Read CHAPTER VI of The Happiest Time of Their Lives, free online book, by Alice Duer Miller, on ReadCentral.com.

As she drove home, Adelaide’s whole being was stirred by the prospect of that conflict between Burke and her husband, and it was not until she saw Mathilde, pale with an hour of waiting, that she recalled the real object of her recent visit.  Not, of course, that Adelaide was more interested in Marty Burke than in her daughter’s future, but a titanic struggle fired her imagination more than a pitiful little romance.  She felt a pang of self-reproach when she saw that Mr. Lanley had come to share the child’s vigil, that he seemed to be suffering under an anxiety almost as keen as Mathilde’s.

They did not have to question her; she threw out her hands, casting her muff from her as she did so.

“Oh,” she said, “I’m a weak, soft-hearted creature!  I’ve asked them both to dine tonight.”

Mathilde flung herself into her mother’s arms.

“O Mama, how marvelous you are!” she exclaimed.

Over her daughter’s shoulder Adelaide noted her father’s expression, a stiffening of the mouth and a brightening of the eyes.

“Your grandfather disapproves of me, Mathilde,” she said.

“He couldn’t be so unkind,” returned the girl.

“After all,” said Mr. Lanley, trying to induce a slight scowl, “if we are not going to consent to an engagement-”

“But you are,” said Mathilde.

“We are not,” said her mother; “but there is no reason why we should not meet and talk it over like sensible creatures-talk it over here”-Adelaide looked lovingly around her own subdued room-“instead of five stories up.  For really-” She stopped, running her eyebrows together at the recollection.

“But the flat is rather-rather comfortable when you get there,” said Mr. Lanley, suddenly becoming embarrassed over his choice of an adjective.

Adelaide looked at him sharply.

“Dear Papa,” she asked, “since when have you become an admirer of painted shelves and dirty rugs?  And I don’t doubt,” she added very gently, “that for the same money they could have found something quite tolerable in the country.”

“Perhaps they don’t want to live in the country,” said Mr. Lanley, rather sharply:  “I’m sure there is nothing that you’d hate more, Adelaide.”

She opened her dark eyes.

“But I don’t have to choose between squalor here or-”

“Squalor!” said Mr. Lanley.  “Don’t be ridiculous!”

Mathilde broke in gently at this point: 

“I think you must have liked Mrs. Wayne, Mama, to ask her to dine.”

Adelaide saw an opportunity to exercise one of her important talents.

“Yes,” she said.  “She has a certain naïve friendliness.  Of course I don’t advocate, after fifty, dressing like an Eton boy; I always think an elderly face above a turned-down collar-”

“Mama,” broke in Mathilde, quietly, “would you mind not talking of Mrs. Wayne like that?  You know, she’s Pete’s mother.”

Adelaide was really surprised.

“Why, my love,” she answered, “I haven’t said half the things I might say.  I rather thought I was sparing your feelings.  After all, when you see her, you will admit that she does dress like an Eton boy.”

“She didn’t when I saw her,” said Mr. Lanley.

Adelaide turned to her father.

“Papa, I leave it to you.  Did I say anything that should have wounded anybody’s susceptibilities?”

Mr. Lanley hesitated.

“It was the tone Mathilde did not like, I think.”

Adelaide raised her shoulders and looked beautifully hurt.

“My tone?” she wailed.

“It hurt me,” said Mathilde, laying her little hand on her heart.

Mr. Lanley smiled at her, and then, springing up, kissed her tenderly on the forehead.  He said it was time for him to be going on.

“You’ll come to dinner to-night, Papa?”

Rather hastily, Mr. Lanley said no, he couldn’t; he had an engagement.  But his daughter did not let him get to the door.

“What are you going to do to-night, Papa?” she asked, firmly.

“There is a governor’s meeting-”

“Two in a week, Papa?”

Suddenly Mr. Lanley dropped all pretense of not coming, and said he would be there at eight.

During the rest of the day Mathilde’s heart never wholly regained its normal beat.  Not only was she to see Pete again, and see him under the gaze of her united family, but she was to see this mother of his, whom he loved and admired so much.  She pictured her as white-haired, benignant, brooding, the essential mother, with all her own mother’s grace and charm left out, yet with these qualities not ill replaced by others which Mathilde sometimes dimly apprehended were lacking in her own beautiful parent.  She looked at herself in the glass.  “My son’s wife,” was the phrase in her mind.

On her way up-stairs to dress for dinner she tried to confide her anxieties to her mother.

“Mama,” she said, “if you had a son, how would you feel toward the girl he wanted to marry?”

“Oh, I should think her a cat, of course,” Adelaide answered; and added an instant later, “and I should probably be able to make him think so, too.”

