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

Pringle, the last servant up, was soon heard discreetly drawing bolts and turning out electric lights.  Mathilde went straight up-stairs without even an attempt at drawing her mother into an evening gossip.  She was aware of being tired after two nights rendered almost sleepless by her awareness of joy.  She went to her room and shut the door.  Her bed was piled high with extra covers, soft, light blankets and a down coverlet covered with pink silk.  She took a certain hygienic pride in the extent to which she always opened her bedroom windows even when, as at present, the night was bitterly cold.  In the morning she ran, huddling on her dressing-gown, into a heated bathroom, and when she emerged from this, the maid had always lighted her fire, and laid her breakfast-tray close to the blaze.  To-night, when she went to open her window, she noticed that the houses opposite had lost courage and showed only cracks.  She stood a second looking up at the stars, twinkling with tiny blue rays through the clear air.  By turning her head to the west she could look down on the park, with its surface of bare, blurred tree-branches pierced by rows of lights.  The familiar sight suddenly seemed to her almost intolerably beautiful.  “Oh, I love him so much!” she said to herself, and her lips actually whispered the words, “so much! so much!”

She threw the window high as a reproof of those shivers across the way, and, jumping into bed, hastily sandwiched her small body between the warm bedclothes.  She was almost instantly asleep.

Overhead the faint, but heavy, footfall of Pringle ceased.  The house was silent; the city had become so.  An occasional Madison Avenue car could be heard ringing along the cold rails, or rhythmically bounding down hill on a flat wheel.  Once some distance away came the long, continuous complaint of the siren of a fire-engine and the bells and gongs of its comrades; and then a young man went past, whistling with the purest accuracy of time and tune the air to which he had just been dancing.

At half-past five the kitchen-maid, a young Swede who feared not God, neither regarded man, but lived in absolute subjection to the cook, to whom, unknown to any one else, she every morning carried up breakfast, was stealing down with a candle in her hand.  Her senses were alert, for a friend of hers had been strangled by burglars in similar circumstances, and she had never overcome her own terror of the cold, dark house in these early hours of a winter morning.

She went down not the back stairs, for Mr. Pringle objected that she woke him as she passed, whereas the carpet on the front stairs was so thick that there wasn’t the least chance of waking the family.  As she passed Mrs. Farron’s room she was surprised to see a fine crack of light coming from under it.  She paused, wondering if she was going to be caught, and if she had better run back and take to the back stairs despite Pringle’s well-earned rest; and as she hesitated she heard a sob, then another-wild, hysterical sobs.  The girl looked startled and then went on, shaking her head.  What people like that had to cry about beat her.  But she was glad, because she knew such a splendid bit of news would soften the heart of the cook when she took up her breakfast.

By five o’clock it seemed to Adelaide that a whole eternity had passed and that another was ahead of her, that this night would never end.

When they went up-stairs, while she was brushing her hair-her hair rewarded brushing, for it was fine and long and took a polish like bronze-she had wandered into Vincent’s room to discuss with him the question of her father’s secretiveness about Mrs. Wayne.  It was not, she explained, standing in front of his fire, that she suspected anything, but that it was so unfriendly:  it deprived one of so much legitimate amusement if one’s own family practised that kind of reserve.  Her just anger kept her from observing Farron very closely.  As she talked she laid her brush on the mantelpiece, and as she did so she knocked down the letter that had come for him just before they went up-stairs.  She stooped, and picked it up without attention, and stood holding it; she gesticulated a little with it as she repeated, for her own amusement rather than for Vincent’s, phrases she had caught at dinner.

The horror to Farron of seeing her standing there chattering, with that death-dealing letter in her hand, suddenly and illogically broke down his resolution of silence.  It was cruel, and though he might have denied himself her help, he could not endure cruelty.

“Adelaide,” he said in a tone that drove every other sensation away-“Adelaide, that letter.  No, don’t read it.”  He took it from her and laid it on his dressing-table.  “My dear love, it has very bad news in it.”

