The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI

A FAMILY CONFERENCE

WE all were seated about the table at one of Edith's sumptuous Sunday dinners at the Homestead when Ruth broke her news to the family. Tom had come East on a business trip, and was spending Sunday with Alec in Hilton; so Edith telephoned to all of us within motoring distance and invited us up for "Sunday dinner." This was two or three days after Ruth had told me that she and Bob were not to be married.

"Oh, yes, I'll go," she nodded, when I had clapped my hand over the receiver and turned to her questioningly, and afterward she said to me, "Concealing my feelings is one of the accomplishments my education has included. I'll go. I shan't tell them about Bob yet. I can't seem to just now."

I was therefore rather surprised when she suddenly abandoned her play-acting. She hadn't figured on the difficult requirements, I suppose, poor child. Bluff and genial Tom, grown rather gray and stout and bald now, had met her with a hearty, "Hello, bride-elect!" Oliver had shouted, "Greetings, Mrs. Prof!" And Madge, his wife, had tucked a tissue-paper-wrapped package under Ruth's arm: "My engagement present," she explained. "Just a half-a-dozen little guest-towels with your initials."

Later at the table Tom had cleared his throat and then remarked, "I like all I hear of this Robert Jennings. He's good stuff, Ruth. You've worried us a good deal, but you've landed on your feet squarely at last. He's a bully chap."

"And he's got a bully girl, too, now that she's got down to brass tacks," said Alec in big-brother style.

"Decided on the date?" cheerfully inquired Tom. "Elise said to be sure and find out. We're coming on in full force, you know."

"Yes, the date's decided," flashed Edith from the head of the table. "June 28th. It'll be hot as mustard, but Hilton will be lovely then, and all the summerites here. You must give me an hour on the lists after dinner, Kidlet. Bob's list, people, is three hundred, and Ruth's four, so I guess there'll be a few little remembrances. The envelopes are half directed already. I want you people to know this wedding is only seven weeks off, so hurry up and order your new gowns and morning coats. Simplicity isn't going to be the keynote of this affair."

"Hello!" exclaimed Tom abruptly, "I haven't inspected the ring yet. Let's see it. Pass it over, Toots."

Ruth glanced down at her hand. It was still there—Bob's unpretentious diamond set in platinum—shining wistfully on Ruth's third finger.

She started to take it off, then stopped and glanced over at me. "I think I'll tell them, Lucy," she said. "I've got something to tell you all," she announced. "I'm wearing the ring still, but—we've broken our engagement. I'm not going to marry Robert Jennings after all."

It sounded harsh, crude. Everybody stared; everybody stopped eating; I saw Tom lay down his fork with a juicy piece of duck on it. It had been within two inches of his mouth.

"Will you repeat that?" he said emphatically.

"Yes," complied Ruth, "I will. I know it seems sudden to you. I meant to write it, but after all I might as well tell you. My engagement to Robert Jennings is broken."

"Is this a joke?" ejaculated Edith.

"No," replied Ruth, still in that calm, composed way of hers. "No, Edith, it isn't a joke."

"Will you explain?" demanded Tom, shoving the piece of duck off his fork and abandoning it for good and all.

Ruth had become pale. "Why, there isn't much to explain, except I found out I wouldn't be happy with Bob. That's all."

"Oh," said Tom, "you found out you wouldn't be happy with Bob! Will you kindly tell us whom you mean to try your happiness on next?"

Ruth's gray eyes darkened. A little pink stole into her cheeks. "There's no good of your using that tone with me, Tom," she said.

"Did you know this?" asked Will of me from across the table.

I nodded.

"Do you mean to say it's true?" demanded Edith.

I nodded again.

"You're crazy, Ruth," she burst out, "you're simply stark mad. It would be a public disgrace. You've got to marry him now. You've simply got to. It's worse than a divorce. Why—the invitations are all ordered, even the refreshments. The whole world knows about it. You've got to marry him."

"My own disgrace is my own affair, I guess," said Ruth, dangerously low.

