Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Audrey had found something to do at last. It was Captain Sloane who had given her the idea.
"You would make a great hit, Audrey," he had said. "It's your voice, you know. There's something about it - well, you know the effect it always has on me. No? All right, I'll be good."
But she had carried the idea home with her, and had proceeded, with her customary decision, to act on it.
Then, one day in May, she was surprised by a visit from Delight Haverford. She had come home, tired and rather depressed, to find the Haverford car at the door, and Delight waiting for her in her sitting-room.
Audrey's acquaintance with Delight had been rather fragmentary, but it had covered a long stretch of time. So, if she was surprised, it was not greatly when Delight suddenly kissed her. She saw then that the girl had brought her some spring flowers, and the little tribute touched her.
"What a nice child you are!" she said, and standing before the mirror proceeded to take off her hat. Before her she could see the reflection of Delight's face, and her own tired, slightly haggard eyes.
"And how unutterably old you make me look!" she added, smiling.
"You are too lovely for words, Mrs. Valentine."
Audrey patted her hair into order, and continued her smiling inspection of the girl's face.
"And now we have exchanged compliments," she said, "we will have some tea, and then you shall tell me what you are so excited about."
"I am excited; I - "
"Let's have the tea first."
Audrey's housekeeping was still rather casual. Tidiness of Natalie's meticulous order would always be beyond her, but after certain frantic searches for what was needed, she made some delicious tea.
"Order was left out of me, somehow," she complained. "Or else things move about when I'm away. I'm sure it is that, because I certainly never put the sugar behind my best hat. Now - let's have it."
Delight was only playing with her tea. She flushed delicately, and put the cup down.
"I was in the crowd this morning," she said.
"In the crowd? Oh, my crowd!"
"I see," said Audrey, thoughtfully. "I make a dreadful speech, you know."
"I thought you were wonderful. And, when those men promised to enlist, I cried. I was horribly ashamed. But you were splendid."
"I wonder!" said Audrey, growing grave. Delight was astonished to see that there were tears in her eyes. "I do it because it is all I can do, and of course they must go. But some times at night - you see, my dear, some of them are going to be killed. I am urging them to go, but the better the day I have had, the less I sleep at night."
There was a little pause. Delight was thinking desperately of something to say.
"But you didn't come to talk about me, did you?"
"Partly. And partly about myself. I want to do something, Mrs. Valentine. I can drive a car, but not very well. I don't know a thing about the engine. And I can nurse a little. I like nursing."
Audrey studied her face. It seemed to her sad beyond words that this young girl, who should have had only happiness, was facing the horrors of what would probably be a long war. It was the young who paid the price of war, in death, in empty years. Already the careless gayety of their lives was gone. For the dream futures they had planned they had now to substitute long waiting; for happiness, service.
"The Red Cross is going to send canteen workers to France. You might do that."
"If I only could! But I can't leave mother. Not entirely. Father is going. He wants to go and fight, but I'm afraid they won't take him. He'll go as a chaplain, anyhow. But he's perfectly helpless, you know. Mother says she is going to tie his overshoes around his neck."
"I'll see if I can think of something for you, Delight. There's one thing in my mind. There are to be little houses built in all the new training-camps for officers, and they are to be managed by women. They are to serve food - sandwiches and coffee, I think. They may be even more pretentious. I don't know, but I'll find out."
"I'll do anything," said Delight, and got up. It was then that Audrey realized that there was something more to the visit than had appeared, for Delight, ready to go, hesitated.
"There is something else, Mrs. Valentine," she said, rather slowly. "What would you do if a young man wanted to go into the service, and somebody held him back?"
"His own people?"
"His mother. And - a girl."
"I would think the army is well off without him."
Delight flushed painfully.
"Perhaps," she admitted. "But is it right just to let it go at that? If you like people, it seems wrong just to stand by and let others ruin their lives for them."
"Only very weak men let women ruin their lives."
But already she began to understand the situation.
"There's a weakness that is only a sort of habit. It may come from not wanting to hurt somebody." Delight was pulling nervously at her gloves. "And there is this to be said, too. If there is what you call weakness, wouldn't the army be good for it? It makes men, some times, doesn't it?"
For a sickening moment, Audrey thought of Chris. War had made Chris, but it had killed him, too.
"Have you thought of one thing?" she asked. "That in trying to make this young man, whoever it is, he may be hurt, or even worse?"
