The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 20
THE FIFTH WHEEL GAINS WINGS
MISS A. S. ARMSTRONG proved to be a thin angular creature with no eyelashes. She saw me come in through the revolving doors of the hotel at sharp twelve o'clock. When I enquired for her at the desk, she was at my elbow. She was not the lady I had come to be interviewed by; she was merely her present private secretary; the lady herself, she explained, was upstairs awaiting me.
"You're younger than we thought," she said, eyeing me critically. She was a very precise person. Her accent was English. My hopes dimmed as I looked upon her. If she had been selected as desirable, then there was little chance for me. My short experience in employment offices had proved to me the undesirability of possessing qualities that impress a would-be employer as too attractive.
"Do you have young men callers?" "Do you like 'to go'?" "Do you want to be out late?" Such inquiries were invariably made when I was trying to obtain a position as a mother's-helper or child's-companion; and though I was able to reply in the negative, my inquisitors would look at me suspiciously, and remain unconvinced. Now, again, I felt sure as we ascended to the apartment above that my appearance (Miss Armstrong had called it my youth) would stand in my way.
I was ushered into a room high up in the air, flooded with New York sunshine. It dazzled me at first. Coming in from the dimness of the corridor, I could not discern the features of the lady sitting in an easy chair.
"I beg your pardon," ejaculated Miss Armstrong at sight of her, "I thought you were in the other room. Shall we come in?"
"Certainly, certainly." There was a note of impatience.
Miss Armstrong turned to me. I was behind her, half hidden. "Come in," she said. "I wish to introduce you to Mrs. Sewall—Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall. The applicant to your advertisement, Mrs. Sewall."
Miss Armstrong stood aside. I stepped forward (what else could I do?) and stood staring into the eyes of my old enemy. It was she who recovered first from the shock of our meeting. I had seen a slight flush—an angry flush I thought—spread faintly over Mrs. Sewall's features as she first recognized me. But it faded. When she spoke there wasn't a trace of surprise in her voice.
"My applicant, did I understand you to say, Miss Armstrong?"
"Yes," I replied in almost as calm a manner as hers, "I answered your advertisement for a private secretary, and followed it by responding to the test which you sent me, and received word to appear here this morning."
"I see, I see," said Mrs. Sewall, observing me suspiciously.
"But," I went on, "I did not know to whom I was applying. I answered six other advertisements at the same time. I have, of course, heard of Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall. I doubt if I would be experienced enough for you. Miss Armstrong spoke of my youth downstairs." Mrs. Sewall still continued to observe me. "To save you the trouble of interviewing me," I went on, "I think I had better go. I am not fitted for the position, I am quite sure. I am sorry to have taken any of your time. I would never have answered your advertisement had you given your name." I moved toward the door.
"Wait a minute," said Mrs. Sewall. "Kindly wait a minute, and be seated. Miss Armstrong, your note-book please. Are you ready?"
Miss Armstrong, seated now at a small desk, produced a leather-bound book and fountain-pen. "Quite ready," she replied.
Mrs. Sewall turned to me. "I always finish undertakings. I have undertaken an interview with you. Let us proceed with it, then. Let us see, Miss Armstrong, what did the young lady sign herself?"
"Yes. 'Y—Q—A.' First then—your name," said Mrs. Sewall.
It was my impulse to escape the grilling that this merciless woman was evidently going to put me to; my first primitive instinct to strike my adversary with some bitterly worded accusation and then turn and fly. But I stood my ground. Without a quiver of obvious embarrassment, or more than a second's hesitation, I replied, looking at Mrs. Sewall squarely.
"My name is Ruth Chenery Vars."
Miss Armstrong scratched it in her book.
"Oh, yes, Ruth Chenery Vars. Your age, please, Miss Vars?" Mrs. Sewall coldly inquired.
I told her briefly.
And I told her that.
"Your education?" she pursued.
"High-school," I replied, "one year of boarding-school, one year coming out into society, several years stagnating in society, some travel, some hotel life, one summer learning how to live on seven dollars a week."
