Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
From the moment, the day before Christmas, when Graham had taken the little watch from his pocket and fastened it on Anna's wrist, he was rather uneasily aware that she had become his creature. He had had no intention of buying Anna. He was certainly not in love with her. But he found her amusing and at times comforting.
He had, of course, expected to lose her after the unlucky day when Clayton had found them together, but Dunbar had advised that she be kept on for a time at least. Mentally Graham figured that the first of January would see her gone, and the thought of a Christmas present for her was partly compounded of remorse.
He had been buying a cigaret case for Marion when the thought came to him. He had not bought a Christmas present for a girl, except flowers, since the first year he was at college. He had sent Delight one that year, a half-dozen little leather-bound books of poetry. What a precious young prig he must have been! He knew now that girls only pretended to care for books. They wanted jewelry, and they got past the family with it by pretending it was not real, or that they had bought it out of their allowances. One of Toots' friends was taking a set of silver fox from a man, and she was as straight as a die. Oh, he knew girls, now.
The next day he asked Anna Klein: "What would you like for Christmas?"
Anna, however, had insisted that she did not want a Christmas present.
Later on, however, she had seen a watch one of the girls on the hill had bought for twelve dollars, and on his further insistence a day or so later she had said:
"Do you really want to know?" "Of course I do."
"You oughtn't to spend money on me, you know."
"You let me attend to that. Now, out with it!"
So she told him rather nervously, for she felt that twelve dollars was a considerable sum. He had laughed, and agreed instantly, but when he went to buy it he found himself paying a price that rather startled him.
"Don't you lose it, young lady!" he admonished her when, the day before Christmas, he fastened it on her wrist. Then he had stooped down to kiss her, and the intensity of feeling in her face had startled him. "It's a good watch," he had said, rather uneasily; "no excuse for your being late now!"
All the rest of the day she was radiant.
He meant well enough even then. He had never pretended to love her. He accepted her adoration, petted and teased her in return, worked off his occasional ill humors on her, was indeed conscious sometimes that he was behaving extremely well in keeping things as they were.
But by the middle of January he began to grow uneasy. The atmosphere at Marion's was bad; there was a knowledge of life plus an easy toleration of certain human frailties that was as insidious as a slow fever. The motto of live and let live prevailed. And Marion refused to run away with him and marry him, or to let him go to his father.
In his office all day long there was Anna, so yielding, so surely his to take if he wished. Already he knew that things there must either end or go forward. Human emotions do not stand still; they either advance or go back, and every impulse of his virile young body was urging him on.
He made at last an almost frenzied appeal to Marion to marry him at once, but she refused flatly.
"I'm not going to ruin you," she said. "If you can't bring your people round, we'll just have to wait."
"They'd be all right, once it is done."
"Not if I know your father! Oh, he'd be all right - in ten years or so. But what about the next two or three? We'd have to live, wouldn't we?"
He lay awake most of the night thinking things over. Did she really care for him, as Anna cared, for instance? She was always talking about their having to live. If they couldn't manage on his salary for a while, then it was because Marion did not care enough to try.
For the first time he began to question Marion's feeling for him. She had been rather patronizing him lately. He had overheard her, once, speaking of him as a nice kid, and it rankled. In sheer assertion of his manhood he met Anna Klein outside the mill at the noon hour, the next day, and took her for a little ride in his car. After that he repeatedly did the same thing, choosing infrequented streets and roads, dining with her sometimes at a quiet hotel out on the Freeland road.
"How do you get away with this to your father?" he asked her once.
"Tell him you're getting ready to move out to the new plant, and we're working. He's not round much in the evenings now. He's at meetings, or swilling beer at Gus's saloon. They're a bad lot, Graham, that crowd at Gus's."
"How do you mean, bad?"
"Well, they're Germans, for one thing, the sort that shouts about the Fatherland. They make me sick."
"Let's forget them, honey," said Graham, and reaching under the table-cloth, caught and held one of her hands.
