The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
MRS. ABBOTT entered Alexina's room and caught her hanging out of the window. She had motored up to the city during the afternoon, and, after a vain attempt to persuade her mother to go down at once to Alta, had concluded to remain over night. The spectacle was the most horrifyingly interesting she had ever witnessed in her temperate life, and her self-denying Aunt Clara was in charge of the children. Her husband had driven himself to town as soon as he heard of the fire and been sworn in a member of the Committee of Fifty.
"Darling," she said firmly to the sister who was little older than her first-born, "I want to have a talk with you. Come into papa's old dressing-room. I had a cot put there, and as there is no room for another I am quite alone."
Alexina followed with lagging feet. She had always given her elder sister the same surface obedience that she gave her mother. It "saved trouble." But life had changed so since morning that she was in no mood to keep up the role of "little sister," sweet and malleable and innocent as a Ballinger-Groome at the age of eighteen should be.
She dropped on the floor and embraced her knees with her arms. Mrs. Abbott seated herself in as dignified an attitude as was possible on the edge of the cot. Even the rocking-chairs had been taken down to the dining-room.
"Well?" queried Alexina, pretending to stifle a yawn. "What is it? I am too sleepy to think."
"Sleepy? You looked sleepy with your eyes like saucers watching that young man."
"Everybody that can is watching the fire--"
"Don't quibble, Alexina. You are naturally a truthful child. Do you mean to tell me you were not watching Mr. Dwight?"
"Well, if I say yes, it is not because I care a hang about living up to my reputation, but because I don't care whether you know it or not."
"That is very naughty--"
"Stop talking to me as if I were a child."
"You are excited, darling, and no wonder."
Maria Abbott was in the process of raising a family and she did it with tact and firmness. Nature had done much to assist her in her several difficult roles. She was very tall straight and slender, with a haughty little head, as perfect in shape as Alexina's, set well back on her shoulders, and what had been known in her Grandmother Ballinger's day as a cameo-profile. Her abundant fair hair added to the high calm of her mien and it was always arranged in the prevailing fashion. On the street she invariably wore the tailored suit, and her tailor was the best in New York. She thought blouses in public indecent, and wore shirtwaists of linen or silk with high collars, made by the same master-hand. There was nothing masculine in her appearance, but she prided herself upon being the best groomed woman even in that small circle of her city that dressed as well as the fashionable women of New York. At balls and receptions she wore gowns of an austere but expensive simplicity, and as the simple jewels of her inheritance looked pathetic beside the blazing necklaces and sunbursts (there were only two or three tiaras in San Francisco) of those new people whom she both deplored and envied, she wore none; and she was assured that the lack added to the distinction of her appearance.
But although she felt it almost a religious duty to be smart, determined as she was that the plutocracy should never, while she was alive, push the aristocracy through, the wall and out of sight, she was a strict conformer to the old tradition that had looked upon all arts to enhance and preserve youth as the converse of respectable. Her once delicate pink and white skin was wrinkled and weather-beaten, her nose had never known powder; but even in the glare of the fire her skin looked cool and pale, for the heat had not crimsoned her. Her blood was rather thin and she prided herself upon the fact. She may have lost her early beauty, but she looked the indubitable aristocrat, the lady born, as her more naive grandmothers would have phrased it.
By those that did not have the privilege of her intimate acquaintance she was called "stuck-up," "a snob," a mid-victorian who ought to dress like her more consistent mother, "rather a fool, if the truth were known, no doubt."
In reality she was a tender-hearted and anxious mother, daughter, and sister, and an impeccable wife, if a somewhat monotonous one. At all events her husband never found fault with her in public or private. He had his reasons. To the friends of her youth and to all members of her own old set, she was intensely loyal; and although she had a cold contempt for the institution of divorce, if one of that select band strayed into it, no matter at which end, her loyalty rose triumphant above her social code, and she was not afraid to express it publicly.
Toward Alexina she felt less a sister than a second mother, and gave her freely of her abundant maternal reservoir. That "little sister" had at times sulked under this proud determination to assist in the bringing-up of the last of the Ballinger-Groomes, did not discourage her. She might be soft in her affections but she never swerved from her duty as she saw it. Alexina was a darling wayward child, who only needed a firm hand to guide her along that proud secluded old avenue of the city's elect, until she had ambled safely to established respectability and power.
She had been alarmed at one time at certain symptoms of cleverness she noticed in the child, and at certain enthusiastic remarks in the letters of Ballinger Groome, with whose family Alexina had spent her vacations during her two years in New York at school. But there had been no evidence of anything but a young girl's natural love of pleasure since her debut in society, and she was quite unaware of Alexina's wicked divagations. She had spent the winter in Santa Barbara, for the benefit of her oldest, boy, whose lungs were delicate, and, like her mother, never deigned to read the society columns of the newspapers. Her reason, however, was her own. In spite of her blood, her indisputable position, her style, she cut but a small figure in those columns. She was not rich enough to vie with those who entertained constantly, and was merely set down as one of many guests. The fact induced a slight bitterness.
