Alice Duer Miller.

The Happiest Time of Their Lives online

. (page 7 of 15)
Online LibraryAlice Duer MillerThe Happiest Time of Their Lives → online text (page 7 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


felt there was nothing unnatural in Vincent's being taken or in his
being left.

As usual in a crisis, Adelaide's behavior was perfect. She contrived to
make her husband feel every instant the depth, the strength, the passion
of her love for him without allowing it to add to the weight he was
already carrying. Alone together, he and she had flashes of real gaiety,
sometimes not very far from tears.

To Mathilde the brisk naturalness of her mother's manner was a source of
comfort. All the day the girl suffered from a sense of strangeness and
isolation, and a fear of doing or saying something unsuitable - something
either too special or too every-day. She longed to evince sympathy for
Mr. Farron, but was afraid that, if she did, it would be like intimating
that he was as good as dead. She was caught between the negative danger
of seeming indifferent and the positive one of being tactless.

As soon as Vincent had left the house, Adelaide's thought turned to her
daughter. He had gone about six o'clock. He and she had been sitting by
his study fire when Pringle announced that the motor was waiting. Vincent
got up quietly, and so did she. They stood with their arms about each
other, as if they meant never to forget the sense of that contact; and
then without any protest they went down-stairs together.

In the hall he had shaken hands with Mr. Lanley and had kissed Mathilde,
who, do what she would, couldn't help choking a little. All this time
Adelaide stood on the stairs, very erect, with one hand on the stair-rail
and one on the wall, not only her eyes, but her whole face, radiating an
uplifted peace. So angelic and majestic did she seem that Mathilde,
looking up at her, would hardly have been surprised if she had floated
out into space from her vantage-ground on the staircase.

Then Farron lit a last cigar, gave a quick, steady glance at his wife,
and went out. The front door ended the incident as sharply as a shot
would have done.

It was then that Mathilde expected to see her mother break down. Under
all her sympathy there was a faint human curiosity as to how people
contrived to live through such crises. If Pete were on the brink of
death, she thought that she would go mad: but, then, she and Pete were
not a middle-aged married couple; they were young, and new to love.

They all went into the drawing-room, Adelaide the calmest of the three.

"I wonder," she said, "if you two would mind dining a little earlier than
usual. I might sleep if I could get to bed early, and I must be at the
hospital before eight."

Mr. Lanley agreed a little more quickly than it was his habit to speak.

"O Mama, I think you're so marvelous!" said Mathilde, and touched at her
own words, she burst into tears. Her mother put her arm about her, and
Mr. Lanley patted her shoulder - his sovereign care.

"There, there, my dear," he murmured, "you must not cry. You know Vincent
has a very good chance, a very good chance."

The assumption that he hadn't was just the one Mathilde did not want to
appear to make. Her mother saw this and said gently:

"She's overstrained, that's all."

The girl wiped her eyes.

"I'm ashamed, when you are so calm and wonderful."

"I'm not wonderful," said her mother. "I have no wish to cry. I'm beyond
it. Other people's trouble often makes us behave more emotionally than
our own. If it were your Pete, I should be in tears." She smiled, and
looked across the girl's head at Mr. Lanley. "She would like to see him,
Papa. Telephone Pete Wayne, will you, and ask him to come and see her
this evening? You'll be here, won't you?"

Mr. Lanley nodded without cordiality; he did not approve of encouraging
the affair unnecessarily.

"How kind you are, Mama!" exclaimed Mathilde, almost inaudibly. It was
just what she wanted, just what she had been wanting all day, to see her
own man, to assure herself, since death was seen to be hot on the trail
of all mortals, that he and she were not wasting their brief time in
separation.

"We might take a turn in the motor," said Mr. Lanley, thinking that Mrs.
Wayne might enjoy that.

"It would do you both good."

"And leave you alone, Mama?"

"It's what I really want, dear."

The plan did not fulfil itself quite as Mr. Lanley had imagined. Mrs.
Wayne was out at some sort of meeting. They waited a moment for Pete.
Mathilde fixed her eyes on the lighted doorway, and said to herself that
in a few seconds the thing of all others that she desired would
happen - he would come through it. And almost at once he did, looking
particularly young and alive; so that, as he jumped in beside her on the
back seat, both her hands went out and caught his arm and clung to him.
Her realization of mortality had been so acute that she felt as if he had
been restored to her from the dead. She told him the horrors of the day.
Particularly, she wanted to share with him her gratitude for her mother's
almost magic kindness.

"I wanted you so much, Pete," she whispered; "but I thought it would be
heartless even to suggest my having wishes at such a time. And then for
her to think of it herself - "

"It means they are not really going to oppose our marriage."

They talked about their marriage and the twenty or thirty years of joy
which they might reasonably hope to snatch from life.

"Think of it," he said - "twenty or thirty years, longer than either of us
have lived."

