The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 24

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NO one would have guessed who saw a girl in a dark-blue, tailored suit enter the tea-room that evening about seven o'clock, and greet a man, with a brief and ordinary hand-shake, that there was a tremor of knees and hammering of heart underneath her quiet colors; and that the touch of the man's bare hand, even through her glove, sent something zigzagging down through her whole being, like a streak of lightning through a cloud. All she said was: "Hello, Bob. I've come, you see." And he quietly, "Yes, I see. You've come."

He dropped her hand. They looked straight into each other's eyes an instant.

"Anything the matter with anybody at home?" she questioned.

"Oh, no, nothing," he assured her. "Everybody's all right. Are you all right, Ruth?"

"Yes," she smiled. (How good it was to see him. His kind, kind eyes! He looked tired—a little. She remembered that suit. It was new last Spring. What dear, intimate knowledge she still possessed of him.) "Yes," she smiled, "I'm all right."

"Had dinner?" he questioned.

"No, not a bite." She shook her head. (How glowing and fresh he was, even in spite of the tired look. She knew very well what he had done with the half-hour before he met her; he had made himself beautiful for her eyes. How well acquainted she was with all the precious, homely signs, how completely he had been hers once. There was the fountain-pen, with its peculiar patent clasp, in its usual place in his waistcoat pocket. In that same pocket was a pencil, nicely sharpened, and a small note-book with red leather covers. She knew! She had rummaged in that waistcoat pocket often.)

They went into the dining-room together. They sat down at a small table with an electric candle on it, beside a mirror. A waiter stood before them with paper and raised pencil. They ordered, or I suppose they did, for I believe food was brought. The girl didn't eat a great deal. Another thing I noticed—she didn't trust herself to look long at a time into the man's eyes. She contented herself with gazing at his cuffed wrist resting on the table's edge, and at his hands. His familiar hands! The familiar platinum and gold watch chain too! Did it occur to him, when at night he wound his watch, that a little while ago it had been a service she was wont to perform for him? How thrillingly alive the gold case used to seem to her—warmed by its nearness to his body. Oh, dear, oh, dear—what made her so weak and yearning tonight? What made her so in need of this man? What would Esther Claff think? What would Mrs. Scot-Williams say?

"Well, Ruth," the man struck out at last, after the waiter had brought bread and water and butter, and the menu had been put aside, "Well—when you're ready, I am. I am anxious to hear all that's happened—if you're happy—and all that."

The girl dragged her gaze away from him. "Of course, Bob," she said, "of course you want to know, and I am going to tell you from beginning to end. There's a sort of an end tonight, and it happens I need somebody to tell it to, quite badly. I needed an old friend to assure me that I've nothing to be afraid of. I think you're the very one I needed most tonight, Bob." And quite simply, quite frankly, the girl told him her story—there was nothing for her to hide from him—it was a relief to talk freely.

The effect of her story upon the man seemed to act like stimulant. It elated him; she didn't know why. "What a brick you are, Ruth," he broke out. "How glad I am I came down here—what a little brick you are! I guess you're made of the stuff, been dried and baked in a kiln that insures you against danger of crumbling. It's only an unthinking fool who would ever be afraid for you. You need to fear nothing but a splendid last chapter to your life, whoever may threaten. Oh, it's good to see you, Ruth—how good you cannot quite guess. I saw you yesterday in the parade—Lucy and Will too—and I got as near home as Providence, when suddenly I thought I'd turn around and come back here. I was a little disturbed, anxious—I'll acknowledge it—worried a bit—but now, now—the relief!"

"You thought I was wasting away in a shirtwaist factory!" she laughed.

