The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
It is possible that only two people in California, barring German spies, leapt instantly to the conclusion that the Sarajevo bomb meant a European War. The Judge, because he had the historical background and knew his modern Europe as he knew his chessboard; and Alexina because she recalled conversations she had had in France the summer before with people close to the Government, to say nothing of mysterious allusions in the letters of Olive de Morsigny; who may have thought it wise not to trust all she knew to the post, or may have been too busy with her intensive nursing course to enter into particulars.
Janet shrugged her large statuesque shoulders when Alexina communicated her fears. What was war to her? England at least would have sense enough to keep out of it. Aileen came over after a convincing talk with her father looking as worried as if some nation or other were training their guns on the Golden Gate.
"Dad says it's the world war...that we'll be dragged in...that Germany has had it up her sleeve for years...believes that bomb was made in Berlin...nothing under heaven could have averted this impending war but a huge standing army in Great Britain...hasn't Lord Roberts been crying out for it?....Dad and I dined at his house one night in London and the only picture in the dining-room was an oil painting of the Kaiser in a red uniform, done expressly for Lord Roberts...funny world...and now Britain's got a civil war on her hands and mutinous officers who won't go over and shoot men of their own class in Ulster....Russia hasn't built her strategic railways--all the money used up in graft....Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! who'd have thought it?...Twentieth century and all the rest of it."
"Twentieth century...war...how utterly absurd....I don't wish to be rude...but really..."
This from every one to whom Alexina and Aileen, or even Judge Lawton, communicated their fears.
One day Alexina and Aileen met in San Francisco by appointment and telephoned to James Kirkpatrick, asking him to lunch with them at the California Market. He accepted with alacrity, and laughed genially at their apprehensions. War? War? Not on your life. There'll never be another war. Socialists won't permit it. The kaiser? To hell with the kaiser. (Excuse me.) He, James Kirkpatrick, was in frequent correspondence with certain German socialists. They would declare themselves in the coming International Congress for the general strike if any sovereign--or President--dared to try to put over a war on the millions of determined socialists, syndicalists, internationalists, and communists in Great Britain and Europe; he'd get the surprise of his life. Socialism was determined there should never be another war--the burden and life-toll of which was always borne by the poor man. He didn't believe any of those fool sovereigns, not even the crazy kaiser, would attempt it, knowing what they did; but if they turned out to be deaf and blind, well, just watch out for the Great Strike. That would be the most portentous, the most awe-inspiring event in history,
And then he dismissed a prospective European war as unworthy of further attention and held forth with extreme acrimony on the subject of the Great Colorado Strike; which rose to passionate denunciation of the miserable make-shift called civilization which, would permit such a horror in the very heart of a great and prosperous nation. But with the new system...the new system...there would not be even these abominable little civil wars...for that was what we had right here in our own country...no need to use up your gray matter bothering about European states....
He was so convincing that Alexina and Aileen thanked him warmly and went to their respective destinations lulled and comforted.
Nevertheless, the war made its grand debut on August first, and Mr. Kirkpatrick, who had started on one of the passenger ships leaving New York for the International Socialist Congress, climbed ignominiously over the side and returned to the great ironic city on a tug.
Two letters came from Olive to Alexina and one to each of her other old friends, imploring them to come over and help. They could nurse. They could run canteens. Oeuvres. She wanted to show France what her friends, her countrywomen, could do.
But the war would be over in three months....Only Judge Lawton believed it would be a long war. Others hardly comprehended there was a war at all....Such things don't happen in these days. (Who in that wondrous smiling land could think upon war anywhere?)...It would be too funny if it were not for those dreadful pictures of the Belgian refugees....Poor things....Maria and other good women immediately began knitting for them...sat for hours on the verandahs, all in white, knitting, knitting...but talking of anything of war....It simply was a horrid dream and soon would be over....Their husbands all said so...three months....German army irresistible...modern implements of war must annihilate whole armies very quickly, and the Germans had the most and the best....Rotten shame (said Burlingame) and the Germans not even good sportsmen.
James Kirkpatrick, who avoided his former pupils, consoled himself with the thought that at least Britain would be licked...she'd get what was coming to her, all right, and Ireland would be free....Anyhow it would soon be over....When April nineteen-seventeen came he damned the socialist party for its attitude and enlisted: "I was a man and an American first, wasn't I?" he wrote to Alexina. "I guess your flag...oh, hell! (Excuse me.)"
