The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Did she want to?
She had gone through many and extraordinary phases during these years of close personal contact with the martial history of Europe, as precisely different from the first twenty-six years of her life as peace from war.
During those months of nineteen-fifteen when she had worked in hospitals close to the front as auxiliary nurse, all the high courage of her nature which she had inherited from a long line of men who had fought in the Civil War, the Revolution, and in the colonial wars before that, and the tribal wars that came after, and all that she had inherited from those foremothers whose courage, as severely tested, had never failed either their men or their country; in short, the inheritance of the best American tradition; had risen automatically to sustain her during that period of incessant danger and horror. She had been firm and smiling for the consolation of wounded men when under direct shell fire. She had felt so profound a pity for the mutilated patient men that it had seemed to cleanse her of every selfish impulse fostered by a too sheltered life. She had bathed so many helpless bodies that she lost all sense of sex and felt herself a part of the eternal motherhood of the world. She had once thrown herself over the bed of a politely protesting poilu, covering his helpless body with her own, as a shell from a taube came through the roof.
That had been a wonderful, a noble and exalted (not to say exhilarating) period; a period that made her almost grateful for a war that revealed to her such undreamed of possibilities in her soul. She might smile at it in satiric wonder in the retrospect, but at least it was ineradicable in her memory.
If it could but have lasted! But it had not. Insensibly she accepted suffering, sacrifice, pity, as a matter of course, even as danger and death. It had been the romance of war she had experienced in spite of its horrors, and no romance lives after novelty has fled. For months nothing seemed to affect her bodily resistance to fatigue, and as exaltation dropped, as the monotony of nursing, even of danger, left her mind more and more free, as war grew more and more to seem, the normal condition of life, more and more she became conscious of herself.
Life at the front is very primitive. Social relations as the world knows them cease to exist. The habits of the past are almost forgotten. It is death and blood; shells shrieking, screaming, whining, jangling; the boom of great guns as if Nature herself were in a constant electrical orgasm; hideous stench; torn bodies, groans, cries, still more terrible silences of brave men in torment; incessant unintermittent danger. Above all, blood, blood, blood. She believed she should smell it as long as she lived. She knew it in every stage from the fresh dripping blood of men rushed from the field to the evacuation hospitals, to the black caked and stinking blood of men rescued from No Man's Land endless days and nights after they had fallen.
All that was elementary in her strong nature, inherited from strong, full-blooded, often reckless and ruthless men, gradually welled to the surface. She was possessed by a savage desire for life, a bitter inordinate passion for life. Why not, when life might be extinguished at any moment? What was there in life but life? Farcical that anything else could ever have mattered.
Civilization--by which men meant the varied and pleasant times of peace--seemed incredibly insipid and out of date. It had no more relation to this war-zone than her youth to this swift and terrible maturity.
She was in many hospitals--rushed where an indomitable and tireless auxiliary nurse was most in demand--some under the direction of the noblesse division of the Red Cross, others under the bourgeois; and in more than one were English and American girls, long resident in France, or, in the latter case, come from America like herself to serve the country for which they had a romantic passion. The majority, of course, were Frenchwomen, young (in their first freedom), middle-aged, elderly.
Of these some were placid, emotionless, extinguished, consistently noble, selfless, profoundly and simply religious, as correct in every thought and deed as the best bourgeois peace society of any land.
But others! Alexina had been horrified at first at the wanderings off after nightfall of women who had nursed like scientific angels by day, accompanied by men who were never more men than when any moment might turn them into carrion. But with her mental suppleness she had quickly readjusted her point of view. There is nothing as sensual as war. It is the quintessential carnality. Renan once wrote a story of the French Revolution, "The Abbess Juarre," in which his thesis was that if warning were given that the world would end in three days the entire population of the globe would give itself over to an orgy of sex; sex being life itself. It is the obsession of the doomed consumptive, the doomed spinster, the last thought of a man with the rope round his neck.
How much more under the terrific stimulation of war, the constant heedless annihilation of life in its flower and its maturity? Man's inveterate enemy, death, shrieking its derision in the very shells of man's one inviolable right, the right to drift into eternity through the peaceful corridors of old age. War is a monstrous anachronism and a monstrous miscarriage of justice. The ignorant feel it less. It is the enlightened, the intelligent, accustomed to the higher delights of civilization, to the perfecting of such endowments, however modest, as their ancestors have transmitted and peace has encouraged, with ambitions and hopes and dreams, that resent however sub-consciously the constant snarling of death at their heels. All the forces of mind and body and spirit become formidable in a reckless hatred of the gross injustice of a fate that individually not one of them has deserved.
