The Son-in-law

John Kendrick Bangs

From The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1908)
Chapter VI.

On the whole I am glad our family is no larger than it is. It is a very excellent family as families go, but the infinite capacity of each individual in it for making trouble, and adding to complications already sufficiently complex, surpasses anything that has ever before come into my personal or professional experience. If I handle my end of this miserable affair without making a break of some kind or other, I shall apply to the Secretary of State for a high place in the diplomatic service, for mere international complications are child's-play compared to this embroglio in which Goward and Aunt Elizabeth have landed us all. I think I shall take up politics and try to get myself elected to the legislature, anyhow, and see if I can't get a bill through providing that when a man marries it is distinctly understood that he marries his wife and not the whole of his wife's family, from her grandmother down through her maiden aunts, sisters, cousins, little brothers, et al., including the latest arrivals in kittens. In my judgment it ought to be made a penal offence for any member of a man's wife's family to live on the same continent with him, and if I had to get married all over again to Maria — and I'd do it with as much delighted happiness as ever — I should insist upon the interpolation of a line in the marriage ceremony, “Do you promise to love, honor, and obey your wife's relatives,” and when I came to it I'd turn and face the congregation and answer “No,” through a megaphone, so loud that there could be no possibility of a misunderstanding as to precisely where I stood.

If anybody thinks I speak with an unusual degree of feeling, I beg to inform him or her, as the case may be, that in the matter of wife's relations I have an unusually full set, and, as my small brother-in-law says when he orates about his postage-stamp collection, they're all uncancelled. Into all lives a certain amount of mother-in-law must fall, but I not only have that, but a grandmother-in-law as well, and maiden-aunt-in-law, and the Lord knows what else-in-law besides. I must say that as far as my mother-in-law is concerned I've had more luck than most men, because Mrs. Talbert comes pretty close to the ideal in mother-in-legal matters. She is gentle and unoffending. She prefers minding her own business to assuming a trust control of other people's affairs, but her mother — well, I don't wish any ill to Mrs. Evarts, but if anybody is ambitious to adopt an orphan lady, with advice on tap at all hours in all matters from winter flannels to the conversion of the Hottentots, I will cheerfully lead him to the goal of his desires, and with alacrity surrender to him all my right, title, and interest in her. At the same time I will give him a quit-claim deed to my maiden-aunt-in-law — not that Aunt Elizabeth isn't good fun, for she is, and I enjoy talking to her, and wondering what she will do next fills my days with a living interest, but I'd like her better if she belonged in some other fellow's family.

I don't suppose I can blame Maria under all the circumstances for standing up for the various members of her family when they are attacked, which she does with much vigorous and at times aggressive loyalty. We cannot always help ourselves in the matter of our relations. Some are born relatives, some achieve relatives, and others have relatives thrust upon them. Maria was born to hers, and according to all the rules of the game she's got to like them, nay, even cherish and protect them against the slings and arrows of outrageous criticism. But, on the other hand, I think she ought to remember that while I achieved some of them with my eyes open, the rest were thrust upon me when I was defenceless, and when I find some difficulty in adapting myself to circumstances, as is frequently the case, she should be more lenient to my incapacity. The fact that I am a lawyer makes it necessary for me to toe the mark of respect for the authority of the courts all day, whether I am filled with contempt for the court or not, and it is pretty hard to find, when I return home at night, that another set of the judiciary in the form of Maria's family, a sort of domestic supreme court, controls all my private life, so that except when I am rambling through the fields alone, or am taking my bath in the morning, I cannot give my feelings full and free expression without disturbing the family entente; and there isn't much satisfaction in skinning people to a lonesome cow, or whispering your indignant sentiments into the ear of a sponge already soaked to the full with cold water. I have tried all my married life to agree with every member of the family in everything he, she, or it has said, but, now that this Goward business has come up, I can't do that, because every time anybody says “Booh” to anybody else in the family circle, regarding this duplex love-affair, a family council is immediately called and “Booh” is discussed, not only from every possible stand-point, but from several impossible ones as well.

