It was a social plague; it had run through all Society, high and low. It had destroyed conversation and all good-fellowship—it would end by destroying even common decency, and turning the best people into vulgar gamblers.—Thus spoke Mrs. Billy Alden, who was one of the guests; and Montague thought that Mrs. Billy ought to know, for she herself was playing all the time.
Mrs. Billy did not like Mrs. Winnie Duval; and the beginning of the conversation was her inquiry why he let that woman corrupt him. Then the good lady went on to tell him what bridge had come to be; how people played it on the trains all the way from New York to San Francisco; how they had tables in their autos, and played while they were touring over the world. "Once," said she, "I took a party to see the America's Cup races off Sandy Hook; and when we got back to the pier, some one called, 'Who won?' And the answer was, 'Mrs. Billy's ahead, but we're going on this evening.' I took a party of friends through the Mediterranean and up the Nile, and we passed Venice and Cairo and the Pyramids and the Suez Canal, and they never once looked up—they were playing bridge. And you think I'm joking, but I mean just literally what I say. I know a man who was travelling from New York to Philadelphia, and got into a game with some strangers, and rode all the way to Palm Beach to finish it!"
Montague heard later of a well-known Society leader who was totally incapacitated that winter, from too much bridge at Newport; and she was passing the winter at Hot Springs and Palm Beach—and playing bridge there. They played it even in sanitariums, to which they had been driven by nervous breakdown. It was an occupation so exhausting to the physique of women that physicians came to know the symptoms of it, and before they diagnosed a case, they would ask, "Do you play bridge?" It had destroyed the last remnants of the Sabbath—it was a universal custom to have card-parties on that day.
It was a very expensive game, as they played it in Society; one might easily win or lose several thousand dollars in an evening, and there were many who could not afford this. If one did not play, he would be dropped from the lists of those invited; and when one entered a game, etiquette required him to stay in until it was finished. So one heard of young girls who had pawned their family plate, or who had sold their honour, to pay their bills at the game; and all Society knew of one youth who had robbed his hostess of her jewels and pawned them, and then taken her the tickets—telling her that her guests had robbed him. There were women received in the best Society, who lived as adventuresses pure and simple, upon their skill at the game; hostesses would invite rich guests and fleece them. Montague never forgot the sense of amazement and dismay with which he listened while first Mrs. Winnie and then his brother warned him that he must avoid playing with a certain aristocratic dame whom he met in this most aristocratic household—because she was such a notorious cheater!
"My dear fellow," laughed his brother, when he protested, "we have a phrase 'to cheat at cards like a woman.'" And then Oliver went on to tell him of his own first experience at cards in Society, when he had played poker with several charming young debutantes; they would call their hands and take the money without showing their cards, and he had been too gallant to ask to see them. But later he learned that this was a regular practice, and so he never played poker with women. And Oliver pointed out one of these girls to his brother—sitting, as beautiful as a picture and as cold as marble, with a half-smoked cigarette on the edge of the table, and whisky and soda and glasses of cracked ice beside her. Later on, as he chanced to be reading a newspaper, his brother leaned over his shoulder and pointed out another of the symptoms of the craze—an advertisement headed, "Your luck will change." It gave notice that at Rosenstein's Parlours, just off Fifth Avenue, one might borrow money upon expensive gowns and furs!
All during the ten days of this house-party, Mrs. Winnie devoted herself to seeing that Montague had a good time; Mrs. Winnie sat beside him at table—he found that somehow a convention had been established which assigned him to Mrs. Winnie as a matter of course. Nobody said anything to him about it, but knowing how relentlessly the affairs of other people were probed and analyzed, he began to feel exceedingly uncomfortable.
There came a time when he felt quite smothered by Mrs. Winnie; and immediately after lunch one day he broke away and went for a long walk by himself. This was the occasion of his meeting with an adventure.
An inch or two of snow had fallen, and lay gleaming in the sunlight. The air was keen, and he drank deep draughts of it, and went striding away over the hills for an hour or so. There was a gale blowing, and as he came over the summits it would strike him, and he would see the river white with foam. And then down in the valleys again all would be still.
Here, in a thickly wooded place, Montague's attention was arrested suddenly by a peculiar sound, a heavy thud, which seemed to shake the earth. It suggested a distant explosion, and he stopped for a moment and then went on, gazing ahead. He passed a turn, and then he saw a great tree which had fallen directly across the road.
He went on, thinking that this was what he had heard. But as he came nearer, he saw his mistake. Beyond the tree lay something else, and he began to run toward it. It was two wheels of an automobile, sticking up into the air.
He sprang upon the tree-trunk, and in one glance he saw the whole story. A big touring-car had swept round the sharp turn, and swerved to avoid the unexpected obstruction, and so turned a somersault into the ditch.