But the moment remains. They compress into it the desires of a lifetime. After years of proud individualism they have learned that they are atoms, cogs, helpless, the sport of iron and steel and powder and the ambitions and stupidities of men whose lives are never risked. Very well, turn the ego loose to find what it can. If all they have learned from civilization is as useless in this shrieking hell, as impotent as the dumb resentment of the clod, they can at least be animals.
To talk of the ennobling influences of war is one of the lies of the conventionalized mind anxious to avoid the truths of life and to extract good from all evil--worthy but unintelligent. How can men in the trenches, foul with dirt and vermin, stench forever in their nostrils, callous to death and suffering, wallowing like pigs in a trough, compulsorily obscene, be ennobled? Courage is the commonest attribute of man, a universal gift of Nature that he may exist in a world bristling with dangers to frail human life; never to be commended, only to be remarked when absent. If men lose it in the city, the sedentary life, they recover it quickly in the camp. The exceptions, the congenital cowards, slink out of war on any pretext, but if drafted are likely to acquit themselves decently unless neurotic. The cases of cowardice in active warfare are extremely rare; a mechanical chattering of teeth, or shaking of limbs, but practically never a refusal to obey the command to advance. But it is this very courage which breeds callousness, and, combined with bestial conditions, inevitably brutalizes.
When good people (far, oh far, from the zones of danger) can no longer in the face of accumulating evidence, cling to their sentimental theory that war ennobles, they take refuge in the vague but plausible substitute that at least it makes the good better and the bad worse. Possibly, but it is to be remembered that there is bad in the best even where there is no good in the worst.
Indubitably it leaves its indelible mark in a collection of hideous memories, on the just and the unjust, alike; as it is more difficult (Nature having made human nature in an ironical mood) to recall the pleasant moments of life than the poignantly unpleasant, so is it far more difficult to recall the moments of exaltation, of that intense spiritual desire which visits the high and low alike, to give their all for the safety of their country and the honor of their flag. Moreover, the sublime indifference in the face of certain death often has its origin in a still deeper necessity to relieve the insufferable strain on scarified nerves, and forever. As for the much vaunted recrudescence of the religious spirit which is one of the recurring phenomena of war, it is merely an instinct of the subtle mind, in its subtlest depths called soul, to indulge in the cowardice of dependence since the body must know no fear.
If men who have been temperate and moral all their lives, or at the worst indulging in moderation, spend their leaves of absence from the front like swine, it is not a reaction from the monotony of trench life, or from the nerve-racking din of war, but merely an extension of the fearful stimulation of a purely carnal existence, even where the directing mind is ever on the alert.
The aggressors of war should be pilloried in life and in history. Men must defend their country if attacked; to do less would be to sink lower than the beasts that defend their lairs; and for that reason all pacifists, and conscientious objectors, are abject, mean, and shabby. In times of national danger no man has a right to indulge his own conscience; it merges, if he be a normal courageous man, into the national conscience. But that very fact lowers the deliberate seekers of war so far below the high plane of civilization as we know it, that they should be blotted out of existence.
As regards women Alexina was not likely to remain shocked for long at any erratic manifestations of temperament. Pride and fastidiousness and the steel armor fused by circumstances had protected her heretofore from any divagations of her own; nor had crystallized temptation ever approached her.
But her education had been liberal. Several of her intimate friends and more that she associated with daily made what she euphemistically termed a cult of men. The naive deliberate immorality of young things not only in the best society but in all walks of life is far more prevalent than the good people of this world will ever believe. Those with much to lose seldom lose it; the instinct of self-protection envelops them as a mantle; although in small towns, where concealments are less simple, the majority of scandals are not about married women as in a less sophisticated era, but about girls.
Alexina had possessed numerous confidences, helped more than once to throw dust, amiably replaced the post. She had never approved, but she was philosophical. She took life as she found it; although the fact stood out that Aileen, who was indifferent to men, remained always her favorite friend.
An individualist, she felt it no part of her philosophy to criticize the acts of women with different desires, weaknesses, temptations, equipment from her own; all other things being equal. That was the point. These girls who made use of their most secret and personal possession as they saw fit were as well-bred as herself, honorable in all their dealings with one another and with society at large, generous, tolerant, exquisite in their habits, often highly intelligent and studious. Sex was an incident.
With the peccadillos of married women who were wives she had little tolerance as they were a breach of faith, a deliberate violation of contract, and indecent to boot. She was quite aware that Sibyl for all her posturings, and avidness for sex admiration, and "acting oriental" as the phrase went, was entirely devoted to Frank. Such of her married friends as had severed all but the nominal and public bond with their legal husbands, she placed in the same category as girls as far as her personal attitude toward them went.
