The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Alexina had finished giving tea to two officers, a surgeon and a medecin major, and, enchanted almost as much by the sugar and the white bread as by their hostess, refreshingly beautiful and elegant in her velvet gown of pervenche blue, they had lingered until nearly six. As the concierge had gone out on an errand of her own Alexina had opened the garden door for them, and after they disappeared she stood looking at the street, which always fascinated her.
It was very narrow and crooked and gray. Her house was the only one with a garden in front; the others rose perpendicularly from the narrow pavement, tall and close and rather imposing. Each was heavily shuttered, the shutters as gray as the walls. The town had been evacuated during the first Battle of the Marne and only the poor had returned. The well-to-do provincials in this street had had homes elsewhere, perhaps a flat in Paris; or they had established themselves in the south.
The street had an intensely secretive air, brooding, waiting. Soon all these houses would be reopened, the dull calm life of a provincial town would flow again, the only difference being that the women who went in and out of those narrow doors and down this long and twisted street would wear black; but for the most part they would sit in their gardens behind, secluded from every eye, as indifferent to their neighbors as of old, with that ingrained unchangeable bourgeois suspicion and exclusiveness; and the facades, the street itself, would look little less secretive than now.
Nowhere could she find such seclusion if she wished for it. This house was the only one in the street that belonged to a member of the noblesse, and the bourgeoisie had as little "use" for the noblesse as the noblesse for the bourgeoisie.
For the moment Alexina felt that the house was hers, and the street itself. She was literally its only inhabitant. As she stood looking up and down its misty grayness she felt more peaceful than she had felt for many days. There were certain fierce terrible emotions that she never wanted to feel again, and one of them was ruthlessness. She had done much good in the past four years; she had been, for the most part, high-minded, self-sacrificing, indifferent to the petty things of life, even to discomfort, and it had given her a sense of elevation--when she had had time to think about it. It was only certain extraordinary circumstances that brought other qualities as inherent as life itself surging to the top. It was demoralizing even to fight them, for that involved recognition. Better that she protect herself from their assaults. True, she was young, but she had had her fill of drama. All her old cravings, never satisfied in the old days of peace without and insurgence within, had been surfeited by this close personal contact with the greatest drama in history.
Why return to Paris at all? Why not settle down here at once, live a life of thought and study, and give abundant help where help was needed? There were villages within a few miles where the inhabitants were living in the ruins. (The Germans in their first retreat had been too hard pressed to linger long enough to set fire to this large town and they had not been able to reach it during their second drive.)
That had been a last flicker of romance at the embassy...a last resurgence of the evil the war had done her, as she sat in her cold room...a last blaze of sheer femininity when she discovered that Gora had come to Paris in search of Gathbroke....
She felt as if she had escaped from a bottomless pit....Assuredly she had the will and the character to make herself now into whatever she chose to be...let Gora have him if she could find him and keep him....Better that than hating herself for the rest of her life...love, far from being ennobling, seemed to her the most demoralizing of the passions...there had been something ennobling, expanding, soul-stirring in hating the brutal mediaeval race that had devastated France...but in the reaction from her fierce registered vow to snatch a man from a forlorn unhappy woman no matter what her claims and have him for her own, she had shrunk from this new revelation of her depths in horror....One could not live with that....
A man in khaki was walking quickly down the long crooked street. As he approached she saw the red on his collar. He was a British officer. In another moment she was shaking hands with Gathbroke,
She was far more composed than he, although she felt as if the world had turned over, and there was a roar in her ears like the sound of distant guns. She had a vague impression that the war had begun again.
"You are the last person I should have expected to meet here. There is no British--"
"I came here to see you. I got your address from Madaine de Morsigny. I saw her last night at a reception and recognized her. She was at that ball in San Francisco. I introduced myself at once and asked her if you were in Paris. I was sure it was you...that night...."
"Will you come in!"
He followed her into the salon, softly lit by candles. She felt that fate for once had been kind. It was difficult to imagine surroundings or conditions in which she would look lovelier, be seen to greater advantage. But her hands were cold.
"It is too late for tea but perhaps you will share my frugal supper."
"If it won't inconvenience you too much. Thanks."
She sat down in the wide brocaded chair with its tarnished back. He stood looking at her for a moment, then took a turn up and down the long room.
Certainly she could not object to him to-day on the score of youth and freshness. His hair had lost its brightness. His face was very brown and thin and the lines if not deep were visible even in the candle light. His nose and mouth had the hard determination that life, more especially life in war time, develops; it was no casual trick of Nature with him. His eyes were still the same bright golden hazel, but their expression was keen and alert, and commanding. She fancied they could look as hard as those features more susceptible to modeling.
"Smoke if you like."
"Thanks. I don't want to smoke."
Finally when Alexina was gripping the arms of the chair he began to speak.
