"Do you grapevine?" she inquires ardently. Yes; I admit the soft impeachment, and at once she begins some astonishing convolutions with the lower part of her body, which I attempt to follow. After several entanglements we move triumphantly across the hall.
"How beautifully you dance!" she pants.
Aged roisterer that I am, I fall for the compliment. She is a nice old thing, after all!
"Fish walk?" asks she.
I retort with total abandon.
So, grabbing her tightly and keeping my legs entirely stiff—as per instructions from my son—I stalk swiftly along the floor, while she backs with prodigious velocity. Away we go, an odd four hundred pounds of us, until, exhausted, we collapse against the table where the champagne is being distributed.
Though I have carefully followed the directions of my preceptor, I am aware that the effect produced by our efforts is somehow not the same as his. I observe him in a close embrace with a willowy young thing, dipping gracefully in the distance. They pause, sway, run a few steps, stop dead and suddenly sink to the floor—only to rise and repeat the performance.
So the evening wears gaily on. I caper round—now sedately, now deliriously—knowing that, however big a fool I am making of myself, we are all in the same boat. My wife is doing it, too, to the obvious annoyance of our daughters. But this is the smartest ball of the season. When all the world is dancing it would be conspicuous to loiter in the doorway. Society has ruled that I must dance—if what I am doing can be so called.
I am aware that I should not care to allow my clients to catch an unexpected glimpse of my antics with Mrs. Jones; yet to be permitted to dance with her is one of the privileges of our success. I might dance elsewhere but it would not be the same thing. Is not my hostess' hoarse, good-natured, rather vulgar voice the clarion of society? Did not my wife scheme and plot for years before she managed to get our names on the sacred list of invitations?
To be sure, I used to go to dances enough as a lad; and good times I had too. The High School Auditorium had a splendid floor; and the girls, even though they were unacquainted with all these newfangled steps, could waltz and polka, and do Sir Roger de Coverley. Good old days! I remember my wife—met her in that old hall. She wore a white muslin dress trimmed with artificial roses. I wonder if I properly appreciate the distinction of being asked to Mrs. Jones' turkey-trotting parties! My butler and the kitchen-maid are probably doing the same thing in the basement at home to the notes of the usefulman's accordion—and having a better time than I am.
It is a pleasure to watch my son or my daughters glide through the intricacies of these modern dances, which the natural elasticity and suppleness of youth render charming in spite of their grotesqueness. But why should I seek to copy them? In spite of the fact that I am still rather athletic I cannot do so. With my utmost endeavor I fail to imitate their grace. I am getting old. My muscles are stiff and out of training. My wind has suffered. Mrs. Jones probably never had any.
And if I am ridiculous, what of her and the other women of her age who, for some unknown reason, fatuously suppose they can renew their lost youth? Occasionally luck gives me a debutante for a partner when I go out to dinner. I do my best to entertain her—trot out all my old jokes and stories, pay her delicate compliments, and do frank homage to her youth and beauty. But her attention wanders. My tongue is stiff, like my legs. It can wag through the old motions, but it has lost its spontaneity. One glance from the eye of the boy down the long table and she is oblivious of my existence. Should I try to dance with her I should quickly find that crabbed middle-age and youth cannot step in time. My place is with Mrs. Jones—or, better, at home and in bed.
Apart, however, from the dubious delight of dancing, all is not gold that glitters socially. The first time my wife and I were invited to a week-end party at the country-house of a widely known New York hostess we were both much excited. At last we were to be received on a footing of real intimacy by one of the inner circle. Even my valet, an imperturbable Englishman who would have announced that the house was on fire in the same tone as that my breakfast was ready, showed clearly that he was fully aware of the significance of the coming event. For several days he exhibited signs of intense nervous anxiety, and when at last the time of my departure arrived I found that he had filled two steamer trunks with the things he regarded as indispensable for my comfort and well-being.
My wife's maid had been equally assiduous. Both she and the valet had no intention of learning on our return that any feature of our respective wardrobes had been forgotten; since we had decided not to take either of our personal servants, for the reason that we thought to do so might possibly be regarded as an ostentation.
I made an early getaway from my office on Friday afternoon, met my wife at the ferry, and in due course, but by no means with comfort, managed to board the train and secure our seats in the parlor car before it started. We reached our destination at about half-past four and were met by a footman in livery, who piloted us to a limousine driven by a French chauffeur. We were the only arrivals.
In my confusion I forgot to do anything about our trunks, which contained our evening apparel. During the run to the house we were both on the verge of hysteria owing to the speed at which we were driven—seventy miles an hour at the least. And at one corner we were thrown forward, clear of the seats and against the partition, by an unexpected stop. An interchange of French profanity tinted the atmosphere for a few moments and then we resumed the trajectory of our flight.
We had expected to be welcomed by our hostess; but instead we were informed by the butler that she and the other guests had driven over to watch a polo game and would probably not be back before six. As we had nothing to do we strolled round the grounds and looked at the shrubbery for a couple of hours, at the end of which period we had tea alone in the library. We had, of course, no sooner finished than the belated party entered, the hostess full of vociferous apologies.
I remember this occasion vividly because it was my first introduction to that artificially enforced merriment which is the inevitable concomitant of smart gatherings in America. The men invariably addressed each other as Old Man and the women as My Dear. No one was mentioned except by his or her first name or by some intimate diminutive or abbreviation. It seemed to be assumed that the guests were only interested in personal gossip relating to the marital infelicities of the neighboring countryside, who lost most at cards, and the theater. Every remark relating to these absorbing subjects was given a feebly humorous twist and greeted with a burst of hilarity. Even the mere suggestion of going upstairs to dress for dinner was a sufficient reason for an explosion of merriment. If noise was an evidence of having a good time these people were having the time of their lives. Personally I felt a little out of my element. I had still a lingering disinclination to pretend to a ubiquity of social acquaintance that I did not really possess, and I had never learned to laugh in a properly boisterous manner. But my wife appeared highly gratified.
Delay in sending to the depot for our trunks—the fault of the butler, to whom we turned over our keys—prevented, as we supposed, our getting ready in time for dinner. Everybody else had gone up to dress; so we also went to our rooms, which consisted of two huge apartments connected by a bathroom of similar acreage. The furniture was dainty and chintz-covered. There was an abundance of writing paper, envelopes, magazines and French novels. Superficially the arrangements were wholly charming.
The baggage arrived at about ten minutes to eight, after we had sat helplessly waiting for nearly an hour. The rooms were plentifully supplied with buttons marked: Maid; Valet; Butler's Pantry—and so on. But, though we pressed these anxiously, there was no response. I concluded that the valet was hunting or sleeping or otherwise occupied. I unpacked my trunks without assistance; my wife unpacked hers. But before I could find and assemble my evening garments I had to unwrap the contents of every tray and fill the room knee-high with tissue-paper.
Unable to secure any response to her repeated calls for the maid, my wife was nearly reduced to tears. However, in those days I was not unskillful in hooking up a dress, and we managed to get downstairs, with ready apologies on our lips, by twenty minutes of nine. We were the first ones down however.
The party assembled in a happy-go-lucky manner and, after the cocktails had been served, gathered round the festive board at five minutes past nine. The dinner was the regulation heavy, expensive New York meal, eaten to the accompaniment of the same noisy mirth I have already described. Afterward the host conducted the men to his "den," a luxurious paneled library filled with rare prints, and we listened for an hour to the jokes and anecdotes of a semiprofessional jester who took it on himself to act as the life of the party. It was after eleven o'clock when we rejoined the ladies, but the evening apparently had only just begun; the serious business of the day—bridge—was at hand. But in those days my wife and I did not play bridge; and as there was nothing else for us to do we retired, after a polite interval, to our apartments.
While getting ready for the night we shouted cheerfully to one another through the open doors of the bathroom and, I remember, became quite jolly; but when my wife had gone to bed and I tried to close the blinds I discovered that there were none. Now neither of us had acquired the art of sleeping after daylight unless the daylight was excluded. With grave apprehension I arranged a series of makeshift screens and extinguished the lights, wandering round the room and turning off the key of each one separately, since the architect had apparently forgotten to put in a central switch.
If there had been no servants in evidence when we wanted them before dinner, no such complaint could be entered now. There seemed to be a bowling party going on upstairs. We could also hear plainly the rattle of dishes and a lively interchange of informalities from the kitchen end of the establishment. We lay awake tensely. Shortly after one o'clock these particular sounds died away, but there was a steady tramp of feet over our heads until three. About this hour, also, the bridge party broke up and the guests came upstairs.
There were no outside doors to our rooms. Bells rang, water ran, and there was that curious vibration which even hairbrushing seems to set going in a country house. Then with a final bang, comparative silence descended. Occasionally still, to be sure, the floor squeaked over our heads. Once somebody got up and closed a window. I could hear two distant snorings in major and minor keys. I managed to snatch a few winks and then an alarm-clock went off. At no great distance the scrubbing maid was getting up. I could hear her every move.
The sun also rose and threw fire-pointed darts at us through the windowshades. By five o'clock I was ready to scream with nerves; and, having dug a lounge suit out of the gentlemen's furnishing store in my trunk, I cautiously descended into the lower regions. There was a rich smell of cigarettes everywhere. In the hall I stumbled over the feet of the sleeping night-watchman. But the birds were twittering in the bushes; the grassblades threw back a million flashes to the sun.
