The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
"Oh," she said calmly, although her nerves still shuddered. "You must walk like a fairy. I didn't hear you."
"One must pick one's way through rubbish."
"Ghastly ruin, isn't it?"
"Life is ghastly."
Alexina made no reply lest she deny this assertion out of the wonder of her own experience. She guessed what Gora had come for and that she was feeling as elemental as she looked. She herself had recovered from that sudden access of horror but she moved still further from, that black and waiting hole.
"Are you going to marry Gathbroke?"
The gauntlet was down and Alexina felt a sharp sense of relief. She was in no mood for the subtle evasion and she had not the least inclination to turn up her eyes. She made up her mind however to save Gora's pride as far as possible.
"Yes," she said.
"You dare say that to me?"
Alexina raised her low curved eyebrows. She seldom raised them but when she did she looked like all her grandmothers.
"Dare? Did you expect me to lie? Is that what you wish?"
Gora clutched her muff hard against her throat. (Alexina wondered if she had a pistol in it.) Her eyes looked over it pale and terrible. Alexina had the advantage of her in apparent calm, but there was no sign of confusion in those wide baleful irises with their infinitesimal pupils.
"You knew that I loved him. That I had loved him for twelve years."
"I knew nothing of the sort. You had his picture on your mantel and you corresponded with him off and on but you never gave me a hint that you loved him. Twelve years! Good heaven! A friendship extending over such a period was conceivable; natural enough. But a romance! When such an idea did cross my mind I dismissed it as fantastic. You always seemed to me the embodiment of common sense."
"There is no such thing. It is true--that I hardly believed it then--admitted it. But I knew we should meet again. He never had married. It looked like destiny when I did meet him. I nursed him--"
She paused and her eyes grew sharp and watchful, Alexina's face showed no understanding and she went on, still watching.
"I nursed him back to life. Through a part of his convalescence. A woman knows certain things. He almost loved me then. If we could have been alone he would have found out--asked me to marry him. We should be married to-day. If I could have seen him constantly in London it would have been the same." She burst out violently: "I believe you wrote to him to come to Paris."
"My dear Gora! Keep your imagination for your fiction. I had forgotten his existence until I saw him, for a few seconds, at a reception. Don't forget that he came to Paris under orders from his Government."
"But you recognized him that night. You came down here to meet him, to get away from me."
"Far from coming here to meet him I had given up all hope of ever seeing him again. He found out my address and followed me. You also seem to forget that you never mentioned his name to me in Paris. How was I to know that you were still interested in him?"
"That first night...you guessed it...you threw down a sort of challenge. Deny that if you can!"
"No! I'll not deny it. I wanted him as badly as you did if with less reason. Nevertheless...believe it or not as you like...I came down here as much to leave the field clear to you as for my own peace of mind. I think...I fancy...I decided to leave the matter on the knees of the gods."
"Do you mean to tell me that if I had met him while we were together in Paris, and you knew the truth, that you would not have tried to win him away from me?"
"I wonder! I have asked myself that question several times. I like to think that I should have been noble, and withdrawn. But I am not at all sure....Yes, I do believe I should, not from noble unselfishness, oh, not by a long sight, but from pride--if I saw that he was really in love with you. I'd never descend to scheming and plotting and pitting my fascinations against another woman--"
"Oh, damn your aristocratic highfalutin pride. I suppose you mean that I have no such pride, having no inherited right to it. Perhaps not or I wouldn't be here to-day. At least I wouldn't be talking to you," she added, her voice hoarse with significance.
Once more Alexina eyed the muff. "Did you come here to kill me?"
"Yes, I did. No, I haven't a pistol. I couldn't get one. I trusted to opportunity. When I saw you standing at the edge of that hole I thought I had it."
Alexina found it impossible to repress a shiver but in spite of those dreadful eyes she felt no recurrence of fear.
"What good would that have done you? Murderesses get short shrift in France. There is none of that sickening sentimentalism here that we are cursed with in our country."
"Murders are not always found out. If you were at the bottom of that hole it would be long before you were found and there is no reason why I should be suspected. I didn't come through the village. I didn't even inquire at your house. I saw you leave it and followed at a distance. If I'd pushed you down there I'd have followed and killed you if you were not dead already."
