from Saturday Evening Post
Being Happy with Walter
by Ellis Parker Butler
The one thing that Agatha Mason resolved when she accepted Walter Mellick was that their married life must be as happy as Betty Blair's. Betty and her husband had come from Dellbrook several years before Walter came to Belmar, and Betty was the happiest wife Agatha had ever known. Betty had been married five years and she actually beamed happiness; she was always cheerful and blithe. It was as if she had discovered the secret of joy and that it was some sort of little dynamo of content that she kept in her heart, where it purred constantly. Her George was no less happy; he was the happiest husband Agatha knew.
In the years that Betty had lived in Belmar she had been accepted by the little bridge set of which Agatha was one, and it was through Betty's George that Walter Mellick secured a position with the Janes Company, and that was how he happened to meet Agatha.
As soon as Agatha accepted Walter she decided to have Betty as her matron of honor. It was actually the first thought that flashed into her mind after Walter had kissed her. Naturally enough Agatha wanted her wedding to be a happy wedding, and any wedding with which Betty had anything to do would be a happy one. Just having Betty as matron of honor would be a good omen.
The wedding was a happy one, too. Agatha was happy, and Walter seemed to be in a daze of bliss, and Reverend Stokes was always cheerful. The young men Walter had chosen as his upholders were a merry lot, and Agatha had selected the prettiest and merriest girls she knew. It was a wedding of laughter and smiles.
That Agatha had reached the age of twenty-five before marrying did not matter. Walter was thirty and Agatha had never wanted to marry until she met Walter. She had graduated with honors from her college and had meant to devote her life to social service work, and she had been doing extra study in that field when she met Walter. Love did the rest. It would not be true to say that Agatha and Walter were passionately in love, for neither was passionate by nature, but they were intensely in love.
Agatha at twenty-five was a tall, cool-eyed blonde, unbobbed and wearing her hair smoothed back. She wore nose glasses. Her mind was rather better than the average, and she thought before acting, so that she acted on reason and not on impulse. In accepting Walter both reason and her heart told her she was doing the right thing. Walter was not quite Agatha's height; he was half a head shorter. He was a blond, too, and quite bald in a nice way, early baldness running in his family and being thought nothing of.
He wore nose glasses, but unlike Agatha's they had gold rims. He was of the bright type, almost chipper in society, not unlike some professor who is totally immersed in his work while at work, but who is eagerly playful when the work is put aside. But Walter was not a professor; he was a commercial chemist and in charge of the experimental laboratory of the Janes Company. In Dellbrook he had been an underling with the Benchways Company, and it was this better position at Belmar that allowed Walter to marry Agatha.
As soon as Agatha's engagement was announced everyone congratulated her.
"Agatha," they said, "you have found the nicest man of all; he is a perfect dear; you ought to be as happy as Betty Blair."
"I'm going to be," Agatha said. "There's no reason in the world why we shouldn't be happy. Walter has plenty of common sense, and so have I. Quarrels come because someone wants his or her way, and Walter and I have sense enough to know that two people have to compromise now and then if they want to be happy. There has to be yielding on both sides."
"Ye-es," said Daphne Markham doubtfully. "If only the thing doesn't seem too important to compromise. That's what you'll have to look out for, Agatha. You have a will of your own, you know."
"I have a brain of my own, too, Daphne," Agatha said. "I think I'm a reasonable person, don't you? I'm not a child, to get angry over things. I never get angry."
"No; that is admitted!" said Daphne Markham.
"And neither does Walter," said Agatha. "He told me he had never been angry in his life."
"I don't believe he has been; he has a lovely nature," Daphne said. "I really do believe you will be as happy as Betty."
"Well, no one could want to be any happier than that," said Agatha.
And Agatha was happy. She and Walter were happy all through their honeymoon, and for quite a few moons after that, and a year after their wedding Agatha could not honestly say they were unhappy. There was nothing, actually, to be unhappy about. They had not had even the slightest tiff; there had not been one cross word. When any matter came up that needed deciding, Agatha discussed it with Walter in the friendliest possible way and an entirely amicable agreement was always reached; but by the end of that first year Agatha began to be worried for their future happiness. It was not that the first warmth of love was less, for Agatha had known that there would be a normal lessening there; it was that on the clear pane of their love there seemed to be gathering the merest breath of mist. It was as if between two well oiled and perfectly working surfaces there was coming the smallest possible trace of grit.
