"It's quite intricate," commented the other. "The stores have more than one price, then?"
"They have as many prices as they have customers," was the answer. "Why shouldn't they? New York is full of raw rich people who value things by what they pay. And why shouldn't they pay high and be happy? That opera-cloak that Alice has—Reval promised it to me for two thousand, and I'll wager you she'd charge some woman from Butte, Montana, thirty-five hundred for one just like it."
Montague got up suddenly. "Stop," he said, waving his hands. "You take all the bloom off the butterfly's wings!"
He asked where they were going that evening, and Oliver said that they were invited to an informal dinner-party at Mrs. Winnie Duval's. Mrs. Winnie was the young widow who had recently married the founder of the great banking-house of Puval and Co.—so Oliver explained; she was a chum of his, and they would meet an interesting set there. She was going to invite her cousin, Charlie Carter—she wanted him to meet Alice. "Mrs. Winnie's always plotting to get Charlie to settle down," said Oliver, with a merry laugh.
He telephoned for his man to bring over his clothes, and he and his brother dressed. Then Alice came in, looking like the goddess of the dawn in the gorgeous rose-coloured gown. The colour in her cheeks was even brighter than usual; for she was staggered to find how low the gown was cut, and was afraid she was committing a faux pas. "Tell me about it," she stammered. "Mammy Lucy says I'm surely supposed to wear some lace, or a bouquet."
"Mammy Lucy isn't a Paris costumier," said Oliver, much amused. "Dear me—wait until you have seen Mrs. Winnie!"
Mrs. Winnie had kindly sent her limousine car for them, and it stood throbbing in front of the hotel-entrance, its acetylenes streaming far up the street. Mrs. Winnie's home was on Fifth Avenue, fronting the park. It occupied half a block, and had cost two millions to build and furnish. It was known as the "Snow Palace," being all of white marble.
At the curb a man in livery opened the door of the car, and in the vestibule another man in livery bowed the way. Lined up just inside the door was a corps of imposing personages, clad in scarlet waistcoats and velvet knee-breeches, with powdered wigs, and gold buttons, and gold buckles on their patent-leather pumps. These splendid creatures took their wraps, and then presented to Montague and Oliver a bouquet of flowers upon a silver salver, and upon another salver a tiny envelope bearing the name of their partner at this strictly "informal" dinner-party. Then the functionaries stood out of the way and permitted them to view the dazzling splendour of the entrance hall of the Snow Palace. There was a great marble staircase running up from the centre of the hall, with a carved marble gallery above, and a marble fireplace below. To decorate this mansion a real palace in the Punjab had been bought outright and plundered; there were mosaics of jade, and wonderful black marble, and rare woods, and strange and perplexing carvings.
The head butler stood at the entrance to the salon, pronouncing their names; and just inside was Mrs. Winnie.
Montague never forgot that first vision of her; she might have been a real princess out of the palace in the Punjab. She was a brunette, rich-coloured, full-throated and deep-bosomed, with scarlet lips, and black hair and eyes. She wore a court-gown of cloth of silver, with white kid shoes embroidered with jewelled flowers. All her life she had been collecting large turquoises, and these she had made into a tiara, and a neck ornament spreading over her chest, and a stomacher. Each of these stones was mounted with diamonds, and set upon a slender wire. So as she moved they quivered and shimmered, and the effect was dazzling, barbaric.
She must have seen that Montague was staggered, for she gave him a little extra pressure of the hand, and said, "I'm so glad you came. Ollie has told me all about you." Her voice was soft and melting, not so forbidding as her garb.
Montague ran the gauntlet of the other guests: Charlie Carter, a beautiful, dark-haired boy, having the features of a Greek god, but a sallow and unpleasant complexion; Major "Bob" Venable, a stout little gentleman with a red face and a heavy jowl; Mrs. Frank Landis, a merry-eyed young widow with pink cheeks and auburn hair; Willie Davis, who had been a famous half-back, and was now junior partner in the banking-house; and two young married couples, whose names Montague missed.
The name written on his card was Mrs. Alden. She came in just after him—a matron of about fifty, of vigorous aspect and ample figure, approaching what he had not yet learned to call embonpoint. She wore brocade, as became a grave dowager, and upon her ample bosom there lay an ornament the size of a man's hand, and made wholly out of blazing diamonds—the most imposing affair that Montague had ever laid eyes upon. She gave him her hand to shake, and made no attempt to disguise the fact that she was looking him over in the meantime.
"Madam, dinner is served," said the stately butler; and the glittering procession moved into the dining-room—a huge state apartment, finished in some lustrous jet-black wood, and with great panel paintings illustrating the Romaunt de la Rose. The table was covered with a cloth of French embroidery, and gleaming with its load of crystal and gold plate. At either end there were huge candlesticks of solid gold, and in the centre a mound of orchids and lilies of the valley, matching in colour the shades of the candelabra and the daintily painted menu cards.
"You are fortunate in coming to New York late in life," Mrs. Alden was saying to him. "Most of our young men are tired out before they have sense enough to enjoy anything. Take my advice and look about you—don't let that lively brother of yours set the pace for you."
In front of Mrs. Alden there was a decanter of Scotch whisky. "Will you have some?" she asked, as she took it up.
"No, I thank you," said he, and then wondered if perhaps he should not have said yes, as he watched the other select the largest of the half-dozen wine-glasses clustered at her place, and pour herself out a generous libation.
"Have you seen much of the city?" she asked, as she tossed it off—without as much as a quiver of an eyelash.
"No," said he. "They have not given me much time. They took me off to the country—to the Robert Wallings'."
"Ah," said Mrs. Alden; and Montague, struggling to make conversation, inquired, "Do you know Mr. Walling?"
"Quite well," said the other, placidly. "I used to be a Walling myself, you know."
"Oh," said Montague, taken aback; and then added, "Before you were married?"
"No," said Mrs. Alden, more placidly than ever, "before I was divorced."
There was a dead silence, and Montague sat gasping to catch his breath. Then suddenly he heard a faint subdued chuckle, which grew into open laughter; and he stole a glance at Mrs. Alden, and saw that her eyes were twinkling; and then he began to laugh himself. They laughed together, so merrily that others at the table began to look at them in perplexity.
So the ice was broken between them; which filled Montague with a vast relief. But he was still dimly touched with awe—for he realized that this must be the great Mrs. Billy Alden, whose engagement to the Duke of London was now the topic of the whole country. And that huge diamond ornament must be part of Mrs. Alden's million-dollar outfit of jewellery!
The great lady volunteered not to tell on him; and added generously that when he came to dinner with her she would post him concerning the company. "It's awkward for a stranger, I can understand," said she; and continued, grimly: "When people get divorces it sometimes means that they have quarrelled—and they don't always make it up afterward, either. And sometimes other people quarrel—almost as bitterly as if they had been married. Many a hostess has had her reputation ruined by not keeping track of such things."
So Montague made the discovery that the great Mrs. Billy, though. forbidding of aspect, was good-natured when she chose to be, and with a pretty wit. She was a woman with a mind of her own—a hard-fighting character, who had marshalled those about her, and taken her place at the head of the column. She had always counted herself a personage enough to do exactly as she pleased; through the course of the dinner she would take up the decanter of Scotch, and make a pass to help Montague—and then, when he declined, pour out imperturbably what she wanted. "I don't like your brother," she said to him, a little later. "He won't last; but he tells me you're different, so maybe I will like you. Come and see me sometime, and let me tell you what not to do in New York."
Then Montague turned to talk with his hostess, who sat on his right.
"Do you play bridge?" asked Mrs. Winnie, in her softest and most gracious tone.
"My brother has given me a book to study from," he answered. "But if he takes me about day and night, I don't know how I'm to manage it."
"Come and let me teach you," said Mrs. Winnie. "I mean it, really," she added. "I've nothing to do—at least that I'm not tired of. Only I don't believe you'd take long to learn all that I know."
"Aren't you a successful player?" he asked sympathetically.
"I don't believe anyone wants me to learn," said Mrs. Winnie.—"They'd rather come and get my money. Isn't that true, Major?"
Major Venable sat on her other hand, and he paused in the act of raising a spoonful of soup to his lips, and laughed, deep down in his throat—a queer little laugh that shook his fat cheeks and neck. "I may say," he said, "that I know several people to whom the status quo is satisfactory."
"Including yourself," said the lady, with a little moue. "The wretched man won sixteen hundred dollars from me last night; and he sat in his club window all afternoon, just to have the pleasure of laughing at me as I went by. I don't believe I'll play at all to-night—I'm going to make myself agreeable to Mr. Montague, and let you win from Virginia Landis for a change."
And then the Major paused again in his attack upon the soup. "My dear Mrs. Winnie," he said, "I can live for much more than one day upon sixteen hundred dollars!"
The Major was a famous club-man and bon vivant, as Montague learned later on. "He's an uncle of Mrs. Bobbie Walling's," said Mrs. Alden, in his ear. "And incidentally they hate each other like poison."
"That is so that I won't repeat my luckless question again?" asked Montague, with a smile.
