The White Morning by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gisela, who had been staring across the Koeniginstrasse into the heavy branches that hung over the wall of the park, her mental vision too actively raking the past to spare a beam for the familiar picture, suddenly switched her searchlight away from those milestones in her historic progress and concentrated it upon a suspicious shadow opposite. Surely it had moved, and there was not a breath of wind. The night was mild and still.
She did not move a muscle but narrowed her gaze until it detached the figure of a man from the dark background of wall and trees. Always apprehensive of spies, although the Gott commandeered by the Kaiser seemed to have adjusted blinders to eyes strained west, east, and south, she leapt to the conclusion that she was under surveillance at last, and her heart beat thickly. She who had believed that the long strain, the constant danger, the incessant demand for resource and ever more resource, had transformed her nerves to pure steel, realized angrily that on this last night when she had permitted herself an hour's idle retrospect before commanding sleep, her nerves more nearly resembled the strings of a violin.
Her apartment was on the ground floor. She stood up, revealing herself disdainfully in the moonlight that now lay full on her window, then went out quickly into the vestibule and unlocked the house door. Her only fear was that the man would have gone, but if he were still there she was determined to walk boldly over to his skulking-place and pretend she believed him to be a burglar or a foreign spy. In these days she carried a small pistol and a dagger.
When she had stepped out on the pavement she glanced quickly up and down the street. Not even a polizeidiener was in sight, for this aristocratic quarter was, in peace and war, the quietest part of an always orderly town. It was evident that the man spied alone.
Holding her head very high, she started across the street; but she had not taken three steps when the shadow detached itself and walked rapidly out into the moonlight. She gave a sharp cry and shrank back. It was Franz von Nettelbeck.
"You--" she stammered. "They sent you--"
"They? And why should I alarm you? Am I so formidable?" He uttered his short harsh laugh and lifted his cap. His head was bandaged; there was a deep scar along the outer line of his right cheek. His face was gaunt and lined; and his shoulders sagged until he suddenly bethought himself and flung them back with a deathless instinct.
Gisela smiled and gave him her hand with a graceful spontaneity. "The sense of being watched always shakes the nerves a bit, and I have felt up to nothing myself for a long time. Why did not you come up to the window when you recognized me?"
"I was so sure of welcome! And yet as soon as I was fit to travel I came here to see you. I intended to send in my card to-morrow. But I could not help haunting your window to-night, and when I had the good fortune to see you sitting there--with the moon shining on your beautiful face--"
"My face is no longer beautiful, dear Franz--"
"You are a thousand times more beautiful than ever--"
Something else vibrated along those steel nerves, but she said briskly: "Standing so long must have tired you. Come in and rest. It is late; but if there are still conventions in this crashing world I have forgotten them."
Her rooms were always prepared for a sudden visit of the police. If a firing squad were her fate it would not have been invited through the usual channels. Even the arms to be worn on the morrow were in the cellars and attics of citizens so respectable as almost to be nameless.
He followed her through the common entrance of the apartment house into her Saal. It was a large comfortable room with many deep chairs, and on the gray walls were a few portraits of her scowling ancestors, contributed long since by her mother. A tall porcelain stove glowed softly. Gisela drew the curtains and lit several candles. She disliked the hard glare of electricity at any time, and she admitted with a curious thrill of satisfaction that those manifestly sincere words of her old lover had given her vanity a momentary resurrection. Her suspicions were by no means allayed, even when she met his eyes blazing with passionate admiration, but why not play the old game of the gods for an hour? What better preparation for the morrow than to relax and forget?
"Poor Franz!" Her voice was the same rich contralto whose promise had routed the Howland millions years ago. "Our poor gallant men! When will this terrible war finish?"
"Ask your United States of America!" And he cursed that superfluous nation roundly. "We had some chance before. Not so much, but still some. Now we shall be beaten to our knees, stamped into the dust, straight down to hell." He threw himself into a chair and pressed his hands against his face.
