The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Alexina felt only an intolerable ennui. Gora had gone in the morning; she sat alone in her room. Of course she must have that explanation with Mortimer, but any time before the first of the month would do. She was far less concerned with that now than with the problem: what to do with her life. How was she to continue to live in the same house with him? Perhaps in far smaller quarters than these? For she could not leave him. She had no visible excuse, and no desire to admit to the world that she had made woman's superlative mistake.
She scowled at the lovely room in which she had expected to find compensation in dreams, the setting for an unreal and enchanted world.
Dreams had died out of her. For the first time in her sheltered existence she appreciated the grim reality of life. She was no longer sheltered, secluded, one of the "fortunate class." Ways and means would occupy most of her time henceforth. And it was not the privations she shrank from but the contacts with the ugly facts of life; a side she had found extremely picturesque in novels, but knew from, occasional glimpses to be merely repulsive and demoralizing.
And of whom could she ask advice! She must make changes and make them quickly. Four thousand dollars a year!...and taxes--besides the new income tax--to be paid on the downtown property, the fiats, the land on which her home stood, Ballinger House itself and all its contents.
She knew vaguely that many girls these days were given special training of some sort even where their parents were well off; but more particularly where the father was what is known as a high-salaried man; or even a moderately successful professional or business man--all of whose expenses arid incomes balanced too nicely for investments.
Not in her set! Joan, bored after her third season with dancing in winter and "sitting round Alta" in summer, had asked permission to become a trained nurse like Gora, or go into the decorating business, "any old thing"; and Maria Abbott had simply stared at her in horror; even her father had asked her angrily if she wished to disgrace him, advertise him as unable to provide for his family. No self-respecting American, etc.
But something must be done. She wished to live on in Ballinger House if possible, not only because she loved it, or to avoid the commiserations of the world; she had no desire to live in narrow quarters with her husband....And she knew nothing, was fit for nothing, belonged to a silly class that still looked upon women workers as de-classed, although to be sure two or three whose husbands had left them penniless had gone into business and were loyally tolerated, if deeply deplored.
The day after her return from Europe Alice Thorndyke had come into this room and thrown herself down on the couch, her long, languorous body looking as if set on steel springs, her angelic blonde beauty distorted with fury and disgust, and poured out her hatred of men and all their ways, her loathing for society and gambling and all the stupid vicious round of the life both public and secret she had elected to lead....She had had enough of it....After all, she had some brains and she wanted to use them. She wanted to go into the decorating business. There was an opening. She had a natural flair for that sort of thing. See what she had managed to do with that old ark she had inherited, and on five cents a year....When she had asked her sister to advance the money Sibyl had flown into one of her worst rages and thrown a gold hair brush through a Venetian mirror. Didn't she give her clothes by the dozen that she hadn't worn a month? Did any girl have a better time in society? Was any girl luckier at poker? Was any girl more popular with men--too bad it was generally the married ones that lost their heads....Better if she stopped fooling and married. By and by it would be too late.
But she didn't want to marry. She was sick of men. She wanted to get out of her old life altogether and cultivate a side of her mind and character that had stagnated so far...also to enjoy the independent life of a money-earner...life in an entirely different world...something new...new...new.
Alexina had offered to lend her the capital, for Alice had a hard cool head. But she had refused, saying she could mortgage her old barrack if it came to that...but she didn't know...it would he a break....Sib might never speak to her again...people were such snobs...and she mightn't like it...she wished she had been born of poor but honest parents and put to work in a canning factory or married the plumber.
She had done nothing, and Alexina wondered if she would have the courage to go into some sort of business with herself...they could give out they were bored, seeking a new distraction...save the precious pride of their families.
She leaned forward and took her head in her hands. If she only had some one to talk things over with. It was impossible to confide in Gora, in any one. If she broached the subject to Tom Abbott, to Judge Lawton, even in a roundabout way, they would suspect at once. Aileen and Janet and the other girls did not know enough. They would suspect also. But her head would burst if she didn't consult some one. She was too horribly alone. And after all she was still very young. She had talked largely of her responsibilities, but as a matter of fact until now she had never had one worth the name.
Suddenly she thought of James Kirkpatrick.
The lessons in socialism had died a natural death long since. But Alexina and Aileen and Janet had never quite let him go. Whenever there was a great strike on, either in California or in any part of the nation, they invited him to take tea with them at least once a week while it lasted and tell them all the "ins." This he was nothing loath to do, and waived the question of remuneration aside with a gesture. He was now a foreman, and vice-president of his union, and it gave him a distinct satisfaction to confer a favor upon these "lofty dames," whom, however, he liked better as time went on. Alexina he had always worshiped and the only time he ceased to be a socialist was when he ground his teeth and cursed fate for not making him a gentleman and giving him a chance before she was corralled by that sawdust dude.
