The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 17

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The Fifth Wheel  (1916)  by Olive Higgins Prouty
Ruth Goes to New York



THE next morning when Will and I motored home we were alone. We approached the steeples of our town about noontime. I remember whistles were blowing and bells ringing as we passed through the Square. We saw Robert Jennings coming out of one of the University buildings on his way home from a late morning recitation. We slowed down beside him, and Will sang out to him to pile in behind; which he did, leaning forward and chatting volubly with Will and me for the next ten minutes about a new starter device for an automobile. When Will stopped in front of our walk, Robert hopped out of his back seat and opened the door for me.

It was when Will had motored out of hearing that Robert turned sharply to me and asked, "Did you leave her in Hilton?"

"No, Bob, Ruth isn't in Hilton. She's gone to New York," I told him gently.

"Whom is she staying with in New York? Your brother?" he asked.

"No, not Malcolm. No. But she's all right."

"What do you mean—'she's all right'?"

"Oh, I mean she has money enough—and all that."

"She isn't alone in New York!" he exclaimed. "You don't mean to say——"

"Now, Bob, don't you go and get excited about it. Ruth's all right. I'm just about worn out persuading my brother Tom that it is perfectly all right for Ruth to go to New York for a little while if she wants to. I can't begin arguing with you, the minute I get home. I'm all worn out on the subject."

"But what is she doing down there? Whom is she visiting? Who is looking out for her? Who went with her? Who met her?"

"Nobody, nobody. Nobody met her; nobody went with her; she isn't visiting anybody. Good heavens, Bob, you'd make a helpless, simpering little idiot out of Ruth if you had your way. She isn't a child. She isn't an inexperienced young girl. She's capable of keeping out of silly difficulties. She can be trusted. Let her use her judgment and good sense a little. It won't hurt her a bit. It will do her good. Don't you worry about Ruth. She's all right."

"But a girl—a pretty young girl like Ruth—you don't mean to say that Ruth—Ruth——"

"Yes, I do, too, Bob! And there are lots of girls just as pretty as Ruth in New York, and just as young, tapping away at typewriters, and balancing accounts in offices, and running shops of their own, too, in perfect safety. You're behind the times, Bob. I don't want to be horrid, but really I'm tired, and if you stay here and talk to me, I warn you I'm going to be cross."

We were in the house now. Bob had followed me in. I was taking off my things. He stared at me as I proceeded.

"I didn't see any sense at all in your breaking off your engagement," I went on. "You both cared for each other. I should have thought——"

"It was inevitable," cut in Bob gravely. "It was inevitable, Lucy."

"Well, then, if it was, Bob, all right. I won't say another word about it. But now that Ruth is nothing to you——"

"Nothing to me!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, that is what I said—nothing to you," I repeated mercilessly, "I beg of you don't come here and show approval or disapproval about what she's up to. Leave her to me now. I'm backing her. I tell you, just as I told Tom and the others, she's all right. Ruth's all right."

But later in my room I wondered—I wondered if Ruth really was all right. Sitting in my little rocking-chair by the window, sheltered and protected by kind, familiar walls, I asked myself what Ruth was doing now. It was nearing the dinner hour. Where would Ruth be eating dinner? It was growing dark slowly. It would be growing dark in New York. Stars would be coming out up above the towering skyscrapers, as they were now above the apple trees in the garden. I thought of Ruth's empty bed across the hall. Where would she sleep tonight? Oh, Ruth—Ruth—poor, little sister Ruth!

I remember when you were a little baby wrapped up in soft, pink, knitted things. The nurse put you in my arms, and I walked very carefully into my mother's room with you and stood staring down at you asleep. I was only a little girl, I was afraid I would drop you, and I didn't realize as I stood there by our mother's bed that she was bidding her two little daughters good-by. She couldn't take one of my hands because they were both busy holding you; but she reached out and touched my shoulder; and she told me always to love you and take care of you and be generous and kind, because you were little and younger. And I said I would, and carried you out very proud and happy.

That was a long while ago. I have never told you about it—we haven't found it easy to talk seriously together—but I have always remembered. I used to love to dress you when you were a baby, and feed you, and take you out in the brown willow baby carriage like the real mothers. But, of course, you had to outgrow the carriage; you had to outgrow the ugly little dresses father and I used to select for you at the department stores in Hilton; you had to outgrow the two little braids I used to plait for you each morning when you were big enough to go to school; you had to outgrow me, too. I am so plain and commonplace.

Yesterday when you put your arms about me there in the smoky train-shed in Hilton, and cried a little as I held you close, with the great noisy train that was to take you away snorting beside us, you became again to me the little helpless sister that mother told me to take care of. All the years between were blotted out. I remembered our mother's room, the black walnut furniture. I saw the white pillows and mother's long, dark braids lying over each of her shoulders. Again I heard her words; again I felt the pride that swelled in my heart as I bore you away.

"I hope you are safe tonight. You can always call on me. I will always come. Don't be afraid. And when you are unhappy, write to me. I shall understand. You are not hard, you are not heartless. You are tender and sensitive. Only your armor is made of flint. You are not changeable and vacillating. They didn't know. You are brave and conscientious." With some such words as these last did I write to Ruth before I slept that night. I believed in her as I never had before. I cherished her with my soul.

This is what had happened in Hilton. After Ruth had left the room the afternoon of her inquisition, the rest of us had sat closeted in serious consultation for two hours or more. It was after five when we emerged.

