Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The immediate outstanding result of the holocaust at the munitions works was the end of Natalie's dominion aver Graham. She never quite forgave him the violence with which he threw off her shackles.
"If I'd been half a man I'd have been over there long ago," he said, standing before her, tall and young and flushed. "I'd have learned my job by now, and I'd be worth something, now I'm needed."
"And broken my heart."
"Hearts don't break that way, mother."
"Well, you say you are going now. I should think you'd be satisfied. There's plenty of time for you to get the glory you want."
"Glory! I don't want any glory. And as for plenty of time - that's exactly what there isn't."
Puring the next few days she preserved an obstinate silence on the subject. She knew he had been admitted to one of the officers' training-camps, and that he was making rather helpless and puzzled purchases. Going into his room she would find a dressing-case of khaki leather, perhaps, or flannel shirts of the same indeterminate hue. She would shed futile tears over them, and order them put out of sight. But she never offered to assist him.
Graham was older, in many ways. He no longer ran up and down the stairs whistling, and he sought every opportunity to be with his father. They spent long hours together in the library, when, after a crowded day, filled with the thousand, problems of reconstructions, Clayton smoked a great deal, talked a little, rather shame-facedly after the manner of men, of personal responsibility in the war, and quietly watched the man who was Graham.
Out of those quiet hours, with Natalie at the theater or reading up-stairs in bed, Clayton got the greatest comfort of his life. He would neither look back nor peer anxiously ahead.
The past, with its tragedy, was gone. The future might hold even worse things. But just now he would live each day as it came, working to the utmost, and giving his evenings to his boy. The nights were the worst. He was not sleeping well, and in those long hours of quiet he tried to rebuild his life along stronger, sterner lines. Love could have no place in it, but there was work left. He was strong and he was still young. The country should have every ounce of energy in him. He would re-build the plant, on bigger lines than before, and when that was done, he would build again. The best he could do was not enough.
He scarcely noticed Natalie's withdrawal from Graham and himself. When she was around he was his old punctilious self, gravely kind, more than ever considerate. Beside his failure to her, her own failure to him faded into insignificance. She was as she was, and through no fault of hers. But he was what he had made himself.
Once or twice he had felt an overwhelming remorse toward her, and on one such occasion he had made a useless effort to break down the barrier of her long silence.
"Don't go up-stairs, Natalie," he had begged. "I am not very amusing, I know, but - I'll try my best. I'll promise not to touch on anything disagreeable." He had been standing in the hail, looking up at her on the stair-case, and he smiled. There was pleading behind the smile, an inarticulate feeling that between them there might at least be friendship.
"You are never disagreeable," she had said, looking down with hostile eyes. "You are quite perfect."
"Then won't you wait?"
"Perfection bores me to tears," she said, and went on up the stairs.
On the morning of Graham's departure, however, he found her prepared to go to the railway-station. She was red-eyed and pale, and he was very sorry for her.
"Do you think it is wise?" he asked.
"I shall see him off, of course. I may never see him again."
And his own tautened nerves almost gave way.
"Don't say that!" he cried. "Don't even think that. And for God's sake, Natalie, send him off with a smile. That's the least we can do."
"I can't take it as casually as you do."
He gave up then in despair. He saw that Graham watched her uneasily during the early breakfast, and he surmised that the boy's own grip on his self-control was weakened by the tears that dropped into her coffee-cup. He reflected bitterly that all over the country strong women, good women, were sending their boys away to war, giving them with prayer and exaltation. What was wrong with Natalie? What was wrong with his whole life?
When Graham was up-stairs, he turned to her.
"Why do you persist in going, Natalie?"
"I intend to go. That's enough."
"Don't you think you've made him unhappy enough?"
"He has made me unhappy enough."
"You. It is always yourself, Natalie. Why don't you ever think of him?" He went to the door. "Countermand the order for the limousine," he said to the butler, "and order the small car for Mr. Graham and myself."
"How dare you do that?"
"I am not going to let you ruin the biggest day in his life."
She saw that he meant it. She was incredulous, reckless, angry, and thwarted for the first time in her self-indulgent life.
"I hate you," she said slowly. "I hate you!"
She turned and went slowly up the stairs. Graham, knocking at her door a few minutes later, heard the sound of hysterical sobbing, within, but received no reply.
"Good-by, mother," he called. "Good-by. Don't worry. I'll be all right."
When he saw she did not mean to open the door or to reply, he went rather heavily down the stairs.
"I wish she wouldn't," he said. "It makes me darned unhappy."
But Clayton surmised a relief behind his regret, and in the train the boy's eyes were happier than they had been for months.
"I don't know how I'll come out, dad," he said. "But if I don't get through it won't be because I didn't try."
