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Natalie had had a dull Spring. With Graham's departure for camp she moved to the country house, carrying with her vast amounts of luggage, the innumerable thing, large and small, which were necessary for her comfort. The installing of herself in her new and luxurious rooms gave her occupation for several days. She liked her new environment. She liked herself in it. The rose-colored taffetas of her bedroom brought out the delicacy of her skin. The hangings of her bed, small and draped, reflected a faint color into her face, and the morning inspection with a hand-mirror, which always followed her coffee, showed her at her best instead of her worst.
Of her dressing-room she was not so sure. It's ivory-paneled walls, behind whose sliding panels were hung her gowns, her silk and satin chiffon negligees, her wraps and summer furs - all the vast paraphernalia with which she armed herself, as a knight with armor - the walls seemed cold. She hated old-blue, but old-blue Rodney had insisted upon.
He had held a bit of the taffeta to her cheek.
"It is delicious, Natalie," he said. "It makes your eyes as blue as the sea."
"Always a decorator!" she had replied, smiling.
And, standing in her blue room, the first day of her arrival, and frowning at her reflection, she remembered his reply.
"Because I have no right, with you, to be anything else." He had stopped for a moment, and had absently folded and refolded the bit of blue silk. Suddenly he said, "What do you think I am going to do, now that our work together is done? Have you ever thought about that, Natalie?"
"You are coming often to enjoy your handiwork?"
He had made an impulsive gesture.
"I'm not coming. I've been seeing too much of you as it is. If you want the truth, I'm just wretchedly unhappy, Natalie. You know I'm in love with you, don't you?"
"I believe you think you are."
"Don't laugh." He almost snarled. "I may laugh at my idiocy, but you haven't any right to. I know I'm ridiculous. I've known it for months. But it's pretty serious for me."
He had meant it. There could be no doubt of that. It is the curious quality of very selfish women that they inspire a certain sort of love. They are likely to be loved often, even tho the devotion they inspire is neither deep nor lasting. Big and single-hearted women are loved by one man, and that forever.
Natalie had not laughed, but she had done what was almost as bad. She had patted him on the arm.
"Don't talk like that," she said, gently. "You are all I have now, Rodney, and I don't want to lose you. I'm suffering horribly these days. You're my greatest comfort."
"I've heard you say that of a chair."
"As for loving me, you must not talk like that. Under the circumstances, it's indelicate."
"Oh!" he had said, and looked at her quickly. "I can love you, but it's indelicate to tell you about it!"
"I am married, Rodney."
"Good God, do you think I ever forget it?"
There was a real change in their relationship, but neither of them understood it. The change was that Rodney was no longer playing. Little by little he had dropped his artistic posing for her benefit, his cynical cleverness, his adroit simulation of passion. He no longer dramatized himself, because rather often he forgot himself entirely. His passion had ceased to be spurious, and it was none the less real because he loved not a real woman, but one of his own artistic creation.
He saw in Natalie a misunderstood and suffering woman, bearing the burdens he knew of with dignity and a certain beauty. And behind her slightly theatrical silences he guessed at other griefs, nobly borne and only gently intimated. He developed, after a time, a certain suspicion of Clayton, not of his conduct but of his character. These big men were often hard. It was that quality which made them successful. They married tender, gentle girls, and then repressed and trampled on them.
Natalie became, in his mind, a crushed and broken thing, infinitely onely and pathetic. And, without in the least understanding, Natalie instinctively knew it was when she was wistful and dependent that he found her most attractive, and became wistful and dependent to a point that imposed even on herself.
"I've been very selfish with you, Rodney, dear," she said, lifting sad eyes to his. "I am going to be better. You must come often this summer, and I'll have some nice girls for you to play with."
"Thank you," he said, stiffly.
"We'll have to be as gay as we can," she sighed. "I'm just a little dreary these days, you know."
It was rather absurd that they were in a shop, and that the clerk should return just then with curtain cords, and that the discussion of certain shades of yellow made an anti-climax to it all. But in the car, later, he turned to her, roughly.
"You needn't ask any girls for me," he said. "I only want one woman, and if I can't have her I don't want any one."
At first the very fact that he could not have her had been, unconsciously, the secret of her attraction. She was a perfect thing, and unattainable. He could sigh for her with longing and perfect safety. But as time went on, with that incapacity of any human emotion to stand still, but either to go on or to go back, his passion took on a more human and less poetic aspect. She satisfied him less, and he wanted more.
