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

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: 

Dearest girl

“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.

She felt as if she could not bear this process to be turned against Pete’s mother, not because it would alter the respectful love she was prepared to offer this unknown figure, but because it might very slightly alter her attitude toward her own mother.  That was one of the characteristics of this great emotion:  all her old beliefs had to be revised to accord with new discoveries.

This was what lay behind the shrinking of her soul as she watched her mother dress for the visit to Mrs. Wayne.  For the first time in her life Mathilde wished that her mother was not so elaborate.  Hitherto she had always gloried in Adelaide’s elegance as a part of her beauty; but now, as she watched the ritual of ribbons and laces and perfumes and jewels, she felt vaguely that there was in it all a covert insult to Pete’s mother, who, she knew, would not be a bit like that.

“How young you are, Mama!” she exclaimed as, the whole long process complete, Adelaide stood holding out her hand for her gloves, like a little girl ready for a party.

Her mother smiled.

“It’s well I am,” she said, “if you go on trying to get yourself involved with young men who live up four flights of stairs.  I have always avoided even dressmakers who lived above the second story,” she added wistfully.

The wistful tone was repeated when her car stopped at the Wayne door and she stepped out.

“Are you sure this is the number, Andrews?” she asked.  She and the chauffeur looked slowly up at the house and up and down the street.  They were at one in their feeling about it.  Then Adelaide gave a very gentle little sigh and started the ascent.

The flat did not look as well by day.  Though the eastern sun poured in cheerfully, it revealed worn places on the backs of the arm-chairs and one fearful calamity with an ink-bottle that Pete had once had on the rug.  Even Mrs. Wayne, who sprang up from behind her writing-table, had not the saint-like mystery that her blue draperies had given her the evening before.

Though slim, and in excellent condition for thirty-nine, Adelaide could not conceal that four flights were an exertion.  Her fine nostrils were dilated and her breath not perfectly under control as she said: 

“How delightful this is!” a statement that was no more untrue than to say good-morning on a rainy day.

Most women in Mrs. Wayne’s situation would at the moment have been acutely aware of the ink-spot.  That was one of Adelaide’s assets, on which she perhaps unconsciously counted, that her mere appearance made nine people out of ten aware of their own physical imperfections.  But Mrs. Wayne was aware of nothing but Adelaide’s great beauty as she sank into one of the armchairs with hardly a hint of exhaustion.

“Your son is a very charming person, Mrs. Wayne,” she said.

Mrs. Wayne was standing by the mantelpiece, looking boyish and friendly; but now she suddenly grew grave, as if something serious had been said.

“Pete has something more unusual than charm,” she said.

“But what could be more unusual?” cried Adelaide, who wanted to add, “The only question is, does your wretched son possess it?” But she didn’t; she asked instead, with a tone of disarming sweetness, “Shall we be perfectly candid with each other?”

A quick gleam came into Mrs. Wayne’s eyes.  “Not much,” she seemed to say.  She had learned to distrust nothing so much as her own candor, and her interview with Mr. Lanley had put her specially on her guard.

“I hope you will be candid, Mrs. Farron,” she said aloud, and for her this was the depth of dissimulation.

“Well, then,” said Adelaide, “you and I are in about the same position, aren’t we?  We are both willing that our children should marry, and we have no objection to offer to their choice except our own ignorance.  We both want time to judge.  But how can we get time, Mrs. Wayne?  If we do not take definite action against an engagement, we are giving our consent to it.  I want a little reasonable delay, but we can get delay only by refusing to hear of an engagement.  Do you see what I mean?  Will you help me by pretending to be a very stern parent, just so that these young people may have a few months to think it over without being too definitely committed?”

Mrs. Wayne shrank back.  She liked neither diplomacy nor coercion.

“But I have really no control over Pete,” she said.

“Surely, if he isn’t in a position to support a wife-”

“He is, if she would live as he does.”

Such an idea had never crossed Mrs. Farron’s mind.  She looked round her wonderingly, and said without a trace of wilful insolence in her tone: 

“Live here, you mean?”

“Yes, or somewhere like it.”

Mrs. Farron looked down, and smoothed the delicate dark fur of her muff.  She hardly knew how to begin at the very beginning like this.  She did not want to hurt any one’s feelings.  How could she tell this childlike, optimistic creature that to put Mathilde to living in surroundings like these would be like exposing a naked baby on a mountaintop?  It wasn’t love of luxury, at least not if luxury meant physical self-indulgence.  She could imagine suffering privations very happily in a Venetian palace or on a tropical island.  It was an esthetic, not a moral, problem; it was a question of that profound and essential thing in the life of any woman who was a woman-her charm.  She wished to tell Mrs. Wayne that her son wouldn’t really like it, that he would hate to see Mathilde going out in overshoes; that the background that she, Adelaide, had so expertly provided for her child was part of the very attraction that made him want to take her out of it.  There was no use in saying that most poor mortals were forced to get on without this magic atmosphere.  They had never been goddesses; they did not know what they were going without.  But her child, who had been, as it were, born a fairy, would miss tragically the delicate beauty of her every-day life, would fade under the ugly monotony of poverty.

