The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Mr. Kirkpatrick realized his ambition to see with his own sharp puncturing little eyes (Aileen said they reminded her of a sewing-machine needle playing staccato) several of the most flagrant examples of capitalistic extravagance where parasitic femalehood idled away their useless lives and servitors battened. In other words the extremely comfortable or the shamelessly luxurious homes built for the most part by still active business men whose first real period of rest would be in a small stone residence in a certain silent city Down the Peninsula.
Several were already occupied by their widows. In a climate where a man can work three hundred and sixty-five days of the year the temptation to do so is strong, and not conducive to longevity.
The Ferdinand Thorntons, Trennahans, Hofers and others who had lost their city homes on Nob Hill had not rebuilt, but lived the year round in their country houses at Burlingame, San Mateo, Alta, Menlo Park, Atherton, or "across the Bay," using the hotels when they came to town for dances, but motoring home after the theater.
Fortunately the finest and all of the newest mansions had been built in the Western Addition and escaped the fire. Sibyl Bascom's father-in-law had erected, shortly before his death, a large square granite palace more or less in the Italian style, and as his widow preferred to live in Santa Barbara, Frank Bascom had taken it over for himself and his bride.
Olive had carried her millions to France and found her marquis. (As he was wealthy himself they contributed little to the current gossip of San Francisco.)
Janet Maynard lived with her mother, another widow of unrestricted means, in a large low Spanish house with a patio, built by a famous local architect with such success that Rex Roberts when he married Polly Luning, had bought the nearest vacant lot and ordered a romantic mansion as nearly like that of his wife's intimate friend as possible. He would live in it as soon as the idiosyncrasies of The Architect and Labor would permit,
Mrs. Clement Hunter had another pale gray stone palace, supported in front by noble pillars and commanding a superb view of the Bay, the Golden Gate, and Mount Tamalpais.
Aileen and her father lived in an old wooden house with a modern facade of stucco, and surrounded by a garden filled with somewhat blighted geraniums, fuchsias, sweet alicias, heliotrope, mignonette, and other nineteenth-century posies beloved of Mrs. Lawton in her romantic and innocent youth.
Sibyl and Alice Thorndyke's father had left his girls a square bow-windowed mansard-roofed double house, built in eighteen-seventy-eight, and unreclaimed. With it went a moderate income, and Alice lived on under the ugly old roof chaperoned by an aunt, who had been chosen from a liberal assortment of relatives because she was almost deaf, quite myopic, and so terrified of draughts that her absence when convenient could always be counted on.
All of these young women belonged to Alexina's personal set, and joined the class in socialism, as they joined anything the stronger spirits among them suggested; and they attended as regularly as could be expected of "parasites" who were mainly interested in society, dress, poker, and some absorbing creature of the other sex.
Mr. Kirkpatrick hated them all with the exception of Alexina, Aileen, Mrs. Price Ruyler, the half-French wife of a New Yorker, recently adopted by California, and Mrs. Hunter, who had joined out of curiosity, having read a certain amount of socialism, but never met a socialist.
She confided to Mrs. Thornton that she was not acutely anxious to meet another, and Mrs. Thornton replied tartly:
"What do you want to belong to such a class for? It's rank hyprocrisy to pretend interest in a question we all hate the very name of, and to give the creature money that he no doubt turns over to the 'cause' with his tongue in his cheek. I'd never give one of them the satisfaction of knowing that I recognized his existence."
Said Maria Abbott firmly: "Exactly. We should ignore them, just as we ignore envious and spiteful and ill-bred outsiders of any sort."