When that letter of Goward's was rescued from the chewing-gum contingent, with its address left behind upon the pulpy surface of Sidney Tracy's daily portion of peptonized-paste, it was thought best that I should call upon the writer at his hotel and find out to whom the letter was really written. My own first thought was to seek out Sidney Tracy and see if the superscription still remained on the chewing-gum, and I had the good-fortune to meet the boy on my way to the hotel, but on questioning him I learned that in the excitement of catching a catfish, shortly after Alice had left the lads, Sidney had incontinently swallowed the rubber-like substance, and nothing short of an operation for appendicitis was likely to put me in possession of the missing exhibit. So I went on to the hotel, and ten minutes later found myself in the presence of an interesting case of nervous prostration. Poor Goward! When I observed the wrought-up condition of his nerves, I was immediately so filled with pity for him that if it hadn't been for Maria I think I should at once have assumed charge of his case, and, as his personal counsel, sued the family for damages on his behalf. He did not strike me as being either old enough, or sufficiently gifted in the arts of philandery, to be taken seriously as a professional heart-breaker, and to tell the truth I had to restrain myself several times from telling him that I thought the whole affair a tempest in a teapot, because, in wanting consciously to marry two members of the family, he had only attempted to do what I had done unconsciously when I and the whole tribe of Talberts, remotely and immediately connected, became one. Nevertheless, I addressed him coldly.

“Mr. Goward,” I said, when the first greetings were over, “this is a most unfortunate affair.”

“It is terrible,” he groaned, pacing the thin-carpeted floor like a poor caged beast in the narrow confines of the Zoo. “You don't need to tell me how unfortunate it all is.”

“As a matter of fact,” I went on, “I don't exactly recall a similar case in my experience. You will doubtless admit yourself that it is a bit unusual for a man even of your age to flirt with the maiden aunt of his fiancée, and possibly you realize that we would all be very much relieved if you could give us some reasonable explanation of your conduct.”

“I'll be only too glad to explain,” said Goward, “if you will only listen.”

“In my own judgment the best solution of the tangle would be for you to elope with a third party at your earliest convenience,” I continued, “but inasmuch as you have come here it is evident that you mean to pursue some course of action in respect to one of the two ladies — my sister or my aunt. Now what is that course? and which of the two ladies may we regard as the real object of your vagrom affections? I tell you frankly, before you begin, that I shall permit no trifling with Peggy. As to Aunt Elizabeth, she is quite able to take care of herself.”

“It's — it's Peggy, of course,” said Goward. “I admire Miss Elizabeth Talbert very much indeed, but I never really thought of — being seriously engaged to her.”

“Ah!” said I, icily. “And did you think of being frivolously engaged to her?”

“I not only thought of it,” said Goward, “but I was. It was at the Abercrombies', Mr. Price. Lily — that is to say, Aunt Elizabeth —”

“Excuse me, Mr. Goward,” I interrupted. “As yet the lady is not your Aunt Elizabeth, and the way things look now I have my doubts if she ever is your Aunt Elizabeth.”

“Miss Talbert, then,” said Goward, with a heart-rending sigh. “Miss Talbert and I were guests at the Abercrombies' last October — maybe she's told you — and on Hallowe'en we had a party — apple-bobbing and the mirror trick and all that, and somehow or other Miss Talbert and I were thrown together a great deal, and before I really knew how, or why, we — well, we became engaged for — for the week, anyhow.”

“I see,” said I, dryly. “You played the farce for a limited engagement.”

“We joked about it a great deal, and I — well, I got into the spirit of it — one must at house-parties, you know,” said Goward, deprecatingly.

“I suppose so,” said I.

“I got into the spirit of it, and Miss Talbert christened me Young Lochinvar, Junior,” Goward went on, “and I did my best to live up to the title. Then at the end of the week I was suddenly called home, and I didn't have any chance to see Miss Talbert alone before leaving, and — well, the engagement wasn't broken off. That's all. I never saw her again until I came here to meet the family. I didn't know she was Peggy's aunt.”

“So that in reality you were engaged to both Peggy and Miss Talbert at the same time,” I suggested. “That much seems to be admitted.”

“I suppose so,” groaned Goward. “But not seriously engaged, Mr. Price. I didn't suppose she would think it was serious — just a lark — but when she appeared that night and fixed me with her eye I suddenly realized what had happened.”

“It was another case of ‘the woman tempted me and I did eat,’ was it, Goward?” I asked.

Goward's pale face flushed, and he turned angrily.

“I haven't said anything of the sort,” he retorted. “Of all the unmanly, sneaking excuses that ever were offered for wrong-doing, that first of Adam's has never been beaten.”

“You evidently don't think that Adam was a gentleman,” I put in, with a feeling of relief at the boy's attitude toward my suggestion.

“Not according to my standards,” he said, with warmth.

“Well,” I ventured, “he hadn't had many opportunities, Adam hadn't. His outlook was rather provincial, and his associations not broadening. You wouldn't have been much better yourself brought up in a zoo. Nevertheless, I don't think myself that he toed the mark as straight as he might have.”

