The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 31

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WILL and I were buried in a little place in Newfoundland all summer, and Ruth's letters to us, always three days old when they reached me, were few and infrequent. What brief notes she did write were non-committal. They told their facts without comment. I tried to read between the practical lines that announced she had changed the formula for the baby's milk, that she had had to let down Emily's dresses, that she had succeeded in persuading Oliver to spend his three weeks' vacation with Madge in Colorado, finally that Becky had been ill, but was better now. I was unable to draw any conclusions. I knew what sort of service Ruth's new enterprise required—duties performed over and over again, homely tasks, no pay, no praise. I knew the daily wear and tear on good intentions and exalted motives. I used to conjecture by the hour with Will upon what effect the summer would have on Ruth's theories. She has advanced ideas for women. She believes in their emancipation.

Edith and Alec had gone to Alaska. They could not report to me how Ruth was progressing. Elise had been unable to leave her cottage on the Cape for a single trip to Boston. Only Oliver's enthusiastic letters (Oliver who never sees anything but the obvious) assured me that, at least on the surface, Ruth had not regretted her undertaking.

Will and I returned the first of September. Ruth's two months would terminate on September tenth, and I had come back early in order to help close Oliver's apartment and prepare for the distribution of the children, which we had arranged in the early summer. Oliver was still in Colorado when I returned. He was expected within a week, however. I called Ruth up on the telephone as soon as I could, and told her I would be over to see her the next day, or the day after. I couldn't say just when, for Elise and Tom, who were returning to Wisconsin, were to spend the following night with me. Perhaps after dinner we would all get into the automobile and drop in upon her.

We all did. Oliver's apartment is on the other side of Boston from Will and me. We didn't reach there until after eight o'clock. The children, of course, were in bed. Ruth met us in the hall, half-way up the stairs. She was paler than usual. As I saw her it flashed over me how blind we had been to allow this girl—temperamental, exotic, sensitive to surroundings—to plunge herself into the responsibilities that most women acquire gradually. Her first real vacation in years too!

Elise and I kissed her.

"You look a little tired, Ruth," said Elise.

"A woman with children expects to look tired sometimes," Ruth replied, with the sophistication of a mother of three. "I had to be up a few nights with Becky."

I slipped my arm about Ruth as we mounted the stairs. "Has it been an awful summer?" I whispered.

She didn't answer me—simply drew away. I felt my inquiry displeased her. At the top of the landing she ran ahead and opened the door to the apartment, inviting us in. I was unprepared for the sight that awaited us.

"Why, Ruth!" I exclaimed, for I recognized all about me familiar bowl and candlestick from Irving Place, old carved chest, Russian samovar, embroidered strips of peasant's handicraft.

"How lovely!" said Elise, pushing by me into Oliver's living-room.

It really was. I gazed speechless. It made me think of the inside of a peasant's cottage as sometimes prettily portrayed upon the stage. It was very simple, almost bare, and yet there was a charm. At the windows hung yellowish, unbleached cotton. On the sills were red geraniums in bloom. A big clump of southern pine filled an old copper basin on a low tavern table. A queer sort of earthen lamp cast a soft light over all. In the dining-room I caught a glimpse of three sturdy little high chairs painted bright red, picked up in some antique shop, evidently. On the sideboard, a common table covered with a red cloth, I saw the glow of old pewter.

"You've done wonders to this place," commented Tom, gazing about.

"Oliver gave me full permission before he went away," Ruth explained. "I've stored a whole load-full of his things. It is rather nice, I think, myself."

"Nice? I should say it was! But did it pay for so short a time?" I inquired.

"Oliver can keep the things as long as he wants them," said Ruth.

"But it must make your room in Irving Place an empty spot to go back to," I replied.

Ruth went over to the lamp and did something to the shade. "Oh," she said carelessly, "haven't I told you? I'm not going back. I've resigned from Van de Vere's. Do all sit down."

Ruth might just as well have set off a cannon-cracker. We were startled to say the least. We stood and stared at her.

"Do sit down," she repeated.

"But, Ruth, why have you done this? Why have you resigned?" I gasped at last. She finished with the lamp-shade before she spoke.

"I insist upon your sitting down," she said. "There. That's better." Then she gave a queer, low laugh and said, "I think it was the sight of the baby's little flannel shirt stretched over the wooden frame hanging in the bath-room that was the last straw that broke me before I wrote to Mrs. Scot-Williams."


"There was some one immediately available to take my place at Van de Vere's—another protégée of Mrs. Scot-Williams. I had to decide quickly. Madge is improving every week, Oliver writes, but she has got to stay in Colorado at least during the winter, the doctor says. Becky is still far from strong. She was very ill this summer. She doesn't take to strangers. I think I'm needed here. It seemed necessary for me to stay."

"Perfect nonsense," Tom growled. "There's no more call for you to give up your business than for Malcolm his. Perfectly absurd."

"But oh, how fine—how fine of you, Ruth!" exclaimed Elise.

"You shan't do it. You shan't," I ejaculated.

