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

During this interview Adelaide sat in her husband’s study and waited.  She looked back upon that other period of suspense-the hour when she had waited at the hospital during his operation-as a time of comparative peace.  She had been able then, she remembered, to sit still, to pursue, if not a train of thought, at least a set of connected images; but now her whole spirit seemed to be seething with a sort of poison that made her muscles jerk and start and her mind dart and faint.  Then she had foreseen loss through the fate common to humanity; now she foresaw it through the action of her own tyrannical contempt for anything that seemed to her weak.

She had never rebelled against coercion from Vincent.  She had even loved it, but she had loved it when he had seemed to her a superior being; coercion from one who only yesterday had been under the dominion of nerves and nurses was intolerable to her.  She was at heart a courtier, would do menial service to a king, and refuse common civility to an inferior.  She knew how St. Christopher had felt at seeing his satanic captain tremble at the sign of the cross; and though, unlike the saint, she had no intention of setting out to discover the stronger lord, she knew that he might now any day appear.

From any one not an acknowledged superior that shut door was an insult to be avenged, and she sat and waited for the moment to arrive when she would most adequately avenge it.  There was still something terrifying in the idea of going out to do battle with Vincent.  Hitherto in their quarrels he had always been the aggressor, had always startled her out of an innocent calm by an accusation or complaint.  But this, as she said to herself, was not a quarrel, but a readjustment, of which probably he was still unaware.  She hoped he was.  She hoped he would come in with his accustomed manner and say civilly, “Forgive me for shutting the door; but my reason was-”

And she would answer, “Really, I don’t think we need trouble about your reasons, Vincent.”  She knew just the tone she would use, just the expression of a smile suppressed.  Then his quick eyes would fasten themselves on her face, and perhaps at the first glance would read the story of his defeat.  She knew her own glance would not waver.

At the end of half an hour she heard the low tones of conversation change to the brisk notes of leave-taking.  Her heart began to beat with fear, but not the kind of fear that makes people run away; rather the kind that makes them abdicate all reason and fan their emotions into a sort of inspiring flame.

She heard the door open into the corridor, but even then Vincent did not immediately come.  Miss Gregory had been waiting to say good-by to him.  As a case he was finished.  Adelaide heard her clear voice say gaily: 

“Well, I’m off, Mr. Vincent.”

They went back into the room and shut the door.  Adelaide clenched her hands; these delays were hard to bear.

It was not a long delay, though in that next room a very human bond was about to be broken.  Possibly if Vincent had done exactly what his impulses prompted, he would have taken Miss Gregory in his arms and kissed her.  But instead he said quietly, for his manner had not much range: 

“I shall miss you.”

“It’s time I went.”

“To some case more interestingly dangerous?”

“Your case was dangerous enough for me,” said the girl; and then for fear he might miss her meaning, “I never met any one like you, Mr. Farron.”

“I’ve never been taken care of as you took care of me.”

“I wish”-she looked straight up at him-“I could take care of you altogether.”

“That,” he answered, “would end in my taking care of you.”

“And your hands are pretty full as it is?”

He nodded, and she went away without even shaking hands.  She omitted her farewells to any other member of the family except Pringle, who, Farron heard, was congratulating her on her consideration for servants as he put her into her taxi.

Then he opened the door of his study, went to the chair he had risen from, and took up the paper at the paragraph at which he had dropped it.  Adelaide’s eyes followed him like search-lights.

“May I ask,” she said with her edged voice, “if you have been disposing of my child’s future in there without consulting me?”

If their places had been reversed, Adelaide would have raised her eyebrows and repeated, “Your child’s future?” but Farron was more direct.

“I have been engaging Wayne as a secretary,” he said, and, turning to the financial page, glanced down the quotations.

“Then you must dismiss him again.”

“He will be a useful man to me,” said Farron, as if she had not spoken.  “I have needed some one whom I could depend on-”

“Vincent, it is absurd for you to pretend you don’t know he wanted to marry Mathilde.”

