The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora entered her room at the pension, mechanically lit the oil stove that Alexina had procured for her, threw her hat on the bed, sat down in the low chair and thrust her hands info the thick coils of hair piled as always on top of her head. As she did so she caught sight of herself in the mirror and wondered absurdly why she should have kept all her hair and lost so much of her face. She looked more top-heavy than ever. Her face was a small oblong, her eyes out of all proportion. She thought herself hideous.
She had heard two hours before that Gathbroke was in Paris attached to the British Commission. She had met an old acquaintance, a San Francisco newspaper man, who had taken her to lunch and spoken of him casually. Gathbroke had good-naturedly given him an Interview when other members of the Commission had been inaccessible.
Gathbroke had told her nothing of a definite object when he wrote her that he was off for Paris. Nor had he mentioned it in the note he had written her after his arrival. This had been merely to tell her that he was feeling as well as he ever had felt in his life and was enjoying himself. Polite admonition not to tire herself out. He was always hers gratefully and her devoted friend.
He had written the note at the Rite Hotel, but when, assuming this was his address, she had called him up on her arrival, she had received the information that he was not stopping there, nor had been.
Gora was very proud. But she was also very much in love; and she had been in love with Gathbroke for twelve years. For the greater part of that time she had believed it to be hopeless, but it had always been with her, a sad but not too painful undertone in her busy life. It had kept her from even a passing interest in another man. She had even felt a Somewhat ironic gratitude to him and his indifference, for all the forces of her nature, deprived of their natural outlet, went into her literary work, informing it with an arresting and a magnetic vitality. She had believed herself to be without hope, but in the remote feminine fastnesses of her nature she had hoped, even dreamed--when she had the time. That was not often. Her life, except when at her desk with her literary faculty turned loose, had been practical to excess.
She would have offered her services in any case to one of the warring allies, no doubt of that; the tremendous adventure would have appealed to her quite aside from the natural desire to place her high accomplishment as a nurse at the disposal of tortured men. Nevertheless she was quite aware that she went to the British Army with the distinct hope of meeting Gathbroke again; quite as, under the cloak of travel, she would have gone to England long since had she not been swindled by Mortimer.
Until she found him insensible, apparently at the point of death, after the terrible disaster of March, nineteen-eighteen, she had only heard of him once: when she read in the Times he had been awarded the D.S.O.
She knew then where he was and maneuvered to get back to France. She found him sooner than she had dared to hope. And she believed that she had saved his life. Not only by her accomplished nursing. Her powerful will had thrown out its grappling irons about his escaping ego and dragged it back and held it in its exhausted tenement.
He had believed that also. He had an engaging spontaneity of nature and he had felt and shown her a lively gratitude. He was restless and frankly unhappy when she was out of his sight. He had a charming way of Baying charming things to a woman and he said them to her. But he was also as full of ironic humor as in his letters and "ragged" her. And he talked to her eagerly when he was better and she had gone with him to a hospital far back of the lines. There were intervals when they could talk, and the other men would listen...and had taken things for granted.
So had she. He had not made love to her. There was no privacy. Moreover, she guessed that his keen sense of the ridiculous would not permit him to make love to any woman when helpless under her hands.
But how could there be other than one finale to such a story as theirs? What was fiction but the reflection of life? if she had written a story with these obvious materials there could have been but one logical ending--unless, in a sudden spasm of reaction against romance, she had killed him off.
But he would live; and not be strong enough to return to the front for mouths...the war must be over by then....As for romance, well, she was in the romantic mood. It was a right of youth that she had missed, but a woman may be quite as romantic at thirty-four as at eighteen, if she has sealed her fountain instead of splashing it dry when she was too young to know its preciousness. Once before she had surrendered to romance, fleetingly: during the week that followed the night she had sat on Calvary with Gathbroke and watched a sea of flames.
The mood descended upon her, possessed her. She had other patients. There were the same old horrors, the same heart-rending duties; but the mood stayed with her. And after he left, for England. She knew there could, be but one ending. Her imagination had surrendered to tradition.
Moreover, she was tired of hard work. She wanted to settle down in a home. She wanted children. She must always write, of course. Writing was as natural to her as breathing. And she had already proved that a woman could do two things equally well.
She never thought of trying to follow him back to England, to shirk the increasing terrible duties behind the reorganized but harassed armies. The wounded seemed to drop through the hospital roof like flies.