"Oh, they meet," said the other. "You wouldn't be supposed to know that. Won't you have any Scotch?"
Montague's thoughts were so much taken up with the people at this repast that he gave little thought to the food. He noticed with surprise that they had real spring lamb—it being the middle of November. But he could not know that the six-weeks-old creatures from which it had come had been raised in cotton-wool and fed on milk with a spoon—and had cost a dollar and a half a pound. A little later, however, there was placed before him a delicately browned sweetbread upon a platter of gold, and then suddenly he began to pay attention. Mrs. Winnie had a coat of arms; he had noticed it upon her auto, and again upon the great bronze gates of the Snow Palace, and again upon the liveries of her footmen, and yet again upon the decanter of Scotch. And now—incredible and appalling—he observed it branded upon the delicately browned sweetbread!
After that, who would not have watched? There were large dishes of rare fruits upon the table—fruits which had been packed in cotton wool and shipped in cold storage from every corner of the earth. There were peaches which had come from South Africa (they had cost ten dollars apiece). There were bunches of Hamburg grapes, dark purple and bursting fat, which had been grown in a hot-house, wrapped in paper bags. There were nectarines and plums, and pomegranates and persimmons from Japan, and later on, little dishes of plump strawberries-raised in pots. There were quail which had come from Egypt, and a wonderful thing called "crab-flake a la Dewey," cooked in a chafing-dish, and served with mushrooms that had been grown in the tunnels of abandoned mines in Michigan. There was lettuce raised by electric light, and lima beans that had come from Porto Rico, and artichokes brought from France at a cost of one dollar each.—And all these extraordinary viands were washed down by eight or nine varieties of wines, from the cellar of a man who had made collecting them a fad for the last thirty years, who had a vineyard in France for the growing of his own champagne, and kept twenty thousand quarts of claret in storage all the time—and procured his Rhine wine from the cellar of the German Emperor, at a cost of twenty-five dollars a quart!
There were twelve people at dinner, and afterward they made two tables for bridge, leaving Charlie Carter to talk to Alice, and Mrs. Winnie to devote herself to Montague, according to her promise. "Everybody likes to see my house," she said. "Would you?" And she led the way from the dining-room into the great conservatory, which formed a central court extending to the roof of the building. She pressed a button, and a soft radiance streamed down from above, in the midst of which Mrs. Winnie stood, with her shimmering jewels a very goddess of the fire.
The conservatory was a place in which he could have spent the evening; it was filled with the most extraordinary varieties of plants. "They were gathered from all over the world," said Mrs. Winnie, seeing that he was staring at them. "My husband employed a connoisseur to hunt them out for him. He did it before we were married—he thought it would make me happy."
In the centre of the place there was a fountain, twelve or fourteen feet in height, and set in a basin of purest Carrara marble. By the touch of a button the pool was flooded with submerged lights, and one might see scores of rare and beautiful fish swimming about.
"Isn't it fine!" said Mrs. Winnie, and added eagerly, "Do you know, I come here at night, sometimes when I can't sleep, and sit for hours and gaze. All those living things; with their extraordinary forms-some of them have faces, and look like human beings! And I wonder what they think about, and if life seems as strange to them as it does to me."
She seated herself by the edge of the pool, and gazed in. "These fish were given to me by my cousin, Ned Carter. They call him Buzzie. Have you met him yet?—No, of course not. He's Charlie's brother, and he collects art things—the most unbelievable things. Once, a long time ago, he took a fad for goldfish—some goldfish are very rare and beautiful, you know—one can pay twenty-five and fifty dollars apiece for them. He got all the dealers had, and when he learned that there were some they couldn't get, he took a trip to Japan and China on purpose to get them. You know they raise them there, and some of them are sacred, and not allowed to be sold or taken out of the country. And he had all sorts of carved ivory receptacles for them, that he brought home with him—he had one beautiful marble basin about ten feet long, that had been stolen from the Emperor."
Over Montague's shoulder where he sat, there hung an orchid, a most curious creation, an explosion of scarlet flame. "That is the odonto-glossum," said Mrs. Winnie. "Have you heard of it?"
"Never," said the man.
"Dear me," said the other. "Such is fame!"
"Is it supposed to be famous?" he asked.
"Very," she replied. "There was a lot in the newspapers about it. You see Winton—that's my husband, you know—paid twenty-five thousand dollars to the man who created it; and that made a lot of foolish talk—people come from all over to look at it. I wanted to have it, because its shape is exactly like the coronet on my crest. Do you notice that?"
"Yes," said Montague. "It's curious."
"I'm very proud of my crest," continued Mrs. Winnie. "Of course there are vulgar rich people who have them made to order, and make them ridiculous; but ours is a real one. It's my own—not my husband's; the Duvals are an old French family, but they're not noble. I was a Morris, you know, and our line runs back to the old French ducal house of Montmorenci. And last summer, when we were motoring, I hunted up one of their chateaux; and see! I brought over this."
Mrs. Winnie pointed to a suit of armour, placed in a passage leading to the billiard-room. "I have had the lights fixed," she added. And she pressed a button, and all illumination vanished, save for a faint red glow just above the man in armour.
"Doesn't he look real?" said she. (He had his visor down, and a battle-axe in his mailed hands.) "I like to imagine that he may have been my twentieth great-grandfather. I come and sit here, and gaze at him and shiver. Think what a terrible time it must have been to live in—when men wore things like that! It couldn't be any worse to be a crab."
"You seem to be fond of strange emotions," said Montague, laughing.
"Maybe I am," said the other. "I like everything that's old and romantic, and makes you forget this stupid society world."
She stood brooding for a moment or two, gazing at the figure. Then she asked, abruptly, "Which do you like best, pictures or swimming?"
"Why," replied the man, laughing and perplexed, "I like them both, at times."
"I wondered which you'd rather see first," explained his escort; "the art gallery or the natatorium. I'm afraid you'll get tired before you've seen every thing."
"Suppose we begin with the art-gallery," said he. "There's not much to see in a swimming-pool."
"Ah, but ours is a very special one," said the lady.—"And some day, if you'll be very good, and promise not to tell anyone, I'll let you see my own bath. Perhaps they've told you, I have one in my own apartments, cut out of a block of the most wonderful green marble."
Montague showed the expected amount of astonishment.
"Of course that gave the dreadful newspapers another chance to gossip," said Mrs. Winnie, plaintively. "People found out what I had paid for it. One can't have anything beautiful without that question being asked."
And then followed a silence, while Mrs. Winnie waited for him to ask it. As he forebore to do so, she added, "It was fifty thousand dollars."
They were moving towards the elevator, where a small boy in the wonderful livery of plush and scarlet stood at attention. "Sometimes," she continued, "it seems to me that it is wicked to pay such prices for things. Have you ever thought about it?"
"Occasionally," Montague replied.
"Of course," said she, "it makes work for people; and I suppose they can't be better employed than in making beautiful things. But sometimes, when I think of all the poverty there is, I get unhappy. We have a winter place down South—one of those huge country-houses that look like exposition buildings, and have rooms for a hundred guests; and sometimes I go driving by myself, down to the mill towns, and go through them and talk to the children. I came to know some of them quite well—poor little wretches."
They stepped out of the elevator, and moved toward the art-gallery. "It used to make me so unhappy," she went on. "I tried to talk to my husband about it, but he wouldn't have it. 'I don't see why you can't be like other people,' he said—he's always repeating that to me. And what could I say?"
"Why not suggest that other people might be like you?" said the man, laughing.
"I wasn't clever enough," said she, regretfully.—"It's very hard for a woman, you know—with no one to understand. Once I went down to a settlement, to see what that was like. Do you know anything about settlements?"
"Nothing at all," said Montague.
"Well, they are people who go to live among the poor, and try to reform them. It takes a terrible lot of courage, I think. I give them money now and then, but I am never sure if it does any good. The trouble with poor people, it seems to me, is that there are so many of them."
"There are, indeed," said Montague, thinking of the vision he had seen from Oliver's racing-car.
Mrs. Winnie had seated herself upon a cushioned seat near the entrance to the darkened gallery. "I haven't been there for some time," she continued. "I've discovered something that I think appeals more to my temperament. I have rather a leaning toward the occult and the mystical, I'm afraid. Did you ever hear of the Babists?"
"No," said Montague.
"Well, that's a religious sect—from Persia, I think—and they are quite the rage. They are priests, you understand, and they give lectures, and teach you all about the immanence of the divine, and about reincarnation, and Karma, and all that. Do you believe any of those things?"
"I can't say that I know about them," said he.
"It is very beautiful and strange," added the other. "It makes you realize what a perplexing thing life is. They teach you how the universe is all one, and the soul is the only reality, and so bodily things don't matter. If I were a Babist, I believe that I could be happy, even if I had to work in a cotton-mill."
Then Mrs. Winnie rose up suddenly. "You'd rather look at the pictures, I know," she said; and she pressed a button, and a soft radiance flooded the great vaulted gallery.
"This is our chief pride in life," she said. "My husband's object has been to get one representative work of each of the great painters of the world. We got their masterpiece whenever we could. Over there in the corner are the old masters—don't you love to look at them?"