"He would have to take his chance, like the rest."
She went a little pale, however. Audrey impulsively put an arm around her.
"And this - woman is the little long-legged girl who used to give signals to her father when the sermon was too long! Now - what can I do about this youth who can't make up his own mind?"
"You can talk to his mother."
"If I know his mothe - ?and I think I do - it won't do the slightest good."
"Then his father. You are great friends, aren't you?"
Even this indirect mention of Clayton made Audrey's hands tremble. She put them behind her.
"We are very good friends," she said. But Delight was too engrossed to notice the deeper note in her voice. "I'll see what I can do. But don't count on me too much. You spoke of a girl. I suppose I know who it is."
"Probably. It is Marion Hayden. He is engaged to her."
And again Audrey marveled at her poise, for Delight's little tragedy was clear by that time. Clear, and very sad.
"I can't imagine his really being in love with her."
"But he must be. They are engaged."
Audrey smiled at the simple philosophy of nineteen, smiled and was extremely touched. How brave the child was! Audrey's own courageous heart rather swelled in admiration.
But after Delight had gone, she felt depressed again, and very tired. How badly these things were handled! How strange it was that love so often brought suffering! Great loves were almost always great tragedies. Perhaps it was because love was never truly great until the element of sacrifice entered into it.
Her own high courage failed her somewhat. During these recent days when, struggling against very real stage fright, she made her husky, wholly earnest but rather nervous little appeals to the crowds before the enlisting stations, she got along bravely enough during the day. But the night found her sad, unutterably depressed.
At these times she was haunted by a fear that persisted against all her arguments. In Washington Clayton had not looked well. He had been very tired and white, and some of his natural buoyancy seemed to have deserted him. He needed caring for, she would reflect bitterly. There should be some one to look after him. He was tired and anxious, but it took the eyes of love to see it. Natalie would never notice, and would consider it a grievance if she did. The fiercely, maternal tenderness of the childless woman for the man she loves kept her awake at night staring into the darkness and visualizing terrible things. Clayton ill, and she unable to go to him. Ill, and wanting her, and unable to ask for her.
She was, she knew, not quite normal, but the fear gripped and held her. These big strong men, no one ever looked after them. They spent their lives caring for others, and were never cared for.
There were times when a sort of exaltation of sacrifice kept her head high, when the thing she was forced to give up seemed trifling compared with the men and boys who, some determinedly, some sheepishly, left the crowd around the borrowed car from which she spoke, and went into the recruiting station. There was sacrifice and sacrifice, and there was some comfort in the thought that both she and Clayton were putting the happiness of others above their own.
They had both, somehow, somewhere, missed the path. But they must never go back and try to find it.
Delight's visit left her thoughtful. There must be some way to save Graham. She wondered how much of Clayton's weariness was due to Graham. And she wondered, too, if he knew of the talk about Natalie and Rodney Page. There was a great deal of talk. Somehow such talk cheapened his sacrifice and hers.
Not that she believed it, or much of it. She knew how little such gossip actually meant. Practically every woman she knew, herself included, had at one time or another laid herself open to such invidious comment. They had all been idle, and they sought amusement in such spurious affairs as this, harmless in the main, but taking on the appearance of evil. That was part of the game, to appear worse than one really was. The older the woman, the more eager she was often in her clutch at the vanishing romance of youth.
Only - it was part of the game, too, to avoid scandal. A fierce pride for Clayton's name sent the color to her face.
On the evening after Delight's visit, she had promised to speak at a recruiting station far down-town in a crowded tenement district, and tired as she was, she took a bus and went down at seven o'clock. She was uneasy and nervous. She had not spoken in the evening before, and in all her sheltered life she had never seen the milling of a night crowd in a slum district.
There was a wagon drawn up at the curb, and an earnest-eyed young clergyman was speaking. The crowd was attentive, mildly curious. The clergyman was emphatic without being convincing. Audrey watched the faces about her, standing in the crowd herself, and a sense of the futility of it all gripped her. All these men, and only a feeble cheer as a boy still in his teens agreed to volunteer. All this effort for such scant result, and over on the other side such dire need! But one thing cheered her. Beside her, in the crowd, a portly elderly Jew was standing with his hat in his hand, and when a man near him made some jeering comment, the Jew brought his hand down on his shoulder.
