The Saturday Evening Post published Alice Duer Miller’s fiction story “The American Husband” in 1922. Miller published various poems and stories throughout her career, and she was an avid participant in the suffrage movement. Her feminist writings impacted many, and a few pieces of her work later became films. One of her poems, “The White Cliffs,” encouraged US entry into World War II.
“The American Husband” shows royalty turning to America for a better chance at work, and the importance of judging character for oneself. Miller allows this unique story to paint a picture many readers don’t expect.
Princesses are usually practical people, but we Americans, whose ideas of princesses are founded rather on fairy tales than on history, allow ourselves to be shocked and surprised when we discover this trait in them.
The Princess di Sangatano was practical; she was noble, dignified, unselfish, patient, subtle, still extremely handsome at thirty-nine, and — or but — practical. She had just married her young daughter excellently. She had not done this, however, by sitting still and being dignified and noble. She had done it by going pleasantly to the houses of women whom she disliked; by flattering men in whom even her subtlety found few subjects for flattery; by indorsing the policy of a cardinal, of whose policy as a matter of fact she disapproved. Nor did she feel that her conduct in this respect was open to criticism. On the contrary, there was nothing which the princess viewed with a more satisfactory sense of duty done than the marriage of her daughter.
And now she was beginning to recognize that her son must be launched by similar methods. The launching of Raimundo was something of a problem. He had much to recommend him; he was good-looking, gay and sweet-tempered; he loved his mother, and was not naughtier than other boys of his age; but he lacked the determined industry likely to make him successful. It was impossible to consider a learned profession for him. and even for diplomacy, in which the princess could easily have found him a place, Raimundo was a little too impulsive. And so his mother, working it out, came to the conclusion that a business — a business that would like to own a young prince and would need Raimundo’s knowledge of Italians and Italy — would be the best chance; and so, of course, she thought of America — her native land. Yes, though few people remembered the fact, the princess had been born in the United States. She had left it as a small child, her mother having remarried — an Italian — and she had been brought up in Italy thenceforth. By circumstance and environment, by marriage and religion and choice, she had become utterly an Italian. She betrayed this by her belief that America — commercial America — would respect and desire a prince. And hardly had she reached this conclusion when she met Charlotte Haines.
They met quite by accident. The princess during a short stay in Venice was visiting her mother’s old friend, the Contessa Carini Bon. The Carini-Bon palace, as all good sightseers know, is not on the Grand Canal, but tucked away at the junction of two of the smaller canals. It is a late Renaissance palace, built of the white granite that turns blackest, and it is decorated with Turks’ heads over the arches of the windows, and contains the most beautiful tapestries in Italy. The princess, who since the war did not commit the extravagance of having her own gondola in Venice, had walked to the palace, through many narrow streets over tiny bridges, and under porticos, and having arrived at the side door was standing a minute in conversation with the concierge — also an old friend — discussing his son who had been wounded on the Piave, and the curse of motor boats on the Grand Canal, and the peculiar habits of the forestieri, and other universal topics, when she saw, across the empty courtyard, that a gondola had appeared at the steps.
It was a magnificent gondola; the two men were in white with blue sashes edged with gold fringe; blue ribbons fluttered from their broad-brimmed hats; their oars were striped blue and white; and the gondola itself shone with fresh black paint relieved here and there by heavy gold. In the front there was a small bouquet of roses and daisies in the little brass stand that carried the lamp by night. Out of this, hardly touching the proffered arm of the gondolier, stepped a pretty woman, her whit draperies and pearls contrasting with her smooth dark hair and alert brown eyes. She asked in execrable Italian whether it were possible to “visitare” the palazzo. The concierge, in ess. that liquid beautiful voice which so many Italians of all classes possess, replied that it was utterly impossible — that occasionally, when the contessa was not in Venice, certain people bringing letters were permitted, but at present the contessa was at home. The lady did not understand all of this, and was not at her best when crossed in her pursuit of ideal beauty and without a language in which to argue the point. She kept repeating “Non a possible?” and “Perche?” and never appearing to understand the answer, until in despair the concierge looked pathetically at the princess. Following his glance Charlotte, bursting with a sense that she was somehow being done out of the rights of an American connoisseur, broke into fluent French. Was it, she asked, really impossible to see the tapestries? How could such things be? She was told they were the best tapestries in all Italy; tapestries were her specialty. She knew herself in tapestries.
