Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart
That afternoon, accompanied by a rather boyishly excited elderly clergyman, he took two hours off from the mill and purchased a new car for Doctor Haverford.
The rector was divided between pleasure at the gift and apprehension at its cost, but Clayton, having determined to do a thing, always did it well.
"Nonsense," he said. "My dear man, the church has owed you this car for at least ten years. If you get half the pleasure out of using it that I'm having in presenting it to you, it will be well worth while. I only wish you'd let me endow the thing. It's likely to cost you a small fortune."
Doctor Hayerford insisted that he could manage that. He stood off, surveying with pride not unmixed with fear its bright enamel, its leather linings, the complicated system of dials and bright levers which filled him with apprehension.
"Delight says I must not drive it," he said. "She is sure I would go too fast, and run into things. She is going to drive for me."
"How is Delight?"
"I wish you could see her, Clayton. She - well, all young girls are lovely, but sometimes I think Delight is lovelier than most. She is much older than I am, in many ways. She looks after me like a mother. But she has humor, too. She has been drawing the most outrageous pictures of me arrested for speeding, and she has warned me most gravely against visiting road houses!"
"But Delight will have to be taught, if she is to run the car."
"The salesman says they will send some one."
"They give one lesson, I believe. That's not enough. I think Graham could show her some things. He drives well."
Flying uptown a little later in Clayton's handsome car, the rector dreamed certain dreams. First his mind went to his parish visiting list, so endless, so never cleaned up, and now about to be made a pleasure instead of a penance. And into his mind, so strangely compounded of worldliness and spirituality, came a further dream - of Delight and Graham Spencer - of ease at last for the girl after the struggle to keep up appearances of a clergyman's family in a wealthy parish.
Money had gradually assumed an undue importance in his mind. Every Sunday, every service, he dealt in money. He reminded his people of the church debt. He begged for various charities. He tried hard to believe that the money that came in was given to the Lord, but he knew perfectly well that it went to the janitor and the plumber and the organist. He watched the offertory after the sermon, and only too often as he stood waiting, before raising it before the altar, he wondered if the people felt that they had received their money's worth.
He had started life with a dream of service, but although his own sturdy faith persisted, he had learned the cost of religion in dollars and cents. So, going up town, he wondered if Clayton would increase his church subscription, now that things were well with him.
"After all," he reflected, "war is not an unmixed evil," and outlined a sermon, to be called the Gains of War, and subsequently reprinted in pamphlet form and sold for the benefit of the new altar fund. He instructed Jackson to drive to the parish house instead of to the rectory, so that he might jot down the headings while they were in his mind. They ran like this: Spiritual growth; the nobility of sacrifice; the pursuit of an ideal; the doctrine of thy brother's keeper.
He stopped to speak to Jackson from the pavement.
"I daresay we shall be in frequent difficulties with that new car of ours, Jackson," he said genially. "I may have to ask you to come round and explain some of its mysterious interior to me."
Jackson touched his cap.
"Thank you, sir, I'll be glad to come. But I am leaving Mr. Spencer soon."
"Going back to the army, sir."
In the back of his mind the rector had been depending on Jackson, and he felt vaguely irritated.
"I'm sorry to hear it. I'd been counting on you."
"Very sorry, sir. I'm not leaving immediately."
"I sometimes think," observed the rector, still ruffled, "that a man's duty is not always what it appears on the surface. To keep Mr. Spencer - er - comfortable, while he is doing his magnificent work for the Allies, may be less spectacular, but it is most important."
Jackson smiled, a restrained and slightly cynical smile.
"That's a matter for a man's conscience, isn't it, sir?" he asked. And touching his cap again, moved off. Doctor Haverford felt reproved. Worse than that, he felt justly reproved. He did not touch the Gains of War that afternoon.
In the gymnasium he found Delight, captaining a basket-ball team. In her knickers and middy blouse she looked like a little girl, and he stood watching her as, flushed and excited, she ran round the long room. At last she came over and dropped onto the steps at his feet.
