The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
That was a unique and vivid day for young Alexina Groome, whose disposition was to look upon life as drama and asked only that it shift its scenes often and be consistently entertaining and picturesque.
Never, so James told her, since her Grandmother Ballinger's reign, had there been such life and movement in the old house. All Mrs. Groome's intimate friends and many of Alexina's came to it, some to make kindly inquiries, others to beg them to leave the city, many to gossip and exchange experiences of that fateful morning; a few from Rincon Hill and the old ladies' fashionable boarding-house district to claim shelter until they could make their way to relatives out of town.
Mrs. Groome welcomed her friends not only with the more spontaneous hospitality of an older time but in that spirit of brotherhood that every disaster seems to release, however temporarily. Brotherhood is unquestionably an instinct of the soul, an inheritance from that sunrise era when mutual interdependence was as imperative as it was automatic. The complexities of civilization have overlaid it, and almost but not wholly replaced it by national and individual selfishness. But the world as yet is only about one-third civilized. Centuries hence a unified civilization may complete the circle, but human nature and progress must act and react a thousand times before the earthly millenium; and it cannot be hastened by dreamers and fanatics.
All Mrs. Groome's spare rooms were placed at the service of her friends, and cots were bought in the humble Fillmore Street shops and put up in the billiard room, the double parlors, the library and the upper hall. Some forty people would sleep under the old Ballinger roof that night--dynamite permitting. Mrs. Groome was firm in her determination not to flee, and as James and Mike were there to watch, she had graciously given a number of the gloomy refugees from the lower regions permission to camp in the outhouses and grounds.
Alexina spent the greater part of the day with Aileen Lawton, Olive Bascom, and Sibyl Thorndyke, out of doors, fascinated by the spectacle of the burning city.
The valley beyond Market Street, and the lower business district, were a rolling mass of smoke parting about pillars of fire, shot with a million glittering sparks when a great building was dynamited. All the windows in those sections of the city as yet beyond the path of the fire were open, for although closed windows might have shut out the torrid atmosphere, the explosions would have shattered them.
"Oh, dear," sighed Olive Bascom, "there goes my building. The smoke lifted for a moment and I saw the flames spouting out of the windows. A cool million and uninsured. We thought Class A buildings were safe from any sort of fire."
"Heavens!" exclaimed Alexina naively, "I wish I had a million-dollar building down in that furnace. It must be a great sensation to watch a million dollars go up in sparks."
"I hope your mother hasn't any buildings down in the business district," said Aileen anxiously. "I've heard dad talk about her ground rents. She'll get those again soon enough. I fancy the old tradition survives in this town and they'll begin to draw the plans for the new city before the fire is out. It used to burn down regularly in the fifties, dad says."
"I don't fancy we have much of anything," said Alexina cheerfully. "I think mother has only a life interest in a part of father's estate, and I heard her tell Maria once that she intended to leave me all she had of her own, this place and a few thousand a year in bonds and some flats that are probably burning up right now. I gathered from the conversation that father didn't have much left when he died and that it was understood mother was to look out for me. I believe he gave a lot to the others when he was wealthy."
"Good Lord!" Aileen sighed heavily. "It won't pay your dressmakers' bills, what with taxes and all. I won't be much better off. We'll have to marry Rex Roberts or Bob Cheever or Frank Bascom--unless he's going up in smoke too, Olive dear. But there are a few others."
Alexina shook her head. Her color could not rise higher for her face was crimson from the heat; like the others she had a wet handkerchief on her head. "There is not a grain of romance in one of them," she announced. "Curious that the sons of the rich nearly always have round faces, no particular features, and a tendency to bulge. I intend to have a romance--old style--good old style--before the vogue of the middle-class realists. There's nothing in life but youth and you only have it once. I'm going to have a romance that means falling wildly, unreasonably, uncalculatingly in love."
"You anticipate my adjectives," said Aileen drily. "Although not all. But let that pass. I'd like to know where you expect to find the opposite lead, as they say on the stage. Our men are not such a bad sort, even the richest--with a few exceptions, of course. They may hit it up at week-ends, generally at the country clubs, but they're better than the last generation because their fathers have more sense. I'll bet they're all down there now fighting the fire with the vim of their grandfathers....But romantic! Good Lord! I'll marry one of them all right and glad of the chance--after I've had my fling. I'm in no hurry. I'd have outgrown my illusions in any case by that time, only Nature did the trick by not giving me any."
