The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
She was quite breathless as she reached the eucalyptus grove and paused for a moment before slipping into the house and climbing the stairs.
The city lying in the valleys and on the hills arrested her attention, for it was a long while since she had been awake and out of doors at five in the morning.
It looked like the ghost of a city in that pallid dawn. The houses seemed to have huddled together as if in fear before they sank into sleep, to crouch close to the earth as if warding off a blow. Only the ugly dome of the City Hall, the church steeples, and the old shot tower held up their heads, and they had an almost terrifying sharpness of outline, of alertness, as if ready to spring.
In that far-off district known as "South of Market Street," which she had never entered save in a closed carriage on her way to the Southern Pacific Station or to pay a yearly call on some old family that still dwelt on that oasis, Rincon Hill--sole outpost of the social life of the sixties--infrequent thin lines of smoke rose from humble chimneys. It was the region of factories and dwellings of the working-class, but its inhabitants were not early risers in these days of high wages and short hours.
Even those gray spirals ascended as if the atmosphere lay heavy on them. They accentuated the lifelessness, the petrifaction, the intense and sinister quiet of the prostrate city.
Alexina shuddered and her volatile spirits winged their way down into those dark and intuitive depths of her mind she had never found time to plumb. She knew that the hour of dawn was always still, but she had never imagined a stillness so complete, so final as this. Nor was there any fresh lightness in the morning air. It seemed to press downward like an enormous invisible bat; or like the shade of buried cities, vain outcroppings of a vanished civilization, brooding menacingly over this recent flimsy accomplishment of man that Nature could obliterate with a sneer.
Alexina, holding her breath, glanced upward. That ghost of evening's twilight, the sad gray of dawn, had retreated, but not before the crimson rays of sunrise. The unflecked arc above was a hard and steely blue. It looked as if marsh lights would play over its horrid surface presently, and then come crashing down as the pillars of the earth gave way.
Alexina was a child of California and knew what was coming. She barely had time to brace herself when she saw the sleeping city jar as if struck by a sudden squall, and with the invisible storm came a loud menacing roar of imprisoned forces making a concerted rush for freedom.
She threw her arms about one of the trees, but it was bending and groaning with an accent of fear, a tribute it would have scorned to offer the mighty winds of the Pacific. Alexina sprang clear of it and unable to keep her feet sat down on the bouncing earth.
Then she remembered that it was a rigid convention among real Californians to treat an earthquake as a joke, and began to laugh. There was nothing hysterical in this perfunctory tribute to the lesser tradition and it immediately restored her courage. Moreover, the curiosity she felt for all phases of life, psychical and physical, and her naive delight in everything that savored of experience, caused her to stare down upon the city now tossing and heaving like the sea in a hurricane, with an almost impersonal interest.
The houses seemed to clutch at their precarious foundations even while they danced to the tune of various and appalling noises. Above the ascending roar of the earthquake Alexina heard the crashing of steeples, the dome of the City Hall, of brick buildings too hastily erected, of ten thousand falling chimneys; of creaking and grinding timbers, and of the eucalyptus trees behind her, whose leaves rustled with a shrill rising whisper that seemed addressed to heaven; the neighing and pawing of horses in the stables, the sharp terrified yelps of dogs; and through all a long despairing wail. The mountains across the bay and behind the city were whirling in a devil's dance and the scattered houses on their slopes looked like drunken gnomes. The shot tower bowed low and solemnly but did not fall.
As the earth with a final leap and twist settled abruptly into peace, the streets filled suddenly with people, many in their nightclothes, but more in dressing-gowns, opera cloaks, and overcoats. All were silent and apparently self-possessed. Whence came that long wail no one ever knew.
Alexina, remembering her own attire, sprang to her feet and ran through the little side door and up the stair, praying that her mother, with her usual monumental poise, would have disdained to rise. She had never been known to leave her room before eight.
But as Alexina ran along the upper hall she became only too aware that Mrs. Groome had surrendered to Nature, for she was pounding on her door and in a haughty but quivering voice demanding to be let out.
Alexina tiptoed lightly to the threshold of her room and called out sympathetically:
"What is the matter, mother dear! Has your door sprung?"
"It has. Tell James to come here at once and bring a crow-bar if necessary."
Alexina let down her hair and tore off her evening gown, kicking it into a closet, then threw on a bathrobe and ran over to the servants' quarters in an extension behind the house. They were deserted, but wild shrieks and gales of unseemly laughter arose from the yard. She opened a window and saw the cook, a recent importation, on the ground in hysterics, the housemaid throwing water on her, and the inherited butler calmly lighting his pipe,
"James," she called. "My mother's door is jammed. Please come right away."
