The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
That night Alexina knew that romance had surely come to her. She shared her room with three old ladies who slept fitfully between blasts of dynamite. But she sat at the window with no desire for oblivion.
On the lawn paced a young man with a rifle in the crook of his arm. He was tall and young and very gallant of bearing; no less a person than Mortimer Dwight, who had been sworn in that morning as a member of the Citizens' Patrol, and at his own request detailed to keep watch over the house of Mrs. Groome.
He had not been able to pay his promised visits during the day but had arrived at seven o'clock, dining beside Mrs. Abbott, and surrounded by old ladies whose names were as historic as Mrs. Groome's. The cook had deserted after the second heavy shock, and, with her wardrobe in a pillow case, had tramped to the farthest confines of the Presidio. It was not fear alone that induced her flight. There was a rumor that the Government would feed the city, and why should not a hard-working woman enjoy a month or two of sheer idleness? Let the quality cook for themselves. It would do them good.
James and the housemaid had cooked the dinner, and Alexina and her friends waited on the table. Then the girls, to Alexina's relief, went home to inquire after their families, and she accompanied Mr. Dwight while he explored every corner of the grounds to make sure that no potential thieves lurked in the heavy shadows cast by the trees.
He had been very alert and thorough and Alexina admired him consumedly. There was no question but that he was one of those men--Aileen called it the one hundred per cent male--upon whose clear brain and strong arm a woman might depend even in the midst of an infuriated mob. He had an opportunity that comes to few aspiring young men born into the world's unblest millions, and if he made the most of it he was equally assured that he was acting in strict accord with the instincts and characteristics that had descended upon him by the grace of God.
There was no physical cowardice in him; and if he would have preferred a life of ease and splendor, he had no illusions regarding the amount of "hustling" necessary to carry him to the goal of his desires and ambitions--unless he made a lucky strike. He played the stock market in a small way and made a few hundred dollars now and then.
He would have been glad to marry a wealthy girl, Olive Bascom, by preference, for he had an inner urge to the short cut, but he had found these spoiled daughters of San Francisco unresponsive...and then, suddenly, he had fallen in love with Alexina Groome.
His past was green and prophylactic. He was moral both by inheritance and necessity, and his parents, people of fair intelligence, if rather ineffective, stern principles, and good old average ideals, had taken their responsibilities toward their two children very seriously. People who talked with young Dwight might not find him resourceful in conversation but they were deeply impressed with his manners and principles. The younger men, with the exception of Bob Cheever, who respected his capacity for work, did not take to him; principally, no doubt, he reflected with some bitterness, because he was not "their sort."
He never admitted to himself that he was a snob, for something deep and still unfaced in his consciousness, bade him see as little fault in himself as possible, forbade him to admit the contingency of a failure, impelled him to call such weaknesses as the fortunate condemned by some one of those interchangeable terms with which the lexicons are so generous.
But if he would not face the word snob he told himself proudly that he was ambitious; and why should he not aspire to the best society? Was he not entitled to it by birth? His family may not have been prominent to excess in Utica, but it was indisputably "old." However, he assured himself that the chief reason for his determination to mingle with the social elect of San Francisco was not so much a tribute to his ancestors, or even the insistence of youth for the decent pleasures of that brief period, but because of the opportunities to make those friends indispensable to every young man forced to cut his own way through life. Even if his good conscience had compelled him to admit that he was a snob he would have reminded it there was no harm in snobbery anyway. It was the most amiable of the vices. But he thought too well of himself for any such admission, and his mind had not been trained to fish, even, in shallow waters.
Nor did he admit that if the lovely Miss Groome had been a stenographer he would not have looked at her. He would indeed have turned his face resolutely in the other direction if she had happened to sit in his employer's office. Fate forbade him a marriage of that sort, and dalliance with an inferior was forbidden both by his morals and his social integrity.
But that Alexina Groome should be beautiful, as exaltedly born as only a San Franciscan of the old stock might be, with a determinate income, however modest, with a background of friendly males, as substantial financially as socially, who would be sure to give a new member of the family a leg-up (he liked the atmosphere and flavor of the lighter English novels), and, above all, responsive, seemed to him a direct reward for the circumspect life he had lived and his fidelity to his chosen upward path.
