Chapter XXVII
 

Clayton Spencer was facing with characteristic honesty a situation that he felt was both hopeless and shameful.

He was hopelessly in love with Audrey. He knew now that he had known it for a long time. Here was no slender sentiment, no thin romance. With every fiber of him, heart and soul and body, he loved her and wanted her. There was no madness about it, save the fact itself, which was mad enough. It was not the single attraction of passion, although he recognized that element as fundamental in it. It was the craving of a strong man who had at last found his woman.

He knew that, as certainly as he knew anything. He did not even question that she cared for him. It was as though they both had passed through the doubting period without knowing it, and had arrived together at the same point, the crying need of each other.

He rather thought, looking back, that Audrey had known it sooner than he had. She had certainly known the night she learned of Chris's death. His terror when she fainted, the very way he had put her out of his arms when she opened her eyes - those had surely told her. Yet, had Chris's cynical spirit been watching, there had been nothing, even then.

There was, between them, nothing now. He had given way to the people who flocked to her with sympathy, had called her up now and then, had sent her a few books, some flowers. But the hopelessness of the situation held him away from her. Once or twice, at first, he had called her on the telephone and had waited, almost trembling, for her voice over the wire, only to ask her finally, in a voice chilled with repression, how she was feeling, or to offer a car for her to ride in the park. And her replies were equally perfunctory. She was well. She was still studying, but it was going badly. She was too stupid to learn all those pot-hooks.

Once she had said:

"Aren't you ever coming to see me, Clay?"

Her voice had been wistful, and it had been a moment before he had himself enough in hand to reply, formally:

"Thank you. I shall, very soon."

But he had not gone to the little fiat again.

Through Natalie he heard of her now and then.

"I saw Audrey to-day," she said once. "She is not wearing mourning. It's bad taste, I should say. When one remembers that she really drove Chris to his death - "

He had interrupted her, angrily.

"That is a cruel misstatement, Natalie. She did nothing of the sort."

"You needn't bite me, you know. He went, and had about as much interest in this war as - as - "

"As you have," he finished. And had gone out, leaving Natalie staring after him.

He was more careful after that, but the situation galled him. He was no hypocrite, but there was no need of wounding Natalie unnecessarily. And that, after all, was the crux of the whole situation. Natalie. It was not Natalie's fault that he had found the woman of his heart too late. He had no thought of blame for her. In decency, there was only one thing to do. He could not play the lover to her, but then he had not done that for a very ong time. He could see, however, that she was not hurt.

Perhaps, in all her futile life, Natalie had, for all her complaining, never been so content in her husband as in those early spring months when she had completely lost him. He made no demands whatever. In the small attentions, which he had never neglected, he was even more assiduous. He paid her ever-increasing bills without comment. He submitted, in those tense days when every day made the national situation more precarious, to hours of discussion as to the country house, to complaints as to his own lack of social instinct, and to that new phase of her attitude toward Marion Hayden that left him baffled and perplexed.

Then, on the Sunday when he left Graham and Marion together at the house, he met Audrey quite by accident in the park. He was almost incredulous at first. She came like the answer to prayer, a little tired around the eyes, showing the strain of the past weeks, but with that same easy walk and unconscious elegance that marked her, always.

She was not alone. There was a tall blonde girl beside her, hideously dressed, but with a pleasant, shallow face. Just before they met Audrey stopped and held out her hand.

"Then you'll let me know, Clare?"

"Thank you. I will, indeed, Mrs. Valentine."

With a curious glance at Clayton the girl went on. Audrey smiled at him.

"Please don't run!" she said. "There are people looking. It would be so conspicuous."

"Run!" he replied. He stood looking down at her, and at something in his eyes her smile died.

"It's too wonderful, Clay."

For a moment he could not speak. After all those weeks of hunger for her there was no power in him to dissemble. He felt a mad, boyish impulse to hold out his arms to her, Malacca stick, gloves, and all!

"It's a bit of luck I hadn't expected, Audrey," he said, at last, unsteadily.

She turned about quite simply, and faced in the direction he was going.

"I shall walk with you," she said, with a flash of her old impertinence. "You have not asked me to, but I shall, anyhow. Only don't call this luck. It isn't at all. I walk here every Sunday, and every Sunday I say to myself - he will think he needs exercise. Then he will walk, and the likeliest place for him to go is the park. Good reasoning, isn't it?"

She glanced up at him, but his face was set and unsmiling. "Don't pay any attention to me, Clay. I'm a little mad, probably. You see" - she hesitated - "I need my friends just now. And when the very best of them all hides away from me?"

"Don't say that. I stayed away, because - " He hesitated.

"I'm almost through. Don't worry! But I was walking along before I met Clare - I'll tell you about her presentl - and I was saying to myself that I thought God owed me something. I didn't know just what. Happiness, maybe. I've been careless and all that, but I've never been wicked. And yet I can look back, and count the really happy days of my life on five fingers."

She held out one hand.

"Five fingers!" she repeated, "and I am twenty-eight. The percentage is pretty low, you know."

"Perhaps you and I ask too much?"

He was conscious of her quick, searching glance.

"Oh! You feel that way, too? I mean - as I do, that it's all hardly worth while? But you seem to have everything, Clay."

"You have one thing I lack. Youth."

