Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The winter which preceded the entrance of the United States into the war was socially an extraordinary one. It was marked by an almost feverish gayety, as though, having apparently determined to pursue a policy dictated purely by self interest, the people wished to forget their anomalous position. Like a woman who covers her shame with a smile. The vast number of war orders from abroad had brought prosperity into homes where it had long been absent. Mills and factories took on new life. Labor was scarce and high.
It was a period of extravagance rather than pleasure. Peaple played that they might not think. Washington, convinced that the nation would ultimately be involved, kept its secret well and continued to preach a neutrality it could not enforce. War was to most of the nation a great dramatic spectacle, presented to them at breakfast and in the afternoon editions. It furnished unlimited conversation at dinner-parties, led to endless wrangles, gave zest and point to the peace that made those dinner parties possible, furnished an excuse for retrenchment here and there, and brought into vogue great bazaars and balls for the Red Cross and kindred activities.
But although the war was in the nation's mind, it was not yet in its soul.
Life went on much as before. An abiding faith in the Allies was the foundation stone of its complacency. The great six-months battle of the Somme, with its million casualties, was resulting favorably. On the east the Russians had made some gains. There were wagers that the Germans would be done in the Spring.
But again Washington knew that the British and French losses at the Somme had been frightful; that the amount of lost territory regained was negligible as against the territory still held; that the food problem in the British Islands was acute; that the submarine sinkings were colossal. Our peace was at a fearful cost.
And on the edge of this volcano America played.
When Graham Spencer left the mill that Tuesday afternoon, it was to visit Marion Hayden. He was rather bored now at the prospect. He would have preferred going to the Club to play billiards, which was his custom of a late afternoon. He drove rather more slowly than was his custom, and so missed Marion's invitation to get there before the crowd.
Three cars before the house showed that she already had callers, and indeed when the parlor-maid opened the door a burst of laughter greeted him. The Hayden house was a general rendezvous. There were usually, by seven o'clock, whiskey-and-soda glasses and tea-cups on most of the furniture, and half-smoked cigarets on everything that would hold them, including the piano.
Marion herself met him in the hall, and led him past the drawing-room door.
"There are people in every room who want to be left alone," she volunteered. "I kept the library as long as I could. We can sit on the stairs, if you like."
Which they proceeded to do, quite amiably. From various open doors came subdued voices. The air was pungent with tobacco smoke permeated with a faint scent of late afternoon highballs.
"Tommy!" Marion called, when she had settled herself.
"Yes," from a distance.
"Did you leave your cigaret on the piano?"
"No, Toots dear. But I can, easily."
"Mother," Marion explained, "is getting awfully touchy about the piano. Well, do you remember half the pretty things you told me last night?"
"Not exactly. But I meant them."
He looked up at her admiringly. He was only a year from college, and he had been rather arbitrarily limited to the debutantes. He found, therefore, something rather flattering in the attention he was receiving from a girl who had been out five years, and who was easily the most popular young woman in the gayer set. It gave him a sense of maturity Since the night before he had been rankling under a sense of youth.
"Was I pretty awful last night?" he asked.
"You were very interesting. And - I imagine - rather indiscreet."
"Fine! What did I say?" "You boasted, my dear young friend."
"Great Scott! I must have been awful." "About the new war contracts."
"But I found it very interesting. You know, I like business. And I like big figures. Poor people always do. Has it really gone through? I mean, those things do slip up sometimes, don't they.
"It's gone through, all right. Signed, sealed, and delivered."
Encouraged by her interest, he elaborated on the new work. He even developed an enthusiasm for it, to his own surprise. And the girl listened intently, leaning forward so that her arm brushed his shoulder. Her eyes, slightly narrowed, watched him closely. She knew every move of the game she was determining to play.
Marion Hayden, at twenty-five, knew already what her little world had not yet realized, that such beauty as she had had was the beauty of youth only, and that that was going. Late hours, golf, perhaps a little more champagne than was necessary at dinners, and the mornings found her almost plain. And, too, she had the far vision of the calculating mind. She knew that if the country entered the war, every eligible man she knew would immediately volunteer.
At twenty-five she already noticed a change in the personnel of her followers. The unmarried men who had danced with her during her first two winters were now sending flowers to the debutantes, and cutting in on the younger men at balls. Her house was still a rendezvous, but it was for couples like the ones who had preempted the drawing-room, the library and the music room that afternoon. They met there, smoked her cigarets, made love in a corner, occasionally became engaged. But she was of the game, no longer in it.
