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THE HAPPIEST TIME OF THEIR LIVES
BY ALICE DUER MILLER
Author of “Come Out of the Kitchen,” “Ladies Must Live,” “Wings in the Nights,” etc.
TO CLARENCE DAY, JR.
… and then he added in a less satisfied tone: “But friendship is so uncertain. You don’t make any announcement to your friends or vows to each other, unless you’re at an age when you cut your initials in the bark of a tree. That’s what I’d like to do.”
THE HAPPIEST TIME OF THEIR LIVES
Little Miss Severance sat with her hands as cold as ice. The stage of her coming adventure was beautifully set–the conventional stage for the adventure of a young girl, her mother’s drawing-room. Her mother had the art of setting stages. The room was not large,–a New York brownstone front in the upper Sixties even though altered as to entrance, and allowed to sprawl backward over yards not originally intended for its use, is not a palace,–but it was a room and not a corridor; you had the comfortable sense of four walls about you when its one small door was once shut. It was filled, perhaps a little too much filled, with objects which seemed to have nothing in common except beauty; but propinquity, propinquity of older date than the house in which they now were, had given them harmony. Nothing in the room was modern except some uncommonly comfortable sofas and chairs, and the pink and yellow roses that stood about in Chinese bowls.
Miss Severance herself was hardly aware of the charm of the room. On the third floor she had her own room, which she liked much better. There was a great deal of bright chintz in it, and maple furniture of a late colonial date, inherited from her mother’s family, the Lanleys, and discarded by her mother, who described the taste of that time as “pure, but provincial.” Crystal and ivories and carved wood and Italian embroideries did not please Miss Severance half so well as the austere lines of those work-tables and high-boys.
It was after five, almost half-past, and he had said “about five.” Miss Severance, impatient to begin the delicious experience of anticipation, had allowed herself to be ready at a quarter before the hour. Not that she had been entirely without some form of anticipation since she woke up; not, perhaps, since she had parted from him under the windy awning the night before. They had held up a long line of restless motors as she stood huddled in her fur-trimmed cloak, and he stamped and jigged to keep warm, bareheaded, in his thin pumps and shining shirt-front, with his shoulders drawn up and his hands in his pockets, while they almost awkwardly arranged this meeting for the next day.
Several times during the preceding evening she had thought he was going to say something of the kind, for they had danced together a great deal; but they had always danced in silence. At the time, with his arm about her, silence had seemed enough; but in separation there is something wonderfully solid and comforting in the memory of a spoken word; it is like a coin in the pocket. And after Miss Severance had bidden him good night at the long glass door of the paneled ball-room without his saying anything of a future meeting, she had gone up-stairs with a heavy heart to find her maid and her wrap. She knew as soon as she reached the dressing-room that she had actually hurried her departure for the sake of the parting; for the hope, as their time together grew short, of having some certainty to look forward to. But he had said nothing, and she had been ashamed to find that she was waiting, leaving her hand in his too long; so that at last she snatched it away, and was gone up-stairs in an instant, fearing he might have guessed what was going on in her mind.
She had thought it just an accident that he was in the hall when she came down again, and he hadn’t much choice, she said to herself, about helping her into her motor. Then at the very last moment he had asked if he mightn’t come and see her the next afternoon. Miss Severance, who was usually sensitive to inconveniencing other people, had not cared at all about the motor behind hers that was tooting its horn or for the elderly lady in feathers and diamonds who was waiting to get into it. She had cared only about arranging the hour and impressing the address upon him. He had given her back the pleasure of her whole evening like a parting gift.
As she drove home she couldn’t bring herself to doubt, though she tried to be rational about the whole experience, that it had meant as much to him as it had to her, perhaps more. Her lips curved a little at the thought, and she glanced quickly at her maid to see if the smile had been visible in the glare of the tall, double lamps of Fifth Avenue.
To say she had not slept would be untrue, but she had slept close to the surface of consciousness, as if a bright light were shining somewhere near, and she had waked with the definite knowledge that this light was the certainty of seeing him that very day. The morning had gone very well; she had even forgotten once or twice for a few seconds, and then remembered with a start of joy that was almost painful: but, after lunch, time had begun to drag like the last day of a long sea-voyage.
About three she had gone out with her mother in the motor, with the understanding that she was to be left at home at four; her mother was going on to tea with an elderly relation. Fifth Avenue had seemed unusually crowded even for Fifth Avenue, and the girl had fretted and wondered at the perversity of the police, who held them up just at the moment most promising for slipping through; and why Andrews, the chauffeur, could not see that he would do better by going to Madison Avenue. She did not speak these thoughts aloud, for she had not told her mother, not from any natural love of concealment, but because any announcement of her plans for the afternoon would have made them seem less certain of fulfilment. Perhaps, too, she had felt an unacknowledged fear of certain of her mother’s phrases that could delicately puncture delight.
She had been dropped at the house by ten minutes after four, and exactly at a quarter before five she had been in the drawing-room, in her favorite dress, with her best slippers, her hands cold, but her heart warm with the knowledge that he would soon be there.
Only after forty-five minutes of waiting did that faith begin to grow dim. She was too inexperienced in such matters to know that this was the inevitable consequence of being ready too early. She had had time to run through the whole cycle of certainty, eagerness, doubt, and she was now rapidly approaching despair. He was not coming. Perhaps he had never meant to come. Possibly he had merely yielded to a polite impulse; possibly her manner had betrayed her wishes so plainly that a clever, older person, two or three years out of college, had only too clearly read her in the moment when she had detained his hand at the door of the ball-room.
There was a ring at the bell. Her heart stood perfectly still, and then began beating with a terrible force, as if it gathered itself into a hard, weighty lump again and again. Several minutes went by, too long for a man to give to taking off his coat. At last she got up and cautiously opened the door; a servant was carrying a striped cardboard box to her mother’s room. Miss Severance went back and sat down. She took a long breath; her heart returned to its normal movement.
Yet, for some unexplained reason, the fact that the door-bell had rung once made it more possible that it would ring again, and she began to feel a slight return of confidence.
A servant opened the door, and in the instant before she turned her head she had time to debate the possibility of a visitor having come in without ringing while the messenger with the striped box was going out. But, no; Pringle was alone.
Pringle had been with the family since her mother was a girl, but, like many red-haired men, he retained an appearance of youth. He wanted to know if he should take away the tea.
She knew perfectly why he asked. He liked to have the tea-things put away before he had his own supper and began his arrangements for the family dinner. She felt that the crisis had come.
If she said yes, she knew that her visitor would come just as tea had disappeared. If she said no, she would sit there alone, waiting for another half-hour, and when she finally did ring and tell Pringle he could take away the tea-things, he would look wise and reproachful. Nevertheless, she did say no, and Pringle with admirable self-control, withdrew.
The afternoon seemed very quiet. Miss Severance became aware of all sorts of bells that she had never heard before–other door-bells, telephone-bells in the adjacent houses, loud, hideous bells on motor delivery-wagons, but not her own front door-bell.
Her heart felt like lead. Things would never be the same now. Probably there was some explanation of his not coming, but it could never be really atoned for. The wild romance and confidence in this first visit could never be regained.
And then there was a loud, quick ring at the bell, and at once he was in the room, breathing rapidly, as if he had run up-stairs or even from the corner. She could do nothing but stare at him. She had tried in the last ten minutes to remember what he looked like, and now she was astonished to find how exactly he looked as she remembered him.
To her horror, the change between her late despair and her present joy was so extreme that she wanted to cry. The best she knew how to do was to pucker her face into a smile and to offer him those chilly finger-tips.
He hardly took them, but said, as if announcing a black, but incontrovertible, fact:
“You’re not a bit glad to see me.”
“Oh, yes, I am,” she returned, with an attempt at an easy social manner. “Will you have some tea?”
“But why aren’t you glad?”
Miss Severance clasped her hands on the edge of the tea-tray and looked down. She pressed her palms together; she set her teeth, but the muscles in her throat went on contracting; and the heroic struggle was lost.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said, and making no further effort to conceal the fact that her eyes were full of tears she looked straight up at him.
He sat down beside her on the small, low sofa and put his hand on hers.
“But I was perfectly certain to come,” he said very gently, “because, you see, I think I love you.”
“Do you think I love you?” she asked, seeking information.
“I can’t tell,” he answered. “Your being sorry I did not come doesn’t prove anything. We’ll see. You’re so wonderfully young, my dear!”
“I don’t think eighteen is so young. My mother was married before she was twenty.”
He sat silent for a few seconds, and she felt his hand shut more firmly on hers. Then he got up, and, pulling a chair to the opposite side of the table, said briskly:
“And now give me some tea. I haven’t had any lunch.”
“Oh, why not?” She blew her nose, tucked away her handkerchief, and began her operations on the tea-tray.
“I work very hard,” he returned. “You don’t know what at, do you? I’m a statistician.”
“I make reports on properties, on financial ventures, for the firm I’m with, Benson & Honaton. They’re brokers. When they are asked to underwrite a scheme–“
“Underwrite? I never heard that word.”
The boy laughed.
“You’ll hear it a good many times if our acquaintance continues.” Then more gravely, but quite parenthetically, he added: “If a firm puts up money for a business, they want to know all about it, of course. I tell them. I’ve just been doing a report this afternoon, a wonder; it’s what made me late. Shall I tell you about it?”
She nodded with the same eagerness with which ten years before she might have answered an inquiry as to whether he should tell her a fairy-story.
