The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The city below--the new solid city--was obliterated under a heavy fog, pierced here and there by steeples and towers that looked like jagged dark rocks in that white and tranquil sea.
On Angel Island and on the north shore of the bay the deep sad bells were tolling their warning to moving craft; and from out at sea, beyond the Golden Gate, the fog horn sent forth its long lugubrious groans. The bells sounded muffled, so dense was the fog, and there was no other sound in the sleeping city.
Alexina wrapped her long cloak more closely about her and pulled the hood over her head.
As she walked slowly down the steep avenue it came to her with something of a shock that she had not thought of her husband since she had expressed to Gora her reluctance to disturb him.
She was doing the least conventional thing possible in leaving the house at four o'clock in the morning to seek the sympathy of a girl friend when any other young wife she knew (unless getting a divorce) would have flown to her husband and wept out her sorrow in his arms.
And she had been married only three years, and found Mortimer quite as irreproachable as ever, always kind, thoughtful, and considerate. He assuredly would have said just the right things to her and not have resented in the least being deprived of a few hours of rest.
On the contrary, he would no doubt resent being ignored, for not only was he devoted to his lovely young wife but such behavior was unorthodox, and he disliked the unorthodox exceedingly.
Well, she didn't want him and that was the end of it. He didn't fill the present bill. She had never regretted her marriage, for he had quite measured up to the best feats of her maiden imagination. He made love charmingly, he was manly chivalrous and honorable, and his eager spontaneity of manner when he arrived home at six o'clock every evening never varied; to whatever level of flatness he might drop immediately afterward. When they entered a ballroom or a restaurant she knew that they made a "stunning couple" and that people commented upon their good looks, their harmonious slenderness and inches, and contrasts in nature's coloring.
Alexina, almost unconsciously, sat down on a bench under the trees. Her mind sought the pleasant past as a brief respite from the present; she knew that that part of her mind called heart was frozen by the suddenness of her mother's death, and that her emotions would be fluid a few hours hence.
They had had a simply heavenly time together until her mother's illness. As a clerk in the family was unthinkable Mrs. Groome had lent him the insurance on one of her burned buildings and he had started a modest exporting and importing house, that being the only business of which he had any knowledge. Judge Lawton and Tom Abbott had suggested that he open an insurance office, or start himself in any business where little capital besides office furniture was needed; as Mrs. Groome's advisors they were averse to launching any of her moderate fortune on a doubtful venture. But Dwight had insisted that he was more likely to succeed in a business he understood than in one of which he knew nothing, and Mrs. Groome had agreed with him. Judge Lawton and Abbott paid over the insurance money with the worst grace possible.
And then Mortimer had a piece of the most astounding good luck. His aunt Eliza Goring had left stock in a mine which had run out of pay ore soon after her investment, and shut down. It had recently been recapitalized and a new vein discovered. Mrs. Goring's executor had sold her stock for something under twenty thousand dollars, delivering the proceeds, as directed in her will, to two of her amazed heirs, Mortimer and Gora Dwight.
Gora had been opposed to her brother leaving the firm of Cheever Harrison and Cheever, where, beyond question, he would be head of a department in time and safely anchored for life; but he had taken the step, and she reasoned that he must have a considerable knowledge of a business with which he had been associated for fourteen years, she knew his energy and powers of application, and she resented the attitude of "the family." Appreciating what his triumph would mean to him she had consented to invest her inheritance in his business and enable him to make immediate restitution to Mrs. Groome. As a matter of fact his "stock did go up" with the family, particularly as he seemed to be doing well and had the reputation of working harder than any young man on the street. As he had anticipated, a good deal of business was thrown his way.
He had accepted as a matter of course Mrs. Groome's invitation to live with her, paying, as he insisted upon it, a stipulated sum toward the current expenses. He thought her offer quite natural; not only would she be lonely without the child of her old age, but she must desire that Alexina continue to live in the conditions to which she was accustomed; the sum Mrs. Groome consented to accept would not have kept them in a fashionable family hotel, much less an apartment with several servants.
