Chapter XXXIV
 

With his many new problems following the declaration of war, Clayton Spencer found a certain peace. It was good to work hard. It was good to fill every working hour, and to drop into sleep at night too weary for consecutive thought.

Yet had he been frank with himself he would have acknowledged that Audrey was never really out of his mind. Back of his every decision lay his desire for her approval. He did not make them with her consciously in his mind, but he wanted her to know and understand, In his determination, for instance, to offer his shells to the government at a nominal profit, there was no desire to win her approbation.

It was rather that he felt her behind him in the decision. He shrank from telling Natalie. Indeed, until he had returned from Washington he did not broach the sublect. And then he was tired and rather discouraged, and as a result almost brutally abrupt.

Coming on top of a hard fight with the new directorate, a fight which he had finally won, Washington was disheartening. Planning enormously for the future it seemed to have no vision for the things of the present. He was met vaguely, put off, questioned. He waited hours, as patiently as he could, to find that no man seemed to have power to act, or to know what powers he had.

He found something else, too - a suspicion of him, of his motives. Who offered something for nothing must be actuated by some deep and hidden motive. He found his plain proposition probed and searched for some ulterior purpose behind it.

"It's the old distrust, Mr. Spencer," said Hutchinson, who had gone with him to furnish figures and various data. "The Democrats are opposed to capital. They're afraid of it. And the army thinks all civilians are on the make - which is pretty nearly true."

He saw the Secretary of War, finally, and came away feeling better. He had found there an understanding that a man may - even should - make sacrifices for his country during war. But, although he carried away with him the conviction that his offer would ultimately be accepted, there was nothing actually accomplished. He sent Hutchinson back, and waited for a day or two, convinced that his very sincerity must bring a concrete result, and soon.

Then, lunching alone one day in the Shoreham, he saw Audrey Valentine at another table. He had not seen her for weeks, and he had an odd moment of breathlessness when his eyes fell on her. She was pale and thin, and her eyes looked very tired. His first impulse was to go to her. The second, on which he acted, was to watch her for a little, to fill his eyes for the long months of emptiness ahead.

She was with a man in uniform, a young man, gay and smiling. He was paying her evident court, in a debonair fashion, bending toward her across the table. Suddenly Clayton was jealous, fiercely jealous.

The jealousy of the young is sad enough, but it is an ephemeral thing. Life calls from many directions. There is always the future, and the things of the future. And behind it there is the buoyancy and easy forgetfulness of youth. But the jealousy of later years knows no such relief. It sees time flying and happiness evading it. It has not the easy self-confidence of the twenties. It has learned, too, that happiness is a rare elusive thing, to be held and nursed and clung to, and that even love must be won and held.

It has learned that love must be free, but its instinct is to hold it with chains.

He suffered acutely, and was ashamed of his suffering. After all, Audrey was still young. Life had not been kind to her, and she should be allowed to have such happiness as she could. He could offer her nothing.

He would give her up. He had already given her up. She knew it.

Then she saw him, and his determination died under the light that came in her eyes. Give her up! How could he give her up, when she was everything he had in the world? With a shock, he recognized in the thought Natalie's constant repetition as to Graham. So he had come to that!

He felt Audrey's eyes on him, but he did not go to her. He signed his check, and went out. He fully meant to go away without seeing her. But outside he hesitated. That would hurt her, and it was cowardly. When, a few moments later, she came out, followed by the officer, it was to find him there, obviously waiting.

"I wondered if you would dare to run away!" she said. "This is Captain Sloane, Clay, and he knows a lot about you."

Close inspection showed Sloane handsome, bronzed, and with a soft Southern voice, somewhat like Audrey's. And it developed that he came from her home, and was on his way to one of the early camps. He obviously intended to hold on to Audrey, and Clayton left them there with the feeling that Audrey's eyes were following him, wistful and full of trouble. He had not even asked her where she was stopping.

He took a long walk that afternooon, and re-made his noon-hour resolution. He would keep away from her. It might hurt her at first, but she was young. She would forget. And he must not stand in her way. Having done which, he returned to the Shoreham and spent an hour in a telephone booth, calling hotels systematically and inquiring for her.

When he finally located her his voice over the wire startled her.

"Good heavens, Clay," she said. "Are you angry about anything?"

"Of course not. I just wanted to - I am leaving to-night and I'm saying good-by. That's all."