“Well, it was on a coal-mine in Pennsylvania. I’m afraid my report is going to be a disappointment to the firm. The mine’s good, a sound, rich vein, and the labor conditions aren’t bad; but there’s one fatal defect–a car shortage on the only railroad that reaches it. They can’t make a penny on their old mine until that’s met, and that can’t be straightened out for a year, anyhow; and so I shall report against it.”
“Car shortage,” said Miss Severance. “I never should have thought of that. I think you must be wonderful.”
“I wish the firm thought so,” he said. “In a way they do; they pay attention to what I say, but they give me an awfully small salary. In fact,” he added briskly, “I have almost no money at all.” There was a pause, and he went on, “I suppose you know that when I was sitting beside you just now I wanted most terribly to kiss you.”
“Oh, no? Oh, yes. I wanted to, but I didn’t. Don’t worry. I won’t for a long time, perhaps never.”
“Never?” said Miss Severance, and she smiled.
“I said _perhaps_ never. You can’t tell. Life turns up some awfully queer tricks now and then. Last night, for example. I walked into that ballroom thinking of nothing, and there you were–all the rest of the room like a sort of shrine for you. I said to a man I was with, ‘I want to meet the girl who looks like cream in a gold saucer,’ and he introduced us. What could be stranger than that? Not, as a matter of fact, that I ever thought love at first sight impossible, as so many people do.”
“But if you don’t know the very first thing about a person–” Miss Severance began, but he interrupted:
“You have to begin some time. Every pair of lovers have to have a first meeting, and those who fall in love at once are just that much further ahead.” He smiled. “I don’t even know your first name.”
It seemed miraculous good fortune to have a first name.
“Mathilde,” he repeated in a lower tone, and his eyes shone extraordinarily.
Both of them took some time to recover from the intensity of this moment. She wanted to ask him his, but foreseeing that she would immediately be required to use it, and feeling unequal to such an adventure, she decided it would be wiser to wait. It was he who presently went on:
“Isn’t it strange to know so little about each other? I rather like it. It’s so mad–like opening a chest of buried treasure. You don’t know what’s going to be in it, but you know it’s certain to be rare and desirable. What do you do, Mathilde? Live here with your father and mother?”
She sat looking at him. The truth was that she found everything he said so unexpected and thrilling that now and then she lost all sense of being expected to answer.
“Oh, yes,” she said, suddenly remembering. “I live here with my mother and stepfather. My mother has married again. She is Mrs. Vincent Farron.”
“Didn’t I tell you life played strange tricks?” he exclaimed. He sprang up, and took a position on the hearth-rug. “I know all about him. I once reported on the Electric Equipment Company. That’s the same Farron, isn’t it? I believe that that company is the most efficient for its size in this country, in the world, perhaps. And Farron is your stepfather! He must be a wonder.”
“Yes, I think he is.”
“You don’t like him?”
“I like him very much. I don’t _love_ him.”
“The poor devil!”
“I don’t believe he wants people to love him. It would bore him. No, that’s not quite just. He’s kind, wonderfully kind, but he has no little pleasantnesses. He says things in a very quiet way that make you feel he’s laughing at you, though he never does laugh. He said to me this morning at breakfast, ‘Well, Mathilde, was it a marvelous party?’ That made me feel as if I used the word ‘marvelous’ all the time, not a bit as if he really wanted to know whether I had enjoyed myself last night.”
“And did you?”
She gave him a rapid smile and went on:
“Now, my grandfather, my mother’s father–his name is Lanley–(Mr. Lanley evidently was not in active business, for it was plain that Wayne, searching his memory, found nothing)–my grandfather often scolds me terribly for my English,–says I talk like a barmaid, although I tell him he ought not to know how barmaids talk,–but he never makes me feel small. Sometimes Mr. Farron repeats, weeks afterward, something I’ve said, word for word, the way I said it. It makes it sound so foolish. I’d rather he said straight out that he thought I was a goose.”
“Perhaps you wouldn’t if he did.”
“I like people to be human. Mr. Farron’s not human.”
“Doesn’t your mother think so?”
“Mama thinks he’s perfect.”
“How long have they been married?”
“Ages! Five years!”
“And they’re just as much in love?”
Miss Severance looked at him.
“In love?” she said. “At their age?” He laughed at her, and she added: “I don’t mean they are not fond of each other, but Mr. Farron must be forty-five. What I mean by love–” she hesitated.
But she did stop, for her quick ears told her that some one was coming, and, Pringle opening the door, Mrs. Farron came in.
She was a very beautiful person. In her hat and veil, lit by the friendly light of her own drawing-room, she seemed so young as to be actually girlish, except that she was too stately and finished for such a word. Mathilde did not inherit her blondness from her mother. Mrs. Farron’s hair was a dark brown, with a shade of red in it where it curved behind her ears. She had the white skin that often goes with such hair, and a high, delicate color in her cheeks. Her eyebrows were fine and excessively dark–penciled, many people thought.
“Mama, this is Mr. Wayne,” said Mathilde. Here was another tremendous moment crowding upon her–the introduction of her beautiful mother to this new friend, but even more, the introduction to her mother of this wonderful new friend, whose flavor of romance and interest no one, she supposed, could miss. Yet Mrs. Farron seemed to be taking it all very calmly, greeting him, taking his chair as being a trifle more comfortable than the others, trying to cover the doubt in her own mind whether she ought to recognize him as an old acquaintance. Was he new or one of the ones she had seen a dozen times before?
There was nothing exactly artificial in Mrs. Farron’s manner, but, like a great singer who has learned perfect enunciation even in the most trivial sentences of every-day matters, she, as a great beauty, had learned the perfection of self-presentation, which probably did not wholly desert her even in the dentist’s chair.
She drew off her long, pale, spotless gloves.
“No tea, my dear,” she said. “I’ve just had it,” she added to Wayne, “with an old aunt of mine. Aunt Alberta,” she threw over her shoulder to Mathilde. “I am very unfortunate, Mr. Wayne; this town is full of my relations, tucked away in forgotten oases, and I’m their only connection with the vulgar, modern world. My aunt’s favorite excitement is disapproving of me. She was particularly trying to-day.” Mrs. Farron seemed to debate whether or not it would be tiresome to go thoroughly into the problem of Aunt Alberta, and to decide that it would; for she said, with an abrupt change, “Were you at this party last night that Mathilde enjoyed so much?”
“Yes,” said Wayne. “Why weren’t you?”
“I wasn’t asked. It isn’t the fashion to ask mothers and daughters to the same parties any more. We dance so much better than they do.” She leaned over, and rang the little enamel bell that dangled at the arm of her daughter’s sofa. “You can’t imagine, Mr. Wayne, how much better I dance than Mathilde.”
“I hope it needn’t be left to the imagination.”
“Oh, I’m not sure. That was the subject of Aunt Alberta’s talk this afternoon–my still dancing. She says she put on caps at thirty-five.” Mrs. Farron ran her eyebrows whimsically together and looked up at her daughter’s visitor.
Mathilde was immensely grateful to her mother for taking so much trouble to be charming; only now she rather spoiled it by interrupting Wayne in the midst of a sentence, as if she had never been as much interested as she had seemed. Pringle had appeared in answer to her ring, and she asked him sharply:
“Is Mr. Farron in?”
“Mr. Farron’s in his room, Madam.”
At this she appeared to give her attention wholly back to Wayne, but Mathilde knew that she was really busy composing an escape. She seemed to settle back, to encourage her visitor to talk indefinitely; but when the moment came for her to answer, she rose to her feet in the midst of her sentence, and, still talking, wandered to the door and disappeared.
As the door shut firmly behind her Wayne said, as if there had been no interruption:
“It was love you were speaking of, you know.”
“But don’t you think my mother is marvelous?” she asked, not content to take up even the absorbing topic until this other matter had received due attention.
“I should say so! But one isn’t, of course, overwhelmed to find that your mother is beautiful.”
“And she’s so good!” Mathilde went on. “She’s always thinking of things to do for me and my grandfather and Mr. Farron and all these old, old relations. She went away just now only because she knows that as soon as Mr. Farron comes in he asks for her. She’s perfect to every one.”
He came and sat down beside her again.
“It’s going to be much easier for her daughter,” he said: “you have to be perfect only to one person. Now, what was it you were going to say about love?”
Again they looked at each other; again Miss Severance had the sensation of drowning, of being submerged in some strange elixir.
She was rescued by Pringle’s opening the door and announcing:
Wayne stood up.
“I suppose I must go,” he said.
“No, no,” she returned a little wildly, and added, as if this were the reason why she opposed his departure. “This is my grandfather. You must see him.”
Wayne sat down again, in the chair on the other side of the tea-table.
Mathilde had been wrong in telling Wayne that her mother had gone upstairs in obedience to an impulse of kindness. She had gone to quiet a small, gnawing anxiety that had been with her all the day, a haunting, elusive, persistent impression that something was wrong between her and her husband.
All the day, as she had gone about from one thing to another, her mind had been diligently seeking in some event of the outside world an explanation of a slight obscuration of his spirit; but her heart, more egotistical, had stoutly insisted that the cause must lie in her. Did he love her less? Was she losing her charm for him? Were five years the limit of a human relation like theirs? Was she to watch the dying down of his flame, and try to shelter and fan it back to life as she had seen so many other women do?