Montague would have liked to look at them very much; but he felt that he would rather it were some time when he did not have Mrs. Winnie by his side. Mrs. Winnie must have had to show the gallery quite frequently; and now her mind was still upon the Persian transcendentalists.
"That picture of the saint is a Botticelli," she said. "And do you know, the orange-coloured robe always makes me think of the swami. That is my teacher, you know—Swami Babubanana. And he has the most beautiful delicate hands, and great big brown eyes, so soft and gentle—for all the world like those of the gazelles in our place down South!"
Thus Mrs. Winnie, as she roamed from picture to picture, while the souls of the grave old masters looked down upon her in silence.
Montague had now been officially pronounced complete by his tailor; and Reval had sent home the first of Alice's street gowns, elaborately plain, but fitting her conspicuously, and costing accordingly. So the next morning they were ready to be taken to call upon Mrs. Devon.
Of course Montague had heard of the Devons, but he was not sufficiently initiated to comprehend just what it meant to be asked to call. But when Oliver came in, a little before noon, and proceeded to examine his costume and to put him to rights, and insisted that Alice should have her hair done over, he began to realize that this was a special occasion. Oliver was in quite a state of excitement; and after they had left the hotel, and were driving up the Avenue, he explained to them that their future in Society depended upon the outcome of this visit. Calling upon Mrs. Devon, it seemed, was the American equivalent to being presented at court. For twenty-five years this grand lady had been the undisputed mistress of the Society of the metropolis; and if she liked them, they would be invited to her annual ball, which took place in January, and then for ever after their position would be assured. Mrs. Devon's ball was the one great event of the social year; about one thousand people were asked, while ten thousand disappointed ones gnashed their teeth in outer darkness.
All of which threw Alice into a state of trepidation.
"Suppose we don't suit her!" she said.
To that the other replied that their way had been made smooth by Reggie Mann, who was one of Mrs. Devon's favourites.
A century and more ago the founder of the Devon line had come to America, and invested his savings in land on Manhattan Island. Other people had toiled and built a city there, and generation after generation of the Devons had sat by and collected the rents, until now their fortune amounted to four or five hundred millions of dollars. They were the richest old family in America, and the most famous; and in Mrs. Devon, the oldest member of the line, was centred all its social majesty and dominion. She lived a stately and formal life, precisely like a queen; no one ever saw her save upon her raised chair of state, and she wore her jewels even at breakfast. She was the arbiter of social destinies, and the breakwater against which the floods of new wealth beat in vain. Reggie Mann told wonderful tales about the contents of her enormous mail—about wives and daughters of mighty rich men who flung themselves at her feet and pleaded abjectly for her favour—who laid siege to her house for months, and intrigued and pulled wires to get near her, and even bought the favour of her servants! If Reggie might be believed, great financial wars had been fought, and the stock-markets of the world convulsed more than once, because of these social struggles; and women of wealth and beauty had offered to sell themselves for the privilege which was so freely granted to them.
They came to the old family mansion and rang the bell, and the solemn butler ushered them past the grand staircase and into the front reception-room to wait. Perhaps five minutes later he came in and rolled back the doors, and they stood up, and beheld a withered old lady, nearly eighty years of age, bedecked with diamonds and seated upon a sort of throne. They approached, and Oliver introduced them, and the old lady held out a lifeless hand; and then they sat down.
Mrs. Devon asked them a few questions as to how much of New York they had seen, and how they liked it, and whom they had met; but most of the time she simply looked them over, and left the making of conversation to Oliver. As for Montague, he sat, feeling perplexed and uncomfortable, and wondering, deep down in him, whether it could really be America in which this was happening.
"You see," Oliver explained to them, when they were seated in their carriage again, "her mind is failing, and it's really quite difficult for her to receive."
"I'm glad I don't have to call on her more than once," was Alice's comment. "When do we know the verdict?"
"When you get a card marked 'Mrs. Devon at home,'" said Oliver. And he went on to tell them about the war which had shaken Society long ago, when the mighty dame had asserted her right to be "Mrs. Devon," and the only "Mrs. Devon." He told them also about her wonderful dinner-set of china, which had cost thirty thousand dollars, and was as fragile as a humming-bird's wing. Each piece bore her crest, and she had a china expert to attend to washing and packing it—no common hand was ever allowed to touch it. He told them, also, how Mrs. Devon's housekeeper had wrestled for so long, trying to teach the maids to arrange the furniture in the great reception-rooms precisely as the mistress ordered; until finally a complete set of photographs had been taken, so that the maids might do their work by chart.
Alice went back to the hotel, for Mrs. Robbie Walling was to call and take her home to lunch; and Montague and his brother strolled round to Reggie Mann's apartments, to report upon their visit.
Reggie received them in a pair of pink silk pyjamas, decorated with ribbons and bows, and with silk-embroidered slippers, set with pearls—a present from a feminine adorer. Montague noticed, to his dismay, that the little man wore a gold bracelet upon one arm! He explained that he had led a cotillion the night before—or rather this morning; he had got home at five o'clock. He looked quite white and tired, and there were the remains of a breakfast of brandy-and-soda on the table.
"Did you see the old girl?" he asked. "And how does she hold up?"
"She's game," said Oliver.
"I had the devil's own time getting you in," said the other. "It's getting harder every day."
"You'll excuse me," Reggie added, "if I get ready. I have an engagement." And he turned to his dressing-table, which was covered with an array of cosmetics and perfumes, and proceeded, in a matter-of-fact way, to paint his face. Meanwhile his valet was flitting silently here and there, getting ready his afternoon costume; and Montague, in spite of himself, followed the man with his eyes. A haberdasher's shop might have been kept going for quite a while upon the contents of Reggie's dressers. His clothing was kept in a room adjoining the dressing-room; Montague, who was near the door, could see the rosewood wardrobes, each devoted to a separate article of clothing-shirts, for instance, laid upon sliding racks, tier upon tier of them, of every material and colour. There was a closet fitted with shelves and equipped like a little shoe store—high shoes and low shoes, black ones, brown ones, and white ones, and each fitted over a last to keep its shape perfect. These shoes were all made to order according to Reggie's designs, and three or-four times a year there was a cleaning out, and those which had gone out of fashion became the prey of his "man." There was a safe in one closet, in which Reggie's jewellery was kept.
The dressing-room was furnished like a lady's boudoir, the furniture upholstered with exquisite embroidered silk, and the bed hung with curtains of the same material. There was a huge bunch of roses on the centre-table, and the odour of roses hung heavy in the room.
The valet stood at attention with a rack of neckties, from which Reggie critically selected one to match his shirt. "Are you going to take Alice with you down to the Havens's?" he was asking; and he added, "You'll meet Vivie Patton down there—she's had another row at home."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Oliver.
"Yes," said the other. "Frank waited up all night for her, and he wept and tore his hair and vowed he would kill the Count. Vivie told him to go to hell."
"Good God!" said Oliver. "Who told you that?"
"The faithful Alphonse," said Reggie, nodding toward his valet. "Her maid told him. And Frank vows he'll sue—I half expected to see it in the papers this morning."
"I met Vivie on the street yesterday," said Oliver. "She looked as chipper as ever."
Reggie shrugged his shoulders. "Have you seen this week's paper?" he asked. "They've got another of Ysabel's suppressed poems in."—And then he turned toward Montague to explain that "Ysabel" was the pseudonym of a young debutante who had fallen under the spell of Baudelaire and Wilde, and had published a volume of poems of such furious eroticism that her parents were buying up stray copies at fabulous prices.
Then the conversation turned to the Horse Show, and for quite a while they talked about who was going to wear what. Finally Oliver rose, saying that they would have to get a bite to eat before leaving for the Havens's. "You'll have a good time," said Reggie. "I'd have gone myself, only I promised to stay and help Mrs. de Graffenried design a dinner. So long!"
Montague had heard nothing about the visit to the Havens's; but now, as they strolled down the Avenue, Oliver explained that they were to spend the weekend at Castle Havens. There was quite a party going up this Friday afternoon, and they would find one of the Havens's private cars waiting. They had nothing to do meantime, for their valets would attend to their packing, and Alice and her maid would meet them at the depot.
"Castle Havens is one of the show places of the country," Oliver added. "You'll see the real thing this time." And while they lunched, he went on to entertain his brother with particulars concerning the place and its owners. John had inherited the bulk of the enormous Havens fortune, and he posed as his father's successor in the Steel Trust. Some day some one of the big men would gobble him up; meantime he amused himself fussing over the petty details of administration. Mrs. Havens had taken a fancy to a rural life, and they had built this huge palace in the hills of Connecticut, and she wrote verses in which she pictured herself as a simple shepherdess—and all that sort of stuff. But no one minded that, because the place was grand, and there was always so much to do. They had forty or fifty polo ponies, for instance, and every spring the place was filled with polo men.
At the depot they caught sight of Charlie Carter, in his big red touring-car. "Are you going to the Havens's?" he said. "Tell them we're going to pick up Chauncey on the way."