"But when?" Gisela watched him warily. If these were tactics they were admirable; but who more full of theatric devices than the Kaiser he adored?
"Years hence, no doubt--if we continue to hold the Social-Democrats in hand and drug the people. We'll fight on until our enemies' might proves that they are right and we were fools. That is all there is to war."
Gisela sat down and let her hands fall into her lap with a little pathetic motion of weakness. "Sometimes I wish the Socialists were strong enough to win and end it all," she said plaintively.
"Oh, no, you don't. You are a junker, for all your independent notions, and trying to put some of your own nerve into the women. I read you with great amusement before the war. But no one knows better than yourself that the triumph of democracy in Germany would mean the end of us."
"I cannot see that we are enjoying many privileges at present--unless it be the privilege to lie rather than be lied to. And when our enemies do win we shall be pried out, root and branch. So, why not save our skins at all events? I do not mean mine, of course--nor, for that matter, am I thinking of our class; but of the hundreds of thousands of our dear young men who might be spared--"
"Better die and have done with it. And there is always hope--"
"Oh--in the separate peace, the ultimate submersible, some new invention--the miracle that has come to the rescue more than once in history. There are times when my faith in the destiny of Germany to dominate the world is so great that I cannot believe it possible for her to fail--in spite of everything, everything! And everything is against us! I never realized it until I lay there in the hospital. I was too busy before, and that was my first serious wound. Oh, God! what fools we were. What rotten diplomacy. Even I despised the United States; but as I lay there in Berlin their irresistible almighty power seemed to pass before me in a procession that nearly destroyed my reason. I knew the country well enough, but I would not see."
"They are a very soft-hearted people and would let us down agreeably if the Social-Democrats overturned the House of Hohenzollern and stretched out the imploring hand of a young Republic--"
"No! No! A thousand times rather die to the last man than be beaten within. That would be the one insupportable humiliation. Canaille!" He spat out the word. "I refuse to recognize their existence--"
He sprang to his feet and before her mind could flash to attention he had caught her from her chair and was straining her to him, his arms, his entire body, betraying no evidence whatever of depleted vitality. "Let us forget it all!" he muttered. "We are still young and I am free. I was a fool once and you will believe me when I tell you that I would beg you on my knees to marry me even if you were Gisela Doering.... I have leave of absence for a month ... let us be happy once more...."
"It was a long while ago ... all that ... do you realize how long?"
Gisela stood rigid, her eyes expanded. To her terror and dismay she was thrilling and flaming from head to foot. This lover of her life might have released her from one of their immortal hours but yesterday. But although she had to brace her body from yielding, her mind (and it is the curse of intellectual women of individual powers that the mind never, in any circumstances, ceases to function) realized that while the human will may be strong enough to banish memories, and readjust the lonely soul, its most triumphant acts may be annihilated by the physical contact of its mate. Unless replaced. Fool that she had been merely to have buried the memory of this man by an act of will. She should have taken a commonplace lover, or husband, put out that flaming midnight torch with the standardizing light of day.
Her mind seemed to be darting from peak to peak in a swift and dazzling flight as he talked rapidly and brokenly, kissing her cheek, her neck, straining her so close to him that she could hardly breathe. Suddenly it poised above the memory of an old book of Renan's, "The Abbess Juarre," in which the eminent skeptic had somewhat clumsily attempted to demonstrate that if the world unmistakably announced its finish within three days the inhabitants would give themselves up to an orgy of love.
Well, her world might end to-morrow. Why should she not live to-night?
Her arrogant will demanded the happiness that this man, whom she had never ceased to love for a moment, to whom she had been unconsciously faithful, alone could give her. Moreover, her reason working side by side with her imperious desires, assured her that if he really were spying, and, whatever his passion, meant to remold her will to his and snatch the keystone from the arch, it were wise to keep him here. It was evident that he had no suspicion of the imminence of the revolution.
