Chapter XXVIII
 

When Natalie roused from her nap that Sunday afternoon, it was to find Marion gone, and Graham waiting for her in her boudoir. Through the open door she could see him pacing back and forward and something in his face made her vaguely uneasy. She assumed the child-like smile which so often preserved her from the disagreeable.

"What a sleep I've had," she said, and yawned prettily. "I'll have one of your cigarets, darling, and then let's take a walk."

Graham knew Natalie's idea of a walk, which was three or four blocks along one of the fashionable avenues, with the car within hailing distance. At the end of the fourth block she always declared that her shoes pinched, and called the machine.

"You don't really want to walk, mother."

"Of course I do, with you. Ring for Madeleine, dear."

She was uncomfortable. Graham had been very queer lately. He would have long, quiet spells, and then break out in an uncontrollable irritation, generally at the servants. But Graham did not ring for Madeleine. He lighted a cigaret for Natalie, and standing off, surveyed her. She was very pretty. She was prettier than Toots. That pale blue wrapper, or whatever it was, made her rather exquisite. And Natalie, curled up on her pale rose chaise longue, set to work as deliberately to make a conquest of her son as she had ever done to conquer Rodney Page, or the long list of Rodney's predecessors.

"You're growing very handsome, you know, boy," she said. "Almost too handsome. A man doesn't need good looks. They're almost a handicap. Look at your father."

"They haven't hurt him any, I should say."

"I don't know." She reflected, eyeing her cigaret. "He presumes on them, rather. And a good many men never think a handsome man has any brains."

"Well, he fools them there, too."

She raised her eyebrows slightly.

"Tell me about the new plant, Graham."

"I don't know anything about it yet," he said bluntly. "And you wouldn't be really interested if I did."

"That's rather disagreeable of you."

"No; I'm just trying to talk straight, for once. We - you and I - we always talk around things. I don't know why."

"You look terribly like your father just now. You are quite savage."

"That's exactly what I mean, mother. You don't say father is savage. God knows he isn't that. You just say I act like father, and that I am savage."

Natalie blew a tiny cloud of cigaret smoke, and watched it for a moment.

"You sound fearfully involved. But never mind about that. I daresay I've done something; I don't know what, but of course I am guilty."

"Why did you bring Marion here to-day, mother?"

"Well, if you want to know exactly, I met her coming out of church, and it occurred to me that we were having rather a nice luncheon, and that it would be a pity not to ask some one to come in. It was a nice luncheon, wasn't it?"

"That's why you asked her? For food?"

"Brutally put, but correct."

"You have been asking her here a lot lately. And yet the last time we discussed her you said she was fast. That she wanted to marry me for my money. That people would laugh if I fell for it."

"I hardly used those words, did I?"

"For heaven's sake, mother," he cried, exasperated. "Don't quibble. Let's get down to facts. Does your bringing her here mean that you've changed your mind?"

Natalie considered. She was afraid of too quick a surrender lest he grow suspicious. She decided to temporize, with the affectation of frankness that had once deceived Clayton, and that still, she knew, affected Graham.

"I'll tell you exactly," she said, slowly. "At first I thought it was just an infatuation. And - you really are young, Graham, although you look and act like such a man. But I feel, now that time has gone on and you still care about her, that after all, your happiness is all that matters."

"Mother!"

But she held up her hand.

"Remember, I am only speaking for myself. My dearest wish is to make you happy. You are all I have. But I cannot help you very much. Your father looks at those things differently. He doesn't quite realize that you are grown up, and have a right to decicde some things for yourself."

"He has moved me up, raised my salary."

"That's different. You're valuable to him, naturally. I don't mean he doesn't 1ove you," she added hastily, as Graham wheeled and stared at her. "Of course he does, in his own way. It's not my way, but then - I'm only a woman and a mother."

"You think he'll object?"

"I think he must be handled. If you rush at him, and demand the right to live your own life - "

"It is my life."

"Precisely. Only he may not see it that way."

He took a step toward her.

"Mother, do you really want me to marry Marion?"

"I think you ought to be married."

"To Marion?"

"To some one you love."

"Circles again," he muttered. "You've changed your mind, for some reason. What is it, mother?"

He had an uneasy thought that she might have learned of Anna. There was that day, for instance, when his father had walked into the back room.

Natalie was following a train of thught suggested by her own anxiety.

"You might be married quietly," she suggested. "Once it was done, I am sure your father would come around. You are both of age, you know."

He eyed her then with open-eyed amazement.

"Tm darned if I understand you," he burst out. And then, in one of his quick remorses, "I'm sorry, mother. I'm just puzzled, that's all. But that plan's no good, anyhow. Marion won't do it. She will have to be welcome in the family, or she won't come."

"She ought to be glad to come any way she can," Natalie said sharply. And found Graham's eyes on her, studying her.

"You don't want her. That's plain. But you do want her. That's not so plain. What's the answer, mother?"

And Natalie, with an irritable feeing that she had bungled somehow, got up and flung away the cigaret.

"I am trying to give you what you want," she said pettishly. "That's clear enough, I should think."

"There's no other reason?"

"What other reason could there be?"

Dressing to dine at the Hayden's that night, Graham heard Clayton come in and go into his dressing-room. He had an impulse to go over, tie in hand as he was, and put the matter squarely before his father. The marriage-urge - surely a man would understand that. Even Anna, and his predicament there. Anything was better than this constant indirectness of gaining his father's views through his mother.

Had he done so, things would have been different later. But by continual suggestion a vision of his father as hard, detached, immovable, had been built up in his mind. He got as far as the door, hesitated, turned back.

It was Marion herself who solved the mystery of Natalie's changed attitude, when Graham told of it that night. She sat listening, her eyes slightly narrowed, restlessly turning her engagement ring.

"Well, at least that's something," she said, noncommittally. But in her heart she knew, as one designing woman may know another. She knew that Natalie had made Graham promise not to enlist at once, if war was declared, and now she knew that she was desperately preparing to carry her fear for Graham a step further, even at the cost of having her in the family.

She smiled wryly. But there was triumph in the smile, too. She had them now. The time would come when they would crawl to her to marry Graham, to keep him from going to war. Then she would make her own terms.

In the meantime the thing was to hold him by every art she knew.

There was another girl, somewhere. She had been more frightened about that than she cared to admit, even to herself. She must hold him close.

She used every art she knew. She deliberately inflamed him. And the vicious circle closed in about him, Natalie and Marion and Anna Klein. And to offset them, only Delight Haverford, at evening prayer in Saint Luke's, and voicing a tiny petition for him, that he might walk straight, that he might find peace, even if that peace should be war.