One morning, in his mail, Clayton Spencer received a clipping. It had been cut from a so-called society journal, and it was clamped to the prospectus of a firm of private detectives who gave information for divorce cases as their specialty.
First curiously, then with mounting anger, Clayton read that the wife of a prominent munition manufacturer was being seen constantly in out of the way places with the young architect who was building a palace for her out of the profiteer's new wealth. "It is quite probable," ended the notice, "that the episode will end in an explosion louder than the best shell the husband in the case ever turned out."
Clayton did not believe the thing for a moment. He was infuriated, but mostly with the journal, and with the insulting inference of the prospectus. He had a momentary clear vision, however, of Natalie, of her idle days, of perhaps a futile last clutch at youth. He had no more doubt of her essential integrity than of his own. But he had a very distinct feeling that she had exposed his name to cheap scandal, and that for nothing.
Had there been anything real behind it, he might have understood, in his new humility, in his new knowledge of impulses stronger than any restraints of society, he would quite certainly have made every allowance. But for a whim, an indulgence of her incorrigible vanity! To get along, to save Natalie herself, he was stifling the best that was in him, while Natalie -
That was one view of it. The other was that Natalie was as starved as he was. If he got nothing from her, he gave her nothing. How was he to blame her? She was straying along dangerous paths, but he himself had stood at the edge of the precipice, and looked down.
Suddenly it occurred to him that perhaps, for once, Natalie was in earnest. Perhaps Rodney was, too. Perhaps each of them had at last found something that loomed larger than themselves. In that case? But everything he knew of Natalie contradicted that. She was not a woman to count anything well lost for love. She was playing with his honor, with Rodney, with her own vanity.
Going up-town that night he pondered the question of how to take up the matter with her. It would be absurd, under the circumstances, to take any virtuous attitude. He was still undetermined when he reached the house.
He found Marion Hayden there for dinner, and Graham, and a spirited three-corner discussion going on which ceased when he stood in the doorway. Natalie looked irritated, Graham determined, and Marion was slightly insolent and unusually handsome.
"Hurry and change, Clay," Natalie said. "Dinner is waiting."
As he went away he had again the feeling of being shut out of something which concerned Graham.
Dinner was difficult. Natalie was obviously sulking, and Graham was rather taciturn. It was Marion who kept the conversation going, and he surmised in her a repressed excitement, a certain triumph.
At last Natalie roused herself. The meal was almost over, and the servants had withdrawn.
"I wish you would talk sense to Graham, Clay," she said, fretfully. "I think he has gone mad."
"I don't call it going mad to want to enlist, father."
"I do. With your father needing you, and with all the men there are who can go."
"I don't understand. If he wants to enter the army, that's up to him, isn't it?"
There was a brief silence. Clayton found Natalie's eyes on him, uneasy, resentful.
"That's just it. I've promised mother not to, unless she gives her consent. And she won't give it."
"I certainly will not."
Clayton saw her appealing glance at Marion, but that young lady was lighting a cigaret, her eyelids lowered. He felt as though he were watching a play, in which he was the audience.
"It's rather a family affair, isn't it?" he asked. "Suppose we wait until we are alone. After all, there is no hurry."
Marion looked at him, and he caught a resentment in her glance. The two glances struck fire.
"Say something, Marion," Natalie implored her.
"I don't think my opinion is of any particular importance. As Mr. Spencer says, it's really a family matter."
Her insolence was gone. Marion was easy. She knew Natalie's game; it was like her own. But this big square-jawed man at the head of the table frightened her. And he hated her. He hardly troubled to hide it, for all his civility. Even that civility was contemptuous.
In the drawing-room things were little better. Natalie had counted on Marion's cooperation, and she had failed her. She pleaded a headache and went up-stairs, leaving Clayton to play the host as best he could.
Marion wandered into the music-room, with its bare polished floor, its lovely painted piano, and played a little - gay, charming little things, clever and artful. Except when visitors came, the piano was never touched, but now and then Clayton had visualized Audrey there, singing in her husky sweet voice her little French songs.
Graham moved restlessly about the room, and Clayton felt that he had altered lately. He looked older, and not happy. He knew the boy wanted to talk about Natalie's opposition, but was hoping that he would broach the subject. And Clayton rather grimly refused to do it. Those next weeks would show how much of the man there was in Graham, but the struggle must be between his mother and himself.
He paused, finally.
Marion was singing.
"Give me your love for a day; A night; an hour. If the wages of sin are Death I'm willing to pay."