"It's not your own affair. It's ours; it's the whole family's; it's mine. And I won't stand it—not a second time. Here I have told everybody, got my Boston list all made up, too, and all my plans made. Didn't I have new lights put into the ballroom especially, and a lot of repairs made on the house—a new bathroom, and everything? And all my house-party guests invited? Why—we'll be the laughing-stock of this entire town, if you play this game a second time. Good heavens, you'll be getting the habit. No, sir! You can't go back on your word in this fashion. You've got to marry Robert Jennings now."

"I wouldn't marry Breck Sewall to please you, Edith, and I won't marry Robert Jennings to please you either," said Ruth. "She wanted me to elope with Breck!" she announced calmly.

"That isn't true," replied Edith sharply.

"Why don't you call me a liar and have done with it?" demanded Ruth.

"I wanted to save you from disgrace, and you know it. I wanted——" A maid came in.

"Let us wait and continue this conversation later," remarked Tom.

"We don't want you," flared Edith at the maid. "I didn't ring. Go out till you're summoned. You're the most ungrateful girl I ever knew, Ruth. You're——"

"Come," interrupted Alec. "This isn't getting anywhere. Let us finish dinner first."

"I'm sure I don't want any more dinner," said Edith.

"Nor I," commented Ruth, with a shrug.

There were a salad fork and a dessert spoon still untouched beside our plates. It would have been thoughtful if Ruth had waited and lit her fuse when the finger-bowls came on. It seemed a shame to me to waste two perfectly good courses, and unnecessarily sensational to interrupt the ceremony of a Sunday dinner. But it was impossible to sit there through two protracted changes of plates.

"I guess we've all had enough," remarked Tom, disgustedly shoving away that innocent piece of duck. We rose stragglingly.

"I don't care to talk about this thing any more," said Ruth, as we passed through the hall. "You can thrash it out by yourselves. Lucy, you can represent me!" And she turned away to go upstairs.

Tom called back, "No, Ruth. This is an occasion that requires your presence, whether you like it or not," he said. "Come back, please. There are a few questions that need to be settled."

Ruth acquiesced condescendingly. "Oh, very well," she replied, and strolled down the stairs and into the library. She walked over to the table and leaned, half sitting, against it, while the rest of us came in and sat down, and some one closed the doors.

"Fire away!" she said flippantly, turning to Tom. She picked up an ivory paper-cutter with a tassel on one end, twisted the cord tight, and then holding the cutter up by the tassel watched it whirl and untwist.

Pretty, graceful, nonchalant, armored in a half smile, Ruth stood before her inquisitors. Bob never would have recognized this composed and unmoved girl as the anxious Ruth who had tried so hard to please and satisfy.

"First," began Tom (he has always held the position of high judge in our family), "first, I should be interested to know if you have any plans for the future, and, if so, will you be kind enough to tell us what they may be."

"I have plans," said Ruth, and began twisting the cord of the paper-cutter again.

"Will you put that down, please," requested Tom.

"Certainly," Ruth smiled over-obligingly and laid the paper-cutter on the table. She folded her arms and began tapping the rug with her toe. She was almost insolent.

"Well, then—what are your plans?" fired Tom at her with an obvious effort to control himself.

"New York," she announced mysteriously.

"Oh, New York!" repeated Tom. It was a scornful voice. "New York! And what do you intend to do in New York?"

"Oh, I don't know. I haven't decided. Something," she said airily.

"Ruth," said Tom, "please listen to me carefully if you can for a minute. We've always given you a pretty loose rein. Haven't we?"

Ruth shrugged her shoulders.

"You've had every advantage; attended one of the most expensive schools in this country; had all the money you required, coming-out party and all that; pleasures, flattery, attention—everything to make a girl contented. You've visited any one you pleased from one end of the United States to the other; traveled in Europe, Florida—anywhere you wanted; come and gone at will. Nothing to handicap you. Nothing hard. Nothing difficult. You'll agree. And what have you done with your advantages? What—I want to know?"

Ruth shrugged her shoulders again.

