‘Good heavens! Don’t they?’
‘Well, I never! Anyhow, what if they do? Is there any harm in it?’
Elise smiled and shook her head. ‘None, my dear Marian,’ she said. ’There is no possible harm in it. There’s no harm in anything now. The old idea that a woman’s purity and modesty—— But what’s the use of saying that to you? Of course you’re right. Who wants to stay at home with a lot of little brats, if you can have a dozen men a week standing you dinners, and mauling you like a bargee, and’——
‘There’s the water getting near the boil.’ Elise rose with a strange little laugh and looked at a yellow silk stocking which dangled over the side of a wicker table. As if trying to solve a conundrum, she glanced from it to the shapely form of the young woman at her toilet. ’When the war’s over,’ she said ruminatingly, ’and our men find what kind of girls they married when they were on leave’——
’There you go again. For Heaven’s sake, Elise, if you can’t attract men yourself, don’t nag a girl who does. You’re positively sexless. The way you talk’——
‘There’s the water. When Horace comes I don’t want to see him.’
‘I guess he can live without it,’ said the patriotic, leave-wangling war-worker, with an angry glance at Elise as she disappeared into the kitchen. Catching a glimpse of the frown in the mirror, she checked it, and once more leaned towards the reflection as if she would kiss the alluring lips that beckoned coaxingly in the glass.
Marian had gone, radiant, and exulting in her radiance; and Elise sat by the meagre fire trying to take interest in a novel. Although she had found it easy to be confident and self-assertive when the other girl was there, the solitariness of the flat and the silence of the street undermined her courage. The dragging minutes, the meaningless pages. . . . She wished that even Marian were there in all her complacent vulgarity.
Although she had drawn many people to her, the passing of the years had left Elise practically friendless. It was easy for her to attract with her gift of intense personality; but the very quality that attracted was the one that eventually repelled. The impossibility of forgetting herself, of losing herself in the intimacies of friendship, made her own personality a thing which was stifling her life. Since she was a child she had craved for understanding and sympathy, but nature and her upbringing had made it impossible for her to accept them when they were offered. Lacking the power of self-expression, and consequently self-forgetfulness, her own individuality oppressed her. It was like an iron mask which she could not remove, and which no one could penetrate.