Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The declaration of war found Graham desperately unhappy. Natalie held him rigidly to his promise, but it is doubtful if Natalie alone could have kept, him out of the army. Marion was using her influence, too! She held him by alternating between almost agreeing to runaway marriage and threats of breaking the engagement if he went to war. She had tacitly agreed to play Natalie's game, and she was doing it.
Graham did not analyze his own misery. What he said to himself was that he was making a mess of things. Life, which had seemed to be a simple thing, compounded of work and play, had become involved, difficult and wretched.
Some times he watched Clayton almost with envy. He seemed so sure of himself; he was so poised, so calm, so strong. And he wondered if there had been a tumultuous youth behind the quiet of his maturity. He compared the even course of Clayton's days, his work, his club, the immaculate orderliness of his life, with his own disordered existence.
He was hedged about with women. Wherever he turned, they obtruded themselves. He made plans and women brushed them aside. He tried to live his iife, and women stepped in and lived it for him. His mother, Marion, Anna Klein. Even Delight, with her friendship always overclouded with disapproval. Wherever he turned, a woman stood in the way. Yet he could not do without them. He needed them even while he resented them.
Then, gradually, into his self-engrossment there penetrated a conviction that all was not well between his father and his mother. He had always taken them for granted much as he did the house and the servants. In his brief vacations during his college days they had agreed or disagreed, amicably enough. He had considered, in those days, that life was a very simple thing. People married and lived together. Marriage, he considered, was rather the end of things.
But he was older now, and he knew that marriage was a beginning and not an end. It did not change people fundamentally. It only changed their habits.
His discovery that his father and mother differed about the war was the first of other discoveries; that they differed about him; that they differed about many matters; that, indeed, they had no common ground at all on which to meet; between them, although Graham did not put it that way, was a No-Man's Land strewn with dead happiness, lost desires, and the wreckage of years of dissension.
It was incredible to Graham that he should ever reach the forties, but he wondered some times if all of life was either looking forward or looking back. And it seemed to him rather tragic that for Clayton, who still looked like a boy, there should be nothing but his day at the mill, his silent evening at home, or some stodgy dinner-party where the women were all middle-aged, and the other men a trifle corpulent.
For the first time he was beginning to think of Clayton as a man, rather than a father.
Not that all of this was coherently thought out. It was a series of impressions, outgrowth of his own beginning development and of his own uneasiness.
He wondered, too, about Rodney Page. He seemed to be always around, underfoot, suave, fastidious, bowing Natalie out of the room and in again. He had deplored the war until he found his attitude unfashionable, and then he began, with great enthusiasm, to arrange pageants for Red Cross funds, and even to make little speeches, graceful and artificial, patterned on his best after-dinner manner.
Graham was certain that he supported his mother in trying to keep him at home, and he began to hate him with a healthy young hate. However, late in April, he posed in one of the pageants, rather ungraciously, in a khaki uniform. It was not until the last minute that he knew that Delight Haverford was to be the nurse bending over his prostrate figure. He turned rather savage.
"Rotten nonsense," he said to her, "when they stood waiting to be posed.
"Qh, I don't know. They're rather pretty;"
"Pretty! Do you suppose I want it be pretty?"
"Well, I do," said Delight, calmly.
"It's fake. That's what I hate. If you were really a nurse, and was really in uniform -! But this parading in somebody else's clothes, or stuff hired for the occasion - it's sickening."
Delight regarded him with clear, appraising eyes.
"Why don't you get a uniform of your own, then?" she inquired. She smiled a little.
He never knew what the effort cost her. He was pale and angry, and his face in the tableau was so set that it brought a round of applause. With the ringing down of the curtain he confronted her, almost menacingly.
"What did you mean by that?" he demanded. "We've hardly got into this thing yet."
"We are in it, Graham."
"Just because I don't leap into the first recruiting office and beg them to take me - what right have you got to call me a slacker?"
"But I heard - "
"It doesn't matter what I heard, if you are going."
"Of course I'm going," he said, truculently.
He meant it, too. He would get Anna settled somewhere - she had begun to mend - and then he would have it out with Marion and his mother. But there was no hurry. The "war would last a long time. And so it was that Graham Spencer joined the long line of those others who had bought a piece of ground, or five yoke of oxen, or had married a wife.
