Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
In the evening of the thirty-first of January Clayton and Graham were waiting for Natalie to come down to dinner when the bell rang, and Dunbar was announced. Graham welcomed the interruption. He had been vaguely uneasy with his father since that day in his office when Clayton had found him on Anna Klein's desk. Clayton had tried to restore the old friendliness of their relation, but the boy had only half-heartedly met his advances. Now and then he himself made an overture, but it was the almost timid advance of a puppy that has been beaten. It left Clayton discouraged and alarmed, set him to going back over the past for any severity on his part to justify it. Now and then he wondered if, in Graham's frequent closetings with Natalie, she did not covertly undermine his influence with the boy, to increase her own.
But if she did, why? What was going on behind the impassive, lovely mask that was her face.
Dunbar was abrupt, as usual.
"I've brought you some news, Mr. Spencer," he said. He looked oddly vital and alive in the subdued and quiet room. "They've shown their hand at last. But maybe you've heard it."
"I've heard nothing new."
"Then listen," said Dunbar, bending forward over a table, much as it was his habit to bend over Clayton's desk. "We're in it at last. Or as good as in it. Unrestricted submarine warfare! All merchant-ships bound to and from Allied ports to be sunk without warning! We're to be allowed - mark this, it's funny! - we're to be allowed to send one ship a week to England, nicely marked and carrying passengers only."
There was a little pause. Clayton drew a long breath.
"That means war," he said finally.
"Hell turned over and stirred up with a pitch-fork, if we have any backbone at all," agreed Dunbar. He turned to Graham. "You young fellows'll be crazy about this."
"You bet we will," said Graham.
Clayton slipped an arm about the boy's shoulders. He could not speak for a moment. All at once he saw what the news meant. He saw Graham going into the horror across the sea. He saw vast lines of marching men, boys like Graham, boys who had frolicked through their careless days, whistled and played and slept sound of nights, now laden like pack animals and carrying the implements of death in their hands, going forward to something too terrible to contemplate.
And a certain sure percentage of them would never come back.
His arm tightened about the boy. When he withdrew it Graham straightened.
"If it's war, it's my war, father."
And Clayton replied, quietly:
"It is your war, old man."
Dunbar turned his back and inspected Natalie's portrait. When he faced about again Graham was lighting a cigaret, and Natalie herself was entering the room. In her rose-colored satin she looked exotic, beautiful, and Dunbar gave her a fleeting glance of admiration as he bowed. She looked too young to have a boy going to war. Behind her he suddenly saw other women, thousands of other women, living luxurious lives, sheltered and pampered, and suddenly called on to face sacrifice without any training for it.
"Didn't know you were going out," he said. "Sorry. I'll run along now."
"We are dining at home," said Natalie, coldly. She remained standing near the door, as a hint to the shabby gentleman with the alert eyes who stood by the table. But Dunbar had forgotten her already.
"I came here right away," he explained, "because you may be having trouble now. In fact, I'm pretty sure you will. If we declare war to-morrow, as we may?"
"War!" said Natalie, and took a step forward.
Dunbar remembered her.
"We will probably declare war in a day or two. The Germans...
But Natalie was looking at Clayton with a hostility in her eyes she took no trouble to conceal.
"I hope you'll be happy, now. You've been talking war, wanting war - and now you've got it."
She turned and went out of the room. The three men in the library below heard her go up the stairs and the slam of her door behind her. Later on she sent word that she did not care for any dinner, and Clayton asked Dunbar to remain. Practical questions as to the mill were discussed, Graham entering into them with a new interest. He was flushed and excited. But Clayton was rather white and very quiet.
Once Graham took advantage of Dunbar's preoccupation with his asparagus to say:
"You don't object to the aviation service, father?"
"Wherever you think you can be useful."
After coffee Graham rose.
"I'll go and speak to mother," he said. And Clayton felt in him a new manliness. It was as though his glance said, "She is a woman, you know. War is men's work, work for you and me. But it's hard on them."
Afterward Clayton was to remember with surprise how his friends gathered that night at the house. Nolan came in early, his twisted grin rather accentuated, his tall frame more than usually stooped. He stood in the doorway of the library, one hand in his pocket, a familiar attitude which made him look oddly boyish.
"Well!" he drawled, without greeting. "They've done it. The English have got us. We hadn't a chance. The little Welshman - "
"Come in," Clayton said, "and talk like an American and not an Irishman. I don't want to know what you think about Lloyd George. What are you going to do?"
"I was thinking," Nolan observed, advancing, "of blowing up Washington. We'd have a fresh start, you see. With Washington gone root and branch we would have some sort of chance, a clear sweep, with the capital here or in Boston. Or London."
Clayton laughed. Behind Nolan's cynicism he felt a real disturbance. But Dunbar eyed him uncertainly. He didn't know about some of these Irish. They'd fight like hell, of course, if only they'd forget England.
"Don't worry about Washington," Clayton said. "Let it work out its own problems. We will have our own. What do you suppose men like you and myself are going to do? We can't fight."
Nolan settled himself in a long chair.
