The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The day was fine and Alexina took advantage of the brief interval of grace and went for a walk. Gathbroke was in Paris but might come out any moment. She wore a coat and skirt of heavy white English tweed with a silk blouse of periwinkle blue. The same soft shade lined her black velvet hat.
She had a number of notes changed at the bank and struck out for one of the ruined villages. She was in a mood to distribute happiness, and only silver coin could carry a ray of light into the dark stupefied recesses of those miserable wretches living in the ruins of homes haunted by memories of their dead.
She felt a very torch of happiness herself. Her body and her brain glowed with it. The currents of her blood seemed to have changed their pace and their essence. The elixir of life was in them. She felt less woman than goddess.
She knew now why she had been born, why she had waited. As long as this terrible war had to be she was thankful for her intimate contact with the very martyrdom of suffering; never else could she have known to the full the value of life and youth and health and the power to be triumphantly happy in love. She would have liked to wave a wand and make all the world happy, but as this was as little possible as to remake human nature itself she soared into an ether of her own to revel in her astounding good fortune.
The village she approached was picturesque in its ruin for it climbed the side of a hill, and although the Germans had set fire deliberately to every house the shells for the most part remained. Along the low ridge was a row of brick walls in various stages of gaunt and jagged transfiguration. They looked less the victims of fire than of earthquake.
The narrow ascending street was filled with rubble. She picked her way and peered into the ruins. At first she saw no one; the place seemed to be deserted. Then some one moved in a dark cellar, and as she stood at the top of the short flight of steps a very old woman came forward into the light. There were two children at her heels.
Alexina suddenly felt very awkward. She had always thought the mere handing out of money the most detestable part of charity. But there was nothing here to buy. That was obvious.
The old woman however relieved her embarrassment. She extended a skinny hand. The poor of France are not loquacious, but like all their compatriots they know what they want, and no doubt feel that life is simplified when they are in a position to ask for it.
Alexina gratefully handed her a coin and hurried on. Her next experience was as simple but more delicate. A younger woman had fitted up a corner of her ruin with a petticoat for roof and a plank supported by two piles of brick for counter and had laid in a supply of the post cards that pictured with terrible fidelity the ruins of her village. Alexina bought the entire stock, "to scatter broadcast in the United States," and promised to send her friends for more; assuring the woman that when the tourists came to France once more these ruined villages would be magnets for gold.
She managed to get rid of her coins without much difficulty, although comparatively few of the village's inhabitants had returned, and these by stealth. Many of them had trekked far! Others were still detained at the hostels in Paris and other cities where they could be looked after without too much trouble.
Several had set up housekeeping in the cellars in a fashion not unlike that of their cave dwelling ancestors, and a few had found a piece of roof above ground to huddle under when it rained. Some talked to her pleasantly, some were surly, others unutterably sad. None refused her largesse, and she was amused to look back and see a little procession making for the town, no doubt with intent to purchase.
In one side street less choked with rubbish small boys were playing at war. But for the most part the children looked very sober. They had been spared the horrors of occupation but they had suffered privations and been surrounded by grief and despair.
When she had exhausted her supplies she took refuge in the church. It was at the end of the long street on the ridge and after she had rested she could leave the village by its farther end, and by making a long detour avoid the painful necessity of refusing alms.
There was no roof on the church; otherwise it would have been the general refuge. Part of it including the steeple was some distance away and looked as if it had been blown off. The rest had gone down with one of the walls. It was a charred unlovely ruin. Saints and virgins sometimes defied the worst that war could do, but all had succumbed here. The paneless windows in the walls that still remained precariously erect framed pictures of a quiet and lovely landscape. The stone walls were intact about the farms in which moved a few old men and women in faded cotton frocks that looked like soft pastels. The oaks were majestic and serene. The hills were lavender in the distance. But the farm houses were in ruins and so was a chateau on a hill. Alexina could see its black gaping walls through the grove of chestnut trees withered by the fire.
She wandered about looking for a seat however humble but could find nothing more inviting than piles of brick and twisted iron. She noticed an open place in the floor and went over to it and peered down. There was a flight of steps ending in cimmerian darkness. Doubtless the vaults of the great families of the neighborhood were down there. She wondered if the spite of the Huns had driven them to demolish the very bones of the race they were unable to conquer.
Suddenly she stiffened. A chill ran up her spine. She had an overwhelming sense of impending danger and stepped swiftly away from the edge of the aperture; then turned about, and faced Gora Dwight.