Miss Chary laid the last of the papers before Thornton and smiled.

"Last one, Mr. Thornton," she said.

"Thank you, Miss Chary," said the bank president as he signed the bottom of the final form, "your efficiency impresses as always."

"Thank you, sir," said Miss Chary, "it comes from being organized."

"Which is even more impressive in so young a person," said Thornton, "I had my doubts, I confess, when Miss Aster recommended you, but I trusted her judgement one last time, and remain very glad I did."

"Thank you, sir," Miss Chary smiled. "Is there anything else, sir?"

"It appears I’m actually done for the day," said Thornton, "I believe I’ll sit here for a moment and think about exactly nothing for a little while. You may go whenever you’re ready, Miss Chary, if anybody deserves a little time off, you do. Please enjoy your holiday and try not to twist your ankle on those narrow trails. I would hate for you to be gone a moment longer than necessary." He sat back in his big leather chair and looked almost as tired as he felt. The beautiful wood-lined office looked comfortable and luxurious, but he had come to regard it more as a prison, or perhaps a stone around his neck.

Miss Chary nodded, and headed for the door with her stack of papers held carefully in her left arm. As she reached for the door, she paused, and turned back to her employer.

"Might I have a few moments of your time, Mr. Thornton?" Suddenly she seemed less confident; her voice almost faltered. Thornton cocked an eyebrow in surprise and blinked, then nodded.

"Of course, Miss Chary," he said, "please have a seat." She crossed the office again and sat in the black leather chair opposite his own. She looked nervous. Thornton noted it with surprise as she mechanically straightened her brown hair and smoothed her pretty green dress not once but twice.

"Is anything the matter, Miss Chary?" He raised an eyebrow again. "You’re not submitting your resignation, I hope?"

"No, nothing like that," said Miss Chary, smiling a little. Her left cheek had a dimple in it that Thornton found most attractive. She really was a comely girl, he mused, with bright, intelligent eyes and an athletic figure that little resembled that of his Wagnerian wife of thirty-six years. "Mr. Thornton," she went on, her voice sounding a bit shaky, "I have a very important question I’d like to ask you, but I don’t want to offend you. I don’t think you’re the sort of person I’ve been told about, but you are a powerful man, the president of this great bank and connected with many politicians. I hope you won’t be offended…" She faltered, and looked him in the eye for the first time that day. She really did seem distressed, and he smiled charmingly. Though approaching sixty, he still cut a dashing figure, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and a manly figure, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted, and not much heavier than he’d been at twenty. He knew well that his smile could charm many a woman, and younger women especially.

"You won’t offend me, Miss Chary," he said, "I’m not easily offended. All those politicians you mentioned–they’re a much more touchy lot than you might think. Get them away from the crowds where they have to pretend to like people and half of them are certifiable misanthropes. It takes a good deal of blarney and a hundredweight of self-control to keep them contented."

"Very well," said Miss Chary, "I hope you’re not just saying that."

"Our relationship demands a certain level of trust," said Thornton, "and I hope that my reaction will confirm to you that you may rely on what I say. I may simper for the tycoons and politicians, because I must, but between us there must be faith and confidence. After all, you are my confidential secretary. You could ruin me in an afternoon, so it behooves both of us to be candid with one another."

Miss Chary took several deep breaths and then blurted her question with a red face.

"Why are you part of the patriarchy?" She hunched her shoulders as she said it. "You don’t seem like…"

"Patriarchy?" He laughed in surprise. Of all the questions she might ask! "I’m not part of any patriarchy!" He paused for a moment, then nodded his head. "You refer perhaps to that new-fangled concept a few feminists have been preaching, about the patriarchy, the ‘old boys club’ I think I heard it called, that keeps women in their place. Am I correct?"

Miss Chary nodded her head, not daring to look up.

"Well, in the first place, Miss Chary, there’s no such thing. Oh, there’s a club of insiders, but it’s not a patriarchy, but rather a matriarchy. I can explain, if you like. And in the second, I am subordinate to the matriarchy, because I haven’t any other choice."

"A matriarchy?" Miss Chary looked up, puzzled. "How could you think so? Men control everything!"