For one thing, he dreamed that strange dream of mankind, of making ice burn, of turning snow to fire. The old chimera of turning the cold woman to warmth through his own passion began to obsess him. Sometimes he watched Natalie, and had strange fancies. He saw her lit from within by a fire, which was not the reflection of his, but was recklessly her own. How wonderful she would be, he thought. And at those times he had wild visions of going away with her into some beautiful wilderness and there teaching her what she had missed in life.
But altho now he always wanted her, he was not always thinking of a wilderness. It was in his own world that he wanted her, to fit beautifully into his house, to move, exquisitely dressed, through ball-rooms beside him. He wanted her, at those times, as the most perfect of all his treasures. He was still a collector!
The summer only served to increase his passion. During the long hot days, when Clayton was abroad or in Washington, or working late at night, as he frequently did how, they were much together. Natalie's plans for gayety had failed dismally. The city and the country houses near were entirely lacking in men. She found it a real grievance.
"I dcn't know what we are coming to," she complained. "The country club is like a girl's boarding-school. I wish to heaven the war was over, and things were sensible again."
So, during his week-end visits, they spent most of the time together. There were always girls there, and now and then a few men, who always explained immediately that they had been turned down for the service, or were going in the fall.
"I'm sure somebody has to stay home and attend to things here," she said to him one August night. "But even when they are in America, they are rushing about, pretending to do things. One would think to see Clayton that he is the entire government. It's absurd."
"I wish I could go," he said unexpectedly.
"Don't be idiotic. You're much too old."
"Not as old as Clay."
"Oh, Clay! He's in a class by himself." She laughed lightly.
"Where is he now?"
"In France, I think. Probably telling them how to run the war."
"When is he coming back?"
"I don't know. What do you mean by wishing you could go?"
"Do you want me to tell you the truth?"
"Not if it's disagreeable."
"Well, I will, and it's not very agreeable. I can't keep this up, Natalie. I can't keep on coming here, being in Clayton's house, and eating his bread, while I'm in love with his wife. It isn't decent."
He flung away his cigaret, and bent forward.
"Don't you see that?" he asked gently. "Not while he is working for the country, and Graham is abroad."
"I don't see why war needs to deprive me of my friends. I've lost everything else."
His morals were matters of his private life, and they had been neither better nor worse than the average. But he had breeding and a sure sense of the fitness of things, and this present week-end visit, with the ostentatious care the younger crowd took to allow him time to see Natalie alone, was galling to him. It put him in a false position; what hurt more, perhaps, in an unfavorable light. The war had changed standards, too. Men were being measured, especially by women, and those who failed to measure up were being eliminated with cruel swiftness, especially the men who stayed at home.
With all this, too, there was a growing admiration for Clayton Spencer in their small circle. His name had been mentioned in connection with an important position in Washington. In the clubs there was considerable praise and some envy. And Rodney knew that his affair with Natalie was the subject of much invidious comment.
"Do you love him?" he asked, suddenly.
"I - why, of course I do."
"Do you mean that?"
"I don't see what that has to do with our friendship."
"Oh - friendship! You know how I feel, and yet you go on, bringing up that silly word. If you love him, you don't- love me, and yet you've let me hang around all these months, knowing I am mad about you. You don't play the game, Natalie."
"What do you want to to say?"
"If you don't love Clayton, why don't you tell him so? He's honest enough. And I miss my guess if he wants a wife who - cares for somebody else."
She sat in the dusk, thinking, and he watched her. She looked very lovely in the setting which he himself had designed for her. She hated change; she loathed trouble, of any sort. And she was, those days, just a little afraid of that strange, quiet Clayton who seemed eternally engrossed in war and the things of war. She glanced about, at the white trellises that gleamed in the garden, at the silvery fleur de lis which was the fountain, at all the lovely things with which Clayton's wealth had allowed her to surround herself. And suddenly she knew she could not give them up.
"I don't see why you have to spoil everything," she said fretfully. "It had been so perfect. Of course I'm not going to say anything to Clay. He has enough to worry him now," she added, virtuously.
Suddenly Rodney stooped and kissed her, almost savagely.
"Then I'm going," he said. And to her great surprise he went.
Alone in his room up-stairs Rodney had, in his anger, a glimpse of insight. He saw her, her life filled with small emotions, lacking the courage for big ones. He saw her, like a child, clutching one piece of cake and holding out a hand for another. He saw her, taking always, giving never.
"She's not worth it," he muttered.