"Oh, indeed!" I thought I discerned a spark of amusement in Mrs. Sewall's ejaculation. "Indeed! And will you tell me, Miss Vars," she went on, a little more humanely, "why you are seeking a position as private secretary?"
"Why, to earn my living," I replied.
"And why do you wish to earn your living?"
"The instinct to exist, I suppose."
"Come," said Mrs. Sewall, "why are you here in New York, Miss Vars? You appear to be a young lady of good birth and culture, accustomed to the comforts, and I should say, the luxuries of life, if I am a judge. Why are you here in New York seeking employment?"
"To avoid becoming a parasite, Mrs. Sewall," I replied.
"'To avoid becoming a parasite'!" (Yes, there was humor in those eyes. I could see them sparkle.) "Out of the mouths of babes!" she exclaimed, "verily, out of the mouths of babes! You are young to fear parasitism, Miss Vars."
"I suppose so," I acknowledged pleasantly, and looked out of the window.
Beneath Mrs. Sewall's curious gaze I sat, quiet and unperturbed, contemplating miles of roofs and puffing chimneys. I was not embarrassed. I had once feared the shame and mortification that would be mine if I should ever again encounter this woman, but in some miraculous fashion I had opened my own prison doors. It flashed across me that never again could the bogies and false gods of society rule me. I was free! I was independent! I was unafraid! I turned confident eyes back to Mrs. Sewall. She was considering me sharply, interrogatively, tapping an arm of her chair as she sat thinking.
"Well," I said smiling, and stood up as if to go. "If you are through with me——"
"Wait a minute," she interrupted. "Wait a minute. I am not through. Be seated again, please. I sent out about thirty copies of the papers such as you received," she went on. "Some fifteen replies were sent back. Yours proved to be the only possible one among them. That is why I have summoned you here today. The position of my private secretary is a peculiar one, and difficult to fill. Miss Armstrong has been with me some years. She leaves to be married." (Married! This sallow creature.) "She leaves to marry an officer in England. She is obliged to sail tomorrow. Some one to take her place had been engaged, but a death—a sudden death—makes it impossible for the other young lady to keep her contract with me. Now the season is well advanced. I am returning to town late this year. My town house is being prepared for immediate occupancy. The servants are there now. I return to it tomorrow. On Thursday I have a large dinner. My social calendar for the month is very full. You are young—frightfully young—to fill a position of such responsibility as Miss Armstrong's. My private secretary takes care of practically all my correspondence. But many of the letters I asked you to write in the test I sent are letters which actually must be written within the next few days. Your answers pleased me, Miss Vars—yes, pleased me very much, I might say." She got up (I rising too) and procured a fresh handkerchief from a silver box on a table. She touched it, folded, to her nose.
"The salary to begin with is to be a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month," she remarked. She shook out the handkerchief, then she added, coughing slightly first behind the sheer square of linen, "I should like you to start in upon your duties, Miss Vars, as soon as possible—tomorrow morning if it can be arranged."
I was taken unawares. I had not expected this.
"Why—but do you think—I'm sorry," I stumbled, "but on further consideration I feel that I——"
"Wait a minute, please. Before you give me an answer it is fair to explain your position more in detail. It is an official position. Your hours are from ten to four. You are in no sense maid or companion. You live where you think best, are entirely independent, quite free, the mistress of your own affairs. I am a busy woman. The demands upon my time are such that I require a secretary who can do more than add columns of figures, though that she must do too. She must in many cases be my brains, my tact, convey in my correspondence fine shades of feeling. It is a position requiring peculiar talent, Miss Vars, and one, I should say, which would be attractive to you. During the protracted absence of an only son of mine, who is occupying my London house, I shall be alone in my home this winter. You may have until this evening to think over your answer. Don't give it to me now. It is better form, as well as better judgment, never to be hasty. I liked your letters," she smiled graciously upon me now. "After this interview I like them still. I like you. I think we would get on."
A hundred and twenty-five dollars a month! The still unmarried Breck safe in England! My almost empty trunk! Why not? Why not accept the position? Was I not free from fear of what people would say? Had I not already broken the confining chains of "what's done," and "what isn't done?" I needed the work; it was respectable; Breck was in England; a hundred and twenty-five dollars a month; my trunk almost empty.