Alexina wondered if she intended to rush her. But she was sure of her own strength. If one of them went down that hole it would not be she. Nevertheless she was beginning to feel sorry for Gora. She had never sensed, not during the most poignant of her contacts with the war, such stark naked misery in any woman's soul. Its futile diabolism but accentuated its appeal.
"Well, you missed your chance," she said coldly. Gora was in no mood to receive sympathy! "And if you hadn't and escaped detection I don't fancy you would have enjoyed carrying round with you for the next thirty or forty years the memory of a cowardly murder. Too bad we aren't men so that we could have it out in a fair fight. My ancestors were all duellists. No doubt yours were too," she added politely.
"Perhaps you are right." For the first time there was a slight hesitation in Gora's raucous tones. But she added in a swift access of anger: "I suppose you mean that your code is higher than mine. That you are incapable of killing from behind."
"Good heavens! I hope so!...Still...I will confess I have had my black moods. It is possible that I might have let loose my own devil if--if--things had turned out differently."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't! Not when it came to the point. You would have elevated your aristocratic nose and walked off." She uttered this dictum with a certain air of personal pride although her face was convulsed with hate.
"Gora, you are really making an ass of yourself. If you had taken more time to think it over you wouldn't have followed me up with any such melodramatic intention as murder. Good God! Haven't you seen enough of murder in the past four years? I could readily fancy you going in for some sort of revenge but I should have expected something more original--"
"Murder's natural enough when you've seen nothing else as long as I have. And as for human life--how much value do you suppose I place on it after four years of war? I had almost reached the point where death seemed more natural than life."
"Oh, yes...but later....There are tremendous reactions after war. Settled down once more in our smiling land my ghost would be an extremely unpleasant companion. You see, Gora, you are just now in that abnormal state of mind known as inhibition. But, unfortunately, perhaps, in spite of the fact that you have proved yourself to be possessed of a violence of disposition--that I rather admire--you were not cut out to be the permanent villain. You have great qualities. And for thirty-four years of your life you have been a sane and reasonable member of society. For four of those years you have been an angel of mercy....Oh, no. If you had killed me you would have killed yourself later. You couldn't live with Gathbroke for you couldn't live with yourself. Silly old tradition perhaps, but we are made up of traditions....That was one reason I left Paris, gave up trying to find him....I knew that I could have him. But I also knew that you had had some sort of recent experience with him, that you had come to Paris to find him, that possibly if left with a clear field you could win him. I knew--Oh, yes, I knew!--that he would know instantly he was mine if we met. But...well, I too have to live with myself. It might be that he was committed to you, that if he married you, you would both be happy enough. "When he did come nothing would have tempted me to accept him if I had still believed--"
"Did he tell you? Tell you how close he came? Tell you that I was in love with him?"
"My dear Gora, I fancy that if he were capable of that you would not be capable of loving him. I certainly should not." There was a slight movement in her throat as if she were swallowing the rest of the truth whole. She had adhered to it where she could but Gora's face must be saved. "Your name was not mentioned. I asked him no questions about his past. I am not the heroine of a novel, old style. He told me that he loved me, that he had never loved any other woman, never asked any other woman to marry him. That was enough for me. I had no place in my mind for you or any one else. Perhaps you don't know--how could you--that years ago, when he was in California, he asked me to marry him."
"Calf love! If you had not been here now--"
"He would have gone to California as soon as he could get away. He had made up his mind to that before he came to Paris."
Gora's arms dropped to her sides and she stared at the floor. Then she laughed, "O God, what irony! I talked of you more or Jess as was natural...and he remembered...we had recalled the past vividly enough.... Why couldn't one of those instincts in which we are supposed to be prolific have warned me?....Much fiction is like life!...Any heroine I could have created would have had it...had more sense....I have botched the thing from beginning to end."
She raised her head and stared at Alexina with somber eyes; the insane light had died out of them. They took in every detail of that enhanced beauty, of that inner flame, white hot, that made Alexina glow like a transparent lamp.
She also recalled that she had watched her pack her bags...that pervenche velvet gown...Alexina had described the quaint old salon....Her imagination, flashed out that first interview with Gathbroke with a tormenting conjuring of detail....
"Yon are one of the favorites of life," she admitted in her bitter despair. "You have been given everything--"
"I drew Mortimer," Alexina reminded her.
