Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Delight Haverford was to come out in December, but there were times when the Doctor wondered if she was really as keen about it as she pretended to be. He found her once or twice, her usually active hands idle in her lap, and a pensive droop to her humorous young mouth.
"Tired, honey?" he asked, on one of those occasions.
"No. Just talking to myself."
"Say a few nice things for me, while you're about it, then."
"Nice things! I don't deserve them."
"What awful crime have you been committing? Break it to me gently. You know my weak heart."
"Your tobacco heart!" she said, severely. "Well, I've been committing a mental murder, if you want to know the facts. Don't protest. It's done. She's quite dead already."
"Good gracious! And I have reared this young viper! Who is she?"
"I don't intend to make you an accessory, daddy."
But' behind her smile he felt a real hurt. He would have given a great deal to have taken her in his arms and tried to coax out her trouble so he might comfort her. But that essential fineness in him which his worldliness only covered like a veneer told him not to force her confidence. Only, he wandered off rather disconsolately to hunt his pipe and to try to realize that Delight was now a woman grown, and liable to woman's heart-aches.
"What do you think it is?" he asked that night, when after her nightly custom Mrs. Haverford had reached over from the bed beside his and with a single competent gesture had taken away his book and switched off his reading lamp, and he had, with the courage of darkness, voiced a certain uneasiness.
"Who do you think it is, you mean." "Very well, only the word is 'whom.'"
Mrs. Haverford ignored this.
"It's that Hayden girl," she said. "Toots. And Graham Spencer."
"Do you think that Delight - " "She always has. For years."
Which was apparently quite clear to them both.
"If it had only been a nice girl," Mrs. Haverford protested, plaintively. "But Toots! She's fast, I'm sure of it."
"And that boy needs a decent girl, if anybody ever did. A shallow mother, and a money-making father - all Toots Hay den wants is his money. She's ages older than he is. I hear he is there every day and all of Sundays."
The rector had precisely as much guile as a turtle dove, and long, after Mrs. Haverford gave unmistakable evidences of slumber, he lay with his arms above his head, and plotted. He had no conscience whatever about it. He threw his scruples to the wind, and if it is possible to follow the twists of a theological mind turned from the straight and narrow way into the maze of conspiracy, his thoughts ran something like this:
"She is Delight. Therefore to see her is to love her. To see her with any other girl is to see her infinite superiority and charm. Therefore - "
Therefore, on the following Sunday afternoon, the totally unsuspecting daughter of a good man gone wrong took a note from the rector to the Hayden house, about something or other of no importance, and was instructed to wait for an answer. And the rector, vastly uneasy and rather pleased with himself, took refuge in the parish house and waited ten eternities, or one hour by the clock.
Delight herself was totally unsuspicious. The rectory on a Sunday afternoon was very quiet, and she was glad to get away. She drove over, and being in no hurry she went by the Spencer house. She did that now and then, making various excuses to herself, such as liking the policeman at the corner or wanting to see the river from the end of the street. But all she saw that day was Rodney Page going in, in a top hat and very bright gloves.
"Precious!" said Delight to herself. Her bump of reverence was very small.
But she felt a little thrill, as she always did, when she passed the house. Since she could remember she had cared for Graham. She did not actually know that she loved him. She told herself bravely that she was awfully fond of him, and that it was silly, because he never would amount to anything. But she had a little argument of her own, for such occasions, which said that being really fond of any one meant knowing all about them and liking them anyhow.
She stopped the car at the Hayden house, and carried her note to the door. When she went in, however, she was instantly uncomfortable. The place reeked with smoke, and undeniably there was dancing going on somewhere. A phonograph was scraping noisily. Delight's small nose lifted a little. What a deadly place! Coming in from the fresh outdoors, the noise and smoke and bar-room reek stifled her.
Then a door opened, and Marion Hayden was drawing her into a room.
"How providential, Delight!" she said. "You'll take my hand, won't you? It's Graham's dummy, and we want to dance."
The two connecting rooms were full of people, and the air was heavy. Through the haze she saw Graham, and nodded to him, but with a little sinking of the heart. She was aware, however, that he was looking at her with a curious intentness and a certain expectancy. Maybe he only hoped she would let him dance with Toots.
"No, thanks," she said. "Sorry."
"Why not, Delight? Just a hand, anyhow."
"Three good reasons: I don't play cards on Sunday; I don't ever play for money; and I'm stifling for breath already in this air."
She was, indeed, a little breathless.
There was, had she only seen it, relief in Graham's face. She did not belong there, he felt. Delight was - well, she was different. He had not been thinking of her before she came in; he forgot her promptly the moment she went out. But she had given him, for an instant, a breath of the fresh out-doors, and quietness and - perhaps something clean and fine.