"Yes, miss." He knocked his pipe against the wall and ground out the life of the coal with his slippered heel. "Just what happened to your grandmother in the 'quake of sixty-eight. I mind the time I had getting her out."
It was quite half an hour before the door yielded to the combined efforts of James and the gardener-coachman, and during the interval Mrs. Groome recovered her poise and made her morning toilette.
She had taken her iron-gray hair from its pins and patted the narrow row of frizzes into place; the flat side bands, the concise coil of hair on top were as severely disdainful of untoward circumstance or passing fashion as they had been any morning these forty years or more.
She wore old-fashioned corsets and was abdominally correct for her years; a long gown of black voile with white polka dots, and a guimpe of white net whose raff of chiffon somewhat disguised the wreck of her throat. On her shoulders, disposed to rheumatism, she wore a tippet of brown marabout feathers, and in her ears long jet earrings.
She had the dark brown eyes of the Ballingers, but they were bleared at the rims, and on the downward slope of her fine aquiline nose she wore spectacles that looked as if mounted in cast iron. Altogether an imposing relic; and "that built-up look" as Aileen expressed it, was the only one that would have suited her mental style. Mrs. Abbott, who dressed with a profound regard for fashion, had long since concluded that her mother's steadfast alliance with the past not only became her but was a distinct family asset. Only a woman of her overpowering position could afford it.
Mrs. Groome's skin had never felt the guilty caress of cold-cream or powder, and if it was mahogany in tint and deeply wrinkled, it was at least as respectable as her past. In her day that now bourgeois adjective--twin to genteel--had been synchronous with the equally obsolete word swell, but it had never occurred to even the more modern Mrs. Abbott and her select inner circle of friends, dwelling on family estates in the San Mateo valley, to change in this respect at least with the changing times.
Alexina had washed the powder from her own fresh face and put on a morning frock of green and brown gingham, made not by her mother's dressmaker but by her sister's. Her soft dusky hair, regardless of the fashion of the moment, was brushed back from her forehead and coiled at the base of her beautiful little head. Her long widely set gray eyes, their large irises very dark and noticeably brilliant even for youth, had the favor of black lashes as fine and lusterless as her hair, and very narrow black polished eyebrows. Her skin was a pale olive lightly touched with color, although the rather large mouth with its definitely curved lips was scarlet. Her long throat like the rest of her body was white.
All the other children had been clean-cut Ballingers or Groomes, consistently dark or fair; but it would seem that Nature, taken by surprise when the little Alexina came along several years after her mother was supposed to have discharged her debt, had mixed the colors hurriedly and quite forgotten her usual nice proportions.
The face, under the soft lines of youth, was less oval than it looked, for the chin was square and the jaw bone accentuated. The short straight thin nose reclaimed the face and head from too classic a regularity, and the thin nostrils drew in when she was determined and shook quite alarmingly when she was angry.
These more significant indications of her still embryonic personality were concealed by the lovely curves and tints of her years, the brilliant happy candid eyes (which she could convert into a madonna's by the simple trick of lifting them a trifle and showing a lower crescent of devotional white), the love of life and eagerness to enjoy that radiated from her thin admirably proportioned body, which, at this time, held in the limp slouching fashion of the hour, made her look rather small. In reality she was nearly as tall as her mother or the dignified Mrs. Abbott, who rejoiced in every inch of her five feet eight, and retained the free erect carriage of her girlhood.
Alexina, with a sharp glance about her disordered room, hastily disarranged her bed, and, sending her ball slippers after the gown, ran across the hall and threw herself into her mother's arms.
"Some earthquake, what? You are sure you are not hurt, mommy dear? The plaster is down all over the house."
"More slang that you have learned from Aileen Lawton, I presume. It certainly was a dreadful earthquake, worse than that of eighteen-sixty-eight. Is anything valuable broken? There is always less damage done on the hills. What is that abominable noise?"
The cook, who had recovered from her first attack, was emitting another volley of shrieks, in which the word "fire" could be distinguished in syllables of two.
Mrs. Groome rang the bell violently and the imperturbable James appeared.
"Is the house on fire?"
"No, ma'am; only the city. It's worth looking at, if you care to step out on the lawn."
Mrs. Groome followed her daughter downstairs and out of the house. Her eyebrows were raised but there was a curious sensation in her knees that even the earthquake had failed to induce. She sank into the chair James had provided and clutched the arms with both hands.
