Chapter XV

The gay and fashionable crowd of which Audrey had been the center played madly that winter. The short six weeks of the season were already close to an end. By mid-January the south and California would have claimed most of the women and some of the men. There were a few, of course, who saw the inevitable catastrophe: the Mackenzies had laid up their house-boat on the west coast of Florida. Denis Nolan had let his little place at Pinehurst. The advance wave of the war tide, the increased cost of living, had sobered and made thoughtful the middle class, but above in the great businesses, and below among the laboring people, money was plentiful and extravagance ran riot.

And Audrey Valentine's world missed her. It refused to accept her poverty as an excuse, and clamored for her. It wanted her to sit again at a piano, somewhere, anywhere, with a lighted cigaret on the music-rack, and sing her husky, naive little songs. It wanted her cool audacity. It wanted her for week-end parties and bridge, and to canter on frosty mornings on its best horses and make slaves of the park policemen, so that she might jump forbidden fences. It wanted to see her oust its grinning chauffeurs, and drive its best cars at their best speed.

Audrey Valentine leading a cloistered life! Impossible! Selfish!

And Audrey was not cut out for solitude. She did not mind poverty. She found it rather a relief to acknowledge what had always been the fact. But she did mind loneliness. And her idea of making herself over into something useful was not working out particularly well. She spent two hours a day, at a down-town school, struggling with shorthand, and her writing-table was always littered with papers covered with queer hooks and curves, or with typed sheets beginning:

    "Messrs Smitk and Co.,: Dear Sirs."

Clayton Spencer met her late in December, walking feverishly along with a book under her arm, and a half-desperate look in her eyes. He felt a little thrill when he saw her, which should have warned him but did not.

She did not even greet him. She stopped and held out her book to him.

"Take it!" she said. "I've thrown it away twice, and two wretched men have run after me and brought it back."

He took it and glanced at it.

"Spelling! Can't you spell?"

"Certainly I can spell," she said with dignity. "I'm a very good speller. Clay, there isn't an "i" in business, is there?"

"It is generally considered necessary to have two pretty good eyes in business." But he saw then that she was really rather despairing. "There is, one 'i,'" he said. "It seems foolish, doesn't it? Audrey dear, what are you trying to do? For heaven's sake, if it's money?"

"It isn't that. I have enough. Honestly, Clay, I just had some sort of an idea that I'd been playing long enough. But I'm only good for play. That man this morning said as much, when we fussed about my spelling. He said I'd better write a newdictionary."

Clayton threw back his head and laughed, and after a moment she laughed, too. But as he went on his face was grave. Somebody ought to be looking after her. It was not for some time that be realized he carried the absurd little spelling-book. He took it back to the office with him, and put it in the back of a drawer of his desk. Joey, coming in some time later, found him, with the drawer open, and something in his hands which he hastily put away. Later on, Joey investigated that drawer, and found the little book. He inspected it with a mixture of surprise and scorn.

"Spelling!" he muttered. "And a hundred dollar a month girl to spell for him!"

It was Rodney Page who forced Audrey out of her seclusion.

Rodney had had a prosperous year, and for some time his conscience had been bothering him. For a good many years he had blithely accepted the invitations of his friends - dinners, balls, week-end and yachting parties, paying his way with an occasional box of flowers. He decided, that last winter of peace, to turn host and, true to instinct, to do the unusual.

It was Natalie who gave him the suggestion.

"Why don't you turn your carriage-house into a studio, and give a studio warming, Roddie? It would be fun fixing it up. And you might make it fancy dress."

Before long, of course, he had accepted the idea as of his own originating, and was hard at work.

Rodney's house had been his father's. He still lived there, although the business district had encroached closely. And for some time he had used the large stable and carriage-house at the rear as a place in which to store the odd bits of furniture, old mirrors and odds and ends that he had picked up here and there. Now and then, as to Natalie, he sold some of them, but he was a collector, not a merchant. In his way, he was an artist.

In the upper floor he had built a skylight, and there, in odd hours, he worked out, in water-color, sketches of interiors, sometimes for houses he was building, sometimes purely for the pleasure of the thing.

The war had brought him enormous increase in his collection. Owners of French chateaus, driven to poverty, were sending to America treasures of all sorts of furniture, tapestries, carpets, old fountains, porcelains, even carved woodwork and ancient mantels, and Rodney, from the mixed motives of business and pride, decided to exhibit them.

The old brick floor of the stable he replaced with handmade tiles. The box-stalls were small display-rooms, hung with tapestries and lighted with candles in old French sconces. The great carriage-room became a refectory, with Jacobean and old monastery chairs, and the vast loft overhead, reached by a narrow staircase that clung to the wall, was railed on its exposed side, waxed as to floor, hung with lanterns, and became a ballroom.

Natalie worked with him, spending much time and a prodigious amount of energy. There was springing up between them one of those curious and dangerous intimacies, of idleness on the woman's part, of admiration on the man's, which sometimes develop into a wholly spurious passion. Probably Rodney realized it; certainly Natalie did not. She liked his admiration; she dressed, each day, for Rodney's unfailing comment on her clothes.

"Clay never notices what I wear," she said, once, plaintively.

So it was Rodney who brought Audrey Valentine out of her seclusion, and he did it by making her angry. He dropped in to see her between Christmas and New-years, and made a plea.

"A stable-warming!" she said. "How interesting! And fancy dress! Are you going to have them come as grooms, or jockeys? If I were going I'd go as a circus-rider. I used to be able to stand up on a running horse. Of course you're having horses. What's a stable without a horse?"

He saw she was laughing at him and was rather resentful.

"I told you I have made it into a studio."

But when he implored her to go, she was obdurate.

"Do go away and let me alone, Rodney," she said at last. "I loathe fancy-dress parties."

"It won't be a party without you."

"Then don't have it. I've told you, over and over, I'm not going out. It isn't decent this year, in my opinion. And, anyhow, I haven't any money, any clothes, any anything. A bad evening at bridge, and I shouldn't be able to pay my rent."

"That's nonsense. Why do you let people say you are moping about Chris? You're not."

"Of course not."

She sat up.

"What else are they saying?"

"Well, there's some talk, naturally. You can't be as popular as you have been, and then just drop out, without some gossip. It's not bad."

"What sort of talk?"

He was very uncomfortable.

"Well, of course, you have been pretty strong on the war stuff?"

"Oh, they think I sent him!"

"If only you wouldn't hide, Audrey. That's what has made the talk. It's not Chris's going."

"I'm not hiding. That's idiotic. I was bored to death, if you want the truth. Look here, Rodney. You're not being honest. What do they say about Chris and myself?"

He was cornered.

"Is it - about another woman?"

"Well, of course now and then - there are always such stories. And of course Chris - "

"Yes, they knew Chris." Her voice was scornful. "So they think I'm moping and hiding because - How interesting!"

She sat back, with her old insolent smile.

"Poor Chris!" she said. "The only man in the lot except Clay Spencer who is doing his bit for the war, and they - when is your party, Roddie?"

"New-year's Eve."

"I'll come," she said. And smiling again, dangerously, "I'll come, with bells on."