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Chapter XXV

On the last day of February Audrey came home from her shorthand class and stood wearily by the window, too discouraged even to remove her hat. The shorthand was a failure; the whole course was a failure. She had not the instinct for plodding, for the meticulous attention to detail that those absurd, irrational lines and hooks and curves demanded.

She could not even spell! And an idiot of an instructor had found fault with the large square band she wrote, as being uncommercial. Uncommercial! Of course it was. So was she uncommercial. She had dreamed a dream of usefulness, but after all, why was she doing it? We would never fight. Here we were, saying to Germany that we had ceased to be friends and letting it go at that.

She might go to England. They needed women there. But not untrained women. Not, she thought contemptuously, women whose only ability lay in playing bridge, or singing French chansons with no particular voice.

After all, the only world that was open to her was her old world. It liked her. It even understood her. It stretched out a tolerant, pleasure-beckoning hand to her.

"I'm a fool," she reflected bitterly. "I'm not happy, and I'm not useful. I might as well play. It's all I can do."

But her real hunger was for news of Clayton. Quite suddenly he had stopped dropping in on his way up-town. He had made himself the most vital element in her life, and then taken himself out of it. At first she had thought he might be ill. It seemed too cruel otherwise. But she saw his name with increasing frequency in the newspapers. It seemed to her that every relief organization in the country was using his name and his services. So he was not ill.

He had tired of her, probably. She had nothing to give, had no right to give anything. And, of course, he could not know how much he had meant to her, of courage to carry on. How the memory of his big, solid, dependable figure bad helped her through the bad hours when the thought of Chris's defection had left her crushed and abject.

She told herself that the reason she wanted to see Natalie was because she had neglected her shamefully. Perhaps that was what was wrong with Clay; perhaps he felt that, by avoiding Natalie, she was putting their friendship on a wrong basis. Actually, she had reached that point all loving women reach, when even to hear a beloved name, coming out of a long silence, was both torture and necessity.

She took unusual pains with her dress that afternoon, and it was a very smart, slightly rouged and rather swaggering Audrey who made her first call in weeks on Natalie that afternoon.

Natalie was a little stiff, still slightly affronted.

"I thought you must have left town," she said. "But you look as though you'd been having a rest cure."

"Rouge," said Audrey, coolly. "No, I haven't been entirely resting."

"There are all sorts of stories going about. That you're going into a hospital; that you're learning to fly; that you're in the secret service?"

"Just because I find it stupid going about without a man!" Natalie eyed her shrewdly, but there was no self-consciousness in Audrey's face. If the stories were true, and there had been another woman, she was carrying it off well.

"At least Chris is in France. I have to go, when I go, without Clay. And there is no excuse whatever."

"You mean - he is working?"

"Not at night. He is simply obstinate. He says he is tired. I don't really mind any more. He is so hatefully heavy these days."

"Heavy! Clay!"

"My dear!" Natalie drew her chair closer and lowered her voice. "What can one do with a man who simply lives war? He spends hours over the papers. He's up if the Allies make a gain, and impossible if they don't. I can tell by the very way he slams the door of his room when he comes home what the news is. It's dreadful."

Audrey flushed.

"I wish there were more like him."

But Natalie smiled tolerantly.

"You are not married to him. I suppose the war is important, but I don't want it twenty-four hours a day. I want to forget it if I can. It's hideous."

Audrey's mouth twitched. After all, what was the good of talking to Natalie. She would only be resentful.

"How is the house coming on?" she asked.

She had Natalie on happy ground there. For a half-hour she looked at blueprints and water-color sketches, heard Rodney's taste extolled, listened to plans for a house-party which she gathered was, rather belatedly, to include her. And through it all she was saying to herself,

"This is his wife. This is the woman he loves. He has had a child by her. He is building this house for her. He goes into her room as Chris came into mine. And she is not good enough. She is not good enough."

Now that she had seen Natalie, she knew why she had not seen her before. She was jealous of her. Jealous and contemptuous. Suddenly she hated Natalie. She hated her because she was Clayton Spencer's wife, with all that that implied. She hated her because she was unworthy of him. She hated her because she loved Clay, and hated her more because she loved herself more than she loved him.

