The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Alexina drew the jewel coffer from the depths of the compartment and opened it with fingers that felt swollen and numb. But the jewels were there, and she experienced a feeling of fleeting satisfaction. They were no part of her fortune, for she believed that only want would ever induce her to sell them, but at least they were her own personal treasure and a part of the beauty of life.
She returned the fallen box to its place and locked the little cupboard, then took herself in hand. Neither the keeper outside the door of the vault nor those she met above must suspect that anything was wrong with her. What she should do she had no idea at the moment, but at all events she must have time to think.
She left the bank with her usual light step and her head high, and then she motored down the Peninsula. As she passed the shipyards she saw crowds of men standing about; some of them turned and scowled after her. They were on strike and took her no doubt for the wife or daughter of a millionaire; and in truth there was never any difference superficially in her appearance from that of her wealthier friends. She had one ear instead of several hut it was perfect of its kind. Her wardrobe was by no means as extensive as Sibyl's or Janet's or a hundred others, but what she had came from the best houses, that use only the costliest materials. Her face was composed and proud. There was not a signal out, even from her brilliant expressive eyes, of the storm within.
Her mind was no longer stunned. It was seething with disgust and fury. How dared he? Her own, her exclusive property, inherited and separate....She felt at this moment exactly as she would have felt if her jewel coffer instead of the dispatch box had been rifled; it was the instinct of possession that had been outraged. What was hers was hers as much as the hair on her head or the thoughts in her mind...an instinct that harked back to the oldest of the buried civilizations...she wondered if any socialist really had cultivated the power to feel differently. She was quite certain that if Kirkpatrick should see a thief fleeing with his purse he would chase him, collar him, and either chastise him then and there or drag him to the nearest police station.
And the thief was her husband, the man of her choice. Alexina felt that possibly if a brother had stolen her money she would have been less bitter because less humiliated; one did not select one's brothers....And if she had still loved Mortimer it would have been bad enough, although no doubt with the blindness of youthful passion she would immediately have begun to make excuses for him, reeling a blow as it would have been. But the one compensation she had found in her matrimonial wilderness was her pride in the essential honor of her chosen partner, and her complete trust. If there had been any necessity for giving a power of attorney when she went to Europe she would have drawn it in his favor without hesitation, so completely had she forgotten her earlier incitements to precaution....If she had, no doubt she would have returned to find herself penniless.
Whether he had stolen the money to speculate with or to extricate himself from some business muddle she did not pause to wonder. He had lost it; that was sufficiently evident from his depression. When his powers of bluff failed him matters were serious indeed.
He had stolen and lost. The first would have been unforgivable, but the last was unpardonable.
And he had taken her money as he would have taken Gora's, or his parents' had they been alive, because however they might lash him with their contempt, his body was safe from prison, his precious position in society unshaken. She knew him well enough to be sure that if he had had forty thousand dollars of some outsider's money under his hand it would have been safe no matter what his predicament. He would have accepted the alternative of bankruptcy without hesitation.
But with the women of his family a man was always safe. She remembered something that Gora had once said to the same effect....Yes, she could have forgiven the theft of an outsider, for at least she would be spared this sickening suffocating sensation of contempt. It was demoralizing. She hated herself as much as she hated him. Moreover there would have been some compensation in sending an outsider to San Quentin.
And there was the serious problem of readjusting her life. Two thousand dollars out of a small income was a serious deficit. Simultaneously she was visited by another horrid thought. Mortimer had heretofore paid half the household expenses. No doubt he was no longer in a position to pay any. They would have to live, keep up Ballinger House, dress, pay taxes, subscribe to charities, maintain their position in society, pay the doctor and the dentist...a hundred and one other incidentals...out of four thousand dollars a year. Well, it couldn't be done. They would have to change their mode of living.
However, that concerned her little at present. The ordeal loomed of a plain talk with Mortimer. It was impossible to ignore the theft even had she wished; which she did not, for it was her disposition to have things out and over with. But it would be horrible...horribly intimate. She had always deliberately lived on the surface with her family and friends, respected their privacies as she held hers inviolate. As her mind flashed back over her life she realized that this would be the first really serious personal talk she would ever have held with any one. Or, if her family, and occasionally, Mortimer, had insisted upon being serious she had maintained her own attitude of airy humor or delicate insolence.
She had no shyness of manner but a deep and intense shyness of the soul. Some day...perhaps...but never yet.
She turned her car after a time, for she feared that her batteries would run down. The strikers were still lounging and scowling; and this time having relaxed her mental girths she looked at them with sympathy. She knew from the liberal education she had received at the hands of Mr. James Kirkpatrick, and the admissions of Judge Lawton and other thoughtful men, that the iniquities of employers and labor were pretty equally divided; greed and lack of tact on the one hand, greed and class hatred and the itch for power on the part of labor leaders; and a stupidity in the mass that was more pardonable than the short-sighted stupidities of capital....But what would you? A few centuries hence the world might be civilized, but not in her time. Nothing gave her mind less exercise. One thing at least was certain and that was that when strikes lasted too long the laborers and their families went hungry, and the employers did not. That settled the question for her and determined the course of her sympathy. (It was not yet the fashion to recognize the unfortunate "public," squeezed and helpless between these two louder demonstrators of sheer human nature.)
But her mind did not linger in the shipyards. She had problems of her own....The chief of her compensations, having made a mess of her life, had been taken from her: her pride and her faith in the man to whom she was bound. The death of love had been so gradual that she had not noticed it in time for decent obsequies; she had not sent a regret in its wake....She had had enough left, more than many women who had made the same blind plunge into the barbed wire maze of matrimony....And now she had nothing. She would have liked to drive right out on to a liner about to sail through the Golden Gate...but she would no doubt have to live on...and on...in changed, possibly humble, conditions...despising the man she must meet sometime every day....Yes, she did wish she never had been born.