And it was years since she had felt all woman, not a mere intellect ignoring the tides in the depths of her being. The revelation that she was still young and that her will and all the proud achievements of her mind could dissolve at this man's touch in the crucible of her passion filled her with exultation.
She melted into his arms and lifted hers heavily to his neck.
"Franz! Franz!" she whispered.
Gisela moved softly about the room looking for fresh candles. Those that had replaced the moonlight hours ago had burned out and she did not dare draw the curtains apart: it was too near the dawn. She had no idea what time it was. But she must have light, for to think was imperative, and her mental processes were always clogged in the dark.
She found the old box of candles and placed four in the brackets and lit them. Then she went over to the couch and looked down upon Franz von Nettelbeck. He slept heavily, on his side, his arms relaxed but slightly curved. In a few moments she went down the hall to her bedroom and took a cold bath and made a cup of strong coffee; then dressed herself in a suit of gray cloth, straight and loose, that her swiftest movements might not be impeded. In the belt under the jacket she adjusted her pistol and dagger.
She returned to the Saal and once more looked down upon the unconscious man. How long he had been falling asleep! She had offered him wine, meaning to drug it, but he had refused lest it inflame his wounds. She had offered to make him coffee, but he would not let her go.
It was in the complete admission of her reluctance to leave him, even after he slept, and while disturbed by the fear that the dawn was nearer than in fact it was, that she stared down upon the man who was more to her than Germany and all its enslaved women and men. He knew nothing of her plans, had not a suspicion of the revolution, but he had vowed they never should be parted again. He had great influence and could set wheels in motion that would return him to the diplomatic service and procure him an appointment to Spain; where good diplomatists were badly needed.
It was an enchanting picture that he drew in spite of the horror that must ever mutter at their threshold; but to the awfulness of war they were both by this time more or less callous, although he was mortally sick of the war itself; and Gisela, who doled half-measures neither to herself nor others, had dismissed the morrow and yielded herself to the joy of the future as of the present. What she had felt for this man in her early twenties seemed a mere partnership of romance and sentiment fused by young nerves, compared with the mature passion he had shocked from its long recuperative sleep. He was her mate, her other part. Her long fidelity, unshaken by time, her own temperament and many opportunities, all were proof of that.
The caste of great lovers in this unfinished world is small and almost inaccessible, but they had taken their place by immemorial right. Were it not for this history of her own making they would find every phase of happiness in each other as long as they both lived. Women, at least, know instinctively the difference between the transient passion, no matter how powerful, and the deathless bond.
Gisela glanced at her wrist watch. It was within seventy minutes of the dawn. If she could only be sure that he would sleep until Munich herself awoke him. But he had told her that he never slept these days more than two or three hours at a time, no matter how weary.
If he awoke before it was time for her to leave the house and renewed his love-making, her response would be as automatic as the progress of life itself.
If she attempted to leave the house before sunrise, on no matter what pretext, his suspicions would be aroused, for she had told him that she had been given a week for rest. For the same reason she dared not awaken him and ask him to go. He would refuse, for it was no time to slip out of a woman's apartment; far better wait until ten o'clock, when there were always visitors of both sexes in her office. Moreover, he would no more wish to go than he would permit her to leave him.
She was utterly in his power if he awakened and chose to exert it. He had mastered her, conquered her, routed her career and her peace, and she had gloried in her submission; gloried in it still. A commonplace woman would have been satisfied, satiated, felt free for the moment, turned with relief to the dry convention of the daily adventure, rather resenting, if she had a pretty will, the supreme surrender to the race in an unguarded hour.
Gisela was cast in the heroic mold. She came down from the old race of goddesses of her own Nibelungenlied, whose passions might consume them but had nothing in common with the ebb and flow of mortals. But great brains are fed by stormy souls, and in the souls of women there is an element of weakness, unknown, save in a few notable instances, to great men in the crises of their destiny; for women are the slaves of the race, and nature when permitting them the abnormality of genius takes her revenge.
