The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora, to whom she had telephoned before leaving home, was standing on the steps of her house, looking anxiously up the street, as her young sister-in-law left the car at the corner.
Gora walked up to meet her guest. "Where on earth have you, been?" she demanded. "I supposed of course that you'd take a taxi. You should not go out alone at night. Mortimer would be wild. He has the strictest ideas; and you--"
"Haven't. Not, any more. I'm tired of being kept in a glass case--being a parasite." She laughed gayly at Gora's look of amazement. "I've had an adventure. Almost the first I ever had."
She related it as they walked slowly down the street and up the steps and stairs to the attic.
Gora looked very thoughtful as she listened. "Shall you tell Mortimer?"
"Oh, I don't know. Possibly not. Why agitate him? The thing is done."
"But if you study with this man?"
"There is no necessity to explain where I met him. I look upon myself as Morty's partner, not as his subject. We have never disputed over anything yet, but of course as time goes on I shall wish to do many things whether he happens to like it or not. Possibly without consulting him."
"You've had time to think these past three months for the first time in your life," said Gora shrewdly. "Here we are. I hope you don't hate stairs. I do when I come home dog-tired, but somehow I can't give up the old place....And I've lit the candles in your honor."
"Oh, but it is pretty! Charming!"
Thought Gora: "I do hope she's not going to be gracious. I've never liked her so well before."
But Alexina was too excited to have a firm grip on the Ballinger-Groome tradition. She had had an adventure, an uncommon one, in a far from respectable night district; she had done something that would cause the impeccable Mortimer the acutest anguish if he knew of it; and she had caught sight immediately of Gathbroke's picture framed and enthroned on the mantelpiece.
She walked about the room admiring the hangings and prints, the old Chinese lanterns that held the candles.
"I am going to refurnish our lower rooms," she said. "If you have time do help me. Heavens! I wish I could work off some of that old furniture on you. I like the Italian pieces well enough, but there are too many of them. That rather low Florentine cabinet in the back parlor would just fit in this corner...."
She gave a little girlish exclamation and ran forward.
"Isn't that young Gathbroke, who was out here at the time of the earthquake and fire...or an older brother, perhaps?"
She had taken the photograph from the mantel and was examining it under one of the lanterns. Her alert ear detected the deeper and less steady note in Gora's always hoarse voice.
"It is the same. Did you meet him?...Oh, I remember he told me he met you at the Hofer ball. He rather raved over you, in fact."
"Did he? How sweet of him. I met him again, I remember. Mr. Gwynne brought him down to Rincona one day."
And Alexina, knew that he had never mentioned that visit.
"But he looks much much older."
"He did before he left. That horrible experience of his seemed to prey on him more and more.
He had not looked a day over twenty-three on that afternoon at Eincona, two weeks after the fire.
Alexina replaced the picture, then turned to her sister-in-law with a coaxing smile. "Are you engaged? It would be too romantic. Do tell me."
"No," said Gora, shortly. "We are not engaged. Good friends, that is all, and write occasionally."
"Well, he must be very much interested--and you must be a very interesting correspondent, Gora dear! Is he? Interesting, I mean. What does he do, anyhow? I have a vague remembrance that he said something about the army."
"He was in the army, the Grenadier Guards. But he has resigned and gone into business with a cousin of his in Lancashire. He wrote me--oh, it must be nearly two years ago--that if there should be a war he would enlist as a matter of course, but as there was no prospect of any, and he was sick of idleness--his good middle-class energetic blood asserting itself, he said,--he was going to amuse himself with work, incidentally try to make a fortune. His mother left a good deal of money, but there are several children and I guess the present earl needs most of it to keep up his estates, to say nothing of his position. Fotten law, that--entail, I mean."
Alexina came and sat down on the divan beside Gora, piling the cushions behind her. "Are you a socialist?"
"I am not. I believe in sticking to your own class, whether you have a grudge against it or not, or even if you think it far from perfection."