"Well?" she inquired, looking up. "Did you get it?"
"I did, indeed. A beauty, Delight."
"Not at all. A very handsome car." He told her the make, and she flushed again with pleasure.
"Joy and rapture!" she said. "Did you warn him I am to drive it?"
"I did. He suggests that Graham give you some lessons."
"He'll be bored to insanity. That's all. You - you didn't suggest it, did you, daddy?"
With all her adoration of her father, Delight had long recognized under his real spirituality a certain quality of worldly calculation. That, where it concerned her, it was prompted only by love did not make her acceptance of it easier.
"Certainly not," said the rector, stiffly.
"Graham's changed, you know. He used to be a nice little kid. But he's - I don't know what it is. Spoiled, I suppose."
"He'll steady down, Delight."
She looked up at him with clear, slightly humorous eyes.
"Don't get any queer ideas about Graham Spencer and me, Daddy," she said. "In the first place, I intend to choose my own husband. He's to look as much as possible like you, but a trifle less nose. And in the second place, after I've backed the car into a telegraph pole; and turned it over in a ditch, Graham Spencer is just naturally going to know I am no woman to tie to."
She got up and smiled at him.
"Anyhow, I wouldn't trust him with the communion service," she added, and walking out onto the floor, blew shrilly on her whistle. The rector watched her with growing indignation. These snap judgments of youth! The easy damning of the young! They left no room for argument. They condemned and walked away, leaving careful plans in ruin behind them.
And Delight, having gone so far, went further. She announced that evening at dinner that she would under no circumstances be instructed by Graham Spencer. Her mother ventured good-humored remonstrance.
"The way to learn to drive a car," said Delight, "is to get into it and press a few things, and when it starts, keep on going. You've got to work it out for yourself."
And when Clayton, calling up with his usual thoughtfulness that evening, offered Graham as instructor, she refused gratefully but firmly.
"You're a dear to think of it," she said, "and you're a dear to have given Daddy the car. But I'm just naturally going to fight it out in my own way if it takes all winter."
Natalie, gathering her refusal from Clayton's protest, had heaved a sigh of relief. Not that she objected to Delight Haverford. She liked her as much as she liked and understood any young girl, which was very little. But she did not want Graham to marry. To marry would be to lose him. And again, watching Clayton's handsome head above his newspaper, she reflected that Graham was all she had.
Nevertheless, Delight received a lesson in driving from Graham, and that within two days.
On Saturday afternoon, finding the mill getting on his nerves, Clayton suggested to Graham what might be the last golf of the autumn and Graham consented cheerfully enough. For one thing, the offices closed at noon, and Anna Klein had gone. He was playing a little game with Anna - a light-hearted matter of a glance now and then caught and held, a touched hand, very casually done, and an admiring comment now and then on her work. And Anna was blossoming like a flower. She sat up late to make fresh white blouses for the office, and rose early to have abundance of time to dress. She had taken to using a touch of rouge, too, although she put it on after she reached the mill, and took it off before she started for home.
Her father, sullen and irritable these days, would have probably beaten her for using it.
But Anna had gone, and a telephone call to Marion Hayden had told him she was not at home. He thought it possible she had gone to the country club, and accepted his father's suggestion of golf willingly.
From the moment he left the mill Anna had left his mind. He was at that period when always in the back of his mind there was a girl. During the mill hours the girl was Anna, because she was there. In the afternoon it was Marion, just then, but even at that there were entire evenings when, at the theater, a pretty girl in the chorus held and absorbed his entire attention - or at a dance a debutante, cloudy and mysterious in white chiffon, bounded his universe for a few hours.
On this foundation of girl he built the superstructure of his days. Not evil, but wholly irresponsible. The urge of vital youth had caught him and held him. And Clayton, sitting that day beside him in the car, while Graham drove and the golf clubs rattled in their bags at his feet, remembered again the impulses of his own adolescence, and wondered. There had been a time when he would have gone to the boy frankly, with the anxieties he was beginning to feel. There were so many things he wanted to tell the boy. So many warnings he should have.
