What Every Man Should Know

What Every Man Should Know  (1916) 
by Alice Duer Miller

From The Century Magazine, Feb 1916

What Every Man Should Know

Author of "Less than Kin," etc.

Illustration by W. D. Stevens

MISS HARBORER was twenty-one and very hard-hearted, a fact that was completely obscured to most of her friends by her low voice, her gentle manner, and her very soft little hand. Only a small number of the opposite sex, who were said to have had experience, declared that under this pleasing exterior lurked the implacable coldness of the frozen North.

She had even been known to admit that she did not believe in love, certainly not in love at first sight. The question, however, had had for her merely an academic interest until the night before. Then a strange thing had happened; or, rather, so little had happened that that in itself was strange.

She had gone to a dance just like any other dance, and had met a young man not, perhaps, just like every other young man, and they had danced together. They had, as a matter of fact, danced a great deal together; but the point was that they had not talked at all.

This at the time had seemed natural. When he came again and again to ask her to dance, he had only smiled, as much as to say, "Well, between you and me everything is all right."

Since then Miss Harborer had debated whether that was not perhaps his regular way of smiling at every one.

Anyhow, he had not spoken even when she bade him good night, though that was the instant at which she had been absolutely certain he would say, "Are n't we to see each other again?" or "When may I see you?" or some of those useful and well-worn phrases with which she had grown almost too familiar in the course of the last few years.

But he had said nothing, and as he released her hand in silence, it was Miss Harborer who said, contrary to her custom and not a little to her own surprise:

"Why don't you come and see me some time?"

Then indeed he had shown that he could use words, if few in number, at least clear in meaning.

"To-morrow at five," he had said. And now it was to-morrow and five minutes before five!

Fortunately, the young man was spared the knowledge that Miss Harborer's dominating feeling was regret that she had asked him to come. She saw now that it was only her obstinacy that had been involved; it had seemed queer of him not to suggest it himself. If he had asked to come, she would very likely have put him off.

"What a silly thing to do!" she thought. He had been a pleasant dancing companion, but might, probably would, be tiresome to talk to. People were so different sitting in chairs, making conversation.

She thought nothing would be so agreeable as to go up-stairs and take a hot bath, and then lie down and read a new novel that had been sent her; the heroine was supposed to be a portrait of herself.

She might still do this, and leave word at the door—

A ring at the bell. Miss Harborer was no friend to these refined modern bells that tinkle far away where no one can hear them but the servants. This one was plainly audible. At least he was punctual.

In about half a minute he would be in the room. What would he say? She thought she knew. He would say in a tone of somewhat forced interest that it had been a very good party the night before, had n't it? And she would say, "One lump or two?" Oh, she had been through it all so many times!

The door opened. It was the servant with a note.

From him, to say he was n't coming?

No, a mere invitation to dinner. Miss Harborer threw it on the tea-table.

Her attention was now attracted by the discovery that though the room was warm, her hands were as cold as ice. It was a bad sign—a particularly bad sign in a civilization where hand-shaking is the custom, for the other person is bound to find it out. The only question was. Had he sufficient knowledge to be elated? The things men knew about girls' psychology were so queer and so uncertain, sometimes so much, sometimes so little!

Taking no chances, however, she rose and warmed her hands at the fire until a more normal temperature had been restored, at least for the time.

When she sat down again she found a curious change had come over her. All the incidents of the evening before had suddenly ceased to exist. It was exactly as if there had been no ball, no young man. She was waiting for a total stranger. She might not recognize him when he came in. She would have no clue but his name. Fortunately she remembered his name—Mr. Grey. Mr. Grey. She said it aloud, hoping to rouse some more vital recollection; but it fell dead. The thing was over.

Another ring. This time a visitor.

The servant announced "Mr. Jenkins."

Every life probably holds its Leopold Jenkins, so useful on occasions, so apt to be in the way! Miss Harborer did not have to ask Leopold how he took his tea. He took it as made. Besides, she knew only too well.

As she listened to him—listened to him, that is, in a limited sense—she revolved these thoughts: if she sent Leopold away on the ground that she was expecting a hair-dresser (of course if she had been really expecting a hair-dresser she would have been in her room, and not sitting in the drawing-room in her best clothes; but Leopold would never think of that), then the two men would undoubtedly meet on the stairs. If, on the other hand, she told him the truth, as she sometimes did,—if she said that she was expecting some one else,—Leopold was so curious that he might stay just to see who it was; and then she would never hear the end of it.

But, after all, she thought, why should she send him away? Would n't it be wiser to keep him until she saw how things were going to go? If she found that she did not like her new acquaintance, Leopold's presence might be very desirable. But, on the other hand, if she did like him, Leopold, as she knew by experience, was very difficult to delete.

As she thus wavered, Leopold suddenly sprang to his feet and bade her good-by.

"How cold your hands are!" he said.

"Yes, I 've no circulation." Anything did for Leopold.

"Must be a bore. Sorry to go. to be 'way up-town at six."

'At six!" cried Miss Harborer. "It 's nowhere near that, is it?"

"A quarter to, by Jove!" said Leopold, and disappeared.

A quarter before six! A weight like lead fell on her heart. He would not come now; perhaps he had never meant to come at all.

One of those sudden silences fell upon the city. She could hear her little watch ticking on her breast. There was not a sound, not a footfall, in the street. No, he would not come now.

Her feeling was one of intolerable loss. She cared nothing for the rudeness, nothing for the slight to her own vanity. She thought only of the great opportunity vanished, for now it could never be the same. They might meet again, he might come to see her on some future day; but the first romance would be irrevocably gone. The first wild confidence of knowing nothing of each other and believing everything—that had been destroyed.

Looking up, she saw that he was standing before her, having probably come in as Leopold went out. He stood there smiling at her, as much as to say that between them things were absolutely right.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.