The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
It was three months later that Aileen, once more sitting in Alexina's bedroom, after her return from Santa Barbara, where she had gone with her father for the summer, said abruptly: "Dad is terribly cut up, dear old thing. He'd known your mother since they were both children, in the days when there were wooden sidewalks on Montgomery Street, and Laurel Hill was called Lone Mountain, and they had picnics in it. Odd they both should have had young daughters. Another link--what? as the English say. Well--anyhow--he told me to tell you that he was just as fond of your father as of your mother, and that you must try to imagine that he is your father from this time forth, and come to him when you are in doubt about anything."
Alexina looked her straight in the eyes. "I have sometimes thought uncle daddy didn't like Mortimer."
"On the contrary, he rather likes him. He respects a capacity for hard work, and persistence, and a reputation for uncompromising honesty. But of course Mortimer is young--in business, that is; and father thinks--but you had better talk with him."
"No. Why should I? But I don't mind you. At least I could not discuss Mortimer with any one else. I am furious with Tom Abbott. He wants me to put my money in trust, with himself and uncle daddy as trustees--ignoring Mortimer, whom he pretends to like. He says Maria's fortune has been kept intact, that he has never touched a cent of it, but that men in business are likely to get into tight places and use their wife's money. Nothing would induce Mortimer to touch my money, but he would feel pretty badly cut up if I let any one else look after my affairs. Of course I wouldn't even discuss the matter with Tom. And if Morty does need money at any time I'll lend it to him. Why not? What else would any one expect me to do?"
"Of course Tom Abbott went to work the wrong way, the blundering idiot. No one doubts Mortimer's good faith, but the times are awful, money has paresis; and when you are obliged to take any of your own out of the stocking in order to keep business going, it is easily lost. Dad hopes you will hang on like grim death to your inheritance. You see--the times are so abnormal, Mortimer hasn't had time to prove his abilities yet; he's just been able to hold on; and if things don't mend and he should lose out, why--if you still have your own little fortune, at least you'll not be any worse off than, you are now. Don't you see?"
"Yes, I see. But Mortimer has told me of other panics and bad times. They always pass, and better times come again. And if he has been able to hold on, that at least shows ability, for others have gone under. Of course we shall live here and run the house--as mother did. I couldn't bear to live anywhere else, and Morty adores it too."
"Oh, rather. I couldn't imagine you anywhere else."
"Geary and Ballinger sent me ten thousand dollars for a wedding present and Morty bought some bonds for me, but I'm going to sell a few and refurnish the lower rooms. I love the old house but I like cheerful modern things. The poor old parlors and dining-room do look like sarcophagi."
"Good. I'll help. We'll have no end of fun."
There was a pause and then Alexina said: "Mortimer is so determined to be a rich man and thinks of so little else and works so hard, that he is bound to be. Otherwise, such gifts would be meaningless."
She made the statements with an unconscious rising inflection. Aileen did not answer and turned her sharp revealing green eyes on the eucalyptus grove which concealed Ballinger House from the vulgar gaze, and incidentally shut off a magnificent view.
"I don't know whether I like Gora Dwight or not," she remarked.
"Neither do I. But I admire her. She is a wonder."
"Oh, yes, I admire her, and I've a notion she's got something big in her, some sort of destiny. But those light eyes in that dark face give me the creeps. It isn't that I don't trust her. I believe her to be insolently honest and honorable--and just, if you like. But--perhaps it's only the accident of her queer coloring--she gives me the impression that while she might go to the stake for her pride, she'd murder you in cold blood if you got in her way."
"Poor Gora! You make her all the more interesting."
"Did she ever tell you that she corresponds with that Englishman who was out here at the time of the earthquake and fire and had that ghastly adventure with his sister? We all met him at the Hofer ball--Gathbroke his name was."
Alexina was staring at her with an amazed frown. "Correspond--Gora?...I remember now he told me she helped him to carry his sister's body out to the old cemetery. Is he interested in her?"
"I shouldn't wonder. They've corresponded off and on ever since. I walked, home with her one afternoon before I went south--she interests me frantically--and she invited me up to her quite artistic attic in Geary Street, where she still lives, and gave me the most vivid description of that night. It made me crawl. She stared straight before her as she told it. Her eyes were just like gray oval mirrors in which it seemed to me I saw the whole thing pass....
"Then she showed me a photograph he had recently sent her--stunning thing he is, all right, and looks years older than when he was here. She also alluded to things he had said in a letter or two. So my phenomenally quick wits inferred that they correspond. Perhaps they are engaged. Pretty good deal for her."
Alexina, to her surprise, felt intensely angry, although she had the presence of mind to cast up her eyes until the white showed below the large brilliant iris and she looked like a saint in a niche.
