The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The concierge announced supper. Alexina had brought food with her and the little meal was good if not abundant. The dining-room was very dreary, although warmed by the petrol stove. It was a long dark room, paneled to the ceiling, and the two candles on the table did little more to define their lineaments to each other than the flames of briquet and match.
The concierge served and they talked of the Peace Conference and of the general pessimism that prevailed. Same old diplomacy. Same old diplomatists. Same old ambitions. Same old European policies. An idealist had about as much chance with those astute conventionalized brains dyed in the diplomatic wiles and methods of the centuries as an unarmed man on foot with a pack of wolves....At the moment all the other Commissions were cursing Italy....She might be the stumbling block to ultimate peace....As for the League of Nations, as well ask for the millenium at once. Human, nature probably inspired the creed: "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be," etc. "What we want" (this, Gathbroke), "is an alliance between Great Britain, and the United States. They could rule the world. Let the rest of everlastingly snarling Europe go hang." Elton Gwynne would work for that. He had already obtained his discharge and returned to America. He, Gathbroke, 'd work for it too. So would anybody else in the two countries that had any sense and no personal fish to fry.
When they returned to the salon he smoked. Alexina was thankful that it was cigarettes. Mortimer had made her hate cigars. If, like most Englishmen, he loved his pipe, he had the tact to keep it in his pocket.
It was she who reopened the subject that filled him.
"I feel sorry for Gora. Her life has been a tragedy in a way. Of course she has had her successes, her compensations. But it isn't quite everything to be the best of nurses, and I don't know that even writing could fill a woman's life. Not unless she'd had the other thing first. I am afraid she'll never be very popular anyhow. There are only small groups here and there in America than can stand intellect in fiction....It seems to me that she would make a great wife. I mean that. It is a great role and she could fill it greatly. I don't know, of course, whether she cares for you or not. I am not in her confidence. She is staying at my pension in Passy and I saw her constantly for ten days before I came here, but she did not mention your name....If she does she's the sort that would never marry any one else and her life would be spoilt. I don't mean to say she would give up, but she would just keep going. That seems to me the greatest tragedy of all....
"No! Why should there be any of this conventional subterfuge. I believe that she does care for you. I believed so long ago. I was jealous of her. I don't mean, to say that I was in love with you. I--perhaps forced myself not to be. It seemed too silly. Too utterly hopeless....Besides I knew even then the danger of letting myself go...of the unbridled imagination. Probably love is all imagination anyhow. French marriages would seem to prove it. But we--your race and mine--have fallen into a sublime sort of error, and we'll no more reason ourselves out of it than out of the sex tyranny itself....I don't see how I could be happy with the eternal knowledge that Gora was miserable--that she would be happy if I had remained in California...."
"I have just told you that I should have gone to California as soon as I was free."
The air between them quivered and their eyes were almost one. But he remained smoking in his chair and continued:
"I marry you or no one. A man well and a man ill are two different beings. In illness sex is dormant. When a man is well he wants a woman or he doesn't want her. It may be neither his fault nor hers. But if she hasn't the sex pull for him, doesn't make a powerful insistent demand upon his passion, there is nothing to build on. I haven't come out alive from that shrieking hell to be satisfied with second-class emotions. I lay one night under three dead bodies, not one over twenty-five. I knew them all. Each was deeply in love with a woman....Well, I knew the value of life that night if I never did before. And life was given to us, when we can hold on to it, for the highest happiness of which we are individually capable, no matter what else we are forced to put up with. Happiness at the highest pitch, not makeshifts....The horrors, the obstacles, the very demons in our own characters were second thoughts on the part of Life either to satisfy her own spite or to throw her highest purpose into stronger relief. I'll have the highest or nothing."
"But that is not everything. There must be other things to make it lasting. Gora would make a great companion."
"Not half so great--to me--as you would and you know it. I hope you will understand that I dislike extremely to speak of Miss Dwight at all. If you had not brought her name into it I never should have done so. But now I feel I must have a complete understanding with you at any cost."
He dropped his cigarette on the table. He left his chair swiftly and snatched her from her own. His face was dark and he was trembling even more than she was.
"I'll have you...have you...."