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

The firm for which Wayne worked was young and small-Benson & Honaton.  They made a specialty of circularization in connection with the bond issues in which they were interested, and Wayne had charge of their “literature,” as they described it.  He often felt, after he had finished a report, that his work deserved the title.  A certain number of people in Wall Street disapproved of the firm’s methods.  Sometimes Pete thought this was because, for a young firm, they had succeeded too quickly to please the more deliberate; but sometimes in darker moments he thought there might be some justice in the idea.

During the weeks that Farron was in the hospital Pete, despite his constant availability to Mathilde, had been at work on his report on a coal property in Pennsylvania.  He was extremely pleased with the thoroughness with which he had done the job.  His report was not favorable.  The day after it was finished, a little after three, he received word that the firm wanted to see him.  He was always annoyed with himself that these messages caused his heart to beat a trifle faster.  He couldn’t help associating them with former hours with his head-master or in the dean’s office.  Only he had respected his head-master and even the dean, whereas he was not at all sure he respected Mr. Benson and he was quite sure he did not respect Mr. Honaton.

He rose slowly from his desk, exchanging with the office boy who brought the message a long, severe look, under which something very comic lurked, though neither knew what.

“And don’t miss J.B.’s socks,” said the boy.

Mr. Honaton-J.B.-was considered in his office a very beautiful dresser, as indeed in some ways he was.  He was a tall young man, built like a greyhound, with a small, pointed head, a long waist, and a very long throat, from which, however, the strongest, loudest voice could issue when he so desired.  This was his priceless asset.  He was the board member, and generally admitted to be an excellent broker.  It always seemed to Pete that he was a broker exactly as a beaver is a dam-builder, because nature had adapted him to that task.  But outside of this one instinctive capacity he had no sense whatsoever.  He rarely appeared in the office.  He was met at the Broad Street entrance of the exchange at one minute to ten by a boy with the morning’s orders, and sometimes he came in for a few minutes after the closing; but usually by three-fifteen he had disappeared from financial circles, and was understood to be relaxing in the higher social spheres to which he belonged.  So when Pete, entering Mr. Benson’s private office, saw Honaton leaning against the window-frame, with his hat-brim held against his thigh exactly like a fashion-plate, he knew that something of importance must be pending.

Benson, the senior member, was a very different person.  He looked like a fat, white, pugnacious cat.  His hair, which had turned white early, had a tendency to grow in a bang; his arms were short-so short that when he put his hands on the arms of his swing-chair he hardly bent his elbows.  He had them there now as Pete entered, and was swinging through short arcs in rather a nervous rhythm.  He was of Irish parentage, and was understood to have political influence.

“Wayne,” said Benson, “how would you like to go to China?”

And Honaton repeated portentously, “China,” as if Benson might have made a mistake in the name of the country if he had not been at his elbow to correct him.

Wayne laughed.

“Well,” he said, “I have nothing against China.”

Benson outlined the situation quickly.  The firm had acquired property in China not entirely through their own choice, and they wanted a thorough, clear report on it; they knew of no one-no one, Benson emphasized-who could do that as impartially and as well as Wayne.  They would pay him a good sum and his expenses.  It would take him a year, perhaps a year and a half.  They named the figure.  It was one that made marriage possible.  They talked of the situation and the property and the demand for copper until Honaton began to look at his watch, a flat platinum watch, perfectly plain, you might have thought, until you caught a glimpse of a narrow line of brilliants along its almost imperceptible rim.  His usual working day was over in half an hour.

“And when I come back, Mr. Benson?” said Wayne.

“Your place will be open for you here.”

There was a pause.

“Well, what do you say?” said Honaton.

“I feel very grateful for the offer,” said Pete, “but of course I can’t give you an answer now.”

“Why not, why not?” returned Honaton, who felt that he had given up half an hour for nothing if the thing couldn’t be settled on the spot; and even Benson, Wayne noticed, began to glower.

“You could probably give us as good an answer to-day as to-morrow,” he said.

Nothing roused Pete’s spirit like feeling a tremor in his own soul, and so he now answered with great firmness: 

“I cannot give you an answer to-day or to-morrow.”

“It’s all off, then, all off,” said Honaton, moving to the door.

“When do the Chinese boats sail, Mr. Honaton?” said Pete, with the innocence of manner that an employee should use when putting his superior in a hole.

