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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XIV

The Gilded Age

Chapter XIV


The letter that Philip Sterling wrote to Ruth Bolton, on the evening of
setting out to seek his fortune in the west, found that young lady in her
own father's house in Philadelphia. It was one of the pleasantest of the
many charming suburban houses in that hospitable city, which is
territorially one of the largest cities in the world, and only prevented
from becoming the convenient metropolis of the country by the intrusive
strip of Camden and Amboy sand which shuts it off from the Atlantic
ocean. It is a city of steady thrift, the arms of which might well be
the deliberate but delicious terrapin that imparts such a royal flavor to
its feasts.

It was a spring morning, and perhaps it was the influence of it that made
Ruth a little restless, satisfied neither with the out-doors nor the in-
doors. Her sisters had gone to the city to show some country visitors
Independence Hall, Girard College and Fairmount Water Works and Park,
four objects which Americans cannot die peacefully, even in Naples,
without having seen. But Ruth confessed that she was tired of them, and
also of the Mint. She was tired of other things. She tried this morning
an air or two upon the piano, sang a simple song in a sweet but slightly
metallic voice, and then seating herself by the open window, read
Philip's letter. Was she thinking about Philip, as she gazed across the
fresh lawn over the tree tops to the Chelton Hills, or of that world
which his entrance, into her tradition-bound life had been one of the
means of opening to her? Whatever she thought, she was not idly musing,
as one might see by the expression of her face. After a time she took
up a book; it was a medical work, and to all appearance about as
interesting to a girl of eighteen as the statutes at large; but her face
was soon aglow over its pages, and she was so absorbed in it that she did
not notice the entrance of her mother at the open door.

"Ruth?"

"Well, mother," said the young student, looking up, with a shade of
impatience.

"I wanted to talk with thee a little about thy plans."

"Mother; thee knows I couldn't stand it at Westfield; the school stifled
me, it's a place to turn young people into dried fruit."

"I know," said Margaret Bolton, with a half anxious smile, thee chafes
against all the ways of Friends, but what will thee do? Why is thee so
discontented?"

"If I must say it, mother, I want to go away, and get out of this dead
level."

With a look half of pain and half of pity, her mother answered, "I am
sure thee is little interfered with; thee dresses as thee will, and goes
where thee pleases, to any church thee likes, and thee has music. I had
a visit yesterday from the society's committee by way of discipline,
because we have a piano in the house, which is against the rules."

"I hope thee told the elders that father and I are responsible for the
piano, and that, much as thee loves music, thee is never in the room when
it is played. Fortunately father is already out of meeting, so they
can't discipline him. I heard father tell cousin Abner that he was
whipped so often for whistling when he was a boy that he was determined
to have what compensation he could get now."

"Thy ways greatly try me, Ruth, and all thy relations. I desire thy
happiness first of all, but thee is starting out on a dangerous path.
Is thy father willing thee should go away to a school of the world's
people?"

"I have not asked him," Ruth replied with a look that might imply that
she was one of those determined little bodies who first made up her own
mind and then compelled others to make up theirs in accordance with hers.

"And when thee has got the education thee wants, and lost all relish for
the society of thy friends and the ways of thy ancestors, what then?"

Ruth turned square round to her mother, and with an impassive face and
not the slightest change of tone, said,

"Mother, I'm going to study medicine?"

Margaret Bolton almost lost for a moment her habitual placidity.

"Thee, study medicine! A slight frail girl like thee, study medicine!
Does thee think thee could stand it six months? And the lectures,
and the dissecting rooms, has thee thought of the dissecting rooms?"

"Mother," said Ruth calmly, "I have thought it all over. I know I can go
through the whole, clinics, dissecting room and all. Does thee think I
lack nerve? What is there to fear in a person dead more than in a person
living?"

"But thy health and strength, child; thee can never stand the severe
application. And, besides, suppose thee does learn medicine?"

"I will practice it."

"Here?"

"Here."

"Where thee and thy family are known?"

"If I can get patients."

"I hope at least, Ruth, thee will let us know when thee opens an office,"
said her mother, with an approach to sarcasm that she rarely indulged in,
as she rose and left the room.

Ruth sat quite still for a tine, with face intent and flushed. It was
out now. She had begun her open battle.

The sight-seers returned in high spirits from the city. Was there any
building in Greece to compare with Girard College, was there ever such a
magnificent pile of stone devised for the shelter of poor orphans? Think
of the stone shingles of the roof eight inches thick! Ruth asked the
enthusiasts if they would like to live in such a sounding mausoleum, with
its great halls and echoing rooms, and no comfortable place in it for the
accommodation of any body? If they were orphans, would they like to be
brought up in a Grecian temple?

And then there was Broad street! Wasn't it the broadest and the longest-
street in the world? There certainly was no end to it, and even Ruth was
Philadelphian enough to believe that a street ought not to have any end,
or architectural point upon which the weary eye could rest.

