The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 26

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ESTHER was out canvassing for suffrage. She canvassed every other evening now. She had not touched the manuscript of her book for weeks.

Esther could earn a dollar an evening at canvassing. One evening's canvassing made a dozen egg-nogs for me. Esther poured them down my throat in place of chicken and fresh vegetables. I couldn't stop her. I wasn't allowed even to say "Thank you."

"I'd do the same for any such bundle of skin and bones as you," she belittled. "Don't be sentimental. You'd do it for me. We'd both do it for a starved cat. It's one of the unwritten laws of humanity—women and children first, and food for the starving."

She was out "egg-nogging," as I used to call it, when Mrs. Sewall called. I had the room to myself. Mrs. Sewall had never visited my quarters before. I lit the lamp on our large table, drew up the Morris-chair near it, straightened our couch-covers, and arranged the screen around the chiffoniers. Mrs. Sewall was not late. I heard her motor draw up to the curbing, scarcely a minute after our alarm clock pointed to the half-hour.

Marie accompanied her mistress up the one flight of stairs to our room. I heard them outside in the dim corridor, searching for my name among the various calling cards tacked upon the half-dozen doors. It was discovered at last. There was a knock. I opened the door.

"That will do," said Mrs. Sewall, addressing herself to Marie, who turned and disappeared, and then briefly to me, "Good evening."

"Good evening, Mrs. Sewall. Come in," I replied. We did not shake hands. I offered her the Morris-chair.

"No," she said, "no, thank you. This will do." And she selected a straight-backed, bedroom chair, as far away as possible from the friendly circle of the lamp-light. "I'm here only for a moment," she went on, "on a matter of business."

I procured a similar straight-backed chair and drew it near enough to converse without too much effort. It was awkward. It was like trying to play an act on a stage with nothing but two straight chairs in the middle—no scenery, nothing to elude or soften. Mrs. Sewall, sitting there before me in her perfect black, a band of white neatly edging her neck and wrists, veil snugly drawn, gloves tightly clasped, was like some hermetically sealed package. Her manner was forbidding, her gaze penetrating.

"So this is where you live!" she remarked.

"Yes, this is where I live," I replied. "It's very quiet, and a most desirable location."

"Oh! Quiet! Desirable! I see." Then after a pause in which my old employer looked so sharply at me that I wanted to exclaim, "I know I'm a little gaunt, but I'm not the least disheartened," she inquired frowning, "Did you remain in this quiet, desirable place all summer, may I ask?"

"Well—not all summer. I was away for three weeks—but my room-mate, Miss Claff, was here. It isn't uncomfortable."

"Where were you then, if not here?"

"Why, resting. I took a vacation," I replied.

"You have been ill," Mrs. Sewall stated with finality, and there was no kindness in her voice; it expressed instead vexation. "That is evident. You have been ill. What was the trouble?"

"Oh, nothing much. Nerves, I suppose."

"Nerves! And why should a girl like you have nerves?"

"I don't know, I'm sure," I smiled. "I went into book-binding. It's quite the fad, you know. Some society women take it up for diversion, but I didn't like it."

"Were you in a hospital? Did your people know? Were you properly cared for?" Each question that she asked came with a little sharper note of irritation.

"Yes. Oh, yes. I was properly cared for. I was in a private room. I have loyal friends here."

"Loyal friends!" scoffed Mrs. Sewall. "Loyal friends indeed! And may I ask what loyal friend allows you to go about in your present distressing condition? You are hardly fit to be seen, Miss Vars."

I flushed. "I'm sorry," I said.

"Disregard of one's health is not admirable."

"I'm being very careful," I assured Mrs. Sewall. "If you could but know the eggs I consume!"

"Miss Vars," inquired Mrs. Sewall, with obvious annoyance in her voice, "was it you that I saw yesterday crossing Fifth Avenue?"

"With the boxes? It was I," I laughed.

She frowned. "I was shocked. Such occupation is unbecoming to you."

"It is a perfectly self-respecting occupation," I maintained.

The frown deepened. "Possibly. Yes, self-respecting, but, if I may say so, scarcely respecting your friends, scarcely respecting those who have cared deeply for you—I refer to your family—scarcely respecting your birth, bringing-up, and opportunities. It was distinctly out of place. The spectacle was not only shocking to me, it was painful. Not that what I think carries any weight with you. I have been made keenly aware of how little my opinions count. But——"

"Oh, please—please, Mrs. Sewall," I interrupted. "Your opinions do count. I've wanted to tell you so before. I was sorry to leave you as I did. I've wanted to explain how truly I desired to please you. I would have done anything within my power except—— I couldn't do that one special thing, anything but that."

Mrs. Sewall raised her hand to silence me. There was displeasure in her eyes. "We will not refer to it, please," she replied. "It is over. I prefer not to discuss it. It is not a matter to be disposed of with a few light words. I have not come here to discuss with you what is beyond your comprehension. Pain caused by a heedless girl, or a steel knife, is not less keen because of the heartlessness of either instrument. I have come purely on business. We will not wander further."

There was a pause. Mrs. Sewall was tapping her bag with a rapid, nervous little motion. I was keeping my hands folded tightly in my lap. We were both making an effort to control our feelings. We sat opposite each other without saying anything for a moment. It was I who spoke at last.

