The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 14

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BUT Edith didn't give Ruth her wedding. There was no wedding. Ruth didn't marry Robert Jennings!

I cannot feel the pain that is Ruth's, the daily loss of Bob's eyes that worshiped, voice that caressed—no, not that hurt—but I do feel bitterness and disappointment. They loved each other. I thought that love always could rescue. I was mistaken. Love is not the most important thing in marriage. No. They tell me ideals should be considered first. And yet as I sit here in my room and listen to the emptiness of the house—Ruth's song gone out of it, Ruth fled with her wound, I know not where—and see Bob, a new, quiet, subdued Bob, walking along by the house to the University, looking up to my window and smiling (a queer smile that hurts every time), the sparkle and joy gone out like a flame, I whisper to myself fiercely, "It's all wrong. Ideals to the winds. They loved each other, and it is all wrong."

They were engaged about three months in all. They were so jubilant at first that they wanted the engagement announced immediately. The college paper triumphantly blazoned the news, and of course the daily papers too. Everybody was interested. Everybody congratulated them. Ruth has hosts of friends, Robert too. Ruth's mail for a month was enormous. The house was sweet with flowers for days. Her presents rivaled a bride's. And yet she gave it all up—even loving Bob. She chose to face disapproval and distrust. Will called her heartless for it; Tom, fickle; Edith, a fool; but I call her courageous.

There was no doubt of the sincerity of Ruth's love for Robert Jennings. No other man before had got beneath the veneer of her worldliness. Robert laid bare secret expanses of her nature, and then, like warm sunlight on a hillside from which the snow has melted away, persuaded the expanses into bloom and beauty. Timid generosities sprang forth in Ruth. Tolerance, gratitude, appreciation blossomed frailly; and over all there spread, like those hosts of four-petaled flowers we used to call bluets, which grew in such abundance among rarer violets or wild strawberry—there spread through Ruth's awakened nature a thousand and one little kindly impulses that had to do with smiles for servants, kind words for old people, and courtesy to clerks in shops. I don't believe that anything but love could work such a miracle with Ruth. If only she had waited, perhaps it would have performed more wonderful feats.

The book incident was the first indication of trouble. The second was more trivial. It happened one Sunday noon. We had been to church that morning together—Ruth, Will and I—and Robert Jennings was expected for our mid-day dinner at one-thirty. He hadn't arrived when we returned at one, and after Ruth had taken off her church clothes and changed to something soft and filmy, she sat down at the piano and played a little while—five minutes or so—then rose and strolled over toward the front window. She seated herself, humming softly, by a table there. "Bob's late," she remarked and lazily reached across the table, opened my auction-bridge box, selected a pack of cards, and still humming began to play solitaire.

The cards were all laid out before her when Robert finally did arrive. Ruth gave him one of her long, sweet glances, then demurely began laying out more cards. "Good morning, Bob," she said richly.

Bob said good morning, too, but I discerned something forced and peremptory in his voice. I felt that that pack of playing cards laid out before Ruth on the Sabbath-day affected him just as it had me when first Ruth came to live with us. I had been brought up to look upon card-playing on Sunday as forbidden. In Hilton I could remember when policemen searched vacant lots and fields on Sunday for crowds of bad boys engaged in the shocking pastime beneath secreted shade trees. Ruth had traveled so widely and spent so many months visiting in various communities where card-playing on Sunday was the custom that I knew it didn't occur to her as anything out of the ordinary. I tried to listen to what Will was reading out loud to me from the paper, but the fascination of the argument going on behind my back by the window held me.

"But, Bob dear,"I heard Ruth's surprised voice expostulate pleasantly, "you play golf occasionally on Sunday. What's the difference? Both a game, one played with sticks and a ball, and the other with black and red cards. I was allowed to play Bible authors when I was a child, and it's terribly narrow, when you look at it squarely, to say that one pack of cards is any more wicked than another."

"It's not a matter of wickedness," Bob replied in a low, disturbed voice. "It's a matter of taste, and reverence for pervading custom."

"But——" put in Ruth.

"Irreverence for pervading custom," went on Bob, "is shown by certain men when they smoke, with no word of apology, in a lady's reception-room, or track mud in on their boots, as if it was a country club. Some people enjoy having their Sundays observed as Sunday, just as they do their reception-rooms as reception-rooms."

