The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
He was light of step and made no sound on the heavy turf; he saw her several minutes before she was aware of his presence and stood staring at her, feeling much as he had done during the progress of the earthquake.
She was standing under one of the great oaks whose lower limbs had been trimmed so evenly some seven feet above the ground that they made a compact symmetrical roof above the dark head of the girl, who, being alone, had abandoned the limp curve of fashion and was standing very erect, drawn up to her full five feet seven. Alexina had no intention of being afflicted with rounded shoulders when the present mode had passed.
But her face expressed no guile as she stood there in her simple white frock with a bunch of periwinkles in her belt, her delicate profile turned to Gathbroke as she gazed at the irregular majesty of the Coast Range, dark blue under a pale blue haze. He had retained the impression of starry eyes and vivid coloring and eager happy youth, a body of perfect slenderness and grace, whose magnetism was not that of youth alone but personal and individual.
Now he saw that although her fine little profile was not too regular, and as individual as her magnetism, the shape of her head was classic. It was probable that she was not unaware of the fact, for its perfect lines and curves were fully revealed by the severe flatness of the dusky thickly planted hair, which was brushed back to the nape of her neck and then drawn up a few inches and flared outward. The little head was held high on the long white stem of the throat; and the pose, with the dropping eyelids, gave her, in that deep shade, the illusion of maturity. Gathbroke realized that he saw her for the moment as she would look ten years hence. Even the full curved red lips were closed firmly and once the nostrils quivered slightly.
The narrow black eyebrows following the subtle curve of her eyelids, the low full brow with its waving line of soft black hair, seemed to brood over the lower part of the face with its still indeterminate curves, over the wholly immature figure of a very young girl.
Gathbroke surrendered then and there. This radiation of mystery, of complexity, this secret subtle visit of maturity to youth, the hovering spirit of the future woman, was unique in his experience and went straight to his head. He forgot his sister, dismissed the thought of Dwight with a gesture of contempt. He might be modest and rather diffident in manner, owing to racial shyness, but he had a fine sustaining substructure of sheer masculine arrogance.
As he walked forward swiftly Alexina turned; and immediately was the young thing of eighteen and of the early twentieth century. Her spine drooped into an indolent curve, her soft red lips fell apart, her black-gray eyes opened wide as she held out her hand to the young Englishman.
"How nice! I never really expected to see you again. I understood Lady Victoria to say you were merely passing through."
Alexina had not cast him a thought since the night of the ball but she was hospitable and feminine.
"I was detained."
She noted with intense curiosity that his bright color paled and his sparkling hazel eyes darkened with a sudden look of horror; but the spasm of memory passed quickly, and once more he was staring at her with frank capitulation.
Alexina's head went up a trifle. She was still new to conquest, and although she had met more than one pair of admiring eyes in the course of the past season, and received as many compliments as the vainest girl could wish, few men had had the courage to storm the stern fortress on Ballinger Hill, or to sit more than once in a drawing-room so darkly reminiscent of funeral ceremonies that a fellow's nerves began to jump all over him.
Nor had her fancy been even lightly captured until Mortimer Dwight, that perfect hero of maiden dreams, had swept her off her dancing feet on the most memorable night of her life.
She had quite made up her mind to marry him. The indignant silent hostility of the family (even Mrs. Ballinger, her moment of weakness passed, having been swung to the horrified Maria's point of view) had been all that was necessary to convince the young Alexina that fate had sent her the complete romance. She hoped the opposition would drive her to an elopement; little dreaming of the horror with which Mr. Dwight would greet the heterodox alternative.
Mrs. Abbott had had a valid excuse for not asking him down: provisions were scarce, and, so Tom said, he was doing useful work in town. But Olive Bascom, whose country home was in San Mateo, had invited him for the next week end, and he had accepted. Alexina was to be one of the small house party, and there were many romantic walks behind San Mateo. A moon was also due.
Still Gathbroke might have entered the race with an even chance, for maidens of eighteen are merely the blind tools of Nature, had not the family made the mistake of displaying too warm an approval of the eligible young Englishman. Mrs. Groome, Mrs. Abbott, Aunt Clara, reenforced even by the more worldly Mrs. Hunter, who, however, had no children of her own, treated him throughout the luncheon with an almost intimate cordiality and a lively personal interest; whereas, if Mrs. Abbott had been driven to keep her word and invite Mortimer Dwight to her historic board she would have depressed him with the cool pleasant detachment she reserved for those whom she knew slightly and cared for not at all; Mrs. Groome, automatically gracious, would have retired within the formidable fortress of an exterior built in the still more exclusive eighties; Aunt Clara would have sat petrified with horror at the desecration; and Mrs. Hunter, free from the obligations of hospitality, would have been brusque, frankly supercilious, made him as uncomfortable as possible.
All this Alexina angrily resented, not knowing that their amiability was in part inspired by sympathy, Gwynne having told them the story of his cousin's tragic experience; although they did in truth regard him as a possibly heaven-sent solution of a problem that was causing them all, even Mrs. Hunter, acute anxiety.
Young Gathbroke was handsomer than Dwight. He was younger, and his circumstances were far more romantic, if romance Alexina must have. It was plain that he was fascinated by the dear silly child, who, in her turn, would no doubt promptly forget the ineligible Dwight if the Englishman proved to be serious and paid her persistent court.
Nevertheless Gathbroke, before the luncheon was half over, felt that he was making no progress with Alexina. Subtly it was conveyed to him on one of those unseen currents that travel directly to the sensitive mind, that these amiable people knew his story; and, no doubt, in all its harrowing details. Simultaneously those details flashed into his own consciousness with a horrible distinctness, depressing his spirits and extinguishing a natural gayety and light chaff that had come back for a moment.
Moreover, to use his own expression, he was besottedly in love, and knew that he betrayed himself every time his eyes met those of the girl, who, he felt with bitterness and alarm, long before the salad, was making a desperate attempt to entertain a very dull young man.
Once or twice a mocking glance flashed through those starry ingenuous orbs, but was banished by the simple art of elevating the wicked iris and revealing a line of saintly white. Alexina was quite determined to add a British scalp to her small collection, and for the young man's possible torment she cared not at all. With young arrogance she rather despised him for his surrender before battle, or at all events for hauling down his flag publicly; and her mind traveled with feminine satisfaction to the calm smiling dominance, combined with utter devotion, of the man who had won her as easily as she had conquered Richard Gathbroke. That the young Englishman's nature was hot and tempestuous, with depths that even he had not sounded, and her ideal knight's more effective mien but the expression of a possibly meager and somewhat puritanical nature; that Dwight's heart was a well-trained organ which would never commit an indiscretion, and that young Gathbroke would have sold the world for her if she had been a flower girl, or the downfall of her fortunes had sent her clerking, she was far too inexperienced to guess; and it is doubtful if the knowledge would have affected her had she possessed it. She was in the obstinate phase of first youth, common enough in girls of her sheltered class, where the opportunities to study men and their behavior are few. Having persuaded herself that she was far more romantic than she really was, and that there would be no possible happiness or indeed interest in life after youth, she had conceived as her ideal mate the dominant male, the complete master, and easily persuaded herself that she had found him in Mortimer Dwight....If she married Gathbroke he would be her slave (so little did she know him.). Dwight would be her master. (So little did she know him, or herself.)