The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
The wildflowers were on the green hills: the flame-colored velvet skinned poppy, the purple and yellow lupins, the pale blue "babyeyes," buttercups, dandelions and sweetbrier, fields of yellow mustard. The gardens about the Bay and down the Peninsula were almost licentious in their vehement indulgence in color. Every flower that grows north, south, east, west, on the western hemisphere and the eastern, was to be found in some one of these gardens of Central California; the poinsettia cheek by jowl with periwinkle and the hedges of marguerite; heavy-laden trees of magnolia above beds of Russian violets. Pomegranate trees and sweet peas, bridal wreath and camellia, begonia, fuchsias, heliotrope, hydrangea, chrysanthemums, roses, roses, roses....Little orchards of almond trees, their blossoms a pink mist against a clear blue sky....The mariposa lily was awake in the forests; infinitesimal yellow pansies made a soft carpet for the feet of the deer and the puma....In the old Spanish towns of the south, the Castilian roses were in bloom and as sweet and pink and poignant as when Rezanov sailed through the Golden Gate in the April of eighteen-six, or Chonita Iturbi y Moncada, the doomswoman, danced on the hearts of men in Monterey....From end to end of the great Santa Clara Valley the fruit trees were in bloom, a hundred thousand acres and more of pure white blossoms or delicate pink. Bascom Luning took Alexina over it one day in his air-car, as she called it, and from above it looked like a scented sea that was all foam.
But no such riot and glory had come to San Francisco. This was the season for winds that seemed to blow from the four points of the compass at once and of ghostly fogs that stole up and down the streets of the city, abandoning the hills to bank in the valleys, as if seeking warmth; abruptly deserting the lowlands to prowl along the heights, always searching, searching, these pure white lovely fogs of San Francisco, for something lost and never found.
"I hope they're not too artistic to keep their rooms warm," said Aileen, as they drove from her house where Gora and Alexina had dined, down to the Club of the Seven Arts. "I have smoked so much, intending to prove in public how really virtuous a society girl is, in contrast to Bohemia, that I'm nearly frozen."
"Keep your wrap on," said Alexina. "Who cares? I have always been wild to get into real Bohemian circles, meet authors and artists. We do lead the most provincial life. All circles should overlap--the best of all, anyhow. That is the way I would remold society if I were rich and powerful--"
"Good heavens Alex, you are not idealizing this crowd we are going to meet to-night? They're just a lot of second and third raters--"
"What do you know about them?"
"I keep my feet on the ground and my head out of the clouds. I know more or less what it must be. Besides, the last time I was in New York I was taken several times to the restaurants and studios of Greenwich Village. I could only convey my opinion of it in many swear words. This must be a sort of chromo of it....Gora, are you as wildly excited as Alex is? I know she is because her spine is rigid; and she is probably colder than I am."
"Well, anyhow," said Alexina defiantly, "it will be something I never saw before."
"It will, darling. Well. Gora, what do you anticipate?"
Gora laughed. "I wonder? I don't think I've thought much about it. The circumstances of my life have developed the habit of switching off my imagination except when I am at my desk. I've also formed the habit of taking things as they come. I'll manage to extract something from this, one way or another."
The car stopped before a narrow house in the rebuilt portion of the city. The door was opened immediately and the three guests of honor, apparently very late, as a large room beyond the vestibule appeared to be crowded, were marshaled up a narrow stair into a dressing-room under the eaves.
"Looks like the loft of a barn," grumbled Aileen. There was no attendant to hear. "Well, I'm not going to leave my cloak, for several reasons--only one of which is that if this room is a sample my ill-covered bones will rattle together downstairs."
She wore a gown of black chiffon with a green jade necklace and a band of green in her fashionably done fair hair. Alexina's gown was a soft white satin that fitted closely and made her look very tall and slim and round, the corsage trimmed with the only color she ever wore. Her hair was done in a classic knot and held with a comb--a present from Aileen--designed from periwinkles and green leaves and sparkling dew-drops.
Gora shook out the skirt of her only evening-gown, a well-made black satin, very severe, but always relieved by a flower of some sort. To-night she wore a poinsettia, whose peculiarly vivid red brought out the warm browns of her skin and hair. She had a superb neck and shoulders and bust, and the skin of her body was a delicate honey color that melted imperceptibly into the deeper tones of her throat and face.
"Alexina," she said, "let us perish but exhibit all our points. Your arms and hands were modeled for some untraced Greek ancestress and born again. Your neck is almost as good as mine, if not quite so solid...."
