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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crimson Tide: A Novel - Chapter 21
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The Crimson Tide: A Novel - Chapter 21 Post by :Franinseattle Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2243

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The Crimson Tide: A Novel - Chapter 21

CHAPTER XXI

As a mischievous caricaturist, in the beginning, draws a fairly good portrait of his victim and then gradually habituates his public to a series of progressively exaggerated extravagances, so progressed the programme of the Bolsheviki in America, revealing little by little their final conception of liberty and equality in the bloody and distorted monster which they had now evolved, and which they publicly owned as their ideal emblem.

In the Red Flag Club, Sondheim shouted that a Red Republic was impossible because it admitted on an equality the rich and well-to-do.

Karl Kastner, more cynical, coolly preached the autocracy of the worker; told his listeners frankly that there would always be masters and servants in the world, and asked them which they preferred to be.

With the new year came sporadic symptoms of unrest;--strikes, unwarranted confiscations by Government, increasingly bad service in public utilities controlled by Government, loose talk in a contemptible Congress, looser gabble among those who witlessly lent themselves to German or Bolshevik propaganda--or both--by repeating stories of alleged differences between America and England, America and France, America and Italy.

The hen-brained--a small minority--misbehaved as usual whenever the opportunity came to do the wrong thing; the meanest and most contemptible partisanship since the shameful era of the carpet bagger prevailed in a section of the Republic where the traditions of great men and great deeds had led the nation to expect nobler things.

For the same old hydra seemed to be still alive on earth, lifting, by turns, its separate heads of envy, intolerance, bigotry and greed. Ignorance, robed with authority, legally robbed those comfortably off.

The bleat of the pacifist was heard in the land. Those who had once chanted in sanctimonious chorus, "He kept us out of war," now sang sentimental hymns invoking mercy and forgiveness for the crucifiers of children and the rapers of women, who licked their lips furtively and leered at the imbecile choir. Representatives of a great electorate vaunted their patriotism and proudly repeated: "We forced him into war!" Whereas they themselves had been kicked headlong into it by a press and public at the end of its martyred patience.

There appeared to be, so far, no business revival. Prosperity was penalised, taxed to the verge of blackmail, constantly suspected and admonished; and the Congressional Bolsheviki were gradually breaking the neck of legitimate enterprise everywhere throughout the Republic.

And everywhere over the world the crimson tide crept almost imperceptibly a little higher every day.

* * * * *

Toward the middle of January the fever which had burnt John Estridge for a week fell a degree or two.

Palla, who had called twice a day at the Memorial Hospital, was seated that morning in a little room near the disinfecting plant, talking to Ilse, who had just laid aside her mask.

"You look rather ill yourself," said Ilse in her cheery, even voice. "Is anything worrying you, darling?"

"Yes.... You are."

"I!" exclaimed the girl, really astonished. "Why?"

"Sometimes," murmured Palla, "my anxiety makes me almost sick."

"Anxiety about _me_!----"

"You know why," whispered Palla.

A bright flush stained Ilse's face: she said calmly:

"But our creed is broad enough to include all things beautiful and good."

Palla shrank as though she had been struck, and sat staring out of the narrow window.

Ilse lifted a basket of soiled linen and carried it away. When, presently, she returned to take away another basket, she inquired whether Palla had made up her quarrel with Jim Shotwell, and Palla shook her head.

"Do you really suppose Marya has made mischief between you?" asked Ilse curiously.

"Oh, I don't know, Ilse," said the girl listlessly. "I don't know what it is that seems to be so wrong with the world--with everybody--with me----"

She rose nervously, bade Ilse adieu, and went out without turning her head--perhaps because her brown eyes had suddenly blurred with tears.

* * * * *

Half way to Red Cross headquarters she passed the Hotel Rajah. And why she did it she had no very clear idea, but she turned abruptly and entered the gorgeous lobby, went to the desk, and sent up her name to Marya Lanois.

It appeared, presently, that Miss Lanois was at home and would receive her in her apartment.

The accolade was perfunctory: Palla's first glance informed her that Marya had grown a trifle more svelte since they had met--more brilliant in her distinctive coloration. There was a tawny beauty about the girl that almost blazed from her hair and delicately sanguine skin and lips.

They seated themselves, and Marya lighted the cigarette which Palla had refused; and they fell into the animated, gossiping conversation characteristic of such reunions.

"Vanya?" repeated Marya, smiling, "no, I have not seen him. That is quite finished, you see. But I hope he is well. Do you happen to know?"

"He seems--changed. But he is working hard, which is always best for the unhappy. And he and his somewhat vociferous friend, Mr. Wilding, are very busy preparing for their Philadelphia concert."

"Wilding," repeated Marya, as though swallowing something distasteful. "He was the last straw! But tell me, Palla, what are you doing these jolly days of the new year?"

