Dangerous Days by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview

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Chapter 26

 

The new munition plant was nearing completion. Situated on the outskirts of the city, it spread over a vast area of what had once been waste land. Of the three long buildings, two were already in operation and the third was well under way.

To Clayton Spencer it was the realization of a dream. He never entered the great high-walled enclosure without a certain surprise at the ease with which it had all been accomplished, and a thrill of pride at the achievement. He found the work itself endlessly interesting. The casts, made of his own steel, lying in huge rusty heaps in the yard; the little cars which carried them into the plant; the various operatons by which the great lathes turned them out, smooth and shining, only to lose their polish when, heated again, they were ready for the ponderous hammer to close their gaping jaws. The delicacy of the work appealed to him, the machining to a thousandth of an inch, the fastidious making of the fuses, tiny things almost microscopic, and requiring the delicate touch of girls, most of whom had been watchmakers and jewelry-workers.

And with each carload of the finished shells that left the plant he felt a fine glow of satisfaction. The output was creeping up. Soon they would be making ten thousand shells a day. And every shell was one more chance for victory against the Hun. It became an obsession with him to make more, ever more.

As the work advanced, he found an unexpected enthusiasm in Graham. Here was something to be done, a new thing. The steel mill had been long established. Its days went on monotonously. The boy found it noisy, dirty, without appeal to his imagination. But the shell plant was different. There were new problems to face, of labor, of supplies, of shipping and output.

He was, however, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the break with Germany was the final step that the Government intended to take. That it would not declare war.

However, the break had done something. It had provided him with men from the local National Guard to police the plant, and he found the government taking a new interest, an official interest, in his safety. Agents from the Military Intelligence and the Department of Justice scanned his employment lists and sent agents into the plant. In the building where men and women were hired, each applicant passed a desk where they were quietly surveyed by two unobstrusive gentlemen in indifferent business suits who eyed them carefully. Around the fuse department, where all day girls and women handled guncotton and high- explosive powder, a special guard was posted, day and night.

Early in March Clayton put Graham in charge of the first of the long buildings to be running full, and was rewarded by a new look in the boy's face. He was almost startled at the way he took it.

"I'll do my very best, sir," he said, rather huskily. "If I can't fight, I can help put the swine out of business, anyhow."

He was by that time quite sure that Natalie had extracted a promise of some sort from the boy. On the rare occasions when Graham was at home he was quiet and suppressed.

He was almost always at Marion Hayden's in the evenings, and from things he let fall, Clayton gathered that the irresponsible group which centered about Marion was, in the boy's own vernacular, rather "shot to pieces." Tommy Hale had gone to England to join the Royal Flying Corps. One or two of them were in Canada, trying to enlist there, and one evening Graham brought home to dinner an inordinately tall and thin youngster in the kilts of a Scotch-Canadian regiment, with an astounding length of thin leg below his skirts, who had been one of Marion's most reckless satellites.

"Look like a fool, I know, sir," said the tall individual sheepishly. "Just had to get in it somehow. No camouflage about these skirts, is there?”

And Clayton had noticed, with a thrill of sympathy, how wistfully Graham eyed the debonnair young Scot by adoption, and how Buckham had hovered over him, filling his plate and his glass. Even Graham noticed Buckham.

"Old boy looks as though he'd like to kiss you, Sid," he said. "It's the petticoats. Probably thinks you're a woman."

"I look better with my legs under the table," said the tall boy, modestly.

Clayton was still determined that Graham should fight the thing out for himself. He wished, sometimes, that he knew Marion Hayden's attitude. Was she like Natalie? Would she, if the time came, use her undeniable influence for or against? And there again he resented the influence of women in the boy's life. Why couldn't he make his own decisions? Why couldn't they let him make his own decisions?

He remembered his father, and how his grandmother, in '61, had put a Bible into one pocket and a housewife into another, and had sent him off to war. Had the fiber of our women weakened since then? But he knew it had not. All day, in the new plant, women were working with high-explosives quite calmly. And there were Audrey and the Haverford women, strong enough, in all conscience.

Every mental path, those days, somehow led eventually to Audrey. She was the lighted window at the end of the long trail.

Graham was, as a matter of fact, trying to work out his own salvation. He blundered, as youth always blunders, and after a violent scene with Marion Hayden he made an attempt to break off his growing intimacy with Anna Klein - to find, as many a man had before him, that the sheer brutality of casting off a loving woman was beyond him.

The scene with Marion came one Sunday in the Spencer house, with Natalie asleep up-stairs after luncheon, and Clayton walking off a sense of irritation in the park. He did not like the Hayden girl. He could not fathom Natalie's change of front with regard to Graham and the girl. He had gone out, leaving them together, and Marion had launched her attack fiercely.

"Now!" she cried.

"I couldn't come last night. That's all, Marion."

"It is certainly not all. Why couldn't you come?"

"I worked late."

"Where?"

"At the plant."