"Be still and listen," he said. "Or else go away and allow others to listen. This is our country which calls."
"It's amusing, isn't it?" Audrey heard a woman's voice near her, carefully inflected, slightly affected.
"It's rather stunning, in a way. It's decorative; the white faces, and that chap in the wagon, and the gasoline torch."
"I'd enjoy it more if I'd had my dinner."
The man laughed.
"You are a most brazen combination of the mundane and the spiritual, Natalie. You are all soul - after you are fed. Come on. It's near here."
Audrey's hands were very cold. By the movement of the crowd behind her, she knew that Natalie and Rodney were making their escape, toward food and a quiet talk in some obscure restaurant in the neighborhood. Fierce anger shook her. For this she and Clayton were giving up the only hope they had of happiness - that Natalie might carry on a cheap and stealthy flirtation.
She made a magnificent appeal that night, and a very successful one. The lethargic crowd waked up and pressed forward. There were occasional cheers, and now and then the greater tribute of convinced silence. And on a box in the wagon the young clergyman eyed her almost wistfully. What a woman she was! With such a woman a man could live up to the best in him. Then he remembered his salary in a mission church of twelve hundred a year, and sighed.
He gained courage, later on, and asked Audrey if she would have some coffee with him, or something to eat. She looked tired.
"Tired!" said Audrey. "I am only tired these days when I am not working."
"You must not use yourself up. You are too valuable to the country."
She was very grateful. After all, what else really mattered? In a little glow she accepted his invitation.
"Only coffee," she said. "I have had dinner. Is there any place near?"
He piloted her through the crowd, now rapidly dispersing. Here and there some man, often in halting English, thanked her for what she had said. A woman, slightly the worse for drink, but with friendly, rather humorous eyes, put a hand on her arm.
"You're all right, m'dear," she said. "Your're the stuff. Give it to them. I wish to God I could talk. I'd tell 'em something."
The clergyman drew her on hastily.
In a small Italian restaurant, almost deserted, they found a table, and the clergyman ordered eggs and coffee. He was a trifle uneasy. In the wagon Audrey's plain dark clothes had deceived him. But the single pearl on her finger was very valuable. He fell to apologizing for the place.
"I often come here," he explained. "The food is good, if you like Italian cooking. And it is near my work. I - "
But Audrey was not listening. At a corner, far back, Natalie and Rodney were sitting, engrossed in each other. Natalie's back was carefully turned to the room, but there was no mistaking her. Audrey wanted madly to get away, but the coffee had come and the young clergyman was talking gentle platitudes in a rather sweet but monotonous voice. Then Rodney saw her, and bowed.
Almost immediately afterward she heard the soft rustle that was Natalie, and found them both beside her.
"Can we run you up-town?" Natalie asked. "That is, unless - "
She glanced at the clergyman.
"Thank you, no, Natalie. I'm going to have some supper first."
Natalie was uneasy. Audrey made no move to present the clergyman, whose name she did not know. Rodney was looking slightly bored.
"Odd little place, isn't it?" Natalie offered after a second's silence.
"Rather quaint, I think."
Natalie made a desperate effort to smooth over an awkward situation. She turned to the clergyman.
"We heard you speaking. It was quite thrilling."
He smiled a little.
"Not so thrilling as this lady. She carried the crowd, absolutely."
Natalie turned and stared at Audrey, who was flushed with annoyance.
"You!" she said. "Do you mean to say you have been talking from that wagon?"
"I haven't said it. But I have."
"For heaven's sake!" Then she laughed and glanced at Rodney. "Well, if you won't tell on me, I'll not tell on you." And then seeing Audrey straighten, "I don't mean that, of course. Clay's at a meeting to-night, so I am having a holiday."
She moved on, always with the soft rustle, leaving behind her a delicate whiff of violets and a wide-eyed clergyman, who stared after her admiringly.
"What a beautiful woman!" he said. There was a faint regret in his voice that Audrey had not presented him, and he did not see that her coffee-cup trembled as she lifted it to her lips.
At ten o'clock the next morning Natalie called her on the 'phone. Natalie's morning voice was always languid, but there was a trace of pleading in it now.
"It's a lovely day," she said. "What are you doing?"
"I've been darning."
"I rather like it."
"Heavens, how you've changed! I suppose you wouldn't do anything so frivolous as to go out with me to the new house."
