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Miss Montgomery called as Isabel and Gwynne were sitting down to luncheon at two o'clock. She was not in the best of tempers, for she had renewed her youth briefly the night before, her old admirers had shown her much gallant attention, and if she had gone home with a song in her heart and a flame in her eyes, she had been but the more conscious of the wooden spoon upon awakening. She had risen with no very keen regret for her vanished claims upon men long since married and consoled, for she had never been what is called a marrying girl, but with her mind inclined to gloomy meditation upon lost opportunities far more dear. She had never ceased to believe that, the fates conspiring, she might have become one of the great musicians of the world; for although she was willing to admit the defect of will that had reduced her to the ranks, she had not grasped the historic fact that the born artist accomplishes his fulfilment in spite of all obstacles, imagined or real. Her obstacles had been purely sentimental, for her family were commonplace selfish people not worth considering, and, her endowment being just short of distinguished, a misplaced sense of duty and the stultifying influences of her home were responsible for her profession as caterer at the age of thirty-six. Her people had belonged to the type that held in aristocratic disgust the "woman who did things," "showed herself to the public"; moreover, as Isabel had told Gwynne, they worshipped the flower-like artistic young creature, and would let neither the world nor man have aught of her. She was twenty-eight when her family died, and knowing that as a music-teacher she could not hope to compete with finished instructors, she had looked ever her other talents and found that the only one which promised immediate returns was a certain knack for sauces and sweets. All her friends rushed to her assistance, and while broiling over a hot stove, stirring jam, wished that dear Anne were not so proud and would accept a check without any fuss. But Miss Montgomery quickly graduated from this amateur stage. She set herself deliberately to work to become a chef, and, from offerings to the Womans' Exchange, she was soon supplying choice dishes for luncheons, and finally entire dinners. She had a warm friend in the then Leader of San Francisco Society, and her own cleverness and indomitable perseverance did the rest. She sometimes reflected that if she had found the iron in her nature sooner she might have been fiddling in Vienna; but perhaps her highest gift had really been culinary, perhaps she needed the enthusiastic encouragement which she found on all sides when she embraced that appealing art; at all events she succeeded, was educating a promising orphan relative, and laying by for her old age. Another friend, no doubt, was the massive family silver which had escaped the wreck. Many of the new people, Mrs. Hofer among others, did not care for the responsibility of a luxury so tempting to thieves, and for which they had no innate predilection; they were more than willing to pay a reasonable sum for ancestral decorations upon state occasions, and to dine from artistic plated ware meanwhiles. Not but that there was a sufficiency of solid bullion to be seen on many a San Francisco table, and there were several golden services in the city; but rich people have all sorts of economical kinks, and Miss Montgomery found this one profitable. Another thing, no doubt, that had contributed to her success, was the business-like attitude she had assumed as soon as she felt herself a professional. She accompanied her refections to the kitchen door, although the front was always open to her, and philosophically pocketed the customary tip.
And she had struggled valiantly against becoming an embittered old maid; in the main, had succeeded. To the world, at least, she rarely turned a scowl, and she had never lost a friend. But there were times when she hated her parents. Since Isabel's return she had had more than one rebellious hour, for Isabel had taken her life in both hands, snapped her fingers at restraints and small conventions, and, so far, at least, had made good. And the younger girl's development, to one that had known her always, was extraordinary. On the other hand, she exulted in the prospect of a member of the old set coming prominently to the front once more. She had spent a week with Isabel at Old Inn, and received a certain measure of confidence. She hoped that Isabel would really make a fortune, and urged her to follow Gwynne's example and put up a modern building on her San Francisco property. Money was easy to raise, for change and improvement possessed San Franciscans like an epidemic, and few but were not anxious to convert "South of Market Street" into a great business district. Although she was grateful to the new people, particularly Ada Hofer, who, to use the lady's own expression "made things hum," in her heart she disliked the breed, and deeply resented the fact that the old set, even those by no means impoverished, to-day formed little more than a background. They were to be seen everywhere, they were still a power in a way, but they were by no means prosilient. Therefore, as she sat in the old dark dining-room on Russian Hill and listened to Isabel's praise of the interest that Hofer and his set took in the political and artistic regeneration of the city, she was moved to break out tartly:
"Are you giving them credit for altruism? They have their millions invested here, naturally they crave a reasonable prospect of retaining them—also of increasing them by filling Fairmont, and other projected caravansaries for the rich, with winter tourists from the East; possibly Europe. They not only fear the corporation cormorants—whom they can never reach so long as the Board of Supervisors is controlled by the Boss—the Boss himself and all his devouring horde, but the greatest menace of all: that San Francisco will in time, and before very long, be owned body and soul by the labor-unions. Then, even if they managed to save their wealth, the city would be intolerable for the socially ambitious or even the merely refined."
