The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III

EPISODE OF A SMALL DOG

DURING the following week Miss Vars often caught a fleeting glimpse of Mr. Sewall on his way in or out of town. She heard that he attended a Country Club dance the following Saturday night, at which she chanced not to be present. She was told he had actually partaken of refreshment in the dining-room of the Country Club and had allowed himself to be introduced to several of her friends.

It was very assuming of this modest young girl, was it not, to imagine that Mr. Sewall's activities had anything to do with her? It was rather audacious of her to don a smart lavender linen suit one afternoon and stroll out toward the Country Club. Her little dog Dandy might just as well have exercised in the opposite direction, and his mistress avoided certain dangerous possibilities. But fate was on her side. She didn't think so at first when, in the course of his constitutional, Dandy suddenly bristled and growled at a terrier twice his weight and size, and then with a pull and a dash fell to in a mighty encounter, rolling over and over in the dirt and dust. Afterward, with the yelping terrier disappearing down the road, Dandy held up a bleeding paw to his mistress. She didn't have the heart to scold the triumphant little warrior. Besides he was sadly injured. She tied her handkerchief about the paw, gathered the dog up in her arms, turned her back on the Country Club a quarter of a mile further on, and started home. It was just then that a gray, low, deep-purring automobile appeared out of a cloud of dust in the distance. As it approached it slowed down and came to a full stop three feet in front of her. She looked up. The occupant of the car was smiling broadly.

"Well!" he ejaculated. "At last! Where did you drop from?"

"How do you do," she replied loftily.

"Where did you drop from?" he repeated. "I've been hanging around for a week, looking for you."

"For me?" She was surprised. "Why, what for?"

"Say," he broke out. "That was a mean trick you played. I was mad clean through at first. What did you run off that way for? What was the game?"

"Previous engagement," she replied primly.

"Previous engagement! Well, you haven't any previous engagement now, have you? Because, if you have, get in, and I'll waft you to it."

"Oh, I wouldn't think of it!" she said. He opened the door to the car and sprang out beside her.

"Come, get in," he urged. "I'll take you anywhere you're going. I'd be delighted."

"Why," she exclaimed, "we haven't been introduced. How do I know who you are?" She was a well brought-up young person, you see.

"I'll tell you who I am fast enough. Glad to. Get in, and we will run up to the Club and get introduced, if that's what you want."

"Oh, it isn't!" she assured him. "I just prefer to walk—that's all. Thank you very much."

"Well, walk then. But you don't give me the slip this time, young lady. Savvy that? Walk, and I'll come along behind on low speed."

She contemplated the situation for a moment, looking away across fields and green pastures. Then she glanced down at Dandy. Her name in full appeared staring at her from the nickel plate of the dog's collar. She smiled.

"I'll tell you what you can do," she said brightly. "I'd be so grateful! My little dog has had an accident, you see, and if you would be so kind—I hate to ask so much of a stranger—it seems a great deal—but if you would leave him at the veterinary's, Dr. Jenkins, just behind the Court House! He's so heavy! I'd be awfully grateful."

"No, you don't," replied Mr. Sewall. "No more of those scarf games on me! Sorry. But I'm not so easy as all that!"

The girl shifted her dog to her other arm.

"He weighs fifteen pounds," she remarked. And then abruptly for no apparent reason Mr. Sewall inquired:

"Is it yours? Your own? The dog, I mean?"

"My own?" she repeated. "Why do you ask?" Innocence was stamped upon her. For nothing in the world would she have glanced down upon the collar.

"Oh, nothing—nice little rat, that's all. And I'm game. Stuff him in, if you want. I'll deliver him to your vet."

"You will? Really? Why, how kind you are! I do appreciate it. You mean it?"

"Of course I do. Stuff him in. Delighted to be of any little service. Come on, Towzer. Make it clear to your little pet, pray, before starting that I'm no abductor. Good-by—and say," he added, as the car began to purr, "Say, please remember you aren't the only clever little guy in the world, Miss Who-ever-you-are!"

"Why, what do you mean?" She looked abused.

"That's all right. Good-by." And off he sped down the road.

Miss "Who-ever-you-are" walked the three miles home slowly, smiling almost all the way. When she arrived, there was a huge box of flowers waiting on the hall-table directed to:

"Miss Ruth Chenery Vars
The Homestead, Hilton, Mass.
License No. 668."

Inside were two dozen American Beauty roses. Tied to the stem of one was an envelope, and inside the envelope was a card which bore the name of Breckenridge Sewall. ········· "So that's who he is!" Miss Vars said out loud.

I saw a great deal of the young millionaire during the remainder of the summer. Hardly a day passed but that I heard the approaching purr of his car. And never a week but that flowers and candy, and more flowers and candy, filled the rejoicing Homestead.

