Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
It was not until dawn that the full extent of the disaster was revealed. All night, by the flames from the sheds in the yard, which were of wood and still burning, rescue parties had worked frantically. Two of the long buildings, nearest to the fuse department, had collapsed entirely. Above the piles of fallen masonry might be seen, here and there, the black mass of some machine or lathe, and it was there the search parties were laboring. Luckily the fuse department had not gone double turn, and the night shift in the machine-shop was not a full one.
The fuse department was a roaring furnace, and repeated calls had brought in most of the fire companies of the city. Running back and forth in the light of the flames were the firemen and such volunteer rescuers as had been allowed through the police cordon. Outside that line of ropes and men were gathered a tragic crowd, begging, imploring to be allowed through to search for some beloved body. Now and then a fresh explosion made the mob recoil, only to press close again, importuning, tragic, hopeless.
The casualty list ran high. All night long ambulances stood in a row along the street, backed up to the curb and waiting, and ever so often a silent group, in broken step, carried out some quiet covered thing that would never move again.
With the dawn Graham found his father. He had thrown off his coat and in his shirt-sleeves was, with other rescuers, digging in the ruins. Graham himself had been working. He was nauseated, weary, and unutterably wretched, for he had seen the night superintendent and had heard of his father's message.
"Klein!" he said. "You don't mean Herman Klein?"
"That was what he said. I was to find him and hold him until he got here. But I couldn't find him. He may have got out. There's no way of telling now."
Waves of fresh nausea swept over Graham. He sat down on a pile of bricks and wiped his forehead, clammy with sweat.
"I hope to God he was burned alive," muttered the other man, surveying the scene. His eyes were reddened with smoke from the fire, his clothing torn.
"I was knocked down myself," he said. "I was out in the yard looking for Klein, and I guess I lay there quite a while. If I hadn't gone out?" He shrugged his shoulders.
"How many women were on the night shift?"
"Not a lot. Twenty, perhaps. If I had my way I'd take every German in the country and boil 'em in oil. I didn't want Klein back, but he was a good workman. Well, he's done a good job now."
It was after that that Graham saw his father, a strange, wild-eyed Clayton who drove his pick with a sort of mad strength, and at the same time gave orders in an unfamiliar voice. Graham, himself a disordered figure, watched him for a moment. He was divided between fear and resolution. Some place in that debacle there lay his own responsibility. He was still bewildered, but the fact that Anna's father had done the thing was ominous.
The urge to confession was stronger than his fears. Somehow, during the night, he had become a man. But now he only felt, that somehow, during the night, he had become a murderer.
Clayton looked up, and he moved toward him."
"I've had some coffee made at a house down the street. Won't you come and have it?"
Clayton straightened. He was very tired, and the yard was full of volunteers now, each provided at the gate with a pick or shovel. A look at the boy's face decided him.
"I'll come," he said, and turned his pick over to a man beside him. He joined Graham, and for a moment he looked into the boy's eyes. Then he put a hand on his shoulder, and together they walked out, past the line of ambulances, into a street where the scattered houses showed not a single unshattered window, and the pavements were littered with glass.
His father's touch comforted the boy, but it made even harder the thing he had to do. For he could not go through life with this thing on his soul. There had been a moment, after he learned of Herman's implication, when he felt the best thing would be to kill himself, but he had put that aside. It was too easy. If Herman Klein had done this thing because of Anna and himself, then he was a murderer. If he had done it because he was a German, then he - Graham - had no right to die. He would live to make as many Germans as possible pay for this night's work.
"I've got something to tell you, father," he said, as they paused before the house where the coffee was ready. Clayton nodded, and together they went inside. Even this house was partially destroyed. A piece of masonry had gone through the kitchen, and standing on fallen bricks and plaster, a cheerful old woman was cooking over a stove which had somehow escaped destruction.
"It's bad," she said to Graham, as she poured the coffee into cups, "but it might have been worse, Mr. Spencer. We're all alive. And I guess I'll understand what my boy's writing home about now. They've sure brought the war here this night."
