The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
San Francisco, commencing in September, has three or four months of perfect weather. The cold fogs and winds cease to pay their daily visits, the rainy season awaits the new year. The skies are a deep and cloudless blue, the air is warm and soft and alluring, never too hot, although the overcoats of summer are discarded.
The city lies bathed in golden sunlight or the sharp jeweled light of stars, when the moon is not blazing like a crystal bonfire. Then Mount Tamalpais and other mountains across the Bay and behind the city take on a chiseled outline that, particularly at night, makes them look curiously new, as if but yesterday heaved from the deep, and Nature too busy to provide them with a background and the soft blurs of time for centuries to come. This primeval look of bare California mountains on clear nights has something sinister and menacing in its aspect as if at any moment they might once more brood alone over the earth.
Alexina returned from abroad early in November and stood one morning outside her eucalyptus grove, revolving slowly on one heel, schoolgirl fashion, as she gazed up at the steep densely populated hill that rose from the street below her own private little hill, and cut off her view of the hills of Berkeley and the mountains beyond; at the broad crowded valleys on the south; the range of hills that hid the Pacific Ocean, and included Mount Calvary with its cross and the symmetrical mass of Twin Peaks; the bare brown mountains of the north piling above the green sparkling bay with its wooded and military islands.
Like a good and valiant Californian she was assuring herself that she had seen nothing like this in Europe, and that she really preferred it to art galleries and dilapidated old ruins. But as a matter of fact she had returned to California with dragging feet and was merely staving off the disheartening moment when her ruthless candor would force her to admit it.
San Francisco was all very well, and in this dazzling light that compact mass of houses swarming over the city's hills and valleys, with sudden palms in high gardens and a tree here and there, produced the impression that all were white with red roofs, and looked not unlike Genoa. But it seemed quite unromantic and uninspiring to a girl who had just paid her first brief visit to the old world, an interval, moreover, that had been without a responsibility, cut her off so completely from her general life that when variously addressed "Mademoiselle," "Signorina," "Senorita," she ceased almost at once to feel either surprised or flattered. If she had not forbidden herself to dream she would still have been Alexina Groome with a future to sketch with her own adventurous pencil; and to fill in at her pleasure.
But although she was free in a sense she was not free to live in Europe. She was a partner with a partner's obligations. To desert Mortimer would not only be to banish him from Ballinger House to dreary bachelor quarters, with none of the comforts and little luxuries he intensely loved, but it would also deprive him of his surest social prop. People had accepted him and liked him as well as they liked the totally uninteresting of the good old stock; but many would drift into the habit of not inviting him to anything but large dances, if his wife were absent. Alexina knew that her invitations to all important and many small dinners, not avowedly bridge or poker parties, were as inevitable as crab in season; but there were too many young men whom girls would infinitely prefer to enliven the monotony of crab a la poulette, to any married man, particularly one who had as little to say as poor Morty. She had known debutantes who flatly refused to dance with married men or even to be introduced to them.
California was her fate. No doubt of that. She might never see Europe again, for while it was all very well to be a guest once it would be quite impossible another time. She certainly could not afford it herself and keep Ballinger House open, even for brief summer visits; as she might if her home were in New York.
Of course Mortimer might make his million, but then again he might not. Certainly there were no present signs of it and she had never seen him so depressed, not even during the panic of nineteen-seven. His eyes were as lifeless as slate, his voice was flat, although for that matter he was almost dumb. When at home he sat brooding heavily by the open western windows of the drawing-room, or moved restlessly about. To all her questions he replied shortly that the times were bad again, worse than ever; that he was holding his own, but was tired, tired out. As she had not been there he had not cared to take a cottage by himself, and had paid few week-end visits. He had nothing to talk to women about and the men talked of nothing but the business depression....Alexina had shrugged her shoulders and concluded that his attitude was a subtle reproach for leaving him to the dull cares of business while she enjoyed herself in Europe.
She was not in the least sorry for Mortimer. He had been perfectly comfortable; he had had his friends; she had left him a sum of money which with the monthly rents from the flats would pay her share in the household expenses; he could spend his free afternoons at the golf club by the ocean, and his evenings, when not invited out, at the temple of his idolatry on Nob Hill. James was a better housekeeper than she was and it was now two years that Mortimer bad been living the life of a luxurious bachelor at the back of the house with an always amiable companion at breakfast and dinner.