"There are always fires after earthquakes," she muttered. "Impossible! Impossible!"
"Oh, do you think San Francisco is really going?" cried Alexina, but there was a thrill in her regret. "Oh, but it couldn't be."
"No! impossible, impossible!"
Black clouds of smoke shot with red tongues of flame overhung the city at different points, although they appeared to be more dense and frequent down in the "South of Market Street" region. There was also a rolling mass of flame above the water front and sporadic fires in the business district.
The streets were black with people, now fully dressed, and long processions were moving steadily toward the bay as well as in the direction of the hills behind the western rim of the city. James brought a pair of field glasses, and Mrs. Groome discovered that the hurrying throngs were laden with household goods, many pushing them in baby carriages and wheelbarrows. It was the first flight of the refugees.
"James!" said Mrs. Groome sharply. "Bring me a cup of coffee and then go down and find out exactly what is happening."
James, too wise in the habits of earthquakes to permit the still distracted cook to make a fire in the range, brewed the coffee over a spirit lamp, and then departed, nothing loath, on his mission. Mrs. Groome swallowed the coffee hastily, handed the cup to Alexina and burst into tears.
"Mother!" Alexina was really terrified for the first time that morning. Mrs. Groome practiced the severe code, the repressions of her class, and what tears she had shed in her life, even over the deaths of those almost forgotten children, had been in the sanctity of her bedroom. Alexina, who had grown up under her wing, after many sorrows and trials had given her a serenity that was one secret of her power over this impulsive child of her old age, could hardly have been more appalled if her mother had been stricken with paralysis.
"You cannot understand," sobbed Mrs. Groome. "This is my city! The city of my youth; the city my father helped to make the great and wonderful city it is. Even your father--he may not have been a good husband--Oh, no! Not he!--but he was a good citizen; he helped to drag San Francisco out of the political mire more than once. And now it is going! It has always been prophesied that San Francisco would burn to the ground some time, and now the time has come. I feel it in my bones."
This was the first reference other than perfunctory, that Alexina had ever heard her mother make to her father, who had died when she was ten. The girl realized abruptly that this elderly parent who, while uniformly kind, had appeared to be far above the ordinary weaknesses of her sex, had an inner life which bound her to the plane of mere mortals. She had a sudden vision of an unhappy married life, silently borne, a life of suppressions, bitter disappointments. Her chief compensation had been the unwavering pride which had made the world forget to pity her.
And it was the threatened destruction of her city that had beaten down the defenses and given her youngest child a brief glimpse of that haughty but shivering spirit.
Alexina's mind, in spite of a great deal of worldly garnering with an industrious and investigating scythe, was as immature as her years, for she had felt little and lived not at all. But she had swift and deep intuitions, and in spite of the natural volatility of youth, free of care, she was fundamentally emotional and intense.
Swept from her poor little girlish moorings in the sophisticated sea of the twentieth-century maiden, she had a sudden wild access of conscience; she flung herself into her mother's arms and poured out the tale of her nocturnal transgressions, her frequent excursions into the forbidden realm of modern San Francisco, of her immense acquaintance with people whose very names were unknown to Mrs. Groome, born Ballinger.
Then she scrambled to her feet and stood twisting her hands together, expecting a burst of wrath that would further reveal the pent-up fires in this long-sealed volcano; for Alexina was inclined to the exaggerations of her sex and years and would not have been surprised if her mother, masterpiece of a lost art, had suddenly become as elementary as the forces that had devastated San Francisco.
But there was only dismay in Mrs. Groome's eyes as she stared at her repentant daughter. Her heart sank still lower. She had never been a vain woman, but she had prided herself upon not feeling old. Suddenly, she felt very old, and helpless.
"Well," she said in a moment. "Well--I suppose I have been wrong. There are almost two generations between us. I haven't kept up. And you are naturally a truthful child--I should have--"
"Oh, mother, you are not blaming yourself!" Alexina felt as if the earth once more were dancing beneath her unsteady feet. "Don't say that!"
The sharpness of her tone dispelled the confusion in Mrs. Groome's mind. She hastily buckled on her armor.
"Let us say no more about it. I fancy it will be a long time before there are any more parties in San Francisco, but when there are--well, I shall consult Maria. I want your youth to be happy--as happy as mine was. I suppose you young people can only be happy in the new way, but I wish conditions had not changed so lamentably in San Francisco....Who is this?"