She shot a quick challenging glance at her admittedly aristocratic sister-in-law, but Alexina had lifted the lower white of her eyes just above their soft black fringe and looked more innocent than any new born lamb. As she did not answer Gora continued:
"I remember that night I sat out with Gathbroke on Calvary he said something about socialism...that it was a confession of failure. I may feel so furious with destiny sometimes that I could go out and wave a red flag, or even the darker red of anarchy, but what always sobers me is the thought that if I had the good luck to inherit or make even a reasonable fortune I'd have no more use for socialism than for a rattlesnake in my bed. Why are you interested?"
"Only as in any subject that interests a few million people. I haven't the least intention of being converted, but I don't want to be an ignoramus. Aileen and Sibyl and I did start Marx's Das Kapital--in German! We nearly died of it. But I felt sure that this man, Kirkpatrick, had studied his subject, if only because his language changed so completely when he talked about it. It was as if he were quoting, but intelligently. Of course the poor man had little or no education to begin with. Somehow he struck me as a pathetic figure. Perhaps when every one is educated--and there must be many thousands of naturally intelligent men in the working class whose brains if trained would be mighty useful in Washington--well, all having had equal opportunities they would surely arrive at some way to improve conditions without struggling for anything so hopeless as socialism. I know enough to be sure that it is hopeless, because it antagonizes human nature."
"Rather. The trend under all the talk is more and more toward individualism, not self-effacing communism. As for myself I like the idea of the fight--for public recognition, I mean; and I don't think I'd be happy at all if things were made too smooth for me; if, for instance, in a socialized state it were decided that I could devote all my time to writing, and that the state would take care of me, publish my work, and distribute it exactly where it was sure to be appreciated. I haven't any of the old California gambling blood in me, but I guess the hardy ghost of those old days still dominates the atmosphere, and I have not been one of those to escape."
"It's in mine! Not that I care for gambling, really, like Aileen and Alice. But I've always been fascinated by the idea of taking long chances, and I have had inklings that I'll be rather more than less fascinated as I grow older....When are your stories to be published? I am simply expiring to read them."
Alexina had thrust her slim index finger unerringly through Gora's bristling armor and tickled her weakest spot. The fledgling author smiled into the dazzling eyes opposite and a deep flush rose to her high cheek bones,
"Then..." Gora rose and took a magazine from the table beside her bed. She spread it open on her lap, when she had resumed her seat, and handled it as Alexina had seen young mothers fondle their first-born.
"It's here. Just out."
"Oh!" Alexina. gave a little shriek of genuine anticipation. "Read it to me. Quick. I can't wait."
Gora led a lonely life outside of her work, a lonely inner life always. She had never had an intimate friend, and she suddenly reflected that there had been a certain measure of sadness in her joy both when her manuscripts were accepted and to-day when for the first time she had gazed at herself in print....She had had no one to rejoice with her....She felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to Alexina.
But she gave this young wife of her brother whom she knew as little as Alexina knew her, another swift suspicious glance....No, there was nothing of Alexina's usual high and careless courtesy in that eager almost excited face.
"I'd love to have your opinion....I read very badly....Make allowances...."
"Oh, fire away. If I'd written a story and had it accepted by that magazine I'd read it from the housetops."
Gora read the story well enough, and Alexina's mind did not wander even to Gathbroke. It was written in a pure direct vigorous English. A little less self-consciousness and it would have been distinguished. The story itself was built craftily; she had been coached by a clever instructor who was a successful writer of short stories himself; and it worked up to a climax of genuine drama. But this was merely the framework, the flexible technique for the real Gora. The story had not only an original point of view but it pulsed with the insurgent resentful passionate spirit of the writer.
Alexina gave a little gasp as Gora finished.
"Many people won't like that story," she said. "It shocks and jars and gives one's smugness a pain in the middle. But those that do like it will give you a great reputation, and after all there are a few thousand intelligent readers in the United States. How on earth did that magazine come to accept it?"
