The Sisters-In-Law by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton
Gora went up to the large attic which, soon, after her mother's death, she had furnished for her personal use. The walls were hung with a thin bluish green material and there were several pieces of good furniture that she had picked up at auctions. One side of the room was covered with book shelves which Mortimer had made for her on rainy winter nights and they were filled with the books she had found in second-hand shops. A number of them bore the autographs of men once prosilient in the city's history but long since gone down to disaster. There were a few prints that she had found in the same way, but no oils or water colors or ornaments. She despised the second-rate, and the best of these was rarely to be bought for a song even at auction.
She sighed as she reflected that if obliged to flee to the hills there was practically nothing she could save beyond the contents of her bags; but at least she could remain with her treasures until the last minute, and she pinned the curtains across the small windows and lit several candles.
Between the blasts of dynamite the street was very quiet. She could hear the measured tread of the sentry as he passed, a member of the Citizens' Patrol, like her brother. Suddenly she heard a shot, and extinguishing the candles hastily she peered out of a window from behind the curtains. The sentry was pounding on a door opposite with the butt of his rifle. It was the home of an eccentric old bachelor who possessed a fine collection of ceramics and a cellar of vintage wine.
The door opened with obvious reluctance and the head of Mr. Andrew Bennett appeared.
"What you doin' here?" shouted the sentry. "Haven't all youse been told three hours ago to light out for the hills? Git out--"
"But the fire hasn't crossed Van Ness Avenue. I prefer--"
"Your opinion ain't asked. Git out."
"I call that abominable tyranny."
"Git out or I'll shoot. We ain't standin' no nonsense."
Gora recognized the voice as that of a young man, clerk in a butcher shop in Polk Street, and appreciated the intense satisfaction he took in his brief period of authority.
Mr. Bennett emerged in a moment with two large bags and walked haughtily up the street at the point of the bayonet. Gora stood expectantly behind her curtain, and some ten minutes later saw him sneak round the eastern end of his block, dart back as the sentry turned suddenly, and when the footsteps once more receded run up the street and into his house. She laughed sympathetically and hoped he would not be caught a second time.
Suddenly another man, carrying a woman in his arms, turned the same corner. He was staggering as if he had borne a heavy burden a long distance.
Gora ran down to the first floor and glanced out of the window of the front room. The sentry had crossed the far end of the street and was holding converse with another member of the patrol. As the refugee staggered past the house she opened the front door and called softly.
"Come up quickly. Don't let them see you."
The man stumbled up the steps and into the house.
"You can put her on the sofa in this room." Gora led the way into what had once been the front parlor and was now the chamber of her star lodger. "Is she hurt?"
The man did not answer. He followed her and laid down his burden. Gora flashed her electric torch on the face of the girl and drew back in horror.
"Yes, she is dead." The young man, who looked a mere boy in spite of his unshaven chin and haggard eyes, threw himself into a chair and dropping his face on his arms burst into heavy sobs.
Gora stared, fascinated, at the sharp white face of the girl, the rope of fair hair wound round her neck like something malign and muscular that had strangled her, the half-open eyes, whose white maleficent gleam deprived the poor corpse of its last right, the aloofness and the majesty of death. She may have been an innocent and lovely young creature when alive, but dead, and lacking the usual amiable beneficencies of the undertaker, she looked like a macabre wax work of corrupt and evil youth.
And she was horribly stiff.
Gora went into the kitchen and made him a cup of coffee over a spirit lamp. He drank it gratefully, then followed her up to the attic as she feared their voices might be overheard from the lower room. There he took the easy chair and the cigarette she offered him and told his story.
The young girl was his sister and they were English. She had been visiting a relative in Santa Barbara when a sudden illness revealed the fact that she had a serious heart affection. He had come out to take her home and they had been staying at the Palace Hotel waiting for suitable accommodations before crossing the continent.