Graham carried the coffee into the little parlor, where Clayton sat dropped on a low chair, his hands between his knees. He was a strange, disheveled figure, gray of face and weary, and the hand he held out for the cup was blistered and blackened. Graham did not touch his coffee. He put it on the mantel, and stood waiting while Clayton finished his.
"Shall I tell you now, sir?"
Clayton drew a long breath.
"It was Herman Klein who did it?"
"Probably. I had a warning last night, but it was too late. I should have known, of course, but somehow I didn't. He'd been with us a long time. I'd have sworn he was loyal."
For the first time in his life Graham saw his father weaken, the pitiful, ashamed weakness of a strong man. His voice broke, his face twitched. The boy drew himself up; they couldn't both go to pieces. He could not know that Clayton had worked all that night in that hell with the conviction that in some way his own son was responsible; that he knew already what Graham was about to tell him.
"If Herman Klein did it, father, it was because he was the tool of a gang. And the reason he was a tool was because he thought I was - living with Anna. I wasn't. I don't know why I wasn't. There was every chance. I suppose I meant to some time. Anyhow, he thought I was."
If he had expected any outbreak from Clayton, he met none. Clayton sat looking ahead, and listening. Inside of the broken windows the curtains were stirring in the fresh breeze of early morning, and in the kitchen the old woman was piling the fallen bricks noisily.
"I had been flirting with her a little - it wasn't much more than that, and I gave her a watch at Christmas. He found it out, and he beat her. Awfully. She ran away and sent for me, and I met her. She had to hide for days. Her face was all bruised. Then she got sick from it. She was sick for weeks."
"Did he know where she was?"
"I think not, or he'd have gone to get her. But Rudolph Klein knew something. I took her out to dinner, to a roadhouse, a few days ago, and she said she saw him there. I didn't. All that time, weeks, I'd never - I'd never gone to her room. That night I did. I don't know why. I - "
"Well, I went, but I didn't stay. I couldn't. I guess she thought I was crazy. I went away, that's all. And the next day I felt that she might be feeling as though I'd turned her down or something. And I felt responsible. Maybe you won't understand. I don't quite myself. Anyhow, I went back, to let her know I wasn't quite a brute, even if - But she was gone. I'm not trying to excuse myself. It's a rotten story, for I was engaged to Marion then."
Suddenly he sat down beside Clayton and buried his face in his hands. For some reason or other Clayton found himself back in the hospital, that night when Joey lay still and quiet, and Graham was sobbing like a child, prostrate on the white covering of the bed. With the incredible rapidity of thought in a mental crisis, he saw the last months, the boy's desire to go to France thwarted, his attempt to interest himself in the business, the tool Marion Hayden had made of him, Anna's doglike devotion, all leading inevitably to catastrophe. And through it all he saw Natalie, holding Graham back from war, providing him with extra money, excusing him, using his confidences for her own ends, insidiously sapping the boy's confidence in his father and himself.
"We'll have to stand up to this together, Graham."
The boy looked up.
"Then - you're not going to throw me over altogether - "
"But - all this - !"
"If Herman Klein had not done it, there were others who would, probably. It looks as though you had provided them with a tool, but I suppose we were vulnerable in a dozen ways."
He rose, and they stood, eyes level, father and son, in the early morning sunlight. And suddenly Graham's arms were around his shoulders, and something tight around Clayton's heart relaxed. Once again, and now for good, he had found his boy, the little boy who had not so long ago stood on a chair for this very embrace. Only now the boy was a man.
"I'm going to France, father," he said. "I'm going to pay them back for this. And out of every two shots I fire one will be for you."
Perhaps he had found his boy only to lose him, but that would have to be as God willed.
At ten o'clock he went up to the house, to change his wet and draggled clothing. The ruins were being guarded by soldiers, and the work of rescue was still going on, more slowly now, since there was little or no hope of finding any still living thing in that flame-swept wreckage. He found Natalie in bed, with Madeleine in attendance, and he learned that her physician had just gone.