The princess courteously repeated the concierge’s explanation; and so these two women, born not two hundred miles away from each other in the state of Ohio, stood for a few minutes and conversed in Venice in the language of the boulevards. Perhaps it was some latent sense of kinship that made the princess feel sorry for Charlotte. She told her to wait a moment, and went on up to see the contessa.
When the first greetings were over she explained that there was a very pretty young American woman downstairs who was bitterly disappointed at not being able to see the tapestries.
“Good,” said the contessa. “I’m delighted to hear it.” She was very old and wrinkled and bright-eyed, and she had a habit of flicking the end of her nose with her forefinger. “These Americans — I hear their terrible voices all day long in the canals. They have all the money in the world and most of the energy, but they cannot have everything. They cannot see my tapestries.”
“And that is a pleasure to you?”
The contessa nodded. “Certainly. One of the few I have left.” The princess sighed. “I am more of an American than I supposed,” she said.
The contessa hastened to reassure her: “My dear Lisa! You! There is nothing of it about you.”
The princess was too remote from her native land to resent this reassurance.
She continued thoughtfully: “There must be. I am a little bit kind. Americans are, you know. If anyone runs for the doctor in the middle of the night at a Continental hotel it always turns out to be an American. The English think they are officious and we Italians think they are too stupid to know when they are imposed upon, but it isn’t either. It’s kindness. The English are just, and the French are clear-sighted, but Americans are kind. You know I can’t bear to think of that young creature loving tapestries and not being able ever to see yours.”
“My dear child, if you feel like that!” The contessa touched the bell, and when in due time Luigi appeared, she gave orders that the lady waiting below was to be allowed to see the tapestries in the dining room and the galas. “But not in here, Luigi; no matter how much she gives you — not in here — and let her know that these are much the best ones. So, like that we are all satisfied.”
An evening or so after this the two women met again; this time at a musicale given by a lady as international as the socialist party. Charlotte, still in spotless white and pearls, came quickly across the room to thank the princess, whom she recognized immediately. She said quite the right things about the tapestries, about Venice, about Italy; and the princess, who was susceptible to praise of the country which had become her own, was pleased with Charlotte.
“One is so starved for beauty in America,” Mrs. Haines complained. “I’m like a greedy child for it when I come here; you can form no idea how terrible New York is.” The princess dimly remembered rows of chocolate-colored houses — the New York of the early ‘90’s. She was ready to sympathize with Charlotte.
“Why don’t you come here and live — such beautiful old palaces to be had for nothing — for what Americans consider nothing,” she suggested.
Charlotte rolled her large brown eyes. “If only I could; but my husband wouldn’t hear of it. He actually likes America. Italy means nothing to him.”
Lisa was destined to hear more of Charlotte’s husband before she took in the fact that he was the president of the Haines Heating Corporations. It made a difference. It wasn’t that she didn’t really like Charlotte — Lisa would never have been nice to her if she hadn’t really liked her; but neither would she have been so extremely nice to her if Haines had not been at the head of such a hopeful company. It was a wonderfully lucky combination of circumstances.
And to no one did it appear more lucky than to Charlotte, to whom the princess seemed so well-bred, so civilized, so expert and so wise — the living embodiment of all that Charlotte herself wished to become.
And then she knew Venice so wonderfully; she was better than any guidebook. She knew of gardens and palaces that no one else had heard of. She knew of old wellheads and courtyards. A few people went to see the Giorgione in the Seminario, but only the princess insisted on Charlotte’s seeing the library, with its row of windows on the Canal, and its beautiful old books going up to the ceiling, and the painted panel that looked like books until, sliding it, you found it was the stairway to the gallery — all these delights Charlotte owed to her new friend. And as the moon grew larger — on the evenings when Charlotte wasn’t dining with Americans at the Lido or at that delightful new restaurant on the other side of the Canal, where you sat in the open air and ate at bare tables in such a primitive way — the two women would go out in Charlotte’s gondola — sometimes through the labyrinth of the little canals, but more often the other way — past some tall, empty, ocean-going steamer anchored off the steps of the church of the Redentore — out to the Giudecca, where they could see the lighthouse at the entrance to the port, past a huge dredge which looked in the misty moonlight, as Charlotte said, like a dragon with its mouth open; on and on with their two gondoliers, to where everything was marsh and moonlight. The princess had often noticed that Americans in Europe explained themselves a good deal. Perhaps citizens of a republic must explain themselves socially; after all, a princess does not need explanation. Charlotte on these evenings explained herself. Even as a child, she said, she had been reaching out for beauty — a less sophisticated person would have called it culture — when she had married she had thought only of the romance of it — she had been very much in love with her husband, ten years older than she, already successful; a dominating nature, she had not thought then that they were out of sympathy about the impersonal aspects of life — art, beauty. It was natural for Charlotte to slip into the discussion of her own problem — the problem of the American husband — so kind, so virtuous, so successful, but alas, so indifferent to the finer arts of living.