"That's Chauncey Venable, the Major's nephew," said Oliver, as they strolled to the train. "Poor Chauncey—he's in exile!"
"How do you mean?" asked Montague.
"Why, he daren't come into New York," said the other. "Haven't you read about it in the papers? He lost one or two hundred thousand the other night in a gambling place, and the district attorney's trying to catch him."
"Does he want to put him in jail?" asked Montague.
"Heavens, no!" said Oliver. "Put a Venable in jail? He wants him for a witness against the gambler; and poor Chauncey is flitting about the country hiding with his friends, and wailing because he'll miss the Horse Show."
They boarded the palatial private car, and were introduced to a number of other guests. Among them was Major Venable; and while Oliver buried himself in the new issue of the fantastic-covered society journal, which contained the poem of the erotic "Ysabel," his brother chatted with the Major. The latter had taken quite a fancy to the big handsome stranger, to whom everything in the city was so new and interesting."
"Tell me what you thought of the Snow Palace," said he. "I've an idea that Mrs. Winnie's got quite a crush on you. You'll find her dangerous, my boy—she'll make you pay for your dinners before you get through!"
After the train was under way, the Major got himself surrounded with some apollinaris and Scotch, and then settled back to enjoy himself. "Did you see the 'drunken kid' at the ferry?" he asked. "(That's what our abstemious district attorney terms my precious young heir-apparent.) You'll meet him at the Castle—the Havens are good to him. They know how it feels, I guess; when John was a youngster his piratical uncle had to camp in Jersey for six months or so, to escape the strong arm of the law."
"Don't you know about it?" continued the Major, sipping at his beverage. "Sic transit gloria mundi! That was when the great Captain Kidd Havens was piling up the millions which his survivors are spending with such charming insouciance. He was plundering a railroad, and the original progenitor of the Wallings tried to buy the control away from him, and Havens issued ten or twenty millions of new stock overnight, in the face of a court injunction, and got away with most of his money. It reads like opera bouffe, you know—they had a regular armed camp across the river for about six months—until Captain Kidd went up to Albany with half a million dollars' worth of greenbacks in a satchel, and induced the legislature to legalize the proceedings. That was just after the war, you know, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. It seems strange to think that anyone shouldn't know about it."
"I know about Havens in a general way," said Montague.
"Yes," said the Major. "But I know in a particular way, because I've carried some of that railroad's paper all these years, and it's never paid any dividends since. It has a tendency to interfere with my appreciation of John's lavish hospitality."
Montague was reminded of the story of the Roman emperor who pointed out that money had no smell.
"Maybe not," said the Major. "But all the same, if you were superstitious, you might make out an argument from the Havens fortune. Take that poor girl who married the Count."
And the Major went on to picture the denouement of that famous international alliance, which, many years ago, had been the sensation of two continents. All Society had attended the gorgeous wedding, an archbishop had performed the ceremony, and the newspapers had devoted pages to describing the gowns and the jewels and the presents and all the rest of the magnificence. And the Count was a wretched little degenerate, who beat and kicked his wife, and flaunted his mistresses in her face, and wasted fourteen million dollars of her money in a couple of years. The mind could scarcely follow the orgies of this half-insane creature—he had spent two hundred thousand dollars on a banquet, and half as much again for a tortoise-shell wardrobe in which Louis the Sixteenth had kept his clothes! He had charged a diamond necklace to his wife, and taken two of the four rows of diamonds out of it before he presented it to her! He had paid a hundred thousand dollars a year to a jockey whom the Parisian populace admired, and a fortune for a palace in Verona, which he had promptly torn down, for the sake of a few painted ceilings. The Major told about one outdoor fete, which he had given upon a sudden whim: ten thousand Venetian lanterns, ten thousand metres of carpet; three thousand gilded chairs, and two or three hundred waiters in fancy costumes; two palaces built in a lake, with sea-horses and dolphins, and half a dozen orchestras, and several hundred chorus—girls from the Grand Opera! And in between adventures such as these, he bought a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, and made speeches and fought duels in defence of the Holy Catholic Church—and wrote articles for the yellow journals of America. "And that's the fate of my lost dividends!" growled the Major.
There were several automobiles to meet the party at the depot, and they were whirled through a broad avenue up a valley, and past a little lake, and so to the gates of Castle Havens.
It was a tremendous building, a couple of hundred feet long. One entered into a main hall, perhaps fifty feet wide, with a great fireplace arid staircase of marble and bronze, and furniture of gilded wood and crimson velvet, and a huge painting, covering three of the walls, representing the Conquest of Peru. Each of the rooms was furnished in the style of a different period—one Louis Quatorze, one Louis Quinze, one Marie Antoinette, and so on. There was a drawing-room and a regal music-room; a dining-room in the Georgian style, and a billiard-room, also in the English fashion, with high wainscoting and open beams in the ceiling; and a library, and a morning-room and conservatory. Upstairs in the main suite of rooms was a royal bedstead, which alone was rumoured to have cost twenty-five thousand dollars; and you might have some idea of the magnificence of things when you learned that underneath the gilding of the furniture was the rare and precious Circassian walnut.
All this was beautiful. But what brought the guests to Castle Havens was the casino, so the Major had remarked. It was really a private athletic club—with tan-bark hippodrome, having a ring the size of that in Madison Square Garden, and a skylight roof, and thirty or forty arc-lights for night events. There were bowling-alleys, billiard and lounging-rooms, hand-ball, tennis and racket-courts, a completely equipped gymnasium, a shooting-gallery, and a swimming-pool with Turkish and Russian baths. In this casino alone there were rooms for forty guests.
Such was Castle Havens; it had cost three or four millions of dollars, and within the twelve-foot wall which surrounded its grounds lived two world-weary people who dreaded nothing so much as to be alone. There were always guests, and on special occasions there might be three or four score. They went whirling about the country in their autos; they rode and drove; they played games, outdoor and indoor, or gambled, or lounged and chatted, or wandered about at their own sweet will. Coming to one of these places was not different from staying at a great hotel, save that the company was selected, and instead of paying a bill, you gave twenty or thirty dollars to the servants when you left.
It was a great palace of pleasure, in which beautiful and graceful men and women played together in all sorts of beautiful and graceful ways. In the evenings great logs blazed in the fireplace in the hall, and there might be an informal dance—there was always music at hand. Now and then there would be a stately ball, with rich gowns and flashing jewels, and the grounds ablaze with lights, and a full orchestra, and special trains from the city. Or a whole theatrical company would be brought down to give an entertainment in the theatre; or a minstrel show, or a troupe of acrobats, or a menagerie of trained animals. Or perhaps there would be a great pianist, or a palmist, or a trance medium. Anyone at all would be welcome who could bring a new thrill—it mattered nothing at all, though the price might be several hundred dollars a minute.
Montague shook hands with his host and hostess, and with a number of others; among them Billy Price who forthwith challenged him, and carried him off to the shooting-gallery. Here he took a rifle, and proceeded to satisfy her as to his skill. This brought him to the notice of Siegfried Harvey, who was a famous cross-country rider and "polo-man." Harvey's father owned a score of copper-mines, and had named him after a race-horse; he was a big broad-shouldered fellow, a favourite of every one; and next morning, when he found that Montague sat a horse like one who was born to it, he invited him to come out to his place on Long Island, and see some of the fox-hunting.
Then, after he had dressed for dinner, Montague came downstairs, and found Betty Wyman, shining like Aurora in an orange-coloured cloud. She introduced him to Mrs. Vivie Patton, who was tall and slender and fascinating, and had told her husband to go to hell. Mrs. Vivie had black eyes that snapped and sparkled, and she was a geyser of animation in a perpetual condition of eruption. Montague wondered if she would have talked with him so gaily had she known what he knew about her domestic entanglements.
The company moved into the dining-room, where there was served another of those elaborate and enormously expensive meals which he concluded he was fated to eat for the rest of his life. Only, instead of Mrs. Billy Alden with her Scotch, there was Mrs. Vivie, who drank champagne in terrifying quantities; and afterward there was the inevitable grouping of the bridge fiends.
Among the guests there was a long-haired and wild-looking foreign personage, who was the "lion" of the evening, and sat with half a dozen admiring women about him. Now he was escorted to the music-room, and revealed the fact that he was a violin virtuoso. He played what was called "salon music"—music written especially for ladies and gentlemen to listen to after dinner; and also a strange contrivance called a concerto, put together to enable the player to exhibit within a brief space the utmost possible variety of finger gymnastics. To learn to perform these feats one had to devote his whole lifetime to practising them, just like any circus acrobat; and so his mind became atrophied, and a naive and elemental vanity was all that was left to him.
Montague stood for a while staring; and then took to watching the company, who chattered and laughed all through the performance. Afterward, he strolled into the billiard-room, where Billy Price and Chauncey Venable were having an exciting bout; and from there to the smoking-room, where the stout little Major had gotten a group of young bloods about him to play "Klondike." This was a game of deadly hazards, which they played without limit; the players themselves were silent and impassive, but the spectators who gathered about were tense with excitement.
