The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora Dwight with a quick turn of a strong and supple wrist flung a folding chair up through the trap door of the roof. She followed with a pitcher of water, opened the chair, and sat down.
It was the second day of the fire, which was now raging in the valleys north of Market Street and up the hills. It was still some distance from all but the lower end of Van Ness Avenue, the wide street that divides the eastern and western sections of the city, as Market Street divides the northern and southern, and her own home on Geary Street was beyond Franklin and safe for the present. It was expected that the fire would be halted by dynamiting the blocks east of the avenue, but as it had already leapt across not far from Market Street and was running out toward the Mission, Gora pinned her faith in nothing less than a change of wind.
Life has many disparate schools. The one attended by Miss Gora Dwight had taught her to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be thankful if she escaped (to use the homely phrase; one rarely found leisure for originality in this particular school) by the skin of her teeth.
Gora fully expected to lose the house she sat on, and had packed what few valuables she possessed in two large bags: the fine underclothes she had made at odd moments, and a handsome set of toilet articles her brother had given her on the Christmas before last. He had had a raise of salary and her experiment with lodgers had proved even more successful than she had dared to hope. On the following Christmas he had given her a large book with a fancy binding (which she had exchanged for something she could read). After satisfying the requirements of a wardrobe suitable for the world of fashion, supplemented by the usual toll of flowers and bon-bons, he had little surplus for domestic presents.
Gora's craving for drama was far deeper and more significant than young Alexina Groome's, and she determined to watch until the last moment the terrific spectacle of the burning city. The wind had carried the smoke upward for a mile or more and pillars of fire supported it at such irregular intervals that it looked like a vast infernal temple in which demons were waging war, and undermining the roof in their senseless fury.
In some places whole blocks of houses were blazing; here and there high buildings burned in solitary grandeur, the flames leaping from every window or boiling from the roof. Sometimes one of these buildings would disappear in a shower of sparks and an awful roar, or a row of humbler houses was lifted bodily from the ground to burst into a thousand particles of flying wood, and disappear.
The heat was overpowering (she bathed her face constantly from the pitcher) and the roar of the flames, the constant explosions of dynamite, the loud vicious crackling of wood, the rending and splitting of masonry, the hoarse impact of walls as they met the earth, was the scene's wild orchestral accompaniment and, despite underlying apprehension and horror, gave Gora one of the few pleasurable sensations of her life.
But she moved her chair after a moment and fixed her gaze, no longer rapt but ironic, on the flaming hillcrests, the long line of California Street, nucleus of the wealth and fashion of San Francisco. The Western Addition was fashionable and growing more so, but it had been too far away for the pioneers of the fifties and sixties, the bonanza kings of the seventies, the railroad magnates of the eighties, and they had built their huge and hideous mansions upon the hill that rose almost perpendicularly above the section where they made and lost their millions. Some wag or toady had named it Nob Hill and the inhabitants had complacently accepted the title, although they refrained from putting it on their cards. And now it was in flames.
Gora recalled the day when she had walked slowly past those mansions, staring at each in turn as she assimilated the disheartening and infuriating fact that she and the children that inhabited them belonged to different worlds.
Her family at that time lived in a cottage at the wrong end of Taylor Street Hill, and, Mrs. Dwight having received a small legacy from a sister recently deceased which had convinced her, if not her less mercurial husband, that their luck had finally turned, had sent Gora, then a rangy girl of thirteen, fond of books and study, to a large private school in the fashionable district.
Gora, after all these years, ground her teeth as she had a sudden blighting vision of the day a week later, when, puzzled and resentful, she had walked up the steep hill with several of the girls whose homes were on California and Taylor Streets, and two of whom, like herself, were munching an apple.
