A NOVEL OF OUR TIME
BY GERTRUDE ATHERTON
TO DR. ALANSON WEEKS OF SAN FRANCISCO
Several people who enter casually into this novel are leading characters in other novels and stories of the "California Series," which covers the social history of the state from the beginning of the last century. They are Gwynne, his mother, Lady Victoria Gwynne, Isabel Otis and the Hofers in ANCESTORS; the Randolphs in A DAUGHTER OF THE VINE; Lee Tarlton, Lady Barnstable, Lady Arrowmount, Coralie Geary, the Montgomerys and Trennahans in TRANSPLANTED and THE CALIFORNIANS; Rezanov in the novel of that name, and Chonita Iturbi y Moncada in THE DOOMSWOMAN, both bound in the volume, BEFORE THE GRINGO CAME; The Price Ruylers in THE AVALANCHE.
The long street rising and falling and rising again until its farthest crest high in the east seemed to brush the fading stars, was deserted even by the private watchmen that guarded the homes of the apprehensive in the Western Addition. Alexina darted across and into the shadows of the avenue that led up to her old-fashioned home, a relic of San Francisco's "early days," perched high on the steepest of the casual hills in that city of a hundred hills.
She was breathless and rather frightened, for although of an adventurous spirit, which had led her to slide down the pillars of the verandah at night when her legs were longer than her years, and during the past winter to make a hardly less dignified exit by a side door when her worthy but hopelessly Victorian mother was asleep, this was the first time that she had been out after midnight.
And it was five o'clock in the morning!
She had gone with Aileen Lawton, her mother's pet aversion, to a party given by one of those new people whom Mrs. Groome, a massive if crumbling pillar of San Francisco's proud old aristocracy, held in pious disdain, and had danced in the magnificent ballroom with the tireless exhilaration of her eighteen years until the weary band had played Home Sweet Home.
She had never imagined that any entertainment could be so brilliant, even among the despised nouveaux riches, nor that there were so many flowers even in California. Her own coming-out party in the dark double parlors of the old house among the eucalyptus trees, whose moans and sighs could be heard above the thin music of piano and violin, had been so formal and dull that she had cried herself to sleep after the last depressed member of the old set had left on the stroke of midnight. Even Aileen's high mocking spirits had failed her, and she had barely been able to summon them for a moment as she kissed the friend, to whom she was sincerely devoted, a sympathetic good-night.
"Never mind, old girl. Nothing can ever be worse. Not even your own funeral. That's one comfort."
That had been last November. During the ensuing five months Alexina had been taken by her mother to such entertainments as were given by other members of that distinguished old band, whose glory, like Mrs. Groome's own, had reached its meridian in the last of the eighties.
Not that any one else in San Francisco was quite as exclusive as Mrs. Groome. Others might be as faithful in their way to the old tradition, be as proud of their inviolate past, when "money did not count," and people merely "new," or of unknown ancestry, did not venture to knock at the gates: but the successive flocks of young folks had overpowered their conservative parents, and Society had loosened its girdle, until in this year of grace nineteen-hundred-and-six, there were few rich people so hopelessly new that their ball rooms either in San Francisco or "Down the Peninsula," were unknown to a generation equally determined to enjoy life and indifferent to traditions.
Mrs. Groome alone had set her face obdurately against any change in the personnel of the eighties. She had the ugliest old house in San Francisco, and the change from lamps to gas had been her last concession to the march of time. The bath tubs were tin and the double parlors crowded with the imposing carved Italian furniture whose like every member of her own set had, in the seventies and eighties, brought home after their frequent and prolonged sojourns abroad: for the prouder the people of that era were of their lofty social position on the edge of the Pacific, the more time did they spend in Europe.
Mrs. Groome might be compelled therefore to look at new people in the homes of her friends—even her proud daughter, Mrs. Abbott, had unaccountably surrendered to the meretricious glitter of Burlingame—but she would not meet them, she would not permit Alexina to cross their thresholds, nor should the best of them ever cross her own.
Poor Alexina, forced to submit, her mother placidly impervious to coaxings, tears, and storms, had finally compromised the matter to the satisfaction of herself and of her own close chosen friend, Aileen Lawton. She accompanied her mother with outward resignation to small dinner dances and to the Matriarch balls, presided over by the newly elected social leader, a lady of unimpeachable Southern ancestry and indifference to wealth, who pledged her Virginia honor to Mrs. Groome that Alexina should not be introduced to any young man whose name was not on her own visiting list; and, while her mother slept, the last of the Ballinger-Groomes accompanied Aileen (chaperoned by an unprincipled aunt, who was an ancient enemy of Maria Groome) to parties quite as respectable but infinitely gayer, and indubitably mixed.
She was quite safe, for Mrs. Groome, when free of social duties, retired on the stroke of nine with a novel, and turned off the gas at ten. She never read the society columns of the newspapers, choked as they were with unfamiliar and plebeian names; and her friends, regarding Alexina's gay disobedience as a palatable joke on "poor old Maria," and sympathetic with youth, would have been the last to enlighten her.
Alexina had never enjoyed herself more than to-night. Young Mrs. Hofer, who had bought and remodeled the old Polk house on Nob Hill—the very one in which Mrs. Groome's oldest daughter had made her debut in the far-off eighties—had turned all her immense rooms into a bower of every variety of flower that bloomed on the rich California soil. It was her second great party of the season, and it had been her avowed intention to outdo the first, which had attempted a revival of Spanish California and been the talk of the town. The decorations had been done by a firm of young women whose parents and grandparents had danced in the old house, and the catering by another scion of San Francisco's social founders, Miss Anne Montgomery.