"Very well," I resumed. "What is the business, Mrs. Sewall? Perhaps," I suggested coldly, "I have failed to return something that belongs to you."

"No," replied Mrs. Sewall. "On the contrary, I have something here that belongs to you." She held up a package. "Your work-bag. It was found by the butler on the mantel in the library."

"Oh, how careless! I'm sorry. It was of no consequence." My cheeks flamed. It hurt me keenly that Mrs. Sewall should insult the dignity of our relations by a matter so trivial. My work-bag indeed! Behind her, in the desk, were a few sheets of her stationery!

I rose and took the bag. "Thank you," I said briefly.

"Not at all," she replied.

I waited a moment. Then, as she did not move, I inquired, "Shall I call your maid, or will you allow me to take you to your car?"

Mrs. Sewall did not reply. I became aware of something unnatural in her attitude. I noticed her tightly clasped hands.

"Oh, Mrs. Sewall!" I exclaimed. She was ill. I was sure of it now. She was deathly pale. I kneeled down on the floor and took her hands. "You are not well. Let me help—please. You are in pain."

She spoke at last. "Call Marie," she ordered, and drew her hands away.

I sped down to the waiting car. Marie seemed to comprehend before I spoke.

"Oh! Another attack! Mon Dieu! The tablets! I have them. They are here. Make haste. It is the heart. They are coming more often—the attacks. Emotion—and then afterwards the pain. She had one yesterday, late in the afternoon. And now tonight again. Mon Dieu—Mon Dieu! The pain is terrible." All this from Marie as we hastened up the stairs.

Mrs. Sewall sat just where I had left her in the straight-backed chair. She made no outcry, not the slightest moan, but there were tiny beads of perspiration on her usually cool brow, and when she took the glass of water that I offered, her hand shook visibly. She would not lie down. She would have nothing unfastened. She would not allow me to touch her.

"No, no. Marie understands. No. Kindly allow Marie. Come, Marie. Hurry. Stop flying about so. I'm not going to die. Hurry with the tablets. Don't be a fool. Make haste. There! Now I shall be better. Go away—both of you. Leave me. I'll call when I'm ready."

We stepped over to the window and stood looking out, while behind us the heroic sufferer, silently and alone, fought a fresh onslaught of pain. I longed to help her, and she would not let me. I might not even assist her to her automobile. Ten minutes later on her own feet and with head held erect she left my room. The only trace of the struggle was a rip across the back of one of the tight black gloves, caused by desperate clenching of hands. I had heard the cry of the soft kid as I stood by the window with Marie.

I opened my work-bag later. The square of fillet lace was there, the thread and the thimble, the needle threaded just as I had left it when Breck stepped in and interrupted. There was something else in the bag, too—something that had not been there before, a white box, long and thin. It contained the bar of diamonds and pearls, with a note wrapped around it.

"This pin," the note said, "was not a loan as your returning it assumes. My other employees received extra checks at Easter-time when you received this. If you prefer the money, you can, at any time, receive the pin's value at ———'s, my jewelers, from my special agent, Mr. Billings. It is my hope that you will make such use of this portion of your earnings with me that I may be spared the possibility of the spectacle you afforded me this afternoon on the Avenue.

"Frances Rockridge Sewall."

The next night when Esther came in from canvassing, there lay upon her desk the neglected manuscript of her book, found in a bottom drawer. Before it stood a chair; beside it a drop-light. A quill pen, brand new, bright green and very gay, perched atop a fresh bottle of ink. Near-by appeared a small flat book showing an account between Esther Claff and Ruth Vars and an uptown bank. Inside, between roseate leaves of thin blotting paper, appeared a deposit to their credit of five hundred dollars.

The tide of my fortune had changed. One good thing followed another. It is always darkest before the storm breaks that clears the sky. My horizon so lately dim and obscure began to clear. As if five hundred dollars, safely deposited in a marble-front bank, wasn't enough for one week to convince me that life had something for me besides misfortune, three days after Mrs. Sewall called I received a summons from Mrs. Scot-Williams, whose horse I rode in the suffrage parade. Out of a sky already cleared of its darkest clouds there shot a shaft of light. I could see nothing at first but the brightness of Mrs. Scot-Williams' proposition. It blinded me to all else. I felt as if some enormous searchlight from heaven had selected poor, battered Ruth Chenery Vars for special illumination.

Mrs. Scot-Williams had observed that my place at Mrs. Sewall's was now filled by another. Therefore it had occurred to her that I might be free to consider another proposition. If so, she wanted to offer me a position in a decorator's shop which she was interested in. I might have heard of it—Van de Vere's, just off Fifth Avenue.

Van de Vere's—good heavens—it was all I could do to keep the tears out of my eyes! Five hundred dollars in the bank—and now kind fate offering me a seat in heaven that I hadn't even stood in line for! What did it mean?

Mrs. Scot-Williams, across a two by four expanse of tablecloth (we were lunching at her club), slowly unfolded her proposition to me, held it up for me to see, turned it about, as it were, so that I could catch the light shining on it from all sides, offered it to me at last to have and to hold. I accepted the precious thing.

"Rainbows really do have pots of gold, then!" I remember I exclaimed.