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- Sleeping Fires - 1/32 -
BY GERTRUDE ATHERTON
There was no Burlingame in the Sixties, the Western Addition was a desert of sand dunes and the goats gambolled through the rocky gulches of Nob Hill. But San Francisco had its Rincon Hill and South Park, Howard and Fulsom and Harrison Streets, coldly aloof from the tumultuous hot heart of the City north of Market Street.
In this residence section the sidewalks were also wooden and uneven and the streets muddy in winter and dusty in summer, but the houses, some of which had "come round the Horn," were large, simple, and stately. Those on the three long streets had deep gardens before them, with willow trees and oaks above the flower beds, quaint ugly statues, and fountains that were sometimes dry. The narrower houses of South Park crowded one another about the oval enclosure and their common garden was the smaller oval of green and roses.
On Rincon Hill the architecture was more varied and the houses that covered all sides of the hill were surrounded by high-walled gardens whose heavy bushes of Castilian roses were the only reminder in this already modern San Francisco of the Spain that had made California a land of romance for nearly a century; the last resting place on this planet of the Spirit of Arcadia ere she vanished into space before the gold-seekers.
On far-flung heights beyond the business section crowded between Market and Clay Streets were isolated mansions, built by prescient men whose belief in the rapid growth of the city to the north and west was justified in due course, but which sheltered at present amiable and sociable ladies who lamented their separation by vast spaces from that aristocratic quarter of the south.
But they had their carriages, and on a certain Sunday afternoon several of these arks drawn by stout horses might have been seen crawling fearfully down the steep hills or floundering through the sand until they reached Market Street; when the coachmen cracked their whips, the horses trotted briskly, and shortly after began to ascend Rincon Hill.
Mrs. Hunt McLane, the social dictator of her little world, had recently moved from South Park into a large house on Rincon Hill that had been built by an eminent citizen who had lost his fortune as abruptly as he had made it; and this was her housewarming. It was safe to say that her rooms would be crowded, and not merely because her Sunday receptions were the most important minor functions in San Francisco: it was possible that Dr. Talbot and his bride would be there. And if he were not it might be long before curiosity would be gratified by even a glance at the stranger; the doctor detested the theatre and had engaged a suite at the Occidental Hotel with a private dining-room.
Several weeks before a solemn conclave had been held at Mrs. McLane's house in South Park. Mrs. Abbott was there and Mrs. Ballinger, both second only to Mrs. McLane in social leadership; Mrs. Montgomery, Mrs. Brannan, and other women whose power was rooted in the Fifties; Maria and Sally Ballinger, Marguerite McLane, and Guadalupe Hathaway, whose blue large talking Spanish eyes had made her the belle of many seasons: all met to discuss the disquieting news of the marriage in Boston of the most popular and fashionable doctor in San Francisco, Howard Talbot. He had gone East for a vacation, and soon after had sent them a bald announcement of his marriage to one Madeleine Chilton of Boston.
Many high hopes had centered in Dr. Talbot. He was only forty, good-looking, with exuberant spirits, and well on the road to fortune. He had been surrounded in San Francisco by beautiful and vivacious girls, but had always proclaimed himself a man's man, avowed he had seen too much of babies and "blues," and should die an old bachelor. Besides he loved them all; when he did not damn them roundly, which he sometimes did to their secret delight.
And now he not only had affronted them by marrying some one he probably never had seen before, but he had taken a Northern wife; he had not even had the grace to go to his native South, if he must marry an outsider; he had gone to Boston--of all places!
San Francisco Society in the Sixties was composed almost entirely of Southerners. Even before the war it had been difficult for a Northerner to obtain entrance to that sacrosanct circle; the exceptions were due to sheer personality. Southerners were aristocrats. The North was plebeian. That was final. Since the war, Victorious North continued to admit defeat in California. The South had its last stronghold in San Francisco, and held it, haughty, unconquered, inflexible.
