The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 2

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WHEN I was a little girl, Idlewold, the estate of Mrs. Leonard Jackson where I first met Breckenridge Sewall, was a region of rough pasture lands. Thither we children used to go forth on Saturday afternoons on marauding expeditions. It was covered in those days with a network of mysteriously winding cow-paths leading from shadow into sunshine, from dark groves through underbrush and berry-bushes to bubbling brooks. Many a thrilling adventure did I pursue with my brothers through those alluring paths, never knowing what treasure or surprise lay around the next curve. Sometimes it would be a cave appearing in the dense growth of wild grape and blackberry vines; sometimes a woodchuck's hole; a snake sunning himself; a branch of black thimble-berries; a baby calf beside its mother, possibly; or perhaps even a wild rabbit or partridge.

Mrs. Leonard Jackson's elaborate brick mansion stood where more than once bands of young vandals were guilty of stealing an ear or two of corn for roasting purposes, to be blackened over a forbidden fire in the corner of an old stone wall; and her famous wistaria-and-grape arbor followed for nearly a quarter of a mile the wandering path laid out years ago by cows on their way to water. What I discovered around one of the curves of that path the day of Mrs. Jackson's garden tea was as thrilling as anything I had ever chanced upon as a little girl. It was Mr. Breckenridge Sewall sitting on the corner of a rustic seat smoking a cigarette!

I had seen Mr. Sewall enter that arbor at the end near the house, a long way off beyond lawns and flower beds. I was standing at the time with a fragrant cup of tea in my hand beside the wistaria arch that forms the entrance of the arbor near the orchard. I happened to be alone for a moment. I finished my tea without haste, and then placing the cup and saucer on a cedar table near-by, I decided it would be pleasant to escape for a little while the chatter and conversation of the two or three dozen women and a handful of men. Unobserved I strolled down underneath the grape-vines.

I walked leisurely along the sun-dappled path, stopped a moment to reach up and pick a solitary, late wistaria blossom, and then went on again smiling a little to myself and wondering just what my plan was. I know now that I intended to waylay Breckenridge Sewall. His attitude toward Hilton had had somewhat the same effect upon me as the No Trespassing and Keep Off signs when I was younger. However, I hadn't gone very far when I lost my superb courage. A little path branching off at the right offered me an opportunity for escape. I took it, and a moment later fell to berating myself for not having been bolder and played my game to a finish. My impulses always fluctuate and flicker for a moment or two before they settle down to a steady resolve.

I did not think that Mr. Sewall had had time to reach the little path, or if so, it did not occur to me that he would select it. It was grass-grown and quite indistinct. So my surprise was not feigned when, coming around a curve, I saw him seated on a rustic bench immediately in front of me. It would have been awkward if I had exclaimed, "Oh!" and turned around and run away. Besides, when I saw Breckenridge Sewall sitting there before me and myself complete mistress of the situation, it appeared almost like a duty to play my cards as well as I knew how. I had been brought up to take advantage of opportunities, remember.

I glanced at the occupied bench impersonally, and then coolly strolled on toward it as if there was no one there. Mr. Sewall got up as I approached.

"Don't rise," I said, and then as if I had dismissed all thought of him, I turned away and fell to contemplating the panorama of stream and meadow. Mr. Sewall could have withdrawn if he had desired. I made it easy for him to pass unheeded behind me while I was contemplating the view. However, he remained standing, looking at me.

"Don't let me disturb you," I repeated after a moment. "I've simply come to see the view of the meadows."

"Oh, no disturbance," he exclaimed, "and say, if it's the view you're keen on, take the seat."

"No, thank you," I replied.

"Go on, I've had enough. Take it. I don't want it."

"Oh, no," I repeated. "It's very kind, but no, thank you."

"Why not? I've had my fill of view. Upon my word, I was just going to clear out anyway."

"Oh, were you?" That altered matters.

"Sure thing."

Then, "Thank you," I said, and went over and sat down.

Often under the cloak of just such innocent and ordinary phrases is carried on a private code of rapid signs and signals as easily understood by those who have been taught as dots and dashes by a telegraphic operator. I couldn't honestly say whether it was Mr. Sewall or I who gave the first signal, but at any rate the eyes of both of us had said what convention would never allow to pass our lips. So I wasn't surprised, as perhaps an outsider will be, when Mr. Sewall didn't raise his hat, excuse himself, and leave me alone on the rustic seat, as he should have done according to all rules of good form and etiquette. Instead he remarked, "I beg your pardon, but haven't I met you before somewhere?"