And he did try. The enormous interest of the thing gripped him from the start; There was romance in it, too. He wore his first uniform, too small for him as it was, with immense pride. He rolled out in the morning at reveille, with the feeling that he had just gone to bed, ate hugely at breakfast, learned to make his own cot-bed, and lined up on a vast dusty parade ground for endless evolutions in a boiling sun.
It was rather amusing to find himself being ordered about, in a stentorian voice, by Jackson. And when, in off moments, that capable ex-chauffeur condescended to a few moments of talk and relaxation, the boy was highly gratified.
"Do you think I've got anything in me?" he would inquire anxiously.
And Jackson always said heartily, "Sure you have."
There were times when Graham doubted himself, however. There was one dreadful hour when Graham, in the late afternoon, and under the eyes of his commanding officer and a group of ladies, conducting the highly formal and complicated ceremony of changing the guard, tied a lot of grinning men up in a knot which required the captain of the company and two sergeants to untangle.
"I'm no earthly good," he ccmfided to Jackson that night, sitting on the steps of his barracks. "I know it like a-b-c, and then I get up and try it and all at once I'm just a plain damned fool."
"Don't give up like that, son," Jackson said. I've seen 'em march a platoon right into the C.O's porch before now. And once I just saved a baby-buggy and a pair of twins."
Clayton wrote him daily, and now and then there came a letter from Natalie, cheerful on the surface, but its cheerfulness obviously forced. And once, to his great surprise, Marion Hayden wrote him.
"I just want you to know," she said, "that I am still interested in you, even if it isn't going to be anything else. And that I am ridiculously proud of you. Isn't it queer to look back on last Winter and think what a lot of careless idiots we were? I suppose war doesn't really change us, but it does make us wonder what we've got in us. I am surprised to find that I am a great deal better than I ever thought I was!"
There was comfort in the letter, but no thrill. He was far away from all that now, like one on the first stage of a long journey, with his eyes ahead.
Then one day he saw a familiar but yet strange figure striding along the country road. Graham was map-sketching that day, and the strange but familiar figure was almost on him when he looked up. It was extremely military, and looked like a general at least. Also it was very red in the face, and was clutching doggedly in its teeth an old briar pipe. But what had appeared from the front to be an ultra military figure on closer inspection turned out to be a procession. Pulling back hard on a rope behind was the company goat, Elinor.
The ultra-military figure paused by Graham's sketching-stool, and said, "Young man, do you know where this creature belongs? I found her trying to commit suicide on the rifle range - why, Graham!"
It was Doctor Haverford. He grew a trifle less military then, and borrowed some pipe tobacco. He looked oddly younger, Graham thought, and rather self-conscious of his uniform.
"Every inch a soldier, Graham," he chuckled. "Still have to use a hook and eye at the bottom of the coat - blouse," he corrected himself. "But I'm getting my waist-line again. How's the - whoa!" he called, as Elinor wrapped the rope around his carefully putteed legs. "Infernal animal!" he grumbled. "I just paid a quarter to have these puttees shined. How's the family?"
"Mother has gone to Linndale. The house is finished. Have you been here long, sir?"
"Two weeks. Hang it all, Graham, I wish I'd let this creature commit suicide. She's - do you know Delight is here?"
"Here? Why, no."
"At the hostess house," said the chaplain, proudly. "Doing her bit, too. Mrs. Haverford wanted to come too, and sew buttons on, or something. But I told her two out of three was a fair percentage. I hear that Washington has sent for your father.
"I hadn't heard."
"He's a big man, Graham. We're going to hear from him. Only - I thought he looked tired when I saw him last. Somebody ought to look after him a bit." He was patiently untangling himself from Elinor's rope. "You know there are two kinds of people in the world: those who look after themselves and those who look after others. That's your father - the last."
Graham's face clouded. How true that was! He knew now, as he had not known before. He was thinking clearly those days. Hard work and nothing to drink had clarified his mind, and he saw things at home as they really were. Clayton's infinite patience, his strength and his gentleness. But he only said:
"He has had a hard year." He raised his eyes and looked at the chaplain. "I didn't help him any, you know, sir."
"Well, well, that's all over now. We've just one thing to think of, and that's to beat those German devils back to Berlin. And then burn Berlin," he added, militantly.
The last Graham saw of him, he was dragging Elinor down the road, and a faint throafy humming came back, which sounded suspiciously like "Where do we go from here, boys? Where do we go from here?"
Candidate Spencer took great pains with his toilet that afternoon. He polished his shoes, and shaved, and he spent a half hour on some ten sadly neglected finger-nails. At retreat he stood at attention in the long line, and watched the flag moving slowly and majestically to the stirring bugle notes. Something swelled almost to bursting in his throat. That was his flag. He was going to fight for it. And after that was done he was going tq find some girl, some nice girl - the sort, for instance, that would leave her home to work in a hostess house. And having found her, he would marry her, and love and cherish her all his life. Unless, of course, she wouldn't have him. He was inclined to think she wouldn't.