That Dr. Talbot, who was on a family footing in every home in San Francisco, should have placed his friends in such a delicate position (to say nothing of shattered hopes) was voted an outrage, and at Mrs. McLane's on that former Sunday afternoon, there had been no pretence at indifference. The subject was thoroughly discussed. It was possible that the creature might not even be a lady. Had any one ever heard of a Boston family named Chilton? No one had. They knew nothing of Boston and cared less. But the best would be bad enough.
It was more likely however that the doctor had married some obscure person with nothing in her favor but youth, or a widow of practiced wiles, or--horrid thought--a divorcee.
He had always been absurdly liberal in spite of his blue Southern blood; and a man's man wandering alone at the age of forty was almost foredoomed to disaster. No doubt the poor man had been homesick and lonesome.
Should they receive her or should they not? If not, would they lose their doctor. He would never speak to one of them again if they insulted his wife. But a Bostonian, a possible nobody! And homely, of course. Angular. Who had ever heard of a pretty woman raised on beans, codfish, and pie for breakfast?
Finally Mrs. McLane had announced that she should not make up her mind until the couple arrived and she sat in judgment upon the woman personally. She would call the day after they docked in San Francisco. If, by any chance, the woman were presentable, dressed herself with some regard to the fashion (which was more than Mrs. Abbott and Guadalupe Hathaway did), and had sufficient tact to avoid the subject of the war, she would stand sponsor and invite her to the first reception in the house on Rincon Hill.
"But if not," she said grimly--"well, not even for Howard Talbot's sake will I receive a woman who is not a lady, or who has been divorced. In this wild city we are a class apart, above. No loose fish enters our quiet bay. Only by the most rigid code and watchfulness have we formed and preserved a society similar to that we were accustomed to in the old South. If we lowered our barriers we should be submerged. If Howard Talbot has married a woman we do not find ourselves able to associate with in this intimate little society out here on the edge of the world, he will have to go."
Mrs. McLane had called on Mrs. Talbot. That was known to all San Francisco, for her carriage had stood in front of the Occidental Hotel for an hour. Kind friends had called to offer their services in setting the new house in order, but were dismissed at the door with the brief announcement that Mrs. McLane was having the blues. No one wasted time on a second effort to gossip with their leader; it was known that just so often Mrs. McLane drew down the blinds, informed her household that she was not to be disturbed, disposed herself on the sofa with her back to the room and indulged in the luxury of blues for three days. She took no nourishment but milk and broth and spoke to no one. Today this would be a rest cure and was equally beneficial. When the attack was over Mrs. McLane would arise with a clear complexion, serene nerves, and renewed strength for social duties. Her friends knew that her retirement on this occasion was timed to finish on the morning of her reception and had not the least misgiving that her doors would still be closed.
The great double parlors of her new mansion were thrown into one and the simple furniture covered with gray rep was pushed against soft gray walls hung with several old portraits in oil, ferrotypes and silhouettes. A magnificent crystal chandelier depended from the high and lightly frescoed ceiling and there were side brackets beside the doors and the low mantel piece. Mrs. McLane may not have been able to achieve beauty with the aid of the San Francisco shops, but at least she had managed to give her rooms a severe and stately simplicity, vastly different from the helpless surrenders of her friends to mid-victorian deformities.
The rooms filled early. Mrs. McLane stood before the north windows receiving her friends with her usual brilliant smile, her manner of high dignity and sweet cordiality. She was a majestic figure in spite of her short stature and increasing curves, for the majesty was within and her head above a flat back had a lofty poise. She wore her prematurely white hair in a tall pompadour, and this with the rich velvets she affected, ample and long, made her look like a French marquise of the eighteenth century, stepped down from the canvas. The effect was by no means accidental. Mrs. McLane's grandmother had been French and she resembled her.
Her hoopskirt was small, but the other women were inclined to the extreme of the fashion; as they saw it in the Godey's Lady's Book they or their dressmakers subscribed to. Their handsome gowns spread widely and the rooms hardly could have seemed to sway and undulate more if an earthquake had rocked it. The older women wore small bonnets and cashmere shawls, lace collars and cameos, the younger fichus and small flat hats above their "waterfalls" or curled chignons. The husbands had retired with Mr. McLane to the smoking
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