"That's a lie, Graham. I called the plant. I'll tell you where you were. You were out with a girl. You were seen, if you want to know it."

"Oh, if you are going to believe everything you hear about me?"

"Don't act like a child. Who was the girl?"

"It isn't like you to be jealous, Marion. I let you run around all the time with other fellows, but the minute I take a girl out for a little spin, you're jealous.”

"Jealous!" She laughed nastily. But she knew she was losing her temper; and brought herself up short. Let him think she was jealous. What really ailed her was deadly fear lest her careful plan go astray. She was terrified. That was all. And she meant to learn who the girl was.

"I know who it was," she hazarded. "I think you are bluffing."

"It was Delight Haverford."

"Delight!"

She knew then that she was wrong, but it was her chance to assail Delight and she took it.

"That - child!" she continued contemptuously. "Don't you suppose I've seen how she looks at you? I'm not afraid of her. You are too much a man of the world to let her put anything over on you. At least, I thought you were. Of course, if you like milk and water?"

"It was not Delight," he said doggedly. "And I don't think we need to bring her into this at all. She's not in love with me. She wouldn't wipe her feet on me."

Which was unfortunate. Marion smiled slowly.

"Oh! But you are good enough for me to be engaged to! I wonder!"

He went to the window and stood for a moment looking out. Then he went slowly back to her.

"I'm not good enough for you to be engaged to, Marion," he said. "I - don't you want to call it a day?"

She was really terrified then. She went white and again, miserably, he mistook her agitation for something deeper.

"You want to break the engagement?"

"Not if you still want me. I only mean - I'm a pretty poor sort. You ought to have the best, and God help this country if I'm the best."

"Graham, you're in some sort of trouble?"

He drew himself up in boyish bravado. He could not tell her the truth. It opened up too hideous a vista. Even his consciousness of the fact that the affair with Anna was still innocent did not dull his full knowledge of whither it was trending. He was cold and wretched.

"It's nothing," he muttered.

"You can tell me. You can tell me anything. I know a lot, you see. I'm no silly kitten. If you're in a fix, I'll help you. I don't care what it is, I'll help you. I?I'm crazy about you, Graham."

Anna's words, too!

"Look here, Marion," he said, roughly, "you've got to do one of two things. Either marry me or let me go."

"Let you go! I like that. If that is how you feel?"

"Oh - don't." He threw up his arm. "I want you. You know that. Marry me - to- morrow."

"I will not. Do you think I'm going to come into this family and have you cut off? Don't you suppose I know that Clayton Spencer hates the very chair I sit on? He'll come and beg me to marry you, some day. Until then?"

"You won't do it?"

"To-morrow? Certainly not."

And again he felt desperately his powerlessness to loosen the coils that were closing round him, fetters forged of his own red blood, his own youth, the woman- urge.

She was watching him with her calculating glance. "You must be in trouble," she said.

"if I am, it's you and mother who have driven me there."

He was alarmed then, and lapsed into dogged silence. His anxiety had forced into speech thoughts that had never before been articulate. He was astounded to hear himself uttering them, although with the very speaking he realized now that they were true.

"Sorry, Marion," he muttered. "I didn't mean all that. I'm excited. That's all."

When he sat down beside her again and tried to take her hand, she drew it away. "You've been very cruel, Graham," she said. "I've been selfish. very girl who is terribly in love is selfish. I am going to give you your ring, and leave you free to do whatever you want."

Her generosity overcame him. He was instantly ashamed, humbled.

"Don't!" he begged. "Don't let me go. I'll just go to the dogs. If you really care?"

"Care!" she said softly. And as he buried his head in her lap she stroked his hair softly. Her eyes, triumphant, surveyed the long room, with its satin-paneled walls, its French furniture, its long narrow gilt-framed mirrors softening the angles of the four corners.

Some day all this would be hers. For this she would exchange the untidy and imitation elegance of her present setting.

She stroked the boy's head absently.

Graham made an attempt to free himself the next day. He was about to move his office to the new plant, and he made a determination not to take Anna with him. He broke it to her as gently as he could.

"Mr. Weaver is taking my place here," he said, avoiding her eyes.

"Yes, Graham."

"He'll - there ought to be some one here who knows the ropes."

"Do you mean me?"

"Well, you know them, don't you?" He had tried to smile at her.

"Do you mean that you are going to have another secretary at the plant?"

"Look here, Anna," he said impulsively. "You know things can't on indefinitely, the way we are now. You know it, don't you.

She looked down and nodded.

"Well, don't you think I'd better leave you here?" She fumbled nervously with her wrist-watch.

"I won't stay here if you go," she said finally. I hate Mr. Weaver. I'm afraid of him. I - oh, don't leave me, Graham. Don't. I haven't anybody but you. I haven't any home - not a real home. You ought to see him these days." She always referred to her father as "him."

"He's dreadful. I'm only happy when I'm here with you."

He was angry, out of sheer despair.

