Book I
Chapter XV
 

I

During the retreat from Mons and again in those black days of March, nineteen-eighteen, Gathbroke's tormented mind snapped from the present and flashed on its screen so startling a resurrection of himself during those last dreadful days in San Francisco that for the moment he was unconscious of the world crashing about him.

He saw himself in long days and nights of anguish and despair, of embittered love and baffled passion: youth enjoying one of its divine prerogatives and the fullness thereof!

Pacing the floor of his room on Russian Hill, tramping over the mountains across the Bay, doggedly awaiting that sole alleviation of mental suffering in its early stages, a change of scene.

Finally the Hofer car was placed at his disposal and he started on his four days' journey to New York; and this brief chapter, that his friends thought so gruesome, was the least of his afflictions. The memory of his twenty-four hours or more of close physical association with his sister's corpse made any subsequent adventure with the dead seem tame. And at least he was leaving behind him a State which seemed to have magnetized him across six thousand miles to experience the horror and misery she had in pickle for him. He reveled in the audible rush of the train that was carrying him farther every moment from the girl who had cut down into the core of his heart and left her indelible image on a remarkably good memory.

II

He had asked himself one day--it was his last in California and he had taken his courage in his teeth and was on his way to call on Gora Dwight at last, picking his steps through, the still smoking ruins down to Van Ness Avenue--whether it would be possible for any man to suffer twice in a lifetime as he had suffered since that hideous moment at Rincona, coming as it did on top of an uncommon and terrible experience that had racked his nerves and soul as it might not have done had he been seasoned by war or even a few years older. At all events it had left him with no reserves even in his pride to fight his failure and his loss.

In that shrieking hell of August twenty-sixth, or again when lying abandoned and gassed in a way-side hut during that ominous retreat of the Fifth Army, when he had a sudden close vision of himself, trousers tucked into a pair of Gwynne's hunting boots, swearing now and again as he stepped on a hot brick; and heard his groping ego whisper the question through his prostrate mind, he was tempted to answer aloud, to shout "No" above the shrieking of shells and the groans of men fallen about him.

He might no longer love Alexina Groome after twelve or even eight years of complete severance; and, indeed, save in flashing moments like these he had seldom thought of her after the first two or three years; but at least she had taken the edge from his power to suffer.

He had lost his mother soon after his return with the body of her youngest child, his father had died three years later, and he had accepted these griefs with the composure of maturity. Although he had had some agreeable adventures (not that he had had much time for either women or society) he had taken devilish good care not to get in too deep--even if he still possessed the power to love at all, which he doubted.

He remembered also, what he had almost forgotten, that during that walk it had come to him with the sharpness of surprise that the image of the girl who clung to his mind with the tentacles of a devil-fish, was as he had seen her standing under the oak tree while unaware of his presence: older, a more dignified and thoughtful figure, a woman old enough to be his mate in something more than youthful passion, the ideal woman of vague sweet dreams; not as the thoughtless little coquette who had tempted him to ruin his chances by acting like a cave brute.

Given a fortnight longer, during which he remained master of himself instead of a young fool with a smashed temperament, and the unfledged woman in her, whose subtle projection he had witnessed during that moment of his capitulation, would have recognized him as her mate; as for the moment she had in his arms.

Not the least of his ordeals during those last days was the inevitable call on Gora Dwight. He felt like a cad, after what she had been to him at the end of an appalling experience, to have let, nearly three weeks go by with no apparent recognition of her existence. But he had been unable to find a messenger, there was no post; and then, after his ill-starred visit to Rincona, he had forgotten her until his final visit to the undertaker; when she had seemed to stand, an indignant and reproachful figure, at the head of the casket.

III

He had a note in his pocket and hoped she would be out. But she opened the door herself, and her dark face, thinner than he recalled it, flushed and then turned pale. But she said calmly as she extended her hand: "Come in. I wondered what had become of you." "I'm sorry. But--perhaps--you can understand--it was not easy for me to come here!"

"Of course. Come up to my diggings."

He followed her up to the attic studio, where as before he took the easy chair and accepted one of her cigarettes; which he professed to be grateful for as his were exhausted and every decent brand in town had gone up in smoke.

Gora was deeply disappointed that she had received no warning of his call, for she possessed an extremely becoming and richly embroidered silk Chinese costume, as red as the flames that had devoured Chinatown a few days after she had bought it at a bankrupt sale. She had put it on every afternoon for a week, hoping and expecting that he would call; and now that she had on her second-best tailored suit, and a darned if immaculate shirtwaist, he had chosen to turn, up!...But at least the lapels of the jacket had recently been faced with red, and it curved closely over her beautiful bust. Moreover, she had just finished rearranging the masses of her rich brown hair when the bell rang.