When Agatha, in her cool sensible way, sat down to consider what was wrong, she found it hard to discover just what was amiss. She thought over all she had done and was doing and she could find nothing whatever to account for what was evidently a sense of irritation that was coming between herself and Walter. She considered Walter and could not find anything whatever that should have led to this feeling of uneasiness. Thinking back, however, and comparing six months ago with the present, she could see the change quite clearly. She was not unhappy, and Walter was not unhappy, but she could feel unhappiness coming upon them as one might see a cloud of mist descending.
That night, when Walter came home to dinner, Agatha handed him a letter.
"Ah!" he said when he had looked at it. "From the Benchways Company!" and he put it beside his plate while he went up to dip his hands in water and give his hair -- what was left -- a brush. They had a small steak that evening, and Walter carved and served before he opened the letter. He read it through gravely, frowning a little, and handed it across the table to Agatha. She put on her nose glasses and read the letter.
Agatha's first impulse was to exclaim, "Walter! How wonderful! We must accept!" but she remembered Walter's frown as he read the letter and she said, "It's wonderful, Walter; what do you think of it?"
"What do you think of it, Agatha? " he asked, still frowning.
"I don't know," she said. "Of course, there's the better salary. And there's the chance for quicker advancement they promise, if they go into the artificial field. But you like the Janes people, Walter."
"You'd miss your friends if we went to Dellbrook," Walter said. "You'd have to make all new acquaintances."
"But your friends -- your old friends -- are all there," Agatha said. "We'll do whatever you think is best, Walter, after we've talked it over thoroughly. We don't have to decide this very minute."
"No; that's one thing," Walter said, as if that were the one and only satisfaction to be got from the letter, and he looked quite glum. He could not have looked gloomier, Agatha thought, if this had been a letter from the Janes Company telling him he was discharged.
"We'll sleep on it, Walter," Agatha said brightly. "Now, don't worry over it another minute -- not now. Tomorrow we'll have been able to think of all the different angles, and we'll be ever so much better able to decide what to do. Isn't that better, Walter?"
"Yes," he said, but his frown remained, and it did not leave his face even when the subject was dropped and Agatha spoke of the little bridge party she was going to give the next afternoon.
The time was late May, and the next day would be Thursday, the twenty-ninth. All the latter half of May had been cold, but this Wednesday had been almost summer hot. The bridge party was a regular weekly affair, held from house to house by Agatha's own crowd of eight, which made but two tables, and the gatherings were entirely informal -- cards and light refreshments, with some inexpensive prize for the high score and a joke prize for the booby low. None of the players were startling experts, but the parties were fun.
"What do you think, Walter," Agatha asked, "of having my bridge party on the veranda?"
"What?" Walter asked, looking up from his plate, at which he had been looking worriedly. "Oh! Your bridge party! What was it you asked?"
"About having it on the veranda tomorrow," Agatha said. "Today is so hot and the veranda is so pretty."
"Yes; I don't know," Walter said. "The paper says cooler for tomorrow. There's usually a cold current from the north after these early hot days. But the veranda is sheltered."
"Then you think I'd better not have it on the veranda?" Agatha asked, watching Walter's frown and beginning to frown a little herself.
"I only said what the paper said," Walter replied, and Agatha was sure there was real irritation in his voice. "They're usually wrong. Probably it will be hotter tomorrow than it is today."
"No, but -- Walter," Agatha said. "I don't want to have it on the veranda if you think I should have it inside. Walter, please don't frown; it's nothing to frown about. Walter, dear, can't we just talk it over sensibly?"
"Certainly," Walter said, trying to eliminate his frown, and they did talk it over. They settled the veranda matter quite amicably by compromising on the simple plan of waiting to see what the weather would be the next day. If it turned cold again Agatha could have the party indoors, and if it remained hot she could have it on the veranda; it might be hot in the forenoon, with a cold current and drop in temperature after lunch, in which case she could decide at the last moment, for the change meant only that eight light chairs and two folding tables had to be moved, which would not take four minutes.
