by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Natalie Spencer was giving a dinner. She was not an easy hostess. Like most women of futile lives she lacked a sense of proportion, and the small and unimportant details of the service absorbed her. Such conversation as she threw at random, to right and left, was trivial and distracted.
Yet the dinner was an unimportant one. It had been given with an eye more to the menu than to the guest list, which was characteristic of Natalie's mental processes. It was also characteristic that when the final course had been served without mishap, and she gave a sigh of relief before the gesture of withdrawal which was a signal to the other women, that she had realized no lack in it. The food had been good, the service satisfactory. She stood up, slim and beautifully dressed, and gathered up the women with a smile.
The movement found Doctor Haverford, at her left, unprepared and with his coffee cup in his hand. He put it down hastily and rose, and the small cup overturned in its saucer, sending a smudge of brown into the cloth.
"Dreadfully awkward of me!" he said. The clergyman's smile of apology was boyish, but he was suddenly aware that his hostess was annoyed. He caught his wife's amiable eyes on him, too, and they said quite plainly that one might spill coffee at home—one quite frequently did, to confess a good man's weakness—but one did not do it at Natalie Spencer's table. The rector's smile died into a sheepish grin.
For the first time since dinner began Natalie Spencer had a clear view of her husband's face. Not that that had mattered particularly, but the flowers had been too high. For a small dinner, low flowers, always. She would speak to the florist. But, having glanced at Clayton, standing tall and handsome at the head of the table, she looked again. His eyes were fixed on her with a curious intentness. He seemed to be surveying her, from the top of her burnished hair to the very gown she wore. His gaze made her vaguely uncomfortable. It was unsmiling, appraising, almost—only that was incredible in Clay—almost hostile.
Through the open door the half dozen women trailed out, Natalie in white, softly rustling as she moved, Mrs. Haverford in black velvet, a trifle tight over her ample figure, Marion Hayden, in a very brief garment she would have called a frock, perennial debutante that she was, rather negligible Mrs. Terry Mackenzie, and trailing behind the others, frankly loath to leave the men, Audrey Valentine. Clayton Spencer's eyes rested on Audrey with a smile of amused toleration, on her outrageously low green gown, that was somehow casually elegant, on her long green ear-rings and jade chain, on the cigaret between her slim fingers.
Audrey's audacity always amused him. In the doorway she turned and nonchalantly surveyed the room.
"For heaven's sake, hurry!" she apostrophized the table. "We are going to knit—I feel it. And don't give Chris anything more to drink, Clay. He's had enough."
She went on, a slim green figure, moving slowly and reluctantly toward the drawing-room, her head held high, a little smile still on her lips. But, alone for a moment, away from curious eyes, her expression changed, her smile faded, her lovely, irregular face took on a curious intensity. What a devilish evening! Chris drinking too much, talking wildly, and always with furtive eyes on her. Chris! Oh, well, that was life, she supposed.
She stopped before a long mirror and gave a bit of careless attention to her hair. With more care she tinted her lips again with a cosmetic stick from the tiny, diamond-studded bag she carried. Then she turned and surveyed the hall and the library beyond. A new portrait of Natalie was there, hanging on the wall under a shaded light, and she wandered in, still with her cigaret, and surveyed it. Natalie had everything. The portrait showed it. It was beautiful, smug, complacent.
Mrs. Valentine's eyes narrowed slightly. She stood there, thinking about Natalie. She had not everything, after all. There was something she lacked. Charm, perhaps. She was a cold woman. But, then, Clay was cold, too. He was even a bit hard. Men said that; hard and ambitious, although he was popular. Men liked strong men. It was only the weak they deplored and loved. Poor Chris!
She lounged into the drawing-room, smiling her slow, cool smile. In the big, uncarpeted alcove, where stood Natalie's great painted piano, Marion Hayden was playing softly, carefully posed for the entrance of the men. Natalie was sitting with her hands folded, in the exact center of a peacock-blue divan. The others were knitting.
"Very pretty effect, Toots!" Audrey called. And Miss Hayden gave her the unashamed smile of one woman of the world to another.
Audrey had a malicious impulse. She sat down beside Natalie, and against the blue divan her green gown shrieked a discord. She was vastly amused when Natalie found an excuse and moved away, to dispose herself carefully in a tall, old-gold chair, which framed her like a picture.
"We were talking of men, my dear," said Mrs. Haverford, placidly knitting.
"Of course," said Audrey, flippantly.
"Of what it is that they want more than anything else in the world."
"Children-sons," put in Mrs. Mackenzie. She was a robust, big woman with kindly eyes, and she was childless.
"Women!" called Toots Hayden. She was still posed, but she had stopped playing. Mrs. Haverford's eyes rested on her a moment, disapprovingly.
"What do you say, Natalie?" Audrey asked.
"I hadn't thought about it. Money, probably."
"You are all wrong," said Audrey, and lighted a fresh cigaret. "They want different things at different ages. That's why marriage is such a rotten failure. First they want women; any woman will do, really. So they marry—any woman. Then they want money. After that they want power and place. And when they've got that they begin to want—love."
"Good gracious, Audrey, what a cynical speech!" said Mrs. Mackenzie. "If they've been married all that time—"
"Oh, tut!" said Audrey, rudely.
She had the impulse of the unhappy woman to hurt, but she was rather ashamed of herself, too. These women were her friends. Let them go on believing that life was a thing of lasting loves, that men were true to the end, and that the relationships of life were fixed and permanent things.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I was just being clever! Let's talk about the war. It's the only thing worth talking about, anyhow."
In the dining-room Clayton Spencer, standing tall and erect, had watched the women go out. How typical the party was of Natalie, of her meticulous care in small things and her indifference or real ignorance as to what counted. Was it indifference, really, or was it supreme craftiness, the stupidity of her dinners, the general unattractiveness of the women she gathered around her, the ill-assortment of people who had little in themselves and nothing whatever in common?
Of all the party, only Audrey and the rector had interested him even remotely. Audrey amused him. Audrey was a curious mixture of intelligence and frivolity. She was a good fellow. Sometimes he thought she was a nice woman posing as not quite nice. He didn't know. He was not particularly analytical, but at least she had been one bit of cheer during the endless succession of courses.
The rector was the other, and he was relieved to find Doctor Haverford moving up to the vacant place at his right.
"I've been wanting to see you, Clay," he said in an undertone. "It's rather stupid to ask you how you found things over there. But I'm going to do it."
"You mean the war?"
"There's nothing else in the world, is there?"
"One wouldn't have thought so from the conversation here to-night."
Clayton Spencer glanced about the table. Rodney Page, the architect, was telling a story clearly not for the ears of the clergy, and his own son, Graham, forced in at the last moment to fill a vacancy, was sitting alone, bored and rather sulky, and sipping his third cognac.
"If you want my opinion, things are bad."
"For the Allies? Or for us?"
"Good heavens, man, it's the same thing. It is only the Allies who are standing between us and trouble now. The French are just holding their own. The British are fighting hard, but they're fighting at home too. We can't sit by for long. We're bound to be involved."
The rector lighted an excellent cigar.
"Even if we are," he said, hopefully, "I understand our part of it will be purely naval. And I believe our navy will give an excellent account of itself."
"Probably," Clay retorted. "If it had anything to fight! But with the German fleet bottled up, and the inadvisability of attempting to bombard Berlin from the sea—"
The rector made no immediate reply, and Clayton seemed to expect none. He sat back, tapping the table with long, nervous fingers, and his eyes wandered from the table around the room. He surveyed it all with much the look he had given Natalie, a few moments before, searching, appraising, vaguely hostile. Yet it was a lovely room, simple and stately. Rodney Page, who was by way of being decorator for the few, as he was architect for the many, had done the room, with its plainly paneled walls, the over-mantel with an old painting inset, its lion chairs, its two console tables with each its pair of porcelain jars. Clayton liked the dignity of the room, but there were times when he and Natalie sat at the great table alone, with only the candles for light and the rest of the room in a darkness from which the butler emerged at stated intervals and retreated again, when he felt the oppression of it. For a dinner party, with the brilliant colors of the women's gowns, it was ideal. For Natalie and himself alone, with the long silences between them that seemed to grow longer as the years went on, it was inexpressibly dreary.
