Chapter XXIII
 

But, with the breaking off of diplomatic relations, matters remained for a time at a standstill. Natalie dried her eyes and ordered some new clothes, and saw rather more of Rodney Page than was good for her.

With the beginning of February the country house was far enough under way for it to be promised for June, and Natalie, the fundamentals of its decoration arranged for, began to haunt old-furniture shops, accompanied always by Rodney.

"Not that your taste is not right, Natalie," he explained. "It is exquisite. But these fellows are liars and cheats, some of them. Besides, I like trailing along, if you don't mind."

Trailing along was a fairly accurate phrase. There was scarcely a day now when Natalie's shining car, with its two men in livery, did not draw up before Rodney's office building, or stand, as unostentatiously as a fire engine, not too near the entrance of his club. Clayton, going in, had seen it there once or twice, and had smiled rather grimly. He considered its presence there in questionable taste, but he felt no uneasiness. Determined as he was to give Natalie such happiness as was still in him to give, he never mentioned these instances.

But a day came, early in February, which was to mark a change in the relationship between Natalie and Rodney.

It started simply enough. They had lunched together at a down-town hotel, and then went to look at rugs. Rodney had found her rather obdurate as to old rugs. They were still arguing the matter in the limousine.

"I just don't like to think of all sorts of dirty Turks and Arabs having used them," she protested. "Slept on them, walked on them, spilled things on the - ?ugh!"

"But the colors, Natalie dear! The old faded 'copper-tones, the dull-blues, the dead-rose! There is a beauty about age, you know. Lovely as you are, you'll be even lovelier as an old woman."

"I'm getting there rather rapidly."

He turned and looked at her critically. No slightest aid that she had given her beauty missed his eyes, the delicate artificial lights in her hair, her eyebrows drawn to a hair's breadth and carefully arched, the touch of rouge under her eyes and on the lobes of her ears. But she was beautiful, no matter what art had augmented her real prettiness. She was a charming, finished product, from her veil and hat to her narrowly shod feet. He liked finished things, well done. He liked the glaze on a porcelain; he liked the perfect lacquering on the Chinese screen he had persuaded Natalie to buy; he preferred wood carved into the fine lines of Sheraton to the trees that grow in the Park, for instance, through which they were driving.

A Sheraton sideboard was art. Even certain forms of Colonial mahogany were art, although he was not fond of them. And Natalie was - art. Even if she represented the creative instincts of her dressmaker and her milliner, and not her own - he did not like a Louis XV sofa the less that it had not carved itself.

Possibly Natalie appealed then to his collective instinct, he had not analyzed it. He only knew that he liked being with her, and he was not annoyed, certainly, by the fact that he knew their constant proximity was arousing a certain amount of comment.

So:

"You are very beautiful," he said with his appraising glance full on her. "You are quite the loveliest woman I know."

"Still? With a grown son?"

"I am not a boy myself, you know."

"What has that to do with it?"

He hesitated, then laughed a little.

"I don't know," he said. "I didn't mean to say that, exactly. Of course, that fact is that I'm rather glad you are not a debutante. You would be giving me odds and ends of dances if you were, you know, and shifting me as fast as possible. As it is - "

The coquetry which is a shallow woman's substitute for passion stirred in her.

"Well? I'm awfully interested."

He turned and faced her.

"I wonder if you are!"

"Go on, Roddie. As it is??"

"As it is," he said, rather rapidly, "you give me a great deal of happiness. I can't say all I would like to, but just being with you - Natalie, I wonder if you know how much it means to me to see you every day."

"I like it, or I wouldn't do it."

"But - I wonder if it means anything to you?"

Curiously enough, with the mere putting it into words, his feeling for her seemed to grow. He was even somewhat excited. He bent toward her, his eyes on her face, and caught one of her gloved hands. He was no longer flirting with a pretty woman. He was in real earnest. But Natalie was still flirting.

"Do you want to know why I like to be with you? Because of course I do, or I shouldn't be."

"Does a famishing man want water?"

"Because you are sane and sensible. You believe, as I do, in going on as normally as possible. All these people who go around glooming because there is a war across the Atlantic! They are so tiresome. Good heavens, the hysterical attitude of some women! And Clay!"

He released her hand.

"So you like me because I'm sensible! Thanks."

"That's a good reason, isn't it?"

"Good God, Natalie, I'm only sensible because I have to be. Not about the war. I'm not talking about that. About you."

"What have I got to do with your being sensible and sane?"

"Just think about things, and you'll know."

She was greatly thrilled and quite untouched. It was a pleasant little game, and she held all the winning cards. So she said, very softly:

"We mustn't go on like this, you know. We mustn't spoil things."

And by her very "we" let him understand that the plight was not his but theirs. They were to suffer on, she implied, in a mutual, unacknowledged passion. He flushed deeply.

But although he was profoundly affected, his infatuation was as spurious as her pretense of one. He was a dilettante in love, as he was in art. His aesthetic sense, which would have died of an honest passion, fattened on the very hopelessness of his beginning an affair with Natalie. Confronted just then with the privilege of marrying her, he would have drawn back in dismay.

Since no such privilege was to be his, however, he found a deep satisfaction in considering himself hopelessly in love with her. He was profoundly sorry for himself. He saw himself a tragic figure, hopeless and wretched. He longed for the unattainable; he held up empty hands to the stars, and by so mimicking the gesture of youth, he regained youth.

"You won't cut me out of your life, Natalie?" he asked wistfully.

And Natalie, who would not have sacrificed this new thrill for anything real in the world, replied:

"It would be better, wouldn't it?"

There was real earnestness in his voice when he spoke. He had dramatized himself by that time.

"Don't take away the only thing that makes life worth living, dear!"

Which Natalie, after a proper hesitation, duly promised not to do.

There were other conversations after that. About marriage, for instance, which Rodney broadly characterized as the failure of the world; he liked treading on dangerous ground.

"When a man has married, and had children, he has fulfilled his duty to the State. That's all marriage is - duty to the State. After that he follows his normal instincts, of course."

"If you are defending unfaithfulness?"

"Not at all. I admire faithfulness. It's rare enough for admiration. No. I'm recognizing facts. Don't you suppose even dear old Clay likes a pretty woman? Of course he does. It's a total difference of view-point, Natalie. What is an incident to a man is a crime to a woman."

Or:

"All this economic freedom of women is going to lead to other freedoms, you know."

"What freedoms?" "The right to live wherever they please. One liberty brings another, you know. Women used to marry for a home, for some one to keep them. Now they needn't, but - they have to live just the same."

"I wish you wouldn't, Rodney. It's so - cheap."

It was cheap. It was the old game of talking around conversational corners, of whispering behind mental doors. It was insidious, dangerous, and tantalizing. It made between them a bond of lowered voices, of being on the edge of things. Their danger was as spurious as their passion, but Natalie, without humor and without imagination, found the sense of insecurity vaguely attractive.

Fundamentally cold, she liked the idea of playing with fire;