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

After she had gone up-stairs, Mathilde went down again to telephone Pete that she had made her decision.  She went boldly snapping electric switches, for her going was a sort of assertion of her right to independent action.  She would have hesitated even less if she had known how welcome her news was, how he had suffered since their parting.

On going home from his interview with her, he found his mother dressing to dine with Mr. Lanley, a party arranged before the unexpected arrival of Mrs. Baxter.  The only part of dressing that delayed Mrs. Wayne was her hair, which was so long that the brushing of it took time.  In this process she was engaged when her son, in response to her answer, came into her room.

“How is Mr. Farron?” she asked at once, and he, rather touched at the genuineness of her interest, answered her in detail before her next exclamation betrayed that it was entirely for the employer of Marty Burke that she was solicitous.  “Isn’t it too bad he was taken ill just now?” she said.

The bitterness and doubt from which Wayne was suffering were not emotions that disposed him to confidence.  He did not want to tell his mother what he was going through, for the obvious and perhaps unworthy reason that it was just what she would have expected him to go through.  At the same time a real deceit was involved in concealing it, and so, tipping his chair back against her wall, he said: 

“The firm has asked me to go to China for them.”

His mother turned, her whole face lit up with interest.

“To China!  How interesting!” she said.  “China is a wonderful country.  How I should like to go to China!”

“Come along.  I don’t start for two weeks.”

She shook her head.

“No, if you go, I’ll make a trip to that hypnotic clinic of Dr. Platerbridge’s; and if I can learn the trick, I will open one here.”

The idea crossed Wayne’s mind that perhaps he had not the power of inspiring affection.

“You don’t miss people a bit, do you, Mother?” he said.

“Yes, Pete, I do; only there is so much to be done.  What does Mathilde say to you going off like this?  How long will you be gone?”

“More than a year.”

“Pete, how awful for her!”

“There is nothing to prevent her going with me.”

“You couldn’t take that child to China.”

“You may be glad to know that she is cordially of your opinion.”

The feeling behind his tone at last attracted his mother’s full attention.

“But, my dear boy,” she said gently, “she has never been anywhere in her life without a maid.  She probably doesn’t know how to do her hair or mend her clothes or anything practical.”

“Mother dear, you are not so awfully practical yourself,” he answered; “but you would have gone.”

Mrs. Wayne looked impish.

“I always loved that sort of thing,” she said; and then, becoming more maternal, she added, “and that doesn’t mean it would be sensible because I’d do it.”

“Well,”-Wayne stood up preparatory to leaving the room,-“I mean to take her if she’ll go.”

His mother, who had now finished winding her braid very neatly around her head, sank into a chair.

“Oh, dear!” she said, “I almost wish I weren’t dining with Mr. Lanley.  He’ll think it’s all my fault.”

“I doubt if he knows about it.”

Mrs. Wayne’s eyes twinkled.

“May I tell him?  I should like to see his face.”

“Tell him I am going, if you like.  Don’t say I want to take her with me.”

Her face fell.

“That wouldn’t be much fun,” she answered, “because I suppose the truth is they won’t be sorry to have you out of the way.”

“I suppose not,” he said, and shut the door behind him.  He could not truthfully say that his mother had been much of a comfort.  He had suddenly thought that he would go down to the first floor and get Lily Parret to go to the theater with him.  He and she had the warm friendship for each other of two handsome, healthy young people of opposite sexes who might have everything to give each other except time.  She was perhaps ten years older than he, extremely handsome, with dimples and dark red hair and blue eyes.  She had a large practice among the poor, and might have made a conspicuous success of her profession if it had not been for her intense and too widely diffused interest.  She wanted to strike a blow at every abuse that came to her attention, and as, in the course of her work, a great many turned up, she was always striking blows and never following them up.  She went through life in a series of springs, each one in a different direction; but the motion of her attack was as splendid as that of a tiger.  Often she was successful, and always she enjoyed herself.

When she answered Pete’s ring, and he looked up at her magnificent height, her dimples appeared in welcome.  She really was glad to see him.

“Come out and dine with me, Lily, and go to the theater.”

“Come to a meeting at Cooper Union on capital punishment.  I’m going to speak, and I’m going to be very good.”