He had also remained on friendly terms with Gora, who had cold-bloodedly studied him and made him the hero of a grim strike story. But as he never read polite literature their friendship was unimpaired.
He came to tea that afternoon in response to a telephone call from Alexina. She had put on a tea gown of periwinkle blue chiffon and a silver fillet about her head, and looked to Mr. Kirkpatrick's despairing gaze as she intended to look--beautiful, of course, but less woman than goddess. Exquisite but not tempting. She was quite aware of the young workman's hopeless passion and she managed him as skillfully as she did the more assured, sophisticated, and sometimes "illuminated" Jimmie Thorne and Bascom Luning.
She received him in the great drawing-room behind the tea-table, laden with the massive silver of dead and gone Ballingers.
"I've only been home a week," she said gayly. "See what a good friend I am. I've scarcely seen any one. Did you get my post cards?"
"I did and I've framed them, if you don't mind my saying so."
"I hoped you would. I picked out the prettiest I could find. They do have such beauties in Europe. Just think, it was my first visit. I was wildly excited. Wouldn't you like to go?"
"Naw. America's good enough for me. 'Fris--oh, Lord! San Francisco--for that matter. I'd like to go to the next International Socialist Congress all right--next year. Maybe I will. I guess that would give me enough of Europe to last me the rest of my natural life."
"I met a good many Frenchmen, and I have a friend married to a very clever one. He says they expect a war with Germany in a year two--"
"There'll never be another war. Not in Europe or anywhere else. The socialists won't permit it."
"There are a good many socialists--and syndicalists--in France, and it's quite true they're doing all they can to prevent any money being voted for the army or expended if it is voted; but I happen to know that the Government has asked the president of the Red Cross to train as many nurses as she can induce to volunteer, and as quickly as possible. My friend Madame Morsigny was to begin her training a few days after I left."
"Hm. So. I hadn't heard a word of it."
"We get so much European news out here! America first! Especially in the matter of murders and hold-ups. Who cares for a possible war in Europe when the headlines are as black as the local crimes they announce?"
"Sure thing. Great little old papers. But don't let any talk of war from anywhere at all worry you. And I'll tell you why. At the last International Congress all the socialists of all the nations were ready to agree that all labor should lay down its tools--quit work--go on a colossal strike--the moment those blood-sucking capitalists at the top, those sawdust kings and kaisers and tsars--or any president for that matter--declared war for any cause whatsoever. All, that is, but the German delegates. They couldn't see the light. Now they have. When we meet next August the resolution will be unanimous. Take it from me. You've read of your last war in some old history book. Peace from now on, and thank the socialists."
"I should. But suppose Germany should declare war before next August?"
"She won't. She ain't ready. She'd have done it after that there 'Agadir Incident' if she'd dared. That is to say been good and ready. Now she's got to wait for another good excuse and there ain't one in sight."
"But you believe she'd like to precipitate a war in Europe for her own purposes?"
"She'd like it all right." And he quoted freely from Treitschke and Bernhardi, while Alexina as ever looked at him in wonder. He seemed to be more deeply read every time she met him, and he remained exactly the same James Kirkpatrick. "What an adventitious thing breeding was! Mortimer had it!"
"Well, I am glad I spoke of it. You have relieved my mind, for you speak as one with authority....There is something else I want to talk to you about....A friend of mine is in a dilemma and I don't quite know how to advise her....We're all such a silly set of moths--"
"No moth about you!" interrupted Mr. Kirkpatrick firmly. "Some of them--those others, if you like. The only redeeming virtue I can see in most of them is that they are what they are and don't give a damn. But you--you've got more brains and common sense than the whole bunch of women in this town put together."
"Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I'm afraid I've addled my brains trying to cultivate them, and what I'm more afraid of is that I've addled my common sense." She spoke with such gayety, with such a roguish twinkle, and curve of lip, that neither then nor later did he suspect that she was the heroine of her own tale.
"Well, fire away. No, thanks, no more. I only drink tea to please you anyway. Tea is so much hot water to me."
"Well, smoke." She pushed the box of cigarettes toward him. "I know you smoke a pipe, but I won't let my husband smoke one at home. It's bad for my curtains....This is it--One of my friends, poor thing, has had a terrible experience: discovered that her husband has stolen the part of her little fortune whose income enabled them to do something more than keep alive. You see, it's a sad case. She believed in him, and he had always been the most honest creature in the world; and that's as much of a blow as the loss of the money."
