Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The fact that Audrey Valentine, conspicuous member of a conspicuous social group that she was, had been working in the machine-shop of the Spencer munitions works at the time of the explosion was in itself sufficient to rouse the greatest interest. When a young reporter, gathering human-interest stories about the event from the pitiful wreckage in the hospitals, happened on Clare Gould, he got a feature-story for the Sunday edition that made Audrey's own world, reading it in bed or over its exquisite breakfast-tables, gasp with amazement.
For, following up Clare's story, he found that Audrey had done much more than run toward the telephone. She had reached it, had found the operator gone, and had sueceeded, before the roof fell in on her, in calling the fire department and in sending in a general alarm to all the hospitals.
The reporter found the night operator who had received the message. He got a photograph of her, too, and, from the society file, an old one of Audrey, very delicate and audacious, and not greatly resembling the young woman who lay in her bed and read the article aloud, between dismay and laughter, to old Terry Mackenzie.
"Good heavens, Terry," she said. "Listen! 'I had heard the explosion, but did not of course know what it was. And then I got a signal, and it was the Spencer plant. A sweet Southern voice said, very calmly, "Operator, this is important. Listen carefully. There has been an explosion at the Spencer plant and the ruins are on fire. There will probably be more explosions in a minute. Send in a general fire-alarm, and then get all the ambulances and doctors - " Then there was another explosion, and their lines went out of commission. I am glad she is not dead. She certainly had her nerve.'"
"Fame at last, Audrey!" said old Terry, very gently.
"It's shameless!" But she was a little pleased, nevertheless. Not at the publicity. That was familiar enough. But that, when her big moment came, she had met it squarely.
Terry was striding about the room. His visits were always rather cyclonic. He moved from chair to chair, leaving about each one an encircling ring of cigaret ashes, and carefully inspecting each new vase of flowers. He stopped in front of a basket of exquisite small orchids.
"Who sent this?" he demanded. "Rodney Page. Doesn't it look like him?"
He turned and stared at her.
"What's come over Clayton Spencer? Is he blind?"
"About Rodney. He's head over heels in love with Natalie Spencer, God alone knows why."
"I daresay it isn't serious. He is always in love with somebody."
"There's a good bit of talk. I don't give a hang for either of them, but I'm fond of Clayton. So are you. Natalie's out in the country now, and Rodney is there every week-end. It's a scandal, that's all. As for Natalie herself, she ought to be interned as a dangerous pacifist. She's a martyr, in her own eyes. Thank heaven there aren't many like her."
Audrey leaned back against her pillows.
"I wonder, Terry," she said, "if you haven't shown me what to do next. I might be able to reach some of the women like Natalie. There are some of them, and they've got to learn that if they don't stand behind the men, we're lost."
"Fine!" he agreed. "Get 'em to knit less and write more letters, cheerful letters. Tell 'em to remember that by the time their man gets the letter the baby's tooth will be through. There are a good many men in the army-camps to-day vicariously cutting teeth. Get after 'em, Audrey! A worried man is a poor soldier."
After he had gone, she had the nurse bring her paper and pencil, and she wrote, rather incoherently, it is true, her first appeal to the women of the country. It was effective, too. Audrey was an effective person. When Clayton came for his daily visit she had just finished it, and was reading it over with considerable complacency.
"I've become an author, Clay," she said, "I think myself I'm terribly good at it. May I read it to you?"
He listened gravely, but with a little flicker of amusement in his eyes. how like her it was, to refuse to allow herself even time to get entirely well! But when she finished he was thoughtful. She had called it "Slacker Women." That was what Natalie was; he had never put it into words before. Natalie was a slacker.
He had never discussed Natalie's attitude toward the war with Audrey. He rather thought she was entirely ignorant of it. But her little article, glowing with patriotism, frank, simple, and convincing, might have been written to Natalie herself.
"It is very fine," he said.. "I rather think you have found yourself at last. There aren't a lot of such women and I daresay they wi1l be fewer all the time. But they exist, of course.
She glowed under his' approval.
There was, in all their meetings, a sub-current of sadness, that they must be so brief, that before long they must end altogether, that they could not put into words the things that were in their eyes and their hearts. After that first hour of her return to consciousness there had been no expressed tenderness between them. The nurse sat in the room, eternally knitting, and Clayton sat near Audrey, or read to her, or, like Terry, wandered about the room. But now and then Audrey, enthroned, like a princess on her pillows, would find his eyes on her, and such a hungry look in them that she would clench her hands. And after such times she always said: "Now, tell me about the mill." Or about Washington, wherehe was being summoned with increasing frequency. Or about Graham. Anything to take that look out of his eyes. He told her all his plans; he even brought the blue-prints of the new plant and spread them out on the bed. He was dreaming a great dream those days, and Audrey knew it. He was building again, this time not for himself, but for the nation.
