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

Recognizing the neat back of Mr. Lanley’s gray head, Pete’s first idea was that he must have come to induce Mrs. Wayne to conspire with him against the marriage; but he abandoned this notion on seeing his occupation.

“Hullo, Mr. Lanley,” he said, stooping to kiss his mother with the casual affection of the domesticated male.  “You have my job.”

“It is a great pleasure to be of any service,” said Mr. Lanley.

“It was in a terrible state, it seems, Pete,” said his mother.

“She makes her fours just like sevens, doesn’t she?” observed Pete.

“I did not notice the similarity,” replied Mr. Lanley.  He glanced at Mrs. Wayne, however, and enjoyed his denial almost as much as he had enjoyed the discovery that the Wilsey ancestor had not been a Signer.  He felt that somehow, owing to his late-nineteenth-century tact, the breach between him and Pete had been healed.

“Mr. Lanley is going to stay and dine with me,” said Mrs. Wayne.

Pete looked a little grave, but his next sentence explained the cause of his anxiety.

“Wouldn’t you like me to go out and get something to eat, Mother?”

“No, no,” answered his mother, firmly.  “This time there really is something in the house quite good.  I don’t remember what it is.”

And then Pete, who felt he had done his duty, went off to dress.  Soon, however, his voice called from an adjoining room.

“Hasn’t that woman sent back any of my collars, Mother dear?”

“O Pete, her daughter got out of the reformatory only yesterday,” Mrs. Wayne replied.  Lanley saw that the Wayne housekeeping was immensely complicated by crime.  “I believe I am the only person in your employ not a criminal,” he said, closing the books.  “These balance now.”

“Have I anything left?”

“Only about a hundred and fifty.”

She brightened at this.

“Oh, come,” she said, “that’s not so bad.  I couldn’t have been so terribly overdrawn, after all.”

“You ought not to overdraw at all,” said Mr. Lanley, severely.  “It’s not fair to the bank.”

“Well, I never mean to,” she replied, as if no one could ask more than that.

Presently she left him to go and dress for dinner.  He felt extraordinarily at home, left alone like this among her belongings.  He wandered about looking at the photographs-photographs of Pete as a child, a photograph of an old white house with wisteria-vines on it; a picture of her looking very much as she did now, with Pete as a little boy, in a sailor suit, leaning against her; and then a little photograph of her as a girl not much older than Mathilde, he thought-a girl who looked a little frightened and awkward, as girls so often looked, and yet to whom the French photographer-for it was taken in the Place de la Madeleine-had somehow contrived to give a Parisian air.  He had never thought of her in Paris.  He took the picture up; it was dated May, 1884.  He thought back carefully.  Yes, he had been in Paris himself that spring, a man of thirty-three or so, feeling as old almost as he did to-day, a widower with his little girl.  If only they might have met then, he and that serious, starry-eyed girl in the photograph!

Hearing Pete coming, he set the photograph back in its place, and, sitting down, picked up the first paper within reach.

“Good night, sir,” said Pete from the doorway.

“Good night, my dear boy.  Good luck!” They shook hands.

“Funny old duck,” Pete thought as he went down-stairs whistling, “sitting there so contentedly reading ‘The Harvard Lampoon.’  Wonder what he thinks of it.”

He did not wonder long, though, for more interesting subjects of consideration were at hand.  What reception would he meet at the Farrons?  What arrangements would be made, what assumptions permitted?  But even more immediate than this was the problem how could he contrive to greet Mrs. Farron?  He was shocked to find how little he had been able to forgive her.  There was something devilish, he thought, in the way she had contrived to shake his self-confidence at the moment of all others when he had needed it.  He could never forget a certain contemptuous curve in her fine, clear profile or the smooth delight of her tone at some of her own cruelties.  Some day he would have it out with her when the right moment came.  Before he reached the house he had had time to sketch a number of scenes in which she, caught extraordinarily red-handed, was forced to listen to his exposition of the evil of such methods as hers.  He would say to her, “I remember that you once said to me, Mrs. Farron-” Anger cut short his vision as a cloud of her phrases came back to him, like stinging bees.

He had hoped for a minute alone with Mathilde, but as Pringle opened the drawing-room door for him he heard the sound of laughter, and seeing that even Mrs. Farron herself was down, he exclaimed quickly: 

“What, am I late?”

Every one laughed all the more at this.

“That’s just what Mr. Farron said you would say at finding that Mama was dressed in time,” exclaimed Mathilde, casting an admiring glance at her stepfather.

“You’d suppose I’d never been in time for dinner before,” remarked Adelaide, giving Wayne her long hand.

“But isn’t it wonderful, Pete,” put in Mathilde, “how Mr. Farron is always right?”

“Oh, I hope he isn’t,” said Adelaide; “for what do you think he has just been telling me-that you’d always hate me, Pete, as long as you lived.  You see,” she went on, the little knot coming in her eyebrows, “I’ve been telling him all the things I said to you yesterday.  They did sound rather awful, and I think I’ve forgotten some of the worst.”

I haven’t,” said Pete.

“I remember I told you you were no one.”

“You said I was a perfectly nice young man.”

“And that you had no business judgment.”

“And that I was mixing Mathilde up with a fraud.”

“And that I couldn’t see any particular reason why she cared about you.”

“That you only asked that your son-in-law should be a person.”

“I am afraid I said something about not coming to a house where you weren’t welcome.”