“No, Lily; I want to explain to you what a pitiable sex you belong to.  You have no character, no will-”

She shook her head, laughing.

“You are a personal lot, you young men,” she said.  “You change your mind about women every day, according to how one of them treats you.”

“They don’t amount to a row of pins, Lily.”

“Certainly some men select that kind, Pete.”

“O Lily,” he answered, “don’t talk to me like that!  I want some one to tell me I’m perfect, and, strangely enough, no one will.”

“I will,” she answered, with beaming good nature, “and I pretty near think so, too.  But I can’t dine with you, Pete.  Wouldn’t you like to go to my meeting?”

“I should perfectly hate to,” he answered, and went off crossly, to dine at his college’s local club.  Here he found an old friend, who most fortunately said something derogatory of the firm of Benson & Honaton.  The opinion coincided with certain phases of Wayne’s own views, but he contradicted it, held it up to ridicule, and ended by quoting incidents in the history of his friend’s own firm which, as he said, were probably among the crookedest things that had ever been put over in Wall Street.  Lily would not have distracted his mind more completely.  He felt almost cheerful when he went home about ten o’clock.  His mother was still out, and there was no letter from Mathilde.  He had been counting on finding one.

Before long his mother came in.  She was looking very fine.  She had on a new gray dress that she had had made for her by a fallen woman from an asylum, but which had turned out better than such ventures of Mrs. Wayne’s usually did.

She had supposed she and Mr. Lanley were to dine alone, an idea which had not struck her as revolutionary.  Accustomed to strange meals in strange company-a bowl of milk with a prison chaplain at a dairy lunch-room, or even, on one occasion, a supper in an Owl Lunch Wagon with a wavering drunkard,-she had thought that a quiet, perfect dinner with Mr. Lanley sounded pleasant enough.  But she was not sorry to find it had been enlarged.  She liked to meet new people.  She was extremely optimistic, and always hoped that they would prove either spiritually rewarding, or practically useful to some of her projects.  When she saw Mrs. Baxter, with her jetty hair, jeweled collar, and eyes a trifle too saurian for perfect beauty, she at once saw a subscription to the working-girl’s club.  The fourth person Mr. Wilsey, Lanley’s lawyer, she knew well by reputation.  She wondered if she could make him see that his position on the eight-hour law was absolutely anti-social.

Mr. Lanley enjoyed a small triumph when she entered.  He had been so discreet in his description of her to Mrs. Baxter, he had been so careful not to hint that she was an illuminating personality who had suddenly come into his life, that he knew he had left his old friend with the general impression that Mrs. Wayne was merely the mother of an undesirable suitor of Mathilde’s who spent most of her life in the company of drunkards.  So when she came in, a little late as usual, in her long, soft, gray dress, with a pink rose at her girdle, looking far more feminine than Mrs. Baxter, about whom Adelaide’s offensive adjective “upholstered” still clung, he felt the full effect of her appearance.  He even enjoyed the obviously suspicious glance which Mrs. Baxter immediately afterward turned upon him.

At dinner things began well.  They talked about people and events of which Mrs. Wayne knew nothing, but her interest and good temper made her not an outsider, but an audience.  Anecdotes which even Mr. Lanley might have felt were trivial gossip became, through her attention to them, incidents of the highest human interest.  Such an uncritical interest was perhaps too stimulating.

He expected nothing dangerous when, during the game course, Mrs. Baxter turned to him and asked how Mathilde had enjoyed what she referred to as “her first winter.”

Mr. Lanley liked to talk about Mathilde.  He described, with a little natural exaggeration, how much she had enjoyed herself and how popular she had been.

“I hope she hasn’t been bitten by any of those modern notions,” said Mrs. Baxter.

Mr. Wilsey broke in.

“Oh, these modern, restless young women!” he said.  “They don’t seem able to find their natural contentment in their own homes.  My daughter came to me the other day with a wonderful scheme of working all day long with charity organizations.  I said to her, ‘My dear, charity begins at home.’  My wife, Mrs. Baxter, is an old-fashioned housekeeper.  She gives out all supplies used in my house; she knows where the servants are at every minute of the day, and we have nine.  She-”

“Oh, how is dear Mrs. Wilsey?” said Mrs. Baxter, perhaps not eager for the full list of her activities.