It was the morning after the pageant that Clayton, going down-town with him in the car, voiced his expectation that the government would take over their foreign contracts, and his feeling that, in that case, it would be a mistake to profit by the nation's necessities.
"What do you mean, sir?"
"I mean we should take only a small profit. A banker's profit."
Graham had been fairly stunned, and had sat quiet while Clayton explained his attitude. There were times when big profits were allowable. There was always the risk to invested capital to consider. But he did not want to grow fat on the nation's misfortunes. Italy was one thing. This was different.
"But - we are just getting on our feet!"
"Think it over!" said Clayton. "This is going to be a long war, and an expensive one. We don't particularly want to profit by it, do we?"
Graham flushed. He felt rather small and cheap, but with that there was a growing admiration of his father. Suddenly he saw that this man beside him was a big man, one to be proud of. For already he knew the cost of the decision. He sat still, turning this new angle of war over in his mind.
"I'd like to see some of your directors when you put that up to them!"
Clayton nodded rather grimly. He did not anticipate a pleasant hour.
"How about mother?"
"I think we may take it for granted that she feels as we do."
Graham pondered that, too.
"What about the new place?"
"It's too soon to discuss that. We are obligated to do a certain amount. Of course it would be wise to cut where we can."
"She'll raise the deuce of a row," was his comment.
It had never occurred to him before to take sides between his father and his mother, but there was rising in him a new and ardent partisanship of his father, a feeling that they were, in a way, men together. He had, more than once, been tempted to go to him with the Anna Klein situation. He would have, probably, but a fellow felt an awful fool going to somebody and telling him that a girl was in love with him, and what the dickens was he to do about it?
He wondered, too, if anybody would believe that his relationship with Anna was straight, under the circumstances. For weeks now he had been sending her money, out of a sheer sense of responsibility for her beating and her illness. He took no credit for altruism. He knew quite well the possibilities of the situation. He made no promises to himself. But such attraction as Anna had had for him had been of her prettiness, and their propinquity. Again she was girl, and that was all. And the attraction was very faint now. He was only sorry for her.
When she could get about she took to calling him up daily from a drug-store at a near-by corner, and once he met her after dark and they walked a few blocks together. She was still weak, but she was spiritualized, too. He liked her a great deal that night.
"Do you know you've loaned me over a hundred dollars, Graham?" she asked.
"That's not a loan. I owed you that."
"I'll pay it back. I'm going to start to-morrow to look for work, and it won't cost me much to live."
"If you send it back, I'll buy you another watch!"
And, tragic as the subject was, they both laughed.
"I'd have died if I hadn't had you to think about when I was sick, Graham. I wanted to die - except for you."
He had kissed her then, rather because he knew she expected him to. When they got back to the house she said:
"You wouldn't care to come up?"
"I don't think I had better, Anna."
"The landlady doesn't object. There isn't any parlor. All the girls have their callers in their rooms."
"I have to go out to-night," he said evasively. "I'll come some other time."
As he started away he glanced back at her. She was standing in the doorway, eying him wistfully, a lonely and depressed little figure. He was tempted to throw discretion to the wind and go back. But he did not.
On the day when Clayton had broached the subject of offering their output to the government at only a banker's profit, Anna called him up at his new office in the munition plant.
He was rather annoyed. His new secretary was sitting across the desk, and it was difficult to make his responses noncommittal.
"Is anybody there? Can you talk?"
"Not very well."
"Then listen; I'll talk. I want to see you."
"I'm busy all day. Sorry."
"Listen, Graham, I must see you. I've something to tell you."
"All right, go ahead."
"It's about Rudolph. I was out looking for a position yesterday and I met him."
He looked up. Miss Peterson was absently scribbling on the cover of her book, and listening intently.
"He was terrible, Graham. He accused me of all sorts of things, about you."
He almost groaned aloud over the predicament he was in. It began to look serious.
"Suppose I pick you up and we have dinner somewhere?"
"At the same corner?"
He was very irritable all morning. He felt as though a net was closing in around him, and his actual innocence made him the more miserable. Miss Peterson found him very difficult that day, and shed tears in her little room before she went to lunch.