He felt that he could not talk to her just then. She had a morbid interest in horrors, and with the sights of that night fresh in his mind he could not discuss them. He stopped, however, in her doorway.
"I'm glad you are resting," he said, "Better stay in bed to-day. It's been a shock."
"Resting! I've been frightfully ill."
"I'm sorry, my dear. I'll come in again on my way out."
He turned in the doorway. "Is it all gone? Everything?" "Practically. Yes."
"But you were insured?"
"I'll tell you about that later. I haven't given it much thought yet. I don't know just how we stand."
"I shall never let Graham go back to it again. I warn you. I've been lying here for hours, thinking that it might have happened as easily as not while he was there."
He hardly listened. He had just remembered Anna.
"I left a girl here last night, Natalie," he said. "Do you happen to know what became of her?"
Natalie stirred on her pillows.
"I should think I do. She fainted, or pretended to faint. The servants looked after her."
"Has she gone?"
"I hope so. It is almost noon. Oh, by the way," she called, as he moved off, "there is a message for you. A woman named Gould, from the Central Hospital. She wants to see you at once. They ave kept the telephone ringing all the morning."
Clare Gould! That was odd. He had seen her taken out, a bruised and moaning creature, her masses of fair hair over her shoulders, her eyes shut. The surgeons had said she was not badly hurt. She might be worse than they thought. The mention of her name brought Audrey before him. He hoped, wherever she was, she would know that he was all right.
As soon as he had changed he called the hospital. The message came back promptly and clearly.
"We have a woman named Gould here. She is not badly hurt, but she is hysterical. She wants to see you, but if you can't come at once I am to give you a message. Wait a moment. She has written it, but it's hardly legible."
"It's about somebody you know, who had gone on night turn recently at your plant. I can't read the name. It looks like Ballantine."
"It isn't Valentine, is it?"
"Perhaps it is. It's just a scrawl. But the first name is clear enough - Audrey."
Afterward he did not remember hanging up the receiver, or getting out of the house. He seemed to come to himself somewhat at the hospital, and at the door to Clare's ward his brain suddenly cleared. He did not need Clare's story. It seemed that he knew it all, had known it long ages before. Her very words sounded like infinite repetitions of something he had heard, over and over.
"She was right beside me, and I was showing her about the lathe. They'd told me I could teach her. She was picking it up fast, too. And she liked it. She liked it - "
The fact that Audrey had liked it broke down his scanty reserve of restraint. Clayton found himself looking down at her from a great distance. She was very remote. Clare pulled herself together.
"When the first explosion came it didn't touch us. But I guess she knew it meant more. She said something about the telephone and getting help and there'd be more, and she started to run. I just stood there, watching her run, and waiting. And then the second one came, and - "
Suddenly Clare seemed to disappear altogether. He felt something catch his arm, and the nurse's voice, very calm and quiet:
"Sit down. I'll get you something."
Then he was swallowing a fluid that burned his throat, and Clare was crying with the sheet drawn to her mouth, and somewhere Audrey -
He got up, and the nurse followed him out.
"You might look for the person here," she suggested. "We have had several brought in."
He was still dazed, but he followed her docilely. Audrey was not there. He seemed to have known that, too. That there would be a long search, and hours of agony, and at the end - the one thing he did not know was what was to be at the end.
All that afternoon he searched, going from hospital to hospital. And at each one, as he stopped, that curious feeling of inner knowledge told him she was not there. But the same instinct told him she was not dead. He would have known it if she was dead. There was no reasoning in it. He could not reason. But he knew, somehow.
Then, late in the afternoon, he found her. He knew that he had found her. It was as though, at the entrance of the hospital, some sixth sense had told him this was right at last. He was quite steady, all at once. She was here, waiting for him to come. And now he had come, and it would be all right.
Yet, for a time, it seemed all wrong. She was not conscious, had not roused since she was brought it. There were white screens around her bed, and behind them she lay alone. They had braided her hair in two long dark braids, and there was a bandage on one of her arms. She looked very young and very tired, but quite peaceful.