She began tactfully. "I like this young Mr. Dwight very much, and shall ask him down, as mother desires it. But I hope, darling, that you will follow my example and not marry until you have had four years of society, in other words have seen something of the world--"
"California is not the world."
"Society, in other words human nature, is everywhere much alike. As you know, I spent a year in England when I was a young lady, and was presented at court--by Lady Barnstable, who was Lee Tarlton, one of us. It was merely San Francisco on a large scale, with titles, and greater and older houses and parks, and more jewels, and more arrogance, and everything much grander, of course. And they talked politics a great deal, which bored me as I am sure they would bore you. The beauty of our society is its simplicity and lack of arrogance--consciousness of birth or of wealth. Even the more recent members of society, who owe their position to their fortunes, have a simplicity and kindness quite unknown in New York. Eastern people always remark it. And yet, owing to their constant visits to the East and to Europe, they know all of the world there is to know."
"So do the young men, I suppose! I never heard of their doing much traveling--"
"I should call them remarkably sophisticated young men. But the point is, darling, that if you wait as long as I did you will discover that the men who attract a girl in her first season would bore her to extinction in her fourth."
"You mean after I've had all the bloom rubbed off, and men are forgetting to ask me to dance. Then I'll be much more likely to take what I can get. I want to marry with all the bloom on and all my illusions fresh."
"But should you like to have them rubbed off by your husband? You've heard the old adage: 'marry in haste and repent--'"
"I've been brought up on adages. They are called bromides now. As for illusions, everybody says they don't last anyway. I'd rather have them dispelled after a long wonderful honeymoon by a husband than by a lot of flirtations in a conservatory and in dark corners--"
"Good heavens! Do you suppose that I flirted in a conservatory and in dark corners?"
"I'll bet you didn't, but lots do. And in the haute noblesse, the ancient aristocracy! I've seen 'em."
"It isn't possible that you--"
"Oh, no, I love to dance too much. But I'm not easily shocked. I 'll tell you that right here. And I 'll tell you what I confessed to mother this morning."
When she had finished Mrs. Abbott sat for a few moments petrified; but she was thirty-eight, not sixty-five, and there was neither dismay nor softening in her narrowed light blue eyes.
"But that is abominable! Abominable!"
And Alexina, who was prepared for a scolding, shrank a little, for it was the first time that her doting sister had spoken to her with severity.
"I don't care," she said stubbornly, and she set her soft lips until they looked stern and hard.
"But you must care. You are a Groome."
"Oh, yes, and a Ballinger, and a Geary, and all the rest of it. But I'm also going to annex another name of my own choosing. I'll marry whom I damn please, and that is the end of it."
"Alexina Groome!" Mrs. Abbott arose in her wrath. "Cannot you see for yourself what association with all these common people has done to you? It's the influence--"
"Of two years in New York principally. The girls there are as hard as nails--try to imitate the English. Ours are not a patch, not even Aileen, although she does her best. But I hadn't finished--I even powder my face." Alexina grinned up at her still rudderless sister. "After mother is asleep and I am ready to slip out."
"I thought you were safe in New York under the eyes of Ballinger and Geary, or rather of Mattie and Charlotte. They are such earnest good women, so interested in charities--"
"Deadly. But you don't know the girls,"
"And I have told mother again and again that she should not permit you to associate with Aileen Lawton."
"She can't help herself. Aileen is one of us. Besides, mother is devoted to the Judge."
"But powder! None of us has ever put anything but clean cold water on her face."
"You'd look a long sight better if you did. Cold cream, too. You wouldn't have any wrinkles at your age, if you weren't so damn respectable-aristocratic, you call it. It's just middle class. And as out of date as speech without slang. As for me, I'd paint my lips as Aileen does, only I don't like the taste, and they're too red, anyhow. It's much smarter to make up than not to. Times change. You don't wear hoopskirts because our magnificent Grandmother Ballinger did. You dress as smartly as the Burlingame crowd. Why does your soul turn green at make-up? All these people you look down upon because our families were rich and important in the fifties are more up-to-date than you are, although I will admit that none of them has the woman-of-the-world air of the smartest New York women --not that terribly respectable inner set in New York--Aunt Mattie's and Aunt Charlotte's--that just revels in looking mid-Victorian....The newer people I've met here--their manners are just as good as ours, if not better, for, as you said just now, they don't put on airs. You do, darling. You don't know it, but you would put an English duchess to the blush, when you suddenly remember who you are--"
Mrs. Abbott had resumed her seat on the cot. "If you have finished criticizing your elder sister, I should like to ask you a few questions. Do you smoke and drink cocktails?"