He did not raise his eyes.

“Yes,” he said; “I remember you and I had some talk about it before my operation.”

“Since then circumstances have arisen of which you know nothing-things I did not tell you.”

“Do you think that was wise?”

With a sense that a rapid and resistless current was carrying them both to destruction she saw for the first time that he was as angry as she.

“I do not like your tone,” she said.

“What’s the matter with it?”

“It isn’t polite; it isn’t friendly.”

“Why should it be?”

“Why?  What a question!  Love-”

“I doubt if it is any longer a question of love between you and me.”

These words, which so exactly embodied her own idea, came to her as a shock, a brutal blow from him.

“Vincent!” she cried protestingly.

“I don’t know what it is that has your attention now, what private anxieties that I am not privileged to share-”

“You have been ill.”

“But not imbecile.  Do you suppose I’ve missed one tone of your voice, or haven’t understood what has been going on in your mind?  Have you lived with me five years and think me a forgiving man-”

“May I ask what you have to forgive?”

“Do you suppose a pat to my pillow or an occasional kind word takes the place to me of what our relation used to be?”

“You speak as if our relation was over.”

“Have you been imagining I was going to come whining to you for a return of your love and respect?  What nonsense!  Love makes love, and indifference makes indifference.”

“You expect me to say I am indifferent to you?”

“I care very little what you say.  I judge your conduct.”

She had an unerring instinct for what would wound him.  If she had answered with conviction, “Yes, I am indifferent to you,” there would have been enough temper and exaggeration in it for him to discount the whole statement.  But to say, “No, I still love you, Vincent,” in a tone that conceded the very utmost that she could,-namely, that she still loved him for the old, rather pitiful association,-that would be to inflict the most painful wound possible.  And so that was what she said.  She was prepared to have him take it up and cry:  “You still love me?  Do you mean as you love your Aunt Alberta?” and she, still trying to be just, would answer:  “Oh, more than Aunt Alberta.  Only, of course-”

The trouble was he did not make the right answer.  When she said, “No, I still love you, Vincent,” he answered: 

“I cannot say the same.”

It was one of those replies that change the face of the world.  It drove every other idea out of her head.  She stared at him for an instant.

“Nobody,” she answered, “need tell me such a thing as that twice.”  It was a fine phrase to cover a retreat; she left him and went to her own room.  It no more occurred to her to ask whether he meant what he said than if she had been struck in the head she would have inquired if the blow was real.

She did not come down to lunch.  Vincent and Mathilde ate alone.  Mathilde, as she told Pete, had begun to understand her stepfather, but she had not progressed so far as to see in his silence anything but an unapproachable sternness.  It never crossed her mind that this middle-aged man, who seemed to control his life so completely, was suffering far more than she, and she was suffering a good deal.

Pete had promised to come that morning, and she hadn’t seen him yet.  She supposed he had come, and that, though she had been on the lookout for him, she had missed him.  She felt as if they were never going to see each other again.  When she found she was to be alone at luncheon with Farron, she thought of appealing to him, but was restrained by two considerations.  She was a kind person, and her mother had repeatedly impressed upon her how badly at present Mr. Farron supported any anxiety.  More important than this, however, was her belief that he would never work at cross-purposes with his wife.  What were she and Pete to do? she thought.  Mrs. Wayne would not take her in, her mother would not let Pete come to the house, and they had no money.

Both cups of soup left the table almost untasted.

“I’m sorry Mama has one of her headaches,” said Mathilde.

“Yes,” said Farron.  “You’d better take some of that chicken, Mathilde.  It’s very good.”

She did not notice that the piece he had taken on his own plate was untouched.

“I’m not hungry,” she answered.

“Anything wrong?”

She could not lie, and so she looked at him and smiled and answered: 

“Nothing, as Mama would say, to trouble an invalid with.”

She did not have a great success.  In fact, his brows showed a slight disposition to contract, and after a moment of silence he said: 

“Does your mother say that?”