I was a canny young person. I allowed Mr. Sewall very little of my time in private. I refused to go off alone with him anywhere, and the result was that he was forced to attend teas and social functions if he wanted to indulge in his latest fancy. The affair, carried on as it was before the eyes of the whole community, soon became the main topic of conversation. I felt myself being pointed out everywhere I went as the girl distinguished by the young millionaire, Breckenridge Sewall. My friends regarded me with wonder.

Before a month had passed a paragraph appeared in a certain periodical in regard to the exciting affair. I burst into flattering notoriety. What had before been slow and difficult sailing for Edith and me now became as swift and easy as if we had added an auxiliary engine to our little boat. We found ourselves receiving invitations from hostesses who before had been impregnable. Extended hands greeted us—kindness, cordiality.

Finally the proud day arrived when I was invited to Grassmere as a guest. One afternoon Breck came rushing in upon me and eagerly explained that his mother sent her apologies, and would I be good enough to fill in a vacancy at a week-end house-party. Of course I would! Proudly I rode away beside Breck in his automobile, out of the gates of the Homestead along the state road a mile or two, and swiftly swerved inside the fifty thousand dollar wrought-iron fence around the cherished grounds of Grassmere. My trunks followed, and Edith's hopes followed too!

It was an exciting three days. I had never spent a night in quite such splendid surroundings; I had never mingled with quite such smart and fashionable people. It was like a play to me. I hoped I would not forget my lines, fail to observe cues, or perform the necessary business awkwardly. I wanted to do credit to my host. And I believe I did. Within two hours I felt at ease in the grand and luxurious house. The men were older, the women more experienced, but I wasn't uncomfortable. As I wandered through the beautiful rooms, conversed with what to me stood for American aristocracy, basked in the hourly attention of butlers and French maids, it occurred to me that I was peculiarly fitted for such a life as this. It became me. It didn't seem as if I could be the little girl who not so very long ago lived in the old French-roofed house with the cracked walls, stained ceilings and worn Brussels carpets, at 240 Main Street, Hilton, Mass. But the day Breck asked me to marry him I discovered I was that girl, with the same untainted ideal of marriage, too, hidden away safe and sound under my play-acting.

"Why, Breck!" I exclaimed. "Don't be absurd. I wouldn't marry you for anything in the world."

And I wouldn't! My marriage was dim and indistinct to me then. I had placed it in a very faraway future. My ideal of love was such, that beside it all my friends' love affairs and many of those in fiction seemed commonplace and mediocre. I prized highly the distinction of Breckenridge Sewall's attentions, but marry him—of course I wouldn't!

Breck's attentions continued spasmodically for over two years. It took some skill to be seen with him frequently, to accept just the right portion of his tokens of regard, to keep him interested, and yet remain absolutely free and uninvolved. I couldn't manage it indefinitely; the time would come when all the finesse in the world would avail nothing. And come it did in the middle of the third summer.

Breck refused to be cool and temperate that third summer. He insisted on all sorts of extravagances. He allowed me to monopolize him to the exclusion of every one else. He wouldn't be civil even to his mother's guests at Grassmere. He deserted them night after night for Edith's sunken garden, and me, though I begged him to be reasonable, urging him to stay away. I didn't blame his mother, midsummer though it was, for closing Grassmere, barring the windows, locking the gates and abruptly packing off with her son to an old English estate of theirs near London. I only hoped Mrs. Sewall didn't think me heartless. I had always been perfectly honest with Breck. I had always, from the first, said I couldn't marry him.

Not until I was convinced that the end must come between Breck and me, did I tell the family that he had ever proposed marriage. There exists, I believe, some sort of unwritten law that once a man proposes and a girl refuses, attentions should cease. I came in on Sunday afternoon from an automobile ride with Breck just before he sailed for England and dramatically announced his proposal to the family—just as if he hadn't been urging the same thing ever since I knew him.

I expected Edith would be displeased when she learned that I wasn't going to marry Breck, so I didn't tell her my decision immediately. I dreaded to undertake to explain to her what a slaughter to my ideals such a marriage would be. Oh, I was young then, you see, young and hopeful. Everything was ahead of me. There was a splendid chance for happiness.

"I can't marry Breck Sewall, Edith," I attempted at last. "I can't marry any one—yet."

"And what do you intend to do with yourself?" she inquired in that cold, unsympathetic way she assumes when she is angry.

"I don't know, yet. There's a chance for all sorts of good things to come true," I replied lightly.

"You've been out three years, you know," she reminded me icily.

The Sewalls occupied their English estate for several seasons. Grassmere remained closed and barred. I did not see my young millionaire again until I was an older girl, and my ideals had undergone extensive alterations.