Book IV
Chapter V
 

I

One day at the Hotel Crillon she thought she had found him.

She had passed the portals of that fortress with some delay, for the American Commission protected itself as if it dwelt under the shadow of imminent assassination and theft; whereas it was merely exclusive. The sentries at the door demanded her permit, and passed her in with intense suspicion to the inner guard. This was composed of three polite but very young lieutenants in smart new uniforms with no blight of war on them, and flagrantly of the American aristocracy.

With these she had less trouble, for they recognized her social status and accepted her explanation that she had been invited for tea with one of the ladies of the Commission. Nevertheless, they knew their duty and Alexina was followed up to the door of her hostess' suite by another young guardian who watched her entrance through the sacred door as carefully as if he suspected her of carrying a bomb in her muff.

II

The party numbered about thirty, and Alexina, after chatting with the few she knew, was standing apart by a small table drinking a cup of tea with three lumps of sugar in it and consuming cakes like a greedy boarding-school girl home for the holidays, when she caught sight of a man in the British khaki, a major by his insignia, a tall man, thin and straight, standing with his back to her at the opposite end of the room. He was talking to the host and a small group of men. She glimpsed something like half of his profile when he turned from the host for a moment. Like all men in khaki, when not pronounced brunettes, his complexion and hair looked the same color as his uniform.

Nevertheless...if she could only see his eyes...he turned his full profile...she had never glanced at Gathbroke's profile; he had given her no opportunity!...Certainly she had not the faintest idea whether the man of the embassy had had a snub nose or the thin straight feature of this man who would have attracted her attention in any ease if only because he did not carry his shoulders with the disillusioning obliquity of the British Army...why did he not turn round? Alexina felt an impulse to throw her cup straight across the room at the back of that well-shaped head.

Suddenly he shook hands with his host, nodded to the others and left the room.

III

Alexina set her cup and saucer down on the table, forebore to interrupt her hostess, who was known to talk steadily in order to avoid questions, and walked quickly and deliberately out after him. It is a primitive instinct in woman to chase the male; but civilization having initiated her into the art of permitting him to chase her, Alexina was merely bent upon giving this man his chance if the interest had been mutual and existed beyond the moment.

One lift was descending as she reached the outer corridor and the other was closed. She ran down the wide staircase as rapidly as a woman in fashionable skirts may. There was no British uniform in the hall below.

IV

She stood for a quarter of an hour under the arcade before the Crillon waiting for a taxi, staring out into the dreary mist of rain, at the round soft blurs of light in the Place de la Concorde, but in no wise depressed. What did it matter if she had not met him to-day? The conviction that she should meet him before long was as strong as if she were ever hopeful sixteen....That was the real secret of her elation. She felt very young and entirely carefree. She reflected that if she had met Gathbroke, or whoever he might be, during the last three years of the war she would have felt neither joy nor elation, however interested she might have been. To love and dream and enjoy when men were falling every minute, writhing in agony, gasping out their life, would have seemed to her grossly unaesthetic if nothing worse. It was not in the picture. The primal impulses she had experienced at the front to that harsh music of Death's orchestra were natural enough; but safe (comparatively!) in Paris, certainly quiet, the romance of love would have been as incongruous and heartless as to go out to the great hospital at Neuilly and tango through a ward of dying men.

But now! She had done her part. She could do no more. Men still must die, but in every comfort, with every consolation. And there would be no more recruits.

She was free. She was young, young, young again.

And at this moment her heart emptied itself of song and sank like lead in her breast. She pressed her muff against her face to hide the sudden grimace she was sure contorted it; there had been few moments in her life when she had not been mistress of her features, but this was one of them.

Gora Dwight was walking rapidly toward her.