The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
He arrived promptly at half-past four and in his capacious hands were three packages which arrested her eyes at once. He presented them one by one.
"Sugar. Loaf of white bread. Candy--I'm also solid with one of the doctors."
"I feel like pinching myself. White bread!--I've only tasted it twice in two years-both times at the Crillon. And candy--not a sight of it for more than that. I don't like the heavy French chocolates, which were all one could get when one could get anything. I shall eat at least half and take the other half back to Gora."
"Miss Dwight? She's done good work, I'll bet. Just in her line. Somehow, I don't see you--What did you do?"
He watched her hungrily as she made the tea, sitting in a gilt and brocaded chair, whose high tarnished back seemed to frame her dark head.
"Oh, Lord!" he sighed.
"What is it?"
"Don't ask me. What've you been doing? Yes, I'll drink tea to please you."
"I nursed at first--as an auxiliary, of course--what is the matter?"
"Can't bear to think of it. I hope you've not been doin' that for four years!"
"Oh, no. I've been at work with a war-relief organization in Paris most of the time. That was too monotonous to talk about, and, thank heaven, this will probably end my connection with it. I am much more interested to know how the war has affected you. Are you still a socialist?"
"Not going Bolshevik, I hope."
"Not so's you'd notice it. I want changes all right and more'n ever, but I've had enough of blood and fury and mix-ups without copying them murdering skally-wags. That's all they are. Just out for loot and revenge and not sense enough to know that to-morrow there'll be no loot, and revenge'll come from the opposite direction. I may have been in hell but my head's screwed on in the same place,"
"I wondered...I've heard so many stories about the grievances of the soldiers."
"Every last one of 'em got a grievance. Hate their officers, and often reason enough. Hate the discipline. Hate the food. Hate the neglect in hospital when the flu is raging. Hate gettin' no letters, and as like as not no pay and no tobacco. Hate bein' gouged by the French like they were by the good Americans when they were in camp on the other side. Hate every last thing a man just naturally would hate when he is livin' in a filthy trench, or even camp, and homesick in the bargain....But as for mass-dissatisfaction--not a bit of it. Loyal as they make 'em. Laugh at Bolshevik propaganda just like they laughed at Hun propaganda. They just naturally seem to hate every other race, allied or enemy, and that makes them so all-fired American they're fit to bust. Of course there's plenty of skallywags--caught in the draft--and just waitin' to get home and turn loose on the community. But in the good old style: burglars, highwaymen, yeggs. Not a new frill. Europe hasn't a thing on the good old American criminal brand. They fought well, too. Any man does who's a man at all. But Lord! they'll cut loose when they get back. Every wild bad trait they was born with multiplied by one hundred and fifty...before I go any further I want to warn you that I'm liable to break out into bad language any minute. It gets to be a kind of habit in the army to swear every other word like."
"Don't mind me," said Alexina dryly. "After I was put out of my hotel I managed to get a room in one of the hotels on the Rue de Rivoli for two nights before I found my pension in Passy. The walls were thin. The room next to mine was occupied by two American officers and the one beyond by two more. They talked back and forth with apparently no thought of the possibility of being overheard. Such language! And not only swear words--although one of these to two of any. Such adventures as they related! Such frankness! Such plain undiluted Anglo-Saxon! Fancy a girl with all her illusions fresh, and worshiping some heroic figure in khaki, listening to such a revelation of the nether side of man's life!"
"Men are hogs, all right. I don't like the idea of your having heard such things." Kirkpatrick scowled heavily.
"Nor did I. But I had no cotton to put in my ears. I couldn't sleep in the street. Nor could I ask them to keep quiet and admit I had heard them."
"Well, I guess you can forget anything you have a mind to. You couldn't look like you do--a kind of princess out of a fairy tale and an angel mixed, if you couldn't."
"A black-haired angel! And all the princesses of legend had golden hair."
"Well, that's just another way you're different." He changed the subject abruptly. "What you goin' to do now!"
"I wish I knew."
"Goin' back to California?"
"If I knew I would tell you. But I don't. You see....Well, I shall not live with Mr. Dwight again. We had been really separated a long while before I left--and then he has done nothing for the war. That is only one reason. What should I do there? I had thought of going into business before I left. But I shall have a good income, and what right have I to go into business and use my large connection to get customers away from those that need the money for their actual bread?"
"Not the ghost of an excuse. Farce, I call it. As long as the present system lasts women of your class better be ornamental and satisfied with that than take the bread out of mouths that need it."
"I could not settle down to the old life. It isn't that I'm in love with work. For that matter I'm only too grateful to be able to rest. But I must fill in, some way. Possibly I could do that better in France or England, where vita! subjects are always being discussed--and happening!--where I would not only be interested but possibly useful in many ways. I should feel rather a brute, knowing the conditions of Europe as I do, to go back and settle down on the smiling abundance of California. And bored to death."
"Then you think you'll stay?...You'd be wasted there--at present--sure enough."
"Sometimes I think I'll buy this house. I could for a song. Heavens! How I have longed for solitude in the last four years! I could have it here with my books, and go to Paris as often as I wished. It would be an ideal life. I could afford a car, and to make this house very livable. And that garden...between those gray high walls...in there...that would...."
She had forgotten Kirkpatrick and was staring through the long windows at the dripping trees and the riot of green. "There is something about the old world...in its byways like this...not in its hateful capitals...."
"Do you mean there's something you want to forget? That this place would be consolin' like?"
She met Kirkpatrick's sharp dilated eyes with smiling composure. "This war, and much that has happened--incidental to it; yes."
"You could forget it easier in California."
"I should forget too much."
"It's awful to think of you not comin' back, though I understand well enough. Europe suits you all right. But...but...."
He rose abruptly almost overturning his fragile chair.
"Good-by, and as I guess it is good-by I'll tell you something I wouldn't if there was any chance of my seein' you like I used to. It's this: If I'm more of a socialist than ever it's because of you! If my class hatred's blacker than ever you're the cause! You'd have made me a socialist if I wasn't one before. Jesus Christ! When I think what I might have had if we'd all been born alike! Had the same chances! If you hadn't been born at the top and I down at the bottom...common...not even educated except by myself after I was too old to get what a boy gets that goes to school long enough. I wouldn't mind bein' born ugly. There's plenty of men at the top that's ugly enough, God knows. But just one generation with money irons out the commonness. That's it! I'm common! Common! Common. Democracy! Oh, God!"
He caught up his cap and rushed out of the room,
Alexina ran after him and caught him at the garden door. Like all beautiful women who have listened to many declarations of love (or avoided them) she was inclined to be cruel to men that roused no response in her. But she felt only pity for Kirkpatrick.
She had intended merely to insist upon shaking hands with him, but when she saw his contorted face she slipped her arm round his neck and kissed him warmly on the cheek.
Then she pushed him gently through the door and locked it.