In December, nineteen-fourteen, Alexina and Alice Thorndyke (who grasped the entering wedge with both ruthless white little hands) went to France. Aileen was not strong enough to nurse so she bade a passionate good-by to her friends and engaged herself to Bob Cheever. Jimmie Thorne went to France as an ambulance driver, and Bascom Luning to join the Lafayette Escadrille. Gora sailed six months later to offer her services to England. In the case of a nurse there was much red tape to unravel.
A fair proportion of the women left behind continued to knit. As time went on branches of certain French war-relief organizations were formed, and run by such capable women as Mrs. Thornton and Mrs. Hunter, who had many friends among the American women living in France; now toiling day and night at their oeuvres.
Alexina and Olive de Morsigny, after a year of nursing, when what little flesh they had left could stand no more, founded an oeuvre of their own, and Sibyl Bascom and Aileen Cheever did fairly well with a branch in San Francisco, Alexina's relatives quite wonderfully in New York and Boston; although they were already interested in many others.
Certain interests in California, notably the orchards and canneries, were violently anti-British during the first years of the war, as the blockade shut off their immense exports to Germany, and those that failed, or closed temporarily, realized the incredible: that a war in Europe could affect California, even as the Civil War affected the textile factories of England. To them it was a matter of indifference, until nineteen-seventeen, who won the war so long as one side smashed the other and was quick about it.
Owners and directors of copper mines--but let us draw a veil over the sincere robust instincts of human nature.
The Club of Seven Arts was proudly and vociferously pro-German. Not that they cared a ha'penny damn really for Germany, but it was a far more original attitude than all this sobbing over France...and then there was Reinhardt, the Secessionist School, the adorable jugendstyl. And the atrocity stories were all lies anyway. The bourgeois president resigned, but no one else paid any attention to them.
In nineteen-seventeen a few declared themselves pacifists and conscientious objectors, and, little recking what they were in for, marched off triumphantly to a military prison, feeling like Christ and longing for a public cross.
The others, those that were young enough, shouldered a gun and went to the front with high hearts and hardened muscles. Democracy ueber alles. The women enlisted in the Red Cross and the Y.W.C.A., and worked with grim enthusiasm, either at home or in France.
By this time California, almost on another planet as she was, with her abundance unchecked, and her skies smiling for at least three-fourths of the year, admitted there was a real war in the world, as bad (or worse) as any you could read about in history. The war films in the motion picture houses were quite wonderful, but too terrible.
They also discussed it, especially on those days when the streets echoed with the march of departing regiments in khaki, or one's own son, or one's friend's son enlisted or was drafted, or it was their day at Red Cross headquarters.
All the older women were at work now, and all but the most irreclaimably frivolous of the young ones. Even Tom and Maria Abbott made no protest against Joan's joining the Woman's Motor Corps; and, dressed in a smart, gray, boyish uniform, she drove her car at all hours of the day and night. She was not only sincerely anxious to serve, but she knew, and sheltered girls all over the land knew,--to say nothing of the younger married women--that this was the beginning of their real independence, the knell of the old order. They were freed. Even the reenforced concrete minds of the last generation imperceptibly crumbled and were as imperceptibly modernized in the rebuilding.
A good many of the women, old and young, continued to gamble furiously out of their hours of work; but the majority of the girls did not. Those with naturally serious minds were absorbed, uplifted, keen, calculating. They did not even dance. They realized that they had wonderful futures in a changing world. It was "up to them."
Mortimer was beyond the draft age, but, possibly owing to his gallant fearless appearance, it was rather expected that he would enlist. He did not, however, nor did he join the Red Cross or the Y.M.C.A., nor volunteer for some Government work, as so many of the men of his age and class were doing as a matter of course.
War news bored him excessively. He was making two or three hundred dollars a month; he lived at the Club when Maria Abbott occupied Ballinger House--Tom went to Washington--and he was extremely comfortable. In the Club he always felt like a blood, forgot for the time being that he was not a rich man, like the majority of its members, and there was always a group of nice quiet contented fellows, glad to play bridge with him in the evening. On the whole, he congratulated himself, he had not done so badly, although he had resigned all hope of being a millionaire--unless he made a lucky strike....But it did not make so much difference in California...and when Alexina had had enough of horrors they would settle down again very comfortably to the old life....There was very good dancing at the restaurants (upstairs) where one met nice girls of sorts who didn't care a hang about this infernal war...one of them...but he was extremely careful...he would never be divorced; that was positive...as for society he did not miss it particularly...the dancing at the restaurants was better and he didn't have to talk...whether people stopped asking him or not, now that his wife was away, or whether they entertained or not, didn't so much matter. He had the Club. That was the all important pivot of his life, his altar, his fetish...a lot he cared what went so long as he had that.