"True. But you dusted him out of your life with an ease and a thoroughness that has never been surpassed. Think what you might have drawn. No, you are lucky, lucky! The prixes of life are for your sort. I am one of the overlooked or the deliberately neglected. Not a fairy stood at my cradle. All things have come to you unsought. Beauty. Birth. Position. Sufficient wealth. Power over men and women. An enchanting personality. All the social graces. You have had ups and downs merely because after all you are a mortal; and as a matter of contrast--to heighten your powers of appreciation. No doubt the worst is over for you. I have had to take life by the throat and wring out of her what little I have. That is what makes life so hopeless, so terrible. No genius for social reform will ever eliminate the inequality of personality, of the inner inheritance. Nature meant for her own sport that a few should live and the rest should die while still alive."
"Gora, I don't want to sound like the well-meaning friends who tell a mother when she loses her child that it is better off, but I can't help reminding you that a very large and able-bodied fairy presided at your cradle. You have a great gift that I'd give my two eyes for; and you know perfectly well--or you will soon--that you will get over this and forget that Gathbroke ever existed, while you are creating men to suit yourself." Her incisive mind drove straight to the truth. "You will write better than ever. Possibly the reason that you have not reached the great public is because your work lacks humanity, sympathy. You never lived before. You were all intellect. Now you have had a terrific upheaval and you seem to have experienced about everything, including the impulse to murder. Most writers would appear to live uneventful lives judging from their extremely dull biographies. But they must have had the most tremendous inner adventures and soul-racking experiences--the big ones--or they couldn't have written as they did....This must be the more true in regard to women."
Gora continued to stare at her. The words sank in. Her clear intellect appreciated the truth of them but they afforded her no consolation. All emotion had died out of her. She felt beaten, helpless.
She was obliged to look up as she watched Alexina's subtly transfigured face, fascinated. It made her feel even her physical insignificance; the more as she had lost the flesh that had given her short stature a certain majesty.
"Oh, life is unjust, unjust." She no longer spoke with bitterness, merely as one forced to state an inescapable fact. "Injustice! The root of all misfortune."
"Life is a hard school but where she has strong characters to work on she turns out masterpieces. You will be one of them, Gora. And I fancy that women born with great gifts were meant to stand alone and to be trained in that hard school. It is only when women of your sort have a passing attack of the love germ that they imagine they could go through life as a half instead of a whole. When you are in the full tide of your powers with the public for a lover I fancy you will look back upon this episode with gratitude, if you remember it at all."
"Perhaps. But that, is a long way off! I have just been told that the order of fiction with which my mind is packed at present is not wanted. It has been contemptuously rejected by the American public as 'war stuff.'"
"Good heaven! That is a misfortune!"
For a moment Alexina was aghast. Here was the real tragedy. She almost prayed for inspiration, for it lay with her to readjust Gora to life. To no one else would Gora ever give her confidence.
"I don't believe for a moment," she said, "that the intelligent public will ever reject a great novel or story dealing with the war. The masterly treatment of any subject, the new point of view, the swift compelling breathless drama that is your peculiar gift, must triumph over any mood of the moment. Moreover, when you are back in California you will see these last four years in a tremendous perspective. And no contrast under heaven could be so great. You probably won't hear the war mentioned once a month. No doubt much that crowds your mind now will cease to interest the productive tract of your brain and you will write a book with the war as a mere background for your new and infinitely more complete knowledge of human psychology. No novel of any consequence for years to come will be written without some relationship to the war. Stories long enough to be printed in book form perhaps, but not the novel: which is a memoir of contemporary life in the form of fiction. No writer with as great a gift as yours could have anything but a great destiny. Go back to California and bang your typewriter and find it out for yourself."
For the first time something like a smile flitted over Gora's drawn face. "Perhaps. I hope you are right. I don't think I could ever really lose faith in that star." She was thinking: Oh, yes! I'll go back to California as quickly as I can get there--as a wounded animal crawls back to its lair.
She would have encircled the globe three times to get to it. Her state. To her it was what family and friends and home and children were to another. It was literally the only friend she had in the world. She would have flown to it if she could, sure of its beneficence.
"I shall go as soon as I can get passage," she said. "And you?"
"I must go too unless I can get a divorce here. I shall know that in a few days."
"Well, we travel on different steamers if you do go! I shall stop off at Truckee and go to Lake Tahoe. It will be a long while before I go to any place that reminds me of you. I no longer want to kill you but I want to forget you. Good-by."