Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Graham left the conference that morning in a rather exalted mood. The old mill was coming into its own at last. He had a sense of boyish triumph in the new developments, a feeling of being a part of big activities that would bring rich rewards. And he felt a new pride in his father. He had sat, a little way from the long table, and had watched the faces of the men gathered about it as clearly and forcibly the outlines of the new departure were given out. Hitherto "Spencer's" had made steel only. Now, they were not only to make the steel, but they were to forge the ingots into rough casts; these casts were then to be carried to the new munition works, there to be machined, drilled, polished, provided with fuses, which "Spencer's" were also to make, and shipped abroad.
The question of speeding production had been faced and met. The various problems had been discussed and the bonus system tentatively taken up. Then the men had dispersed, each infected with the drive of his father's contagious force. "Pretty fine old boy," Graham had considered. And he wondered vaguely if, when his time came, he would be able to take hold. For a few minutes Natalie's closetings lost their effect. He saw his father, not as one from whom to hide extravagance and unpaid bills, but as the head of a great concern that was now to be a part of the war itself. He wandered into his father's office, and picked up the shell. Clayton was already at his letters, but looked up.
"Think we rather had them, eh, Graham?"
"Think you did, sir. Carried them off their feet. Pretty, isn't it?" He held up the shell-case. "If a fellow could only forget what the damned things are for!"
"They are to help to end the war," said Clayton, crisply. "Don't forget that, boy." And went back to his steady dictation.
Graham went out of the building into the mill yard. The noise always irritated him. He had none of Clayton's joy and understanding of it. To Clayton each sound had its corresponding activity. To Graham it was merely din, an annoyance to his ears, as the mill yard outraged his fastidiousness. But that morning he found it rather more bearable. He stooped where, in front of the store, the storekeeper had planted a tiny garden. Some small late-blossoming chrysanthemums were still there and he picked one and put it in his buttonhole.
His own office was across the yard. He dodged in front of a yard locomotive, picked his way about masses of lumber and the general litter of all mill yards, and opened the door of his own building. Just inside his office a girl was sitting on a straight chair, her hat a trifle crooked, and her eyes red from crying. He paused in amazement.
"Why, Miss Klein!" he said. "What's the matter?"
She was rather a pretty girl, even now. She stood up at his voice and made an effort to straighten her hat.
"Haven't you heard?" she asked.
"I haven't heard anything that ought to make Miss Anna Klein weep of a nice, frosty morning in October. Unless - " he sobered, for her grief was evident. "Tell me about it."
"Father has given up his job."
"I'm telling you, Mr. Spencer. He won't help to make those shells. He's been acting queer for three or four days and this morning he told your father."
"As if it made any difference," she went on irritably. "Some one else will get his job. That's all. What does he care about the Germans? He left them and came to America as soon as he could walk."
Graham sat down.
"Now let's get this," he said. "He won't make shells for the Allies and so he's given up his position. All right. That's bad, but he's a good workman. He'll not have any trouble getting another job. Now, why are you crying?"
"I didn't think you'd want me to stay on."
Putting her fear into words brought back her long hours of terror. She collapsed into the chair again and fell to unquiet sobbing. Graham was disturbed.
"You're a queer girl," he said. "Why should that lose me my most valued assistant?"
When she made no reply he got up and going over to her put a hand on her shoulder. "Tell me that," he said.
He looked down at her. The hair grew very soft and blonde at the nape of her neck, and he ran a finger lightly across it. "Tell me that."
"I was afraid it would."
"And, even if it had, which you are a goose for thinking, you're just as good in your line as your father is in his. I've been expecting any time to hear of your leaving me for a handsomer man!"
He had been what he would have termed jollying her back to normality again. But to his intense surprise she suddenly leaned back and looked up into his face. There was no doubting what he saw there. Just for a moment the situation threatened to get out of hand. Then he patted her shoulders and put the safety of his desk between them.
"Run away and bathe your eyes," he said, "and then come back here looking like the best secretary in the state, and not like a winter thaw. We have the deuce of a lot of work to do."
But after she had gone he sat for some little time idly rapping a pencil on the top of his desk. By Jove! Anna Klein! Of all girls in the world! It was rather a pity, too. She was a nice little thing, and in the last few months she had changed a lot. She had been timid at first, and hideously dressed. Lately she had been almost smart. Those ear-rings now - they changed her a lot. Queer - how things went on in a girl's mind, and a fellow didn't know until something happened. He settled his tie and smoothed back his heavy hair.
During the remainder of the day he began to wonder if he had not been a fatuous idiot. Anna did her work with the thoroughness of her German blood plus her American training. She came back minus her hat, and with her eyes carefully powdered, and not once during the morning was he able to meet her eyes fully. By the middle of the afternoon sex vanity and curiosity began to get the better of his judgment, and he made an excuse, when she stood beside him over some papers, her hand on the desk, to lay his fingers over hers. She drew her hand away quickly, and when he glanced up, boyishly smiling, her face was flushed.
