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

When Mathilde emerged from the subway into the sunlight of City Hall Park, Pete was nowhere to be seen.  She had spent several minutes wandering in the subterranean labyrinth which threatened to bring her to Brooklyn Bridge and nowhere else, so she was a little late for her appointment; and yet Pete was not there.  He had promised to be waiting for her.  This was a more important occasion than the meeting in the museum and more terrifying, too.

Their plans were simple.  They were going to get their marriage license, they were going to be married immediately, they were then going to inform their respective families, and start two days later for San Francisco.

Mathilde stared furtively about her.  A policeman strolled past, striking terror to a guilty heart; a gentleman of evidently unbroken leisure regarded her with a benevolent eye completely ringed by red.  Crowds were surging in and out of the newspaper offices and the Municipal Building and the post office, but stare where she would, she couldn’t find Pete.

She had ten minutes to think of horrors before she saw him rushing across the park toward her, and she had the idea of saying to him those words which he himself had selected as typically wifely, “Not that I mind at all, but I was afraid I must have misunderstood you.”  But she did not get very far in her mild little joke, for it was evident at once that something had happened.

“My dear love,” he said, “it’s no go.  We can’t sail, we can’t be married.  I think I’m out of a job.”

As they stood there, her pretty clothes, the bright sun shining on her golden hair and dark furs and polished shoes, her beauty, but, above all, their complete absorption in each other, made them conspicuous.  They were utterly oblivious.

Pete told her exactly what had happened.  Some months before he had been sent to make a report on a coal property in Pennsylvania.  He had made it under the assumption that the firm was thinking of underwriting its bonds.  He had been mistaken.  As owners Honaton & Benson had already acquired the majority of interest in it.  His report,-she remembered his report, for he had told her about it the first day he came to see her,-had been favorable except for one important fact.  There was in that district a car shortage which for at least a year would hamper the marketing of the supply.  That had been the point of the whole thing.  He had advised against taking the property over until this defect could be remedied or allowed for.  They had accepted the report.

Well, late in the afternoon of the preceding day he had gone to the office to say good-by to the firm.  He could not help being touched by the friendliness of both men’s manner.  Honaton gave him a silver traveling-flask, plain except for an offensive cat’s-eye set in the top.  Benson, more humane and practical, gave him a check.

“I think I’ve cleared up everything before I leave,” Wayne said, trying to be conscientious in return for their kindness, “except one thing.  I’ve never corrected the proof of my report on the Southerland coal property.”

For a second there was something strange in the air.  The partners exchanged the merest flicker of a look, which Wayne, as far as he thought of it at all, supposed to be a recognition on their part of his carefulness in thinking of such a detail.

“You need not give that another thought,” said Benson.  “We are not thinking of publishing that report at present.  And when we do, I have your manuscript.  I’ll go over the proof myself.”

Relieved to be spared another task, Wayne shook hands with his employers and withdrew.  Outside he met David.

“Say,” said David, “I am sorry you’re leaving us; but, gee!” he added, his face twisting with joy, “ain’t the firm glad to have you go!”

It had long been Wayne’s habit to pay strict attention to the impressions of David.

“Why do you think they are glad?” he asked.

“Oh, they’re glad all right,” said David.  “I heard the old man say yesterday, ‘And by next Saturday he will be at sea.’  It was as if he was going to get a Christmas present.”  And David went on about other business.

Once put on the right track, it was not difficult to get the idea.  He went to the firm’s printer, but found they had had no orders for printing his report.  The next morning, instead of spending his time with his own last arrangements, he began hunting up other printing offices, and finally found what he was looking for.  His report was already in print, with one paragraph left out-that one which related to the shortage of cars.  His name was signed to it, with a little preamble by the firm, urging the investment on the favorable notice of their customers, and spoke in high terms of the accuracy of his estimates.

To say that Pete did not once contemplate continuing his arrangements as if nothing had happened would not be true.  All he had to do was to go.  The thing was dishonest, clearly enough, but it was not his action.  His original report would always be proof of his own integrity, and on his return he could sever his connection with the firm on some other pretext.  On the other hand, to break his connection with Honaton & Benson, to force the suppression of the report unless given in full, to give up his trip, to confess that immediate marriage was impossible, that he himself was out of a job, that the whole basis of his good fortune was a fraud that he had been too stupid to discover-all this seemed to him more than man could be asked to do.

But that was what he decided must be done.  From the printer’s he telephoned to the Farrons, but found that Miss Severance was out.  He knew she must have already started for their appointment in the City Hall Park.  He had made up his mind, and yet when he saw her, so confident of the next step, waiting for him, he very nearly yielded to a sudden temptation to make her his wife, to be sure of that, whatever else might have to be altered.