He ate very little supper that night, little being a comparative term, of course. And then he went to discover Delight. It appeared, however, that she had been already discovered. She was entirely surrounded by uniforms, and Graham furiously counted a colonel, two majors, and a captain.
"Pulling rank, of course!" he muttered, and retired to a corner, where he had at least the mild gratification of seeing that even the co1onel could not keep Delight from her work.
"Silly asses!" said Graham, again, and then she saw him. There was no question about her being pleased. She was quite flushed with it, but a little uncomfortable, too, at Graham's attitude. He was oddly humble, and yet he had a look of determination that was almost grim. She filled in a rather disquieting silence by trying to let him know, without revealing that she had ever been anything else, how proud she was of him. Then she realized that he was not listening, and that he was looking at her with an almost painful intensity.
"When can you get away, Delight?" he asked abruptly.
"From here?" She cast an appraising glance over the room. "Right away, I think. Why?"
"Because I want to talk to you, and I can't talk to you here."
She brought a bright colored sweater and he helped her into it, still with his mouth set and his eyes a trifle sunken. All about there were laughing groups of men in uniform. Outside, the parade glowed faintly in the dusk, and from the low barrack windows there came the glow of lights, the movement of young figures, voices, the thin metallic notes of a mandolin.
"How strange it all is," Delight said. "Here we are, you and father and myself - and even Jackson. I saw him to-day. All here, living different lives, doing different things, even thinking different thoughts. It's as though we had all moved into a different world."
He walked on beside her, absorbed in his own thoughts, which were yet only of her.
"I didn't know you were here," he brought out finally.
"That's because you've been burying yourself. I knew you were here."
"Why didn't you send me some word?"
She stiffened somewhat in the darkness.
"I didn't think you would be greatly interested, Graham."
And again, struggling with his new humility, he was silent. It was not until they had crossed the parade ground and were beyond the noises of the barracks that he spoke again.
"Do you mind if I talk to you, Delight? I mean, about myself? I - since you're here, we're likely to see each other now and then, if you are willing. And I'd like to start straight."
"Do you really want to tell me?"
"No. But I've got to. That's all."
He told her. He made no case for himself. Indeed, some of it Delight understood far better than he did himself. He said nothing against Marion; on the contrary, he blamed himself rather severely. And behind his honest, halting sentences, Delight read his own lack of understanding. She felt infinitely older than this tall, honest-eyed boy in his stained uniform - older and more sophisticated. But if she had understood the Marion Hayden situation, she was totally at a loss as to Anna.
"But I don't understand!" she cried. "How could you make love to her if you didn't love her?"
"I don't know. Fellows do those things. It's just mischief - some sort of a devil in them, I suppose."
When he reached the beating and Anna's flight, however, she understood a little better.
"Of course you had to stand by her," she agreed.
"You haven't heard it all," he said quietly. "When I'm through, if you get up and leave me, I'll understand, Delight, and I won't blame you."
He told her the rest of the story in a voice strained with anxiety. It was as though he had come to a tribunal for judgment. He spared her nothing, the dinner at the road-house with Rudolph at the window, his visit to Anna's room, and her subsequent disappearance.
"She told the Department of Justice people that Rudolph found her that night, and, took her home. She was a prisoner then, poor little kid. But she overheard her father and Rudolph plotting to blow up the mill. That's where I came in, Delight. He was crazy at me. He was a German, of course, and he might have done it anyhow. But Rudolph told him a lot of lies about me, and - he did it. When I think about it all, and about Joey, I'm crazy."
She slipped her hand over his.
"Of course they would have done it anyhow," she said softly.
"You aren't going to get up and go away?"
"Why should I?" she asked. "I only feel - oh, Graham, how wretched you must have been."
Something in her voice made him sit up straighter. He knew now that it had always been Delight, always. Only she had been too good for him. She had set a standard he had not hoped to reach. But now things were different. He hadn't amounted to much in other things, but he was a soldier now. He meant to be a mighty good soldier. And when he got his commission -
"You won't mind, then, if I come in to see you now and then?"
"Mind? Why, Graham!"
"And you don't think I'm quite hopeless, do you?"
There were tears in her eyes, but she answered bravely:
"I believe in you every minute. But then I think I always have."
"Like fun you have!" But although he laughed, it was a shaky laugh. Suddenly he stood up and shook himself. He felt young and strong and extremely happy. There had been a bad time, but it was behind him now. Ahead there lay high adventure, and here, beside him in the dusk, was the girl of his heart. She believed in him. Work to do and a woman who believed in a fellow - that was life.
"Aren't you cold?" he asked, and drew the gaudy sweater tenderly around her shoulders.