Or was the trouble only that she had done something to wound his aloof and sensitive spirit, seldom aloof to her? Their intimate life had never been a calm one. Farron’s interests were concentrated, and his temperament was jealous. A woman couldn’t, as Adelaide sometimes had occasion to say to herself, keep men from making love to her; she did not always want to. Farron could be relentless, and she was not without a certain contemptuous obstinacy. Yet such conflicts as these she had learned not to dread, but sometimes deliberately to precipitate, for they ended always in a deeper sense of unity, and, on her part, in a fresh sense of his supremacy.
If he had been like most of the men she knew, she would have assumed that something had gone wrong in business. With her first husband she had always been able to read in his face as he entered the house the full history of his business day. Sometimes she had felt that there was something insulting in the promptness of her inquiry, “Has anything gone wrong, Joe?” But Severance had never appeared to feel the insult; only as time went on, had grown more and more ready, as her interest became more and more lackadaisical, to pour out the troubles and, much more rarely, the joys of his day. One of the things she secretly admired most about Farron was his independence of her in such matters. No half-contemptuous question would elicit confidence from him, so that she had come to think it a great honor if by any chance he did drop her a hint as to the mood that his day’s work had occasioned. But for the most part he was unaffected by such matters. Newspaper attacks and business successes did not seem to reach the area where he suffered or rejoiced. They were to be dealt with or ignored, but they could neither shadow or elate him.
So that not only egotism, but experience, bade her look to her own conduct for some explanation of the chilly little mist that had been between them for twenty-four hours.
As soon as the drawing-room door closed behind her she ran up-stairs like a girl. There was no light in his study, and she went on into his bedroom. He was lying on the sofa; he had taken off his coat, and his arms were clasped under his head; he was smoking a long cigar. To find him idle was unusual. His was not a contemplative nature; a trade journal or a detective novel were the customary solace of odd moments like this.
He did not move as she entered, but he turned his eyes slowly and seriously upon her. His eyes were black. He was a very dark man, with a smooth, brown skin and thick, fine hair, which clung closely to his broad, rather massive head. He was clean shaven, so that, as Adelaide loved to remember a friend of his had once suggested, his business competitors might take note of the stern lines of his mouth and chin.
She came in quickly, and shut the door behind her, and then dropping on her knees beside him, she laid her head against his heart. He put out his hand, touched her face, and said:
“Take off this veil.”
The taking off of Adelaide’s veil was not a process to be accomplished ill-advisedly or lightly. Lucie, her maid, had put it on, with much gathering together and looking into the glass over her mistress’s shoulder, and it was held in place with shining pins and hair-pins. She lifted her head, sank back upon her heels, and raised her arms to the offending cobweb of black meshes, while her husband went on in a tone not absolutely denuded of reproach:
“You’ve been in some time.”
“Yes,”–she stuck the first pin into the upholstery of the sofa,–“but Pringle told me Mathilde had a visitor, and I thought it was my duty to stop and be a little parental.”
“A young man?”
“Yes. I forget his name–just like all these young men nowadays, alert and a little too much at his ease, but amusing in his way. He said, among other things–“
But Farron, it appeared, was not exclusively interested in the words of Mathilde’s visitor; for at this instant, perceiving that his wife had disengaged herself from her veil, he sat up, caught her to him, and pressed his lips to hers.
“O Adelaide!” he said, and it seemed to her he spoke with a sort of agony.
She held him away from her.
“Vincent, what is it?” she asked.
“What is what?”
“Is anything wrong?”
Oh, she knew that method of his, to lead her on to make definite statements about impressions of which nothing definite could be accurately said.
“No, I won’t be pinned down,” she said; “but I feel it, the way a rheumatic feels it, when the wind goes into the east.”
He continued to look at her gravely; she thought he was going to speak when a knock came at the door. It was Pringle announcing the visit of Mr. Lanley.
Adelaide rose slowly to her feet, and, walking to her husband’s dressing-table, repinned her hat, and caught up the little stray locks which grew in deep, sharp points at the back of her head.
“You’ll come down, too?” she said.
Farron was looking about for his coat, and as he put it on he observed dryly:
“The young man is seeing all the family.”
“Oh, he won’t mind,” she answered. “He probably hasn’t the slightest wish to see Mathilde alone. They both struck me as sorry when I left them; they were running down. You can’t imagine, Vin, how little romance there is among all these young people.”
“They leave it to us,” he answered. This was exactly in his accustomed manner, and as they went down-stairs together her heart felt lighter, though the long, black, shiny pin stuck harmlessly into the upholstery of the sofa was like a mile-stone, for afterward she remembered that her questions had gone unanswered.
Wayne was still in the drawing-room, and Mathilde, who loved her grandfather, was making a gentle fuss over him, a process which consisted largely in saying: “O Grandfather! Oh, you didn’t! O _Grandfather_!”
Mr. Lanley, though a small man and now over sixty, had a distinct presence. He wore excellent gray clothes of the same shade as his hair, and out of this neutrality of tint his bright, brown eyes sparkled piercingly.
He had begun life with the assumption that to be a New York Lanley was in itself enough, a comfortable creed in which many of his relations had obscurely lived and died. But before he was graduated from Columbia College he began to doubt whether the profession of being an aristocrat in a democracy was a man’s job. At no time in his life did he deny the value of birth and breeding; but he came to regard them as a responsibility solemn and often irritating to those who did not possess them, though he was no longer content with the current views of his family that they were a sufficient attainment in themselves.
He was graduated from college in 1873, and after a summer at the family place on the Hudson, hot, fertile, and inaccessible, which his sister Alberta was at that time occupying, he had arranged a trip round the world. September of that year brought the great panic, and swept away many larger and solider fortunes than the Lanleys’. Mr. Lanley decided that he must go to work, though he abandoned his traditions no further than to study law. His ancestors, like many of the aristocrats of the early days, had allowed their opinions of fashion to influence too much their selection of real estate. All through the late seventies, while his brothers and sisters were clinging sentimentally to brownstone fronts in Stuyvesant Square or red-brick facades in Great Jones Street, Mr. Lanley himself, unaffected by recollections of Uncle Joel’s death or grandma’s marriage, had been parting with his share in such properties, and investing along the east side of the park.
By the time he was forty he was once more a fairly rich man. He had left the practice of law to become the president of the Peter Stuyvesant Trust Company, for which he had been counsel. After fifteen years he had retired from this, too, and had become, what he insisted nature had always intended him to be, a gentleman of leisure. He retained a directorship in the trust company, was a trustee of his university, and was a thorny and inquiring member of many charitable boards.
He prided himself on having emancipated himself from the ideas of his own generation. It bored him to listen to his cousins lamenting the vulgarities of modern life, the lack of elegance in present-day English, or to hear them explain as they borrowed money from him the sort of thing a gentleman could or could not do for a living. But on the subject of what a lady might do he still held fixed and unalterable notions; nor did he ever find it tiresome to hear his own daughter expound the axioms of this subject with a finality he had taught her in her youth. Having freed himself from fine-gentlemanism, he had quite unconsciously fallen the more easily a prey to fine-ladyism; all his conservatism had gone into that, as a man, forced to give up his garden, might cherish one lovely potted plant.
At a time when private schools were beginning to flourish once more he had been careful to educate Adelaide entirely at home with governesses. Every summer he took her abroad, and showed her, and talked with her about, books, pictures, and buildings; he inoculated her with such fundamentals as that a lady never wears imitation lace on her underclothes, and the past of the verb to “eat” is pronounced to rhyme with “bet.” She spoke French and German fluently, and could read Italian. He considered her a perfectly educated woman. She knew nothing of business, political economy, politics, or science. He himself had never been deeply interested in American politics, though very familiar with the lives of English statesmen. He was a great reader of memoirs and of the novels of Disraeli and Trollope. Of late he had taken to motoring.
He kissed his daughter and nodded–a real New York nod–to his son-in-law.
“I’ve come to tell you, Adelaide,” he began.
“Such a thing!” murmured Mathilde, shaking her golden head above the cup of tea she was making for him, making in just the way he liked; for she was a little person who remembered people’s tastes.
“I thought you’d rather hear it than read it in the papers.”
“Goodness, Papa, you talk as if you had been getting married!”
“No.” Mr. Lanley hesitated, and looked up at her brightly. “No; but I think I did have a proposal the other day.”
“From Mrs. Baxter?” asked Adelaide. This was almost war. Mrs. Baxter was a regal and possessive widow from Baltimore whose long and regular visits to Mr. Lanley had once occasioned his family some alarm, though time had now given them a certain institutional safety.
Her father was not flurried by the reference.
“No,” he said; “though she writes me, I’m glad to say, that she is coming soon.”
“You don’t tell me!” said Adelaide. The cream of the winter season was usually the time Mrs. Baxter selected for her visit.
Her father did not notice her.
“If Mrs. Baxter should ever propose to me,” he went on thoughtfully, “I shouldn’t refuse. I don’t think I should have the–“
“The chance?” said his daughter.
“I was going to say the fortitude. But this,” he went on, “was an elderly cousin, who expressed a wish to come and be my housekeeper. Perhaps matrimony was not intended. Mathilde, my dear, how does one tell nowadays whether one is being proposed to or not?”
In this poignant and unexpected crisis Mathilde turned slowly and painfully crimson. How _did_ one tell? It was a question which at the moment was anything but clear to her.
“I should always assume it in doubtful cases, sir,” said Wayne, very distinctly. He and Mathilde did not even glance at each other.
“It wasn’t your proposal that you came to announce to us, though, was it, Papa?” said Adelaide.
“No,” answered Mr. Lanley. “The fact is, I’ve been arrested.”