In the morning Charlie Carter carried off Alice and Oliver and Betty in his auto; and Montague spent his time in trying some of Havens's jumping horses. The Horse Show was to open in New York on Monday, and there was an atmosphere of suppressed excitement because of this prospect; Mrs. Caroline Smythe, a charming young widow, strolled about with him and told him all about this Show, and the people who would take part in it.
And in the afternoon Major Venable took him for a stroll and showed him the grounds. He had been told what huge sums had been expended in laying them out; but after all, the figures were nothing compared with an actual view. There were hills and slopes, and endless vistas of green lawns and gardens, dotted with the gleaming white of marble staircases and fountains and statuary. There was a great Italian walk, leading by successive esplanades to an electric fountain with a basin sixty feet across, and a bronze chariot and marble horses. There were sunken gardens, with a fountain brought from the South of France, and Greek peristyles, and seats of marble, and vases and other treasures of art.
And then there were the stables; a huge Renaissance building, with a perfectly equipped theatre above. There was a model farm and dairy; a polo-field, and an enclosed riding-ring for the children; and dog-kennels and pigeon-houses, greenhouses and deer-parks—one was prepared for bear-pits and a menagerie. Finally, on their way back, they passed the casino, where musical chimes pealed out the quarter-hours. Montague stopped and gazed up at the tower from which the sounds had come.
The more he gazed, the more he found to gaze at The roof of this building had many gables, in the Queen Anne style; and from the midst of them shot up the tower, which was octagonal and solid, suggestive of the Normans. It was decorated with Christmas-wreaths in white stucco, and a few miscellaneous ornaments like the gilded tassels one sees upon plush curtains. Overtopping all of this was the dome of a Turkish mosque. Rising out of the dome was something that looked like a dove-cot; and out of this rose the slender white steeple of a Methodist country church. On top of that was a statue of Diana.
"What are you looking at?" asked the Major.
"Nothing," said Montague, as he moved on. "Has there ever been any insanity in the Havens family?"
"I don't know," replied the other, puzzled. "They say the old man never could sleep at night, and used to wander about alone in the park. I suppose he had things on his conscience."
They strolled away; and the Major's flood-gates of gossip were opened. There was an old merchant in New York, who had been Havens's private secretary. And Havens was always in terror of assassination, and so whenever they travelled abroad he and the secretary exchanged places. "The old man is big and imposing," said the Major, "and it's funny to hear him tell how he used to receive the visitors and be stared at by the crowds, while Havens, who was little and insignificant, would pretend to make himself useful. And then one day a wild-looking creature came into the Havens office, and began tearing the wrappings off some package that shone like metal—and quick as a flash he and Havens flung themselves down on the floor upon their faces. Then, as nothing happened, they looked up, and saw the puzzled stranger gazing over the railing at them. He had a patent churn, made of copper, which he wanted Havens to market for him!"
Montague could have wished that this party might last for a week or two, instead of only two days. He was interested in the life, and in those who lived it; all whom he met were people prominent in the social world, and some in the business world as well, and one could not have asked a better chance to study them.
Montague was taking his time and feeling his way slowly. But all the time that he was playing and gossiping he never lost from mind his real purpose, which was to find a place for himself in the world of affairs; and he watched for people from whose conversation he could get a view of this aspect of things. So he was interested when Mrs. Smythe remarked that among his fellow-guests was Vandam, an official of one of the great life-insurance companies. "Freddie" Vandam, as the lady called him, was a man of might in the financial world; and Montague said to himself that in meeting him he would really be accomplishing something. Crack shots and polo-players and four-in-hand experts were all very well, but he had his living to earn, and he feared that the problem was going to prove complicated.
So he was glad when chance brought him and young Vandam together, and Siegfried Harvey introduced them. And then Montague got the biggest shock which New York had given him yet.
It was not what Freddie Vandam said; doubtless he had a right to be interested in the Horse Show, since he was to exhibit many fine horses, and he had no reason to feel called upon to talk about anything more serious to a stranger at a house party. But it was the manner of the man, his whole personality. For Freddie was a man of fashion, with all the exaggerated and farcical mannerisms of the dandy of the comic papers. He wore a conspicuous and foppish costume, and posed with a little cane; he cultivated a waving pompadour, and his silky moustache and beard were carefully trimmed to points, and kept sharp by his active fingers. His conversation was full of French phrases and French opinions; he had been reared abroad, and had a whole-souled contempt for all things American-even dictating his business letters in French, and leaving it for his stenographer to translate them. His shirts were embroidered with violets and perfumed with violets—and there were bunches of violets at his horses' heads, so that he might get the odour as he drove!
There was a cruel saying about Freddie Vandam—that if only he had had a little more brains, he would have been half-witted. And Montague sat, and watched his mannerisms and listened to his inanities, with his mind in a state of bewilderment and dismay. When at last he got up and walked away, it was with a new sense of the complicated nature of the problem that confronted him. Who was there that could give him the key to this mystery—who could interpret to him a world in which a man such as this was in control of four or five hundred millions of trust funds?
It was quite futile to attempt to induce anyone to talk about serious matters just now—for the coming week all Society belonged to the horse. The parties which went to church on Sunday morning talked about horses on the way, and the crowds that gathered in front of the church door to watch them descend from their automobiles, and to get "points" on their conspicuous costumes—these would read about horses all afternoon in the Sunday papers, and about the gowns which the women would wear at the show.
Some of the party went up on Sunday evening; Montague went with the rest on Monday morning, and had lunch with Mrs. Robbie Walling and Oliver and Alice. They had arrayed him in a frock coat and silk hat and fancy "spats"; and they took him and sat him in the front row of Robbie's box.
There was a great tan-bark arena, in which the horses performed; and then a railing, and a broad promenade for the spectators; and then, raised a few feet above, the boxes in which sat all Society. For the Horse Show had now become a great social function. Last year a visiting foreign prince had seen fit to attend it, and this year "everybody" would come.
Montague was rapidly getting used to things; he observed with a smile how easy it was to take for granted embroidered bed and table linen, and mural paintings, and private cars, and gold plate. At first it had seemed to him strange to be waited upon by a white woman, and by a white man quite unthinkable; but he was becoming accustomed to having silent and expressionless lackeys everywhere about him, attending to his slightest want. So he presumed that if he waited long enough, he might even get used to horses which had their tails cut off to stumps, and their manes to rows of bristles, and which had been taught to lift their feet in strange and eccentric ways, and were driven with burred bits in their mouths to torture them and make them step lively.
There were road-horses, coach-horses, saddle-horses and hunters, polo-ponies, stud-horses—every kind of horse that is used for pleasure, over a hundred different "classes" of them. They were put through their paces about the ring, and there was a committee which judged them, and awarded blue and red ribbons. Apparently their highly artificial kind of excellence was a real thing to the people who took part in the show; for the spectators thrilled with excitement, and applauded the popular victors. There was a whole set of conventions which were generally understood—there was even a new language. You were told that these "turnouts" were "nobby" and "natty"; they were "swagger" and "smart" and "swell."
However, the horse was really a small part of this show; before one had sat out an afternoon he realized that the function was in reality a show of Society. For six or seven hours during the day the broad promenade would be so packed with human beings that one moved about with difficulty; and this throng gazed towards the ring almost never—it stared up into the boxes. All the year round the discontented millions of the middle classes read of the doings of the "smart set"; and here they had a chance to come and see them-alive, and real, and dressed in their showiest costumes. Here was all the grand monde, in numbered boxes, and with their names upon the programmes, so that one could get them straight. Ten thousand people from other cities had come to New York on purpose to get a look. Women who lived in boarding-houses and made their own clothes, had come to get hints; all the dressmakers in town were present for the same purpose.. Society reporters had come, with notebooks in hand; and next morning the imitators of Society all over the United States would read about it, in such fashion as this: "Mrs. Chauncey Venable was becomingly gowned in mauve cloth, made with an Eton jacket trimmed with silk braid, and opening over a chemisette of lace. Her hat was of the same colour, draped with a great quantity of mauve and orange tulle, and surmounted with birds of paradise to match. Her furs were silver fox."
The most intelligent of the great metropolitan dailies would print columns of this sort of material; and as for the "yellow" journals, they would have discussions of the costumes by "experts," and half a page of pictures of the most conspicuous of the box-holders. While Montague sat talking with Mrs. Walling, half a dozen cameras were snapped at them; and once a young man with a sketch-book placed himself in front of them and went placidly to work.—Concerning such things the society dame had three different sets of emotions: first, the one which she showed in public, that of bored and contemptuous indifference; second, the one which she expressed to her friends, that of outraged but helpless indignation; and third, the one which she really felt, that of triumphant exultation over her rivals, whose pictures were not published and whose costumes were not described.
It was a great dress parade of society women. One who wished to play a proper part in it would spend at least ten thousand dollars upon her costumes for the week. It was necessary to have a different gown for the afternoon and evening of each day; and some, who were adepts at quick changes and were proud of it, would wear three or four a day, and so need a couple of dozen gowns for the show. And of course there had to be hats and shoes and gloves to match. There would be robes of priceless fur hung carelessly over the balcony to make a setting; and in the evening there would be pyrotechnical displays of jewels. Mrs. Virginia Landis wore a pair of simple pearl earrings, which she told the reporters had cost twenty thousand dollars; and there were two women who displayed four hundred thousand dollars' worth of diamonds—and each of them had hired a detective to hover about in the crowd and keep watch over her!