He was frequently aware that both Natalie and himself were talking for the butler's benefit.
From the room his eyes traveled to Graham, sitting alone, uninterested, dull and somewhat flushed. And on Graham, too, he fixed that clear appraising gaze that had vaguely disconcerted Natalie. The boy had had too much to drink, and unlike the group across the table, it had made him sullen and quiet. He sat there, staring moodily at the cloth and turning his glass around in fingers that trembled somewhat.
Then he found himself involved in the conversation.
"London as dark as they say?" inquired Christopher Valentine. He was a thin young man, with a small, affectedly curled mustache. Clayton did not care for him, but Natalie found him amusing. "I haven't been over—" he really said 'ovah'—"for ages. Eight months or so."
"Very dark. Hard to get about."
"Most of the fellows I know over there are doing something. I'd like to run over, but what's the use? Nobody around, street's dark, no gayety, nothing."
"No. You'd better stay at home. They—don't particularly want visitors, anyhow."
"Unless they go for war contracts, eh?" said Valentine pleasantly, a way he had of taking the edge off the frequent impertinence of his speech. "No, I'm not going over. We're not popular over there, I understand. Keep on thinking we ought to take a hand in the dirty mess."
Graham spoke, unexpectedly.
"Well, don't you think we ought?"
"If you want my candid opinion, no. We've been waving a red flag called the Monroe Doctrine for some little time, as a signal that we won't stand for Europe coming over here and grabbing anything. If we're going to be consistent, we can't do any grabbing in Europe, can we?"
Clayton eyed him rather contemptuously.
"We might want to 'grab' as you term it, a share in putting the madmen of Europe into chains," he said. "I thought you were pro-British, Chris."
"Only as to clothes, women and filet of sole," Chris returned flippantly. Then, seeing Graham glowering at him across the table, he dropped his affectation of frivolity. "What's the use of our going in now?" he argued. "This Somme push is the biggest thing yet. They're going through the Germans like a hay cutter through a field. German losses half a million already."
"And what about the Allies? Have they lost nothing?" This was Clayton's attorney, an Irishman named Denis Nolan. There had been two n's in the Denis, originally, but although he had disposed of a part of his birthright, he was still belligerently Irish. "What about Rumania? What about the Russians at Lemberg? What about Saloniki?"
"You Irish!" said the rector, genially. "Always fighting the world and each other. Tell me, Nolan, why is it that you always have individual humor and collective ill-humor?"
He felt that that was rather neat. But Nolan was regarding him acrimoniously, and Clayton apparently had not heard at all.
The dispute went on, Chris Valentine alternately flippant and earnest, the rector conciliatory, Graham glowering and silent. Nolan had started on the Irish question, and Rodney baited him with the prospect of conscription there. Nolan's voice, full and mellow and strangely sweet, dominated the room.
But Clayton was not listening. He had heard Nolan air his views before. He was a trifle acid, was Nolan. He needed mellowing, a woman in his life. But Nolan had loved once, and the girl had died. With the curious constancy of the Irish, he had remained determinedly celibate.
"Strange race," Clayton reflected idly, as Nolan's voice sang on. "Don't know what they want, but want it like the devil. One-woman men, too. Curious!"
It occurred to him then that his own reflection was as odd as the fidelity of the Irish. He had been faithful to his wife. He had never thought of being anything else.
He did not pursue that line of thought. He sat back and resumed his nervous tapping of the cloth, not listening, hardly thinking, but conscious of a discontent that was beyond analysis.
Clayton had been aware, since his return from the continent and England days before, of a change in himself. He had not recognized it until he reached home. And he was angry with himself for feeling it. He had gone abroad for certain Italian contracts and had obtained them. A year or two, if the war lasted so long, and he would be on his feet at last, after years of struggle to keep his organization together through the hard times that preceded the war. He would be much more than on his feet. Given three more years of war, and he would be a very rich man.
And now that the goal was within sight, he was finding that it was not money he wanted. There were some things money could not buy. He had always spent money. His anxieties had not influenced his scale of living. Money, for instance, could not buy peace for the world; or peace for a man, either. It had only one value for a man; it gave him independence of other men, made him free.
"Three things," said the rector, apropos of something or other, and rather oratorically, "are required by the normal man. Work, play, and love. Assure the crippled soldier that he has lost none of these, and—"
Work and play and love. Well, God knows he had worked. Play? He would have to take up golf again more regularly. He ought to play three times a week. Perhaps he could take a motor-tour now and then, too. Natalie would like that.
Love? He had not thought about love very much. A married man of forty-five certainly had no business thinking about love. No, he certainly did not want love. He felt rather absurd, even thinking about it. And yet, in the same flash, came a thought of the violent passions of his early twenties. There had been a time when he had suffered horribly because Natalie had not wanted to marry him. He was glad all that was over. No, he certainly did not want love.
He drew a long breath and straightened up.
"How about those plans, Rodney?" he inquired genially. "Natalie says you have them ready to look over."
"I'll bring them round, any time you say."
"To-morrow, then. Better not lose any time. Building is going to be a slow matter, at the best."
"Slow and expensive," Page added. He smiled at his host, but Clayton Spencer remained grave.
"I've been away," he said, "and I don't know what Natalie and you have cooked up between you. But just remember this: I want a comfortable country house. I don't want a public library."
Page looked uncomfortable. The move into the drawing-room covered his uneasiness, but he found a moment later on to revert to the subject.
"I have tried to carry out Natalie's ideas, Clay," he said. "She wanted a sizeable place, you know. A wing for house-parties, and—that sort of thing."
Clayton's eyes roamed about the room, where portly Mrs. Haverford was still knitting placidly, where the Chris Valentines were quarreling under pretense of raillery, where Toots Hayden was smoking a cigaret in a corner and smiling up at Graham, and where Natalie, exquisite and precise, was supervising the laying out of a bridge table.
"She would, of course," he observed, rather curtly, and, moving through a French window, went out onto a small balcony into the night.
He was irritated with himself. What had come over him? He shook himself, and drew a long breath of the sweet night air. His tall, boyishly straight figure dominated the little place. In the half-light he looked, indeed, like an overgrown boy. He always looked like Graham's brother, anyhow; it was one of Natalie's complaints against him. But he put the thought of Natalie away, along with his new discontent. By George, it was something to feel that, if a man could not fight in this war, at least he could make shells to help end it. Oblivious to the laughter in the room behind him, the clink of glass as whiskey-and-soda was brought in, he planned there in the darkness, new organization, new expansions—and found in it a great content.
He was proud of his mills. They were his, of his making. The small iron foundry of his father's building had developed into the colossal furnaces that night after night lighted the down-town district like a great conflagration. He was proud of his mills and of his men. He liked to take men and see them work out his judgment of them. He was not often wrong. Take that room behind him: Rodney Page, dilettante, liked by women, who called him "Roddie," a trifle unscrupulous but not entirely a knave, the sort of man one trusted with everything but one's wife; Chris, too—only he let married women alone, and forgot to pay back the money he borrowed. There was only one man in the room about whom he was beginning to mistrust his judgment, and that was his own son.
Perhaps it was because he had so recently come from lands where millions of boys like Graham were pouring out their young lives like wine, that Clayton Spencer was seeing Graham with a new vision. He turned and glanced back into the drawing-room, where Graham, in the center of that misfit group and not quite himself, was stooping over Marion Hayden. They would have to face that, of course, the woman urge in the boy. Until now his escapades had been boyish ones, a few debts frankly revealed and as frankly regretted, some college mischiefs, a rather serious gambling fever, quickly curbed. But never women, thank God.
But now the boy was through with college, and already he noticed something new in their relationship. Natalie had always spoiled him, and now there were, with increasing frequency, small consultations in her room when he was shut out, and he was beginning to notice a restraint in his relations with the boy, as though mother and son had united against him.