"Nothing.... Red Cross, canteen, club--and recently I go twice a day to the Memorial Hospital."

"Why?"

"John Estridge is ill there."

"What is the matter with him?"

"Pneumonia."

"Oh. I am so sorry for Ilse!----" Her eyes rested intently on Palla's for a moment; then she smiled subtly, as though sharing with Palla some occult understanding.

Palla's face whitened a little: "I want to ask you a question, Marya.... You know our belief--concerning life in general.... Tell me--since your separation from Vanya, do you still believe in that creed?"

"Do I still believe in my own personal liberty to do as I choose? Of course."

"From the moral side?"

"Moral!" mocked Marya, "--What are morals? Artificial conventions accidentally established! Haphazard folkways of ancient peoples whose very origin has been forgotten! What is moral in India is immoral in England: what is right in China is wrong in America. It's purely a matter of local folkways--racial customs--as to whether one is or is not immoral.

"Ethics apply to the Greek _Ethos_; morals to the Latin _Mores_--_moeurs in French, _sitte in German, _custom in English;--and all mean practically the same thing--metaphysical hair-splitters to the contrary--which is simply this: all beliefs are local, and local customs or morals are the result. Therefore, they don't worry me."

Palla sat with her troubled eyes on the careless, garrulous, half-smiling Russian girl, and trying to follow with an immature mind the half-baked philosophy offered for her consumption.

She said hesitatingly, almost shyly: "I've wondered a little, Marya, how it ever happened that such an institution as marriage became practically universal----"

"Marriage isn't an institution," exclaimed Marya smilingly. "The family, which existed long before marriage, is the institution, because it has a definite structure which marriage hasn't.

"Marriage always has been merely a locally varying mode of sex association. No laws can control it. Local rules merely try to regulate the various manners of entering into a marital state, the obligations and personal rights of the sexes involved. What really controls two people who have entered into such a relation is local opinion----"

She snapped her fingers and tossed aside her cigarette: "You and I happen to be, locally, in the minority with our opinions, that's all."

Palla rose and walked slowly to the door. "Have you seen Jim recently?" she managed to say carelessly.

Marya waited for her to turn before replying: "Haven't _you seen him?" she asked with the leisurely malice of certainty.

"No, not for a long while," replied Palla, facing with a painful flush this miserable crisis to which her candour had finally committed her. "We had a little difference.... Have you seen him lately?"

Marya's sympathy flickered swift as a dagger:

"What a shame for him to behave so childishly!" she cried. "I shall scold him soundly. He's like an infant--that boy--the way he sulks if you deny him anything--" She checked herself, laughed in a confused way which confessed and defied.

Palla's fixed smile was still stamped on her rigid lips as she made her adieux. Then she went out with death in her heart.

* * * * *

At the Red Cross his mother exchanged a few words with her at intervals, as usual, during the seance.

The conversation drifted toward the subject of religious orders in Russia, and Mrs. Shotwell asked her how it was that she came to begin a novitiate in a country where Catholic orders had, she understood, been forbidden permission to establish themselves in the realm of the Greek church.

Palla explained in her sweet, colourless voice that the Czar had permitted certain religious orders to establish themselves--very few, however,--the number of nuns of all orders not exceeding five hundred. Also she explained that they were forbidden to make converts from the orthodox religion, which was why the Empress had sternly refused the pleading of the little Grand Duchess.

"I do not think," added Palla, "that the Bolsheviki have left any Catholic nuns in Russia, unless perhaps they have spared the Sisters of Mercy. But I hear that non-cloistered orders like the Dominicans, and cloistered orders such as the Carmelites and Ursulines have been driven away.... I don't know whether this is true."

Mrs. Shotwell, her eyes on her flying needle, said casually: "Have you never felt the desire to reconsider--to return to your novitiate?"

The girl, bending low over her work, drew a deep, still breath.

"Yes," she said, "it has occurred to me."

"Does it still appeal to you at times?"

The girl lifted her honest eyes: "In life there are moments when any refuge appeals."

"Refuge from what?" asked Helen quietly.

Palla did not evade the question: "From the unkindness of life," she said. "But I have concluded that such a motive for cloistered life is a cowardly one."

"Was that your motive when you took the white veil?"

"No, not then.... It seemed to be an overwhelming need for service and adoration.... It's strange how faiths change though need remains."

"You still feel that need?"

"Of course," said the girl simply.

"I see. Your clubs and other service give you what you require to satisfy you and make you happy and contented."

As Palla made no reply, Helen glanced at her askance; and caught a fleeting glimpse of tragedy in this girl's still face--the face of a cloistered nun burnt white--purged utterly of all save the mystic passion of the spirit.

The face altered immediately, and colour came into it; and her slender hands were steady as she turned her bandage and cut off the thread.

