The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The patrol had been relieved by another, an older man, and sober. He merely reproved them for disobeying orders, glanced sympathetically at the presumed invalid, and directed them to one of the temporary hospitals some blocks farther west.
Gora, like all imaginative people, had a horror of the corpse, and averted her eyes from the head of the dead girl outlined under the veil she had thrown over it, Gathbroke was obliged to walk backward, and as both were extremely uncomfortable, there was no attempt at conversation until they reached the gates of the old cemetery the great pioneers had called Lone Mountain and their more commonplace descendants rechristened Laurel Hill.
The glare of the distant fire illuminated the silent city where a thousand refugees slept as heavily as the dead, and as they ascended the steep path they examined anxiously the vaults on either side. Finally Gora exclaimed:
"There! On the right."
The iron doors of a once eminent resident's last dwelling had been half twisted from their rusty hinges. Gathbroke threw his weight on them and they fell at his feet. He and Gora carried in the body and lifted it to an empty shelf.
"Good!" Gora gave a long sigh of relief. "Nothing can happen to her now. Even the entrance faces away from the fire and there is nothing but grass in the cemetery to burn, anyhow." She held her electric torch to the inscription above the entrance. "Better write down the name--Randolph. There's one of the tragedies of the sixties for you! An Englishman the hero, by the way. Nina Randolph is a handful of dust in there somewhere. Heigho! What's the difference, anyway? Even if she'd been happy she'd be dead by this time--or too old to have a past."
Gathbroke replaced the gates, for he feared prowling dogs, and they walked down to the street and sat on the grass, leaning against the wall of the cemetery, as dissociated as possible from the rows of uneasy sleepers.
They slept a little between blasts of dynamite, the snoring of men and women and cries of children; finally at Gora's suggestion climbed to the steep bare summit of Calvary to observe the progress of the fire.
The unlighted portion of the city beneath them looked like a dead planet. Beyond was a tossing sea of flame whose far-reaching violent glare seemed to project it illimitably.
"Nothing can stop it!" gasped Gora; and that terrific red mass of energy and momentum did look as if its only curb would be the Pacific Ocean.
They talked until morning. He was very frank about himself, finding no doubt a profound comfort in human companionship after those long hours of ghastly communion down in that flaming jungle.
He was a younger son and in the army, not badly off, as his mother made him a goodish allowance. She had come of a large manufacturing family in the North and had brought a fortune to the empty treasury of the young peer she had--happily for both--fallen in love with.
He had wanted to go into business--politics later perhaps--after he left Eton, feeling that he had inherited some of the energy of his maternal grandfather, but his mother had insisted upon the army and as he really didn't care so very much, he had succumbed.
"But I'm not sure I shan't regret it. It isn't as if there were any prospect of a real war. I'd like a fighting career well enough, but not picayune affairs out in India or Africa. I can't help thinking I have a talent for business. Sounds beastly conceited," he added hastily. It was evident that he was a modest youth. "But after all one of us should inherit something of the sort. Perhaps, later, who knows? At least I can thank heaven that I wasn't born in my brother's place. He likes politics, and his fate is the House of Lords. A man might as well go and embalm himself at once. Do you know Gwynne? Elton Gwynne? John Gwynne he calls himself out here."
"I've heard of him. He's been written up a good deal. I don't know any one of that sort."
"Really? Well, don't you see? he inherited a peerage; grandfather died and his cousin shot himself to cover up a scandal. Gwynne was in the full tide of his career in the House of Commons and simply couldn't stand for it. He cut the whole business and came out here where he and his mother had a large estate--Lady Victoria's mother or grandmother was a Spanish-Californian. Of course he chucked the title. He's a sort of cousin of mine and I looked him up, and dined with him the other night. He was born in the United States, by a fluke as it were, and has made up his mind to be an American for the rest of his life and carve out a political career in this country. I'd have done the same thing, by Jove! First-class solution...although it's a pretty hard wrench to give up your own country. But when a man is too active to stagnate--there you are....I wish I had known where to find him to-day, but he lives on his ranch and I've only seen him once since. Lady Victoria took me to a ball night before last--Good God! Was it only that?...and we were to have met again for lunch to-day."