Not before a quarter to ten could I secure a cup of coffee, though several footmen, in answer to my insistent bell, had been running round apparently for hours in a vain endeavor to get it for me. At eleven a couple of languid younger men made their appearance and conversed apathetically with one another over the papers. The hours drew on.
Lunch came at two o'clock, bursting like a thunder-storm out of a sunlit sky. Afterward the guests sat round and talked. People were coming to tea at five, and there was hardly any use in doing anything before that time. A few took naps. A young lady and gentleman played an impersonal game of tennis; but at five an avalanche of social leaders poured out of a dozen shrieking motors and stormed the castle with salvos of strident laughter. The cannonade continued, with one brief truce in which to dress for dinner, until long after midnight. Vox, et praeterea nihil!
I look back on that house party with vivid horror. Yet it was one of the most valuable of my social experiences. We were guests invited for the first time to one of the smartest houses on Long Island; yet we were neglected by male and female servants alike, deprived of all possibility of sleep, and not the slightest effort was made to look after our personal comfort and enjoyment by either our host or hostess. Incidentally on my departure I distributed about forty dollars among various dignitaries who then made their appearance.
It is probable that time has somewhat exaggerated my recollections of the miseries of this our first adventure into ultrasmart society, but its salient characteristics have since repeated themselves in countless others. I no longer accept week-end invitations;—for me the quiet of my library or the Turkish bath at my club; for they are all essentially alike. Surrounded by luxury, the guests yet know no comfort!
After a couple of days of ennui and an equal number of sleepless nights, his brain foggy with innumerable drinks, his eyes dizzy with the pips of playing cards, and his ears still echoing with senseless hilarity, the guest rises while it is not yet dawn, and, fortified by a lukewarm cup of faint coffee boiled by the kitchen maid and a slice of leatherlike toast left over from Sunday's breakfast, presses ten dollars on the butler and five on the chauffeur—and boards the train for the city, nervous, disgruntled, his digestion upset and his head totally out of kilter for the day's work.
Since my first experience in house parties I have yielded weakly to my wife's importunities on several hundred similar occasions. Some of these visits have been fairly enjoyable. Sleep is sometimes possible. Servants are not always neglectful. Discretion in the matter of food and drink is conceivable, even if not probable, and occasionally one meets congenial persons.
As a rule, however, all the hypocrisies of society are intensified threefold when heterogeneous people are thrown into the enforced contact of a Sunday together in the country; but the artificiality and insincerity of smart society is far less offensive than the pretentiousness of mere wealth.
* * * * *
Not long ago I attended a dinner given on Fifth Avenue the invitation to which had been eagerly awaited by my wife. We were asked to dine informally with a middle-aged couple who for no obvious reason have been accepted as fashionable desirables. He is the retired head of a great combination of capital usually described as a trust. A canopy and a carpet covered the sidewalk outside the house. Two flunkies in cockaded hats stood beside the door, and in the hall was a line of six liveried lackeys. Three maids helped my wife remove her wraps and adjust her hair.
In the salon where our hostess received us were hung pictures representing an outlay of nearly two million dollars—part of a collection the balance of which they keep in their house in Paris; for these people are not content with one mansion on Fifth Avenue and a country house on Long Island, but own a palace overlooking the Bois de Boulogne and an enormous estate in Scotland. They spend less than ten weeks in New York, six in the country, and the rest of the year abroad.
The other male guests had all amassed huge fortunes and had given up active work. They had been, in their time, in the thick of the fray. Yet these men, who had swayed the destinies of the industrial world, stood about awkwardly discussing the most trivial of banalities, as if they had never had a vital interest in anything.
Then the doors leading into the dining room were thrown open, disclosing a table covered with rosetrees in full bloom five feet in height and a concealed orchestra began to play. There were twenty-four seats and a footman for each two chairs, besides two butlers, who directed the service. The dinner consisted of hors-d'oeuvre and grapefruit, turtle soup, fish of all sorts, elaborate entrees, roasts, breasts of plover served separately with salad, and a riot of ices and exotic fruits.
Throughout the meal the host discoursed learnedly on the relative excellence of various vintages of champagne and the difficulty of procuring cigars suitable for a gentleman to smoke. It appeared that there was no longer any wine—except a few bottles in his own cellar—which was palatable or healthful. Even coffee was not fit for use unless it had been kept for six years! His own cigars were made to order from a selected crop of tobacco he had bought up entire. His cigarettes, which were the size of small sausages, were prepared from specially cured leaves of plants grown on "sunny corners of the walls of Smyrna." His Rembrandts, his Botticellis, his Sir Joshuas, his Hoppners, were little things he had picked up here and there, but which, he admitted, were said to be rather good.
Soon all the others were talking wine, tobacco and Botticelli as well as they could, though most of them knew more about coal, cotton or creosote than the subjects they were affecting to discuss.
This, then, was success! To flounder helplessly in a mire of artificiality and deception to Tales of Hoffmann!
If I were asked what was the object of our going to such a dinner I could only answer that it was in order to be invited to others of the same kind. Is it for this we labor and worry—that we scheme and conspire—that we debase ourselves and lose our self-respect? Is there no wine good enough for my host? Will God let such arrogance be without a blast of fire from heaven?
* * * * *
There was a time not so very long ago when this same man was thankful enough for a slice of meat and a chunk of bread carried in a tin pail—content with the comfort of an old brier pipe filled with cut plug and smoked in a sunny corner of the factory yard. "Sunny corners of the walls of Smyrna!"
It is a fine thing to assert that here in America we have "out of a democracy of opportunity" created "an aristocracy of achievement." The phrase is stimulating and perhaps truly expresses the spirit of our energetic and ambitious country; but an aristocracy of achievement is truly noble only when the achievements themselves are fine. What are the achievements that win our applause, for which we bestow our decorations in America? Do we honor most the men who truly serve their generation and their country? Or do we fawn, rather, on those who merely serve themselves?
It is a matter of pride with us—frequently expressed in disparagement of our European contemporaries—that we are a nation of workers; that to hold any position in the community every man must have a job or otherwise lose caste; that we tolerate no loafing. We do not conceal our contempt for the chap who fails to go down every day to the office or business. Often, of course, our ostentatious workers go down, but do very little work. We feel somehow that every man owes it to the community to put in from six to ten hours' time below the residential district.
Young men who have inherited wealth are as chary of losing one hour as their clerks. The busy millionaire sits at his desk all day—his ear to the telephone. We assume that these men are useful because they are busy; but in what does their usefulness consist? What are they busy about? They are setting an example of mere industry, perhaps—but to what end? Simply, in seven cases out of ten, in order to get a few dollars or a few millions more than they have already. Their exertions have no result except to enable their families to live in even greater luxury.
I know at least fifty men, fathers of families, whose homes might radiate kindliness and sympathy and set an example of wise, generous and broad-minded living, who, already rich beyond their needs, rush downtown before their children have gone to school, pass hectic, nerve-racking days in the amassing of more money, and return after their little ones have gone to bed, too utterly exhausted to take the slightest interest in what their wives have been doing or in the pleasure and welfare of their friends.
These men doubtless give liberally to charity, but they give impersonally, not generously; they are in reality utterly selfish, engrossed in the enthralling game of becoming successful or more successful men, sacrificing their homes, their families and their health—for what? To get on; to better their position; to push in among those others who, simply because they have outstripped the rest in the matter of filling their own pockets, are hailed with acclamation.
It is pathetic to see intelligent, capable men bending their energies not to leading wholesome, well-rounded, serviceable lives but to gaining a slender foothold among those who are far less worthy of emulation than themselves and with whom they have nothing whatsoever in common except a despicable ambition to display their wealth and to demonstrate that they have "social position."
In what we call the Old World a man's social position is a matter of fixed classification—that is to say, his presumptive ability and qualifications to amuse and be amused; to hunt, fish and shoot; to ride, dance, and make himself generally agreeable—are known from the start. And, based on the premise that what is known as society exists simply for the purpose of enabling people to have a good time, there is far more reason to suppose that one who comes of a family which has made a specialty of this pursuit for several hundred years is better endowed by Nature for that purpose than one who has made a million dollars out of a patent medicine or a lucky speculation in industrial securities.
The great manufacturer or chemist in England, France, Italy, or Germany, the clever inventor, the astute banker, the successful merchant, have their due rewards; but, except in obvious instances, they are not presumed to have acquired incidentally to their material prosperity the arts of playing billiards, making love, shooting game on the wing, entertaining a house party or riding to hounds. Occasionally one of them becomes by special favor of the sovereign a baronet; but, as a rule his so-called social position is little affected by his business success, and there is no reason why it should be. He may make a fortune out of a new process, but he invites the same people to dinner, frequents the same club and enjoys himself in just about the same way as he did before. His newly acquired wealth is not regarded as in itself likely to make him a more congenial dinner-table companion or any more delightful at five-o'clock tea.
The aristocracy of England and the Continent is not an aristocracy of achievement but of the polite art of killing time pleasantly. As such it has a reason for existence. Yet it can at least be said for it that its founders, however their descendants may have deteriorated, gained their original titles and positions by virtue of their services to their king and country.
However, with a strange perversity—due perhaps to our having the Declaration of Independence crammed down our throats as children—we in America seem obsessed with an ambition to create a social aristocracy, loudly proclaimed as founded on achievement, which, in point of fact, is based on nothing but the possession of money. The achievement that most certainly lands one among the crowned heads of the American nobility is admittedly the achievement of having acquired in some way or other about five million dollars; and it is immaterial whether its possessor got it by hard work, inheritance, marriage or the invention of a porous plaster.