He was free to fall in love as profoundly as was in him, and during that early hour of the agitated night, with that pit of hell roaring below to the steady undertone of a thousand tramping feet, he felt, despite the fact that all business was moribund for the present and his savings were in the hot vaults of a dynamited bank, that he was a supremely fortunate young man.
Moreover, this disaster furnished a steady topic for conversation. He was aware that he contributed little froth and less substance to a dinner table, that, in short, he did not keep up his end. Although he assured himself that small talk was beneath a man of serious purpose, and that no one could acquire it anyhow in society unless addicted to sport, still there had been times when he was painfully aware that a dinner partner or some bright charming creature whose invitation to call he had accepted, looked politely bored or chattered desperately to cover the silences into which he abruptly relapsed; when, "for the life of him he had not been able to think of a thing to say."
Then, briefly, he had felt a bitter rebellion at fate for having denied him the gift of a lively and supple mind, as well as those numberless worldly benefits lavished on men far less deserving than he.
He felt dull and depressed after such revelations and sometimes considered attending evening lectures at the University of California with his sister. But for this form of mental exertion he had no taste, keenly as he applied himself to his work during the hours of business; and he assured himself that such knowledge would do him no good anyway. It did not seem to be prevalent in society. If he had been a brilliant hand at bridge or poker, the inner fortifications of society would have gone down before him, but his courage did not run to card gambling with wealthy idlers who set their own pace. On the stock market he could step warily and no one the wiser. It would have horrified him to be called a piker, for his instincts were really lavish, and the economical habit an achievement in which he took a resentful pride.
On this evening he had talked almost incessantly to Alexina, and she, in the vocabulary of her years and set, had thought him frantically interesting as he described the immediate command of the city assumed by General Funston, the efforts of the Committee of Fifty, formed early that morning by leading citizens, to help preserve order and to give assistance to the refugees; of rich young men, and middle-aged citizens who had not spent an afternoon away from their club window for ten years, carrying dynamite in their cars through the very flames; of wild and terrible episodes he had witnessed or heard of during the day.
His brain was hot from the mental and physical atmosphere of the perishing city, the unique excitement of the day: when he had felt as if snatched from his quiet pasture by the roots; and by the extraordinary good fortune that had delivered this perfect girl and her formidable parent almost into his hands. Under his sternly controlled exterior his spirits sang wildly that his luck had turned, and dazzling visions of swift success and fulfillment of all ambitions snapped on and off in his stimulated brain.
Alexina thought him not only immoderately fascinating in his appeal to her own imperious youth, but the most interesting life partner that a romantic maiden with secret intellectual promptings could demand. Her brilliant long eyes melted and flashed, her soft unformed mouth wore a constant alluring smile.
A declaration trembled on his tongue, but he felt that he would be taking an unfair advantage and restrained himself. Besides, he wished to win Mrs. Groome completely to his side, to say nothing of the still more alarming because more worldly Mrs. Abbott. She was a snob, if you like!
At nine o'clock, after he had given the inmates of the house and outbuildings stern orders not to light a candle or lamp under any circumstances--such was the emergency law--he bade Alexina a gallant good-night, and betook himself to the lawn within the grove of sighing eucalyptus trees, to pace up and down, his rifle in his arm, his eyes alert, and quite aware of the admiring young princess at the casement above.
He did his work very thoroughly, visiting outhouses at intervals and sharply inspecting the weary occupants, as well as the prostrate forms under the trees. They were all far too tired and apprehensive to dream of breaking into the house that had given them hospitality, even had they been villains, which they were not.
But they did not resent his inspection; rather they felt a sense of security in this watching manly figure with the gun, for they were rather afraid of villains themselves: it was reported that many looters had been stood against hissing walls and shot by the stern orders of General Punston. They asked their more immediate protector questions as to the progress of the fire, which he answered curtly, as befitted his office.