Nor must one suppose, because the horse was an inconspicuous part of the show, that he was therefore an inexpensive part. One man was to be seen here driving a four-in-hand of black stallions which had cost forty thousand; there were other men who drove only one horse, and had paid forty thousand for that. Half a million was a moderate estimate of the cost of the "string" which some would exhibit. And of course these horses were useless, save for show purposes, and to breed other horses like them. Many of them never went out of their stables except for exercise upon a track; and the cumbrous and enormous; expensive coaches were never by any possibility used elsewhere—when they were taken from place to place they seldom went upon their own wheels.
And there were people here who made their chief occupation in life the winning of blue ribbons at these shows. They kept great country estates especially for the horses, and had private indoor exhibition rings. Robbie Walling and Chauncey Venable were both such people; in the summer of next year another of the Wallings took a string across the water to teach the horse-show game to Society in London. He took twenty or thirty horses, under the charge of an expert manager and a dozen assistants; he sent sixteen different kinds of carriages, and two great coaches, and a ton of harness and other stuff. It required one whole deck of a steamer, and the expedition enabled him to get rid of six hundred thousand dollars.
All through the day, of course, Robbie was down in the ring with his trainers and his competitors, and Montague sat and kept his wife company. There was a steady stream of visitors, who came to congratulate her upon their successes, and to commiserate with Mrs. Chauncey Venable over the sufferings of the un-happy victim of a notoriety-seeking district attorney.
There was just one drawback to the Horse Show, as Montague gathered from the conversation that went on among the callers: it was public, and there was no way to prevent undesirable people from taking part. There were, it appeared, hordes of rich people in New York who were not in Society, and of whose existence Society was haughtily unaware; but these people might enter horses and win prizes, and even rent a box and exhibit their clothes. And they might induce the reporters to mention them—and of course the ignorant populace did not know the difference, and stared at them just as hard as at Mrs. Robbie or Mrs. Winnie. And so for a whole blissful week these people had all the sensations of being in Society! "It won't be very long before that will kill the Horse Show," said Mrs. Vivie Patton, with a snap of her black eyes.
There was Miss Yvette Simpkins, for instance; Society frothed at the mouth when her name was mentioned. Miss Yvette was the niece of a stock-broker who was wealthy, and she thought that she was in Society, and the foolish public thought so, too. Miss Yvette made a speciality of newspaper publicity; you were always seeing her picture, with some new "Worth creation," and the picture would be labelled "Miss Yvette Simpkins, the best-dressed woman in New York," or "Miss Yvette Simpkins, who is known as the best woman whip in Society." It was said that Miss Yvette, who was short and stout, and had a rosy German face, had paid five thousand dollars at one clip for photographs of herself in a new wardrobe; and her pictures were sent to the newspapers in bundles of a dozen at a time. Miss Yvette possessed over a million dollars' worth of diamonds—the finest in the country, according to the newspapers; she had spent a hundred and twenty-six thousand dollars this year upon her clothes, and she gave long interviews, in which she set forth the fact that a woman nowadays could not really be well dressed upon less than a hundred thousand a year. It was Miss Yvette's boast that she had never ridden in a street-car in her life.
Montague always had a soft spot in his heart for the unfortunate Miss Yvette, who laboured so hard to be a guiding light; for it chanced to be while she was in the ring, exhibiting her skill in driving tandem, that he met with a fateful encounter. Afterward, when he came to look back upon these early days, it seemed strange to him that he should have gone about this place, so careless and unsuspecting, while the fates were weaving strange destinies about him.
It was on Tuesday afternoon, and he sat in the box of Mrs. Venable, a sister-in-law of the Major. The Major, who was a care-free bachelor, was there himself, and also Betty Wyman, who was making sprightly comments on the passers-by; and there strolled into the box Chappie de Peyster, accompanied by a young lady.
So many people had stopped and been introduced and then passed on, that Montague merely glanced at her once. He noticed that she was tall and graceful, and caught her name, Miss Hegan.
The turnouts in the ring consisted of one horse harnessed in front of another; and Montague was wondering what conceivable motive could induce a human being to hitch and drive horses in that fashion. The conversation turned upon Miss Yvette, who was in the ring; and Betty remarked upon the airy grace with which she wielded the long whip she carried. "Did you see what the paper said about her this morning?" she asked. "' Miss Simpkins was exquisitely clad in purple velvet,' and so on! She looked for all the world like the Venus at the Hippodrome!"
"Why isn't she in Society?" asked Montague, curiously.
"She!" exclaimed Betty. "Why, she's a travesty!"
There was a moment's pause, preceding a remark by their young lady visitor. "I've an idea," said she, "that the real reason she never got into Society was that she was fond of her old father."
And Montague gave a short glance at the speaker, who was gazing fixedly into the ring. He heard the Major chuckle, and he thought that he heard Betty Wyman give a little sniff. A few moments later the young lady arose, and with some remark to Mrs. Venable about how well her costume became her, she passed on out of the box.
"Who is that?" asked Montague.
"That," the Major answered, "that's Laura Hegan—Jim Hegan's daughter."
"Oh!" said Montague, and caught his breath. Jim Hegan—Napoleon of finance—czar of a gigantic system of railroads, and the power behind the political thrones of many states.
"His only daughter, too," the Major added. "Gad, what a juicy morsel for somebody!"
"Well, she'll make him pay for all he gets, whoever he is!" retorted Betty, vindictively.
"You don't like her?" inquired Montague; and Betty replied promptly, "I do not!"
"Her daddy and Betty's granddaddy are always at swords' points," put in Major Venable.
"I have nothing to do with my granddaddy's quarrels," said the young lady. "I have troubles enough of my own."
"What is the matter with Miss Hegan?" asked Montague, laughing.
"She's an idea she's too good for the world she lives in," said Betty. "When you're with her, you feel as you will before the judgment throne."
"Undoubtedly a disturbing feeling," put in the Major.
"She never hands you anything but you find a pin hidden in it," went on the girl. "All her remarks are meant to be read backward, and my life is too short to straighten out their kinks. I like a person to say what they mean in plain English, and then I can either like them or not."
"Mostly not," said the Major, grimly; and added, "Anyway, she's beautiful."
"Perhaps," said the other. "So is the Jungfrau; but I prefer something more comfortable."
"What's Chappie de Peyster beauing her around for?" asked Mrs. Venable. "Is he a candidate?"
"Maybe his debts are troubling him again," said Mistress Betty. "He must be in a desperate plight.—Did you hear how Jack Audubon proposed to her?"
"Did Jack propose?" exclaimed the Major.
"Of course he did," said the girl. "His brother told me." Then, for Montague's benefit, she explained, "Jack Audubon is the Major's nephew, and he's a bookworm, and spends all his time collecting scarabs."
"What did he say to her?" asked the Major, highly amused.
"Why," said Betty, "he told her he knew she didn't love him; but also she knew that he didn't care anything about her money, and she might like to marry him so that other men would let her alone."
"Gad!" cried the old gentleman, slapping his knee. "A masterpiece!"
"Does she have so many suitors?" asked Montague; and the Major replied, "My dear boy—she'll have a hundred million dollars some day!"
At this point Oliver put in appearance, and Betty got up and went for a stroll with him; then Montague asked for light upon Miss Hegan's remark.
"What she said is perfectly true," replied the Major; "only it riled Betty. There's many a gallant dame cruising the social seas who has stowed her old relatives out of sight in the hold."
"What's the matter with old Simpkins?" asked the other.
"Just a queer boy," was the reply. "He has a big pile, and his one joy in life is the divine Yvette. It is really he who makes her ridiculous—he has a regular press agent for her, a chap he loads up with jewellery and cheques whenever he gets her picture into the papers."
The Major paused a moment to greet some acquaintance, and then resumed the conversation. Apparently he could gossip in this intimate fashion about any person whom you named. Old Simpkins had been very poor as a boy, it appeared, and he had never got over the memory of it. Miss Yvette spent fifty thousand at a clip for Paris gowns; but every day her old uncle would save up the lumps of sugar which came with the expensive lunch he had brought to his office. And when he had several pounds he would send them home by messenger!
This conversation gave Montague a new sense of the complicatedness of the world into which he had come. Miss Simpkins was "impossible"; and yet there was—for instance—that Mrs. Landis whom he had met at Mrs. Winnie Duval's. He had met her several times at the show; and he heard the Major and his sister-in-law chuckling over a paragraph in the society journal, to the effect that Mrs. Virginia van Rensselaer Landis had just returned from a successful hunting-trip in the far West. He did not see the humour of this, at least not until they had told him of another paragraph which had appeared some time before: stating that Mrs. Landis had gone to acquire residence in South Dakota, taking with her thirty-five trunks and a poodle; and that "Leanie" Hopkins, the handsome young stock-broker, had taken a six months' vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
And yet Mrs. Landis was "in" Society! And moreover, she spent nearly as much upon her clothes as Miss Yvette, and the clothes were quite as conspicuous; and if the papers did not print pages about them, it was not because Mrs. Landis was not perfectly willing. She was painted and made up quite as frankly as any chorus-girl on the stage. She laughed a great deal, and in a high key, and she and her friends told stories which made Montague wish to move out of the way.
