The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora's novel was published in February. Aileen Lawton, Sibyl Bascom, Alice Thorndyke, Polly Roberts, and Janet Maynard organized a campaign to make it the fashion. They went about with copies under their arms, on the street, in the shops, at luncheons, even at the matinee, and "could talk of nothing else." Sibyl and Janet bought a dozen copies each and sent them to friends and acquaintances with the advice to read it at once unless they wished to be hopelessly out of date: it was "all the rage in New York."
As a matter of fact, with the exception of Aileen and possibly Janet, the book almost terrified them with its pounding vigor and grim relentless logic, even its romantic realism, which made its tragedy more poignant and sinister by contrast; and, again with the exception of Aileen, they were little interested in Gora. But they were loyally devoted to Alexina and obeyed, as a matter of course, her request to help her make the book a success. They worked with the sterner determination as Alexina in her own efforts was obliged to be extremely subtle.
Besides, it, was rather thrilling not only to know a real, author but almost to have her in the family as it were. Their industrious sowing bore an abundant harvest and Gora's novel became the fashion. Whether people hated it or not, and most of them did, they discussed it continually, and when a book meets with that happy fate personal opinions matter little.
Maria thought the book was "awful" and forbade Joan to read it. Joan thought (to Alexina) that it was simply the most terribly fascinating book she had ever read and made her despise society more than ever and more determined to light out and see life for herself first chance she got. Tom Abbott thought it a remarkable book for a woman to have written; a man might have written it. Judge Lawton read it twice. Mortimer declined to read it. He had not forgiven Gora; moreover, although his social position was now planetary, it annoyed him excessively to hear his sister alluded to continually as an author. Even the men at the club were reading the damned book.
Bohemia stood off for some time. It was only recently they had learned that Gora Dwight was a Californian. They had read her stories, but as she had been the subject of no publicity whatever they had inferred that, like many another, she had dwelt in their midst only long enough to acquire material. When they learned the truth, and particularly after her inescapable novel appeared, they were indignant that she had not sought her muse at Carmel-by-the-Sea, or some other center of mutual admiration; affiliated herself; announced herself, at the very least. There was a very sincere feeling among them that any attempt on the part of a rank outsider to achieve literary distinction was impertinent as well as unjustifiable....It was impossible that he or she could be the real thing.
When they discovered that she was affiliated more or less with fashionable society, nurse though she might be, and that those frivolous and negligible beings were not only buying her book by the ton but giving her luncheons and dinners and teas, their disgust knew no bounds and they tacitly agreed that she should be tabu in the only circles where recognition counted.
But Gora, who barely knew of their existence, little recked that she had been weighed, judged, and condemned. Her old dream had come true. Society, the society which should have been her birthright and was not, had thrown open its doors to her at last and everybody was outdoing everybody else in flattering and entertaining her.
Not that she was deceived for a moment as to the nature of her success with the majority of the people whose names twinkled so brightly in the social heavens. She more than suspected the "plot" but cared little for the original impulse of the book's phenomenal success in San Francisco and its distinguished faubourgs. She was square with her pride, her youthful bitterness had its tardy solace, her family name was rescued from obscurity. She knew that this belated triumph rang hollow, and that she really cared very little about it; but the strength and tenacity of her nature alone would have forced her to quaff every drop of the cup so long withheld. Even if she had been desperately bored she would have accepted these invitations to houses so long indifferent to her existence, and as a matter of fact she welcomed the sudden lapse into frivolity after her years of hard and almost unremitting work. She had played little in her life; and a year later when she was working eighteen hours a day without rest, in conditions that seemed to have leapt into life from the blackest pages of history, she looked back upon her one brief interval of irresponsibility, gratified vanity, and bodily indolence, as at a bright star low on the horizon of a dark and terrible night.
There was one small group of women, Gora soon discovered, that stood for something besides amusement, sharply as some of them were identified with all that was brilliant in the social life of the city. They read all that was best in serious literature and fiction as soon after it came out as their treadmill would permit, and they gave somewhat more time to it than to poker. It was this small group, led by Mrs. Hunter, that in common with several wealthy and clever Jewish women, with intellectual members of old families that had long since dropped out of a society that gave them too little to be worth the drain on their limited means, and with one or two presidents of women's clubs, made up the small attendance at the lectures on literary and political subjects, delivered either by some local light, or European specialist in the art of charming the higher intelligence of American women without subjecting it to undue fatigue.
