The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 22

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I DIDN'T tell Lucy that I was with Mrs. Sewall. I had my mail directed to Esther's college club. I rather hated to picture the terrible curses that Edith would call down upon my head when she heard that I was occupying a position which she would certainly term menial. I dreaded to learn what Tom would say of me. Already I had seen Malcolm one day on Fifth Avenue, and bowed to him from the Sewall automobile. Surely, he would report me; but either he didn't recognize me, or else he didn't recognize Mrs. Sewall, for Lucy's letters proved she was still ignorant of my occupation. I accepted kind fate's protection of me; I lived in precious and uninterrupted seclusion.

Of course, I marched in the suffrage parade when it took place in May. I rode on Mrs. Scot-Williams' beautiful, black, blue-ribbon winner. Mrs. Scot-Williams, Mrs. Sewall, and a group of other New York society women tossed me flowers from a prominent balcony as I rode up Fifth Avenue. I carried only the American flag. It was my wish. I wanted no slogan. "Let her have her way," nodded Mrs. Scot-Williams to the other ladies. "The dear child's eyes will tell the rest of the story."

The parade was a tremendous experience to me. Even the long tedious hours of waiting before it started were packed with significance. There we all were, rich and poor; society women and working girls; teachers, stenographers, shirtwaist makers; actresses, mothers, sales-women; Catholic and Protestant; Jew and Gentile; black and white; German, French, Pole and Italian—all there, gathered together by one great common interest. The old sun that shone down upon us that day had never witnessed on this planet such a leveler of fortune, station, country and religion. The petty jealousies and envies had fallen away, for a period, from all us women gathered there that day, and the touch of our joined hands inspired and thrilled. Not far in front of me in the line of march there was a poor, old, half-witted woman, who became the target of gibes and jeers; I felt fierce protection of her. Behind me were dozens of others who were smiled or laughed at by ridiculing spectators; I felt protection of them all.

For hours before the parade started I sat on the curbing of the side-walk with a prominent society woman on one side, and a plain little farmer's wife from up state on the other. We talked, and laughed, and ate sandwiches together that I bought in a grimy lunch-room.

When finally the parade started, and I, mounted on Mrs. Scot-Williams' beautiful Lady F, felt myself moving slowly up Fifth Avenue to the martial music of drums, brass horns, and tambourines; sun shining, banners waving, above me my flag making a sky of stars and stripes, and behind me block upon block of my co-workers; I felt uplifted and at the same time humbled.

"Here we come," I felt like saying. "Here we come a thousand strong—all alike, no one higher than another. Here we come in quest. We come in quest of a broader vision and a bigger life. We come, shoe-strings dragging, skirts impeding, wind disheveling, holding on to inappropriate head-gear, feathers awry, victims of old-time convictions, unadapted to modern conditions, amateur marchers, poorly uniformed—but here we come—just count us—here we come! You'll forget the shoe-strings after you've watched a mile of us. You'll forget the conspicuous fanatics among us (every movement has its lunatic fringe, somebody has said), you'll forget the funny remarks, the jokes of newsboys, and the humorous man you stood beside, after your legs begin to feel stiff and weary, and still we keep on coming, squad upon squad, band upon band, banner upon banner."

As I rode that day with all my sisters I felt for the first time in my life the inspiration of coöperation. It flashed across me that the picture of the wheel with the wings was as untrue as it was impossible. I had made a mistake. I was not that sort of wheel. I wasn't superfluous. I was a tiny little wheel with cogs. I was set in a big and tremendous machine—Life, and beside me were other wheels, which in their turn fitted into other cogs of more and larger wheels. And to make life run smoothly we all must work together, each quietly turning his own big or small circumference as he had been fashioned. Alone nothing could be accomplished. Wings indeed! Fairy-tales. Cog-wheels must mesh. Human beings must coöperate.

That night I had promised to spend with Mrs. Sewall. I didn't want to. I wanted to see Esther Claff. I wanted to hear the tremor of her voice, and watch her faint blue eyes grow bright and black. Tonight she would put on her little ugly brown toque and gray suit, and join the other girls, in somebody's studio or double bedroom. There would be great talk tonight! We had all marched in one company or another. I wanted to hear how the others felt. My feelings were tumultuous, confused. I longed for Esther's fervor and calm eloquence. But I had promised Mrs. Sewall; she had been particularly anxious; I couldn't go back on my word now; she dreaded lonely evenings; and I was glad that I hadn't telephoned and disappointed her when I finally did arrive a little before dinner.

She took my hand in both of hers; she looked straight into my eyes, and if I couldn't hear Esther's voice tremble, then instead I could hear Mrs. Sewall's.

"My dear," she said, "I am very proud of you. You were very beautiful, this afternoon. You will always do me credit."

I leaned and kissed her hand half playfully. "I shall try anyhow," I said lightly.

Mrs. Sewall took out her handkerchief and touched it to her eyes, then slipped one of her arms through mine, and rested her jeweled hand on my wrist, patting it a little.

"What a dear child you are!" she murmured. "I have grown fond of you. I want you to know—tonight, when your eyes are telling me the fervor that is glowing in that arduous soul of yours, how completely you satisfy me. It may be one more little triumph to add to your day's joy. I want you to know that if ever it was in my power to place my wealth and my position on you, dear child, it would be the greatest happiness of my life. I have given myself the liberty of confiding much in you, of taking you into the inner courts, my dear. You are as familiar with my expenditures as with your own; you are acquainted with my notions upon distribution, charitable requests, wise and foolish investments; you appreciate my ideas in regard to handling great fortunes; you agree with me that masters of considerable amounts of money are but temporary keepers of the world's wealth, and must leave their trust for the next steward in clean, healthy, and growing condition; you have been apprenticed to all my dearest hopes and ambitions. Ah, yes, yes, very creditably would you wear my crown. With what grace, intelligence, and appreciation of values would you move among the other monitors of great fortunes, admired by them, praised, and loved, I think. What a factor for good you could become! Your expansive sympathies—what resources they would assume. Ah, well, well, you see I like to paint air-castles. I like to put you into them. This afternoon when I saw you mounted like some inspired goddess on that superb creature of Mrs. Scot-Williams', and caught the murmur that passed over the little company on the balcony as you approached, I thought to myself, 'She's made for something splendid.' And you are, my dear—you are. Something splendid. Who knows, my air-castles may come true."

"O Mrs. Sewall," I said softly, "I'm not worthy of such kind words as those."

"There, there," she interrupted. She had heard the catch in my voice. "There. Think nothing more about it. We won't talk seriously another moment. Dinner will be announced directly. Let us have Perkins light a fire."