The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Fillmore Street, its low-browed shops dark, but with great arcs of white lights spanning the streets that ran east and west, long shafts of yellow light shining across the sidewalk from the restaurants, the candy stores and the nicolodeons--where the pianola tinkled plaintively--was thronged with saunterers. Alexina darted quick curious glances at them as she walked rapidly along. In front of every saloon was a group of young men almost fascinatingly common to Alexina's cloistered eyes, their hats tilted over their foreheads at an indescribable angle, rank black cigars in the corners of their mouths, or cigarettes hanging from their loose lips, leering at "bunches" of girls that passed unattended, appraising them cynically, making strident or stage-whispered comments.
A great many girls had cavaliers, and these walked with their heads tossed, unless drooping toward a padded, shoulder; and they wore perhaps a coat or two less of make-up than their still neglected sisters. These were vividly earmined, although most of them were young enough to have relied on cold water and a rough towel; their hair was arranged in enormous pompadours and topped with "lingerie" or beflowered hats. Their blouses were "peek-a-boo" and cut low, their skirts high; slender or plump, they wore exaggerated straight front corsets, high heels and ventilated stockings. They practiced the debutante slouch and their jaws worked automatically.
Not all of them were "bad" by any means. Fillmore Street was a promenade at night for girls who were confined by day: waitresses, shop girls of the humbler sort, servants, clerks, or younger daughters of poor parents, who would see nothing of life at all if they sat virtuously in the kitchen every night.
The best of them were not averse to being picked up and treated to ice-cream-soda or the more delectable sundae. A few there were, and they were not always to be distinguished by the kohl round their eyes, the dead white of their cheeks, the magenta of their lips, who, ignoring the "bums" and "cadets" lounging at the corners or before the saloons, directed intent long glances at every passing man who looked as if he had the "roll" to treat them handsomely in the back parlor of a saloon, or possibly stake them at a gaming table. The town, still in its brief period of insufferable virtue, was "closed," but the lid was not on as irremovably as the police led the good mayor to believe; and these girls, who traveled not in "bunches" but in pairs, if they had not already begun a career of profitable vice, were anxious to start but did not exactly know how. Fillmore Street was not the hunting ground of rich men; but men with a night's money came there, and many "boobs" from the country.
Alexina had heard of Fillmore Street from Aileen, who investigated everything, escorted by her uxorious parent, and had been informed that many of these girls were "decent enough"; "much more decent than I would be in the circumstances: work all day, coarse underclothes, no place to see a beau but the street. I'd go straight to the devil and play the only game I had for all it was worth."
But to Alexina they all looked appalling, abandoned, the last cry in "badness." She was not afraid. The street was too brilliant and the great juggernauts of trolley cars lumbered by every few moments. Moreover, she could make herself look as cold and remote as the stars above the fog, and she had drawn herself up to her full five feet seven, thrown her shoulders back, lifted her chin and lowered her eyelids the merest trifle. She fancied that the patrician-beauty type would have little or no attraction for the men who frequented Fillmore Street. Certainly the bluntest of these males could see that she was not painted, blackened, dyed, nor chewing gum.
Moreover she was in mourning.
But she had reckoned without her youth.
"Say, kid, what you doin' all alone?"
A hand passed familiarly through her arm.
Her brain turned somersaults, raced. Should she burst into tears? Turn upon him with a frozen stare? Appeal for help?
Then she discovered that although astonished she was not at all terrified; nor very much insulted. Why should she be? A casual remark of the sophisticated Aileen flashed through her rallying mind: "When a man is even half way drunk he doesn't know a lady from a trollop, and ten to one the lady's a trollop anyhow."
She heartily wished that Aileen were in her predicament at the present moment. What on earth was she to do with the creature?
She had accelerated her steps without speaking or making any foolish attempts to shake him off; but she knew that her face was crimson, and one girl tittered as they passed, while another, appreciating the situation, laughed aloud and cried after her: "Don't be frightened, kid. He's not a slaver."
Irrepressible curiosity made her send him a swift glance from the corner of her eye. He was a young man, thick set, with an aggressive nose set in a round hard face. His small, hard, black eyes were steady, and so were his feet. He did not look in the least drunk.
"I think you have made a mistake," she said quietly, and with no pretense at immense dignity (she could hear Aileen say: "Cut it out. Nothing doing in that line here"). "I, also, have made a mistake--in walking at night on this street. Would you mind letting go my arm? I think I'll take a car."
"No, I think you'll stay just where you are," he said insolently. "You don't belong here all right, but you've come and you can stand the consequences. You're just the sort that needs a jolt and I like the idea of handing it."
