The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Mortimer arrived on Tuesday evening, looking immaculate in spite of his day on the train, and with that air of beaming gallantry that he could always summon at will, even when all was not well with him.
To-night, however, he was quite sincere. His visit to Los Angeles had been a success; he had actually put through a deal that had translated itself into a cheque for a thousand dollars. He had, through a mistaken order, been overstocked with a certain commodity from the Orient that the retail merchants of San Francisco bought very sparingly; but he had found in Los Angeles a firm that did a large business with the swarming Japanese population and was glad to take it over at a reasonable figure.
It was after dinner; his taut trim body was relaxed in evening luxury before the wood fire of the back parlor, and he was half way through a cigar when Alexina rose and extended one arm along the mantelpiece. She looked like a long black poplar with her round narrow flexible figure and her small head held with a lofty poise; as serene as a poplar in France on a balmy day. But she quaked inside.
She glanced at her happy unsuspecting husband with an engaging smile. "I'm afraid you will be rather cross with me," she said softly. "But I went down to the City Hall yesterday and revoked my power of attorney to you."
"You did what?" The slow blood rose to Dwight's hair. He mechanically took the cigar from his mouth. It lost its flavor. He had a sensation of falling through space...out of somewhere....
Alexina repeated her statement.
He recovered himself. "Tom Abbott has been at you again, I suppose. Or Judge Lawton."
"Neither. Really, Morty, you must give me credit for a mind of my own. I did it for several reasons. Sibyl was here Sunday. She motored up from Burlingame with Aileen on purpose to talk to me. She has induced Mrs. Hunter and some other of the more intelligent women down there--those that read the serious new books and go to lectures when there are any worth while--to join a class in economics. One of the professors at Stanford is going to teach us. Aileen has lost frightfully at poker lately and wants a new interest; she put Sibyl up to it--who was delighted with the suggestion as she hasn't been intellectual for quite a while now, and really has a practical streak; so that studying economics appealed to her.
"I jumped at the idea. It was a God-send. I have had so little to do. I don't care for poker and one can't read all the time....But after they left I reflected that I should cut a rather ridiculous figure studying economies in the abstract if I didn't have sense and 'go' enough to manage my own affairs. Why, I was so ignorant I thought I couldn't draw any money from the bank because I had given you my power of attorney. Aileen has an allowance and the Judge makes her keep books. She usually comes out about even at poker in the course of the month, and if she doesn't she pawns something. I've been with her to pawn shops and it's the greatest fun. I don't mind telling you, as I know you never betray a confidence. The Judge would lock poor dear Aileen up on bread and water.
"Sibyl manages those two great houses herself. Frank gives her some stupendous sum a year and she is proud of the fact that she never runs over it. You know how she entertains.
"I should never dare admit to them--or to the professor if he asked my opinion on that sort of thing and it had to come out--that I was too lazy and too incompetent to manage my own little fortune. So I went down first thing Monday morning and revoked my power of attorney. I simply couldn't wait. When the estate is settled and turned over to me I shall attend to everything and not bother you, Morty dear."
Morty dear looked at her with a long hard suspicious stare. Alexina thoughtfully turned up her eyes and changed promptly from a poplar into a saint.
"I don't like it. I don't like it at all."
Words were never his strong point and he could find none now adequate to express his feelings.
"I may be old-fashioned--"
"You are, Morty. That is your only fault. You belong to the old school of American husbands--"
"There are plenty of old-fashioned people left in the world."
"So there are, poor dears. It's going to be so hard for them--"
"Are you trying to be one of those infernal new women?"
"Well, you see, I just naturally am a child of my times, in spite of my old-fashioned family. I'd be much the same if I'd never taken any interest in all these wonderful modern movements."
"It's those chums of yours--Aileen, Sibyl, Janet. I never did wholly approve of them."
"Neither did mother and Maria, but it never made any difference."
"Do you mean to say that you intend to ignore me...disobey me?"