“He was a coward,” said Goward, with a positiveness born of conviction. And with that remark Goward took his place in my affections. Whatever the degree of his seeming offence, he was at least a gentleman himself, and his unwillingness to place any part of the blame for his conduct upon Aunt Elizabeth showed me that he was not a cad, and I began to feel pretty confident that some reasonable way out of our troubles was looming into sight.

“How old are you, Goward?” I asked.

“Twenty-one,” he answered, “counting the years. If you count the last week by the awful hours it has contained I am older than Methuselah.”

At last I thought I had it, and a feeling of wrath against Aunt Elizabeth began to surge up within me. It was another case of that intolerable “only a boy” habit that so many women of uncertain age and character, married and single, seem nowadays to find so much pleasure in. We find it too often in our complex modern society, and I am not sure that it is not responsible for more deviations from the path of rectitude than even the offenders themselves imagine. Callow youth just from college is susceptible to many kinds of flattery, and at the age of adolescence the appeal which lovely woman makes to inexperience is irresistible.

I know whereof I speak, for I have been there myself. I always tell Maria everything that I conveniently can — it is not well for a man to have secrets from his wife — and when I occasionally refer to my past flames I find myself often growing more than pridefully loquacious over my early affairs of the heart, but when I thought of the serious study that I once made in my twentieth year of the dozen easiest, most painless methods of committing suicide because Miss Mehitable Flanders, ætat thirty-eight, whom I had chosen for my life's companion, had announced her intention of marrying old Colonel Barrington — one of the wisest matches ever as I see it now — I drew the line at letting Maria into that particular secret of my career. Miss Mehitable was indeed a beautiful woman, and she took a very deep and possibly maternal interest in callow youth. She invited confidence and managed in many ways to make a strong appeal to youthful affections, but I don't think she was always careful to draw the line nicely between maternal love and that other which is neither maternal, fraternal, paternal, nor even filial. To my eye she was no older than I, and to my way of thinking nothing could have been more eminently fitting than that we should walk the Primrose Way hand in hand forever.

While I will not say that the fair Mehitable trifled with my young affections, I will say that she let me believe — nay, induced me to believe by her manner — that even as I regarded her she regarded me, and when at the end she disclaimed any intention to smash my heart into the myriad atoms into which it flew — which have since most happily reunited upon Maria — and asserted that she had let me play in the rose-garden of my exuberant fancy because I was “only a boy,” my bump upon the hard world of fact was an atrociously hard one. Some women pour passer le temps find pleasure in playing thus with young hopes and hearts as carelessly as though they were mere tennis-balls, to be whacked about and rallied, and volleyed hither and yon, without regard to their constituent ingredients, and then when trouble comes, and a catastrophe is imminent, the refuge of “only a boy” is sought as though it really afforded a sufficient protection against “responsibility.” The most of us would regard the hopeless infatuation of a young girl committed to our care, either as parents or as guardians, for a middle-aged man of the world with such horror that drastic steps would be taken to stop it, but we are not so careful of the love-affairs of our sons, and view with complaisance their devotion to some blessed damozel of uncertain age, comforting ourselves with the reflection that he is “only a boy” and will outgrow it all in good time. (There's another mem. for my legislative career — a Bill for the Protection of Boys, and the Suppression of Old Maids Who Don't Mean Anything By It.)

I don't mean, in saying all this, to reflect in any way upon the many helpful friendships that exist between youngsters developing into manhood and their elders among women who are not related to them. There have been thousands of such friendships, no doubt, that have worked for the up-building of character; for the inspiring in the unfolding consciousness of what life means in the young boy's being of a deeper, more lasting, respect for womanhood than would have been attained to under any other circumstances, but that has been the result only when the woman has taken care to maintain her own dignity always, and to regard her course as one wherein she has accepted a degree of responsibility second only to a mother's, and not a by-path leading merely to pleasure and for the idling away of an unoccupied hour. Potential manhood is a difficult force to handle, and none should embark upon the parlous enterprise of arousing it without due regard for the consequences. We may not let loose a young lion from its leash, and, when dire consequences follow, excuse ourselves on the score that we thought the devastating creature was “only a cub.”