Moreover, housing room was scarce; they might have been obliged to live across the Bay; and, in his opinion, the duty of parents to their offspring never ceased.
Alexina at that time thought every sentiment he expressed "simply great," and had continued to feed from her mother's hand even in the matter of pin money. Mortimer felt it to be right, so he told her, to put his surplus profits back in his business; all he could spare he needed for "front," to say nothing of pleasant little dinners at restaurants to their hospitable young friends; who thought it no adequate return to be asked to dine on Ballinger Hill.
Moreover, he often gave her a far handsomer present than he should have done, considering the "hard times;" or at least she would have preferred that he give her the combined values in the form of a monthly allowance; she would have enjoyed the sensation of being in a measure supported by her husband.
However, she and her mother assured each other that he was bound to make a fortune in time, and then she would have an allowance as large as that of Sibyl Thorndyke, who had married Frank Bascom.
It had been like playing at marriage. Alexina put it into concrete words. Subconsciously she had always known it. She had had no cares, no responsibilities. She had merely continued to play, to keep her imagination on that plane sometimes called the fool's paradise.
She realized abruptly that here was the secret of her longing for children. They would have been the real thing, given a serious translation to life.
But she had enjoyed the gay life of her little world, nevertheless, and with all the abandon of a youth which had just closed its first long chapter in that silent room on top of the hill. And no one could have asked for a more delightful companion to play with than Morty, when his working hours were over.
Mortimer loved society. It had been simply delicious, poor darling, to watch his secret delight, under his perfect repose, the first time they spent a week-end in Mrs. Hunter's magnificent "villa" at Burlingame. Even Aileen had treated his initiation as a matter of course; and they had spent the afternoon at the club, where he drank whiskey and soda on equal terms with many millionaires.
It was doubtful if he enjoyed similarly his first visit to Rincona during their engagement: after all the powwow was over and the family had grimly surrendered to avoid the scandal of an elopement.
Alexina recalled that dreadful day. They had all sat on the verandah on the shady side of the house: her mother, Aunt Clara Groome, Maria, Susan Belling and Grace Montgomery, Tom Abbott's sisters, whose homes were in Alta, and Coralie Geary, born Brannan, of Fair Oaks (now Atherton) who had married a nephew of Mrs. Groome. All these were as one united family. They met every day, wandering in and out at all hours, and although they had many healthy disagreements they agreed on all the fine old fundamentals, and they stood by one another through thick and thin.
The hair of all looked freshly washed. Their complexions had perished asking no quarter. Mrs. Montgomery and Mrs. Geary were as slim and smart as Mrs. Abbott, but the others were expanding rapidly, and Aunt Clara, who was only a year older than Mrs. Groome, was shamelessly fat, and her face was so weather-beaten that the freckled skin hung as loosely as her old wrapper.
All wore white, the simplest white, and all sewed quietly for the new refugee babies; all except Alexina who talked feverishly to cover the awful pauses, and young Joan, who had crawled under the table and stuffed an infant's flannel petticoat into her mouth to muffle her giggles.
Tom had escaped to the golf links. Mortimer sat in the midst of the Irregular circle and smoked three cigars. He smiled when he spoke, which was seldom, and appeared appreciative of the determined efforts to be "nice" of these ladies who had called him Mortimer as soon as he arrived, and who made him fed more like a poor relation whose feelings must be spared, every moment.
Finally Alexina, who was on the verge of hysteria, dragged Joan from under the table, and the two carried him off to the tennis court.
In subsequent visits, now covering a period of three years, their gracious civil "kind" attitude had never varied, save only when their consciences hurt them for disliking him more than usual, and then they were not only heroic but fairly effusive in their efforts to be nice.
Nevertheless, it was quite patent to Alexina that he enjoyed smoking his after-dinner cigar on that old verandah whose sweet-scented vines had been planted in the historic sixties; or under the ancient oaks of the park where he dreamed aloud to her of sitting under similar oaks of England, the guest of Lady Barnstable or Lady Arrowmount, belles of the eighties who faithfully exchanged letters once a year with Maria Abbott and Coralie Geary.