“There has been something, then?”

“Yes.  I have been worried about my health for some time.  This letter tells me the worst is true.  Well, my dear, we did not enter matrimony with the idea that either of us was immortal.”

But that was his last effort to be superior to the crisis, to pretend that the bitterness of death was any less to him than to any other human creature, to conceal that he needed help, all the help that he could get.

And Adelaide gave him help.  Artificial as she often was in daily contact, in a moment like this she was splendidly, almost primitively real.  She did not conceal her own passionate despair, her conviction that her life couldn’t go on without his; she did not curb her desire to know every detail on which his opinion and his doctor’s had been founded; she clung to him and wept, refusing to let him discuss business arrangements, in which for some reason he seemed to find a certain respite; and yet with it all, she gave him strength, the sense that he had an indissoluble and loyal companion in the losing fight that lay before him.

Once she was aware of thinking:  “Oh, why did he tell me to-night?  Things are so terrible by night,” but it was only a second before she put such a thought away from her.  What had these nights been to him?  The night when she had found his light burning so late, and other nights when he had probably denied himself the consolation of reading for fear of rousing her suspicions.  She did not attempt to pity or advise him, she did not treat him as a mixture of child and idiot, as affection so often treats illness.  She simply gave him her love.

Toward morning he fell asleep in her arms, and then she stole back to her own room.  There everything was unchanged, the light still burning, her satin slippers stepping on each other just as she had left them.  She looked at herself in the glass; she did not look so very different.  A headache had often ravaged her appearance more.

She had always thought herself a coward, she feared death with a terrible repugnance; but now she found, to her surprise, that she would have light-heartedly changed places with her husband.  She had much more courage to die than to watch him die-to watch Vincent die, to see him day by day grow weak and pitiful.  That was what was intolerable.  If he would only die now, to-night, or if she could!  It was at this moment that the kitchen maid had heard her sobbing.

Because there was nothing else to do, she got into bed, and lay there staring at the electric light, which she had forgotten to put out.  Toward seven she got up and gave orders that Mr. Farron was not to be disturbed, that the house was to be kept quiet.  Strange, she thought, that he could sleep like an exhausted child, while she, awake, was a mass of pain.  Her heart ached, her eyes burned, her very body felt sore.  She arranged for his sleep, but she wanted him to wake up; she begrudged every moment of his absence.  Alas! she thought, how long would she continue to do so?

Yet with her suffering came a wonderful ease, an ability to deal with the details of life.  When at eight o’clock her maid came in and, pulling the curtains, exclaimed with Gallic candor, “Oh, comme madame a mauvaise mine ce matin!” she smiled at her with unusual gentleness.  Later, when Mathilde came down at her accustomed hour, and lying across the foot of her mother’s bed, began to read her scraps of the morning paper, Adelaide felt a rush of tenderness for the child, who was so unaware of the hideous bargain life really was.  Surprising as it was, she found she could talk more easily than usual and with a more undivided attention, though everything they said was trivial enough.

Then suddenly her heart stood still, for the door opened, and Vincent, in his dressing-gown, came in.  He had evidently had his bath, for his hair was wet and shiny.  Thank God! he showed no signs of defeat!

“Oh,” cried Mathilde, jumping up, “I thought Mr. Farron had gone down-town ages ago.”

“He overslept,” said Adelaide.

“I had an excellent night,” he answered, and she knew he looked at her to discover that she had not.

“I’ll go,” said Mathilde; but with unusual sharpness they both turned to her and said simultaneously, “No, no; stay.”  They knew no better than she did why they were so eager to keep her.

“Are you going down-town, Vin?” Adelaide asked, and her voice shook a little on the question; she was so eager that he should not institute any change in his routine so soon.

“Of course,” he answered.