"Why can't we fight?" he asked. "I heard something the other day. Roosevelt is going to take a division abroad - older men. I rather like the idea. Wherever he goes there'11 be fighting. I'm no Rough Rider, God knows; But I haven't spent a half hour every noon in a gymnasium for the last ten years for nothing. And I can shoot."
"And you are free," Clayton observed, quietly.
Nolan looked up.
"it's going to be hard on the women," he said. "You're all right. They won't let you go. You're too useful where you are. But of course there's the boy."
When Clayton made no reply Nolan glanced at him again.
"I suppose he'll want to go," he suggested.
Clayton's face was set. For more than an hour now Graham had been closeted with his mother, and as the time went on, and no slam of a door up-stairs told of his customary method of leaving a room, he had been conscious of a growing uneasiness. The boy was soft; the fiber in him had not been hardened yet, not enough to be proof against tears. He wanted desperately to leave Nolan, to go up and learn what arguments, what coaxing and selfish whimperings Natalie was using with the boy. But he wanted, also desperately, to have the boy fight his own fight and win.
"He will want to go, I think. Of course, his mother will be shaken just now. It'll all new to her. She wouldn't believe it was coming."
"He'll go," Nolan said reflectively. "They'll all go, the best of them first. After all, we've been making a lot of noise about wanting to get into the thing. Now we're in, and that's the first price we pay - the boys."
A door slammed up-stairs, and Clayton heard Graham coming down. He passed the library door, however, and Clayton suddenly realized that he was going out.
"Graham!" he called.
Graham stopped, and came back slowly.
"Yes, father," he said, from the doorway.
"Aren't you coming in?"
"I thought I'd go out for a hit of a spin, if you don't mind. Evening, Mr. Nolan."
The boy was shaken. Clayton knew it from his tone. All the fine vigor of the early evening was gone. And an overwhelming rage filled him, against Natalie, against himself, even against the boy. Trouble, which should have united his house, had divided it. The first threat of trouble, indeed.
"You can go out later," he said rather sharply. "We ought to talk things over, Graham. This is a mighty serious time."
"What's the use of talking things over, father? We don't know anything but that we may declare war."
"That's enough, isn't it?"
But he was startled when he saw Graham's face. He was very pale and his eyes already looked furtive. They were terribly like Natalie's eyes sometimes. The frankness was gone out of them. He came into the room, and stood there, rigid.
"I promised mother to get her some sleeping-powders."
"Bad things, sleeping-powders," said Nolan. "Get her to take some setting-up exercises by an open window and she'll sleep like a top."
"Do you mind, if I go, father?"
Clayton saw that it was of no use to urge the boy. Graham wanted to avoid him, wanted to avoid an interview. The early glow of the evening faded. Once again the sense of having lost his son almost overwhelmed him.
"Very well," he said stiffly. And Graham went out.
However, he did not leave the house. At the door he met Doctor Haverford. and Delight, and Clayton heard the clergyman's big bass booming through the hall.
" - like a lamb to the slaughter!" he was saying. "And I a man of peace!"
When he came into the library he was still holding forth with an affectation of rage.
"I ask you, Clayton," he said, "what refuge is there for a man of peace? My own child, leading me out into the night, and inquiring on the way over if I did not feel that the commandment not to kill was a serious error."
"Of course he's going," she said. "He has been making the most outrageous excuses, just to hear mother and me reply to them. And all the time nothing would hold him back."
"My dear," said the rector solemnly. "T shall have to tell you something. I shall have to lay bare the secrets of my heart. How are you, Nolan? Delight, they will not take me. I have three back teeth on a plate. I have never told you this before. I did not wish to ruin your belief that I am perfect. But - "
In the laugh that greeted this Graham returned. He was, Clayton saw, vaguely puzzled by the rector and rather incredulous as to Delight's attitude.
"Do you really want him to go?" he asked her.
"Of course. Aren't you going? Isn't everybody who is worth anything going? I'd go myself if I could. You don't know how lucky you are."
"But is your Mother willing?"
"Why, what sort of a mother do you think I have?"
Clayton overheard that, and he saw Graham wince. His own hands clenched. What a power in the world a brave woman was! And what evil could be wrought by a woman without moral courage, a selfish woman. He brought himself up short at that.
Others came in. Hutchinson, from the mill. Terry Mackenzie, Rodney Page, in evening clothes and on his way from the opera to something or other. In a corner Graham and Delight talked. The rector, in a high state of exaltation, was inclined to be oratorical and a trifle noisy. He dilated on the vast army that would rise overnight, at the call. He considered the raising of a company from his own church, and nominated Clayton as its captain. Nolan grinned sardonically.
"Precisely," he said dryly. "Clayton, because he looks like a Greek god, is ideally fitted to lead a lot of men who never saw a bayonet outside of a museum. Against trained fighting men. There's a difference you know, dominie, between a clay pigeon and a German with a bomb in one hand and a saw-toothed bayonet in the other."
"We did that in the Civil War."
"We did. And it took four years to fight a six-months war."
"We must have an army. I daresay you'll grant that."
"Well, you can bet on one thing; we're not going to have every ward boss who wants to make a record raising a regiment out of his henchmen and leading them to death."
"What would you suggest?" inquired the rector, rather crestfallen.