He was confident that Natalie was augmenting Graham's allowance from her own. His salary, rather, for he had taken the boy into the business, not as a partner—that would come later—but as the manager of a department. He never spoke to Natalie of money. Her house bills were paid at the office without question. But only that day Miss Potter, his secretary, had reported that Mrs. Spencer's bank had called up and he had made good a considerable overdraft.
He laid the cause of his discontent to Graham, finally. The boy had good stuff in him. He was not going to allow Natalie to spoil him, or to withdraw him into that little realm of detachment in which she lived. Natalie did not need him, and had not, either as a lover or a husband, for years. But the boy did.
There was a little stir in the room behind. The Haverfords were leaving, and the Hayden girl, who was plainly finding the party dull. Graham was looking down at her, a tall, handsome boy, with Natalie's blonde hair but his father's height and almost insolent good looks.
"Come around to-morrow," she was saying. "About four. There's always a crowd about five, you know."
Clayton knew, and felt a misgiving. The Hayden house was a late afternoon loafing and meeting place for the idle sons and daughters of the rich. Not the conservative old families, who had developed a sense of the responsibility of wealth, but of the second generation of easily acquired money. As she went out, with Graham at her elbow, he heard Chris, at the bridge table.
"Terrible house, the Haydens. Just one step from the Saturday night carouse in Clay's mill district."
When Graham came back, Mrs. Haverford put her hand on his arm.
"I wish you would come to see us, Graham. Delight so often speaks of you."
Graham stiffened almost imperceptibly.
"Thanks, I will." But his tone was distant.
"You know she comes out this winter."
"And—you were great friends. I think she misses you a little."
"I wish I thought so!"
Gentle Mrs. Haverford glanced up at him quickly.
"You know she doesn't approve of me."
"Well, ask her," he said. And there was a real bitterness under the lightness of his tone. "I'll come, of course, Mrs. Haverford. Thank you for asking me. I haven't a lot of time. I'm a sort of clerk down at the mill, you know."
Natalie overheard, and her eyes met Clayton's, with a glance of malicious triumph. She had been deeply resentful that he had not made Graham a partner at once. He remembered a conversation they had had a few months before.
"Why should he have to start at the bottom?" she had protested. "You have never been quite fair to him, Clay." His boyish diminutive had stuck to him. "You expect him to know as much about the mill now as you do, after all these years."
"Not at all. I want him to learn. That's precisely the reason why I'm not taking him in at once."
"How much salary is he to have?"
"Three thousand a year."
"Three thousand! Why, it will take all of that to buy him a car."
"There are three cars here now; I should think he could manage."
"Every boy wants his own car."
"I pay my other managers three thousand," he had said, still patient. "He will live here. His car can be kept here, without expense. Personally, I think it too much money for the service he will be able to give for the first year or two."
And, although she had let it go at that, he had felt in her a keen resentment. Graham had got a car of his own, was using it hard, if the bills the chauffeur presented were an indication, and Natalie had overdrawn her account two thousand five hundred dollars.
The evening wore on. Two tables of bridge were going, with Denis Nolan sitting in at one. Money in large amounts was being written in on the bridge scores. The air of the room was heavy with smoke, and all the men and some of the women were drinking rather too much. There were splotches of color under the tan in Graham's cheeks, and even Natalie's laughter had taken on a higher note.
Chris's words rankled in Clayton Spencer's mind. A step from the Saturday night carouse. How much better was this sort of thing? A dull party, driven to cards and drink to get through the evening. And what sort of home life were he and Natalie giving the boy? Either this, or the dreary evenings when they were alone, with Natalie sifting with folded hands, or withdrawing to her boudoir upstairs, where invariably she summoned Graham to talk to him behind closed doors.
He went into the library and shut the door. The room rested him, after the babble across. He lighted a cigar, and stood for a moment before Natalie's portrait. It had been painted while he was abroad at, he suspected, Rodney's instigation. It left him quite cold, as did Natalie herself.
He could look at it dispassionately, as he had never quite cared to regard Natalie. Between them, personally, there was always the element she never allowed him to forget, that she had given him a son. This was Natalie herself, Natalie at forty-one, girlish, beautiful, fretful and—selfish. Natalie with whom he was to live the rest of his life, who was to share his wealth and his future, and with whom he shared not a single thought in common.
He had a curious sense of disloyalty as he sat down at his desk and picked up a pad and pencil. But a moment later he had forgotten her, as he had forgotten the party across the hall. He had work to do. Thank God for work.
Natalie was in bed when he went up-stairs. Through the door of his dressing-room he could see her lying, surrounded by papers. Natalie's handsome bed was always covered with things, her handkerchief, a novel, her silk dressing-gown flung over the footboard, sometimes bits of dress materials and lace. Natalie did most of her planning in bed.
He went in and, clearing a space, sat down on the foot of the bed, facing her. Her hair was arranged in a loose knot on top of her head, and there was a tiny space, perhaps a quarter of an inch, slightly darker than the rest. He realized with a little start that she had had her hair touched up during his absence. Still, she looked very pretty, her skin slightly glistening with its night's bath of cold cream, her slim arms lying out on the blue silk eiderdown coverlet.
"I told Doctor Haverford to-night that we would like to give him a car, Natalie," he began directly. It was typical of him, the "we."
"A car? What for?"
"To ride about in, my dear. It's rather a large parish, you know. And I don't feel exactly comfortable seeing him tramping along when most people are awheel. He's not very young."
"He'll kill himself, that's all."
"Well, that's rather up to Providence, of course."
"You are throwing a sop to Providence, aren't you?" she asked shrewdly. "Throwing bread on the waters! I daresay he angled for it. You're easy, Clay. Give you a good dinner—it was a nice dinner, wasn't it?"
"A very nice dinner," he assented. But at the tone she looked up.
"Well, what was wrong?" she demanded. "I saw when I went out that you were angry about something. Your face was awful."
"Oh, come now, Natalie," he protested. "It wasn't anything of the sort. The dinner was all right. The guests were—all right. I may have unconsciously resented your attitude about Doctor Haverford. Certainly he didn't angle for it, and I had no idea of throwing a sop to Providence."
"That isn't what was wrong at dinner."
"Do you really want me to tell you?"
"Not if it's too disagreeable."
"Good heavens, Natalie. One would think I bullied you!"
"Oh, no, you don't bully. It's worse. It's the way you look. Your face sets. Well?"
"I didn't feel unpleasant. It's rather my misfortune that my face—"
"Didn't you like my gown?"
"Very much. It seemed a trifle low, but you know I always like your clothes." He was almost pathetically anxious to make up to her for that moment's disloyalty in the library.
"There!" she said, brushing the papers aside. "Now we're getting at it. Was I anything like as low as Audrey Valentine? Of course not! Her back—You just drive me to despair, Clay. Nothing I do pleases you. The very tone of that secretary of yours to-day, when I told her about that over-draft—it was positively insulting!"
"I don't like overdrafts," he said, without any irritation. "When you want extra amounts you have only to let me know."
"You are always finding fault with me," she complained. "It's either money, or my clothes, or Graham, or something." Her eyes filled. She looked young and absurdly childish. But a talk he had had with the rector was still in his mind. It was while they were still at the table, and Nolan had been attacking the British government.
"We get out of this world largely what we put into it," he had said. "You give largely, Clay, and you receive largely. I rejoice in your prosperity, because you have earned it."
"You think, then," he had asked, "that we only receive as we give? I don't mean material things, of course."
The rector had fixed him with kindly, rather faded old eyes. "That has been my experience," he said. "Happiness for instance only comes when we forget our eternal search for it, and try to make others happy. Even religion is changing. The old selfish idea of saving our own souls has given way largely to the saving of others, by giving them a chance to redeem themselves. Decent living conditions—"
He had gone on, but Clayton had not listened very intently. He had been wondering if happiness was not the thing he had somehow missed. It was then that he had decided to give the car. If, after all, that would make for the rector's happiness—
"I don't want to find fault with you, Natalie," he said gravely. "I would like to see you happy. Sometimes I think you are not. I have my business, but you have nothing to do, and—I suppose you wouldn't be interested in war-work, would you? There are a lot of committees, and since I've been in England I realize what a vast amount is needed. Clothes, you know, and bandages, and—well, everything."