"If I could have five years, even one year, with you, I think I could
bear to die; but not now, Pete."

In the meantime Mr. Lanley, alone on the front seat, for he had left
his chauffeur at home, was driving north along the Hudson and saying
to himself:

"Sixty-four. Well, I may be able to knock out ten or twelve pretty
satisfactory years. On the other hand, might die to-morrow; hope I
don't, though. As long as I can drive a car and everything goes well
with Adelaide and this child, I'd be content to live my full time - and a
little bit more. Not many men are healthier than I am. Poor Vincent! A
good deal more to live for than I have, most people would say; but I
don't know that he enjoys it any more than I do." Turning his head a
little, he shouted over his shoulder to Pete, "Sorry your mother
couldn't come."

Mathilde made a hasty effort to withdraw her hands; but Wayne, more
practical, understanding better the limits put upon a driver, held
them tightly as he answered in a civil tone: "Yes, she would have
enjoyed this."

"She must come some other time," shouted Mr. Lanley, and reflected that
it was not always necessary to bring the young people with you.

"You know, he could not possibly have turned enough to see," Pete
whispered reprovingly to Mathilde.

"I suppose not; and yet it seemed so queer to be talking to my
grandfather with - "

"You must try and adapt yourself to your environment," he returned, and
put his arm about her.

The cold of the last few days had given place to a thaw. The melting ice
in the river was streaked in strange curves, and the bare trees along the
straight heights of the Palisades were blurred by a faint bluish mist,
out of which white lights and yellow ones peered like eyes.

"Doesn't it seem cruel to be so happy when Mama and poor Mr. Farron - "
Mathilde began.

"It's the only lesson to learn," he answered - "to be happy while we are
young and together."

About ten o'clock Mr. Lanley left her at home, and she tiptoed up-stairs
and hardly dared to draw breath as she undressed for fear she might wake
her unhappy mother on the floor below her.

She had resolved to wake early, to breakfast with her mother, to ask to
be allowed to accompany her to the hospital; but it was nine o'clock when
she was awakened by her maid's coming in with her breakfast and the
announcement not only that Mrs. Farron had been gone for more than an
hour, but that there had already been good news from the hospital.

"Il paraît que monsieur est très fort," she said, with that absolute
neutrality of accent that sounds in Anglo-Saxon ears almost like a
complaint.

Adelaide had been in no need of companionship. She was perfectly able
to go through her day. It seemed as if her soul, with a soul's
capacity for suffering, had suddenly withdrawn from her body, had
retreated into some unknown fortress, and left in its place a hard,
trivial, practical intelligence which tossed off plan after plan for
the future detail of life. As she drove from her house to the hospital
she arranged how she would apportion the household in case of a
prolonged illness, where she would put the nurses. Nor was she less
clear as to what should be done in case of Vincent's death. The whole
thing unrolled before her like a panorama.

At the hospital, after a little delay, she was guided to Vincent's own
room, recently deserted. A nurse came to tell her that all was going
well; Mr. Farron had had a good night, and was taking the anesthetic
nicely. Adelaide found the young woman's manner offensively encouraging,
and received the news with an insolent reserve.

"That girl is too wildly, spiritually bright," she said to herself. But
no manner would have pleased her.

Left alone, she sat down in a rocking-chair near the window. Vincent's
bag stood in the corner, his brushes were on the dressing-table, his tie
hung on the electric light. Immortal trifles, she thought, that might be
in existence for years.

She began poignantly to regret that she had not insisted on seeing him
again that morning. She had thought only of what was easiest for him. She
ought to have thought of herself, of what would make it possible for her
to go on living without him. If she could have seen him again, he might
have given her some precept, some master word, by which she could have
guided her life. She would have welcomed something imprisoning and safe.
It was cruel of him, she thought, to toss her out like this, rudderless
and alone. She wondered what he would have given her as a commandment,
and remembered suddenly the apocryphal last words which Vincent was fond
of attributing to George Washington, "Never trust a nigger with a gun."
She found herself smiling over them. Vincent was more likely to have
quoted the apparition's advice to Macbeth: "Be bloody, bold, and
resolute." That would have been his motto for himself, but not for her.
What was the principle by which he infallibly guided her?

How could he have left her so spiritually unprovided for? She felt
imposed upon, deserted. The busily planning little mind that had suddenly
taken possession of her could not help her in the larger aspects of her
existence. It would be much simpler, she thought, to die than to attempt
life again without Vincent.

She went to the window and looked out at the roofs of neighboring
houses, a disordered conglomeration of water-tanks and skylights and
chimney-pots. Then nearer, almost under her feet, she looked into a
courtyard of the hospital and saw a pale, emaciated man in a wheel-chair.
She drew back as if it were something indecent. Would Vincent ever become
like that? she thought. If so, she would rather he died now under the
anesthetic.