“What are we to do, we American women?” Charlotte wailed. “We grow up, we educate ourselves to know the good from the bad, the ugly from the beautiful — and then we fall in love and marry some man to whom it is all a closed book; who is sometimes jealous of interests he cannot share. Sometimes it seems as if we should crush all that is best in us in order to be good wives to our husbands. You Europeans are so lucky — you and your men have the same tastes and the same interests.”
“At least,” said the princess politely, “your men are very generous in allowing you to come abroad without them. Ours wouldn’t have that for a minute.”
Charlotte laughed. “Our men would rather we came alone than asked them to go with us. You can’t imagine how bored my husband is in Europe. He speaks no language but his own, and instead of meeting interesting people he goes to his nearest office and entirely reorganizes it.”
The princess had always wanted to know whether these deserted American husbands had other love affairs; or, rather, not so much whether they had them as whether they were permitted to have them. Here was an excellent opportunity for finding out. She put her question, as she felt, delicately, but Charlotte was obviously a little shocked.
“Oh, no!” she said quickly. “At least Dan doesn’t. Dan isn’t a bit horrid in ways like that.”
Lisa felt inclined to disagree with the adjective. Human, she would have called it. At the same time she felt extremely sympathetic with Charlotte’s situation. She knew how she herself would have suffered if she had married a competent business man who lived in a brownstone front with a long drawing-room like a tunnel, and talked nothing but business at dinner. She inquired whether Mr. Haines was in Wall Street, and heard that he was the head of the Haines Heating Corporations. Then making more extended inquiries in her practical Latin way, she saw that she had found the right opening for Raimundo.
Before Charlotte left Venice she invited the princess and her son to pay her a visit in New York that winter; she urged it warmly. For to be honest Charlotte was in somewhat the same position in regard to the princess that the princess was in regard to Charlotte. The fact that she was a princess warmed the younger woman’s liking.
Lisa did not jump at the invitation. It was her duty to accept it, but she was not eager.
“I haven’t crossed the Atlantic since I was eight years old,” she said. “Besides, how would Mr. Haines feel about us? If Italy bores him, wouldn’t two resident Italians bore him more?”
“You would start with the handicap of being my friends,” Charlotte answered, “but he’d be perfectly civil, and in the end he would learn to appreciate you. He’s not a fool, Dan. He’s wise about people, if he can only get over his prejudices. But he’d be away most of the time. He always goes to California in January to look after his oil wells or something.”
It was not quite the princess’ idea that Dan Haines should be away all the time. He must see Raimundo, and be charmed by his youth and gayety, while she, the princess, would provide a background of solidity and Old World standards. She talked the matter over with her son — a thin, eagle-nosed boy of twenty. He was enthusiastic at the prospect, but more, his mother feared, because he had fallen in love with Charlotte’s niece, whom he had met at the Lido, than because he took his future in the Haines Heating Corporations seriously. Nevertheless she accepted Charlotte’s invitation.
Yet many times before January came she woke up in the night, cold with horror at the idea of this journey to an unknown land. She had hardly been out of Italy for twenty years. And even after she had actually sailed, walking the inclosed deck at night, while Raimundo was playing bridge, she shrank from the undertaking. She was very lonely, the poor princess. She and the prince had had their own troubles and disagreements, but these had gradually passed, and she had come to look forward to his companionship for her old age — a quiet prospect of settling their children and bringing up grandchildren, and making two ends meet at the dilapidated Sangatano villa. And then he had failed her; he had died during the war; and the princess had found that all her little world died about the same time. The old circle in Rome was gone, ruined, embittered, changed and scattered. The pleasant clever friendly educated group of her friends were a group no longer. And she was changed too. The war — or, rather, the aftermath of war — had brought out in her something different from her beloved country of adoption. She was not willing to sit down and lament the passing of her own order. She could not weep because the peasants no longer rose as you passed their houses. She had even a suspicion that the new order was not so terrible, and this put her old friends out of sympathy with her. They remembered that she was, after all, an American. Perhaps it was as well she was going away that winter, for she was very lonely at home.
