Going to London soon after the outbreak of war, she had been taken on the strength of a motor-ambulance garage; and to be near her work she had leased a small flat in Park Walk, sharing it by turn with various companion drivers. Although her desire to be of service was the prime reason of her action, it was with unconcealed joy that she had thrown off the restraints of home. Freedom of action, a respite from the petty gossip of her mother’s set, had loomed up as the portals to a new life. The thought of sharing the discomforts and the privileges of patriotic work with young women who had broken the shackles of convention was a prospect that thrilled her.
To her amazement, she discovered that the feminine nature alters little with environment. It was true, her new companions had broken with all the previous conceptions of decorum, but they had used their newly found liberty to enslave themselves still further with the idea of man-conquest. Officers—callow, heroic, squint-eyed, supercilious, superb, of any and every Allied country—officers were the quarry, and they the hunters. To love or not to love? Their talks, their thoughts, their lives concerned little else. They fought for the attentions of men like starving sparrows for crumbs.
In such an environment, where she had hoped to lose the burden of persistent self, Elise found emancipation farther away than ever. The abandon of the others first created a reversion to prudery in her breast, and then developed a cynical indifference. The others treated her with friendly insouciance. Had she been ill, or had she met with an accident, there was probably not one who wouldn’t have proved herself a ‘ministering angel.’ As it was, they largely ignored her, indulging the instinct of inhumanity which so often is woman’s attitude towards woman.
So she sat alone, the Elise who had always been so resolute and independent, feeling very small and pathetic, yearning for far-off things—utterly lonesome, and a little inclined to cry.
The words of the book grew dim, and her thoughts drifted towards Austin Selwyn. He had been contemptible! A pacifist! His idealism was a pose to try to ennoble utter cowardice. At a time when men’s blood ran high he had prated of brotherhood, and peace, and suggested that the infamous Hun had a soul! How she hated him! . . . And when she had finished with that thought her heart’s yearning returned more cruelly than before.
That evening by the trout-stream when she had seen Dick hiding in the bush, Selwyn had caught her when she had almost swooned. He had gripped her arms with his hands, and, quivering with emotion, had lent his strength to her. At the memory the crimson of her cheeks deepened. They had been so close to each other. His burning eyes, his lips trembling with passion—what strange impulse in her heart had made her thrill with a heavenly exhilaration? For that instant while his hands had gripped her a glorious vista had appeared before her eyes—a world of dreams where the tyranny of self could not enter. For that one instant her whole soul had leaped in response to his strong tenderness.