Montague gave a thrill of horror, for there was the form of a man pinned beneath the body of the car. He sprang toward it, but a second glance made him stop—he saw that blood had gushed from the man's mouth and soaked the snow all about. His chest was visibly crushed flat, and his eyes were dreadful, half-started from their sockets.
For a moment Montague stood staring, as if turned to stone. Then from the other side of the car came a moan, and he ran toward the sound. A second man lay in the ditch, moving feebly. Montague sprang to help him.
The man wore a heavy bearskin coat. Montague lifted him, and saw that he was a very elderly person, with a cut across his forehead, and a face as white as chalk. The other helped him to a position with his back against the bank, and he opened his eyes and groaned.
Montague knelt beside him, watching his breathing. He had a sense of utter helplessness—there was nothing he could think of to do, save to unbutton the man's coat and keep wiping the blood from his face.
"Some whisky," the stranger moaned. Montague answered that he had none; but the other replied that there was some in the car.
The slope of the bank was such that Montague could crawl under, and find the compartment with the bottle in it. The old man drank some, and a little colour came back to his face. As the other watched him, it came to him that this face was familiar; but he could not place it.
"How many were there with you?" Montague asked; and the man answered, "Only one."
Montague went over and made certain that the other man—who was obviously the chauffeur—was dead. Then he hurried down the road, and dragged some brush out into the middle of it, where it could be seen from a distance by any other automobile that came along; after which he went back to the stranger, and bound his handkerchief about his forehead to stop the bleeding from the cut.
The old man's lips were tightly set, as if he were suffering great pain. "I'm done for!" he moaned, again and again.
"Where are you hurt?" Montague asked.
"I don't know," he gasped. "But it's finished me! I know it—it's the last straw."
Then he closed his eyes and lay back. "Can't you get a doctor?" he asked.
"There are no houses very near," said Montague. "But I can run—"
"No, no!" the other interrupted, anxiously. "Don't leave me! Some one will come.—Oh, that fool of a chauffeur—why couldn't he go slow when I told him? That's always the way with them—they're always trying to show off."
"The man is dead," said Montague, quietly.
The other started upon his elbow. "Dead!" he gasped.
"Yes," said Montague. "He's under the car."
The old man's eyes had started wild with fright; and he caught Montague by the arm. "Dead!" he said. "O my God—and it might have been me!"
There was a moment's pause. The stranger caught his breath, and whispered again: "I'm done for! I can't stand it! it's too much!"
Montague had noticed when he lifted the man that he was very frail and slight of build. Now he could feel that the hand that held his arm was trembling violently. It occurred to him that perhaps the man was not really hurt, but that his nerves had been upset by the shock.
And he felt certain of this a moment later, when the stranger suddenly leaned forward, clutching him with redoubled intensity, and staring at him with wide, horror-stricken eyes.
"Do you know what it means to be afraid of death?" he panted. "Do you know what it means to be afraid of death?"
Then, without waiting for a reply, he rushed on—"No, no! You can't! you can't! I don't believe any man knows it as I do! Think of it—for ten years I've never known a minute when I wasn't afraid of death! It follows me around—it won't let me be! It leaps out at me in places, like this! And when I escape it, I can hear it laughing at me—for it knows I can't get away!"
The old man caught his breath with a choking sob. He was clinging to Montague like a frightened child, and staring with a wild, hunted look upon his face. Montague sat transfixed.
"Yes," the other rushed on, "that's the truth, as God hears me! And it's the first time I've ever spoken it in my life! I have to hide it—because men would laugh at me—they pretend they're not afraid! But I lie awake all night, and it's like a fiend that sits by my bedside! I lie and listen to my own heart—I feel it beating, and I think how weak it is, and what thin walls it has, and what a wretched, helpless thing it is to have your life depend on that!—You don't know what that is, I suppose."
Montague shook his head.
"You're young, you see," said the other. "You have health—everybody has health, except me! And everybody hates me—I haven't got a friend in the world!"
Montague was quite taken aback by the suddenness of this outburst. He tried to stop it, for he felt almost indecent in listening—it was not fair to take a man off his guard like this. But the stranger could not be stopped—he was completely unstrung, and his voice grew louder and louder.
"It's every word of it true," he exclaimed wildly. "And I can't stand it any more. I can't stand anything any more. I was young and strong once—I could take care of myself; and I said: I'll make money, I'll be master of other men! But I was a fool—I forgot my health. And now all the money on earth can't do me any good! I'd give ten million dollars to-day for a body like any other man's—and this—this is what I have!"
He struck his hands against his bosom. "Look at it!" he cried, hysterically. "This is what I've got to live in! It won't digest any food, and I can't keep it warm—there's nothing right with it! How would you like to lie awake at night and say to yourself that your teeth were decaying and you couldn't help it—your hair was falling out, and nobody could stop it? You're old and worn out—falling to pieces; and everybody hates you—everybody's waiting for you to die, so that they can get you out of the way. The doctors come, and they're all humbugs! They shake their heads and use long words—they know they can't do you any good, but they want their big fees! And all they do is to frighten you worse, and make you sicker than ever!"