Her steamer chair was next that of an American gentleman, a short, fat, round-faced man, who bore out her theory that Americans were kind, by the most careful and unobtrusive attention. The name of Haines was introduced into the conversation, and evidently inspired the fat man’s interest. She asked if he knew Mr. Haines. No, not really. She saw that he would like to have been able to say that he did. He knew a great deal about Haines,.which he was more than ready to tell. Haines was a man whom many people thought dangerously liberal in his ideas of handling his labor, and yet ultraconservative in his investments. His ideas worked out, though — a brilliant man — creative — and then the usual story of having begun life on nothing.
“Really?” murmured the princess, not at all surprised, because she supposed all rich Americans began life with nothing.
Still, she was glad of this increase in her knowledge of her host. He was evidently one of these tremendous commercial powers. Charlotte’s account had hardly prepared her for this, but then, she supposed Charlotte lived so surrounded by these vigorous fortune-makers that she had lost her sense of proportion about them. The possibility pleased the princess. After all, there were other heads of large industries besides Haines.
She conveyed her extended hopes to Raimundo when about noon he appeared on deck, having had already a game of squash, a swim, and a turn on deck with a very pretty opera singer.
“This is a great opportunity, Raimundo,” she said, “if you take it in the right way.” “Oh, I shall take it right,” said the boy, sitting down beside her and studying his long, slim foot in profile. “I shall, of course, make love to the beautiful Charlotte.”
“You will do nothing of the kind.”
“For what are we crossing the ocean?” replied her son. “Oh, I have read transatlantic fiction. American men do not mind your making love to their wives — because it saves them the time it would take to do it themselves; and then also it confirms their belief that they have acquired a valuable article.”
“You must not talk like this, even to me,” said his mother. “You are quite wrong. Charlotte, like most of the American women I have met, is extremely cool and virtuous.”
“Of course,” said Raimundo, “you offer them only a dumb doglike devotion.” And looking into her face he sketched a look of dumb doglike devotion at which she could not help laughing.
Charlotte was at the wharf to welcome them, accompanied by a competent manservant to do the work of the customs. Mr. Haines, it appeared, was in California. The princess expressed polite regret at hearing this.
“Oh, he’ll be back,” answered his wife, and if she did not add “quite soon enough” her tone conveyed it, and Raimundo darted a quick impish glance at his mother.
As they waited while the princess’ maid put back the trays of the trunks Lisa tried to convey her admiration of the harbor. Of course a great deal has been written about the approach to New York by sea, but as the princess, like most Europeans, had never read anything about America, it all came as a great surprise to her. It seemed to come as a surprise to Charlotte too.
“Beautiful?” she said incredulously. “After Venice? “
“Different,” answered the princess. “I should say it was different,” said Charlotte.
“There — I think those horrible men have finished mauling your trunks, and we can go.”
It was on the tip of Lisa’s tongue to say that she found the American customs officials perfectly civil, and that her experiences on European frontiers had been much more disagreeable, but as she began to speak she was suddenly conscious that Charlotte did not really want to think well of her native land, and she stopped.
“Oh, I say,” cried the little prince as they came out of the cavelike shadow of the pier into the cloudless light of the winter day, “what a jolly day! I shan’t be responsible for anything I do if you have many days like this.”
“Oh, we have lots of these,” returned Charlotte, signaling to her footman. “ We have nothing else — no half lights, no mists, no mystery.” And they got into her little French town car and started on their way uptown.
The princess stared out of her window in silence, noting the disappearance of the chocolate-colored houses, the beauty of the shops — and yes, even of the shoppers. But her son was not gifted with reticence. If his impressions had been disagreeable he might have been silent, but as they were flattering he saw no reason for suppressing them. He thought Fifth Avenue wonderful.