Nevertheless when she was abruptly transferred to London she went without protest! It was then that she began to have misgivings. She was given charge of a large hospital just outside of London and her duties were constant and confining. But she managed to go out to lunch with him twice and once to dine; after which they drove back to the hospital in a slow and battered old hansom.
She returned a few weeks before the Armistice. She had not seen him for four months. He was well and expecting to be sent back to the front any day. At present they were making use of him in London.
If anything he appeared to admire her more than ever, to be more solicitous for her health. He lamented personally her exacting duties. But it was the almost exuberant friendliness of one man for another, for a comrade, a good fellow; although he often paid her quick little diagnostic compliments. If she hadn't loved him she would have enjoyed his companionship. He had read and thought and lived. Before the war he had been in active public life. He had far greater plans for the future.
He had been almost entirely impersonal. It had maddened her. Even the night they had driven through the dark streets of London out to her hospital, although he had talked more or less about himself, even encouraged her to talk about herself, there had not been one instant of correlation.
But she had made excuses as women do, in self-defense. He assumed that he might easily go back to the front just in time to get himself killed, although the end of the war was in sight....Her utter lack of experience with men in any sex relation had made her stiff, even in her letters; afraid of "giving herself away." She had no coquetry. If she had, pride would have forbidden her to use it. Her ideals were intensely old-fashioned. She wanted to be pursued, won. The man must do it all. Her writings had never been in the least romantic. Well, she was, if romance meant having certain fixed ideals.
One thing puzzled her. When she wrote she manipulated her men and women in their mutual relations with a master-hand. But she had not the least idea how to manage her own affair. What was genius? A rotten spot in the brain, a displacement of particles that operated independently of personality, of the inherited ego? Possession? Ancestors come to life for an hour in the subliminal depths? But what did she care for genius anyhow!
One thing she would have been willing to do as her part, aside from meeting him mentally at all points and showing a brisk frank pleasure in his society: give him every chance to woo and win her, to find her more and more indispensable to his happiness. But she was no woman of leisure. She could not receive him in charming toilettes in an equally seductive room. She had nothing for evening wear but an old black satin gown. After her arrival in London she had found time to buy a smart enough tailored coat and skirt, and a hat, but nothing more.
And after the Armistice was declared she only saw him once.
Then came his abrupt departure for Paris. His noncommittal note. Even then she refused to despair. It would be an utterly impossible end to such a story...after twelve years...not for a moment would she accept that.
She applied for her discharge. During her long stay in the British service she had made influential friends. She had also made a high record not only for ability but for an untiring fidelity. Her vacations had been few and brief. She obtained her discharge and went to Paris. Her pride would permit her to telephone. What more natural? Nothing would have surprised him more than if she had not. She had little doubt of his falling into the habit of daily companionship. He knew Paris and she did not. He would have seen her daily in London if she had been free.
Something, no doubt of that, held him back. He was discouraged...or not sure of himself....She had assumed as a matter of course that he was at the Ritz. When she found that he was not, had not been, she realized that he had omitted to give her an address.
That might have been mere carelessness....But to find him in Paris! She had not visualized such swarms of people. She might almost have passed him on the street and not seen him. But not for a moment did she waver from her purpose. She held passionately to the belief that were they together day after day, hours on end....
She had telephoned an hour ago to the hotel where he was staying with other members of the British Commission and been told that he was out of town, but might return any moment.
There was nothing to do but write him a note and wait. She was not equal to the humiliation of telephoning a third time. She wrote it at the hotel where her English friends were staying and sent it by messenger, having heard of the idiosyncracies of the Paris post.
Hastings, her newspaper friend, had been altogether a bird of ill omen. He had told her that the American market was glutted with "war stuff." The public was sick of it. Some of the magazines were advertising that they would read no more of it. She had told him that her material was magnificent and he had replied: "Can it. Maybe a year or two from now--five, more likely. I'm told over here that the war fiction we've had wished on us by the ton resembles the real thing just about as much as maneuvers look like the first Battle of the Marne, say, when the Germans didn't know where they were at; went out quail hunting and struck a jungle full of tigers....Why not? When most of 'em were written by men of middle age snug beside a library fire with mattresses on the roof--in America not even a Zeppelin to warm up their blood. But that doesn't matter. The public took it all as gospel. Ate it up. Now it is fed up and wants something else."
And what a future if he--but that she would not face.