“Well, at present she is in a sanatorium,” replied her husband, “from overwork, just plain overwork.”

Mr. Lanley, catching Mrs. Wayne’s twinkling eye, could only pray that she would not point out that a sojourn in a sanatorium was not complete contentment in the home; but before she had a chance, Mrs. Baxter had gone on.

“That’s so like the modern girl-anything but her obvious duty.  She’ll help any one but her mother and work anywhere but in the home.  We’ve had a very painful case at home lately.  One of our most charming young girls has suddenly developed an absolutely morbid curiosity about the things that take place in the women’s courts.  Why, as her poor father said to me, ’Mrs. Baxter, old as I am, I hear things in those courts so shocking I have hard work forgetting them; and yet Imogen wants me to let her go into those courts day after day-’”

“Oh, that’s abnormal, almost perverted,” said Mr. Wilsey, judicially.  “The women’s courts are places where no-” he hesitated a bare instant, and Mrs. Wayne asked: 

“No woman should go?”

“No girl should go.”

“Yet many of the girls who come there are under sixteen.”

Mr. Wilsey hid a slight annoyance under a manner peculiarly bland.

“Ah, dear lady,” he said, “you must forgive my saying that that remark is a trifle irrelevant.”

“Is it?” she asked, meaning him to answer her; but he only looked benevolently at her, and turned to listen to Mrs. Baxter, who was saying: 

“Yes, everywhere we look nowadays we see women rushing into things they don’t understand, and of course we all know what women are-”

“What are they?” asked Mrs. Wayne, and Lanley’s heart sank.

“Oh, emotional and inaccurate and untrustworthy and spiteful.”

“Mrs. Baxter, I’m sure you’re not like that.”

“My dear Madam!” exclaimed Wilsey.

“But isn’t that logical?” Mrs. Wayne pursued.  “If all women are so, and she’s a woman?”

“Ah, logic, dear lady,” said Wilsey, holding up a finger-“logic, you know, has never been the specialty of your sex.”

“Of course it’s logic,” said Lanley, crossly.  “If you say all Americans are liars, Wilsey, and you’re an American, the logical inference is that you think yourself a liar.  But Mrs. Baxter doesn’t mean that she thinks all women are inferior-”

“I must say I prefer men,” she answered almost coquettishly.

“If all women were like you, Mrs. Baxter, I’d believe in giving them the vote,” said Wilsey.

“Please don’t,” she answered.  “I don’t want it.”

“Ah, the clever ones don’t.”

“I never pretended to be clever.”

“Perhaps not; but I’d trust your intuition where I would pay no attention to a clever person.”

Lanley laughed.

“I think you’d better express that a little differently, Wilsey,” he said; but his legal adviser did not notice him.

“My daughter came to me the other day,” he went on to Mrs. Baxter, “and said, ‘Father, don’t you think women ought to have the vote some day?’ and I said, ‘Yes, my dear, just as soon as men have the babies.’”

“There’s no answer to that,” said Mrs. Baxter.

“I fancy not,” said Wilsey.  “I think I put the essence of it in that sentence.”

“If ever women get into power in this country, I shall live abroad.”

“O Mrs. Baxter,” said Mrs. Wayne, “really you don’t understand women-”

“I don’t?  Why, Mrs. Wayne, I am a woman.”

“All human beings are spiteful and inaccurate and all those things you said; but that isn’t all they are.  The women I see, the wives of my poor drunkards are so wonderful, so patient.  They are mothers and wage-earners and sick nurses, too; they’re not the sort of women you describe.  Perhaps,” she added, with one of her fatal impulses toward concession, “perhaps your friends are untrustworthy and spiteful, as you say-”

Mrs. Baxter drew herself up.  “My friends, Mrs. Wayne,” she said-“my friends, I think, will compare favorably even with the wives of your drunkards.”

Mr. Lanley rose to his feet.

“Shall we go up-stairs?” he said.  Mr. Wilsey offered Mrs. Baxter his arm.  “An admirable answer that of yours,” he murmured as he led her from the room, “admirable snub to her perfectly unwarranted attack on you and your friends.”

“Of course you realize that she doesn’t know any of the people I know,” said Mrs. Baxter.  “Why should she begin to abuse them?”

