Book I
Chapter XI
 

I

Gathbroke met Alexina Groome again a week later.

On Saturday, when the fire was over, and she could retreat decently and in good order, Mrs. Groome, to her young daughter's secret anguish, had consented to rest her nerves for a fortnight at Rincona, Mrs. Abbott's home in Alta.

As Gora had predicted, Gathbroke found that it would have been hardly more difficult to move his sister's body, now at an undertaker's in Fillmore Street, out of the state in war-time than in the wake of a city's disaster, which was scattering its population to every point of the railroad compass. He had refused the space in the baggage car offered to him by the company; it should: be a private car or nothing; and for that, in spite of all the influence Gwynne and his powerful friends could bring to bear, he must wait.

Meanwhile Gwynne had asked him to stay with himself and his mother, Lady Victoria Gwynne, at the house of his fiancee, Isabel Otis, on Russian Hill; a massive cliff rising above one of the highest of the city's northern hills, whose old houses, clinging to its steep sides had escaped the fire that roared about its base. To-day it was a green and lofty oasis in the midst of miles of smoking ruins.

Gathbroke was as nervous as only a young Englishman within his immemorial armor can be. Gwynne, who had gone through the same nerve-racking crisis, although from different causes, understood what he suffered and pressed him into service in the distribution of government rations, and garments to the different refugee camps. But Gathbroke had the active imagination of intelligent youth, and he never forgot to blame himself for lingering in New York with some interesting chaps he had met on the Majestic, and afterward in Southern California, seduced by its soft climate and violent color. Unquestionably, if he had stayed on his job, as these expressive Americans put it, his sister would have been in New York, possibly on the Atlantic Ocean when San Francisco shook herself to ruin.

"But not necessarily alive," said Lady Victoria callously, removing her cigar, her heavy eyes that looked like empty volcanos, staring down over the smoldering waste. "People with heart disease don't invariably wait for an earthquake to jolt them out of life. Assume that her time had come and think of something else or you'll become a silly ass of a neurotic."

Gwynne, more sympathetic, continued to find him what distraction he could, and one day drove him down the Peninsula with a message from the Committee of Fifty to Tom Abbott; who had caught a heavy cold during those three days when he had driven a car filled with dynamite and had had scarcely an hour for rest. He was now at home in bed.

II

The Abbott's place, Rincona, stood on a foothill behind the other estates of Alta and surrounded by a park of two hundred acres set thick with magnificent oaks. Gathbroke had never seen finer ones in England or France. Gwynne before entering the avenue drove to an elevation above the house and stopped the car for a moment.

The great San Mateo valley looked like a close forest of ancient oaks broken inartistically by the roofs of houses shorn of their chimneys. Beyond, on the eastern side of a shallow southern arm of the Bay of San Francisco, was the long range of the Contra Costa mountains, its waving indented slopes incredibly graceful in outline and lovely in color. Gwynne had pointed out their ever changing tints and shades as they drove through the valley; at the moment they were heliotrope deepening to purple in the hollows.

Behind the foothills above Rincona rose the lofty mountains which in Maria Abbott's youth had seemed to tower above the valley a solid wall of redwoods; but long since plundered and defaced for the passing needs of man.

"Great country--what?" said Gwynne, starting the car. "You couldn't pry me away from it--that is, unless I have the luck to represent it in Washington half the year. You'll be coming back yourself some day."

"I? Never. I hate the sight of its grinning blue sky after the red horror of those three days. I haven't seen a cloud as big as my hand, and in common decency it should howl and stream for months."

"Well, forget it for a day. Perhaps you will be placed next the fair Alexina at luncheon--"

"Alexina...?"

"Groome. You must have met her at the Hofer ball."

"She--what--possible--"

Gwynne looked at his stuttering and flushed young cousin and burst into laughter.

"As bad as that, was it? Well, she's not bespoken as far as I know. Wade in and win. You have my blessing. She is almost as beautiful as Isabel--"

"She's quite as beautiful as Miss Otis."

"Oh, very well. No doubt I'd think so myself if I hadn't happened to meet Isabel first, and if I were not too old for her anyway."

Gwynne could think of no better remedy for demoralized nerves than a flirtation with a resourceful California girl, and if Dick annexed a living companion for his trying journey to England so much the better.

Gathbroke's excitement subsided quickly. He was in no condition for sustained enthusiasm. He felt as if quite ten years had passed since he had half fallen in love with Alexina Groome in a ball room that was now a charred heap in the sodden wreck of a city he barely could conjure in memory.

Besides, he had half fallen in love so often. And she was too young. He had really been more drawn to that strange Miss Dwight; upon whom, however, he had not yet called.

He felt thankful that the girl was too young for his critical taste. He wanted nothing more at present in the way of emotions.