Audrey hesitated. Evidently Natalie wanted to talk, to try to justify herself. But the feeling that she was the last woman in the world to be Natalie's father-confessor was strong in her. On the other hand, there was the question of Graham. On that, before long, she and Natalie would have, in one of her own occasional lapses into slang, to go to the mat.
"I'll come, of course, if that's an invitation."
"I'll be around in an hour, then."
Natalie was unusually prompt. She was nervous and excited, and was even more carefully dressed than usual. Over her dark blue velvet dress she wore a loose motor-coat, with a great chinchilla collar, but above it Audrey, who would have given a great deal to be able to hate her, found her rather pathetic, a little droop to her mouth, dark circles which no veil could hide under her eyes.
The car was in its customary resplendent condition. There were orchids in the flower-holder, and the footman, light rug over his arm, stood rigidly waiting at the door.
"What a tone you and your outfit do give my little street," Audrey said, as they started. "We have more milk-wagons than limousines, you know."
"I don't see how you can bear it."
Audrey smiled. "It's really rather nice," she said. "For one thing, I haven't any bills. I never lived on a cash basis before. It's a sort of emancipation."
"Oh, bills!" said Natalie, and waved her hands despairingly. "If you could see my desk! And the way I watch the mail so Clay won't see them first. They really ought to send bills in blank envelopes."
"But you have to give them to him eventually, don't you?"
"I can choose my moment. And it is never in the morning. He's rather awful in the morning."
"Oh, not ugly. Just quiet. I hate a man who doesn't talk in the mornings. But then, for months, he hasn't really talked at all. That's why - ?she was rather breathless - "that's why I went out with Rodney last night."
"I don't think Clayton would mind, if you told him first. It's your own affair, of course, but it doesn't seem quite fair to him."
"Oh, of course you'd side with him. Women always side with the husband."
"I don't 'side' with any one," Audrey protested. "But I am sure, if he realized that you are lonely - "
Suddenly she realized that Natalie was crying. Not much, but enough to force her, to dab her eyes carefully through her veil.
"I'm awfully unhappy, Audrey," she said. "Everything's wrong, and I don't know why. What have I done? I try and try and things just get worse."
Audrey was very uncomfortable. She had a guilty feeling that the whole situation, with Natalie pouring out her woes beside her, was indelicate, unbearable.
"But if Clay - " she began.
"Clay! He's absolutely ungrateful. He takes me for granted, and the house for granted. Everything. And if he knows I want a thing, he disapproves at once. I think sometimes he takes a vicious pleasure in thwarting me."
But as she did not go on, Audrey said nothing. Natalie had raised her veil, and from a gold vanity-case was repairing the damages around her eyes.
"Why don't you find something to do, something to interest you?" Audrey suggested finally.
But Natalie poured out a list of duties that lasted for the last three miles of the trip, ending with the new house.
"Even that has ceased to be a satisfaction," she finished. "Clayton wants to stop work on it, and cut down all the estimates. It's too awful. First he told me to get anything I liked, and now he says to cut down to nothing. I could just shriek about it."
"Perhaps that's because we are in the war, now."
"War or no war, we have to live, don't we? And he thinks I ought to do without the extra man for the car, and the second man in the house, and heaven alone knows what. I'm at the end of my patience."
Audrey made a resolution. After all, what mattered was that things should be more tolerable for Clayton. She turned to Natalie.
"Why don't you try to do what he wants, Natalie? He must have a reason for asking you. And it would please him a lot."
"If I start making concession, I can just keep it up. He's like that."
"He's so awfully fine, Natalie. He's - well, he's rather big. And sometimes I think, if you just tried, he wouldn't be so hard to please. He probably wants peace and happiness?"
"Happiness!" Natalie's voice was high. "That sounds like Clay. Happiness! Don't you suppose I want to be happy?"
"Not enough to work for it," said Audrey, evenly.
Natalie turned and stared at her.
"I believe you're half in love with Clay yourself!"
"Perhaps I am."
But she smiled frankly into Natalie's eyes.
"I know if I were married to him, I'd try to do what he wanted."
"You'd try it for a year. Then you'd give it up. It's one thing to admire a man. It's quite different being married to him, and having to put up with all sorts of things?"
Her voice trailed off before the dark vision of her domestic, unhappiness. And again, as with Graham and his father, it was what she did not say that counted. Audrey came close to hating her just then.