Alexina gave him a coldly speculative glance. "I wonder why?"
"You would? Well, I'll tell you. Never been out alone at night before, I'll bet, like these other girls, that ain't got no place on earth to have any fun but the streets. Never even rubbed against the common herd? Generally go about in a machine, don't you?"
"It is quite true that I have never been out alone at night before. I certainly shall not go again."
"No, you don't have to! That's the point, all right. And if you weren't such a beauty, damn you! I'd hate you this minute as I hate your whole parasite class."
"Oh, you are a socialist!" Alexina looked at him with frank curiosity. "I never saw one before."
He was obviously disconcerted. Then his face flushed with anger. "Yes, I'm a socialist all right, and you'll see more of us before you're many years older."
"You might tell me about it if you will walk with me. I am a long way from my destination, and that would be far more interesting than personalities."
"I've got more personalities where those came from. It makes me sick to see the difference between you and these poor kids--ready to sell their souls for pretty clothes and a little fun. There's nothing that has done so much to inflame class hatred as the pampered delicate satin-skinned women of your class, who have expensive clothes and 'grooming' to take the place of slathers of paint and cheap perfume. Raised in a hot house for the use of the man on top. It's the crowning offense of capitalism, and when the system goes, they'll all be like you, or you'll be more like them. You'll come down about a thousand pegs, and the ones down below will be shoved up to meet you."
Alexina stood still and faced him.
"Are you poor?" she asked.
"What a hell of a question. Have I been talkin' like a plutocrat?"
"Oh, there are, still, different grades. I was wondering if you would be so inconsistent as to earn a little money from me and two friends of mine. We have read socialism a bit, but, we don't understand it very well. I am in mourning and it would interest me immensely."
He had dropped her arm and was staring at her.
"You are not afraid of me, then?" His voice was sulky but his eyes were less hostile.
"Oh, not in the least. I fully appreciate that you merely wished to humiliate me, not to be insulting, as some of these other men might have been. My name is Mrs. Mortimer Dwight. I live on Ballinger Hill--do you know it? That old house in the eucalyptus grove?"
"I know it, all right."
"Then you probably know, also, that I am not rich and never have been. My husband is a struggling young business man."
"That cuts no ice. You train with that class, don't you? You're class yourself, reek with it. You had rich ancestors or you wouldn't be what you are now."
"Well, we can discuss that point another time. One of my friends is a daughter of Judge Lawton--"
"Hand in glove with every rich grafter in 'Frisco."
Alexina shuddered. "Please say San Francisco. I am positive you never heard a word against Judge Lawton's probity, nor that he ever rendered an unjust decision."
"He's a wise old guy, all right. But it would be wastin' time tryin' to make you understand why I have no use for him."
"Of course you would have no use for the husband of my other friend, Mrs. Frank Bascom."
She fully expected that the young millionaire's name would be the final red rag and that her escort would roar his opinion of him for the benefit of all Fillmore Street. But he surprised her by saying reluctantly:
"He's dead straight, all right. He's not a grafter. I've nothing against him personally, but he's part of a damnable system and I'd clean him out with the rest."
"Well, there you have three of us to your hand. Who knows but that you might convert us? Why not give us the chance? If you will give me your address I will write to you as soon as my friends come back to town."
"I don't know whether I want to do it or not. You may be makin' game of me for all I know."
"I am quite sincere. You interest me immensely. And we might teach you something too--what it means to have a sense of humor. I know enough of socialism to know that no socialist can have it. May I ask what your occupation is?"
"I'm just a plain working-man--housebuilding line."
"Then you could only come in the evening?"
"Not at all; I get off at five. You don't have your dinner until eight in your set, I believe," This with a sneer that curled his upper lip almost to the septum of his nose.
"Seven. My husband works until nearly six. He rarely has time for lunch and comes home very hungry."
Once more he looked puzzled and disconcerted, but his small steady eyes did not waver.
"My name's James Kirkpatrick." He found the stub of a pencil in his pocket and wrote an address on the flap of an envelope. "I'll think it over. Maybe I'll do it. I dunno, though."
"I do hope you will. I'm sure we can learn a good deal from each other. Now, would you mind putting me on the next car? Or don't the socialist tenets admit of gallantry to my sex?"
"Socialism admits the equality of the sexes, which is a long sight better, but I guess there's nothing to prevent me seeing you onto your car."
He even lifted his hat as she turned to him from the high platform, and as he smiled a little she inferred that he was congratulating himself on having had the last word.