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The radiator, when Chick Moffat put his hand on it as one of his last gestures before going out a little after eight o’clock that Monday evening, was cold. Not that it mattered particularly, since it was the end of April and that meant, in Washington, that Spring’s local errands were done and it was leaving for appointments farther north. Hardier boys were diving into the Potomac, the petals of the famous cherry blossoms were browning into oblivion on the green lawn, and working whites were outdoor uniform at the Navy Yard.
Chick Moffat put his hand on the radiator through force of habit, scarcely aware of its cold response. That didn’t matter. The things that did matter had already been attended to; he had just spent three hours at it. He stood by the window and moved his head in a slow half-circle for an approving inspection of the ordinary but pleasant room. There was no doubt of it being comfortable. The furniture was his own: in this, the living-room, as well as in the small bedroom through the door at the right, with bath adjoining, and in the kitchen at the rear where he often prepared and ate his own meals. The chairs were yellow wicker, with blue pads of imitation leather, the rug, plain brown and spotless, was large enough to leave only a narrow strip of flooring visible along the walls, and the four or five pictures hung at eye-level were, with one exception, colored prints of landscapes in silvered frames. The exception, above the desk which stood against the wall across from the entrance door, was a large autographed photograph of the President of the United States.
Chick muttered half aloud, “Nothing to be ashamed of, if you ask me.”
He had lived here six years, having rented the place and bought the furniture on the occasion of his promotion to Special Duty in the State Department, and having stubbornly hung on to it when three years later he had been picked to fill a vacancy in the White House squad. The Chief of the Bureau had hinted pointedly that a White House man might reasonably be expected to inhabit more respectable and accessible quarters than a rummy third-floor flat a good mile southeast of decency, but Chick had let the hint bounce off his nose. He hated furnished rooms of any degree of respectability whatever, and would if necessary have informed the Chief himself that rather than live in one he would move to Alexandria, wear overalls, chew tobacco, and keep chickens.
That had been three years ago. He still lived here, and was still on the White House squad.
His head completed the slow half-circle. Everything was in order. But before he could go, and go he must soon, there was a thing to be done. He had put it off until eight o’clock, but now it must be done. He sighed, crossed the room to the desk, picked up the telephone and put the receiver to his ear, and gave a number. He sat on the edge of the desk and his toe was nervously tapping the floor.
A voice said hello.
“Hello yourself. Listen, Alma.… Of course, don’t you know my voice? Listen, Alma, I can’t come.”
He wanted to kick himself. So damn blunt. It always fussed him so just to hear her voice. Ass.
Her voice was saying, “No? I’m sorry.”
“Are I what?”
“Of course. Not desolated beyond hope, but sorry—certainly. Particularly since this seems to be the wildest night Washington has known in a century, with rumors like snowflakes in a blizzard, and I had hoped you would be indiscreet. The distaff side has had a dull day.”
Chick Moffat, the receiver tight against his ear, was frowning at a corner of the desk. “Well, I haven’t. Nor a dull night either—that is, who will? I mean … listen, Alma. Of course I can’t talk, damn it, I never can to you. I can’t come. I’ve got to go on duty.”
“Oh. I thought you were on duty today.”
“I was. But I’ve got … well, I can’t come. I thought maybe I could manage to stop in for an hour, if you’d let me do that, instead of going to a movie, but I can’t make it. You know how when a soldier goes to war he gives his sweetheart something to keep? I thought maybe I’d bring you my favorite necktie—”
“Chick!” Her voice was thin with excitement. “Is it war?”
“No. How do I know? Nobody knows. Who ever tells a watchdog anything except to shut up when he barks? Nobody knows but the President, and maybe he doesn’t. Can I send my necktie to you parcel post?”
“Save it for your sweetheart. Tell me, Chick, is it war?”
Chick scowled at the watch on his wrist. “Alma, please. Listen, Alma, I’ve got to go—”
“All right. I’ll sit and knit. Good-bye.”
The click was in his ear. Still scowling, he hung up the receiver and put the phone on the desk. He stared at it a moment, and sighed. Then he opened a drawer of the desk and took from it an automatic pistol which he stuck in his pocket. Across the room, when he went to take his hat from the rack on the wall, he fumbled and the hat fell to the floor.
He muttered furiously, “Go ahead and get nervous, my hero,” snatched up the hat and jammed it on his head, and went out.