These things flashed across my mind as I sat in Goward's room watching the poor youth in his nerve-distracting struggles, and, when I thought of the tangible evidence in hand against Aunt Elizabeth, I must confess if I had been juryman sitting in judgment of the case I should have convicted her of kidnapping without leaving the box. To begin with, there was the case of Ned Temple. I haven't quite been able to get away from the notion that however short-sighted and gauche poor Mrs. Temple's performance was in going over to the Talberts' to make a scene because of Aunt Elizabeth's attentions to Temple, she thought she was justified in doing so, and Elizabeth's entire innocence in the premises, in view of her record as a man-snatcher, has not been proven to my satisfaction. Then there was that Lyman Wilde business, which I never understood and haven't wanted to until they tried to mix poor Lorraine up in it. Certain it is that Elizabeth and Wilde were victims of an affair of the heart, but what Lorraine has had to do with it I don't know, and I hope the whole matter will be dropped at least until we have settled poor Peggy's affair. Then came Goward and this complication, and through it all Elizabeth has had a weather-eye open for Dr. Denbigh. A rather suggestive chain of evidence that, proving that Elizabeth seems to regard all men as her own individual property. As Mrs. Evarts says, she perks up even when Billie comes into the room — or Mr. Talbert, either; and as for me — well, in the strictest confidence, if Aunt Elizabeth hasn't tried to flirt even with me, then I don't know what flirtation is, and there was a time — long before I was married, of course — when I possessed certain well-developed gifts in that line. I know this, that when I was first paying my addresses to Maria, Aunt Elizabeth was staying at the Talberts' as usual, and Maria and I had all we could do to get rid of her. She seemed to be possessed with the idea that I came there every night to see her, and not a hint in the whole category of polite intimations seemed capable of conveying any other idea to her mind, although she showed at times that even a chance remark fell upon heeding ears, for once when I observed that pink was my favorite color, she blossomed out in it the next day and met me looking like a peach-tree in full bloom, on Main Street as I walked from my office up home. And while we are discussing other people's weaknesses I may as well confess my own, and say that I was so pleased at this unexpected revelation of interest in my tastes that when I called that evening I felt vaguely disappointed to learn that Aunt Elizabeth was dining out — and I was twenty-seven at the time, too, and loved Maria into the bargain! And after the wedding, when we came to say good-bye, and I kissed Aunt Elizabeth — I kissed everybody that day in the hurry to get away, even the hired man at the door — and said, “Good-bye, Aunty,” she pouted and said she didn't like the title “a little bit.”

Now, of course, I wouldn't have anybody think that I think Aunt Elizabeth was ever in love with me, but I mention these things to show her general attitude toward members of the so-called stronger sex. The chances are that she does not realize what she is doing, and assumes this coy method with the whole masculine contingent as a matter of thoughtless habit. What she wants to be to man I couldn't for the life of me even guess — mother, sister, daughter, or general manager. But that she does wish to grab every male being in sight, and attach them to her train, is pretty evident to me, and I have no doubt that this is what happened in poor Harry Goward's case. She has a bright way of saying things, is unmistakably pretty, and has an unhappy knack of making herself appear ten or fifteen years younger than she is if she needs to. She is chameleonic as to age, and takes on always something of the years of the particular man she is talking to. I saw her talking to the dominie the other night, and a more spiritual-looking bit of demure middle-aged piety you never saw in a nunnery, and the very next day when she was conversing with young George Harris, a Freshman at Yale, at the Barbers' reception, you'd have thought she was herself a Vassar undergraduate. So there you are. With Goward she had assumed that same youthful manner, and backed by all the power of her thirty-seven years of experience he was mere putty in her hands, and she played with him and he lost, just as any other man, from St. Anthony down to the boniest ossified man of to-day would have lost, and it wasn't until he saw Peggy again and realized the difference between the real thing and the spurious that he waked up.

With all these facts marshalled and flashing through my brain much more rapidly than I can tell them, like the quick succession of pictures in the cinematograph, I made up my mind to become Goward's friend in so far as circumstances would permit. With Aunt Elizabeth out of the way it seemed to me that we would find all plain sailing again, but how to get rid of her was the awful question. Poor Peggy could hardly be happy with such a Richmond in the field, and nothing short of Elizabeth's engagement to some other man would help matters any. She had been too long unmarried, anyhow. Maiden aunthood is an unhappy estate, and grows worse with habit. If I could only find Lyman Wilde and bring him back to her, or, perhaps, Dr. Denbigh — that was the more immediate resource, and surely no sacrifice should be too great for a family physician to make for the welfare of his patients. Maria and I would invite Dr. Denbigh to dinner and have Aunt Elizabeth as the only other guest. We could leave them alone on some pretext or other after dinner, and leave the rest to fate — aided and abetted by Elizabeth herself.