They had hardly noticed her sufficiently to ignore her, either then or during the previous week, so absorbed were they in their own close common interests. She listened to allusions which she barely could comprehend, but it was evident that one was to give a party on Friday night and the others were expected as a matter of course. Gora assumed that Jim and Sam and Rex and Bob were brothers or beaux. Last names appeared to be no more necessary than labels to inform the outsider of the social status of these favored maidens, too happy and contented to be snobs but quite callous to the feelings of strange little girls.
They drifted one by one into their opulent homes, bidding one another a careless or a sentimental good-by, and Gora, throwing her head as far back on her shoulders as it would go without dislocation, stalked down to the unfashionable end of Taylor Street and up to the solitude of her bedroom under the eaves of the cottage.
On the following day she had lingered in the school yard until the other girls were out of sight, then climbing the almost perpendicular hill so rapidly that she arrived on the crest with little breath and a pain in her side, she had sauntered deliberately up and down before the imposing homes of her schoolmates, staring at them with angry and puzzled eyes, her young soul in tumult. It was the old inarticulate cry of class, of the unchosen who seeks the reason and can find none.
As she had a tendency not only to brood but to work out her own problems it was several days before she demanded an explanation of her mother.
Mrs. Dwight, a prematurely gray and wrinkled woman, who had once been handsome with good features and bright coloring, and who wore a deliberately cheerful expression that Gora often wanted to wipe off, was sitting in the dining-room making a skirt for her daughter; which, Gora reflected bitterly, was sure to be too long on one side if not in front.
Mrs. Dwight's smile faded as she looked at the somber face and huddled figure in the worn leather arm-chair in which Mr. Dwight spent his silent evenings.
"Why, my dear, you surely knew long before this that some people are rich and others poor--to say nothing of the betwixts and betweens." She was an exact woman in small matters. "That's all there is to it. I thought it a good idea to send you to a private school where you might make friends among girls of your own class."
"Own class? They treat me like dirt. How am I of their class when they live in palaces and I in a hovel?"
"I have reproved you many times for exaggerated speech. What I meant was that you are as well-born as any of them (better than many) only we have been unfortunate. Your father tried hard enough, but he just doesn't seem to have the money-making faculty like so many men. Now, we've had a little luck I'm really hopeful. I've just had a nice letter from your Aunt Eliza Goring--I named you for her, but I couldn't inflict you with Eliza. You know she is many years older than I am and has no children. She was out here once just before you were born. We--we were very hard up indeed. It was she who furnished this cottage for us and paid a year's rent. Soon after, your father got his present position and we have managed to get along. She always sends me a little cheque at Christmas and I am sure--well, there are some things we don't say....But this legacy from your Aunt Jane is the only real stroke of luck we ever had, and I can't help feeling hopeful. I do believe better times are coming....It used to seem terribly hard and unjust that so many people all about us had so much and we nothing, and that in this comparatively small city we knew practically no one. But I have got over being bitter and envious. You do when you are busy every minute. And then we have the blessing of health, and Mortimer is the best boy in the world, and you are a very good child when you are not in a bad temper. I think you will be handsome, too, although you are pretty hopeless at present; but of course you will never have anything like Mortimer's looks. He is the living image of the painting of your Great-great-great-grandfather Dwight that used to hang in the dining-room in Utica, and who was in the first Congress. Now, do try and make friends with the nicer of the children."
But Gora's was not a conciliating nor a compromising nature. Her idea of "squaring things" was to become the best scholar in her classes and humiliate several young ladies of her own age who had held the first position with an ease that had bred laxity. Greatly to the satisfaction of the teachers an angry emulation ensued with the gratifying result that although the girls could not pass Gora, their weekly marks were higher, and for the rest of the term they did less giggling even after school hours, and more studying.
But Gora would not return for a second term. She had made no friends among the girls, although, no doubt, having won their respect, they would, with the democracy of childhood, have admitted her to intimacy by degrees, particularly if she had proved to be socially malleable.
