The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 21

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CHAPTER XXI

IN THE SEWALL MANSION

IN spite of Mrs. Sewall's crowded engagement calendar, she was a woman with very few close friends. She was very clever; she could converse ably; she could entertain brilliantly; and yet she had been unable to weave herself into any little circle of loyal companions. She was terribly lonely sometimes.

For the first half-dozen weeks our relations were strictly official. And then one day just as I was leaving to walk back to my rooms as usual, Mrs. Sewall, who was just getting into her automobile, asked me if I would care to ride with her. The lights were all aglow on Fifth Avenue. We joined the parade in luxurious state. This was what I once had dreamed of—to be seated beside Mrs. F. Rockridge Sewall in her automobile, creeping slowly along Fifth Avenue at dusk. Life works out its patterns for people cunningly, I think. I made some such remark as I sat there beside Mrs. Sewall.

"How? Tell me," she said, "how has it worked out its pattern cunningly for you?"

We had never mentioned our former relations. I didn't intend to now.

"Oh," I said, side-stepping what was really in my mind, "cunningly, because here I am, in a last winter's hat and a sweater for warmth underneath my old summer's suit, and yet I'm happy. If life has woven me into such a design as that—I think it's very clever of it."

"Are you happy?" questioned Mrs. Sewall."

"Yes, I believe I am," I replied honestly. "That, of course, isn't saying I am not just a little lonely sometimes. But I'm interested. I'm terribly interested, Mrs. Sewall."

"Well, but weren't you interested when you were a débutante? You referred to having been a débutante, you remember, once. Weren't you, as you say, terribly interested then?"

"Yes, in a way, I suppose I was. But I believe then I was interested in myself, and what was good for my social success, and now—it sounds painfully self-righteous—but now I'm interested in things outside. I'm interested in what's good for the success of the world." I blushed in the dusk. It sounded so affected. "I mean," I said, "I'm interested in reforms and unions, and suffrage, and things like that. I used to be so awfully individualistic."

"Individualistic! Where do you run across these ideas? A girl like you. Parasitism, and suffrage! Is my secretary a suffragette?" she asked me smilingly.

"Well," I replied, "I believe that woman's awakening is one of the greatest forces at work today for human emancipation."

"Well, well," ejaculated Mrs. Sewall. "So my secretary thinks if women vote, all the wrinkles in this old world will be ironed out."

I knew I was being made fun of a little, but I was willing nevertheless.

"The influence suffrage will have on politics will not be so important as the influence it will have on ethics and conventions," I replied, "and I believe it will have such a beneficial influence that it will be worth Uncle Sam's trouble to engage a few more clerks to count the increased number of ballots."

"Well—well. Is that so?" smiled Mrs. Sewall, amused. "Do you think women competent to sit on juries, become just judges, and make unbiased and fair decisions? What have you to say to that, Miss Enthusiast?"

"Women are untrained now, of course, but in time they will learn the manners of positions of trust, as men have, through being ridiculed in print, through bitter experiences of various kinds. If they are given a few years at it, they'll learn that they can't afford to be hasty and pettish in public positions, as they could in their own little narrow spheres at home. A child who first goes to school is awfully new at it. He sulks, cries, wants his own way; he hasn't learned how to work with others. Neither have women yet, but suffrage will help us toward it."

"I had no idea you were such a little enthusiast. Come, don't you want to have tea with me and my Mrs. Scot-Williams? I'm to meet her at the Carl. She enjoys a girl with ideas."

"In this?" I indicated my suit. We were drawing up to the lighted restaurant, where costly lace veiled from the street candle-lighted tables.

"In that?" Mrs. Sewall looked at me and smiled. "Talk as you have to me, my dear, and she will not see what your soul goes clothed in."

My enemy—Mrs. Sewall! My almost friend now! She could sting, but she could make honey too. Bittersweet. I went with her to drink some tea.

That was the beginning of our intimate relations. Mrs. Sewall invited me the very next day to lunch with her in the formal dining-room, with the Sewall portraits hanging all around. We talked more suffrage. It seemed to amuse her. She was not particularly interested in the woman's movement. It simply served as an excuse.

One stormy evening not long after the luncheon invitation Mrs. Sewall invited me to stay all night. She was to be alone and had no engagement. She asked me frequently after that. We slipped into relations almost affectionate. I discovered that Mrs. Sewall enjoyed my reading aloud to her. I found out one day, when her maid, who was an hourly irritation to her, was especially slow about arranging her veil, that my fingers pleased and satisfied. Often, annoyed beyond control, she would exclaim, "Come, come, Marie, how clumsy you are! All thumbs! Miss Vars, do you mind? Would you be so kind?" Often I found myself buttoning gloves, untangling knots in platinum chains, and fastening hooks.

