The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The Embassy was a blinding glare of light from the ground floor to the upper story, visible above the wide staircase. After four years of legal tenebration it was obvious that the ambassador's intention was to celebrate the Armistice as well as the visit of his King to Paris with an almost impish demonstration of the recaptured right to extravagance, obliterate the dry economical past. The ambassador's country might be intolerably poor after the war, but like many other prudent nobles he had invested money in North and South America, and was able to entertain his sovereign out of his private purse. He had made up his mind to give the first brilliant function following the sudden end of La Grande Guerre and one that it would be difficult for even Paris to eclipse.
All Paris had burst forth into illumination of street and shop after nightfall, but Alexina had seen no such concentrated blaze as this; and her eyes, long accustomed to a solitary globe high in the ceiling of her room, blinked a little, strong as they were. She had come with the Marquis and Marquise de Morsigny, and after they had passed the long receiving line where the King in his simple worn uniform stood beside the resplendent ambassador, her friends' attention had been diverted to a group of acquaintances chattering excitedly over the startling munificence that seemed to them prophetic of a swift renaissance.
They moved off unconsciously, and Alexina remained alone near one of the long windows behind the receiving line; but she felt secure in her insignificance and quite content to gaze uninterruptedly at the greatest function she had ever seen. After the bitter hard work, the long monotonies, the brief terrible excitements, of the past four years, and the depressed febrile atmosphere of Paris during the last year when avions dropped their bombs nearly every night, and Big Bertha struck terror to each quarter in turn, this gay and gorgeous scene recalled one's most extravagant dreams of fairy-land and Arabia; and Alexina felt like a very young girl. Even the almost constant sensation of fatigue, mental and bodily, fell from her as she forgot that she had worked from nine until six for three years in her oeuvre, often walking the miles to and from her hotel or pension to avoid the crowded trains; the distasteful food; the tremors that had shaken even her tempered soul when the flashing of the German guns, drawing ever nearer, could be seen at night on the horizon.
And Paris had been so dark!
She reveled almost sensuously in the excessiveness of the contrast, quite unconcerned that her white gown was several years out of date. For that matter there were few gowns, in these vast rooms, of this year's fashion. Although Paris had begun to dance wildly the day the Armistice was declared, not only in sheer reaction from a long devotion to its ideal of duty, but that the American officers should have the opportunity to discover the loveliness and charm of the French maiden, the women had not yet found time to renew their wardrobes, and the only gowns in the room less than four years old were worn by the newly arrived Americans of the Peace Commission and the ladies of the Embassy. The most striking figures were the French Generals in their horizon blue uniforms and rows of orders on their hardy chests.
Of jewels there were few. When the German drive in March seemed irresistible, jewels had been sent to distant estates, or to banks in Marseilles and Lyons, and there had been no time to retrieve them after the ambassador sent out his sudden invitations. Alexina smiled as she recalled Olive de Morsigny's lament over the absence of her tiara. European women of society take their jewels very seriously, and there was not a Frenchwoman present who did not possess a tiara, however old-fashioned.
But the cold luminosity of jewels would have been extinguished to-night under this really terrific down-pour of light. The tall candelabra against the tapestried or the white and gold walls were relieved of duty; Paris had had enough of candlelight; the four immense chandeliers of this reception room, either of which would have illuminated a restaurant, had been rewired and blazed like suns. Suspended from the ceiling, festooned between the candelabra and the chandeliers, were clusters and loops of glass tupils and roses, each concealing an electric bulb. Alexina reflected that the soft haze of candles might be more artistic and becoming, but was grateful nevertheless for this rather tasteless fury of light, symptomatic as it was; and understood the ambassador's revolt against the enforced economies of a long war, his desire to do honor to his unassuming little sovereign.
The room, whose lofty ceiling was supported along the center by three massive pillars, was already crowded, and people entered constantly. Every embassy was represented, all the grande noblesse of Paris and even a stray Bourbon and Bonaparte. A few of the guests were the more distinguished American residents of Paris and their gowns were as out of date if as inimitably cut as the Frenchwomen's, for they had worked as hard. But Alexina ceased to notice them. She had become aware that two American officers, standing still closer to the window, were talking. One of them had parted the curtains and was looking out.
"By Jove," he said. "Strikes me this is rather risky. Six long windows opening on the garden, and the King standing directly in front of one of them. Fine chance for some filthy Bolshevik or anarchist."
"Oh, nonsense," said the other absently; his eyes were roving over the room. "Wish I could take to one of these French girls...feel it a sort of duty to increase the rapport and all that...but although the married women and the other sort of girls are a long sight more fascinating than ours, the upper--"
"American girls for me. But I'm still jumpy, and this sort of carelessness makes me nervous, particularly as the story is going about that the King came near being assassinated in the station of his home town when he was leaving. Man fired point blank at his face, but gun didn't go off or some one knocked up the man's arm. Did you notice that he looked about rather apprehensively when he arrived, at the station yesterday? No wonder, poor devil."