To do Mrs. Groome full justice, all of these enterprising young women were welcome in her own home. She regarded it as unfortunate that ladies were forced to work for their living, but had seen too many San Francisco families in her own youth go down to ruin to feel more than sorrow. In that era the wives of lost millionaires had knitted baby socks and starved slowly. Even she was forced to admit that the newer generation was more fortunate in its opportunities.
Alexina had not gone to Mrs. Hofer's first party, Aileen being in Santa Barbara, but she had sniffed at the comparisons of the more critical girls in their second season. She was quite convinced that nothing so splendid had ever been given in the world. She had danced every dance. She had had the most delicious things to eat, and never had she met so charming a young man as Mortimer Dwight.
"Some party," she thought as she ran up the steep avenue to her sacrosanct abode, where her haughty mother was chastely asleep, secure in the belief that her obedient little daughter was dreaming in her maiden bower.
"What the poor old darling doesn't know 'll never hurt her," thought Alexina gayly. "She really is old enough to be my grandmother, anyhow. I wonder if Maria and Sally really stood for it or were as naughty as I am."
Alexina was the youngest of a long line of boys and girls, all of whom but five were dead. Ballinger and Geary practiced law in New York, having married sisters who refused to live elsewhere. Sally had married one of their Harvard friends and dwelt in Boston. Maria alone had wed an indigenous Californian, an Abbott of Alta in the county of San Mateo, and lived the year round in that old and exclusive borough. She was now so like her mother, barring a very slight loosening of her own social girdle, that Alexina dismissed as fantastic the notion that even a quarter of a century earlier she may have had any of the promptings of rebellious youth.
"Not she!" thought Alexina grimly. "Oh, Lord! I wonder if my summer destiny is Alta."
She was quite breathless as she reached the eucalyptus grove and paused for a moment before slipping into the house and climbing the stairs.
The city lying in the valleys and on the hills arrested her attention, for it was a long while since she had been awake and out of doors at five in the morning.
It looked like the ghost of a city in that pallid dawn. The houses seemed to have huddled together as if in fear before they sank into sleep, to crouch close to the earth as if warding off a blow. Only the ugly dome of the City Hall, the church steeples, and the old shot tower held up their heads, and they had an almost terrifying sharpness of outline, of alertness, as if ready to spring.
In that far-off district known as "South of Market Street," which she had never entered save in a closed carriage on her way to the Southern Pacific Station or to pay a yearly call on some old family that still dwelt on that oasis, Rincon Hill—sole outpost of the social life of the sixties—infrequent thin lines of smoke rose from humble chimneys. It was the region of factories and dwellings of the working-class, but its inhabitants were not early risers in these days of high wages and short hours.
Even those gray spirals ascended as if the atmosphere lay heavy on them. They accentuated the lifelessness, the petrifaction, the intense and sinister quiet of the prostrate city.
Alexina shuddered and her volatile spirits winged their way down into those dark and intuitive depths of her mind she had never found time to plumb. She knew that the hour of dawn was always still, but she had never imagined a stillness so complete, so final as this. Nor was there any fresh lightness in the morning air. It seemed to press downward like an enormous invisible bat; or like the shade of buried cities, vain outcroppings of a vanished civilization, brooding menacingly over this recent flimsy accomplishment of man that Nature could obliterate with a sneer.
Alexina, holding her breath, glanced upward. That ghost of evening's twilight, the sad gray of dawn, had retreated, but not before the crimson rays of sunrise. The unflecked arc above was a hard and steely blue. It looked as if marsh lights would play over its horrid surface presently, and then come crashing down as the pillars of the earth gave way.
Alexina was a child of California and knew what was coming. She barely had time to brace herself when she saw the sleeping city jar as if struck by a sudden squall, and with the invisible storm came a loud menacing roar of imprisoned forces making a concerted rush for freedom.
She threw her arms about one of the trees, but it was bending and groaning with an accent of fear, a tribute it would have scorned to offer the mighty winds of the Pacific. Alexina sprang clear of it and unable to keep her feet sat down on the bouncing earth.
Then she remembered that it was a rigid convention among real Californians to treat an earthquake as a joke, and began to laugh. There was nothing hysterical in this perfunctory tribute to the lesser tradition and it immediately restored her courage. Moreover, the curiosity she felt for all phases of life, psychical and physical, and her naive delight in everything that savored of experience, caused her to stare down upon the city now tossing and heaving like the sea in a hurricane, with an almost impersonal interest.
The houses seemed to clutch at their precarious foundations even while they danced to the tune of various and appalling noises. Above the ascending roar of the earthquake Alexina heard the crashing of steeples, the dome of the City Hall, of brick buildings too hastily erected, of ten thousand falling chimneys; of creaking and grinding timbers, and of the eucalyptus trees behind her, whose leaves rustled with a shrill rising whisper that seemed addressed to heaven; the neighing and pawing of horses in the stables, the sharp terrified yelps of dogs; and through all a long despairing wail. The mountains across the bay and behind the city were whirling in a devil's dance and the scattered houses on their slopes looked like drunken gnomes. The shot tower bowed low and solemnly but did not fall.
As the earth with a final leap and twist settled abruptly into peace, the streets filled suddenly with people, many in their nightclothes, but more in dressing-gowns, opera cloaks, and overcoats. All were silent and apparently self-possessed. Whence came that long wail no one ever knew.
Alexina, remembering her own attire, sprang to her feet and ran through the little side door and up the stair, praying that her mother, with her usual monumental poise, would have disdained to rise. She had never been known to leave her room before eight.
But as Alexina ran along the upper hall she became only too aware that Mrs. Groome had surrendered to Nature, for she was pounding on her door and in a haughty but quivering voice demanding to be let out.
Alexina tiptoed lightly to the threshold of her room and called out sympathetically:
"What is the matter, mother dear! Has your door sprung?"