“I don’t see what difference that makes to you, Wayne, if you’re not taking them,” said Honaton, as if he were triumphantly concealing the fact that he didn’t know.

“Don’t feel you have to wait, Jack, if you’re in a hurry,” said his partner, and when the other had slid out of the office Benson turned to Wayne and went on:  “You wouldn’t have to go until a week from Saturday.  You would have to get off then, and we should have to know in time to find some one else in case you don’t care for it.”

Pete asked for three days, and presently left the office.

He had a friend, one of his mother’s reformed drunkards, who as janitor lived on the top floor of a tall building.  He and his wife offered Wayne the hospitality of their balcony, and now and then, in moments like this, he availed himself of it.  Not, indeed, that there had ever been a moment quite like this; for he knew that he was facing the most important decision he had ever been forced to make.

In the elevator he met the janitor’s cat Susan going home after an afternoon visit to the restaurant on the sixteenth floor.  The elevator boy loved to tell how she never made a mistake in the floor.

“Do you think she’d get off at the fifteenth or the seventeenth?  Not she.  Sometimes she puts her nose out and smells at the other floors, but she won’t get off until I stop at the right one.  Sometimes she has to ride up and down three or four times before any one wants the sixteenth.  Eh, Susan?” he added in caressing tones; but Susan was watching the floors flash past and paid no attention until, arrived at the top, she and Pete stepped off together.

It was a cool, clear day, for the wind was from the north, but on the southern balcony the sun was warm.  Pete sat down in the kitchen-chair set for him, tilted back, and looked out over the Statue of Liberty, which stood like a stunted baby, to the blue Narrows.  He saw one thing clearly, and that was that he would not go if Mathilde would not go with him.

He envied people who could make up their minds by thinking.  At least sometimes he envied them and sometimes he thought they lied.  He could only think about a subject and wait for the unknown gods to bring him a decision.  And this is what he now did, with his eyes fixed on the towers and tanks and tenements, on the pale winter sky, and, when he got up and leaned his elbows on the parapet, on the crowds that looked like a flood of purple insects in the streets.

He thought of Mathilde’s youth and his own untried capacities for success, of poverty and children, of the probable opposition of Mathilde’s family and of a strange, sinister, disintegrating power he felt or suspected in Mrs. Farron.  He felt that it was a terrible risk to ask a young girl to take and that it was almost an insult to be afraid to ask her to take it.  That was what his mother had always said about these cherished, protected creatures:  they were not prepared to meet any strain in life.  He knew he would not have hesitated to ask a girl differently brought up.  Ought he to ask Mathilde or ought he not even to hesitate about asking her?  In his own future he had confidence.  He had an unusual power of getting his facts together so that they meant something.  In a small way his work was recognized.  A report of his had some weight.  He felt certain that if on his return he wanted another position he could get it unless he made a terrible fiasco in China.  Should he consult any one?  He knew beforehand what they would all think about it.  Mr. Lanley would think that it was sheer impertinence to want to marry his granddaughter on less than fifteen thousand dollars a year; Mrs. Farron would think that there were lots of equally agreeable young men in the world who would not take a girl to China; and his mother, whom he could not help considering the wisest of the three, would think that Mathilde lacked discipline and strength of will for such an adventure.  And on this he found he made up his mind.  “After all,” he said to himself as he put the chair back against the wall, “everything else would be failure, and this may be success.”

It was the afternoon that Farron was brought back from the hospital, and he and Mathilde were sure of having the drawing-room to themselves.  He told her the situation slowly and with a great deal of detail, chronologically, introducing the Chinese trip at the very end.  But she did not at once understand.

“O Pete, you would not go away from me!” she said.  “I could not face that.”

“Couldn’t you?  Remember that everything you say is going to be used against you.”

“Would you be willing to go, Pete?”

“Only if you will go with me.”

“Oh!” she clasped her hands to her breast, shrinking back to look at him.  So that was what he had meant, this stranger whom she had known for such a short time.  As she looked she half expected that he would smile, and say it was all a joke; but his eyes were steadily and seriously fixed on hers.  It was very queer, she thought.  Their meeting, their first kiss, their engagement, had all seemed so inevitable, so natural, there had not been a hint of doubt or decision about it; but now all of a sudden she found herself faced by a situation in which it was impossible to say yes or no.

