Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The New-year, destined to be so crucial, came in cheerfully enough. There was, to be sure, a trifle less ostentation in the public celebrations, but the usual amount of champagne brought in the most vital year in the history of the nation. The customary number of men, warmed by that champagne, made reckless love to the women who happened to be near them and forgot it by morning. And the women themselves presented pictures of splendor of a peculiar gorgeousness.
The fact that almost coincident with the war there had come into prominence an entirely new school of color formed one of the curious contrasts of the period. Into a drab world there flamed strange and bizarre theatrical effects, in scenery and costume. Some of it was beautiful, most of it merely fantastic. But it was immediately reflected in the clothing of fashionable women. Europe, which had originated it, could use it but little; but great opulent America adopted it and made it her own.
So, while the rest of the world was gray, America flamed, and Natalie Spencer, spending her days between dressmakers and decorators, flamed with the rest.
On New-year's Eve Clayton Spencer always preceded the annual ball of the City Club, of which he was president, by a dinner to the board of governors and their wives. It was his dinner. He, and not Natalie, arranged the seating, ordered the flowers, and planned the menu. He took considerable pride in it; he liked to think that it was both beautiful and dignified. His father had been president before him, and he liked to think that he was carrying on his father's custom with the punctilious dignity that had so characterized him.
He was dressed early. Natalie had been closeted with Madeleine, her maid, and a hair-dresser, for hours. As he went down-stairs he could hear her voice raised in querulous protest about something.
When he went into the library Buckham was there stooping over the fire, his austere old face serious and intent.
"Well, another year almost gone, Buckham!" he said.
"Yes, Mr. Spencer."
"It would be interesting to know what the New-year holds."
"I hope it will bring you peace and happiness, sir."
And after Buckham had gone he thought that rather a curious New-year's wish. Peace and happiness! Well, God knows he wanted both. A vague comprehension of the understanding the upper servants of a household acquire as to the inner life of the family stirred in him; how much they knew and concealed under their impassive service.
When Natalie came down the staircase a few minutes later she was swathed in her chinchilla evening wrap, and she watched his face, after her custom when she expected to annoy him, with the furtive look that he had grown to associate with some unpleasantness.
"I hate dressing for a ball at this hour," she said, rather breathlessly. "I don't feel half-dressed by midnight."
Madeleine, in street costume, was behind her with a great box.
"She has something for my hair," she explained. Her tone was nervous, but he was entirely unsuspicious.
"You don't mind if I don't go on to Page's, do you? I'm rather tired, and I ought to stay at the club as late as I can."
"Of course not. I shall probably pick up some people, anyhow. Everybody is going on."
In the car she chattered feverishly and he listened, lapsing into one of the silences which her talkative spells always enforced.
"What flowers are you having?" she asked, finally.
"White lilacs and pussy-willow. Did your orchids come?"
"Thanks, yes. But I'm not wearing them. My gown is flame color. They simply shrieked."
"A sort of orange," she explained. And, in a slightly defiant tone: "Rodney's is a costume dance, you know."
"Do you mean you are in fancy dress?"
"I am, indeed."
He was rather startled. The annual dinner of the board of governors of the City Club and their wives was a most dignified function always. He was the youngest by far of the men; the women were all frankly dowagers. They represented the conservative element of the city's social life, that element which frowned on smartness and did not even recognize the bizarre. It was old-fashioned, secure in its position, influential, and slightly tedious.
"There will be plenty in fancy dress." "Not at the dinner."
"Stodgy old frumps!" was Natalie's comment. "I believe you would rather break one of the ten commandments than one of the conventions," she added.
It was when he saw her coming down the staircase in the still empty clubhouse that he realized the reason for her defiant attitude when she acknowledged to fancy dress. For she wore a peacock costume of the most daring sort. Over an orange foundation, eccentric in itself and very short, was a vivid tunic covered with peacock feathers on gold tissue, with a sweeping tail behind, and on her head was the towering chest of a peacock on a gold bandeau. She waved a great peacock fan, also, and half-way down the stairs she paused and looked down at him, with half-frightened eyes.
"Do you like it?"
"It is very wonderful," he said, gravely.
He could not hurt her. Her pleasure in it was too naive. It dawned on him then that Natalie was really a child, a spoiled and wilful child. And always afterward he tried to remember that, and to judge her accordingly.
She came down, the upturned wired points of the tunic trembling as she stepped. When she came closer he saw that she was made up for the costume ball also, her face frankly rouged, fine lines under her eyes, her lashes blackened. She looked very lovely and quite unfamiliar. But he had determined not to spoil her evening, and he continued gravely smiling.
"You'd better like it, Clay," she said, and took a calculating advantage of what she considered a softened mood. "It cost a thousand dollars."
She went on past him, toward the room where the florist was still putting the finishing touches to the flowers on the table. When the first guests arrived, she came back and took her place near him, and he was uncomfortably aware of the little start of surprise with which she burst upon each new arrival, In the old and rather staid surroundings of the club she looked out of place - oriental, extravagant, absurd.
