The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora did not see her sister-in-law for a moment and Alexina had time to recover her poise and make sharp swift observations. She had not seen Gora for four years, nor exchanged a line with her. She had almost forgotten her. The changes were more striking than in herself, who had been always slight. Gora's superb bust had disappeared; her face was gaunt, throwing into prominence its width and the high cheek bones. Her eyes were enormous in her thin brown face; to Alexina's excited imagination they looked like polar seas under a gray sky brooding above innumerable dead. There were lines about her handsome mouth, closer and firmer than ever. How she must have worked, poor thing! What sights, what suffering, what despair...four long years of it. But she had evidently had her discharge. She wore an extremely well-cut brown tailored suit, good furs, and a small turban with a red wing.
What was she in Paris for?...What...what...
Gora saw her and almost ran forward, that brilliant inner light that had always been her chief attraction breaking through her cold face...sunlight sparkling on polar seas...oh, yes, Gora had her charm!
"Alexina! It isn't possible! I was going to ask at the American Embassy for your address. I only arrived last night."
Alexina had lowered her muff and her face expressed only the warmest surprise and welcome. "Gora! It's too wonderful! But I suppose you couldn't go home without seeing Paris?"
"Rather not! It's the first chance I've had, too. Where can we have a talk?"
"It's too late for tea. Come out to my pension and spend the night. Janet and Alice have gone to Nice for a few days' rest. You'll be hideously uncomfortable--"
"Not any more than where I am--sharing a room with three others. Where can I telephone? In here?"
"Good heavens, no. Take a liberty with a duke, but with the American aristocracy, never. Come down to the Meurice. Perhaps we can find a cab there. This seems to be hopeless. Everybody comes to the Crillon in a private car or a military automobile. Taxis appear to avoid it."
It only took half an hour to get the telephone connection and another to seize by force a taxi, which, however, deposited them at the Etoile. The driver explained unamiably that he wanted his dinner; and a bribe, unless unthinkable, would have been useless. In these days taxi drivers made fifty francs a day in tips, and, as a Frenchman knows exactly what he wants and calculates to a nicety when he has enough, valuing rest and nutriment above even the delights of gouging foolish Americans, Alexina knew that it would be useless to argue and did not even waste energy in announcing her opinion of him for taking a fare under false pretenses. There was no other cab in sight and they walked the rest of the way. But both were inured to hardships and took their mishap good-naturedly, trudging the long distance under their umbrellas.
After a very bad dinner in an airless room as frugally lighted they made themselves comfortable in Alexina's room over the oil stove she had bought, and supplied through Olive's influence with the higher powers. She took off her street clothes and put on a thick dressing gown, giving her sister-in-law a quilted red wrapper of Janet's, which threw some warmth into Gora's pale cheeks. She looked comfortable, almost happy, as she smoked her cigarette in the arm-chair.
Alexina curled up on the bed.
"Now, Gora," she said brightly, "give an account of yourself."
Gora did not reply for a moment and Alexina examining her again came to the conclusion that she had been spared some of the horrors of the front. As a head nurse her responsibilities had been too heavy for philanderings, and having the literary imagination rather than the personal she had no doubt consigned it to a water-tight compartment and converted herself into a machine.
"I don't know that I can talk about it," she said. "I feel much like the men. It is too close. I am thankful that I Had the experience: not only to have been of actual service, indispensable, as every good nurse was, but to have been a part of that colossal drama. But I am even more thankful that it is over and if I can possibly avoid it I'll never nurse again."
"I suppose you have had no time to write?"
"I should think not! During the brief leaves of absence I spent most of the time in bed. But I have an immense amount of material. I have no idea how much fiction has been written about the war; there might have been none, so far as I have had time to discover. I've barely read a newspaper."
"The only reason I want to go back to America is to hear the news. I see a New York newspaper once in a while, and it is plain they have it all. We have next to none in Europe, in France at all events. Shall you write your stories here or go back to California? That would give you the necessary perspective, I should think."