“It would be wonderful, of course,” she said, after a minute, but her tone showed she was not considering it as a possibility.

Wayne’s heart sank; he saw that he had thought it possible that he would not allow her to go, but that he had never seriously faced the chance of her refusing.

“Mathilde,” he said, “it’s far and sudden, and we shall be poor, and I can’t promise that I shall succeed more than other fellows; and yet against all that-”

She looked at him.

“You don’t think I care for those things?  I don’t care if you succeed or fail, or live all your life in Siam.”

“What is it, then?”

“Pete, it’s my mother.  She would never consent.”

Wayne was aware of this, but, then, as he pointed out to Mathilde with great care, Mrs. Farron could not bear for her daughter the pain of separation.

“Separation!” cried the girl, “But you just said you would not go if I did not.”

“If you put your mother before me, mayn’t I put my profession before you?”

“My dear, don’t speak in that tone.”

“Why, Mathilde,” he said, and he sprang up and stood looking down at her from a little distance, “this is the real test.  We have thought we loved each other-”

“Thought!” she interrupted.

“But to get engaged with no immediate prospect of marriage, with all our families and friends grouped about, that doesn’t mean such a lot, does it?”

“It does to me,” she answered almost proudly.

“Now, one of us has to sacrifice something.  I want to go on this expedition.  I want to succeed.  That may be egotism or legitimate ambition.  I don’t know, but I want to go.  I think I mean to go.  Ought I to give it up because you are afraid of your mother?”

“It’s love, not fear, Pete.”

“You love me, too, you say.”

“I feel an obligation to her.”

“And, good Heavens! do you feel none to me?”

“No, no.  I love you too much to feel an obligation to you.”

“But you love your mother and feel an obligation to her.  Why, Mathilde, that feeling of obligation is love-love in its most serious form.  That’s what you don’t feel for me.  That’s why you won’t go.”

“I haven’t said I wouldn’t go.”

“You never even thought of going.”

“I have, I do.  But how can I help hesitating?  You must know I want to go.”

“I see very little sign of it,” he murmured.  The interview had not gone as he intended.  He had not meant, he never imagined, that he would attempt to urge and coerce her; but her very detachment seemed to set a fire burning within him.

“I think,” he said with an effort to sound friendly, “that I had better go and let you think this over by yourself.”

He was actually moving to the door when she sprang up and put her arms about him.

“Weren’t you even going to kiss me, Pete?”

He stooped, and touched her cheek with his lips.

“Do you call that a kiss?”

“O Mathilde, do you think any kiss will change the facts?” he answered, and was gone.

As soon as he had left her the desire for tears left her, too.  She felt calm and more herself, more an isolated, independent human being than ever before in her life.  She thought of all the things she ought to have said to Pete.  The reason why she felt no obligation to him was that she was one with him.  She was prepared to sacrifice him exactly as she was, or ought to be, willing to sacrifice herself; whereas her mother-it seemed as if her mother’s power surrounded her in every direction, as solid as the ancients believed the dome of heaven.

Pringle appeared in the doorway in his eternal hunt for the tea-things.

“May I take the tray, miss?” he said.

She nodded, hardly glancing at the untouched tea-table.  Pringle, as he bent over it, observed that it was nice to have Mr. Farron back.  Mathilde remembered that she, too, had once been interested in her stepfather’s return.

“Where’s my mother, Pringle?”

“Mrs. Farron’s in her room, I think, miss, and Mr. Lanley’s with her.”

Lanley had stopped as usual to ask after his son-in-law.  He found his daughter writing letters in her room.  He thought her looking cross, but in deference to her recent anxieties he called it, even in his own mind, overstrained.

“Vincent is doing very well, I believe,” she answered in response to his question.  “He ought to be.  He is in charge of two lovely young creatures hardly Mathilde’s age who have already taken complete control of the household.”

“You’ve seen him, of course.”

“For a few minutes; they allow me a few minutes.  They communicate by secret signals when they think I have stayed long enough.”

Mr. Lanley never knew how to treat this mood of his daughter’s, which seemed to him as unreasonable as if it were emotional, and yet as cold as if it were logic itself.  He changed the subject and said boldly: 

“Mrs. Baxter is coming to-morrow.”

Adelaide’s eyes faintly flashed.

“Oh, wouldn’t you know it!” she murmured.  “Just at the most inconvenient time-inconvenient for me, I mean.  Really, lovers are the only people you can depend on.  I wish I had a lover.”