She had a spot of crimson on her high cheek bones and admitted to the discerning Aileen that she was the least bit excited. After all, the keenest brains of San Francisco might be down in that long raftered room they had glimpsed, and in any case she was about to be judged by a new standard.
"Oh, don't let that worry you," Aileen began.
A door at the end of the room opened abruptly and a small woman came forward almost panting. "I just ran up those stairs," she cried. "But I was bound to be the first. I used to go to school with your mother down on Bush Street--dear Minnie Morrison!"
She was a woman of fifty or sixty, with a nose like an inflamed button, eyes that watered freely, and a shabby black hat somewhat on one side.
"But my mother never went to school in San Francisco," said Gora stiffly, and eyeing this first precipitate member of the intellectual world with profound disfavor.
"Oh, yes, she did. We were the most intimate friends. To think that dear Minnie's daughter--"
"Her name was not Minnie Morrison--"
'Oh, yes, it was--"
"Don't mind her so much, Gora dear." Aileen did not trouble to lower her voice. "She's drunk. Let's go down."
Another woman entered the same door almost as hastily, but she was a stately and rather handsome woman of forty, who gave the intruder such a withering look from her serene blue eyes that the unrefined member of the Seven Arts slunk out and could be heard stumbling down the stairs.
"I followed as soon as some one told me that Miss Skeers had come up here," she said apologetically. "She is not always herself, poor thing. Once she was quite distinguished as a local magazine writer, but...well, you know...all people do not have the good fortune to have their genius universally recognized, and the results are sometimes disastrous. We are so proud to welcome you to-night, Miss Dwight, and--and--your charming friends. I am Jane Upton Halsey." She appeared to think no further explanation necessary.
"Oh, yes," murmured the bewildered Gora. "It was you who wrote to me."
"Exactly. I am chairman of the reception committee." She looked expectant, then piqued, and added hastily: "Will you come downstairs? What lovely gowns. I should like to paint you all."
She herself was a symphony in pink ("dago pink," whispered Aileen wickedly), and she wore a small pink silk turban, apparently made from the same bolt as the gown.
"Perhaps we should have worn hats," said Gora nervously. "I didn't know--I thought..."
"You are just all right. Anything goes here. We wear what's becoming, what we can afford, and what is our own idea of the right thing. Nobody criticizes anybody else."
"Now, this is life!" said Alexina to Aileen. "You will admit we never found anything like that before."
"Just you watch and catch them criticizing us....Rather effective--what?"
They were descending a staircase that led directly into the crowded room below, and they looked down upon a mass of upturned expectant faces, Gora was ahead with Miss Halsey, and as she reached the floor the faces changed their angle; it was apparent that they were not interested in her satellites.
"Let's stop here for a moment and watch," said Alexina. "It's too interesting. They look as if they'd eat her alive."
The whole company seemed to be seething about Gora, and as they were rapidly presented by Miss Halsey and passed on they produced the effect, in the inner circles, of a maelstrom. On the outer edge the women frankly stood on chairs to get a better look at the new lion, or pushed forward with frenzied determination to the fixed center of the whirlpool, whose gracious smile was becoming strained.
"Poor Gora!" said Aileen. "We do it better. A few picked souls at a time; or, even when it's a tea, just casual introductions at decent intervals, and not too many references to the immortal work."
"It's simply great for Gora, anyhow; for, big or little, they're her own sort. And they're not snobs, They don't care tuppence for us."
"You're right there. I went to a big reception of all the arts in Paris once and the only people any one kowtowed to were two disgustingly rich New York women who had never done anything. But no one can be blamed for national characteristics. Heavens! What an olla podrida!"
Some of the men were in evening dress, but the greater number were not. They were of all ages, shaves, neckties and haircuts. The women wore every variety of hat, from an immense sailor perched above an immense fat face, above an immense shirtwaist bust, to minute turbans and waving plumes. They wore tailored suits, high "one piece" frocks of any material from chiffon to serge, symphonic confections like Miss Halsey's, and flowing robes presumably artistic. None wore full evening dress except the guests of honor. All, however, did not wear hats, and they arranged their hair as individually as Alexina.
"This may be our chance to see the art exhibit," said Aileen. "They'll remember us in time, or Gora will...."
They descended into the room but had waited too long. Miss Halsey, turning the guest of honor over to the second in command, a woman of portentous seriousness, made her way hastily to the mere butterflies; who endeavored vainly to slink away under cover of the rotating crowd.
"You won't think me rude, I hope," she cried, "but I had to start things going, and it is awkward for all to introduce three people at a time."
"You were most considerate," said Alexina amiably. "But we only came to witness Gora's triumph, and we enjoy looking on, anyhow....We were about to look at the pictures...."
