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

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.”

“It’s risky.”

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.”