The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 18

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THAT was nearly a year ago. Until one day last week I have not seen Ruth since, not because of the busy life of a young mother—for such I have become since Ruth went away—no, though busy I have been, and proud and happy and selfish, too, like every other mother of a first son in the world, I suppose—but because Ruth hasn't wished to be seen. That is why I have heard from her only through letters, why I direct my answers in care of a certain woman's club with a request to forward them, and why I have neither sent down Will, nor appointed Malcolm to look her up and find out how she was getting along.

Ruth has requested that I make no endeavor to drag her forth into the light of criticism and comment. She has written every week punctually; she has reported good health; and has invariably assured me that she is congenially employed. I have allowed her her seclusion. In olden days broken-hearted women and distracted men withdrew to the protection of religion, and hid their scars inside the walls of nunneries and monasteries. Why not let Ruth conceal her wounds, too, for a while, without fear of disturbance from commenting friends and an inquisitive family?

However, a fortnight ago, I had a letter from Ruth that set me to planning. It casually referred to the fact that she was going to march in the New York suffrage parade. I knew that she is still deeply interested in suffrage. Any one of her letters bore witness to that. I decided to see that parade. My son was six months old; I hadn't left him for a night since he was born; he was a healthy little animal, gaining ounces every week; and for all I knew the first little baby I had been appointed to take care of was losing ounces. I made up my mind to go down to New York and have a look at Ruth anyway. I told Will about it; he fell in with my scheme; and I began to make arrangements.

When I announced to Robert Jennings that we were going to New York, I tried to be casual about it.

"I haven't been down there for two years," I said one night when he dropped in upon us, as was his occasional custom. "I require a polishing in New York about every six months. Besides I want to begin disciplining myself in leaving that little rascal of mine upstairs, just to prove that he won't swallow a safety-pin or develop pneumonia the moment my back's turned. Don't you think I'm wise?"

"New York?" took up Bob. "Shall you—do you plan to see anybody I know?" he inquired.

He was a different man that falteringly asked me this question from the Robert Jennings of a year ago—the same eyes, the same voice, the same persistent smile, and yet something gone out from them all.

"No, Bob," I replied, "I'm not going to look up Ruth." We seldom spoke of her. When we did it was briefly, and usually when Will happened to be absent.

"There's a suffrage parade in New York, Wednesday," Robert informed me. "While you're there, you know. Had you an idea that she might be in it?"

"Why, I shouldn't be a bit surprised," I allowed.

"Well, then, of course you'll see her," he brought out.

"Well, I might. It's possible. I shall see the parade, I hope. They say they're rather impressive."

"She's well?" asked Bob.

"She writes so," I told him briefly.

"And happy?"

"She seems so."

"What should you think of the idea of my seeing that parade, too?" he asked a little later.

"I shouldn't think very well of it, Bob."

"Should I be in the way?" he smiled, "interrupt yours and Will's tête-à-tête?"

"Oh, no, of course not. But—O Bob," I broke off, "why keep on thinking about Ruth? I wish you wouldn't. Life has such a lot else in it." He colored a little at my frankness. "Oh, I know you don't want me to talk about it, but I can't help it. You knew her such a little while, scarcely six months in all, and besides she wasn't suited to you. I see it now myself. She's stark mad about all these suffrage things. You wouldn't have been happy. She's full of theories now. I wish you'd drop all thought of her and go about the next thing. I'm sure Ruth is going about the next thing. You ought to."

"Nevertheless," he said, "should I be in the way?"

Of course he went. I could see his mind was made up in spite of what I might say. The three of us—Robert Jennings and Will and I—stood for two hours on the edge of a curbing in New York City waiting for Ruth to walk up Fifth Avenue.

We were a merry little party. A spark of Robert's old fun seemed to have stolen into his eyes, a little of the old crispness into his voice.

"They're going to walk several abreast," he explained. "It will be hard work finding her in such a crowd. She might get by. So this is my plan. I'll take as my responsibility the rows farthest over, you take the middle, Will, and Lucy, you look out for those nearest the curb. See? Now between the three of us we'll see her. Hello! I believe they're coming!"

I looked down Fifth Avenue, lined with a black ribbon of people on each side. It was free from traffic. Clear and uninterrupted lay the way for this peculiar demonstration. I saw in the distance a flag approaching. I heard the stirring strains of a band.