From the family there was always the refuge of the tennis court and he played an excellent game. He also seemed to enjoy those dinners given them in certain other old Peninsula mansions, and if they were dull he was duller.
Alexina had admitted to herself some time since (never to that wretch, Aileen Lawton) that he was rather dull, poor darling.
For a long time the aftermath of the earthquake and fire had supplied topics for conversation. For quite two years there had been an acutely painful interest in the Graft Prosecution, which, beginning with an attempt merely to bring to justice the political boss, his henchman the mayor, and his ignorant obedient board of supervisors, had unthinkably resolved itself into a declaration of war, with State's Prison as its goal, upon some of the most prominent capitalists in San Francisco.
The prosecution had been started by a small group of eminent citizens, bent upon cleaning up their city, notorious for graft, misgovernment, and the basest abuses of political power. They had assumed as a matter of course that those of their own class, who for years had expressed in private their bitter resentment against paying out small fortunes to the board of supervisors every time they wanted a franchise, would be only too glad to expose the malefactors.
But it immediately transpired that they had no intention whatever of admitting to the world that they had been guilty of corruption and bribery. They might have been "held up," forced to "come through," or renounce their great enterprises; helpless, in other words; but the law had technical terms for their part in the shameful transactions, and so had the public.
All solemnly vowed that they had neither been approached by the city administration for bribe money, nor paid a cent for franchises, some of which the prosecution knew had cost them no less than two hundred thousand dollars. Therefore did the prosecutors change their tactics. Supervisors, by various means, were induced to confess, and the Grand Jury indicted not only the boss and the mayor, but a large number of eminent citizens.
Society was riven in twain. Life-long friends cut one another, and now and again they burst into hysteria as they did it. Mrs. Ferdinand Thornton, at a dinner party, left the room as Mrs. Hofer entered it, and Mrs. Hofer gave a magnificent exhibition of Celtic temperament.
The editor who supported the prosecution with the full strength of his historic sheet was kidnapped. The prosecuting attorney was shot in the court room by a former convict who afterward was found dead in his cell. There were moments when it looked as if excited mobs would reinstitute the lynch law of the fifties.
Nothing came of it all but such a prolonged exposure of general vileness that it was possible to effect a certain number of reforms later by popular vote. The system remained inviolate, even during the mayorship of a fine old citizen too estimable to build up a rival machine; and the men of the prosecution, after many bitter harassed months, when they walked and slept with their lives in their hands, resigned themselves to the fact that no San Francisco jury would ever convict a man who had the money to bribe it.
All this had given Mortimer abundant material for conversation and he had entertained Mrs. Groome and Alexina night after night with a report of the day's events and the gossip of the street. Mrs. Groome had been intensely interested, for this upheaval reminded her of personal episodes in the life of her husband and father, the latter having been a member of the vigilance committees of the fifties.
She had been so delighted with the efforts of the prosecuting group to bring the boss and the mayor to justice that she had permitted Alexina to invite the Hofers to dinner; but when men of her own proud circle were accused of crimes against society and threatened with San Quentin, nothing could convince her of their guilt; and she asked Alexina to follow the example of Maria and cut that Mrs. Hofer.
Alexina had never been interested in the details of the prosecution; the large moments of the drama and the social convulsions were enough for her. She refused to cut Mrs. Hofer, although she ceased to call on her, as her mother and her husband made such a point of it; but she gave little thought to the sorrows of that ambitious young matron. She had other fish to fry.
Two great hotels whose interiors had been swept by the fire were renovated and furnished and their restaurants and ballrooms eagerly patronized. The Assembly balls were resumed. There were dinners and dances in the Western Addition, where many of the finest homes in the city had been built during the past ten or twenty years; and entertaining Down the Peninsula had not paused for more than two months after the disaster.
Nevertheless, she had exulted in the fact that the husband of her choice was able to please and entertain her mother-no easy feat. Moreover, as time went on and interest in the Graft Prosecution wore thin, it was evident that Mortimer had established himself firmly in his mother-in-law's graces. He was not only the perfect husband but the son of her old age.