"It has. Tell James to come here at once and bring a crow-bar if necessary."
Alexina let down her hair and tore off her evening gown, kicking it into a closet, then threw on a bathrobe and ran over to the servants' quarters in an extension behind the house. They were deserted, but wild shrieks and gales of unseemly laughter arose from the yard. She opened a window and saw the cook, a recent importation, on the ground in hysterics, the housemaid throwing water on her, and the inherited butler calmly lighting his pipe,
"James," she called. "My mother's door is jammed. Please come right away."
"Yes, miss." He knocked his pipe against the wall and ground out the life of the coal with his slippered heel. "Just what happened to your grandmother in the 'quake of sixty-eight. I mind the time I had getting her out."
It was quite half an hour before the door yielded to the combined efforts of James and the gardener-coachman, and during the interval Mrs. Groome recovered her poise and made her morning toilette.
She had taken her iron-gray hair from its pins and patted the narrow row of frizzes into place; the flat side bands, the concise coil of hair on top were as severely disdainful of untoward circumstance or passing fashion as they had been any morning these forty years or more.
She wore old-fashioned corsets and was abdominally correct for her years; a long gown of black voile with white polka dots, and a guimpe of white net whose raff of chiffon somewhat disguised the wreck of her throat. On her shoulders, disposed to rheumatism, she wore a tippet of brown marabout feathers, and in her ears long jet earrings.
She had the dark brown eyes of the Ballingers, but they were bleared at the rims, and on the downward slope of her fine aquiline nose she wore spectacles that looked as if mounted in cast iron. Altogether an imposing relic; and "that built-up look" as Aileen expressed it, was the only one that would have suited her mental style. Mrs. Abbott, who dressed with a profound regard for fashion, had long since concluded that her mother's steadfast alliance with the past not only became her but was a distinct family asset. Only a woman of her overpowering position could afford it.
Mrs. Groome's skin had never felt the guilty caress of cold-cream or powder, and if it was mahogany in tint and deeply wrinkled, it was at least as respectable as her past. In her day that now bourgeois adjective—twin to genteel—had been synchronous with the equally obsolete word swell, but it had never occurred to even the more modern Mrs. Abbott and her select inner circle of friends, dwelling on family estates in the San Mateo valley, to change in this respect at least with the changing times.
Alexina had washed the powder from her own fresh face and put on a morning frock of green and brown gingham, made not by her mother's dressmaker but by her sister's. Her soft dusky hair, regardless of the fashion of the moment, was brushed back from her forehead and coiled at the base of her beautiful little head. Her long widely set gray eyes, their large irises very dark and noticeably brilliant even for youth, had the favor of black lashes as fine and lusterless as her hair, and very narrow black polished eyebrows. Her skin was a pale olive lightly touched with color, although the rather large mouth with its definitely curved lips was scarlet. Her long throat like the rest of her body was white.
All the other children had been clean-cut Ballingers or Groomes, consistently dark or fair; but it would seem that Nature, taken by surprise when the little Alexina came along several years after her mother was supposed to have discharged her debt, had mixed the colors hurriedly and quite forgotten her usual nice proportions.
The face, under the soft lines of youth, was less oval than it looked, for the chin was square and the jaw bone accentuated. The short straight thin nose reclaimed the face and head from too classic a regularity, and the thin nostrils drew in when she was determined and shook quite alarmingly when she was angry.
These more significant indications of her still embryonic personality were concealed by the lovely curves and tints of her years, the brilliant happy candid eyes (which she could convert into a madonna's by the simple trick of lifting them a trifle and showing a lower crescent of devotional white), the love of life and eagerness to enjoy that radiated from her thin admirably proportioned body, which, at this time, held in the limp slouching fashion of the hour, made her look rather small. In reality she was nearly as tall as her mother or the dignified Mrs. Abbott, who rejoiced in every inch of her five feet eight, and retained the free erect carriage of her girlhood.
Alexina, with a sharp glance about her disordered room, hastily disarranged her bed, and, sending her ball slippers after the gown, ran across the hall and threw herself into her mother's arms.
"Some earthquake, what? You are sure you are not hurt, mommy dear? The plaster is down all over the house."
"More slang that you have learned from Aileen Lawton, I presume. It certainly was a dreadful earthquake, worse than that of eighteen-sixty-eight. Is anything valuable broken? There is always less damage done on the hills. What is that abominable noise?"
The cook, who had recovered from her first attack, was emitting another volley of shrieks, in which the word "fire" could be distinguished in syllables of two.
Mrs. Groome rang the bell violently and the imperturbable James appeared.
"Is the house on fire?"
"No, ma'am; only the city. It's worth looking at, if you care to step out on the lawn."
Mrs. Groome followed her daughter downstairs and out of the house. Her eyebrows were raised but there was a curious sensation in her knees that even the earthquake had failed to induce. She sank into the chair James had provided and clutched the arms with both hands.
"There are always fires after earthquakes," she muttered. "Impossible! Impossible!"
"Oh, do you think San Francisco is really going?" cried Alexina, but there was a thrill in her regret. "Oh, but it couldn't be."
"No! impossible, impossible!"
Black clouds of smoke shot with red tongues of flame overhung the city at different points, although they appeared to be more dense and frequent down in the "South of Market Street" region. There was also a rolling mass of flame above the water front and sporadic fires in the business district.
The streets were black with people, now fully dressed, and long processions were moving steadily toward the bay as well as in the direction of the hills behind the western rim of the city. James brought a pair of field glasses, and Mrs. Groome discovered that the hurrying throngs were laden with household goods, many pushing them in baby carriages and wheelbarrows. It was the first flight of the refugees.
"James!" said Mrs. Groome sharply. "Bring me a cup of coffee and then go down and find out exactly what is happening."
