The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 13

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IT was an afternoon in late February. A feeling of spring had been in the air all day. In the living-room a lingering sun cast a path of light upon the mahogany surface of a grand piano. In my living-room, I should say. For I am Mrs. Maynard, wife of Doctor William Ford Maynard of international guinea-pig fame; sister of Ruth Chenery Vars; one-time confidante of Robert Hopkinson Jennings. I haven't any identity of my own. I'm simply one of the audience, an onlooker—an anxious and worried one, just at present, who wishes somebody would assure me that the play has a happy ending. I don't like sad plays. I don't like being harrowed for nothing. I've taken to paper simply because I'm all of a tremble for fear the play I've been watching for the last month or two won't come out right. Sometimes I feel as if I'd like to dash across the footlights and tell the actors what to say.

Ruth is engaged to be married to Robert Jennings. At first it seemed to me too good to be true. After the sort of bringing up my sister has had, culminating in that miserable affair of hers with Breckenridge Sewall, I was afraid that happiness would slip by her altogether.

Robert Jennings is the salt of the earth. I believe I was as happy as Ruth the first four weeks of her engagement, and then these clouds began to gather. The first time I was conscious of them was the afternoon I have just referred to, in late February.

I went into my living-room that day just to see that it was in order in case of callers. It is difficult to keep a living-room in order when your spoiled young society-sister is visiting you. Today in the middle of one of the large cushions on the sofa appeared an indentation. From beneath one corner of the cushion escaped the edge of a crushed handkerchief. Open, face down, upon the floor lay an abandoned book. I straightened the pillow and then picked up the book.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, actually out loud as my eyes fell on the title. "This!"

It was a modern novel much under discussion, an unpleasant book, reviewers pronounced it, and unnecessarily bold. I opened it. Certain passages were marked with wriggling lines made with a soft pencil. I read a marked paragraph or two, standing just where I was in the middle of the room.

Suddenly the door-bell rang, twice, sharply, and almost immediately afterward I heard some one shove open the front door.

I slipped the book behind the pillow which I had just straightened, walked over to a geranium in the window, and nonchalantly snipped off a leaf.

"Hello!" a man's cheerful voice called out. "Any one at home?"

"Yes, in here, Bob," I called back. "Come in."

Robert Jennings entered. He glowed as if he had just been walking up hill briskly. He shook hands with me.

"Hello," he said, his gray eyes smiling pleasantly. "Been out today? Ought to! Like spring. Where's Ruth?"

"Just gone to the Square. She'll be right back. Run out of cotton for your breakfast-napkins."

"Breakfast-napkins!" he exclaimed, and laughed boyishly. I laughed, too. "It doesn't seem quite possible, does it? Breakfast-napkins, and four months ago I didn't even know her! Mind?" he asked abruptly, holding up a silver case. He selected and lit a cigarette, flipping the charred match straight as an arrow into the fireplace. He smoked in silence a moment, smiling meditatively. "Mother's making some napkins, too!" he broke out. "They're going to get on—Ruth and mother—beautifully. 'She's a dear!' That's what mother says of Ruth half a dozen times a day. 'She's a dear!' And somehow the triteness of the phrase from mother is ridiculously pleasing to me. May I sit down?"

"Of course. Do."

He approached the sofa, but before throwing himself into one of its inviting corners, manlike he placed one of the large sofa pillows rather gingerly on the floor against a table-leg. Behind the pillow appeared the book.

"Hello," he exclaimed, "what's this?" And he held it up.

I put out my hand. "I'll take it, thank you," I said.

"Whose is this, anyhow?" he asked, opening the book instead of passing it over to me. "Looks like Ruth's marks." Then after a pause, "Is it Ruth's?"

"I don't know. Perhaps."

"She shouldn't read stuff like this!" pronounced the young judge.

"Oh, Ruth has always read everything she wanted to."

"Yes, I suppose so—more's the pity—best-sellers, anything that's going. But this—this! It's not decent for her, for any girl. I don't believe in this modern idea of exposure, anyhow. But here she comes." His face lighted. He put aside the book. "Here Ruth comes!" And he went out into the hall to meet her.

I heard the front door open, the rustle of a greeting, and a moment later my sister and Robert Jennings both came in.