In the wider circle of New York society are to be found a considerable number of amiable persons who have bought their position by the lavish expenditure of money amassed through the clever advertising and sale of table relishes, throat emollients, fireside novels, canned edibles, cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. The money was no doubt legitimately earned. The patent-medicine man and the millionaire tailor have my entire respect. I do not sneer at honest wealth acquired by these humble means. The rise—if it be a rise—of these and others like them is superficial evidence, perhaps, that ours is a democracy. Looking deeper, we see that it is, in fact, proof of our utter and shameless snobbery.
Most of these people are in society not on account of their personal qualities, or even by virtue of the excellence of their cut plug or throat wash which, in truth, may be a real boon to mankind—but because they have that most imperative of all necessities—money. The achievement by which they have become aristocrats is not the kind of achievement that should have entitled them to the distinction which is theirs. They are received and entertained for no other reason whatever save that they can receive and entertain in return. Their bank accounts are at the disposal of the other aristocrats—and so are their houses, automobiles and yachts. The brevet of nobility—by achievement—is conferred on them, and the American people read of their comings and goings, their balls, dinners and other festivities with consuming and reverent interest. Most dangerously significant of all is the fact that, so long as the applicant for social honors has the money, the method by which he got it, however reprehensible, is usually overlooked. That a man is a thief, so long as he has stolen enough, does not impair his desirability. The achievement of wealth is sufficient in itself to entitle him to a seat in the American House of Lords.
A substantial portion of the entertaining that takes place on Fifth Avenue is paid for out of pilfered money. Ten years ago this rhetorical remark would have been sneered at as demagogic. To-day everybody knows that it is simply the fact. Yet we continue to eat with entire unconcern the dinners that have, as it were, been abstracted from the dinner-pails of the poor. I cannot conduct an investigation into the business history of every man who asks me to his house. And even if I know he has been a crook, I cannot afford to stir up an unpleasantness by attempting in my humble way to make him feel sorrow for his misdeeds. If I did I might find myself alone—deserted by the rest of the aristocracy who are concerned less with his morality than with the vintage of his wine and the dot he is going to give his daughter.
The methods by which a newly rich American purchases a place among our nobility are simple and direct. He does not storm the inner citadel of society but at the start ingratiates himself with its lazy and easy-going outposts. He rents a house in a fashionable country suburb of New York and goes in and out of town on the "dude" train. He soon learns what professional people mingle in smart society and these he bribes to receive him and his family. He buys land and retains a "smart" lawyer to draw his deeds and attend to the transfer of title. He engages a fashionable architect to build his house, and a society young lady who has gone into landscape gardening to lay out his grounds. He cannot work the game through his dentist or plumber, but he establishes friendly relations with the swell local medical man and lets him treat an imaginary illness or two. He has his wife's portrait painted by an artist who makes a living off similar aspirants, and in exchange gets an invitation to drop in to tea at the studio. He buys broken-winded hunters from the hunting set, decrepit ponies from the polo players, and stone griffins for the garden from the social sculptress.
A couple of hundred here, a couple of thousand there, and he and his wife are dining out among the people who run things. Once he gets a foothold, the rest is by comparison easy. The bribes merely become bigger and more direct. He gives a landing to the yacht club, a silver mug for the horse show, and an altar rail to the church. He entertains wisely—gracefully discarding the doctor, lawyer, architect and artist as soon as they are no longer necessary. He has, of course, already opened an account with the fashionable broker who lives near him, and insured his life with the well-known insurance man, his neighbor. He also plays poker daily with them on the train.
This is the period during which he becomes a willing, almost eager, mark for the decayed sport who purveys bad champagne and vends his own brand of noxious cigarettes. He achieves the Stock Exchange Crowd without difficulty and moves on up into the Banking Set composed of trust company presidents, millionaires who have nothing but money, and the elite of the stockbrokers and bond men who handle their private business.
The family are by this time "going almost everywhere"; and in a year or two, if the money holds out, they can buy themselves into the inner circles. It is only necessary to take a villa at Newport and spend about one hundred thousand dollars in the course of the season. The walls of the city will fall down flat if the golden trumpet blows but mildly. And then, there they are—right in the middle of the champagne, clambakes and everything else!—invited to sit with the choicest of America's nobility on golden chairs—supplied from New York at one dollar per—and to dance to the strains of the most expensive music amid the subdued popping of distant corks.
In this social Arabian Nights' dream, however, you will find no sailors or soldiers, no great actors or writers, no real poets or artists, no genuine statesmen. The nearest you will get to any of these is the millionaire senator, or the amateur decorators and portrait painters who, by making capital of their acquaintance, get a living out of society. You will find few real people among this crowd of intellectual children.
The time has not yet come in America when a leader of smart society dares to invite to her table men and women whose only merit is that they have done something worth while. She is not sufficiently sure of her own place. She must continue all her social life to be seen only with the "right people." In England her position would be secure and she could summon whom she would to dine with her; but in New York we have to be careful lest, by asking to our houses some distinguished actor or novelist, people might think we did not know we should select our friends—not for what they are, but for what they have.
In a word, the viciousness of our social hierarchy lies in the fact that it is based solely upon material success. We have no titles of nobility; but we have Coal Barons, Merchant Princes and Kings of Finance. The very catchwords of our slang tell the story. The achievement of which we boast as the foundation of our aristocracy is indeed ignoble; but, since there is no other, we and our sons, and their sons after them, will doubtless continue to struggle—and perhaps steal—to prove, to the satisfaction of ourselves and the world at large, that we are entitled to be received into the nobility of America not by virtue of our good deeds, but of our so-called success.
We would not have it otherwise. We should cry out against any serious attempt, outside of the pulpit, to alter or readjust an order that enables us to buy for money a position of which we would be otherwise undeserving. It would be most discouraging to us to have substituted for the present arrangement a society in which the only qualifications for admittance were those of charm, wit, culture, good breeding and good sportsmanship.
I pride myself on being a man of the world—in the better sense of the phrase. I feel no regret over the passing of those romantic days when maidens swooned at the sight of a drop of blood or took refuge in the "vapors" at the approach of a strange young man; in point of fact I do not believe they ever did. I imagine that our popular idea of the fragility and sensitiveness of the weaker sex, based on the accounts of novelists of the eighteenth century, is largely a literary convention.
Heroines were endowed, as a matter of course, with the possession of all the female virtues, intensified to such a degree that they were covered with burning blushes most of the time. Languor, hysteria and general debility were regarded as the outward indications of a sweet and gentle character. Woman was a tendril clinging to the strong oak of masculinity. Modesty was her cardinal virtue. One is, of course, entitled to speculate on the probable contemporary causes for the seeming overemphasis placed on this admirable characteristic. Perhaps feminine honesty was so rare as to be at a premium and modesty was a sort of electric sign of virtue.
I am not squeamish. I have always let my children read what they would. I have never made a mystery of the relations of the sexes, for I know the call of the unseen—the fascination lent by concealment, of discovery. I believe frankness to be a good thing. A mind that is startled or shocked by the exposure of an ankle or the sight of a stocking must be essentially impure. Nor do I quarrel with woman's natural desire to adorn herself for the allurement of man. That is as inevitable as springtime.
But unquestionably the general tone of social intercourse in America, at least in fashionable centers, has recently undergone a marked and striking change. The athletic girl of the last twenty years, the girl who invited tan and freckles, wielded the tennis bat in the morning and lay basking in a bathing suit on the sand at noon, is gradually giving way to an entirely different type—a type modeled, it would seem, at least so far as dress and outward characteristics are concerned, on the French demimondaine. There are plenty of athletic girls to be found on the golf links and tennis courts; but a growing and large minority of maidens at the present time are too chary of their complexions to brave the sun. Big hats, cloudlike veils, high heels, paint and powder mark the passing of the vain hope that woman can attract the male sex by virtue of her eugenic possibilities alone.
It is but another and unpleasantly suggestive indication that the simplicity of an older generation—the rugged virtue of a more frugal time—has given place to the sophistication of the Continent. When I was a lad, going abroad was a rare and costly privilege. A youth who had been to Rome, London and Paris, and had the unusual opportunity of studying the treasures of the Vatican, the Louvre and the National Gallery, was regarded with envy. Americans went abroad for culture; to study the glories of the past.
Now the family that does not invade Europe at least every other summer is looked on as hopelessly old-fashioned. No clerk can find a job on the Rue de Rivoli or the Rue de la Paix unless he speaks fluently the dialect of the customers on whose trade his employer chiefly relies—those from Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois. The American no longer goes abroad for improvement, but to amuse himself. The college Freshman knows, at least by name, the latest beauty who haunts the Folies Bergeres, and his father probably has a refined and intimate familiarity with the special attractions of Ciro's and the Trocadero.
I do not deny that we have learned valuable lessons from the Parisians. At any rate our cooking has vastly improved. Epicurus would have difficulty in choosing between the delights of New York and Paris—for, after all, New York is Paris and Paris is New York. The chef of yesterday at Voisin's rules the kitchen of the Ritz-Carlton or the Plaza to-day; and he cannot have traveled much who does not find a dozen European acquaintances among the head waiters of Broadway. Not to know Paris nowadays is felt to be as great a humiliation as it was fifty years ago not to know one's Bible.
