Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Audrey had made a resolution, and with characteristic energy had proceeded to carry it out. She was no longer needed at the recruiting stations. After a month's debate the conscription law was about to be passed, made certain by the frank statement of the British Commission under Balfour as to the urgency of the need of a vast new army in France.
For the first time the Allies laid their cards face up on the table, and America realized to what she was committed. Almost overnight a potential army of hundreds of thousands was changing to one of millions. The situation was desperate. Germany had more men than the Allies, and had vast eastern resources to draw on for still more. To the Allies only the untapped resources of America remained.
In private conference with the President Mr. Balfour had urged haste, and yet more haste.
Audrey, reading her newspapers faithfully, felt with her exaltation a little stirring of regret. Her occupation, such as it was, was gone. For the thin stream of men flowing toward the recruiting stations there was now to be a vast movement of the young manhood of the nation. And she could have no place in it.
Almost immediately she set to work to find herself a new place. At first there seemed to be none. She went to a hospital, and offered her strong body and her two willing hands for training.
"I could learn quickly," she pleaded, "and surely there will not be enough nurses for such an army as we are to have."
"Our regular course is three years."
"But a special course. Surely I may have that. There are so many things one won't need in France."
The head of the training school smiled rather wistfully. They came to her so often now, these intelligent, untrained women, all eagerness to help, to forget and unlive, if they could, their wasted lives.
"You want to go to France, of course?"
"If I can. I?my husband was killed over there."
But she did not intend to make capital of Chris's death. "Of course, that has nothing to do with my going. I simply want to work."
"It's hard work. Not romantic."
"I am not looking for romance."
In the end, however, she had to give it up. In some hospitals they were already training nurses helpers, but they were to relieve trained women for France. She went home to think it over. She had felt that by leaving the country she would solve Clayton's problem and her own. To stay on, seeing him now and then, was torture for them both.
But there was something else. She had begun, that afternoon, to doubt whether she was fitted for nursing after all. The quiet of the hospital, the all-pervading odor of drugs, the subdued voice and quiet eyes of the head of the training school, as of one who had looked on life and found it infinitely sad, depressed her. She had walked home, impatient with herself, disappointed in her own failure. She thought dismally:
"I am of no earthly use. I've played all my life, and now I'm paying for it. I ought to." And she ran over her pitiful accomplishments: "golf, bridge, ride, shoot, swim, sing (a little), dance, tennis, some French - what a sickening list!"
She was glad that day to find Clare Gould waiting for her. As usual, the girl had brought her tribute, this time some early strawberries. Audrey found her in the pantry arranging their leaves in a shallow dish.
"Clare!" she said. "Aren't you working?"
"I've gone on night-turn now."
The girl's admiration salved her wounded pride in herself. Then she saw, on a table, an envelope with her name on it. Clare's eyes followed hers.
"That's the rest of the money, Mrs. Valentine."
She colored, but Audrey only smiled at her.
"Fine!" she said. "Are you sure you can spare it?"
"I couldn't rest until it was all paid up. And I'm getting along fine. I make a lot, really."
"Tell me about the night work."
"We've gone on double turn. I rather like it at night. It's - well, it's like something on the stage. The sparks fly from the lathes, and they look like fireworks. And when they hammer on hot metal it's lovely."
She talked on, incoherent but glowing. She liked her big turret lathe. It gave her a sense of power. She liked to see the rough metal growing smooth and shining like silver under her hands. She was naively pleased that she was doing a man's work, and doing it well.
Audrey leaned back in her chair and listened. All this that Clare was talking about was Clayton's doing. He at least had dreamed true. He was doing a man's part, too, in the war. Even this girl, whose hand Natalie Spencer would not have touched, this girl was dreaming true.
Clare was still talking. The draft would be hard on the plant. They were short-handed now. There was talk of taking in more girls to replace the men who would be called.
"Do you think I could operate a lathe, Clare?"
"You! Why, Mrs. Valentine, it's not work for a lady! Look at my hands."
But Audrey made an impatient gesture.
"I don't care about my hands. The question is, could I do it? I don't seem able to do anything else."
"Why, yes." Clare was reluctant. "I can, and you're a lot cleverer than I am. But it's hard. It's rough, and some of the talk - oh, I hope you don't mean it, Mrs. Valentine."
Audrey, however, was meaning it. It seemed to her, all at once, the way out. Here was work, needed work. Work that she could do. For the first time in months she blessed the golf and riding that had kept her fit.
"Mr. Spencer is a friend of yours. He'll never let you do it."
"He is not to know, Clare," Audrey said briskly. "You are quite right. He would probably be very - mannish about it. So we won't tell him. And now, how shall I go about getting in? Will they teach me, or shall I have to lust learn? And whatever shall I wear?"
Clare explained while, for she was determined not to lose a minute, Audrey changed into her plainest clothes. They would be in time, if they hurried, before the employment department closed. There were women in charge there. They card-indexed you, and then you were investigated by the secret service and if you were all right, well, that was all.
"Mercy! It's enough," said Audrey, impatiently. "Do you mean to say they'll come here?"
She glanced around her rooms, littered with photographs of people well known to the public through the society journals, with its high bright silver vases, its odd gifts of porcelain, its grand piano taking up more than its share of room.
"If they come here," she deliberated, "they won't take me, Clare. They'll be thinking I'm living on German money!"
So, in the end, she did not go to the munition works. She went room-hunting instead, with Clare beside her, very uncomfortable on the street for fear Audrey would be compromised by walking with her. And at six o'clock that evening a young woman with a softly inflected voice and an air of almost humorous enjoyment of something the landlady failed to grasp, was the tenant, for one month's rent in advance, of a room on South Perry Street.