"It is very easy and picturesque to renounce when you possess just about everything in life! If I attempted to renounce any of my privileges, for instance. I should simply move down and out."
He turned his head and regarded her squarely for the first time. Heretofore she had been simply a friend in need, a jolly good sport, incidentally a female. If she had been beautiful he should have noted that fact at once, for he could not imagine the circumstances in which beauty would not exert an immediate and powerful influence, however transitory.
Miss Dwight was not beautiful, but he concluded during that frank stare that her face was interesting; disturbingly so, although he was unable at the moment to find the reason. It was possible that in favorable conditions she would be handsome.
She had a mass of dark brown hair that seemed to sink heavily over her low forehead until it almost met the heavy black eyebrows. She had removed her hat and the thick loose coils made her look topheavy; for the face, if wide across the high cheek-bones and sharply accentuated with a salient jaw, was not large. The eyes were a light cold gray, oval and far apart. Her nose was short and strong and had the same cohibitive expression as the straight sharply-cut mouth--when not ironic or smiling. Her teeth were beautiful.
She had put on her best tailored suit and he saw that her "figger" was good although too short and full for his taste. He liked the long and stately slenderness that his own centuries had bred. But her hands and well-shod feet were narrow if not small, and he decided that she just escaped possessing what modern slang so aptly expressed as "class," Possibly it was the defiance in her square chin, the almost angry poise of her head, that betrayed her as an unwilling outsider.
"Bad luck!" he asked sympathetically.
She gave him a brief outline of her family history, overemphasizing as Americans will--those that lay any claim to descent--the previous importance of the Dwights and the Mortimers in Utica, N.Y. Incidentally, she gave him a flashlight picture of the social conditions in San Francisco.
He was intensely interested. "Really! I should have said there would be the complete democracy in California if anywhere. Of course no Englishman of my generation expects to find San Franciscans in cowboy costume; but I must say I was astonished at the luxury and fashion not only at those Southern California hotels, where, to be sure, most of the guests are from your older Eastern states, but at that ball Lady Victoria took me to. It was magnificent in all its details, originality combined with the most perfect taste. Of course there were not as many jewels as one would see at a great London function, but the toilettes could not have been surpassed. And as for the women--stunning! Such beauty and style and breeding. I confess I didn't expect quite all that. Miss Bascom, Miss Thorndyke, and an exquisite young thing, Miss Groome--"
"Oh, those are the haute noblesse." Gora's tipper lip curled satirically. "No doubt they lay claim that their roots mingle with your own."
"Well, we'd be proud of 'em."
"That was the Hofer ball, wasn't it! Do you mean to say that Alexina Groome was there? Mrs. Groome, who is the most imposing relic of the immortal eighties, is supposed to know no one of twentieth-century vintage."
"I am sure of it. I danced with her twice and would have jolly well liked to monopolize her, but she was too plainly bowled over by a fellow--your name, by Jove--Dwight. Good-looking chap, clean-cut, fine shoulders, danced like a god--if gods do dance. I'm an awful duffer at it, by the way."
"Mortimer? Is it possible? And he--was he bowled over?"
"Ra--ther! A case, I should say."
"How unfortunate. Of course he hasn't the ghost of a chance. Mrs. Groome won't have a young man inside her doors whose family doesn't belong root and branch to her old set. Fine prospect for a poor clerk!"
"Jove! I've a mind to stay and try my luck. Oh!" He dropped his face in his hands. "I'm forgetting!"
"Well, forget again." Gora's voice expressed more sympathy than she felt. She deeply resented his immediate acceptance of her social alienage, even relegating her personal appearance to another class than that of the delicate flora he had seen blooming for the night against the most artful background of the season.