But how could she say this to Mrs. Wayne, in her flat-heeled shoes and simple, boyish shirt and that twelfth-century saint’s profile, of which so much might have been made by a clever woman?

At last she began, still smoothing her muff: 

“Mrs. Wayne, I have brought up my daughter very simply.  I don’t at all approve of the extravagances of these modern girls, with their own motors and their own bills.  Still, she has had a certain background.  We must admit that marriage with your son on his income alone would mean a decrease in her material comforts.”

Mrs. Wayne laughed.

“More than you know, probably.”

This was candid, and Adelaide pressed on.

“Well is it wise or kind to make such a demand on a young creature when we know marriage is difficult at the best?” she asked.

Mrs. Wayne hesitated.

“You see, I have never seen your daughter, and I don’t know what her feeling for Pete may be.”

“I’ll answer both questions.  She has a pleasant, romantic sentiment for Mr. Wayne-you know how one feels to one’s first lover.  She is a sweet, kind, unformed little girl, not heroic.  But think of your own spirited son.  Do you want this persistent, cruel responsibility for him?”

The question was an oratorical one, and Adelaide was astonished to find that Mrs. Wayne was answering it.

“Oh, yes,” she said; “I want responsibility for Pete.  It’s exactly what he needs.”

Adelaide stared at her in horror; she seemed the most unnatural mother in the world.  She herself would fight to protect her daughter from the passive wear and tear of poverty; but she would have died to keep a son, if she had had one, from being driven into the active warfare of the support of a family.

In the pause that followed there was a ring at the bell, an argument with the servant, something that sounded like a scuffle, and then a young man strolled into the room.  He was tall and beautifully dressed,-at least that was the first impression,-though, as a matter of fact, the clothes were of the cheapest ready-made variety.  But nothing could look cheap or ill made on those splendid muscles.  He wore a silk shirt, a flower in his buttonhole, a gray tie in which was a pearl as big as a pea, long patent-leather shoes with elaborate buff-colored tops; he carried a thin stick and a pair of new gloves in one hand, but the most conspicuous object in his dress was a brand-new, gray felt hat, with a rather wide brim, which he wore at an angle greater than Mr. Lanley attempted even at his jauntiest.  His face was long and rather dark, and his eyes were a bright gray blue, under dark brows.  He was scowling.

He strode into the middle of the room, and stood there, with his feet wide apart and his elbows slightly swaying.  His hat was still on.

“Your servant said you couldn’t see me,” he said, with his back teeth set together, a method of enunciation that seemed to be habitual.

“Didn’t want to would be truer, Marty,” answered Mrs. Wayne, with a utmost good temper.  “Still, as long as you’re here, what do you want?”

Marty Burke didn’t answer at once.  He stood looking at Mrs. Wayne under his lowering brows; he had stopped swinging his elbows, and was now very slightly twitching his cane, as an evilly disposed cat will twitch the end of its tail.

Mrs. Farron watched him almost breathlessly.  She was a little frightened, but the sensation was pleasurable.  He was, she knew, the finest specimen of the human animal that she had ever seen.

“What do I want?” he said at length in a deep, rich voice, shot here and there with strange nasal tones, and here and there with the remains of a brogue.  “Well, I want that you should stop persecuting those poor kids.”

“I persecuting them?  Don’t be absurd, Marty,” answered Mrs. Wayne.

“Persecuting them; what else?” retorted Marty, fiercely.  “What else is it?  They wanting to get married, and you determined to send the boy up the river.”

“I don’t think we’ll go over that again.  I have a lady here on business.”

“Oh, please don’t mind me,” said Mrs. Farron, settling back, and wriggling her hands contentedly into her muff.  She rather expected the frivolous courage of her tone to draw the ire of Burke’s glance upon her, but it did not.

“Cruel is what I call it,” he went on.  “She wants it, and he wants it, and her family wants it, and only you and the judge that you put up to opposing-”

“Her family do not want it.  Her brother-”

“Her brother agrees with me.  I was talking to him yesterday.”

“Oh, that’s why he has a black eye, is it?” said Mrs. Wayne.