"What'd he do it for?"
"Oh, I know so little about business...he wanted to get rich too quickly I suppose...speculated or something...perhaps got into a hole. This has been a bad year."
"Poor chap!" said Kirkpatriek reflectively.
"You're not commiserating him?"
"Ain't I, just? He done it, didn't he? He's got to pay the piper, hasn't he? Women don't know anything about the awful struggles and temptations of the rotten business world. He didn't do it because he wanted to, you can bet your life on that. He's just another poor victim of a vicious system. A fly in the same old web; same old fat spider in the middle!. Not capital enough. Hard times and the little man goes under, no matter if he's a darn sight better fellow than the bloated beast on top--"
"You mean if we were living in the Socialistic Utopia no man could go under?"
"I mean just that. It's a sin and a shame, A fine young fellow--"
"Remember, you don't know anything about him. He's not a bad sort and has always been quite honest before; but he's not very clever. If he were he wouldn't have got himself into a predicament. He had a good start, far better than nine-tenths of the millionaires in this country had in their youth."
"Oh, I don't care anything about that. If all men were equally clever in chasing the almighty dollar there'd be no excuse for socialism. It's our job to displace the present rotten system of government with one in which the weak couldn't be crowded out, where all that are willing to work will have an equal chance--and those that ain't willing will have to work anyhow or starve....One of the thousand things the matter with the present system is that the square man is so often in the round hole. In the socialized state every man will he guided to the place which exactly fits his abilities. No weaker to the wall there,"
"You think you can defy Nature to that extent!"
"Well. I'm too much distracted by my friend's predicament to discuss socialism....I rather like the idea though of the strong man having the opportunity to prove himself stronger than Life...find out what, he was put on earth and endowed with certain characteristics for...rather a pity all that should atrophy....However--what shall my friend do? Continue to live with a man she despises?"
"She's no right to despise him or anybody. It's the system, I tell you. And no doubt she's just as weak in some way herself. Every man jack of us is so chuck full of faults and potential crime it's a wonder we don't break out every day in the week, and if women are going to desert us when the old Adam runs head on into some one of the devilish traps the present civilization has set out all over the place, instead of being able to sidestep it once more, well--she'd best divorce herself from the idea of matrimony before she goes in for the thing itself. Would I desert my brother if he got into trouble? Would you?"
"N--o, I suppose you are right, and I doubt if she would leave him anyway. However...there's the other aspect. What can a woman in her position do to help matters out? You have met a good many of her kind here. Fancy Miss Lawton or Mrs. Bascom or Miss Maynard forced to work--"
"I can't. If I had imagination enough for that I'd be writin' novels like Miss Dwight."
"I believe they'd do better than you think. Well, this friend isn't quite so much absorbed in society and poker and dress. She's more like--well, there's Mrs. Ruyler, for instance. She was very much like the rest of us, and now we never see her. She's as devoted to ranching as her husband."
"There was sound bourgeois French blood there," he said shrewdly. "And she wasn't brought up like the rest of you. Don't you forget that."
"Then you think we're hopeless?"
"No, I don't. Three or four women of your crowd--a little older, that's all--are doin' first-rate in business, and they were light-headed enough in their time, I'll warrant. And you, for instance--if you came up against it--"
"Yes? What could I do?" cried Alexina gayly. "But alas! you admit you have no imagination."
"Don't need any. You'd be good for several things. You could go into the insurance business like Mrs. Lake, or into real estate like Mrs. Cole--people like to have a pretty and stylish young lady showin' 'em round flats. Or you could buy an orchard like the Ruylers--that'd require capital. If we had the socialistic state you'd be put on one of the thinking boards, so to speak. That's the point. You've got no training, but you've got a thinker. You'd soon learn. But I'm not so sure of your friend. Somehow, you've given me the impression she's just one of these lady-birds."
"I'm afraid she is," said Alexina with a sigh. "But you're so good to take an interest....Suppose you had the socialistic state now--to-morrow, what would you do with all these--lady-birds?"
"I'd put 'em in a sanatorium until they got their nerves patched up, and then I'd turn 'em over to a trainer who'd put them into a normal physical condition; and then I'd put 'em at hard labor--every last one of 'em."
"Oh, dear, Mr. Kirkpatrick, would you?"
"Yes," he said grimly. "It 'ud be their turn."