Alexina moved off, making her way slowly, but finally was forced to halt near the row of pillars. She was looking through the opposite door at the fantastic illuminations of the hall and reception rooms beyond, when, without a second's warning flicker, every light in the house went out.
Simultaneously the high clatter of voices ceased as if the old familiar cry of "Alerte" had sounded in the street. Involuntarily, as people in real life do act, her hands clutched her heart, her mouth opened to relieve her lungs. A Frenchman whispered beside her. "The King! A plot!"
She waited to hear screams from the women, wild ejaculations from the men. But the years of war and danger had extinguished the weak and exalted the strong. Beyond the almost inaudible gasp of her neighbor Alexina heard nothing. The silence was as profound as the darkness and that was abysmal; she could not see the white of her gown.
All, she knew, were waiting for the sound of a pistol shot, or of a groan as the King fell with a knife in his back.
Then she became aware that men were forcing their way through the crowd; she was almost flung into the arms of a man behind her. Later she knew that a group of officers had surrounded their King and rushed him up the room to place him in front of the central pillar, but at the moment she believed that they were either carrying out his body, or that a group of anarchists was escaping.
Then one man lit a match. She saw a pale strained face, the eyes roving excitedly above the flickering flame. Then another match was struck, then another. Those that had no matches struck their briquets, and these burned with a tiny yellow flame. One or two took down candles and lit them. All over the room, in little groups, or widely separated, Alexina saw face after face, white and anxious, appear. The bodies were invisible. The faces hung, pallid disks, in the dark.
Her attention was suddenly arrested by a face above the small steady flame of a briquet. It was a thin worn face, probably that of an officer recently discharged from hospital. His expression was ironic and unperturbed and his eyes flashed about the room exhibiting a lively curiosity. An Englishman, probably; nothing there of the severity of the American military countenance; although, to be sure, that had relaxed somewhat these last weeks under the blandishments of Paris. Nevertheless...quite apart from the military, there was the curious unanalyzable difference between the extremely well-bred American face and the extremely well-bred English face. It might be that the older civilization did not take itself quite so seriously....
Obeying an impulse, which, she assured herself later, was but the sudden reaction to frivolity from the horror that had possessed her, she took a match unceremoniously from the hand of a neighbor, lit it and held it below her own face. The man's eyes met hers instantly, opened a little wider, then narrowed.
She looked at him steadily...interested...something...somewhere...stirring. The match burnt her fingers and was hastily extinguished. At the same time she became aware of a fuller effulgence just beyond the pillars and that people were moving on, some retreating toward the hall. She was carried forward and a little later turned her head, forgetting for a moment the humorous face that still had seemed to beckon above the white disks that inspired her with no interest whatever.
Against the central pillar stood the King, and on either side of him two officers of his suite, as rigid as men in armor, held aloft each a great candelabra taken from the wall. All the candles in the branches had been lit and shone down on the composed and somewhat expressionless face of the King. The strange group looked like a picture in some old cathedral window.
The scene lasted only a moment. Then the King, bowing courteously, left the room, still between the candelabra; and, followed by his ambassador, whose face was far paler than his, ascended the staircase.
A Frenchman beside Alexina cursed softly and she learned the meaning of the dramatic finale to a superb but rather dull function. There had been no attempt at assassination. A lead fuse had melted; the ambassador, who had taxed his imagination to honor his King, had forgotten to give the order that electricians remain on guard to avert just such a calamity as this.
As the explanation ran round the room people began to laugh and chatter rapidly as if they feared the sudden reaction might end in hysteria. But although all the candles had now been lit, the effort to revive the mild exhilaration of the evening was fruitless. They wanted to get away. Many still believed that a plot had been balked, and that the assassins were lurking in one of the many rooms of the hotel.
Alexina met Olive de Morsigny in the dressing-room, and found her white and shaking, although for four years she had proved herself a woman of strong nerves as well as of untiring effort.
"Great heaven!" she whispered, as she helped Alexina on with her wrap. "If he had been assassinated! In Paris! I thought Andre would faint. His last wound is barely healed. Come, let us get out of this. Who knows?...In Paris!..."
Their car had to wait its turn. As Alexina stood with her silent friends in the porte cochere the certainty grew that some one was watching her. That officer! Who else? She flashed her eyes over the crowd about her, then into the densely packed hall behind. But she encountered no pair of eyes even remotely humorous, no face in any degree familiar....Later she whirled about again....There was a pillar...easy to dodge behind it....At this moment Andre took her elbow and gently piloted her into the car.