James, too wise in the habits of earthquakes to permit the still distracted cook to make a fire in the range, brewed the coffee over a spirit lamp, and then departed, nothing loath, on his mission. Mrs. Groome swallowed the coffee hastily, handed the cup to Alexina and burst into tears.
"Mother!" Alexina was really terrified for the first time that morning. Mrs. Groome practiced the severe code, the repressions of her class, and what tears she had shed in her life, even over the deaths of those almost forgotten children, had been in the sanctity of her bedroom. Alexina, who had grown up under her wing, after many sorrows and trials had given her a serenity that was one secret of her power over this impulsive child of her old age, could hardly have been more appalled if her mother had been stricken with paralysis.
"You cannot understand," sobbed Mrs. Groome. "This is my city! The city of my youth; the city my father helped to make the great and wonderful city it is. Even your father—he may not have been a good husband—Oh, no! Not he!—but he was a good citizen; he helped to drag San Francisco out of the political mire more than once. And now it is going! It has always been prophesied that San Francisco would burn to the ground some time, and now the time has come. I feel it in my bones."
This was the first reference other than perfunctory, that Alexina had ever heard her mother make to her father, who had died when she was ten. The girl realized abruptly that this elderly parent who, while uniformly kind, had appeared to be far above the ordinary weaknesses of her sex, had an inner life which bound her to the plane of mere mortals. She had a sudden vision of an unhappy married life, silently borne, a life of suppressions, bitter disappointments. Her chief compensation had been the unwavering pride which had made the world forget to pity her.
And it was the threatened destruction of her city that had beaten down the defenses and given her youngest child a brief glimpse of that haughty but shivering spirit.
Alexina's mind, in spite of a great deal of worldly garnering with an industrious and investigating scythe, was as immature as her years, for she had felt little and lived not at all. But she had swift and deep intuitions, and in spite of the natural volatility of youth, free of care, she was fundamentally emotional and intense.
Swept from her poor little girlish moorings in the sophisticated sea of the twentieth-century maiden, she had a sudden wild access of conscience; she flung herself into her mother's arms and poured out the tale of her nocturnal transgressions, her frequent excursions into the forbidden realm of modern San Francisco, of her immense acquaintance with people whose very names were unknown to Mrs. Groome, born Ballinger.
Then she scrambled to her feet and stood twisting her hands together, expecting a burst of wrath that would further reveal the pent-up fires in this long-sealed volcano; for Alexina was inclined to the exaggerations of her sex and years and would not have been surprised if her mother, masterpiece of a lost art, had suddenly become as elementary as the forces that had devastated San Francisco.
But there was only dismay in Mrs. Groome's eyes as she stared at her repentant daughter. Her heart sank still lower. She had never been a vain woman, but she had prided herself upon not feeling old. Suddenly, she felt very old, and helpless.
"Well," she said in a moment. "Well—I suppose I have been wrong. There are almost two generations between us. I haven't kept up. And you are naturally a truthful child—I should have—"
"Oh, mother, you are not blaming yourself!" Alexina felt as if the earth once more were dancing beneath her unsteady feet. "Don't say that!"
The sharpness of her tone dispelled the confusion in Mrs. Groome's mind. She hastily buckled on her armor.
"Let us say no more about it. I fancy it will be a long time before there are any more parties in San Francisco, but when there are—well, I shall consult Maria. I want your youth to be happy—as happy as mine was. I suppose you young people can only be happy in the new way, but I wish conditions had not changed so lamentably in San Francisco....Who is this?"
As Alexina followed her mother's eyes she flushed scarlet and turned away her head. A young man was coming up the avenue. He was a very gallant figure, moderately tall and very straight; he held his head high, his features were strong in outline. But the noticeable thing about him at this early hour of the morning and in the wake of a great disaster was his consummate grooming.
"That—that—" stammered Alexina, "is Mr. Dwight. I met him last night at the Hofers'."
The young man raised his hat and came forward quickly. "I hope you will forgive me," he said with a charming deference, "but I couldn't resist coming to see if you were all right. So many people are frightened of fire—in their own houses."
"Mr. Dwight—my mother—"
He lifted his hat again. Mrs. Groome in her chastened mood regarded him favorably, and for the moment without suspicion. At least he was a gentleman; but who could he be?
"Dwight," she murmured. "I do not know the name. Were you born here?"
"I was born in Utica, New York. My parents came here when I was quite young. We—always lived rather quietly."
"But you go about now? To all these parties?"
"Oh, yes. I like to dance after the day's work. But I am not what you would call a society man. I haven't the time."
Mrs. Groome was not usually blunt, but she suddenly scented danger and she had not fully recovered her poise.
"You are in business?" She disliked business intensely. All gentlemen of her day had followed one of the professions.
"I am in a wholesale commission house. But I hope to be in business for myself one day."
Still, all young men in this terrible twentieth century could not be lawyers. Mrs. Groome knew enough of the march of time to be aware of the increasing difficulties in gaining a bare livelihood. Tom Abbott was a lawyer, like his father before him, and his grandfather in the fifties. It was one of the oldest firms in San Francisco, but she recalled his frequent and bitter allusions to the necessity of sitting up nights these days if a man wanted to keep out of the poorhouse.
And at least this young man did not look like an idler or a wastrel. No man could have so clear a skin and be so well-groomed at six in the morning if he drank or gambled. Alexander Groome had done both and she knew the external seals.
"Is Aileen Lawton a friend of yours?" she asked sharply.
"I have met Miss Lawton at a number of dances but she has not done me the honor to ask me to call."
