The Fifth Wheel (Prouty)/Chapter 6

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AS I stood there in my devastated room, hugging to me a little scrap of a dog, a desire to conceal my present poverty swept over me, just as I had always wanted to hide the tell-tale economies of our household years ago from my more affluent friends. I did not want pity. I was Ruth, of whom my family had predicted great things—vague great things, I confess. Never had I been quite certain what they were to be—but something rather splendid anyhow.

We become what those nearest to us make us. The family made out of my oldest brother Tom counselor and wise judge; out of my sister Lucy chief cook and general-manager; out of me butterfly and ornament. In the eyes of the family I have always been frivolous and worldly, and though they criticize these qualities of mine, underneath their righteous veneer I discover them marveling. They disparage my extravagance in dressing, and then admire my frocks. In one breath they ridicule social ambition, and in the next inquire into my encounters and triumphs. A desire to remain in my old position I offer now as the least contemptible excuse of any that I can think of for the following events of my life. I didn't want to resign my place like an actress who can no longer take ingénue parts because of wrinkles and gray hairs. When I came home that day and discovered how unimportant I was, how weak had become my applause, instead of trying to play a new part by making myself useful and necessary—helping with the housework, putting away laundry, mending, and so on—I went about concocting ways and methods of filling more dazzlingly my old rôle.

Although my fever had practically disappeared by the time I went to bed that night, I lolled down to the breakfast table the next morning later than ever, making an impression in a shell-pink tea-gown; luxuriously dawdled over a late egg and coffee; and then lazily borrowed a maid about eleven o'clock and allowed her to unpack for me. Meanwhile I lay back on the couch, criticized to Edith the tone of gray of the paper in my room, carelessly suggested that there were too many articles on the shelf from an artistic point of view, and then suffered myself to be consulted on an invitation list for a party Edith was planning to give. The description of my past two months' gaieties, recited in rather a bored and blasé manner, lacked none of the usual color. My references to attentions from various would-be suitors proved to Edith and Alec that I was keeping up my record.

One Saturday afternoon not long after my return to Hilton, Edith and I attended a tea at the Country Club. The terrace, open to the sky and covered with a dozen small round tables, made a pretty sight—girls in light-colored gowns and flowery hats predominating early in the afternoon, but gradually, from mysterious regions of lockers and shower-baths below, joined by men in white flannels and tennis-shoes.

Edith's and my table was popular that day. I had been away from Hilton for so long that a lot of our friends gathered about us to welcome me home. I was chatting away to a half dozen of them, when I saw two men strolling up from the seventeenth green. One of the men was Breckenridge Sewall. I glanced over the rim of my cup the second time to make certain. Yes, it was Breck—the same old blasé, dissipated-looking Breck. I had thought he was still in Europe. To reach the eighteenth tee the men had to pass within ten feet of the terrace. My back would be toward them. I didn't know if a second opportunity would be offered me. Grassmere, the Sewall estate, was not open this year. Breck might be gone by the next day. I happened at the time to be talking about a certain tennis tournament with a man who had been an eye-witness. I rose and put down my cup of tea.

"Come over and tell me about it, please," I said, smiling upon him. "I've finished. Take my chair, Phyllis," I added sweetly to a young girl standing near. "Do, dear. Mr. Call and I are going to decorate the balustrade."

I selected a prominent position beside a huge earthen pot of flowering geraniums. It was a low balustrade with a flat top, designed to sit upon. I leaned back against the earthen jar and proceeded to appear engrossed in tennis. Really, though, I was wondering if Breck would see me after all, and what I should say if he did.

What I did say was conventional enough—simply, "Why, how do you do," to his eager, "Hello, Miss Vars!" while I shook hands with him as he stood beneath me on the ground.

"Saw you on Fifth Avenue a week ago," he went on, "hiking for some place in a taxi. Lost you in the crowd at Forty-second. Thought you might be rounding up here before long. So decided I'd run up and say howdy. Look here, wait for me, will you? I've got only one hole more to play. Do. Wait for me. I'll see that you get home all right."

Edith returned alone in the automobile that afternoon.

"I'll come along later," I explained mysteriously.

She hadn't seen Breck, thank heaven! She would have been sure to have blundered into a dinner invitation, or some such form of effusion. But she surmised that something unusual was in the air, and was watching for me from behind lace curtains in the living-room when I returned two hours later. She saw a foreign-made car whirl into the drive and stop at the door. She saw me get out of it and run up the front steps. The features of the man behind the big mahogany steering-wheel could be discerned easily. When I opened the front door my sister-in-law was in the vestibule. She grasped me by both my arms just above my elbows.

"Breck Sewall!" she ejaculated. "My dear! Breck Sewall again!"

The ecstasy of her voice, the enthusiasm of those hands of hers grasping my arms soothed my hurt feelings of a week ago. I was led tenderly—almost worshipfully—upstairs to my room.

"I believe he is as crazy as ever about you," Edith exclaimed, once behind closed doors. "I honestly think"—she stopped abruptly—"What if——" she began again, then excitedly kissed me. "You little wonder!" she said. "There's no one in the whole family to match you. I'll wager you could become a veritable gateway for us all to pass into New York society if you wanted to. You're a marvel—you are! Tell me about it." Her eyes sparkled as she gazed upon me. I realized in a flash just what the splendid thing was that I might do. Of course! How simple! I might marry Breck!

"Well," I said languidly, gazing at my reflection in the mirror and replacing a stray lock, "I suppose I'd rather be a gateway than a fifth wheel."

The next time that Breck asked me to marry him, I didn't call him absurd. I was older now. I must put away my dolls and air-castles. The time had come, it appeared, for me to assume a woman's burdens, among which often is an expedient marriage. I could no longer offer my tender years as an excuse for side-stepping a big opportunity. I musn't falter. The moment had arrived. I accepted Breck, and down underneath a pile of stockings in the back of my lowest bureau drawer I hid a little velvet-lined jewel-box, inside of which there lay an enormous diamond solitaire—promise of my brilliant return to the footlights.