Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Very quietly Audrey had taken herself out of Clayton's life. She sent him a little note of farewell:
"We have had ten very wonderful months, Clay," she wrote. "We ought to be very happy. So few have as much. And we both know that this can't go on. I am going abroad. I have an opportunity to go over and see what Englishwomen are doing in the way of standing behind their men at war. Then I am to tell our women at home. Not that they need it now, bless them!
"I believe you will be glad to know that I am to be on the same side of the ocean with Graham. I could get to him, I think, if anything should go wrong. Will you send him the enclosed address?
"But, my dear, the address is for him, not for you. You must not write to me. I have used up every particle of moral courage I possess, as it is. And I am holding this in my mind, as you must. Time is a great healer of all wounds. We could have been happy together; oh, my dear, so very happy together! Now that I am going, let me be frank for once. I have given you the finest thing I am capable of. I am better for caring for you as I have, as I do.
"But those days in the hospital told me we couldn't go on. Things like that don't stand still. Maybe - we are only human, Clay - maybe if the old days were still here we might have compromised with life. I don't know. But I do know that we never will, now.
"After all, we have had a great deal, and we still have. It is a wonderful thing to know that somewhere in the world is some one person who loves you. To waken up in the morning to it. To go to sleep remembering it. And to have kept that love fine and clean is a wonderful thing, too.
"I am not always on a pinnacle. There have been plenty of times when the mere human want of you has sent me to the dust. Is it wrong to tell you that? But of course not. You know it. But you and I know this; Clay, dear. Love that is hopeless, that can not end in marriage, does one of two things. Either it degrades or it exalts. It leaves its mark, always, but that mark does not need to be a stain."
Clayton lived, for a time after that, in a world very empty and very full. The new plant was well under way. Not only was he about to make shells for the government at a nominal profit, but Washington was asking him to assume new and wide responsibilities. He accepted. He wanted so to fill the hours that there would be no time to remember. But, more than that, he was actuated by a fine and glowing desire to serve. Perhaps, underlying it all was the determination to be, in every way, the man Audrey thought him to be. And there was, too, a square-jawed resolution to put behind Graham, and other boys like Graham, all the shells and ammunition they needed.
He worked hard; more than hard. Old Terry, meeting him one day in the winter that followed, was shocked at his haggard face.
"Better take a little time off, Clay," he suggested. "We're going to Miami next week. How about ten days or so? Fishing is good this year."
"Can't very well take a holiday just now. Too much to do, Terry."
Old Terry went home and told his wife.
"Looks like the devil," he said. "He'll go down sick one of these days. I suppose it's no use telling Natalie."
"None whatever," said Mrs. Terry. "And, anyhow, it's a thing I shouldn't care to tell Natalie."
"What do you mean, not care to tell Natalie?"
"Hard work doesn't make a man forget how to smile."
"Oh, come now. He's cheerful enough. If you mean because Graham's fighting?"
"That's only part of it," said Mrs. Terry, sagely, and relapsed into one of the poignant silences that drove old Terry to a perfect frenzy of curiosity.
Then, in January of 1918, a crisis came to Clayton and Natalie Spencer. Graham was wounded.
Clayton was at home when the news came. Natalie had been having one of her ill-assorted, meticulously elaborate dinner-parties, and when the guests had gone they were for a moment alone in the drawing-room of their town house. Clayton was fighting in himself the sense of irritation Natalie's dinners always left, especially the recent ones. She was serv-ng, he knew, too much food. In the midst of the agitation on conservation, her dinners ran their customary seven courses. There was too much wine, too. But it occurred to him that only the wine had made the dinner endurable.
Then he tried to force himself into better humor. Natalie was as she was, and if, in an unhappy, struggling, dying world she found happiness in display, God knew there was little enough happiness. He was not at home very often. He could not spoil her almost childish content in the small things that made up her life.
"I think it was very successful," she said, surveying herself in one of the corner mirrors. "Do you like my gown, Clay?"
"It's very lovely."
"It's new. I've been getting some clothes, Clay. You'll probably shriek at the bills. But all this talk about not buying clothes is nonsense, you know. The girls who work in the shops have to live."
"Naturally. Of course there is other work open to them now,"
"In munition plants, I daresay. To be blown up!"
He winced. The thought of that night the year before, when the plant went, still turned him sick.
"Don't buy too many things, my dear," he said, gently. "You know how things are."
"I know it's your fault that they are as they are," she persisted. "Oh, I know it was noble of you, and all that. The country's crazy about you. But still I think it was silly. Every one else is making money out of things, and you - a lot of thanks you'll get, when the war's over."
"I don't particularly want thanks."
Then the door-bell rang in the back of the house, and Buckham answered it. He was conscious at once that Natalie stiffened, and that she was watchful and a trifle pale. Buckham brought in a telegram on a tray.