“Yes; most unjustly, most unjustly.” His brows contracted, and then relaxed at a happy memory. “It’s the long, low build of the car. It looks so powerful that the police won’t give you a chance. It was nosing through the park–“
“At about thirty miles an hour,” said Farron.
“Well, not a bit over thirty-five. A lovely morning, no one in sight, I may have let her out a little. All of a sudden one of these mounted fellows jumped out from the bushes along the bridle-path. They’re a fine-looking lot, Vincent.”
Farron asked who the judge was, and, Mr. Lanley named him–named him slightly wrong, and Farron corrected him.
“I’ll get you off,” he said.
Adelaide looked up at her husband admiringly. This was the aspect of him that she loved best. It seemed to her like magic what Vincent could do. Her father, she thought, took it very calmly. What would have happened to him if she had not brought Farron into the family to rescue and protect? The visiting boy, she noticed, was properly impressed. She saw him give Farron quite a dog-like look as he took his departure. To Mathilde he only bowed. No arrangements had been made for a future meeting. Mathilde tried to convey to him in a prolonged look that if he would wait only five minutes all would be well, that her grandfather never paid long visits; but the door closed behind him. She became immediately overwhelmed by the fear, which had an element of desire in it, too, that her family would fall to discussing him, would question her as to how long she had known him, and why she liked him, and what they talked about, and whether she had been expecting a visit, sitting there in her best dress. Then slowly she took in the fact that they were going to talk about nothing but Mr. Lanley’s arrest. She marveled at the obtuseness of older people–to have stood at the red-hot center of youth and love and not even to know it! She drew her shoulders together, feeling very lonely and strong. As they talked, she allowed her eyes to rest first on one speaker and then on the other, as if she were following each word of the discussion. As a matter of fact she was rehearsing with an inner voice the tone of Wayne’s voice when he had said that he loved her.
Then suddenly she decided that she would be much happier alone in her own room. She rose, patted her grandfather on the shoulder, and prepared to escape. He, not wishing to be interrupted at the moment, patted her hand in return.
“Hello!” he exclaimed. “Hands are cold, my dear.”
She caught Farron’s cool, black eyes, and surprised herself by answering:
“Yes; but, then, they always are.” This was quite untrue, but every one was perfectly satisfied with it.
As she left the room Mr. Lanley was saying:
“Yes, I don’t want to go to Blackwell’s Island. Lovely spot, of course. My grandfather used to tell me he remembered it when the Blackwell family still lived there. But I shouldn’t care to wear stripes–except for the pleasure of telling Alberta about it. It would give her a year’s occupation, her suffering over my disgrace, wouldn’t it, Adelaide?”
“She’d scold me,” said Adelaide, looking beautifully martyred. Then turning to her husband, she asked. “Will it be very difficult, Vincent, getting papa off?” She wanted it to be difficult, she wanted him to give her material out of which she could form a picture of him as a savior; but he only shook his head and said:
“That young man is in love with Mathilde.”
“O Vin! Those children?”
Mr. Lanley pricked up his ears like a terrier.
“In love?” he exclaimed. “And who is he? Not one of the East Sussex Waynes, I hope. Vulgar people. They always were; began life as auctioneers in my father’s time. Is he one of those, Adelaide?”
“I have no idea who he is, if any one,” said Adelaide. “I never saw or heard of him before this afternoon.”
“And may I ask,” said her father, “if you intend to let your daughter become engaged to a young man of whom you know nothing whatsoever?”
Adelaide looked extremely languid, one of her methods of showing annoyance.
“Really, Papa,” she said, “the fact that he has come once to pay an afternoon visit to Mathilde does not, it seems to me, make an engagement inevitable. My child is not absolutely repellent, you know, and a good many young men come to the house.” Then suddenly remembering that her oracle had already spoken on this subject, she asked more humbly, “What was it made you say he was in love, Vin?”
“Just an impression,” said Farron.
Mr. Lanley had been thinking it over.
“It was not the custom in my day,” he began, and then remembering that this was one of his sister Alberta’s favorite openings, he changed the form of his sentence. “I never allowed you to see stray young men–“
His daughter interrupted him.
“But I always saw them, Papa. I used to let them come early in the afternoon before you came in.”
In his heart Mr. Lanley doubted that this had been a regular custom, but he knew it would be unwise to argue the point; so he started fresh.
“When a young man is attentive to a girl like Mathilde–“
“But he isn’t,” said Adelaide. “At least not what I should have called attentive when I was a girl.”
“Your experience was not long, my dear. You were married at Mathilde’s age.”
“You may be sure of one thing, Papa, that I don’t desire an early marriage for my daughter.”
“Very likely,” returned her father, getting up, and buttoning the last button of his coat; “but you may have noticed that we can’t always get just what we most desire for our children.”
When he had gone, Vincent looked at his wife and smiled, but smiled without approval. She twisted her shoulders.
“Oh, I suppose so,” she said; “but I do so hate to be scolded about the way I bring up Mathilde.”
“Or about anything else, my dear.”
“I don’t hate to be scolded by you,” she returned. “In fact, I sometimes get a sort of servile enjoyment from it. Besides,” she went on, “as a matter of fact, I bring Mathilde up particularly well, quite unlike these wild young women I see everywhere else. She tells me everything, and I have perfectly the power of making her hate any one I disapprove of. But you’ll try and find out something about this young man, won’t you, Vin?”
“We’ll have a full report on him to-morrow. Do you know what his first name is?”
“At the moment I don’t recall his last. Oh, yes–Wayne. I’ll ask Mathilde when we go up-stairs.”
From her own bedroom door she called up.
“Mathilde, what is the name of your young friend?”
There was a little pause before Mathilde answered that she was sorry, but she didn’t know.
Mrs. Farron turned to her husband and made a little gesture to indicate that this ignorance on the girl’s part did not bear out his theory; but she saw that he did not admit it, that he clung still to his impression. “And Vincent’s impressions–” she said to herself as she went in to dress.
Mr. Lanley was ruffled as he left his daughter’s drawing-room.
“As if I had wanted her to marry at eighteen,” he said to himself; and he took his hat crossly from Pringle and set it hard on his head at the slight angle which he preferred. Then reflecting that Pringle was not in any way involved, he unbent slightly, and said something that sounded like:
Pringle, despite his stalwart masculine appearance, had in speaking a surprisingly high, squeaky voice.
“I keep my health, thank you, sir,” he said. “Anna has been somewhat ailing.” Anna was his wife, to whom he usually referred as “Mrs. Pringle”; but he made an exception in speaking to Mr. Lanley, for she had once been the Lanleys’ kitchen-maid. “Your car, sir?”
No, Mr. Lanley was walking–walking, indeed, more quickly than usual under the stimulus of annoyance.
Nothing had ever happened that made him suffer as he had suffered through his daughter’s divorce. Divorce was one of the modern ideas which he had imagined he had accepted. As a lawyer he had expressed himself as willing always to take the lady’s side; but in the cases which he actually took he liked to believe that the wife was perfect and the husband inexcusable. He could not comfort himself with any such belief in his daughter’s case.
Adelaide’s conduct had been, as far as he could see, irreproachable; but, then, so had Severance’s. This was what had made the gossip, almost the scandal, of the thing. Even his sister Alberta had whispered to him that if Severance had been unfaithful to Adelaide–But poor Severance had not been unfaithful; he had not even become indifferent. He loved his wife, he said, as much as on the day he married her. He was extremely unhappy. Mr. Lanley grew to dread the visits of his huge, blond son-in-law, who used actually to sob in the library, and ask for explanations of something which Mr. Lanley had never been able to understand.
And how obstinate Adelaide had been! She, who had been such a docile girl, and then for many years so completely under the thumb of her splendid-looking husband, had suddenly become utterly intractable. She would listen to no reason and brook no delay. She had been willing enough to explain; she had explained repeatedly, but the trouble was he could not understand the explanation. She did not love her husband any more, she said. Mr. Lanley pointed out to her that this was no legal grounds for a divorce.
“Yes, but I look down upon him,” she went on.
“On poor Joe?” her father had asked innocently, and had then discovered that this was the wrong thing to say. She had burst out, “Poor Joe! poor Joe!” That was the way every one considered him. Was it her fault if he excited pity and contempt instead of love and respect? Her love, she intimated, had been of a peculiarly eternal sort; Severance himself was to blame for its extinction. Mr. Lanley discovered that in some way she considered the intemperance of Severance’s habits to be involved. But this was absurd. It was true that for a year or two Severance had taken to drinking rather more than was wise; but, Mr. Lanley had thought at the time, the poor young man had not needed any artificial stimulant in the days when Adelaide had fully and constantly admired him. He had seen Severance come home several times not exactly drunk, but rather more boyishly boastful and hilarious than usual. Even Mr. Lanley, a naturally temperate man, had not found Joe repellent in the circumstances. Afterward he had been thankful for this weakness: it gave him the only foundation on which he could build a case not for the courts, of course, but for the world. Unfortunately, however, Severance had pulled up before there was any question of divorce.
That was another confusing fact. Adelaide had managed him so beautifully. Her father had not known her wonderful powers until he saw the skill and patience with which she had dealt with Joe Severance’s drinking. Joe himself was eager to own that he owed his cure entirely to her. Mr. Lanley had been proud of her; she had turned out, he thought, just what a woman ought to be; and then, on top of it, she had come to him one day and announced that she would never live with Joe again.
“But why not?” he had asked.