"But, Bob——"

"I think of you as such an exquisite person," he pursued, "so fine, so sensitive, I cannot associate you with any form of offense or vulgarity, like this," he must have pointed to the cards, "or extreme fashions, or cigarette smoking. Do you see what I mean?"

"Vulgarity! Cigarette smoking! Why, Bob, some of the most refined women in the world smoke cigarettes—clever, intelligent women, too. And I never could see any justice at all in the idea some people have that it's any worse, or more vulgar, as you say, for women to smoke cigarettes than for men."

"Irreverence for custom again, I suppose," sighed Bob.

"Well, then, if it's a custom that's unjust and based on prejudice, why keep on observing it? It used to be the custom for men to wear satin knickerbockers and lace ruffles over their wrists, but some one was sensible enough—or irreverent enough—" she tucked in good-naturedly, "to object—and you're the gainer. There! How's that for an answer? Doesn't solitaire win?"

"Custom and tradition," replied Bob earnestly, anxiously, "is the work of the conservative and thoughtful majority, and to custom and tradition every civilization must look for a solid foundation. Ignore them and we wouldn't be much of a people."

"Then how shall we ever progress?" eagerly took up Ruth, "if we just keep blindly following old-fogey laws and fashions? It seems to me that the only way people ever get ahead is by breaking traditions. Father broke a few in his generation—he had to to keep up with the game—and so must I."

"Oh, well," said Bob, almost wearily, "let's not argue, you and I."

"Why not?" inquired Ruth, and I heard her dealing out more cards as she went on talking gaily. "I love a good argument. It wakes me up intellectually. My
The Fifth Wheel (1916, Prouty), 2.png

"'Men seem to want to make just nice soft pussy-cats out of us, with ribbons round our necks, and hear us purr'"

mind's been so lazy. It needs to be waked up. It feels good, like the first spring plunge in a pond of cold water to a sleepy old bear who's been rolled up in a ball in some dark hole all winter. That's what it feels like. I never knew what fun it was to think and argue till I began taking the English course at Shirley. We argue by the hour there. It's great fun. But I suppose I'm terribly illogical and no fun to argue with. That's the way with most women. It isn't our fault. Men seem to want to make just nice soft pussy-cats out of us, with ribbons round our necks," she laughed, "and hear us purr. There! wait a minute. I'm going to get this. Come and see." Then abruptly, "Why, Bob, do the cards shock you?"

"No, no—not a bit," he assured her.

"They do," she affirmed. "How funny. They do." There was a pause. "Well," she said at last (Will was still reading out loud and I could barely catch her answer). "Well, I suppose they're only pasteboard, just as the book was only paper and print. I can give them up."

"I don't want you to—not for me. No, don't. Go right ahead. Please," urged Bob. But it was too late.

"Of course not," replied Ruth, and I heard the cards going back into the box. "If I offend—and I see I do—of course not." And she rose and came over and sat on the sofa beside me.

From that time on I noticed a change in Robert and Ruth—nothing very perceptible. Robert came as often, stayed as late—later. That was what disturbed me. Ruth rose in the morning, after some of those protracted sessions, suspiciously quiet and subdued. In place of the radiance that so lately had shone upon her face, often I perceived a puzzled and troubled expression. In place of her almost hilarious joy, a wistfulness stole into her bearing toward Bob.

"Of course," she said to me one day, "I have been living a sort of—well, broad life you might call it for a daughter of father's, I suppose. He was so straight-laced. But all the modes and codes I've been adopting for the last several years I adopted only to be polite, to do as other people did, simply not to offend—as Bob said the other day. I thought if I ever wanted to go back to the strict laws of my childhood again, I could easily enough. In fact I intended to, after I had had my little fling. But I've outgrown them. They don't seem reasonable to me now. I can't go back to them. Convictions stand in my way."

"Women ought not to have convictions," I said shortly.

"Don't you think so?" queried Ruth.

"Men," I replied, "have so much more knowledge and experience of the world. Convictions have foundations with men."

"How unfair somehow," said Ruth, looking away into space.

"Just you take my advice, Ruth," I went on, "and don't you let any convictions you may think you have get in the way of your happiness. Just you let them lie for a while. When you and Bob are hanging up curtains in your new apartment, and pictures and things, you won't care a straw about your convictions, then."