But neither St. Girard, nor Broad street, neither wonders of the Mint nor
the glories of the Hall where the ghosts of our fathers sit always
signing the Declaration; impressed the visitors so much as the splendors
of the Chestnut street windows, and the bargains on Eighth street.
The truth is that the country cousins had come to town to attend the
Yearly Meeting, and the amount of shopping that preceded that religious
event was scarcely exceeded by the preparations for the opera in more
worldly circles.

"Is thee going to the Yearly Meeting, Ruth?" asked one of the girls.

"I have nothing to wear," replied that demure person. "If thee wants to
see new bonnets, orthodox to a shade and conformed to the letter of the
true form, thee must go to the Arch Street Meeting. Any departure from
either color or shape would be instantly taken note of. It has occupied
mother a long time, to find at the shops the exact shade for her new
bonnet. Oh, thee must go by all means. But thee won't see there a
sweeter woman than mother."

"And thee won't go?"

"Why should I? I've been again and again. If I go to Meeting at all I
like best to sit in the quiet old house in Germantown, where the windows
are all open and I can see the trees, and hear the stir of the leaves.
It's such a crush at the Yearly Meeting at Arch Street, and then there's
the row of sleek-looking young men who line the curbstone and stare at us
as we come out. No, I don't feel at home there."

That evening Ruth and her father sat late by the drawing-room fire, as
they were quite apt to do at night. It was always a time of confidences.

"Thee has another letter from young Sterling," said Eli Bolton.

"Yes. Philip has gone to the far west."

"How far?"

"He doesn't say, but it's on the frontier, and on the map everything
beyond it is marked 'Indians' and 'desert,' and looks as desolate as a
Wednesday Meeting."

"Humph. It was time for him to do something. Is he going to start a
daily newspaper among the Kick-a-poos?"

"Father, thee's unjust to Philip. He's going into business."

"What sort of business can a young man go into without capital?"

"He doesn't say exactly what it is," said Ruth a little dubiously, "but
it's something about land and railroads, and thee knows, father, that
fortunes are made nobody knows exactly how, in a new country."

"I should think so, you innocent puss, and in an old one too. But Philip
is honest, and he has talent enough, if he will stop scribbling, to make
his way. But thee may as well take care of theeself, Ruth, and not go
dawdling along with a young man in his adventures, until thy own mind is
a little more settled what thee wants."

This excellent advice did not seem to impress Ruth greatly, for she was
looking away with that abstraction of vision which often came into her
grey eyes, and at length she exclaimed, with a sort of impatience,

"I wish I could go west, or south, or somewhere. What a box women are
put into, measured for it, and put in young; if we go anywhere it's in a
box, veiled and pinioned and shut in by disabilities. Father, I should
like to break things and get loose!"

What a sweet-voiced little innocent, it was to be sure.

"Thee will no doubt break things enough when thy time comes, child; women
always have; but what does thee want now that thee hasn't?"

"I want to be something, to make myself something, to do something. Why
should I rust, and be stupid, and sit in inaction because I am a girl?
What would happen to me if thee should lose thy property and die? What
one useful thing could I do for a living, for the support of mother and
the children? And if I had a fortune, would thee want me to lead a
useless life?"

"Has thy mother led a useless life?"

"Somewhat that depends upon whether her children amount to anything,"
retorted the sharp little disputant. "What's the good, father, of a
series of human beings who don't advance any?"

Friend Eli, who had long ago laid aside the Quaker dress, and was out of
Meeting, and who in fact after a youth of doubt could not yet define his
belief, nevertheless looked with some wonder at this fierce young eagle
of his, hatched in a Friend's dove-cote. But he only said,

"Has thee consulted thy mother about a career, I suppose it is a career
thee wants?"

Ruth did not reply directly; she complained that her mother didn't
understand her. But that wise and placid woman understood the sweet
rebel a great deal better than Ruth understood herself. She also had a
history, possibly, and had sometime beaten her young wings against the
cage of custom, and indulged in dreams of a new social order, and had
passed through that fiery period when it seems possible for one mind,
which has not yet tried its limits, to break up and re-arrange the world.

Ruth replied to Philip's letter in due time and in the most cordial and
unsentimental manner. Philip liked the letter, as he did everything she
did; but he had a dim notion that there was more about herself in the
letter than about him. He took it with him from the Southern Hotel, when
he went to walk, and read it over and again in an unfrequented street as
he stumbled along. The rather common-place and unformed hand-writing
seemed to him peculiar and characteristic, different from that of any
other woman.

Ruth was glad to hear that Philip had made a push into the world, and she
was sure that his talent and courage would make a way for him. She
should pray for his success at any rate, and especially that the Indians,
in St. Louis, would not take his scalp.

Philip looked rather dubious at this sentence, and wished that he had
written nothing about Indians.

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