He laughed too. "Not quite that. But, never mind, we don't need to go into what I thought, but rather into what I think—what I think, Ruth—what I shall always think." Compelling voice! Persuasive gaze! She looked into his eyes. "Ruth!" The man leaned forward. "We've made a mistake. What are you down here for all alone, anyhow? And what am I doing, way up there, longing for you day after day, and missing you every hour? My ambitions have become meaningless since you have dropped out of my future. What is it all for? For what foolish notion, what absurd fear have we sacrificed the most precious thing in the world? Yesterday when I saw you—— Oh, my dear, my dear, I need you. Come as you are. I shan't try to make you over. There's only one thing that counts after all, and that is ours."

With some such words as these did Bob frighten me away from the sweet liberties my thoughts had been taking with him. I had been like some hungry little mouse that almost boldly enters human haunts if he thinks he is unobserved, but at the least noise of invitation scampers away into his hole. I scampered now—fast. My problems were not yet solved. I had things I must prove to Lucy, to Edith, to Tom—things I must test and prove to myself. I could not go to him now. Besides, all the reasons that stood in the way of our happiness existed still, in spite of the fact that our joy of meeting blinded us to them for the moment. I tried to make it clear to Bob.

"You can't have changed in a winter, Bob, and I haven't. We decided so carefully, weighed the consequences of our decision. We were wise and courageous. Let's not go back on it. I don't know what conclusions about life I may reach finally, but I want to be able to grow freely. I'm like a bulb that hasn't been put in the earth till just lately. I don't know what sort of flower or vegetable I am, and you don't either. It's been good to see you, Bob, and I needed some one to tell me that I was all right, but now you must go away and let me grow."

"You wouldn't want to come and grow in my green-house then?" he smiled sadly.

I shook my head. "That's just it, Bob. I don't want to grow in any green-house yet. I want to be blown and tossed by all the winds of the world that blow."

"I'll let you grow as you wish," he persisted.

"Please, Bob," I pleaded. "Please——"

He turned away. I didn't want to hurt him.

"Bob," I said gently, "please understand. It isn't only that I think the reasons for our decision of a year ago still exist, but I've just got to stay here now, Bob, even though I don't want to. I've got it firmly fixed in my mind now that I'm going to see my undertaking through to a successful end. I'm bound to show Tom and the family what sort of stuff I'm made of. I'm going to prove that women aren't weak and vacillating. Why, I haven't been even a year here yet. I couldn't run to cover the first time I found myself out of a position. Besides the first position wasn't one I could exhibit to the family. I must stay. I'm just as anxious to prove myself a success as a young man whose family doesn't think he's got it in him. Please understand, and help me, Bob."

"Shall we see each other sometimes?" he queried.

"It's no use. It doesn't help," I said. "I do care for you, somehow, and seeing you seems to make foggy what was so clear and crystal, as if I were looking at it through a mist. I mean sitting here with you makes me feel—makes me forget what I marched for day before yesterday. I was so full of it—of all it meant and stood for—and now—— No, Bob. No. You must let me work these things out alone. I shall never be satisfied now until I do."

He left me at my door. There was a light in the windows upstairs, and I knew that Esther had come home. Bob left me with just an ordinary hand-shake. It hurt somehow—that formal little ceremony from him. It hurt, too, afterward to stand in the doorway and watch him walking away. It hurt to hear the sound of his steady step growing fainter and fainter. O Bob, you might have turned around and waved!

I went upstairs. "Hello," said Esther. "Where have you been?" and I told her to dinner with a man from home. A little later I announced to her that I had resigned my position as private secretary to Mrs. Sewall. She asked no questions but she made her own slow deductions.

I must have impressed her as restless and not very happy that night. I caught her looking at me suspiciously, once or twice, over her gold-bowed reading-glasses. Once she inquired if I was ill, or felt feverish. My cheeks did burn.

"Oh, no," I said, "but I guess I'll go to bed. It's almost midnight."

