There are a great many rooms in Stately Wayne Manor that see a human face only twice yearly once during the spring cleaning, and another time when the heavy draperies are put up in the fall. In Bruce's childhood, there was a staff of twelve who lived here, including myself -- always twelve. Martha Wayne was a somewhat superstitious woman, and her husband Thomas indulged her whenever possible. We never had thirteen on the staff. We never had thirteen of anything.
I cannot say that in the long run these precautions made much of a difference.
The library, with its walls and tables of books, is not one of the forgotten rooms of the Manor. Master Bruce frequents it in his rare personal time, sometimes to peruse the heavy volumes of literature or of scientific essays, but more often for a rather more melancholy pursuit. All of us who spend significant time in this house have learned not to bother him at those times.
So it is a considerable surprise to enter the library, duster and polish in hand (a useful cover to get in some uninterrupted time with Thackeray), and find Master Dick standing there, hands in his pockets, staring thoughtfully up. At the enormous portrait of Thomas and Martha Wayne that hangs over the fireplace.
For a moment I mistake him for Bruce and am about to back out, but Dick turns when I enter and smiles at me. "Hey, Alfred," he says. "Doing some dusting?" He gestures rhetorically at the feather duster, swivelling his whole body to face in my direction. Dick has always been like that. You get his full attention or nothing at all.
"Hmm." I straighten myself slightly. "If you'd like some time to yourself, Master Dick--"
"No, no, no." He shakes his head in emphasis, then heaves a sigh, the smile becoming a touch more wistful. "In fact...if there's anybody I could ask what I wanna know, it'd be you."
"Oh?" I must admit I'm curious. When he was a child, Dick was full of the normal questions about his new home and the people in it, and I had become adept at diverting his more sharp inquiries. But one area I'd never had to gloss over was the Waynes. Young Master Grayson understood all too well the sanctity of those memories, and he'd been quite careful never to prod when it came to Bruce's life before Crime Alley. Finding him here under the portrait, blue eyes gathering courage as he takes a deep breath, I know the time to break the silence was finally here.
The question, when it does come, is almost painful for both of us.
"Alfred, d'you think they would have..." A pause, a hitch, then he determinedly continues. "Do you think they would've liked me?"
My years of dealing with any and every situation with the utmost aplomb serve me well as I consider, but Dick is already barrelling ahead, becoming more agitated and animated with every new sentence.
"I mean, I've asked Bruce if they would," he tells me. "And he said 'Of course,' just like that, like there's no question about it. But you know Bruce even if he knew his parents would hate me, he still would've said that they'd like me, because that's just the way he thinks about them, y'know, never anything bad. Well, not bad bad, because I'm sure they weren't, but Bruce "
"Master Dick," I interrupt, and then again, louder, because he's still prattling on. "Dick." He stops and focuses on me, about to say something else. I can tell from the quickness of his breathing that he's going to tell me to never mind, to forget it, it isn't really important. I hear that enough from the other Bat-person in this household without hearing it from Dick, so I hastily tell him what he wants to hear. The truth.
"Probably not, Master Dick."
He almost...deflates when I say it, eyes clouding over as he returns his hands to the depths of his pockets. "Oh," he says, trying to think of more to say, some way to make it hurt less, and finding nothing. "Oh."
I put the duster and polish down and take his shoulders firmly. This needs to be said. There are too many things that have been half-said in this house, begun and then abandoned because of pain or fear or guilt. I don't intend that this be one of them. "Richard, they might not have liked you at the start. But I scarcely believe that anybody could get to know you and still dislike you." I can tell I'm not getting through to him; his eyes have that same faraway look that Bruce's do when he's feeling particularly disheartened. My fingers tighten slightly and I shake him, once. I need all of his attention right now.
"Dr. and Mrs. Wayne were members of a very different society and mindset," I say, speaking loudly and enunciating clearly. At least he's looking at me now. "They had extremely set ideals and were not likely to adjust those ideals for people who fell outside of them. And you, dear boy, for all your admirable qualities, would still fall outside of their ideals."
He's puzzled now, but calmer. "Okay," he says. I can see the wheels turning. "Okay," he starts up again, obviously having thought of something new, "so what would they have thought of Bruce? About how he's grown up?"
I let go, smoothing the wrinkles left by my fingers before clasping my hands behind my back. The implacable butler returns. "That, young man, is none of your concern."
Dick turns his head slightly, narrowing his eyes at me. Now that he's a grown man and as tall as I am, he can no longer turn that winsome look on me that he'd perfected within a month of living here. "Wellllll..." he wheedles, "I guess it isn't reeeeeeally...."
Knowing perfectly well what he's trying to do, I pick up the duster and begin giving the table a cursory once-over. Dick persists in hovering behind me for a few moments more before giving up with a resigned chuckle.
"Okay, all right. I'll stop bugging you." Dick heads for the door, but stops short of it to add, voice softened, "And thanks for the honest answer, Alfred."
He shuts the door behind him, and I am left with the portrait, Thomas and Martha's lifeless eyes staring down at me. It's no use to continue dusting and even less to attempt some quiet reading.
After all, what could they possibly think about the person to whom their orphaned son was entrusted and who fulfilled that trust by raising the Batman?
Thomas and Martha Wayne were rich, white, upper-class people who entertained and did charity work and led a rich, white, upper-class life. There is hardly a square mile of Gotham City that hasn't been improved or beautified in some way by the Wayne millions, but one might say that charity work is merely something that is "done" among the philanthropic elite. They were certainly not bad people, but it would not be slandering their memories to say that they were oft-times rigid and set in their ways and beliefs. No, they would not take kindly to having an orphaned circus "Gypsy" running about the house. They would not approve of it in the least; certainly there must be some sort of...home for such children? They would not be pleased to find their son's handsome, guileless face gracing the society pages every fortnight and his name linked to a dozen women each month. They would be horrified at his nighttime activities.
I can't count the number of times Master Bruce has pleaded with me aloud or simply through his silence to tell him what his parents would think of what he's become, what they would think of the self-imposed crusade that drives him to the streets at the expense of his body and his mind. And each time I tell him what he needs to hear. I tell him, "Your parents would be proud of the man you are, Master Bruce."
It is a boldfaced lie, and one I am not sorry to tell. If I told him that his fears are valid, and that his parents would be mortified and overwhelmed by what their deaths had done to their son, it would destroy him. If I told him that I spend long nights attempting to discern where exactly in his upbringing I went wrong, at what point I allowed his mind to believe that ridding Gotham of crime should be his special province, he would not be able to live with the guilt. It would strip his life of meaning and denigrate his ongoing fight against injustice. I can't be the one who does that to him.
Someday, he will hear what I say every time I tell him those words. He will hear it, and he will believe it.
I am proud of him.