Beyond the larger number of Americans who visit Paris for legitimate or semilegitimate purposes, there is a substantial fraction who go to do things they either cannot or dare not do at home. And as those who have not the time or the money to cross the Atlantic and who still itch for the boulevards must be kept contented, Broadway is turned into Montmartre. The result is that we cannot take our daughters to the theater without risking familiarizing them with vice in one form or another. I do not think I am overstating the situation when I say that it would be reasonably inferred from most of our so-called musical shows and farces that the natural, customary and excusable amusement of the modern man after working hours—whether the father of a family or a youth of twenty—is a promiscuous adventuring into sexual immorality.
I do not regard as particularly dangerous the vulgar French farce where papa is caught in some extraordinary and buffoonlike situation with the washerwoman. Safety lies in exaggeration. But it is a different matter with the ordinary Broadway show, where virtue is made—at least inferentially—the object of ridicule, and sexuality is the underlying purpose of the production. During the present New York theatrical season several plays have been already censored by the authorities, and either been taken off entirely or so altered as to be still within the bounds of legal pruriency.
Whether I am right in attributing it to the influence of the French music halls or not, it is the fact that the tone of our theatergoing public is essentially low. Boys and girls who are taken in their Christmas holidays to see plays at which their parents applaud questionable songs and suggestive dances, cannot be blamed for assuming that there is not one set of morals for the stage and another for ordinary social intercourse.
Hence the college boy who has kept straight for eight months in the year is apt to wonder: What is the use? And the debutante who is curious for all the experiences her new liberty makes possible takes it for granted that an amorous trifling is the ordinary incident to masculine attention.
This is far from being mere theory. It is a matter of common knowledge that recently the most prominent restaurateur in New York found it necessary to lock up, or place a couple of uniformed maids in, every unoccupied room in his establishment whenever a private dance was given there for young people. Boys and girls of eighteen would leave these dances by dozens and, hiring taxicabs, go on slumming expeditions and excursions to the remoter corners of Central Park. In several instances parties of two or four went to the Tenderloin and had supper served in private rooms.
This is the childish expression of a demoralization that is not confined simply to smart society, but is gradually permeating the community in general. From the ordinary dinner-table conversation one hears at many of the country houses on Long Island it would be inferred that marriage was an institution of value only for legitimatizing concubinage; that an old-fashioned love affair was something to be rather ashamed of; and that morality in the young was hardly to be expected. Of course a great deal of this is mere talk and bombast, but the maid-servants hear it.
I believe, fortunately—and my belief is based on a fairly wide range of observation—that the Continental influence I have described has produced its ultimate effect chiefly among the rich; yet its operation is distinctly observable throughout American life. Nowhere is this more patent than in much of our current magazine literature and light fiction. These stories, under the guise of teaching some moral lesson, are frequently designed to stimulate all the emotions that could be excited by the most vicious French novel. Some of them, of course, throw off all pretense and openly ape the petit histoire d'un amour; but essentially all are alike. The heroine is a demimondaine in everything but her alleged virtue—the hero a young bounder whose better self restrains him just in time. A conventional marriage on the last page legalizes what would otherwise have been a liaison or a degenerate flirtation.
The astonishingly unsophisticated and impossibly innocent shopgirl who—in the story—just escapes the loss of her honor; the noble young man who heroically "marries the girl"; the adventures of the debonaire actress, who turns out most surprisingly to be an angel of sweetness and light; and the Johnny whose heart is really pure gold, and who, to the reader's utter bewilderment, proves himself to be a Saint George—these are the leading characters in a great deal of our periodical literature.
A friend of mine who edits one of the more successful magazines tells me there are at least half a dozen writers who are paid guaranteed salaries of from twelve thousand dollars to eighteen thousand dollars a year for turning out each month from five thousand to ten thousand words of what is euphemistically termed "hot stuff." An erotic writer can earn yearly at the present time more than the salary of the president of the United States. What the physical result of all this is going to be does not seem to me to matter much. If the words of Jesus Christ have any significance we are already debased by our imaginations.
* * * * *
We are dangerously near an epoch of intellectual if not carnal debauchery. The prevailing tendency on the part of the young girls of to-day to imitate the dress and makeup of the Parisian cocotte is unconsciously due to this general lowering of the social moral tone. Young women in good society seem to feel that they must enter into open competition with their less fortunate sisters. And in this struggle for survival they are apparently determined to yield no advantage. Herein lies the popularity of the hobble skirt, the transparent fabric that hides nothing and follows the move of every muscle, and the otherwise senseless peculiarities and indecencies of the more extreme of the present fashions.
And here, too, is to be found the reason for the popularity of the current style of dancing, which offers no real attraction except the opportunity for a closeness of contact otherwise not permissible.
"It's all in the way it is done," says Mrs. Jones, making the customary defense. "The tango and the turkey trot can be danced as unobjectionably as the waltz."
Exactly! Only the waltz is not danced that way; and if it were the offending couple would probably be put off the floor. Moreover, their origin and history demonstrates their essentially vicious character. Is there any sensible reason why one's daughter should be encouraged to imitate the dances of the Apache and the negro debauchee? Perhaps, after all, the pendulum has merely swung just a little too far and is knocking against the case. The feet of modern progress cannot be hampered by too much of the dead underbrush of convention.
The old-fashioned prudery that in former days practically prevented rational conversation between men and women is fortunately a thing of the past, and the fact that it is no longer regarded as unbecoming for women to take an interest in all the vital problems of the day—municipal, political and hygienic—provided they can assist in their solution, marks several milestones on the highroad of advance.
On the other hand the widespread familiarity with these problems, which has been engendered simply for pecuniary profit by magazine literature in the form of essays, fiction and even verse, is by no means an undiluted blessing—particularly if the accentuation of the author is on the roses lining the path of dalliance quite as much as on the destruction to which it leads. The very warning against evil may turn out to be in effect only a hint that it is readily accessible. One does not leave the candy box open beside the baby even if the infant has received the most explicit instructions as to the probable effect of too much sugar upon its tiny kidneys. Moreover, the knowledge of the prevalence of certain vices suggests to the youthful mind that what is so universal must also be rather excusable, or at least natural.
It seems to me that, while there is at present a greater popular knowledge of the high cost of sinning, there is at the same time a greater tolerance for sin itself. Certainly this is true among the people who make up the circle of my friends. "Wild oats" are regarded as entirely a matter of course. No anecdote is too broad to be told openly at the dinner table; in point of fact the stories that used to be whispered only very discreetly in the smoking room are now told freely as the natural relishes to polite conversation. In that respect things are pretty bad.
One cannot help wondering what goes on inside the villa on Rhode Island Avenue when the eighteen-year-old daughter of the house remarks to the circle of young men and women about her at a dance: "Well, I'm going to bed—seule!" The listener furtively speculates about mama. He feels quite sure about papa. Anyhow this particular mot attracted no comment. Doubtless the young lady was as far above suspicion as the wife of Caesar; but she and her companions in this particular set have an appalling frankness of speech and a callousness in regard to discussing the more personal facts of human existence that is startling to a middle-aged man like myself.
I happened recently to overhear a bit of casual dinner-table conversation between two of the gilded ornaments of the junior set. He was a boy of twenty-five, well known for his dissipations, but, nevertheless, regarded by most mothers as a highly desirable parti.
"Oh, yes!" he remarked easily. "They asked me if I wanted to go into a bughouse, and I said I hadn't any particular objection. I was there a month. Rum place! I should worry!"
"What ward?" she inquired with polite interest.
"Inebriates', of course," said he.
I am inclined to attribute much of the questionable taste and conduct of the younger members of the fast set to neglect on the part of their mothers. Women who are busy all day and every evening with social engagements have little time to cultivate the friendship of their daughters. Hence the girl just coming out is left to shift for herself, and she soon discovers that a certain risque freedom in manner and conversation, and a disregard of convention, will win her a superficial popularity which she is apt to mistake for success.
Totally ignorant of what she is doing or the essential character of the means she is employing, she runs wild and soon earns an unenviable reputation, which she either cannot live down or which she feels obliged to live up to in order to satisfy her craving for attention. Many a girl has gone wrong simply because she felt that it was up to her to make good her reputation for caring nothing for the proprieties.
As against an increasing looseness in talk and conduct, it is interesting to note that heavy drinking is clearly going out of fashion in smart society. There can be no question as to that. My champagne bills are not more than a third of what they were ten years ago. I do not attribute this particularly to the temperance movement. But, as against eight quarts of champagne for a dinner of twenty—which used to be about my average when we first began entertaining in New York—three are now frequently enough. I have watched the butler repeatedly at large dinner parties as he passed the wine and seen him fill only four or five glasses.
Women rarely drink at all. About one man in three takes champagne. Of course he is apt to drink whisky instead, but by no means the same amount as formerly. If it were not for the convention requiring sherry, hock, champagne and liquors to be served the modern host could satisfy practically all the serious liquid requirements of his guests with a quart bottle of Scotch and a siphon of soda. Claret, Madeira, sparkling Moselles and Burgundies went out long ago. The fashion that has taught women self-control in eating has shown their husbands the value of abstinence. Unfortunately I do not see in this a betterment in morals, but mere self-interest—which may or may not be the same thing, according to one's philosophy. If a man drinks nowadays he drinks because he wants to and not to be a good fellow. A total abstainer finds himself perfectly at home anywhere.