"You are unfair," said Gwynne; "for these men all have enough to pull out and invest elsewhere. They could go to New York and buy a big position, as so many of their predecessors have done. Or to London. Of course no man ever lived that was wholly disinterested, unless he was a fanatic, but it is vastly to the credit of these men that they love their own city, stand by it—determined to make it livable, not only for themselves, but for future generations; instead of moving away and becoming millionaires of leisure."
"Oh yes, I don't deny that they have enthusiasm—the remnant, no doubt, of what in their European ancestors was temperament. Americans don't have temperament. Or if we have we are far too self-conscious to show it. In the East it has been quite eradicated. Out here where gambling is still in the blood—and that blood is mixed—where the air is full of electricity, and the very ground under your feet none too certain, we are a little more primitive; we have an excitability that makes strangers find us more like the Latin races of Europe than our relatives beyond the Rockies. And although the set you admire does not drink, nor live the all-night life, it has its own demands for spice and variety, and its own ways of gratifying them. Love of change, love of any sort of a fight, is in the blood of your true Californian—particularly here in San Francisco, where all the great gambling fevers, from the days of '49 to the wild speculations in Virginia City stocks in '76, have raged up and out. Your friends are merely playing a big game. Successive defeats, and the formidable front of the enemy, make it the more stimulating. They have that fanatical love of San Francisco that every one out here has who doesn't hate it, and they find it more exciting to stay here and gamble for big stakes than to watch their wives spend money in New York, and console them for snubs. Another point—they are far more enterprising than the rich men's sons that preceded this generation—or set, rather. They keep on making money, you may have observed. And fashions change. New York Society is no longer the Mecca of the worldly San Franciscan, and it has also become the fashion to invest huge amounts here; in many cases, entire fortunes. These men really could not pull out without great loss of income, and they all know how safe it is to leave one's interests in other people's hands. In this town, at least, no one has ever done that without regretting it."
"If the fashion has changed I dare say it is these men that have changed it. I always bow to feminine logic, but nothing you have said so far has changed my attitude. Besides, I admire their taste. This is the only part of America that has made any appeal to me, and there is no question that if they force through the Burnham plans, this city, with its wonderful natural advantages, will be as beautiful as ancient Athens. Surely you must admit ideality in men that can conceive such an ideal and cling to it, no matter how forlorn the hope."
"That's just what I object to. The least imaginative of us realizes that nature gave San Francisco a beautiful face and that man has done all he could to scar it. But even did these men obtain control—which they can't short of lynch law—it would take half a century to remove the old city piecemeal. Do you imagine property-owners are going to change their natures and sacrifice profitable office buildings and shops for the sake of widening streets and making boulevards and parks? Do you realize what it would mean in the way of individual sacrifice to build winding roads about these hills instead of the improved and perpendicular gullies we have to-day? Not even your own would do it. They merely dream and talk, although, no doubt, they would make all the changes that promised large personal profits. I suspect that the secret of their zeal is the desire to deflect the tourist tide from south to north."
Gwynne laughed. He was a stubborn idealist, and having found something at last to admire he purposed to hug it. "You belong to the pessimistic camp. I discovered that when you honored Old Inn. And I have lived here long enough to learn that it is full enough. But you are all different from other Americans, and for that reason I find the most discontented of you interesting."