"You must meet some of our more brilliant members," said Miss Halsey firmly. "They would never forgive me, and have been almost as excited at meeting two such distinguished members of society as at meeting Miss Dwight herself. Now, if you...if you...that is..."
"Our names are Jane Boughton and Mamie Featherhurst," supplied Aileen, transfixing the lady with her wicked green eyes.
"Oh, yes, to be sure...there has been so much to think of...but your names are so often in the society columns...it seems to me I recall that one of you is the daughter of a famous judge--"
"Boughton. He's under indictment, you know, for graft, bribery, and corruption."
"Oh...ah...how unfortunate," Miss Halsey's jaw fell. Even she had heard--vaguely in her studio--of the scandal of Judge Boughton, and she wondered how she had been so absent-minded as to invite a member of his family to the club.
"You see," said Aileen coolly. "I am not fit to associate with your members, and as Miss Featherhurst is still my loyal friend, we'll just go over and sit in a corner--"
"Indeed you shall do nothing of the kind. You are our guests, and--please for this evening forget everything else."
"You nasty little beast," hissed Alexina into Aileen's discomforted ear. "She's worth two of you."
"So she is," said Aileen contritely, "I'll behave better."
Miss Halsey, who had been signaling several members and rounding up others, returned, Alexina blazed her eyes at Aileen, who murmured hastily to the hostess: "I was just joking. I am Judge Lawton's daughter, and this is Mrs. Mortimer Dwight, Gora's sister-in-law. I'd never have told such a whopper but I'm so nervous and shy. I didn't think I could go through the ordeal."
"Oh, you poor child. Well, you'll find we're not terrible in the least. Now, don't try to remember names. They'll remember yours--better than I did!"
Another small eddying circle formed about the luminaries from a lower sphere. This proved to be much like similar performances in any stratum of society. All murmured platitudes, or nothing. Nobody tried to be original or witty. Alexina and Aileen gradually disengaged themselves and were making their way toward the pictures that turned the four walls into a harmonious mass of color, when an old man came tottering up. He had bright, eyes and a pleasant face.
"Which is Mrs. Dwight?" he asked eagerly. Alexina bent her lofty head and smiled down upon him.
"Of course. Little Alexina. I remember you when you were a dear little girl and I used to see you playing about the house when I went up to have a good powwow with that clever grandfather of yours, Alex Groome--one of the ablest politicians this town ever had; and straight, damn straight."
"Alexander Groome was my father."
"Oh, no, he wasn't. He was your grandfather. You are the daughter...let me see...there were two or three young ladies....I remember when they came out in the eighties...and a boy or two...."
"I am sorry to be rude, but Alexander Groome was my father. I came along rather late."
"Impossible!...Well, I suppose you know best..." and he drifted off.
"This seems to be a home for incurables," said Aileen. "I am sure I don't know how I shall get through the evening. Gora has a slight sense of humor, you have quite a keen one, but mine is positively fiendish....Oh, Lord!"
Miss Halsey was trailing them, her hand resting lightly on the arm of another woman.
"Now this is something like," whispered Aileen. "Witch of Endor got up to look like Carmen."
The oncoming luminary was a singular-looking woman who may have been considerably less so in the privacy of her dressing-room; she had evidently expended much thought upon supplementing the niggardliness of Nature. Her unwashed-looking black hair was dressed very high and stuck with immense pins. Large, circular, highly colored, imitation jade rings dangled in tiers from her ear-lobes, and at least eight rows of colored beads covered the front of her loose, fringed, embroidered, beaded gown. She had a haggard face, deeply lined and badly painted, but something, an emanation perhaps, seemed to proclaim that she was still young.
"This, dear Mrs. Dwight and Miss Lawton, is Alma De Quincey Smith, with whose work you are of course familiar. She had her reception last week but was only too glad to come to-night and extend the welcoming hand of the east to our new daughter of the west."
Miss De Quincey Smith barely gave her time to finish. She darted forward and grasped Aileen's hand. "Oh, you must let me tell you how wonderful I think your unique green eyes go with that jade. I've been watching you!" She spoke with the eager unthinking impulsiveness of a child, which, oddly, made her look like a very old woman.
"Too nice of you," murmured Aileen, who was determined to behave.
"And you!" she cried, turning to Alexina. "Your eyes simply blaze. You look like a long white arum lily. And dusky hair, not merely black. Oh, I do think you are both too wonderful, and I am sure all these splendid artists here will want to paint you."
Alexina and Aileen were not accustomed to such spontaneous and unbridled admiration and they thought Miss Smith quite fascinating if rather queer. But Miss Smith did not number tact among her gifts and rushed on.