On the way to the station he reflected bitterly over the past year. He did not blame her so much as he blamed himself. He had been playing a game, an attractive game. During the first months of it his interest in Natalie had been subordinate to his interest in her house. He had been creating a beautiful thing, and he had had a very real joy in it. But lately he knew that his work on the house had been that he might build a background for Natalie. He had put into it the best of his ability, and she was not worth it.
For some days he neither wrote nor called her up. He was not happy, but he had a sense of relief. He held his head a trifle higher, was his own man again, and he began to make tentative inquiries as to whether he could be useful in the national emergency or not. He was half-hearted at first, but he found out something. The mere fact that he wanted to work in some capacity brought back some of his old friends. They had seemed to drop away, before, but they came back heartily and with hands out.
"Work?" said Terry Mackenzie, at the club one day, looking up from the billiard table, where he was knocking balls about, rather at haphazard. "Why, of course you can work. What about these new cantonments we're building all over the country? You ought to be useful there. They don't want 'em pretty, tho." And Terry had laughed. But he put down his cue and took Rodney by the arm.
"Let's ask Nolan about it," he said. "He's in the reading-room, tearing the British strategy to pieces. He knows everything these days, from the draft law to the month's shipping losses. Come along."
It was from Nolan, however, that Rodney first realized how seriously Clayton's friends were taking his affair with Natalie, and that not at first from anything he said. It was an indefinable aloofness of manner, a hostility of tone. Nolan never troubled himself to be agreeable unless it suited his inclination, and apparently Terry found nothing unusual in his attitude. But Rodney did.
"Something he could build?" said Nolan, repeating Terry's question. "How do I know? There's a lot of building going on, Page, but it's not exactly your sort." And there was a faint note of contempt in his voice.
"Who would be the man to see in Washington?" Rodney inquired.
"I'll look it up and let you know. You might call me up to-morrow."
Old Terry, having got them together, went back to his bil1iards and left them. Nolan sat down and picked up his paper, with an air of ending the interview. But he put it down again as Rodney turned to leave the room.
"D'you mind having a few minutes talk?" Rodney braced himself.
"Not at all."
But Nolan was slow to begin. He sat, newspaper on his knee, his deep-set eyes thoughtful. When he began it was slowly.
"I am one of Clay Spencer's oldest friends," he said. "He's a white man, the whitest man I know. Naturally, anything that touches him touches me, in a way."
"The name stands for a good bit, too. His father and his grandfather were the same sort. It's not often in this town that we have three generations without a breath of scandal against them."
Rodney flushed angrily.
"What has that got to do with me?" he demanded.
"I don't know. I don't want to know. I simply wanted to tell you that there are a good many of us who take a peculiar pride in Clayton Spencer, and who resent anything that reflects on a name we respect rather highly."
"That sounds like a threat."
"Not at all. I was merely calling your attention to something I thought perhaps you had forgotten." Then he got up' and his tone changed, became brisk, almost friendly. "Now, about this building thing. If you're in earnest I think it can be managed. You won't get any money to speak of, you know."
"I don't want any money," sullenly.
"Fine. You'll probably have to go west somewhere, and you'll be set down in the center of a hundred corn-fields and told to make them overnight into a temporary town. I suppose you've thought of all that?"
"I'll go wherever I'm sent."
"Come along to the telephone, then."
Rodney hesitated. He felt cheap and despicable, and his anger was still hot. They wanted to get him out of town. He saw that. They took little enough trouble to hide it. Well, he would go. He wanted to go anyhow, and he would show them something, too, if he got a chance. He would show them that he was as much a man as Clayton Spencer. He eyed Nolan's insolently slouching figure with furious eyes. But he followed him.
Had he secured an immediate appointment things might have been different for him. Like Chris Valentine, he had had one decent impulse, and like Chris too, there was a woman behind it. But Chris had been able to act on his impulse at once, and Rodney was compelled to wait while the mills of the government ground slowly.
Then, on the fourteenth of August, Natalie telegraphed him:
"Have had bad news about Graham. Can you come?"
He thought of Graham ill, possibly dead, and he took the next train, late in the evening. It was mid-week and Natalie was alone. He had thought of that possibility in the train and he was miserably uncomfortable, with all his joy at the prospect of seeing her again. He felt that the emergency must be his justification. Clayton was still abroad, and even his most captious critics would admit that Natalie should have a friend by if she were in trouble. Visions of Graham wounded filled his mind. He was anxious, restless and in a state of the highest nervous tension.