Mathilde sighed and went on up-stairs.  Here she decided on an act of some insubordination.  She would wear her best dress that evening, the dress which her mother considered too old for her.  She did not want Pete’s mother to think he had chosen a perfect baby.

Mr. Lanley, too, was a trifle nervous during the afternoon.  He tried to say to himself that it was because the future of his darling little Mathilde was about to be settled.  He shook his head, indicating that to settle the future of the young was a risky business; and then in a burst of self-knowledge he suddenly admitted that what was really making him nervous was the incident of the pier.  If Mrs. Wayne referred to it, and of course there was no possible reason why she should not refer to it, Adelaide would never let him hear the last of it.  It would be natural for Adelaide to think it queer that he hadn’t told her about it.  And the reason he hadn’t told was perfectly clear:  it was on that infernal pier that he had formed such an adverse opinion of Mrs. Wayne.  But of course he did not wish to prejudice Adelaide; he wanted to leave her free to form her own opinions, and he was glad, excessively glad, that she had formed so favorable a one as to ask the woman to dinner.  There was no question about his being glad; he surprised his servant by whistling as he put on his white waistcoat, and fastened the buckle rather more snugly than usual.  Self-knowledge for the moment was not on hand.

He arrived at exactly the hour at which he always arrived, five minutes after eight, a moment not too early to embarrass the hostess and not too late to endanger the dinner.

No one was in the drawing-room but Mathilde and Farron.  Adelaide, for one who had been almost perfectly brought up, did sometimes commit the fault of allowing her guests to wait for her.

“’Lo, my dear,” said Mr. Lanley, kissing Mathilde.  “What’s that you have on?  Never saw it before.  Not so becoming as the dress you were wearing the last time I was here.”

Mathilde felt that it would be almost easier to die immediately, and was revived only when she heard Farron saying: 

“Oh, don’t you like this?  I was just thinking I had never seen Mathilde looking so well, in her rather more mature and subtle vein.”

It was just as she wished to appear, but she glanced at her stepfather, disturbed by her constant suspicion that he read her heart more clearly than any one else, more clearly than she liked.

“How shockingly late they are!” said Adelaide, suddenly appearing in the utmost splendor.  She moved about, kissing her father and arranging the chairs.  “Do you know, Vin, why it is that Pringle likes to make the room look as if it were arranged for a funeral?  Why do you suppose they don’t come?”

“Any one who arrives after Adelaide is apt to be in wrong,” observed her husband.

“Well, I think it’s awfully incompetent always to be waiting for other people,” she returned, just laying her hand an instant on his shoulder to indicate that he alone was privileged to make fun of her.

“That perhaps is what the Waynes think,” he answered.

Mathilde’s heart sank a little at this.  She knew her mother did not like to be kept waiting for dinner.

“When I was a young man-” began Mr. Lanley.

“It was the custom,” interrupted Adelaide in exactly the same tone, “for a hostess to be in her drawing-room at least five minutes before the hour set for the arrival of the guests.”

“Adelaide,” her father pleaded, “I don’t talk like that; at least not often.”

“You would, though, if you didn’t have me to correct you,” she retorted.  “There’s the bell at last; but it always takes people like that forever to get their wraps off.”

“It’s only ten minutes past eight,” said Farron, and Mathilde blessed him with a look.

Mrs. Wayne came quickly into the room, so fast that her dress floated behind her; she was in black and very grand.  No one would have supposed that she had murmured to Pete just before the drawing-room door was opened, “I hope they haven’t run in any old relations on us.”

“I’m afraid I’m late,” she began.

“She always is,” Pete murmured to Mathilde as he took her hand and quite openly squeezed it, and then, before Adelaide had time for the rather casual introduction she had planned, he himself put the hand he was holding into his mother’s.  “This is my girl, Mother,” he said.  They smiled at each other.  Mathilde tried to say something.  Mrs. Wayne stooped and kissed her.  Mr. Lanley was obviously affected.  Adelaide wasn’t going to have any scene like that.

“Late?” she said, as if not an instant had passed since Mrs. Wayne’s entrance.  “Oh, no, you’re not late; exactly on time, I think.  I’m only just down myself.  Isn’t that true, Vincent?”

Vincent was studying Mrs. Wayne, and withdrew his eyes slowly.  But Adelaide’s object was accomplished:  no public betrothal had taken place.

Pringle announced dinner.  Mr. Lanley, rather to his own surprise, found that he was insisting on giving Mrs. Wayne his arm; he was not so angry at her as he had supposed.  He did not think her offensive or unfeminine or half baked or socialistic or any of the things he had been saying to himself at lengthening intervals for the last twenty-four hours.

