Book III
Chapter XIII
 

I

Alexina was driving her little car up the avenue at Rincona on the following morning when she saw Joan running toward her through the park and signaling to her to stop.

"What is it?" she asked in some alarm as Joan arrived panting. "Any one ill?"

"Not so's you'd notice it. Leave your car here and come with me. Sneak after me quietly and don't say a word."

Much mystified, Alexina ran her car off the road and followed her niece by a devious route toward the house. Joan interested her mildly; she had fulfilled some of her predictions but not all. She did not go with the "fast set" even of the immediate neighborhood; that is to say the small group called upon, as they indubitably "belonged," but wholly disapproved of, who entertained in some form or other every day and every night, played poker for staggering stakes, danced the wildest of the new dances, made up brazenly, and found tea and coffee indifferent stimulants. Two of Joan's former schoolmates belonged to this active set, but she was only permitted to meet them at formal dinners and large parties. She had rebelled at first, but her mother's firm hand was too much for her still undeveloped will, and later she had concluded "there was nothing in it anyhow; just the whole tiresome society game raised to the nth degree." Moreover, she was socially as conventional as her mother and her good gray aunts, and although full of the mischief of youth, and longing to "do something," no prince having captured her fancy, enough of what Alexina called the sound Ballinger instincts remained to make her disapprove of "fast lots," and she had progressed from radical eighteen to critical twenty-one. She worked off her superfluous spirits at the outdoor games which may be indulged in California for eight months of the year, rode horseback every day, used all her brothers' slang she could remember when in the society of such uncritical friends as her young Aunt Alexina, and bided her time. Sooner or later she was determined to "get out and hustle,"--"shake a leg." That would be the only complete change from her present life, not matrimony and running with fast sets. She wanted more money, she wanted to live alone, and, while devoted to her family, she wanted interests they could not furnish, "no, not in a thousand years."

II

Joan's slim boyish athletic figure darted on ahead and then approached the rear of the house on tiptoe. Alexina followed in the same stealthy fashion, feeling no older at the moment than her niece. The verandah did not extend as far as the music room, which had been built a generation later, and the windows were some eight feet from the ground. A ladder, however, abridged the distance, and Alexina, obeying a gesture from Joan, climbed as hastily as her narrow skirt would permit and peered through the outside shutters, which had been carefully closed.

The room was not dark, however. The electricity had been turned on and shone down upon an amazing sight.

Clad in black bloomers and stockings lay a row of six women flat on the floor, while in front of them stood a woman thin to emaciation, who was evidently talking rapidly. Alexina's mouth opened as widely as her eyes. She had heard of Devil Worship, of strange and awful rites that took place at midnight in wickedest Paris. Had an expurgated edition been brought to chaste Alta--plus Menlo--plus Atherton, by Mrs. Hunter or Mrs. Thornton, or any of those fortunate Californians who visited the headquarters of fashion and sin once a year? They would do a good deal to vary the monotony of life. But that they should have corrupted Maria...the impeccable, the superior, the unreorientable Maria! Maria, with whom contentment and conservatism were the first articles of the domestic and the socio-religious creed!

For there lay Maria, extended full length; and on her calm white face was a look of unholy joy. Beside her, as flat as if glued to the inlaid floor, were Mrs. Hunter, Mrs. Thornton, Coralie Geary, Mrs. Brannan, another old friend of Maria, and--yes--Tom's sister, Susan Delling, austere in her virtues, kind to all, conscientiously smart, and with a fine mahogany complexion that made even a merely powdered woman feel not so much a harlot as a social inferior.

What on earth...what on earth....

The thin loquacious stranger clapped her hands. Up went six pairs of legs. Two remained in mid-air, Mrs. Geary's and Mrs. Brannan's having met an immovable obstacle shortly above the hip-joints. Three bent backward slowly but surely until they approached the region of the neck. Maria's flew unerringly, effortlessly, up, back, until they tapped the floor behind her head. Alexina almost shouted "Bravo." Maria was a real sport.

Six times they repeated this fascinating rite, and then, obeying another peremptory command, they rolled over abruptly and balanced on all fours. Alexina could stand no more. She dropped down the ladder and ran after Joan, who was disappearing round the corner of the house.

III

"Well, I never!" she exclaimed. "Maria! Your mo--"

"She gained three pounds, for the first time in her life, and you know her figure is her only vanity. This woman came along and the whole Peninsula is crazy about her. She's taken the fat off every woman in New York, and came out with letters to a lot of women. Mother fell for her hard. I nearly passed away when I peeked through that shutter the first time. Mother! She's the best of the bunch, though. But they're all having a perfectly grand time. New interest for middle-age--what?"

"Don't be cruel. Heavens, how hot they all looked! I could hear them gasp. Hope their arteries are all right. Are they going to stay to lunch?"

"No. There's a big one on in Burlingame. Mother's not going, though. It's at that Mrs. Cutts', new Burlingame stormer, that Anne Montgomery coaches and caters for and who gives wonderful entertainments. Mother and Aunt Susan won't go, but nearly all the others do."

"Anne Montgomery. I haven't seen her since mother died."

"You look as if an idea had struck you. She's useful no end, they say; is now a social secretary to a lot of new people, and sells the 'real lace' and other superfluous luxuries of some of our old families for the cold coin that buys comforts."

"Fine idea. But I'm glad your mother will be alone. I've come down to have a talk with her."

"Thanks. I'll take the hint."