At the moment that Chick Moffat was moving his head in a half-circle to inspect his living-room Sally Voorman was saying to Mrs. William Robert Brown:
“Could you imagine such rotten luck? Could you even imagine it? I would round out the season, wouldn’t I? With my well-known flair. On account of it’s being so late, nearly May, I took every precaution. One ambassador, and I got the Jap. Three of the best Senators, and I got them. The only general in Washington that can laugh without getting red in the face. Sam Agnew, and that alone was a triumph since the golf season has started and no poker could be expected. And so on. I tell you it could not have been better done. And look, just look around and see what I’ve got—did you ever see such a mess? I’ve been begging—would you believe it, begging?—into the phone for two hours trying to fill out, and there is the best I could do! That old fool Blanchard, for instance. I’ll tell you what, Mabel, I am firmly convinced that the President decided to go before Congress with his war message on Tuesday the twenty-ninth only because he knew my dinner was Monday and that was the only thing on earth that could ruin it. Why, I ask you, why couldn’t he—”
Mrs. Brown had the voice for interrupting and when so minded could use it. She said, “Sally. You say war message?”
The other, slim and pretty, stared at her with blue eyes. “Of course. Isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“Well—it’s about war. That’s what I meant.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Brown’s lips tightened, but she opened them again. “Yes, about war. I hope, against it. I hope that with all my heart and soul. I trust you do.”
Sally Voorman’s shoulders lifted and dropped. “I would, I suppose, if I knew anything about it. I know, Mabel, you have a serious mind, but the only hopes I’ve had room for today have been concentrated on this dinner, and look what has come of them! I’m out of politics, in fact I’ve never been in.”
“War isn’t politics, my dear. It is indeed the only human activity that is rottener than politics.”
“Goodness!” Sally smiled at her, and patted her shoulder. “Then I’d better stay out of that too.—But it’s eight-twenty, Lord help me, and this merry crew must be fed. Here comes your man. Pray for me, do.”
She glided off.
Three hours later Sally Voorman stood in the spacious entrance hall of her home, smiling up at a man much taller than herself. This Senator, the only one of the “three of the best” who had not failed her, with brown hair nearly gray and the furrowed face of a veteran but minor statesman, looked down at her with exhausted brown eyes that wanted to return her smile. Some of the guests had departed; those who remained were divided between desultory dancing in the drawing-room and bridge tables upstairs. They were alone in the hall.
“I had wanted to talk to you.” The blue eyes were unfalteringly up to him.
The Senator did in fact smile; heavy, but a smile. “My dear child! Thank you for that, and the dinner. It was a nice dinner.”
“It was not. It was terrible. Such talk, and such tempers! For a while I thought the war would start then and there, and I would have to ask Barton to serve revolvers instead of salad forks.”
He nodded. “We’re all jumpy, and no wonder. You’re too young, my dear. You don’t realize.”
“Perhaps. But tell me, is it war?”
“I wish to God I knew.”
Sally insisted. “I mean the President. Wasn’t that the phone call? What is he going to say?”
“I don’t know. The phone call was … well, a meeting. That’s where I’m going.”
She nodded. “I know. At Senator Allen’s. And between here and there you’ll have to make up your mind which side you’re on.”
“Ah.” The exhausted brown eyes blinked heavily; the effort at a smile had been abandoned. “The meeting has got into gossip then.”
“I don’t know. Does it matter?” Sally Voorman’s nice smooth fingers took the lapel of the Senator’s black topcoat to pull it straight, and hung onto it. Her blue eyes were straight up at his, with purpose in them. “But it does matter, of course, that you can carry that meeting if you want to. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Maybe I’m a numbskull, as Mabel Brown says, but if so I’m with the majority at least; there are a lot of us, and we know which side we’re on. We hate war, of course, but we know there are a few things that are even more hateful. That’s the way we feel about it, we numbskulls, and the only thing that makes us the least bit doubtful is when we see one of the leaders, a real able proven leader,—well, when we see him hesitate. Aren’t you ashamed, really now aren’t you ashamed, to make us numbskulls doubtful?” Gently the nice white fingers shook the lapel. “Aren’t you now?”
The Senator was looking down at her, his lips pushed together and out, his big old shapely head moving perceptibly from side to side. He grunted. “So. My dear child. Blue-eyed jingo.”
“Nonsense.” She was scornful. “We shouldn’t call names, should we?”
“No.” He dragged the word out, gave it length. Suddenly he said “No!” again, shorter and louder, and then muttering something about being late, backed away freeing the lapel from her hand, and turned and started for the door. But halfway to it he turned again. His voice was low but explosive. “Listen, Mrs. Voorman. This is a dirty business, let it alone. For God’s sake keep out of it. Here’s a message for your husband, I suppose he’s still upstairs playing bridge. Playing bridge! Tell him this is my opinion of him for dragging you into this, tell him of all the filthy—”
The Senator sputtered to a stop. He stood looking at Sally, his lips working without words. After a moment he muttered, “God bless me, what am I saying?” He moved to get his hand on the doorknob, paused and said loudly and oratorically, “My dear child!” and opened the door and left.