What thoughts concerning this girl were in her mind, Helen could neither entirely comprehend nor analyse. At moments a hot hatred for the girl passed over her like flame--anger because of what she was doing to her only son.

For Jim had changed; and it was love for this woman that had changed him--which had made of him the silent, listless man whose grey face haunted his mother's dreams.

That he, dissipating all her hopes of him, had fallen in love with Palla Dumont was enough unhappiness, it seemed; but that this girl should have found it possible to refuse him--that seemed to Helen a monstrous thing.

And even were Jim able to forget the girl and free himself from this exasperating unhappiness which almost maddened his mother, still she must always afterward remember with bitterness the girl who had rejected her only son.

Not since Palla had telephoned on that unfortunate night had she or Helen ever mentioned Jim. The mother, expecting his obsession to wear itself out, had been only too glad to approve the rupture.

But recently, at moments, her courage had weakened when, evening after evening, she had watched her son where he sat so silent, listless, his eyes dull and remote and the book forgotten on his knees.

A steady resentment for all this change in her son possessed Helen, varied by flashes of impulse to seize Palla and shake her into comprehension of her responsibility--of her astounding stupidity, perhaps.

Not that she wanted her for a daughter-in-law. She wanted Elorn. But now she was beginning to understand that it never would be Elorn Sharrow. And--save when the change in Jim worried her too deeply--she remained obstinately determined that he should not bring this girl into the Shotwell family.

And the amazing paradox was revealed in the fact that Palla fascinated her; that she believed her to be as fine as she was perverse; as honest as she was beautiful; as spiritually chaste as she knew her to be mentally and bodily untainted by anything ignoble.

This, and because Palla was the woman to whom her son's unhappiness was wholly due, combined to exercise an uncanny fascination on Helen, so that she experienced a constant and haunting desire to be near the girl, where she could see her and hear her voice.

At moments, even, she experienced a vague desire to intervene--do something to mitigate Jim's misery--yet realising all the while she did not desire Palla to relent.

* * * * *

As for Palla, she was becoming too deeply worried over the darkening aspects of life to care what Helen thought, even if she had divined the occult trend of her mind toward herself.

One thing after another seemed to crowd more threateningly upon her;--Jim's absence, Marya's attitude, and the certainty, now, that she saw Jim;--and then the grave illness of John Estridge and her apprehensions regarding Ilse; and the increasing difficulties of club problems; and the brutality and hatred which were becoming daily more noticeable in the opposition which she and Ilse were encountering.

* * * * *

After a tiresome day, Palla left a new Hostess House which she had aided to establish, and took a Fifth Avenue bus, too weary to walk home.

The day had been clear and sunny, and she wondered dully why it had left with her the impression of grey skies.

Dusk came before she arrived at her house. She went into her unlighted living room, and threw herself on the lounge, lying with eyes closed and the back of one gloved hand across her temples.

* * * * *

When a servant came to turn up the lamp, Palla had bitten her lip till the blood flecked her white glove. She sat up, declined to have tea, and, after the maid had departed, she remained seated, her teeth busy with her under lip again, her eyes fixed on space.

After a long while her eyes swerved to note the clock and what its gilt hands indicated.

And she seemed to arrive at a conclusion, for she went to her bedroom, drew a bath, and rang for her maid.

"I want my rose evening gown," she said. "It needs a stitch or two where I tore it dancing."

At six, not being dressed yet, she put on a belted chamber robe and trotted into the living room, as confidently as though she had no doubts concerning what she was about to do.

It seemed to take a long while for the operator to make the connection, and Palla's hand trembled a little where it held the receiver tightly against her ear. When, presently, a servant answered:

"Please say to him that a client wishes to speak to him regarding an investment."

Finally she heard his voice saying: "This is Mr. James Shotwell Junior; who is it wishes to speak to me?"

"A client," she faltered, "--who desires to--to participate with you in some plan for the purpose of--of improving our mutual relationship."

"Palla." She could scarcely hear his voice.

"I--I'm so unhappy, Jim. Could you come to-night?"

He made no answer.

"I suppose you haven't heard that Jack Estridge is very ill?" she added.

"No. What is the trouble?"

"Pneumonia. He's a little better to-night."

She heard him utter: "That's terrible. That's a bad business." Then to her: "Where is he?"

She told him. He said he'd call at the hospital. But he said nothing about seeing her.

"I wondered," came her wistful voice, "whether, perhaps, you would dine here alone with me this evening."

"Why do you ask me?"

"Because--I--our last quarrel was so bitter--and I feel the hurt of it yet. It hurts even physically, Jim."

"I did not mean to do such a thing to you."

"No, I know you didn't. But that numb sort of pain is always there. I can't seem to get rid of it, no matter what I do."

"Are you very busy still?"

"Yes.... I saw--Marya--to-day."

"Is that unusual?" he asked indifferently.