Unfortunately this delightful arrangement, so sensibly arrived at, did not seem to lessen the irritation that Agatha had felt during the discussion. During the evening Agatha glanced at Walter now and then, and she saw what was almost a look of dismal gloom on his face. She was reading a book while he went over some calculations he had brought home from the Janes Company laboratory, and once or twice she was on the point of asking him what he thought of the book -- because he had already read it -- but she was actually afraid to. She dreaded having him, perhaps, snap at her. If he did, she might snap back, and that would be the beginning of the end. That was how married unhappiness began, she saw now.
The next morning she said nothing to Walter about the Benchways Company's offer or the veranda game matter, and he did not offer to say anything. He hurried away as soon as he had had his breakfast.
Agatha gave the house a good cleaning, and at noon she was ready for her bridge crowd. Walter never came home to lunch, the Janes Company having a lunch service, and Agatha considered the weather doubtfully. The day was still warm -- almost hot -- but banks of clouds were gathering in the northwest. She waited until the last possible moment and then set up her tables in the living room.
Sara Spence arrived first, with Daphne Markham, and her first remark was: "In here? I hoped you'd have the tables on the veranda, Agatha!" and she and Daphne helped Agatha put the tables on the veranda. Joan Gale came next, and then Betty Blair, all dimples and smiles and quiet joy, and presently the others came, and the bridge was a perfect success. Nan Turner won the prize for high, and Daphne took the red tomato pincushion. "I don't deserve all the credit," she said when Agatha handed her the booby prize; "the cards helped me."
"Betty," Agatha said when all were leaving, "stay a few minutes, will you? I want to ask you something."
"Of course!" Betty said, and when the others were gone: "What is it, Agatha?"
"Sit down," Agatha said, seating herself in one of the comfortable veranda chairs. "I want to ask you, Betty, what makes you such a happy woman."
"My dear!" Betty exclaimed. "Isn't everything as it should be with you and Walter?"
"How did you guess that?" Agatha asked.
"It would be that, if you're not happy, wouldn't it?" Betty asked. "That's where most women's unhappiness is, isn't it? It is why I am a happy woman, Agatha -- I'm a happy wife. If you're married you can't be a happy woman unless you're a happy wife, can you?"
"No; that's it," said Agatha. "And it's not that I'm quite actually unhappy yet, Betty, but I'm so afraid unhappiness is coming. I've tried to avoid it, and I know that Walter tries, but I can feel it stealing upon us. Little irritabilities, and he frowns when we're discussing things --"
"There! You see! Discussing things!" exclaimed Betty. "That's always the beginning. Agatha, don't you think I am quite perfectly happy?"
"I know you are," said Agatha. "You show it in every way."
"Do you want me to tell you my secret?"
"If you only would!"
"You don't know -- and these others don't know -- but I was the unhappiest wife in the world once, Agatha," Betty said. "I was so miserable! It seemed as if my life was going to be just ruined. We quarreled dreadfully, George and I. I was going home to my mother once."
"Going to leave your husband?" Agatha cried, aghast.
"Actually!" Betty smiled. "I thought I couldn't bear it another day. And suddenly I thought, 'What does it matter?' It came to me that it would be better to have Junior's head shaved and painted blue than that I should be so unhappy."
"Junior's head?" Agatha asked.
"His curls," Betty explained. "He had lovely curls -- rich brown -- but George thought boys shouldn't have curls. He said they ought to be cut off. And I said they should not be cut off. So we got angry over it and we had a dreadful quarrel. He swore, Agatha, and I cried. We said some terrible things, and George stormed out of the house and slammed the door, and I began to pack my suitcase. And suddenly I thought what I said -- 'What does it matter?' Actually, Agatha, I sat on the floor and giggled. I don't believe I was hysterical; it was just that I had found my wedding slippers in the drawer, and they struck me as so funny -- the happy life I was going to have when I wore them at the wedding. And that's when I thought, really for the first time, what it was George and I had been fighting over. Because it wasn't Junior's curls that we were fighting about -- it was whether George was to have his way or I was to have mine."