Ruth had become a shining roseate creature. Always beautiful, always exquisite—flawless features, perfect poise, now she pulsated with life. A new brightness glowed in her eyes. Of late across her cheeks color was wont to come and go like the shadow of clouds on a hillside on a windy day. Even her voice, usually steady and controlled, now and again trembled and broke with sudden emotion. She came into the room smiling, very pretty, very lovely (could we really be children of the same parents?), with a pink rose slipped into the opening of her coat. She drew out her rose and came over and passed it to me.

"There," she said, "it's for you, Lucy. I bought it especially!" Such a strange new Ruth! Once so worldly, so selfish; now so sweet and full of queer tenderness. I hardly recognized her. "It's heavenly out-doors," she went on. "I'll be back in a minute." And she went out into the hall to take off her hat and coat.

Robert went over to the book he had laid on the table and picked it up. When Ruth joined us he inquired pleasantly, "Where in the world did you run across this, Ruth?"

"That?" she smiled. "Oh, I bought it. Everybody is talking about it, and I bought it. It isn't so bad. Some parts are really very nice. I've marked a few I liked."

"Why, Ruth," he said solicitously, "it isn't a book for you to read."

"That's very sweet and protective, Bob," she laughed gently, "but after all I'm not—what do you call it—early Victorian. I'm twentieth century, and an American at that. Every book printed is for me to read."

"Oh, no! I should hope not! Too much of this sort of stuff would rob a girl of every illusion she ever had."

"Illusions! Oh, well," she shrugged her shoulders, "who wants illusions? I don't. I want truth, Bob. I want to know everything there is to know in this world, good, bad or indifferent. And you needn't be afraid. It won't hurt me. Truth is good for any one, whether it's pleasant truth or not. It makes one's opinions of more value, if nothing else. And of course you want my opinions to be worth something, don't you?" she wheedled.

"But, my dear," complained Bob, "this book represents more lies than it does truth."

"Do you think so?" she asked earnestly. "Now I thought it was a wonderfully true portrayal of just how a man and woman would feel under those circumstances."

Bob looked actually pained. "O Ruth, how can you judge of such circumstances? Of such feelings? Why, I don't like even to discuss such rottenness with you as this."

"How absurd, Bob," Ruth deprecated lightly. "I'm not a Jane Austen sort of girl. I've always read things. I've always read everything I wanted to." Bob was still standing with the book in his hands, looking at it. He didn't reply for a moment. Something especially obnoxious must have met his eyes, for abruptly he threw the book down upon the table.

"Well," he said, "I'm going to ask you not to finish reading this."

"You aren't serious!"

"Yes, I am, Ruth," replied Bob. "Let me be the judge about this. Trust it to me. You've read only a little of the book. It's worse later—unpleasant, distorted. There are other avenues to truth—not this one, please. Yes, I am serious."

He smiled disarmingly. For the first time since their engagement I saw Ruth fail to smile back. There was a perceptible pause. Then in a low voice Ruth asked, "Do you mean you ask me to stop reading a book right in the middle of it? Don't ask me to do a childish thing like that, Bob."

"But Ruth," he persisted, "it's to guard you, to protect you."

"But I don't want to be protected, not that way," she protested. Her gray eyes were almost black. Her voice, though low and quiet enough, trembled. They must have forgotten I was in the room.

"Is it such a lot to ask?" pleaded Bob.

"You do ask it then?" repeated Ruth uncomprehendingly.

"Why, Ruth, yes, I do. If a doctor told you not to eat a certain thing," Bob began trying to be playful, "that he knew was bad for you and——"

"But you're not my doctor," interrupted Ruth. "That's just it. You're—— It seems all wrong somehow," she broke off, "as if I was a child, or an ignorant patient of yours, and I'm not. I'm not. Will you pass it to me, please—the book?"

Bob gave it to her immediately. "You're going to finish it then?" he asked, alarmed.

"I don't know," said Ruth, wide-eyed, a little alarmed herself, I think. "I don't know. I must think it over." She crossed the room to the secretary, opened the glass door, and placed the book on one of the high shelves. "There," she said, "there it is." Then turning around she added, "I'll let you know when I decide, Bob. And now I guess I'll go upstairs, if you don't mind. These walking-shoes are so heavy. Good-by." And she fled, on the verge of what I feared was tears.

Both Bob and Ruth were so surprised at the appearance of this sudden and unlooked-for issue that I felt convinced it was their first difference of opinion. I was worried. I couldn't foretell how it would come out. Their friendship had been brief—perhaps too brief. Their engagement was only four weeks old. They loved—I was sure of that—but they didn't know each other very well. Old friend of Will's and mine as Robert Jennings is, I knew him to be conservative, steeped in traditions since childhood. Robert idealizes everything mellowed by age, from pictures and literature to laws and institutions. Ruth, on the other hand, is a pronounced modernist. It doesn't make much difference whether it's a hat or a novel, if it's new and up to date Ruth delights in it.