"Nothing to do," she looked up, her eyes wide and indignant. "But of course you would think that. This house runs itself, I suppose."
"Let's be honest, Natalie," he said, with a touch of impatience. "Actually how much time each day do you give this house? You have plenty of trained servants. An hour? Two hours?"
"I'll not discuss it with you." She took up a typewritten sheet and pretended to read it carefully. Clayton had a half-humorous, half-irritated conviction that if he was actually hunting happiness he had begun his search for it rather badly. He took the paper from her, gently.
"What's this?" he inquired. "Anything I should not see?"
"Decorator's estimates for the new house." Her voice was resentful. "You'll have to see them some time."
"Library curtains, gray Chippendale velvet, gold gimp, faced with colonial yellow," he read an item picked at random, "two thousand dollars! That's going some for curtains, isn't it?"
"It's not too much for that sort of thing."
"But, look here, Natalie," he expostulated. "This is to be a country house, isn't it? I thought you wanted chintzed and homey things. This looks like a city house in the country."
He glanced down at the total. The hangings alone, with a tapestry or two, were to be thirty-five thousand dollars. He whistled.
"Hangings alone! And—what sort of a house has Rodney planned, anyhow?"
"Italian, with a sunken garden. The landscape estimates are there, too."
He did not look at them.
"It seems to me you and Rodney have been pretty busy while I've been away," he remarked. "Well, I want you to be happy, my dear. Only—I don't want to tie up a fortune just now. We may get into this war, and if we do—" He rose, and yawned, his arms above his head. "I'm off to bed," he said. "Big day to-morrow. I'll want Graham at the office at 8:30."
She had sat up in bed, and was staring at him. Her face was pale.
"Do you mean that we are going to get into this war?"
"I think it very likely, my dear."
"But if we do, Graham—"
"We might as well face it. Graham will probably want to go."
"He'll do nothing of the sort," she said sharply. "He's all I have. All. Do you think I'm going to send him over there to be cannon-fodder? I won't let him go."
She was trembling violently.
"I won't want him to go, of course. But if the thing comes—he's of age, you know."
She eyed him with thinly veiled hostility.
"You're hard, Clay," she accused him. "You're hard all the way through. You're proud, too. Proud and hard. You'd want to be able to say your son was in the army. It's not because you care anything about the war, except to make money out of it. What is the war to you, anyhow? You don't like the English, and as for French—you don't even let me have a French butler."
He was not the less angry because he realized the essential truth of part of what she said. He felt no great impulse of sympathy with any of the combatants. He knew the gravity of the situation rather than its tragedy. He did not like war, any war. He saw no reason why men should kill. But this war was a fact. He had had no hand in its making, but it was made.
His first impulse was to leave her in dignified silence. But she was crying, and I he disliked leaving her in tears. Dead as was his love for her, and that night, somehow, he knew that it was dead, she was still his wife. They had had some fairly happy years together, long ago. And he felt the need, too, of justification.
"Perhaps you are right, Natalie," he said, after a moment. "I haven't cared about this war as much as I should. Not the human side of it, anyhow. But you ought to understand that by making shells for the Allies, I am not only making money for myself; they need the shells. And I'll give them the best. I don't intend only to profit by their misfortunes."
She had hardly listened.
"Then, if we get into it, as you say, you'll encourage Graham to go?"
"I shall allow him to go, if he feels it his duty."
"Oh, duty, duty! I'm sick of the word." She bent forward and suddenly caught one of his hands. "You won't make him go, Clay?" she begged. "You—you'll let him make his own decision?"
"If you will."
"What do you mean?"
"If you'll keep your hands off, too. We're not in it, yet. God knows I hope we won't be. But if I promise not to influence him, you must do the same thing."
"I haven't any more influence over Graham than that," she said, and snapped her finger. But she did not look at him.
"Promise," he said, steadily.
"Oh, all right." Her voice and face were sulky. She looked much as Graham had that evening at the table.
"Is that a promise?"
"Good heavens, do you want me to swear to it?"
"I want you to play fair. That's all."
She leaned back again among her pillows and gathered her papers.
"All right," she said, indifferently. "Have you any preference as to color for your rooms in the new house?"
He was sorry for his anger, and after all, these things which seemed so unimportant to him were the things that made up her life. He smiled.
"You might match my eyes. I'm not sure what color they are. Perhaps you know."
But she had not forgiven him.
"I've never noticed," she replied. And, small bundle of samples in her hand, resumed her reading and her inspection of textiles.
"Good night, Natalie."
"Good night." She did not look up.
Outside his wife's door he hesitated. Then he crossed and without knocking entered Graham's bedroom. The boy was lounging in a long chair by an open fire. He was in his dressing gown and slippers, and an empty whiskey-and-soda glass stood beside him on a small stand. Graham was sound asleep. Clayton touched him on the shoulder, but he slept on, his head to one side, his breathing slow and heavy. It required some little effort to waken him.
"Graham!" said Clayton sharply.
"Yes." He stirred, but did not open his eyes.
"Graham! Wake up, boy."
Graham sat up suddenly and looked at him. The whites of his eyes were red, but he had slept off the dinner wine. He was quite himself.
"Better get to bed," his father suggested. "I'll want you early to-morrow."
"What time, sir?"
He leaned forward and pressed a button beside the mantel-piece.
"What are you doing that for?"
"Ice water. Awfully thirsty."
"The servants have gone to bed. Go down and get it yourself."
Graham looked up at the tone. At his father's eyes, he looked away.
"Sorry, sir," he said. "Must have had too much champagne. Wasn't much else to do, was there? Mother's parties—my God, what a dreary lot!"
Clayton inspected the ice water carafe on the stand and found it empty.
"I'll bring you some water from my room," he said. "And—I don't want to see you this way again, Graham. When a man cannot take a little wine at his own table without taking too much he fails to be entirely a gentleman."
He went out. When he came back, Graham was standing by the fire in his pajamas, looking young and rather ashamed. Clayton had a flash of those earlier days when he had come in to bid the boy good night, and there had always been that last request for water which was to postpone the final switching off of the light.
"I'm sorry, father."
Clayton put his hand on the boy's shoulder and patted him.
"We'll have to do better next time. That's all."
For a moment the veil of constraint of Natalie's weaving lifted between them.
"I'm a pretty bad egg, I guess. You'd better shove me off the dock and let me swim—or drown."
"I'd hardly like to do that, you know. You are all I have."
"I'm no good at the mill."
"You haven't had very much time. I've been a good many years learning the business."'
"I'll never be any good. Not there. If there was something to build up it would be different, but it's all done. You've done it. I'm only a sort of sublimated clerk. I don't mean," he added hastily, "that I think I ought to have anything more. It's only that—well, the struggle's over, if you know what I mean."
"I'll talk to you about that to-morrow. Get to bed now. It's one o'clock."
He moved to the doorway. Graham, carafe in hand, stood staring ahead of him. He had the courage of the last whiskey-and-soda, and a sort of desperate contrition.
"I wish you'd let me go to France and fly."
Something like a cold hand seemed to close round Clayton's heart.
"Because I'm not doing any good here. And—because I'd like to see if I have any good stuff in me. All the fellows are going," he added, rather weakly.
"That's not a particularly worthy reason, is it?"
"It's about as worthy as making money out of shells, when we haven't any reason for selling them to the Allies more than the Germans, except that we can't ship to the Germans."
He looked rather frightened then. But Clayton was not angry. He saw Natalie's fine hand there, and the boy's impressionable nature.
"Think that over, Graham," he said gravely. "I don't believe you quite mean it. Good-night."