Anna herself was difficult that evening. Her landlady's son had given up a good job and enlisted. Everybody was going. She supposed Graham would go next, and she'd be left alone.
"I don't know. I'd like to."
"Oh, you'll go, all right. And you'll forget I ever existed." She made an effort. "You're right, of course. I'm only looking ahead. If anything happens to you, I'll kill myself."
The idea interested her. She began to dramatize herself, a forlorn figure, driven from home, and deserted by her lover. She saw herself lying in the cottage, stately and mysterious, while the hill girls went in and out, and whispered.
"I'll kill myself," she repeated.
"Nothing will happen to me, Anna, dear."
"I don't know why I care so. I'm nothing to you."
"That's not so;"
"If you cared, you'd have come up the other night. You left me alone in that lonesome hole. It's hell, that place. All smells and whispering and dirt."
"Now listen to me, Anna. You're tired, or you wouldn't say that. You know I'm fond of you. But I've got you into trouble enough. I'm not - for God's sake don't tempt me, Anna."
She looked at him half scornfully.
"Tempt you!" Then she gave a little scream. Graham following her eyes looked through the window near them.
"Rudolph!" she whimpered. And began to weep out of pure terror.
But Graham saw nobody. To soothe her, however, he went outside and looked about. There were half a dozen cars, a group of chauffeurs, but no Rudolph. He went hack to her, to find her sitting, pale and tense, her hands clenched together.
"They'll pay you out some way," she said. "I know them. They'll never believe the truth. That was Rudolph, all right. He'll think we're living together. He'd never believe anything else."
"Do you think he followed you the other day?"
"I gave him the shake, in the crowd."
"Then I don't see why you're worrying. We're just where we were before, aren't we?"
"You don't know them. I do. They'll be up to something."
She was excited and anxious, and with the cocktail he ordered for her she grew reckless.
"I'm just hung around your neck like a stone," she lamented. "You don't care a rap for me; I know it. You're just sorry for me."
Her eyes filled again, and Graham rose, with an impatient movement.
"Let's get out of this," he said roughly. "The whole place is staring at you."
But on the road the fact that she had been weeping for him made him relent. He put an arm around her and drew her to him.
"Don't cry, honey," he said. "It makes me unhappy to see you miserable."
He kissed her. And they clung together, finding a little comfort in the contact of warm young bodies.
He went up to her room that night. He was more anxious as to Rudolph than he cared to admit, but he went up, treading softly on stairs that creaked with every step. He had no coherent thoughts. He wanted companionship rather than love. He was hungry for what she gave him, the touch of her hands about his neck, the sense of his manhood that shone from her faithful eyes, the admiration and unstinting love she offered him.
But alone in the little room he had a reaction, not the less keen because it was his fastidious rather than his moral sense that revolted. The room was untidy, close, sordid. Even Anna's youth did not redeem it. Again he had the sense, when he had closed the door, of being caught in a trap, and this time a dirty trap. When she had taken off her hat, and held up her face to be kissed, he knew he would not stay.
"It's awful, isn't it?" she asked, following his eyes.
"It doesn't look like you. That's sure."
"I hurried out. It's not so bad when it's tidy."
He threw up the window, and stood there a moment. The spring air was cool and clean, and there was a sound of tramping feet below. He looked down. The railway station was near-by, and marching toward it, with the long swing of regulars, a company of soldiers was moving rapidly. The night, the absence of drums or music, the businesslike rapidity of their progress, held him there, looking down. He turned around. Anna had slipped off her coat, and had opened the collar of her blouse. Her neck gleamed white and young. She smiled at him.
"I guess I'll be going," he stammered.
"I only wanted to see how you are fixed." His eyes evaded hers. "I'll see you again in a day or two. I - "
He could not tell her the thoughts that were surging in him. The country was at war. Those fellows below there were already in it, of it. And here in this sordid room, he had meant to take her, not because he loved her, but because she offered herself. It was cheap. It was terrible. It was - dirty.
"Good night," he said, and tried to kiss her. But she turned her face away. She stood listening to his steps on the stairs as he went down, steps that mingled and were lost in the steady tramp of the soldiers' feet in the street below.