"I don't suppose so," replied Ruth, still meditative. "No, I suppose you're right. I'll let Bob have the convictions for both of us. I'm younger. I can re-adjust easier than he, I guess."

A few days later Ruth went to a suffrage meeting in town; not because she was especially interested, but because a friend she had made in a course she was taking at Shirley College invited her to go.

It was the winter that everybody was discussing suffrage at teas and dinner parties; fairs and balls and parades were being given in various cities in its interest; and anti-organizations being formed to fight it and lend it zest. It was the winter that the term Feminism first reached the United States, and books on the greater freedom of women and their liberalization burst into print and popularity.

On the suffrage question Ruth had always been prettily "on the fence," and "Oh, dear, do let's talk of something else," she would laugh, while her eyes invited. Her dinner partners were always willing.

"On the fence, Kidlet," Edith had once remonstrated to Ruth, "that's stupid!" Edith herself was strongly anti. "Of course I'm anti," she maintained proudly. "Anybody who is anybody in Hilton is anti. The suffragists—dear me! Perfect freaks—most of them. People you never heard of! I peeked in at a suffrage tea the other day and mercy, such sights! I wouldn't be one of them for money. We're to give an anti-ball here in Hilton. I'm a patroness. Name to be printed alongside Mrs. ex-Governor Vaile's. How's that? 'On the fence,' Ruth! Why, good heavens, there's simply no two sides to the question. You come along to this anti-ball and you'll see, Kiddie!"

Well, as I said, Ruth went one day to a suffrage meeting in town. She had never heard the question discussed from a platform. When she came into the house about six o'clock, she was so full of enthusiasm that she didn't stop to go upstairs. She came right into the room where Will and I were reading by the cretonne-shaded lamp.

"I've just been to the most wonderful lecture!" she burst out, "on suffrage! I never cared a thing about the vote one way or the other, but I do now. I'm for it. Heart and soul, I'm for it! Oh, the most wonderful woman spoke. Every word she said applied straight to me. I didn't know I had such ideas until that woman got up and put them into words for me. They've been growing and ripening in me all these years, and I didn't know it—not until today. That woman said that sacrifices are made again and again to send boys to college and prepare them to earn a living, but that girls are brought up simply to be pretty and attractive, so as to capture a man who will provide them with food and clothes. Why, Lucy, don't you see that that's just what happened in our family? We slaved to send Oliver and Malcolm through college—but for you and for me—what slaving was there done to prepare us to earn a living? Just think what I might be had I been prepared for life like Malcolm or Oliver, instead of wasting all my years frivoling. Why, don't you see I could have convictions with a foundation then? I feel so helpless and ignorant with a really educated person now. Oh, dear, I wish this movement had been begun when I was a baby, so I could have profited by it! That woman said that when laws are equal for men and women, then advantages will be, and that every step we can make toward equalization is a step in the direction toward a fairer deal for women. Suffrage? Well, I should say I was for it! I think it's wonderful. I went straight up to that woman and said I wanted to join the League; and I did. It cost me a dollar."

"Good heavens, Ruth," exclaimed Will sleepily, from behind his paper. "Don't you go and get rabid on suffrage—— Ease up, old girl. Steady."

"I don't see how any one can help but get rabid, Will, as you say, any more than a person could keep calm if he was a slave, when he first heard what Abraham Lincoln was trying to do."

"Steady there, old girl," jibed Will. "Is Bob such a terrific master as all that?"

"That's not the point, Will. Convention is the master—that's what the woman said. It isn't free of men we're trying to be."

"We! we! Come, Ruth. You aren't one of them in an hour, are you? Better wait and consult Bob first."

"Oh, Bob will agree with me. I know he will. It's such a progressive idea. And I am one of them. I'm proud to be. I'm going to march in the parade next week."

I came to life at that. "Oh, Ruth, not really—not in Boston!"

"What? Up the center of Washington Street in French heels and a shadow veil?" scoffed Will.

"Up the center of Washington Street in something," announced Ruth, "if that's the line of march. Remember, Will, French heels and shadow veils have been my stock in trade, and not through any choice of mine, either. So don't throw them at me, please."

Will subsided. "Well, well, what next? A raring, tearing little suffragette, in one afternoon, too!"

Ruth went upstairs.

"Poor old Bob," remarked Will to me when we were alone.