“And, my eye,” he kept saying — an expression he had learned early in life from an English groom — “what a lot of pretty girls, and what a lot of cars! I did not know there were so many motor cars in the world.”
Charlotte smiled as if she knew he meant to be kind, and suddenly laying her hand on the princess’ knee, she said, “Oh, I’m so afraid you’re going to hate it all, but you don’t know what it means to me to have you here.”
The princess was touched. Yet it must be owned that Lisa found the next few weeks confusing — confusing, that is, if Charlotte were to be regarded as the starved prisoner of an alien culture. They were agreeable weeks; Raimundo was in the seventh heaven. He dined, danced, lunched, and danced again. He went into the country and tobogganed, and learned to walk on snowshoes. When asked how he was enjoying America he always made the same answer: “I shall never go home. My eye! What girls!”
His mother enjoyed herself more mildly, and with certain reservations. Erudite gentlemen were put next to her at dinner — a Frenchman who was a specialist on Chinese porcelains; a painter of Spanish birth; and several English novelists and poets who were either just beginning or just completing successful lecture tours of the United States; interesting men, in one way or another, and yet — and yet — the princess asked herself if she had crossed the wide Atlantic simply to see this pale replica of a civilization she already knew.
And something else puzzled and distressed her. Her friend Charlotte seemed to her the freest of created beings — freer than any woman the princess had ever known, to make of her life anything she wanted to make of it. But Charlotte’s life seemed to lack purpose and dignity. Charlotte liked to feel that learned men came to her house, but her state of nerves did not always allow her to listen to what they said. Serious books were on her table, and sometimes in her hands, and yet her life lacked those long safe hours of leisure in which such books are read.
There was no doubt that a realer, more vital Charlotte appeared buying a new hat or playing a game of bridge or asking someone to dinner, than the Charlotte who lamented the lost beauty of an old world. And yet she wasn’t just a fraud.
She was not an early riser, and if toward eleven o’clock the princess penetrated to Charlotte’s bedroom, overlooking the park, she would find her still in bed — a priceless Italian bed — said to have been made for Bianca Capello — propped by lace pillows, and reading a fashion paper. And something else worried the princess — the house, the way it was managed. It was comfortable, well heated — too well; there was always delicious food and too much of it, but Charlotte lived in her house as in a hotel. If butchers overcharged or footmen stole, Charlotte’s only feeling was that they were tiresome dishonest people with whom she wished to have nothing to do. Abroad, she said, one’s servants did not do such things.
The princess disagreed. They did not have the same opportunities, she said; the mistresses were more vigilant. The extravagance of the Haines household actually hurt her, coming as she did from a group where extravagance had ceased to be possible. But Charlotte would not admit that she had any responsibility.
“Really, dear Lisa,” she said almost crossly, “I have better things to think about than housekeeping.”
Well, the princess wondered what they were.
As the days went by and as small party succeeded small party, Lisa noted that she met no American men — or hardly any — at Charlotte’s house, and she asked finally why this was.
“Do they work so hard they can’t dine out?”
“No — or, rather, yes, they work hard; but that’s not why I don’t ask them. They’re so uninteresting — you would be bored to death by them.”
“I’d rather like to try,” said the princess mildly.
Charlotte contracted her straight eyebrows in thought. “I’ll try to think of some not too awful,” she said.
And a few evenings afterward the princess found herself next to a nice little chattering gentleman who spoke Italian better than she did, and made lace with his own hands. On the other side was a former ambassador — a charming person, but of no nation or age. She had known him in Paris for years. She sighed gently. She wanted to meet a financial colossus. She liked men — real ones.
Needless to say that in the Haines house she had her own sitting room — a delightful little room hung in old crimson velvet, with a wood fire always blazing on the hearth. The first day when Charlotte brought her into it she apologized for a picture over the mantelpiece.
“The things one puts in the spare room!” she said. “My husband bought that picture at an auction once, because it reminded him of the farm he was brought up on. I didn’t dare give it away, but there’s no reason why you should be inflicted with it.” And she raised her arm to take it down.
“No! Leave it; I like it,” said the princess. “It’s delightful — that blue sky and clouds.”
She was quite sincere in saying she liked it. She did. Often she would look up from her book and let her eyes fall with pleasure on the small green and blue and white canvas, and wonder in what farming district Mr. Haines had been brought up — and in what capacity.
