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“Old age will be served,” said Mrs. Carteret grimly. “But I suppose you think I am a long time dying.”

Gita made a face in the heavy shade of the bed-hangings, but replied politely: “I am glad to be here, grandmother, and when it’s my turn to die I’ll take all the time I choose.”

She had a crisp clear voice and a staccato delivery, which she made no attempt to modify in the sick-room, and the old lady frowned.

“I never cared for your mother, but she had a soft low voice, ‘an excellent thing in woman.’ Why did you not model your own upon it? And you do all you can to distort and destroy the Carteret beauty in your attempt to look like a boy. The Carteret women were all dashing brunettes, but feminine. Otherwise they never would have had men crawling at their feet, generation after generation.”

“If men crawled at my feet—which they don’t do these days, anyhow—I’d kick them out of the way. And if I were a man myself—and I wish to God I were—I’d see women to the devil before I’d make a fool of myself——”

“I don’t like your language. I don’t like your voice. I don’t like your bobbed hair——”

“My hair is not bobbed.”

“Bad enough whatever it is. I don’t like your ‘brooding brows,’ to quote an expression I read in a silly novel. I don’t like your boyish defiant bearing; it is not ladylike. I don’t like your ugly tailored suits—I’ve never seen you with a single feminine adornment——”

“You never will. Haven’t I told you I hate—loathe—being a female?”

“Fiddlesticks. I don’t pretend to know what bee you’ve got in your bonnet, but if you’ll take my advice you’ll pluck it out before it’s too late——”

“It’s not in my bonnet. It’s inside my skull.”

“Don’t interrupt me. You’ve no manners. . . . But you’re a Carteret all the same, in spite of your ridiculous airs and notions, and you look—could look—exactly as I did in my youth: I was your grandfather’s second cousin and a Carteret to my finger-tips—except that you are not tall enough. I was five-feet-eight and you must be quite three inches shorter. I was the beauty and the belle of my day, and that is more than you will ever be unless you take heed before it is too late.”

The gray old voice, with its sudden moments of vehement life, trailed off and her gaze turned inward. The light from the open window shone on her face high on the pillows in the ancient four-post bed, and Gita looked at it with the cold appraisement of youth. Beautiful? Once, perhaps. The black eyes were still keen and bright, although sunken deep in sockets as yellow and crinkled as an old Asiatic’s. The bony ridge of the nose was high and thin, but the cheeks were seamed with a thousand little wrinkles and the mouth was a pale satiric line. She looked more like an old bird of prey than the remnants of a woman, and Gita decided it was not worth the mental effort to repad that face with firm young flesh and give it the pedestal of a swan-like neck or any of the other absurdities of archaic youth. She looked longingly through the window at the sunlight, but she had made up her mind to “do the decent thing” as the old lady had rescued her from poverty and heaven knew what not. Besides, she admitted grudgingly, blood was blood, and her grandmother had no one else. Noblesse oblige. Moreover, she rather liked this new-found relative, with her sharp, sarcastic, if superannuated, mind. If she had been affectionate life would have been unendurable once more.

The old Carteret Manor was not far from the island covered by Atlantic City, and behind the Old Shore Road. It was surrounded on three sides by pine woods but open to the sea on the east. There had been a storm the night before and from this high window Gita could see the tossing spray that hid the horizon. She forgot her grandmother until the old lady spoke again.

“They named you Gita, anyhow!” she said triumphantly. “The first daughter of every son was always named Gita, but it would have been like your father to break the tradition, especially as your mother disliked me. . . . There have been many Gita Carterets! And you are a Carteret through and through. Not a trace of your mother, thank heaven——”

“I won’t hear a word against my mother! My mother was an angel and a martyr, and as for my father—I don’t care if he was your son——”

“He was a scallywag. I’ll not deny it. Many of the Carteret men were. My sympathies were with your mother although I liked her as little as she liked me. She was no wife for Gerald—I told her so—but for that matter only a Carteret could handle a Carteret. Nevertheless, young lady, it behooves a child to speak of its parents with respect.”

Miss Carteret gave an unladylike snort.

“Oh, yes! And there is one thing you have not inherited, and that is the Carteret grand manner. Even your father had that, and when he was most intoxicated. You have neither manner nor manners.”