Alexina's eyes were fixed upon an execrable print many inches above the footboard, and Gora, glancing at her, reflected that she was as beautiful as ever in spite of her loss of flesh and color. Any one would be with eyes that were like stars when they looked at you and a Murillo madonna's when she lifted them the fraction of an inch. Astute as she was she had never penetrated below the surface of Alexina, nor suspected the use she made of those pliable orbs. Alexina had such an abundance of surface it occurred to few people that she might be both subtle and deep.
"I...don't know....I rather fear losing the atmosphere...the immediate stimulation. Shall you go home, now that you are free?"
"I wonder. Could I stand it? I have longed for a rest--ached would be a better word....This last year has been full of both nervous strain and desperate monotony. Nineteen-seventeen was bad enough in another way: the internal defeatist campaign, the constant menace of mutiny, soviets in the army, strikes in the munition towns,--all the rest of it....But could one stand California after such an experience? I know they have done splendid work since we entered the war, but I know also that they will immediately subside into exactly what they were before, settle down with a long sigh of relief to enjoy life and forget that war ever was. It could not be otherwise in that climate. With that abundance. That remoteness....There seems no place out there for me. A decorator after this! What funny little resources we thought out in those days....I do not see myself fitting in anywhere. Tom wants to buy Ballinger House for Maria and I fancy I'll let him have it. I can't keep it up unaided and I might as well sell as rent it. He and Judge Lawton would invest the money and I should have quite a decent income. As for Mortimer I never want to see him again. He has not done one thing for this war--he is utterly contemptible--
"I've long since given up criticizing Mortimer. My father once sized him up. He hasn't an ounce of brain. He'd like to be quite different, but you can stretch Nature's equipment so far and no farther. He stretched his until it suddenly snapped back and found itself shrunken to less than half its natural size. Vale Mortimer. Let him rest. Why don't you divorce him? No doubt he has found some one else--
"I couldn't divorce him on that count, for I told him repeatedly to console himself. It wouldn't be playing the game. Of course there are other grounds. It would be easy enough. But our family has a strong aversion to divorce. And a unique record....Not that that would stop me if I found any one I really wanted to marry. Nothing would stop me, in fact."
Gora glanced at her quickly, arrested by something in her voice. She had already noticed that Alexina's limpid musical tones had deepened. Just now they rang with something of the menace of a deep-toned bell.
"Have you found him?" she asked smiling. "If there are obstacles, so much the more interesting. I don't fancy that romantic streak in your nature which permitted you to idealize Mortimer has quite dried up. Once romantic always romantic--I deduce from human nature as I have studied it,"
"Well...I am rather afraid of romance. Certainly I'd never be blinded again. A man might be nine parts demi-god and if I knew--and I should know--that there was no companionship in him for me I wouldn't marry him."
"That I believe." Alexina was once more regarding the print. Gora wondered if sex would influence her at all.
"But have you met him? You were always an interesting child and you've roused my curiosity."
"No...yes...I don't know...later perhaps I'll tell you something. But I'm far more interested in you. Have you been in France all this time?"
"Oh, no. I was in Rouen for a year. Then I was in hospitals in England until the German Drive began in. March when I was sent over again. Oh, God! what sights! what sounds! what smells!" She huddled into her chair and stared at the dull flame behind the little door of the stove.
"Oh, I know them all. Think of something else. Surely you met--but literally--hundreds of officers, and some must have interested you. The British officer at best is a superb creature--if he would only stand up straight. I saw one at the Crillon to-day whose good American shoulders made me stare at him quite rudely."
"Who was he?"
"Haven't the faintest idea. I only saw his back, anyway. Surely you must have been more than passing interested in one or two."
"I am not susceptible. And nursing is not conducive to romance."
"But you never were romantic, Gora dear. And you are good-looking in your odd way. And that was your great, chance."
"Well, I'm afraid I was too busy or too tired to take it. Now...perhaps...but I'm afraid I don't inspire men with either romance or passion. They like me and are grateful--that is, as grateful as an Englishman can be; they take most things for granted."