"I feel rather an ass. I hardly know how to begin. I'm no longer twenty-three. I've lived several lifetimes since this war began, and made up my mind twice that I was going out. I should feel ninety. Somehow I don't feel vastly different from that day when I grabbed you like a brute because I wanted you more than anything on earth....
"I don't pretend that I've thought of you ever since. I've forgotten you for years at a time. But there have been moments when you have simply projected yourself into me and been closer than any mortal has ever been. You were there!
"I felt there was some meaning in those sudden secret wonderful visits of your soul to mine--I hate to say what sounds like sentimental rotting, but that exactly expresses it. They belonged to some other plane of consciousness. It takes war to shift a man over the border if only for a moment. It kept me--lately--from...never mind that now. When I saw your eyes above that tiny yellow flame...it wasn't only that your eyes are not to be matched anywhere...it seemed to me that I saw myself in them, They came as dose as that! Laugh if you like."
He stood defiantly in front of her.
"God! You look as if you never had had an emotion, never could have one. But you had once, if only for a moment!"
"I have never had one since--for any one, that is. I hear the concierge. I'll tell her to set a place for you."
She left the room and he stared after her. Her words had been full of meaning but her voice had been even and cold.
She returned and asked: "Are you in any way committed to Gora Dwight?"
"No...yes...that is...why do you ask me that?"
"Are you engaged to her?"
"I am not. But I came very close--that is, of course if she would have had me. She nursed me after I was wounded and gassed. She was a wonderful nurse and there was something almost romantic in meeting her again...as if she had come straight out of the past. We had an extraordinary experience as you know. I was not in the least drawn to her at that time. You filled, possessed me."
He hesitated. But it was a barrier he had not anticipated and it must go down. Moreover, it was evident that she wouldn't talk, and he was too excited for silence on his own part.
"She was there...when a man is weakest...when he values tenderness above all things...when he does little thinking on either the past or the future.
"She has a queer odd kind of fascination too, and any man must admire a woman so clever and capable and altogether fine. Several times I almost proposed to her. But there is no privacy in wards. I was sent back to England and went to my brother's house in Hertfordshire. It was then that you began to haunt me. She had rejuvenated that California period in my mind--resuscitated it...but both express what I am trying to say. We had often talked about California and the fire. She alluded to you, casually, of course, more than once; but as I looked back I gathered that your marriage had been a mistake and that you had known it for a long time.
"She did not come to England until four months later, and then she was in charge of a hospital. I took her out occasionally--she was very much confined. I liked her as much as ever. But I didn't want her. It seemed tragic. There was one chance in a million that I should ever meet you again. Once I deliberately drew her on to talk of you and asked why you did not divorce your husband. She commented satirically upon the intense conservatism of your family and of your own inflexible pride. She added that you were the only beautiful woman she had ever known who seemed to be quite indifferent to men--sexless, she meant! But no woman knows anything about other women. I knew better!
"As I said it was rather tragic. To be haunted by a chimera! I liked her so much. Admired her. Who wouldn't? If she had been able to take me home, to remain with me, there is no doubt in the world that I should have married her if she would have had me....I prefer now to believe that she wouldn't. Why should she, with a great career in front of her?
"No doubt I should have loved her--with what little love I had to give. But those months had taught me that I could do without her, although I enjoyed her letters. Even so...
"It was after she came to London that I felt I had to talk to some one and I went down, to the country to see Lady Vick-Elton Gwynne's mother. She had founded a hospital and run it, and was resting, worn out. She is a hard nut, empty, withered, arid. Nothing left in her but noblesse oblige. But there is little she doesn't know. She was smoking a black cigar that would have knocked me down and looked like an old sibyl. I told her the whole story--all of it, that is that was not too sacred. She puffed such, a cloud of smoke that I could see nothing but her hard, bright, wise, old eyes. 'Go after her,' she said. 'Find her. Divorce her. Marry her. That's where you men have the advantage. You can stalk straight out into the open and demand what you want point blank. No scheming, plotting, deceit, being one thing and pretending another, in other words ice when you are fire. Beastly role, woman's--' I interrupted to remind her that it was twelve years since I had seen you; that you had thrown me down as hard as a man ever got it and married another man. There was no more reason to believe that I could win you now. Then she asked me what I had come to see her and bore her to death for when she was trying to rest. 'If you want a thing go for it and get it, or if you can't get it at least find out that you can't. Also see her again and find out whether you want her or not, instead of mooning like a silly ass.'
"The upshot was I made tip my mind to go to California as soon as I could obtain my discharge. It never occurred to me that you were in Paris. Then I was sent to Paris with the Commission. I have certain expert knowledge....For some reason I didn't tell Miss Dwight....I wrote her a hurried note saying that I was obliged to go to Paris for a few weeks.
"The night after I arrived I saw you at the Embassy. That finished it. If I hadn't been sent back to England for some papers--twice--I'd have found you before this."