Robert Tronge 34

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robert tronge
Robert Tronge

Mr. Lanley was silent. He was deciding that he should rearrange some of the details of his life. Not that he contemplated giving all his orders from the fifth story, but he saw he had always devoted too much attention to preventing unimportant catastrophes. Under her direction he was presently driving north; then he turned sharply east down a little hill, and came out on a low, flat pier. He put out the motor's lights. They were only a few feet above the water, which was as black as liquid jet, with flat silver and gold patches on it from white and yellow lights. Opposite to them the lighthouse at the north end of Blackwell's Island glowed like a hot coal. Then a great steamer obscured it. "Isn't this nice?" Mrs. Wayne asked, and he saw that she wanted her discovery praised. He never lost the impression that she enjoyed being praised. Such a spot, within sight of half a dozen historic sites, was a temptation to Mr. Lanley, and he would have unresistingly yielded to it if Mrs. Wayne had not said: "But we haven't said a word yet about our children." "True," answered Mr. Lanley. His heart sank. It is not easy, he thought, to explain to a person for whom you have just conceived a liking that her son had aspired above his station. He tapped his long, middle finger on the steering-wheel, just as at directors' meetings he tapped the table before he spoke, and began, "In a society somewhat artificially formed as ours is, Mrs. Wayne, it has always been my experience that--" Do what he would, it kept turning into a speech, and the essence of the speech was that while democracy did very well for men, a strictly aristocratic system was the only thing possible for girls--one's own girls, of course. In the dim light he could see that she had pushed all her hair back from her brows. She was trying to follow him exactly, so exactly that she confused him a little. He became more general. "In many ways," he concluded, "the advantages of character and experience are with the lower classes." He had not meant to use the word, but when it slipped out, he did not regret it. "In all ways," she answered. He was not sure he had heard. "All the advantages?" he said. "All the advantages of character." He had to ask her to explain. One reason, perhaps, why Mrs. Wayne habitually avoided a direct question was that, when once started, her candor had no bounds. Now she began to speak. She spoke more eagerly and more fluently than he, and it took him several minutes to see that quite unconsciously she was making him a strange, distorted complement to his speech, that in her mouth such words as "the leisure classes, your sheltered girls," were terms of the deepest reproach. He must understand, she said, that as she did not know Miss Severance, there was nothing personal, nothing at all personal, in her feeling,--she was as careful not to hurt his feelings as he had tried to be not to hurt hers,--but she did own to a prejudice--at least Pete told her it was a prejudice-- Against what, in Heaven's name, Lanley at first wondered; and then it came to him. "Oh, you have a prejudice against divorce?" he said. Mrs. Wayne looked at him reproachfully. "Oh, no," she answered. "How could you think that? But what has divorce to do with it? Your granddaughter hasn't been divorced." A sound of disgust at the mere suggestion escaped him, and he said coldly: "My daughter divorced her first husband." "Oh, I did not know." "Against what, then, is this unconquerable prejudice of yours?" "Against the daughters of the leisure class." He was still quite at sea. "You dislike them?" "I fear them." If she had said that she considered roses a menace, he could not have been more puzzled. He repeated her words aloud, as if he hoped that they might have some meaning for him if he heard his own lips pronouncing them: "You fear them." "Yes," she went on, now interested only in expressing her belief, "I fear their ignorance and idleness and irresponsibility and self-indulgence, and, all the more because it is so delicate and attractive and unconscious; and their belief that the world owes them luxury and happiness without their lifting a finger. I fear their cowardice and lack of character--" "Cowardice!" he cried, catching at the first word he could. "My dear Mrs. Wayne, the aristocrats in the French Revolution, the British officer--" "Oh, yes, they know how to die," she answered; "but do they know how to live when the horrible, sordid little strain of every-day life begins to make demands upon them, their futile education, the moral feebleness that comes with perfect safety! I know something can be made of such girls, but I don't want my son sacrificed in the process." There was a long, dark silence; then Mr. Lanley said with a particularly careful and exact enunciation: "I think, my dear madam, that you cannot have known very many of the young women you are describing. It may be that there are some like that--daughters of our mushroom finance; but I can assure you that the children of ladies and gentlemen are not at all as you seem to imagine."