The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 25

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THERE followed a long hot summer. There followed days of hopelessness. There followed a wild desire for crisp muslin curtains, birds to wake me in the morning, a porcelain tub, pretty gowns, tea on somebody's broad veranda. There were days in mid-July when if I had met Bob Jennings, and he had invited me to green fields, or cool woods, I wouldn't have stopped even to pack. There were days in August when a letter from Breck, post-marked Bar Harbor, and returned like three preceding letters unopened, I didn't dare read for fear of the temptation of blue sea, and a yacht with wicker chairs and a servant in white to bring me things.

If it hadn't been for Esther's quiet determination I might have crawled back to Edith any one of those hot stifling nights and begged for admittance to the cool chamber with the spinet desk. My head ached half the time; my feet pained me; food was unattractive. The dead air of the New York subway made me feel ill. In three minutes it could sap me of the little hope I carried down from the surface. I used to dream nights of the bird-like speed of Breckenridge Sewall's powerful automobiles. I used to wake mornings longing for the strong impact of wind against my face.

The big city, the crowds of working people that once inspired, the great mass of congregated humanity had lost its romance. Even my own particular struggle seemed to have no more "punch" in it. The novelty of my undertaking, the adventure had worn away. They had been right at the Y. W. C. A. when they advised me a year ago to go home and give up my enterprise. I had been dauntless then, but now, although toughened and weathered, discouragement and despair possessed me. I allowed myself to sit for days in the room in Irving Place, without even trying for a position.

It was Esther who obtained a steady job for me at last, in a book-binding factory down near the City Hall. From eight in the morning until five at night I folded paper, over and over and over again, with a bone folder; the same process—no change—no variation. The muscles that I used ached like a painful tooth at first. Some nights we worked until nine o'clock. Accuracy and speed were all that was required to be an efficient folder—no brains, no thought—and yet I never became expert. The sameness of my work got on my nerves so at last—the everlasting repetition of sound and motion—that occasionally I lost all sense of time and place. It was like repeating some common word over and over again until it loses all significance except that of a peculiar sound.

It broke me at last. I became ill. What hundreds of other girls were able to do every day the year round, had finished me in three weeks. I was as soft as a baby. It was my nerves that gave way. I got to crying one night over some trivial little thing, and I couldn't stop. They took me to a hospital, I don't remember how or when. I became aware of trained nurses. I drifted back to the consciousness of a queer grating sound near the head of my bed, which they told me was an elevator; I smelled anesthetics. I realized a succession of nights and days. There were flowers. There was a frequent ringing of bells. Heaven couldn't have been more restful. I loved to lie there and watch a breeze blow the sash-curtains at the windows, in and out with a gentle, ship-like motion. Esther visited me often. Sometimes she sat by the window alone, correcting proof (she had secured a position in a publishing house the first of the summer), and sometimes one of the other girls of our little circle was with her. I never talked with them; I never questioned; they came and went; I felt no curiosity. They tell me I lay there like that for nearly three weeks, and then suddenly with no warning and with no sense of shock or surprise the veil lifted.

Esther and the struggling artist we called Rosa were by the window. They had both come from the same little town in Pennsylvania. I'd been watching them for half an hour or more. They had been talking. I had liked the murmur of their low voices. In the most normal fashion in the world I began to listen to their conversation.

"I wouldn't have had the courage," I heard Rosa say.

"Why not?" replied Esther. "Her family could do no more than is being done. If they took her home now, she'd never come back again. Her spirit would be broken. That wouldn't be good for her. Besides they don't need her, while I—why, she's the only human being in the world that's ever meant anything in my life, and I am thirty-three. It has been almost like having had a child dependent on me—having had her, giving her a new point of view, taking care of her now."

"Well, but how long can you stand the expense of this private room, and the doctors?"

"You needn't worry about that," Esther shrugged.

"But it seems a shame, Esther," burst out Rosa, "just when your father's estate begins to pay you enough income to live on, and you could devote the best of yourself to your book—it seems a shame not to be able to take advantage of it. You've always said," she went on, "that a woman can't successfully begin to create after she's thirty-five. This will certainly put you behind a while. And the room rent too! Does she know yet that you didn't tell her the truth about the price of the room in Irving Place?"

"No, Ruth doesn't know," replied Esther. "She's very proud about such matters. When she first came she had only an empty trunk, a new job, and a few dollars. Later, when I was going to explain, she lost her position with Mrs. Sewall. I was thankful I hadn't told her then."

"Well, I must say!" exclaimed Rosa warmly, "I must say!"

"Rosa," said Esther. "You don't understand. If Ruth did pay her full share of the room, she would be obliged to leave me sooner. Don't you see? My motives are selfish. You're the one person who knew me back there at home. You have seen all along how stark and empty my life has been—just my independence, my thoughts, my ambitions. That's all. No one to care, no one to make sacrifices for, no man, no child—— Good heavens, if some human being has fallen across my way, don't be surprised if I prize my good fortune."

I lay very still listening to Esther's voice. I closed my eyes for fear she might glance up and meet the tears in them, and sudden understanding. I had never known her till now. I could feel the tears, in spite of me, creeping down my cheeks.

I left the hospital a week later. They sent me back to the room in Irving Place with orders for long walks in the fresh air, two-hour rest periods morning and afternoon, and a diet of eggs, chicken, cream and fresh green vegetables. Ridiculous orders for a working girl in New York! They disturbed Esther. She was very quiet, more uncommunicative than ever. I used to catch her looking at me in a sort of anxious way. It seemed as if I couldn't wait to help her with her too-heavy burden. Although I had brought back from the hospital fifteen pounds less flesh on my bones, there was something in my heart instead that was sure to make me strong and well. My new incentive was the secret knowledge of Esther's devotion. To prove to her that her sacrifices had not been in vain became my ambition. For a few days I idled in the room, as the doctor ordered; strolled about Gramercy Park near-by, feeding my eyes on green grass and trees; indulged in bus rides to the Park occasionally; and walked for the exercise.

It's strange how easily some opportunities turn up, and others can't be dug with spade and shovel. One day, aimlessly strolling along a side street, up among the fifties, a card in a milliner's shop chanced to meet my eye. "Girl Wanted," it said, in large black letters.

It was late in the afternoon. If I had set out in quest of that opportunity, the position would have been filled before I arrived. But this one was still open. They wanted a girl to deliver, and perhaps to help a little in the work-room—sewing in linings, and things like that. The hours were short; the bundles not heavy; I needed exercise; it had been ordered by the hospital.

The work agreed with me perfectly. It was very easy. I liked the varied rides, and the interesting search for streets and numbers. It was just diverting enough for my mending nerves. The pay was not much. I didn't object. I was still convalescing.

Crossing Fifth Avenue one day, rather overloaded with two large bandboxes which, though not heavy, were cumbersome, I saw Mrs. Sewall! A kindly policeman had caught sight of me on the curbing and signaled for the traffic to stop. As I started across, I glanced up at the automobile before which I had to pass. Something familiar about the chauffeur caught my attention. I looked into the open back of the car. Mrs. Sewall's eyes met mine. She didn't smile. There was no sign of recognition. We just stared for a moment, and then I hurried along.

I didn't think she knew me. My illness had disguised me as if I wore a mask.

I was, therefore, surprised the next morning to receive a brief note from Mrs. Sewall asking me to be at my room, if possible, that evening at half-past eight.