However...he was the first man she had ever met in her limited experience who seemed to combine the three magnetisms....Who could tell....
"I should be delighted if you would cut my brother out before it goes any further," she said untruthfully. "It will save him a heartache....Where could you meet her now? Society is disrupted here. But of course Mr. Gwynne visits down the peninsula. He could take you to any one of those exclusive abodes where you would be likely to meet the little Alexina. She is only eighteen, by the way."
"That is rather young," he said dubiously. "I don't fancy her conversation would be very interesting, and, after all, that is what it comes down to, isn't it? I've been disappointed so often." He sighed and looked quite thirty-five. "Still, she has personality. Five or six years hence she may be a wonder....I don't think I'd care about educating and developing a girl--I like a pal right away....What an ass I am, rotting like this. Tour brother has as much chance as I have. Younger sons with no prospect of succession are of exactly no account with the American mamma. I've met a few of them."
"Oh, I fancy birth would be enough for Mrs. Groome. She's quite dotty on the subject, and the people out here are simpler than Easterners, anyhow. Simpler and more ingenuous."
"How is it you know so much about it, all, if you are not, as you say--pardon me--a part of it?"
"I wonder!" She gave a short hard little laugh. "I don't know that I could explain, except that it all has seemed to me from birth a part of my blood and bones and gristle. An accident, a lucky strike on my father's part when he first came out here, and they would know me as well to-day as I know them. And then...of course...it is a small community. We live on the doorsteps of the rich and important, as it were. It would be hard for us not to know. It just comes to us. We are magnets. I suppose all this seems to you--born on the inside--quite ignominious."
"Well, my mother would have remained on the outside--that is to say a quiet little provincial--if her father hadn't happened to make a fortune with his iron works. I can understand well enough, but, if you don't mind my saying so, I think it rather a pity."
"I mean thinking so much about it, don't you know? I fancy it's the result of living in a small city where there are only a few hundred people between you and the top instead of a few hundred thousand. I express, myself so badly, but what I mean is--as I make it out--it is, with you, a case of so near and yet so far. In a great city like London now (great in generations--centuries--as well as in numbers) you'd just accept the bare fact and go about your business. Not a ghost of a show, don't you see? Here you've just missed it, and, the middle class always flowing into the upper class, you feel that you should get your chance any minute. Ought to have had it long ago....I can't imagine, for instance, that if my mother had married the son of my grandfather's partner that I should have wasted much time wondering why I wasn't asked to the Elizabethan Hail on the hill. Of course I don't mean there isn't envy enough in the old countries, but it's more passive...without hope...."
He felt awkward and officious but he was sorry for her and would have liked to discharge his debt by helping her toward a new point of view, if possible.
She replied: "That's easy to say, and besides you are a man. My brother, who is only a clerk in a wholesale house, has been taken up and goes everywhere. They don't know that I even exist."
"Well, that's their loss," he said gallantly. "Can't you make 'em sit tip, some way? Women make fortunes sometimes, these days, And they're in about everything except the Army and Navy. Business? Or haven't you a talent of some sort? You have--pardon me again, but we have been uncommonly personal to-night--a strong and individual face...and personality; no doubt of that."
Gora would far rather he had told her she was pretty and irresistible, but she thrilled to his praise, nevertheless. It was the first compliment she had ever received from any man but the commonplace and unimportant friends her brother had brought home occasionally before he had been introduced to society; he took good care to bring home none of his new friends.
Her heart leapt toward this exalted young Englishman, who might have stepped direct from one of the novels of his land and class...even the stern and anxious moderns who had made England's middle-class the fashion, occasionally drew a well-bred and attractive man from life....She turned to him with a smile that banished the somber ironic expression of her face, illuminating it as if the drooping spirit within had suddenly lit a torch and held it behind those strange pale eyes.