"Don't you believe there isn't a man in all San Francisco able to inspire romance." If Alexina could not blush her dark gray eyes could sparkle and melt. "All the men we meet don't belong to that rich group."
"Bunch, darling. Where--will you give us the pointer?--are to be found the romantic knights of San Francisco? 'Frisco as those tiresome Eastern people call it. Makes me sick to think that they are even now pitying 'poor 'Frisco.' "Well?--I could beat my brains and not call one to mind."
"What does that mean, Alex Groome? When you roll up your eyes like that you look like a love-sick tomato."
"Mortimer Dwight was most devoted last night," said Sibyl Thorndyke. "She danced with him at least eight times."
"You must have sat out alone to know what I was doing," Alexina began hotly, but Aileen sprang at her and gripped her shoulders.
"Don't tell me that you are interested in that cheap skate. Alexina Groome! You!"
"He's not a cheap skate. I despise your cheap slang."
"He's a rank nobody."
"You mean he isn't rich. Or his family didn't belong. What do you suppose I care? I'm not a snob."
"He is. A climbing, ingenuous, empty-headed snob."
"You are a snob. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"I've a right to be a snob if I choose, and he hasn't. My snobbery is the right sort: the 'I will maintain' kind. He'd give all the hair on his head to have the right to that sort of snobbery. His is" (she chanted in a high light maddening voice): "Oh, God, let me climb. Yank me up into the paradise of San Francisco society. Burlingame, Alta, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belvidere, San Rafael. Oh, God, it's awful to be a nobody, not to be in the same class with these rich fellers, not to belong to the Pacific-Union Club, not to have polo ponies, not to belong to smart golf clubs, to the Burlingame Club. Not to get clothes from New York and London--"
"You keep quiet," shrieked Alexina, who with difficulty refrained from substituting: "You shut up." She flung off Aileen's hands. "What do you know about him? He doesn't like you."
"Never had a chance to find out."
"What can you know about him, then?"
"Think I'm blind? Think I'm deaf? Don't I know everything that goes on in this town? Isn't sizing-up my long suit? And he's as dull as--as a fish without salt. I sat next to him at a dinner, and all he could talk about was the people he'd met--our sort, of course. And he was dull even at that. He's all manners and bluff--"
"You couldn't draw him out. He talked to me."
"What about? I'm really interested to know. Everybody says the same thing. They fall for his dancing and manners, and--well, yes--I 'll admit it--for his looks. He even looks like a gentleman. But all the girls say he bores 'em stiff. They have to talk their heads off. What did he say to you that was so frantically interesting?"
"Well, of course--we danced most of the time."
"That's just it. He's inherited the shell of some able old ancestor and not a bit of the skull furniture. Nature often plays tricks like that. But I could forgive him for being dull if he weren't such a damn snob."
"You shan't call him names. If he wants to be one of us, and life was so unkind as to--to--well, birth him on the outside, I'm sure that's no crime."
"Snobbery," said Miss Thorndyke, who was intellectual at the moment and cultivating the phrase, "is merely a rather ingenuous form of aspiration. I can't see that it varies except in kind from other forms of ambition. And without ambition there would be no progress."
"Oh, can it," sneered Judge Lawton's daughter. "You're all wrong, anyhow. Snobbery leads to the rocks much oftener than to high achievement. I've heard dad say so, and you won't venture to assert that he doesn't know. It bears about the same relation to progress that grafting does to legitimate profits. Anyhow, it makes me sick, and I'm not going to have Alex falling in love with a poor fish--"
"Fish?" Alexina's voice rose above a fresh detonation, "You dare--and you think I'm going to ask you whom I shall fall in love with? Fish? What do you call those other shrimps who don't think of anything but drinking and sport, whether they attend to business or not?--their fathers make them, anyhow. And you want to marry one of them! They're fish, if you like."
The two girls were glaring at each other. Gray eyes were blazing, green eyes snapping. Two sets of white even teeth were bared. They looked like a couple of belligerent puppies. Another moment and they would have forgotten the sacred traditions of their class and flown at each other's hair. But Miss Bascom interposed. Even the loss of her uninsured million did not ruffle her, for she had another in Government and railroad bonds, and full confidence in her brother, who was an admirable business man, and not in the least dissipated.