Meanwhile there was Goward still on my hands.

“Well, my boy,” I said, patting him kindly on the shoulder, “I hardly know what to say to you about this thing. You've got yourself in the dickens of a box, but I don't mind telling you I think your heart is in the right place, and, whatever has happened, I don't believe you have intentionally done wrong. Maybe at your age you do not realize that it is not safe to be engaged to two people at the same time, especially when they belong to the same family. Scientific heart-breakers, as a rule, take care that their fiancées are not only not related, but live in different sections of the country, and as I have no liking for preaching I shall not dwell further upon the subject.”

“I think I realize my position keenly enough without putting you to the trouble,” said Goward, gazing gloomily out of the window.

“What I will say, however,” said I, “is that I'll do all I can to help you out of your trouble. As one son-in-law to another, eh?”

“You are very kind,” said he, gripping me by the hand.

“I will go to Mrs. Talbert — she is the best one to talk to — first, and tell her just what you have told me, and it is just possible that she can explain it to Peggy,” I went on.

“I — I think I could do that myself if I only had the chance,” he said, ruefully.

“Well, then — I'll try to make the chance. I won't promise that I will make it, because I can't answer for anybody but myself. Some day you will find out that women are peculiar. But what I can do I will,” said I. “And, furthermore, as the general attorney for the family I will cross-examine Aunt Elizabeth — put her through the third degree, as it were, and try to show her how foolish it is for her to make so serious a matter of a trifling flirtation.”

“I wouldn't, if I were you,” said Goward, with a frown. “She needn't be involved in the affair any more than she already is. She is not in the least to blame.”

“Nevertheless,” said I, “she may be able to help us to an easy way out —”

“She can't,” said Goward, positively.

“Excuse me, Mr. Goward,” said I, chilling a trifle in my newly acquired friendliness, “but is there any real reason why I should not question Miss Talbert —”

“Oh no, none at all,” he hastened to reply. “Only I — I see no particular object in vexing her further in a matter that must have already annoyed her sufficiently. It is very good of you to take all this trouble on my account, and I don't wish you to add further to your difficulties, either,” he added.

I appreciated his consideration, with certain reservations. However, the latter were not of such character as to make me doubt the advisability of standing his friend, and when we parted a few minutes later I left him with the intention of becoming his advocate with Peggy and her mother, and at the same time of having it out with Aunt Elizabeth.

I was detained at my office by other matters, which our family troubles had caused me to neglect, until supper-time, and then I returned to my own home, expecting to have a little chat over the affair with Maria before acquainting the rest of the family with my impressions of Goward and his responsibility for our woe. Maria is always so full of good ideas, but at half-past six she had not come in, and at six-forty-five she 'phoned me that she was at her father's and would I not better go there for tea. In the Talbert family a suggestion of that sort is the equivalent of a royal command in Great Britain, and I at once proceeded to accept it. As I was leaving the house, however, the thought flashed across my mind that in my sympathy for Harry Goward I had neglected to ask him the question I had sought him out to ask, “To whom was the letter addressed?” So I returned to the 'phone, and ringing up the Eagle Hotel, inquired for Mr. Goward.

“Mr. Goward!” came the answer.

“Yes,” said I. “Mr. Henry Goward.”

“Mr. Goward left for New York on the 5.40 train this afternoon,” was the reply.

The answer, so unexpected and unsettling to all my plans, stunned me first and then angered me.

“Bah!” I cried, impatiently. “The little fool! An attack of cold feet, I guess — he ought to spell his name with a C.”

I hung up the receiver with a cold chill, for frankly I hated to go to the Talberts' with the news. Moreover, it would be a humiliating confession to make that I had forgotten to ask Goward about the letter, when everybody knew that that was what I had called upon him for, and when I thought of all the various expressions in the very expressive Talbert eyes that would fix themselves upon me as I mumbled out my confession, I would have given much to be well out of it. Nevertheless, since there was no avoiding the ordeal, I resolved to face the music, and five minutes later entered the dining-room at my father-in-law's house with as stiff an upper lip as I could summon to my aid in the brief time at my disposal. They were all seated at the table already — supper is not a movable feast in that well-regulated establishment — save Aunt Elizabeth. Her place was vacant.

“Sorry to be late,” said I, after respectfully saluting my mother-in-law, “but I couldn't help it. Things turned up at the last minute and they had to be attended to. Where's Aunt Elizabeth?”

“She went to New York,” said my mother-in-law, “on the 5.40 train.”