The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
As Alexina followed her mother's eyes she flushed scarlet and turned away her head. A young man was coming up the avenue. He was a very gallant figure, moderately tall and very straight; he held his head high, his features were strong in outline. But the noticeable thing about him at this early hour of the morning and in the wake of a great disaster was his consummate grooming.
"That--that--" stammered Alexina, "is Mr. Dwight. I met him last night at the Hofers'."
The young man raised his hat and came forward quickly. "I hope you will forgive me," he said with a charming deference, "but I couldn't resist coming to see if you were all right. So many people are frightened of fire--in their own houses."
"Mr. Dwight--my mother--"
He lifted his hat again. Mrs. Groome in her chastened mood regarded him favorably, and for the moment without suspicion. At least he was a gentleman; but who could he be?
"Dwight," she murmured. "I do not know the name. Were you born here?"
"I was born in Utica, New York. My parents came here when I was quite young. We--always lived rather quietly."
"But you go about now? To all these parties?"
"Oh, yes. I like to dance after the day's work. But I am not what you would call a society man. I haven't the time."
Mrs. Groome was not usually blunt, but she suddenly scented danger and she had not fully recovered her poise.
"You are in business?" She disliked business intensely. All gentlemen of her day had followed one of the professions.
"I am in a wholesale commission house. But I hope to be in business for myself one day."
Still, all young men in this terrible twentieth century could not be lawyers. Mrs. Groome knew enough of the march of time to be aware of the increasing difficulties in gaining a bare livelihood. Tom Abbott was a lawyer, like his father before him, and his grandfather in the fifties. It was one of the oldest firms in San Francisco, but she recalled his frequent and bitter allusions to the necessity of sitting up nights these days if a man wanted to keep out of the poorhouse.
And at least this young man did not look like an idler or a wastrel. No man could have so clear a skin and be so well-groomed at six in the morning if he drank or gambled. Alexander Groome had done both and she knew the external seals.
"Is Aileen Lawton a friend of yours?" she asked sharply.
"I have met Miss Lawton at a number of dances but she has not done me the honor to ask me to call."
"I think the more highly of you. Judge Lawton is an old friend of mine. His wife, who was much younger than the Judge, was an intimate friend of my daughter, Mrs. Abbott. Alexina and Aileen have grown up together. I find it impossible to forbid her the house. But I disapprove of her in every way. She paints her lips, smokes cigarettes, boasts that she drinks cocktails, and uses the most abominable slang. I kept my daughter in New York for two years as much to break up the intimacy as to finish her education, but the moment we returned the intimacy was renewed, and for my old friend's sake I have been forced to submit. He worships that--that--really ill-conditioned child."
"Oh--Miss Lawton is a good sort, and--well--I suppose her position is so strong that she feels she can do as she pleases. But she is all right, and not so different--"
"Do you mean to tell me that you approve of girls--nice girls--ladies--painting themselves, smoking, drinking cocktails?"
"I do not." His tones were emphatic and his good American gray eyes wandered to the fresh innocent face of the girl who had captivated him last night.
"I should hope not. You look like an exceptionally decent young man. Have you had breakfast? Alexina, go and ask Maggie, if she has recovered herself, to make another cup of coffee."
Alexina disappeared, repressing a desire to sing; and young Dwight, receiving permission, seated himself on the grass at Mrs. Groome's feet. He was lithe and graceful and as he threw back his head and looked up at his hostess with his straight, honest glance the good impression he had made was visibly enhanced. Mrs. Groome gave him the warm and gracious smile that only her intimate friends and paid inferiors had ever seen.
"The young men of to-day are a great disappointment to me," she observed.
"Oh, they are all right, I guess. Most of the men that go about have rich fathers--or near-rich ones. I wish I had one myself."
"And you would be as dissipated as the rest, I presume."
"No, I have no inclinations that way. But a man gets a better start in life. And a man's a nonentity without money."
"Not if he has family."
"My family is good--in Utica. But that is of no use to me here."
"But your family is good?"
"Oh, yes, it goes 'way back. There is a family mansion in Utica that is over two hundred years old. But when the business district swamped that part of the old town it was sold, and what it brought was divided among six. My father came out here but did not make much of a success of himself, so that he and my mother might as well have been on the Fiji Islands for all the notice society took of them."
