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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 hernusual 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 sigued 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 ball 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 bad 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 knoe 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?"
"I'm working hard. That's all. I don't want to talk about myself," he added impatiently. "What about you? What are you going to do?"
"Sell my house, pay my debts and live on my own little bit of an income."
"But, good heavens, Audrey! Chris has no right to cut off like this, and leave you. I don't know the story, but at least he must support you. A man can't just run away and evade every obligation. I think I'll have to go after him and give him a talking to."
"No!" she said, bending forward. "Don't do that. He has had a bad scare. But he's had one decent impulse, too. Let him alone, Clay."
She placed the money on the stand, and rose. As she faced him, she impulsively placed her hands on his shoulders.
"I wish I could tell you, Clay," she said, in her low, slightly husky voice, "how very, very much I admire you. You're pretty much of a man, you know. And-there aren't such a lot of them."
For an uneasy moment he thought she was going to kiss him. But she let her hands fall, and smiling faintly, led the way downstairs. Once down, however, she voiced the under lying thought in her mind.
"If he comes out, Clay, he'll never forgive me, probably. And if he is - if he doesn't, I'll never forgive myself. So I'm damned either way."
But ten minutes later, with a man on either side of her, she was sitting at the piano with a cigaret tucked behind her ear, looking distractingly pretty and very gay and singing a slightly indecorous but very witty little French song.
Clayton Spencer, cutting in on the second rubber, wondered which of the many he knew was the real Audrey. He wondered if Chris had not married, for instance, the girl at the piano, only to find she was the woman upstairs. And he wondered, too, if that were true, why he should have had to clear out. So many men married the sort Audrey had been, in Chris's little study, only to find that after all the thing they had thought they were getting was a pose, and it was the girl at the piano after all.
He missed her, somewhat later. She was gone a full half hour, and he fancied her absence had something to do with the money she had borrowed.
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