Mrs. Landis had for some reason taken a fancy to Alice, and invited her home to lunch with her twice during the show. And after they had got home in the evening, the girl sat upon the bed in her fur-trimmed wrapper, and told Montague and his mother and Mammy Lucy all about her visit.
"I don't believe that woman has a thing to do or to think about in the world except to wear clothes!" she said. "Why, she has adjustable mirrors on ball-bearings, so that she can see every part of her skirts! And she gets all her gowns from Paris, four times a year—she says there are four seasons now, instead of two! I thought that my new clothes amounted to something, but my goodness, when I saw hers!"
Then Alice went on to describe the unpacking of fourteen trunks, which had just come up from the custom-house that day. Mrs. Virginia's couturiere had her photograph and her colouring (represented in actual paints) and a figure made up from exact measurements; and so every one of the garments would fit her perfectly. Each one came stuffed with tissue paper and held in place by a lattice-work of tape; and attached to each gown was a piece of the fabric, from which her shoemaker would make shoes or slippers. There were street-costumes and opera-wraps, robes de chambre and tea-gowns, reception-dresses, and wonderful ball and dinner gowns. Most of these latter were to be embroidered with jewellery before they were worn, and imitation jewels were sewn on, to show how the real ones were to be placed. These garments were made of real lace or Parisian embroidery, and the prices paid for them were almost impossible to credit. Some of them were made of lace so filmy that the women who made them had to sit in damp cellars, because the sunlight would dry the fine threads and they would break; a single yard of the lace represented forty days of labour. There was a pastel "batiste de soie" Pompadour robe, embroidered with cream silk flowers, which had cost one thousand dollars. There was a hat to go with it, which had cost a hundred and twenty-five, and shoes of grey antelope-skin, buckled with mother-of-pearl, which had cost forty. There was a gorgeous and intricate ball-dress of pale green chiffon satin, with orchids embroidered in oxidized silver, and a long court train, studded with diamonds—and this had cost six thousand dollars without the jewels! And there was an auto-coat which had cost three thousand; and an opera-wrap made in Leipsic, of white unborn baby lamb, lined with ermine, which had cost twelve thousand—with a thousand additional for a hat to match! Mrs. Landis thought nothing of paying thirty-five dollars for a lace handkerchief, or sixty dollars for a pair of spun silk hose, or two hundred dollars for a pearl and gold-handled parasol trimmed with cascades of chiffon, and made, like her hats, one for each gown.
"And she insists that these things are worth the money," said Alice. "She says it's not only the material in them, but the ideas. Each costume is a study, like a picture. 'I pay for the creative genius of the artist,' she said to me—'for his ability to catch my ideas and apply them to my personality—my complexion and hair and eyes. Sometimes I design my own costumes, and so I know what hard work it is!'"
Mrs. Landis came from one of New York's oldest families, and she was wealthy in her own right; she had a palace on Fifth Avenue, and now that she had turned her husband out, she had nothing at all to put in it except her clothes. Alice told about the places in which she kept them—it was like a museum! There was a gown-room, made dust-proof, of polished hardwood, and with tier upon tier of long poles running across, and padded skirt-supporters hanging from them. Everywhere there was order and system—each skirt was numbered, and in a chiffonier-drawer of the same number you would find the waist—and so on with hats and stockings and gloves and shoes and parasols. There was a row of closets, having shelves piled up with dainty lace-trimmed and beribboned lingerie; there were two closets full of hats and three of shoes. "When she went West," said Alice, "one of her maids counted, and found that she had over four hundred pairs! And she actually has a cabinet with a card-catalogue to keep track of them. And all the shelves are lined with perfumed silk sachets, and she has tiny sachets sewed in every skirt and waist; and she has her own private perfume—she gave me some. She calls it Occur de Jeannette, and she says she designed it herself, and had it patented!"
And then Alice went on to describe the maid's work-room, which was also of polished hardwood, and dust-proof, and had a balcony for brushing clothes, and wires upon which to hang them, and hot and cold water, and a big ironing-table and an electric stove. "But there can't be much work to do," laughed the girl, "for she never wears a gown more than two or three times. Just think of paying several thousand dollars for a costume, and giving it to your poor relations after you have worn it only twice! And the worst of it is that Mrs. Landis says it's all nothing unusual; you'll find such arrangements in every home of people who are socially prominent. She says there are women who boast of never appearing twice in the same gown, and there's one dreadful personage in Boston who wears each costume once, and then has it solemnly cremated by her butler!"
"It is wicked to do such things," put in old Mrs. Montague, when she had heard this tale through. "I don't see how people can get any pleasure out of it."
"That's what I said," replied Alice.
"To whom did you say that?" asked Montague. "To Mrs. Landis?"
"No," said Alice, "to a cousin of hers. I was downstairs waiting for her, and this girl came in. And we got to talking about it, and I said that I didn't think I could ever get used to such things."
"What did she say?" asked the other.
"She answered me strangely," said the girl. "She's tall, and very stately, and I was a little bit afraid of her. She said, 'You'll get used to it. Everybody you know will be doing it, and if you try to do differently they'll take offence; and you won't have the courage to do without friends. You'll be meaning every day to stop, but you never will, and you'll go on until you die.'"
"What did you say to that?"
"Nothing," answered Alice. "Just then Mrs. Landis came in, and Miss Hegan went away."
"Miss Hegan?" echoed Montague.
"Yes," said the other. "That's her name—Laura Hegan. Have you met her?"
The Horse Show was held in Madison Square Garden, a building occupying a whole city block. It seemed to Montague that during the four days he attended he was introduced to enough people to fill it to the doors. Each one of the exquisite ladies and gentlemen extended to him a delicately gloved hand, and remarked what perfect weather they were having, and asked him how long he had been in New York, and what he thought of it. Then they would talk about the horses, and about the people who were present, and what they had on.
He saw little of his brother, who was squiring the Walling ladies most of the time; and Alice, too, was generally separated from him and taken care of by others. Yet he was never alone—there was always some young matron ready to lead him to her carriage and whisk him away to lunch or dinner.
Many times he wondered why people should be so kind to him, a stranger, and one who could do nothing for them in return. Mrs. Billy Alden undertook to explain it to him, one afternoon, as he sat in her box. There had to be some people to enjoy, it appeared, or there would be no fun in the game. "Everything is new and strange to you," said she, "and you're delicious and refreshing; you make these women think perhaps they oughtn't to be so bored after all! Here's a woman who's bought a great painting; she's told that it's great, but she doesn't understand it herself—all she knows is that it cost her a hundred thousand dollars. And now you come along, and to you it's really a painting—and don't you see how gratifying that is to her?"
"Oliver is always telling me it's bad form to admire," said the man, laughing.
"Yes?" said the other. "Well, don't you let that brother of yours spoil you. There are more than enough of blase people in town—you be yourself."
He appreciated the compliment, but added, "I'm afraid that when the novelty is worn off, people will be tired of me."
"You'll find your place," said Mrs. Alden—"the people you like and who like you." And she went on to explain that here he was being passed about among a number of very different "sets," with different people and different tastes. Society had become split up in that manner of late—each set being jealous and contemptuous of all the other sets. Because of the fact that they overlapped a little at the edges, it was possible for him to meet here a great many people who never met each other, and were even unaware of each other's existence.
And Mrs. Alden went on to set forth the difference between these "sets"; they ran from the most exclusive down to the most "yellow," where they shaded off into the disreputable rich—of whom, it seemed, there were hordes in the city. These included "sporting" and theatrical and political people, some of whom were very rich indeed; and these sets in turn shaded off into the criminals and the demi-monde—who might also easily be rich. "Some day," said Mrs. Alden "you should get my brother to tell you about all these people. He's been in politics, you know, and he has a racing-stable."
And Mrs. Alden told him about the subtle little differences in the conventions of these various sets of Society. There was the matter of women smoking, for instance. All women smoked, nowadays; but some would do it only in their own apartments, with their women friends; and some would retire to an out-of-the-way corner to do it; while others would smoke in their own dining-rooms, or wherever the men smoked. All agreed however, in never smoking "in public"—that is, where they would be seen by people not of their own set. Such, at any rate, had always been the rule, though a few daring ones were beginning to defy even that.