She sang it in her clear passionless voice. Brave words, Clayton thought, but there were few who would pay such wages. This girl at the piano, what did she know of the thing she sang about? What did any of the young know?
They always construed love in terms of passion. But passion was ephemeral. Love lived on. Passion took, but love gave.
He roused himself.
"Have you told Marion about the new arrangement?"
"I didn't know whether you cared to have it told."
"Don't you think she ought to know? If she intends to enter the family, she has a right to know that she is not marrying into great wealth. I don't suggest," he added, as Graham colored hotly, "that it will make any difference. I merely feel she ought to know your circumstances."
He was called to the telephone, and when he came back he found them in earnest conversation. The girl turned toward him smiling.
"Graham has just told me. You are splendid, Mr. Spencer."
And afterward Clayton was forced to admit an element of sincerity in her voice. She had had a disappointment, but she was very game. Her admiration surprised him. He was nearer to liking her than he had ever been.
Even her succeeding words did not quite kill his admiration for her.
"And I have told Graham that he must not let you make all the sacrifices. Of course he is going to enlist."
She had turned her defeat into a triumph against Natalie. Clayton knew then that she would never marry Graham. As she went out he followed her with a faint smile of tribute.
The smile died as he turned to go up the stairs.
Natalie was in her dressing-room. She had not undressed, but was standing by a window. She made no sign that she heard him enter, and he hesitated. Why try to talk things out with her? Why hurt her? Why not let things drift along? There was no hope of bettering them. One of two things he must do, either tear open the situation between them, or ignore it.
"Can I get anything for your head, my dear?"
"I haven't any headache."
"Then I think I'll go to bed. I didn't sleep much last night."
He was going out when she spoke again.
"I came up-stairs because I saw how things were going."
"Do you really want to go into that, to-night?"
"Why not to-night? We'll have to go into it soon enough."
Yet when she turned to him he saw the real distress in her face, and his anger died.
"I didn't want to hurt you, Natalie. I honestly tried. But you know how I feel about that girl."
"Even the servants know it. It is quite evident."
"We parted quite amiably."
"I dare say! You were relieved that she was going. If you would only be ordinarily civil to her - oh, don't you see? She could keep Graham from going into this idiotic war. You can't. I can't. I've tried everything I know. And she knows she can. She's - hateful about it."
"And you would marry him to that sort of a girl?"
"I'd keep him from being blinded, or mutilated, or being killed."
"You can kill his soul."
"His soul!" She burst into hysterical laughter. "You to talk about souls! That's - that's funny."
"Natalie, dear." He was very grave, very gentle. "Has it occurred to you that we are hitting it off rather badly lately?"
She looked at him quickly.
"How? Because I don't think as you do? We got on well enough before this war came along."
"Do you think it is only that?"
"If it's the house, just remember you gave me carte blanche there."
He made a little gesture of despair.
"I just thought perhaps you are not as happy as you might be."
"Happiness again! Did you come up-stairs to-night, with this thing hanging over us, to talk about happiness? That's funny, too." But her eyes were suddenly suspicious. There was something strange in his voice.
"Let's forget that for a moment. Graham will make his own decision. But, before we leave that, let me tell you that I love him as much as you do. His going means exactly as much. It's only - "
"Another point we differ on," she finished for him. "Go on. You are suddenly concerned about my happiness. I'm touched, Clay. You have left me all winter to go out alone, or with anybody who might be sorry enough for me to pick me up, and now?" Suddenly her eyes sharpened, and she drew her breath quickly. "You've seen that scandalous thing in the paper!"
"It was sent to me."
"Who sent it?"
"A firm of private detectives."
She was frightened, and the terror in her face brought him to her quickly.
"Natalie! Don't look like that! I don't believe it, of course. It's stupid. I wasn't going to tell you. You don't think I believe it, do you?"
She let him put an arm around her and hold her, as he would a scared child. There was no love for her in it, but a great pity, and acute remorse that he could hold her so and care for her so little.
"Oh, Clay!" she gasped. "I've been perfectly sick about it!"
His conviction of his own failure to her made him very tender. He talked to her, as she stood with her face buried in the shoulder of his coat, of the absurdity of her fear, of his own understanding, and when she was calmer he made a futile effort to make his position clear.
"I am not angry," he said. "And I'm not fudging you in any way. But you know how things are between us. We have been drifting apart for rather a long time. It's not your fault. Perhaps it is mine. Probably it is. I know I don't make you happy. And sometimes I think things have either got to be better or worse."
"If I'm willing to go along as we are, I think you should be."
"Then let's try to get a little happiness out of it all, Natalie."