Men still came to see her, a growing percentage of them married. They brought or sent her tribute, flowers, candy, and cigarets. She was enormously popular at dances. But more and more her dinner invitations were from the older crowd. Like Natalie Spencer's stupid party the night before.
So she watched Graham and listened. He was a nice boy and a handsome one. Also he promised to be sole heir to a great business. If the war only lasted long enough -
"Imagine your knowing all those things," she said admiringly. "You're a partner, aren't you?"
He flushed slightly.
"Not yet. But of course I shall be."
"When you really get going, I wonder if you will take me round and show me how shells are made. I'm the most ignorant person you ever knew."
"I'll be awfully glad to."
"Very well. For that promise you shall have a highball. You're an awful dear, you know."
She placed a slim hand on his shoulder and patted it. Then, leaning rather heavily on him for support, she got to her feet.
"We'll go in and stir up some of the lovers," she suggested. "And if Tommy Hale hasn't burned up the piano we can dance a bit. You dance divinely, you know."
It was after seven when he reached home. He felt every inch a man. He held himself very straight as he entered the house, and the boyish grin with which he customarily greeted the butler had given place to a dignified nod.
Natalie was in her dressing-room. At his knock she told the maid to admit him, and threw a dressing-gown over her bare shoulders. Then she sent the maid away and herself cautiously closed the door into Clayton's room.
"I've got the money for you, darling," she said. From her jewel case she took a roll of bills and held them out to him. "Five hundred."
"I hate to take it, mother."
"Never mind about taking it. Pay those bills before your father learns about them. That's all."
He was divided between gratitude and indignation. His new-found maturity seemed to be slipping from him. Somehow here at home they always managed to make him feel like a small boy.
"Honestly, mother, I'd rather go to father and tell him about it. He'd make a row, probably, but at least you'd be out of it."
She ignored his protest, as she always ignored protests against her own methods of handling matters.
"I'm accustomed to it," was her sole reply. But her resigned voice brought her, as it always had, the ready tribute of the boy's sympathy. "Sit down, Graham, I want to talk to you."
He sat down, still uneasily fingering the roll of bills. Just how far Natalie's methods threatened to undermine his character was revealed when, at a sound in Clayton's room, he stuck the money hastily into his pocket.
"Have you noticed a change in your father since he came back?"
Her tone was so ominous that he started.
"He's not sick, is he?"
"Not that. But - he's different. Graham, your father thinks we may be forced into the war."
"Good for us. It's time, that's sure."
"Why, good heavens, mother," he began, "we should have been in it last May. We should - "
She was holding out both hands to him, piteously.
"You wouldn't go, would you?"
"I might have to go," he evaded.
"You wouldn't, Graham. You're all I have. All I have left to live for. You wouldn't need to go. It's ridiculous. You're needed here. Your father needs you."
"He needs me the hell of a lot," the boy muttered. But he went over and, stooping down, kissed her trembling face.
"Don't worry about me," he said lightly. "I don't think we've got spine enough to get into the mix-up, anyhow. And if we have - "
"You won't go. Promise me you won't go."
When he hesitated she resorted to her old methods with both Clayton and the boy. She was doing all she could to make them happy. She made no demands, none. But when she asked for something that meant more than life to her, it was refused, of course. She had gone through all sorts of humiliation to get him that money, and this was the gratitude she received.
Graham listened. She was a really pathetic fignre, crouched in her low chair, and shaken with terror. She must have rather a bad time; there were so many things she dared not take to his father. She brought them to him instead, her small grievances, her elaborate extravagances, her disappointments. It did not occur to him that she transferred to his young shoulders many of her own burdens. He was only grateful for her confidence, and a trifle bewildered by it. And she had helped him out of a hole just now.
"All right. I promise," he said at last. "But you're worrying yourself for nothing, mother."
She was quite content then, cheered at once, consulted the jewelled watch on her dressing table and rang for the maid.
"Heavens, how late it is!" she exclaimed. "Run out now, dear. And, Graham, tell Buckham to do up a dozen dinner-napkins in paper. Audrey Valentine has telephoned that she has just got in, and finds she hasn't enough. If that isn't like her!"