"Youth! At twenty-eight!"

"You can still mold your life, Audrey dear. You have had a bad time, but - with all reverence to Chris's memory - his going out of it, under the circumstances, is a grief. But it doesn't spell shipwreck."

"Do you mean that I will marry again?" she asked, in a low tone.

"Don't you think you will, some time? Some nice young chap who will worship you all the days of his life? That - well, that is what I expect for you. It's at least possible, you know."

"Is it what you want for me?"

"Good God!" he burst out, his restraint suddenly gone. "What do you want me to say? What can I say, except that I want you to be happy? Don't you think I've gone over it all, over and over again? I'd give my life for the right to tell you the things I think, but - I haven't that right. Even this little time together is wrong, the way things are. It is all wrong."

"I'm sorry, Clay. I know. I am lust reckless to-day. You know I am wreckless. It's my vice. But sometimes - we'd better talk about the mill."

But he could not talk about the mill just then. They walked along in silence, and after a little he felt her touch his arm.

"Wouldn't it be better just to have it out?" she asked, wistfully. "That wouldn't hurt anybody, would it?"

"I'm afraid, Audrey."

"I'm not," she said proudly. "I sometimes think - oh, I think such a lot these days - that if we talked these things over, I'd recover my - friend. I've lost him now, you see. And I'm so horribly lonely, Clay."

"Lost him!"

"Lost him," she repeated. "I've lost my friend, and I haven't gained anything. It didn't hurt anybody for us to meet now and then, Clay. You know that. I wish you would understand," she added impatiently. "I only want to go back to things as they were. I want you to come in now and then. We used to talk about all sorts of things, and I miss that. Plenty of people come, but that's different. It's only your occasional companionship I want. I don't want you to come and make love to me."

"You say you have missed the companionship," he said rather unsteadily. "I wonder if you think I haven't?"

"I know you have, my dear. And that is why I want you to come. To come without being afraid that I expect or want anything else. Surely we can manage that."

He smiled down at her, rather wryly, at her straight courageous figure, her brave eyes, meeting his so directly. How like her it all was, the straightforwardness of it, the absence of coquetry. And once again he knew, not only that he loved her with all the depths of him, of his strong body and his vigorous mind, but that she was his woman. The one woman in the world for him. It was as though all his life he had been searching for her, and he had found her, and it was too late. She knew it, too. It was in her very eyes.

"I have wanted to come, terribly," he said finally. And when she held out her hand to him, he bent down and kissed it.

"Then that's settled," she said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "And now I'll tell you about Clare. I'm rather proud of her."

"Clare?"

The tension had been so great that he had forgotten the blonde girl entirely.

"Do you remember the night I got a hundred dollars from you? And later on, that I asked you for work in your mill for the girl I got it for?"

"Do you mean?" He looked at her in surprise.

"That was the girl. You see, she rather holds onto me. It's awful in a way, too. It looks as though I am posing as magnanimous. I'm not, Clay. If I had cared awfully it would have been different. But then, if I had cared awfully, perhaps it would never have happened."

"You have nothing to blame yourself for, Audrey."

"Well, I do, rather. But that's not the point. Sometimes when I am alone I have wicked thoughts, you know, Clay. I'm reckless, and sometimes I think maybe there is only one life, and why not get happiness out of it. I realize that, but for some little kink in my brain, I might be in Clare's position. So I don't turn her out. She's a poor, cheap thing, but - well, she is fond of me. If I had children - it's funny, but I rather mother her! And she's straight now, straight as a string!"

She was sensitive to his every thought, and she knew by the very change in the angle of his head that he was thinking that over and not entirely approving. But he said finally:

"You're a big woman, Audrey."

"But you don't like it!"

"I don't like her troubling you."

"Troubling me! She doesn't borrow money, you know. Why, she makes more money from your plant than I have to live on! And she brings me presents of flowers and the most awful embroidery, that she does herself."

"You ought not to know that side of life."

She laughed a little bitterly.

"Not know it!" she said. "I've had to know it. I learned it pretty well, too. And don't make any mistake, Clay." She looked up at him with her clear, understanding gaze. "Being good, decent, with a lot of people is only the lack of temptation. Only, thank God, there are some who have the strength to withstand it when it comes."

And he read in her clear eyes her promise and her understanding; that they loved each other, that it was the one big thing in both their lives, but that between them there would be only the secret inner knowledge of that love. There would be no shipwreck. And for what she gave, she demanded his strength and his promise. It was to what he read in her face, not to her words, that he replied:

"I'll do my very best, Audrey dear."

He went back to her rooms with her, and she made him tea, while he built the fire in the open fireplace and nursed it tenderly to a healthy strength. Overnursed it, she insisted. They were rather gay, indeed, and the danger-point passed by safely. There was so much to discuss, she pretended. The President's unfortunate phrase of "peace without victory"; the deportation of the Belgians, the recent leak in Washington to certain stock-brokers, and more and more imminent, the possibility of a state of war being recognized by the government.

"If it comes," she said, gayly, "I shall go, of course. I shall go to France and sing them into battle. My shorthand looks like a music score, as it is. What will you do?"

"I can't let you outshine me," he said. "And I don't want to think of your going over there without me. My dear! My dear!"

She ignored that, and gave him his tea, gravely.