So far the conversation had not touched on Graham, and now they were turning in the new drive. Already the lawns Were showing green, and extensive plantings of shrubbery were putting out their pale new buds. Audrey, bending forward in the car, found it very lovely, and because it belonged to Clay, was to be his home, it thrilled her, just as the towering furnaces of his mill thrilled her, the lines of men leaving at nightfall. It was his, therefore it was significant.
The house amazed her. Even Natalie's enthusiasm had not promised anything so stately or so vast. Moving behind her through great empty rooms, to the sound of incessant hammering, over which Natalie's voice was raised shrilly, she was forced to confess that, between them, Natalie and Rodney had made a lovely thing. She felt no jealousy when she contrasted it with her own small apartment. She even felt that it was the sort of house Clayton should have.
For, although it had been designed as a setting for Natalie, although every color-scheme, almost every chair, had been bought with a view to forming a background for her, it was too big, too massive. It dwarfed her. Out-of-doors, Audrey lost that feeling. In the formal garden Natalie was charmingly framed. It was like her, beautifully exact, carefully planned, already with its spring borders faintly glowing.
Natalie cheered in her approval.
"You're so comforting," she said. "Clay thinks it isn't homelike. He says it's a show place - which it ought to be. It cost enough - and he hates show places. He really ought to have a cottage. Now let's see the swimming-pool."
But at the pool she lost her gayety. The cement basin, still empty, gleamed white in the sun, and Natalie, suddenly brooding, stood beside it staring absently into it.
"It was for Graham," she said at last. "We were going to have week-end parties, and all sorts of young people. But now!"
"What about now?"
Natalie raised tragic eyes to hers.
"He's probably going into the army. He'd have never thought of it, but Clayton shows in every possible way that he thinks he ought to go. What is the boy to do? His father driving him to what may be his death!"
"I don't think he'd do that, Natalie."
Natalie laughed, her little mirthless laugh. "Much you know what his father would do! I'll tell you this, Audrey. If Graham goes, and anything - happens to him, I'll never forgive Clay. Never."
Audrey had not suspected such depths of feeling as Natalie's eyes showed under their penciled brows. They were desperate, vindictive eyes. Suddenly Natalie was pleading with her.
"You'll talk to Clay, won't you? He'll listen to you. He has a lot of respect for your opinion. I want you to go to him, Audrey. I brought you here to ask you. I'm almost out of my mind. Why do you suppose I play around with Rodney? I've got to forget, that's all. And I've tried everything I know, and failed. He'll go, and I'll lose him, and if I do it will kill me."
"It doesn't follow that because he goes he won't come back."
"He'll be in danger. I shall be worrying about him every moment." She threw out her hands in what was as unrestrained a gesture as she ever made. "Look at me!" she cried. "I'm getting old under it. I have lines about my eyes already. I hate to look at myself in the morning. And I'm not old. I ought to be at my best now."
Natalie's anxiety was for Graham, but her pity was for herself. Audrey's heart hardened.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can't go to Clay. I feel as I think he does. If Graham wants to go, he should be free to do it. You're only hurting him, and your influence on him, by holding him back."
"You've never had a child."
"If I had, and he wanted to go, I should be terrifled, but I should be proud."
"You and Clay! You even talk alike. It's all a pose, this exalted attitude. Even this war is a pose. It's a national attitude we've struck, a great nation going to rescue humanity, while the rest of the world looks on and applauds! It makes me ill."
She turned and went back to the house, leaving Audrey by the swimming-pool. She sat on the edge of one of the stone benches, feeling utterly dreary and sad. To make a sacrifice for a worthy object was one thing. To throw away a life's happiness for a spoiled, petulant woman was another. It was too high a price to pay. Mingled with her depression was pity for Clayton; for all the years that he had lived with this woman: and pride in him, that he had never betrayed his disillusion.
After a time she saw the car waiting, and she went slowly back to the house. Natalie was already inside, and she made no apologies whatever. The drive back was difficult. Natalie openly sulked, replied in monosyllables, made no effort herself until they were in the city again. Then she said, "I'm sorry I asked you to speak to Clay. Of course you needn't do it."
"Not if it is to do what you said. But I wish you wouldn't misunderstand me, Natalie. I'm awfully sorry. We just think differently."
"We certainly do," said Natalie briefly. And that was her good-by.