"Don't all make a mistake, please," said Ruth. "It is no sacrifice. There's no unselfishness about it, no fine altruism. I'm staying because I want to. I'm happier here. Can't any of you understand that?" she asked. There was a quality in her voice that made us all glance at her sharply. There was a look in her eyes which reminded me of her as she had appeared in the suffrage parade. This sister of mine had evidently seen another vision. If it had made her cheeks a little pale, it had more than made up for it in the exalted tone of her voice and expression of her eyes.

"You say you're happier here?" asked Elise. "Weren't you happy then, down there in New York, Ruth?"

"Yes, for a while. But you see my life was like a circle uncompleted. In keeping trimmed the lights of a home even though not my own, even only for a short period, I am tracing in, ever so faintly, the yawning gap."

"Gap! But Ruth, we thought——"

She flushed a little in spite of herself. We were all staring hard at her. "You see," she went on, "I've never been needed before as I have this summer. A home has never depended upon me for its life before. I've liked it. I don't see why you're so surprised. It's natural for a woman to want human ties. Contentment has stolen over me with every little common task I have had to do."

"But, Ruth," I stammered, "we never thought that this—housekeeping—such menial work as this, was meant for you."

"Nor love and devotion either, I suppose," she said a little bitterly, "nor the protection of a fireside," she shrugged. "Such rewards are not given without service, I've heard. And service paid by love does not seem menial to me."

Tom laid down his hat upon the table, and leaned forward. He had been observing Ruth keenly. I saw the flash of victory in his eye. Tom had never been in sympathy with Ruth's emancipation ideas, and I saw in her desire for a home and intimate associations the crumbling of her strongest defense against his disapproval. I wished I could come to her aid. Always my sympathies had instinctively gone out to her in the controversies that her theories gave rise to. Would Tom plant at last his flag upon her long-defended fortress?

"This is odd talk for you, Ruth," said Tom.

"Is it?" she inquired innocently. Did she not observe Tom calling together his forces for a last charge?

"Certainly," he replied. "You gave up home, love, devotion—all that, when you might have had it, years ago. You emancipated yourself from the sort of service that is paid by the protection of a fireside."

"Well?" she smiled, unalarmed.

"You see your mistake now," he hurried on. "You make your mad dash for freedom, and now come seeking shelter. That is what most of 'em do. You tried freedom and found it lacking."

"And what is your conclusion, Tom?" asked Ruth, baring herself, it seemed to me, to the onslaught of Tom's opposition.

"My conclusion! Do I need even to state it?" he inquired, as if flourishing the flag before sticking its staff into the pinnacle of Ruth's defense. "Is it not self-evident? If you had married five years ago, today you would have a permanent family of your own instead of a borrowed one for eight months. Your freedom has robbed you of what you imply you desire—a home, I mean. My conclusion is that your own history proves that freedom is a dangerous thing for women."

Ruth answered Tom quietly. I thrilled at her mild and gentle manner. We all listened intently.

"Tom," she said slowly and with conviction, "my own history proves just the opposite. The very fact that I do feel the deficiencies of freedom, is proof that it has not been a dangerous tool. If it had killed in me the home instinct, then I might concede that your fears were justified, but if, as you say, most women do not rove far but come home in answer to their heart's call, then men need not fear to cut the leash." With some such words Ruth pulled Tom's flag from out her fortress where he had planted it. As Tom made no reply she went on talking. "Once I had no excuse for existence unless I married. My efforts were narrowed to that one accomplishment. I sought marriage, desperately, to escape the stigma of becoming a superfluous and unoccupied female. Today if I marry it will be in answer to my great desire, and, whether married or not, a broader outlook and a deeper appreciation are mine. I believe that working hard for something worth while pays dividends to a woman always. If I never have a home of my own," Ruth went on, "and I may not—spinsters," she added playfully, "like the poor must always be with us—at least I have a trade by which I can be self-supporting. I'm better equipped whatever happens. Oh, I don't regret having gone forth. No, Tom, pioneers must expect to pay. I'm so convinced," she burst forth eagerly, "that wider activities and broader outlooks for women generally are a wise thing, that if I had a fortune left me I would spend it in establishing trade-schools in little towns all over the country, like the Carnegie libraries, so that all girls could have easy access to self-support. I'd make it the custom for girls to have a trade as well as an education and athletic and parlor accomplishments. I'd unhamper women in every way I knew how, give them a training to use modern tools, and then I'd give them the tools. They won't tear down homes with them. Don't be afraid of that. Instinct is too strong. They'll build better ones."

My brother shook his head. "I give you up, Ruth, I give you up," he said.

"Don't do that," she replied. "I'm like so many other girls in this age. Don't give us up. We want you. We need your conservatism to balance and steady. We need our new freedom guided and directed. We're the new generation, Tom. We're the new spirit. There are hundreds—thousands—of us. Don't give us up." I seemed to see Ruth's army suddenly swarming about her as she spoke, and Ruth, starry-eyed and victorious, standing on the summit in their midst.