If he awakened.... There was little time for thought. She must plan quickly. If she left the house at once he might awaken immediately and after searching the apartment, follow her; there was the dire possibility that he would learn too much before the terrific drama of the revolution opened, and manage to thwart their plans. He was a man of quick brain and ruthless will; no consideration for her would stop him, although he would save her from the consequences of her act, no doubt of that. Save her for himself.
Mimi Brandt, and Heloise and Marie von Erkel were asleep in rooms at the end of the hall.... She had a mad idea of binding him hand and foot and locking him in her bedroom.... Either he would hate her for the humiliation he--Franz von Nettelbeck, glorious on the field of honor, a bound prisoner in a woman's bedroom while his class was blown to atoms, and his caste was roaring its impotent fury to a napping Gott!... Oh, an insufferable affront to a man of his order who held even the dearest woman as the favored pensioner on his bounty ... or she would be consumed with remorse, melt ... it was positive that she must visit him--not leave him to starve ... nor could she keep him bound ... and once more she would be his slave ... could she hold out even for a day?
The first blow of a revolution is, after all, only its first. There is always the danger of a swift reaction.
Unremitting vigilance, work, encouragement are the part of its leaders for months, possibly years, to come. All revolutions are dependent for ultimate success upon one preeminent figure.
Franz stirred under the unconscious fixity of her gaze and changed his position, lying on his back. She hastily averted her eyes. Her hands clenched and spread. Even to-morrow if this man found her ... one soft moment ... when she needed all her energy, her fire, her powers of concentration, of depersonalization, for the millions of tortured women who would follow her straight out to meet any division the Emperor might detach in the vain hope of subduing an army far outnumbering all that he had left of men.
Nothing but a miracle could halt the initial stage of the revolution; the wireless plants were all operated by women in her service, and no telephone message had advised her of danger. No matter what her defection at this moment the revolution would begin at dawn; but although Germany happily lacked the disintegrating forces of Russia, comfortable as she had been for two generations, and proud in her discipline, that very discipline would dissolve its new backbone without the stimulating force of her own inexorable will. And if she deserted them!...
It was a woman's revolution. A necessary number of men Socialists had been admitted to the secret and were to strike the second blow. But the women must strike the first, and according to program. Not only were the men under surveillance, but where women would be pardoned in case of a failure, they would be shot. And most of them had more brain than brawn, were past the fighting age; the girls, and women of middle years, were a magnificent army which would make the graybeards appear absurd in the open.
These women worshiped her, believed her to be a super-being created to save them and their children; but if she betrayed them, proved herself the merest woman of them all--a childless woman at that--the very bones would melt out of them, they would prostrate themselves in the ashes of their final despair.
Spain! Franz! For a moment her imagination rioted.
She smiled ironically. Happiness? Four-walled happiness? Hardly for her, even without the blood of murdered thousands soaking her doorstep. Love, for women like her ... even eternal love ... must be episodical. Life forces the duties of leadership on such women whether they resent them or not. They must take their love where they find it as great men do, subordinated to their chosen careers and the tremendous duties and responsibilities that are the fruit of all achieved ambition.
It was true that she had no political ambition, but for an unpredictive period she must be the beacon-light of the new Republic, no matter how successful the coup of the Socialists; until some one man (she knew of none) or some group of men became strong enough to control its destinies. The women must stand firm, a solid critical body led by herself, until the tragically disciplined soldiers who had survived these years of warfare had ceased to be sheep, or run bleating to the new fold.
Even if she won Franz over, her power would be sapped; not for a moment would he be out of her consciousness; her imagination would drift incessantly from the vital work in hand to the hour of their reunion. The hurtling power of her eloquence would be diminished, her magnetism weakened.
Her memory flashed backward to those three years when he was an ever-rising obsession--personifying love and completion as he did--before which her proud will fell back again and again, powerless and humiliated.
Why, in God's name could not he have come back into her life six months hence?