Clare was almost in tears.
"I can't bear to think of your sleeping in that bed, Mrs. Valentine," she protested. "It dips down so."
"I shan't have much time to sleep, anyhow. And when I do so I shall be so tired,! - What wa's the name I gave her, Clare?"
"Thompson. Mary Thompson."
"She surprised me, or I'd have thought of a prettier one." She was absurdly high-spirited, although the next day's ordeal rather worried her when she thought about it. She had, oddly enough, no trepidation abont the work itself. It was passing the detectives in the employment department that worried her. As a matter of fact, however, there was no ordeal. Her card was carried to the desk in the corner, where the two men sat on whose decisions might so easily rest the safety of the entire plant, and they surveyed her carefu1ly. Audrey looked ahead, and waited. They would came over and question her, and the whole fabric she had built would be destroyed. But nothing happened. She was told she would be notified in a day or two if she would be taken on, and with that she was forced to be content.
She had a bad moment, however, for Graham came through the office on his way out, and stopped for a moment directly in front of her. Her heart almost stopped beating, and she dropped her glove and stooped to pick it up. When she sat erect again he was moving on. But even her brief glance had showed her that the boy looked tired and depressed.
She went to her rented room at once, for she must be prepared for inquiries about her. During the interval she arranged for the closing of her apartment and the storing of her furniture. With their going would depart the last reminders of the old life, and she felt a curious sense of relief. They had little happiness to remind her of, and much suffering. The world had changed since she had gathered them together, and she had changed with it. She was older and sadder. But she would not have gone back. Not for anything would she have gone back.
She had one thing to do, however, before she disappeared. She had promised to try to find something for Delight, and she did it with her usual thoroughness and dispatch. She sent for her that last day in the apartment, when in the morning she had found at the Perry Street room a card telling her to report the following night. When Delight came in she found the little apartment rather bare and rather dreary, but Audrey was cheerful, almost gay.
"Going away for a little while," she explained. "I've stored a lot of stuff. And now, my dear, do you really want to work?"
"I just must do something."
"All right. That's settled. I've got the thing I spoke about, in one of the officers' training-camps. But remember, Delight, this is not going to be a romantic adventure. It's to be work."
"I don't want a romantic adventure, Mrs. Valentine."
"Poor little thing," Audrey reflected to herself. And aloud: "Good! Of course I know you're sincere about working. I - I understand, awfully well."
Delight was pleased, but Audrey saw that she was not happy. Even when the details had been arranged she still sat in her straight chair and made no move to go. And Audrey felt that the next move was up to her.
"What's the news about Graham Spencer?" she inquired. "He'll be drafted, I suppose."
"Not if they claim exemption. He's making shells, you know."
She lifted rather heavy eyes to Audrey's.
"His mother is trying that now," she said. "Ever since his engagement was broken?"
"Oh, it was broken, was it?"
"Yes. I don't know why. But it's off. Anyhow Mrs. Spencer is telling everybody he can't be spared."
"And his father?"
"I don't know. He doesn't talk about it, I think."
"Perhaps he wants him to make his own decision."
Delight rose and drew down her veil with hands that Audrey saw were trembling a little.
"How can he make his own decision?" she asked. "He may think it's his own, but it's hers, Mrs. Spencer's. She's always talking, always. And she's plausible. She can make him think black is white, if she wants to."
"Why don't you talk to him?"
"I? He'd think I'd lost my mind! Besides, that isn't it. If you - like a man, you want him to do the right thing because he wants to, not because a girl asks him to."
"I wonder," Audrey said, slowly, "if he's worth it, Delight?"
"Worth what?" She was startled.
"Worth your - worth our worrying about him."
But she did not need Delight's hasty and flushed championship of Graham to tell her what she already knew.
After she had gone, Audrey sat alone in her empty rooms and faced a great temptation. She was taking herself out of Clayton's life. She knew that she would be as lost to him among the thousands of workers in the munition plant as she would have been in Russia. According to Clare, he rarely went into the shops themselves, and never at night.
Of course "out of his life" was a phrase. They would meet again. But not now, not until they had had time to become resigned to what they had already accepted. The war would not last forever. And then she thought of their love, which had been born and had grown, always with war at its background. They had gone along well enough until this winter, and then everything had changed. Chris, Natalie, Clayton, herself - none of them were quite what they had been. Was that one of the gains of war, that sham fell away, and people revealed either the best or the worst in them?
War destroyed, but it also revealed.
The temptation was to hear Clayton's voice again. She went to the telephone, and stood with the instrument in her hands, thinking. Would it comfort him? Or would it only bring her close for a moment, to emphasize her coming silence?
She put it down, and turned away. When, some time later, the taxicab came to take her to Perry Street, she was lying on her bed in the dusk, face-down and arms outstretched, a lonely and pathetic figure, all her courage dead for the moment, dead but for the desire to hear Clayton's voice again before the silence closed down.
She got up and pinned on her hat for the last time, before the mirror of the little inlaid dressing-table. And she smiled rather forlornly at her refiection in the glass.
"Well, I've got the present, anyhow," she considered. "I'm not going either to wallow in the past or peer into the future. I'm going to work."
The prospect cheered her. After all, work was the great solution. It was the great healer, too. That was why men bore their griefs better than women. They could work.
She took a final glance around her stripped and cheerless rooms. How really little things mattered! All her life she had been burdened with things. Now at last she was free of them.
The shabby room on Perry Street called her. Work called, beckoned to her with calloused, useful hands. She closed and locked the door and went quietly down the stairs.