"But we may not be able to ignore them," said Mrs. Hunter. "Their organization is the best of any party even if their numbers are not overwhelming. If they are content to advance slowly and by purely political methods there is no knowing who will own this or any government fifty years hence. For my part I'd rather they all turn raging anarchists; then we could turn machine guns on them and clean 'em out. I hate them, for I was too long getting where I am now, and I want to stay. But I don't make the mistake of ignoring them, and I rather like having a squint at them at close quarters. Kirkpatrick has taken us to several socialist meetings...we borrow the servants' coats and mutilate our oldest hats....Socialism seems to me rather more endurable than the socialists, and of these Kirkpatrick is about the sanest I have heard. They rant and froth, contradict themselves and one another, wander from the point and never get anywhere....That would give me hope if it were not for the fact that poor California is a magnet for the cranks of every fad as well as for the riff-raff and derelicts....My other hope is that even they--that is to say the least unbalanced of them--will come in time to realize that socialism is economically unsound--"
"Do you mean to say," cried Mrs. Abbott, "that Alexina has gone to socialist meetings?"
"Rather. She's very keen--"
"Believes in it?"
"Rather not. But she is naturally thorough--has a really extraordinary tendency, for a San Franciscan of her sex and status, to finish anything she has begun. Sometimes when she is arguing with Kirkpatrick she sticks out that chin of hers so far that you notice how square it is. She has him pretty well tamed though. When he is ready to eat the rest of us alive she can smooth him down like a regular lion tamer."
"Well, you're nothing but a lot of parlor socialists," said Mrs. Thornton disgustedly. "And just as ridiculous as any other hybrids. But I'm relieved that it hasn't spoiled your taste for the simpler pleasures of life. Maria, as you don't play poker we'll have a game of bridge, Ladie, ring for cocktails, will you--or would you rather have a gin fizz? Don't look so horrified, Maria. We're better than socialists, anyhow; if they did win out you'd have farther to fall than we, for you're a moss-backed old conservative who hates change of any sort, while we not only love change of all sorts but are regular anarchists: do as we please and snap our fingers at the world. Here we are."
The three were in Mrs. Thornton's Moorish palace half way between San Mateo and Burlingame, a situation that symbolized the connecting bridge between the old and new order for Mrs. Abbott. Mrs. Thornton was a lineal descendant of the Rincon Hill of the sixties and had made her debut with Maria Groome in the eighties. But she had married an immoderately rich man and had a barbaric taste for splendor that formed the proper setting for her own somewhat barbaric beauty, and imperious temper. Her dark and splendid beauty was waning, for in the matter of giving aid to nature with secrecy or with art she was faithful to the old tradition. But she was always an imposing figure and as close to being the first power in San Francisco society as that happy-go-lucky independent class would ever tolerate.
Kirkpatrick liked Mrs. Hunter, regarding her as "an honest plain-spoken dame without any frills." This estimate applied not only to her temperament but to her costumes. He admired her severe tailored suits (although he sensed their cost) and her smart, plain, hard, little hats.
The "frills and furbelows" of the younger "spenders" irritated the group of nerves appropriated by his class-consciousness almost beyond endurance; but he managed to stand it by reminding himself that irritation of all such was a healthy sign and vastly preferable to insidious tolerance.
Mrs. Hunter was also as regular in her attendance as Mrs. Dwight, Miss Lawton and Mrs. Price Ruyler, and asked fairly intelligent questions. The others floated in and out, and one by one dropped from the class, until toward the middle of the second winter none remained but Alexina, Aileen, Mrs. Hunter and Helene Ruyler, who, like Aileen, found in the "frantic interest" of the materialistic creed which antagonized every instinct in them, a distraction from the excessive gambling which had threatened to wreck their nerves, purses, and peace of mind. They confided this artlessly to Mr. Kirkpatrick, who replied dryly that they were the best argument he had in stock.
But if the major part of his fashionable class deserted him in due course he had meanwhile seen the inside of their homes; and in each case, Alexina, who divined his interest, arranged to have him shown over the house from the kitchens and pantries straight up to the servants' quarters.
These he found unexpectedly comfortable and complete. In fact, they were so much more modern and adorned than the little cottage in the Mission where he lived with his mother that he longed for the immediate installation of a system that would teach these workers what real work was. What enraged him further was their "airs." They too obviously looked upon him as an alien intruder, whereas their mistresses, until socialism bored them, were, for the most part, as charmingly courteous as his one reliable friend, Mrs. Mortimer Dwight.
