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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter XXI

The Gilded Age

Chapter XXI



                             O lift your natures up:
             Embrace our aims: work out your freedom. Girls,
             Knowledge is now no more a fountain sealed;
             Drink deep until the habits of the slave,
             The sins of emptiness, gossip and spite
             And slander, die.
                                 The Princess.

Whether medicine is a science, or only an empirical method of getting a
living out of the ignorance of the human race, Ruth found before her
first term was over at the medical school that there were other things
she needed to know quite as much as that which is taught in medical
books, and that she could never satisfy her aspirations without more
general culture.

"Does your doctor know any thing--I don't mean about medicine, but about
things in general, is he a man of information and good sense?" once asked
an old practitioner. "If he doesn't know any thing but medicine the
chance is he doesn't know that:"

The close application to her special study was beginning to tell upon
Ruth's delicate health also, and the summer brought with it only
weariness and indisposition for any mental effort.

In this condition of mind and body the quiet of her home and the
unexciting companionship of those about her were more than ever tiresome.

She followed with more interest Philip's sparkling account of his life
in the west, and longed for his experiences, and to know some of those
people of a world so different from here, who alternately amused and
displeased him. He at least was learning the world, the good and the bad
of it, as must happen to every one who accomplishes anything in it.

But what, Ruth wrote, could a woman do, tied up by custom, and cast into
particular circumstances out of which it was almost impossible to
extricate herself? Philip thought that he would go some day and
extricate Ruth, but he did not write that, for he had the instinct to
know that this was not the extrication she dreamed of, and that she must
find out by her own experience what her heart really wanted.

Philip was not a philosopher, to be sure, but he had the old fashioned
notion, that whatever a woman's theories of life might be, she would come
round to matrimony, only give her time. He could indeed recall to mind
one woman--and he never knew a nobler--whose whole soul was devoted and
who believed that her life was consecrated to a certain benevolent
project in singleness of life, who yielded to the touch of matrimony, as
an icicle yields to a sunbeam.

Neither at home nor elsewhere did Ruth utter any complaint, or admit any
weariness or doubt of her ability to pursue the path she had marked out
for herself. But her mother saw clearly enough her struggle with
infirmity, and was not deceived by either her gaiety or by the cheerful
composure which she carried into all the ordinary duties that fell to
her. She saw plainly enough that Ruth needed an entire change of scene
and of occupation, and perhaps she believed that such a change, with the
knowledge of the world it would bring, would divert Ruth from a course
for which she felt she was physically entirely unfitted.

It therefore suited the wishes of all concerned, when autumn came, that
Ruth should go away to school. She selected a large New England
Seminary, of which she had often heard Philip speak, which was attended
by both sexes and offered almost collegiate advantages of education.
Thither she went in September, and began for the second time in the year
a life new to her.

The Seminary was the chief feature of Fallkill, a village of two to three
thousand inhabitants. It was a prosperous school, with three hundred
students, a large corps of teachers, men and women, and with a venerable
rusty row of academic buildings on the shaded square of the town. The
students lodged and boarded in private families in the place, and so it
came about that while the school did a great deal to support the town,
the town gave the students society and the sweet influences of home life.
It is at least respectful to say that the influences of home life are
sweet.

Ruth's home, by the intervention of Philip, was in a family--one of the
rare exceptions in life or in fiction--that had never known better days.
The Montagues, it is perhaps well to say, had intended to come over in
the Mayflower, but were detained at Delft Haven by the illness of a
child. They came over to Massachusetts Bay in another vessel, and thus
escaped the onus of that brevet nobility under which the successors of
the Mayflower Pilgrims have descended. Having no factitious weight of
dignity to carry, the Montagues steadily improved their condition from
the day they landed, and they were never more vigorous or prosperous than
at the date of this narrative. With character compacted by the rigid
Puritan discipline of more than two centuries, they had retained its
strength and purity and thrown off its narrowness, and were now
blossoming under the generous modern influences. Squire Oliver Montague,
a lawyer who had retired from the practice of his profession except in
rare cases, dwelt in a square old fashioned New England mile away from
the green. It was called a mansion because it stood alone with ample
fields about it, and had an avenue of trees leading to it from the road,
and on the west commanded a view of a pretty little lake with gentle
slopes and nodding were now blossoming under the generous modern
influences. Squire Oliver Montague, a lawyer who had retired from the
practice of his profession except in rare cases, dwelt in a square old
fashioned New England groves. But it was just a plain, roomy house,
capable of extending to many guests an unpretending hospitality.

The family consisted of the Squire and his wife, a son and a daughter
married and not at home, a son in college at Cambridge, another son at
the Seminary, and a daughter Alice, who was a year or more older than
Ruth. Having only riches enough to be able to gratify reasonable
desires, and yet make their gratifications always a novelty and a
pleasure, the family occupied that just mean in life which is so rarely
attained, and still more rarely enjoyed without discontent.

If Ruth did not find so much luxury in the house as in her own home,
there were evidences of culture, of intellectual activity and of a zest
in the affairs of all the world, which greatly impressed her. Every room
had its book-cases or book-shelves, and was more or less a library; upon
every table was liable to be a litter of new books, fresh periodicals and
daily newspapers. There were plants in the sunny windows and some choice
engravings on the walls, with bits of color in oil or water-colors;
the piano was sure to be open and strewn with music; and there were
photographs and little souvenirs here and there of foreign travel.
An absence of any "what-pots" in the corners with rows of cheerful
shells, and Hindoo gods, and Chinese idols, and nests of use less boxes
of lacquered wood, might be taken as denoting a languidness in the family
concerning foreign missions, but perhaps unjustly.