“Because I don’t love him,” she had said.
Then Mr. Lanley knew how little his acceptance of the idea of divorce in general had reconciled him to the idea of the divorce of his own daughter–a Lanley–Mrs. Adelaide Lanley, Mrs. Adelaide Severance. His sense of fitness was shocked, though he pleaded with her first on the ground of duty, and then under the threat of scandal. With her beauty and Severance’s popularity, for from his college days he had been extremely popular with men, the divorce excited uncommon interest. Severance’s unconcealed grief, a rather large circle of devoted friends in whom he confided, and the fact that Adelaide had to go to Nevada to get her divorce, led most people to believe that she had simply found some one she liked better. Mr. Lanley would have believed it himself, but he couldn’t. Farron had not appeared until she had been divorced for several years.
Lanley still cherished an affection for Severance, who had very soon married again, a local belle in the Massachusetts manufacturing town where he now lived. She was said to resemble Adelaide.
No, Mr. Lanley could not see that he had had anything to reproach himself with in regard to his daughter’s first marriage. They had been young, of course; all the better. He had known the Severances for years; and Joe was handsome, hard working, had rowed on his crew, and every one spoke well of him. Certainly they had been in love–more in love than he liked to see two people, at least when one of them was his own daughter. He had suggested their waiting a year or two, but no one had backed him up. The Severances had been eager for the marriage, naturally. Mr. Lanley could still see the young couple as they turned from the altar, young, beautiful, and confident.
He had missed his daughter terribly, not only her physical presence in the house, but the exercise of his influence over her, which in old times had been perhaps a trifle autocratic. He had hated being told what Joe thought and said; yet he could hardly object to her docility. That was the way he had brought her up. He did not reckon pliancy in a woman as a weakness; or if he had had any temptation to do so, it had vanished in the period when Joe Severance had taken to drink. In that crisis Adelaide had been anything but weak. Every one had been so grateful to her,–he and Joe and the Severances,–and then immediately afterward the crash came.
Women! Mr. Lanley shook his head, still moving briskly northward with that quick jaunty walk of his. And this second marriage–what about that? They seemed happy. Farron was a fine fellow, but not, it seemed to him, so attractive to a woman as Severance. Could he hold a woman like Adelaide? He wasn’t a man to stand any nonsense, though, and Mr. Lanley nodded; then, as it were, withdrew the nod on remembering that poor Joe had not wanted to stand any nonsense either. What in similar circumstances could Farron do? Adelaide always resented his asking how things were going, but how could he help being anxious? How could any one rest content on a hillside who had once been blown up by a volcano?
He might not have been any more content if he had stayed to dinner at his son-in-law’s, as he had been asked to do. The Farrons were alone. Mathilde was going to a dinner, with a dance after. She came into the dining-room to say good night and to promise to be home early, not to stay and dance. She was not allowed two parties on successive nights, not because her health was anything but robust, but rather because her mother considered her too young for such vulgar excess.
When she had gone, Farron observed:
“That child has a will of iron.”
“Vincent!” said his wife. “She does everything I suggest to her.”
“Her will just now is to please you in everything. Wait until she rebels.”
“But women don’t rebel against the people they love. I don’t have to tell you that, do I? I never have to manoeuver the child, never have to coax or charm her to do what I want.”
He smiled at her across the table.
“You have great faith in those methods, haven’t you?”
“They work, Vin.”
He nodded as if no one knew that better than he.
Soon after dinner he went up-stairs to write some letters. She followed him about ten o’clock. She came and leaned one hand on his shoulder and one on his desk.
“Still working?” she said. She had been aware of no desire to see what he was writing, but she was instantly aware that his blotting-paper had fallen across the sheet, that the sheet was not a piece of note-paper, but one of a large pad on which he had been apparently making notes.
Her diamond bracelet had slipped down her wrist and lay upon the blotting-paper; he slowly and carefully pushed it up her slim, round arm until it once more clung in place.
“I’ve nearly finished,” he said; and to her ears there was some under sound of pain or of constraint in his tone.
A little later he strolled, still dressed, into her room. She was already in bed, and he came and sat on the foot of the bed, with one foot tucked under him and his arms folded.
Her mind during the interval had been exclusively occupied with the position of that piece of blotting-paper. Could it be there was some other woman whose ghost-like presence she was just beginning to feel haunting their relation? The impersonality of Vincent’s manner was an armor against such attacks, but this armor, as Adelaide knew, was more apparent than real. If one could get beyond that, one was at the very heart of the man. If some fortuitous circumstance had brought a sudden accidental intimacy between him and another woman–What woman loving strength and power could resist the sight of Vincent in action, Vincent as she saw him?
Yet with a good capacity for believing the worst of her fellow-creatures, Adelaide did not really believe in the other woman. That, she knew, would bring a change in the fundamentals of her relationship with her husband. This was only a barrier that left the relation itself untouched.
Before very long she began to think the situation was all in her own imagination. He was so amused, so eager to talk. Silent as he was apt to be with the rest of the world, with her he sometimes showed a love of gossip that enchanted her. And now it seemed to her that he was leading her on from subject to subject through a childish dislike to going to bed. They were actually giggling over Mr. Lanley’s adventure when a motor-brake squeaked in the silence of the night, a motor-door slammed. For the first time Adelaide remembered her daughter. It was after twelve o’clock. A knock came at her door. She wrapped her swan’s-down garment about her and went to the door.
“O Mama, have you been worried?” the girl asked. She was standing in the narrow corridor, with her arms full of shining favors; there could be no question whatever that she had stayed for the dance. “Are you angry? Have I been keeping you awake?”
“I thought you would have been home an hour ago.”
“I know. I want to tell you about it. Mama, how lovely you look in that blue thing! Won’t you come up-stairs with me while I undress?”
Adelaide shook her head.
“Not to-night,” she answered.
“You are angry with me,” the girl went on. “But if you will come, I will explain. I have something to tell you, Mama.”
Mrs. Farron’s heart stood still. The phrase could mean only one thing. She went up-stairs with her daughter, sent the maid away, and herself began to undo the soft, pink silk.
“It needs an extra hook,” she murmured. “I told her it did.”
Mathilde craned her neck over her shoulder, as if she had ever been able to see the middle of her back.
“But it doesn’t show, does it?” she asked.
“It perfectly well might.”
Mathilde stepped out of her dress, and flung it over a chair. In her short petticoat, with her ankles showing and her arms bare, she looked like a very young girl, and when she put up her hands and took the pins out of her hair, so that it fell over her shoulders, she might have been a child.
The silence began to grow awkward. Mathilde put on her dressing-gown; it was perfectly straight, and made her look like a little white column. A glass of milk and some biscuits were waiting for her. She pushed a chair near her fire for her mother, and herself remained standing, with her glass of milk in her hand.
“Mama,” she said suddenly, “I suppose I’m what you’d call engaged.”
“O Mathilde! not to that boy who was here to-day?”
“Why not to him?”
“I know nothing about him.”
“I don’t know very much myself. Yes, it’s Pete Wayne. Pierson his name is, but every one calls him Pete. How strange it was that I did not even know his first name when you asked me!”
A single ray pierced Mrs. Farron’s depression: Vincent had known, Vincent’s infallibility was confirmed. She did not know what to say. She sat looking sadly, obliquely at the floor like a person who has been aggrieved. She was wondering whether she should be to her daughter a comrade or a ruler, a confederate or a policeman. Of course in all probability the thing would be better stopped. But could this be accomplished by immediate action, or could she invite confidences and yet commit herself to nothing?
She raised her eyes.
“I do not approve of youthful marriages,” she said.
“O Mama! And you were only eighteen yourself.”
“That is why.”
Mathilde was frightened not only by the intense bitterness of her mother’s tone, but also by the obvious fact that she was face to face with the explanation of the separation of her parents. She had been only nine years old at the time. She had loved her father, had found him a better playfellow than her mother, had wept bitterly at parting with him, and had missed him. And then gradually her mother, who had before seemed like a beautiful, but remote, princess, had begun to make of her an intimate and grown-up friend, to consult her and read with her and arrange happinesses in her life, to win, to, if the truth must be told, reconquer her. Perhaps even Adelaide would not have succeeded so easily in effacing Severance’s image had not he himself so quickly remarried. Mathilde went several times to stay with the new household after Adelaide in secret, tearful conference with her father had been forced to consent.
To Mathilde these visits had been an unacknowledged torture. She never knew quite what to mention and what to leave untouched. There was always a constraint between the three of them. Her father, when alone with her, would question her, with strange, eager pauses, as to how her mother looked. Her mother’s successor, whom she could not really like, would question her more searchingly, more embarrassingly, with an ill-concealed note of jealousy in every word. Even at twelve years Mathilde was shocked by the strain of hatred in her father’s new wife, who seemed to reproach her for fashion and fineness and fastidiousness, qualities of which the girl was utterly unaware. She could have loved her little half-brother when he appeared upon the scene, but Mrs. Severance did not encourage the bond, and gradually Mathilde’s visits to her father ceased.
As a child she had been curious about the reasons for the parting, but as she grew older it had seemed mere loyalty to accept the fact without asking why; she had perhaps not wanted to know why. But now, she saw, she was to hear.
“Mathilde, do you still love your father?”
“I think I do, Mama. I feel very sorry for him.”
“I don’t know why. I dare say he is happy.”