"Oh, happiness! You are always raving about happiness. There isn't any such thing."
"Peace, then. Let's have peace, Natalie."
She drew back, regarding him.
"What did you mean by things having to be better or worse?"
When he found no immediate answer, she was uneasy. The prospect of any change in their relationship frightened her. Like all weak women, she was afraid of change. Her life suited her. Even her misery she loved and fed on. She had pitied herself always. Not love, but fear of change, lay behind her shallow, anxious eyes. Yet he could not hurt her. She had been foolish, but she had not been wicked. In his new humility he found her infinitely better than himself.
"I spoke without thinking."
"Then it must have been in your mind. Let me see the clipping, Clay. I've tried to forget what it said."
She took it, still pinned to the prospectus, and bent over them both. When she had examined them, she continued to stand with lowered eyelids, turning and crumpling them. Then she looked up.
"So that is what you meant! It was a - well, a sort of a threat."
"I had no intention of threatening you, my dear. You ought to know me better. That clipping was sent me attached to the slip. The only reason I let you see it was because I think you ought to know how the most innocent things are misconstrued."
"You couldn't divorce me if you wanted to." Then her defiance faded in a weak terror. She began to cry, shameless frightened tears that rolled down her cheeks. She reminded him that she was the mother of his child, that she had sacrificed her life to both of them, and that now they would both leave her and turn her adrift. She had served her purpose, now let her go.
Utter hopelessness kept him dumb. He knew of old that she would cry until she was ready to stop, or until she had gained her point. And he knew, too, that she expected him to put his arms around her again, in token of his complete surrender. The very fact hardened him. He did not want to put his arms around her. He wanted, indeed, to get out into the open air and walk off his exasperation. The scent in the room stifled him.
When he made no move toward her she gradually stopped crying, and gave way to the rage that was often behind her tears.
"Just try to divorce me, and see!"
"Good God, I haven't even mentioned divorce. I only said we must try to get along better. To agree."
"Which means, I dare say, that I am to agree with you!" But she had one weapon still. Suddenly she smiled a little wistfully, and made the apparently complete surrender that always disarmed him.
"I'll be good from now on, Clay. I'll be very, very good. Only - don't be always criticizing me."
She held up her lips, and after a second's hesitation he kissed her. He knew he was precisely where he had been when he started, and he had a hopeless sense of the futility of the effort he had made. Natalie had got by with a bad half-hour, and would praceed to forget it as quickly as she always forgot anything disagreeable. Still, she was in a more receptive mood than usual, and he wondered if that would not be as good a time as any to speak about his new plan as to the mill. He took an uneasy turn or two about the room, feeling her eyes on him.
"There is something else, Natalie."
She had relaxed like a kitten in her big chair, and was lighting one of the small, gilt-tipped cigarets she affected.
"It affects Graham. It affects us all."
He hesitated. To talk to Natalie about business meant reducing it to its most elemental form.
"Have you ever thought that this war of ours means more than merely raising armies?"
"I haven't thought about this war at all. It's too absurd. A lot of politicians?" She shrugged her shoulders.
"It means a great deal of money."
"'Well, the country is rich, isn't it?"
"The country? That means the people."
"I knew we'd get to money sooner or later," she observed, resignedly. "All right. We'll be taxed, so we'll cut down on the country house - go on. I can say it before you do. But don't say we'll have to do without the greenhouses, because we can't."
"We may have to go without more than greenhouses."
His tone made her sit bolt upright. Then she laughed a little.
"Poor old Clay," she said, with the caressing tone she used when she meant to make no concession. "I do spend money, don't I? But I do make you comfortable, you know. And what is what I spend, compared with what you are making?"
"It's just that. I don't think I can consistently go on making a profit on this war, now that we are in it."
He explained then what he meant, and watched her face set into the hard lines he knew so well. But she listened to the end and when he had finished she said nothing.
"Well?" he said.
"I don't think you have the remotest idea of doing it. You like to play at the heroic. You can see yourself doing it, and every one pointing to you as the man who threw away a fortune. But you are humbugging yourself. You'll never do it. I give you credit for too much sense."
He went rather white. She knew the weakness in his armor, his hatred of anything theatrical, and with unfailing accuracy she always pierced it.
"Suppose I tell you I have already offered the plant to the government, at a nominal profit."
Suddenly she got up, and every vestige of softness was gone.
"I don't think you would be such a fool."
"I have done it."
"Then you are insane. There is no other possible explanation."
She passed him, moving swiftly, and went into her bedroom. He heard her lock the door behind her.
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