Part 1 out of 7
Produced by Tiffany Vergon, Charles Aldarondo
and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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!
"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
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
"That--that--" stammered Alexina, "is Mr. Dwight. I met him last night at
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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!
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"But powder! None of us has ever put anything but clean cold water on her
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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