"Gora Dwight is too wonderful looking for words. We are all crazy over her. All the artists want to paint her already. Her coloring and style are unique and she suggests tragedy--with those marvelous pale eyes in that dark face--those heavy dark brows and heavy masses of hair. I have suggested that Folkes--your greatest portrait painter, you know,--paint her as Medea, or as the Genius of the Revolution, How proud you must be of her!"
"So we are," murmured Aileen. "We think she is the only woman writer in America worth mentioning. Why don't you paint her yourself?"
"I? I am not an artist--with the brush! I am an author, Alma De Quincey Smith."
"Oh!..." Aileen's voice trailed off vaguely, "What do you write? Plays? Essays?..."
"I--why, I'm one of the best--my stories appear constantly in the best magazines." Miss Smith, who had been deserted some time since by Miss Halsey, looked abject, helpless, and infuriated.
"Oh! We only read the worst. It must be wonderful to be famous. Come, Alex, we must see the pictures. They're going to have music and supper later."
"Nevertheless," said Alexina, "they are real as far as they go, and they really do things, good or bad. They work, they aspire; they dream, and perhaps with reason, of a glorious future, when they will be as famous and successful as the founders of the club. Even if they fail they will have had the wonderful dream. Nothing can take that from them. I envy them--envy them!"
They were standing in a far corner of the room, after having examined three or four admirable and many passable paintings. Aileen looked at her in surprise. They had both been remarking upon the comic aspects of the intellectual life, and Alexina's outburst was unexpected. Aileen had seldom seen her vehement since they had outgrown their youthful habit of wrangling. She was still more astonished when she turned from a view of the Latin-seeming roofs of San Francisco from Twin Peaks, to Alexina's face. It looked drawn and desperate.
"Well, most of them will fail," she said lightly. "Look at these pictures! That is what is the matter with California--too much talent. You must be as individual as a talking monkey to get your head above the crowd. All these poor devils are doomed to the local reputation."
"Even so they have something to live for, mean something, do something. What do I mean to myself or anyone? What have I accomplished? The man I married is a dummy-husband; means nothing to me nor I to him. I have no children. Even my housekeeping for Maria is a farce; James really does it all. I mean nothing to society now that I can no longer entertain it. I haven't even a decent vice. I don't smoke and gamble like you, nor have lovers like some of the others. I'm simply a nonentity--nothing!"
"You have personality...beauty...." Aileen was completely at a loss. "I hate being banal like that Smith idiot...but you are the perfection of a type. That is something. And you cultivate your mind--"
"My mind! What does it amount to? Anybody can pack a brain. I'd like one of those that gives out something, however little. But I can't help that. The point is I don't live. I don't care a hang about personality that doesn't get anywhere, and I care still less about being a finished type--that's the work of dead and gone ancestors, anyhow, not mine....I wish I could fall in love with James Kirkpatrick. I'd feel more justified in my own eyes if I were living with him over in the Mission--"
"His old mother would chase you out with a broom and use Biblical language. Of course I know you must be bored, Alex dear. Can't you manage to go abroad and live for a time?"
"No, I can't, and I don't see what difference that would make. But I'll tell you what I shall do. If Tom and Maria want to rent the house next year they can have it but I'll not live there. I'll not be 'held up' any longer. I'll stand on my own feet--in other words get a job. No--I've some loose money, I'll start in business."
"Good for you. Perhaps dad'll let me go in with you. Don't imagine I don't get sick of my racketing life; and when I have a spasm of reform I nearly take seriously to drink, I'm so bored. Would you have me for partner?"
"Wouldn't I? That is if you would be serious about it. I am, let me tell you. The whole family can perform suttee for all I care. I'm going to do something that will give me a place in the main stream of life."
"Trust me. I have been considering Bob's fifteenth proposal--Mr. Cheever has promised him a full partnership the day he marries, and it wouldn't be so bad. Bobby is a good sport, and we'd live the out-door life at Burlingame instead of the in--sports...tournaments...polo...cut out dissipation. We've both really had enough of it. But I believe business would be more interesting. After all that's what you marry for unless you want children--which I don't--to be interested. What'll we be? Decorators?"
"I suppose so. But all this has only just come to a head, although I know now that it has been slowly gathering force in my deepest deeps. If we do I'll take Alice on. She's sick of the game too and she has simply ripping ideas."
"Perfect. 'Dwight, Thorn--', no, 'Thorndyke, Lawton and Dwight.' I'm too excited--convicts must feel like that when they tunnel a hole and get out. It will be our real, our first adventure."