To Edith's inquiry as to Ruth's whereabouts, a maid explained that Miss Ruth had left word that she was going to walk out to the Country Club, and would return in time for supper at seven. I went upstairs to my room. A feeling of despair possessed me. I sat down and gazed out of the window. A maid knocked lightly as I sat staring and came in with a letter.

"Miss Ruth told me to wait until you were alone and then to give you this," she explained.

I thanked her and she departed. I locked the door, then tore open Ruth's note to me and read it.

"Dear Lucy," it said. "I cannot help but overhear some of the conversation. Obviously, Tom is shouting so I may get the benefit of his remarks without effort. I must get out of this horrible place. How can I endure to meet the disapproval and bitterness and hatred—yes, hatred—when they come filing out upon me from that room across the hall. How can I sit down to supper with them all, ask for bread—for water? How can I keep up this farce of polite speech? I can't.

"You are in favor of my going away somewhere. I can hear you urging them. Well, then, if you are, let me go now—tonight. I can't go back with you tomorrow. Even though I am hard and heartless, don't ask me to run the risk of seeing Bob by mistake just now. I can't see him now. I can't. I won't stay here at Edith's. I won't go with Tom. This isn't the Middle Ages. Then if ultimately I am to go away, alone somewhere, let me go immediately. After I've gone the responsibility of giving me permission will be lifted from Tom's shoulders. Don't you see? You can argue with him to better advantage if the step has been taken.

"I shan't be blindly running away. I've been considering a change in my plans for so long that I've been enquiring. I know of a position I can get in New York, and right off. I wrote about it last week. I heard of it through the Suffrage League. It's a position in the office there in New York. I would have explained all this to Tom if he had been decent, but he wasn't. He is narrow and prejudiced. Oh, Lucy, help me to escape. I've got fifteen dollars, of Tom's and Edith's, and I shall keep it, too! They owe me a debt instead of I, them. That's the way I feel. But fifteen dollars is not enough to start to New York with. There's a train at 6.20 and another at 8.15. I am going down to the station now, this minute, and wait for you to come down there with more money and help me off. If you get out of that room before six, I could take the earlier train. If not, then the 8.15. I will wait for you in the ladies' waiting-room where the couches are. If you think my going suddenly this way is out of the question, then I'll simply turn around and come back with you to the house here, and grin and bear the situation somehow. I'll have to. So meet me anyhow. Don't tell any one where I am. Just stroll out and we'll pretend we've been to the Country Club.

"I know that I've been horrid to you all my life, critical and pharisaic. You can pay me back for it now. You can refuse to help me if you want to. I shan't blame you. But, oh, dear, let me go away alone, just for a little while anyway. Let nature try and heal.

"I have my bag and toilet articles. Money is all I want—money and perhaps just one person in my family to wish me well.


I glanced at the clock It was just quarter of six. There was no opportunity of laying this question on the table and waiting for the clearing light of morning to help me make a wise decision. This was an occasion when a woman's intuition must be relied upon. As I stood there with Ruth's letter in my hand, swift and sure was the conviction that came to me. I must help Ruth get away. She would surely escape sometime from the kind of bondage Tom was planning to place her under. If not tonight, or next week, then a month hence. Was it not better for her to go, even though suddenly and shockingly, with the God-speed and the trust of some one in her own family?

Is it ever wise to cut the last thread that holds a girl to those who have loved and cherished her? I thought not. Perhaps the slender thread that now existed between Ruth and me might be the means of drawing a stouter cord, which in its turn might haul a cable, strong and reliable. I did not think then of the possible dangers in New York—the difficulties, the risks; there was no time to discuss, no time for doubts and misgivings; there was simply time for me to fill out two blank checks for twenty-five dollars each, put on my hat and coat, and speed with all possible haste to the station.

I found Ruth eagerly awaiting me in the train-shed. There were crowds of people hastening here and there with bags and suit-cases. There were trucks and train-men. There was the roar of an incoming train. Through the confusion Ruth's anxious eyes looked straight into mine.


"Is this your train?" I asked with a nod toward the sweating monster that had just come to a standstill on the first track.

"It's the New York train," said Ruth.

"Well, I've brought some money," I went on quickly. "Fifty dollars. It will last for a while. They don't know about it yet, back there at the house. I shall have to tell them when I go back. I can't predict. Tom may wire Malcolm to meet you and drag you back home. I don't know. But I'll use all the influence I can against it. I'll do my very best, Ruth."

Ruth's hand found mine in a sudden grasp and held it tightly. Another train roared into the train-shed.

"Where shall you stay tonight?" I shrieked at her.

She gave the name of a well-known hotel reserved especially for women. "I shall be all right," she called. "I'll drop you a line tomorrow. You needn't worry about me. I'll let you know if I need anything."

A deep megaphoned voice announced the New York train.

"Your ticket?" I reminded.

"I have it. I was going anyway," she replied.

"Well, then," I said, and opened my bag and produced the two checks. She took them. "Promise me, Ruth, promise always to let me know—always if you need anything, or are unhappy."

Her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. Her under lip quavered. She broke down at last. I held her in my arms.

"Oh, Lucy, Lucy," she cried. "You're so good to me. I miss him so. I left the ring in the corner of your top drawer. You give it to Bob. I can't. You're all I have. I've been so horrid to you all my life. I miss Bob so. I hate Tom. I almost hate Tom. Oh, Lucy, what's to become of me? Whatever is to become of me?"

The train gave a little jerk.

"All aboard, Miss," called a porter.

"Your train, Ruth dear," I said gently and actually pushed her a little toward New York, which even now was beginning to appall me. She kissed me good-by. I looked up and saw her floating away in a cloud of fitful steam.