Therefore not only did she understand these young women driven by the horrid stimulus of war; women (or girls) heretofore sheltered, virtuous, romantic, sentimental, now merely filled with the lust of life. They were, like herself, devoted and meticulous nurses, brave, high-minded, tender; practically all, if not from the upper, at least from the educated ranks of life. But they lived under the daily shadow of death. Even when safe from the shells of the big guns, the murderous aircraft paid them daily visits, singling out hospitals with diabolical precision. They were in daily contact with young torn human bodies from which had gone forever the purpose for which one generation precedes another. Life was horror. Blood and death and shattered bodies were their daily portion. No matter how brave, they heard death scream in every shell. The world beyond existed as a mirage. No wonder they became primeval.
Alexina had met Alice Thorndyke in one of these hospitals and observed her with some curiosity. But Alice was, to use her own vernacular, the best little bourgeoise of them all. She had had her fling. Men repelled her. She never meant to marry, even for substance. When the war was over she should live the completely independent life. Nobody would care what economic liberties a woman took in the new era. The war had liberalized the most conservative old bunch of relatives a girl was ever inflicted with.
As Alexina sat huddled in her warm coat--the periwinkle blue to which she was still faithful--her dark fine hair, hanging about her, a mantle in itself, she recalled those days when she, too, had vibrated to that savage lust for life; those days of concentrated egoism, of deep and powerful passions whose existence she had only dimly begun to suspect after she dismissed her husband.
What had held her back? She had had a no more fastidious inheritance than most of those women, a no more cultivated intelligence, nor proud instinct of selection, nor ingrained habit of self-control.
She had put it down at first to fastidiousness, possibly a still lurking desire to be able to give all to one man; that hope of the complete mating which no woman relinquishes until toothless, certainly not in the mere zone of death.
She had concluded that it was neither of these, or at least that they had but played a part, and alone would never have won. It was a furious mental revolt at the terrific power of the body, the mind, frightened and cornered, determined to dominate; a fierce delight in the battle raging behind her serene and smiling mask to the accompaniment of that vulgar blare of war where mind over matter was as powerless in the death throe as incantations during an eruption of Vesuvius.
This internal silent warfare between her long reed-like body as little sensible to fatigue as if made of flexible steel and her extremely cold proud chaste-looking head had grown to be of such absorbing interest that the knowledge of its cessation was almost a shock. It was after a prolonged experience in a hospital where they were short of nurses and rest was almost unknown and the inroads upon her vitality so severe and menacing that she was finally ordered to Paris to rest, and there found a complete change of habit in an oeuvre founded by the equally exhausted but always valiant Olive de Morsigny, that she suddenly realized that somewhere sometime the battle had finished and mind and body were acting in complete harmony.
To-night she wondered if her imagination, turned loose, stimulated, had not missed the whole point. There had been no man who had made the direct irresistible appeal. No concrete temptation....She had after all been a degree too civilized...or...romantic idealism?
There had been little to stimulate and excite since she had settled down to office work in the summer of nineteen-sixteen. Her nerves, always strong, had become too case-hardened to be affected by avions or the immense uncertainties of Big Bertha; although the light on the horizon at night during the last German Drive and the bellow of the guns had shaken her with a sort of reminiscent excitement.
But for the most part she had felt frozen, torpid, a cog in the vast military machine of France, dedicating herself like hundreds of other women to the succor of men she never saw. That extraordinary abominable experience at the front was overlaid, almost forgotten. And such news as one had in Paris was quite enough to exercise the mind....There had been the downfall of the Russian dynasty...the still more sinister downfall of the true revolutionists...the Bolshevik monster projecting its murderous shadow over all Europe, exposing the instability of the entire social structure....
Was it? Could such an experience ever be forgotten? The grass might grow over the dead on the battlefields, but the corruption fed the wheat, and the peogle of France ate the bread. This uninvited thought had intruded itself the first time she had driven by the Marne battlefields and seen the numberless crosses in the rich abundant fields.
She smiled, a small, secret, ruthless smile....That was her residue: ruthlessness. She may have left behind her in the turbulent war-zone the savage elementary lust for living at any cost, but she had ineradicably learned the value of life, its brevity at best, the still more tragic brevity of youth; she had a store of hideous memories which could only be submerged first in the performance of duty if duty were imperative; then, duty discharged and finished, in the one thing that during its brief time gave life any meaning, made this earthly sojourn bearable. If she met the man she wanted she would have him if she had to fight for him tooth and nail.
It was four o 'clock. She went to bed.