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The great change in Nina Randolph’s appearance and manner induced no small amount of gossip in San Francisco. Women are quick to scent the sin that society loves best to discuss, and there were many that suspected the truth: her long retirement had prepared them for an interesting sequel. Nina guessed that she was dividing with the war the honours of attention in a small but law-making circle, but was quite indifferent. She rarely went down to the parlour when people called, but sat in her bedroom staring out at the bay; the Lester house was on the summit of Clay Street hill.
Her father was deeply anxious, full of gloomy forebodings. He believed Thorpe to be dead, and shook with horror when he thought of what the consequences might be.
“Wouldn’t you like a change?” he asked her one day. “How would you like go to New York? Molly and Mrs. Lester could go with you.”
Nina shook her head, colouring faintly.
“I see. You are afraid of missing Thorpe. I wish there were some way of finding out—”
She turned to him with eager eyes. “Would you go, papa,—to New Orleans? I haven’t dared to ask it. Go and see what is the matter.”
“My child, I could not get there. The ports are blockaded; if I attempted the folly of getting to New Orleans by land, I should probably be shot as a spy. It is for those reasons that he will have great difficulty in getting here, as he did not have the forethought to leave the South in time.”
To this Nina made no reply, and as she would not talk to him, he left her.
That evening Miss Shropshire came into Nina’s room, and spoke twice before she was answered. The room was dark.
“Look here, Nina!” she said peremptorily. “You’ve got to brace up. People are talking. I know it!”
“Are they? What does it matter? I have no more use for them. I may as well tell you I have come to the conclusion that Dudley Thorpe ceased to care for me, and that is the reason of his silence. He has gone back to England.”
“I don’t believe it. You’re growing morbid. Women frequently do after that sort of experience. I remember Beatrix sat in one position for nearly a month, staring at the floor: wouldn’t even brush her teeth. You have too much brains for that sort of thing.”
“I believe it. I have made up my mind. He is in England. He wrote me once that if it were not that I had asked him not to leave the country, he would run over, he was so tired of America. He went, and stayed.”
“Well, then, go out in the world and flirt as you used to. Don’t let any man bowl you over like this; and, for Heaven’s sake, don’t mope any more!”
“I hate the thought of every man in San Francisco. When I knew them, I was an entirely different woman. I couldn’t adapt myself to them if I wanted to—which I don’t.”
“But there are always new ones—”
“Oh, don’t! Haven’t you imagination enough to guess what this last year has made of me? If I got as far as a ball-room I’d stand up in the middle of the floor and shriek out that since I was there last my heart had lived and been broken, that I had lost a husband and buried a baby—”
“Then, for Heaven’s sake, stay at home! But I think,” with deep meaning, “that you had better try a change of some sort, Nina. If you don’t want to risk going East, why not visit some of the Spanish people in Southern California?”
“I shall stay here.”
It was during the next night that Nina left her bed suddenly, flung herself into a chair, and pressed her elbows hard upon her knees. She had barely slept for three nights. Her nerves were in a highly irritable state. If any one had entered she would not have been able to control her temper. Black depression possessed her; the irritability of her nerves alternated with the sensation of dropping through space; and her relaxed body cried for stimulant.
She twisted her hands together, her face convulsed. “Why should I fight?” she argued aloud. “In that, at least, I should find temporary oblivion. And what else have I left? Down deep, ever since I got his last letter, I have known that I should never see him again. It is my destiny: that is the beginning and the end of it. This is the second time I have wanted it since the baby died. I beat it out of me the first time. I hoped—hoped—and if he were here I should win. If I could be happy, and go away with him, it would not come again: I know—I know. He could have got me some word by this. He is not dead. There is only one other explanation. Men are all alike, they say. Why should I struggle? For what? What have I to live for? I am the most wretched woman on earth.”
But she did struggle. The dawn found her sitting there still, her muscles almost rigid. Her love for Thorpe had undergone no change; it took the fight into its own hands. And it seemed to her that she could hear her soul beg for its rights; its voice rose above the persistent clamour of her body.
She went to bed and slept for a few hours; but when she awoke the desire in her nerves was madder than ever. Every part of her cried out for stimulant. She had no love for the taste of liquor; the demand came from her nerve-centres. But still she fought on, materialising the monster, fancying that she held it by the throat, that she cut its limbs off, its heart out; but it shook itself together with magnificent vitality, and laughed in her face.
Days passed. The clamour in her body strove to raise itself above the despairing cry in her soul. But still, mechanically, without hope, she lifted her ear to the higher cry, knowing that if she fell now she should never rise again in her earthly life, nor speak with Dudley Thorpe, should he, perhaps, return.
She invoked the image of her baby, the glory of the few days she had known it. But a bitter tide of resentment overwhelmed the memory of that brief exaltation. If she was to be saved, why had not the baby been spared? Those who shared her secret had attempted to console her by assuring her that its death was a mercy for all concerned. She had not answered them; but her grief was cut with contempt for their lack of vision. The baby might have cost her her social position, but it would have stood between her soul and perdition. It had been taken—by One who was supposed to know the needs of all His creatures. Therefore it was only reasonable to assume that He wished her to be destroyed.
She thought of nothing else, but cunningly pretended to be absorbed in her books.
There came a night when her nerves shrieked until her brain surged with the din of them, and her hands clutched at the air, her eyes hardened and expanded with greed, her lips were forced apart by her panting breath. She jerked the stopper out of a bottle of cologne and swallowed a quarter of the contents, then flung her wraps about her, stole downstairs and out of the house, found a carriage, and was driven to South Park.
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