But for some obscure reason it made Gora happier to hate them all, and when she had passed her examinations victoriously, and taken every prize, except for tidiness and deportment, she said good-by with some regret to the teachers, who had admired and encouraged her but did not pretend to love her, and announced as soon as she arrived at home that she should enter the High School at the beginning of the following term.
Her parents were secretly relieved. Even Mrs. Dwight's vision of future prosperity had faded. She had been justified in believing that her sister Eliza would make a will in favor of her family, but unfortunately Mrs. Goring had amused herself with speculation in her old age, and had left barely enough to pay her funeral expenses.
Mrs. Dwight broached the subject of their immediate future to her husband that evening. She had some time since made up her mind, in case the school experiment was not a success, to furnish a larger house with what remained of the legacy, and take boarders.
"I wouldn't do it if Gora had made the friends I hoped for her," she said, turning the heel of the first of her son's winter socks, "and there's no such thing as a social come-down for us; for that matter, there is more than one lady, once wealthy, who is keeping a boarding-house in this town. Gora will have to work anyhow, and as for Mortimer--" she glanced fondly at her manly young son, who was amiably playing checkers in the parlor with his sister, "he is sure to make his fortune."
"I don't know," said Mr. Dwight heavily. "I don't know."
"Why, what do you mean?" asked his wife sharply.
Mrs. Dwight belonged to that type of American women whose passions in youth are weak and anaemic, not to say exceedingly shame-faced, but which in mature years become strong and selfish and jealous, either for a lover or a son. Mrs. Dwight, being a perfectly respectable woman, had centered all the accumulated forces of her being on the son whom she idealized after the fashion of her type; and as she had corrected his obvious faults when he was a boy, it was quite true that he was kind, amiable, honest, honorable, patriotic, industrious, clean, polite, and moral; if hardly as handsome as Apollo or as brilliant and gifted as she permitted herself to believe.
"What do you mean?" she repeated, although she lowered her voice. It was rarely that it assumed an edge when addressing her husband. She had never reproached him for being a failure, for she had recognized his limitations early and accepted her lot. But something in his tone shook her maternal complacence and roused her to instant defense.
Mr. Dwight took his pipe from his mouth and also cast a glance toward the parlor, but the absorbed players were beyond the range of his rather weak voice.
"I mean this," he said with nothing of his usual vague hesitancy of speech. "I'm not so sure that Morty is beyond clerk size."
"You--you--John Dwight--your son--" The thin layer of pale flesh on Mrs. Dwight's face seemed to collapse upon its harsh framework with the terrified wrath that shook her. Her mouth fell apart, and hot smarting tears welled slowly to her eyes, faded with long years of stitching; not only for her own family but for many others when money had been more than commonly scarce. "Mortimer can do anything. Anything."
"Can he?" Why doesn't he show it then? He went to work at sixteen and is now twenty-two. He is drawing just fifty dollars a month. He's well liked in the firm, too."
"Why don't they raise his salary?"
"Because that's all he's worth to them. He's a good steady honest clerk, nothing more."
"He's very young--"
"If a man has initiative, ability, any sort of constructive power in his brain he shows it by the time he is twenty-two--if he has been in that forcing house for four or five years. That is the whole history of this country. And employers are always on the look-out for those qualities and only too anxious to find them and push a young man on and up. Many a president of a great business started life as a clerk, or even office boy--"
"That is what I have always known would happen to Morty. I am sure, sure, that you are doing him a cruel injustice."
"I hope I am. But I am a failure myself and I know what a man needs in the way of natural equipment to make a success of his life."
"But he is so energetic and industrious and honorable and likable and--"
"I was all that."
"Then--" Mrs. Dwight's voice trailed off; it sounded flat and old. "What do you both lack?"
Mrs. Dwight had repeated this conversation to Gora shortly before her death, and the girl in her reminiscent mood recalled it as she stared with somber eyes and ironic lips at the havoc the fire was playing with those lofty mansions which had stood to her all these intervening years as symbols of the unpardonable injustice of class.