Ruth was very near the front of the parade. One band had passed us and disappeared into dimness and Ruth preceded the second one.

It was a lovely sunny day, with a stiff sharp breeze that made militant every flag that moved. Ruth wore no slogan of any sort. She carried one symbol only—the American flag. She was not walking. Ruth rode, regally, magnificently. We were hunting for her in the rank and file, and then some little urchin called out, "Gee! Look at the peach!"

And there she was—Ruth! Our Ruth, on a black horse, a splendid creature flecked with foam.

"Some girl!" said a man beside me.

"Who's she?" exclaimed somebody else.

Then abruptly the band that she immediately preceded broke into thundering music, and drowned everything but the sight of her.

But oh, such a sight! She was in her black habit and wore the little tri-cornered hat that so became her. She has always ridden horseback. Confidently, easily she sat in her saddle, with one white-gloved hand holding the reins, and the other one the pole of the flag, which waved above her head. In Ruth's eyes there was an expression that was ardent. Neither to left nor right did she look. She seemed oblivious of her surroundings. Straight ahead she gazed; straight ahead she rode; unafraid, eager, hopeful; the flag her only staff. She epitomized for me the hundreds and hundreds of girls that were following after. Where would they all come out? Where, where would Ruth come out? She had sought liberty. Well, she had it. Where was it taking her? With a choking throat I watched my sister's stars and stripes
The Fifth Wheel (1916, Prouty), 3.png

"Straight ahead she gazed; straight ahead she rode; unafraid, eager, hopeful; the flag her only staff"

vanish up Fifth Avenue. I thought it would satisfy me to see Ruth well and happy—for she looked well, she looked happy—but it didn't satisfy me. I was hungry for more of her.

None of us, Will, Robert or I, had spoken as she rode by. It had been too impressive. I had not looked at Robert. I had observed only his hand as it grasped his coat sleeve as he stood with folded arms. One hand, I thought, had tightened its grasp a little. We all stood perfectly speechless for at least three minutes after Ruth went by. Finally it was Robert who spoke.

"Have you had enough?" he asked of me, leaning down.

"Have you?" I inquired.

"Yes, I have. Let's go. Come on, Will, let's get out," he said. There was a note of impatience in his voice. We wormed our way back to the entrance of a shop.

"What's the rush?" said Will.

Robert replied. I could see his emotion now. "It's this. I'll tell you. I'm going to clear right out of this crowd and look that girl up. You've got that address in Madison Avenue, Lucy. I'm going to look her up——"

"But, Bob," I remonstrated. "She doesn't live there, and she doesn't want to be looked up. She has asked me not to—and besides——"

"I can't help that—I shall be doing the looking up. I'll take the blame," he rather snapped at me.

"Now, look here, Bob, old man," said Will, and he put a hand on one of Robert's shoulders. "What's the good in it now? Don't you see she'll be hotter than ever on this thing just now? Wait till she cools off a bit. That's the idea!"

"Oh, it isn't to dissuade her. I don't care about that. It's simply to find out if she's all right. She may need help of some kind or other. She's a proud girl. Good heavens, she isn't going to send for any one. I don't know what we've been thinking of—a whole year down in this place, and no knowledge of what kind of a life she's had to live. That isn't right—no. Lucy, if you'll be kind enough to give me that address, I'll be off."

"I don't believe you can trace her through that."

"I'll see to that end of it." He was really almost sharp with me.

"What do you think, Will?" I inquired.

"Oh, give it to him, give it to him, my dear."

And so I did at last.

Will and I went to the theater that night, and supper afterward. It was after midnight when we strolled into the hotel. Robert Jennings was sitting in one of the big chairs in the corridor with a paper up before his face. Will had gone to the desk to get our key, and I went up and spoke to Bob.

"Well, hello!" I blurted out cheerfully. "What success? Did you see her?"

He stood up, and I saw his face then.

"Yes, I saw her," he replied, then with difficulty added, "Don't ask me about it," and abruptly he turned away, tossed aside the paper, and walked straight out of the hotel. He might have been in a play on the stage.