He went across to his own bedroom, where his silk pajamas, neatly folded, lay on his painted Louis XVI bed. Under his reading lamp there was a book. It was a part of Natalie's decorative scheme for the room; it's binding was mauve, to match the hangings. For the first time since the room had been done over during his absence he picked up the book.
"Rodney's idea, for a cent!" he reflected, looking rather grimly at the cover.
He undressed slowly, his mind full of Graham and the problem he presented. Then he thought of Natalie, and of the little things that made up her life and filled her days. He glanced about the room, beautiful, formal, exquisitely appointed. His father's portrait was gone from over the mantel, and an old French water-color hung there instead. That was too bad of Natalie. Or had it been Rodney? He would bring it back. And he gave a fleeting thought to Graham and his request to go abroad. He had not meant it. It was sheer reaction. But he would talk to Graham.
He lighted a cigaret, and getting into bed turned on his reading lamp. Queer how a man could build, and then find that after all he did not care for the achievement. It was the building alone that was worth while.
He picked up the book from the table, and opened it casually.
"When first I loved I gave my very soul Utterly unreserved to Love's control, But Love deceived me, wrenched my youth away, And made the gold of life forever gray. Long I lived lonely, yet I tried in vain With any other joy to stifle pain; There is no other joy, I learned to know, And so returned to love, as long ago, Yet I, this little while ere I go hence, Love very lightly now, in self defense."
"Twaddle," said Clayton Spencer, and put the book away. That was the sort of stuff men like Rodney lived on. In a mauve binding, too.
After he had put out the light he lay for a long time, staring into the darkness. It was not love he wanted: he was through with all that. Power was the thing, integrity and power. To yield to no man, to achieve independence for one's soul—not that he put it that way. He formulated it, drowsily: 'Not to give a damn for any one, so long as you're right.' Of course, it was not always possible to know if one was right. He yawned. His conscious mind was drowsing, and from the depths below, released of the sentry of his waking hours, came the call of his starved imagination.
There was no moral to be adduced from Graham's waking the next morning. He roused, reluctantly enough, but blithe and hungry. He sang as he splashed in his shower, chose his tie whistling, and went down the staircase two steps at a time to a ravenous breakfast.
Clayton was already at the table in the breakfast room, sitting back with the newspaper, his coffee at his elbow, the first cigarette of the morning half smoked. He looked rather older in the morning light. Small fine threads had begun to show themselves at the corners of his eyes. The lines of repression from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth seemed deeper. But his invincible look of boyishness persisted, at that.
There was no awkwardness in Graham's "Morning, dad." He had not forgotten the night before, but he had already forgiven himself. He ignored the newspaper at his plate, and dug into his grapefruit.
"Anything new?" he inquired casually.
"You might look and see," Clayton suggested, good-naturedly.
"I'll read going down in the car. Can't stand war news on an empty stomach. Mother all right this morning?"
"I think she is still sleeping."
"Well, I should say she needs it, after last night. How in the world we manage, with all the interesting people in the world, to get together such a dreary lot as that—Lord, it was awful."
Clayton rose and folded his paper.
"The car's waiting," he said. "I'll be ready in five minutes."
He went slowly up the stairs. In her pink bedroom Natalie had just wakened. Madeleine, her elderly French maid, had brought her breakfast, and she was lying back among the pillows, the litter of the early mail about her and a morning paper on her knee. He bent over and kissed her, perfunctorily, and he was quick to see that her resentment of the evening before had survived the night.
"Sleep well?" he inquired, looking down at her. She evaded his eyes.
"Any plans for to-day?"
"I'll just play around. I'm lunching out, and I may run out with Rodney to Linndale. The landscape men are there today."
She picked up the newspaper as though to end the discussion. He saw then that she was reading the society news, and he rather more than surmised that she had not even glanced at the black headings which on the first page announced the hideous casualties of the Somme.
"Then you've given the planting contract?"
"Some things have to go in in the fall, Clay. For heaven's sake, don't look like a thunder cloud."
"Have you given the landscape contract?"
"Yes. And please go out. You make my head ache."
"How much is it to be?"
"I don't know. Ask Rodney."
"I'll do nothing of the sort, my dear. This is not Rodney's investment."
"Nor mine, I suppose!"
"All I want you to do, Natalie, is to consult me. I want you to have a free hand, but some one with a sense of responsibility ought to check up these expenditures. But it isn't only that. I'd like to have a hand in the thing myself. I've rather looked forward to the time when we could have the sort of country place we wanted."
"You don't like any of the strings to get out of your fingers, do you?"
"I didn't come up to quarrel, Natalie. I wish you wouldn't force it on me."
"I force it on you," she cried, and laughed in a forced and high-pitched note. "Just because I won't be over-ridden without a protest! I'm through, that's all. I shan't go near the place again."
"You don't understand," he persisted patiently. "I happen to like gardens. I had an idea—I told you about it—of trying to duplicate the old garden at home. You remember it. When we went there on our honeymoon—"
"You don't call that a garden?"
"Of course I didn't want to copy it exactly. It was old and out of condition. But there were a lot of old-fashioned flowers—-However, if you intend to build an Italian villa, naturally—"
"I don't intend to build anything, or to plant anything." Her voice was frozen. "You go ahead. Do it in your own way. And then you can live there, if you like. I won't."
Which was what he carried away with him that morning to the mill. He was not greatly disturbed by her threat to keep her hands off. He knew quite well, indeed, that the afternoon would find her, with Rodney Page, picking her way in her high-heeled shoes over the waste that was some day to bloom, not like the rose of his desire but according to the formal and rigid blueprint which Rodney would be carrying. But in five minutes he had put the incident out of his mind. After all, if it gave her happiness and occupation, certainly she needed both. And his powers of inhibition were strong. For many years he had walled up the small frictions of his married life and its disappointments, and outside that wall had built up an existence of his own, which was the mill.
When he went down-stairs he found that Graham had ordered his own car and was already in it, drawing on his gloves.
"Have to come back up-town early, dad," he called in explanation, and drove off, going at the reckless speed he affected.
Clayton rode down alone in the limousine. He had meant to outline his plans of expansion to Graham, but he had had no intention of consulting him. In his own department the boy did neither better nor worse than any other of the dozens of young men in the organization. If he had shown neither special aptitude for nor interest in the business, he had at least not signally failed to show either. Now, paper and pencil in hand, Clayton jotted down the various details of the new system in their sequence; the building of a forging plant to make the rough casts for the new Italian shells out of the steel from the furnaces, the construction of a new spur to the little railway which bound the old plant together with its shining steel rails. There were questions of supplies and shipping and bank credits to face, the vast and complex problems of the complete new munition works, to be built out of town and involving such matters as the housing of enormous numbers of employees. He scrawled figures and added them. Even with the size of the foreign contract their magnitude startled him. He leaned back, his mouth compressed, the lines from the nostrils to the corners deeper than ever.
He had completely forgotten Natalie and the country house.
Outside the gates to the mill enclosure he heard an early extra being called, and bought it. The Austrian premier had been assassinated. The successful French counter-attack against Verdun was corroborated, also. On the center of the front page was the first photograph to reach America of a tank. He inspected it with interest. So the Allies had at last shown same inventive genius of their own! Perhaps this was but the beginning. Even at that, enough of these fighting mammoths, and the war might end quickly. With the tanks, and the Allied offensive and the evidence of discontent in Austria, the thing might after all be over before America was involved.
He reflected, however, that an early peace would not be an unmixed blessing for him. He wanted the war to end: he hated killing. He felt inarticulately that something horrible was happening to the world. But personally his plans were premised on a war to last at least two years more, until the fall of 1918. That would let him out, cover the cost of the new plant, bring renewals of his foreign contracts, justify those stupendous figures on the paper in his hand.
He wondered, rather uncomfortably, what he would do, under the circumstances, if it were in his power to declare peace to-morrow.
In his office in the mill administration building, he found the general manager waiting. Through the door into the conference room beyond he could see the superintendents of the various departments, with Graham rather aloof and detached, and a sprinkling of the most important foremen. On his desk, neatly machined, was the first tentative shell-case made in the mill machine-shop, an experiment rather than a realization.
