Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Clayton's first impulse was to take the cable to Natalie, to brush aside the absurd defenses she had erected, and behind which she cowered, terrified but obstinate. To say to her,
"He is living. He is going to live. But this war is not over yet. If we want him to come through, we must stand together. We must deserve to have him come back to us."
But by the time he reached the top of the stairs he knew he could not do it. She would not understand. She would think he was using Graham to further a reconciliation; and, after her first joy was over, he knew that he would see again that cynical smile that always implied that he was dramatizing himself.
Nothing could dim his strong inner joy, but something of its outer glow faded. He would go to her, later. Not now. Nothing must spoil this great thankfulness of his.
He gave Madeleine the cable, and went down again to the library.
After a time he began to go over the events of the past eighteen months. His return from the continent, and that curious sense of unrest that had followed it, the opening of his eyes to the futility of his life. His failure to Natalie and her failure to him. Graham, made a man by war and by the love of a good woman. Chris, ending his sordid life in a blaze of glory, and forever forgiven his tawdry sins because of his one big hour.
War took, but it gave also. It had taken Joey, for instance, but Joey had had his great moment. It was better to have one great moment and die than to drag on through useless years. And it was the same way with a nation. A nation needed its hour. It was only in a crisis that it could know its own strength. How many of them, who had been at that dinner of Natalie's months before, had met their crisis bravely! Nolan was in France now. Doctor Haverford was at the front. Audrey was nursing Graham. Marion Hayden was in a hospital training-School. Rodney Page was still building wooden barracks in a cantonment in Indiana, and was making good. He himself -
They could never go back, none of them, to the old smug, complacent, luxurious days. they could no more go back than Joey could return to life again. War was the irrevocable step, as final as death itself. And he remembered something Nolan had said, just before he sailed.
"We have had one advantage, Clay. Or maybe it is not an advantage, after all. Do you realize that you and I have lived through the Golden Age? We have seen it come and seen it go. The greatest height of civilization, since the world began, the greatest achievements, the most opulent living. And we saw it all crash. It will be a thousand years before the world will be ready for another."
"I suppose every life has its Golden Age. Generally we think it is youth. I'm not so sure. Youth is looking ahead. It has its hopes and its disappointments. The Golden Age in a mah's life ought to be the age of fulfillment. It's nearer the forties than the twenties."
"Have you reached it?"
"I'm going to, on the other side."
And Clayton had smiled.
"You are going to reach it," he said. "We are always going to find it, Nolan. It is always just ahead."
And Nolan had given him one of his quick understanding glances.
There could be no Golden Age for him. For the Golden Age for a man meant fulfillment. The time came to every man when he must sit at the west window of his house of life and look toward the sunset. If he faced that sunset alone -
He heard Madeleine carrying down Natalie's dinner-tray, and when she left the pantry she came to the door of the library.
"Mrs. Spencer would like to see you, sir."
"Thank you, Madeleine. I'll go up very soon."
Suddenly he knew that he did not want to go up to Natalie's scented room. She had shut him out when she was in trouble. She had not cared that he, too, was in distress. She had done her best to invalidate that compact he had made. She had always invalidated him.
To go back to the old way, to the tribute she enforced to feed her inordinate vanity, to the old hypocricy of their relationship, to live again the old lie, was impossible.
He got up. He would not try to buy himself happiness at the cost of turning her adrift. But he must, some way, buy his self-respect.
He heard her then, on the staircase, that soft rustle which, it seemed to him, had rasped the silk of his nerves all their years together with its insistence on her dainty helplessness, her femininity, her right to protection. The tap of her high heels came closer. He drew a long breath and turned, determinedly smiling, to face the door.
Almost at once he saw that she was frightened. She had taken pains to look her best - but then she always did that. She was rouged to the eyes, and the floating white chiffon of her negligee gave to her slim body the illusion of youth, that last illusion to which she so desperately clung. But - she was frightened.
She stood in the doorway, one hand holding aside the heavy velvet curtain, and looked at him with wide, penciled eyes.
"Yes. Come in. Shall I have Buckham light a fire?"
She came in, slowly.
"Do you suppose that cable is reliable?"
"I should think so."
"He may have a relapse."
"We mustn't worry about what may come. He is better now. The chances are that he'll stay better."
"Probably. I suppose, because I have been so ill - "
He felt the demand for sympathy, but he had none to give. And he felt something else. Natalie was floundering, an odd word for her, always so sure of herself. She was frightened, unsure of herself, and - floundering. Why?
"Are you going to be in to-night?"
She gave a curious little gesture. Then she evidently made up her mind and she faced him defiantly.
"Of course, if I had known he was going to be better, I'd - Clay, I wired yesterday for Rodney Page. He arrives to-night."
"I don't think I quite understand, Natalie. Why did you wire for him?"
"You wouldn't understand, of course. I was in trouble. He has been my best friend. I tried to bear it alone, but I couldn't. I - "
"Alone! You wouldn't see me."
"I couldn't, Clay."
"Because - if Graham had died - "
Her mouth trembled. She put her hand to her throat.
"You would have blamed me for his death?"
"Then. even now, if - "
The sheer cruelty of it sent him pale. Yet it was not so much deliberate as unconscious. She was forcing herself to an unwonted honesty. It was her honest conviction that he was responsible for Graham's wounding and danger.
"Let me get to the bottom of this," he said quietly. "You hold me responsible. Very well. How far does that take us? How far does that take you? To Rodney!"
"You needn't be brutal. Rodney understands me. He - he cares for me, Clay."
"I see. And, since you sent for him I take it you care for Rodney."
"I don't know. I - "
"Isn't it time you do know? For God's sake, Natalie, make up your mind to some course and stick to it."
But accustomed as he was to the curious turns of her mind, he was still astounded to have her turn on him and accuse him of trying to get rid of her. It was not until later that he realized in that attitude of hers her old instinct of shifting the responsibility from her own shoulders.
And then Rodney was announced.
The unreality of the situation persisted. Rodney's strained face and uneasy manner, his uniform, the blank pause when he had learned that Graham was better, and when the ordinary banalities of greeting were over. Beside Clayton he looked small, dapper, and wretchedly uncomfortable, and yet even Clayton had to acknowledge a sort of dignity in the man.
He felt sorry for him, for the disillusion that was to come. And at the same time he felt an angry contempt for him, that he should have forced so theatrical a situation. That the night which saw Graham's beginning recovery should be tarnished by the wild clutch after happiness of two people who had done so little to earn it.
He saw another, totally different scene, for a moment. He saw Graham in his narrow bed that night in some dimly-lighted hospital ward, and he saw Audrey beside him, watching and waiting and praying. A wild desire to be over there, one of that little group, almost overcame him. And instead -
"Natalie has not been well, Rodney," he said. "I rather think, if you have anything to say to me, we would better talk alone."
Natalie went out, her draperies trailing behind her. Clayton listened, as she moved slowly up the stairs. For the last time he heard that soft rustling which had been the accompaniment to so many of the most poignant hours of his life. He istened until it had died away.