"Many men are fool enough to think so," Thornton nodded, "but I hope I have shown you that I am no fool. I play the fool at times, out of necessity, but I am not easily fooled in my turn."

"That’s why I wanted to speak to you about it," said Miss Chary, "I thought if anyone might be able to explain how it really works…"

"Because I’m an insider," nodded Thornton, "and so I am. However I’m also an outsider. I know all about matriarchal society, and am well aware that I’m not invited."

"Matriarchal society?"

"That’s not what they call it," said Thornton, "that’s what I call it. But it’s real, of that I can assure you. And it’s something that will exclude you too, because of your background. Your father died in the War, your mother only a few years ago…they would consider that you haven’t had proper guidance, and have too much education and ambition. However if you work at it hard enough you might be able to wriggle in. I believe they would approve of your intelligence and efficiency and forgive the rest, but not until you’ve proven yourself to them."

"They? Why should I care what a bunch of old Aunt Nellies think about me?"

"You’ve hit upon it exactly," nodded Thornton, "did you never wonder where that expression comes from? Why should we care what old Aunt Nellies think? Yet we do, passionately, even though we don’t want to believe it. It is the disapproval of old Aunt Nellies that circumscribes all our activities, curbs our vices, tempers our passions. We work and strive to keep old Aunt Nellies from looking down on us–you, me, all of us. Your old Aunt Nellies are the matriarchy, and they run the whole show, no matter what any of my politician friends think."

"I can’t believe that," said Miss Chary, "it’s a term of contempt."

"Yes, I know," said Thornton, "but that is its very power. We tell ourselves we don’t care what the Old Wives think–that’s what I call them–but we do, and we use the term of contempt to convince ourselves we don’t. It’s more men than women, of course, but many women don’t belong, and are relegated to outsider status without ever really knowing why or how."

"Like me," Miss Chary looked suddenly thoughtful. "I’m about to say something possibly offensive again."

"No," said Thornton, grinning at her, "I know exactly what you’re thinking. My wife is so sweet to you, isn’t she? Treats you like a long lost puppy that needs a mamma. Yet she’s never warm, never really takes you in, does she?"

Miss Chary blushed again.

"I didn’t think you’d noticed that."

"I did," said Thornton, "and I spoke to her about it. However there’s little enough I can do. I may be a bank president, but she’s the queen mother of the matriarchy and I dance to her piping."

"Do you really?" Miss Chary looked a bit disgusted.

"I do," said Thornton, "not because other men don’t. I’m just not deluded enough to think I run the show. I understand, and what’s more, while I hate parts of the matriarchal order, overall I have to agree. I’m what you might call a willing slave. I came to understand things as they are…and after a rebellious year or two, I decided that it’s best this way, even though some are hurt by it."

"I feel very confused by all this," said Miss Chary, "you make it sound like there’s a grand conspiracy to subjugate men, and you’re just a pawn who is aware of it."

"That’s a good way of putting it," said Thornton, "but it’s not a conspiracy, not really. Who rears children, for the most part?"

"Mothers, obviously," said Miss Chary.

"Who instills traditions as part of that rearing?"

Miss Chary’s eyes opened wide and she nodded.

"Mothers," she said, "and tradition is more powerful than law."

"Yes," said Thornton, "which was the subject of your thesis, and the reason Miss Aster recommended you. You ably demonstrated to my satisfaction and hers that tradition holds a degree of power many times that of any law. Of course I already knew it, but I could not have explained what I knew. I thank you for that, for now I can."

"Thank you," said Miss Chary, her cheeks a little pink at his obvious admiration for her intellect. "I can see what you mean, so far, but I don’t see why that means you dance to your wife’s piping."

"I’m going to make you blush," said Thornton, "suppose you and I had a torrid love affair, complete with sailing off to Rome and spending a few weeks in Corsica. What would happen if it became know?"

"Many things," said Miss Chary, her face turning bright red, "I would be ruined, unless you decided to ‘keep’ me as a mistress. Actually I would be ruined even in that event."

"Such a clear-eyed young lady! And what would happen to me?"

"Nothing," she shrugged, "your wife would be angry, of course, and you’d be a laughingstock, but most of the men would admire you for it."

