Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Natalie was in bed when he went up-stairs. Through the door of his dressing-room he could see her lying, surrounded by papers. Natalie's handsome bed was always covered with things, her handkerchief, a novel, her silk dressing-gown flung over the footboard, sometimes bits of dress materials and lace. Natalie did most of her planning in bed.
He went in and, clearing a space, sat down on the foot of the bed, facing her. Her hair was arranged in a loose knot on top of her head, and there was a tiny space, perhaps a quarter of an inch, slightly darker than the rest. He realized with a little start that she had had her hair touched up during his absence. Still, she looked very pretty, her skin slightly glistening with its night's bath of cold cream, her slim arms lying out on the blue silk eiderdown coverlet.
"I told Doctor Haverford to-night that we would like to give him a car, Natalie," he began directly. It was typical of him, the "we."
"A car? What for?"
"To ride about in, my dear. It's rather a large parish, you know. And I don't feel exactly comfortable seeing him tramping along when most people are awheel. He's not very young."
"He'll kill himself, that's all."
"Well, that's rather up to Providence, of course."
"You are throwing a sop to Providence, aren't you?" she asked shrewdly. "Throwing bread on the waters! I daresay he angled for it. You're easy, Clay. Give you a good dinner - it was a nice dinner, wasn't it?"
"A very nice dinner," he assented. But at the tone she looked up.
"Well, what was wrong?" she demanded. "I saw when I went out that you were angry about something. Your face was awful."
"Oh, come now, Natalie," he protested. "It wasn't anything of the sort. The dinner was all right. The guests were - all right. I may have unconsciously resented your attitude about Doctor Haverford. Certainly he didn't angle for it, and I had no idea of throwing a sop to Providence."
"That isn't what was wrong at dinner." "Do you really want me to tell you?" "Not if it's too disagreeable."
"Good heavens, Natalie. One would think I bullied you!"
"Oh, no, you don't bully. It's worse. It's the way you look. Your face sets. Well?"
"I didn't feel unpleasant. It's rather my misfortune that my face - "
"Didn't you like my gown?"
"Very much. It seemed a trifle low, but you know I always like your clothes." He was almost pathetically anxious to make up to her for that moment's disloyalty in the library.
"There!" she said, brushing the papers aside. "Now we're getting at it. Was I anything like as low as Audrey Valentine? Of course not! Her back - You just drive me to despair, Clay. Nothing I do pleases you. The very tone of that secretary of yours to-day, when I told her about that over-draft - it was positively insulting!"
"I don't like overdrafts," he said, without any irritation. "When you want extra amounts you have only to let me know."
"You are always finding fault with me," she complained. "It's either money, or my clothes, or Graham, or something." Her eyes filled. She looked young and absurdly childish. But a talk he had had with the rector was still in his mind. It was while they were still at the table, and Nolan had been attacking the British government.
"We get out of this world largely what we put into it," he had said. "You give largely, Clay, and you receive largely. I rejoice in your prosperity, because you have earned it."
"You think, then," he had asked, "that we only receive as we give? I don't mean material things, of course."
The rector had fixed him with kindly, rather faded old eyes. "That has been my experience," he said. "Happiness for instance only comes when we forget our eternal search for it, and try to make others happy. Even religion is changing. The old selfish idea of saving our own souls has given way largely to the saving of others, by giving them a chance to redeem themselves. Decent living conditions - "
He had gone on, but Clayton had not listened very intently. He had been wondering if happiness was not the thing he had somehow missed. It was then that he had decided to give the car. If, after all, that would make for the rector's happiness -
"I don't want to find fault with you, Natalie," he said gravely. "I would like to see you happy. Sometimes I think you are not. I have my business, but you have nothing to do, and - I suppose you wouldn't be interested in war-work, would you? There are a lot of committees, and since I've been in England I realize what a vast amount is needed. Clothes, you know, and bandages, and - well, everything."
"Nothing to do," she looked up, her eyes wide and indignant. "But of course you would think that. This house runs itself, I suppose."
"Let's be honest, Natalie," he said, with a touch of impatience. "Actually how much time each day do you give this house? You have plenty of trained servants. An hour? Two hours?"
"I'll not discuss it with you." She took up a typewritten sheet and pretended to read it carefully. Clayton had a half-humorous, half-irritated conviction that if he was actually hunting happiness he had begun his search for it rather badly. He took the paper from her, gently.
"What's this?" he inquired. "Anything I should not see?"
"Decorator's estimates for the new house." Her voice was resentful. "You'll have to see them some time."
