The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Kirkpatrick sat before a crescent composed of Mrs. Mortimer Dwight, Mrs. Francis Leslie Bascom and Miss Aileen Livingston Lawton.
His reasons for coming to Ballinger House--which even he knew was inaccessible to the common herd--were separate and tabulated. Alexina had fascinated him against his best class principles; but he not only jumped at the chance of meeting her again, he was excessively curious to understand a woman of her class, to watch her in different moods and situations. He was equally curious to meet other women of the same breed; he had never brushed their skirts before, but he had often stood and gazed at them hungrily as they passed in their limousines or driving their smart little electric cars.
He was also curious to see several of those "interiors" he had read so much about, and hoped his pupils would meet in turn at their different homes. He was a sincere and honest socialist, was Mr. Kirkpatrick, and he had a good healthy class-consciousness and class-hatred. But he also had a large measure of intelligent curiosity. He had never expected to have the opportunity to gratify it in respect to "bourgeois" inner circles, and when it came he had only hesitated long enough to search his soul and assure himself that he was in no danger of growing compliant and soft. Moreover he might possibly make converts, and in any case it was not a bad way, society being still what it was, of turning an honest penny.
But in this the first lesson he was as disconcerted as a socialist serene in his faith could be.
The three girls had curved their slender bodies forward, resting one elbow on a knee. At the end of each of these feline arches was a pair of fixed and glowing eyes. No doubt there were faces also, but he was only vaguely aware of three white disks from which flowed forth lambent streams of concentrated light. They looked like three little sea-monsters, slim, flexible, malignant, ready to spring.
He exaggerated in his embarrassment, but he was not so very far wrong.
"The little devils!" he thought in his righteous wrath. "I'll teach 'em, all right."
As it was necessary to break the farcical silence he said in a voice too loud for the small library. "Well, what is it about socialism that you don't just know? Mrs. Dwight told me you had read some."
"There is one thing I want to say before we begin," said Aileen in her high light impertinent voice, "and that is that if there is one thing that makes us more angry than another it is to be called bourgeois."
"And ain't you?"
"We are not. I suppose your Marx didn't know the difference, although he is said to have married well, but bourgeois for centuries in Europe had meant middle-class. Just that and nothing more. Marx had no right to pervert an honest historic old word into something so different and so obnoxious."
"To Marx all capitalists were in the same class. I suppose what you mean is that you society folks call yourselves aristocrats, even when you have less capital than some of them that can't get in."
"Sure thing. Take it from me."
He gazed at her astounded, and once more had recourse to his rather heavy sarcasm.
"Even when they use slang."
"Oh, we're never afraid to--like lots of the middle-class--bourgeois. Too sure of ourselves to care a hang what any one thinks of us."
Alexina came hastily to the rescue, for a dull glow was kindling in Mr. Kirkpatrick's small sharp eyes. She didn't mind baiting him a little, but as he was in a way her guest he must be protected from the naughtiness of Aileen and the insolence of Sibyl Bascom, who had taken a cigarette from a gold bejeweled case that dangled from her wrist and was asking him for a light. He gave her measure for measure, for he lifted his heavy boot and struck a match on the sole.
"You must not be too hard on us, Mr. Kirkpatrick." Alexina upreared and leaned against the high back of her chair with a sweet and gracious dignity, "We are really a pack of ignoramuses, full of prejudices, which, however, we would get rid of if we knew how. We are hoping everything from these lessons."
"Do you smoke?"
"No, I don't happen to like the taste of tobacco, but I quite approve of my friends smoking--unless they smoke their nerves out by the roots, as Miss Lawton does. Don't give her a light. But I'm sure you smoke. I'll get you a cigar."
She pinched Aileen, glared at Sibyl, and left the room.
Mortimer was smoking furiously, trying to concentrate his mind on the evening paper.
"Give me a cigar, Morty dear."
"A cigar? What for?"
"It would be too mean of those girls to smoke unless Mr. Kirkpatrick did too, and I am sure we couldn't stand his tobacco. Even a whiff of bad tobacco makes me feel quite ill."
"I'll be hanged if I give my cigars to that bounder. The kitchen is the place for him."
"But not for us. And our minds are quite made up, you know. We are going to study with him just to find out what these strange animals called socialists are like. He is queer enough, to begin, with. And the knowledge may prove useful one of these days....If you won't give me one I'll send James out--"
Mortimer handed over one of his choice cigars with ill grace, and Alexina returned to the library. Aileen was informing Mr. Kirkpatrick how intensely she disliked Marx's beard, not only as she had seen it in a photograph, but as she had smelt it in Spargo's too vivid description.
He rose awkwardly as she entered, but he rose. She handed him the cigar and struck a match and held it to one end while he drew at the other. Their faces were close and she gave him a smile of warm and spontaneous friendliness.
Thought Mr. Kirkpatrick: "Oh, Lord, she's got me. I'd better make tracks out of here. If she was a vamp like that Bascom woman she wouldn't get me one little bit. Plenty of them where I come from. But she's plain goddess with eyes like headlights on an engine."
Perturbed as he was, however, he resumed his seat and drew appreciatively at the finest cigar that had ever come his way. It had the opportune effect of causing his class-hatred to flame afresh. No fear that he would be made soft by teaching in the homes of these pampered cats. For the moment he hated Alexina, seated in a carved high-back Italian chair like a young queen on a throne.
"Well," he growled. "Let's get to business. I've brought Spargo. Marx is too much for me. He's terrible dull and involved. He was so taken up with his subject, I guess, that he forgot to learn how to write about it so's people without much time and education could understand without getting a pain in their beans. Of course I've heard him expounded many times from the platform, but there must have been about fifty Marxes, for I've heard--or read--just about that many expounders of him and no two agree so's you'd notice it. That, to my mind, is the only stumbling block for socialism --that we have a prophet who's so hard to understand.
"So, I've settled on Spargo. He has the name of being about the best student of Marx and of socialism generally--it's split up quite a bit--and he's easy reading. I fetched him along."
He produced "Socialism" from his hat and hesitated. "I don't know noth--a thing about teaching."
"Oh, don't let that worry you," drawled Sibyl Bascom in her low voluptuous voice and transfixing him with narrow swimming eyes; then as he refused to be overcome, she continued more humanly: "We've been to lots of classes, you know. There are all sorts of methods. Suppose one of us reads the first chapter aloud and then you expound. That is, we'll ask you questions."
"That's fine," said Mr. Kirkpatrick with immense relief. "Fire away."
And Alexina, who always read prefaces and introductions last, began with "Robert Owen and the Utopian Spirit."