“Adelaide,” said her father with some sternness, “even in fun you should not say such a thing.  If Mathilde heard you-”

“Mathilde is the person who made me see it.  Her boy is here all the time, trying to think of something to please her.  And who have I?  Vincent has his nurses; and you have your old upholstered lady.  I can’t help wishing I had a lover.  They are the only people who, as the Wayne boy would say, ‘stick around.’  But don’t worry, Papa, I have a loyal nature.”  She was interrupted by a knock at the door, and a nurse-the same who had been too encouraging to please her at the hospital-put in her head and said brightly: 

“You may see Mr. Farron now, Mrs. Farron.”

Adelaide turned to her father and made a little bow.

“See how I am favored,” she said, and left him.

Nothing of this mood was apparent when she entered her husband’s room, though she noticed that the arrangement of the furniture had been changed, and, what she disliked even more, that they had brushed his hair in a new way.  This, with his pallor and thinness, made him look strange to her.  She bent over, and laid her cheek to his almost motionless lips.

“Well, dear,” she said, “have you seen the church-warden part they have given your hair?”

He shook his head impatiently, and she saw, she had made the mistake of trying to give the tone to an interview in which she was not the leading character.

“Who has the room above mine, Adelaide?” he asked.

“My maid.”

“Ask her not to practice the fox-trot, will you?”

“O Vincent, she is never there.”

“My mistake,” he answered, and shut his eyes.

She repented at once.

“Of course I’ll tell her.  I’m sorry that you were disturbed.”  But she was thinking only of his tone.  He was not an irritable man, and he had never used such a tone to her before.  All pleasure in the interview was over.  She was actually glad when one of the nurses came in and began to move about the room in a manner that suggested dismissal.

“Of course I’m not angry,” she said to herself.  “He’s so weak one must humor him like a child.”

She derived some satisfaction, however, from the idea of sending for her maid Lucie and making her uncomfortable; but on her way she met Mathilde in the hall.

“May I speak to you, Mama?” she said.

Mrs. Farron laughed.

“May you speak to me?” she said.  “Why, yes; you may have the unusual privilege.  What is it?”

Mathilde followed her mother into the bedroom and shut the door.

“Pete has just been here.  He has been offered a position in China.”

“In China?” said Mrs. Farron.  This was the first piece of luck that had come to her in a long time, but she did not betray the least pleasure.  “I hope it is a good one.”

“Yes, he thinks it good.  He sails in two weeks.”

“In two weeks?” And this time she could not prevent her eye lighting a little.  She thought how nicely that small complication had settled itself, and how clever she had been to have the mother to dinner and behave as if she were friendly.  She did not notice that her daughter was trembling; she couldn’t, of course, be expected to know that the girl’s hands were like ice, and that she had waited several seconds to steady her voice sufficiently to pronounce the fatal sentence: 

“He wants me to go with him, Mama.”

She watched her mother in an agony for the effect of these words.  Mrs. Farron had suddenly detected a new burn in the hearth-rug.  She bent over it.

“This wood does snap so!” she murmured.

The rug was a beautiful old Persian carpet of roses and urns.

“Did you understand what I said, Mama?”

“Yes, dear; that Mr. Wayne was going to China in two weeks and wanted you to go, too.  Was it just a politesse, or does he actually imagine that you could?”

“He thinks I can.”

Mrs. Farron laughed good-temperedly.

“Did you go and see about having your pink silk shortened?” she said.

Mathilde stared at her mother, and in the momentary silence Lucie came in and asked what madame wanted for the evening, and Adelaide in her fluent French began explaining that what she really desired most was that Lucie should not make so much noise in her room that monsieur could not sleep.  In the midst of it she stopped and turned to her daughter.

“Won’t you be late for dinner, darling?” she said.

Mathilde thought it very possible, and went away to get dressed.  She went into her own room and shut the door sharply behind her.