"But Walter and I --" Agatha began.
"I know," Betty said. "You talk things over. So did George and I. But that was how it worked, you see. You talk things over, and then, presently, you fight over things. Really, as I said, Agatha, it did not matter much whether Junior had curls or not. So I thought of my Aunt Jane and Uncle Henry, and I knew I didn't want to be like them -- like Aunt Jane."
"I don't know her, of course," Agatha said.
"No," said Betty, "but Uncle Henry used to be just about as fond of having his own way as George is. But Aunt Jane conquered him. I'm very much like my Aunt Jane; I want to have things my way. But Aunt Jane isn't happy. She's a conqueror wife, but she isn't happy -- she's grim, Agatha. She's hard -- has a hard mouth and hard eyes. But my mother is the happiest woman I know; she's as happy as I am. And, sitting on the floor there, I understood why mother was so happy. She was always father's wife first."
"His wife first? I don't just understand --"
"Let me tell you what I thought, sitting there on the floor," Betty said. "I thought it was not worth while living if I had to be unhappy. Then I thought, 'Why can't I be happy?' and I knew it was because I cared more to have my own way than to be just George's wife. I said to myself, 'You could be absolutely happy, Betty Blair, if you were satisfied to be George's wife and make that your job.' And, Agatha, I saw suddenly that being George's wife was enough of a job for me. Being a wife is enough of a job for any woman, isn't it? I'll let George have his way if he wants to,' I said; I'll be his wife first for a while and see how it goes.' And then the most remarkable thing happened."
"You were happy," said Agatha.
"Yes, but I don't mean that," Betty said. "I loved not having to decide things. Agatha, you can't imagine what a joy it was to do whatever George suggested, without arguing about it or discussing it all. I simply watched to see what he wanted and then did it. As soon as he suggested anything I agreed with it -- eagerly, Agatha, as if I was pleased by the idea. If he said, 'Don't you think that window should be closed, Betty?' I would say, 'I certainly do, George!' or 'Yes, I'll close it.' I never argued -- that's fatal. And presently I enjoyed not having to decide things. I enjoyed trying to do everything just as I thought George would like to have it done. You couldn't guess the difference it made in George; he stopped frowning and he stopped being irritated. He says, 'Thank heaven I have a good wife to come home to!' And I feel so -- well, so warm and contented and blissful all the time, Agatha."
"But that means you make yourself nothing, Betty," Agatha said with dismay. "You give up all your independence, all your rights."
"Do I?" Betty smiled. "Perhaps I do -- some of my rights -- but I don't want them, Agatha. What is so awful about that? I'm happy, and George is happy. We're both happy. It's enough that I can be a good wife, Agatha. For one woman that is enough of a job. I don't know any more blessedly happy woman than mother is, and that is what has made her so happy all these years; mother's motto is 'Father First.' And that's our secret -- all the secret we have."
"But it is abnegation; it is self-abasement; it is abdication!" exclaimed Agatha.
"Well, what of it?" smiled Betty. "I don't think I abdicated anything but a lot of miserable quarrels with George. I don't look self-abased, do I? I certainly don't feel abnegated -- whatever that means. I simply don't have to worry about making a lot of decisions that George can make as well as I can, or better, and it gives me a lot more time to be happy in."
"Yes," Agatha said slowly, and then, "Yes!" she said understandingly. "A lot more time to be happy in. I see what you mean -- giving all your time and effort and intelligence to being a wife, Betty."
As she thought of this the sense of irritation that had been annoying her for weeks left Agatha. She felt how soothing it would be to put aside all necessity for making decisions, and how much better it would be to avoid the discussions that were bringing frowns more and more frequently to Walter's formerly placid forehead.
"Try it, Agatha," Betty said, and looked at her watch. "But I must be going!" she exclaimed. "Try it, and let me know how it works," she said, and she kissed Agatha; "I want you to be as happy as I am."