We had arranged to leave for home the following morning. Will called up Robert's room about nine to find out if he was still planning to return with us. There was no answer. I felt anxious about Bob. Will felt simply irritated.

"Ought to have known more than to have gone pressing his suit on a person in Ruth's frame of mind," he grumbled.

Robert Jennings didn't show up until three minutes before the train pulled out. His reservation hadn't been canceled, but I had little hope of his appearance. My heart gave a bound of relief when I saw him coming into the car at the farther end.

"Oh, here you are!" I said. "I'm so glad you've come. We've been looking for you."

"Hello there," put in Will.

"Have you? That's good of you," said Bob. He had himself well in hand now. I was glad of that. "I went out for breakfast," he explained. "I was sure to show up, however. I have a five o'clock appointment this afternoon," and he took off his overcoat, swung his chair about, and sat down.

For two hours he sat opposite me there without a single reference to the night before. You might have thought I never had seen him cast that newspaper aside and unceremoniously burst out of the hotel. We talked about all sorts of indifferent subjects. Finally I leaned over and asked Will if he didn't want to go into the smoking-car.

"Understand?" I inquired.

"Surely," he replied, "surely, I do, Miss Canny," and left us.

A half-an-hour outside New London Bob began to talk. "Do you want to hear about last night?" he asked me.

"If you want to tell me," I replied.

"Well, I found her. I found Ruth."

"Yes, I know you did, Bob."

"Do you know where I found her?"

"Why, no. Of course I don't."

"Well, I'll tell you. After I left you I went first to the Madison Avenue address. It wasn't until I gave the lady at the desk of that club the impression that I came bearing news of some serious nature connected with Ruth's family, that she gave me the address where Ruth's mail is forwarded. She told me it was Ruth's place of business. It was an address up near the region of the Park, no name, just the bare street and number. I called 'information,' and finally the house on the 'phone. I was informed Miss Vars would not be in until after dinner. So I waited, and about half-past eight went up there. I found the house—a big, impressive affair, grilled iron fence close to it in front, very fine, very luxurious; all the windows curtained darkly, with a glow of brightness through the cracks here and there. I hesitated to present myself. I walked up and down twice in front of the house, wondering if it would be wiser to call Ruth by telephone and make an appointment. Then suddenly some one inside opened an upper window—it was a warm night. I saw a man draw aside the laces, raise the shade, and throw up the sash. I saw beyond into the room. I saw Ruth. She was sitting beneath a bright light, on a sofa. She was sewing. She seemed quite at home. I saw the man turn away from the window and go back and sit down on the sofa beside her. I saw him stretch out, put one hand in his pocket, lean back luxuriously, and proceed to smoke. It was all very intimate. A policeman passed me as I stood there staring.

"'Who lives there?' I asked him—and he told me. 'Oh, that's the Sewall place,' he said, 'Young Breckenridge Sewall, you know.' I looked up at the window again. The man was closing it now. Is he dark, quite dark, stoops a little, with a receding forehead?" asked Robert of me.

I nodded. I couldn't speak.

"It was he, it was Sewall without a doubt. What is Ruth doing in that house?" demanded Bob. "What is she doing, sitting there alone with that man at nine o'clock at night—sewing? What does it mean? I didn't go in. I walked back to the hotel and sat there, and then I went out and walked again. What does it mean? For heaven's sake, Lucy—tell me what she's doing there?"

"O Bob," I said tremblingly, "don't think anything awful about Ruth. Whatever she's doing there, it's all right."

"You don't know," he groaned.

"I know Ruth, and that's enough. Of course she's all right. Don't let's get absurd. I can't understand it, of course, but after all——"

"Oh, please," almost shuddered Bob, "don't let's talk about it. I don't want to think about it. She has been such a beautiful memory, and now—please don't talk about it."

"All right," I said and leaned back and gazed out of the window, stunned by his news, frightened more than I dared to show.

We rumbled on in silence for half an hour. I was dimly aware that Bob bought a magazine. Will joined us later, sat down, and fell off to sleep. Bob got up and announced that he was going into the smoking-car. His composure of the early afternoon had left him. He appeared nervous and disturbed. He looked distressed. Just outside Providence he returned to the car with a porter and began gathering up his belongings.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Nothing much," he replied shortly, "only I'm going back to New York. I'm going back now—tonight, that's all."