Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Two days before Christmas Delight came out. There was an afternoon reception at the rectory, and the plain old house blossomed with the debutante's bouquets and baskets of flowers.
For weeks before the house had been getting ready. The rector, looking about for his accustomed chair, had been told it was at the upholsterer's, or had found his beloved and ragged old books relegated to dark corners of the bookcases. There were always stepladders on the landings, and paper-hangers waiting until a man got out of bed in the morning. And once he put his ecclesiastical heel in a pail of varnish, and slid down an entire staircase, to the great imperilment of his kindly old soul.
But he had consented without demur to the coming-out party, and he had taken, during all the morning of the great day, a most mundane interest in the boxes of flowers that came in every few minutes. He stood inside a window, under pretense of having no place to sit down, and called out regularly,
"Six more coming, mother! And a boy with three ringing across the street. I think he's made a mistake. Yes, he has. He's coming over!"
When all the stands and tables were overflowing, the bouquets were hung to the curtains in the windows. And Delight, taking a last survey, from the doorway, expressed her satisfaction.
"It's heavenly," she said. "Imagine all those flowers for me. It looks" - she squinted up her eyes critically - "it looks precisely like a highly successful funeral."
But a part of her satisfaction was pure pose, for the benefit of that kindly pair who loved her so. Alone in her room, dressed to go down-stairs, Delight drew a long breath and picked up her flowers which Clayton Spencer had sent. It had been his kindly custom for years to send to each little debutante, as she made her bow, a great armful of white lilacs and trailing tiny white rosebuds.
"Fifty dollars, probably," Delight reflected. "And the Belgians needing flannels. It's dreadful."
Her resentment against Graham was dying. After all, he was only a child in Toots Hayden's hands. And she made one of those curious "He-loves-me-he-loves-me-not" arrangements in her own mind. If Graham came that afternoon, she would take it as a sign that there was still some good in him, and she would try to save him from himself. She had been rather nasty to him. If he did not come -
A great many came, mostly women, with a sprinkling of men. The rector, who loved people, was in his element. He was proud of Delight, proud of his home; he had never ceased being proud of his wife. He knew who exactly had sent each basket of flowers, each hanging bunch. "Your exquisite orchids," he would say; or, "that perfectly charming basket. It is there, just beside Mrs. Haverford."
But when Natalie Spencer came in alone, splendid in Russian sables, he happened to be looking at Delight, and he saw the light die out of her eyes.
Natalie had tried to bring Graham with her. She had gone into his room that morning while he was dressing and asked him. To tell the truth, she was uneasy about Marion Hayden and his growing intimacy there.
"You will, won't you, Graham, dear?"
"Sorry,. mother. I just can't. I'm taking a girl out."
"I suppose it's Marion."
Her tone caused him to turn and look at her.
"Yes, it's Marion. What's wrong with that?"
"It's so silly, Graham. She's older than you are. And she's not really nice, Graham. I don't mean anything horrid, but she's designing. She knows you are young and - well, she's just playing with you. I know girls, Graham. I - "
She stopped, before his angry gaze.
"She is nice enough for you to ask here," he said hastily.
"She wants your money. That's all."
He had laughed then, an ugly laugh.
"There's a lot of it for her to want."
And Natalie had gone away to shed tears of fury and resentment in her own room.
She was really frightened. Bills for flowers sent to Marion were coming in, to lie unpaid on Graham's writing table. She had over-drawn once again to pay them, and other bills, for theater tickets, checks signed at restaurants, over-due club accounts.
So she went to the Haverfords alone, and managed very effectually to snub Mrs. Hayden before the rector's very eyes.
Mrs. Hayden thereupon followed an impulse.
"If it were not for Natalie Spencer," she said, following that lady's sables with malevolent eyes, "I should be very happy in something I want to tell you. Can we find a corner somewhere?"
And Doctor Haverford had followed her uneasily, behind some palms. She was a thin little woman with a maddening habit of drawing her tight veil down even closer by a contortion of her lower jaw, so that the rector found himself watching her chin rather than her eyes.
"I want you to know right away, as Marion's clergyman, and ours," she had said, and had given her jaw a particularly vicious wag and twist. "Of course it is not announced - I don't believe even the Spencers know it yet. I am only telling you now because I know how dearly" - she did it again - "how dearly interested you are in all your spiritual children. Marion is engaged to Graham Spencer."
The rector had not been a shining light for years without learning how to control his expression. He had a second, too, while she contorted her face again, to recover himself.
"Thank you," be said gravely. "I much appreciate your telling me."
Mrs. Hayden had lowered her voice still more. The revelation took on the appearance of conspiracy.
"In the early spring, probably," she said, "we shall need your services, and your blessing."
So that was the end of one dream. He had dreamed so many - in his youth, of spiritualizing his worldly flock; in middle life, of a bishopric; he had dreamed of sons, to carry on the name he had meant to make famous. But the failures of those dreams had been at once his own failure and his own disappointment. This was different.
He was profoundly depressed. He wandered out of the crowd and, after colliding with a man from the caterer's in a dark rear hall, found his way up the servant's staircase to the small back room where he kept the lares and penates of his quiet life, his pipe, his fishing rods, a shabby old smoking coat, and back files of magazines which he intended some day to read, when he got round to it.
The little room was jammed with old furniture, stripped from the lower floor to make room for the crowd. He had to get down on his knees and crawl under a table to reach his pipe. But he achieved it finally, still with an air of abstraction, and lighted it. Then, as there was no place to sit down, he stood in the center of the little room and thought.
He did not go down again. He heard the noise of the arriving and departing motors subside, its replacement by the sound of clattering china, being washed below in the pantry. He went down finally, to be served with a meal largely supplemented by the left-overs of the afternoon refreshments, ornate salads, fancy ices, and an overwhelming table decoration that shut him off from his wife and Delight, and left him in magnificent solitude behind a pyramid of flowers.
Bits of the afternoon's gossip reached him; the comments on Delight's dress and her flowers; the reasons certain people had not come. But nothing of the subject nearest his heart. At the end of the meal Delight got up.
"I'm going to call up Mr. Spencer," she said. "He has about fifty dollars' worth of thanks coming to him."
"I didn't see Graham," said Mrs. Haverford. "Was he here?"
Delight stood poised for flight.
"He couldn't come because he had enough to do being two places at once. His mother said he was working, and Mrs. Hayden said he had taken Marion to the Country Club. I don't know why they take the trouble to lie to me."