The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 4

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DÉBUTANTES are a good deal like first novels—advertised and introduced at a great expenditure of money and effort, and presented to the public with fear and trembling. But the greatest likeness comes later. The best-sellers of one spring must be put up on the high shelves to make room for new merchandise the next. At the end of several years the once besought and discussed book can be found by the dozens on bargain counters in department stores, marked down to fifty cents a copy.

The first best-seller I happened to observe in this ignominious position was a novel that came out the same fall that I did. It was six years old to the world, and so was I. I stopped a moment at the counter and opened the book. It had been strikingly popular, with scores of reviews and press notices, and hundreds of admirers. It had made a pretty little pile of money for its exploiters. Perhaps, too, it had won a few friends. But its day of intoxicating popularity had passed. And so had mine. And so must every débutante's. By the fourth or fifth season, cards for occasional luncheons and invitations to fill in vacancies at married people's dinner parties must take the place of those feverish all-night balls, preceded by brilliantly lighted tables-full of débutantes, as excited as yourself, with a lot of gay young lords for partners and all the older people looking on, admiring and taking mental notes. Such excitement was all over with me by the time I was twenty-two. I had been a success, too, I suppose. Any girl whom Breckenridge Sewall had launched couldn't help being a success.

During the two or three years that Breck was in Europe I passed through the usual routine of back-season débutantes. They always resort to travel sooner or later; visit boarding-school friends one winter; California, Bermuda or Europe the next; eagerly patronize winter resorts; and fill in various spaces acting as bridesmaids. When they have the chance they take part in pageants and amateur theatricals, periodically devote themselves to some fashionable charity or other, read novels, and attend current event courses if very desperate.

I used to think when I was fifteen that I should like to be an author, more specifically, a poet. I used to write verses that were often read out loud in my English course at the Hilton High School. And I designed book plates, too, and modeled a little in clay. The more important business of establishing ourselves socially interrupted all that sort of thing, however. But I often wish I might have specialized in some line of art. Perhaps now when I have so much time on my hands it would prove my staunchest friend. For a girl who has no established income it might result in an enjoyable means of support.

I have an established income, you see. Father kindly left me a little stock in some mines out West, stock or bonds—I'm not very clear on business terms. Anyhow I have an income of about eight hundred dollars a year, paid over to me by my brother Tom, who has my affairs in charge. It isn't sufficient for me to live on at present, of course. What with the traveling, clothes—one thing and another—Edith has had to help out with generous Christmas and birthday gifts. This she does lavishly. She's enormously rich herself, and very generous. My last Christmas present from her was a set of furs and a luxurious coon-skin motor coat. Perhaps I wouldn't feel quite so hopeless if my father and mother were living, and I felt that my idleness in some way was making them happy. But I haven't such an excuse. I am not necessary to the happiness of any household. I am what is known as a fifth wheel—a useless piece of paraphernalia carried along as necessary impedimenta on other people's journeys.

There are lots of fifth wheels in the world. Some are old and rusty and out of repair, and down in their inmost hubs they long to roll off into the gutter and lie there quiet and undisturbed. These are the old people—silver-haired, self-effacing—who go upstairs to bed early when guests are invited for dinner. Some are emergency fifth wheels, such as are carried on automobiles, always ready to take their place on the road, if one of the regular wheels breaks down and needs to be sent away for repairs. These are the middle-aged, unmarried aunts and cousins—staunch, reliable—who are sent for to take care of the children while mother runs over to Europe for a holiday. And some are fifth wheels like myself—neither old nor self-effacing, neither middle-aged nor useful, but simply expensive to keep painted, and very hungry for the road. It may be only a matter of time, however, when I shall be middle-aged and useful, and later old and self-effacing; when I shall stay and take care of the children, and go upstairs early when the young people are having a party.

A young technical college graduate told me once, to comfort me, I suppose, that a fifth wheel is considered by a carriage-maker a very important part of a wagon. He tried to explain to me just what part of a wagon it was. You can't see it. It's underneath somewhere, and has to be kept well oiled. I am not very mechanical, but it sounded ignominious to me. I told that young man that I wanted to be one of the four wheels that held the coach up and made it speed, not tucked out of sight, smothered in carriage-grease.

It came as a shock to me when I first realized my superfluous position in this world. The result of that shock was what led me to abandon my ideals on love in an attempt to avoid the possibility of going upstairs early and having dinners off a tray.

When my brother Alec married Edith Campbell, and Edith came over to our house and remodeled it, I didn't feel supplanted. There was a room built especially for me with a little bathroom of its own, a big closet, a window-box filled with flowers in the summer, and cretonne hangings that I picked out myself. My sister Lucy had a room too—for she wasn't married then—and the entire attic was finished up as barracks for my brothers, the twins, who were in college at the time. They were invited to bring home all the friends they wanted to. Edith was a big-hearted sister-in-law. To me her coming was like the advent of a fairy godmother. I had chafed terribly under the economies of my earlier years. It wasn't until Alec married Edith that fortune began to smile.

