Book IV
Chapter II
 

I

Alexina in the weariness of reaction climbed the long stairs of her pension in Passy.

Sibyl Bascom, whose husband being on government duty in Washington left her free to go to France, and who rolled bandages all day long in the great hospital in Neuilly; Janet Maynard and Alice Thorndyke, who ran a canteen in the environs of Paris, and herself, had lived until the Armistice in a comfortable hotel not far from the house of Olive de Morsigny, and found much solace together. But their hotel had been commandeered for one of the Commissions; Sibyl had taken refuge with her sister-in-law, and Alexina, Janet, and Alice had found with no little difficulty vacant rooms in a second-rate pension in Passy. The food was even worse than at the hotel, the rooms were barely heated, and as trams at Alexina's hours were airless and jammed, and taxicabs in swarming Paris as scarce as tiaras, with drivers of an unsurpassable effrontery, she was forced to walk three miles a day in all weathers. It is true that she could have rented a limousine for a thousand francs a month, but it was almost a religion with workers of her class to economize rigorously and give all their surplus to the oeuvre of their devotion. Janet and Alice went back and forth in one of the supply camions of the Y.M.C.A.

II

Alexina passed Janet's room softly. She saw a light under the door and inferred that she and Alice were playing poker and consuming many cigarettes, that being their idea of recuperation between one hard day's work and the next. She was in no mood for talking.

Her room was stuffy as well as cold; the furniture and curtains had probably not been changed since the second empire. She opened one of the long windows and stepped out on the balcony. The Seine was nearly in flood after the heavy rains, but it reflected the stars to-night and many long banners of light from the almost festive banks.

It was bitterly cold and she closed her window in a moment and moved about her room. It was too cold to undress. She was inured to discomforts and thankful that she had been brought up in San Francisco, which is seldom warm; but she longed for a few creature comforts nevertheless. During the war she had sustained herself with the thought of the men in the trenches, but now that their lot was ameliorated she felt that she had a right to what comforts she could find. The difficulty was to find them. With Paris overflowing. Generals sleeping in servants' rooms under the roof, soldiers, even officers, picking up women on the streets if only to have a bed for the night, and hotel after hotel being requisitioned for the various Peace Commissions and their illimitable suites, conditions were likely to grow worse. Olive de Morsigny had repeatedly offered hospitality, but she preferred her independence.

To leave was impossible. Her oeuvre must continue for several months. Sick and wounded men do not recover miraculously with the cessation of hostilities. No doubt she should be grateful for this refuge, and now that the war was over it might be possible to buy petrol for an oil stove.

Then she became aware that it was not only the cold that made her restless. The rigidly enforced calm of her inner life had received a shock to-night and not from the imagined assassination of a king.

She went suddenly to her mirror and looked at herself intently...shook her head with a frown. She had always been slim; she was now very thin. The roundness and color had left her cheeks. They were pale--almost hollow. Janet and Alice had rejoiced in the lack of fats and sweets, both having a tendency to plumpness had achieved without effort the most fashionable slenderness that anxious woman could wish. But she had not had a pound to lose. It seemed to her that she was almost plain. Her eyes retained their dazzling brilliancy, a trick of nature that old age alone no doubt could conquer, but there were dark stains beneath the lower lashes.

She let down her hair. It was the same soft dusky mass as ever. Her teeth were as even and bright; her lips had not lost their curves, but they were pink, not red. She was anaemic, no doubt. Why, in heaven's name, shouldn't she be? Even Olive, whose major domo, driving a Ford, had paid daily visits to the farms and brought back what eggs, chickens and other succulences the peasants would part with for coin, had lost her brilliant color and the full lines of her beautiful figure. She had rouged to-night and looked as lovely as when Morsigny had captured her, but her magnificent gown had been too hastily taken in by an elderly inefficient maid--her young one having patriotically deserted her for munitions long since, and sagged on her bones as she expressed it. Sibyl, who was in bed with the flu, had offered to lend her one of the new ones she had had the forethought to buy in New York before sailing, and was only a year old, but Olive had feared the critical eyes of French women who had not replenished their evening wardrobe since nineteen-fourteen.

Alexina did not feel particularly consoled because others had looked no better than she. Until to-night she had given little thought to her looks, but she now felt a renewed interest in herself, and the frown was as much for this revival as for her wilted beauty.

Her evening wrap was very warm and she sat down in the hard arm-chair and huddled into its folds, covering the lower part of her body with a hideous brown quilt. No doubt the sheets were damp, and she knew that she could not sleep. Why shiver in bed?

III

Was it Gathbroke? It was long since she had thought of him. She had not even seen his photograph for four or five years. If it were, he had changed even more since that photograph had been taken than after she had dismissed him at Rincona.

She was by no means sore that it was he. The light of a briquet was not precisely searching, and for the most part he had looked like more than one war-worn British officer she had seen during her long residence in Paris....It was something in the eyes...she could have vowed they were hazel...their expression had altered; it was that of a somewhat ironic man of the world, which had changed as she watched them to the piercing alertness of a man of action...but after...was it perhaps an emanation of the personality that had so impressed her angry young soul and refused to be obliterated?

But what of it? He might be married. Love another woman. All officers and soldiers during the war had looked about eagerly for love, when not already supplied, and given themselves up to it, indifferent as they may have been before....Life seemed shorter every time they went back to the front.

And if not why should he be attracted to her again! He had loved her for a moment when she had been in the first flush of her exquisite youth. That was twelve years ago. She was now thirty. True, thirty, to-day, was but the beginning of a woman's third youth, and a few weeks in the California sunshine and nourished by the California abundance would restore her looks, no doubt of that. But she would look no better as long as she remained in Paris....Nor did she wish to return to California...and beyond all question he must have forgotten, lost all interest in her long since.

Still--there had been an eager upspringing light in his eyes...was it recognition?...merely the passing impulse of flirtation over a match and a briquet?...No doubt she would never see him again.