"I think the more highly of you. Judge Lawton is an old friend of mine. His wife, who was much younger than the Judge, was an intimate friend of my daughter, Mrs. Abbott. Alexina and Aileen have grown up together. I find it impossible to forbid her the house. But I disapprove of her in every way. She paints her lips, smokes cigarettes, boasts that she drinks cocktails, and uses the most abominable slang. I kept my daughter in New York for two years as much to break up the intimacy as to finish her education, but the moment we returned the intimacy was renewed, and for my old friend's sake I have been forced to submit. He worships that—that—really ill-conditioned child."
"Oh—Miss Lawton is a good sort, and—well—I suppose her position is so strong that she feels she can do as she pleases. But she is all right, and not so different—"
"Do you mean to tell me that you approve of girls—nice girls—ladies—painting themselves, smoking, drinking cocktails?"
"I do not." His tones were emphatic and his good American gray eyes wandered to the fresh innocent face of the girl who had captivated him last night.
"I should hope not. You look like an exceptionally decent young man. Have you had breakfast? Alexina, go and ask Maggie, if she has recovered herself, to make another cup of coffee."
Alexina disappeared, repressing a desire to sing; and young Dwight, receiving permission, seated himself on the grass at Mrs. Groome's feet. He was lithe and graceful and as he threw back his head and looked up at his hostess with his straight, honest glance the good impression he had made was visibly enhanced. Mrs. Groome gave him the warm and gracious smile that only her intimate friends and paid inferiors had ever seen.
"The young men of to-day are a great disappointment to me," she observed.
"Oh, they are all right, I guess. Most of the men that go about have rich fathers—or near-rich ones. I wish I had one myself."
"And you would be as dissipated as the rest, I presume."
"No, I have no inclinations that way. But a man gets a better start in life. And a man's a nonentity without money."
"Not if he has family."
"My family is good—in Utica. But that is of no use to me here."
"But your family is good?"
"Oh, yes, it goes 'way back. There is a family mansion in Utica that is over two hundred years old. But when the business district swamped that part of the old town it was sold, and what it brought was divided among six. My father came out here but did not make much of a success of himself, so that he and my mother might as well have been on the Fiji Islands for all the notice society took of them."
He spoke with some bitterness, and Mrs. Groome, to whom dwelling beyond the outer gates of San Francisco's elect was the ultimate tragedy, responded sympathetically.
"Society here is not what it used to be, and no doubt is only too glad to welcome presentable young men. I infer that you have not found it difficult."
"Oh, I dance well, and my employer's son, Bob Cheever, took me in. But I'm only tolerated. I don't count."
The old lady looked at him keenly. "You are ambitious?"
He threw back his head. "Well, yes, I am, Mrs. Groome. As far as society goes it is a matter of self-respect. I feel that I have the right to go in the best society anywhere—that I am as good as anybody when it comes to blood. And I'd like to get to the top in every way. I don't mean that I would or could do the least thing dishonest to get there, as so many men have done, but—well, I see no crime in being ambitious and using every chance to get to the top. I'd like not only to be one of the rich and important men of San Francisco, but to take a part in the big civic movements."
Mrs. Groome was charmed. She was by no means an impulsive woman, but she had suddenly realized her age, and if she must soon leave her youngest child, who, heaven knew, needed a guardian, this young man might be a son-in-law sent direct from heaven—via the earthquake. If he had real ability the influential men she knew would see that he had a proper start. But she had no intention of committing herself.
"And what do you think of what is now called San Francisco society?" she demanded.
He was quite aware of Mrs. Groome's attitude. Who in San Francisco was not? It was one of the standing jokes, although few of the younger or newer set had ever heard of her until her naughty little daughter danced upon the scene.
"Oh, it is mixed, of course. There are many houses where I do not care to go. But, well, after all, the rich people are rather simple for all their luxury, and as for the old families there are no more real aristocrats in England itself."
Mrs. Groome was still more charmed. "But you were at Mrs. Hofer's last night. I never heard of her before."
"Her husband is one of the most important of the younger men. His father made a fortune in lumber and sent his son to Yale and all the rest of it. He is really a gentleman—it only takes one generation out here—and at present he's bent upon delivering the city from this abominable ring of grafters...There is no water to put out the fires because the City Administration pocketed the money appropriated for a new system; the pipes leading from Spring Valley were broken by the earthquake."
"And who was she?"
Mrs. Groome asked this question with an inimitable inflection inherited from her mother and grandmother, both of whom had been guardians of San Francisco society in their day. The accent was on the "who." Bob Cheever, whose grandmother had asked or answered the same question in dark old double parlors filled with black walnut and carved oak, would have muttered, "Oh, hell!" but Mr. Dwight replied sympathetically: "Something very common, I believe-south of Market Street. But her father was very clever, rose to be a foreman of the iron works, and finally went into business and prospered in a small way. He sent his daughter to Europe to be educated...and even you could hardly tell her from the real thing."
"And you go down to Burlingame, I suppose! That is a very nest of these new people, and I am told they spend their time drinking and gambling."
He set his large rather hard lips. "No, I have never been asked down to Burlingame-nor down the Peninsula anywhere. You see, I am only asked out in town because an unmarried dancing man is always welcome if there is nothing wrong with his manners. To be asked for intimate week-ends is another matter. But I don't fancy Burlingame is half as bad as it is represented to be. They go in tremendously for sport, you know, and that is healthy and takes up a good deal of time. After all when people are very rich and have more leisure than they know what to do with—"
"Many of the old set in Alta, San Mateo, Atherton and Menlo Park have wealth and leisure-not vulgar fortunes, but enough-and for the most part they live quite as they did in the old days."
His eyes lit up. "Ah, San Mateo, Alta, Atherton, Menlo Park. There you have a real landed aristocracy. The Burlingame set must realize that they would be nobodies for all their wealth if they could not call at all those old communities down the Peninsula."