"Well," I said, "I need a position as badly as you seem to need a secretary, Mrs. Sewall. We might try each other anyway. I'll think it over. I won't decide now. I will let you know by five o'clock this afternoon."
I accepted the position. Mrs. Plummet shed real tears when I told her my good news at six o'clock that night; and more tears a fortnight later when I moved out of my little hall bedroom, and my feather-weight trunk, lightsomely balanced on the shoulders of one man, was conveyed to the express-wagon and thence to new lodgings in Irving Place.
It was in the new lodgings that my new life really began. Its birth had been difficult, the pains I had endured for its existence sharp and recurring, but here it was at last—a lovely, interesting thing. I could observe it almost as if it was something I could hold in my two hands. Here it was—mine, to watch grow and develop; mine to tend and nurture and persuade; my life at last, to do with as I pleased.
At the suffrage headquarters I had run across a drab-appearing girl by the name of Esther Claff, and it was with her that I shared the room in Irving Place.
She was writing a book, and used to sit up half the night. She was a college-educated girl, who had been trained to think logically. Social and political questions were keen delights to Esther Claff. She took me to political rallies; we listened to speeches from anarchists and socialists; we attended I. W. W. meetings; we heard discussions on ethical subjects, on religion, on the white-slave traffic, equal suffrage, trusts. Life at all its various points interested Esther Claff. She was a plain, uninteresting girl to look at, but she possessed a rare mind, as beautifully constructed as the inside of a watch, and about as human, sometimes I used to think.
She was very reticent about herself, told me almost nothing of her early life and seemed to feel as little curiosity about mine. I lived with Esther Claff a whole winter with never once an expression from her of regard or affection. I wondered sometimes if she felt any. Esther was an example, it seemed to me, of a woman who had risen above the details of human life, petty annoyances of friendships, eking demands of a community. I had heard her voice tremble with feeling about some reforms she believed in, but evidently she had shaken off all desire for the human touch. I wished sometimes that Esther wasn't quite so emancipated.
My associates were Esther's associates—college friends of hers for the most part, a circle of girls who inspired me with their enthusiasms and star-high aspirations. They were living economically in various places in New York, all keenly interested in what they were doing. There was Flora Bennett, sleeping in a tiny room with a skylight instead of uptown with her family, because her father wouldn't countenance his daughter's becoming a stenographer, making her beg spending money from him every month like a child. There was Anne DeBois who had left a tyrannical parent who didn't believe in educating girls, and worked her way through college. There was a settlement worker or two; there was poor, struggling Rosa who tried to paint; Sidney, an eager little sculptor; Elsie and Lorraine, two would-be journalists, who lived together, and who were so inseparable we called them Alsace and Lorraine; there was able Maria Brown, an investigator who used to spend a fortnight as an employee in various factories and stores and write up the experience afterwards.
There were few or no men in our life. Esther and I frequented our friends' queer little top-story studios in dark alleys for recreation, and got into deep discussions on life and reforms. Sometimes we celebrated to the extent of a sixty-cent table d'hôte dinner in tucked-away restaurants. We occupied fifty-cent seats at the theater occasionally, and often from dizzying heights at the opera would gaze down into the minaret boxes below, while I recalled with a little feeling of triumph that far-distant time when I had sat thus emblazoned and imprisoned.
I had cut loose at last. I was proud of myself. In the secret of my soul I strutted. I was like a boy in his first long trousers. I might not yet show myself off to the family. They would question the propriety of my occupation with Mrs. Sewall, but nevertheless I had not failed. Sometimes lying in my bed at night with all the vague, mysterious roar of New York outside, my beating heart within me seemed actually to swell with pride. I was alone in New York; I was independent; I was self-supporting; I was on the way to success. I used to drop off to sleep on some of those nights with the sweet promise of victory pervading my whole being.
One day I ran across an advertisement in the back of a magazine representing a single wheel with a pair of wings attached to its hub. It was traveling along without the least difficulty in the world. So was I. The fifth wheel had acquired wings!