Esther took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

"One gets tired, sometimes, climbing," she observed. I waited. "The trail up the mountain of Self-discovery is not an easy one. One's unaccustomed feet get sore, and one's courage wavers when the trail sometimes creeps along precipices or shoots steeply up over rocks. But I think the greatest test comes when the little hamlets appear—quiet, peaceful little spots, with smoke curling out of the chimneys of nestling houses. They offer such peace and comfort for weary feet. It's then one is tempted to throw away the mountain-staff and accept the invitation of the open door and welcoming hearth."

"Oh, Esther," I exclaimed, "were you afraid I was going to throw away my mountain-staff?"

"Oh, no, no. I was simply speaking figuratively." She would not be personal.

"I'm not such a poor climber as all that," I went on. "I am a bit discouraged tonight. You've guessed it, but I am not for giving up."

"If one ever gets near the top of the mountain of Self-discovery," Esther pursued dreamily, "he becomes master not only of his own little peak, but commands a panorama of hundreds of other peaks. He not only conquers his own difficult trail, but wins, as reward for himself, vision, far-reaching."

I loved Esther when she talked like this.

"Well," I assured her, "I am going to get to the top of my peak, if it takes a life-time. No hamlets by the wayside for me," I laughed.

"Oh, no," she corrected. "Never to the top, Ruth—not here. The top of the mountain of Self-discovery is hidden in the clouds of eternity. We can simply approach it. So then," she broke off, "you aren't deserting me?"

"Of course I'm not, Esther," I assured her.

"What do you mean to do next, then—if you're leaving Mrs. Sewall?"

"I don't know. Don't ask. I'm new at mountain-climbing, and when my trail crawls along precipices, I refuse to look over the edge and get dizzy. Something will turn up."

The next morning's mail brought a letter from Mrs. Sewall. My services would not be needed any longer. Enclosed was a check which paid me up to the day of my departure. In view of the circumstances, it would be wiser to sever our connections immediately. Owing to the unexpected return of her son, they were both starting within a few days for the Pacific coast. Therefore, she would suggest that I return immediately by express all papers and other property of hers which chanced to be in my possession. It was a regret that her confidence had been so misplaced.

I read Mrs. Sewall's displeasure in every sentence of that curt little note. If I had been nursing the hope for understanding from my old employer, it was dead within me now. The letter cut me like a whip.

My feeling for Mrs. Sewall had developed into real affection. Her years, her reserve, her remoteness had simply added romance to the peculiar friendship. I had thrilled beneath the touch of her cold finger-tips. There had been moments lately when at the kindness in her eyes as they dwelt upon me, I had longed to put my arms around her and tell her how happy and proud I was to have entered even a little way into the warm region near her heart. I loved to please her. I would do anything for her except marry Breck, and she could write to me like this! She could misunderstand! She could all but call me traitor!

Very well. With bitterness, and with grim determination never to plead or to explain, I sent back by the next express the check-books and papers I was working on evenings in my room, and also by registered mail returned the bar of pearls she had once playfully removed from her own dress and pinned at my throat. "Wear it for me," she had said. "If I had had a daughter I would have spoiled her with pretty things, I fear. Allow an old lady occasionally to indulge her whims on you, my dear."

I lay awake a long time that night, preparing myself for the struggle that awaited me. I had as little chance now to obtain steady employment as when I made my first attempt. I was still untrained, and, stripped of Mrs. Sewall's favor, still unable to provide the necessary letters of reference. I hadn't succeeded in making any tracks into which, on being pushed to the bottom again, I could stick my toes, and mount the way a second time more easily. Lying awake there, flat on my back, I was reminded of a little insect I once watched climbing the slippery surface of a window-pane. It was a stormy day, and he was on the outside of the window, buffeted by winds. I saw that little creature successfully cover more than half his journey four successive times, only to fall wriggling on his back at the bottom again. When he fell the fourth time, righted himself, and, dauntless and determined, began his journey again, I picked him up bodily and placed him at the top. Possibly—how could such a small atom of the universe as I know—possibly my poor attempts were being watched too!

However, I didn't wait to find out. At least I didn't wait to be picked up. The very next day I set forth for employment agencies.