Of course the fashionables, if they are going to set the pace, have to hit it up in order to head the procession. The fastness of the smart set in England is notorious, and it is the same way in France, Russia, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia—the world over; and as society tends to become unified mere national boundaries have less significance. The number of Americans who rent houses in London and Paris, and shooting boxes in Scotland, is large.
Hence the moral tone of Continental society and of the English aristocracy is gradually becoming more and more our own. But with this difference—that, as the aristocracy in England and Continental Europe is a separate caste, a well-defined order, having set metes and bounds, which considers itself superior to the rest of the population and views it with indifference, so its morals are regarded as more or less its own affair, and they do not have a wide influence on the community at large.
Even if he drinks champagne every night at dinner the Liverpool pickle merchant knows he cannot get into the king's set; but here the pickle man can not only break into the sacred circle, but he and his fat wife may themselves become the king and queen. So that a knowledge of how smart society conducts itself is an important matter to every man and woman living in the United States, since each hopes eventually to make a million dollars and move to New York. With us the fast crowd sets the example for society at large; whereas in England looseness in morals is a recognized privilege of the aristocracy to which the commoner may not aspire.
The worst feature of our situation is that the quasi-genteel working class, of whom our modern complex life supports hundreds of thousands—telephone operators, stenographers, and the like—greedily devour the newspaper accounts of the American aristocracy and model themselves, so far as possible, after it. It is almost unbelievable how intimate a knowledge these young women possess of the domestic life, manner of speech and dress of the conspicuous people in New York society.
I once stepped into the Waldorf with a friend of mine who wished to send a telephone message. He is a quiet, unassuming man of fifty, who inherited a large fortune and who is compelled, rather against his will, to do a large amount of entertaining by virtue of the position in society which Fate has thrust on him. It was a long-distance call.
"Who shall I say wants to talk?" asked the goddess with fillet-bound yellow hair in a patronizingly indifferent tone.
"Mr.——," answered my companion.
Instantly the girl's face was suffused with a smile of excited wonder.
"Are you Mr.——, the big swell who gives all the dinners and dances?" she inquired.
"I suppose I'm the man," he answered, rather amused than otherwise.
"Gee!" she cried, "ain't this luck! Look here, Mame!" she whispered hoarsely. "I've got Mr. —— here on a long distance. What do you think of that!"
One cannot doubt that this telephone girl would unhesitatingly regard as above criticism anything said or done by a woman who moved in Mr. —— 's circle. Unfortunately what this circle does is heralded in exaggerated terms. The influence of these partially true and often totally false reports is far-reaching and demoralizing.
The other day the young governess of a friend of my wife gave up her position, saying she was to be married. Her employer expressed an interest in the matter and asked who was going to perform the ceremony. She was surprised to learn that the functionary was to be the local country justice of the peace.
"But why aren't you going to have a clergyman marry you?" asked our friend.
"Because I don't want it too binding!" answered the girl calmly.
So far has the prevalence of divorce cast its enlightening beams.
* * * * *
I have had a shooting box in Scotland on several different occasions; and my wife has conducted successful social campaigns, as I have said before, in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. I did not go along, but I read about it all in the papers and received weekly from the scene of conflict a pound or so of mail matter, consisting of hundreds of diaphanous sheets of paper, each covered with my daughters' fashionable humpbacked handwriting. Hastings, my stenographer, became very expert at deciphering and transcribing it on the machine for my delectation.
I was quite confused at the number and variety of the titles of nobility with which my family seemed constantly to be surrounded. They had a wonderful time, met everybody, and returned home perfected cosmopolitans. What their ethical standards are I confess I do not know exactly, for the reason that I see so little of them. They lead totally independent lives.
On rare occasions we are invited to the same houses at the same time, and on Christmas Eve we still make it a point always to stay at home together. Really I have no idea how they dispose of their time. They are always away, making visits in other cities or taking trips. They chatter fluently about literature, the theater, music, art, and know a surprising number of celebrities in this and other countries—particularly in London. They are good linguists and marvelous dancers. They are respectful, well mannered, modest, and mildly affectionate; but somehow they do not seem to belong to me. They have no troubles of which I am the confidant.
If they have any definite opinions or principles I am unaware of them; but they have the most exquisite taste. Perhaps with them this takes the place of morals. I cannot imagine my girls doing or saying anything vulgar, yet what they are like when away from home I have no means of finding out. I am quite sure that when they eventually select their husbands I shall not be consulted in the matter. My formal blessing will be all that is asked, and if that blessing is not forthcoming no doubt they will get along well enough without it.
However, I am the constant recipient of congratulations on being the parent of such charming creatures. I have succeeded—apparently—in this direction as in others. Succeeded in what? I cannot imagine these girls of mine being any particular solace to my old age.
Recently, since writing these confessions of mine, I have often wondered why my children were not more to me. I do not think they are much more to my wife. I suppose it could just as well be put the other way. Why are we not more to them? It is because, I fancy, this modern existence of ours, where every function and duty of maternity—except the actual giving of birth—is performed vicariously for us, destroys any interdependence between parents and their offspring. "Smart" American mothers no longer, I am informed, nurse their babies. I know that my wife did not nurse hers. And thereafter each child had its own particular French bonne and governess besides.
Our nursery was a model of dainty comfort. All the superficial elegancies were provided for. It was a sunny, dustless apartment, with snow-white muslins, white enamel, and a frieze of grotesque Noah's Ark animals perambulating round the wall. There were huge dolls' houses, with electric lights; big closets of toys. From the earliest moment possible these three infants began to have private lessons in everything, including drawing, music and German. Their little days were as crowded with engagements then as now. Every hour was provided for; but among these multifarious occupations there was no engagement with their parents.
Even if their mother had not been overwhelmed with social duties herself my babies would, I am confident, have had no time for their parent except at serious inconvenience and a tremendous sacrifice of time. To be sure, I used occasionally to watch them decorously eating their strictly supervised suppers in the presence of the governess; but the perfect arrangements made possible by my financial success rendered parents a superfluity. They never bumped their heads, or soiled their clothes, or dirtied their little faces—so far as I knew. They never cried—at least I was never permitted to hear them.
When the time came for them to go to bed each raised a rosy little cheek and said sweetly: "Good night, papa." They had, I think, the usual children's diseases—exactly which ones I am not sure of; but they had them in the hospital room at the top of the house, from which I was excluded, and the diseases progressed with medical propriety in due course and under the efficient management of starchy trained nurses.
Their outdoor life consisted in walking the asphalt pavements of Central Park, varied with occasional visits to the roller-skating rink; but their social life began at the age of four or five. I remember these functions vividly, because they were so different from those of my own childhood. The first of these was when my eldest daughter attained the age of six years. Similar events in my private history had been characterized by violent games of blind man's buff, hide and seek, hunt the slipper, going to Jerusalem, ring-round-a-rosy, and so on, followed by a dish of ice-cream and hairpulling.
Not so with my offspring. Ten little ladies and gentlemen, accompanied by their maids, having been rearranged in the dressing room downstairs, were received by my daughter with due form in the drawing room. They were all flounced, ruffled and beribboned. Two little boys of seven had on Eton suits. Their behavior was impeccable.
Almost immediately a professor of legerdemain made his appearance and, with the customary facility of his brotherhood, proceeded to remove tons of debris from presumably empty hats, rabbits from handkerchiefs, and hard-boiled eggs from childish noses and ears. The assembled group watched him with polite tolerance. At intervals there was a squeal of surprise, but it soon developed that most of them had already seen the same trickman half a dozen times. However, they kindly consented to be amused, and the professor gave way to a Punch and Judy show of a sublimated variety, which the youthful audience viewed with mild approval.
The entertainment concluded with a stereopticon exhibition of supposedly humorous events, which obviously did not strike the children as funny at all. Supper was laid in the dining room, where the table had been arranged as if for a banquet of diplomats. There were flowers in abundance and a life-size swan of icing at each end. Each child was assisted by its own nurse, and our butler and a footman served, in stolid dignity, a meal consisting of rice pudding, cereals, cocoa, bread and butter, and ice-cream.
It was by all odds the most decorous affair ever held in our house. At the end the gifts were distributed—Parisian dolls, toy baby-carriages and paint boxes for the girls; steam engines, magic lanterns and miniature circuses for the boys. My bill for these trifles came to one hundred and twelve dollars. At half-past six the carriages arrived and our guests were hurried away.
I instance this affair because it struck the note of elegant propriety that has always been the tone of our family and social life. The children invited to the party were the little boys and girls whose fathers and mothers we thought most likely to advance their social interests later on.
Of these children two of the girls have married members of the foreign nobility—one a jaded English lord, the other a worthless and dissipated French count; another married—fifteen years later—one of these same little boys and divorced him within eighteen months; while two of the girls—our own—have not married.
Of the boys one wedded an actress; another lives in Paris and studies "art"; one has been already accounted for; and two have given their lives to playing polo, the stock market, and elevating the chorus.
* * * * *
Beginning at this early period, my two daughters, and later on my son, met only the most select young people of their own age in New York and on Long Island. I remember being surprised at the amount of theatergoing they did by the time the eldest was nine years old. My wife made a practice of giving a children's theater party every Saturday and taking her small guests to the matinee. As the theaters were more limited in number then than now these comparative infants sooner or later saw practically everything that was on the boards—good, bad and indifferent; and they displayed a precocity of criticism that quite astounded me.