"Library curtains, gray Chippendale velvet, gold gimp, faced with colonial yellow," he read an item picked at random, "two thousand dollars! That's going some for curtains, isn't it?"
"It's not too much for that sort of thing."
"But, look here, Natalie," he expostulated. "This is to be a country house, isn't it? I thought you wanted chintzed and homey things. This looks like a city house in the country."
He glanced down at the total. The hangings alone, with a tapestry or two, were to be thirty-five thousand dollars. He whistled.
"Hangings alone! And-what sort of a house has Rodney planned, anyhow?"
"Italian, with a sunken garden. The landscape estimates are there, too."
He did not look at them.
"It seems to me you and Rodney have been pretty busy while I've been away," he remarked. "Well, I want you to be happy, my dear. Only - I don't want to tie up a fortune just now. We may get into this war, and if we do - " He rose, and yawned, his arms above his head. "I'm off to bed," he said. "Big day to-morrow. I'll want Graham at the office at 8:30."
She had sat up in bed, and was staring at him. Her face was pale.
"Do you mean that we are going to get into this war?"
"I think it very likely, my dear."
"But if we do, Graham - "
"We might as well face it. Graham will probably want to go."
"He'll do nothing of the sort," she said sharply. "He's all I have. All. Do you think I'm going to send him over there to be cannon-fodder? I won't let him go."
She was trembling violently.
"I won't want him to go, of course. But if the thing comes - he's of age, you know."
She eyed him with thinly veiled hostility.
"You're hard, Clay," she accused him. "You're hard all the way through. You're proud, too. Proud and hard. You'd want to be able to say your son was in the army. It's not because you care anything about the war, except to make money out of it. What is the war to you, anyhow? You don't like the English, and as for French - you don't even let me have a French butler."
He was not the less angry because he realized the essential truth of part of what she said. He felt no great impulse of sympathy with any of the combatants. He knew the gravity of the situation rather than its tragedy. He did not like war, any war. He saw no reason why men should kill. But this war was a fact. He had had no hand in its making, but it was made.
His first impulse was to leave her in dignified silence. But she was crying, and I he disliked leaving her in tears. Dead as was his love for her, and that night, somehow, he knew that it was dead, she was still his wife. They had had some fairly happy years together, long ago. And he felt the need, too, of justification.
"Perhaps you are right, Natalie," he said, after a moment. "I haven't cared about this war as much as I should. Not the human side of it, anyhow. But you ought to understand that by making shells for the Allies, I am not only making money for myself; they need the shells. And I'll give them the best. I don't intend only to profit by their misfortunes."
She had hardly listened.
"Then, if we get into it, as you say, you'll encourage Graham to go?"
"I shall allow him to go, if he feels it his duty."
"Oh, duty, duty! I'm sick of the word." She bent forward and suddenly caught one of his hands. "You won't make him go, Clay?" she begged. You - you'll let him make his own decision?"
"If you will."
"What do you mean?"
"If you'll keep your hands off, too. We're not in it, yet. God knows I hope we won't be. But if I promise not to influence him, you must do the same thing."
"I haven't any more influence over Graham than that," she said, and snapped her finger. But she did not look at him.
"Promise," he said, steadily.
"Oh, all right." Her voice and face were sulky. She looked much as Graham had that evening at the table.
"Is that a promise?"
"Good heavens, do you want me to swear to it?"
"I want you to play fair. That's all."
She leaned back again among her pillows and gathered her papers.
"All right," she said, indifferently. "Have you any preerence as to color for your rooms in the new house?"
He was sorry for his anger, and after all, these things which seemed so unimportant to him were the things that made up her life. He smiled.
"You might match my eyes. I'm not sure what color they are. Perhaps you know."
But she had not forgiven him.
"I've never noticed," she replied. And, small bundle of samples in her hand, resumed her reading and her inspection of textiles.
"Good night, Natalie."
"Good night." She did not look up.
Outside his wife's door he hesitated. Then he crossed and without knocking entered Graham's bedroom. The boy was lounging in a long chair by an open fire. He was in his dressing gown and slippers, and an empty whiskey-and-soda glass stood beside him on a small stand. Graham was sound asleep. Clayton touched him on the shoulder, but he slept on, his head to one side, his breathing slow and heavy. It required some little effort to waken him.
"Graham!" said Clayton sharply.
"Yes." He stirred, but did not open his eyes.
"Graham! Wake up, boy."
Graham sat up suddenly and looked at him. The whites of his eyes were red, but he had slept off the dinner wine. He was quite himself.