“I dare say he is, poor Joe.” Adelaide paused. “Well, my dear, that was the reason of our parting. One can pity a son or a brother, but not a husband. Weakness kills love. A woman cannot be the leader, the guide, and keep any romance. O Mathilde, I never want you to feel the humiliation of finding yourself stronger than the man you love. That is why I left your father, and my justification is his present happiness. This inferior little person he has married, she does as well. Any one would have done as well.”
Mathilde was puzzled by her mother’s evident conviction that the explanation was complete. She asked after a moment:
“But what was it that made you think at first that you did love him, Mama?”
“Just what makes you think you love this boy–youth, flattery, desire to love. He was magnificently handsome, your father. I saw him admired by other men, apparently a master; I was too young to judge, my dear. You shan’t be allowed to make that mistake; you shall have time to consider.”
“I don’t want time,” she said.
“I did not know I did.”
“I don’t think I feel about love as you do,” said the girl, slowly.
“Every woman does.”
Mathilde shook her head.
“It’s just Pete as he is that I love. I don’t care which of us leads.”
“But you will.”
The girl had not yet reached a point where she could describe the very essence of her passion; she had to let this go. After a moment she said:
“I see now why you chose Mr. Farron.”
“You mean you have never seen before?”
“Not so clearly.”
Mrs. Farron bit her lips. To have missed understanding this seemed a sufficient proof of immaturity. She rose.
“Well, my darling,” she said in a tone of extreme reasonableness, “we shall decide nothing to-night. I know nothing against Mr. Wayne. He may be just the right person. We must see more of him. Do you know anything about his family?”
Mathilde shook her head. “He lives alone with his mother. His father is dead. She’s very good and interested in drunkards.”
“In _drunkards_?” Mrs. Farron just shut her eyes a second.
“She has a mission that reforms them.”
“Is that his profession, too?”
“Oh, no. He’s in Wall Street–quite a good firm. O Mama, don’t sigh like that! We know we can’t be married at once. We are reasonable. You think not, because this has all happened so suddenly; but great things do happen suddenly. We love each other. That’s all I wanted to tell you.”
“Love!” Adelaide looked at the little person before her, tried to recall the fading image of the young man, and then thought of the dominating figure in her own life. “My dear, you have no idea what love is.”
She took no notice of the queer, steady look the girl gave her in return. She went down-stairs. She had been gone more than an hour, and she knew that Vincent would have been long since asleep. He had, and prided himself on having, a great capacity for sleep. She tiptoed past his door, stole into her own room, and then, glancing in the direction of his, was startled to see that a light was burning. She went in; he was reading, and once again, as his eyes turned toward her, she thought she saw the same tragic appeal that she had felt that afternoon in his kiss. Trembling, she threw herself down beside him, clasping him to her.
“O Vincent! oh, my dear!” she whispered, and began to cry. He did not ask her why she was crying; she wished that he would; his silence admitted that he knew of some adequate reason.
“I feel that there is something wrong,” she sobbed, “something terribly wrong.”
“Nothing could go wrong between you and me, my darling,” he answered. His tone comforted, his touch was a comfort. Perhaps she was a coward, she said to herself, but she questioned him no further.
Wayne was not so prompt as Mathilde in making the announcement of their engagement. He and his mother breakfasted together rather hastily, for she was going to court that morning to testify in favor of one of her backsliding inebriates, and Wayne had not found the moment to introduce his own affairs.
That afternoon he came home earlier than usual; it was not five o’clock. He passed Dr. Parret’s flat on the first floor–Dr. Lily MacComb Parret. She was a great friend of his, and he felt a decided temptation to go in and tell her the news first; but reflecting that no one ought to hear it before his mother, he went on up-stairs. He lived on the fifth floor.
He opened the door of the flat and went into the sitting-room. It was empty. He lighted the gas, which flared up, squeaking like a bagpipe. The room was square and crowded. Shelves ran all the way round it, tightly filled with books. In the center was a large writing-table, littered with papers, and on each side of the fireplace stood two worn, but comfortable, arm-chairs, each with a reading-lamp at its side. There was nothing beautiful in the furniture, and yet the room had its own charm. The house was a corner house and had once been a single dwelling. The shape of the room, its woodwork, its doors, its flat, white marble mantelpiece, belonged to an era of simple taste and good workmanship; but the greatest charm of the room was the view from the windows, of which it had four, two that looked east and two south, and gave a glimpse of the East River and its bridges.
Wayne was not sorry his mother was out. He had begun to dread the announcement he had to make. At first he had thought only of her keen interest in his affairs, but later he had come to consider what this particular piece of news would mean to her. Say what you will, he thought, to tell your mother of your engagement is a little like casting off an old love.
Ever since he could remember, he and his mother had lived in the happiest comradeship. His father, a promising young doctor, had died within a few years of his marriage. Pete had been brought up by his mother, but he had very little remembrance of any process of molding. It seemed to him as if they had lived in a sort of partnership since he had been able to walk and talk. It had been as natural for him to spend his hours after school in stamping and sealing her large correspondence as it had been for her to pinch and arrange for years so as to send him to the university from which his father had been graduated. She would have been glad, he knew, if he had decided to follow his father in the study of medicine, but he recoiled from so long a period of dependence; he liked to think that he brought to his financial reports something of a scientific inheritance.
She had, he thought, every virtue that a mother could have, and she combined them with a gaiety of spirit that made her take her virtues as if they were the most delightful amusements. It was of this gaiety that he had first thought until Mathilde had pointed out to him that there was tragedy in the situation. “What will your mother do without you?” the girl kept saying. There was indeed nothing in his mother’s life that could fill the vacancy he would leave. She had few intimate relationships. For all her devotion to her drunkards, he was the only personal happiness in her life.
He went into the kitchen in search of her. This was evidently one of their servant’s uncounted hours. While he was making himself some tea he heard his mother’s key in the door. He called to her, and she appeared.
“Why my hat, Mother dear?” he asked gently as he kissed her.
Mrs. Wayne smiled absently, and put up her hand to the soft felt hat she was wearing.
“I just went out to post some letters,” she said, as if this were a complete explanation; then she removed a mackintosh that she happened to have on, though the day was fine. She was then seen to be wearing a dark skirt and a neat plain shirt that was open at the throat. Though no longer young, she somehow suggested a boy–a boy rather overtrained; she was far more boyish than Wayne. She had a certain queer beauty, too; not beauty of Adelaide’s type, of structure and coloring and elegance, but beauty of expression. Life itself had written some fine lines of humor and resolve upon her face, and her blue-gray eyes seemed actually to flare with hope and intention. Her hair was of that light-brown shade in which plentiful gray made little change of shade; it was wound in a knot at the back of her head and gave her trouble. She was always pushing it up and repinning it into place, as if it were too heavy for her small head.
“I wonder if there’s anything to eat in the house,” her son said.
“I wonder.” They moved together toward the ice-box.
“Mother,” said Pete, “that piece of pie has been in the ice-box at least three days. Let’s throw it away.”
She took the saucer thoughtfully.
“I like it so much,” she said.
“Then why don’t you eat it?”
“It’s not good for me.” She let Wayne take the saucer. “What do you know?” she asked.
She had adopted slang as she adopted most labor-saving devices.
“Well, I do know something new,” said Wayne. He sat down on the kitchen table and poured out his tea. “New as the garden of Eden. I’m in love.”
“O Pete!” his mother cried, and the purest, most conventional maternal agony was in the tone. For an instant, crushed and terrified, she looked at him; and then something gay and impish appeared in her eyes, and she asked with a grin:
“Is it some one perfectly awful?”
“I’m afraid you’ll think so. She’s a sheltered, young, luxurious child, with birth, breeding, and money, everything you hate most.”
“O Pete!” she said again, but this time with a sort of sad resignation. Then shaking her head as if to say that she wasn’t, after all, as narrow as he thought, she hitched her chair nearer the table and said eagerly, “Well, tell me all about it.”
Wayne looked down at his mother as she sat opposite him, with her elbows on the table, as keen as a child and as lively as a cricket. He asked himself if he had not drifted into a needlessly sentimental state of mind about her. He even asked himself, as he had done once or twice before in his life, whether her love for him implied the slightest dependence upon his society. Wasn’t it perfectly possible that his going would free her life, would make it easier instead of harder? Every man, he knew, felt the element of freedom beneath the despair of breaking even the tenderest of ties. Some women, he supposed, might feel the same way about their love-affairs. But could they feel the same about their maternal relations? Could it be that his mother, that pure, heroic, self-sacrificing soul, was now thinking more about her liberty than her loss? Had not their relation always been peculiarly free? he found himself thinking reproachfully. Once, he remembered, when he had been working unusually hard he had welcomed her absence at one of her conferences on inebriety. Never before had he imagined that she could feel anything but regret at his absences. “Everybody is just alike,” he found himself rather bitterly thinking.
“What do you want to know about it?” he said aloud.
“Why, everything,” she returned.
“I met her,” he said, “two evenings ago at a dance. I never expected to fall in love at a dance.”
“Isn’t it funny? No one ever really expects to fall in love at all, and everybody does.”
He glanced at her. He had been prepared to explain to her about love; and now it occurred to him for the first time that she knew all about it. He decided to ask her the great question which had been occupying his mind as a lover of a scientific habit of thought.
“Mother,” he said, “how much dependence is to be placed on love–one’s own, I mean?”
“Goodness, Pete! What a question to ask!”
“Well, you might take a chance and tell me what you think. I have no doubts. My whole nature goes out to this girl; but I can’t help knowing that if we go on feeling like this till we die, we shall be the exception. Love’s a miracle. How much can one trust to it?”