But Miss Montgomery suspected that he was quizzing her and would not be drawn further. Instead, she proposed a walk, and Gwynne in his turn suggested that they go over and look at his property, which he had visited once only. Miss Montgomery knew the history of every house old and new, and told them many anecdotes as they walked down the steep hills or along the cross streets to Kearney, at the base. The new houses had fine gardens, the old ones were gloomy with eucalypti, or ragged with palms, but everywhere were flowers, even at this season, giving an immediate relief to the eye from the long dull perspective. On six days out of the seven the streets were torn with wind when they were not drenched with rain, and in the dry season the dust was intolerable; although San Franciscans vowed it was a part of the picture and missed it when abroad. But gay as certain sections of San Francisco was at night, its residence districts always had a deserted air, and on Sunday nothing could exceed the brown desolation of the shopping streets. From a variety of causes San Franciscans were averse from too much pedestrianism, and one could walk for blocks and pass nothing but an occasional carriage, or the trolley-cars shrieking up and down the hills, or emptying themselves into Kearney and Montgomery streets with the racket of a besieging army.
But this Christmas Day it was clear and warm, and the wind drifted about as if its wings were tired. All the world was on the cable and trolley cars, but bound for park and sea, and in the opposite direction from the three on their way to the valley south of Market Street. Kearney Street would have looked like a necropolis had it not been for several patient horses standing with their feet on the pavement, their ears cocked towards a saloon, or establishment for "rifle practice"; and even Market Street, on week-days barely passable with its trucks, four lines of cars, and a mass of humanity, was almost deserted. They walked past the Palace Hotel, down Second Street, and by many dingy peeling low-browed and entirely hideous shops and flats, with glimpses into unsavory cross streets, until they came to the block owned by the Otises since the early Fifties. Even in its present condition the rents were considerable, and as it was but a stone's-throw from several other new office buildings, there was no question that in the course of a few years the land value would be doubled, and Gwynne regretted being forced to sell a portion of his share in order to be able to erect a building large enough to pay. What was left of Hiram Otis's portion, inherited by Isabel, stood on the opposite corner, and now yielded only ground rent, the old buildings having crumbled on the stock-market. But the land could be sold conditionally, and once more Miss Montgomery suggested building. Gwynne turned to Isabel with interest.
"Do!" he exclaimed. "Come in with us, and we'll put up a larger building. Sell your land and I'll borrow money on one of the ranches, and sell out my Consols. Then I can hold on to all this, and we'll none of us have so long to wait for large returns."
"I am afraid of fires," said Isabel, dubiously. "The most vivid memories of my childhood are standing at my window on the Hill in my night-gown and watching whole blocks down here in flames. The wonder is that yours have never gone. Now I get my ground rent, no matter what happens." But before she had finished speaking she had made a sudden movement towards Gwynne. "I will do it," she said. "It will be better—all round."
"Good! And I intend to put on outside shutters of asbestos, so, with walls of concrete and steel, and as little wood inside as possible, we should weather anything short of subterranean fires."
Then Miss Montgomery took them through South Park, the oval enclosure, surrounded by high brown sad-looking houses looking down upon a bit of dusty green, and pointed out the long-deserted mansions of the Randolphs, the Hathaways, the Hunt McLanes, and of others who had dispensed the simple lavish hospitality of the Fifties and Sixties. She was intensely proud of the fact that her mother had been born in South Park, and pointed with a sigh, not all unconscious affectation, to the stiff three-storied house that had come, with so many others, "round the Horn" in the Fifties. Beside it, looking like an old man with his arms hanging and his jaw fallen, its windows vacant and broken, its paint long unrenewed, and cobwebs on the very doorstep, stood the Randolph House, the theatre of the most poignant of all an Francisco's initial tragedies. Isabel had told Gwynne the story of Nina Randolph, and as Anne repeated it he recalled the name of Dudley Thorpe, and remembered that he had left the reputation of a good parliamentarian and M. F. H.
