Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
February and March were peaceful months, on the surface. Washington was taking stock quietly of national resources and watching for Germany's next move. The winter impasse in Europe gave way to the first fighting of spring, raids and sorties mostly, since the ground was still too heavy for the advancement of artillery. On the high seas the reign of terror was in full swing, and little tragic echoes of the world drama began again to come by cable across the Atlantic. Some of Graham's friends, like poor Chris, found the end of the path of glory. The tall young Canadian Highlander died before Peronne in March. Denis Nolan's nephew was killed in the Irish Fusileers.
One day Clayton came borne to find a white-faced Buckham taking his overcoat in the ball, and to learn that he had lost a young brother.
Clayton was uncomfortable at dinner that night. He wondered what Buckham thought of them, sitting there around the opulent table, in that luxurious room. Did he resent it? After dinner he asked him if he cared to take a few days off, but the old butler shook his head.
"I'm glad to have my work to keep me busy, sir," he said. "And anyhow, in England, it's considered best to go on, quite as though nothing had happened. It's better for the troops, sir."
There was a new softness and tolerance in Clayton that early spring. He had mellowed, somehow, a mellowing that had nothing to do with his new prosperity. In past times he had wondered how he would stand financial success if it ever came. He had felt fairly sure he could stand the other thing. But success - Now he found that it only increased his sense of responsibility. He was, outside of the war situation, as nearly happy as he had been in years. Natalie's petulant moods, when they came, no longer annoyed him. He was supported, had he only known it, by the strong inner life he was living, a life that centered about his weekly meetings with Audrey.
Audrey gave him courage to go on. He left their comradely hours together better and stronger. All the week centered about that one hour, out of seven days, when he stood on her hearth-rug, or lay back in a deep chair, listening or talking - such talk as Natalie might have heard without resentment.
Some times he felt that that one hour was all he wanted; it carried so far, helped so greatly. He was so boyishly content in it. And then she would make a gesture, or there would be, for a second, a deeper note in her voice, and the mad instinct to catch her to him was almost overwhelming.
Some times he wondered if she were not very lonely, not knowing that she, too, lived for days on that one hour. She was not going out, because of Chris's death, and he knew there were long hours when she sat alone, struggling determinedly with the socks she was knitting.
Only once did they tread on dangerous ground, and that was on her birthday. He stopped in a jeweler's on his way up-town and brought her a black pearl on a thin almost invisible chain, only to have her refuse to take it.
"I can't Clay!"
"It's too valuable. I can't take valuable presents from men."
"It's value hasn't anything to do with it."
"I'm not wearing jewelry, anyhow."
"Audrey," he said gravely, "it isn't the pearl. It isn't its value. That's absurd. Don't you understand that I would like to think that you have something I have given you?"
When she sat still, thinking over what he had said, he slipped the chain around her neck and clasped it. Then he stooped down, very gravely, and kissed her.
"For my silent partner!" he said.
In all those weeks, that was the only time he had kissed her. He knew quite well the edge of the gulf they stood on, and he was determined not to put the burden of denial on her. He felt a real contempt for men who left the strength of refusal to a woman, who pleaded, knowing that the woman's strength would save them from themselves, and that if she weakened, the responsibility was hers.
So he fed on the husks of love, and was, if not happy, happier.
Graham, too, was getting on better. For one thing, Anna Klein had been ill. She lay in her boarding-house, frightened at every step on the stairs, and slowly recovered from a low fever. Graham had not seen her, but he sent her money for a doctor, for medicines, for her room rent, enclosed in brief letters, purely friendly and interested. But she kept them under her pillow and devoured them with feverish eyes.
But something had gone out of life for Graham. Not Anna. Natalie, watching him closely, wondered what it was. He had been strange and distant with her ever since that tall boy in kilts had been there. He was studiously polite and attentive to her, rose when she entered a room and remained standing until she was seated, brought her the book she had forgotten, lighted her occasional cigaret, kissed her morning and evening. But he no longer came into her dressing-room for that hour before dinner when Natalie, in dressing-gown and slippers, had closed the door to Clayton's room and had kept him for herself.
She was jealous of Clayton those days. Some times she found the boy's eyes fixed on his father, with admiration and something more. She was jealous of the things they had in common, of the days at the mill, of the bits of discussion after dinner, when Clayton sat back with his cigar, and Graham voiced, as new discoveries, things about the work that Clayton had realized for years.
He always listened gravely, with no hint of patronage. But Natalie would break in now and then, impatient of a conversation that excluded her.