As late fall wore into early winter, frequently I presided at the tea-table in Mrs. Sewall's library—the inner holy of holies, upstairs over the drawing-room. "Perkins is so slow" (Perkins was the butler) "and his shoes squeak today. Would you mind, Miss Vars? You're so swift and quiet with cups."

Once she said, in explanation of her friendliness: "I've never had anything but a machine for a private secretary before. Miss Armstrong was hardly a companionable person. No sense of humor. But an excellent machine. Oh, yes—excellent. Better at figures than you, my dear Miss Vars, but oh, her complexion! Really I couldn't drink tea with Miss Armstrong. I never tried it, but I'm sure it would not have been pleasant. You have such pretty coloring, my dear. Shan't I call you Ruth some day?"

Spontaneously it burst out. I had never had the affection of an older woman. I grasped it.

"Do, yes, do call me Ruth," I exclaimed.

I had once believed I could please this difficult woman. I had not been mistaken. It was proved. I did please her. She called me Ruth!

I wrote her letters for her, I kept her expenses, I cut her coupons, I all but signed her generous checks to charitable institutions. Most willingly I advised her in regard to them. She sent five hundred dollars to Esther Claff's settlement house in the Jewish quarter on my suggestion, and bought one of Rosa's
The Fifth Wheel (1916, Prouty), 4.png

"I was the only one in her whole establishment whom she wasn't obliged to treat as a servant and menial"

paintings, which she gave to me. She wanted me to go with her to her dressmaker's and her milliner's. She consulted me in regard to a room she wanted to redecorate, a bronze that she was considering. She finally confided in me her rheumatism and her diabetes. I was with her every day. Always after her late breakfast served in her room, she sent for me. After all it wasn't surprising. I should have to be very dull and drab indeed not to have become her friend. I was the only one in her whole establishment whom she wasn't obliged to treat as servant and menial.

Of everything we talked, even of Breckenridge—of Breckenridge as a baby, a boy, a college-man. She explained his inheritance, his weaknesses, his virtues. She spoke of Gale Oliphant and the interrupted marriage. Once—once only—she referred to me.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear," she began one day with a sigh, "'the best-laid plans of mice and men'—— Oh, dear, oh, dear! Sometimes I think I have made a great many mistakes in my life. For instance, my son—this Breckenridge I talk so much about—he, well, he became very fond of some one I opposed. A nice girl—a girl of high principles. Oh, yes. But not the girl whom his mother had happened to select for him. No. His mother wished him to marry his second cousin—this Gale you've heard me speak of—Gale Oliphant. Breckenridge was fond of her—always had been. She was worth millions, millions!

"You see, a short time before Breckenridge formed the attachment for the young lady with the high principles, his mother's lawyer had persuaded her into a most precarious investment. For two years, a large part of her fortune trembled uncertainly on the edge of a precipice. She believed that her son required less a girl with high principles of living, than a girl with principles represented by quarterly dividends. Breckenridge would not make a success as a man without means. But as I said—'the best-laid plans of mice and men!'

"Oh, well, perhaps you read the story. Most unfortunate. It was in the papers. It nearly broke me. A law-suit on the eve of my son's marriage to Miss Gale Oliphant. After I had successfully brought the affair to the desired climax too! Oh, most unfortunate!

"The suit was brought by a creature who had no claims. Put up to it by unscrupulous lawyers of no repute. We paid the money that she asked to hush up the notoriety of the affair, but not before the mischief of breaking off the relations with Miss Oliphant had been nicely accomplished. That was over a year ago. My investments have proved successful. Gale is married to a man twice her age. Breckenridge is still in England."

"And what's become of the girl you didn't approve of?" I asked lightly, threading my needle. I was sewing that day.

"The girl with the high principles?" Mrs. Sewall queried. "I don't know," she said distinctly, slowly. "I don't know, I wish I did. If you should ever run across her, tell her to come and make herself known to me, please. I've something to say."

"I will," I said, carefully drawing the thread through my needle and making a knot. "If I ever run across her. I doubt if I do. I've learned that that girl has gone on a long journey to a new and engrossing country."

"Oh? I must send a message to her somehow then. Come here, my dear. Come here. I've got my glasses caught."

I laid down my work and crossed over to Mrs. Sewall. It was true. The chain was in a knot. I untangled it.

"How deft you are!" she exclaimed softly. "Thank you, dear. Thank you." Then she put her cold white fingers on my arm, and patted it a little. She smiled very sweetly upon me.

"My private secretary pleases me better every day!" she said.