The New York climate affected the princess’ ability to sleep. She read often late into the night. One night — or rather morning — for it must have been three o’clock — she was interrupted by a visit from her son. He often dropped in on his way to bed to sketch for her the strange but in his opinion agreeable habits of the American girl. But this evening he did not burst out into his usual narrative. He entered silently, and stood for some seconds silent.
Then he said “Our host has returned.”
“Oh,” said the princess with pleasure, for, after all, this was the purpose of the long excursion.
Her son gave a short laugh. “I believe you,” he said. “Unexpected is just the word. It sometimes seems as if, in spite of all that has been written on the subject, husbands would never learn the tactlessness of the unexpected return.”
“Raimundo, what do you mean?” asked his mother with a sinking heart.
The boy hesitated. “The lovely Charlotte,” he said, “is all that you told me she was — cool and virtuous — so much so that it never occurs to her that others may be different. Tonight I brought her home from a dull party. We got talking; we sat down in the drawing-room. The back of a lovely white neck bent over a table was so near my lips — and the husband enters.”
“Was there a scene?”
“Oh, no. It was worse. We chatted a trois for a time.”
The princess drew a long breath. “Perhaps he did not see; but really, Raimundo — ”
“Oh, he saw,” said the prince. “He maneuvered the suspicious Charlotte off to bed, and then he suggested without a trace of anger or criticism that I should leave the house in the morning; and really, my dear mother, I’m afraid I shall have to do it. I’m so sorry, I know you’ll feel annoyed with me, but it is hard to remember that no woman means anything here. I just manage to remember it with the girls; but the married women — well, one can’t always be so sure; not so sure, at least as one is with Charlotte. There was no excuse for me — with her — none.”
“You’re an awkward, ungrateful boy,” said his mother, with an absence of temper that made her pronouncement more severe. “I think I shall go downstairs now myself and have a talk with Mr. Haines.”
“You’ll do the talking,” answered her son. “He isn’t exactly a chatty man.”
But the princess was not discouraged. She could not see that she could do any harm to Raimundo’s prospects, since evidently all was now lost, and she felt she owed it to Charlotte to repair, if she could, any damage the boy’s folly had occasioned.
The lights on the stairs and corridors were all going; they were controlled by switches working, to the princess’ continual surprise, from all sorts of unexpected places. She had no difficulty in finding her way to the drawing-room, on the second story, where Raimundo told her the interview had taken place.
As she opened the door she saw that a tall thin man in gray morning clothes was standing alone in the middle of the room, with his hands in his pockets and a cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, quite in the American manner. He was pale, pale as his blond smooth hair, now beginning to be gray, and everything about him was long — his hands, his jaw, his legs like a cavalryman’s. He was turned three-quarters toward the door, and he moved nothing but his eyes as the princess entered.
There was always something neat and finished about the way Lisa moved, and the way she held herself, the way she put her small steady feet on the ground; and this was particularly evident now in the way she opened the door, moved the train of her long tea gown out of the way and shut the door again. She did all this in silence, for it was her theory to let the other person speak first. It was a theory that she had had no difficulty in putting into practice during her stay in America, but it was now forced upon her attention that Haines had the same theory, for he remained perfectly silent, and something told her that he was likely to continue so. The fate of interviews is often decided thus in the first few seconds.
She spoke first. “I am the Princess di Sangatano,” she said.
“My son has just told me about the incident of this evening.”
He nodded again, and then he said, “You want to discuss it?”
His voice was low and not without a nasal drawl, but the baffling thing about it was the entire absence of any added suggestion of tone or emphasis. There were the bare words themselves and nothing more — no hint as to whether he himself wished or didn’t wish to discuss it — approved or didn’t approve of her intention.
“Yes, I do,” she replied.
“Better sit down then.”
The princess did sit down, folding her hands in her lap, drawing her elbows to her side, and sitting very erect. She did not say to herself, like Cleopatra: “Hath he seen majesty?” but some such thought was not far from her.
For twenty years she had been acknowledged to be an important person, and this had left its trace upon her manner. She knew it had.
“Are you very angry at this silly boy of mine?” she said.
Haines shook his head — that is to say, he wagged it twice from side to side.
“Not at Charlotte, I hope?”