During the first winter and spring while his pupils were still fairly regular in their attendance, he was both incensed and grimly amused by their various idiosyncrasies. He soon became accustomed to their vanity boxes and their public application of powder and lip stick, the frank crossing of their knees that exhibited more diaphanous silk than he had ever seen in his life before, the polite excitement that any new article of attire worn by one seemed to induce in all, the wicked but on the whole good-natured baiting of Aileen Lawton and Polly Roberts, the alternate insolence and Circean glances of Mrs. Bascom, who amused herself "practicing on him," and the constant smoking of most of them.
But what he could neither understand nor accept was their attitude toward one another. They would all rush at the hostess of the day as they entered, or at late comers, with the excited enthusiasm of loved and loving intimates who had not met for months; and Kirkpatrick, who missed nothing, knew that they met once a day if not oftener.
In spite of their intimacy their warm enraptured greetings carried a patent measure of admiration and even respect. It was always at least fifteen minutes before they would settle down for "work" and meanwhile they chattered about their common interests, but always with the air of relating long-delayed information and a frank desire to give of their best. He could have understood "gush," and sentimentalism, but this attitude of which he had neither heard nor read bothered him until one day he had a sudden, flash of enlightenment.
"Is it class-consciousness?"
He asked the question of Gora, who dropped in upon a class at Alexina's or Aileen's sometimes on a free afternoon, and with whom he was walking down to the trolley car.
"Something like that. Caste they would call it if they thought about it at all, which to do them justice they don't....It used to be the fashion in San Francisco for everybody to 'knock' everybody else. Then came a revulsion and everybody began to praise and boost. You see it in all circles, but the way it has taken that crowd is to show their intense loyalty to one another by a constant reminder of it in manner, and in refraining from criticism of one another, no matter how much they may gossip about others outside of their particular set. Once, just to try my sister-in-law, I told her that in my nursing I had stumbled across evidence of an illicit love affair going on between one of her friends and a married man, the husband of my patient. My sister became so remote that I had the impression for a few moments that she really wasn't there. Once it would have infuriated me, but I have improved my sense of humor and developed my philosophy, so I merely turned the conversation, as she wouldn't speak at all. She had quite withdrawn--still further into the sacred preserves, I suppose....
"They are not only loyal but really seem to have the most exalted admiration for one another because they are all of the same heaven-born stock....That is not all, however. The truth of the matter is that they get so bored out here they would go frantic if they did not cultivate as many kinds of excitement and indigenous admirations as their wits are equal to. When they can, they vary the monotony of life with summers in Europe and winters in New York--or Santa Barbara, where they meet many interesting people from the East or England; but some of them won't leave their busy husbands or the husbands won't be left; or parents are not amenable; so they try to create an atmosphere of high spirits and sheer delight in youth and one another, and the result is almost a work of art. I rather respect them, but I envy them a good deal less than before I knew them so well."
"Oh, you envied them? They should envy you."
"Well, they don't! Yes, I envied them because it is my natural right to be one of them and fate slammed the door before I was born. It embittered my first youth, and it might have become an obsession after my brother married into society if I had not found the right kind of work. That and the boring Sundays I've spent at Rincona, and the experiences I have had with that young set, who are always at Mrs. Dwight's more or less; besides a profound satisfaction in accomplishing literary work that not one of them could do to save their lives--all this has routed a good deal of my old bitterness of spirit. I am not sorry that I had it and indulged it, however. Discontent and resentment put spurs on the soul. Anything is better than smugness,"
"It's made you different enough from these others, all right. Even from Mrs. Dwight, who is different herself....I'd rather you'd stayed discontented. The whole scheme's all wrong and you know it. You've suffered from it. You should be the last to tolerate it. When they're jabbering away about their ninny affairs they pay as little attention to you as they do to me. They forget our existence. We don't belong, as they say. There isn't, one of them except Mrs. Dwight that I wouldn't give my eye teeth to see hanging out the wash or running a machine in a factory."'
