Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Graham was waiting in Clayton's dressing-room when he went up-stairs. Through the closed door they could hear Natalie's sleepy and rather fretful orders to her maid. Graham rose when he entered, and threw away his cigaret.
"I guess it has come, father."
"It looks like it."
A great wave of tenderness for the boy flooded over him. That tall, straight body, cast in his own mold, but young, only ready to live, that was to be cast into the crucible of war, to come out - God alone knew how. And not his boy only, but millions of other boys. Yet - better to break the body than ruin the soul.
"How is mother taking it?"
Natalie's voice came through the door. She was insisting that the house be kept quiet the next morning. She wanted to sleep late. Clayton caught the boy's eyes on him, and a half smile on his face.
"Does she know?"
"She isn't taking it very hard, is she?" Then his voice changed. "I wish you'd talk to her, father. She's - well, she's got me! You see, I promised her not to go in without her consent."
"When did you do that?"
"The night we broke with Germany in February. I was a fool, but she was crying, and I didn't know what else to do. And" - there was a ring of desperation in his voice - "she's holding me to it. I've been to her over and over again."
"And you want to go?" "Want to go! I've got to go."
He broke out then into a wild appeal. He wanted to get away. He was making a mess of all sorts of things. He wasn't any good. He would try to make good in the army. Maybe it was only the adventure he wanted - he didn't know. He hadn't gone into that. He hated the Germans. He wanted one chance at them, anyhow. They were beasts.
Clayton, listening, was amazed at the depth of feeling and anger in his voice.
"I'll talk to your mother," he agreed, when the boy's passion had spent itself. "I think she will release you." But he was less certain than he pretended to be. He remembered Natalie's drooping eyelids that night at dinner. She might absolve him from the promise, but there were other ways of holding him back than promises.
"Perhaps we would better go into the situation thoroughly," he suggested. "I have rather understood, lately, that you - what about Marion Hayden, Graham?"
"I'm engaged to her."
There was rather a long pause. Clayton's face was expressionless.
"Last fall, sir."
"Does your mother know?"
"I told her, yes." He looked up quickly. "I didn't tell you. I knew you disliked her, and mother said?" He checked himself. "Marion wanted to wait. She wanted to be welcome when she came into the family."
"I don't so much lislike her as I - disapprove of her."
"That's rather worse, isn't it?"
Clayton was tired. His very spirit was tired. He sat down in his big chair by the fire.
"She is older than you are, you know."
"I don't see what that has to do with it, father."
In Clayton's defense was his own situation. He did not want the boy to repeat his mistakes, to marry the wrong woman, and then find, too late, the right one. During the impassioned appeal that followed he was doggedly determined to prevent that. Perhaps he lost the urgency in the boy's voice. Perhaps in his new conviction that the passions of the forties were the only real ones, he took too little count of the urge of youth.
He roused himself.
"You think you are really in love with her?"
"I want her. I know that."
"That's different. That's - you are too young to know what you want."
"I ought to be married. It would settle me. I'm sick of batting round)"
"You want to marry before you enter the army?"
"Do you think for a moment that your wife will be willing to let you go?"
Graham straightened himself.
"She would have to let me go."
And in sheer despair, Clayton played his last card. Played it, and regretted it bitterly a moment later.
"We must get this straight, Graham. It's not a question of your entering the army or not doing it. It's a question of your happiness. Marriage is a matter of a life-time. It's got to be based on something more than - " he hesitated. "And your mother?"
"Please go on."
"You have just said that your mother does not want you to go into the army. Has it occurred to you she would even see yon married to a girl she detests, to keep you at home?"
Graham's face hardened.
"So;" he said, heavily, "Marion wants me for the money she thinks I'm going to have, and mother wants me to marry to keep me safe! By God, it's a dirty world, isn't it?"
Suddenly he was gone, and Clayton, following uneasily to the doorway, heard a slam below. When, some hours later, Graham had not come back, he fell into the heavy sleep that follows anxiety and brings no rest. In the morning he found that Graham had gone back to the garage and taken his car, and that he had not returned.
Afterward Clayton was to look back and to remember with surprise how completely the war crisis had found him absorbed in his own small group. But perhaps in the back of every man's mind war was always, first of all, a thing of his own human contacts. It was only when those were cleared up that he saw the bigger problem. The smaller questions loomed so close as to obscure the larger vision.
He went out into the country the next day, a cold Sunday, going afoot, his head down against the wind, and walked for miles. He looked haggard and tired when he came back, but his quiet face held a new resolve. War had come at last. He would put behind him the selfish craving for happiness, forget himself. He would not make money out of the nation's necessity. He would put Audrey out of his mind, if not out of his heart. He would try to rebuild his house of life along new and better lines. Perhaps he could bring Natalie to see things as he saw them, as they were, not as she wanted them to be.
Some times it took great crises to bring out women. Child-bearing did it, often. Urgent need did it, too. But after all the real test was war. The big woman met it squarely, took her part of the burden; the small woman weakened, went down under it, found it a grievance rather than a grief.
He did not notice Graham's car when it passed him, outside the city limits, or see Anna Klein's startled eyes as it flashed by.
Graham did not come in until evening. At ten o'clock Clayton found the second man carrying up-stairs a tray containing whisky and soda, and before he slept he heard a tap at Graham's door across the hall, and surmised that he had rung for another. Later still he heard Natalie cross the hall, and rather loud and angry voices. He considered, ironically, that a day which had found a part of the nation on its knees found in his own house only dissension and bitterness.
In the morning, at the office, Joey announced a soldier to see him, and added, with his customary nonchalance:
"We'll be having a lot of them around now, I expect."