But Natalie had stolen him. That was what it amounted to. She had stolen his confidence, as only a selfish woman could. And against that cabal of mother and son he felt helpless. It was even more than that. As against Natalie's indulgence he did not wish to pose as a mentor pointing out always the way of duty.
"How old are you, Graham?" he said suddenly.
"Twenty-two." Graham glanced at him curiously. His father knew his age, of course.
"I was married at your age."
"Tough luck," said Graham. And then: "I'm sorry, father, I didn't mean that. But it's pretty early, isn't it? No time for a good time, or anything."
"I fancy Nature meant men to marry young, don't you? It saves a lot of - complications."
"The girl a fellow marries at that age isn't often the one he'd marry at thirty," said Graham. And feeling that he had said the wrong thing, changed the subject quickly. Clayton did not try to turn it back into its former channel. The boy was uncomfortable, unresponsive. There was a barrier between them, of self-consciousness on his part, of evasion and discomfort on Graham's.
On the way over they had sighted Delight in the new car. She had tried to turn, had backed into a ditch and was at that moment ruefully surveying a machine which had apparently sat down on its rear wheels with its engine pointed pathetically skyward.
Delight's face fell when she recognized them.
"Of course it would have to be you," she said. "Of all the people who might have seen my shame - I'm going on with you. I never want to see the old thing again."
"Anything smashed?" Graham inquired.
"It looks smashed. I can't tell."
It was not until the car was out of the ditch, and Clayton had driven off in Graham's car toward the club that Delight remembered her father's voice the day he had told her Graham would teach her to drive. She stiffened and he was quick to see the change in her manner. The total damage was one flat tire, and while the engine was inflating it, he looked at her. She had grown to be quite pretty. His eyes approved her.
"Better let me come round and give you a few lessons, Delight."
"I'd rather learn by myself, if you don't mind."
"You'll have a real smash unless you learn properly."
But she remained rather obstinately silent.
"What's the matter with me, Delight? You're not exactly crazy about me, are you?"
"That's silly. I don't know anything about you any more."
"That's your fault. You know I've been away for four years, and since I came back I haven't seen much of you. But, if you'll let me come round - "
"You can come if you like. You'll be bored, probably."
"You're being awfully nasty, you know. Here I come to pull you out of a ditch and generally rescue you, and - Come, now, Delight, what is it? There's something. We used to be pals."
"I don't know, Graham," she said truthfully. "I only know - well, I hear things, of course. Nothing very bad. Just little things. I wish you wouldn't insist. It's idiotic. What does it matter what I think?"
Graham flushed. He knew well enough one thing she had heard. Her father and mother had been at dinner the other night, and he had had too much to drink.
He stopped the pump and put away the tools, all in silence. Good heavens, was all the world divided into two sorts of people: the knockers - and under that heading he placed his father, Delight, and all those who occasionally disapproved of him - and the decent sort who liked a fellow and understood him?
But his training had been too good to permit him to show his angry scorn. He made an effort and summoned a smile.
"All ready," he said. "And since you won't let me teach you, perhaps I'd better take you home."
"You were going to the club."
"Oh, that's all right. Father's probably found some one."
But she insisted that he drive them both to the club, and turn the car round there. Then, with a grinding of gear levers that made him groan, she was off toward home, leaving Graham staring after her.
"Well, can you beat it?" he inquired of the empty air. "Can you beat it?"
And wounded in all the pride of new manhood, he joined Marion and her rather riotous crowd around the fire inside the clubhouse. Clayton had given him up and was going around alone, followed by a small caddie. The links were empty, and the caddie lonely. He ventured small bits of conversation now and then, looking up with admiration at Clayton's tall figure. And, after a little, Clayton took the bag from him and used him only for retrieving balls. The boy played round, whistling.
"Kinda quiet to-day, ain't it?" he offered, trudging a foot or two behind.