Pete saw an opportunity, and tucked Mathilde’s hand within his own arm, nipping it closely to his heart.

The very instant they were at table Adelaide looked down the alley between the candles, for the low, golden dish of hot-house fruit did not obstruct her view of Vincent, and said: 

“Why have you never told me about Marty Burke?”

“Who’s he?” asked Mr. Lanley, quickly, for he had been trying to start a little conversational hare of his own, just to keep the conversation away from the water-front.

“He’s a splendid young super-tough in my employ,” said Vincent.  “What do you know about him, Adelaide?”

The guarded surprise in his tone stimulated her.

“Oh, I know all about him-as much, that is, as one ever can of a stupendous natural phenomenon.”

“Where did you hear of him?”

“Hear of him?  I’ve seen him.  I saw him this morning at Mrs. Wayne’s.  He just dropped in while I was there and, metaphorically speaking, dragged us about by the hair of our heads.”

“Some women, I believe, confess to enjoying that sensation,” Vincent observed.

“Yes, it’s exciting,” answered his wife.

“It’s an easy excitement to attain.”

“Oh, one wants it done in good style.”

Something so stimulating that it was almost hostile flashed through the interchange.

Mathilde murmured to Pete: 

“Who are they talking about?”

“A mixture of Alcibiades and Bill Sykes,” said Adelaide, catching the low tone, as she always did.

“He’s the district leader and a very bad influence,” said Mrs. Wayne.

“He’s a champion middle-weight boxer,” said Pete.

“He’s the head of my stevedores,” said Farron.

“O Mr. Farron,” Mrs. Wayne exclaimed, “I do wish you would use your influence over him.”

“My influence?  It consists of paying him eighty-five dollars a month and giving him a box of cigars at Christmas.”

“Don’t you think you could tone him down?” pleaded Mrs. Wayne.  “He does so much harm.”

“But I don’t want him toned down.  His value to me is his being just as he is.  He’s a myth, a hero, a power on the water-front, and I employ him.”

“You employ him, but do you control him?” asked Adelaide, languidly, and yet with a certain emphasis.

Her husband glanced at her.

“What is it you want, Adelaide?” he said.

She gave a little laugh.

“Oh, I want nothing.  It’s Mrs. Wayne who wants you to do something-rather difficult, too, I should imagine.”

He turned gravely to their guest.

“What is it you want, Mrs. Wayne?”

Mrs. Wayne considered an instant, and as she was about to find words for her request her son spoke: 

“She’ll tell you after dinner.”

“Pete, I wasn’t going to tell the story,” his mother put in protestingly.  “You really do me injustice at times.”

Adelaide, remembering the conversation of the morning, wondered whether he did.  She felt grateful to him for wishing to spare Mathilde the hearing of such a story, and she turned to him with a caressing graciousness in which she was extremely at her ease.  Mathilde, recognizing that her mother was pleased, though not being very clear why, could not resist joining in their conversation; and Mrs. Wayne was thus given an opportunity of murmuring the unfortunate Anita’s story into Vincent’s ear.

Adelaide, holding Pete with a flattering gaze, seeming to drink in every word he was saying, heard Mrs. Wayne finish and heard Vincent say: 

“And you think you can get it annulled if only Burke doesn’t interfere?”

“Yes, if he doesn’t get hold of the boy and tell him that his dignity as a man is involved.”

Adelaide withdrew her gaze from Pete and fixed it on Vincent.  Was he going to accept that challenge?  She wanted him to, and yet she thought he would be defeated, and she did not want him to be defeated.  She waited almost breathless.

“Well, I’ll see what I can do,” he said.  This was an acceptance.  This from Vincent meant that the matter, as far as he was concerned, was settled.

“You two plotters!” exclaimed Adelaide.  “For my part, I’m on Marty Burke’s side.  I hate to see wild creatures in cages.”

“Dangerous to side with wild beasts,” observed Vincent.

“Why?”

“They get the worst of it in the long run.”

Adelaide dropped her eyes.  It was exactly the right answer.  For a moment she felt his complete supremacy.  Then another thought shot through her mind:  it was exactly the right answer if he could make it good.

In the meantime Mr. Lanley began to grow dissatisfied with the prolonged rôle of spectator.  He preferred danger to oblivion; and turning to Mrs. Wayne, he said, with his politest smile: 

“How are the bridges?”

“Oh, dear,” she answered, “I must have been terribly tactless-to make you so angry.”

Mr. Lanley drew himself up.

“I was not angry,” he said.

She looked at him with a sort of gentle wonder.

“You gave me the impression of being.”

The very temperateness of the reply made him see that he had been inaccurate.

“Of course I was angry,” he said.  “What I mean is that I don’t understand why I was.”