"You can't blame any one but yourself. You haven't been interfered with. I believed in letting you run your own affairs. Thought you were made of the right stuff to do it creditably. I was mistaken. You've had a fair trial at your own management and you've failed to show satisfactory results. Now I'm going to step in. I'm going to see if I can save you from this drifting about and getting nowhere. I don't ask you to go back and anchor with Robert Jennings again. I'm shocked to confess that I don't believe you're worthy of a man like Jennings. It is no small thing to be decided carelessly or frivolously—this matter of marriage. Engaged to two men inside of one year, and now both affairs broken off. It's disgraceful! You've got to learn somehow or other that although you are a woman, you're not especially privileged to go back on decisions."

"I don't want to be especially privileged," said Ruth, and then she added, "special privileges would not be expected by women, if they were given equal rights."

"Oh, Suffrage! ! !" exclaimed Tom with three exclamation points. "So that's it! That's at the bottom of all this trouble."

"That's at the bottom of it," suddenly put in my husband, emphatically.

"Oh, I see. Well, first, Ruth, you're to drop all that nonsense. Suffrage indeed! What do you know about it? You ought to be married and taking care of your own babies, and you wouldn't be disturbed by all these crazy-headed fads, invented by dissatisfied and unoccupied females. Suffrage! And perhaps you think that this latest exhibition of your changeableness and vacillation is an argument in favor of it."

"You needn't throw women's vacillation in their faces, Tom," replied Ruth calmly. "Stable decisions are matters of training and education. Girls of my acquaintance lack the experience with the business world. They don't come in contact with big transactions. They're guarded from them. A lawyer does the thinking for a woman of property oftentimes, and so, of course, women do not learn the necessity of precise statements, accurate thought, and all that. From the time a girl is old enough to think she knows she is just a girl, who her family hope will grow up to be pretty and attractive and marry well. If her family believed she was to grow up into a responsible citizen who would later control by her vote all sorts of weighty questions that affect taxes and tariffs and things, they would have to devote more thought to making her intelligent, because it would have an effect upon their individual interests. I'm interested in suffrage, Tom, not for the good it is going to do politics, but for the good it's going to do women."

Tom made an exclamation of disgust. He was beside himself with scorn and disapproval.

"Nonsense! Utter rot! Women were made to marry and be mothers. Women were——"

"But we'd be better mothers," Ruth cut in. "Don't you see, if——"

"Oh, I don't want to discuss suffrage," interrupted Tom; "I want to discuss your life. Let's keep to the subject. I want to see you settled and happy some day, and as I'm so much older than you, you must put yourself into my hands, and cheerfully. First, drop suffrage. Drop it. Good Lord, Ruth, don't be a faddist. Then I want you to lay your decision about Jennings on the shelf. Let it rest for a while. Postpone the wedding if you wish——"

"But, Tom," tucked in Edith, "that's impossible. The invitations——"

"Never mind, never mind, Edith," interrupted Tom. Then to Ruth he went on. "Postpone the wedding—oh, say a month or two, and then see how you feel. That's all I ask. Reasonable, isn't it?" he appealed to us all. "I'll have a talk with Jennings in the meanwhile," he went on. "This suffrage tommy-rot is working all sorts of unnecessary havoc. I'm sick of it. I didn't suppose it had caught any one in our family though. You drop it, Ruth, for a while. You wait. I'm going back home next Wednesday. Now I want you to pack up your things and be ready to start with me Wednesday night from New York. We'll see what Elise and the youngsters will do for you."

"I'm sorry, Tom," replied Ruth pleasantly, "but my decision about Bob is final; and as for going out West with you and becoming a fifth wheel in your household—no, I've had enough of that. My mind is made up. I'm going to New York."

"But I shan't allow it," announced Tom.

"Then," replied Ruth, "I shall have to go without your allowing it."

"What do you mean?" demanded Tom.

"Why—just what I say. I'm of age. If I were a man, I wouldn't have to ask my older brother's permission."

"And how do you intend to live?"

"On my income," said Ruth. "I bless father now for that stock he left me. Eight hundred dollars a year has been small for me so far. I have had to have help, I know, but it will support my new life. I never was really grateful to father for that money till now. It makes me independent of you, Tom."

Edith, glaring inimically from her corner, exclaimed, "Grateful to her father! That's good!"

