. He sat there opposite me in his perfect evening clothes, as much at home and at ease as in Scotch tweeds in the woods. As he leaned forward a little, one cuffed wrist resting on the table's edge, his fine head held erect, expressing his ideas in clear and well-turned phrases, confident in himself, and listened to with attention, I glowed with pride at the thought of my intimacy with him. A professor's wife? That was a mere name—but his, this young aristocrat's—what a privilege!

We didn't speak to each other until late in the evening, when the ladies rose from their chairs about the fire in the living-room and began to talk about the hour. I was standing alone by the mantel when I became conscious that Mr. Jennings had moved away from beside Mrs. Van Breeze, and was making his way toward me. Everybody was saying good night to Lucy. We were quite alone for a minute. He didn't shake hands—just stood before me smiling.

"Well, who are you?" he asked.

"Don't you recognize me?" I replied.

He looked me up and down deliberately.

"It is very pretty," he said quietly.

I felt my cheeks grow warm. I blushed. Somebody told me my dress was pretty, and I blushed! I might have been sixteen.

"Your sister said I could stay a little after the others go if I wanted to," Mr. Jennings went on. "Of course I want to. Shall I?"

"Yes," I said, with my cheeks still on fire. "Yes. Stay." And he went away in a moment. I heard him laughing with the others.

I strolled over to the pile of music on the back of Lucy's piano and became engrossed in looking it over. I felt weak and suddenly incompetent. I felt frightened and unprepared. I was still there with the pile of music when, fifteen minutes later, Lucy and Will, with effusive apologies, excused themselves and went upstairs. Mr. Jennings approached me. We were alone at last, and each keenly conscious of it.

"Any music here you know?" he asked indifferently, and drew a sheet towards him.

"Not a great deal."

"It looks pretty much worn," he attempted.

"Doesn't it?" I agreed.

"I hardly know you tonight!" he exclaimed, suddenly personal.

"Don't you? I wore a yellow dress and purple pansies on purpose," I replied as lightly as I could, touching the flowers at my waist.

"Yes, but you didn't wear the same look in your eyes," he remarked.

"No, I didn't," I acknowledged.

A silence enfolded us—sweet, significant.

Mr. Jennings broke it. "I think I had better go," he remarked.

"Had you?" I almost whispered. "Well——" and acquiesced.

"Unless," he added, "you'll sing me something. Do you sing—or play?"

"A little," I confessed.

"Well, will you then?"

"Why, yes, if you want me to." And I went over and sat down before the familiar keys.

It was at that moment that I knew at last why I had taken lessons for so many years; why so much money had been put into expensive instruction, and so many hours devoted to daily practise. It was for this—for this particular night—for this particular man. I saw it in a flash. I sang a song in English. "In a Garden," it was called. Softly I played the opening phrases, and then raised my chin a little and began. My voice isn't strong, but it can't help but behave nicely. It can't help but take its high notes truly, like a child who has been taught pretty manners ever since he could walk.

After I had finished Mr. Jennings said nothing for an instant. Then, "Sing something else," he murmured, and afterward he exclaimed, "I didn't know! I had no idea! Your sister never told me this!" Then, "I have come to a very lovely part in the beautiful book I discovered," he said to me. "It makes me want never to finish the book. Sing something else." His eyes admired; his voice caressed; his tenderness placed me high in the sacred precincts of his soul.

"Listen, please," I said impulsively. "You mustn't go on thinking well of me. It isn't right. I shall not let you. I'm not what you think. Listen. When I first met you, I had just broken my engagement—just barely. I never said a word about it. I let you go on thinking that I—you see it was this way—my pride was hurt more than my heart. I'm that sort of girl. His mother is Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall. They have a summer place in Hilton, and—and——"

"Don't bother to go into that. I've known it all from the beginning," Mr. Jennings interrupted gently.

"Oh, have you? You've known then, all along, that I'm just a frivolous society girl who can't do anything but perform a few parlor tricks—and things like that? I was afraid—I was so afraid I had misled you."

"You've misled only yourself," he smiled, and suddenly he put his hand over mine as it rested beside the music rack. I met his steady eyes. Just for an instant. Abruptly he took his hand away, went over to the fireplace, and began poking the logs. When he spoke next he did not turn around.

"This is an evening of confessions," he said. "There are some things about me you might as well know, too. I am an instructor, with a salary of two thousand five hundred dollars a year. I hope to make a lawyer out of myself some day, I don't know when. I've hoped to for a long while. Circumstances made it necessary after I graduated from college to find something to do that was immediately remunerative. I discovered that my mother was entirely dependent upon me. My ambitions had to be postponed for a while. I had tutored enough during my college course to make it evident that I could teach, and I grasped this opportunity as a fortunate one. There are hours each day when I can read law. There are even opportunities to attend lectures. It's a long way around to my goal, I know that, and a steep way. Everything that I can save is laid aside for the time when, finally admitted to the bar, I dare throw off the security of a salary. My mother is quite alone. I must always look out for her. I am all she has. I shall inherit little or nothing. If there is any one who has allowed a possible delusion to continue about himself it is I—not you, Miss Vars. Hello," he interrupted himself, "it's getting late. Quarter of twelve! I ought to be shot." He turned about and came over toward me. "Your sister will be turning me out next," he said glibly. He was quite formal now. We might have been just introduced.

His manner forbade me to speak. He gave me no opportunity to tell him that his circumstances made no difference. Salary or no salary I did not care—nothing made any difference now. He simply wanted me to keep still. He eagerly desired it.

"Good night," he said cheerfully. In matter-of-fact fashion we shook hands. "Forgive me for the disgraceful hour. Good night."