Audrey sat back in her chair and saw that she had traveled a long way along a tragic road. For the first time in her brave and reckless life she was frightened. She was even trembling. She lighted a cigaret from the stand at Natalie's elbow to steady herself.

Natalie chattered on, and Audrey gave her the occasional nod that was all she needed. She thought,

"Does he know about her? Is he still fooled? She is almost beautiful. Rodney is falling in love with her, probably. Does he know that? Will he care terribly if he finds it out? She looks cold, but one can't tell, and some men - has she a drop of honest, unselfish passion in her?"

She got up suddenly.

"Heavens, how late it is!" she said. "I must run on."

"Why not stay on to dinner? Graham is seldom home, and we can talk, if Clay doesn't."

The temptation to see Clay again was strong in Audrey. But suddenly she knew that she did not want to see them together, in the intimacy of their home. She did not want to sit between them at dinner, and then go away, leaving them there together. And something fundamentally honest in her told her that she had no right to sit at their table.

"I'll come another time, if you'll ask me. Not to-day," she said. And left rather precipitately. It hurt her, rather, to have Natalie, with an impulsive gesture, gather the flowers out of a great jar and insist on her carrying them home with her. It gave her a miserable sense of playing unfairly.

She walked home. The fresh air, after Natalie's flower-scented, overheated room, made her more rational. She knew where she stood, anyhow. She was in love with Clayton Spencer. She had, she reflected cynically, been in love before. A number of times before. She almost laughed aloud. She had called those things love, those sickly romances, those feeble emotions!

Then her eyes filled with unexpected tears. She had always wanted some one to make her happy. Now she wanted to make some one happy. She cared nothing for the cost. She would put herself out of it altogether. He was not happy. Any one could see that. He had everything, but he was not happy. If he belonged to her, she would live to make him happy. She would -

Suddenly she remembered Chris. Perhaps she did not know how to hold a man's love. She had not held him. He had protested that she was the only woman he had ever loved, but all the time there had been that other girl. How account for her, then?

"He did not think of me," she reflected defiantly, "I shall not think of him."

She was ashamed of that instantly. After all, Chris was doing a man's part now. She was no longer angry with him. She had written him that, over and over, in the long letters she had made a point of sending him. Only, she did not love him any more. She thought now that she never had loved him.

What about the time when he came back? What would she do then? She shivered.

But Chris, after all, was not to come back. He would never come back again. The cable was there when she reached her apartment - a cold statement, irrefutable, final.

She had put the flowers on the table and had raised her hands to unpin her hat when she saw it. She read it with a glance first, then slowly, painfully, her heart contracted as if a band had squeezed it. She stood very still, not so much stricken as horrified, and her first conscious thought was of remorse, terrible, gasping remorse. All that afternoon, while she had been hating Natalie and nursing her love for Clay, Chris had been lying dead somewhere.

Chris was dead.

She felt very tired, but not faint. It seemed dreadful, indeed, that she could be standing there, full of life, while Chris was dead. Such grief as she felt was for him, not for herself. He had loved life so, even when he cheapened it. He had wanted to live and now he was dead. She, who did not care greatly to live, lived on, and he was gone.

All at once she felt terribly alone. She wanted some one with her. She wanted to talk it all out to some one who understood. She wanted Clay. She said to herself that she did not want him because she loved him. All love was dead in her now. She wanted him because he was strong and understanding. She made this very clear to herself, because she had a morbid fancy that Chris might be watching her. There were people who believed that sort of thing. To her excited fancy it seemed as though Chris's cynical smile might flash out from any dusky corner.

She knew she was not being quite rational. Which was strange, because she felt so strong, and because the voice with which she called Clayton's number was so steady. She knew, too, that she was no longer in love with Clay, because his steady voice over the telephone left her quite calm and unmoved.

"I want you to come up, Clay," she said. "If you can, easily."

"I can come at once. Is anything wrong?"

"Chris has been killed," she replied, and hung up the receiver. Then she sat down to wait, and to watch for Chris's cynical smile to flash in some dusky corner.

Clayton found her there, collapsed in her chair, a slim, gray-faced girl with the rouge giving a grotesque vitality to her bloodless cheeks. She got up very calmly and gave him the cablegram. Then she fainted in a crumpled heap at his feet.

Mary Roberts Rinehart