Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Audrey was frightened. She did not care a penny's worth what her little world thought. Indeed, she knew that she had given it a new thrill and so had won its enthusiastic approval. She was afraid of what Clayton would think.
She was absurdly quiet and virtuous all the next day, gathered out her stockings and mended them; began a personal expenditure account for the New-year, heading it carefully with "darning silk, 50 cents"; wrote a long letter to Chris, and - listened for the telephone. If only he would call her, so she could explain. Still, what could she explain? She had done it. It was water over the dam - and it is no fault of Audrey's that she would probably have spelled it "damn."
By noon she was fairly abject. She did not analyze her own anxiety, or why the recollection of her escapade, which would a short time before have filled her with a sort of unholy joy, now turned her sick and trembling.
Then, in the middle of the afternoon, Clay called her up. She gasped a little when she heard his voice.
"I wanted to tell you, Audrey," he said, "that we can probably use the girl you spoke about, rather soon."
"Very well. Thank you. Is - wasn't there something else, too?"
"You are angry, aren't you?"
"Surprised. Not angry. I haven't any possible right to be angry."
"Will you come up and let me tell you about it, Clay?"
"I don't see how that will help any."
"It will help me."
He laughed at that; her new humility was so unlike her.
"Why, of course I'll come, Audrey," he said, and as he rang off he was happier than he had been all day.
He was coming. Audrey moved around the little room, adjusting chairs, rearranging the flowers that had poured in on New-year's day, brushing the hearth. And as she worked she whistled. He would be getting into the car now. He would be so far on his way. He would be almost there. She ran into her bedroom and powdered her nose, with her lips puckered, still whistling, and her heart singing.
But he scolded her thoroughly at first.
"Why on earth did you do it," he finished. "I still can't understand. I see you one day, gravity itself, a serious young woman - as you are to-day. And then I hear - it isn't like you, Audrey."
"Oh yes, it is. It's exactly like me. Like one me. There are others, of course."
She told him then, making pitiful confession of her own pride and her anxiety to spare Chris's name.
"I couldn't bear to have them suspect he had gone to the war because of a girl. Whatever he ran away from, Clay, he's doing all right now."
He listened gravely, with, toward the end, a jealousy he would not have acknowledged even to himself. Was it possible that she still loved Chris? Might she not, after the fashion of women, be building a new and idealized Chris, now that he had gone to war, out of his very common clay?
"He has done splendidly," he agreed.
Again the warmth and coziness of the little room enveloped him. Audrey's low huskily sweet voice, her quick smile, her new and unaccustomed humility, and the odd sense of her understanding, comforted him. She made her indefinite appeal to the best that was in him.
Nothing so ennobles a man as to have some woman believe in his nobility.
"Clay," she said suddenly, "you are worrying about something."
"Nothing that won't straighten out, in time."
"Would it help to talk about it?"
He realized that he had really come to her to talk about it. It had been in the back of his head all the time.
"I'm rather anxious about Graham."
"I'm afraid she's got him, Clay. There isn't a trick in the game she doesn't know. He had about as much chance as I have of being twenty again. She wants to make a wealthy marriage, and she's picked on Graham. That's all."
"It isn't only Marion. I'm afraid there's another girl, a girl at the mill - his stenographer. I have no proof of anything. In fact, I don't think there is anything yet. She's in love with him, probably, or she thinks she is. I happened on them together, and she looked - Of course, if what you say about Marion is true, he can not care for her, even, well, in any way."
"Oh, nonsense, Clay. A man - especially a boy - can love a half-dozen girls. He can be crazy about any girl he is with. It may not be love, but it plays the same tricks with him that the real thing does."
"I can't believe that."
"No. You wouldn't."
She leaned back and watched him. How much of a boy he was himself, anyhow! And yet how little he understood the complicated problems of a boy like Graham, irresponsible but responsive, rich without labor, with time for the sort of dalliance Clay himself at the same age had had neither leisure nor inclination to indulge.
He was wandering about the room, his hands in his pockets, his head bent. When he stopped:
"What am I to do with the girl, Audrey?"
"Get rid of her. That's easy."
"Not so easy as it sounds."
He told her of Dunbar and the photographs, of Rudolph Klein, and the problem as he saw it.
"So there I am," he finished. "If I let her go, I lose one of the links in Dunbar's chain. If I keep her?"
"Can't Natalie talk to him? Sometimes a woman can get to the bottom of these things when a man can't. He might tell her all about it."
"Possibly. But I think it unlikely Natalie would tell me."
She leaned over and patted his hand impulsively.
"What devils we women are!" she said. "Now and then one of us gets what she deserves. That's me. And now and then one of us get's something she doesn't deserve. And that's Natalie. She's over-indulgent to Graham."
"He is all she has."
"She has you."
Something in her voice made him turn and look at her.
"That ought to be something, you know," she added. And laughed a little.
"Does Natalie pay his debts?"
"I rather think so."
But that was a subject he could not go on with.
"The fault is mine. I know my business better than I know how to handle my life, or my family. I don't know why I trouble you with it all, anyhow. You have enough." He hesitated. "That's not exactly true, either. I do know. I'm relying on your woman's wit to help me. I'm wrong somehow."
"I have a curious feeling that I am losing him. I can't ask for his confidence. I can't, apparently, even deserve it. I see him, day after day, with all the good stuff there is in him, working as little as he can, drinking more than he should, out half the night, running into debt - good heavens, Audrey, what can I do?"
"Of course, you know one thing that would save him, Clay?"
"Our getting into the war."
"I ought not to have to lose my boy in order to find him. But - we are going to be in it."
He had risen and was standing, an elbow on the mantel-piece, looking down at her.
"I suppose every man wonders, once in a while, how he'd conduct himself in a crisis. When the Lusitania went down I dare say a good many fellows wondered if they'd have been able to keep their coward bodies out of the boats. I know I did. And I wonder about myself now. What can I do if we go into the war? I couldn't do a forced march of more than five miles. I can't drill, or whatever they call it. I can shoot clay pigeons, but I don't believe I could hit a German coming at me with a bayonet at twenty feet. I'd be pretty much of a total loss. Yet I'll want to do something."
And when she sat, very silent, looking into the fire:. "You see, you think it absurd yourself."
"Hardly absurd," she roused herself to look up at him. "If it is, it's the sort of splendid absurdity I am proud of. I was wondering what Natalie would say."
"I don't believe it lies between a man and his wife. It's between him and his God."
He was rather ashamed of that, however, and soon after he went away.