He was beginning to look at things with the twisted vision of Marion's friends. He intended only to flirt a little with Anna Klein, but he considered that he was extremely virtuous and, perhaps, a bit of a fool for letting things go at that. Once, indeed, Tommy Hale happened on them in a road-house, sitting very quietly with a glass of beer before Graham and a lemonade in front of Anna, and had winked at him as though he had received him into the brotherhood of those who were seeing life.
Then, near the end of January, events took another step forward. Rudolph Klein was discharged from the mill.
Clayton, coming down one morning, found the manager, Hutchinson, and Dunbar in his office. The two men had had a difference of opinion, and the matter was laid before him.
"He is a constant disturbing element," Hutchinson finished; "I understand Mr. Dunhar's position, but we can't afford to have the men thrown into a ferment, constantly."
"If you discharge him you rouse his suspicions and those of his gang," said Dunbar, sturdily.
"There is a gang, then?"
"A gang! My God!"
In the end, however, Clayton decided to let Rudolph go. Hutchinson was insistent. Production was falling down. One or two accidents to the machinery lately looked like sabotage. He had found a black cat crudely drawn on the cement pavement outside his office-door that very morning, the black cat being the symbol of those I.W.W.'s who advocated destruction.
"What about the girl?" Dunbar asked, when the manager had gone.
"I have kept her, against my better judgment, Mr. Dunbar."
For just a moment Dunbar hesitated. He knew certain things that Clayton Spencer did not, things that it was his business to know. The girl might be valuable one of these days. She was in love with young Spencer. The time might come when he, Dunbar, would need to capitalize that love and use it against Rudolph and the rest of the crowd that met in the little room behind Shroeder's saloon. It was too bad, in a way. He was sorry for this man with the strong, repressed face and kindly mouth, who sat across from him. But these were strange times. A man could not be too scrupulous.
"Better keep her on for a month or two, anyhow," he said. "They're up to something, and I miss my guess if it isn't directed against you."
"How about Herman Klein?"
"Nothing doing," stated Mr. Dunbar, flatly. "Our informer is tending bar at Gus's. Herman listens and drinks their beer, but he's got the German fear of authority in him. He's a beer socialist. That's all."
But in that Mr. Dunbar left out of account the innate savagery that lurked under Herman's phlegmatic surface.
"You don't think it would do if she was moved to another office?"
"The point is this." Dunbar moved his chair forward. "The time may come when we will need the girl as an informer. Rudolph Klein is infatuated with her. Now I understand that she has a certain feeling of - loyalty to Mr. Graham. In that case" - he glanced at Clayton - "the welfare of the many, Mr. Spencer, against the few."
For a long time after he was gone Clayton sat at his desk, thinking. Every instinct in him revolted against the situation thus forced on him. There was something wrong with Dunbar's reasoning. Then it flashed on him that Dunbar probably was right, and that their points of view were bitterly opposed. Dunbar would have no scruples, because he was not quite a gentleman. But war was a man's game. It was not the time for fine distinctions of ethics. And Dunbar was certainly a man.
If only he could talk it over with Natalie! But he knew Natalie too well to expect any rational judgment from her. She would demand at once that the girl should go. Yet he needed a woman's mind on it. In any question of relationship between the sexes men were creatures of impulse, but women had plotted and planned through the ages. They might lose their standards, but never their heads. Not that he put such a thought into words. He merely knew that women were better at such things than men.
That afternoon, as a result of much uncertainty, he took his problem to Audrey. And Audrey gave him an answer.
"You've got to think of the mill, Clay," she said. "The Dunbar man is right. And all you or any other father of a boy can do is to pray in season, and to trust to Graham's early training."
And all the repressed bitterness in Clayton Spencer's heart was in his answer.
"He never had any early training, Audrey. Oh, he had certain things. His manners, for instance. But other things? I ought not to say that. It was my fault, too. I'm not blaming only Natalie. Only now, when it is all we have to count on - "
He was full of remorse when he started for home. He felt guilty of every disloyalty. And in masculine fashion he tried to make up to Natalie for the truth that had been wrung from him. He carried home a great bunch of roses for her. But he carried home, too, a feeling of comfort and vague happiness, as though the little room behind him still reached out and held him in its warm embrace.