At any rate the life of the world flowed freely into this hospitable
house, and there was always so much talk there of the news of the day,
of the new books and of authors, of Boston radicalism and New York
civilization, and the virtue of Congress, that small gossip stood a very
poor chance.

All this was in many ways so new to Ruth that she seemed to have passed
into another world, in which she experienced a freedom and a mental
exhilaration unknown to her before. Under this influence she entered
upon her studies with keen enjoyment, finding for a time all the
relaxation she needed, in the charming social life at the Montague house.

It is strange, she wrote to Philip, in one of her occasional letters,
that you never told me more about this delightful family, and scarcely
mentioned Alice who is the life of it, just the noblest girl, unselfish,
knows how to do so many things, with lots of talent, with a dry humor,
and an odd way of looking at things, and yet quiet and even serious
often--one of your "capable" New England girls. We shall be great
friends. It had never occurred to Philip that there was any thing
extraordinary about the family that needed mention. He knew dozens of
girls like Alice, he thought to himself, but only one like Ruth.

Good friends the two girls were from the beginning. Ruth was a study to
Alice; the product of a culture entirely foreign to her experience, so
much a child in some things, so much a woman in others; and Ruth in turn,
it must be confessed, probing Alice sometimes with her serious grey eyes,
wondered what her object in life was, and whether she had any purpose
beyond living as she now saw her. For she could scarcely conceive of a
life that should not be devoted to the accomplishment of some definite
work, and she had-no doubt that in her own case everything else would
yield to the professional career she had marked out.

"So you know Philip Sterling," said Ruth one day as the girls sat at
their sewing. Ruth never embroidered, and never sewed when she could
avoid it. Bless her.

"Oh yes, we are old friends. Philip used to come to Fallkill often while
he was in college. He was once rusticated here for a term."

"Rusticated?"

"Suspended for some College scrape. He was a great favorite here.
Father and he were famous friends. Father said that Philip had no end of
nonsense in him and was always blundering into something, but he was a
royal good fellow and would come out all right."

"Did you think he was fickle?"

"Why, I never thought whether he was or not," replied Alice looking up.
"I suppose he was always in love with some girl or another, as college
boys are. He used to make me his confidant now and then, and be terribly
in the dumps."

"Why did he come to you?" pursued Ruth you were younger than he."

"I'm sure I don't know. He was at our house a good deal. Once at a
picnic by the lake, at the risk of his own life, he saved sister Millie
from drowning, and we all liked to have him here. Perhaps he thought as
he had saved one sister, the other ought to help him when he was in
trouble. I don't know."

The fact was that Alice was a person who invited confidences, because she
never betrayed them, and gave abundant sympathy in return. There are
persons, whom we all know, to whom human confidences, troubles and heart-
aches flow as naturally its streams to a placid lake.

This is not a history of Fallkill, nor of the Montague family, worthy as
both are of that honor, and this narrative cannot be diverted into long
loitering with them. If the reader visits the village to-day, he will
doubtless be pointed out the Montague dwelling, where Ruth lived, the
cross-lots path she traversed to the Seminary, and the venerable chapel
with its cracked bell.

In the little society of the place, the Quaker girl was a favorite, and
no considerable social gathering or pleasure party was thought complete
without her. There was something in this seemingly transparent and yet
deep character, in her childlike gaiety and enjoyment of the society
about her, and in her not seldom absorption in herself, that would have
made her long remembered there if no events had subsequently occurred to
recall her to mind.

To the surprise of Alice, Ruth took to the small gaieties of the village
with a zest of enjoyment that seemed foreign to one who had devoted her
life to a serious profession from the highest motives. Alice liked
society well enough, she thought, but there was nothing exciting in that
of Fallkill, nor anything novel in the attentions of the well-bred young
gentlemen one met in it. It must have worn a different aspect to Ruth,
for she entered into its pleasures at first with curiosity, and then with
interest and finally with a kind of staid abandon that no one would have
deemed possible for her. Parties, picnics, rowing-matches, moonlight
strolls, nutting expeditions in the October woods,--Alice declared that
it was a whirl of dissipation. The fondness of Ruth, which was scarcely
disguised, for the company of agreeable young fellows, who talked
nothings, gave Alice opportunity for no end of banter.

"Do you look upon them as I subjects, dear?" she would ask.

And Ruth laughed her merriest laugh, and then looked sober again.
Perhaps she was thinking, after all, whether she knew herself.

If you should rear a duck in the heart of the Sahara, no doubt it would
swim if you brought it to the Nile.

Surely no one would have predicted when Ruth left Philadelphia that she
would become absorbed to this extent, and so happy, in a life so unlike
that she thought she desired. But no one can tell how a woman will act
under any circumstances. The reason novelists nearly always fail in
depicting women when they make them act, is that they let them do what
they have observed some woman has done at sometime or another. And that
is where they make a mistake; for a woman will never do again what has
been done before. It is this uncertainty that causes women, considered
as materials for fiction, to be so interesting to themselves and to
others.

As the fall went on and the winter, Ruth did not distinguish herself
greatly at the Fallkill Seminary as a student, a fact that apparently
gave her no anxiety, and did not diminish her enjoyment of a new sort of
power which had awakened within her.

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