He spoke with some bitterness, and Mrs. Groome, to whom dwelling beyond the outer gates of San Francisco's elect was the ultimate tragedy, responded sympathetically.
"Society here is not what it used to be, and no doubt is only too glad to welcome presentable young men. I infer that you have not found it difficult."
"Oh, I dance well, and my employer's son, Bob Cheever, took me in. But I'm only tolerated. I don't count."
The old lady looked at him keenly. "You are ambitious?"
He threw back his head. "Well, yes, I am, Mrs. Groome. As far as society goes it is a matter of self-respect. I feel that I have the right to go in the best society anywhere--that I am as good as anybody when it comes to blood. And I'd like to get to the top in every way. I don't mean that I would or could do the least thing dishonest to get there, as so many men have done, but--well, I see no crime in being ambitious and using every chance to get to the top. I'd like not only to be one of the rich and important men of San Francisco, but to take a part in the big civic movements."
Mrs. Groome was charmed. She was by no means an impulsive woman, but she had suddenly realized her age, and if she must soon leave her youngest child, who, heaven knew, needed a guardian, this young man might be a son-in-law sent direct from heaven--via the earthquake. If he had real ability the influential men she knew would see that he had a proper start. But she had no intention of committing herself.
"And what do you think of what is now called San Francisco society?" she demanded.
He was quite aware of Mrs. Groome's attitude. Who in San Francisco was not? It was one of the standing jokes, although few of the younger or newer set had ever heard of her until her naughty little daughter danced upon the scene.
"Oh, it is mixed, of course. There are many houses where I do not care to go. But, well, after all, the rich people are rather simple for all their luxury, and as for the old families there are no more real aristocrats in England itself."
Mrs. Groome was still more charmed. "But you were at Mrs. Hofer's last night. I never heard of her before."
"Her husband is one of the most important of the younger men. His father made a fortune in lumber and sent his son to Yale and all the rest of it. He is really a gentleman--it only takes one generation out here--and at present he's bent upon delivering the city from this abominable ring of grafters...There is no water to put out the fires because the City Administration pocketed the money appropriated for a new system; the pipes leading from Spring Valley were broken by the earthquake."
"And who was she?"
Mrs. Groome asked this question with an inimitable inflection inherited from her mother and grandmother, both of whom had been guardians of San Francisco society in their day. The accent was on the "who." Bob Cheever, whose grandmother had asked or answered the same question in dark old double parlors filled with black walnut and carved oak, would have muttered, "Oh, hell!" but Mr. Dwight replied sympathetically: "Something very common, I believe-south of Market Street. But her father was very clever, rose to be a foreman of the iron works, and finally went into business and prospered in a small way. He sent his daughter to Europe to be educated...and even you could hardly tell her from the real thing."
"And you go down to Burlingame, I suppose! That is a very nest of these new people, and I am told they spend their time drinking and gambling."
He set his large rather hard lips. "No, I have never been asked down to Burlingame-nor down the Peninsula anywhere. You see, I am only asked out in town because an unmarried dancing man is always welcome if there is nothing wrong with his manners. To be asked for intimate week-ends is another matter. But I don't fancy Burlingame is half as bad as it is represented to be. They go in tremendously for sport, you know, and that is healthy and takes up a good deal of time. After all when people are very rich and have more leisure than they know what to do with--"
"Many of the old set in Alta, San Mateo, Atherton and Menlo Park have wealth and leisure-not vulgar fortunes, but enough-and for the most part they live quite as they did in the old days."
His eyes lit up. "Ah, San Mateo, Alta, Atherton, Menlo Park. There you have a real landed aristocracy. The Burlingame set must realize that they would be nobodies for all their wealth if they could not call at all those old communities down the Peninsula."
"Not so very many of them do. But I see you have no false values. You. must go down with us some Sunday to Alta. I am sure you would like my oldest daughter. She is very smart, as they call it now, but distinctly of the old regime."
"There is nothing I should like better. Thank you so much." And there was no doubting the sincerity of his voice, a rather deep and manly voice which harmonized with the admirable mold of his ancestors.