I poured out my misgivings to Will that night behind closed doors. Will had never had a high opinion of Ruth.

"Modernism isn't her difficulty, my dear," he remarked. "Selfishness, with a big S. That's the trouble with Ruth. Society too. Big S. And a pinch of stubbornness also. She never would take any advice from any one—self-satisfied little Ruth wouldn't—and poor Bob is the salt of the earth too. It's a shame. Whoever would have thought fine old Bob would have fallen into calculating young /Ruth's net anyhow!"

"O Will, please. You do misjudge her," I pleaded. "It isn't so. She isn't calculating. You've said it before, and she isn't—not always. Not this time."

"You ruffle like a protecting mother hen!" laughed Will. "Don't worry that young head of yours too much, dear. It isn't your love affair, remember."

It is my love affair. That's the difficulty. In all sorts of quiet and covered ways have I tried to help and urge the friendship along. Always, even before Ruth was engaged to Breckenridge Sewall, have I secretly nursed the hope that Robert Jennings and my sister might discover each other some day—each so beautiful to look upon, each so distinguished in poise and speech and manner; Ruth so clever; Bob such a scholar; both of them clean, young New Englanders, born under not dissimilar circumstances, and both much beloved by me. It is my love affair, and it simply mustn't have quarrels.

I didn't refer to the book the next day, nor did I let Ruth know by look or word that I noticed her silence at table or her preoccupied manner. I made no observation upon Robert's failure to make his daily call the next afternoon. She may have written and told him to stay away. I did not know. In mute suspense I awaited the announcement of her decision. It was made at last, sweetly, exquisitely, I thought.

On the second afternoon Robert called as usual. I was in the living-room when he came in. When Ruth appeared in the doorway, I got up to go.

"No, please," she said. "Stay, Lucy, you were here before. Hello, Bob," she smiled, then very quietly she added, "I've made my decision."

"Ruth!" Robert began.

"Wait a minute, please," she said.

She went over to the secretary, opened the door and took down the book. Then she crossed to the table, got a match, approached the fireplace, leaned down, and set fire to my cherished selected birch-logs. She held up the book then and smiled radiantly at Robert. "This is my decision!" she said, and laid the book in the flames.

"Good heavens," I wanted to exclaim, "that's worth a dollar thirty-five!"

"I've thought it all over," Ruth said simply, beautiful in the dignity of her new-born self-abnegation. "A book is only paper and print, after all. I was making a mountain out of it. It's as you wish, Bob. I won't finish reading it."

We were very happy that night. Robert stayed to dinner. Will chanced to be absent and there were only the three of us at table. There was a mellow sort of stillness. A softness of voice possessed us all, even when we asked for bread or salt. Our conversation was trivial, unimportant, but kind and gentle. Between Ruth and Robert there glowed adoration for each other, which words and commonplaces could not conceal.

Robert stayed late. Upstairs in Will's study the clock struck eleven-thirty when I heard the front door close, and peeked out and saw Robert walking down over our flag-stones.

A moment later Ruth came upstairs softly. She went straight to her own room. She closed the door without a sound. My sister, I knew, was filled with the kind of exaltation that made her gentle even to stairs and door-knobs.

Next morning she was singing as usual over her initialing. We went into town at eleven-thirty to look up table linen. Edith met us for lunch. One of the summer colonists had told Edith about Robert's "connections" (he has several in Boston in the Back Bay and he himself was born in a house with violet-colored panes) and Edith had become remarkably enthusiastic. She was going to present Ruth with all her lingerie.

"After all," she said one day in way of reassurance to Ruth, "you would have been in a pretty mess if you'd married Breck Sewall. Some gay lady in Breck's dark and shady past sprang up with a spicy little law suit two weeks before he was to be married to that Oliphant girl. Perhaps you saw it in the paper. Wedding all off, and Breck evading the law nobody knows where. This Bob of yours is as poor as Job's turkey, I suppose, but anyhow, he's decent. An uncle of his is president of a bank in Boston and belongs to all sorts of exclusive clubs and things. I'm going to give you your wedding, you know, Toots. I've always wanted a good excuse for a hack at Boston."