"Not so very many of them do. But I see you have no false values. You. must go down with us some Sunday to Alta. I am sure you would like my oldest daughter. She is very smart, as they call it now, but distinctly of the old regime."
"There is nothing I should like better. Thank you so much." And there was no doubting the sincerity of his voice, a rather deep and manly voice which harmonized with the admirable mold of his ancestors.
Alexina appeared. "Breakfast is ready for all of us," she announced. "We cooked it on the old stove in the woodhouse. I helped, for Maggie is a wreck. Martha has swept the plaster out of the dining-room. Come along. I'm starved."
Young Dwight sprang to his feet and stood over Mrs. Groome with his charming deferential manner, but he had far too much tact to offer assistance as she rose heavily from her chair.
"Are you really going to give me breakfast? I am sure I could not get any elsewhere."
"We are only too happy. Your coming has been a real God-send. Will you give me your arm? This morning—not the earthquake but those dreadful fires—has quite upset me."
He escorted her into the dark old house with glowing eyes. He had seen so little of the world that he was still very young at thirty and his nature was sanguine, but he had never dared to dream of even difficult access to this most exclusive home in San Francisco. Its gloom, its tastelessness, relieved only by the splendid Italian pieces, but served to accentuate its aristocratic aloofness from those superb but too recently furnished mansions of which he knew so little outside of their ballrooms.
And he was breakfasting with the sequestered Mrs. Groome and the loveliest girl he had ever seen, at seven o 'clock in the morning.
He looked about eagerly as they entered the dining-room.. It was long and narrow with a bow window at the end. The furniture was black walnut; two immense sideboards were built into the walls. It looked Ballinger, and it was.
It was heavily paneled; the walls above were tinted a pale buff and set with cracked oil paintings of men in the uniforms of several generations. The ceiling was frescoed with fish and fowl. There had been a massive bronze chandelier over the table. It now lay on the floor, but as James had turned off the gas in the meter while the earthquake was still in progress the air of the large sunny room was untainted, and the windows were open.
The breakfast was smoked but not uneatable and the strong coffee raised even Mrs. Groome's wavering spirits. They were all talking gayly when James entered abruptly. He was very pale.
"City's doomed, ma'am. Thirty fires broke out simultaneous, and the wind blowing from the southeast. A chimney fell on the fire-chief's bed and he can't live. People runnin' round like their heads was cut off and thousands pouring out of the city—over to Oakland and Berkeley. Lootin' was awful and General Funston has ordered out the troops. Pipes broken and not a drop of water. They're goin' to dynamite, but only the fire-chief knew how. Everybody says the whole city'll go, Doomed, that's what it is. Better let me tell Mike to harness up and drive you down to San Mateo."
Mrs. Groome had also turned pale, but she cut a piece of bacon with resolution in every finger of her large-veined hands.
"I do not believe it, and I shall not run—like those people south of Market Street. I shall stay until the last minute at all events. The roads at least cannot burn."
"This house ought to be safe enough, ma 'am, standin' quite alone on this hill as it does; but it's a question of food. We never keep much of anything in the house, beyond what's needed for the week, and the California Market's right in the fire zone. And the smoke will be something terrible when the fire gets closer."
"I shall stay in my own house. There are grocery stores and butcher shops in Fillmore Street. Go and buy all you can." She handed him a bunch of keys. "You will find money in my escritoire. Tell the maids to fill the bathtubs while there is any water left in the mains. You may go if you are frightened, but I stay here."
"Very well, and you needn't have said that, ma'am. I've been in this family, man and boy, Ballinger and Groome, for fifty-two years, and you know I'd never desert you. But no doubt those hussies in the kitchen will, with a lot of others. A lot of stoves have already been set up in the streets out here and ladies are cookin' their own breakfasts."
"Forgive me, James. I know you will never leave me. And if the others do we shall get along. Miss Alexina is not a bad cook." And she heroically swallowed the bacon.
James departed and she turned to Dwight, who was on his feet.
"You are not going?"
"I think I must, Mrs. Groome. There may be something I can do down there. All able-bodied men will be needed, I fancy."
"But you'll come back and see us?" cried Alexina.
"Indeed I will. I'll report regularly."
He thanked Mrs. Groome for her hospitality and she invited him to take pot luck with her at dinner time. After he had gone Alexina exclaimed rapturously:
"Oh, you do like him, don't you, mommy dear?"
And Mrs. Groome was pleased to reply, "He has perfect manners and certainly has the right ideas about things. I could do no less than ask him to dinner if he is going to take the trouble to bring us the news."
That was a unique and vivid day for young Alexina Groome, whose disposition was to look upon life as drama and asked only that it shift its scenes often and be consistently entertaining and picturesque.
Never, so James told her, since her Grandmother Ballinger's reign, had there been such life and movement in the old house. All Mrs. Groome's intimate friends and many of Alexina's came to it, some to make kindly inquiries, others to beg them to leave the city, many to gossip and exchange experiences of that fateful morning; a few from Rincon Hill and the old ladies' fashionable boarding-house district to claim shelter until they could make their way to relatives out of town.
Mrs. Groome welcomed her friends not only with the more spontaneous hospitality of an older time but in that spirit of brotherhood that every disaster seems to release, however temporarily. Brotherhood is unquestionably an instinct of the soul, an inheritance from that sunrise era when mutual interdependence was as imperative as it was automatic. The complexities of civilization have overlaid it, and almost but not wholly replaced it by national and individual selfishness. But the world as yet is only about one-third civilized. Centuries hence a unified civilization may complete the circle, but human nature and progress must act and react a thousand times before the earthly millenium; and it cannot be hastened by dreamers and fanatics.