And she had him for a time, perhaps for an hour! She set out the tea things as an intimation of the refreshment he would get at the proper time....

She too had suffered during this past interminable fortnight, but Gora was far more mature than the young Englishman, upon whom life until the last few weeks had smiled so persistently. She was too complex, she had suffered in too many ways, from too many causes, not all of them elevating, to be capable upon so short a notice, even after a night of unique companionship, of such whole-souled agony and despair. In her imagination, her sense of drama, her vanity, in the fading of vague dazzling hopes of a future to which he held the key, and perhaps a little in her stormy heart, she had felt a degree of harsh disappointment, but she had already half-recovered; and as she sat looking at his ravaged face she wondered that the death of a sister, no matter how harrowing the conditions, could make such a wreck of any man.

He told her of his difficulties in finding some one to remove the body from the vault to the undertaker's, of the delay in obtaining a private car, gave her some idea of his disorganized life since they had parted, but made no mention of Alexina Groome or Rincona. Then he politely asked her if she had any new plans for the future. Nobody seemed to look forward to the same old life.

Gora shrugged her shoulders with a movement expressive of irritation. "My brother, who is engaged to Alexina Groome, insists that I give up this lodging house."

"Oh, so they are engaged?" Gathbroke lit another cigarette, and his hand did not tremble; he felt as if his nerves had been immersed in ice water and frozen.

"Yes--marvelously. The family, as might be expected, is furious. But the girl is mad about him and of age. She is just a foolish child and should be locked up. My brother is not in the least what she imagines him. She wrote me a letter. Good heaven! One would think she had captured the prince of a fairy tale, or the hero of an old romantic novel. There should be a law prohibiting girls from marrying before they are twenty-two at least....However, the thing is done. And my brother is terribly afraid they'll find out that I keep a lodging house. He's given them to understand we both board here. They are prime snobs and so is he. I never dreamed it was in him until he began to go about in society, but then you never know what is in anybody. Otherwise, he is harmless enough, and a good industrious boy, but he'll never make the money to keep up with that set, and she won't have much. It's a stupid affair all round...."

"I've refused to budge until he finds me a job. He certainly cannot support me, even if I were willing to be supported by any one. As far as I am concerned they could know I kept a lodging house and welcome. It is honest and it gives me a good living; and, what I value more, many hours of freedom. But Mortimer is not only positively terrified they'll find it out, but he is as obstinate over it as--well, as that kind of man always is. He's looking about, and I fancy my fate is stenography or bookkeeping: I took a course at a business college shortly before my mother died. I don't know that he'd like that much better; he hinted that I might be a librarian in a small town. But I'll be hanged if I fall for that."

Gathbroke smiled. "Not that. You don't belong to the country town. But I fancy you'll have to give up the lodging house. Elton Gwynne took me down the Peninsula one day, and--well--I don't fancy they would stand for it. Aristocracies are aristocracies the world over. They may talk democracy, and really modify themselves a bit, but there are certain things they'd choke on if they tried to swallow them, and they won't even try. Better give it up before they find it out and tackle you. I don't fancy you'd stand for that. It would be devilish disagreeable. You've got to know and be more or less intimate with them all--"

"I'll not be patronized by them. I don't know that I'll go near them. For years I've resented that I was not one of them, but I don't fancy tagging in after my brother, treated with pleasant courteous resignation, invited once a year to a family dinner, and quite forgotten on smart occasions."

"Quite so. I like your spunk. Have you thought of being a nurse? All work is hard and I should think that would be interesting. Must meet a jolly lot of people. You should see the becoming uniforms the London nurses wear. Prettiest women on the street, by Jove."

Her heart sank but she replied evenly: "Not a bad idea. I've quite enough saved to take the course comfortably--"

He had a flash of memory. "And that would give you time to win your reputation as a writer. Then the nursing would be merely one more resource."

"It was nice of you to remember that. I'll consider the nursing proposition, and when you have your next war I'll go over and nurse you. That part of it--a war nurse--would be mighty interesting."

The words were spoken idly, merely to avert a pause, and forgotten as soon as uttered. But as a matter of fact the next time they met was when he looked up from his cot in the hospital after he had been retrieved from the hut by two of his devoted Tommies, and saw the odd pale eyes of Gora Dwight close above his own.