"Oh!" She waited.

"Have you had a pleasant afternoon?"

"Aren't you going to see me before you go?"

"I don't think so."

"Don't you want to know what I am doing in Washington?"

"That's fairly clear, isn't it?"

"You are being rather cruel, Clay."

He hesitated. He was amazed at his own attitude. Then, "Will you dine with me to-night?"

"I kept this evening for you."

But when he saw her, his sense of discomfort only increased. Their dining together was natural enough. It was not even faintly clandestine. But the new restraint he put on himself made him reserved and unhappy. He could not act a part. And after a time Audrey left off acting, too, and he found her watching him. On the surface he talked, but underneath it he saw her unhappiness, and her understanding of his.

"I'm going back, too," she said. "I came down to see what I can do, but there is nothing for the untrained woman. She's a cumberer of the earth. I'll go home and knit. I daresay I ought to be able to learn to do that well, anyhow."

"Have you forgiven me for this afternoon?"

"I wasn't angry. I understood."

That was it, in a nutshell. Audrey understood. She was that sort. She never held small resentments. He rather thought she never felt them.

"Don't talk about me," she said. "Tell me about you and why you are here. It's the war, of course."

So, rather reluctantly, he told her. He shrank from seeming to want her approval, but at the same time he wanted it. His faith in himself had been shaken. He needed it restored. And some of the exaltation which had led him to make his proffer to the government came back when he saw how she flushed over it.

"It's very big," she said, softly. "It's like you, Clay. And that's the best thing I can say. I am very proud of you."

"I would rather have you proud of me than anything in the world," he said, unsteadily.

They drifted, somehow, to talking of happiness. And always, carefully veiled, it was their own happiness they discussed.

"I don't think," she said, glancing away from him, "that one finds it by looking for it. That is selfish, and the selfish are never happy. It comes - oh, in queer ways. When you're trying to give it to somebody else, mostly."

"There is happiness, of a sort, in work."

Their eyes met. That was what they had to face, she dedicated to service, he to labor.

"It's never found by making other people unhappy, Clay."

"No. And yet, if the other people are already unhappy?"

"Never!" she said. And the answer was to the unspoken question in both their hearts.

It was not until they were in the taxicab that Clayton forced the personal note, and then it came as a cry, out of the very depths of him. She had slipped her hand into his, and the comfort of even that small touch broke down the barriers he had so carefully erected.

"I need you so!" he said. And he held her hand to his face. She made no movement to withdraw it.

"I need you, too," she replied. "I never get over needing you. But we are going to play the game, Clay. We may have our weak hours - and this is one of them - but always, please God, we'll play the game."

The curious humility he felt with her was in his voice.

"I'll need your help, even in that."

And that touch of boyishness almost broke down her reserve of strength. She wanted to draw his head down on her shoulder, and comfort him. She wanted to smooth back his heavy hair, and put her arms around him and hold him. There was a great tenderness in her for him. There were times when she would have given the world to have gone into his arms and let him hold her there, protected and shielded. But that night she was the stronger, and she knew it.

"I love you, Audrey. I love you terribly,"

And that was the word for it. It was terrible. She knew it.

"To have gone through all the world," he said, brokenly, "and then to find the Woman, when it is too late. Forever too late." He turned toward her. "You know it, don't you? That you are my woman?"

"I know it," she answered, steadily. "But I know, too - "

"Let me say it just once. Then never again. I'll bury it, but you will know it is there. You are my woman. I would go through all of life alone to find you at the end. And if I could look forward, dear, to going through the rest of it with you beside me, so I could touch you, like this - "

"I know."

"If I could only protect you, and shield you - oh, how tenderly I could care for you, my dear, my dear!"

The strength passed to him, then. Audrey had a clear picture of what life with him might mean, of his protection, his tenderness. She had never known it. Suddenly every bit of her called out for his care, his quiet strength.

"Don't make me sorry for myself." There were tears in her eyes. "Will you kiss me, Clay? We might have that to remember."

But they were not to have even that, for the taxicab drew up before her hotel. It was one of the absurd anti-climaxes of life that they should part with a hand-clasp and her formal "Thank you for a lovely evening."

Audrey was the better actor of the two. She went in as casually as though she had not put the only happiness of her life away from her. But Clayton Spencer stood on the pavement, watching her in, and all the tragedy of the empty years ahead was in his eyes.