"Give it to me, Buckham," Natalie said, in a strained voice. And held out her hand for it. When she saw it was for Clayton, however, she relaxed. As he tore it open, Clayton was thinking. Evidently Natalie had been afraid of his seeing some message for her. Was it possible that Natalie - He opened it. After what seemed a long time he looked up. Her eyes were on him.
"Don't be alarmed, my dear," he said. "It is not very bad. But Graham has been slightly wounded. Sit down," he said sharply, as he saw her sway.
"You are lying to me," she said in a dreadful voice. "He's dead!"
"He is not dead, Natalie." He tried to put her into a chair, but she resisted him fiercely.
"Let me alone. I want to see that telegram."
And, very reluctantly, at last he gave it to her. Graham was severely wounded. It was from a man in his own department at Washington who had just seen the official list. The nature of his wounding had not been stated. Natalie looked up from the telegram with a face like a painted mask.
"This is your doing," she said. "You wanted him to go. You sent him into this. He will die, and you will have murdered him."
The thought came to him, in that hour of stress, that she was right. Pitifully, damnably right. He had not wanted Graham to go, but he had wanted him to want to go. A thousand thoughts flashed through his mind, of Delight, sleeping somewhere quietly after her day's work at the camp; of Graham himself, of that morning after the explosion, and his frank, pitiful confession. And again of Graham, suffering, perhaps dying, and with none of his own about him. And through it all was the feeling that he must try to bring Natalie to reason, that it was incredible that she should call him his own son's murderer.
"We must not think of his dying," he said. "We must only think that he is going to live, and to come back to us, Natalie dear."
She flung off the arm he put around her.
"And that," he went on, feeling for words out of the dreadful confusion in his mind, "if - the worst comes, that he has done a magnificent thing. There is no greater thing, Natalie."
"That won't bring him back to us," she said, still in that frozen voice. And suddenly she burst into hard, terrible crying.
All that night he sat outside her door, for she would not allow him to come in. He had had Washington on the telephone, but when at last he got the connection it was to learn that no further details were known. Toward dawn there came the official telegram from the War Department, but it told nothing more.
Natalie was hysterical. He had sent for a doctor, and with Madeleine in attendance the medical man had worked over her for hours. Going out, toward morning, he had found Clayton in the hall and had looked at him sharply.
"Better go to bed, Mr. Spencer," he advised. "It may not be as bad as you think. And they're doing fine surgery over there."
And, as Clayton shook his head:
"Mrs. Spencer will come round all right. She's hysterical, naturally. She'll be sending for you before long."
With the dawn, Clayton's thoughts cleared. If he and Natalie were ever to get together at all, it should be now, with this common grief between them. Perhaps, after all, it was not too late to re-build his house of life. He had failed. Perhaps they had both failed, but the real responsibility was his. Inside the room he could hear her moaning, a low, monotonous, heart-breaking moan. He was terribly sorry for her. She had no exaltation to help her, no strength of soul, no strength of any sort. And, as men will under stress, he tried to make a bargain with his God.
"Let him live," he prayed. "Bring him back to us, and I will try again. I'll do better. I've been a rotten failure, as far as she is concerned. But I'll try."
He felt somewhat better after that, altho he felt a certain ignominy, too, that always, until such a time, he had gone on his own, .as it were, and that now, when he no longer sufficed for himself, he should beseech the Almighty.
Natalie had had a sleeping-powder, and at last he heard her moaning cease and the stealthy movements of her maid as she lowered the window shades. It was dawn.
During the next two days Clayton worked as he never had worked before, still perhaps with that unspoken pact in mind. Worked too, to forget. He had sent several cables, but no reply came until the third day. He did not sleep at night. He did not even go to bed. He sat in the low chair in his dressing-room, dozing occasionally, to waken with a start at some sound in the hall. Now and again, as the trained nurse who was watching Natalie at night moved about the hallways, he would sit up, expecting a ummons that did not come.
She still refused to see him. It depressed and frightened him, for how could he fulfill his part of the compact when she so sullenly shut him out of her life?
He was singularly simple in his fundamental beliefs. There was a Great Power somewhere, call it what one might, and it dealt out justice or mercy as one deserved it. On that, of course, had been built an elaborate edifice of creed and dogma, but curiously enough it all fell away now. He was, in those night hours, again the boy who had prayed for fair weather for circus day and had promised in return to read his Bible through during the next year. And had done it.
In the daytime, however, he was a man, suffering terribly, and facing the complexities of his life alone. One thing he knew. This was decisive. Either, under the stress of a common trouble, he and Natalie would come together, to make the best they could of the years to come, or they would be hopelessly alienated.
But that was secondary to Graham. Everything was secondary to Graham, indeed. He had cabled Audrey, and he drew a long breath when, on the third day, a cable came from her. She had located Graham at last. He had been shot in the chest, and there were pneumonia symptoms.
"Shall stay with him,"' she ended, "and shall send daily reports."
Next to his God, he put his faith in Audrey. Almost he prayed to her.