There was an insistent clamor that she stay, and Tommy Hale even got down on his knees and made a quite impassioned appeal. But Delight's chin was very high, although she smiled.
"You are all very nice," she said. "But I'm sure I'd bore you in a minute, and I'm certain you'd bore me. Besides, I think you're quite likely to be raided."
Which met with great applause.
But there was nothing of Delight of the high head when she got out of her car and crept up the rectory steps. How could she even have cared? How could she? That was his life, those were the people he chose to play with. She had a sense of loss, rather than injury.
The rector, tapping at her door a little later, received the answer to his note through a very narrow crack, and went away feeling that the way of the wicked is indeed hard.
Clayton had been watching with growing concern Graham's intimacy with the gay crowd that revolved around Marion Hayden. It was more thoughtless than vicious; more pleasure-seeking than wicked; but its influence was bad, and he knew it.
But he was very busy. At night he was too tired to confront the inevitable wrangle with Natalie that any protest about Graham always evoked, and he was anxious not to disturb the new rapprochement with the boy by direct criticism.
The middle of December, which found the construction work at the new plant well advanced, saw the social season definitely on, also, and he found himself night after night going to dinners and then on to balls. There were fewer private dances than in previous Winters, but society had taken up various war activities and made them fashionable. The result was great charity balls.
On these occasions he found himself watching for Audrey, always. She had, with a sort of diabolical cleverness, succeeded in losing herself. Her house was sold, he knew, and he had expected that she would let him know where to find her. She had said she counted on him, and he had derived an odd sort of comfort from the thought. It had warmed him to think that, out of all the people he knew, to one woman he meant something more than success.
But although he searched the gayest crowds with his eyes, those hilarious groups of which she had been so frequently the center, he did not find her. And there had been no letter save a brief one without an address, enclosing her check for the money she had borrowed. She had apparently gone, not only out of her old life, but out of his as well.
At one of the great charity balls he met Nolan, and they stood together watching the crowd.
"Pretty expensive, I take it," Nolan said, indicating the scene. "Orchestra, florist, supper - I wonder how much the Belgians will get."
"Personally, I'd rather send the money and get some sleep."
"Precisely. But would you send the money? We've got to have a quid pro quo, you know-most of us." He surveyed the crowd with cynical, dissatisfied eyes. "At the end of two years of the war," he observed, apropos of nothing, "five million men are dead, and eleven million have been wounded. A lot of them were doing this sort of thing two years ago."
"I would like to know where we will be two years from now."
"Some of us won't be here. Have you seen Lloyd George's speech on the German peace terms? That means going on to the end. A speedy peace might have left us out, but there will be no peace. Not yet, or soon."
"And still we don't prepare!"
"The English tradition persists," said the Irishman, bitterly. "We want to wait, and play to the last moment, and then upset our business and overthrow the whole country, trying to get ready in a hurry.
"I wonder what they will do, when the time comes, with men like you and myself?"
"Take our money," said Nolan viciously. "Tax our heads off. Thank God I haven't a son."
Clayton eyed him with the comprehension of long acquaintance.
"Exactly," he said. "But you'll go yourself, if you can,"
"And fight for England? I will not."
He pursued the subject further, going into an excited account of Ireland's grievances. He was flushed and loquacious. He quoted Lloyd George's "quagmire of distrust" in tones raised over the noise of the band. And Clayton was conscious of a growing uneasiness. How much of it was real, how much a pose? Was Nolan representative of the cultured Irishman in America? And if he was, what would be the effect of their anti-English mania? Would we find ourselves, like the British, split into factions? Or would the country be drawn together by trouble until it changed from a federation of states to a great nation, united and unbeatable?
Were we really the melting pot of the world, and was war the fiery furnace which was to fuse us together, or were there elements, like Nolan, like the German-Americans, that would never fuse?
He left Nolan still irritable and explosive, and danced once with Natalie, his only dance of the evening. Then, finding that Rodney Page would see her to her car later, he went home.
He had a vague sense of disappointment, a return of the critical mood of the early days of his return from France. He went to his room and tried to read, but he gave it up, and lay, cigaret in hand, thinking!
There ought to have come to a man, when he reached the middle span, certain compensations for the things that had gone with his youth, the call of adventure, the violent impulses of his early love life. There should come, to take their place, friends, a new zest in the romance of achievement, since other romance had gone, and - peace. But the peace of the middle span of life should be the peace of fulfillment, and of a home and a woman.
Natalie was not happy, but she seemed contented enough. Her life satisfied her. The new house in the day-time, bridge, the theater in the evening or the opera, dinners, dances, clothes - they seemed to be enough for her. But his life was not enough for him. What did he want anyhow? In God's name, what did he want?