"Your father knows all these things, Graham," she said once. "You talk as though you'd just discovered the mill, like Columbus discovering America."
"Not at all," Clayton said, hastily. "He has a new viewpoint. I am greatly interested. Go on, Graham."
But the boy's enthusiasm had died. He grew self-conscious, apologetic. And Clayton felt a resentment that was close to despair.
The second of April fell on a Saturday. Congress, having ended the session the fourth of March, had been hastily reconvened, and on the evening of that day, Saturday, at half past eight, the President went before the two Houses in joint session.
Much to Clayton's disgust, he found on returning home that they were dining out.
"Only at the Mackenzies. It's not a party," Natalie said. As usual, she was before the dressing-table, and she spoke to his reflection in the mirror. "I should think you could do that, without looking like a thunder-cloud. Goodness knows we've been quiet enough this Lent."
"You know Congress has been re-convened?"
"I don't know why that should interfere."
"It's rather a serious time." He tried very hard to speak pleasantly. Her engrossment in her own reflection irritated him, so he did not look at her. "But of course I'll go."
"Every time is a serious time with you lately," she flung after him. Her tone was not disagreeable. She was merely restating an old grievance. A few moments later he heard her calling through the open door.
"I got some wonderful old rugs to-day, Clay."
"Yes?" "You'll scream when you pay for them."
"I've lost my voice screaming, my dear."
"You'll love these. They have the softest colors, dead rose, and faded blue, and old copper tones."
"I'm very glad you're pleased."
She was in high good humor when they started. Clayton, trying to meet her conversational demands found himself wondering if the significance of what was to happen in Washington that night had struck home to her. If it had, and she could still be cheerful, then it was because she had forced a promise from Graham.
He made his decision then; to force her to release the boy from any promise; to allow him his own choice. But he felt with increasing anxiety that some of Natalie's weakness of character had descended to Graham, that in him, as in Natalie, perhaps obstinacy was what he hoped was strength. He wondered listening to her, what it would be to have beside him that night some strong and quiet woman, to whom he could carry his problems, his perplexities. Some one to sit, hand in his, and set him right as such a woman could, on many things.
And for a moment, he pictured Audrey. Audrey, his wife, driving with him in their car, to whatever the evening might hold. And after it was all over, going back with her, away from all the chatter that meant so little, to the home that shut them in together.
He was very gentle to Natalie that night.
Natalie had been right. It was a small and informal group, gathered together hastily to discuss the emergency; only Denis Nolan, the Mackenzies, Clayton and Natalie, and Audrey.
"We brought her out of her shell," said Terry, genially, "because the country is going to make history to-night. The sort of history Audrey has been shouting for for months."
The little party was very grave. Yet, of them all, only the Spencers would be directly affected. The Mackenzies had no children.
"Button, my secretary," Terry announced, "is in Washington. He is to call me here when the message is finished."
"isn't it possible," said Natalie, recalling a headline from the evening paper, "that the House may cause an indefinite delay?"
And, as usual, Clayton wondered at the adroitness with which, in the talk that followed, she escaped detection.
They sat long at the table, rather as though they clung together. And Nolan insisted on figuring the cost of war in money.
"Queer thing," he said. "In ancient times the cost of war fell almost entirely on the poor. But it's the rich who will pay for this war. All taxation is directed primarily against the rich."
"The poor pay in blood," said Audrey, rather sharply. "They give their lives, and that is all they have."
"Rich and poor are going to do that, now," old Terry broke in. "Fight against it all you like, you members of the privileged class, the draft is coming. This is every man's war."
But Clayton Spencer was watching Natalie. She had paled and was fingering her liqueur-glass absently. Behind her lowered eyelids he surmised that again she was planning. But what? Then it came to him, like a flash. Old Terry had said the draft would exempt married men. She meant to marry Graham to a girl she detested, to save him from danger.
Through it all, however, and in spite of his anger and apprehension, he was sorry for her. Sorry for her craven spirit. Sorry even with an understanding that came from his own fears. Sorry for her, that she had remained an essential child in a time that would tax the utmost maturity. She was a child. Even her selfishness was the selfishness of a spoiled child. She craved things, and the spirit, the essence of life, escaped her.
And beside him was Audrey, valiant-eyed, courageous, honest. Natalie and Audrey! Some time during the evening his thoughts took this form: that there were two sorts of people in the world: those who seized their own happiness, at any cost; and those who saw the promised land from a far hill, and having seen it, turned back.