Read CHAPTER I of The Happiest Time of Their Lives, free online book, by Alice Duer Miller, on

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.”

“What’s that?”

“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.”

He laughed.

“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, 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.

“Don’t stop.”

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: 

“Mr. Lanley.”

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.