Sleeping Fires by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Mrs. McLane had called on Mrs. Talbot. That was known to all San Francisco, for her carriage had stood in front of the Occidental Hotel for an hour. Kind friends had called to offer their services in setting the new house in order, but were dismissed at the door with the brief announcement that Mrs. McLane was having the blues. No one wasted time on a second effort to gossip with their leader; it was known that just so often Mrs. McLane drew down the blinds, informed her household that she was not to be disturbed, disposed herself on the sofa with her back to the room and indulged in the luxury of blues for three days. She took no nourishment but milk and broth and spoke to no one. Today this would be a rest cure and was equally beneficial. When the attack was over Mrs. McLane would arise with a clear complexion, serene nerves, and renewed strength for social duties. Her friends knew that her retirement on this occasion was timed to finish on the morning of her reception and had not the least misgiving that her doors would still be closed.
The great double parlors of her new mansion were thrown into one and the simple furniture covered with gray rep was pushed against soft gray walls hung with several old portraits in oil, ferrotypes and silhouettes. A magnificent crystal chandelier depended from the high and lightly frescoed ceiling and there were side brackets beside the doors and the low mantel piece. Mrs. McLane may not have been able to achieve beauty with the aid of the San Francisco shops, but at least she had managed to give her rooms a severe and stately simplicity, vastly different from the helpless surrenders of her friends to mid-victorian deformities.
The rooms filled early. Mrs. McLane stood before the north windows receiving her friends with her usual brilliant smile, her manner of high dignity and sweet cordiality. She was a majestic figure in spite of her short stature and increasing curves, for the majesty was within and her head above a flat back had a lofty poise. She wore her prematurely white hair in a tall pompadour, and this with the rich velvets she affected, ample and long, made her look like a French marquise of the eighteenth century, stepped down from the canvas. The effect was by no means accidental. Mrs. McLane's grandmother had been French and she resembled her.
Her hoopskirt was small, but the other women were inclined to the extreme of the fashion; as they saw it in the Godey's Lady's Book they or their dressmakers subscribed to. Their handsome gowns spread widely and the rooms hardly could have seemed to sway and undulate more if an earthquake had rocked it. The older women wore small bonnets and cashmere shawls, lace collars and cameos, the younger fichus and small flat hats above their "waterfalls" or curled chignons. The husbands had retired with Mr. McLane to the smoking room, but there were many beaux present, equally expectant when not too absorbed.
Unlike as a reception of that day was in background and costumes from the refinements of modern art and taste, it possessed one contrast that was wholly to its advantage. Its men were gentlemen and the sons and grandsons of gentlemen. To no one city has there ever been such an emigration of men of good family as to San Francisco in the Fifties and Sixties. Ambitious to push ahead in politics or the professions and appreciating the immediate opportunities of the new and famous city, or left with an insufficient inheritance (particularly after the war) and ashamed to work in communities where no gentleman had ever worked, they had set sail with a few hundreds to a land where a man, if he did not occupy himself lucratively, was unfit for the society of enterprising citizens.
Few had come in time for the gold diggings, but all, unless they had disappeared into the hot insatiable maw of the wicked little city, had succeeded in one field or another; and these, in their dandified clothes, made a fine appearance at fashionable gatherings. If they took up less room than the women they certainly were more decorative.
Dr. Talbot and his wife had not arrived. To all eager questions Mrs. McLane merely replied that "they" would "be here." She had the dramatic instinct of the true leader and had commanded the doctor not to bring his bride before four o'clock. The reception began at three. They should have an entrance. But Mrs. Abbott, a lady of three chins and an eagle eye, who had clung for twenty-five years to black satin and bugles, was too persistent to be denied. She extracted the information that the Bostonian had sent her own furniture by a previous steamer and that her drawing room was graceful, French, and exquisite.
At ten minutes after the hour the buzz and chatter stopped abruptly and every face was turned, every neck craned toward the door. The colored butler had announced with a grand flourish:
"Dr. and Mrs. Talbot."
The doctor looked as rubicund, as jovial, as cynical as ever. But few cast him more than a passing glance. Then they gave an audible gasp, induced by an ingenuous compound of amazement, disappointment, and admiration. They had been prepared to forgive, to endure, to make every allowance. The poor thing could no more help being plain and dowdy than born in Boston, and as their leader had satisfied herself that she "would do," they would never let her know how deeply they deplored her disabilities.
But they found nothing to deplore but the agonizing necessity for immediate readjustment. Mrs. Talbot was unquestionably a product of the best society. The South could have done no better. She was tall and supple and self-possessed. She was exquisitely dressed in dark blue velvet with a high collar of point lace tapering almost to her bust, and revealing a long white throat clasped at the base by a string of pearls. On her head, as proudly poised as Mrs. McLane's, was a blue velvet hat, higher in the crown than the prevailing fashion, rolled up on one side and trimmed only with a drooping gray feather. And her figure, her face, her profile! The young men crowded forward more swiftly than the still almost paralyzed women. She was no more than twenty. Her skin was as white as the San Francisco fogs, her lips were scarlet, her cheeks pink, her hair and eyes a bright golden brown. Her features were delicate and regular, the mouth not too small, curved and sensitive; her refinement was almost excessive. Oh, she was "high-toned," no doubt of that! As she moved forward and stood in front of Mrs. McLane, or acknowledged introductions to those that stood near, the women gave another gasp, this time of consternation. She wore neither hoop-skirt nor crinoline. Could it be that the most elegant fashion ever invented had been discarded by Paris? Or was this lovely creature of surpassing elegance, a law unto herself?
Her skirt was full but straight and did not disguise the lines of her graceful figure; above her small waist it fitted as closely as a riding habit. She was even more becomingly dressed than any woman in the room. Mrs. Abbott, who was given to primitive sounds, snorted. Maria Ballinger, whose finely developed figure might as well have been the trunk of a tree, sniffed. Her sister Sally almost danced with excitement, and even Miss Hathaway straightened her fichu. Mrs. Ballinger, who had been the belle of Richmond and was still adjudged the handsomest woman in San Francisco, lifted the eyebrows to which sonnets had been written with an air of haughty resignation; but made up her mind to abate her scorn of the North and order her gowns from New York hereafter.
But the San Franciscans on the whole were an amiable people and they were sometimes conscious of their isolation; in a few moments they felt a pleasant titillation of the nerves, as if the great world they might never see again had sent them one of her most precious gifts.
They all met her in the course of the afternoon. She was sweet and gracious, but although there was not a hint of embarrassment she made no attempt to shine, and they liked her the better for that. The young men soon discovered they could make no impression on this lovely importation, for her eyes strayed constantly to her husband; until he disappeared in search of cronies, whiskey, and a cigar: then she looked depressed for a moment, but gave a still closer attention to the women about her.
In love with her husband but a woman-of-the-world. Manners as fine as Mrs. McLane's, but too aloof and sensitive to care for leadership. She had made the grand tour in Europe, they discovered, and enjoyed a season in Washington. She should continue to live at the Occidental Hotel as her husband would be out so much at night and she was rather timid. And she was bright, unaffected, responsive. Could anything be more reassuring? There was nothing to be apprehended by the socially ambitious, the proud housewives, or those prudent dames whose amours were conducted with such secrecy that they might too easily be supplanted by a predatory coquette. The girls drew little unconscious sighs of relief. Sally Ballinger vowed she would become her intimate friend, Sibyl Geary that she would copy her gowns. Mrs. Abbott succumbed. In short they all took her to their hearts. She was one of them from that time forth and the reign of crinoline was over.