His sister--Marian--had been terrified into unconsciousness by the earthquake and he had carried her down the stairs and out into Market Street, where she had revived. She had even seemed to be better than usual, for the people in their extraordinary costumes, particularly the opera singers, had amused her, and she had returned to the court of the hotel and listened with interest to the various "experiences." Finally they had climbed the four flights of stairs to their rooms and he had helped her to dress--her maid had disappeared. They had remained until the afternoon when the uncontrolled fires in the region behind the hotel alarmed them, and with what belongings they could carry they had gone up to the St. Francis Hotel, where they engaged rooms and left their portmanteaux, intending to climb to the top of the hill, if Marian were able, and watch the fire.
Half way up the hill she had fainted and he had carried her into a house whose door stood open. There was no one in the house, and after a futile attempt to revive her, he had run back to the hotel to find a doctor. But among the few people that had the courage to remain so close to the fire there was no doctor. The hotel clerk gave him an address but told him not to be too sure of finding his man at home as all the physicians were probably attending the injured, helping to clear the threatened hospitals, or at work among the refugees, any number of women having embraced the inopportune occasion to become mothers.
The doctor whose address was given him not only was out but his house was deserted; and, distracted, he returned to his sister.
He knew at once that she was dead.
He sat beside her for hours, too stunned to think....It was some time during the night that the roar of the fire seemed to grow louder, the smoke in the street denser. Then it occurred to him that the inhabitants of this house as well as of the doctor's, which was close by, would not have abandoned their homes if they had not believed that some time during the night they would be in the path of the flames. And he had heard that the pipes of the one water system had been broken by the earthquake.
He had caught up the body of his sister and walked westward until, worn out, he had entered the basement of another empty house, and there he had fallen asleep. When he awakened he was under the impression for a moment that he was in the crater of a volcano in eruption. Dynamite was going off in all directions, he could hear the loud crackling of flames behind his refuge; and as he took the body in his arms once more and ran out, the fire was sweeping up the hill not a block below.
In spite of the smoke he inferred that the way was clear to the west, and he had run on and on, once narrowly escaping a dynamiting area where he saw men like dark shadows prowling and then rushing off madly in an automobile...dodging the fire, losing his way, once finding himself confronting a wall of flames, finally crossing a wide avenue...stumbling on...and on....
Gora decided that blunt callousness would help him more than sympathy. He had recovered his self-control, but his eyes were still wide with pain and horror.
"Cremation is a clean honest finish for any one," she remarked, lighting another cigarette and offering him her match. "I should have left her if she had been my sister in that first house...."
"I might have done it--in London. But...perhaps I was not quite myself....I couldn't leave her to be burned alone in a strange country. Besides, the horror of it would have killed my mother. Marian was the youngest. I felt bound to do my best....Perhaps I didn't think at all....If this house is threatened I shall take her out to the Presidio, where I happen to know a man--Colonel Norris. Thanks to your hospitality I can make it."
"But naturally you cannot go very fast...and these sentries...I am not sure....I don't see how you escaped others...the smoke and excitement, I suppose....I think if you are determined to take her it would be better if I helped you to carry her out to the cemetery. We can put her on a narrow wire mattress and cover her, so that it will look as if we were rescuing an invalid. Out there you can put her in one of the stone vaults. Some of the doors are sure to have been broken by the earthquake."
The young man, who had given his name as Richard Gathbroke, gratefully rested in her brother's room while she kept watch on the roof. It was night but the very atmosphere seemed ablaze and the dynamiting as well as the approaching wall of fire looked very close. Finally when sparks fell on the roof she descended hastily and awakened her guest, making him welcome to her brother's linen as well as to a basin of precious water. When he joined her in the kitchen he had even shaved himself and she saw that he looked both older and younger than Americans of his age; which, he had told her, was twenty-three. His fair well-modeled face was now composed and his hazel eyes were brilliant and steady. He had a tall trim military body, and very straight bright brown hair; a rather conventional figure of a well-bred Englishman, Gora assumed; intelligent, and both more naif and more worldly-wise than young Americans of his class: but whose potentialities had hardly been apprehended even by himself.
They ate as substantial a breakfast as could be prepared hastily over a spirit lamp, filled their pockets with stale bread, cake, and small tins of food, and then carried a narrow wire mattress from one of the smaller bedrooms to the front room on the first floor.