They looked at each other, yet their look said nothing in particular.  Presently he said: 

“I wonder if I might have breakfast in here.  I’ll go and shave if you’ll order it; and don’t let Mathilde go.  I have something to say to her.”

When he was gone, Mathilde went and stood at the window, looking out, and tying knots in the window-shade’s cord.  It was a trick Adelaide had always objected to, and she was quite surprised to hear herself saying now, just as usual: 

“Mathilde, don’t tie knots in that cord.”

Mathilde threw it from her as one whose mind was engaged on higher things.

“You know,” she observed, “I believe I’m only just beginning to appreciate Mr. Farron.  He’s so wise.  I see what you meant about his being strong, and he’s so clever.  He knows just what you’re thinking all the time.  Isn’t it nice that he likes Pete?  Did he say anything more about him after you went up-stairs?  I mean, he really does like him, doesn’t he?  He doesn’t say that just to please me?”

Presently Vincent came back fully dressed and sat down to his breakfast.  Oddly enough, there was a spirit of real gaiety in the air.

“What was it you were going to say to me?” Mathilde asked greedily.  Farron looked at her blankly.  Adelaide knew that he had quite forgotten the phrase, but he concealed the fact by not allowing the least illumination of his expression as he remembered.

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I wish to correct myself.  I told you that Mrs. Wayne was an elderly wood-nymph; but I was wrong.  Of course the truth is that she’s a very young witch.”

Mathilde laughed, but not whole-heartedly.  She had already identified herself so much with the Waynes that she could not take them quite in this tone of impersonality.

Farron threw down his napkin, stood up, pulled down his waistcoat.

“I must be off,” he said.  He went and kissed his wife.  Both had to nerve themselves for that.

She held his arm in both her hands, feeling it solid, real, and as hard as iron.

“You’ll be up-town early?”

“I’ve a busy day.”

“By four?”

“I’ll telephone.”  She loved him for refusing to yield to her just at this moment of all moments.  Some men, she thought, would have hidden their own self-pity under the excuse of the necessity of being kind to her.

She was to lunch out with a few critical contemporaries.  She was horrified when she looked at herself by morning light.  Her skin had an ivory hue, and there were many fine wrinkles about her eyes.  She began to repair these damages with the utmost frankness, talking meantime to Mathilde and the maid.  She swept her whole face with a white lotion, rouged lightly, but to her very eyelids, touched a red pencil to her lips, all with discretion.  The result was satisfactory.  The improvement in her appearance made her feel braver.  She couldn’t have faced these people-she did not know whether to think of them as intimate enemies or hostile friends-if she had been looking anything but her best.

But they were just what she needed; they would be hard and amusing and keep her at some tension.  She thought rather crossly that she could not sit through a meal at home and listen to Mathilde rambling on about love and Mr. Farron.

She was inexcusably late, and they had sat down to luncheon-three men and two women-by the time she arrived.  They had all been, or had wanted to go, to an auction sale of objets d’art that had taken place the night before.  They were discussing it, praising their own purchases, and decrying the value of everybody else’s when Adelaide came in.

“Oh, Adelaide,” said her hostess, “we were just wondering what you paid originally for your tapestry.”

“The one in the hall?”

“No, the one with the Turk in it.”

“I haven’t an idea,-” Adelaide was distinctly languid,-“I got it from my grandfather.”

“Wouldn’t you know she’d say that?” exclaimed one of the women.  “Not that I deny it’s true; only, you know, Adelaide, whenever you do want to throw a veil over one of your pieces, you always call on the prestige of your ancestors.”

Adelaide raised her eyebrows.

“Really,” she answered, “there isn’t anything so very conspicuous about having had a grandfather.”

“No,” her hostess echoed, “even I, so well and favorably known for my vulgarity-even I had a grandfather.”

“But he wasn’t a connoisseur in tapestries, Minnie darling.”

“No, but he was in pigs, the dear vulgarian.”