Alexina appeared. "Breakfast is ready for all of us," she announced. "We cooked it on the old stove in the woodhouse. I helped, for Maggie is a wreck. Martha has swept the plaster out of the dining-room. Come along. I'm starved."
Young Dwight sprang to his feet and stood over Mrs. Groome with his charming deferential manner, but he had far too much tact to offer assistance as she rose heavily from her chair.
"Are you really going to give me breakfast? I am sure I could not get any elsewhere."
"We are only too happy. Your coming has been a real God-send. Will you give me your arm? This morning--not the earthquake but those dreadful fires--has quite upset me."
He escorted her into the dark old house with glowing eyes. He had seen so little of the world that he was still very young at thirty and his nature was sanguine, but he had never dared to dream of even difficult access to this most exclusive home in San Francisco. Its gloom, its tastelessness, relieved only by the splendid Italian pieces, but served to accentuate its aristocratic aloofness from those superb but too recently furnished mansions of which he knew so little outside of their ballrooms.
And he was breakfasting with the sequestered Mrs. Groome and the loveliest girl he had ever seen, at seven o 'clock in the morning.
He looked about eagerly as they entered the dining-room.. It was long and narrow with a bow window at the end. The furniture was black walnut; two immense sideboards were built into the walls. It looked Ballinger, and it was.
It was heavily paneled; the walls above were tinted a pale buff and set with cracked oil paintings of men in the uniforms of several generations. The ceiling was frescoed with fish and fowl. There had been a massive bronze chandelier over the table. It now lay on the floor, but as James had turned off the gas in the meter while the earthquake was still in progress the air of the large sunny room was untainted, and the windows were open.
The breakfast was smoked but not uneatable and the strong coffee raised even Mrs. Groome's wavering spirits. They were all talking gayly when James entered abruptly. He was very pale.
"City's doomed, ma'am. Thirty fires broke out simultaneous, and the wind blowing from the southeast. A chimney fell on the fire-chief's bed and he can't live. People runnin' round like their heads was cut off and thousands pouring out of the city--over to Oakland and Berkeley. Lootin' was awful and General Funston has ordered out the troops. Pipes broken and not a drop of water. They're goin' to dynamite, but only the fire-chief knew how. Everybody says the whole city'll go, Doomed, that's what it is. Better let me tell Mike to harness up and drive you down to San Mateo."
Mrs. Groome had also turned pale, but she cut a piece of bacon with resolution in every finger of her large-veined hands.
"I do not believe it, and I shall not run--like those people south of Market Street. I shall stay until the last minute at all events. The roads at least cannot burn."
"This house ought to be safe enough, ma 'am, standin' quite alone on this hill as it does; but it's a question of food. We never keep much of anything in the house, beyond what's needed for the week, and the California Market's right in the fire zone. And the smoke will be something terrible when the fire gets closer."
"I shall stay in my own house. There are grocery stores and butcher shops in Fillmore Street. Go and buy all you can." She handed him a bunch of keys. "You will find money in my escritoire. Tell the maids to fill the bathtubs while there is any water left in the mains. You may go if you are frightened, but I stay here."
"Very well, and you needn't have said that, ma'am. I've been in this family, man and boy, Ballinger and Groome, for fifty-two years, and you know I'd never desert you. But no doubt those hussies in the kitchen will, with a lot of others. A lot of stoves have already been set up in the streets out here and ladies are cookin' their own breakfasts."
"Forgive me, James. I know you will never leave me. And if the others do we shall get along. Miss Alexina is not a bad cook." And she heroically swallowed the bacon.
James departed and she turned to Dwight, who was on his feet.
"You are not going?"
"I think I must, Mrs. Groome. There may be something I can do down there. All able-bodied men will be needed, I fancy."
"But you'll come back and see us?" cried Alexina.
"Indeed I will. I'll report regularly."
He thanked Mrs. Groome for her hospitality and she invited him to take pot luck with her at dinner time. After he had gone Alexina exclaimed rapturously:
"Oh, you do like him, don't you, mommy dear?"
And Mrs. Groome was pleased to reply, "He has perfect manners and certainly has the right ideas about things. I could do no less than ask him to dinner if he is going to take the trouble to bring us the news."