Another shake of the head.
The princess felt a little annoyed. “Then what in heaven’s name do you feel, if anything?” she said.
“I feel kinda bored,” he answered; and as Lisa gave an exclamation that expressed irritation and lack of comprehension he added, again without any added color in his voice: “How did you expect me to feel?”
“Oh, either more or less,” answered Lisa. “Either you should be furious, and shake Charlotte until her teeth rattled, and fling my boy into the street, or else you should be wise enough to see it doesn’t make the least difference — and be human — and sensible — and — and — “
“ — and give your son a job,” said Haines quietly.
The princess was startled. She drew herself up still more. “I have not asked you to give my son a job,” she said.
He took his cigar out of his mouth, and she noticed that his strange long pale hands were rather handsome.
“Look here,” he said, “answer this honestly: Didn’t you have some such idea in your head when you decided to come here? Look at me.”
She did look at him, at first rather expecting to look him down, and then so much interested in what she saw — something intense and real and fearless — that she forgot everything else — forgot everything except that she was thirty-nine years old, and had lived a great deal in the world and yet had not met very many real people, and now — Then she remembered that she must answer him.
“Oh, yes,” she said; “I had it in mind.”
“Well,” said Haines, “that’s what bores me.” He began to walk up and down the room, somewhat, Lisa thought, as if he were dictating a letter. “Poor Charlotte! She’s always making these wonderful discoveries — and they always turn out the same way — they always want something. You — why she’s been talking about you — and writing about you. You were the most noble, the most disinterested, the most aristocratic — She would hardly speak to me because I asked her why you were making this long journey. For love of her society, she thought. She thinks I’m a perfect bear, but, my God, how can a man sit round and see his wife exploited by everyone she comes in contact with — from the dealer who sells her fake antiques to the grandee who offers her fake friendship? ‘
“I can’t let you say that,” said the princess, too much interested to be as angry as she felt she ought to be. “I have never offered anyone fake friendship.”
“I didn’t say you had.”
“Pooh!” said she. “That’s beneath you. You should at least be honest, as you ask other people to be.”
This speech seemed to please him — to please him as a child might please him. He came and sat down opposite to her, looked at her for a moment and then smiled at her. His smile was sweet and as intimate as a caress.
“Come,” he said, “I believe you’re all right.
“I am,” she answered. “Even a little bit more than that.”
He sat there smoking and frankly studying her. “And yet,” he said after a moment, “they’re mostly not — you know — Charlotte’s discoveries. They’re mostly about as wrong as they can be.”
“And they kinda bore you?” said the princess, to whom the phrase seemed amusing. He nodded, and she went on: “A good many things do, I imagine.”
“Almost everything but my business. You don’t,” he added after a second; and there was something so simple and imperial in his manner that she did not think him insolent; in fact, to tell the truth, she was flattered. “You might tell me something about yourself,” he added.
The princess was too human not to be delighted to obey this suggestion, and too well-bred to take an unfair advantage of it. She talked a long time about herself, and then about the Haines Heating Corporations.
And then they talked about him. In fact they talked all the rest of the night — as continuously as schoolgirls, as honestly as old friends, as ecstatically as lovers; and yet, of course, they were not schoolgirls or old friends, and even less lovers. They were two middle-aged people, so real and so fastidious in their different ways that they had not found many people whom they liked; and they had suddenly and utterly unexpectedly found each other.
They were interrupted by the entrance of a housemaid with a broom and a duster. She gave a smothered exclamation and withdrew. Haines looked at his watch. It was half past seven.
He got up and pulled the curtains back. A pale clear pink-and-green winter morning was just beginning to shine upon the park, glittering in snow and ice.
“At home,” said Lisa, “I should consider what we have just done as rather irregular.”
“In this country,” he answered, “you can do anything if you have sufficient integrity to do it.”
“How can I tell whether I have or not?” she asked.
He smiled again. “I have enough for both,” he answered. “Luckily or unluckily “ — and he sighed as he repeated it — “ luckily or unluckily.”
“Oh, luckily; luckily, of course,” said Lisa, though there was just a trace of annoyance in her voice that, this was so clear. She held out her hand.
“Goodbye,” she said.
He took her hand, and then from his great height he did something that no one had ever done to the princess before — he patted her on the head. “You’re all right,” he said, and sighed and turned away — as it were, dismissing her.
