Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Christmas day of the year of our Lord, 1916, dawned on a world which seemed to have forgotten the Man of Peace. In Asia Minor the Allies celebrated it by the capture of a strong Turkish position at Maghdadah. The Germans spent it concentrating at Dead Man's Hill; the British were ejected from enemy positions near Arras. There was no Christmas truce. The death-grip had come.
Germany, conscious of her superiority in men, and her hypocritical peace offers unanimously rejected, was preparing to free herself from the last restraint of civilization and to begin unrestricted submarine warfare.
On Christmas morning Clayton received a letter from Chris. Evidently it had come by hand, for it was mailed in America.
"Dear Clay: I am not at all sure that you will care to hear from me. In fact, I have tried two or three times to write to you, and have given it up. But I am lonelier than Billy-be-damned, and if it were not for Audrey's letters I wouldn't care which shell got me and my little cart.
"I don't know whether you know why I got out, or not. Perhaps you don't. I'd been a fool and a scoundrel, and I've had time, between fusses, to know just how rotten I've been. But I'm not going to whine to you. What I am trying to get over is that I'm through with the old stuff for good.
"God only knows why I am writing to you, anyhow - unless it is because I've always thought you were pretty near right. And I'd like to feel that now and then you are seeing Audrey, and bucking her up a bit. I think she's rather down.
"Do you know, Clay, I think this is a darned critical time. The press, hasn't got it yet, but both the British and the French are hard up against it. They'll fight until there is no one left to fight, but these damned Germans seem to have no breaking-point. They haven't any temperament, I daresay, or maybe it is soul they lack. But they'll fight to the last man also, and the plain truth is that there are too many of them.
"It looks mighty bad, unless we come in. And I don't mind saying that there are a good many eyes over here straining across the old Atlantic. Are we doing anything, I wonder? Getting ready? The officers here say we can't expand an army to get enough men without a draft law. Can you see the administration endangering the next election with a draft law? Not on your life.
"I'm on the wagon, Clay. Honestly, it's funny. I don't mind telling you I'm darned miserable sometimes. But then I get busy, and I'm so blooming glad in a rush to get water that doesn't smell to heaven that I don't want anything else.
"I suppose they'll give us a good hate on Christmas. Well, think of me sometimes when you sit down to dinner, and you might drink to our coming in. If we have a principle to divide among us we shall have to."
Clayton read the letter twice.
He and Natalie lunched alone, Natalie in radiant good humor. His gift to her had been a high collar of small diamonds magnificently set, and Natalie, whose throat commenced to worry her, had welcomed it rapturously. Also, he had that morning notified Graham that his salary had been raised to five thousand dollars.
Graham had shown relief rather than pleasure.
"I daresay I won't earn it, Father," he had said. "But I'll at east try to keep out of debt on it."
"If you can't, better let me be your banker, Graham."
The boy had flushed. Then he had disappeared, as usual, and Clayton and Natalie sat across from each other, in their high-armed lion chairs, and made a pretense of Christmas gayety. True to Natalie's sense of the fitness of things, a small Nuremberg Christmas tree, hung with tiny toys and lighted with small candles, stood in the center of the table.
"We are dining out," she explained. "So I thought we'd use it now."
"It's very pretty," Clayton acknowledged. And he wondered if Natalie felt at all as he did, the vast room and the two men serving, with Graham no one knew where, and that travesty of Christmas joy between them. His mind wandered to long ago Christmases.
"It's not so very long since we had a real tree," he observed. "Do you remember the one that fell and smashed all the things on it? And how Graham heard it and came down?"
"Horribly messy things," said Natalie, and watched the second man critically. He was new, and she decided he was awkward.
She chattered through the meal, however, with that light gayety of hers which was not gayety at all, and always of the country house.
"The dining-room floor is to be oak, with a marble border," she said. "You remember the ones we saw in Italy? And the ceiling is blue and gold. You'll love the ceiling, Clay."
There was claret with the luncheon, and Clayton, raising his glass, thought of Chris and the water that smelled to heaven.
Natalie's mind was on loggias by that time.
"An upstairs loggia, too," she said. "Bordered with red geraniums. I loathe geraniums, but the color is good. Rodney wants Japanese screens and things, but I'm not sure. What do you think?"
"I think you're a better judge than I am," he replied, smiling. He had had to come back a long way, but he made the effort.
"It's hardly worth while struggling to have things attractive for you," she observed petulantly. "You never notice, anyhow. Clay, do you know that you sit hours and hours, and never talk to me?"
"No! Do I? I'm sorry."
"You're a perfectly dreary person to have around."
"I'll talk to you, my dear. But I'm not much good at houses. Give me something I understand."
"The mill, I suppose! Or the war!"
"Do I really talk of the war?"
"When you talk at all. What in the world do you think about, Clay, when you sit with your eyes on nothing? It's a vicious habit."