“True vulgarity,” said one of the men, “vulgarity in the best sense, I mean, should betray no consciousness of its own existence.  Only thus can it be really great.”

“Oh, Minnie’s vulgarity is just artificial, assumed because she found it worked so well.”

“Surely you accord her some natural talent along those lines.”

“I suspect her secret mind is refined.”

“Oh, that’s not fair.  Vulgar is as vulgar does.”

Adelaide stood up, pushing back her chair.  She found them utterly intolerable.  Besides, as they talked she had suddenly seen clearly that she must herself speak to Vincent’s doctor without an instant’s delay.  “I have to telephone, Minnie,” she said, and swept out of the room.  She never returned.

“Not one of the perfect lady’s golden days, I should say,” said one of the men, raising his eyebrows.  “I wonder what’s gone wrong?”

“Can Vincent have been straying from the straight and narrow?”

“Something wrong.  I could tell by her looks.”

“Ah, my dear, I’m afraid her looks is what’s wrong.”

Adelaide meantime was in her motor on her way to the doctor’s office.  He had given up his sacred lunch-hour in response to her imperious demand and to his own intense pity for her sorrow.

He did not know her, but he had had her pointed out to him, and though he recognized the unreason of such an attitude, he was aware that her great beauty dramatized her suffering, so that his pity for her was uncommonly alive.

He was a young man, with a finely cut face and a blond complexion.  His pity was visible, quivering a little under his mask of impassivity.  Adelaide’s first thought on seeing him was, “Good Heavens! another man to be emotionally calmed before I can get at the truth!” She had to be tactful, to let him see that she was not going to make a scene.  She knew that he felt it himself, but she was not grateful to him.  What business had he to feel it?  His feeling was an added burden, and she felt that she had enough to carry.

He did not make the mistake, however, of expressing his sympathy verbally.  His answers were as cold and clear as she could wish.  She questioned him on the chances of an operation.  He could not reduce his judgment to a mathematical one; he was inclined to advocate an operation on psychological grounds, he said.

“It keeps up the patient’s courage to know something is being done.”  He added, “That will be your work, Mrs. Farron, to keep his courage up.”

Most women like to know they had their part to play, but Adelaide shook her head quickly.

“I would so much rather go through it myself!” she cried.

“Naturally, naturally,” he agreed, without getting the full passion of her cry.

She stood up.

“Oh,” she said, “if it could only be kill or cure!”

He glanced at her.

“We have hardly reached that point yet,” he answered.

She went away dissatisfied.  He had answered every question, he had even encouraged her to hope a little more than her interpretation of what Vincent said had allowed her; but as she drove away she knew he had failed her.  For she had gone to him in order to have Vincent presented to her as a hero, as a man who had looked upon the face of death without a quiver.  Instead, he had been presented to her as a patient, just one of the long procession that passed through that office.  The doctor had said nothing to contradict the heroic picture, but he had said nothing to contribute to it.  And surely, if Farron had stood out in his calmness and courage above all other men, the doctor would have mentioned it, couldn’t have helped doing so; he certainly would not have spent so much time in telling her how she was to guard and encourage him.  To the doctor he was only a patient, a pitiful human being, a victim of mortality.  Was that what he was going to become in her eyes, too?

At four she drove down-town to his office.  He came out with another man; they stood a moment on the steps talking and smiling.  Then he drew his friend to the car window and introduced him to Adelaide.  The man took off his hat.

“I was just telling your husband, Mrs. Farron, that I’ve been looking at offices in this building.  By the spring he and I will be neighbors.”

Adelaide just shut her eyes, and did not open them again until Vincent had got in beside her and she felt his arm about her shoulder.

“My poor darling!” he said.  “What you need is to go home and get some sleep.”  It was said in his old, cherishing tone, and she, leaning back, with her head against the point of his shoulder, felt that, black as it was, life for the first time since the night before had assumed its normal aspect again.