Gora was staring at Alexina with an uncommonly soft expression in her opaque light eyes. She felt, indeed, as if her ego would leap through them and make a fool of her.
"The editor wrote me something of what you have just said. He wanted something new--to give his conservative old subscribers a shock. Thought it would be good for them and for the magazine. You--you--have said what I should have wanted you to say if I could have thought it out....I think I should have hated you if you had said, 'How charming!' or 'How frantically interesting!'"
"Well, it's the last if not the first. Aileen will say that and mean it. I'll telephone to the bookstore the first thing Monday morning and get a copy. Now I must go. It's late."
"Let me telephone for a taxi."
Alexina laughed merrily. "You'll never believe it, but I've just thirty cents in my purse. I forgot to ask Morty for something before he left....You see, I happened to find quite a bit in mother's desk and so I've never thought to ask him for an allowance. But I shall at once."
"An allowance? But you have your own money? Or is it because the estate isn't settled? What has Morty to do with that?"
"I believe we get the income from the estate until it is settled. But I gave my power of attorney to Morty."
"Oh! But if there is money on deposit in the bank you can draw on it."
"Could I? Well! I'll just draw a round hundred on Monday at ten A.M."
"Why did you give your power of attorney to Morty?"
"Oh...why...he asked me to...I know nothing about business, and he naturally would attend to my affairs."
"But you are not going away. No one needs your power of attorney. And the executors are Judge Lawton and Mr. Abbott. You are here to sign such papers as they advise....Don't he angry, please. I am not insinuating anything against Morty. He's never bad a dishonest thought in his life...has always been, the squarest...but..."
Alexina's head was very high. It was quite bad enough for Tom Abbott and Judge Lawton...but for his sister...
"It's this way, Alexina. People in this world, more particularly men, are just about as honest as circumstances will permit them to be. Some are stronger than Life in one way or another, no doubt of it; but they make up for it by being weaker in others....I am talking particularly of the money question, the struggle for existence, which the vast majority of men are forced to make....
"Men fight Life from the hour they leave their homes, when they have any, to force success--in one way or another--out of her until the hour they are able to lay down the burden....Some are too strong and too firm in their ideals ever to do wrong; they would prefer failure, and generally they are strong enough to avoid it, even to succeed in their way against the most overwhelming odds....Many are too clever not to find some way of compromising and circumventing....Others just peg along and barely make both ends meet....Others go under and down and out.
"Morty, like millions of other young Americans, had good principles and high ideals inculcated from his earliest boyhood and took to them as a duck takes to water. Nor is he weak. But although he is a hard and steady worker he is also visionary. He speculated on the stock market before he was married. Probably not now as the market is moribund. He is frantic to get rich...for more reasons than one."
"But he never would do anything dishonorable."
"No. Nothing he couldn't square with his conscience if it turned out all right. But the most honest man, when in a hole, finds little difficulty in arriving at the conclusion that what is, illogically, the possession of the women of his family, is his if he needs it.
"Moreover, no doubt you have discovered that Morty is the sort of man who looks upon women as man's natural inferiors, that if there is any question of sacrifice the woman is not to be considered for a moment...especially where no public risk is involved. That sort of man only thinks he is too honest to refrain from taking some unrelated woman's money, but as a matter of fact it is because she would send him to State's Prison as readily as a man would. One's own women are safe.
"I lent Morty my small inheritance with my eyes open. But he knows a good deal of that particular business, and I did not dream the times were going to be so bad....I doubt if I ever see it again....But you must not run the risk of losing yours. I want you to promise me that on Monday morning you will go down to the City Hall and revoke your power of attorney. And as much for Morty's sake as for your own. He will lose your money if he keeps it in his hands, and then he will suffer agonies of remorse. He will be infinitely more miserable than if he merely failed in business. That is honorable. It would only hurt his pride. Then he could get a position again, and you would have your own income."
"But do you mean to say that if I did revoke my power of attorney and he asked me later for money to save his business that I should not give it to him?"