She went upstairs to her own room — which seemed altered, as backgrounds do alter with changes in ourselves. It was no longer a room in Charlotte’s house but in Haines’; and she was leaving it, leaving it in a few hours. She did not debate that at all. She was going with her son, but there was something that must be done before she went — something that she must do for this new friend of hers whom she would never, probably, see again.
She did not have much time to think it over, for when her breakfast tray came in, as usual, at nine, Charlotte came with it — striking just the note the princess hoped she wouldn’t strike — apology. “
I suppose your son told you what happened last night. So silly. I’m so ashamed.”
“Ashamed?” said the princess, and she noted that her tone had something of the neutrality of Haines’ own. She had copied him.
“Ashamed of Dan,” answered Charlotte. “That’s so like him — not to understand — just to take the crude view of it. I haven’t seen him since, but I know so well how he would take a thing like that. As a matter of fact, I must tell you, Lisa — though I promised that I wouldn’t — Raimundo was asking my help. He wants to marry the little Haines girl; he wants me to bring you round. He knows you hate everything American — “
“I don’t hate everything American,” said the princess, and again her voice sounded in her ears like Haines’.
“This girl, you know, is Dan’s niece, and exactly like him. And now I’m afraid that will do for her, as far as you’re concerned. Of course you must hate Dan — the idea of him — and if you saw him — well, you will see him at dinner tonight.”
The moment had come. The princess shook her head.
“No,” she said, “I shan’t be at dinner tonight.”
Charlotte looked at her and then broke out into protest: “No, no, you mustn’t go. Let Raimundo go, if he must, but not you. Don’t desert me, Lisa, because I have the misfortune to be married to a man who does not understand. Oh, to think that anything should have happened in my house that has hurt your feelings! I shall never forgive Dan — never! But don’t go — for my sake, Lisa.”
“It’s for your sake I’m going, my dear.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t, and it is going to be so difficult to explain.” The princess rose and, going to the looking-glass, stared at herself, pushed back her hair from her forehead, and then turned suddenly back to her friend. “I suppose I seem to you a terribly worn-out old creature.”
“My dear!” cried Charlotte. “You seem to me the most elegant, the most mysterious, the most charming person I ever knew.”
Lisa could not help smiling at this spontaneous outburst. “Then,” she said, “let me tell you that the most charming person you ever knew has fallen in love with your husband.” Charlotte’s jaw literally dropped, and the princess went on: “Yes, last night when Raimundo came and told me what had happened, I went downstairs. I wanted to do what I could to protect you from his thoughtlessness. I went down expecting to see the kind of man you have painted your husband. Oh, Charlotte, what a terrible goose you are!”
Even then Charlotte did not immediately understand. She continued to stare. At last she said, “You mean you liked Dan?”
“I did much more than that. I thought him the most vital, the most exciting, the most romantic figure I had ever seen.”
The princess nodded. “The power of the world in his hands — and so alone. I said just now I had fallen in love with him. Well, I suppose at my age one doesn’t fall in love, even if one talks to a man all night — “
“You and he talked all night?”
“All night long — all night long.”
Charlotte looked quickly at her friend, blinked her eyes, looked away and looked back again. It was not for nothing that her black eyebrows almost met — a sign, the physiognomists tell us, of a jealous nature.
The whole process of her thought was on her face. She had never been jealous of her husband in all her life before — but then, she had never before brought him face to face with perfection. She summed it up in her first sentence.
“Dan is no fool,” she said. “He felt as you did?”
The princess smiled. “Ah, Charlotte!” she said. “An Italian woman would not have asked that. You must find that out for yourself.”
There was a short silence, and then Charlotte got up and walked toward the door.
It was evident that she was going to find out at once. But the princess had one more salutary blow for her. She was standing now with her elbow on the mantelpiece and her eyes fixed on the little spare-room picture, and just as Charlotte reached the door Lisa spoke.
“Oh!” she said. “One other thing. Don’t despise this little picture that your husband bought. It’s the best thing you have.”
This was a little too much. “Not better than my Guardis,” Charlotte wailed, for she would never think of disputing the princess’ judgment.
“The Guardis are like you, Charlotte,” said the princess; “they are excellent copies. But this little picture is original — it’s American — it’s the real thing.”