Their real social career began with children's dinners and dancing parties by the time they were twelve, and their later coming out changed little the mode of life to which they had been accustomed for several years before it. The result of their mother's watchful care and self-sacrifice is that these two young ladies could not possibly be happy, or even comfortable, if they married men unable to furnish them with French maids, motors, constant amusement, gay society, travel and Paris clothes.
Without these things they would wither away and die like flowers deprived of the sun. They are physically unfit to be anything but the wives of millionaires—and they will be the wives of millionaires or assuredly die unmarried. But, as the circle of rich young men of their acquaintance is more or less limited their chances of matrimony are by no means bright, albeit that they are the pivots of a furious whirl of gaiety which never stops.
No young man with an income of less than twenty thousand a year would have the temerity to propose to either of them. Even on twenty thousand they would have a hard struggle to get along; it would mean the most rigid economy—and, if there were babies, almost poverty.
Besides, when girls are living in the luxury to which mine are accustomed they think twice before essaying matrimony at all. The prospects of changing Newport, Palm Beach, Paris, Rome, Nice and Biarritz for the privilege of bearing children in a New York apartment house does not allure, as in the case of less cosmopolitan young ladies. There must be love—plus all present advantages! Present advantages withdrawn, love becomes cautious.
Even though the rich girl herself is of finer clay than her parents and, in spite of her artificial environment and the false standards by which she is surrounded, would like to meet and perhaps eventually marry some young man who is more worth while than the "pet cats" of her acquaintance, she is practically powerless to do so. She is cut off by the impenetrable artificial barrier of her own exclusiveness. She may hear of such young men—young fellows of ambition, of adventurous spirit, of genius, who have already achieved something in the world, but they are outside the wall of money and she is inside it, and there is no way for them to get in or for her to get out. She is permitted to know only the jeunesse doree—the fops, the sports, the club-window men, whose antecedents are vouched for by the Social Register.
She has no way of meeting others. She does not know what the others are like. She is only aware of an instinctive distaste for most of the young fellows among whom she is thrown. At best they are merely innocuous when they are not offensive. They do nothing; they intend never to do anything. If she is the American girl of our plays and novels she wants something better; and in the plays and novels she always gets him—the dashing young ranchman, the heroic naval lieutenant, the fearless Alaskan explorer, the tireless prospector or daring civil engineer. But in real life she does not get him—except by the merest fluke of fortune. She does not know the real thing when she meets it, and she is just as likely to marry a dissipated groom or chauffeur as the young Stanley of her dreams.
The saddest class in our social life is that of the thoroughbred American girl who is a thousand times too good for her de-luxe surroundings and the crew of vacuous la-de-da Willies hanging about her, yet who, absolutely cut off from contact with any others, either gradually fades into a peripatetic old maid, wandering over Europe, or marries an eligible, turkey-trotting nondescript—"a mimmini-pimmini, Francesca da Rimini, je-ne-sais-quoi young man."
The Atlantic seaboard swarms in summertime with broad-shouldered, well-bred, highly educated and charming boys, who have had every advantage except that of being waited on by liveried footmen. They camp in the woods; tutor the feeble-minded sons of the rich; tramp and bicycle over Swiss mountain passes; sail their catboats through the island-studded reaches and thoroughfares of the Maine coast, and grow brown and hard under the burning sun. They are the hope of America. They can carry a canoe or a hundred-pound pack over a forest trail; and in the winter they set the pace in the scientific, law and medical schools. Their heads are clear, their eyes are bright, and there is a hollow instead of a bow window beneath the buttons of their waistcoats.
The feet of these young men carry them to strange places; they cope with many and strange monsters. They are our Knights of the Round Table. They find the Grail of Achievement in lives of hard work, simple pleasures and high ideals—in college and factory towns; in law courts and hospitals; in the mountains of Colorado and the plains of the Dakotas. They are the best we have; but the poor rich girl rarely, if ever, meets them. The barrier of wealth completely hems her in. She must take one of those inside or nothing.
When, in a desperate revolt against the artificiality of her existence, she breaks through the wall she is easy game for anybody—as likely to marry a jockey or a professional forger as one of the young men of her desire. One should not blame a rich girl too much for marrying a titled and perhaps attractive foreigner. The would-be critic has only to step into a Fifth Avenue ballroom and see what she is offered in his place to sympathize with and perhaps applaud her selection. Better a year of Europe than a cycle of—shall we say, Narragansett? After all, why not take the real thing, such as it is, instead of an imitation?
I believe that one of the most cruel results of modern social life is the cutting off of young girls from acquaintanceship with youths of the sturdy, intelligent and hardworking type—and the unfitting of such girls for anything except the marriage mart of the millionaire.
I would give half of all I possess to see my daughters happily married; but I now realize that their education renders such a marriage highly difficult of satisfactory achievement. Their mother and I have honestly tried to bring them up in such a way that they can do their duty in that state of life to which it hath pleased God to call them. But unfortunately, unless some man happens to call them also, they will have to keep on going round and round as they are going now.
We did not anticipate the possibility of their becoming old maids, and they cannot become brides of the church. I should honestly be glad to have either of them marry almost anybody, provided he is a decent fellow. I should not even object to their marrying foreigners, but the difficulty is that it is almost impossible to find out whether a foreigner is really decent or not. It is true that the number of foreign noblemen who marry American girls for love is negligible. There is undoubtedly a small and distinguished minority who do so; but the transaction is usually a matter of bargain and sale, and the man regards himself as having lived up to his contract by merely conferring his title on the woman he thus deigns to honor.
I should prefer to have them marry Americans, of course; but I no longer wish them to marry Americans of their own class. Yet, unfortunately, they would be unwilling to marry out of it. A curious situation! I have given up my life to buying a place for my children that is supposed to give them certain privileges, and I now am loath to have them take advantage of those privileges.
The situation has its amusing as well as its pathetic side—for my son, now that I come to think of it, is one of the eligibles. He knows everybody and is on the road to money. He is one of the opportunities that society is offering to the daughters of other successful men. Should I wish my own girls to marry a youth like him? Far from it! Yet he is exactly the kind of fellow that my success has enabled them to meet and know, and whom Fate decrees that they shall eventually marry if they marry at all.
When I frankly face the question of how much happiness I get out of my children I am constrained to admit that it is very little. The sense of proprietorship in three such finished products is something, to be sure; and, after all, I suppose they have—concealed somewhere—a real affection for their old dad. At times they are facetious—almost playful—as on my birthday; but I fancy that arises from a feeling of embarrassment at not knowing how to be intimate with a parent who crosses their path only twice a week, and then on the stairs.
My son has attended to his own career now for some fourteen years; in fact I lost him completely before he was out of knickerbockers. Up to the time when he was sent away to boarding school he spent a rather disconsolate childhood, playing with mechanical toys, roller skating in the Mall, going occasionally to the theater, and taking music lessons; but he showed so plainly the debilitating effect of life in the city for eight months in the year that at twelve he was bundled off to a country school. Since then he has grown to manhood without our assistance. He went away undersized, pale, with a meager little neck and a sort of wistful Nicholas Nickelby expression. When he returned at the Christmas vacation he had gained ten pounds, was brown and freckled, and looked like a small giraffe in pantalets.
Moreover, he had entirely lost the power of speech, owing to a fear of making a fool of himself. During the vacation in question he was reoutfitted and sent three times a week to the theater. On one or two occasions I endeavored to ascertain how he liked school, but all I could get out of him was the vague admission that it was "all right" and that he liked it "well enough." This process of outgrowing his clothes and being put through a course of theaters at each vacation—there was nothing else to do with him—continued for seven years, during which time he grew to be six feet two inches in height and gradually filled out to man's size. He managed to hold a place in the lower third of his class, with the aid of constant and expensive tutoring in the summer vacations, and he finally was graduated with the rest and went to Harvard.
By this time he preferred to enjoy himself in his own way during his leisure and we saw less of him than ever. But, whatever his intellectual achievements may be, there is no doubt as to his being a man of the world, entirely at ease anywhere, with perfect manners and all the social graces. I do not think he was particularly dissipated at Harvard; on the other hand, I am assured by the dean that he was no student. He "made" a select club early in his course and from that time was occupied, I suspect, in playing poker and bridge, discussing deep philosophical questions and acquiring the art of living. He never went in for athletics; but by doing nothing in a highly artistic manner, and by dancing with the most startling agility, he became a prominent social figure and a headliner in college theatricals.
From his sophomore year he has been in constant demand for cotillions, house parties and yachting trips. His intimate pals seem to be middle-aged millionaires who are known to me in only the most casual way; and he is a sort of gentleman-in-waiting—I believe the accepted term is "pet cat"—to several society women, for whom he devises new cotillion figures, arranges original after-dinner entertainments and makes himself generally useful.
Like my two daughters he has arrived—absolutely; but, though we are members of the same learned profession, he is almost a stranger to me. I had no difficulty in getting him a clerkship in a gilt-edged law firm immediately after he was admitted to the bar and he is apparently doing marvelously well, though what he can possibly know of law will always remain a mystery to me. Yet he is already, at the age of twenty-eight, a director in three important concerns whose securities are listed on the stock exchange, and he spends a great deal of money, which he must gather somehow. I know that his allowance cannot do much more than meet his accounts at the smart clubs to which he belongs.