After he had gone, looking boyish and reluctant, she would lie for a little while watching the door. Perhaps he had forgotten something, and would come back! One day he did, and was surprised to find her suddenly in tears.
"You came back!" she said half hysterically. "You came back."
That was the only time in all those weeks that he kissed her. The nurse had gone out, and suddenly he caught her in his arms and held her to him. He put her back very gently, and she saw that he was pale.
"I think I'd better go now, and not come back," he said.
And for two long and endless days he did not come. Then on the third he came, very stiff and formal, and with himself well in hand. Audrey, leaning back and watching him, felt what a boy he was after all, so determined to do the right thing, so obvious with his blue-prints, and so self-conscious.
In June she left the hospital and went to the country. She had already made a little market for her work, and she wanted to carry it on. By that time, too, she knew that the break must come between Clayton and herself if it came at all.
"No letters, no anything, Clay," she said, and he acquiesced quietly. But the night she left, the butler, coming downstairs to investigate a suspicious sound, found him restlessly pacing the library floor.
In August he went abroad, and some time about the middle of the month while he was in London, he received a cable from Graham. He had been commissioned a first lieutenant in the infantry. Clayton had been seeing war at first hand then, and for a few moments he was fairly terrified. On that first of August the Germans had used liquid fire for the first time, thus adding a new horror. Men in the trenches swept by it had been practically annihilated. Attacks against it were practically suicide. Already the year had seen the last of Kitchener's army practically destroyed, and the British combing the country for new divisions.
In the deadly give and take of that summer, where gains and losses were measured by yards, the advantage was steadily on the German side, and it would be a year before the small force of American regulars could be augmented to any degree by the great new army. It was the darkest hour.
Following on the heels of Graham's cable came a hysterical one from Natalie.
"Graham probably ordered abroad. Implore you use influence with Washington."
He resorted to his old remedy when he was in trouble. He walked the streets. He tried to allow for Natalie's lack of exaltation by the nature of her life. If she could have seen what he had seen, surely she would have felt, as he did, that no sacrifice could be too great to end this cancer of the world. But deep in his heart he knew that Natalie was - Natalie. Nothing would change her.
As it happened, he passed Graham on the Atlantic. There was a letter for him at the office, a boyish, exultant letter:
"Dad dear, I'm married!" it began. "Married and off for France. It is Delight, of course. It always was Delight, altho I know that sounds queer. And now I'm off to kill a Hun or two. More than that, I hope. I want two Germans for every poor devil they got at the works. That's the minimum. The maximum - !
"You'll look after Delight, I know. She has been perfectly bully, but it's hard on her. We were married two days ago, and already I feel as though I've always been married. She's going on with the canteen work, and I shall try not to be jealous. She's popular! And if you'd seen the General when we were married you'd have thought he was losing a daughter.
"I wired Mother, but she was too cut up about my leaving to come. I wish she had, for it was a strange sort of wedding. The division was about to move, and at the last minute five girls turned up to be married to fellows who were leaving. They came from all over, and believe me there was some excitement. All day the General and Chaplain Haverford were fussing about licenses, and those girls sat around and waited, and looked droopy but sort of happy - you know what I mean.
"It was nine o'clock in the evening before everything was ready. Delight had trimmed up the little church which is in the camp and had a flag over the altar. Then we had a multiple wedding. Honestly! The organ played a squeaky wedding march, and we went in, six couples. The church was full of soldiers, and - I don't mind saying I was ready to shed tears.
"We lined up, and Doctor Haverford married us. Delight says she is sure we are only one-sixth married. Quiet! You never heard such quiet - except for the General blowing his nose. I think myself he was weeping, and there was a rumor about the camp to that effect. You know - the flag over the altar, and all that. I tell you it made a fellow think.
"Well, I'm going over now. Quick work, isn't it? And to think that a few months ago I was hanging around the club and generally making a mess of life. That's all over now, thank God. I'm going to make good. Try to buck mother up. It's pretty hard for her. It's hard for all women, just waiting. And while I know I'm coming back, safe and sound, I'd like to feel that you are going to keep an eye on Delight. She's the most important thing in the world to me now."
Then scrawled in a corner he had added,
"You've been mighty fine with me always, dad. I was a good bit of a pup last winter. If I make anything of myself at all, it will be because I want to be like you."
Clayton sat for a long time with the letter in his hand. The happiness and hope that fairly radiated from it cheered and warmed him. He was nearly happy. And it came to him then that, while every man had the right to happiness, only those achieved it who craved it for others, and having craved it for them, at last saw the realization of their longing.