Clayton, glancing up from the visitor's slip in his hand, surprised something wistful in the boy's eyes.
"Want to go, do you?"
"Give my neck to go - sir." He always added the "sir," when he remembered it, with the air of throwing a sop to a convention he despised.
"You may yet, you know. This thing is going to last a while. Send him in, Joey."
He had grown attached to this lad of the streets. He found in his loyalty a thing he could not buy.
Jackson was his caller. Clayton, who had been rather more familiar with his back in its gray livery than with any other aspect of him, found him strange and impressive in khaki.
"I'm sorry I couldn't get here sooner, Mr. Spencer," he explained. "I've been down on the border. Yuma. I just got a short leave, and came back to see my family."
He stood very erect, a bronzed and military figure. Suddenly it seemed strange to Clayton Spencer that this man before him had only a few months before opened his automobile door for him, and stood waiting with a rug to spread over his knees. He got up and shook hands.
"You look like a different man, Jackson."
"Well, at least I feel like a man."
"Sit down," he said. And again it occurred to him that never before had he asked Jackson to sit down in his presence. It was wrong, somehow. The whole class system was absurd. Maybe war would change that, too. It was doing many queer things, already.
He had sent for Jackson, but he did not at once approach the reason. He sat back, while Jackson talked of the border and Joey slipped in and pretended to sharpen lead pencils.
Clayton's eyes wandered to the window. Outside in the yard were other men, now employees of his, who would soon be in khaki. Out of every group there in a short time some would be gone, and of those who would go a certain number would never come back. That was what war was; one day a group of men, laboring with their hands or their brains, that some little home might live; that they might go back at evening to that home, and there rest for the next day's toil. And the next, gone. Every man out there in the yard was loved by some one. To a certain nuniber of them this day meant death, or wounding. It meant separation, and suffering, and struggle.
And all over the country there were such groups.
The roar of the plant came in fhrough the open window. A freight car was being loaded with finished shells. As fast as it was filled, another car was shunted along the spur to take its place. Over in Germany, in hundreds of similar plants, similar shells were being hurried to the battle line, to be hurled against the new army that was soon to cross the seas.
All those men, and back of every man, a woman.
Jackson had stopped. Joey was regarding him with stealthy admiration, and holding his breast bone very high. Already in his mind Joey was a soldier.
"You did not say in your note why you wanted to see me, Mr. Spencer."
He roused himself with a visible effort.
"I sent for you, yes," he said. "I sent - I'll tell you why I sent for you, Jackson. I've been meaning to do it for several weeks. Now that this has come I'm more than glad I did so. You can't keep your family on what you are getting. That's certain."
"My wife is going to help me, sir. The boy will soon be weaned. Then she intends to get a position. She was a milliner when we were married."
"But - Great Scott! She ought not to leave a child as young as that."
"She's going to fix that, all right. She wants to do it. And we're all right so far I had saved a little."
Then there were women like that! Women who would not only let their men go to war, but who would leave their homes and enter the struggle for bread, to help them do it.
"She says it's the right thing," volunteered Jackson, proudly. Women who felt that a man going into the service was a right thing. Women who saw war as a duty to be done, not a wild adventure for the adventurous.
"You ought to be very proud of her," he said slowly. "There are not many like that."
"Well," Jackson said, apologetically, "they'll come round, sir. Some of them kind of hate the idea, just at first. But I look to see a good many doing what my wife's doing."
Clayton wondered grimly what Jackson would think if he knew that at that moment he was passionately envious of him, of his uniform, of the youth that permitted him to wear that uniform, of his bronzed skin, of his wife, of his pride in that wife.
"You're a lucky chap, Jackson," he said. "I sent for you because I wanted to say that, as long as you are in the national service, I shall feel that you are on a vacation" - he smiled at the word - "on pay. Under those circumstances, I owe you quite a little money."
Jackson was too overwhelmed to reply at once.
"As a matter of fad," Clayton went on, "it's a national move, in a way. You don't owe any gratitude. We need our babies, you see. More than we do hats! If this war goes on, we shall need a good many boy babies."
And his own words suddenly crystallized the terror that was in him. It was the boys who would go; boys who whistled in the morning; boys who dreamed in the spring, long dreams of romance and of love.
Boys. Not men like himself, with their hopes and dreams behind them. Not men who had lived enough to know that only their early dreams were real. Not men, who, having lived, knew the vast disillusion of living and were ready to die.
It was only after Jackson had gone that he saw the fallacy of his own reasoning. If to live were disappointment, then to die, still dreaming the great dream, was not wholly evil. He found himself saying,
"To earn some honorable advancement for one's soul."
Deep down in him, overlaid with years of worldliness, there was a belief in a life after death. He looked out the window at the little, changing group. In each man out there there was something that would live on, after he had shed that sweating, often dirty, always weary, sometimes malformed shell that was the body. And then the thing that would count would be not how he had lived but what he had done.
This war was a big thing. It was the biggest thing in all the history of the world. There might be, perhaps, some special heaven for those who had given themselves to it, some particular honorable advancement for their souls. Already he saw Jackson as one apart, a man dedicated.
Then he knew that all his thinking was really centered about his boy. He wanted Graham to go. But in giving him he was giving him to the chance of death. Then he must hold to his belief in eternity. He must feel that, or the thing would be unbearable. For the first time in his life he gave conscious thought to Natalie's religious belief. She believed in those things. She must. She sat devoutly through the long service; she slipped, with a little rustle of soft silk, so easily to her knees. Perhaps, if he went to her with that?