"My dear girl," said Tom, "we've never told you before, because we hoped to spare your feelings, but the time has come now. That stock father left you hasn't paid a dividend for a dozen years. It isn't worth its weight in paper. I have paid four hundred dollars, and Edith has been kind and generous enough to contribute four hundred dollars more, to keep you in carfares, young lady. It isn't much in order to talk of your independence around here."

The color mounted to Ruth's cheeks. She straightened. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"Exactly what I say. You haven't a penny of income. Edith and I are responsible for your living, and I want you to understand clearly that I shall not support a line of conduct which does not meet with my approval. Nor Edith either, I rather imagine."

"No, indeed, I won't," snapped out Edith. "I shan't pay a cent more. It's only rank ingratitude I get for it anyhow."

"Do you mean to say," said Ruth in a low voice—there was no flippancy to her now—"I've been living on Edith's charity, and yours, all these years? That I haven't anything of my own—not even my clothes—not even this," she touched a blue enameled watch and chain about her neck, "which I saved and saved so for? Haven't I any income? Haven't I a cent that's mine, Tom?"

"Not a red cent, Ruth—just some papers that we might as well put into the fire-place and burn up."

"Oh," she burst forth, "how unfair—how cruel and unfair!"

"There's gratitude for you," threw in Edith.

"To bring me up," went on Ruth, "under a delusion. To let me go on, year after year, thinking I was provided for, and then suddenly, when it pleases you, to tell me that I'm an absolute dependent, a creature of charity. Oh, how cruel that is! You tell me I ought to be grateful. Well, I'm not—I'm not grateful. You've been false with me. You've brought me up useless and helpless. I'm too old now to develop whatever talent I may have had. I can only drudge now. What is there I can do now? Nothing—nothing—except scrub floors or something like that."

"Oh, yes, there is, too," said Edith. "You can marry Robert Jennings and be sensible."

"Marry a man for support, whether I want to or not? I'll die first. You all want me to marry him," she burst out at us fiercely, "but I shan't—I shan't. I'm strong and healthy, and I'm just beginning to discover that I've got some brains, too. There's something I can do, surely, some way I can earn money. I shan't go West with you, Tom. Understand that. I can't quite see myself growing old in all your various households—old and useless and dependent like lots of unmarried women in large families. I can't see it without a fight anyhow. I don't care if I haven't any income. I can be a clerk in a store, I guess. Anyhow I shan't go West with you, Tom. I am of age. You can't make me. I know I'm just a woman, but I intend to live my own life just the same, and there's no one in this world who can bind and enslave me either!"

"You go upstairs, Ruth," ordered Tom. "I won't stand for such talk as that. You go upstairs and quiet down, and when you're reasonable, we'll talk again. We're not children."

"No, we're not," replied Ruth, "neither of us, and I shan't be sent upstairs as if I was a child either! You can pauperize me, and you can take away every rag I have on my back, too, if you want to, but I'll tell you one thing, you can't take away my independence. You think, Tom, you can frighten me, and conquer me, perhaps, by bullying. But you can't. Conditions are better for women than they used to be, anyhow, thank heaven, and for the courageous woman there's a chance to escape from just such masters of their fates as you—Tom Vars, even though you are my brother. And I shall escape somehow, sometime. See if I don't. Oh, I know what you all think of me," she broke off. "You all think I'm hard and heartless. Well—perhaps you're right. I guess I am. Such an experience as this would just about kill any softhearted person, I should think. But I'm not killed. Remember that, Tom. You've got money, support, sentiment on your side. I've got nothing but my own determination. But I'm not afraid to fight. And I will, if you force me. You'd better be pretty careful how you handle such an utterly depraved person as you seem to think I am. Why, I didn't know you had such a poor opinion of me."

She gave a short little laugh which ended in a sort of sob. I was afraid she was going to cry before us. But the armor was at hand. She put it on quickly, the cynical smile, the nonchalant air.

"There is no good talking any more, as I see," she was able to go on, thus protected. "This is bordering on a scene, and scenes are such bad taste! I'm going into the living-room."

She crossed the room to the door. "You all can go on maligning me to your hearts' content. I've had about enough, thank you. Only remember supper is at seven, and Edith's maids want to get out early Sundays. Consider the maids at least," she finished, and left us, colors flying.