Hutchinson, the general manager, was not alone. Opposite him, very neatly dressed in his best clothes, his hat in his hand and a set expression on his face, was one of the boss rollers of the steel mill, Herman Klein. At Clayton's entrance he made a motion to depart, but Hutchinson stopped him.
"Tell Mr. Spencer what you've been telling me, Klein," he said curtly.
Klein fingered his hat, but his face remained set.
"I've just been saying, Mr. Spencer," he said, in good English, but with the guttural accent which thirty years in America had not eliminated, "that I'll be leaving you now."
"Because of that!" He pointed, without intentional drama, at the shell-case. "I can't make those shells for you, Mr. Spencer, and me a German."
"You're an American, aren't you?"
"I am, sir. It is not that. It iss that I—" His face worked. He had dropped back to the old idiom, after years of painful struggle to abandon it. "It iss that I am a German, also. I have people there, in the war. To make shells to kill them—no."
"He is determined, Mr. Spencer," said Hutchinson. "I have been arguing with him, but—you can't argue with a German."
Clayton was uneasily aware of something like sympathy for the man.
"I understand how you feel, Klein," he observed. "But of course you know, whether you go or stay, the shells will be made, anyhow."
"I know that."
"You are throwing up a good position."
"I'll try to get another."
The prospective loss of Klein was a rather serious one. Clayton, seated behind his great desk, eyed him keenly, and then stooped to bribery. He mentioned a change in the wage scale, with bonuses to all foremen and rollers. He knew Klein's pride in the mill, and he outlined briefly the growth that was about to be developed. But the boss roller remained obdurate. He understood that such things were to be, but it was not necessary that he assist Germany's enemies against her. Against the determination in his heavy square figure Clayton argued in vain. When, ten minutes later, he went into the conference room, followed by a secretary with a sheaf of papers, the mill was minus a boss roller, and there was rankling in his mind Klein's last words.
"I haf no objection, Mr. Spencer, to your making money out of this war, but I will not."
There had been no insolence in his tone. He had gone out, with his heavy German stolidity of mien unchanged, and had closed the door behind him with quiet finality.
Graham left the conference that morning in a rather exalted mood. The old mill was coming into its own at last. He had a sense of boyish triumph in the new developments, a feeling of being a part of big activities that would bring rich rewards. And he felt a new pride in his father. He had sat, a little way from the long table, and had watched the faces of the men gathered about it as clearly and forcibly the outlines of the new departure were given out. Hitherto "Spencer's" had made steel only. Now, they were not only to make the steel, but they were to forge the ingots into rough casts; these casts were then to be carried to the new munition works, there to be machined, drilled, polished, provided with fuses, which "Spencer's" were also to make, and shipped abroad.
The question of speeding production had been faced and met. The various problems had been discussed and the bonus system tentatively taken up. Then the men had dispersed, each infected with the drive of his father's contagious force. "Pretty fine old boy," Graham had considered. And he wondered vaguely if, when his time came, he would be able to take hold. For a few minutes Natalie's closetings lost their effect. He saw his father, not as one from whom to hide extravagance and unpaid bills, but as the head of a great concern that was now to be a part of the war itself. He wandered into his father's office, and picked up the shell. Clayton was already at his letters, but looked up.
"Think we rather had them, eh, Graham?"
"Think you did, sir. Carried them off their feet. Pretty, isn't it?" He held up the shell-case. "If a fellow could only forget what the damned things are for!"
"They are to help to end the war," said Clayton, crisply. "Don't forget that, boy." And went back to his steady dictation.
Graham went out of the building into the mill yard. The noise always irritated him. He had none of Clayton's joy and understanding of it. To Clayton each sound had its corresponding activity. To Graham it was merely din, an annoyance to his ears, as the mill yard outraged his fastidiousness. But that morning he found it rather more bearable. He stooped where, in front of the store, the storekeeper had planted a tiny garden. Some small late-blossoming chrysanthemums were still there and he picked one and put it in his buttonhole.
His own office was across the yard. He dodged in front of a yard locomotive, picked his way about masses of lumber and the general litter of all mill yards, and opened the door of his own building. Just inside his office a girl was sitting on a straight chair, her hat a trifle crooked, and her eyes red from crying. He paused in amazement.
"Why, Miss Klein!" he said. "What's the matter?"
She was rather a pretty girl, even now. She stood up at his voice and made an effort to straighten her hat.
"Haven't you heard?" she asked.
"I haven't heard anything that ought to make Miss Anna Klein weep of a nice, frosty morning in October. Unless—" he sobered, for her grief was evident. "Tell me about it."
"Father has given up his job."
"I'm telling you, Mr. Spencer. He won't help to make those shells. He's been acting queer for three or four days and this morning he told your father."
"As if it made any difference," she went on irritably. "Some one else will get his job. That's all. What does he care about the Germans? He left them and came to America as soon as he could walk."
Graham sat down.
"Now let's get this," he said. "He won't make shells for the Allies and so he's given up his position. All right. That's bad, but he's a good workman. He'll not have any trouble getting another job. Now, why are you crying?"
"I didn't think you'd want me to stay on."
Putting her fear into words brought back her long hours of terror. She collapsed into the chair again and fell to unquiet sobbing. Graham was disturbed.
"You're a queer girl," he said. "Why should that lose me my most valued assistant?"
When she made no reply he got up and going over to her put a hand on her shoulder. "Tell me that," he said.
He looked down at her. The hair grew very soft and blonde at the nape of her neck, and he ran a finger lightly across it. "Tell me that."
"I was afraid it would."
"And, even if it had, which you are a goose for thinking, you're just as good in your line as your father is in his. I've been expecting any time to hear of your leaving me for a handsomer man!"
He had been what he would have termed jollying her back to normality again. But to his intense surprise she suddenly leaned back and looked up into his face. There was no doubting what he saw there. Just for a moment the situation threatened to get out of hand. Then he patted her shoulders and put the safety of his desk between them.
"Run away and bathe your eyes," he said, "and then come back here looking like the best secretary in the state, and not like a winter thaw. We have the deuce of a lot of work to do."
But after she had gone he sat for some little time idly rapping a pencil on the top of his desk. By Jove! Anna Klein! Of all girls in the world! It was rather a pity, too. She was a nice little thing, and in the last few months she had changed a lot. She had been timid at first, and hideously dressed. Lately she had been almost smart. Those ear-rings now—they changed her a lot. Queer—how things went on in a girl's mind, and a fellow didn't know until something happened. He settled his tie and smoothed back his heavy hair.
During the remainder of the day he began to wonder if he had not been a fatuous idiot. Anna did her work with the thoroughness of her German blood plus her American training. She came back minus her hat, and with her eyes carefully powdered, and not once during the morning was he able to meet her eyes fully. By the middle of the afternoon sex vanity and curiosity began to get the better of his judgment, and he made an excuse, when she stood beside him over some papers, her hand on the desk, to lay his fingers over hers. She drew her hand away quickly, and when he glanced up, boyishly smiling, her face was flushed.
"Please," she said. And he felt hurt and rebuffed. He had no sentiment for her whatever, but the devil of mischief of twenty-two was behind him, urging him on to the eternal experiment. He was very formal with her for the rest of the day, and had the satisfaction of leaving her, at four o'clock, white-faced and miserable over her machine in the little office next to his.
He forgot her immediately, in the attempt to leave the mill without encountering his father. Clayton, he knew, would be staying late, and would be exacting similar tribute to the emergency from the entire force. Also, he had been going about the yard with contractors most of the afternoon. But Graham made his escape safely. It was two hours later when his father, getting into the limousine, noticed the absence of the boy's red car, and asked the gateman how long it had been gone.
"Since about four o'clock, Mr. Spencer."