She recalled another of the few occasions when Mrs. Dwight, who believed in acceptance and contentment, had been persuaded to discuss the idiosyncrasies of her adopted city.
"It isn't that money is the standard here as it is in New York. Of course there is a very wealthy set these late years and they set a pace that makes it difficult for the older families, like the Groomes for instance--I met Mrs. Groome once at a summer resort where I was housekeeper that year, and I thought her very typical and interesting. She was so kind to me without seeing me at all....But those fine old families, who are all of good old Eastern or Southern stock--if they manage to keep in society are still the most influential element in it....Family....Having lived in California long enough to be one of that old set....To be, without question, one of them. That is all that matters. I've come in contact with a good many of them first and last in my poor efforts to help your father, and I believe the San Franciscans to be the most loyal and disinterested people in the world-to one another.
"But if you come in from the outside you must bring money, or tremendous family prestige, or the right kind of social personality with the best kind of letters. We just crept in and were glad to be permitted to make a living. Why should they have taken any notice of us? They don't go hunting about for obscure people of possibly gentle blood. That doesn't happen anywhere in the world. You must be reasonable, my dear child. That is life, 'The World.'"
But Gora was not gifted with that form of reasonableness. She had wished in her darker moments that she had been born outright in the working-class; then, no doubt, she would have trudged contentedly every morning (except when on strike) to the factory or shop, or been some one's cook. She was an excellent cook. What galled her was the fact of virtually belonging to the same class as these people who were still unaware of the existence of her family, although it had lived for over thirty years in a city numbering to-day only half a million inhabitants.
She was almost fanatically democratic and could see no reason for differences of degree in the aspiring classes. To her mind the only line of cleavage between the classes was that which divided people of education, refinement of mind manners and habits, certain inherited traditions, and the mental effort no matter how small to win a place in this difficult world, from commonness, ignorance, indifference to dirt, coarse pleasures. and habits, and manual labor. She respected Labor as the solid foundation stones upon which civilization upheld itself, and believed it to have been biologically chosen; if she had been born in its class she would have had the ambition to work her way out of it, but without resentment.
There her recognition of class stopped. That wealth or family prominence even in a great city or an old community should create an exclusive and favored society seemed to her illogical and outrageous. A woman was a lady or she wasn't. A man was a gentleman or he wasn't. That should be the beginning and the end of the social code....When she had been younger she had lamented her mean position because it excluded her from the light-hearted and brilliant pleasures of youth; but as she grew older this natural craving had given place to a far deeper and more corrosive resentment.
She had no patience with her brother's ingenuous snobbery. A good-natured friend had introduced him to one or two houses where there were young people and much dancing and he had been "taken up." Nothing would have filled Gora with such murderous rage as to be taken up. She wanted her position conceded as a natural right.
Had it been in her power she would have forced her conception of democracy upon the entire United States. But as this was quite impossible she longed passionately for some power, personal and irresistible, that would compel the attention of the elect in the city of her birth and ultimately bring them to her feet. And here she had a ray of hope.
Meanwhile it was some satisfaction to watch them being burned out of house and home.
Then she gave a short impatient sigh that was almost a groan, as she wondered if her own home would go. The family had moved into it eight years ago; and after Mr. Dwight's death his widow had barely made a living for herself and her daughter out of the uncertain boarders. Mortimer had paid his share, but she had encouraged him to dress well and no one knew the value of "front" better than he. After her death, three years ago, Gora had turned out the boarders and the last slatternly wasteful cook and let her rooms to business women who made their morning coffee over the gas jet. The new arrangement paid very well and left her time for lectures at the University of California, and for other studies. A Jap came in daily to put the rooms in order and she cooked for herself and her brother. So unknown was she that even Aileen Lawton was unaware that the "boarding-house down on Geary Street" was a lodging house kept by Mortimer Dwight's sister. Fortunately Gora was spared one more quivering arrow in her pride.