The moment he had spoken he knew that he was asking a great deal. It was torture to his mother to express an opinion on an abstract question. She did not lack decision of conduct. She could resolve in an instant to send a drunkard to an institution or take a trip round the world; but on a matter of philosophy of life it was as difficult to get her to commit herself as if she had been upon the witness-stand. Yet it was just in this realm that he particularly valued her opinion.
“Oh,” she said at last, “I don’t believe that it’s possible to play safe in love. It’s a risk, but it’s one of those risks you haven’t much choice about taking. Life and death are like that, too. I don’t think it pays to be always thinking about avoiding risks. Nothing, you know,” she added, as if she were letting him in to rather a horrid little secret, “is really safe.” And evidently glad to change the subject, she went on, “What will her family say?”
“I can’t think they will be pleased.”
“I suppose not. Who are they?”
Wayne explained the family connections, but woke no associations in his mother’s mind until he mentioned the name of Farron. Then he was astonished at the violence of her interest. She sprang to her feet; her eyes lighted up.
“Why,” she cried, “that’s the man, that’s the company, that Marty Burke works for! O Pete, don’t you think you could get Mr. Farron to use his influence over Marty about Anita?”
“Dear mother, do you think you can get him to use his influence over Mrs. Farron for me?”
Marty Burke was the leader of the district and was reckoned a bad man. He and Mrs. Wayne had been waging a bitter war for some time over a young inebriate who had seduced a girl of the neighborhood. Mrs. Wayne was sternly trying to prosecute the inebriate; Burke was determined to protect him, first, by smirching the girl’s name, and, next, by getting the girl’s family to consent to a marriage, a solution that Mrs. Wayne considered most undesirable in view of the character of the prospective husband.
Pete felt her interest sweep away from his affairs, and it had not returned when the telephone rang. He came back from answering it to tell his mother that Mr. Lanley, the grandfather of his love, was asking if she would see him for a few minutes that afternoon or evening. A visit was arranged for nine o’clock.
“What’s he like?” asked Mrs. Wayne, wrinkling her nose and looking very impish.
“He seemed like a nice old boy; hasn’t had a new idea, I should say, since 1880. And, Mother dear, you’re going to dress, aren’t you?”
She resented the implication.
“I shall be wonderful,” she answered with emphasis. “And while he’s here, I think you might go down and tell this news to Lily, yourself. Oh, I don’t say she’s in love with you–“
“Lily,” said Pete, “is leading far too exciting a life to be in love with any one.”
Punctually at nine, Mr. Lanley rang the bell of the flat. He had paused a few minutes before doing so, not wishing to weaken the effect of his mission by arriving out of breath. Adelaide had come to see him just before lunch. She pretended to minimize the importance of her news, but he knew she did so to evade reproach for the culpable irresponsibility of her attitude toward the young man’s first visit.
“And do you know anything more about him than you did yesterday?” he asked.
She did. It appeared that Vincent had telephoned her from down town just before she came out.
“Tiresome young man,” she said, twisting her shoulders. “It seems there’s nothing against him. His father was a doctor, his mother comes of decent people and is a respected reformer, the young man works for an ambitious new firm of brokers, who speak highly of him and give him a salary of $5000 a year.”
“The whole thing must be put a stop to,” said Mr. Lanley.
“Of course, of course,” said his daughter. “But how? I can’t forbid him the house because he’s just an average young man.”
“I don’t see why not, or at least on the ground that he’s not the husband you would choose for her.”
“I think the best way will be to let him come to the house,”–she spoke with a sort of imperishable sweetness,–“but to turn Mathilde gradually against him.”
“But how can you turn her against him?”
Adelaide looked very wistful.
“You don’t trust me,” she moaned.
“I only ask you how it can be done.”
“Oh, there are ways. I made her perfectly hate one of them because he always said, ‘if you know what I mean.’ ‘It’s a very fine day, Mrs. Farron, if you know what I mean.’ This young man must have some horrid trick like that, only I haven’t studied him yet. Give me time.”
Adelaide shook her head.
“Not really,” she said. “These young fancies go as quickly as they come. Do you remember the time you took me to West Point? I had a passion for the adjutant. I forgot him in a week.”
“You were only fifteen.”
“Mathilde is immature for her age.”
It was agreed between them, however, that Mr. Lanley, without authority, should go and look the situation over. He had been trying to get the Waynes’ telephone since one o’clock. He had been told at intervals of fifteen minutes by a resolutely cheerful central that their number did not answer. Mr. Lanley hated people who did not answer their telephone. Nor was he agreeably impressed by the four flights of stairs, or by the appearance of the servant who answered his ring.
“Won’t do, won’t do,” he kept repeating in his own mind.
He was shown into the sitting-room. It was in shadow, for only a shaded reading-lamp was lighted, and his first impression was of four windows; they appeared like four square panels of dark blue, patterned with stars. Then a figure rose to meet him–a figure in blue draperies, with heavy braids wound around the head, and a low, resonant voice said, “I am Mrs. Wayne.”
As soon as he could he walked to the windows and looked out to the river and the long, lighted curves of the bridges, and beyond to Long Island, to just the ground where the Battle of Long Island had been fought–a battle in which an ancestor of his had particularly distinguished himself. He said something polite about the view.
“Let us sit here where we can look out,” she said, and sank down on a low sofa drawn under the windows. As she did so she came within the circle of light from the lamp. She sat with her head leaned back against the window-frame, and he saw the fine line of her jaw, the hollows in her cheek, the delicate modeling about her brows, not obscured by much eyebrow, and her long, stretched throat. She was not quite maternal enough to look like a Madonna, but she did look like a saint, he thought.
He knelt with one knee on the couch and peered out.
“Dear me,” he said, “I fancy I used to skate as a boy on a pond just about where that factory is now.”
He found she knew very little about the history of New York. She had been brought up abroad, she said; her father had been a consul in France. It was a subject which he liked to expound. He loved his native city, which he with his own eyes had seen once as hardly more than a village. He and his ancestors–and Mr. Lanley’s sense of identification with his ancestors was almost Chinese–had watched and had a little shaped the growth.
“I suppose you had Dutch ancestry, then,” she said, trying to take an interest.
“Dutch.” Mr. Lanley shut his eyes, resolving, since he had no idea what her own descent might be, that he would not explain to her the superior attitude of the English settlers of the eighteenth century toward their Dutch predecessors. However, perhaps he did not entirely conceal his feeling, for he said: “No, I have no Dutch blood–not a drop. Very good people in their way, industrious–peasants.” He hurried on to the great fire of 1835. “Swept between Wall Street and Coenties Slip,” he said, with a splendid gesture, and then discovered that she had, never heard of “Quenches Slip,” or worse, she had pronounced it as it was spelled. He gently set her right there. His father had often told him that he had seen with his own eyes a note of hand which had been blown, during the course of the conflagration, as far as Flatbush. And the second fire of 1845. His father had been a man then, married, a prominent citizen, old enough, as Mr. Lanley said, with a faint smile, to have lost heavily. He could himself remember the New York of the Civil War, the bitter family quarrels, the forced resignations from clubs, the duels, the draft riots.
But, oddly enough, when it came to contemporary New York, it was Mrs. Wayne who turned out to be most at home. Had he ever walked across the Blackwell’s Island Bridge? (This was in the days before it bore the elevated trains.) No, he had driven. Ah, she said, that was wholly different. Above, where one walked, there was nothing to shut out the view of the river. Just to show that he was not a feeble old antiquarian, he suggested their taking a walk there at once. She held out her trailing garments and thin, blue slippers. And then she went on:
“There’s another beautiful place I don’t believe you know, for all you’re such an old New-Yorker–a pier at the foot of East Eighty-something Street, where you can almost touch great seagoing vessels as they pass.”
“Well, there at least we can go,” said Mr. Lanley, and he stood up. “I have a car here, but it’s open. Is it too cold? Have you a fur coat? I’ll send back to the house for an extra one.” He paused, brisk as he was; the thought of those four flights a second time dismayed him.
The servant had gone out, and Pete was still absent, presumably breaking the news of his engagement to Dr. Parret.
Mrs. Wayne had an idea. She went to a window on the south side of the room, opened it, and looked out. If he had good lungs, she told him, he could make his man hear.
Mr. Lanley did not visibly recoil. He leaned out and shouted. The chauffeur looked up, made a motion to jump out, fearing that his employer was being murdered in these unfamiliar surroundings; then he caught the order to go home for an extra coat.
Lanley drew his shoulder back into the room and shut the window; as he did so he saw a trace of something impish in the smile of his hostess.
“Why do you smile?” he asked quickly.
She did not make the mistake of trying to arrest her smile; she let it broaden.
“I don’t suppose you have ever done such a thing before.”
“Now, that does annoy me.”
“Calling down five stories?”
“No; your thinking I minded.”
“Well, I did think so.”
“You were mistaken, utterly mistaken.”
“I’m glad. If you mind doing such things, you give so much time to arranging not to do them.”
Mr. Lanley was silent. He was deciding that he should rearrange some of the details of his life. Not that he contemplated giving all his orders from the fifth story, but he saw he had always devoted too much attention to preventing unimportant catastrophes.
Under her direction he was presently driving north; then he turned sharply east down a little hill, and came out on a low, flat pier. He put out the motor’s lights. They were only a few feet above the water, which was as black as liquid jet, with flat silver and gold patches on it from white and yellow lights. Opposite to them the lighthouse at the north end of Blackwell’s Island glowed like a hot coal. Then a great steamer obscured it.