Suddenly Clayton felt a reaction from the activities of the day. He sank back in the deeply padded seat, and felt tired and—in some odd fashion—lonely. He would have liked to talk to Graham on the way up-town, if only to crystallize his own thoughts. He would have liked to be going home to review with Natalie the day's events, the fine spirit of his men, the small difficulties. But Natalie hated the mention of the mill.
He thought it probable, too, that they were dining out. Yes, he remembered. They were dining at the Chris Valentines. Well, that was better than it might have been. They were not dull, anyhow. His mind wandered to the Valentine house, small, not too well-ordered, frequently noisy, but always gay and extremely smart.
He thought of Audrey, and her curious friendship with Natalie. Audrey the careless, with her dark lazy charm, her deep and rather husky contralto, her astonishing little French songs, which she sang with nonchalant grace, and her crowds of boyish admirers whom she alternately petted and bullied—surely she and Natalie had little enough in common.
Yet, in the last year or so, he had been continually coming across them together—at the club, at luncheon in the women's dining room, at his own house, Natalie always perfectly and expensively dressed, Audrey in the casual garments which somehow her wearing made effective.
He smiled a little. Certain of Audrey's impertinences came to his mind. She was an amusing young woman. He had an idea that she was always in debt, and that the fact concerned her very little. He fancied that few things concerned her very deeply, including Chris. But she knew about food. Her dinners were as casual as her house, as to service, but they were worth eating. She claimed to pay for them out of her bridge winnings, and, indeed, her invitation for to-night had been frankness itself.
"I'm going to have a party, Clay," she had said. "I've made two killings at bridge, and somebody has shipped Chris some ducks. If you'll send me some cigarets like the last, I'll make it Tuesday."
He had sent the cigarets, and this was Tuesday.
The pleasant rolling of the car soothed him. The street flashed by, brilliant with lights that in far perspective seemed to meet. The shop windows gleamed with color. From curb to curb were other cars like the one in which he rode, carrying home other men like himself to whatever the evening held in store. He remembered London at this hour, already dark and quiet, its few motors making their cautious way in the dusk, its throngs of clerks, nearly all women now, hurrying home to whatever dread the night might hold. And it made him slightly more complacent. These things that he had taken for granted before had since his return assumed the quality of luxury.
"Pray God we won't get into it," he said to himself.
He reviewed his unrest of the night before, and smiled at it. Happiness. Happiness came from a sense of achievement. Integrity and power, that was the combination. The respect of one's fellow men, the day's work well done. Romance was done, at his age, but there remained the adventure of success. A few years more, and he would leave the mill to Graham and play awhile. After that—he had always liked politics. They needed business men in politics. If men of training and leisure would only go in for it there would be some chance of cleaning up the situation. Yes, he might do that. He was an easy speaker, and—
The car drew up at the curb and the chauffeur got out. Natalie's car had drawn up just ahead, and the footman was already opening the door. Rodney Page got out, and assisted Natalie to alight. Clayton smiled. So she had changed her mind. He saw Rodney bend over her hand and kiss it after his usual ceremonious manner. Natalie seemed a trifle breathless when she turned and saw him.
"You're early, aren't you?" she said.
"I fancy it is you who are late."
Then he realized that the chauffeur was waiting to speak to him.
"I'm sorry, sir. I guess I'll be leaving at the end of my month, Mr. Spencer."
"Come into the library and I'll talk to you. What's wrong?"
"There's nothing wrong, sir. I have been very well suited. It's only—I used to be in the regular army, sir, and I guess I'm going to be needed again."
"You mean—we are going to be involved?"
"Yes, sir. I think we are."
"There's no answer to that, Jackson," he said. But a sense of irritation stirred him as he went up the steps to the house door. Jackson was a good man. Jackson and Klein, and who knew who would be next?
"Oh, damn the war," he reflected rather wearily.
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. People 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 figure, 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!"
Months afterward, Clayton Spencer, looking back, realized that the night of the dinner at the Chris Valentines marked the beginning of a new epoch for him. Yet he never quite understood what it was that had caused the change. All that was clear was that in retrospect he always commenced with that evening, when he was trying to trace his own course through the months that followed, with their various changes, to the momentous ones of the following Summer.
Everything pertaining to the dinner, save the food, stood out with odd distinctness. Natalie's silence during the drive, broken only by his few questions and her brief replies. Had the place looked well? Very. And was the planting going on all right? She supposed so. He had hesitated, rather discouraged. Then:
"I don't want to spoil your pleasure in the place, Natalie—" he had said, rather awkwardly. "After all, you will be there more than I shall. You'd better have it the way you like it."
She had appeared mollified at that and had relaxed somewhat. He fancied that the silence that followed was no longer resentful, that she was busily planning. But when they had almost reached the house she turned to him.
"Please don't talk war all evening, Clay," she said. "I'm so ghastly sick of it."
"All right," he agreed amiably. "Of course I can't prevent the others doing it."
"It's generally you who lead up to it. Ever since you came back you've bored everybody to death with it."
"Sorry," he said, rather stiffly. "I'll be careful."
He had a wretched feeling that she was probably right. He had come back so full of new impressions that he had probably overflowed with them. It was a very formal, extremely tall and reticent Clayton Spencer who greeted Audrey that night.
Afterward he remembered that Audrey was not quite her usual frivolous self that evening. But perhaps that was only in retrospect, in view of what he learned later. She was very daringly dressed, as usual, wearing a very low gown and a long chain and ear-rings of black opals, and as usual all the men in the room were grouped around her.
"Thank heaven for one dignified man," she exclaimed, looking up at him. "Clayton, you do give tone to my parties."
It was not until they went in to dinner that he missed Chris. He heard Audrey giving his excuses.
"He's been called out of town," she said. "Clay, you're to have his place. And the flowers are low, so I can look across and admire you."
There were a dozen guests, and things moved rapidly. Audrey's dinners were always hilarious. And Audrey herself, Clayton perceived from his place of vantage, was flirting almost riotously with the man on her left. She had two high spots of color in her cheeks, and Clayton fancied—or was that in retrospect, too?—that her gayety was rather forced. Once he caught her eyes and it seemed to him that she was trying to convey something to him.
And then, of course, the talk turned to the war, and he caught a flash of irritation on Natalie's face.
"Ask the oracle," said Audrey's clear voice, "Ask Clay. He knows all there is to know."
"I didn't hear it, but I suppose it is when the war will end?"
"Amazing perspicacity," some one said.
"I can only give you my own opinion. Ten years if we don't go in. Possibly four if we do."
There were clamors of dissent.
"None of them can hold out so long."
"If we go in it will end in six months."
"Nonsense! The Allies are victorious now:"
"I only gave an opinion," he protested. "One man's guess is just as good as another's. All I contend is that it is going on to a finish. The French and English are not going to stop until they have made the Hun pay in blood for what he has cost them."
"I wish I were a man," Audrey said' suddenly. "I don't see how any man with red blood in his veins can sit still, and not take a gun and try to stop it. Sometimes I think I'll cut off my hair, and go over anyhow. I've only got one accomplishment. I can shoot. I'd like to sit in a tree somewhere and pick them off. The butchers!"
There was a roar of laughter, not so much at the words as at the fierceness with which she delivered them. Clayton, however, felt that she was in earnest and liked her the better for it. He surmised, indeed, that under Audrey's affectations there might be something rather fine if one could get at it. She looked around the table, coolly appraising every man there.
"Look at us," she said. "Here we sit, over-fed, over-dressed. Only not over-wined because I can't afford it. And probably—yes, I think actually—every man at this table is more or less making money out of it all. There's Clay making a fortune. There's Roddie, making money out of Clay. Here am I, serving Clayton's cigarets—I don't know why I pick on you, Clay. The rest are just as bad. You're the most conspicuous, that's all."
Natalie evidently felt that the situation required saving.
"I'm sure we all send money over," she protested. "To the Belgians and all that. And if they want things we have to sell—"
"Oh, yes, I know all that," Audrey broke in, rather wearily. "I know. We're the saviors of the Belgians, and we've given a lot of money and shiploads of clothes. But we're not stopping the war. And it's got to be stopped!"