"Yes. I haven't seen her since--since she and Vanya separated."

"Oh! Have they separated?" he asked with such unfeigned surprise that the girl's heart leaped wildly.

"Didn't you know it? Didn't Marya tell you?" she asked shivering with happiness.

"I haven't seen her since I saw you," he replied.

Palla's right hand flew to her breast and rested there while she strove to control her voice. Then:

"Please, Jim, let us forgive and break bread again together. I--" she drew a deep, unsteady breath--"I can't tell you how our separation has made me feel. I don't quite know what it's done to me, either. Perhaps I can understand if I see you--if I could only see you again----"

There ensued a silence so protracted that a shaft of fear struck through her. Then his voice, pleasantly collected:

"I'll be around in a few minutes."

* * * * *

She was scared speechless when the bell rang--when she heard his unhurried step on the stair.

Before he was announced by the maid, however, she had understood one problem in the scheme of things--realised it as she rose from the lounge and held out her slender hand.

He took it and kept it. The maid retired.

"Well, Palla," he said.

"Well," she said, rather breathlessly, "--I know now."

His voice and face seemed amiable and lifeless; his eyes, too, remained dull and incurious; but he said: "I don't think I understand. What is it you know?"

"Shall I tell you?"

"If you wish."

His pleasant, listless manner chilled her; she hesitated, then turned away, withdrawing her hand.

When she had seated herself on the sofa he dropped down beside her in his old place. She lighted a cigarette for him.

"Tell me about poor old Jack," he said in a low voice.

Their dinner was a pleasant but subdued affair. Afterward she played for him--interrupted once by a telephone call from Ilse, who said that John's temperature had risen a degree and the only thing to do was to watch him every second. But she refused Palla's offer to join her at the hospital, saying that she and the night nurse were sufficient; and the girl went slowly back to the piano.

But, somehow, even that seemed too far away from her lover--or the man who once had been her avowed lover. And after idling-with the keys for a few minutes she came back to the lounge where he was seated.

He looked up from his revery: "This is most comfortable, Palla," he said with a slight smile.

"Do you like it?"

"Of course."

"You need not go away at all--if it pleases you." Her voice was so indistinct that for a moment he did not comprehend what she had said. Then he turned and looked at her. Both were pale enough now.

"That is what--what I was going to tell you," she said. "Is it too late?"

"Too late!"

"To say that I am--in love with you."

He flushed heavily and looked at her in a dazed way.

"What do you mean?" he said.

"I mean--if you want me--I am--am not afraid any more----"

They had both risen instinctively, as though to face something vital. She said:

"Don't ask me to submit to any degrading ceremony.... I love you enough."

He said slowly: "Do you realise what you say? You are crazy! You and your socialist friends pretend to be fighting anarchy. You preach against Bolshevism! You warn the world that the Crimson Tide is rising. And every word you utter swells it! _You are the anarchists yourselves! You are the Bolsheviki of the world! You come bringing disorder where there is order; you substitute unproven theory for proven practice!

"Like the hun, you come to impose your will on a world already content with its own God and its own belief! And that is autocracy; and autocracy is what you say you oppose!

"I tell you and your friends that it was not wolves that were pupped in the sand of the shaggy Prussian forests when the first Hohenzollern was dropped. It was swine! Swine were farrowed;--not even _sanglier_, but decadent domestic swine;--when Wilhelm and his degenerate litter came out to root up Europe! And _they were the first real Bolsheviki!"

He turned and began to stride to and fro; his pale, sunken face deeply shadowed, his hands clenching and unclenching.

"What in God's name," he said fiercely, "are women like you doing to us! What do you suppose happens to such a man as I when the girl he loves tells him she cares only to be his mistress! What hope is there left in him?--what sense, what understanding, what faith?

"You don't have to tell me that the Crimson Tide is rising. I saw it in the Argonne. I wish to God I were back there and the hun was still resisting. I wish I had never lived to come back here and see what demoralisation is threatening my own country from that cursed germ of wilful degeneracy born in the Prussian twilight, fed in Russian desolation, infecting the whole world----"

His voice died in his throat; he walked swiftly past her, turned at the threshold:

"I've known three of you," he said, "--you and Ilse and Marya. I've seen a lot of your associates and acquaintances who profess your views. And I've seen enough."

He hesitated; then when he could control his voice again:

"It's bad enough when a woman refuses marriage to a man she does not love. That man is going to be unhappy. But have you any idea what happens to him when the girl he loves, and who says she cares for him, refuses marriage?

"It was terrible even when you cared for me only a little. But--but now--do you know what I think of your creed? I hate it as you hated the beasts who slew your friend! Damn your creed! To hell with it!"

She covered her face with both hands: there was a noise like thunder in her brain.

She heard the door close sharply in the hall below.

This was the end.

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