Dunbar, now a captain in the Military Intelligence Bureau, visiting him in his office one day, found Clayton's face an interesting study. Old lines of repression, new ones of anxiety, marked him deeply.
"The boy, of course," he thought. And then reflected that it takes time to carve such lines as were written in the face of the man across the desk from him. Time and a woman, he considered shrewdly. His mind harked back to that dinner in the Spencer house when diplomatic relations had been broken off with. Germany, and war seemed imminent. It was the wife, probably. He remembered that she had been opposed to war, and to the boy's going. There were such women in the country. There were fewer of them all the time, but they existed, women who saw in war only sacrifice. Women who counted no cost too high for peace. If they only hurt themselves it did not matter, but they could and did do incredible damage.
Clayton was going through some papers he had brought, and Dunbar had time to consider what to him was an interesting problem. Mrs. Spencer had kept the boy from immediate enlistment. He had wanted to go; Dunbar knew that. If she had allowed him to go the affair with Anna Klein would have been ended. He knew all that story now. Then, if there had been no affair, Herman would not have blown up the munition works and a good many lives, valuable to themselves at least, might have been saved.
"Curious!" he reflected. "One woman! And she probably sleeps well at nights and goes to church on Sundays!"
Clayton passed back his papers, and ran a hand over his heavy hair.
"They seem to be all right," he said.
"Hope the next news will be better, Mr. Spencer."
"I hope so."
"I haven't told you, I think, that we have traced Rudolph Klein."
Clayton's face set.
"He's got away, unfortunately. Over the border into Mexico. They have a regular system there, the Germans - an underground railway to Mexico City. They have a paymaster on our side of the line. They even bank in one of our banks! Oh, we'll get them yet, of course, but they're damnably clever."
"I suppose there is no hope of getting Rudolph Klein?"
"Not while the Germans are running Mexico," Captain Dunbar replied, dryly. "He's living in a Mexican town just over the border. We're watching him. If he puts a foot on this side we'll grab him."
Clayton sat back after he had gone. He was in his old office at the mill, where Joey had once formed his unofficial partnership with the firm. Outside in the mill yard there was greater activity than ever, but many of the faces were new. The engineer who had once run the yard engine was building bridges in France. Hutchinson had heard the call, and was learning to fly in Florida, The service flag over his office door showed hundreds of stars, and more were being added constantly. Joey dead. Graham wounded, his family life on the verge of disruption, and Audrey -
Then, out of the chaos there came an exaltation. He had given himself, his son, the wealth he had hoped to have, but, thank God, he had had something to give. There were men who could give nothing, like old Terry Mackenzie, knocking billiard-balls around at the club, and profanely wistful that he had had no son to go. His mind ranged over those pathetic, prosperous, sonless men who filed into the club late in the afternoons, and over the last editions and whisky-and-sodas fought their futile warfare, their battle-ground a newspaper map, their upraised voices their only weapons.
On parade days, when the long lines of boys in khaki went by, they were silent, heavy, inutile. They were too old to fight. The biggest thing in their lives was passing them by, as passed the lines of marching boys, and they had no part in it. They were feeding their hungry spirits on the dregs of war, on committee meetings and public gatherings, and they were being useful. But the great exaltation of offering their best was not for them.
He was living a tragedy, but a greater tragedy was that of the childless. And back of that again was the woman who had not wanted children. There were many men to-day who were feeling the selfishness of a woman at home, men who had lost, somehow, their pride, their feeling of being a part of great things. Men who went home at night to comfortable dwellings, with no vacant chair at the table, and dined in a peace they had not earned.
Natalie had at least given him a son.
He took that thought home with him in the evening. He stopped at a florist's and bought a great box of flowers for her, and sent them into her room with a little note,
"Won't you let me come in and try to comfort you?"
But Madeleine brought the box out again, and there was pity in her eyes.
"Mrs. Spencer can not have them in the room, sir. She says the odor of flowers makes her ill."
He knew Madeleine had invented the excuse, that Natalie had simply rejected his offering. He went down-stairs, and made a pretense of dining alone in the great room.
It was there that Audrey's daily cable found him. Buckham brought it in in shaking fingers, and stood by, white and still, while he opened it.
Clayton stood up. He was very white, but his voice was full and strong.
"He is better, Buckham! Better!"
Suddenly Buckham was crying. His austere face was distorted, his lean body trembling. Clayton put his arm around the bowed old shoulders.
And in that moment, as they stood there, master and man, Clayton Spencer had a flash of revelation. There was love and love. The love of a man for a woman, and of a woman for a man, of a mother for the child at her knee, of that child for its mother. But that the great actuating motive of a man's maturity, of the middle span, was vested along with his dreams, his pride and his love, in his son, his man-child.
Buckham, carrying his coffee into the library somewhat later, found him with his head down on his desk, and the cablegram clutched in his outstretched hands. He tip-toed out, very quietly.