He had known she wouldn’t reproach him, but he was deeply grateful to her for being so unaware that there was any grounds for reproach.  She understood the courage his renunciation had required.  That seemed to be what she cared for most.

At length he said to her: 

“Now I must go and get this off my chest with the firm.  Go home, and I’ll come as soon as ever I can.”

But here she shook her head.

“I couldn’t go home,” she answered.  “It might all come out before you arrived, and I could not listen to things that”-she avoided naming her mother-“that will be said about you, Pete.  Isn’t there somewhere I can wait while you have your interview?”

There was the outer office of Honaton & Benson.  He let her go with him, and turned her over to the care of David, who found her a corner out of the way, and left her only once.  That was to say to a friend of his in the cage:  “When you go out, cast your eye over Pete’s girl.  Somewhat of a peacherino.”

In the meantime Wayne went into Benson’s office.  There wasn’t a flicker of alarm on the senior partner’s face on seeing him.

“Hullo, Pete!” he said, “I thought you’d be packing your bags.”

“I’m not packing anything,” said Wayne.  “I’ve come to tell you I can’t go to China for you.  Mr. Benson.”

“Oh, come, come,” said the other, very paternally, “we can’t let you off like that.  This is business, my dear boy.  It would cost us money, after having made all our arrangements, if you changed your mind.”

“So I understand.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean just what you think I mean, Mr. Benson.”

Wayne would have said that he could never forget the presence under any circumstances of his future wife, waiting, probably nervously, in the outer office; but he did.  The interest of the next hour drove out everything else.  Honaton was sent for from the exchange, a lawsuit was threatened, a bribe-he couldn’t mistake it-offered.  He was told he might find it difficult to find another position if he left their firm under such conditions.

“On the contrary,” said Peter, firmly, “from what I have heard, I believe it will improve my standing.”

That he came off well in the struggle was due not so much to his ability, but to the fact that he now had nothing to lose or gain from the situation.  As soon as Benson grasped this fact he began a masterly retreat.  Wayne noticed the difference between the partners:  Honaton, the less able of the two, wanted to save the situation, but before everything else wanted to leave in Wayne’s mind the sense that he had made a fool of himself.  Benson, more practical, would have been glad to put Pete in jail if he could; but as he couldn’t do that, his interest was in nothing but saving the situation.  The only way to do this was to give up all idea of publishing any report.  He did this by assuming that Wayne had simply changed his mind or had at least utterly failed to convey his meaning in his written words.  He made this point of view very plausible by quoting the more laudatory of Wayne’s sentences; and when Pete explained that the whole point of his report was in the sentence that had been omitted, Benson leaned back, chuckling, and biting off the end of his cigar.

“Oh, you college men!” he said.  “I’m afraid I’m not up to your subtleties.  When you said it was the richest vein and favorably situated, I supposed that was what you meant.  If you meant just the opposite, well, let it go.  Honaton & Benson certainly don’t want to get out a report contrary to fact.”

“That’s what he has accused us of,” said Honaton.

“Oh, no, no,” said Benson; “don’t be too literal, Jack.  In the heat of argument we all say things we don’t mean.  Pete here doesn’t like to have his lovely English all messed up by a practical dub like me.  I doubt if he wants to sever his connection with this firm.”

Honaton yielded.

“Oh,” he said, “I’m willing enough he should stay, if-”

“Well, I’m not,” said Pete, and put an end to the conversation by walking out of the room.  He found David explaining the filing system to Mathilde, and she, hanging on his every word, partly on account of his native charm, partly on account of her own interest in anything neat, but most because she imagined the knowledge might some day make her a more serviceable wife to Pete.

Pete dreaded the coming interview with Mrs. Farron more than that with the firm-more, indeed, than he had ever dreaded anything.  He and Mathilde reached the house about a quarter before one, and Adelaide was not in.  This was fortunate, for while they waited they discovered a difference of intention.  Mathilde saw no reason for mentioning the fact that they had actually been on the point of taking out their marriage license.  She thought it was enough to tell her mother that the trip had been abandoned and that Pete had given up his job.  Pete contemplated nothing less than the whole truth.

“You can’t tell people half a story,” he said.  “It never works.”

Mathilde really quailed.

“It will be terrible to tell mama that,” she groaned.  “She thinks failure is worse than crime.”

“And she’s dead right,” said Pete.

When Adelaide came in she had Mr. Lanley with her.  She had seen him walking down Fifth Avenue with his hat at quite an outrageous angle, and she had ordered the motor to stop, and had beckoned him to her.  It was two days since her interview with Mrs. Baxter, and she had had no good opportunity of speaking to him.  The suspicion that he was avoiding her nerved her hand; but there was no hint of discipline in her smile, and she knew as well as if he had said it that he was thinking as he came to the side of the car how handsome and how creditable a daughter she was.  “Come to lunch with me,” she said; “or must you go home to your guest?”