“Isn’t this nice?” Mrs. Wayne asked, and he saw that she wanted her discovery praised. He never lost the impression that she enjoyed being praised.
Such a spot, within sight of half a dozen historic sites, was a temptation to Mr. Lanley, and he would have unresistingly yielded to it if Mrs. Wayne had not said:
“But we haven’t said a word yet about our children.”
“True,” answered Mr. Lanley. His heart sank. It is not easy, he thought, to explain to a person for whom you have just conceived a liking that her son had aspired above his station. He tapped his long, middle finger on the steering-wheel, just as at directors’ meetings he tapped the table before he spoke, and began, “In a society somewhat artificially formed as ours is, Mrs. Wayne, it has always been my experience that–” Do what he would, it kept turning into a speech, and the essence of the speech was that while democracy did very well for men, a strictly aristocratic system was the only thing possible for girls–one’s own girls, of course. In the dim light he could see that she had pushed all her hair back from her brows. She was trying to follow him exactly, so exactly that she confused him a little. He became more general. “In many ways,” he concluded, “the advantages of character and experience are with the lower classes.” He had not meant to use the word, but when it slipped out, he did not regret it.
“In all ways,” she answered.
He was not sure he had heard.
“All the advantages?” he said.
“All the advantages of character.”
He had to ask her to explain. One reason, perhaps, why Mrs. Wayne habitually avoided a direct question was that, when once started, her candor had no bounds. Now she began to speak. She spoke more eagerly and more fluently than he, and it took him several minutes to see that quite unconsciously she was making him a strange, distorted complement to his speech, that in her mouth such words as “the leisure classes, your sheltered girls,” were terms of the deepest reproach. He must understand, she said, that as she did not know Miss Severance, there was nothing personal, nothing at all personal, in her feeling,–she was as careful not to hurt his feelings as he had tried to be not to hurt hers,–but she did own to a prejudice–at least Pete told her it was a prejudice–
Against what, in Heaven’s name, Lanley at first wondered; and then it came to him.
“Oh, you have a prejudice against divorce?” he said.
Mrs. Wayne looked at him reproachfully.
“Oh, no,” she answered. “How could you think that? But what has divorce to do with it? Your granddaughter hasn’t been divorced.”
A sound of disgust at the mere suggestion escaped him, and he said coldly:
“My daughter divorced her first husband.”
“Oh, I did not know.”
“Against what, then, is this unconquerable prejudice of yours?”
“Against the daughters of the leisure class.”
He was still quite at sea.
“You dislike them?”
“I fear them.”
If she had said that she considered roses a menace, he could not have been more puzzled. He repeated her words aloud, as if he hoped that they might have some meaning for him if he heard his own lips pronouncing them:
“You fear them.”
“Yes,” she went on, now interested only in expressing her belief, “I fear their ignorance and idleness and irresponsibility and self-indulgence, and, all the more because it is so delicate and attractive and unconscious; and their belief that the world owes them luxury and happiness without their lifting a finger. I fear their cowardice and lack of character–“
“Cowardice!” he cried, catching at the first word he could. “My dear Mrs. Wayne, the aristocrats in the French Revolution, the British officer–“
“Oh, yes, they know how to die,” she answered; “but do they know how to live when the horrible, sordid little strain of every-day life begins to make demands upon them, their futile education, the moral feebleness that comes with perfect safety! I know something can be made of such girls, but I don’t want my son sacrificed in the process.”
There was a long, dark silence; then Mr. Lanley said with a particularly careful and exact enunciation:
“I think, my dear madam, that you cannot have known very many of the young women you are describing. It may be that there are some like that–daughters of our mushroom finance; but I can assure you that the children of ladies and gentlemen are not at all as you seem to imagine.”
It was characteristic of Mrs. Wayne that, still absorbed by her own convictions, she did not notice the insult of hearing ladies and gentlemen described to her as if they were beings wholly alien to her experience; but the tone of his speech startled her, and she woke, like a person coming out of a trance, to all the harm she had done.
“I may be old-fashioned–” he began and then threw the phrase from him; it was thus that Alberta, his sister, began her most offensive pronouncements. “It has always appeared to me that we shelter our more favored women as we shelter our planted trees, so that they may attain a stronger maturity.”
“But do they, are they–are sheltered women the strongest in a crisis?”
Fiend in human shape, he thought, she was making him question his bringing up of Adelaide. He would not bear that. His foot stole out to the self-starter.
For the few minutes that remained of the interview she tried to undo her work, but the injury was too deep. His life was too near its end for criticism to be anything but destructive; having no time to collect new treasure, he simply could not listen to her suggestion that those he most valued were imitation. He hated her for holding such opinion. Her soft tones, her eager concessions, her flattering sentences, could now make no impression upon a man whom half an hour before they would have completely won.
He bade her a cold good night, hardly more than bent his head, the chauffeur took the heavy coat from her, and the car had wheeled away before she was well inside her own doorway.
Pete’s brown head was visible over the banisters.
“Hello, Mother!” he said. “Did the old boy kidnap you?”
Mrs. Wayne came up slowly, stumbling over her long, blue draperies in her weariness and depression.
“Oh, Pete, my darling,” she said, “I think I’ve spoiled everything.”
His heart stood still. He knew better than most people that his mother could either make or mar.
“They won’t hear of it?”
She nodded distractedly.
“I do make such a mess of things sometimes!”
He put his arm about her.
“So you do, Mother,” he said; “but then think how magnificently you sometimes pull them out again.”
Mr. Lanley had not reported the result of his interview immediately. He told himself that it was too late; but it was only a quarter before eleven when he was back safe in his own library, feeling somehow not so safe as usual. He felt attacked, insulted; and yet he also felt vivified and encouraged. He felt as he might have felt if some one, unbidden, had cut a vista on the Lanley estates, first outraged in his sense of property, but afterward delighted with the widened view and the fresher breeze. It was awkward, though, that he didn’t want Adelaide to go into details as to his visit; he did not think that the expedition to the pier could be given the judicial, grandfatherly tone that he wanted to give. So he did not communicate at all with his daughter that night.
The next morning about nine, however, when she was sitting up in bed, with her tray on her knees, and on her feet a white satin coverlet sown as thickly with bright little flowers as the Milky Way with stars, her last words to Vincent, who was standing by the fire, with his newspaper folded in his hands, ready to go down-town, were interrupted, as they nearly always were, by the burr of the telephone.
She took it up from the table by her bed, and as she did so she fixed her eyes on her husband and looked steadily at him all the time that central was making the connection; she was trying to answer that unsolved problem as to whether or not a mist hung between them. Then she got her connection.
“Yes, Papa; it is Adelaide.” “Yes?” “Did she appear like a lady?” “A lady?” “You don’t know what I mean by that? Why, Papa!” “Well, did she appear respectable?” “How cross you are to me!” “I’m glad to hear it. You did not sound cheerful.”
She hung up the receiver and turned to Vincent, making eyes of surprise.
“Really, papa is too strange. Why should he be cross to me because he has had an unsatisfactory interview with the Wayne boy’s mother? I never wanted him to go, anyhow, Vin. I wanted to send _you_.”
“It would probably be better for you to go yourself.”
He left the room as if he had said nothing remarkable. But it was remarkable, in Adelaide’s experience, that he should avoid any responsibility, and even more so that he should shift it to her shoulders. For an instant she faced the possibility, the most terrible of any that had occurred to her, that the balance was changing between them; that she, so willing to be led, was to be forced to guide. She had seen it happen so often between married couples–the weight of character begin on one side of the scale, and then slowly the beam would shift. Once it had happened to her. Was it to happen again? No, she told herself; never with Farron. He would command or die, lead her or leave her.
Mathilde knocked at her door, as she did every morning as soon as her stepfather had gone down town. She had had an earlier account of Mr. Lanley’s interview. It had read:
“The great discussion did not go very well, apparently. The opinion prevails at the moment that no engagement can be allowed to exist between us. I feel as if they were all meeting to discuss whether or not the sun is to rise to-morrow morning. You and I, my love, have special information that it will.”
After this it needed no courage to go down and hear her mother’s account of the interview. Adelaide was still in bed, but one long, pointed fingertip, pressed continuously upon the dangling bell, a summons that had long since lost its poignancy for the temperamental Lucie, indicated that she was about to get up.
“My dear,” she said in answer to Mathilde’s question, “your grandfather’s principal interest seems to be to tell me nothing at all, and he has been wonderfully successful. I can get nothing from him, so I’m going myself.”
The girl’s heart sank at hearing this. Her mother saw things clearly and definitely, and had a talent for expressing her impressions in unforgetable words. Mathilde could still remember with a pang certain books, poems, pictures, and even people whose charms her mother had destroyed in one poisonous phrase. Adelaide was too careful of her personal dignity to indulge in mimicry, but she had a way of catching and repeating the exact phrasing of some foolish sentence that was almost better–or worse–than mimicry. Mathilde remembered a governess, a kind and patient person of whom Adelaide had greatly wearied, who had a habit of beginning many observations, “It may strike you as strange, but I am the sort of person who–” Mathilde was present at luncheon one day when Adelaide was repeating one of these sentences. “It may strike you as strange, but I like to feel myself in good health.” Mathilde resented the laughter that followed, and sprang to her governess’s defense, yet sickeningly soon she came to see the innocent egotism that directed the choice of the phrase.