She hurried away and Agatha busied herself putting things to rights. She stopped now and then and stood silently thinking. She could see now how their discussions had irritated Walter, and she began to sing an old song almost unconsciously -- she had not sung at her work for weeks. There came into her mind an old fable or tale -- The Old Man is Always Right -- and she smiled and said, "The old man is always right!" She felt surprisingly happy. "From now on," she said, "Walter is always right, whether he is right or not. It doesn't really mean abdicating anything, or doing anything like that," she told herself. "All it means is being the sort of wife a wife ought to be. A wife ought to be second to her husband."
She was ready for Walter when he came. She had never, she felt, enjoyed preparing a dinner as she had enjoyed preparing this one, and she was at the window, watching for Walter, when she saw him coming up the street. He was with Mr. Belter, who lived next door, and he was chatting with him quite cheerfully. He stopped at Mr. Belter's gate a moment and laughed with Mr. Belter at something Mr. Belter had said; but as Walter looked up and saw Agatha his face changed instantly. The frown came between his brows again, and although he kissed Agatha when she opened the door she saw the look of irritation she so much dreaded. He looked suddenly tired.
"Nice and early!" Agatha exclaimed brightly. "And I've got such a good dinner!"
"How was your party?" he asked as if grudgingly. "Everything go off all right?"
"Just lovely!" she cried. "I'll tell you all about it when you come down. Take your time, Walter; dinner will be ready when you come down. Did you have a hard day, Walter?"
"No," he said, and went up the stairs.
She told him, at dinner, all about the party, but not about Betty. She gave him all the bits of small gossip that might interest him, and gradually the frown left his face. He became quite interested in Agatha's explanation of Sara Spence's description of the new house she and her husband were planning, and was animated in the matter of the relative value of different heating plants. He told Agatha the story Mr. Belter had told him -- the one that had made him laugh -- and he laughed again at it. It was not until Agatha was sipping her black coffee that she spoke of the Benchways Company's letter.
"What have you decided about the Benchways Company's letter, Walter?" she asked, and instantly the annoyance returned to Walter's face.
"Nothing, of course," he said, frowning again. "I wouldn't without talking it over more with you. That's what we decided to do, isn't it?"
"But what do you think we should do, Walter? What do you think would be best?" Agatha asked. "I want to do whatever you want to do."
"That's not discussing it," Walter said. "You said we would think it over and discuss it. I want to do whatever you want to do too. You certainly know that."
"Yes, but I want to do absolutely what you want to do, Walter," Agatha insisted. "I want you to decide, and whatever you decide will satisfy me completely. It's much more important to you than it could possibly be to me. It is you who will have the work to do, Walter."
"Oh, work!" he exclaimed. "I can work anywhere. Leave that out of it. If we go to Dellbrook all these friends of yours here in Belmar --"
"Now, that must not be considered for a moment," declared Agatha. "I can make other friends in Dellbrook; but the salary --"
"I don't know that I'd suit the Benchways people; I might be fired out of there in a month, or a year. The Janes Company may give me more in a year or so. You've always liked this house."
"It's not the only house I might like, Walter," Agatha said. "Now, please, Walter; I want you to do just whatever you want to do. I can get along in any kind of a house. I can make friends anywhere. I want you to decide."
"Oh, don't let's talk about it!" Walter cried with an impatient gesture.
"But, Walter --"
He got up from the table and went into the living room. Agatha sat for a minute longer looking at his vacant chair. He had been angry! His face had been red! What had she said to make him angry? Why was he angry? She got out of her chair slowly and stood for a moment with her finger laid across her lips; then she went to the living room door.
"Walter," she said, "you aren't angry, are you?"
"No!" he said from behind his newspaper.
"Because I wouldn't do anything, not for worlds, to offend you. I just want you to understand, Walter, dear, that it doesn't make any difference whatever how you decide the Benchways offer. I'll be happy if you decide to go to them, and I'll be happy if we stay here."
She was going to say more, but Walter threw down the paper petulantly.