One night, impatient with himself, he picked up the book of love lyrics in its mauve cover, from his bedside table. He read one, then another. He read them slowly, engrossingly. It was as though something starved in him was feeding eagerly on this poor food. Their passion stirred him as in his earlier years he had never been stirred. For just a little time, while Natalie danced that night, Clayton Spencer faced the tragedy of the man in his prime, still strong and lusty with life, with the deeper passions of the deepening years, who has outgrown and outloved the woman he married.
A man's house must be built on love. Without love it can not stand.
Natalie, coming in much later and seeing his light still on, found him sleeping, with one arm under his head, and a small black hole burned in the monogrammed linen sheet. The book of poems had slipped to the floor.
The next day she missed it from its place, and Clayton's man, interrogated, said he had asked to have it put away somewhere. He did not care for it. Natalie raised her eyebrows. She had thought the poems rather pretty.
One resolution Clayton made, as a result of that night. He would not see Audrey again if he could help it. He was not in love with her and he did not intend to be. He was determinedly honest with himself. Men in his discontented state were only too apt to build up a dream-woman, compounded of their own starved fancy, and translate her into terms of the first attractive woman who happened to cross the path. He was not going to be a driveling idiot, like Chris and some of the other men he knew. Things were bad, but they could be much worse.
It happened then that when Audrey called him at the mill a day or so later it was a very formal voice that came back to her over the wire. She was quick to catch his tone.
"I suppose you hate being called in business hours, Clay!"
"Not at all."
"That means yes, you know. But I'm going even further. I'm coming down to see you."
"Why, is anything wrong?"
He could hear her laughter, a warm little chuckle.
"Don't be so urgent," she said gayly. "I want to consult you. That's all. May I come?"
There was a second's pause. Then,
"Don't you think I'd better come to see you?"
"I've only a little flat. I don't think you'll like it."
"That's nonsense. Where is it?"
She gave him the address.
"When shall I come?"
"Whenever it suits you. I have nothing to do. Say this afternoon about four."
That "nothing to do" was an odd change, in itself, for Audrey had been in the habit of doling out her time like sweetmeats.
"Where in the world have you been all this time?" he demanded, almost angrily. To his own surprise he was suddenly conscious of a sense of indignation and affront. She had said she depended on him, and then she had gone away and hidden herself. It was ridiculous.
"Just getting acquainted with myself," she replied, with something of her old airy manner. "Good-by."
His irritation passed as quickly as it came. He felt calm and very sure of himself, and rather light-hearted. Joey, who was by now installed as an office adjunct, and who commonly referred to the mill as "ours," heard him whistling blithely and cocked an ear in the direction of the inner room.
"Guess we've made another million dollars," he observed to the pencil-sharpener.
Clayton was not in the habit of paying afternoon calls on women. The number of such calls that he had paid without Natalie during his married life could have been numbered on the fingers of his two hands. Most of the men he knew paid such visits, dropping in somewhere for tea or a highball on the way uptown. He had preferred his club, when he had a little time, the society of other men.
He wondered if he should call Natalie and tell her. But he decided against it. It was possible, for one thing, that Audrey still did not wish her presence in town known. If she did, she would tell Natalie herself. And it was possible, too, that she wanted to discuss Chris, and the reason for his going.
He felt a real sense of relief, when at last he saw her, to find her looking much the same as ever. He hardly knew what he had expected. Audrey, having warned him as to the apartment, did not mention its poverty again. It was a tiny little place, but it had an open fire in the living-room, and plain, pale-yellow walls, and she had given it that curious air of distinction with which she managed, in her casual way, to invest everything about her.
"I hope you observe how neat I am," she said, as she gave him her hand. "My rooms, of course."
He towered in the low room. Audrey sat down and surveyed him as he stood by the fire.
"It is nice to have a man about again."
"Do you mean to say you have been living here, without even visitors, for two months?"
"You'll laugh. Clay, I'm studying!"
"Stenography. Oh, it's not as bad as that. I don't have to earn my living. I've just got to do something for my soul's sake. I went all over the ground, and I saw I was just a cumberer of the earth, and then I thought - "
"What did you think?"
"If, some time or other, I could release a man to go and fight, it would be the next best thing to giving myself. Not here, necessarily; I don't believe we will ever go in. But in England, anywhere."
"You've released Chris."
"He released himself. And he's not fighting. He's driving an ambulance."
He waited, hoping she would go on. He was not curious, but he thought it might be good for her to talk Chris and the trouble over with some one. But she sat silent, and suddenly asked him if he cared for tea. He refused.
"And the house?"
"Held up by cold weather now. It should be finished by the end of April."
"Clay," she said, after a moment, "are you going to employ women in the new munition works?"
"In certain departments, yes."
"I have a girl I want work for. She's not trained, of course."