"It is, rather, young man."
"Mostly on Saturdays I caddie for Mr. Valentine. But he's gone to the war."
"Oh, he has, has he?" Clayton built a small tee, and placed his ball on it. "Well, maybe we'll all be going some day."
He drove off and started after the ball. It was not until he was on the green that he was conscious of the boy beside him again.
"How old d'you have to be to get into the army, Mr. Spencer?" inquired the caddie, anxiously.
Clayton looked at him quizzically.
"Want to try for it, do you? Well, I'm afraid you'll have to wait a bit."
"I'm older than I look, Mr. Spencer."
"How old are you?"
"Afraid you'll have to wait a while," said Clayton and achieved a well-nigh perfect long putt.
"I'd just like to get a whack at them Germans," offered the boy, and getting no response, trudged along again at his heels.
Suddenly it struck Clayton as rather strange that, in all the time since his return from Europe, only four people had shown any but a sort of academic interest in the war, and that, ironically enough, a German had been the first to make a sacrifice for principle. Chris had gone, to get out of trouble. The little caddie wanted to go, to get a "whack" at the madmen of Europe. And Jackson, the chauffeur, was going, giving up his excellent wages to accept the thirty-odd dollars a month of a non-com, from a pure sense of responsibility.
But, among the men he knew best, in business and in the clubs, the war still remained a magnificent spectacle. A daily newspaper drama.
Suddenly Clayton saw Audrey Valentine. She was swinging toward him, her bag with its clubs slung over her shoulder, her hands in the pockets of an orange-colored sweater. In her black velvet tam and short skirt she had looked like a little girl, and at first he did not recognize her. She had seen him, however, and swung toward him.
"Hello, Clay," she called, when they were within hailing distance. "Bully shot, that last."
"Where's your caddie?"
"I didn't want one. I had a feeling that, if I took one, and he lost a ball in these impecunious times of mine, I'd murder him. Saw you at the fifth hole. I'd know your silhouette anywhere."
Under her rakish cap her eyes were rather defiant. She did not want pity; she almost dared him to pity her.
"Come round again with me, Audrey, won't you?"
"I'm off my game to-day. I'll wander along, if you don't mind. I'll probably sneeze or something when you're driving, of course."
"Nothing," he said, gravely approaching his ball, "so adds distance to my drive as a good explosive sneeze just behind it."
They talked very little. Audrey whistled as she walked along with the free swinging step that was characteristic of her, and Clayton was satisfied merely to have her companionship. She was not like some women; a man didn't have to be paying her compliments or making love to her. She even made no comments on his shots, and after a time that rather annoyed him.
"Well?" he demanded, after an excellent putt. "Was that good or wasn't it?"
"Very good," she said gravely. "I am only surprised when you do a thing badly. Not when you do it well."
He thought that over.
"Have you anything in mind that I do badly? I mean, particularly in mind."
"Not very much." But after a moment: "Why don't you make Natalie play golf?"
"She hates it."
He rather wondered if she thought Natalie was one of the things he managed badly.
The sense of companionship warmed him. Although neither of them realized it, their mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction had brought them together, and mentally at least they were clinging, each desperately to the other. But their talk was disjointed:
"I'll return that hundred soon. I've sold the house."
"I wish you wouldn't worry about it. It's ridiculous, Audrey."
And, a hundred yards or so further on, "They wouldn't have Chris in Canada. His heart. He's going into the French Ambulance service."
"Good for Chris."
But she came out very frankly, when they started back to the clubhouse.
"It's done me a lot of good, meeting you, Clay. There's something so big and solid and dependable about you. I wonder - I suppose you don't mind my using you as a sort of anchor to windward?"
"Good heavens, Audrey! If I could only do something."
"You don't have to do a thing." She smiled up at him, and her old audacity was quite gone. "You've just got to be. And - you don't have to send me flowers, you know. I mean, I understand that you're sorry for me, without that. You're the only person in the world I'd allow to be sorry for me."