"I'd suggest training men as officers. And then - a draft."
"Never come to it in the world." Hutchinson spoke up. "I've heard men in the mill talking. They'll go, some of them, but they won't be driven. It would be civil war."
Clayton glanced at Graham as he replied. The boy was leaning forward, listening.
"There's this to be said for the draft," he said. "Under the volunteer system the best of our boys will go first. That's what happened in England. And they were wiped out. It's every man's war now. There is no reason why the few should be sacrificed for the many."
"And there's this, too," Graham broke in. He was flushed and nervous. "A fellow would have to go. He wouldn't be having to think whether his going would hurt anybody or not. He wouldn't have to decide. He'd - just go."
There was a little hush in the room. Then Nolan spoke.
"Right-o!" he said. "The only trouble about it is that it's likely to leave out some of us old chaps, who'd like to have a fist in it."
Hutchinson remained after the others had gone. He wanted to discuss the change in status of the plant.
"We'll be taken over by the government, probably," Clayton told him. "They have all the figures, capacity and so on. The Ordnance Department has that in hand."
Hutchinson nodded. He had himself made the report.
"We'll have to look out more than ever, I suppose," he said, as he rose to go. "The government is guarding all bridges and railways already. Met a lot of National Guard boys on the way."
Graham left when he did, offering to take him to his home, and Clayton sat for some time alone, smoking and thinking. So the thing had come at last. A year from now, and where would they all be? The men who had been there to-night, himself, Graham? Would they all be even living? Would Graham - ?
He looked back over the years. Graham a baby, splashing water in his bath and shrieking aloud with joy; Graham in his first little-boy clothes, riding a velocipede in the park and bringing in bruises of an amazing size and blackness; Graham going away to school, and manfully fixing his mind on his first long trousers, so he would not cry; Graham at college, coming in with the winning crew, and stumbling, half collapsed, into the arms of a waiting, cheering crowd. And the Graham who had followed his mother up the stairs that night, to come down baffled, thwarted, miserable.
He rose and threw away his cigar. He must have the thing out with Natalie. The boy's soul was more important than his body. He wanted him safe. God, how he wanted him safe! But he wanted him to be a man.
Natalie's room was dark when he went in. He hesitated. Then he heard her in bed, sobbing quietly. He was angry at himself for his impatience at the sound. He stood beside the bed, and forced a gentleness he did not feel.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked.
"No, thank you." And he moved toward the lamp. "Don't turn the light on. I look dreadful."
"Shall I ring for Madeleine?"
"No. Graham is bringing me a sleeping-powder."
"If you are not sleepy, may I talk to you about some things?"
"I'm sick, Clay. My head is bursting."
"Sometimes it helps to talk out our worries, dear." He was still determinedly gentle.
He heard her turning her pillow, and settling herself more comfortably.
"Not to you. You've made up your mind. What's the use?"
"Made up my mind to what?"
"To sending Graham to be killed."
"That's hardly worthy of you, Natalie," he said gravely. He is my son, too. I love him at least as much as you do. I don't think this is really up to us, anyhow. It is up to him. If he wants to go?"
She sat up, suddenly, her voice thin and high.
"How does he know what he wants?" she demanded. "He's too young. He doesn't know what war is; you say so yourself. You say he is too young to have a position worth while at the plant, but of course he's old enough to go to war and have a leg shot off, or to be blinded, or something." Her voice broke.
He sat down on the bed and felt around until he found her hand. But she jerked it from him.
"You promised me once to let him make his own decision if the time came."
"When did I promise that?"
"In the fall, when I came home from England."
"I never made such a promise."
"Will you make it now?"
He rose, more nearly despairing than he had ever been. He could not argue with a hysterical woman. He hated cowardice, but far deeper than that was his conviction that she had already exacted some sort of promise. And the boy was not like her in that respect. He regarded a promise as almost in the nature of an oath. He himself had taught him that in the creed of a gentleman a promise was a thing of his honor, to be kept at any cost.
"You are compelling me to do a strange and hateful thing," he said. "If you intend to use your influence to keep him out, I shall have to offset it by urging him to go. That is putting a very terrible responsibility on me."
He heard her draw her breath sharply.
"If you do that I shall leave you," she said, in a frozen voice.
Suddenly he felt sorry for her. She was so weak, so childish, so cowardly. And this was the nearest they had come to a complete break.
"You're tired and nervous," he said. "We have come a long way from what I started out to say. And a long way from - the way things used to be between us. If this thing, to-night, does not bring two people together - "
"Together!" she cried shrilly. "When have we been together? Not in years. You have been married to your business. I am only your housekeeper, and Graham's mother. And even Graham you are trying to take away from me. Oh, go away and let me alone."
Down-stairs, thoughts that were almost great had formulated themselves in his mind; that to die that others might live might be better than to live oneself; that he loved his country, although he had been shamefaced about it; that America was really the melting-pot of the world, and that, perhaps, only the white flame of war would fuse it into a great nation.
But Natalie made all these thoughts tawdry. She cheapened them. She found in him nothing fine; therefore there was probably nothing fine in him. He went away, to lie awake most of the night.