He is a pleasant fellow and I enjoy the rare occasions when I catch a glimpse of him. I do not think he has any conspicuous vices—or virtues. He has simply had sense enough to take advantage of his social opportunities and bids fair to be equally successful with myself. He has really never done a stroke of work in his life, but has managed to make himself agreeable to those who could help him along. I have no doubt those rich friends of his throw enough business in his way to net him ten or fifteen thousand dollars a year, but I should hesitate to retain him to defend me if I were arrested for speeding.
Nevertheless at dinner I have seen him bullyrag and browbeat a judge of our Supreme Court in a way that made me shudder, though I admit that the judge in question owed his appointment entirely to the friend of my son who happened to be giving the dinner; and he will contradict in a loud tone men and women older than myself, no matter what happens to be the subject under discussion. They seem to like it—why, I do not pretend to understand. They admire his assurance and good nature, and are rather afraid of him!
I cannot imagine what he would find to do in my own law office; he would doubtless regard it as a dull place and too narrow a sphere for his splendid capabilities. He is a clever chap, this son of mine; and though neither he nor his sisters seem to have any particular fondness for one another, he is astute at playing into their hands and they into his. He also keeps a watchful eye on our dinner invitations, so they will not fall below the properly exclusive standard.
"What are you asking old Washburn for?" he will ask. "He's been a dead one these five years!" Or: "I'd cut out the Becketts—at least if you're asking the Thompsons. They don't go with the same crowd." Or: "Why don't you ask the Peyton-Smiths? They're nothing to be afraid of if they do cut a dash at Newport. The old girl is rather a pal of mine."
So we drop old Washburn, cut out the Becketts, and take courage and invite the hyphenated Smiths. A hint from him pays handsome dividends! and he is distinctly proud of the family and anxious to push it along to still greater success.
However, he has never asked my help or assistance—except in a financial way. He has never come to me for advice; never confided any of his perplexities or troubles to me. Perhaps he has none. He seems quite sufficient unto himself. And he certainly is not my friend. It seems strange that these three children of mine, whose upbringing has been the source of so much thought and planning on the part of my wife and myself, and for whose ultimate benefit we have shaped our own lives, should be the merest, almost impersonal, acquaintances.
The Italian fruit-vender on the corner, whose dirty offspring crawl among the empty barrels behind the stand, knows far more of his children than do we of ours, will have far more influence on the shaping of their future lives. They do not need us now and they never have needed us. A trust company could have performed all the offices of parenthood with which we have been burdened. We have paid others to be father and mother in our stead—or rather, as I now see, have had hired servants to go through the motions for us; and they have done it well, so far as the mere physical side of the matter is concerned. We have been almost entirely relieved of care.
We have never been annoyed by our children's presence at any time. We have never been bothered with them at meals. We have never had to sit up with them when they could not go to sleep, or watch at their bedsides during the night when they were sick. Competent nurses—far more competent than we—washed their little dirty hands, mended the torn dresses and kissed their wounds to make them well. And when five o'clock came three dainty little Dresden figures in pink and blue ribbons were brought down to the drawing room to be admired by our guests. Then, after being paraded, they were carried back to the nursery to resume the even tenor of their independent existences.
No one of us has ever needed the other members of the family. My wife has never called on either of our daughters to perform any of those trifling intimate services that bring a mother and her children together. There has always been a maid standing ready to hook up her dress, fetch her book or her hat, or a footman to spring upstairs after the forgotten gloves. And the girls have never needed their mother—the governess could read aloud ever so much better, and they always had their own maid to look after their clothes. When they needed new gowns they simply went downtown and bought them—and the bill was sent to my office. Neither of them was ever forced to stay at home that her sister might have some pleasure instead. No; our wealth has made it possible for each of my children to enjoy every luxury without any sacrifice on another's part. They owe nothing to each other, and they really owe nothing to their mother or myself—except perhaps a monetary obligation.
But there is one person, technically not one of our family, for whom my girls have the deepest and most sincere affection—that is old Jane, their Irish nurse, who came to them just after they were weaned and stayed with us until the period of maids and governesses arrived. I paid her twenty-five dollars a month, and for nearly ten years she never let them out of her sight—crooning over them at night; trudging after them during the daytime; mending their clothes; brushing their teeth; cutting their nails; and teaching them strange Irish legends of the banshee. When I called her into the library and told her the children were now too old for her and that they must have a governess, the look that came into her face haunted me for days.
"Ye'll be after taking my darlin's away from me?" she muttered in a dead tone. "'T will be hard for me!" She stood as if the heart had died within her, and the hundred-dollar bill I shoved into her hand fell to the floor. Then she turned quickly and hurried out of the room without a sob. I heard afterward that she cried for a week.
Now I always know when one of their birthdays has arrived by the queer package, addressed in old Jane's quaint half-printed writing, that always comes. She has cared for many dozens of children since then, but loves none like my girls, for she came to them in her young womanhood and they were her first charges.
And they are just as fond of her. Indeed it is their loyalty to this old Irish nurse that gives me faith that they are not the cold propositions they sometimes seem to be. For once when, after much careless delay, a fragmentary message came to us that she was ill and in a hospital my two daughters, who were just starting for a ball, flew to her bedside, sat with her all through the night and never left her until she was out of danger.
"They brought me back—my darlin's!" she whispered to us when later we called to see how she was getting on; and my wife looked at me across the rumpled cot and her lips trembled. I knew what was in her mind. Would her daughters have rushed to her with the same forgetfulness of self as to this prematurely gray and wrinkled woman whose shrunken form lay between us?
Poor old Jane! Alone in an alien land, giving your life and your love to the children of others, only to have them torn from your arms just as the tiny fingers have entwined themselves like tendrils round your heart! We have tossed you the choicest blessings of our lives and shouldered you with the heavy responsibilities that should rightfully have been our load. Your cup has run over with both joy and sorrow but you have drunk of the cup, while we are still thirsty! Our hearts are dry, while yours is green—nourished with the love that should belong to us. Poor old Jane? Lucky old Jane! Anyhow God bless you!
I come of a family that prides itself on its culture and intellectuality. We have always been professional people, for my grandfather was, as I have said, a clergyman; and among my uncles are a lawyer, a physician and a professor. My sisters, also, have intermarried with professional men. I received a fairly good primary and secondary education, and graduated from my university with honors—whatever that may have meant. I was distinctly of a literary turn of mind; and during my four years of study I imbibed some slight information concerning the English classics, music, modern history and metaphysics. I could talk quite wisely about Chaucer, Beaumont and Fletcher, Thomas Love Peacock and Ann Radcliffe, or Kant, Fichte and Schopenhauer.
I can see now that my smattering of culture was neither deep nor broad. I acquired no definite knowledge of underlying principles, of general history, of economics, of languages, of mathematics, of physics or of chemistry. To biology and its allies I paid scarcely any attention at all, except to take a few snap courses. I really secured only a surface acquaintance with polite English literature, mostly very modern. The main part of my time I spent reading Stevenson and Kipling. I did well in English composition and I pronounced my words neatly and in a refined manner. At the end of my course, when twenty-two years old, I was handed an imitation-parchment degree and proclaimed by the president of the college as belonging to the Brotherhood of Educated Men.
I did not. I was an imitation educated man; but, though spurious, I was a sufficiently good counterfeit to pass current for what I had been declared to be. Apart from a little Latin, a considerable training in writing the English language, and a great deal of miscellaneous reading of an extremely light variety, I really had no culture at all. I could not speak an idiomatic sentence in French or German; I had the vaguest ideas about applied mechanics and science; and no thorough knowledge about anything; but I was supposed to be an educated man, and on this stock in trade I have done business ever since—with, to be sure, the added capital of a degree of bachelor of laws.
Now since my graduation, twenty-eight years ago, I have given no time to the systematic study of any subject except law. I have read no serious works dealing with either history, sociology, economics, art or philosophy. I am supposed to know enough about these subjects already. I have rarely read over again any of the masterpieces of English literature with which I had at least a bowing acquaintance when at college. Even this last sentence I must qualify to the extent of admitting that I now see that this acquaintance was largely vicarious, and that I frequently read more criticism than literature.
It is characteristic of modern education that it is satisfied with the semblance and not the substance of learning. I was taught about Shakspere, but not Shakspere. I was instructed in the history of literature, but not in literature itself. I knew the names of the works of numerous English authors and I knew what Taine and others thought about them, but I knew comparatively little of what was between the covers of the books themselves. I was, I find, a student of letters by proxy. As time went on I gradually forgot that I had not, in fact, actually perused these volumes; and to-day I am accustomed to refer familiarly to works I never have read at all—not a difficult task in these days of handbook knowledge and literary varnish.
It is this patent superficiality that so bores me with the affected culture of modern social intercourse. We all constantly attempt to discuss abstruse subjects in philosophy and art, and pretend to a familiarity with minor historical characters and events. Now why try to talk about Bergson's theories if you have not the most elementary knowledge of philosophy or metaphysics? Or why attempt to analyze the success or failure of a modern post-impressionist painter when you are totally ignorant of the principles of perspective or of the complex problems of light and shade? You might as properly presume to discuss a mastoid operation with a surgeon or the doctrine of cypres with a lawyer. You are equally qualified.
