Book IV
Chapter IV
 

I

The next day Alexina found herself suddenly free of office duty, A very handsome and wealthy American woman who had not been able to visit her beloved Paris since the beginning of the World's War, and finding the State Department obdurate to the whims of pretty women, had induced Mrs. Ballinger Groome, on one of whose committees she had worked faithfully, to ask her sister-in-law to inform the Department of State that her services at the oeuvre in Paris were indispensable.

Alexina had passed the letter on to the President, Madame de Morsigny, and forgotten the incident. Olive wrote the necessary letter promptly. Not only did she believe that the time had come for Alexina to rest, but she longed for a fresh access of energy in the office that would in a measure relieve herself. Moreover, Mrs. Wallack was wealthy and had many wealthy friends. That meant more money for the oeuvre, always in need of money. Olive had given large sums herself, but the president of a charity is yet to be found who will not permit its constant demands to be relieved by the generous public. Mrs. Wallack had not only promised a substantial donation at once, but a monthly contribution. This had not been named, but Madame de Morsigny meant that it should be something more than nominal. She could do so much for Mrs. Wallack socially, now that it was possible to entertain again, that she felt reasonably confident of rousing the enthusiasm of any ambitious New Yorker. Moreover, Olive had a very insinuating way with her.

II

Mrs. Wallack presented herself at the imposing headquarters of the oeuvre, radiant, fresh, energetic, beautifully dressed. The war had interested her and commanded her sympathies to some purpose, but nothing short of personal affliction could subdue that inexhaustible vitality, and she seemed to bring into the dark and solemn rooms something of the atmospheric gayety and sunshine of a land that had done much but suffered little.

By no one was she received with more warmth of welcome than by Alexina. The sudden release made her realize sharply her lowered vitality. Moreover, the semi-yearly income which had just arrived from California was her own now and she could replenish her wardrobe and feel feminine and irresponsible once more. The reaction was so violent that after inducting Mrs. Wallack into the mysteries of her desk she remained in bed, prostrate, for two days. Then, feeling several years younger, she sallied forth in search of many things.

III

There is no such antidote to the migraines of the woman soul as clothes. Their only rival is travel and there are cases where they know none. Sometimes women remember to pity men, that have no such happy playground.

Alexina for all her ramifications, some of them too deep, had a light and feminine side. During the following fortnight she gave it full rein; she was absorbed, almost happy. She spent quite recklessly and after the years of economy and self-denial this alone gave her an intense satisfaction. In addition to her income forwarded by Judge Lawton, who had charge of her affairs, her brother Ballinger, who was as fond of her as of his own children, and very proud of her--she had received two decorations--sent her a large check with the mandate to spend it on herself.

IV

Even so, she was not always in the shops and the dressmakers' ateliers. She found much amusement in strolling up and down the arcades of the Rue de Rivoli, watching the odd throngs at which Paris herself seemed, to bend her head and stare.

Some poet had called Paris the mistress of Europe. She looked like an old trollop. She was dirty and dreary, unpainted and unwashed. The rain was almost incessant and the shop windows were soon denuded of the few attractive novelties scrambled together to meet the sudden demand after the long drought.

But under the long arcades the curious sauntering throngs were sheltered from the rain and found all things in Paris novel. Men in the American khaki, from generals to striplings, were there by the hundred; endless streams of young women in the uniform of the Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A., the Salvation Army; British and American nurses; members of the fashionable oeuvres artlessly watching this novel phase of Paris; the beautiful violet uniform of Le Bien-Etre du Blesse; girls with worn faces and relaxed bodies fresh from the front, hundreds of them, arriving daily in camions and cars, thanking heaven for the sudden cessation of work, sleeping heaven knew where. The American women of the Commission, and others who, like Mrs. Wallack, had invented a plausible excuse to get to Paris and looked almost anachronistic in their smart gowns, their fresh faces, their bright, curious, glancing eyes.

There were also officers in the uniform of Britain, and Alexina regarded them frankly, with no effort to deceive herself. The spirit of adventure was awake in her, now that the dark mood had passed, or slept. She hoped to meet the man of the embassy again, whether he were Gathbroke or another. She had liked his eyes.

She had met many charming and interesting men during the last two and a half years at Olive de Morsigny's table, especially when Andre, convalescent, was at home. But their eyes had said nothing to her whatever, if not for the want of trying. Alexina's imagination, torpid for many months, ran riot. This man might disappoint her, might have nothing in him for her, but she refused for more than a moment to contemplate anything so flat. Something must come of that adventure, that vital intensely personal moment when their eyes had met above flames so tiny the wonder was they could see anything but a white blur on the dark. She was as sure of meeting him again as that she trod on air after she had ordered a new gown or brought an inordinately becoming hat. She had forgotten Mortimer's existence.