The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora closed the door of Mrs. Groome's room as the clock struck two, the old Ballinger clock that had seemed to toll the hours on a deep note of solemn acquiescence for the past six weeks.
She crossed the hall and entered Alexina's room without knocking. Mortimer, during the past fortnight, had moved from the room adjoining his wife's to one at the back of the house, lest it should be necessary to call Alexina in the night. He worked very hard.
Alexina still occupied her old room in the front of the house where the creaking eucalyptus trees sometimes brushed the window pane. It had been refurnished and fitted in various elusive shades of pink by Mrs. Abbott as her wedding present. There was a dim point of light above a gas jet and Gora saw that Alexina was asleep. The pillows were on the floor. She was lying flat, her arms thrown out, the dusky fine mass of her hair spread over the low head board. Her clear olive cheeks were pale with sleep and her eyelashes looked like two little black clouds.
Gora watched her for a moment. Why awaken the poor child? She was sleeping as peacefully as if that tall old clock of her forefathers had not tolled out the last of another generation of Ballingers. Her soft red lips were half parted.
It was now three years since her marriage but she still looked like a very young girl. Gora always felt vaguely sorry for her although she seemed happy enough. At all events it was quite obvious that she did little thinking except when she remembered to wish for a baby.
Gora wore the white uniform of a nurse, and a little cap with wings on the coronet of her heavy hair. It was a becoming costume and made her eyes in their dark setting look less pale and cold.
She had a secret contempt for most of the old conventions but she had given her word to awaken Alexina the moment any change occurred, and she reluctantly shook her sister-in-law's shoulder.
Alexina sprang out of bed on the instant.
"Mother?" she cried. "Is she worse?"
Alexina made a dart for the door, but Gora threw a strong arm about her. Those arms had held more than one violent man in his bed. "Better wait," she said softly.
Alexina's body grew rigid as she slowly drew back on Gora's arm and stared up at her. In a moment she asked in a hard steady voice: "Is my mother dead?"
"Yes. It was very sudden. I had no time to telephone for the doctor; to call you. She was sleeping. I was sitting beside her. Suddenly I knew that she had stopped breathing--"
"Would you mind telephoning to Maria and Sally? Maria will never forgive herself--but mother seemed so much better--"
"I will telephone at once. Shall I call Mortimer?"
"No. Why disturb him?"
Gora, watching Alexina, saw a curious remoteness enter the depths of her eyes, and her own narrowed with something of her old angry resentment. In this hour of profound sorrow, when the human heart is quite honest, Alexina, however her conscious mind might be averted from the fact, regarded Mortimer Dwight as an outsider, an agreeable alien who had no permanent place in the immense permanency of the Ballinger-Groomes. She wanted only her own family, her own inherent sort. Sally had hastened to California as soon as her mother's illness had been pronounced dangerous, and had stayed in the house until a week ago when she had been ordered by the doctor to Santa Barbara to get rid of a heavy cold on her chest. She had telegraphed the day before that she was threatened with pneumonia, and Maria, assured that her mother was in no immediate danger, had gone down to spend two days with her.
Possibly Alexina caught a flash from the mind of this strange and interesting sister-in-law, for she added hastily:
"You know how hard Mortimer works, poor dear. And I do not feel in the least like crying. I shall write telegrams to Ballinger and Geary: my brothers, you know." (Gora ground her teeth.) "It was too sad they could not get here, but Ballinger is in South America and Geary on a diet. I must also write a cablegram to an old friend of mine who has married a Frenchman, Olive de Morsigny. She was always so fond of mother. Would you also mind telephoning to Rincona about seven?"
"I'll do all the telephoning. Go back to bed as soon as possible. It is only a little after two." As Gora turned to leave the room Alexina put her hand on her arm and summoned a faint sweet smile.
"I cannot tell you how grateful I am, Gora dear, how grateful we all are. You have been simply wonderful--"
"I am a good nurse if I do say it myself," said Gora lightly. "But you must remember there are others quite as good; and that I--".
"I know you would do your duty as devotedly by any stranger." Alexina interrupted her with sweet insistence. "But it has been wonderful to be able to have you, all the same. It has also given me the chance to know you at last, and I shall never quite let you go again."
Gora, to her secret anger, had never accustomed herself to the unswerving graciousness of these people, and all that it implied, but her sharp mind had long since warned her that as she had neither the position nor the training to emulate it, at least she must not betray a sense of social inferiority by open resentment.
Her voice was deep and naturally abrupt but she achieved a fair imitation of Alexina's sweet cordiality. "It has meant quite as much to me, Alexina, I can assure you. And now that I am on my own and shall have a day or two between cases I know where I shall spend them. I am only too thankful that I graduated in time to take care of dear Mrs. Groome. Write your telegrams and I will give them to the doctor when he comes. I must telephone to him at once."
After she had gone Alexina wrote not only her telegrams and cablegrams, but the "letters to follow." It was nearly four o'clock when she finished. Old Dr. Maitland had not yet come and she put her bulletins on the table in the hall.
She heard Gora moving about her mother's room and retreated into her own. She did not want to go to her mother yet nor did she care particularly to see Gora again, although she had certainly been very nice and a great comfort to them all.
Alexina was quite unaware that her attitude to her sister-in-law was one of unconsicous condescension, of a well-bred determination never to wound the pride of a social inferior. She found Gora an "interesting personality" and quite extraordinarily efficient.
It had been the greatest relief to all the family when that very capable Miss Dwight--Gora, that is; one must remember--had been brought by Dr. Maitland to take charge of the case after Mrs. Groome's cardiac trouble became acute and she demanded constant attention.
Gora had slept in Mrs. Groome's bedroom for six weeks, relieved for several hours of the afternoon by a member of the family or one of Mrs. Groome's many anxious friends. It was her first case and it interested her profoundly. Moreover, her personal devotion placed her for the moment on a certain basis of equality with a family whose mental processes were quite transparent to her contemptuous mind. She was excessively annoyed with herself for still caring, but the roots were too deep, and there had been nothing in her life during the past three years to diminish her fierce sense of democracy as she interpreted it.
Alexina had never given a thought to her sister-in-law's psychology, although the sensitive plates of her brain received an impression now and again of a violent inner life behind that business-like exterior. But she had seen little of her until lately, and during the past six weeks her mind had been too concentrated upon her mother's sufferings and possible danger to have any disposition for analysis.
She certainly did not feel the least need of her now. She wished, indeed, that she had asked Aileen to remain in the house last night. Aileen was her own age, they had been intimate since childhood, often without the slightest regard for each other's feelings, and was more like a sister than even dear Sally and Maria.
Suddenly she determined to go to her. She had her own latch key and would disturb no one but Aileen. She dressed herself warmly and slipped down stairs and out of the house.