“She’s always trying to protect you nowadays, Mr. Farron.”

“I saw your friend Pete Wayne this morning.”

“You saw-” Surprise, excitement, alarm flooded her face with crimson.  “Oh, why did you see him?”

“I saw him by appointment.  He asked me to tell you-only, I’m afraid, other things put it out of my head-that he has accepted a job I offered him.”

“O Mr. Farron, what kind of job?”

“Well, the kind of job that would enable two self-denying young people to marry, I think.”

Not knowing how clearly all that she felt was written on her face Mathilde tried to put it all into words.

“How wonderful! how kind!  But my mother-”

“I will arrange it with your mother.”

“Have you known all along?  Oh, why did you do this wonderful thing?”

“Because-perhaps you won’t agree with me-I have taken rather a fancy to this young man.  And I had other reasons.”

Mathilde took her stepfather’s hand as it lay upon the table.

“I’ve only just begun to understand you, Mr. Farron.  To understand, I mean, what Mama means when she says you are the strongest, wisest person-”

He pretended to smile.

“When did your mother say that?”

“Oh, ages ago.”  She stopped, aware of a faint motion to withdraw on the part of the hand she held.  “I suppose you want to go to her.”

“No.  The sort of headache she has is better left alone, I think, though you might stop as you go up.”

“I will.  When do you think I can see Pete?”

“I’d wait a day or two; but you might telephone him at once, if you like, and say-or do you know what to say?”

She laughed.

“It used to frighten me when you made fun of me like that; but now-It must be simply delirious to be able to make people as happy as you’ve just made us.”

He smiled at her word.

“Other people’s happiness is not exactly delirious,” he said.

She was moving in the direction of the nearest telephone, but she said over her shoulder: 

“Oh, well, I think you did pretty well for yourself when you chose Mama.”

She left him sipping his black coffee; he took every drop of that.

When he had finished he did not go back to his study, but to the drawing-room, where he sat down in a large chair by the fire.  He lit a cigar.  It was a quiet hour in the house, and he might have been supposed to be a man entirely at peace.

Mr. Lanley, coming in about an hour later, certainly imagined he was rousing an invalid from a refreshing rest.  He tried to retreat, but found Vincent’s black eyes were on him.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said.  “Just wanted to see Adelaide.”

“Adelaide has a headache.”

Life was taking so many wrong turnings that Mr. Lanley had grown apprehensive.  He suddenly remembered how many headaches Adelaide had had just before he knew of her troubles with Severance.

“A headache?” he said nervously.

“Nothing serious.”  Vincent looked more closely at his father-in-law.  “You yourself don’t look just the thing, sir.”

Mr. Lanley sat down more limply than was his custom.

“I’m getting to an age,” he said, “when I can’t stand scenes.  We had something of a scene here yesterday afternoon.  God bless my soul! though, I believe Adelaide told me not to mention it to you.”

“Adelaide is very considerate,” replied her husband.  His extreme susceptibility to sorrow made Mr. Lanley notice a tone which ordinarily would have escaped him, and he looked up so sharply that Farron was forced to add quickly:  “But you haven’t made a break.  I know about what took place.”

The egotism of suffering, the distorted vision of a sleepless night, made Mr. Lanley blurt out suddenly: 

“I want to ask you, Vincent, do you think I could have done anything different?”

Now, none of the accounts which Farron had received had made any mention of Mr. Lanley’s part in the proceedings at all, and so he paused a moment, and in that pause Mr. Lanley went on: 

“It’s a difficult position-before a boy’s mother.  There isn’t anything against him, of course.  One’s reasons for not wanting the marriage do sound a little snobbish when one says them-right out.  In fact, I suppose they are snobbish.  Do you find it hard to get away from early prejudices, Vincent?  I do.  I think Adelaide is quite right; and yet the boy is a nice boy.  What do you think of him?”

“I have taken him into my office.”

Mr. Lanley was startled by a courage so far beyond his own.

