Two things helped greatly to restore Clayton to a more normal state of mind during the next few days. One of them undoubtedly was the Valentine situation. Beside Audrey's predicament and Chris's wretched endeavor to get away and yet prove himself a man, his own position seemed, if not comfortable, at least tenable. He would have described it, had he been a man to put such a thing into words, as that "he and Natalie didn't exactly hit it off."
There were times, too, during those next few days, when he wondered if he had not exaggerated their incompatibility. Natalie was unusually pleasant. She spent some evening hours on the arm of his big chair, talking endlessly about the Linndale house, and he would lean back, smiling, and pretend to a mad interest in black and white tiles and loggias.
He made no further protest as to the expense.
"Tell me," he said once, "what does a fellow wear in this - er - Italian palace? If you have any intention of draping me in a toga and putting vine leaves in my hair, or whatever those wreaths were made of -!"
Natalie had no sense of humor, however. She saw that he meant to be amusing, and she gave the little fleeting smile one gives to a child who is being rather silly.
"Of course," he went on, "we'll have Roman baths, and be anointed with oil afterwards by lady Greek slaves. Perfumed oil."
"Don't be vulgar, Clay." And he saw she was really offended.
While there was actually no change in their relationship, which remained as it had been for a dozen years, their surface life was pleasanter. And even that small improvement cheered him greatly. He was thankful for such a peace, even when he knew that he had bought it at a heavy price.
The other was his work. The directorate for the new munition plant had been selected, and on Thursday of that week he gave a dinner at his club to the directors. It had been gratifying to him to find how easily his past reputation carried the matter of the vast credits needed, how absolutely his new board deferred to his judgment. The dinner became, in a way, an ovation. He was vastly pleased and a little humbled. He wanted terribly to make good, to justify their faith in him. They were the big financial men of his time, and they were agreeing to back his judgment to the fullest extent.
When the dinner was over, a few of the younger men were in no mood to go home. They had dined and wined, and the night was young. Denis Nolan, who had been present as the attorney for the new concern, leaned back in his chair and listened to them with a sort of tolerant cynicism.
"Oh, go home, you fellows," he said at last. "You make me sick. Enough's enough. Why the devil does every dinner like this have to end in a debauch?"
In the end, however, both he and Clayton went along, Clayton at least frankly anxious to keep an eye on one or two of them until they started home. He had the usual standards, of course, except for himself. A man's private life, so long as he was not a bounder, concerned him not at all. But this had been his dinner. He meant to see it through. Once or twice he had seen real tragedy come to men as a result of the recklessness of long dinners, many toasts and the instinct to go on and make a night of it.
Afterward they went to a midnight roof-garden, and at first it was rather dreary. Their youth was only comparative after all, and the eyes of the girls who danced and sang passed over them, to rest on boys in their twenties.
"Pathetic!" he said. "The saddest sight in the world! Every one of you here would at this moment give up everything he's got to be under thirty."
"Oh, shut up!" some one said, almost savagely.
"Of course, there are compensations," he drawled. "At twenty you want to take the entire bunch home and keep 'em. At thirty you know you can't, but you still want to. At forty and over you don't want them at all, but you think it's damned curious they don't want you."
Clayton had watched the scene with a rather weary interest. He was, indeed, trying to put himself in Graham's place, at Graham's age. He remembered once, at twenty, haying slipped off to see "The Black Crook," then the epitome of wickedness, and the disillusionment of seeing women in tights with their accentuated curves and hideous lack of appeal to the imagination. The caterers of such wares had learned since then. Here were soft draperies instead, laces and chiffons. The suggestion was not to the eyes but to the mind. How devilishly clever it all was.
Perhaps there were some things he ought to discuss with Graham. He wondered how a man led up to such a thing.
Nolan bent toward him.
"I've been watching for a girl," he said, "but I don't see her. Last time I was here I came with Chris. She was his girl."
"Yes. It stumped me, at first. She came and sat with us, not a bad little thing, but - Good Lord, Clay, ignorant and not even pretty! And Chris was fastidious, in a way. I don't understand it."
The ancient perplexity of a man over the sex selections of his friends puckered his forehead.
"Damned if I understand it," he repeated.
A great wave of pity for Audrey Valentine surged in Clayton Spencer's heart. She had known it, of course; that was why Chris had gone away. How long had she known it? She was protecting Chris's name, even now. For all her frivolity, there was something rather big in Audrey. The way she had held up at her dinner, for instance - and he rather fancied that the idea of his going into the army had come from her, directly or indirectly. So Chris, from being a fugitive, was already by way of being a hero to his friends.
He made a mental note to send her some flowers in the morning.
He ordered them on his way down-town, and for some curious reason she was in his mind most of the day. Chris had been a fool to throw away a thing so worth having. Not every man had behind him a woman of Audrey's sort.
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