All Mrs. Groome's spare rooms were placed at the service of her friends, and cots were bought in the humble Fillmore Street shops and put up in the billiard room, the double parlors, the library and the upper hall. Some forty people would sleep under the old Ballinger roof that night—dynamite permitting. Mrs. Groome was firm in her determination not to flee, and as James and Mike were there to watch, she had graciously given a number of the gloomy refugees from the lower regions permission to camp in the outhouses and grounds.
Alexina spent the greater part of the day with Aileen Lawton, Olive Bascom, and Sibyl Thorndyke, out of doors, fascinated by the spectacle of the burning city.
The valley beyond Market Street, and the lower business district, were a rolling mass of smoke parting about pillars of fire, shot with a million glittering sparks when a great building was dynamited. All the windows in those sections of the city as yet beyond the path of the fire were open, for although closed windows might have shut out the torrid atmosphere, the explosions would have shattered them.
"Oh, dear," sighed Olive Bascom, "there goes my building. The smoke lifted for a moment and I saw the flames spouting out of the windows. A cool million and uninsured. We thought Class A buildings were safe from any sort of fire."
"Heavens!" exclaimed Alexina naively, "I wish I had a million-dollar building down in that furnace. It must be a great sensation to watch a million dollars go up in sparks."
"I hope your mother hasn't any buildings down in the business district," said Aileen anxiously. "I've heard dad talk about her ground rents. She'll get those again soon enough. I fancy the old tradition survives in this town and they'll begin to draw the plans for the new city before the fire is out. It used to burn down regularly in the fifties, dad says."
"I don't fancy we have much of anything," said Alexina cheerfully. "I think mother has only a life interest in a part of father's estate, and I heard her tell Maria once that she intended to leave me all she had of her own, this place and a few thousand a year in bonds and some flats that are probably burning up right now. I gathered from the conversation that father didn't have much left when he died and that it was understood mother was to look out for me. I believe he gave a lot to the others when he was wealthy."
"Good Lord!" Aileen sighed heavily. "It won't pay your dressmakers' bills, what with taxes and all. I won't be much better off. We'll have to marry Rex Roberts or Bob Cheever or Frank Bascom—unless he's going up in smoke too, Olive dear. But there are a few others."
Alexina shook her head. Her color could not rise higher for her face was crimson from the heat; like the others she had a wet handkerchief on her head. "There is not a grain of romance in one of them," she announced. "Curious that the sons of the rich nearly always have round faces, no particular features, and a tendency to bulge. I intend to have a romance—old style—good old style—before the vogue of the middle-class realists. There's nothing in life but youth and you only have it once. I'm going to have a romance that means falling wildly, unreasonably, uncalculatingly in love."
"You anticipate my adjectives," said Aileen drily. "Although not all. But let that pass. I'd like to know where you expect to find the opposite lead, as they say on the stage. Our men are not such a bad sort, even the richest—with a few exceptions, of course. They may hit it up at week-ends, generally at the country clubs, but they're better than the last generation because their fathers have more sense. I'll bet they're all down there now fighting the fire with the vim of their grandfathers....But romantic! Good Lord! I'll marry one of them all right and glad of the chance—after I've had my fling. I'm in no hurry. I'd have outgrown my illusions in any case by that time, only Nature did the trick by not giving me any."
"Don't you believe there isn't a man in all San Francisco able to inspire romance." If Alexina could not blush her dark gray eyes could sparkle and melt. "All the men we meet don't belong to that rich group."
"Bunch, darling. Where—will you give us the pointer?—are to be found the romantic knights of San Francisco? 'Frisco as those tiresome Eastern people call it. Makes me sick to think that they are even now pitying 'poor 'Frisco.' "Well?—I could beat my brains and not call one to mind."
"What does that mean, Alex Groome? When you roll up your eyes like that you look like a love-sick tomato."
"Mortimer Dwight was most devoted last night," said Sibyl Thorndyke. "She danced with him at least eight times."
"You must have sat out alone to know what I was doing," Alexina began hotly, but Aileen sprang at her and gripped her shoulders.
"Don't tell me that you are interested in that cheap skate. Alexina Groome! You!"
"He's not a cheap skate. I despise your cheap slang."
"He's a rank nobody."
"You mean he isn't rich. Or his family didn't belong. What do you suppose I care? I'm not a snob."
"He is. A climbing, ingenuous, empty-headed snob."
"You are a snob. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
"I've a right to be a snob if I choose, and he hasn't. My snobbery is the right sort: the 'I will maintain' kind. He'd give all the hair on his head to have the right to that sort of snobbery. His is" (she chanted in a high light maddening voice): "Oh, God, let me climb. Yank me up into the paradise of San Francisco society. Burlingame, Alta, Menlo Park, Atherton, Belvidere, San Rafael. Oh, God, it's awful to be a nobody, not to be in the same class with these rich fellers, not to belong to the Pacific-Union Club, not to have polo ponies, not to belong to smart golf clubs, to the Burlingame Club. Not to get clothes from New York and London—"
"You keep quiet," shrieked Alexina, who with difficulty refrained from substituting: "You shut up." She flung off Aileen's hands. "What do you know about him? He doesn't like you."
"Never had a chance to find out."
"What can you know about him, then?"
"Think I'm blind? Think I'm deaf? Don't I know everything that goes on in this town? Isn't sizing-up my long suit? And he's as dull as—as a fish without salt. I sat next to him at a dinner, and all he could talk about was the people he'd met—our sort, of course. And he was dull even at that. He's all manners and bluff—"
"You couldn't draw him out. He talked to me."
"What about? I'm really interested to know. Everybody says the same thing. They fall for his dancing and manners, and—well, yes—I 'll admit it—for his looks. He even looks like a gentleman. But all the girls say he bores 'em stiff. They have to talk their heads off. What did he say to you that was so frantically interesting?"
"Well, of course—we danced most of the time."