And there was no real emergency.
He found Natalie in the drawing-room, pacing the floor. She was still in her morning dress, and her eyes were red and swollen. She gave him both her hands, and he was surprised to find them cold as ice.
"I knew you would come," she said. "I am so alone, so terrified."
He could hardly articulate.
"What is it?"
"Graham has been ordered abroad."
He stood still, staring at her, and then he dropped her hands.
"Is that all?" he asked, dully.
"Good heavens, Natalie! Tell me. I've been frantic with anxiety about you."
"He was married to-night to Delight Haverford."
And still he stared at her.
"Then he's not hurt, or ill?"
"I didn't say he was. Good gracious, Rodney, isn't that bad enough?"
"But - what did you expect? He would have to go abroad some time. You knew that. I'm sorry, but - why in God's name didn't you say in your wire what the trouble was?"
"You sound exactly like Clay."
She was entirely incapable of understanding. She stood before him, straight and resentful, and yet strangely wistful and appealing.
"I send you word that my only son is going to France, that he has married without so much as consulting me, that he is going to war and may never come back. I needed you, and you said once that when I needed you, wherever you were, you would come. So I sent for you, and now you act like - like Clay."
"Have you any one here?"
"The servants. Good gracious, Rodney, are you worrying about that?"
"Only for you, Natalie."
"We resent anything that reflects on a name we respect rather highly." That was what Nolan had said.
"I'm sorry about Graham, dearest. I am sorry about any trouble that comes to you. You know that, Natalie. I'm only regretful that you have let me place you in an uncomfortable position. If my being here is known - Look here, Natalie, dear, I hate to bother you, but I'll have to take one of the cars and go back to the city to-night."
"Aren't you being rather absurd?"
He hesitated. He could not tell her of that awkward talk with Nolan. There were many things he would not tell her; his own desire to rehabilitate himself among the men he knew, his own new-born feeling that to take advantage of Clayton's absence on business connected with the war was peculiarly indefensible.
"I shall order the car at once," she said, and touched a bell. When she turned he was just behind her, but altho he held out his arms she evaded them, her eyes hard and angry.
"I wish you would try to understand," he said.
"I do, very thoroughly. Too thoroughly. You are afraid for yourself, not for me. I am in trouble, but that is a secondary consideration. Don't bother about me, Rodney. I have borne a great deal alone in my life, and I can bear this."
She turned, and went with considerable dignity out of the door.
"Natalie!" he called. But he heard her with a gentle rustle of silks going up the staircase. It did not add to his comfort that she had left him to order the car.
All through the night Rodney rode and thought. He was angry at Natalie, but he was angrier at himself. He felt that he had been brutal, unnecessarily callous. After all, her only son was on his way to war. It was on the cards that he might not come back. And he had let his uneasiness dominate his sympathy. He had lost her, but then he had never had her. He never could have her.
Half way to town, on a back road, the car broke down, and after vainly endeavoring to start it the chauffeur set off on foot to secure help. Rodney slept, uncomfortably, and wakned with the movement of the machine to find it broad day. That was awkward, for Natalie's car was conspicuous, marked too with her initials. He asked to be set down at a suburban railway station, and was dismayed to find it crowded with early commuters, who stared at the big car with interest. On the platform, eyeing him with unfriendly eyes, was Nolan. Rodney made a movement toward him. The situation was intolerable, absurd. But Nolan turned his back and proceeded to read his newspaper.
Perhaps not in years had Rodney Page faced the truth about himself so clearly as he did that morning, riding into the city on the train which carried, somewhere ahead, that quietly contemptuous figure that was Denis Nolan. Faced the truth, saw himself for what he was, and loathed the thing he saw. For a little time, too, it was given him to see Natalie for what she was, for what she would always be, her sole contribution to life the web of her selfishness, carefully woven, floating apparently aimlessly, and yet snaring and holding relentlessly whatever it touched. Killing freedom. He saw Clayton and Graham and himself, feeders for her monstrous complacency and vanity, and he made a definite determination to free himself.
"I'm through," he reflected savagely. "I'll show them something, too. I'll - "
He hesitated. How lovely she was! And she cared for him. She was small and selfish and unspeakably vain, but she cared for him.
The war had done something for Rodney Page. He no longer dreamed the old dream, of turning her ice to fire. But he dreamed, for a moment, something finer. He saw Natalie his, and growing big and fine through love. He saw himself and Natalie, like cards in the game of life, re-dealt. A new combination; a winning hand -
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