Book III
Chapter IX
 

I

Alexina would listen to no remonstrance. Gora might send her trunks to Geary Street if she liked, but she must come home to Ballinger House and spend at least one night with her brother and sister, who had missed her quite dreadfully. Gora wondered how Alexina could have missed her so touchingly in Europe, but accepted the invitation, as a note from the surgeon to whom she had written by the previous steamer asked her to hold herself in readiness for an operation a week hence.

Gora was looking remarkably well, and Alexina assumed it was not only the six months of mountain life and the three months in the tropics. She had an air of assured power, rarely absent in a woman who has found herself and achieved a definite place in life. Besides being one of the best nurses in San Francisco, in constant demand by the leading doctors and surgeons, her short stories had attracted considerable attention in the magazines, although no publisher would risk bringing them out in book form. But they were invariably mentioned in any summary of the year's best stories, one had been included in a volume of selected short stories by modern authors, and one in a recent text-book compiled for the benefit of aspirants in the same difficult art. The remuneration had been insignificant, for her stories were not of the popular order, and she had not yet the name that alone commands the high reward; but she had advanced farther than many another as severely handicapped, and she knew through her admiring sister-in-law and Aileen Lawton that her stories were mentioned occasionally at a San Francisco dinner table and even discussed! She was "arriving." No doubt of that.

II

"When will the novel come out? I can't wait."

"Not until the spring."

They were sitting in Alexina's room and Gora had been placed directly in front of the cabinet, which she did not appear even to see. She had taken off her hat and coat and was holding the heavy masses of hair away from her head.

"Do you mind? I feel as if I had a twenty-pound weight...."

"What a question! Do what you want."

Gora took out the pins and let down her hair. It was not as fine as Alexina's, but it was brown and warm and an unusual head of hair for these days. It fell down both sides of her face, and her long cold unrevealing eyes looked paler than ever between her sun-burned cheeks and her low heavy brows.

Alexina knew that she had an antagonist far worthier of any weapons she might find in her armory than poor Morty, but she believed she could trap her if she were guilty....And she must be...she must....

"Didn't you find it too hot in the tropics for writing?"

"I only copied and revised. The book was finished before I left Lake Tahoe-an ideal place for work. Some day I shall have a log cabin up there. May I smoke?"

"Of course."

"It is almost a shame to desecrate a flower....I used to come in here sometimes and look round...the week I spent here....The room is a poem...like you....Or rather the binding of the prose poem that is Alexina."

"I'd love it if you made me the heroine of one of your novels."

"You'll have much more fun living it yourself."

"Fine chance. I don't suppose I'll ever get out of California again....I am afraid that Morty is doing quite badly."

Gora shrugged her strong square shoulders. "I never expected anything else. I asked him for another thousand dollars of my money when I was here and he looked as if he had forgotten he owed me any. Just like a man and Morty in particular. Then he said he expected to make an immense profit on something or other he had ordered from the Orient and would pay me off when I returned. Has he condescended to tell you anything about his affairs?"

"Not a word. Did you need the money badly? If I had been here I could have lent it to you."

"Thanks. I am sure you would. But I dislike the idea of borrowing. It must be so depressing to pay back....I was in no particular need of it, for of course I've saved quite a bit. I merely have a natural desire for my own and thought it was a good opportunity to strike Morty....I suppose he's been speculating. Fortunes have been made in Tonopah, but he would be sure to buy at the wrong time or in the wrong mine....Has he ever asked you for money?"

"Never. He knows, too, that I have quite a sum in bonds that I could convert into cash at once."

"Well, take my advice and hold on to them--to every cent you have. Where do you keep them?"

"In the bank...in a safe-deposit vault--Oh, how careless of me! I've left the key out on the table! I usually keep it...you remember...in the secret drawer of the cabinet."

"How I wish I had the courage to write a story about a secret drawer of an old Italian cabinet!...I wouldn't leave it lying about; although, of course, no one could use it without a pass also."

"A what?"

"They use every precaution. I know, because when I nursed old Mrs. Beresford for eight months, I was sent down to the vault twice."

Alexina's head was whirling. The blood burned and beat in her face.

"Even with her signature I couldn't get by the keeper the first time because he didn't know me. I had to be identified by her lawyer."

"I like to feel so well taken care of. What shall you do if your novel is a great success? Of course it will be. You would never go on being a nurse."