"That's just it. He's inherited the shell of some able old ancestor and not a bit of the skull furniture. Nature often plays tricks like that. But I could forgive him for being dull if he weren't such a damn snob."
"You shan't call him names. If he wants to be one of us, and life was so unkind as to—to—well, birth him on the outside, I'm sure that's no crime."
"Snobbery," said Miss Thorndyke, who was intellectual at the moment and cultivating the phrase, "is merely a rather ingenuous form of aspiration. I can't see that it varies except in kind from other forms of ambition. And without ambition there would be no progress."
"Oh, can it," sneered Judge Lawton's daughter. "You're all wrong, anyhow. Snobbery leads to the rocks much oftener than to high achievement. I've heard dad say so, and you won't venture to assert that he doesn't know. It bears about the same relation to progress that grafting does to legitimate profits. Anyhow, it makes me sick, and I'm not going to have Alex falling in love with a poor fish—"
"Fish?" Alexina's voice rose above a fresh detonation, "You dare—and you think I'm going to ask you whom I shall fall in love with? Fish? What do you call those other shrimps who don't think of anything but drinking and sport, whether they attend to business or not?—their fathers make them, anyhow. And you want to marry one of them! They're fish, if you like."
The two girls were glaring at each other. Gray eyes were blazing, green eyes snapping. Two sets of white even teeth were bared. They looked like a couple of belligerent puppies. Another moment and they would have forgotten the sacred traditions of their class and flown at each other's hair. But Miss Bascom interposed. Even the loss of her uninsured million did not ruffle her, for she had another in Government and railroad bonds, and full confidence in her brother, who was an admirable business man, and not in the least dissipated.
"Come, come," she said. "It's much too hot to fight. Dwight is not good enough for Alex—from a worldly point of view, I mean," as Alexina made a movement in her direction. "We should none of us marry out of our class. It never works, somehow. But Mr. Dwight is really quite all right otherwise. I like him very much, Alex darling, and I don't mind his being an outsider in the least—so long as he doesn't try to marry one of us. He's too good-looking, and his heels are fairly inspired. No one questions the fact that he is an honorable and worthy young man, working like a real man to earn his living. It isn't at all as if he were an adventurer. He has never struck me as being more of a snob than most people, and I don't see why I haven't thought to ask him down to San Mateo for a week-end."
"You'll certainly have a friend for life if you do," said Aileen satirically. "Fall in love with him yourself if you choose. You can afford it."
"No fear. I've made up my mind. I'm going to marry a French marquis."
"What?" Even Alexina forgot Mortimer Dwight. "Who is he? Where did you meet him?"
"I haven't met him yet. But I shall. I'm going to Paris next winter to visit my aunt, and I'll find one. You get anything in this world you go for hard enough. To be a French marquise is the most romantic thing in the world."
"Why not Elton Gwynne? It's an open secret that he's an English marquis. Or that young Gathbroke Lady Victoria brought last night?"
"He's a younger son, and he never looked at any one but Alex. And Isabel Otis has preempted Mr. Gwynne. And I adore France and don't care about England."
"Well, that is romantic if you like!" cried Aileen, her green eyes dancing" "You have my best wishes. Doesn't it make your Geary Street knight look cheap—he boards somewhere down on Geary Street."
"No, it doesn't! And I'm a good American. French marquis, indeed! Mr. Dwight comes of the best old American stock from New York. He told mother so, I'd spit on any old decadent European title."
"I wish your mother could hear you. So—he's been getting round her has he? Where on earth did he meet her?"
Alexina, with sulky triumph, reported Mr. Dwight's early visit and the favorable impression he had made.
Aileen groaned. "That's just the one thing she would fall for in a rank outsider—superlative manners. His being poor is rather in his favor. I'll put a flea in her ear—"
Aileen lifted her shoulders. "Well, as a matter of fact I can't. Tattling just isn't in my line. But if I can queer him with you I will."
"I won't talk about him any more." Alexina drew herself up with immense dignity. She had the advantage of Aileen not only in inches but in a natural repose of manner. The eminent Judge Lawton's only child, upon whom, possibly, he may have lavished too much education, had a thin nervous little body that was seldom in repose, and her face, with its keen irregular features and brilliant green eyes, shifted its surface impressions as rapidly as a cinematograph. Olive Bascom had soft blue eyes and abundant brown hair, and Sibyl Thorndyke had learned to hold her long black eyes half closed, and had the black hair and rich complexion of a Creole great-grandmother. Alexina was admittedly the "beauty of the bunch." Nevertheless, Miss Lawton had informed her doting parent before this, her first season, was half over, that she was vivid enough to hold her own with the best of them. The boys said she was a live wire and she preferred that high specialization to the tameness of mere beauty.
Said Alexina: "Sibyl, what are you going to do with your young life? Shall you marry an English duke or a New York millionaire?"
But Miss Thorndyke smiled mysteriously. She was not as frank as the other girls, although by no means as opaque as she imagined.
Aileen laughed. "Oh, don't ask her. Doubt if she knows. To-day she's all for being intellectual and reading those damn dull Russian novelists. To-morrow she may be setting up as an odalisque. It would suit her style better."
Miss Thorndyke's face was also crimson from the heat, but she would not have flushed had it been the day before. She was not subject to sudden reflexes.
"Your satire is always a bit clumsy, dear," she said sweetly. "The odalisque is not your role at all events."
"I don't go in for roles."
And the four girls wrangled and dreamed and planned, while a city burnt beneath them; some three hundred million dollars flamed out, lives were ruined, exterminated, altered; and Labor sat on the hills and smiled cynically at the tremendous impetus the earth had handed them on that morning of April eighteenth, nineteen hundred and six.
They were too young to know or to care. When the imagination is trying its wings it is undismayed even by a world at war.
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.
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."
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."