“No, I was going to the club.  She’s lunching with a mysterious relation near Columbia University.”

“Don’t you know who it is?  Tell him home.”

“Home, Andrews.  No, she never says.”

“Don’t put your stick against the glass, there’s an angel.  I’ll tell you who it is.  An elder sister who supported and educated her, of whom she’s ashamed now.”

“How do you know?  It wouldn’t break the glass.”

“No; but I hate the noise.  I don’t know; I just made it up because it’s so likely.”

“She always speaks so affectionately of you.”

“She’s a coward; that’s the only difference.  She hates me just as much.”

“Well, you’ve never been nice to her, Adelaide.”

“I should think not.”

“She’s not as bad as you think,” said Mr. Lanley, who believed in old-fashioned loyalty.

“I can’t bear her,” said Adelaide.

“Why not?” As far as his feelings went, this seemed a perfectly safe question; but it wasn’t.

“Because she tries so hard to make you ridiculous.  Oh, not intentionally; but she talks of you as if you were a Don Juan of twenty-five.  You ought to be flattered, Papa dear, at having jealous scenes made about you when you are-what is it?-sixty-five.”

“Four,” said Mr. Lanley.

“Yes; such a morning as I had!  Not a minute with poor Vincent because you had had Mrs. Wayne to dine.  I’m not complaining, but I don’t like my father represented as a sort of comic-paper old man, you poor dear,”-and she laid her long, gloved hand on his knee,-“who have always been so conspicuously dignified.”

“If I have,” said her father, “I don’t know that anything she says can change it.”

“No, of course; only it was horrible to me to hear her describing you in the grip of a boyish passion.  But don’t let’s talk of it.  I hear,” she said, as if she were changing the subject, “that you have taken to going to the Metropolitan Museum at odd moments.”

He felt utterly stripped, and said without hope: 

“Yes; I’m a trustee, you know.”

Adelaide just glanced at him.

“You always have been, I think.”  They drove home in silence.

One reason why she was determined to have her father come home was that it was the first time that Vincent was to take luncheon downstairs, and when Adelaide had a part to play she liked to have an audience.  She was even glad to find Wayne in the drawing-room, though she did wonder to herself if the little creature had entirely given up earning his living.  It was a very different occasion from Pete’s last luncheon there; every one was as pleasant as possible.  As soon as the meal was over, Adelaide put her hand on her husband’s shoulder.

“You’re going to lie down at once, Vin.”

He rose obediently, but Wayne interposed.  It seemed to him that it would be possible to tell his story to Farron.

“Oh, can’t Mr. Farron stay a few minutes?” he said.  “I want so much to speak to you and him together about-”

Adelaide cut him short.

“No, he can’t.  It’s more important that he should get strong than anything else is.  You can talk to me all you like when I come down.  Come, Vin.”

When they were up-stairs, and she was tucking him up on his sofa, he asked gently: 

“What did that boy want?”

Adelaide made a little face.

“Nothing of any importance,” she said.

Things had indeed changed between them if he would accept such an answer as that.  She thought his indifference like the studied oblivion of the debtor who says, “Don’t I owe you something?” and is content with the most non-committal reply.  He lay back and smiled at her.  His expression was not easy to read.

She went down-stairs, where conversation had not prospered.  Mr. Lanley was smoking, with his cigar drooping from a corner of his mouth.  He felt very unhappy.  Mathilde was frightened.  Wayne had recast his opening sentence a dozen times.  He kept saying to himself that he wanted it to be perfectly simple, but not infantile, and each phrase he thought of in conformity with his one rule sounded like the opening lines of the stage child’s speech.

In the crisis of Adelaide’s being actually back again in the room he found himself saying: 

“Mrs. Farron, I think you ought to know exactly what has been happening.”

“Don’t I?” she asked.

“No.  You know that I was going to San Francisco the day after to-morrow-”

“Oh dear,” said Adelaide, regretfully, “is it given up?”

He told her rather slowly the whole story.  The most terrible moment was, as he had expected, when he explained that they had met, he and Mathilde, to apply for their marriage license.  Adelaide turned, and looked full at her daughter.

“You were going to treat me like that?” Mathilde burst into tears.  She had long been on the brink of them, and now they came more from nerves than from a sense of the justice of her mother’s complaint.  But the sound of them upset Wayne hopelessly.  He couldn’t go on for a minute, and Mr. Lanley rose to his feet.

“Good Lord! good Lord!” he said, “that was dishonorable!  Can’t you see that that is dishonorable, to marry her on the sly when we trusted her to go about with you-”

“O Papa, never mind about the dishonorableness,” said Adelaide.  “The point is”-and she looked at Wayne-“that they were building their elopement on something that turned out to be a fraud.  That doesn’t make one think very highly of your judgment, Mr. Wayne.”