“Black eyes or blue,” said Marty, with a horizontal gesture of his hands, “her brother wants to see her married.”

“Well, I don’t,” replied Mrs. Wayne, “at least not to this boy.  I will never give my consent to putting a child of her age in the power of a degenerate little drunkard like that.”

Mrs. Farron listened with all her ears.  She did not think herself a prude, and only a moment before she had been accusing Mrs. Wayne of ignorance of the world; but never in all her life had she heard such words as were now freely exchanged between Burke and his hostess on the subject of the degree of consent that the girl in question had given to the advances of Burke’s protege.  She would have been as embarrassed as a girl if either of the disputants had been in the least aware of her presence.  Once, she thought, Mrs. Wayne, for the sake of good manners, was on the point of turning to her and explaining the whole situation; but fortunately the exigencies of the dispute swept her on too fast.  Adelaide was shocked, physically rather than morally, by the nakedness of their talk; but she did not want them to stop.  She was fascinated by the spectacle of Marty Burke in action.  She recognized at once that he was a dangerous man, not dangerous to female virtue, like all the other men to whom she had heard the term applied, but actually dangerous to life and property.  She was not in the least afraid of him, but she knew he was a real danger.  She enjoyed the knowledge.  In most ways she was a woman timid in the face of physical danger, but she had never imagined being afraid of another human being.  That much, perhaps, her sheltered training had done for her.  “If she goes on irritating him like this he may murder us both,” she thought.  What she really meant was that he might murder Mrs. Wayne, but that, when he came to her and began to twist her neck, she would just say, “My dear man, don’t be silly!” and he would stop.

In the meantime Burke was not so angry as he was affecting to be.  Like most leaders of men, he had a strong dramatic instinct, and he had just led Mrs. Wayne to the climax of her just violence when his manner suddenly completely changed, and he said with the utmost good temper: 

“And what do you think of my get-up, Mrs. Wayne?  It’s a new suit I have on, and a boutonniere.”  The change was so sudden that no one answered, and he went on, “It’s clothes almost fit for a wedding that I’m wearing.”

Mrs. Wayne understood him in a flash.  She sprang to her feet.

“Marty Burke,” she cried, “you don’t mean to say you’ve got those two children married!”

“Not fifteen minutes ago, and I standing up with the groom.”  He smiled a smile of the wildest, most piercing sweetness-a smile so free and intense that it seemed impossible to connect it with anything but the consciousness of a pure heart.  Mrs. Farron had never seen such a smile.  “I thought I’d just drop around and give you the news,” he said, and now for the first time took off his hat, displaying his crisp, black hair and round, pugnacious head.  “Good morning, ladies.”  He bowed, and for an instant his glance rested on Mrs. Farron with an admiration too frank to be exactly offensive.  He put his hat on his head, turned away, and made his exit, whistling.

He left behind him one person at least who had thoroughly enjoyed his triumph.  To do her justice, however, Mrs. Farron was ashamed of her sympathy, and she said gently to Mrs. Wayne: 

“You think this marriage a very bad thing.”

Mrs. Wayne pushed all her hair away from her temples.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “it’s a bad thing for the girl; but the worst is having Marty Burke put anything over.  The district is absolutely under his thumb.  I do wish, Mrs. Farron, you would get your husband to put the fear of God into him.”

“My husband?”

“Yes; he works for your husband.  He has charge of the loading and unloading of the trucks.  He’s proud of his job, and it gives him power over the laborers.  He wouldn’t want to lose his place.  If your husband would send for him and say-” Mrs. Wayne hastily outlined the things Mr. Farron might say.

“He works for Vincent,” Adelaide repeated.  It seemed to her an absolutely stupendous coincidence, and her imagination pictured the clash between them-the effort of Vincent to put the fear of God into this man.  Would he be able to?  Which one would win?  Never before had she doubted the superior power of her husband; now she did.  “I think it would be hard to put the fear of God into that young man,” she said aloud.

“I do wish Mr. Farron would try.”

“Try,” thought Adelaide, “and fail?” Could she stand that?  Was her whole relation to Vincent about to be put to the test?  What weapons had he against Marty Burke?  And if he had none, how stripped he would appear in her eyes!

“Won’t you ask him, Mrs. Farron?”

Adelaide recoiled.  She did not want to be the one to throw her glove among the lions.

“I don’t think I understand well enough what it is you want.  Why don’t you ask him yourself?” She hesitated, knowing that no opportunity for this would offer unless she herself arranged it.  “Why don’t you come and dine with us to-night, and,” she added more slowly, “bring your son?”

She had made the bait very attractive, and Mrs. Wayne did not refuse.