No woman should risk a sex cataclysm when she has great work to do. Nature is too subtle for any woman's will as long as the man be accessible. And the strongest and the proudest woman that ever lived may have her life disorganized by a man if she possess the power to charm him.
She moved softly from the couch and walked up and down the room, striving to visualize her manifest destiny and erect the grim ideal of duty. Her mind, working at lightning speed, recalled moments, days, in the past, when she had let her will relax, ignored her duties, floated idly with the tide; the sensation of panic with which she had recaptured at a bound the ideals that governed her life. Mortal happiness was not for her. Duty done, with or without exaltation of spirit, would at least keep her in tune with life, preserve her from that disintegrating horror of soul that could end only with self-annihilation.
And end her usefulness. It was a vicious circle.
Suddenly a wave of humiliation, of insupportable shame, swept her from sole to crown, and she returned swiftly to her post above the sleeping man. One moment had undone the work of all those proud years during which she had made herself over from the quintessential lover into one of the intellectual leaders of the world, a woman who had accomplished what no man had dared to attempt, and who, if the revolution were the finality which before this man came had seemed to be written in the Book of Germany, would be immortal in history. Wild fevers of the blood, passionate longing for completion in man, oneness, the "organic unit"--were not for her.
All feeling ebbed slowly out of her, leaving her cold, collected, alert. She was, over all, a woman of genius, the custodian of peculiar gifts, sleeping throughout the ages, perhaps, like Brunhilde on her rock, to awaken not at the kiss of man, but at the summons of Germany in her darkest hour.
She bent over the man who belonged to the woman alone in her and whose power over her would be exerted as ruthlessly as her own should be over herself. He looked a very gallant gentleman as he lay there, and he had been a very brave soldier. His own place was secure in the annals of the war, but at this moment, following upon his triumphant swoop after happiness, he was the one deadly menace to the future of his country.
Gisela opened his shirt gently and bared his breast. She held her breath, but he slept on and she took the dagger from her belt and with a swift hard propulsion drove it into his heart to the guard. He gave a long expiring sigh and lay still. A gallant gentleman, a brave soldier, and a great lover had the honor to be the first man to pay the price of his country's crime, on the altar of the Woman's Revolution.
Gisela went swiftly down the hall and awakened Heloise, Mimi, and Marie and told them what she had done. No novelty in horror could startle European women in those days. They dressed themselves hastily in their gray uniforms and followed her to the Saal. With Mimi's assistance she put on his coat, the hilt of the dagger thrusting forward the row of medals on his breast. Marie went out into the street and flitted up and down like a big gray moth, her gray little face tense with rapture. Her devotion to Gisela had been fanatical from the first but now she begged what invisible power her wild little mind still recognized to be permitted to die for her.
In a moment she signaled that the street was deserted. Gisela and Mimi carried the body over to the park and dropped it into the swiftly flowing Isar. The clear jade green of the lovely river reflected the points of the stars, and Franz von Nettelbeck as he drifted down the tide looked as if attended by innumerable candles dropped graciously from on high to watch at his bier. But it was to Heloise this fancy came, and she lifted her face and thanked the stars for their silent funeral march. Not for her would the supreme sacrifice have been possible, and for the moment she did not envy Gisela Doering.
The four girls walked rapidly over to the Maximilianstrasse and crossed the bridge to the Maximilianeum. The long symmetrical brown building with its open galleries filled with the cold starlight was distorted by a wireless station on its highest point and by a biplane on the extreme left of the roof. It stood on a lofty terrace and commanded a view of all Munich and of the tumbled peaks of the Alps.
They ran up the stairs and called to the operator from the higher gallery. She answered in a hard and weary voice: "Nothing." Then they walked down the gallery to the open tower facing the Alps. For half an hour longer they stood in silence, alternately glancing from their wrist watches to the faintly glittering peaks whose first reflection of dawn, if all went well, would change the face of the world.