"Oh, Morty, I never promised to obey you. You know the fun we all had at the rehearsal. You haven't noticed, these three years, that I've had my way, in pretty nearly everything, merely because it happened to be your way too. We've been living in a sort of pleasure garden, just playing about, with mother as the good old fairy. But everything has changed. We must look out for ourselves now, and I cannot put the whole burden on your shoulders--"
"I do not mind in the least. That is where it belongs."
Alexina shook her wise little head. "Oh, no. It isn't done any more. No woman who has learned to think is so unjust as to throw the whole burden of life on her husband's shoulders. You have your own daily battle in the business world. I will do the rest."
"What damned emancipated talk."
"What a funny old-fashioned word. We don't even say advanced or new any more."
"It's nonsense anyhow. You're nothing but a child."
"You may just bet your life I'm not a child. Nor have I awakened all of a sudden. In one sense I have. But not in this particular branch of modern science. I have read tons about it, and Aileen and I are always discussing everything that interests the public; I have even read the newspapers for two years."
"Much better you didn't. There is no reason whatever for a woman in your position knowing anything about public affairs. It detracts from your charm."
"Maybe, but we'll find more charm in Life as we grow older."
His memory ran back along a curved track and returned with something that looked like a bogey.
"May I ask what your program is? Your household program? I had got everything down to a fine point....It seems too bad you should bother...."
"Bother? I've been bored to death, and feeling like a silly little good-for-nothing besides. The trouble is, it's too little bother. James and I have had a long talk. Housekeeping will be reduced to its elements with him, but at least I shall begin to feel really grown up when I pore over monthly bills and 'slips' and sign cheques."
She hesitated. "You mustn't think for a minute that I want to make you feel out of it, Morty. It. is only that I must. The time has come,...Of course, you have been paying half the bills anyhow. We could simply go on along those lines. I will tell you what it all amounts to, shortly after the first of the month, and you'll give me half."
Dwight stared at the end of his cigar. His was not an agile brain but in that moment it had an illuminating flash. He realized that this sheltered creature, with whom her mother had never discussed household economics, and from whom he had purposely kept all knowledge of his business, took for granted that he could pay his share of the monthly expenses, merely because all the men she knew did twice as much, however they might grumble. For the matter of that she never saw Tom Abbott that he did not curse the ascending prices, but there was no change whatever in his bountiful fashion of living. Alexina knew that the times were bad and that her husband was having something of a struggle, and, as a dutiful wife, was anxious to help him out for the present, but it was simply beyond her powers of comprehension to grasp the fact that he was in no position to pay half the expenses of their small establishment.
If he told her...tried to make her understand...even if she did, how would he appear in her eyes?
Of all people in the world he wanted to stand high with Alexina...he had never taken more pains to bluff the street when things were at their worst than this girl who was the symbol of all he had aspired to and precariously achieved. He had longed for riches, not because she craved luxury and pomp, but because she would be forced to look up to him with admiration and a lively gratitude. He had, in this spirit, given her; in the most casual manner, handsome presents, or brilliant little dinners at fashionable restaurants, in all of which she took a fervent young pleasure. He had dipped into his slender capital, but of this she had not even a suspicion...he had made some airy remark about celebrating a "good deal"...no wonder...he had her too well bluffed.
For an instant he contemplated a plain and manly statement of fact. But he did not have the courage. Anything rather than that she should curl that short aristocratic upper lip of hers, stare at him with wide astonished eyes that saw him a failure, even if a temporary one. He set his teeth and vowed to go through with it, to make good. This thousand would last several months, even if he made no more than his expenses meanwhile.
He shrugged his shoulders and lit another cigar. The first had died a lingering and malodorous death.
"Have your own way," he said coldly. "I only wished to keep you young and carefree. If you choose to bother with bills and investments it is your own look-out."
"Thank you, Morty dear."
She felt that it would be an act of wifely self-abnegation to defer the announcement of her interest in socialism and Mr. Kirkpatrick. Aileen and Sibyl had hailed her plan as even more exciting than the study of economics with an exceedingly good-looking young professor (who had been tutoring in Burlingame), and she had already dispatched a note to him whom Aileen disreputably called her Fillmore Street mash.