"I've told you," he said. "Things can't go on as they are. You know well enough what I mean. I'm older than you are, Anna. God knows I don't want any harm to come to you through me. But, if we continue to be together - "

"I'm not blaming you." She looked at him honestly. "I'd just rather have you care about me than marry anybody else."

He kissed her, with a curious mingling of exultation and despair. He left her there when he went away that afternoon, a rather downcast young figure, piling up records and card-indexes, and following him to the door with worshiping, anxious eyes. Later on in the afternoon Joey, wandering in from Clayton's office on one of his self-constituted observation tours, found her crying softly while she wiped her typewriter, preparatory to covering it for the night.

"Somebody been treatin' you rough?" he asked, more sympathetic than curious. "What are you doing here, anyhow?" she demanded, angrily. "You're always hanging around, spying on me."

"Somebody's got to keep an eye on you."

"Well, you don't."

"Look here," he said, his young-old face twitching with anxiety. "You get out from under, kid. You take my advice, and get out from under. Something's going to fall."

"Just mind your own business, and stop worrying about me. That's all." He turned and started out.

"Oh, very well," he said sharply. "But you might take a word of warning, anyhow. That cousin of yours has got an eye on you, all right. And we don't want any scandal about the place."

"We? Who are 'we'?"

"Me and Mr. Clayton Spencer," said Joey, smartly, and went out, banging the door cheerfully.

Anna climbed the hill that night wearily, but with a sense of relief that Rudolph had not been waiting for her at the yard gate. She was in no mood to thrust and parry with him. She wondered, rather dully, what mischief Rudolph was up to. He was gaining a tremendous ascendency over her father, she knew. Herman was spending more and more of his evenings away from home, creaking up the stairs late at night, shoes in hand, to undress in the cold darkness across the hall. "Out?" she asked Katie, sitting by the fire with the evening paper. Conversation in the cottage was almost always laconic.

"Ate early," Katie returned. "Rudolph was here, too. I'm going to quit if I've got to cook for that sneak any longer. You'd think he had a meal ticket here. Your supper's on the stove."

"I'm not hungry." She ate her supper, however, and undressed by the fire. Then she went up-stairs and sat by her window in the gathering night. She was suffering acutely. Graham was tired of her. He wanted to get rid of her. Probably he had a girl somewhere else, a lady. Her idea of the life of such a girl had been gathered from novels.

"The sort that has her breakfast in bed," she muttered, "and has her clothes put on her by somebody. Her underclothes, too!"

The immodesty of the idea made her face burn with anger. Late that night Herman came back.

Herman had been a difficult proposition for Rudolph to handle. His innate caution, his respect for law and, under his bullying exterior, a certain physical cowardice, made him slow to move in the direction Rudolph was urging. He was controversial. He liked to argue over the beer and schnitzel Rudolph bought. And Rudolph was growing impatient.

Rudolph himself was all eagerness and zeal. It was his very zeal that was his danger, although it brought him slavish followers. He was contemptuous, ill- tempered, and impatient, but, of limited intelligence himself, he understood for that very reason the mental processes of those he would lead. There was a certain simplicity even in his cunning. With Herman he was a ferret driving out of their hiding-places every evil instinct that lay dormant. Under his goading, Herman was becoming savage, sullen, and potentially violent.

He was confused, too. Rudolph's arguments always confused him.

He was confused that night, heavy with fatigue and with Rudolph's steady talk in his ear. He was tired of pondering great questions, tired of hearing about the Spencers and the money they were making.

Anna's clothing was scattered about the room, and he frowned at it. She spent too much money on her clothes. Always sewing at something -

He stooped down to gather up his shoes, and his ear thus brought close to the table was conscious in the silence of a faint rhythmical sound. He stood up and looked about. Then he moved the newspaper on the table. Underneath it, forgotten in her anxiety and trouble, lay the little gold watch.

He picked it up, still following his train of thought. It fitted into the evening's inflammable proceedings. So, with such trinkets as this, capital would silence the cry of labor for its just share in the products of its skill and strength! It would bribe, and cheaply. Ten dollars, perhaps, that ticking insult. For ten dollars -

He held it close to his spectacles. Ah, but it was not so cheap. It came from the best shop in the city. He weighed it carefully in his hand, and in so doing saw the monogram. A doubt crept into his mind, a cold and chilling fear. Since when had the Spencer plant taken to giving watches for Christmas? The hill girls who worked as stenographers in the plant; they came in often enough and he did not remember any watches, or any mention of watches. His mind, working slowly, recalled that never before had he seen the watch near at hand. And he went into a slow and painful calculation. Fifty dollars at least it had cost. A hundred stenographers - that would be five thousand dollars for watches.

Suddenly he knew that Anna had lied to him. One of two things, then: either she had spent money for it, unknown to him, or some one had given it to her. There was, in his mind, not much difference in degree between the two alternatives. Both were crimes of the first magnitude.

He picked the watch up between his broad thumb and forefinger, and then, his face a cold and dreadful mask, he mounted the stairs.