"Not that I know of," I replied icily, the manner of my glance, however, belying the tone of my voice. "I don't recall you, that is. I'm not in Hilton long at a time, so I doubt it."

"Oh, not in Hilton!" He scoffed at the idea. "Good Lord, no. Perhaps I'm mistaken though. I suppose," he broke off, "you've been having tea up there in the garden."

"I suppose so," I confessed, as if even the thought of it bored me.

He came over toward the bench. I knew it was his cool and audacious intention to sit down. So I laid my parasol lengthwise beside me, leaving the extreme corner vacant, by which I meant to say, "I'm perfectly game, as you see, but I'm perfectly nice too, remember."

He smiled understandingly, and sat down four feet away from me. He leaned back nonchalantly and proceeded to test my gameness by a prolonged and undisguised gaze, which he directed toward me through half-closed lids. I showed no uneasiness. I kept right on looking steadily meadow-ward, as if green fields and winding streams were much more engrossing to me than the presence of a mere stranger. I enjoyed the game I was playing as innocently, upon my word, as I would any contest of endurance. And it was in the same spirit that I took the next dare that was offered me.

I do not know how long it was that Breckenridge Sewall continued to gaze at me, how long I sat undisturbed beneath the fire of his eyes. At any rate it was he who broke the tension first. He leaned forward and drew from his waistcoat pocket a gold cigarette case.

"Do you object?" he asked.

"Certainly not," I replied, with a tiny shrug. And then abruptly, just as he was to return the case to his pocket, he leaned forward again.

"I beg your pardon—won't you?" And he offered me the cigarettes, his eyes narrowed upon me.

It was not the custom for young girls of my age to smoke cigarettes. It was not considered good form for a débutante to do anything of that sort. I had so far refused all cocktails and wines at dinners. However, I knew how to manage a cigarette. As a lark at boarding-school I had consumed a quarter of an inch of as many as a half-dozen cigarettes. In some amateur theatricals the winter before, in which I took the part of a young man, I had bravely smoked through half of one, and made my speeches too. What this man had said of Hilton and its provincialism was in my mind now. I meant no wickedness, no harm. I took one of the proffered cigarettes with the grand indifference of having done it many times before. Mr. Sewall watched me closely, and when he produced a match, lit it, and stretched it out toward me in the hollow of his hand, I leaned forward and simply played over again my well-learned act of the winter before. Instead of the clapping of many hands and a curtain-call, which had pleased me very much last winter, my applause today came in a less noisy way, but was quite as satisfying.

"Look here," softly exclaimed Breckenridge Sewall. "Say, who are you, anyway?"

Of course I wasn't stupid enough to tell him, and when I saw that he was on the verge of announcing his identity, I exclaimed:

"Oh, don't, please. I'd much rather not know."

"Oh, you don't know then?"

"Are you Mr. Jackson?" I essayed innocently.

"No, I'm not Buck Jackson, but he's a pal of mine. I'm——"

"Oh, please," I exclaimed again. "Don't spoil it!"

"Spoil it!" he repeated a little dazed. "Say, will you talk English?"

"I mean," I explained, carelessly tossing away now into the grass the nasty little thing that was making my throat smart, "I mean, don't spoil my adventure. Life has so few. To walk down a little path for the purpose of looking at a view, and instead to run across a stranger who may be anything from a bandit to an Italian Count is so—so romantic."

"Romantic!" he repeated. He wasn't a bit good at repartee. "Who are you, anyway?"

"Why, I'm any one from a peasant to an heiress."

"You're a darned attractive girl, anyhow!" he ejaculated, and as lacking in subtlety as this speech was, I prized it as sign of my adversary's surrender.

Five minutes later Mr. Sewall suggested that we walk back together to the people gathered on the lawn. But I had no intention of appearing in public with a celebrated person like Breckenridge Sewall, without having first been properly introduced. Besides, my over-eager sister-in-law would be sure to pounce upon us. I remembered my scarf. I had left it by my empty cup on the cedar table. It seemed quite natural for me to suggest to this stranger that before rejoining the party I would appreciate my wrap. It had grown a little chilly. He willingly went to get it. When he returned he discovered that the owner of the bit of lavender silk that he carried in his hand had mysteriously disappeared. Thick, close-growing vines and bushes surrounded the bench, bound in on both sides the shaded path. Through a network of thorns and tangled branches, somehow the owner of that scarf had managed to break her way. The very moment that Mr. Sewall stood blankly surveying the empty bench, she, hidden by a row of young firs, was eagerly skirting the west wall of her hostess's estate.