Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Natalie Spencer was finding life full of interest that winter. Now and then she read the headings in the newspapers, not because she was really interested, but that she might say, at the dinner-party which was to her the proper end of a perfect day:
"What do you think of Turkey declaring her independence?"
"I see we have taken the Etoile Wood."
Clayton had overheard her more than once, and had marveled at the dexterity with which, these leaders thrown out, she was able to avoid committing herself further.
The new house engrossed her. She was seeing a great deal of Rodney, too, and now and then she had fancied that there was a different tone in Rodney's voice when he addressed her. She never analyzed that tone, or what it suggested, but it gave her a new interest in life. She was always marceled, massaged, freshly manicured. And she had found a new facial treatment. Clayton, in his room at night, could hear the sharp slapping of flesh on flesh, as Madeleine gently pounded certain expensive creams into the skin of her face and neck.
She refused all forms of war activity, although now and then she put some appeal before Clayton and asked him if he cared to send a check. He never suggested that she answer any of these demands personally, after an experience early in the winter.
"Why don't you send it yourself?" he had asked. "Wouldn't you like it to go in your name?"
"It doesn't matter. I don't know any of the committee."
He had tried to explain what he meant.
"You might like to feel that you are doing something."
"I thought my allowance was only to dress on. If I'm to attend to charities, too, you'll have to increase it."
"But," he argued patiently, "if you only sent them twenty-five dollars, did without some little thing to do it, you'd feel rather more as though you were giving, wouldn't you?"
"Twenty-five dollars! And be laughed at!"
He had given in then.
"If I put an extra thousand dollars to your account to-morrow, will you check it out to this fund?"
"It's too much."
"Yes, of course," she had agreed, indifferently. And he had notified her that the money was in the bank. But two months later the list of contributors was published, and neither his name nor Natalie's was among them.
Toward personal service she had no inclination whatever. She would promise anything, but the hour of fulfilling always found her with something else to do. Yet she had kindly impulses, at times, when something occurred to take her mind from herself. She gave liberally to street mendicants. She sent her car to be used by those of her friends who had none. She was lavish with flowers to the sick - although Clayton paid her florist bills.
She was lavish with money - but never with herself.
In the weeks after the opening of the new year Clayton found himself watching her. He wondered sometimes just what went on in her mind during the hours when she sat, her hands folded, gazing into space. He could not tell. He surmised her planning, always planning; the new house, a gown, a hat, a party.
But late in January he began to think that she was planning something else. Old Terry Mackenzie had been there one night, and he had asserted not only that war was coming, but that we would be driven to conscription to raise an army.
"They've all had to come to it," he insisted. "And we will, as sure as God made little fishes. You can't raise a million volunteers for a war that's three thousand miles away."
"You mean, conscription among the laboring class?" Natalie had asked naively, and there had been a roar of laughter.
"Not at all," Terry had said. And chuckled. "This war, if it comes, is every man's burden, rich and poor. Only the rich will give most, because they have most to give."
"I think that's ridiculous," Natalie had said.
It was after that that Clayton began to wonder what she was planning.
He came home late one afternoon to find that they were spending the evening in, and to find a very serious Natalie waiting, when he came down-stairs dressed for dinner. She made an effort to be conversational, but it was a failure. He was uneasily aware that she was watching him, inspecting, calculating, choosing her moment. But it was not until they were having coffee that she spoke.
"I'm uneasy about Graham, Clay."
He looked up quickly.
"I think he ought to go away somewhere."
"He ought to stay here, and make a man of himself," he came out, almost in spite of himself. He knew well enough that such a note always roused Natalie's antagonism, and he waited for the storm. But none came.
"He's not doing very well, is he?"
"He's not failing entirely. But he gives the best of himself outside the mill. That's all."
She puzzled him. Had she heard of Marion?
"Don't you think, if he was away from this silly crowd he plays with, as he calls it, that he would be better off?"
"Where, for instance?"
"You keep an agent in England. He could go there. Or to Russia, if the Russian contract goes through."
He was still puzzled.
"But why England or Russia?"
"Anywhere out of this country."
"He doesn't have to leave this country to get away from a designing woman."
From her astonished expression, he knew that he had been wrong. She was not trying to get him away from Marion. From what?
She bent forward, her face set hard.
Well, it was out. She might as well know it. "Don't you think it possible, Natalie, that he may intend to marry Marion Hayden?"
There was a very unpleasant half-hour after that. Marion was a parasite of the rich. She had abused Natalie's hospitality. She was designing. She played bridge for her dress money. She had ensnared the boy.
"That settles it, I should think. He ought to leave America. If you have a single thought for his welfare you'll send him to England."
"Then you hadn't known about Marion when you proposed that before?"
"No. I knew he was not doing well. And I'm anxious. After all, he's my boy. He is - "
"I know," he supplemented gravely. "He is all you have. But I still don't understand why he must leave America."
It was not until she had gone up-stairs to her room, leaving him uneasily pacing the library floor, that he found the solution. Old Terry Mackenzie and his statement about conscription. Natalie wanted Graham sent out of the country, so he would be safe. She would purchase for hint a shameful immunity, if war came. She would stultify the boy to keep him safe. In that hour of clear vision he saw how she had always stultified the boy, to keep him safe. He saw her life a series of small subterfuges, of petty indulgences, of little plots against himself, all directed toward securing Graham immunity - from trouble at school, from debt, from his own authority.
A wave of unreasoning anger surged over him, but with it there was pity, too; pity for the narrowness of her life and her mind, pity for her very selfishness. And for the first time in his life he felt a shamefaced pity for himself. He shook himself violently. When a man got sorry for himself -