“I know you said something about a bribe.”

At this Adelaide laughed out loud.

“I believe I did,” she said.  “What things one does say sometimes!  There’s dinner.”  She rose, and tucked her hand under his arm.  “Will you take me in to dinner, Pete, or do you think I’m too despicable to be fed?”

The truth was that they were all four in such high spirits that they could no more help playing together than four colts could help playing in a grass field.  Besides, Vincent had taunted Adelaide with her inability ever to make it up with Wayne.  She left no trick unturned.

“I don’t know,” she went on as they sat down at table, “that a marriage is quite legal unless you hate your mother-in-law.  I ought to give you some opportunity to go home and say to Mrs. Wayne, ’But I’m afraid I shall never be able to get on with Mrs. Farron.’”

“Oh, he’s said that already,” remarked Vincent.

“Many a time,” said Pete.

Mathilde glanced a little fearfully at her mother.  The talk seemed to her amusing, but dangerous.

“Well, then, shall we have a feud, Pete?” said Adelaide in a glass-of-wine-with-you-sir tone.  “A good feud in a family can be made very amusing.”

“It would be all right for us, of course,” said Pete, “but it would be rather hard on Mathilde.”

“Mathilde is a better fighter than either of you,” put in Vincent.  “Adelaide has no continuity of purpose, and you, Pete, are wretchedly kind-hearted; but Mathilde would go into it to the death.”

“Oh, I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Farron,” exclaimed Mathilde, tremendously flattered, and hoping he would go on.  “I don’t like to fight.”

“Neither did Stonewall Jackson, I believe, until they fixed bayonets.”

Mathilde, dropping her eyes, saw Pete’s hand lying on the table.  It was stubby, and she loved it the better for being so; it was firm and boyish and exactly like Pete.  Looking up, she caught her mother’s eye, and they both remembered.  For an instant indecision flickered in Adelaide’s look, but she lacked the complete courage to add that to the list-to tell any human being that she had said his hands were stubby; and so her eyes fell before her daughter’s.

As dinner went on the adjustment between the four became more nearly perfect; the gaiety, directed by Adelaide, lost all sting.  But even as she talked to Pete she was only dimly aware of his existence.  Her audience was her husband.  She was playing for his praise and admiration, and before soup was over she knew she had it; she knew better than words could tell her that he thought her the most desirable woman in the world.  Fortified by that knowledge, the pacification of a cross boy seemed to Adelaide an inconsiderable task.

By the time they rose from table it was accomplished.  As they went into the drawing-room Adelaide was thinking that young men were really rather geese, but, then, one wouldn’t have them different if one could.

Vincent was thinking how completely attaching a nature like hers would always be to him, since when she yielded her will to his she did it with such complete generosity.

Mathilde was saying to herself: 

“Of course I knew Pete’s charm would win Mama at last, but even I did not suppose he could do it the very first evening.”

And Pete was thinking: 

“A former beauty thinks she can put anything over, and in a way she can.  I feel rather friendly toward her.”

The Farrons had decided while they were dressing that after dinner they would retire to Vincent’s study and give the lovers a few minutes to themselves.

Left alone, Pete and Mathilde stood looking seriously at each other, and then at the room which only a few weeks before had witnessed their first prolonged talk.

“I never saw your mother look a quarter as beautiful as she does this evening,” said Wayne.

“Isn’t she marvelous, the way she can make up for everything when she wants?” Mathilde answered with enthusiasm.

Pete shook his head.

“She can never make up for one thing.”

“O Pete!”

“She can never give me back my first instinctive, egotistical, divine conviction that there was every reason why you should love me.  I shall always hear her voice saying, ‘But why should Mathilde love you?’ And I shall never know a good answer.”

“What,” cried Mathilde, “don’t you know the answer to that!  I do.  Mama doesn’t, of course.  Mama loves people for reasons outside themselves:  she loves me because I’m her child, and Grandpapa because he’s her father, and Mr. Farron because she thinks he’s strong.  If she didn’t think him strong, I’m not sure she’d love him.  But I love you for being just as you are, because you are my choice.  Whatever you do or say, that can’t be changed-”

The door opened, and Pringle entered with a tray in his hand, and his eyes began darting about in search of empty coffee-cups.  Mathilde and Pete were aware of a common feeling of guilt, not that they were concealing the cups, though there was something of that accusation in Pringle’s expression, but because the pause between them was so obvious.  So Mathilde said suddenly: 

“Pringle, Mr. Wayne and I are engaged to be married.”

“Indeed, Miss?” said Pringle, with a smile; and so seldom was this phenomenon seen to take place that Wayne noted for the first time that Pringle’s teeth were false.  “I’m delighted to hear it; and you, too, sir.  This is a bad world to go through alone.”

“Do you approve of marriage, Pringle?” said Wayne.

The cups, revealing themselves one by one, were secured as Pringle answered: 

“In my class of life, sir, we don’t give much time to considering what we approve of and disapprove of.  But young people are all alike when they’re first engaged, always wondering how it is going to turn out, and hoping the other party won’t know that they’re wondering.  But when you get old, and you look back on all the mistakes and the disadvantages and the sacrifices, you’ll find that you won’t be able to imagine that you could have gone through it with any other person-in spite of her faults,” he added almost to himself.

When he was gone, Pete and Mathilde turned and kissed each other.

“When we get old-” they murmured.

They really believed that it could never happen to them.