I frankly confess that my own ignorance is abysmal. In the last twenty-eight years what information I have acquired has been picked up principally from newspapers and magazines; yet my library table is littered with books on modern art and philosophy, and with essays on literary and historical subjects. I do not read them. They are my intellectual window dressings. I talk about them with others who, I suspect, have not read them either; and we confine ourselves to generalities, with a careful qualification of all expressed opinions, no matter how vague and elusive. For example—a safe conversational opening:
"Of course there is a great deal to be said in favor of Bergson's general point of view, but to me his reasoning is inconclusive. Don't you feel the same way—somehow?"
You can try this on almost anybody. It will work in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred; for, of course, there is a great deal to be said in favor of the views of anybody who is not an absolute fool, and most reasoning is open to attack at least for being inconclusive. It is also inevitable that your cultured friend—or acquaintance—should feel the same way—somehow. Most people do—in a way.
The real truth of the matter is, all I know about Bergson is that he is a Frenchman—is he actually by birth a Frenchman or a Belgian?—who as a philosopher has a great reputation on the Continent, and who recently visited America to deliver some lectures. I have not the faintest idea what his theories are, and I should not if I heard him explain them. Moreover, I cannot discuss philosophy or metaphysics intelligently, because I have not to-day the rudimentary knowledge necessary to understand what it is all about.
It is the same with art. On the one or two isolated varnishing days when we go to a gallery we criticize the pictures quite fiercely. "We know what we like." Yes, perhaps we do. I am not sure even of that. But in eighty-five cases out of a hundred none of us have any knowledge of the history of painting or any intelligent idea of why Velasquez is regarded as a master; yet we acquire a glib familiarity with the names of half a dozen cubists or futurists, and bandy them about much as my office boy does the names of his favorite pugilists or baseball players.
It is even worse with history and biography. We cannot afford or have not the decency to admit that we are uninformed. We speak casually of, say, Henry of Navarre, or Beatrice D'Este, or Charles the Fifth. I select my names intentionally from among the most celebrated in history; yet how many of us know within two hundred years of when any one of them lived—or much about them? How much definite historical information have we, even about matters of genuine importance?
* * * * *
Let us take a shot at a few dates. I will make it childishly easy. Give me, if you can, even approximately, the year of Caesar's Conquest of Gaul; the Invasion of Europe by the Huns; the Sack of Rome; the Battle of Chalons-sur-Marne; the Battle of Tours; the Crowning of Charlemagne; the Great Crusade; the Fall of Constantinople; Magna Charta; the Battle of Crecy; the Field of the Cloth of Gold; the Massacre of St. Bartholomew; the Spanish Armada; the Execution of King Charles I; the Fall of the Bastile; the Inauguration of George Washington; the Battle of Waterloo; the Louisiana Purchase; the Indian Mutiny; the Siege of Paris.
I will look out of the window while you go through the mental agony of trying to remember. It looks easy, does it not? Almost an affront to ask the date of Waterloo! Well, I wanted to be fair and even things up; but, honestly, can you answer correctly five out of these twenty elementary questions? I doubt it. Yet you have, no doubt, lying on your table at the present time, intimate studies of past happenings and persons that presuppose and demand a rough general knowledge of American, French or English history.
The dean of Radcliffe College, who happened to be sitting behind two of her recent graduates while attending a performance of Parker's deservedly popular play "Disraeli" last winter, overheard one of them say to the other: "You know, I couldn't remember whether Disraeli was in the Old or the New Testament; and I looked in both and couldn't find him in either!"
I still pass socially as an exceptionally cultured man—one who is well up on these things; yet I confess to knowing to-day absolutely nothing of history, either ancient, medieval or modern. It is not a matter of mere dates, by any means, though I believe dates to be of some general importance. My ignorance is deeper than that. I do not remember the events themselves or their significance. I do not now recall any of the facts connected with the great epoch-making events of classic times; I cannot tell as I write, for example, who fought in the battle of the Allia; why Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or why Cicero delivered an oration against Catiline.
As to what subsequently happened on the Italian peninsula my mind is a blank until the appearance of Garibaldi during the last century. I really never knew just who Garibaldi was until I read Trevelyan's three books on the Resorgimento last winter, and those I perused because I had taken a motor trip through Italy the summer before. I know practically nothing of Spanish history, and my mind is a blank as to Russia, Poland, Turkey, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Holland.
Of course I know that the Dutch Republic rose—assisted by one Motley, of Boston—and that William of Orange was a Hollander—or at least I suppose he was born there. But how Holland came to rise I know not—or whether William was named after an orange or oranges were named after him.
As for central Europe, it is a shocking fact that I never knew there was not some interdependency between Austria and Germany until last summer. I only found out the contrary when I started to motor through the Austrian Tyrol and was held up by the custom officers on the frontier. I knew that an old emperor named William somehow founded the German Empire out of little states, with the aid of Bismarck and Von Moltke; but that is all I know about it. I do not know when the war between Prussia and Austria took place or what battles were fought in it.
The only battle in the Franco-Prussian War I am sure of is Sedan, which I remember because I was once told that Phil Sheridan was present as a spectator. I know Gustavus Adolphus was a king of Sweden, but I do not know when; and apart from their names I know nothing of Theodoric, Charles Martel, Peter the Hermit, Lodovico Moro, the Emperor Maximilian, Catherine of Aragon, Catherine de' Medici, Richelieu, Frederick Barbarossa, Cardinal Wolsey, Prince Rupert—I do not refer to Anthony Hope's hero, Rupert of Hentzau—Saint Louis, Admiral Coligny, or the thousands of other illustrious personages that crowd the pages of history.
I do not know when or why the Seven Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, the Hundred Years' War or the Massacre of St. Bartholomew took place, why the Edict of Nantes was revoked or what it was, or who fought at Malplaquet, Tours, Soissons, Marengo, Plassey, Oudenarde, Fontenoy or Borodino—or when they occurred. I probably did know most if not all of these things, but I have entirely forgotten them. Unfortunately I manage to act as if I had not. The result is that, having no foundation to build on, any information I do acquire is immediately swept away. People are constantly giving me books on special topics, such as Horace Walpole and his Friends, France in the Thirteenth Century, The Holland House Circle, or Memoires of Madame du Barry; but of what use can they be to me when I do not know, or at least have forgotten, even the salient facts of French and English history?
We are undoubtedly the most superficial people in the world about matters of this sort. Any bluff goes. I recall being at a dinner not long ago when somebody mentioned Conrad II. One of the guests hazarded the opinion that he had died in the year 1330. This would undoubtedly have passed muster but for a learned-looking person farther down the table who deprecatingly remarked: "I do not like to correct you, but I think Conrad the Second died in 1337!" The impression created on the assembled company cannot be overstated. Later on in the smoking room I ventured to compliment the gentleman on his fund of information, saying:
"Why, I never even heard of Conrad the Second!"
"Nor I either," he answered shamelessly.
It is the same with everything—music, poetry, politics. I go night after night to hear the best music in the world given at fabulous cost in the Metropolitan Opera House and am content to murmur vague ecstasies over Caruso, without being aware of who wrote the opera or what it is all about. Most of us know nothing of orchestration or even the names of the different instruments. We may not even be sure of what is meant by counterpoint or the difference between a fugue and an arpeggio.
A handbook would give us these minor details in an hour's reading; but we prefer to sit vacuously making feeble jokes about the singers or the occupants of the neighboring boxes, without a single intelligent thought as to why the composer attempted to write precisely this sort of an opera, when he did it, or how far he succeeded. We are content to take our opinions and criticisms ready made, no matter from whose mouth they fall; and one hears everywhere phrases that, once let loose from the Pandora's Box of some foolish brain, never cease from troubling.
In science I am in even a more parlous state. I know nothing of applied electricity in its simplest forms. I could not explain the theory of the gas engine, and plumbing is to me one of the great mysteries.
Last, but even more lamentable, I really know nothing about politics, though I am rather a strong party man and my name always appears on important citizens' committees about election time. I do not know anything about the city departments or its fiscal administration. I should not have the remotest idea where to direct a poor person who applied to me for relief. Neither have I ever taken the trouble to familiarize myself with even the more important city buildings.
Of course I know the City Hall by sight, but I have never been inside it; I have never visited the Tombs or any one of our criminal courts; I have never been in a police station, a fire house, or inspected a single one of our prisons or reformatory institutions. I do not know whether police magistrates are elected or appointed and I could not tell you in what congressional district I reside. I do not know the name of my alderman, assemblyman, state senator or representative in Congress.
I do not know who is at the head of the Fire Department, the Street Cleaning Department, the Health Department, the Park Department or the Water Department; and I could not tell, except for the Police Department, what other departments there are. Even so, I do not know what police precinct I am living in, the name of the captain in command, or where the nearest fixed post is at which an officer is supposed to be on duty.
As I write I can name only five members of the United States Supreme Court, three members of the Cabinet, and only one of the congressmen from the state of New York. This in cold type seems almost preposterous, but it is, nevertheless, a fact—and I am an active practicing lawyer besides. I am shocked to realize these things. Yet I am supposed to be an exceptionally intelligent member of the community and my opinion is frequently sought on questions of municipal politics.
Needless to say, the same indifference has prevented my studying—except in the most superficial manner—the single tax, free trade and protection, the minimum wage, the recall, referendum, or any other of the present much-mooted questions. How is this possible? The only answer I can give is that I have confined my mental activities entirely to making my legal practice as lucrative as possible. I have taken things as I found them and put up with abuses rather than go to the trouble to do away with them. I have no leisure to try to reform the universe. I leave that task to others whose time is less valuable than mine and who have something to gain by getting into the public eye.