She had lost Ballinger and Geary in her comparative youth, and Tom was rarely in the house when she visited Rincona. But Mortimer was as devoted to her in the little ways so appreciated by women of any age as he was to his wife, and he was noiseless in the house and as prompt as the clock. During her illness his devotion touched even Mrs. Abbott, although Mrs. Groome was the only member of the family he ever won over.
Poor Morty. In a way he was a failure, after all. The men of her set did not seem to care any more for him than they did before her marriage, although they were always polite and amiable; and the promise of those old family friends to throw business in his way seemed to be forgotten as time went on.
No doubt they had thought he was able to stand on his own feet after a while, but he had often looked depressed during the panic of nineteen-seven and the long period of business drought that had followed. Still, he had managed to hold his own, and his constitutional optimism was unshaken. He knew that when times changed he would soon be a rich man, and Alexina shared his faith. Not that she had ever cared particularly for great wealth, but he talked so much about it that he had excited her imagination; after all money was the thing these days, no doubt of that, and she had heard "poor talk" all her life and was tired of it.
Moreover, nothing could be more positive than that if Morty's father had made a fortune in his own day, and the son inherited and administered it with the canny vigilance which distinguished the sons of rich men to-day from the mad spendthrifts of a former generation, he would be as logically intimate with those young capitalists who were the renewed pillars of San Francisco society, as she was with the most aloof and important of her own sex.
She had heard Judge Lawton and other men say that if a man were still a clerk at thirty he was hopeless. The ruts were packed with the mediocre whose destiny was the routine work of the world, whatever might be their secret opinions of their unrecognized abilities and their resentment against a system that anchored them.
The young man of brains and initiative, of energy, ambition, vision and balance, provided he were honorable as well, and temperate in his pleasures, was the man the eager world was always waiting for.
Alexina knew that the United States was almost as prolific in this fine breed of young men as she still was in opportunities for the exceptional of every class.
And it was possible that Mortimer was not one of them.
Once more she put a fact into bald words. She knew that her butterfly youth had come to an end with her mother's death, and for a year she should be very much alone, to say nothing of her new burden of responsibilities. Thinking during that period was inevitable. She might as well begin now.
Mortimer had some of those gifts. He worked like a dog, he was ambitious and temperate and he was the soul of honor. But although his brain was clear enough, the blindest love would, perceive in time that it lacked originality.
Did it also lack initiative, resource, that peculiar alertness and quick pouncing quality of which she had heard? She wished she knew, but she had never discussed her husband with any one. Certainly he had stood still. Or was that merely the fault of the hard times? She had heard other men complain as bitterly.
"Fate handed you a lemon, old girl."
Alexina could almost hear Aileen's mocking voice. She even gave a startled glance down the quiet avenue. Well, she would never discuss him with Aileen or any one else.
Did she love him any longer? Had she ever loved him? What was love? She had been quite happy with him in her own little way. What did girls of eighteen know of love? Deliberately in her youthful arrogance and unlicensed imagination she had manufactured a fool's paradise; and, a hero being indispensable, had dragged him in after her.
Perhaps she still loved him. She had read and seen enough to know that love changed its character as the years went on. She respected his many admirable qualities and she would never forget his devotion to her mother.
She certainly liked him. And the family attitude roused her obstinate championship as much as ever. At least she would always remain his good friend, helping him as far as lay in her power. She had deliberately selected her life partner and she would keep her part of the contract. He filled his to the letter, or as far as in him lay. If he were not the masterful superman of her dreams, at least he was quite obstinate enough to have his own way in many things, in spite of his unswerving devotion to her charming self. He was whitely angry when she received Bob Cheever one afternoon when she was alone, and had forbidden her ever to receive a man in the daytime again. If men wanted to call on a married woman they could do so in the evening. She no longer danced more than twice with any man at a party, and he refused to read her favorite books, new or old, and chilled any attempt to discuss them in his presence.
Well, after all, what did it matter? She had dreamed her dream and he was better than most. She sprang to her feet and ran down the hill and across the street to the house of Judge Lawton.