She had kept Gathbroke out of her thoughts for nearly four years, deliberately. For a time she had hated him. Mortimer's love-making had seemed tame in comparison with that primitive outburst, and never had she felt any such fiery response to the man she had loved and chosen as during those few moments when she had been in that impertinent, outrageous, loathsome young Englishman's arms. At first she had wondered and resented, loyally concluding that it was her own fault, or that of fate for endowing her with such a slender emotional equipment that she used it all up at once on the wrong man. Finally, she found it wise not to think about it at all and to dismiss the intruder from her thoughts.
Now she felt outraged in her sense of possession....Unconsciously she had enshrined him as the secret mate of her inmost secret self...a self she was barely conscious of even yet...lurking in her subconsciousness, the personal and peculiar blend of many and diverse ancestors....Sometimes she had glimpsed it...wondered a little with a not unpleasant sense of apprehension....
But for the most part Circumstance had decreed that she abide on the abundant surface of her nature and enjoy a highly enjoyable life as it came. Now, she had experienced her first grief, which at the same time was her first set-back. She did not go out at all. She saw much of Mortimer and little of any one else. It was the summer season and all her friends were in the country or in Europe.
She had given Mortimer her power of attorney (largely a gesture of defiance, this) and he had attended to all details connected with her new fortune. Between the inheritance tax, small legacies, and depreciations, she would have a little over six thousand dollars a year; which, however, with Mortimer's contribution, would run the old house, and keep her wardrobe up to mark after she went out of mourning. She knew nothing of the value of money, and was accustomed to having little to spend and everything provided. But her mind regarding finances was quite at rest. Even if Mortimer remained a victim of the hard times, they would be quite comfortable.
The cares of housekeeping were very light. She discussed the daily menus with James, but he had run Ballinger House for years, little as Mrs. Groome had suspected it. Mortimer, shortly after his mother-in-law's death, and while Alexina was passing a fortnight at Rincona, had given James orders to collect all bills on the first of every month and hand them to him, together with a statement of the servants' wages. Mrs. Dwight was not to be bothered.
Alexina, when she returned, had made no protest. The details of housekeeping did not appeal to her. But the arrangement left her without occupation, and much time for thought. After a long walk morning and afternoon she had little to do but read. She was an early riser and her mind was active.
Dwight had not the least intention of using his wife's money, for he had perfect confidence in his change of luck, and in his ability to do great things with his business as soon as the period of depression had passed. But he had no faith in any woman's ability to invest and take care of money, he had fixed ideas in regard to a man being master in his own house, and he had asked Alexina for her power of attorney more to flaunt her confidence in him and to annoy her damnable relatives than because there might possibly be a moment when he should have need of immediate resources. Like many Americans he chose to keep his wife in ignorance of his business life, and it would have annoyed him excessively to go to her with an explanation of temporary difficulties and ask for a loan.
Moreover, he wished to keep Alexina young and superficial, ignorant of money matters, indifferent to the sordid responsibilities of life. Not only was the present Alexina no embarrassment whatever to a man full of schemes, aside from the slow march of business, for getting rich, but she was infinitely alluring.
He detested business women, intellectual women, women with careers; they tipped the even balance of the man's world; moreover, they had no accepted place in the higher social scheme. For women wage-earners he had no antipathy and much sympathy and consideration, although he underpaid them cheerfully when circumstances would permit. It was an abiding canker that his sister was obliged to support herself; he was not ashamed of it, for nursing was an honorable (and altruistic) profession, and several young women in his new circle bad taken it up; but he hated it as a man and a brother. As for her turning herself into an authoress, however, he only hoped he would make his million before she got herself talked about.
As for Alexina she was the perfect flower of a system lie worshiped and nothing should mar or change her if his fond surveillance could prevent it.
On the whole he was quite happy at this time, despite his passionate desire for wealth and his natural resentment, at the attitude of the Abbotts and their intimate circle of old friends who were so like them that he always included them in his mind when speaking of "the family." Although he was making barely enough to pay his sister the monthly interest on her money, the salaries of his employees, and, until recently, a monthly contribution to the household expenses, he had a comfortable and delightful home with not a few of the minor luxuries, an undisputed position in the best society, an honorable one in the business world, and a beautiful wife. Now that the conventions forced them to live the retired life, they could economize without attracting attention; as he paid the bills Alexina would not know whether he still contributed his share or not; (in time he meant to pay the whole and give his wife, with the grand gesture, her entire income for pin money) and, with Alexina's cordial assent, he had sold the old carriage, and the horses, which were eating their heads off, dismissed the coachman-gardener, and found a young Swede to take care of the garden and outbuildings.