“Both are out of date.”

“Are they? I am not so sure. The world is not entirely composed of what you call the younger generation. Are you a specimen of the flappers all these magazines and novels are full of?”

“I am not. Silly little females. Besides, I’m twenty-two.”

“I can’t make out whether you seem to hate men or women more, and you won’t give any reason.”

“I don’t hate women. I only resent being one. If you had been my old grandfather I’d have starved in the streets before I’d have come here.”

“It is a wonder, with your remarkable freedom of speech, you don’t say you would have gone on the streets.”

“Oh, never! I’d have died a thousand deaths first. Not,” she added hurriedly, “because I’d have been too good for it, but because—well, I’d have killed the first man that touched me.”

“Of course you are virtuous,” said the old lady complacently. “All the Carteret women have been. Flirts and coquettes, perhaps——”

“Virtuous nothing. I don’t care a damn——”

“You are not a boy, after all, so kindly refrain from swearing in my presence. The Carteret men swore like troopers, but their women never forgot themselves. And please remember that I am helpless. I cannot rise and leave the room.”

“Sorry, grandmother. I’ll not do it again.”

“You have a good heart, anyhow——No, you needn’t snort. It’s a hideous noise, and a good heart is no disgrace in even a modern young woman. I like you in spite of everything, and I wish I could have had the bringing-up of you.”

“I wish to God you had!” the girl exclaimed with unexpected passion. “I wish my mother could have died when I was born, or at least too young to remember anything, and that my father had brought me to you and then blown out his cruel brains.”

“Well, I do not. There are some words I dislike exceedingly and ‘suicide’ is one of them. And I despise cowards.” (“Old cliché,” muttered Gita.) “That is another thing in you that pleases me. You have a high courage. All the Carterets had that.”

“One more reason for being a Carteret!”

“You are an impertinent minx. . . . But I thought your parents were happy for a few years? I was given to understand that, although I never saw your mother again and Gerald only came home twice.”

“Before my time, then. I can remember back to the age of four, and one of my first recollections is his knocking my mother about.”

“What an expression! I suppose you mean he struck her. It is bad enough, heaven knows, however you express it. Gerald! I never thought he would so far forget himself, for a gentleman is never more of a gentleman than when he is in his cups. But he always had an ungovernable—yes, a vicious temper. But what a handsome dog he was! I was so proud of him. He was the youngest of ten and I am afraid I spoiled him. Is that the secret of your hatred of men?”

“Among others.”

“Well, I should hope you had a better reason than that. You should have too much common sense to judge all men by one. What are your other reasons?” she asked curiously. “I don’t understand you at all. Too many years between us, I suppose. I don’t understand any of the modern young women, and you appear to be the most singular of them all. Not that I have met many, bed-ridden as I am, but I have read some of the modern novels and they horrify me. You have certain points of difference, and I am thankful for that much. No doubt it is because you are a Carteret. You are not a fool at all events. Do you smoke cigarettes?”

“I do.”

“Well, don’t you ever dare bring one in here, or smell of one. Do you drink cocktails?”

“No. ’Fraid of bootlegger stuff.”

“I don’t mind you drinking a glass of wine with your dinner. There is some old Burgundy and port in the cellar, and, no doubt, a case or two of champagne. Tell Topper to bring up anything you like—but only one glass at a meal, though; and as the champagne is in quart bottles——”

“Thanks, grandmother, but I really don’t care about it. It’s time for your medicine.”

She came out into the light, and Mrs. Carteret looked at her with a frown. “You could be a beauty,” she said plaintively. “Why won’t you, my dear? And at least don’t stick your hands in your pockets again when you are in my presence—like a whistling schoolboy.”

“Well, I can’t just now.” Gita’s somber face broke into a smile that revealed even white teeth brilliantly enameled, and for the moment she looked feminine and roguish in spite of her cropped head and rigid spine. “Let me lift you a little higher. You nearly choked last time.”

She thrust her arm under the pillow and held the glass to the old lady’s sunken lips, then lowered her gently and returned to her chair in the shade of the curtains………………….

Belletristik und Literatur
5. März
Rectory Print

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