“But,” he asked, “did you consult Adelaide?”

Farron shook his head.

“But, Vincent, was that quite loyal?”

A change in Farron’s expression made Mr. Lanley turn his head, and he saw that Adelaide had come into the room.  Her appearance bore out the legend of her headache:  she looked like a garden after an early frost.  But perhaps the most terrifying thing about her aspect was her complete indifference to it.  A recollection suddenly came to Mr. Lanley of a railway accident that he and Adelaide had been in.  He had seen her stepping toward him through the debris, buttoning her gloves.  She was far beyond such considerations now.

She had come to put her very life to the test.  There was one hope, there was one way in which Vincent could rehabilitate himself, and that was by showing himself victor in the hardest of all struggles, the personal struggle with her.  That would be hard, because she would make it so, if she perished in the attempt.

The crisis came in the first meeting of their eyes.  If his glance had said:  “My poor dear, you’re tired.  Rest.  All will be well,” his cause would have been lost.  But his glance said nothing, only studied her coolly, and she began to speak.

“Oh, Papa, Vincent does not consider such minor points as loyalty to me.”  Her voice and manner left Mr. Lanley in no doubt that if he stayed an instant he would witness a domestic quarrel.  The idea shocked him unspeakably.  That these two reserved and dignified people should quarrel at all was bad enough, but that they should have reached a point where they were indifferent to the presence of a third person was terrible.  He got himself out of the room without ceremony, but not before he saw Vincent rise and heard the first words of his sentence: 

“And what right have you to speak of loyalty?” Here, fortunately, Lanley shut the door behind him, for Vincent’s next words would have shocked him still more:  “A prostitute would have stuck better to a man when he was ill.”

But Adelaide was now in good fighting trim.  She laughed out loud.

“Really, Vincent,” she said, “your language!  You must make your complaint against me a little more definite.”

“Not much; and give you a chance to get up a little rational explanation.  Besides, we neither of us need explanations.  We know what has been happening.”

“You mean you really doubt my feeling for you?  No, Vincent, I still love you,” and her voice had a flute-like quality which, though it was without a trace of conviction, very few people who had ever heard it had resisted.

“I am aware of that,” said Vincent quietly.

She looked beautifully dazed.

“Yet this morning you spoke-as if-”

“But what is love such as yours worth?  A man must be on the crest of the wave to keep it; otherwise it changes automatically into contempt.  I don’t care about it, Adelaide.  I can’t use it in a life like mine.”

She looked at him, and a dreamlike state began to come over her.  She simply couldn’t believe in the state of mind of those sick-room days; she could never really, she thought, have been less passionately admiring than she was at that minute, yet the half-recollection confused her and kept her silent.

“Perhaps it’s vanity on my part,” he said, “but contempt like yours is something I could never forgive.”

“You would forgive me anything if you loved me.”  Her tone was noble and sincere.


“You mean you don’t?”

“Adelaide, there are times when a person chooses between loving and being loved.”

The sentence made her feel sick with fear, but she asked: 

“Tell me just what you mean.”

“Perhaps I could keep on loving you if I shut my eyes to the kind of person you are; but if I did that, I could not hold you an instant.”

She stared at him as fascinated as a bird by a snake.  This, it seemed to her, was the truth, the final summing up of their relation.  She had lost him, and yet she was eternally his.

As she looked at him she became aware that he was growing slowly pale.  He was standing, and he put his hand out to the mantelpiece to steady himself.  She thought he was going to faint.

“Vincent,” she said, “let me help you to the sofa.”

She wanted now to see him falter, to feel his hand on her shoulder, anything for a closer touch with him.  For half a minute, perhaps, they remained motionless, and then the color began to come back into his face.

He smiled bitterly.

“They tell me you are such a good sick nurse, Mrs. Farron,” he said, “so considerate to the weak.  But I don’t need your help, thank you.”

She covered her face with her hands.  He seemed to her stronger and more cruel than anything she had imagined.  In a minute he left her alone.