The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Rincona had been named in honor of Rincon Hill, where Tom Abbott's grandmother had reigned in the sixties; a day, when in order to call on her amiable rival, Mrs. Ballinger, her stout carriage horses were obliged to plow through miles of sand hills, and to make innumerable detours to avoid the steep masses of rock, over which in her grandson's day cable car and trolley glided so lightly until that morning of April eighteen, nineteen hundred and six.
When her husband, in common with other distinguished citizens, bought an estate in the San Mateo Valley, she named it Rincona, to the secret wrath of other eminent ladies who had not thought of it in time.
The house had as little pretensions to architectural beauty as others of its era, but it was a large compact structure of some thirty rooms, exclusive of the servants' quarters, and with as many outbuildings as a Danish, farm. Long French windows opened upon a wide piazza, whose pillars had disappeared long since under a luxuriant growth of rose vines and wistaria. At its base was a bed of Parma violets, whose fragrance a westerly breeze wafted to the end of the avenue a quarter of a mile away. All about the house, breaking the smooth lawns, were beds and trees of flowers, at this time of the year a glowing exotic mass of color; but in the park that made up the greater part of the estate exclusive of the farms, the grass under the superb oaks was merely clipped, the weeds and undergrowth removed. The oaks had been evenly shorn of their lower branches, which gave them a formal and somewhat arrogant expression, as of cardinals and kings lifting their skirts.
Alexina hated the enormous rooms with their high frescoed ceilings and heavy Victorian furniture; but Maria Abbott loved and revered the old house, emblem that it was of a secure proud family that had defied that detestable (and disturbing) old phrase: "Three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves." The Abbotts, like the Ballingers and Groomes and Gearys and many others of that ilk, had not come to California in the fifties and sixties as adventurers, but with all that was needed to give them immediate prestige in the new community; and, among those that still retained their estates in the San Mateo Valley, at least, there was as little prospect of their reversion to shirt sleeves as of their conversion to the red shirt of socialism. Their wealth might be moderate but it was solid and steadfast.
The entertaining of the Abbotts, Yorbas, Hathaways, Montgomerys, Brannans, Trennahans, and others of what Alexina irreverently called the A.A., had always been ostentatiously simple, albeit a butler and a staff of maids had contributed to their excessive comfort. In the eighties, evening toilettes during the summer were considered immoral; but by degrees, as time tooled in its irresistible modernities, they gradually fell into the habit of wearing out their winter party gowns at the evening diversions of the country season. Burlingame, that borough of concentrated opulence founded in the early nineties as a fashionable colony, began its career with a certain amount of simplicity; but its millions increased to tens of millions; and what in heaven's name, as Mrs. Clement Hunter, a leader and an individual, once remarked, is the use of having money if you don't dress and entertain as you would dream of dressing and entertaining if you didn't have a cent?
Mrs. Hunter, who had formed an incongruous and somewhat hostile alliance with Mrs. Abbott, knew that her valuable friend, like others of that "small and early" band, resented the fact that their standards no longer counted outside of their own set. Mrs. Abbott had turned a haughty shoulder to Mrs. Hunter for a time, for she remembered her as, in their school days, the socially obscure Lidie McKann; now, however, her husband turning all he touched to gold, she had, incredibly, become one of the most important women in San Francisco and Burlingame.
When Maria Abbott finally succumbed she assured herself that curiosity to see the more ambushed glitter of that meretricious faubourg had nothing to do with it; it was easy to persuade herself that she hoped, being an indisputably smart woman herself, gradually to impose her simpler and more appropriate standards upon these people who sorely threatened the continued dominance of the old regime.
Mrs. Hunter soon disabused her of any such notion, and during the early days of their acquaintance, after Mrs. Abbott came to one of her luncheons attired in a pique skirt and severe shirtwaist, impeccably cut and worn, but entirely out of place in an Italian palace, where forty fashionable women, some of whom had motored sixty miles to attend the function, were dressed as they would be at a Newport luncheon, Mrs. Hunter attended the next solemn affair at Rincona so overdressed and made up that the outraged Altarinos (as Alexina irreverently called them) were reduced to a horrified silence that was almost hysterical.
But one morning Mrs. Abbott caught Mrs. Hunter digging in her private vegetable garden behind the palace, and wearing a garment that her second gardener's wife would have scorned, her unblemished face beaming under a battered straw hat. Both women had the humor to laugh, and their intimacy dated from that moment, Mrs. Hunter confessing that stuff on her face made her sick; but adding that she adored dress and thought that any rich woman was a fool who didn't.
After that there was a compromise on both sides. Mrs. Hunter lunched or dined at Rincona in her simplest frocks and Mrs. Abbott wore her best when honoring Mrs. Hunter and others at Burlingame. She even went so far as to have some extremely smart silk voiles (the fashionable material of the moment) and linens made, and when asked to a wedding, a garden party, or a great function given to some visitor of distinction, complimented the occasion to the limit of her resources.
Mrs. Hunter, in white duck, a sailor hat perched above her angular somewhat masculine face, was sitting on the Abbott verandah as the two Englishmen drove up. She waved her cigarette and cried gayly in her hearty resonant voice:
"Two men! What luck! And in time for lunch. I've hardly seen a man since the first day of the fire. Leave your car anywhere and come in out of the sun. I'll call Maria, and, incidentally, mention whiskey and soda."
"The whiskey and soda is all right," said Gwynne mopping his brow; Nature, having wreaked her worst on California, seemed determined to atone by unseasonably brilliant weather, and the day under the blazing blue vault was very hot.
Mrs. Abbott appeared in a few moments, smiling, cool, in immaculate white, the collar of her shirtwaist high and unwilted. Her weather-beaten face looked years older than Mrs. Hunter's, who, although plain by comparison with the once beautiful Maria Groome, had treated her clean healthy skin with marked respect.
But as the butler had preceded her with whiskey and soda and ice, Mrs. Abbott might already have achieved the mahogany tints of her mother and she would have been regarded as enthusiastically by two hot and dusty men.
"Of course you will stay to luncheon," she said as naturally as she had said it these many years, and as two hospitable generations had said it on that verandah before her. She turned to young Gathbroke with a smile, for Mrs. Hunter, who was in her confidence, had detained her for a moment with a few sharp incisive words. "I have a very bored little sister, who will be glad to sit next to a young man once more."
And although Gathbroke almost frowned at this fresh reminder of the callow years of the girl whose sheer loveliness had haunted his imagination, he went off with a not disagreeable titillation of the nerves, at Mrs. Abbott's suggestion, to find her in the park and bring her back to luncheon in half an hour.