"Come, come," she said. "It's much too hot to fight. Dwight is not good enough for Alex--from a worldly point of view, I mean," as Alexina made a movement in her direction. "We should none of us marry out of our class. It never works, somehow. But Mr. Dwight is really quite all right otherwise. I like him very much, Alex darling, and I don't mind his being an outsider in the least--so long as he doesn't try to marry one of us. He's too good-looking, and his heels are fairly inspired. No one questions the fact that he is an honorable and worthy young man, working like a real man to earn his living. It isn't at all as if he were an adventurer. He has never struck me as being more of a snob than most people, and I don't see why I haven't thought to ask him down to San Mateo for a week-end."
"You'll certainly have a friend for life if you do," said Aileen satirically. "Fall in love with him yourself if you choose. You can afford it."
"No fear. I've made up my mind. I'm going to marry a French marquis."
"What?" Even Alexina forgot Mortimer Dwight. "Who is he? Where did you meet him?"
"I haven't met him yet. But I shall. I'm going to Paris next winter to visit my aunt, and I'll find one. You get anything in this world you go for hard enough. To be a French marquise is the most romantic thing in the world."
"Why not Elton Gwynne? It's an open secret that he's an English marquis. Or that young Gathbroke Lady Victoria brought last night?"
"He's a younger son, and he never looked at any one but Alex. And Isabel Otis has preempted Mr. Gwynne. And I adore France and don't care about England."
"Well, that is romantic if you like!" cried Aileen, her green eyes dancing" "You have my best wishes. Doesn't it make your Geary Street knight look cheap--he boards somewhere down on Geary Street."
"No, it doesn't! And I'm a good American. French marquis, indeed! Mr. Dwight comes of the best old American stock from New York. He told mother so, I'd spit on any old decadent European title."
"I wish your mother could hear you. So--he's been getting round her has he? Where on earth did he meet her?"
Alexina, with sulky triumph, reported Mr. Dwight's early visit and the favorable impression he had made.
Aileen groaned. "That's just the one thing she would fall for in a rank outsider--superlative manners. His being poor is rather in his favor. I'll put a flea in her ear--"
Aileen lifted her shoulders. "Well, as a matter of fact I can't. Tattling just isn't in my line. But if I can queer him with you I will."
"I won't talk about him any more." Alexina drew herself up with immense dignity. She had the advantage of Aileen not only in inches but in a natural repose of manner. The eminent Judge Lawton's only child, upon whom, possibly, he may have lavished too much education, had a thin nervous little body that was seldom in repose, and her face, with its keen irregular features and brilliant green eyes, shifted its surface impressions as rapidly as a cinematograph. Olive Bascom had soft blue eyes and abundant brown hair, and Sibyl Thorndyke had learned to hold her long black eyes half closed, and had the black hair and rich complexion of a Creole great-grandmother. Alexina was admittedly the "beauty of the bunch." Nevertheless, Miss Lawton had informed her doting parent before this, her first season, was half over, that she was vivid enough to hold her own with the best of them. The boys said she was a live wire and she preferred that high specialization to the tameness of mere beauty.
Said Alexina: "Sibyl, what are you going to do with your young life? Shall you marry an English duke or a New York millionaire?"
But Miss Thorndyke smiled mysteriously. She was not as frank as the other girls, although by no means as opaque as she imagined.
Aileen laughed. "Oh, don't ask her. Doubt if she knows. To-day she's all for being intellectual and reading those damn dull Russian novelists. To-morrow she may be setting up as an odalisque. It would suit her style better."
Miss Thorndyke's face was also crimson from the heat, but she would not have flushed had it been the day before. She was not subject to sudden reflexes.
"Your satire is always a bit clumsy, dear," she said sweetly. "The odalisque is not your role at all events."
"I don't go in for roles."
And the four girls wrangled and dreamed and planned, while a city burnt beneath them; some three hundred million dollars flamed out, lives were ruined, exterminated, altered; and Labor sat on the hills and smiled cynically at the tremendous impetus the earth had handed them on that morning of April eighteenth, nineteen hundred and six.
They were too young to know or to care. When the imagination is trying its wings it is undismayed even by a world at war.