"The French are so grateful, poor dears. I loved them all. After all...Frenchmen...." Her voice grew dreamy.
Again Gora threw her an amused glance. "You must have met many of them at your friend, Madame de Morsigny's, and under far more attractive conditions than any man can hope for in a sick bed....I can't imagine any more appropriate destiny for you...you should be Madame la duchesse at the very least."
"Not money enough, and besides they've all grown so religious, or think they have, they wouldn't stand for divorce. Anyhow it would be so hard on 'The Family'!...Still....But why, Gora dear, do you depreciate yourself? It seems to me that you are just the type that a certain sort of man would appreciate--fall in love with. I've heard even American men who play about in society comment on your looks, different as you are from sport and fluff and come-hitherness; and you only need a few months' rest to look like your old self. I should think that a highly intelligent Englishman would find you irresistible, especially if you had shown your womanly side when he had holes in him. I've always had an idea that Englishmen weren't nearly as afraid of intellectual women as American men are."
"That's true enough. But I doubt if there are any men more susceptible to beauty, or quite as lustful after it, no matter how romantic they may think they are feeling. I've talked to a good many of them in the past four years, and for six months I was in charge of a convalescent hospital in Kent. I think I've pretty thoroughly plumbed the Englishman. They found me sympathetic all right, forgot their racial shyness and inadvertently gave me much valuable material. But I saw no indication that I made any sex appeal to them whatever."
"Not one? Not ever?"
Gora gave a slight withdrawing movement as if something sacred had been touched. But she answered: "Oh...some day I may have something to tell you....You said much the same thing to me a little while ago. Tell me now."
Alexina turned over on her elbow to beat up her pillows. Then she answered lightly but firmly: "Not unless you promise to do likewise. Mine is such a little thing anyhow. I know by the expression of your face--just now--that, yours is the real thing. Is he in Paris?"
"I'm...not sure....Yes, there is something...the conditions are very peculiar...not at all what you think...there is so much more to it....No, I don't think I can tell you."
A fortnight ago Alexina could have lifted her eyes and uttered Gathbroke's name as if groping through a jungle of memories. But she could no more force his name through her lips now than she could have laid bare all that was in her tumultuous soul. It was, in fact, all she could do to keep from screaming. For a moment her excitement was so intense that she jumped from the bed and ran over and opened the window.
"This room gets intolerably stuffy. That is the worst of it--freeze or stifle."
"Oh, I have been cold so long! Please don't leave it open. That's a darling."
Alexina closed it with an amiable smile. "What would you do, Gora, if you were really mad about a man? Have him at any cost? Annihilate anything that stood in your way? Anybody, I mean."
An appalling light came into Gora's pale eyes as she turned them, at first in some surprise, on her sister-in-law: "Yes, if I thought he cared...could be made to care if I had the chance...if another woman tried to get him away...yes, I don't fancy I'd stop at anything....Even if I finally were forced to believe that he never could care for me in that way, the only way that counts with men--at first, anyway...well, I believe I'd fight to the death just the same. When you've waited for thirty-four years...well, you know what you want! Better die fighting than live on interminably for nothing...less than nothing....I can't tell you any more. Please don't ask me."
"Of course not. I'll tell you my little story." And she gave a rapid vivid account of the remarkable scene at the Embassy. She concluded abruptly: "Do you think one could tell that a man's eyes were hazel--the golden-brown hazel--across a pitch dark room above the flame of a briquet?"
"Hazel?" Alexina was standing behind Gora. She saw her body stiffen.
"I could have vowed they were hazel. And that he was English. He also reminded me of some one I must have met somewhere or other...one meets so many...possibly it was only a fancy."
"You didn't see him after the lights went on again?"
"They didn't. Only candles. We were all too anxious to get away, anyhow. I fancy the King was in a hurry to get the ambassador upstairs and tell him what he thought of him--"
"Don't be flippant. You always did have a maddening habit of being flippant at the wrong time. Haven't you seen him again anywhere?"