"I'll tell you what I've never told any one--but my teacher; I've taken lessons with him for a year. He is an instructor in the technique of the short story, and has turned out quite a few successful magazine writers. He believes that I have talent. I have been studying over at the University to the same end--English, biology, psychology, sociology. I'm determined not to start as a raw amateur. Oh! Perhaps I have made a mistake in telling you. You may be one of those men that are repelled by intellectual women!"
"Not a bit of it. Don't belong to that class of duffers anyway. I don't like masculine women, or hard women--run from a lot of our girls that are so hard a diamond wouldn't cut 'em. But I've got an elder sister--she's thirty now--who's the cleverest woman I ever met, although she doesn't pretend to do anything. She won't bother with any but clever and exceptional people--has something of a salon. My parents hate it--she lives alone in a flat in London--but they can't help it. My grandfather Doubleton liked her a lot and left her two thousand a year. I wish you knew her. She is charming and feminine, as much so as any of those I met at the ball; and so are many of the women that go to her flat--"
"Don't you think I am feminine?" asked Gora irrisistibly. He had a way of making her feel, quite abruptly, as if she had run a needle under her fingernail.
Once more he turned to her his detached but keen young eyes.
"Well...not exactly in the sense I mean. You look too much the fighter...but that may be purely the result of circumstances," he added hastily: the strange eyes under their heavy down-drawn browns were lowering at him. "You are not masculine, no, not a bit."
Once more Miss Dwight curled her upper lip. "I wonder if you would have said the first part of that if you had met me at the Hofer ball and I had worn a gown of flame-colored chiffon and satin, and my hair marcelled like every other woman present--except those embalmed relics of the seventies, who, I have heard, rise from the grave whenever a great ball is given, and appear in a built-up red-brown wig....And a string of pearls round my throat? My neck and arms are quite good; although I've never possessed an evening gown, I know I'd look quite well in one...my best."
He laughed. "It does make a difference. I wish you had been there. I am sure you are as good a dancer as you are a pal. But still...I think I should have recognized the fighter, even if you had been born in the California equivalent for the purple. I fancy you would have found some cause or other to get your teeth into once in a while. Tell me, don't you rather like the idea of taking Life by the throat and forcing it to deliver?"
"I wonder?...perhaps...but that does not mitigate my resentment that I am on the outside of everything when I belong on the in. I should never have been forced to strive after what is mine by natural right."
"Well, don't let it make a socialist of you. That is such a cheap revenge on society....Confession of failure; and nothing in it."
He looked at his watch: "Eight o'clock. I'll be getting on to the Presidio. Why don't you come with me?"
Gora's feminine instincts arose from a less perverted source than her social. She shook her head with a smile.
"I don't want to go any farther from my house. I shall slip down my first chance; and I have plenty to eat. Perhaps you will come to see me before you go if my house is spared."
"Rather. What is the number? And if the house goes I'll find you somehow."
He took her hand in both his and shook it warmly. "You are the best pal in the world--"
"Now don't make me a nice little speech. I'm only too glad. Go out to the Presidio and get a hot breakfast and attend--to--to your affairs. I am sure everything will be all right, although you may not be able to get away as soon as you hope."
"I don't like leaving you alone here--"
"Alone?" She waved her hand at the hundreds of recumbent forms in the cemeteries and on the lower slopes of Calvary. "I probably shall never be so well protected again. Please go."
He shook her hand once more, ran down the hill, turned and waved his cap, and trudged off in the direction of the Presidio.
She slept in her own house that night, for dynamiting by miners summoned from Grass Valley by General Funston, and a change of wind, had saved the western portion of the city. For the first time in her life Gora experienced a sense of profound gratitude, almost of happiness. She felt that only a little more would make her quite happy. Her lodgers, even her absorbed brother, noticed that her manner, her expression, had perceptibly softened. She herself noticed it most of all.