The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
That winter and the following seasons for the next few years passed very rapidly for Alexina. Besides her classes and the constant companionship of her friends (to say nothing of the excitement of helping one or two of them out of not infrequent scrapes), she had for a time the absorbing interest of refurnishing the best part of her house.
The square lower hall which had been scantily furnished with the grandfather's clock, a hat-rack, and a settee, and whose walls were covered with "marble paper," was painted, walls and wood, a deep ivory white, and refurnished with light wicker furniture, palms, and growing plants. The hat-rack was abolished, and the small library on the left of the entrance turned into a men's dressing-room. The folding doors were removed from the great double parlors, the "body brussels" replaced by hardwood floors, the walls tinted a pale gray as a background for the really valuable pictures (including the proud and gracious and beautiful Alexina Ballinger, dust long since in Lone Mountain), and the splendid pieces of Italian furniture which had always seemed to sulk and bulge against the dull brown walls. The rep and walnut sets were sent to the auction room and replaced by comfortable chairs and sofas whose colors varied, but harmonized not only with one another but with the rugs that Alexina under Gora's direction had bought at auction. In fact she bought many of her new pieces at auction and with Aileen found it vastly exciting to pore over the advertisements and then go down to the crowded rooms and bid.
The billiard room behind the former library she left as it was. Her mother's large bedroom upstairs she turned into a library with bookcases to the ceiling on three sides, and one of the carved oaken tables against an expanse of Pompeiian red relieved by one painting (a wedding gift from Judge Lawton, who believed in patronizing local art) that had despoiled a desert of its gorgeous yellow sunrise.
The carpet and curtains were red without pattern. The coal grate had been removed and a fireplace built for logs. It was to be her own den for long rainy winter afternoons, or the cold and foggy days of summer when she remained in the city.
The dining-room was also given a hardwood floor and a Japanese red and gold wall paper as a compliment to her martial ancestors; but as the sideboards were built into the wails end could be replaced only at great cost; they remained as a brooding reminder of the solid sixties, and no doubt exchanged resentful reminiscences at night with the chairs which had been merely recovered.
As a matter of course modern bathtubs were installed and gas replaced by electricity.
All this made a "hole" in Alexina's bonds, the wedding-present of her brothers, but Mortimer offered no objection, knowing as he did that to achieve his ambition of being master of a house to which fashionable people would come as a matter of course the outlay was imperative. Moreover, entertaining at home would be far cheaper for him than at the restaurants.
He was doing fairly well at this time, for he had learned what commodities the retail men were likely to buy of a firm as small as his, and he had got into touch with one or two foreign markets not monopolized by the older houses. Moreover, he had been speculating a little in the new Nevada mines, and successfully. He presented Alexina with a Victrola which included the music for all the new dances, and a long coat of baby lamb lined with her favorite periwinkle blue. To his sister he returned a thousand dollars of her money.
Alexina knew nothing of these speculations and felt that her original faith in him was justified. He did not offer even yet to pay all the monthly expenses of the house, explaining casually that the greater part of his profits went back into the business; but he handed over his share promptly, and such fleeting doubts and anxieties as may once have visited his still inexperienced wife faded and finally disappeared.
They began to entertain a little during the second winter, Mrs. Groome having been dead nearly two years. The new floor of the large drawing-room had been laid for dancing, and their friends formed a habit, when there was "nothing on" elsewhere, of telephoning and announcing they were coming up to take a whirl. This led to more telephoning, and some twenty couples would dance in the long-silent old house at least once and often three times a week.
The new order delighted James, who felt young again, and his hastily improvised suppers were models of unpretentious succulence. There were always sherry and whiskey in the handsome old decanters on the sideboards; and, at the equally perfect little dinners, for a time, two bottles of Alexander Groome's favorite brand of champagne (which he had remembered with satisfaction on his deathbed that he had not outlived) were brought up from the cellar by the beaming James.
When, almost with tears, he informed his mistress' husband that the last bottle had been served Mortimer could do no less than order up a case. He had not the courage either to give his guests the excellent native claret where they had formerly enjoyed imported champagne or to appear a "piker" in the eyes of the far from democratic family butler.
He consoled himself with the reflection that it was "good business." Nearly all the young men, married or otherwise, that came to his house (Alexina subtly encouraged him to call it his house) were of more or less importance or standing in the world of business and finance (two were lawyers in their first flight, Bascom Luning and Jimmie Thorne), and the more prosperous he appeared to be (they knew to a dollar the extent of Alexina's income) the more apt would business be to flow his way, the less likely they would be to suspect him of playing the stock market. At all events it enhanced his standing and gave him intense pleasure.
Moreover, as time passed it became evident to his sensitive ego that he was no longer looked upon as an outsider. He was accepted as a matter of course. He was one of them. Neither men nor women (not even Aileen) continued to ask themselves whether they liked him or not. He was there and to stay and that was the end of it. They had always liked his manners; he made a charming host, and, as ever, he danced like "a god with wings on his heels."
Quite naturally in due course some one offered to put him up at the most exclusive and the most expensive club west of New York, a club to which every Californian with any pretence to fashion or importance belonged as a matter of course. Old men whose names had once been potent in the great banks or firms of the valleys below, sat and gazed with sad and rheumy eyes down upon the new city in which there was barely a familiar landmark to remind them of their youth or the years of their power and their pride. They sat there all day long, day after day; and tourists went away with the impression that the imposing brown stone mansion on the sacred crest of Nob Mill was a sumptuously endowed retreat for the incurably aged.
But the majority of its members were very much alive and still well-padded; and, far from being on a pale diet, were deeply appreciative of the famous culinary resources of the chef, and showed it.
When the offer was made to Mortimer he accepted with a bright: "Oh, thanks, old chap. I'd like it immensely," But when, on the first day of his membership, he stood in one of the front windows and gazed out at the ruins opposite--the Pacific Union Club and the Fairmont Hotel were still two oases in the rubbled waste of Nob Hill--he felt so exultant and so happy that he dared not open his lips lest he betray himself. He could mount no higher socially. All that he had to strive for now was his million--or millions. When he had half a million he would build a house at Burlingame that could be enlarged from time to time.
Only with the "Rincona crowd" he had made no headway. Maria did not hesitate to comment on the extravagance of doing the house over, the membership at the club with all it entailed, Alexina's little electric car, and above all the constant entertaining. A moderate amount was due Alexina's position; but open house--nothing made money fly so quickly. Prices were getting higher every day (there came a time, in the wake of the great war, when she looked back with sad amazement at the morning of her discontent) and rich people were getting richer while poor people like themselves (she meant what Alexina still called the A. A.) were growing poorer.
Tom Abbott had not put Mortimer up at the club. He happened to know that although his brother-in-law was doing fairly well he was not making a fortune, and suspected that he dabbled in stocks. But he said nothing of this to his wife, and as he knew that Alexina had long since revoked her power of attorney (she had given him to understand that this was done at Mortimer's suggestion) he believed that her money at least was safe.