He was touched. There was no coquetry in her manner. She paid her little tribute quite sincerely and frankly.
"I've been taking stock to-day," she went on, "and I put you among my assets. One reliable gentleman, six feet tall, weight about a hundred and seventy, in good condition. Heavens, what a lot of liabilities you had to off-set!"
He stopped and looked down at her.
"Audrey dear," he said, "what am I to say to all that? What can I do? How can I help?"
"You might tell me - No, that's silly."
"What is silly?"
But she did not answer. She called "Joey!" and gave him her clubs.
"Joey wants to be a soldier," she observed.
"So he says."
"I want to be a soldier, too, Clay. A good soldier."
He suspected that she was rather close to unusual tears.
As they approached the clubhouse they saw Graham and Marion Hayden standing outside. Graham was absently dropping balls and swinging at them. It was too late when Clayton saw the danger and shouted sharply.
A ball caught the caddie on the side of the head and he dropped like a shot.
All through that night Clayton and Audrey Valentine sat by the boy's white bed in the hospital. Clayton knew Graham was waiting outside, but he did not go out to speak to him. He was afraid of himself, afraid in his anger that he would widen the breach between them.
Early in the evening Natalie had come, in a great evening-coat that looked queerly out of place, but she had come, he knew, not through sympathy for the thin little figure on the bed, but as he had known she would come, to plead for Graham. And her cry of joy when the surgeons had said the boy would live was again for Graham.
She had been too engrossed to comment on Audrey's presence there, and Audrey had gone out immediately and left them together. Clayton was forced, that night, to an unwilling comparison of Natalie with another woman. On the surface of their lives, where only they met, Natalie had always borne comparison well. But here was a new standard to measure by, and another woman, a woman with hands to serve and watchful, intelligent eyes, outmeasured her.
Not that Clayton knew all this. He felt, in a vague way, that Natalie was out of place there, and he felt, even more strongly, that she had not the faintest interest in the still figure on its white bed - save as it touched Graham and herself.
He was resentful, too, that she felt it necessary to plead with him for his own boy. Good God, if she felt that way about him, no wonder Graham -
She had placed a hand on Clayton's arm, as he sat in that endless vigil, and bent down to whisper, although no sound would have penetrated that death-like stupor.
"It was an accident, Clay," she pled. "You know Graham's the kindest soul in the world. You know that, Clay."
"He had been drinking." His voice sounded cold and strained to his own ears.
"Not much. Almost nothing, Toots says positively."
"Then I'd rather he had been, Natalie. If he drove that ball out of wanton indifference - "
"He didn't see the boy."
"He should have looked."
In her anger she ceased her sibilant whispering, and stood erect.
"I told him you'd be hard," she said. "He's outside, half-sick with fright, because he is afraid. Afraid of you," she added, and went out, her silks rustling in the quiet corridor.
She had gone away soon after that, the nurse informed him. And toward dawn Clayton left Audrey in the sick room and found Graham. He was asleep in a chair in the waiting-room, and looked boyish and very tired. Clayton's heart contracted.
He went back to his vigil, and let Graham sleep on.
Some time later he roused from a doze in his chair. Graham was across the bed from him, looking down. Audrey was gone. And the injured boy stirred and opened his eyes.
"H-hello, Joey," said Graham, with a catch in his voice.
Joey lay still, his eyes taking in his new surroundings. Then he put out a hand and touched the bandage on his head.
"What I got on?" he demanded, faintly.
Graham caught his father's eyes across the bed, and smiled a shaky, tremulous smile.
"I guess he's all right, Father," he said. And suddenly crumpled up beside the bed, and fell into a paroxysm of silent sobbing. With his arm around the boy's shoulders, Clayton felt in that gray dawn the greatest thankfulness of his life. Joey would live. That cup was taken from his boy's lips. And he and Graham were together again, close together. The boy's grip on his hand was tight. Please God, they would always be together from now on.