"None of them are. We have to teach them. I can give you a card to the employment department if you want it."
There was a short silence. She sat looking at the fire, and he had a chance to notice the change in her. She had visualized it herself. Her long ear-rings were gone, and with them some of the insolence they had seemed to accentuate. She was not rouged, and he had thought at first, for that reason, that she looked ill. She was even differently dressed, in something dark and girlish with a boyish white Eton collar.
"I wonder if you think I'm hiding, Clay," she said, finally.
"Well, what are you doing?" He smiled down at her from the hearth-rug.
"Paying my bills! That's not all the truth, either. I'll tell you, Clay. I just got sick of it all. When Chris left I had a chance to burn my bridges and I burned them. The same people, the same talk, the same food, the same days filled with the same silly things that took all my time and gave me nothing."
"How long had you been feeling like that?"
"I don't know. Ever since the war, I suppose. I just got to thinking - "
Her voice trailed off.
"I have some of Chris's Scotch, if you want a high-ball."
"Thanks, no. Audrey, do you hear from Chris?"
"Yes. He's in a dangerous place now, and sometimes at night - I suppose I did force him, in a way. He was doing no good here, and I thought he would find himself over there. But I didn't send him. He - Tell me about making shells."
He was a little bit disappointed. Evidently she did not depend on him enough to tell him Chris's story. But again, she was being loyal to Chris.
He told her about the mill, phrasing his explanation in the simplest language; the presses drilling on white-hot metal; the great anvils; the forge; the machine-shop, with its lathes, where the rough surfaces of the shells were first rough-turned and then machined to the most exact measurements. And finding her interested, he told her of England's women workers, in their khaki-colored overalls and caps, and of the convent-like silence and lack of movement in the filling-sheds, where one entered with rubber-shod feet, and the women, silent and intent, sat all day and all night, with queer veils over their faces, filling shells with the death load.
Audrey listened, her hands clasped behind her head.
"If other women can do that sort of thing, why can't I, Clay?"
"But why? I'm intelligent."
"It's not work for a lady."
"Lady! How old-fashioned you are! There are no ladies any more. Just women. And if we aren't measured by our usefulness instead of our general not-worth-a-damn-ness, well, we ought to be. Oh, I've had time to think, lately."
He was hardly listening. Seeing her, after all those weeks, had brought him a wonderful feeling of peace. The little room, with its fire, was cozy and inviting. But he was quite sure, looking down at her, that he was not in danger of falling in love with her. There was no riot in him, no faint stirring of the emotions of that hour with the mauve book.
There was no suspicion in him that the ways of love change with the years, that the passions of the forties, when they come, are to those of the early years as the deep sea to a shallow lake, less easily roused, infinitely more terrible.
"This girl you spoke about, that was the business you mentioned?"
"Yes." She hesitated. "I could have asked you that over the telephone, couldn't I? The plain truth is that I've had two bad months - never mind why, and Christmas was coming, and - I just wanted to see your perfectly sane and normal face again."
"I wish you'd let me know sooner where you were."
She evaded his eyes.
"I was getting settled, and studying, and learning to knit, and - oh, I'm the most wretched knitter, Clay! I just stick at it doggedly. I say to myself that hands that can play golf, and use a pen, and shoot, and drive a car, have got to learn to knit. But look here!"
She held up a forlorn looking sock to his amused gaze. "And I think I'm a clever woman."
"You're a very brave woman, Audrey," he said. "You'll let me come back, won't you?"
"Heavens, yes. Whenever you like. And I'm going to stop being a recluse. I just wanted to think over some things."
On the way home he stopped at his florist's, and ordered a mass of American beauties for her on Christmas morning. She had sent her love to Natalie, so that night he told Natalie he had seen her, and such details of her life as he knew.
"I'm glad she's coming to her senses," Natalie said. "Everything's been deadly dull without her. She always made things go - I don't know just how," she added, as if she had been turning her over in her mind. "What sort of business did she want to see you about?"
"She has a girl she wants to get into the mill."
"Good gracious, she must be changed," said Natalie. And proceeded - she was ready to go out to dinner - to one of her long and critical surveys of herself in the cheval mirror. Recently those surveys had been rather getting on Clayton's nerves. She customarily talked, not to him, but to his reflection over her shoulder, when, indeed, she took her eyes from herself.
"I wonder," she said, fussing with a shoulder-strap, "who Audrey will marry if anything happens to Chris?"
She saw his face and raised her eyebrows.
"You needn't scowl like that. He's quite as likely as not never to come back, isn't he? And Audrey didn't care a pin for him."
"We're talking rather lightly of a very terrible thing, aren't we?"
"Oh, you're not," she retorted. "You think just the same things as I do, but you're not so open about them. That's all"