Meantime, on the opposite side of the table, Mathilde and Pete were equally immersed, murmuring sentences of the profoundest meaning behind faces which they felt were mask-like.

Farron looked down the table at his wife.  Why, he wondered, did she want to tease him to-night, of all nights in his life?

When they came out of the dining-room Pete said to Mathilde with the utmost clearness: 

“And what was that magazine you spoke of?”

She had spoken of no magazine, but she caught the idea, the clever, rather wicked idea.  He made her work her mind almost too fast sometimes, but she enjoyed it.

“Wasn’t it this?” she asked, with a beating heart.

They sat down on the sofa and bent their heads over it with student-like absorption.

“I haven’t any idea what it is,” she whispered.

“Oh, well, I suppose there’s something or other in it.”

“I think your mother is perfectly wonderful-wonderful.”

“I love you so.”

The older people took a little longer to settle down.  Mr. Lanley stood on the hearth-rug, with a cigar in his mouth and his head thrown very far back.  Adelaide sank into a chair, looking, as she often did, as if she had just been brilliantly well posed for a photograph.  Farron was silent.  Mrs. Wayne sat, as she had a bad habit of doing, on one foot.  The two groups were sufficiently separated for distinct conversations.

“Is this a conference?” asked Farron.

Mrs. Wayne made it so by her reply.

“The whole question is, Are they really in love?  At least, that’s my view.”

“In love!” Adelaide twisted her shoulders.  “What can they know of it for another ten years?  You must have some character, some knowledge to fall in love.  And these babes-”

“No,” said Mr. Lanley, stoutly; “you’re all wrong, Adelaide.  It’s first love that matters-Romeo and Juliet, you know.  Afterward we all get hardened and world-worn and cynical and material.”  He stopped short in his eloquence at the thought that Mrs. Wayne was quite obviously not hardened or world-worn or cynical or material.  “By Jove!” he thought to himself, “that’s it.  The woman’s spirit is as fresh as a girl’s.”  He had by this time utterly forgotten what he had meant to say.

Adelaide turned to her husband.

“Do you think they are in love, Vin?”

Vincent looked at her for a second, and then he nodded two or three times.

Though no one at once recognized the fact, the engagement was settled at that moment.

It seemed obvious that Mr. Lanley should take the Waynes home in his car.  Mrs. Wayne, who had prepared for walking with overshoes and with pins for her trailing skirt, did not seem too enthusiastic at the suggestion.  She stood a moment on the step and looked at the sky, where Orion, like a banner, was hung across the easterly opening of the side street.

“It’s a lovely night,” she said.

It was Pete who drew her into the car.  Her reluctance deprived Mr. Lanley of the delight of bestowing a benefit, but gave him a faint sense of capture.

In the drawing-room Mathilde was looking from one to the other of her natural guardians, like a well-trained puppy who wants to be fed.  She wanted Pete praised.  Instead, Adelaide said: 

“Really, papa is growing too secretive!  Do you know, Vin, he and Mrs. Wayne quarreled like mad last evening, and he never told me a word about it!”

“How do you know?”

“Oh, I heard them trying to smooth it out at dinner.”

“O Mama,” wailed Mathilde, between admiration and complaint, “you hear everything!”

“Certainly, I do,” Adelaide returned lightly.  “Yes, and I heard you, too, and understood everything that you meant.”

Vincent couldn’t help smiling at his stepdaughter’s horrified look.

“What a brute you are, Adelaide!” he said.

“Oh, my dear, you’re much worse,” she retorted.  “You don’t have to overhear.  You just read the human heart by some black magic of your own.  That’s really more cruel than my gross methods.”

“Well, Mathilde,” said Farron, “as a reader of the human heart, I want to tell you that I approve of the young man.  He has a fine, delicate touch on life, which, I am inclined to think, goes only with a good deal of strength.”

Mathilde blinked her eyes.  Gratitude and delight had brought tears to them.

“He thinks you’re wonderful, Mr. Farron,” she answered a little huskily.

“Better and better,” answered Vincent, and he held out his hand for a letter that Pringle was bringing to him on a tray.

“What’s that?” asked Adelaide.  One of the first things she had impressed on Joe Severance was that he must never inquire about her mail; but she always asked Farron about his.

He seemed to be thinking and didn’t answer her.

Mathilde, now simply insatiable, pressed nearer to him and asked: 

“And what do you think of Mrs. Wayne?”

He raised his eyes from the envelope, and answered with a certain absence of tone: 

“I thought she was an elderly wood-nymph.”

Adelaide glanced over his shoulder, and, seeing that the letter had a printed address in the corner, lost interest.

“You may shut the house, Pringle,” she said.