"No, I don't. But I should if I liked them, and if they didn't make me feel queer."
"You--you--" Mrs. Abbot's clear crisp voice sank to an agonized whisper. For the first time she was really terrified. "Do you gamble?"
"Why, of course not. I have too much fun to think of anything so stupid."
"Does Aileen Lawton gamble?"
"She just doesn't, and don't you insinuate such a thing."
"She has bad blood in her. Her mother--"
"I thought her mother was your best friend."
"She was. But she went to pieces, poor dear, and Judge Lawton wisely sent her East. I can't tell you why. There are things you don't understand."
"Oh, don't I? Don't you fool yourself."
Mrs. Abbott leaned back on the cot and pressed it hard with either hand.
"Alexina, I have never been as disturbed as I am at this moment. When Sally and I were your age, we were beautifully innocent. If I thought that Joan--"
"Oh, Joan'll get away from you. She's only fourteen now, but when she's my age--well, I guess you and your old crowd are the last of the Mohicans. I doubt if there'll even be any chaperons left. Joan may not smoke nor drink. Who cares for 'vices,' anyhow? But you haven't got a moat and drawbridge round Rincona, and she'll just get out and mix. She'll float with the stream--and all streams lead to Burlingame."
"I have no fear about Joan," said Mrs. Abbott, with dignity. "Four years are a long time. I shall sow seeds, and she is a born Ballinger--I am dreadfully afraid that my dear father is coming out in you. Even the boys are Ballingers--"
"Tell me about father?" coaxed Alexina, who was repentant, now that the excitement of the day had reached its climax in the baiting of her admirable sister and was rapidly subsiding. "Mother let fall something this morning; and once Aileen...she began, but shut up like a clam. Was he so very dreadful?"
"Well, since you know so much, he was what is called fast. Married men of his position often were in his day--quite openly. Yesterday, I should have hesitated--"
"Fire away. Don't mind me. Yes, I know what fast is. Lots of men are to-day. Even members of the A. A."
"Ancient Aristocracy. The kind England and France would like to have."
"I'm ashamed of you. Have you no pride of blood? The best blood of the South, to say nothing of--"
"I'm tickled to death. I just dote on being a Groome, plus Ballinger, plus. And I'm not guying, neither. I'd hate like the mischief to be second rate, no matter what I won later. It must be awful to have to try to get to places that should be yours by divine right, as it were. But all that's no reason for being a moss-back, a back number, for not having any fun--to be glued to the ancestral rock like a lot of old limpets....And it should preserve us from being snobs," she added.
"The 'I will maintain' sort, as Aileen puts it."
"Don't quote that dreadful child to me. I haven't an atom of snobbery in my composition. I reserve the right to know whom I please, and to exclude from my house people to whom I cannot accustom myself. Why I know quite a number of people at Burlingame. I dined there informally last night."
"Yes, because it has the fascination for you that wine has for the clergyman's son." Alexina once more yielded to temptation. "But the only people you really know at Burlingame except Mrs. Hunter are those of the old set, what you would call the pick of the bunch, if you were one of us. They went there to live because they were tired of being moss-backs. Why don't you follow their example and go the whole hog? They--and their girls--have a ripping time."
"At least they have not picked up your vocabulary. I seldom see the young people. And I have never been to the Club. I am told the women drink and smoke quite openly on the verandah."
"You may bet your sweet life they do. They are honest, and quite as sure of their position as you are. But tell me about father. How did mother come to marry him? If he was such a naughty person I should think she would have exercised the sound Ballinger instincts and thrown him down."
"Mother met him in Washington. Grandfather Ballinger was senator at the time--"
"From Virginia or California?"
"It is shocking that you do not know more of the family history. From California, of course. He had great gifts and political aspirations, and realized that there would be more opportunity in the new state-- particularly in such a famous one--than in his own where all the men in public life seemed to have taken root--I remember his using that expression. So, he came here with his bride, the beauty of Richmond--"
"Oh, Lord, I know all about her. Remember the flavor in my mother's milk--"
"Well, you'd look like her if you had brown eyes and a white skin, and if your mouth were smaller. And until you learn to stand up straight you'll never have anything like her elegance of carriage. However....Of course they had plenty of money--for those days. They had come to Virginia in the days of Queen Elizabeth and received a large grant of land--"
"Don't fancy I haven't heard that!"
"Grandfather had inherited the plantation--"
"Sold his slaves, I suppose, to come to California and realize his ambitions. Funny, how ideals change!"