Later, they would have their car like other people, but there was no need for it at present, and it was neither the time nor the occasion to exhibit a tendency to extravagance. In the matter of "front" he knew precisely where to leave off.
In a certain small anxious bag-of-tricks way he was clever. But not clever enough. He knew nothing of Alexina beneath her shining surface. If he had he would have sought to crowd her mind with the details of the home, encouraged her to join in the frantic activities of some one of the women's clubs he held in scorn, persuaded her to play golf daily at the fashionable club of which they were members, even though she ran the risk of talking, unchaperoned by himself, with other men.
He never would have left her to long hours of idleness, with only books for companions (and Alexina cared little for novels lacking in psychology, or in revelations of the many phases of life of which she was personally so ignorant); and only his own companionship evening after evening.
But he had known all the Alexina he was ever to know. Such flashing glimpses as he was destined to have later so bewildered him that he reacted obstinately to his original estimate of her,...just a child under the influence of her family or some of those friends of hers who had always hated him...erratic and irresponsible like all women...a man never could understand women because there was nothing to understand...merely a bundle of contradictions....
In some ways his mental equipment was an enviable one.
Some of all this Alexina guessed, and although she was nettled at times that he took no note of her maturing mind and character, she was, on the whole, more amused.
Indulgent by nature, and somewhat indolent, she had been more than willing that Morty should enjoy his new authority, should even delude himself that he was footing all the bills, poor dear; and she listened raptly to his evening visions of their future life in Burlingame, alternated with visits to New York and England, the while she puzzled over the intricacies of some character portrayed by a master analyst.
Sometimes he did not talk at all, utterly fagged by a strenuous day in which he had accomplished precisely nothing. But the more transparent and truncated and dull he grew the more spontaneous the "niceness" and almost effusive courtesy of his wife. Insensibly she was veering to the family attitude, but he had tagged her once for all and never saw it.
Until this moment, however, when Gathbroke had been jerked from his deep seclusion within her ivory tower by Aileen's unwelcome news, she had never had a moment of complete self-revelation....She knew instantly that she had never loved her husband: he was not her mate and Gathbroke was. She had had three years of rippling content and light enjoyment with Mortimer, they had never quarreled seriously, and they had never taken their parts in one moment of real drama.
If she had married Gathbroke they would have quarreled furiously, they would have thrown courtesy and behavior to the winds often enough, particularly while they were young, for neither would have been in the least apprehensive of wounding the rank-pride of the other, and such mutual and passionate love as theirs naturally gave birth to a high state of irritability; they would have loved and hated and made constant discoveries about each other...there would have been depths never to be fully explored but always luring them on...and the perfect companionship...the complete fusion....
How Alexina knew all this after less than three hours' association with Gathbroke, let any woman answer. She was not so foolish as to imagine herself the victim of a secret passion, or that she had ever loved the man, or ever would. She had merely had her chance for the great duodrama, and thrown it away for a callow dream. She had no passing wish, even in that moment of visualizing him interlocked with her own wraith in that sacred inner temple where even she had never intruded before, to meet him again. She had no intention of passing any of her abundant leisure in dreaming dreams of him and the perfect bliss. But he had been hers...and utterly...he had loved her...he had wanted her...he had precipitately begged her to marry him...he had offered her the homage of complete brutality.
Something of him would always be hers.
And even though she renounced all rights in him because she must, she did not in the least relish that any one so close to her as Gora Dwight should have him. She might have heard of his marriage to a girl of his own land and class with only a passing spasm, but his continued and possibly tender friendship with her sister-in-law shook her out of the last of her jejunity and its illusions....She was not exactly a dog in the manger...she was a maturing woman looking back with anger and dismay not only upon the fatal mistake of her youth, but upon the inexorable realities of her present life....
The reaction was a more intense feeling of loyalty to Mortimer than ever. She was entirely to blame. He not only had been innocent of conscious rivalry, even of pursuit--for she could quite easily have discouraged him in the earlier stages of his courtship--but he was dependent upon her in every way: for his happiness, for the secure social position that meant so much to him, for the greater number of his valuable connections, for even his comfort and ease of living.
Something of this had passed through her stunned mind on the morning of her mother's death. Now it was all as sharply outlined as the etching at which she was raptly gazing, and she vowed anew that she would never desert him, never deny him the assistance of the true partner. She had signed a life contract with her eyes open and she would keep it to the letter.
Only she hoped to heaven that Gathbroke was not serious about Gora. She wished never to be reminded of his existence again.
And, as Aileen talked of Santa Barbara, she wondered vaguely why there was not a law forbidding girls to marry until they were well into their twenties....until they had had a certain amount of experience....knew their own minds....Maria had been right....