"Yes, I mean just that. Morty will never take any of the prizes in the business world. He may hold on and make a living, that is all. He has plenty to start with, and tells me he is doing fairly well, in spite of the times. But he would do better in the long run as a clerk. In time he might get a large salary as a sort of general director of all the routine business of some large house--"
Alexina curled her lip. "I do not want him to be a clerk."
"No, of course you don't! But you'd like it still less if he cleaned you out. You--would have to sell or rent your old home and live on a hundred and fifty dollars a month in a flat in some out-of-the-way quarter. You might have to go to work yourself,"
"I shouldn't mind that so much, except that I'm afraid I'd not be good for much. Perhaps it was snobbish of me to object lo Morty's being a clerk. But...well, I'm not so sure that it is snobbish to prefer what you have always been accustomed to--I mean if it is a higher standard. And after all I married him when he was only a clerk."
"You are surprisingly little of a snob, all things considered; but you are a hopeless aristocrat."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I think the line between the aristocratic and the snobbish attitude of mind is almost too fine to be put into words. But they are often confused by the undiscriminating. Will you revoke that power of attorney on Monday?"
"Shouldn't I wait until Morty is home?...tell him first? It seems rather taking an advantage...and he will be very angry."
"That doesn't matter."
"What excuse shall I give him?"
"Any one of a dozen. You are bored and want to take care of your money...intend to learn something of business, as all women should, and will in time....Ring in the feminist stuff...wife's economic independence...woman's new position in the world....That will make Morty so raving angry that he will forget about the other. Will you do it?"
"Yes, I will. I believe you are right. So were the others...there must be something in it."
She told Gora of the advice of Tom Abbott and Judge Lawton. Gora nodded.
"They meant more than they said. And merely because they are men of the world, not because they like and trust Morty any the less."
Alexina did not hear her. She was staring hard at the floor....A year ago...three months ago...she couldn't have done this thing. She had been still under the illusion that she loved her husband, that her marriage was a complete success. She would have sacrificed her last penny rather than hurt his feelings. Now she only cared that she didn't care....She had admitted to herself that she did not love her husband but that was different from committing an overt act that proved it....She felt something crumbling within her....It was the last of the fairy edifice of her romance...of her first, her real, youth....What was to take its place? The future smugly secure on six thousand a year and an inviolate social position...a good dull husband...not even the prospect of travel....
She sprang to her feet and turned away her head.
"Why don't you come and live with us?" she asked abruptly. "Why should you keep this on? There are so many vacant bedrooms up there. You could have one for your study. I'd love to have you. You'd have the most complete independence. Do."
Gora shook her head. "I've always this to fall back on."
"Fall back on?"
"Oh! I never meant to let that out. However....Perhaps it is as well....Morty--you know his pride--everybody has his prime weakness and that is his. Transpose it into snobbery if you like....We did not board down here. I kept a lodging house for business women. It paid well, but Morty, when he became engaged to you, insisted that I give it up. He was afraid you'd be outraged in your finest sensibilities! Well, I did. One of my lodgers resigned from her job and took it over. I entered the hospital, but kept on my room as I had to have one somewhere. Eight months later she married, and I took it back. I found I could run it as well as ever with the aid of a treasure of a Chinaman she had discovered. But I never told Morty."
Alexina laughed. "Better not. But you could run it and live with us all the same."
"No. I have too little time. I'd waste it coming back and forth, for I must be here some time every day....Besides..."
"Your own precious atmosphere?"
"You do understand!"
"Well, come to see me often. I shall need your advice."
"You bet. And now, I'll see you to your car; stay with you until you are safely transferred to the Fillmore car. And don't assert your independence in just this way again. All those loafers on Fillmore Street are not spiteful socialists."
As Gora put on her hat at the distant mirror Alexina turned to Gathbroke's picture with a scowl. She even clenched her hands into fists.
"Oh...you...you....Why weren't you....Why didn't you...."