Clayton watched her. Somehow what she had just said seemed to crystallize much that he had been feeling. The damnable butchery ought to be stopped.
"Right, Audrey," he supported her. "I'd give up every prospect I have if the thing could be ended now."
He meant it then. He might not have meant it, entirely, to-morrow or the day after. But he meant it then. He glanced down the table, to find Natalie looking at him with cynical amusement.
The talk veered then, but still focused on the war. It became abstract as was so much of the war talk in America in 1916. Were we, after this war was over, to continue to use the inventions of science to destroy mankind, or for its welfare? Would we ever again, in wars to come, go back to the comparative humanity of the Hague convention? Were such wickednesses as the use of poison gas, the spreading of disease germs and the killing of non-combatants, all German precedents, to inaugurate a new era of cruelty in warfare.
Was this the last war? Would there ever be a last war? Would there not always be outlaw nations, as there are outlaw individuals? Would there ever be a league of nations to enforce peace?
From that to Christianity. It had failed. On the contrary, there was a great revival of religious faith. Creeds, no. Belief, yes. Too many men were dying to permit the growth of any skepticism as to a future life. We must have it or go mad.
In the midst of that discussion Audrey rose. Her color had faded, and her smile was gone.
"I won't listen any longer," she said. "I'm ready to talk about fighting, but not about dying."
Clayton was conscious that he had had, in spite of Audrey's speech about the wine, rather more to drink than he should have. He was not at all drunk, but a certain excitement had taken the curb off his tongue. After the departure of the women he found himself, rather to his own surprise, delivering a harangue on the Germans.
"Liars and cheats," he said. And was conscious of the undivided attention of the men. "They lied when they signed the Hague Convention; they lie when they claim that they wanted peace, not war; they lie when they claim the mis-use by the Allies of the Red Cross; they lie to the world and they lie to themselves. And their peace offers will be lies. Always lies."
Then, conscious that the table was eying him curiously, he subsided into silence.
"You're a dangerous person, Clay," somebody said. "You're the kind who develops a sort of general hate, and will force the President's hand if he can. You're too old to go yourself, but you're willing to send a million or two boys over there to fight a war that is still none of our business."
"I've got a son," Clayton said sharply. And suddenly remembered Natalie. He would want to boast, she had said, that he had a son in the army. Good God, was he doing it already? He subsided into the watchful silence of a man not entirely sure of himself.
He took no liquor, and with his coffee he was entirely himself again. But he was having a reaction. He felt a sort of contemptuous scorn for the talk at the table. The guard down, they were either mouthing flamboyant patriotism or attacking the Government. It had done too much. It had done too little. Voices raised, faces flushed, they wrangled, protested, accused.
And the nation, he reflected, was like that, divided apparently hopelessly. Was there anything that would unite it, as for instance France was united? Would even war do it? Our problem was much greater, more complicated. We were of every race. And the country was founded and had grown by men who had fled from the quarrels of Europe. They had come to find peace. Was there any humanitarian principle in the world strong enough to force them to relinquish that peace?
Clayton found Audrey in the hall as they moved at last toward the drawing-room. He was the last of the line of men, and as he paused before her she touched him lightly on the arm.
"I want to talk to you, Clay. Unless you're going to play."
"I'd rather not, unless you need me."
"I don't. I'm not playing either. And I must talk to some one."
There was something wrong with Audrey. Her usual insouciance was gone, and her hands nervously fingered the opal beads of her long necklace.
"What I really want to do," she added, "is to scream. But don't look like that. I shan't do it. Suppose we go up to Chris's study."
She was always a casual hostess. Having got her parties together, and having fed them well, she consistently declined further responsibility. She kept open house, her side board and her servants at the call of her friends, but she was quite capable of withdrawing herself, without explanation, once things were moving well, to be found later by some one who was leaving, writing letters, fussing with her endless bills, or sending a check she could not possibly afford to some one in want whom she happened to have heard about. Her popularity was founded on something more substantial than her dinners.
Clayton was liking Audrey better that night than he had ever liked her, though even now he did not entirely approve of her. And to the call of any woman in trouble he always responded. It occurred to him, following her up the stairs, that not only was something wrong with Audrey, but that it was the first time he had ever known her to show weakness.
Chris's study was dark. She groped her way in and turned on the lamp, and then turned and faced him.
"I'm in an awful mess, Clay," she said. "And the worst of it is, I don't know just what sort of a mess it is."
"Are you going to tell me about it?"
"Some of it. And if I don't start to yelling like a tom-cat."
"You're not going to do that. Let me get you something."
He was terrified by her eyes. "Some aromatic ammonia." That was Natalie's cure for everything.
"I'm not going to faint. I never do. Close the door and sit down. And then—give me a hundred dollars, if you have it. Will you?"
"Is that enough?" he asked. And drew out his black silk evening wallet, with its monogram in seed pearls. He laid the money on her knee, for she made no move to take it. She sat back, her face colorless, and surveyed him intently.
"What a comfort you are, Clay," she said. "Not a word in question. Just like that! Yet you know I don't borrow money, usually."
"The only thing that is important is that I have the money with me. Are you sure it's enough?"
"Plenty. I'll send it back in a week or so. I'm selling this house. It's practically sold. I don't know why anybody wants it. It's a poky little place. But—well, it doesn't matter about the house. I called up some people to-day who have been wanting one in this neighborhood and I'm practically sure they'll take it."
"But—you and Chris—"
"We have separated, Clay. At least, Chris has gone. There's a long story behind it. I'm not up to telling it to-night. And this money will end part of it. That's all I'm going to tell about the money. It's a small sum, isn't it, to break up a family!"
"Why, it's absurd! It's—it's horrible, Audrey."
"Oh, it isn't the money. That's a trifle. I just had to have it quickly. And when I learned I needed it of course the banks were closed. Besides, I fancy Chris had to have all there was."
Clayton was puzzled and distressed. He had not liked Chris. He had hated his cynicism, his pose of indifference. His very fastidiousness had never seemed entirely genuine. And this going away and taking all Audrey's small reserve of money—
"Where is he?"
"I don't know. I believe on his way to Canada."
"Do you mean—"
"Oh, no, he didn't steal anything. He's going to enlist in the Canadian army. Or he said so when he left."
"Look here, Audrey, you can't tell me only part of the story. Do you mean to say that Chris has had a magnificent impulse and gone to fight? Or that he's running away from something?"
"Both," said Audrey. "I'll tell you this much, Clay. Chris has got himself into a scrape. I won't tell you about that, because after all that's his story. And I'm not asking for sympathy. If you dare to pity me I'll cry, and I'll never forgive you."
"Why didn't he stay and face it like a man? Not leave you to face it."
"Because the only person it greatly concerned was myself. He didn't want to face me. The thing that is driving me almost mad is that he may be killed over there. Not because I love him so much. I think you know how things have been. But because he went to—well, I think to reinstate himself in my esteem, to show me he's a man, after all."
"Good heavens, Audrey. And you went through dinner with all this to bear!"
"I've got to carry it right along, haven't I? You know how I've been about this war, Clay. I've talked and talked about wondering how our men could stay out of it. So when the smash came, he just said he was going. He would show me there was some good stuff in him still. You see, I've really driven him to it, and if he's killed—"
A surge of resentment against the absent man rose in Clayton Spencer's mind. How like the cynicism of Chris's whole attitude that he should thrust the responsibility for his going onto Audrey. He had made her unhappy while he was with her, and now his death, if it occurred, would be a horror to her.
"I don't know why I burden you with all this," she said, rather impatiently. "I daresay it is because I knew you'd have the money. No, I don't mean that. I'd rather go to you in trouble than to any one else; that's why."
"I hope you always will."
"Oh, I shall! Don't worry." But her attempt at gayety fell flat. She lighted a cigaret from the stand beside her and fell to studying his face.
"What's happened to you?" she asked. "There's a change in you, somehow. I've noticed it ever since you came home. You ought to be smug and contented, if any man should. But you're not, are you?"