And Clayton Spencer suffered. To draw him as he stood in the club that last year of our peace, 1916, is to draw him not only with his virtues but with his faults; his over emphasis on small things; his jealousy for his dignity; his hatred of the conspicuous and the unusual.
When, after the informal manner of clubs, the party went in to dinner, he was having one of the bad hours of his life to that time. And when, as was inevitable, the talk of the rather serious table turned to the war, it seemed to him that Natalie, gorgeous and painted, represented the very worst of the country he loved, indifference, extravagance, and ostentatious display.
But Natalie was not America. Thank God, Natalie was not America.
Already with the men she was having a triumph. The women, soberly clad, glanced at each other with raised eye-brows and cynical smiles. Above the band, already playing in the ballroom, Clayton could hear old Terry Mackenzie paying Natalie extravagant, flagrant compliments.
"You should be sitting in the sun, or on a balcony," he was saying, his eyes twinkling. "And pretty gentlemen with long curls and their hats tucked under their arms should be feeding you nightingale tongues, or whatever it is you eat."
"Bugs," said Natalie.
"But - tell me," Terry bent toward her, and Mrs. Terry kept fascinated eyes on him. "Tell me, lovely creature - aren't peacocks unlucky?"
"Are they? What bad luck can happen to me because I dress like this?"
"Frightfully bad luck," said Terry, jovially. "Some one will undoubtedly carry you away, in the course of the evening, and go madly through the world hunting a marble balustrade to set you on. I'll do it myself if you'll give me any encouragement."
Perhaps, had Clayton Spencer been entirely honest with himself that night, he would have acknowledged that he had had a vague hope of seeing Audrey at the club. Cars came up, discharged their muffled occupants under the awning and drove away again. Delight and Mrs. Haverford arrived and he danced with Delight, to her great anxiety lest she might not dance well. Graham came very late, in the wake of Marion Hayden.
But Audrey did not appear.
He waited until the New-year came in. The cotillion was on then, and the favors for the midnight figure were gilt cornucopias filled with loose flowers. The lights went out for a moment on the hour, the twelve strokes were rung on a triangle in the orchestra, and there was a moment's quiet. Then the light blazed again, flowers and confetti were thrown, and club servants in livery carried round trays of champague.
Clayton, standing glass in hand, surveyed the scene with a mixture of satisfaction and impatience. He found Terry Mackenzie at his elbow.
"Great party, Clay," he said. "Well, here's to 1917, and may it bring luck."
"May it bring peace," said Clayton, and raised his glass.
Some time later going home in the car with Mrs. Mackenzie, quiet and slightly grim beside him, Terry spoke out of a thoughtful silence.
"There's something wrong with Clay," he said. "If ever a fellow had a right to be happy - he has a queer look. Have you noticed it?"
"Anybody married to Natalie Spencer would develop what you call a queer look," she replied, tartly.
"Don't you think he is in love with her?"
"If you ask me, I think he has reached the point where he can't bear the sight of her. But he doesn't know it."
"So is a lamp-shade," replied Mrs. Terry, acidly. "Or a kitten, or a fancy ice-cream. But you wouldn't care to be married to them, would you?"
It was almost dawn when Natalie came in. Clayton had not been asleep. He had got to thinking rather feverishly of the New-year. Without in any way making a resolution, he had determined to make it a better year than the last; to be more gentle with Natalie, more understanding with Graham; to use his new prosperity wisely; to forget his own lack of happiness in making others happy. He was very vague about that. The search of the ages the rector had called happiness, and one found it by giving it.
To his surprise, Natalie came into his bedroom, looking like some queer oriental bird, vivid and strangely unlike herself.
"I saw your light. Heavens, what a party!"
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. I hope you didn't mind my not going on."
"I wish you had. Clay, you'll never guess what happened."
"Probably not. What?"
"Well, Audrey just made it, that's all. Funny! I wish you'd seen some of their faces. Of course she was disgraceful, but she took it off right away. But it was like her - no one else would have dared."
His mouth felt dry. Audrey - disgraceful!
"It was in the stable, you know, I told you. And just at midnight the doors opened and a big white horse leaped in with Audrey on his back. No saddle - nothing. She was dressed like a bare-back rider in the circus, short tulle skirts and tights. They nearly mobbed her with joy." She yawned. "Well, I'm off to bed."
He roused himself.
"A happy New-year, my dear."
"Thanks," she said, and wandered out, her absurd feathered tail trailing behind her.
He lay back and closed his eyes. So Audrey had done that, Audrey, who had been in his mind all those sleepless hours; for he knew now that back of all his resolutions to do better had been the thought of her.
He felt disappointed and bitter. The sad disillusion of the middle years, still heroically clinging to faiths that one after another destroyed themselves, was his.