"Better get to bed," his father suggested. "I'll want you early to-morrow."
"What time, sir?"
He leaned forward and pressed a button beside the mantel-piece.
"What are you doing that for?"
"Ice water. Awfully thirsty."
"The servants have gone to bed. Go down and get it yourself."
Graham looked up at the tone. At his father's eyes, he looked away.
"Sorry, sir," he said. "Must have had too much champagne. Wasn't much else to do, was there? Mother's parties - my God, what a dreary lot!"
Clayton inspected the ice water carafe on the stand and found it empty.
"I'll bring you some water from my room," he said. "And - I don't want to see you this way again, Graham. When a man cannot take a little wine at his own table without taking too much he fails to be entirely a gentleman."
He went out. When he came back, Graham was standing by the fire in his pajamas, looking young and rather ashamed. Clayton had a flash of those earlier days when he had come in to bid the boy good night, and there had always been that last request for water which was to postpone the final switching off of the light.
"I'm sorry, father."
Clayton put his hand on the boy's shoulder and patted him.
"We'll have to do better next time. That's all."
For a moment the veil of constraint of Natalie's weaving lifted between them.
"I'm a pretty bad egg, I guess. You'd better shove me off the dock and let me swim - or drown."
"I'd hardly like to do that, you know. You are all I have."
"I'm no good at the mill."
"You haven't had very much time. I've been a good many years learning the business."'
"I'll never be any good. Not there. If there was something to build up it would be different, but it's all done. You've done it. I'm only a sort of sublimated clerk. I don't mean," he added hastily, "that I think I ought to have anything more. It's only that - well, the struggle's over, if you know what I mean."
"I'll talk to you about that to-morrow. Get to bed now. It's one o'clock."
He moved to the doorway. Graham, carafe in hand, stood staring ahead of him. He had the courage of the last whiskey-and-soda, and a sort of desperate contrition.
"I wish you'd let me go to France and fly."
Something like a cold hand seemed to close round Clayton's heart.
"Because I'm not doing any good here. And - because I'd like to see if I have any good stuff in me. All the fellows are going," he added, rather weakly.
"That's not a particularly worthy reason, is it?"
"It's about as worthy as making money out of shells, when we haven't any reason for selling them to the Allies more than the Germans, except that we can't ship to the Germans."
He looked rather frightened then. But Clayton was not angry. He saw Natalie's fine hand there, and the boy's impressionable nature.
"Think that over, Graham," he said gravely. "I don't believe you quite mean it. Good-night."
He went across to his own bedroom, where his silk pajamas, neatly folded, lay on his painted Louis XVI bed. Under his reading lamp there was a book. It was a part of Natalie's decorative scheme for the room; it's binding was mauve, to match the hangings. For the first time since the room had been done over during his absence he picked up the book.
"Rodney's idea, for a cent!" he reflected, looking rather grimly at the cover.
He undressed slowly, his mind full of Graham and the problem he presented. Then he thought of Natalie, and of the little things that made up her life and filled her days. He glanced about the room, beautiful, formal, exquisitely appointed. His father's portrait was gone from over the mantel, and an old French water-color hung there instead. That was too bad of Natalie. Or had it been Rodney? He would bring it back. And he gave a fleeting thought to Graham and his request to go abroad. He had not meant it. It was sheer reaction. But he would talk to Graham.
He lighted a cigaret, and getting into bed turned on his reading lamp. Queer how a man could build, and then find that after all he did not care for the achievement. It was the building alone that was worth while.
He picked up the book from the table, and opened it casually.
"When first I loved I gave my very soul Utterly unreserved to Love's control, But Love deceived me, wrenched my youth away, And made the gold of life forever gray. Long I lived lonely, yet I tried in vain With any other joy to stifle pain; There is no other joy, I learned to know, And so returned to love, as long ago, Yet I, this little while ere I go hence, Love very lightly now, in self defense."
"Twaddle," said Clayton Spencer, and put the book away. That was the sort of stuff men like Rodney lived on. In a mauve binding, too.
After he had put out the light he lay for a long time, staring into the darkness. It was not love he wanted: he was through with all that. Power was the thing, integrity and power. To yield to no man, to achieve independence for one's soul - not that he put it that way. He formulated it, drowsily: 'Not to give a damn for any one, so long as you're right.' Of course, it was not always possible to know if one was right. He yawned. His conscious mind was drowsing, and from the depths below, released of the sentry of his waking hours, came the call of his starved imagination.