The New-year, destined to be so crucial, came in cheerfully enough. There was,
to be sure, a trifle less ostentation in the public celebrations, but the usual
amount of champagne brought in the most vital year in the history of the nation.
The customary number of men, warmed by that champagne, made reckless love
to the women who happened to be near them and forgot it by morning. And the
women themselves presented pictures of splendor of a peculiar gorgeousness.
The fact that almost coincident with the war there had come into prominence an
entirely new school of color formed one of the curious contrasts of the period.
Into a drab world there flamed strange and bizarre theatrical effects, in scenery
and costume. Some of it was beautiful, most of it merely fantastic. But it was
immediately reflected in the clothing of fashionable women. Europe, which had
originated it, could use it but little; but great opulent America adopted it and made
it her own.
So, while the rest of the world was gray, America flamed, and Natalie Spencer,
spending her days between dressmakers and decorators, flamed with the rest.
On New-year's Eve Clayton Spencer always preceded the annual ball of the City
Club, of which he was president, by a dinner to the board of governors and their
wives. It was his dinner. He, and not Natalie, arranged the seating, ordered the
flowers, and planned the menu. He took considerable pride in it; he liked to think
that it was both beautiful and dignified. His father had been president before him,
and he liked to think that he was carrying on his father's custom with the
punctilious dignity that had so characterized him.
He was dressed early. Natalie had been closeted with Madeleine, her maid, and
a hair-dresser, for hours. As he went down-stairs he could hear her voice raised
in querulous protest about something.
When he went into the library Buckham was there stooping over the fire, his
austere old face serious and intent.
"Well, another year almost gone, Buckham!" he said.
"Yes, Mr. Spencer."
"It would be interesting to know what the New-year holds."
"I hope it will bring you peace and happiness, sir."
And after Buckham had gone he thought that rather a curious New-year's wish.
Peace and happiness! Well, God knows he wanted both. A vague
comprehension of the understanding the upper servants of a household acquire
as to the inner life of the family stirred in him; how much they knew and
concealed under their impassive service.
When Natalie came down the staircase a few minutes later she was swathed in
her chinchilla evening wrap, and she watched his face, after her custom when
she expected to annoy him, with the furtive look that he had grown to associate
with some unpleasantness.