Mr. Wilsey laughed, and shook his finger.

“Just because she doesn’t know them.  That, I’m afraid, is the rub.  That’s what I usually find lies behind the socialism of socialists-the sense of being excluded.  This poor lady has evidently very little usage du monde.  It is her pitiful little protest, dear Madam, against your charm, your background, your grand manner.”

They sank upon an ample sofa near the fire, and though the other end of the large room was chilly, Lanley and Mrs. Wayne moved thither with a common impulse.

Mrs. Wayne turned almost tearfully to Lanley.

“I’m so sorry I’ve spoiled your party,” she said.

“You’ve done much worse than that,” he returned gravely.

“O Mr. Lanley,” she wailed, “what have I done?”

“You’ve spoiled a friendship.”

“Between you and me?”

He shook his head.

“Between them and me.  I never heard people talk such nonsense, and yet I’ve been hearing people talk like that all my life, and have never taken it in.  Mrs. Wayne, I want you to tell me something frankly-”

“Oh, I’m so terrible when I’m frank,” she said.

“Do I talk like that?”

She looked at him and looked away again.

“Good God! you think I do!”

“No, you don’t talk like that often, but I think you feel that way a good deal.”

“I don’t want to,” he answered.  “I’m sixty-four, but I don’t ever want to talk like Wilsey.  Won’t you stop me whenever I do?”

Mrs. Wayne sighed.

“It will make you angry.”

“And if it does?”

“I hate to make people angry.  I was distressed that evening on the pier.”

He looked up, startled.

“I suppose I talked like Wilsey that night?”

“You said you might be old-fashioned but-”

“Don’t, please, tell me what I said, Mrs. Wayne.”  He went on more seriously:  “I’ve got to an age when I can’t expect great happiness from life-just a continuance of fairly satisfactory outside conditions; but since I’ve known you, I’ve felt a lightening, a brightening, an intensifying of my own inner life that I believe comes as near happiness as anything I’ve ever felt, and I don’t want to lose it on account of a reactionary old couple like that on the sofa over there.”

He dreaded being left alone with the reactionary old couple when presently Mrs. Wayne, very well pleased with her evening, took her departure.  He assisted her into her taxi, and as he came upstairs with a buoyant step, he wished it were not ridiculous at his age to feel so light-hearted.

He saw that his absence had given his guests an instant of freer criticism, for they were tucking away smiles as he entered.

“A very unusual type, is she not, our friend, Mrs. Wayne?” said Wilsey.

“A little bit of a reformer, I’m afraid,” said Mrs. Baxter.

“Don’t be too hard on her,” answered Lanley.

“Oh, very charming, very charming,” put in Wilsey, feeling, perhaps, that Mrs. Baxter had been severe; “but the poor lady’s mind is evidently seething with a good many undigested ideas.”

“You should have pointed out the flaws in her reasoning, Wilsey,” said his host.

“Argue with a woman, Lanley!” Mr. Wilsey held up his hand in protest.  “No, no, I never argue with a woman.  They take it so personally.”

“I think we had an example of that this evening,” said Mrs. Baxter.

“Yes, indeed,” the lawyer went on.  “See how the dear lady missed the point, and became so illogical and excited under our little discussion.”

“Funny,” said Lanley.  “I got just the opposite impression.”


“I thought it was you who missed the point, Wilsey.”

He saw how deeply he had betrayed himself as the others exchanged a startled glance.  It was Mrs. Baxter who thought of the correct reply.

Were there any points?” she asked.

Wilsey shook his finger.

“Ah, don’t be cruel!” he said, and held out his hand to say good night; but Lanley was smoking, with his head tilted up and his eyes on the ceiling.  What he was thinking was, “It isn’t good for an old man to get as angry as I am.”

“Good night, Lanley; a delightful evening.”

Mr. Lanley’s chin came down.

“Oh, good night, Wilsey; glad you found it so.”

When he was gone, Mrs. Baxter observed that he was a most agreeable companion.

“So witty, so amiable, and, for a leader at the bar, he has an extraordinarily light touch.”

Mr. Lanley had resumed his position on the hearth-rug and his contemplation of the ceiling.

“Wilsey’s not a leader at the bar,” he said, with open crossness.

He showed no disposition to sit and chat over the events of the evening.