"His abilities were recognized as soon as lie arrived in the new community, and our wonderful grandmother became at once one of that small band of social leaders that founded San Francisco society: Mrs. Hunt McLane, the Hathaways, Mrs. Don Pedro Earle, the Montgomerys, the Gearys, the Talbots, the Belmonts, Mrs. Abbott, Tom's grandmother--"
"Never mind about them. I have them dished up occasionally by mother, although she prefers to descant upon the immortal eighties, when she was a leader herself and 'money wasn't everything.' We never had so much of it anyhow. I know Grandfather Ballinger built this ramshackle old house--"
Mrs. Abbott sat forward and drew herself up. She felt as if she were talking to a stranger, as, indeed, she was.
"This house and its traditions are sacred--"
"I know it. Yon were telling me how mother came to marry a bad fast man."
"He was not fast when she met him. It was at a ball in Washington. He was a young congressman--he was wounded in his right arm during the first year of the war and returned at once to California; of course he had been one of the first to enlist. He was of a fine old family and by no means poor. Of course in Washington he was asked to the best houses. At that time he was very ambitious and absorbed in politics and the advancement of California. Afterward he renounced Washington for reasons I never clearly understood; although he told me once that California was the only place for a man to live; and--well--I am afraid he could do more as he pleased out here without criticism--from men, at least. The standards--for men--were very low in those days. But when he met mother--"
"Was mother ever very pretty?"
"She was handsome," replied Mrs. Abbott guardedly. "Of course she had the freshness and roundness of youth. I am told she had a lovely color and the brightest eyes. And she had a beautiful figure. She had several proposals, but she chose father."
"And had the devil's own time with him. She let out that much this morning."
"I am growing accustomed to your language." Once more Mrs. Abbott was determined to be amiable and tactful. She realized that the child's brain was seething with the excitements of the day, but was aghast at the revelations it had recklessly tossed out, and admitted that the problem of "handling her" could no longer be disposed of with home-made generalities.
"Yes, mother did not have a bed of roses. Father was mayor at one time and held various other public offices, and no one, at least, ever accused him of civic corruptness. Quite the contrary. The city owes more than one reform to his determination and ability.
"He even risked his life fighting the bosses and their political gangs, for he was shot at twice. But he was very popular in his own class; what men call a good fellow, and at that time there was quite a brilliant group of disreputable women here; one could not help hearing things, for the married women here have always been great gossips. Well--you may as well know it--it may have the same effect on you that it did on Ballinger and Geary, who are the most abstemious of men--he drank and gambled and had too much to do with those unspeakable women....
"Nevertheless, he made a great deal of money for a long time, and if he hadn't gambled (not only in gambling houses and in private but in stocks), he would have left a large fortune. As it is, poor darling, you will only have this house and about six thousand a year. Father was quite well off when Sally and I married and Ballinger and Geary went to New York after marrying the Lyman girls, who were such belles out here when they paid us a visit in the nineties. They had money of their own and father gave the boys a hundred thousand each. He gave the same to Sally and me when we married. But when you came along, or rather when you were ten, and he died--well, he had run through nearly everything, and had lost his grip. Mother got her share of the community property, and of course she had this house and her share of the Ballinger estate--not very much."
"Why didn't mother keep father at home and make him behave himself?"
"Mother did everything a good woman could do."
"Maybe she was too good."
"You abominable child. A woman can't be too good."
"Perhaps not. But I fancy she can make a man think so. When he has different tastes."
"Women are as they are born. My mother would not have condescended to lower herself to the level of those creatures who fascinated my father."
"Well, I wouldn't, neither. I'd just light out and leave him. Why didn't mother get a divorce?"
"A divorce? Why, she has never received any one in her house who has been divorced. Neither have I except in one or two cases where very dear friends had been forced by circumstances into the divorce court. I didn't approve even then. People should wash their dirty linen at home."
"Time moves, as I remarked just now. Nothing would stop me; if, for instance, I had been persuaded into marrying a member of the A. A. and he was in the way of ruining my young life. You should be thankful if I did decide to marry Mr. Dwight--mind, I don't say I care the tip of my little finger for him. I barely know him. But if I did you would have to admit that I was following the best Ballinger instincts, for he doesn't drink, or dissipate in any way; and everybody says he works hard and is as steady as--I was going to say as a judge, but I've been told that all judges, in this town at least, are not as steady as you think. Anyhow, he is. His family is as old as ours, even if it did have reverses or something. And you can't deny that he is a gentleman, every inch of him."
"I do not deny that he has a very good appearance indeed. But--well, he was brought up in San Francisco and no one ever heard of his parents. He admitted to me at the table that his father was only a clerk in a broker's office. He is not one of us and that is the end of it."
"Why not make him one? Quite easy. And you ought to rejoice in what power you have left."
She rose and stretched and yawned in a most unladylike fashion.
"I'm going to make a cup of coffee for our sentinel, and have a little chat with him, chaperoned by the great bonfire. Don't think you can stop me, for you can't. Heavens, what a noise that dynamite does make! We shall have to shout. It will be more than proper. Good night, darling."