All the time she was dressing she tried to rehearse her case-that it was her life, her love, her chance; but all the time she had a sickening sense that a lifted eye-brow of her mother’s would make it sound childish and absurd even in her own ears.  She had counted on a long evening, but when she went down-stairs she found three or four friends of her mother’s were to dine and go to the theater.  The dinner was amusing, the talk, though avowedly hampered by the presence of Mathilde, was witty and unexpected enough; but Mathilde was not amused by it, for she particularly dreaded her mother in such a mood of ruthless gaiety.  At the theater they were extremely critical, and though they missed almost the whole first act, appeared, in the entr’acte, to feel no hesitation in condemning it.  They spoke of French and Italian actors by name, laughed heartily over the playwright’s conception of social usages, and made Mathilde feel as if her own unacknowledged enjoyment of the play was the guiltiest of secrets.

As they drove home, she was again alone with her mother, and she said at once the sentence she had determined on: 

“I don’t think you understood, Mama, how seriously I meant what I said this afternoon.”

Mrs. Farron was bending her long-waisted figure forward to get a good look at a picture which, small, lonely, and brightly lighted, hung in a picture-dealer’s window.  It was a picture of an empty room.  Hot summer sunlight filtered through the lowered Venetian blinds, and fell in bands on the golden wood of the floor.  Outside the air was burned and dusty, but inside the room all was clear, cool, and pure.

“How perfect his things are,” murmured Mrs. Farron to herself, and then added to her daughter:  “Yes, my dear, I did take in what you said.  You really think you are in love with this Wayne boy, don’t you?  It’s immensely to your credit, darling,” she went on, her tone taking on a flattering sweetness, “to care so much about any one who has such funny, stubby little hands-most unattractive hands,” she added almost dreamily.

There was a long pause during which an extraordinary thing happened to Mathilde.  She found that it didn’t make the very slightest difference to her what her mother thought of Pete or his hands, that it would never make any difference to her again.  It was as if her will had suddenly been born, and the first act of that will was to decide to go with the man she loved.  How could she have doubted for an instant?  It was so simple, and no opposition would or could mean anything to her.  She was not in the least angry; on the contrary, she felt extremely pitiful, as if she were saying good-by to some one who did not know she was going away, as if in a sense she had now parted from her mother forever.  Tears came into her eyes.

“Ah, Mama!” she said like a sigh.

Mrs. Farron felt she had been cruel, but without regretting it; for that, she thought, was often a parent’s duty.

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings, Mathilde.  The boy is a nice enough little person, but really I could not let you set off for China at a minute’s notice with any broker’s clerk who happened to fall in love with your golden hair.  When you have a little more experience you will discriminate between the men you like to have love you and the men there is the smallest chance of your loving.  I assure you, if little Wayne were not in love with you, you would think him a perfectly commonplace boy.  If one of your friends were engaged to him, you would be the first to say that you wondered what it was she saw in him.  That isn’t the way one wants people to feel about one’s husband, is it?  And as to going to China with him, you know that’s impossible, don’t you?”

“It would be impossible to let him go without me.”

“Really, Mathilde!” said Mrs. Farron, gently, as if she, so willing to play fair, were being put off with fantasies.  “I don’t understand you,” she added.

“No, Mama; you don’t.”

The motor stopped at the door, and they went in silence to Mrs. Farron’s room, where for a bitter hour they talked, neither yielding an inch.  At last Adelaide sent the girl to bed.  Mathilde was aware of profound physical exhaustion, and yet underneath there was a high knowledge of something unbreakable within her.

Left alone, Adelaide turned instinctively toward her husband’s door.  There were her strength and vision.  Then she remembered, and drew back; but presently, hearing a stir there, she knocked very softly.  A nurse appeared on the instant.

“Oh, please, Mrs. Farron!  Mr. Farron has just got to sleep.”

Adelaide stood alone in the middle of the floor.  Once again, she thought, in a crisis of her life she had no one to depend on but herself.  She lifted her shoulders.  No one was to blame, but there the fact was.  They urged you to cling and be guided, but when the pinch came, you had to act for yourself.  She had learned her lesson now.  Henceforward she took her own life over into her own hands.

She reviewed her past dependences.  Her youth, with its dependence on her father, particularly in matters of dress.  She recalled her early photographs with a shudder.  Had she really dressed so badly or was it only the change of fashion?  And then her dependence on Joe Severance.  What could be more ridiculous than for a woman of her intelligence to allow herself to be guided in everything by a man like Joe, who had nothing himself but a certain shrewd masculinity?  And now Vincent.  She was still under the spell of his superiority, but perhaps she would come to judge him too.  She had learned much from him.  Perhaps she had learned all he had to teach her.  Her face looked as if it were carved out of some smooth white stone.