One by one the family left the Homestead—Lucy, when she married Dr. William Maynard and went away to live near the university with which Will was connected, and Oliver and Malcolm when they graduated from college and went into business. I alone was left living with Alec and Edith. I was so busy coming-out and making a social success of myself that it never occurred to me but that I was as important a member in that household as Edith herself. I wasn't far from wrong either. When I was a débutante and admired by Breckenridge Sewall, I was petted and pampered and kept in sight. When I became a back-season number of some four or five years' staleness, any old north room would do for me!

I used to dread Hilton in the winter, with nothing more exciting going on than a few horrible thimble parties with girls who were beginning to discuss how to keep thin, the importance of custom-made corsets, and various other topics of advancing years. I soon acquired the habit of interrupting these long seasons. I was frequently absent two months at a time, visiting boarding-school friends, running out to California, up to Alaska, or down to Mexico with some girl friend or other, with her mother or aunt for a chaperon. Traveling is pleasant enough, but everybody likes to feel a tie pulling gently at his heartstrings when he steps up to a hotel register to write down the name of that little haven that means home. It is like one of those toy return-balls. If the ball is attached by an elastic string to some little girl's middle finger how joyfully it springs forth from her hand, how eagerly returns again! When suddenly on one of its trips the elastic snaps, the ball becomes lifeless and rolls listlessly away in the gutter. When my home ties broke, I, too, abandoned myself.

I had been on a visiting-trip made up of two-week stands in various cities between Massachusetts and the Great Lakes, whither I had set out to visit my oldest brother, Tom, and his wife, Elise, who live on the edge of one of the Lakes in Wisconsin. I had been gone about six weeks and had planned not to return to Hilton until the arrival of Hilton's real society in May.

When I reached Henrietta Morgan's, just outside New York, on the return trip, I fully expected to remain with her for two weeks and stop off another week with the Harts in New Haven. But after about three days at Henrietta's, I suddenly decided I couldn't stand it any longer. My clothes all needed pressing—they had a peculiar trunky odor—even the tissue paper which I used in such abundance in my old-fashioned tray trunk had lost its life and crispness; I had gotten down to my last clean pair of long white gloves; everything I owned needed some sort of attention—I simply must go home!

I woke up possessed with the idea, and after putting on my last really respectable waist and inquiring of myself in the mirror how in the world I expected to visit Henrietta Morgan with such a dreary trunkful of travel-worn articles, anyhow, I went down to the breakfast table with my mind made up.

Henrietta left me after breakfast for a hurried trip to town. I didn't go with her. I had waked up with a kind of cottony feeling in my throat, and as hot coffee and toast didn't seem to help it, I made an examination with a hand-mirror after breakfast. I discovered three white spots! I wasn't alarmed. They never mean anything serious with me, and they offered an excellent excuse for my sudden departure. It didn't come to my mind that the white spots might have been the cause of my sudden longing for my own little pink room. I simply knew I wanted to go home; and wake up in the morning cross and disagreeable; and grumble about the bacon and coffee at the breakfast table if I wanted to.

While Henrietta and her mother were out in the morning, I clinched my decision by engaging a section on the night train and telegraphing Edith. Although I was convinced that my departure wouldn't seriously upset any of the small informal affairs so far planned for my entertainment, I was acquainted with Mrs. Morgan's tenacious form of hospitality. By the time she returned my packing was finished, and I was lying down underneath a down comforter on the couch. I told Mrs. Morgan about the white spots and my decision to return home.

She would scarcely hear me through. She announced emphatically that she wouldn't think of allowing me to travel if I was ill. I was to undress immediately, crawl in between the sheets, and she would call a doctor. I wasn't rude to Mrs. Morgan, simply firm—that was all—quite as persistent in my resolve as she in hers.

When finally she became convinced that nothing under heaven could dissuade me, she flushed slightly and said icily, "Oh, very well, very well. If that is the way you feel about it, very well, my dear," and sailed out of the room, hurt. Even Henrietta, though very solicitous, shared her mother's indignation, and I longed for the comfort and relief of the Pullman, the friendly porters, and my own understanding people at the other end.

So, you see, when in the middle of the afternoon I was summoned to the telephone to receive a telegram from Hilton, I wasn't prepared for the slap in the face that Edith's message was to me.

"Sorry," it was repeated. "Can't conveniently have you until next week. House packed with company. Better stay with the Morgans." Signed, "Edith."