Gora turned to him with a smile. At this time she was as nearly happy as was possible for that insurgent too aspiring spirit.
"Nevertheless, they've made you over in a way--Oh, don't flame! I don't mean your principles...other ways that won't hurt you in the least. You cut your hair differently. You wear better shoes. You have your clothes pressed--the suit you wear up here anyhow. You've reformed your speech somewhat, and you know a good deal more about many things than you did a few months ago. I am expecting any day to see you wearing a 'boiled' shirt."
"Oh, no, not that! It'd never do. It's true enough I got to feeling self-conscious about my rough clothes and boots, especially after I met that dude brother of yours one day in the hall and he gave me a once-over that made me feel like a tramp."
"Oh!...But he was snubbed himself not so very long ago, and I suppose it gives him a certain pleasure to snub some one else, I am ashamed of him....But tell me, don't you like them rather better than you expected? Find them rather a better sort? You must see that there is practically no leisure class as far as the men are concerned--"
"They have time enough to go chicken chasing--"
"Well, aside from that? At least they do work. And the younger women? You knew before that they were frivolous because they had too much money and too few responsibilities. Many of the older women have a serious and useful side, even if they do waste an unholy amount of time at cards."
"Well, if you ask me, their manners, when they remember to use 'em, are better than I expected. Only that Miss Thorndyke is cold and haughty, but perhaps that's because she's poor (for her), or is covering up something, or is just plain stupid....Mrs. Dwight's manners are always perfect. She's my idea of a lady--just! And in the new system there'll be a long sight more ladies than is possible now, only no aristocrats....Yes, they're decent enough considering they're rotten poisoned by money and thinkin' themselves better'n the mass; and I like their affection for one another. But they could be all that in the socialist state and more too. They'd have to cut out drink and gambling, and a few other diversions some of 'em'll drift into, if one or two of 'em haven't already--just through being bored to death."
"Do you honestly think socialism means universal virtue?"
"No, I don't. I'm no such greenhorn; though there's some that does, or pretends to....But I mean there'd be no drifting into vice like there is now, no indulgence of any old weakness because temptation was always following them about or just round the corner. That's the trouble now....But in the most perfect state some would be watching out for their chance, just because the old Adam was too strong in spite of the fact that all the old reminders had disappeared."
"More likely they'd all murder one another because they were some ten thousand times more bored than that poor little group whose brains you are addling."
"I don't like to hear you talk like that, Miss Gora. You ought to give that pen of yours to socialism. There would be all the revenge you could want--and it's what you're entitled to. Then I could call you Comrade Gora."
"Call me Comarade by all means if it hurts you to say Miss to a fellow worker....You admit then that envy of a society you were not born into and which refuses to acknowledge you as an equal, is the secret of your desire to pull it down?"
"Partly that." he admitted cooly. "Not that I'd change places with any of those fat millionaires I see shuffling down the steps of the Pacific-Union Club--although I'll admit to you what I wouldn't to these young devils in my class, that I know some socialists who would. I hate the sight of 'em. But I want to do away with class-rights and class-distinctions, not only because I just naturally have no use for them but because I want to put an end to the misery of the world."
"You mean the material misery. What would you do with the other seven hundred different varieties?"
"Well....I guess each case would have to take care of itself. Perhaps we'd get round to it after a while. Get power and class-envy out of the world, and some genius, like as not, would invent a post-graduate course of colleges for human nature. All things are possible."
"You are an optimist! Here's our car. Come home with me and share the supper that I pay for with the tainted money of a plutocrat. Only we haven't any real plutocrats in San Francisco. Only modest millionaires. Will you?"
"Yes." said Mr. Kirkpatrick. "And thank you kindly." He even smiled, for he was developing a latent heavily overlain seed of humor; inherited from the full bay tree that had flourished in his grandfather, born in County Clare, where men sometimes indulged in rebellion but did not take themselves too seriously withal.