The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
"Can this be Lieutenant James Kirkpatrick?"
Kirkpatrick wheeled about and snatched off his cap.
"Mrs. Dwight, by all that's holy! I never expected any such luck as this!"
They shook hands warmly in the deserted square which had been a shambles during the first battle of the Marne, and in the days of Caesar and Attila, of Napoleon the Great and Napoleon the Little. To-day it was as gray and peaceful, its houses as aloof and haughty as if war had never been. It was a false impression, however, for it was the paralysis of war it expressed, not even the normal peace of a dull provincial town.
"I've often wondered about you," said Alexina. "But I've been working with the French Army and had no way of finding out. You don't look as if you had been wounded."
"Nary scratch, and in the thick of it. My, but it's good to sec you again." He stared at her, his face flushed and his breath short. Then he asked abruptly: "When do you think we're goin' home?"
Alexina laughed merrily. "That is the first question every officer or private I have met since the Armistice has asked me. I should feel greatly flattered, but I fancy the question, being always on the top of your minds, simply babbles off."
"You bet. But--Jimminy! I'm glad to see you. You're lookin' thin, though. Been workin', too, I'll bet."
"Oh, yes--and all your old class has worked; most of them over here. Mrs. Cheever couldn't come, as her husband is in the army. But she's worked hard in California."
"I believe you. The women have come up to the scratch, no doubt of that. Although some of them! Good Lord! This isn't my usual language when speaking of them. But if some came over to do just about as they damn please, the others strike the balance, and on the whole I think more of women than I did."
"That's good news. But you mustn't blame them too severely. I mean those that really came over with a single purpose and were not proof against the forcing house of war. As for the others...well, a good many followed their men over, others came after excitement, others, as you say, to do as they pleased, with no questions asked--possibly! I shouldn't take enough interest in them to criticize them if they hadn't used the war-relief organizations, from the Red Cross down to the smallest oeuvre, as a pretext to get over, and then calmly throw us down--the oeuvres, I mean. Mine was 'done' several times. But let us be good healthy optimists such as our country loves and remind ourselves that the worthy outnumber the unworthy--and that the really bad would have gone the same way sooner or later."
"It goes. Optimism for me for ever more once I get out of France."
They had crossed the square and were walking down a narrow crooked street as gray as if the dust of ages were in its old walls. Alexina looked at him curiously. He had never had what might be called a soft and tender countenance, but now it looked like cast-iron covered with red rust, and his eyes were more like bits of the same metal, blackened and polished, than ever. His youth had gone. There were deep vertical lines in his face. His mouth was cynical. His bullet head, shaved until only a cap of black stiff hair remained on top, and presumably safe from assault, by no means added to the general attractiveness of his style. He was straighter, more compact, than before, however, and his uniform at least did not have the truly abominable cut of the private.
"What do you think of war as war?" she asked.
"Sherman for me. Not that I didn't enjoy sticking Germans with the best of 'em when my blood was up. But the rest of it--God Almighty!"
They stopped before a solid double door in a high wall. "Will you come and take tea with me this afternoon? I am staying here for a few days. I'm afraid I can't offer you sugar, or cakes--"
"I'll bring the sugar along. I'm in barracks just outside and solid with, the commissary."
"Heavens, what a windfall! You'll be sure to come?"
"Won't I, just? Expect me at four-thirty." He lifted his cap from his comical head, then sainted, swung on his heel and marched off, swinging both arms from the shoulders and looking a fine martial figure of a man.
"But still the same old Kirkpatrick," thought Alexina. "I wonder if he will go Bolshevik?"
Her ring was answered by the old woman who toot care of the house and Alexina entered the wild garden. There was an acre of it, but it had been so long uncared for that it looked like a jungle caught between four high gray walls. It was the property of one of the French members of the oeuvre and was used as a storehouse for hospital supplies and as headquarters for Alexina when business brought her to this part of the Marne valley. She had been here several times during the siege of Verdun in nineteen-sixteen when her bed had quivered all night, and once a big gun had been trained on the city and a shell had fallen near the headquarters of the staff. Last night she had lain awake wondering if she did not miss the sound of the distant guns, as she had in Passy where there was no noisy traffic to take their place. There is a certain amount of morbidity in all highly strung imaginative minds, and although she had developed no love for Big Bertha nor for the sound of high firing guns attacking avions in the middle of the night, there had been something in that steady boom of cannon whose glare stained the horizon that had thrilled and excited her.
On the right of the main hall of the house was the room she used as an office; the dining-room was opposite; the salon ran the whole length at the back. This was quite a beautiful room furnished in the style of the last Bourbons, and its long windows opened upon a stone terrace leading down into what was still a picturesque garden in spite of its neglect. There were three fine oaks, and the chestnut trees along the wall shut off the town from even the upper windows.
The oeuvre always managed to keep a load of wood in the cave and to-day the concierge had raised the temperature of the salon to sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit Alexina cleared a table and told the woman to set it for tea, then went upstairs to change her dress. As she had made her trip in one of the automobiles belonging to the oeuvre she had been able to bring her little stove, and her bedroom was also warm.
She had also brought one of her new gowns, knowing that she should receive visits from several French officers, and she concluded to put it on for Kirkpatrick. He was worth the delicate compliment; moreover it almost obliterated the ravages of war, for it was of periwinkle blue velvet edged with fur about the high square of the neck and at the wrists of the long sleeves: in these days it was wise to revert to the fashions of the centuries when palaces and houses alike were cold and gowns were made for comfort as well as fashion. To complete the proportions it had a train and the sleeves were slightly puffed. Alexina was quite aware that she "looked like a picture" in it.
She still wore her hair brushed softly back and coiled low at the base of her beautiful curved head. Her pearls were the only jewels she had brought to France and she always wore them. She sighed as she looked at the vision in the mirror. For Kirkpatrick! But she was used to the irony of life.