"I am not so sure it will be a success. Neither is my publisher. He wrote me a half-whimsical half-complimentary letter saying that I must remember the average reader was utterly commonplace, with no education in the higher sense, no imagination, had an extremely limited vocabulary and thought and talked in ready-made phrases, composed for the most part of the colloquialisms of the moment. Style, distinction of mind, erected an almost visible wall between the ambitious writer and this predominant class. If they found this sort of book interesting-which as a rule they did not--they felt a sullen sense of inferiority; and if there were too many unfamiliar words they pitched it across the room with the ultimate adjective of their disapproval--'highbrow.' But it is more the general atmosphere they resent--would resent if the book were purposely written with the most limited vocabulary possible."

"Our national self-sufficiency, I suppose. Also the fetish of equality that still persists. We are the greatest nation on earth, of course, but it isn't democratic for any one of us to be greater than the other."

"Exactly. I don't say I wouldn't write for the mob if I could. Nice stories about nice people. Intimate life histories of commonplace 'real Americans,' touched with a bit of romance, or tragedy-somewhere about the middle--or adventure, with a bad man or woman for good measure and to prove to the highbrows that the author is advanced and knows the world as well as the next, even if he or she prefers to treat of the more 'admirable aspects of our American life.' Unluckily I cannot read such books nor write them. I was born with a passion for English and the subtler psychology. I should be hopeless from any editor's or publisher's standpoint if I didn't happen to have been fitted out with a strong sense of drama. If I could only set my stage with commonplace, people no doubt I'd make a roaring hit. But I can't and I won't. Who has such a chance as an author to get away from commonplace people? Fancy deliberately concocting new ones!"

"Not you! But you'll have some sort of success, all the same."

"Yes, there are publics. Perhaps I'll, hypnotize one of them. As for the financial end what I hope is that the book will give me a position that will raise my prices in the magazines."

"You could live abroad very cheaply." Alexina raised her eyes a trifle and looked as guileless as her words.

"Oh, be sure I'll go to Europe and stay there for years as soon as I see my way ahead. I should find color in the very stones or the village streets."

"I am told that you can find most comfortable quarters in some of those English village inns, and for next to nothing. By the way, do you still correspond with that Englishman who was here during the fire?"

"Gathbroke? Off and on. T send him my stories and he writes a humorous sort of criticism of each; says that as I have no humor lie feels a sort of urge to apply a little somewhere."

"How interesting. He didn't strike me as humorous."

"I fancy he wasn't more than about one-fifth developed when he was here. Men like that, with his advantages, go ahead very rapidly when they get into their stride. He has already developed from business into politics--he is in Parliament--and that is the second long stride he has taken in the past seven years."

"How interesting it will be for you two to meet, again." Alexina spoke with languid politeness.

Gora shrugged her shoulders, "If we do." She might not be able to show the under-white of her eyes arid look like a seraph, but she had her voice, her features, under perfect control, and she had never been quick to blush. She did not suspect that Alexina was angling, but the very sound of Gathbroke's name was enough to put up her guard.

"You must have had several proposals, Gora dear. Your profession is almost as good as a matrimonial bureau. And you look too fetching for words in that uniform and cap."

"I've had just two proposals. One was from an old rancher who liked the way I turned him over in bed and rubbed his back. The other was--well, a nice fellow, and quite well off. But I'm not keen on marrying any one."

"Still, if it gave you that much more independence and leisure...travel...a wider life...."

"I'd only consider marrying for two reasons: If I met a man who had the power to make me quite mad about him, or one who could give me a great position in the world and was not wholly obnoxious. Otherwise, I prefer to trot alone. Why not? At least I escape monotony; I have what after all is the most precious thing in life, complete personal freedom; and if I succeed with my writing I can see the world and attain to position without the aid of any man. If I don't, I don't, and that is the end of it. I'm a bit of a fatalist, I think, although to be sure when I want a thing badly enough I forget all about that and fight like the devil."

Alexina looked at the square face of her strange sister-in-law, so unlike her brother; at the high cheek bones, the heavy low brows over the cold light eyes, the powerful jaw, the wide firm but mobile mouth.

"Have you any Eussian blood?"' she asked. "'Way back?"

"Not that I know of. But after all I know little about my family, outside of the one ancestor that anchors us in the Revolutionary era. He or his son or his son's son may have married a Russian or a Mongolian for all I know. Perhaps some one of my old aunts may have worked out a family tree in cross-stitch, but if so I never heard of it. Well, I'm off to clean up for dinner."

Alexina for the first time in their acquaintance flung her arms round Gora's neck and kissed her warmly. Truth to tell her conscience was smarting, although she was able to assure herself that not for a moment had she really believed her sister-in-law to be guilty; she had merely grasped at a straw. Gora returned the embrace gratefully and without suspicion. As ever, she was a little sorry for Alexina.