A little while later the nurse came in, and said almost sternly that Dr.
Crew had sent her to tell Mrs. Farron that the conditions seemed
extremely favorable, and that all immediate danger was over.

"You mean," said Adelaide, fiercely, "that Mr. Farron will live?"

"I certainly inferred that to be the doctor's meaning," answered the
nurse. "But here is the assistant, Dr. Withers."

Dr. Withers, bringing with him an intolerable smell of disinfectants and
chloroform, hurried in, with his hair mussed from the haste with which he
had removed his operating-garments. He had small, bright, brown eyes,
with little lines about them that seemed to suggest humor, but actually
indicated that he buoyed up his life not by exaltation of himself, but by
half-laughing depreciation of every one else.

"I thought you'd be glad to know, Mrs. Farron," he said, "that any danger
that may have existed is now over. Your husband - "

"That _may_ have existed," cried Adelaide. "Do you mean to say there
hasn't been any real danger?"

The young doctor's eyes twinkled.

"An operation even in the best hands is always a danger," he replied.

"But you mean there was no other?" Adelaide asked, aware of a growing
coldness about her hands and feet.

Withers looked as just as Aristides.

"It was probably wise to operate," he said. "Your husband ought to be up
and about in three weeks."

Everything grew black and rotatory before Adelaide's eyes, and she sank
slowly forward into the young doctor's arms.

As he laid her on the bed, he glanced whimsically at the nurse and
shook his head.

But she made no response, an omission which may not have meant loyalty to
Dr. Crew so much as unwillingness to support Dr. Withers.

Adelaide returned to consciousness only in time to be hurried away to
make room for Vincent. His long, limp figure was carried past her in the
corridor. She was told that in a few hours she might see him. But she
wasn't, as a matter of fact, very eager to see him. The knowledge that he
was to live, the lifting of the weight of dread, was enough. The maternal
strain did not mingle with her love for him; she saw no possible reward,
no increased sense of possession, in his illness. On the contrary, she
wanted him to stride back in one day from death to his old powerful,
dominating self.

She grew to hate the hospital routine, the fixed hours, the regulated
food. "These rules, these hovering women," she exclaimed, "these
trays - they make me think of the nursery." But what she really hated was
Vincent's submission to it all. In her heart she would have been glad to
see him breaking the rules, defying the doctors, and bullying his nurses.

Before long a strong, silent antagonism grew up between her and the
bright-eyed, cheerful nurse, Miss Gregory. It irritated Adelaide to gain
access to her husband through other people's consent; it irritated her to
see the girl's understanding of the case, and her competent arrangements
for her patient's comfort. If Vincent had showed any disposition to
revolt, Adelaide would have pleaded with him to submit; but as it was,
she watched his docility with a scornful eye.

"That girl rules you with a rod of iron," she said one day. But even then
Vincent did not rouse himself.

"She knows her business," he said admiringly.

To any other invalid Adelaide could have been a soothing visitor, could
have adapted the quick turns of her mind to the relaxed attention of
the sick; but, honestly enough, there seemed to her an impertinence,
almost an insult, in treating Vincent in such a way. The result was
that her visits were exhausting, and she knew it. And yet, she said to
herself, he was ill, not insane; how could she conceal from him the
happenings of every day? Vincent would be the last person to be
grateful to her for that.

She saw him one day grow pale; his eyes began to close. She had made up
her mind to leave him when Miss Gregory came in, and with a quicker eye
and a more active habit of mind, said at once:

"I think Mr. Farron has had enough excitement for one day."

Adelaide smiled up at the girl almost insolently.

"Is a visit from a wife an excitement?" she asked. Miss Gregory was
perfectly grave.

"The greatest," she said.

Adelaide yielded to her own irritation.

"Well," she said, "I shan't stay much longer."

"It would be better if you went now, I think, Mrs. Farron."

Adelaide looked at Vincent. It was silly of him, she thought, to pretend
he didn't hear. She bent over him.

"Your nurse is driving me away from you, dearest," she murmured.

He opened his eyes and took her hand.

"Come back to-morrow early - as early as you can," he said.

She never remembered his siding against her before, and she swept out
into the hallway, saying to herself that it was childish to be annoyed at
the whims of an invalid.

Miss Gregory had followed her.

"Mrs. Farron," she said, "do you mind my suggesting that for the present
it would be better not to talk to Mr. Farron about anything that might
worry him, even trifles?"

Adelaide laughed.

"You know very little of Mr. Farron," she said, "if you think he worries
over trifles."

"Any one worries over trifles when he is in a nervous state."

Adelaide passed by without answering, passed by as if she had not heard.
The suggestion of Vincent nervously worrying over trifles was one of the
most repellent pictures that had ever been presented to her imagination.




CHAPTER IX


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


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryAlice Duer MillerThe Happiest Time of Their Lives → online text (page 7 of 15)