Such rules were very rigid, but they were purely conventional, they had nothing to do with right or wrong: a fact which Mrs. Alden set forth with her usual incisiveness. A woman, married or unmarried, might travel with a man all over Europe, and every one might know that she did it, but it would make no difference, so long as she did not do it in America. There was one young matron whom Montague would meet, a raging beauty, who regularly got drunk at dinner parties, and had to be escorted to her carriage by the butler. She moved in the most exclusive circles, and every one treated it as a joke. Unpleasant things like this did not hurt a person unless they got "out"—that is, unless they became a scandal in the courts or the newspapers. Mrs. Alden herself had a cousin (whom she cordially hated) who had gotten a divorce from her husband and married her lover forthwith and had for this been ostracized by Society. Once when she came to some semi-public affair, fifty women had risen at once and left the room! She might have lived with her lover, both before and after the divorce, and every one might have known it, and no one would have cared; but the convenances declared that she should not marry him until a year had elapsed after the divorce.
One thing to which Mrs. Alden could testify, as a result of a lifetime's observation, was the rapid rate at which these conventions, even the most essential of them, were giving way, and being replaced by a general "do as you please." Anyone could see that the power of women like Mrs. Devon, who represented the old regime, and were dignified and austere and exclusive, was yielding before the onslaught of new people, who were bizarre and fantastic and promiscuous and loud. And the younger sets cared no more about anyone—nor about anything under heaven, save to have a good time in their own harum-scarum ways. In the old days one always received a neatly-written or engraved invitation to dinner, worded in impersonal and formal style; but the other day Mrs. Alden had found a message which had been taken from the telephone: "Please come to dinner, but don't come unless you can bring a man, or we'll be thirteen at the table."
And along with this went a perfectly incredible increase in luxury and extravagance. "You are surprised at what you see here to-day," said she—"but take my word for it, if you were to come back five years later, you'd find all our present standards antiquated, and our present pace-makers sent to the rear. You'd find new hotels and theatres opening, and food and clothing and furniture that cost twice as much as they cost now. Not so long ago a private car was a luxury; now it's as much a necessity as an opera-box or a private ball-room, and people who really count have private trains. I can remember when our girls wore pretty muslin gowns in summer, and sent them to wash; now they wear what they call lingerie gowns, dimity en princesse, with silk embroidery and real lace and ribbons, that cost a thousand dollars apiece and won't wash. Years ago when I gave a dinner, I invited a dozen friends, and my own chef cooked it and my own servants served it. Now I have to pay my steward ten thousand a year, and nothing that I have is good enough. I have to ask forty or fifty people, and I call in a caterer, and he brings everything of his own, and my servants go off and get drunk. You used to get a good dinner for ten dollars a plate, and fifteen was something special; but now you hear of dinners that cost a thousand a plate! And it's not enough to have beautiful flowers on the table—you have to have 'scenery'; there must be a rural landscape for a background, and goldfish in the finger-bowls, and five thousand dollars' worth of Florida orchids on the table, and floral favours of roses that cost a hundred and fifty dollars a dozen. I attended a dinner at the Waldorf last year that had cost fifty thousand dollars; and when I ask those people to see me, I have to give them as good as I got. The other day I paid a thousand dollars for a tablecloth!"
"Why do you do it?" asked Montague, abruptly.
"God knows," said the other; "I don't. I sometimes wonder myself. I guess it's because I've nothing else to do. It's like the story they tell about my brother—he was losing money in a gambling-place in Saratoga, and some one said to him, 'Davy, why do you go there—don't you know the game is crooked?' 'Of course it's crooked,' said he, 'but, damn it, it's the only game in town!'"
"The pressure is more than anyone can stand," said Mrs. Alden, after a moment's thought. "It's like trying to swim against a current. You have to float, and do what every one expects you to do—your children and your friends and your servants and your tradespeople. All the world is in a conspiracy against you."
"It's appalling to me," said the man.
"Yes," said the other, "and there's never any end to it. You think you know it all, but you find you really know very little. Just think of the number of people there are trying to go the pace! They say there are seven thousand millionaires in this country, but I say there are twenty thousand in New York alone—or if they don't own a million, they're spending the income of it, which amounts to the same thing. You can figure that a man who pays ten thousand a year for rent is paying fifty thousand to live; and there's Fifth Avenue—two miles of it, if you count the uptown and downtown parts; and there's Madison Avenue, and half a dozen houses adjoining on every side street; and then there are the hotels and apartment houses, to say nothing of the West Side and Riverside Drive. And you meet these mobs of people in the shops and the hotels and the theatres, and they all want to be better dressed than you. I saw a woman here to-day that I never saw in my life before, and I heard her say she'd paid two thousand dollars for a lace handkerchief; and it might have been true, for I've been asked to pay ten thousand for a lace shawl at a bargain. It's a common enough thing to see a woman walking on Fifth Avenue with twenty or thirty thousand dollars' worth of furs on her. Fifty thousand is often paid for a coat of sable, and I know of one that cost two hundred thousand. I know women who have a dozen sets of furs—ermine, chinchilla, black fox, baby lamb, and mink and sable; and I know a man whose chauffeur quit him because he wouldn't buy him a ten-thousand-dollar fur coat! And once people used to pack their furs away and take care of them; but now they wear them about the street, or at the sea-shore, and you can fairly see them fade. Or else their cut goes out of fashion, and so they have to have new ones!"
All that was material for thought. It was all true—there was no question about that. It seemed to be the rule that whenever you questioned a tale of the extravagances of New York, you would hear the next day of something several times more startling. Montague was staggered at the idea of a two-hundred-thousand-dollar fur coat; and yet not long afterward there arrived in the city a titled Englishwoman, who owned a coat worth a million dollars, which hard-headed insurance companies had insured for half a million. It was made of the soft plumage of rare Hawaiian birds, and had taken twenty years to make; each feather was crescent-shaped, and there were wonderful designs in crimson and gold and black. Every day in the casual conversation of your acquaintances you heard of similar incredible things; a tiny antique Persian rug, which could be folded into an overcoat pocket, for ten thousand dollars; a set of five "art fans," each blade painted by a famous artist and costing forty-three thousand dollars; a crystal cup for eighty thousand; an edition de luxe of the works of Dickens for a hundred thousand; a ruby, the size of a pigeon's egg, for three hundred thousand. In some of these great New York palaces there were fountains which cost a hundred dollars a minute to run; and in the harbour there were yachts which cost twenty thousand a month to keep in commission.
And that same day, as it chanced, he learned of a brand-new kind of squandering. He went home to lunch with Mrs. Winnie Duval, and there met Mrs. Caroline Smythe, with whom he had talked at Castle Havens. Mrs. Smythe, whose husband had been a well-known Wall Street plunger, was soft and mushy, and very gushing in manner; and she asked him to come home to dinner with her, adding, "I'll introduce you to my babies."
From what Montague had so far seen, he judged that babies played a very small part in the lives of the women of Society; and so he was interested, and asked, "How many have you?"
"Only two, in town," said Mrs. Smythe. "I've just come up, you see."
"How old are they?" he inquired politely; and when the lady added, "About two years," he asked, "Won't they be in bed by dinner time?"
"Oh my, no!" said Mrs. Smythe. "The dear little lambs wait up for me. I always find them scratching at my chamber door and wagging their little tails."
Then Mrs. Winnie laughed merrily and said, "Why do you fool him?" and went on to inform Montague that Caroline's "babies" were griffons Bruxelloises. Griffons suggested to him vague ideas of dragons and unicorns and gargoyles; but he said nothing more, save to accept the invitation, and that evening he discovered that griffons Bruxelloises were tiny dogs, long-haired, yellow, and fluffy; and that for her two priceless treasures Mrs. Smythe had an expert nurse, to whom she paid a hundred dollars a month, and also a footman, and a special cuisine in which their complicated food was prepared. They had a regular dentist, and a physician, and gold plate to eat from. Mrs. Smythe also owned two long-haired St. Bernards of a very rare breed, and a fierce Great Dane, and a very fat Boston bull pup—the last having been trained to go for an airing all alone in her carriage, with a solemn coachman and footman to drive him.
Montague, deftly keeping the conversation upon the subject of pets, learned that all this was quite common. Many women in Society artificially made themselves barren, because of the inconvenience incidental to pregnancy and motherhood; and instead they lavished their affections upon cats and dogs. Some of these animals had elaborate costumes, rivalling in expensiveness those of their step-mothers. They wore tiny boots, which cost eight dollars a pair—house boots, and street boots lacing up to the knees; they had house-coats, walking-coats, dusters, sweaters, coats lined with ermine, and automobile coats with head and chest-protectors and hoods and goggles—and each coat fitted with a pocket for its tiny handkerchief of fine linen or lace! And they had collars set with rubies and pearls and diamonds—one had a collar that cost ten thousand dollars! Sometimes there would be a coat to match every gown of the owner. There were dog nurseries and resting-rooms, in which they might be left temporarily; and manicure parlours for cats, with a physician in charge. When these pets died, there was an expensive cemetery in Brooklyn especially for their interment; and they would be duly embalmed and buried in plush-lined casket, and would have costly marble monuments. When one of Mrs. Smythe's best loved pugs had fallen ill of congestion of the liver, she had had tan-bark put upon the street in front of her house; and when in spite of this the dog died, she had sent out cards edged in black, inviting her friends to a "memorial service." Also she showed Montague a number of books with very costly bindings, in which were demonstrated the unity, simplicity, and immortality of the souls of cats and dogs.