His arrival bad caused a small stir of excitement, his own prominence, the disaster with which the country was ringing. But for a few minutes, before the doctors arrived, he was alone with her behind the screen. It was like being alone with his dead. Bent over her, his face pressed to one of her quiet hands, he whispered to her all the little tendernesses, the aching want of her, that so long he had buried in his heart. Things be could not have told her, waking, he told her then. It seemed, too, that she must rouse to them, that she must feel him there beside her, calling her back. But she did not move. It was then, for the first time, that he wondered what he would do if she should die.
The doctors, coming behind the screen, found him sitting erect and still, staring ahead of him, with a strange expression on his face. He had just decided that he could not, under any circumstances, live if she died.
It was rather a good thing for Clayton's sanity that they gave him hope. He was completely unnerved, tired and desperate. Indeed, when they came in he had been picturing Audrey and himself, wandering hand in band, very quietly and contentedly, in some strange world which was his rather hazy idea of the Beyond. It seemed to him quite sane and extraordinarily happy.
The effort of meeting the staff roused him, and, with hope came a return to normality. There was much to be done, special nurses, a private room, and - rather reluctantly - friends and relatives to be notified. Only for a few minutes, out of all of life, had she been his. He must give her up now. Life had become one long renunciation.
He did not go home at all that night. He divided his time between the plant and the hospital, going back and forward. Each time he found the report good. She was still strong; no internal injuries had manifested themselves, and the concussion would probably wear off before long. He wanted to be there when she first opened her eyes. He was afraid she might be frightened, and there would be a bad minute when she remembered - if she did remember.
At midnight, going into the room, he found Mrs. Haverford beside Audrey's bed, knitting placidly. She seemed to accept his being there as perfectly natural, and she had no sick-room affectations. She did not whisper, for one thing.
"The nurse thinks she is coming round, Clayton," she said. "I waited, because I thought she ought to see a familiar face when she does."
Mrs. Haverford was eminently good for him. Her cheerful matter-of-factuess her competent sanity, restored his belief in a world that had seemed only chaos and death. How much, he wondered later, had Mrs. Haverford suspected? He had not been in any condition to act a part. But whatever she suspected he knew was locked in her kindly breast.
Audrey moved slightly, and he went over to her. When he glanced up again Mrs. Haverford had gone out.
So it was that Audrey came back to him, and to him alone. She asked no questions. She only lay quite still on her white pillows, and looked at him. Even when he knelt beside her and drew her toward him, she said nothing, but she lifted her uninjured hand and softly caressed his bent head. Clayton never knew whether Mrs. Haverford had come back and seen that or not. He did not care, for that matter. It seemed to him just then that all the world must know what was so vitally important, so transcendently wonderful.
Not until Audrey's eyes closed again, and he saw that she was sleeping, did he loosen his arms from around her.
When at last he went out to the stiffly furnished hospital parlor, he found Mrs. Haverford sitting there alone, still knitting. But he rather thought she had been crying. There was an undeniably moist handkerchief on her knee.
"She roused a little while ago," he said, trying to speak quietly, and as though Audrey's rousing were not the wonder that it was. "She seemed very comfortable. And now she's sleeping."
"The dear child!" said Mrs. Haverford. "If she had died, after everything - " Her plump face quivered. "Things have never been very happy for her, Clayton."
"I'm afraid not." He went to a window and stood looking out. The city was not quiet, but its mighty roar of the day was lowered to a monotonous, drowsy humming. From the east, reflected against low-hanging clouds, was the dull red of his own steel mills, looking like the reflection of a vast conflagration.
"Not very happy," he repeated.
"Some times," Mrs. Haverford was saying, "I wonder about things. People go along missing the best things in life, and - I suppose there is a reason for it, but some times I wonder if He ever meant us to go on, crucifying our own souls."
So she did know!
"What would you have us do?"
"I don't know. I suppose there isn't any answer."
Afterward, Clayton found that that bit of conversation with Mrs. Haverford took on the unreality of the rest of that twenty-four hours. But one part of it stood out real and hopelessly true. There wasn't any answer!