"Oh, quit!" he exclaimed. "I told you I'm not going to decide this alone. I don't know what you want to do. You can't come out and say one thing or the other -- you've got to hedge and hum and haw --"
He pushed past her, brushing aside the hand she put out to hold him, and went up the stairs to the small room he used as a laboratory. He went in and closed the door and Agatha heard the key turn in the lock. It was their first real quarrel. She put a foot on the bottom step and then turned away from the stairs and went to the dining room and began to gather up the dishes with tears in her eyes.
In the small laboratory Walter threw himself on a couch he had there. He threw himself face downward with his head on the crook of an arm and lay motionless. He closed his eyes and tried not to think of anything, but presently his mind took up the experiment on which he had been working at the Janes laboratory for two weeks. He forgot Agatha as his brain began going over this and that combination he had tested, and he turned and sat up and got to his feet. He walked to his bench and took down three bottles and lighted his gas jet. He felt in his pocket and drew out a fold of papers and laid this on the bench, bending over it. He turned to the third sheet of figures and symbols and studied it, and reached for a fourth bottle. He forgot Belmar and Dellbrook and Agatha and himself. He forgot the annoyance of having to make decisions in matters that were immaterial to him. He remembered only the one thing to which his life was devoted -- chemistry and the problems and possibilities of chemistry in modern civilization.
In the kitchen, over the pan of steaming water, Agatha leaned and washed the thin china and the thinner glasses. For a few minutes her tears dropped into the dishwater, but she wiped her eyes with a corner of her apron. She heard Walter moving around in the room above and a wave of resentment swept through her, leaving her lips pressed tight together. He was up there with his chemicals!
Agatha finished the dishes and put them away. She hung her apron on its hook and seated herself on the wooden chair by the kitchen window. She folded her hands in her lap and looked out at the darkening yard. She might, she thought, for all Walter cared at the moment, be a hired maid sitting there on a kitchen chair. Well, what else did it amount to if Walter turned his back on her like this?
If they took the Benchways position, with the better salary, Agatha thought, her mind wandering away from Walter for a moment, it might be a hired maid sitting on the kitchen chair. How could anyone possibly hesitate between the Janes Company and the Benchways Company? Friends? One always made plenty of friends. The house? Dellbrook had any number of pretty houses -- it was a prettier town. It was in every way a better town than Belmar. If Walter went to the Benchways Company their future was assured; everyone said he was going to be one of the greatest experimental chemists if he had a proper chance. Everyone said that Walter was not in the right place with the Janes Company.
Agatha drew a deep breath, drowning a sigh. Being second to Walter! You simply could not be second to Walter; he wouldn't let you be second. He --
A thought came to Agatha that startled her; Walter had never made a decision of his own free will -- not once! Except when he had proposed -- but then he had not decided, he had asked and Agatha had decided.
"Why, he doesn't like to decide!" Agatha's thought exclaimed, surprised. "It worries him to decide; it makes him cross to have to decide," and her head went up. She heard Walter still moving here and there in the laboratory above. "He's like a professor," she thought; "he is so interested in his work that everything else is less important. He's really wonderful that way."
Agatha went upstairs. She went into the bedroom and arranged her hair before her mirror, and walked to Walter's laboratory door. She tapped on the door.
"Walter!" she said.
"Yes? Hello!" he answered.
"Open the door."
"Yes; in a minute. Just got to fix this and I'll be done, honey; just a second!"
She waited and in not over two minutes he opened the door.
"Walter," she said, "I've made up my mind; we're going to Dellbrook."
"Fine!" said Walter, and then he said, "Ah -- forgive me, Agatha, I was thinking of something else; did you say we were going or were not going?"
"We're going," Agatha repeated.
"Fine!" Walter said again. "Fine either way, as long as you are satisfied."
"I am," said Agatha.
She met Betty Blair some days later and Betty beamed on her.
"You look happy, Agatha," Betty said.
"I am," Agatha told her. "Everything is as right as right can be at our house now. I don't believe we'll ever have another worry."
"So my plan worked?" Betty smiled.
"Just splendidly!" Agatha said. "With changes, of course."
"With changes?" Betty asked, puzzled. "What do you mean, Agatha?"
"Walters are not always Georges," said Agatha. "Sometimes Agathas have to be."