"I've walked the Rue de Rivoli and lunched at the Ritz looking for him; but I've never had even a glimpse--unless that was his back I saw at the Crillon to-day. If I saw his eyes I'd know in a minute."
"Why should you think it was his back?"
"Some men have expression in the back of their head. And I just had an idea--fantastic, no doubt--that my particular Englishman stands up straight."
"Yes, I'm feeling quite too fearfully romantic. I'm sure he's looking for me as hard as I am for him. And if I find him I'll keep him."
She saw Gora's long brown hands slowly clench until they looked like steel. She glanced at her own slim white hands. They were quite as strong if more ornamental. She yawned politely.
"I'm not so romantic as sleepy. I know that you must be dead after your journey. They say it's more trouble to travel to Paris from London than from New York. The girls won't be back for a week. You must get your things to-morrow and come out here. I won't hear of your living in Paris discomfort with three two empty rooms."
"That is good of you. Yes, I'll come. And perhaps your landlady, or whatever they call them here, could put me up later. Now that I have come to Paris I intend to see it. I believe some of the great galleries and museums are to be reopened."
"Andre will arrange it if they're not. How you will enjoy it with your sensitiveness to all the arts. Take this candle in ease the bulb is burnt out. It usually is."
Gora had risen. Her face wore an expression both puzzled and grim; but she and Alexina as they said good-night looked full into each other's eyes without faltering. And Alexina had never looked more ingenuous.
Perhaps that dim idea...that she had thrown down a challenge...had come out in the open for a moment...insolently?...honestly?...She must be completely fagged out after that abominable trip to have such absurd fancies. She took her candle; and disposed herself in Janet's bed, between four walls that gave her an unexpected and heavenly privacy, with a deep sigh of gratitude, dismissing fantasies.
During the next ten days Alexina kept as close to Gora as was possible in the circumstances. She had made many engagements and not all of them were social; there were still gowns to be fitted, committee meetings to attend. Twice Gora appeared to have risen with the dawn, and she vanished for the day. Nevertheless, it grew increasingly evident to Alexina's alert and penetrating vision that Gora was neither peaceful nor happy; therefore it was safe to assume that she had not found Gathbroke. For some reason she had not inquired at the British Embassy. Or a letter to its care had failed to reach him. Possibly he was enjoying himself without formalities.
She took Gora twice to the Ritz to luncheon and on several afternoons to tea. But it was a mob of Americans and members of the various Commissions. A brilliant sight, but not in the least satisfactory. It was quite patent from Gora's ever traveling eyes that she sought and never found.
Therefore when Olive asked Alexina to go to one of the towns where the oeuvre had a branch and attend to an important matter that Mrs. Wallack was far too much of a novice to be entrusted with, she agreed at once. She experienced a growing desire to get away by herself--away from Paris--away from Gora. She wanted to think. What if Gora did meet him first? She would be but the more certain to meet him herself. Moreover...give Gora a sporting chance.
Janet and Alice had written from Nice that they might be detained for some time. Gora unpacked her trunk and settled down in the pension with that air of indestrucible patience that had always made her formidable. She was not one of Life's favorites, but she had wrung prizes from that unamiable deity more than once.
Alexina speculated. Gora had all the brains that Mortimer lacked and commanding traits of character. She was so striking in appearance even now that people often turned and stared at her. But unless she possessed the potent spell of woman for man all her gifts would avail her nothing in this tragic crisis of her life. Did she possess it I No woman could answer. Certainly Alexina had never seen evidence of it even in Gora's youth; although to be sure her opportunities had been few. Still...when a woman possesses the most subtle and powerful of all the fascinations men are drawn to it, no matter how dark the sky or high the barriers. Nothing is keener than the animal essence. Still...she had heard that some women developed it later than others. Alexina feared nothing else.
She fancied that Gora took leave of her with a little indrawn sigh of relief. It was with difficulty that she repressed her own.