“I made a mistake, Mrs. Farron.”

“It was a bad moment to make one.  You have worked three years with this firm and never suspected anything wrong?”

“Yes, sometimes I have-”

Adelaide’s eyebrows went up.

“Oh, you have suspected.  You had reason to think the whole thing might be dishonest, but you were willing to run away with Mathilde and let her get inextricably committed before you found out-”

“That’s irresponsible, sir,” said Lanley.  “I don’t suppose you understood what you were doing, but it was utterly irresponsible.”

“I think,” said Adelaide, “that it finally answers the question as to whether or not you are too young to be married.”

“Mama, I will marry Pete,” said Mathilde, trying to make a voice broken with sobs sound firm and resolute.

“Mr. Wayne at the moment has no means whatsoever, as I understand it,” said Adelaide.

“I don’t care whether he has or not,” said Mathilde.

Adelaide laughed.  The laugh rather shocked Mr. Lanley.  He tried to explain.

“I feel sorry for you, but you can’t imagine how painful it is to us to think that Mathilde came so near to being mixed up with a crooked deal like that-Mathilde, of all people.  You ought to see that for yourself.”

“I see it, thank you,” said Pete.

“Really, Mr. Wayne, I don’t think that’s quite the tone to take,” put in Adelaide.

“I don’t think it is,” said Wayne.

Mathilde, making one last grasp at self-control, said: 

“They wouldn’t be so horrid to you, Pete, if they understood-” But the muscles of her throat contracted, and she never got any further.

“I suppose I shall be thought a very cruel parent,” said Adelaide, almost airily, “but this sort of thing can’t go on, really, you know.”

“No, it really can’t,” said Mr. Lanley.  “We feel you have abused our confidence.”

“No, I don’t reproach Mr. Wayne along those lines,” said Adelaide.  “He owes me nothing.  I had not supposed Mathilde would deceive me, but we won’t discuss that now.  It isn’t anything against Mr. Wayne to say he has made a mistake.  Five years from now, I’m sure, he would not put himself, or let himself be put, in such an extremely humiliating position.  And I don’t say that if he came back five years from now with some financial standing I should be any more opposed to him than to any one else.  Only in the meantime there can be no engagement.”  Adelaide looked very reasonable.  “You must see that.”

“You mean I’m not to see him?”

“Of course not.”

“I must see him,” said Mathilde.

Lanley looked at Wayne.

“This is an opportunity for you to rehabilitate yourself.  You ought to be man enough to promise you won’t see her until you are in a position to ask her to be your wife.”

“I have asked her that already, you know,” returned Wayne with an attempt at a smile.

“Pete, you wouldn’t desert me?” said Mathilde.

“If Mr. Wayne had any pride, my dear, he would not wish to come to a house where he was unwelcome,” said her mother.

“I’m afraid I haven’t any of that sort of pride at all, Mrs. Farron.”

Adelaide made a little gesture, as much as to say, with her traditions, she really did not know how to deal with people who hadn’t.

“Mathilde,”-Wayne spoke very gently,-“don’t you think you could stop crying?”

“I’m trying all the time, Pete.  You won’t go away, no matter what they say?”

“Of course not.”

“It seems to be a question between what I think best for my daughter as opposed to what you think best-for yourself,” observed Adelaide.

“Nobody wants to turn you out of the house, you know,” said Mr. Lanley in a conciliatory tone, “but the engagement is at an end.”

“If you do turn him out, I’ll go with him,” said Mathilde, and she took his hand and held it in a tight, moist clasp.

They looked so young and so distressed as they stood there hand in hand that Lanley found himself relenting.

“We don’t say that your marriage will never be possible,” he said.  “We are asking you to wait-consent to a separation of six months.”

“Six months!” wailed Mathilde.

“With your whole life before you?” her grandfather returned wistfully.

“I’m afraid I am asking a little more than that, Papa,” said Adelaide.  “I have never been enthusiastic about this engagement, but while I was watching and trying to be cooperative, it seems Mr. Wayne intended to run off with my daughter.  I know Mathilde is young and easily influenced, but I don’t think, I don’t really think,”-Adelaide made it evident that she was being just,-“that any other of all the young men who come to the house would have tried to do that, and none of them would have got themselves into this difficulty.  I mean,”-she looked up at Wayne,-“I think almost any of them would have had a little better business judgment than you have shown.”

“Mama,” put in her daughter, “can’t you see how honest it was of Pete not to go, anyhow?”

Adelaide smiled ironically.

“No; I can’t think that an unusually high standard, dear.”

This seemed to represent the final outrage to Mathilde.  She turned.

“O Pete, wouldn’t your mother take me in?” she asked.

And as if to answer the question, Pringle opened the door and announced Mrs. Wayne.