This small but distinguished band discussed Gora separately and collectively and placed the seal of approval upon her. With them her arrival was genuine and permanent.
It was hardly a step from their favor to the many women's clubs of the city, and she was invited to be the luncheon or afternoon guest at one after another until all had entertained the rising star and she had learned to make the little speeches expected of her without turning to ice.
The local intelligenzia, those that assured one another how great were each and all, and whose poems or stories found an occasional hospitality in the eastern magazines, who toiled over "precious" paragraphs of criticism or whose single achievement had been a play for the mid-summer jinks of the Bohemian Club; these and their associates, the artists and sculptors, still held aloof, more and more annoyed that Gora Dwight should have had the bad taste to be discovered by the Philistines, and should be flying across the high heavens in spite of their tabu.
Gora had gradually become aware of their existence, and their attitude, which both amused and piqued her. She knew now that if she had been one of them they would have beaten the big drum and proclaimed to the world (of California) that she was "great," "a genius," the legitimate successor of Ambrose Bierce, whom she remotely resembled, and Bret Harte, whom she did not resemble at all. This they would have done if only to prove that California no longer "knocked" as in the mordant nineties, nor waited for the anile East to set the seal of its dry approval before discovering that a new volcano was sending forth its fiery swords in their midst.
But it was extremely doubtful if society and upper club circles would have taken any notice of her. Both had acquired the habit, however unjustly, of regarding their local intelligenzia (with the exception of the few who kept themselves wholly apart from all groups) as worshipers of small gods, and preferred to take their cues from London or New York. They plumed themselves upon having discovered Gora Dwight and sometimes wondered how it had happened.
But Bohemia is hardly a trades union; it is indeed anarchistic and knows no boss. Gora might not be invited to Carmel this many a day, nor yet to Berkeley, nor to sundry other parnassi, but there was one club in San Francisco whose curiosity got the better of it, and she was invited to be the guest of the evening at the home of the Seven Arts Club on the twentieth of April in the fateful year of nineteen-fourteen.
The Seven Arts Club had been organized by a group of painters, architects, authors, sculptors, musicians, actors and poets, most of whom had long since found various degrees of fame and moved to New York, Europe, or the romantic wilderness.
It still had seventy times seven votaries of the seven arts on its list and few had found fame as yet outside their hospitable state--where log-rolling is as amiable as the climate--but all save the elders were expecting it and many made a fair living. They met once a week, and a part of the evening pleasure of the literary wing was to "place" authors. They were willing to swallow the British authors whole (they did in fact "discover" one or two of them, as the musical critics had discovered such a rara avis as Tetrazzini, or the dramatic critics many a now famous player); but they were excessively critical of all who owed their origin to the United States of America, and particularly of those who had loved and lost the sovereign state of California.
Naturally all were more or less radical (except the cynical and now somewhat anaemic elders who gave up hope for a world that had ceased to hold out hope to them). The artists were disturbed by futurism and cubism, although as neither paid they were forced to devote the greater part of their inspiration to the marketable California scenery.
But the writers: potential or locally arrived novelists, playwrights, poets, essayists, were the real intelligenzia! They went about with the radical weeklies of the East (or Berkeley) under their arms and discoursed under their breath (when foregathered in small and ardent groups) upon The Revolution, the day of Judgment for all but honest Labor, and hissed their hatred of Capital. And if they had much in common with those "intellectuals" to be found in every land who caress the chin of radicalism with one hand and plunge the other into the pocket of capital as far as permitted, who shall blame them? One must live and one must have something to excite one's intellect when sex, the stand-by, takes its well-earned rest.
Several of these ardent ladies and gentlemen, with the sanction of the Club's President, a business man whose contributions were the financial mainstay of the Seven Arts, and who sincerely envied the gifted members, denying them nothing, invited James Kirkpatrick to be the guest of an evening and deliver an address on Socialism and the Proletariat. He replied that he would come and spit on them if they liked but that he had as much use for parlor socialists as he had for damned fools and posers of any sort. Life was too short. As for Labor it knew how to take care of itself and had about as crying a need of their "support" as a healthy human body had of lice and other parasites.
They were not discouraged however, merely pronouncing him a "creature," and were not at all flattered or surprised when Gora Dwight accepted their invitation and asked permission to bring her friends, Mrs. Mortimer Dwight and Miss Aileen Lawton.