"Oh, ships and sails and sealing wax and cabbages and kings," he said, lightly.
That afternoon Natalie slept, and the house took on the tomb-like quiet of an establishment where the first word in service is silence. Clay wandered about, feeling an inexpressible loneliness of spirit. On those days which work did not fill he was always discontented. He thought of the club, but the vision of those disconsolate groups of homeless bachelors who gathered there on all festivals that centered about a family focus was unattractive.
All at once, he realized that, since he had wakened that morning, he had been wanting to see Audrey. He wanted to talk to her, real talk, not gossip. Not country houses. Not personalities. Not recrimination. Such talk as Audrey herself had always led at dinner parties: of men and affairs, of big issues, of the war.
He felt suddenly that he must talk about the war to some one.
Natalie was still sleeping when he went down-stairs. It had been raining, but a cold wind was covering the pavement with a glaze of ice. Here and there men in top hats, like himself, were making their way to Christmas calls. Children clinging to the arms of governesses, their feet in high arctics, slid laughing on the ice. A belated florist's wagon was still delivering Christmas plants tied with bright red bows. The street held more of festivity to Clayton than had his house. Even the shop windows, as he walked toward Audrey's unfashionable new neighborhood, cried out their message of peace. Peace - when there was no peace.
Audrey was alone, but her little room was crowded with gifts and flowers.
"I was hoping you would come, Clay," she said. "I've had some visitors, but they're gone. I'll tell them down-stairs that I'm not at home, and we can really talk."
"That's what I came for."
And when she had telephoned; "I've had a letter from Chris, Audrey."
She read it slowly, and he was surprised, when she finally looked up, to find tears in her eyes.
"Poor old Chris!" she said. "I've never told you the story, have I, Clay? Of course I know perfectly well I haven't. There was another woman. I think I could have understood it, perhaps, if she had been a different sort of a woman. But - I suppose it hurt my pride. I didn't love him. She was such a vulgar little thing. Not even pretty. Just - woman."
"He was fastidious, too. I don't understand it. And he swears he never cared for her. I don't believe he did, either. I suppose there's no explanation for these things. They just happen. It's the life we live, I dare say. When I look back - She's the girl I sent into the mill."
He was distinctly shocked.
"But, Audrey," he protested, "you are not seeing her, are you?"
"Now and then. She has fastened herself on me, in a way. Don't scowl like that. She says she is straight now and that she only wants a chance to work. She's off the stage for good. She - danced. That money I got from you was for her. She was waiting, up-stairs. Chris was behind with her rent, and she was going to lose her furniture."
"That you should have to do such a thing!" he protested. "It's - well, it's infamous."
But she only smiled.
"Well, I've never been particularly shielded. It hasn't hurt me. I don't even hate her. But I'm puzzled sometimes. Where there's love it might be understandable. Most of us would hate to have to stand the test of real love, I daresay. There's a time in every one's life, I suppose, when love seems to be the only thing that matters."
That was what the poet in that idiotic book had said: "There is no other joy."
"Even you, Clay," she reflected, smilingly. "You big, grave men go all to pieces, sometimes."
"I never have," he retorted.
She returned Chris's letter to him.
"There," she said. "I've had my little whimper, and I feel better. Now talk to me."
The little clock was striking six when at last he rose to go. The room was dark, with only the glow of the wood fire on Audrey's face. He found her very lovely, rather chastened and subdued, but much more appealing than in her old days of sparkle and high spirits.
"You are looking very sweet, Audrey."
"Am I? How nice of you!"
She got up and stood on the hearth-rug beside him, looking up at him. Then, "Don't be startled, Clay," she announced, smilingly. "I am going to kiss you - for Christmas."
And kiss him she did, putting both hands on his shoulders, and rising on her toes to do it. It was a very small kiss, and Clayton took it calmly, and as she intended him to take it. But it was, at that, rather a flushed Audrey who bade him good-night and God bless you.
Clayton took away with him from that visit a great peace and a great relief. He had talked out to her for more than an hour of the many things that puzzled and bewildered him. He had talked war, and the mill, and even Graham and his problems. And by talking of them some of them had clarified. A little of his unrest had gone. He felt encouraged, he had a new strength to go on. It was wonderful, he reflected, what the friendship of a woman could mean to a man. He was quite convinced that it was only friendship.
He turned toward home reluctantly. Behind him was the glow of Audrey's fire, and the glow that had been in her eyes when he entered. If a man had such a woman behind him...
He went into his great, silent house, and the door closed behind him like a prison gate.
For a long time after he had gone, Audrey, doors closed to visitors, sat alone by her fire, with one of his roses held close to her cheek.
In her small upper room, in a white frame cottage on the hill overlooking the Spencer furnaces, Anna Klein, locked away from prying eyes, sat that same Christmas evening and closely inspected a tiny gold wrist-watch. And now and then, like Audrey, she pressed it to her face.
Not the gift, but the giver.