"Not fair at all, is it?" Thornton chuckled and shook his head. "But why would my wife forgive me? Why would all my friends laugh at me but still accept me as an insider?"

"Probably because they did the same kind of thing, or at least want to."

"I assure you, my wife has no desire to run off with a man twenty-five years her junior. She is in accord with Victorian mores regarding that realm: best we pretend such things don’t exist."

"I meant your friends," said Miss Chary, laughing at the idea of the nearly sixty-year old, very hefty Mrs. Thornton running away with a young man. Then she frowned. "Why should it be so strange?" She shook her head. "Why should a sixty-year-old man having an affair with a twenty-five-year-old girl be almost a cliche, while the opposite is ridiculous?"

"For one thing, because of the matriarchy," said Thornton, "they want it to be that way. If they ran around with younger men their power would be gone. But you still haven’t answered this question: why would my wife forgive me?"

"To protect herself," said Miss Chary slowly, "because her place in society depends on yours."

"That’s right," said Thornton, "it does. That is what the matriarchy is all about: protecting themselves from perfidious men. All the rules about courtship and lovemaking are designed to protect young women, but even more old wives. Because men, being the blackguards we so often are, are apt to run after young women well into old age, ignoring or abandoning the wives of our youth. It’s mentioned in the Bible many times. "Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant." That’s Malachi 2:14. The Bible is a protection for women, as is religion in general, at least Judeo-Christian religion. It’s one reason that women tend to be more religious than men; they get both consolation and protection from it."

"You don’t think women are ever sincerely religious?"

"Oh, of course they are," said Thornton, "but that doesn’t mean there are no practical considerations as well. Don’t think I’m saying that my wife is a bad woman; she is not. She is a very stimulating companion in many ways. She is very kind, very astute, and extremely witty. Yet I might indeed be tempted if not for the protection the matriarchy affords her…and because I am not a coward."

"A coward?" Miss Chary’s blush had faded, and she looked earnestly interested in Thornton’s words. "You consider an affair with a younger woman cowardly?"

"Indeed I do," said Thornton, "she takes the risks. She’s the one who might be ruined, might end up with a child, might die in childbirth. I get the sweets, she gets the risks. I would call that cowardly."

"So would I," Miss Chary nodded, "though I hadn’t thought of it like that before." She colored again. "I suppose she would get some sweets as well…" She laughed with embarrassment and Thornton grinned.

"Yes, I am a strikingly well-preserved old fellow," said Thornton, "and of course very rich. I’d be able to afford plenty of jewelry and pretty clothes and all that. Yet in the end, divorce would mean ruin for me and my wife both, which would be doubly cowardly–risk a young woman’s life and heart, and break an old woman’s simultaneously. So it would come to nothing, because I would only be able to choose between evils, and all of my own making. That is the folly of cowardice, it comes to dominate a man, if he gives in but once. Have you read that novel, Lord Jim?"

"No," Miss Chary shook her head.

"It explores the very theme," said Thornton, "Jim makes a cowardly decision at the beginning, and it rules the rest of his story. Very interesting, but a bit downhearted for my taste. I prefer…" He lowered his voice. "I prefer lighter fare. You may not ever repeat this, Miss Chary, and if you do, I’ll deny it. My favorite author is Jane Austen, and I’m quite taken with that Canadian Mrs. Montgomery. And this reminds me of a passage from one of Mrs. Montgomery’s books. ‘She held over him the unconscious influence that every girl, whose ideas are high and pure, wields over her friends; an influence which would endure as long as she was faithful to those ideals and which she would certainly lose if she were ever false to them.’ Have you ever read Mrs. Montgomery?"

"Yes," said Miss Chary with a radiant smile, "there was a time I hoped every day that my hair would turn red."

"I knew you had excellent taste," said Thornton, chuckling, "but I think your hair is very lovely as it is, so I hope you’re over that particularly longing."

"I am," said Miss Chary, "but I feel I may faint. It would never have occurred to me that you would be familiar with Anne Shirley."

"Ah, we all have our secrets," said Thornton, "and as they say, you can’t judge a book by its cover."