Alexina, as she stood shading her eyes from the brilliant sunlight and watching a great liner drift through the Golden Gate, wondered if Morty had consoled himself, and if his Puritanical conscience were flaying him. She hoped that he had, for she was quite willing that he should be happy in his own way, poor thing, so long as he secluded his divagations from the world--and she could trust him to do that! Now that she had ceased to be the complaisant bored wife with dull nerves and torpid imagination she would be the last to condemn him. Human Nature was an ever opening book to her these days, and she wondered what would happen to herself if any of several men she liked were capable of making her love him, whipping up a personal storm in those emotional gulfs which had slowly and inflexibly intruded themselves upon her consciousness.
She had pondered long and deeply on this subject, particularly in the old world where bonds seem looser to the mere observer whether they are or not, and where life looks to the American the quintessence of romance....She had concluded that the most satisfactory experience that could come to her would be a mad love affair "in the air" with a man who possessed all the requirements to induce it, but who would either be the unsuspecting object, or, reciprocating, would continue to love her with the world between them.
For she shrank from the disillusionments of secret libertinage; she did not, indeed, believe that love could survive it, although passion might for a time. Passion was unthinkable to her without love, and when she recalled the mean and sordid devices to which two of her friends were put to meet their lovers she felt nothing but disgust for the whole drama of man and woman.
Alexina had been reared on the soundest moral principles of church and society, to say nothing of the law, but the norm at the wheel has often laughed in her amiable way at church and society and law when circumstances have conspired to help her. But against fastidiousness even the blind urge of the race seldom has availed her; she can only go on sullenly feeding the fires, heaping on the fuel, hoping grimly for the astrological moment.
Alexina shrugged her shoulders impatiently and went into the house. She would go down to the bank and clip her coupons. She cultivated assiduously the practical side of life, making the most of it, delighted when repairs were needed on her flats, regretting that the greater part of her income came from ground rents, collected, as ever, by Tom Abbott, and bonds, from which she still experienced a childish pleasure in cutting the coupons. Her flats, which were in a humbler part of the western division of the city, she had never visited, but she received a call every month from the agent, who brought her the rents and complaints.
She had made a heroic effort to turn herself into a business woman but the material had been too slender; and she sometimes wished for a large independent fortune that would tax her powers to the utmost. But she never even had any surplus to invest. Her wardrobe was no inconsiderable item; living prices rose steadily; there were repairs both on her own house and the flats to be anticipated every year, to say nothing of the fiendish sum that must be set aside for taxes. But she managed to save the necessary amount; and if they lived somewhat extravagantly, at least she had never disturbed her capital.
On the whole she knew they had managed very well for young people who lived so much in the world, and she had no intention of economizing further. They had no children. Her husband was young and energetic and healthy. Her own little fortune was secure. She purposed to enjoy life as best she could; and as she could not have done this quite selfishly and been happy, she included among her yearly expenditures a certain admirable charity presided over by her equally admirable sister, and even visited it occasionally with her friends when a serious mood descended abruptly upon them....She was now on the threshold of her second beautiful youth, and found herself and life far more interesting than when, a silly girl of eighteen, she had believed that all life and romance must be crowded into that callow period. She had no idea of sacrificing this new era vibrating with unknown possibilities (it was on the cards that she might resurrect Gathbroke from his ivory tomb; lie would do admirably for her present needs, and when she found it difficult to visualize him after so long a period, she could pay Gora a sisterly visit) to a penurious attempt to increase her capital. At the same time she had no intention of diminishing it. To quote Tom Abbott (when Maria was elsewhere): She might be a fool, or even a----fool, but she was not a----fool.
She dressed herself in a black velvet suit made by her New York tailors. She had spent, a fortnight with her brother Ballinger on her way home, and he had given her a set of silver fox: a large muff and two of those priceless animals head to head to keep a small section of her anatomy at blood heat in a climate never cold enough for furs.
The day was hot. It was the sort of weather which on the opposite side of the continent arrives when spring is melting into summer and fortunate woman arrays herself in thin and dainty fabrics. But women everywhere with a proper regard for fashion rush the season, and autumn is the time to display the first smart habiliments of winter. No San Francisco woman of fashion would be guilty of comfortable garments in the glorious spring weather of November if she perished in her furs.
The coat, bound with silk braid, was lined with periwinkle blue, and there was a touch of the same color in her large black velvet hat. Nothing could make the great irises of her black-gray eyes look blue, but they shone out, dazzling, under the drooping brim; and if she was, perchance, too warm above, her scant skirt, her thin silk stockings and low patent leather shoes struck the balance like a brilliant paradox.
Alexina nodded approvingly at her image in the pier glass, found the key of her safe deposit box in the cabinet where she had left it, and went down to the smart little electric car which the gardener had brought to the door.