"Please," she said. And he felt hurt and rebuffed. He had no sentiment for her whatever, but the devil of mischief of twenty-two was behind him, urging him on to the eternal experiment. He was very formal with her for the rest of the day, and had the satisfaction of leaving her, at four o'clock, white-faced and miserable over her machine in the little office next to his.
He forgot her immediately, in the attempt to leave the mill without encountering his father. Clayton, he knew, would be staying late, and would be exacting similar tribute to the emergency from the entire force. Also, he had been going about the yard with contractors most of the afternoon. But Graham made his escape safely. It was two hours later when his father, getting into the limousine, noticed the absence of the boy's red car, and asked the gateman how long it had been gone.
"Since about four o'clock, Mr. Spencer."
Suddenly Clayton felt a reaction from the activities of the day. He sank back in the deeply padded seat, and felt tired and - in some odd fashion - lonely. He would have liked to talk to Graham on the way up-town, if only to crystallize his own thoughts. He would have liked to be going home to review with Natalie the day's events, the fine spirit of his men, the small difficulties. But Natalie hated the mention of the mill.
He thought it probable, too, that they were dining out. Yes, he remembered. They were dining at the Chris Valentines. Well, that was better than it might have been. They were not dull, anyhow. His mind wandered to the Valentine house, small, not too well-ordered, frequently noisy, but always gay and extremely smart.
He thought of Audrey, and her curious friendship with Natalie. Audrey the careless, with her dark lazy charm, her deep and rather husky contralto, her astonishing little French songs, which she sang with nonchalant grace, and her crowds of boyish admirers whom she alternately petted and bullied - surely she and Natalie had little enough in common.
Yet, in the last year or so, he had been continually coming across them together - at the club, at luncheon in the women's dining room, at his own house, Natalie always perfectly and expensively dressed, Audrey in the casual garments which somehow her wearing made effective.
He smiled a little. Certain of Audrey's impertinences came to his mind. She was an amusing young woman. He had an idea that she was always in debt, and that the fact concerned her very little. He fancied that few things concerned her very deeply, including Chris. But she knew about food. Her dinners were as casual as her house, as to service, but they were worth eating. She claimed to pay for them out of her bridge winnings, and, indeed, her invitation for to-night had been frankness itself.
"I'm going to have a party, Clay," she had said. "I've made two killings at bridge, and somebody has shipped Chris some ducks. If you'll send me some cigarets like the last, I'll make it Tuesday."
He had sent the cigarets, and this was Tuesday.
The pleasant rolling of the car soothed him. The street flashed by, brilliant with lights that in far perspective seemed to meet. The shop windows gleamed with color. From curb to curb were other cars like the one in which he rode, carrying home other men like himself to whatever the evening held in store. He remembered London at this hour, already dark and quiet, its few motors making their cautious way in the dusk, its throngs of clerks, nearly all women now, hurrying home to whatever dread the night might hold. And it made him slightly more complacent. These things that he had taken for granted before had since his return assumed the quality of luxury.
"Pray God we won't get into it," he said to himself.
He reviewed his unrest of the night before, and smiled at it. Happiness. Happiness came from a sense of achievement. Integrity and power, that was the combination. The respect of one's fellow men, the day's work well done. Romance was done, at his age, but there remained the adventure of success. A few years more, and he would leave the mill to Graham and play awhile. After that - he had always liked politics. They needed business men in politics. If men of training and leisure would only go in for it there would be some chance of cleaning up the situation. Yes, he might do that. He was an easy speaker, and -
The car drew up at the curb and the chauffeur got out. Natalie's car had drawn up just ahead, and the footman was already opening the door. Rodney Page got out, and assisted Natalie to alight. Clayton smiled. So she had changed her mind. He saw Rodney bend over her hand and kiss it after his usual ceremonious manner. Natalie seemed a trifle breathless when she turned and saw him.
"You're early, aren't you?" she said.
"I fancy it is you who are late."
Then he realized that the chauffeur was waiting to speak to him.
"I'm sorry, sir. I guess I'll be leaving at the end of my month, Mr. Spencer."
"Come into the library and I'll talk to you. What's wrong?"
"There's nothing wrong, sir. I have been very well suited. It's only - I used to be in the regular army, sir, and I guess I'm going to be needed again."
"You mean-we are going to be involved?"
"Yes, sir. I think we are."
"There's no answer to that, Jackson," he said. But a sense of irritation stirred him as he went up the steps to the house door. Jackson was a good man. Jackson and Klein, and who knew who would be next?
"Oh, damn the war," he reflected rather wearily.