They went up to Rincon Hill, once the haughty elder sister of South Park, now looking like a lonely island in a dirty sea covered with wreckage. There still remained several handsome old ivy-covered mansions, and many beautiful as well as picturesquely dilapidated gardens. Rincon Hill had contributed two peeresses to England, Lee Tarlton and Tiny Montgomery, and Gwynne not only knew them both, but was the more interested, as Cecil Maundrell's sudden elevation to the earldom of Barnstaple during his active youth had served as an object-lesson to himself. Mrs. Montgomery's old home was in good repair, but she was in Europe as usual, and Randolph Montgomery, now in the diplomatic service—too independent for the machine, he had been driven out of politics some years since—preferred the more central comforts of a hotel when he visited San Francisco. Two old family servants were sunning themselves in the garden. The window-curtains were presumably packed in camphor, and the dim panes suggested a cobwebbed and desolate interior. Gwynne glanced across the ugly shabby but teeming valley to the symbols of stupendous energies concentrated on its edge, and the variegated magnificence of the hills, piling like roughly terraced cliffs above it; then west to the mountains by the sea, green, unclaimed by man as yet, although the dead were thick on the hills just below. It was a city struggling out of chaos, but perhaps more interesting than it would be a century hence, when it had fulfilled its destiny and become a great metropolis of white marble and stone. A century? Nowhere had era succeeded era with such startling rapidity, nowhere in one short half-century had the genus American passed through so many phases. The evidences were all before him. Once again he had the impression of standing in the presence of hoary age—ugly premature age—was that the secret of the vague suggestion of an unthinkable antiquity that so often rose like a ghost in his mind?
The girls announced that they should ride back, and they walked over and took a Third Street car. It was almost empty when they entered, but was invaded at the next corner by a belated pleasure party bound for the Park, a noisy disreputable crowd of flashy men, and girls with bold tired eyes, a thick coat of the white paint which has made the fortune of the San Francisco chemist, and gaudy cheap attire. Known in the vernacular as "chippies," they bore a crude Western resemblance to the Parisian grisette, and what they lacked in style they made up in sound. They were the class that monopolized boats and trains on Sundays, screaming steadily through the tunnels, and returned late, no longer happy because no longer able to make a noise. One of the young women pointed a finger at Gwynne, screaming, "I choose you!" and plumped herself on his lap, to the suppressed delight of Isabel and Miss Montgomery. But Gwynne looked blankly at her ill-buttoned back and the immense buckle of her belt, while the rest of the party, those that sat and those that swung to and fro at the straps, mocked her for choosing so unresponsive a knight. The car stopped to accommodate another relay, and Gwynne by a deft movement transferred the lady to his own seat, and engineered the girls out of the car, before two hoodlums, who were working their way up from the lower door, could reach them.
They found a garage and a good automobile, and spent an hour or two out on the ocean boulevard. When they returned to town, Miss Montgomery alighted at one of the hotels where she was to dine; and, the chauffeur announcing that he could not "make another hill," Gwynne and Isabel started for home on foot.
The city rose in a succession of hills from the level, and they climbed slowly, talking little. Suddenly Gwynne laid his hand on Isabel's arm and stopped, directing her gaze upward. They were at the foot of one of the narrow almost perpendicular blocks that rose between Pine and California streets. On either side were brown old-fashioned houses, several of them set back from the street, and surrounded by trees and high close fences. It was almost dark, but a moon was due, so the street lamps were not lit. Crawling down from the street above, on one side only, and clinging to the upper houses, was the advance guard of the fog. It had come in stealthily and halted for a moment, taking strange shapes. It looked like the ghost of an ancient fog, and the very houses, in which not a light had appeared, might have been deserted for a century. In a moment it began to crawl down the side of the street, seeming to fill the whole city with silence. It was a scene indescribably gloomy, haunting, forbidding, and to Gwynne, who had studied the city in many lonely rambles, to whisper of the unrelieved gloom of lives behind that stage where the most famous of American Follies danced for ever in her cap and bells. The spirit of sympathy was in the fog and the brief darkness for the thousands of broken dogged men and women that rarely caught sight of the cap and bells. For them the ashes, the embittered memories, the blasted hopes, a quiet sullen hatred for the city that had devoured their hearts and left them automatons. This was a phase of the city's life of which the enthusiastic shallow tourist had never a hint. It took a man of genius like Gwynne to feel the genius of the city in all its sinister variety. He had hardly pieced his impressions together as yet, but he told Isabel a little of what his subconscious ego had formulated, and she had never liked him so well as when she took his arm and they ascended into the sudden downrush of the fog.
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