There was nothing that Montague could do save to sit and listen to this outburst of wretchedness. His attempts to soothe the old man only had the effect of exciting him more.
"Why does it all have to fall on me?" he moaned. "I want to be like other people—I want to live! And instead, I'm like a man with a pack of hungry wolves prowling round him—that's what it's like! It's like Nature—hungry and cruel and savage! You think you know what life is; it seems so beautiful and gentle and pleasant—that's when you're on top! But now I'm down, and I KNOW what it is—it's a thing like a nightmare, that reaches out for you to clutch you and crush you! And you can't get away from it—you're helpless as a rat in a corner—you're damned—you're damned!" The miserable man's voice broke in a cry of despair, and he sank down in a heap in front of Montague, shaking and sobbing. The other was trembling slightly, and stricken with awe.
There was a long silence, and then the stranger lifted his tear-stained face, and Montague helped to support him. "Have a little more of the whisky," said he.
"No," the other answered feebly, "I'd better not."
"—My doctors won't let me have whisky," he added, after a while. "That's my liver. I've so many don'ts, you know, that it takes a note-book to keep track of them. And all of them together do me no good! Think of it—I have to live on graham crackers and milk—actually, not a thing has passed my lips for two years but graham crackers and milk."
And then suddenly, with a start, it came to Montague where he had seen this wrinkled old face before. It was Laura Hegan's uncle, whom the Major had pointed out to him in the dining-room of the Millionaires' Club! Old Henry S. Grimes, who was really only sixty, but looked eighty; and who owned slum tenements, and evicted more people in a month than could be crowded into the club-house!
Montague gave no sign, but sat holding the man in his arms. A little trickle of blood came from under the handkerchief and ran down his cheek; Montague felt him tremble as he touched this with his ringer.
"Is it much of a cut?" he asked.
"Not much," said Montague; "two or three stitches, perhaps."
"Send for my family physician," the other added. "If I should faint, or anything, you'll find his name in my card-case. What's that?"
There was the sound of voices down the road. "Hello!"' Montague shouted; and a moment later two men in automobile costume came running toward him. They stopped, staring in dismay at the sight which confronted them.
At Montague's suggestion they made haste to find a log by means of which they lifted the auto sufficiently to drag out the body of the chauffeur. Montague saw that it was quite cold.
He went back to old Grimes. "Where do you wish to go?" he asked.
The other hesitated. "I was bound for the Harrisons'—" he said.
"The Leslie Harrisons?" asked Montague. (They were people he had met at the Devons'.)
The other noticed his look of recognition. "Do you know them?" he asked.
"I do," said Montague.
"It isn't far," said the old man. "Perhaps I had best go there."—And then he hesitated for a moment; and catching Montague by the arm, and pulling him toward him, whispered, "Tell me—you-you won't tell—"
Montague, comprehending what he meant, answered, "It will be between us." At the same time he felt a new thrill of revulsion for this most miserable old creature.
They lifted him into the car; and because they delayed long enough to lay a blanket over the body of the chauffeur, he asked peevishly why they did not start. During the ten or fifteen minutes' trip he sat clinging to Montague, shuddering with fright every time they rounded a turn in the road.
They reached the Harrisons' place; and the footman who opened the door was startled out of his studied impassivity by the sight of a big bundle of bearskin in Montague's arms. "Send for Mrs. Harrison," said Montague, and laid the bundle upon a divan in the hall. "Get a doctor as quickly as you can," he added to a second attendant.
Mrs. Harrison came. "It's Mr. Grimes," said Montague; and then he heard a frightened exclamation, and turned and saw Laura Hegan, in a walking costume, fresh from the cold outside.
"What is it?" she cried. And he told her, as quickly as he could, and she ran to help the old man. Montague stood by, and later carried him upstairs, and waited below until the doctor came.
It was only when he set out for home again that he found time to think about Laura Hegan, and how beautiful she had looked in her furs. He wondered if it would always be his fate to meet her under circumstances which left her no time to be aware of his own existence.
At home he told about his adventure, and found himself quite a hero for the rest of the day. He was obliged to give interviews to several newspaper reporters, and to refuse to let one of them take his picture. Every one at the Devons' seemed to know old Harry Grimes, and Montague thought to himself that if the comments of this particular group of people were a fair sample, the poor wretch was right in saying that he had not a friend in the world.
When he came downstairs the next morning, he found elaborate accounts of the accident in the papers, and learned that Grimes had nothing worse than a scalp wound and a severe shock. Even so, he felt it was incumbent upon him to pay a visit of inquiry, and rode over shortly before lunch.
Laura Hegan came down to see him, wearing a morning gown of white. She confirmed the good news of the papers, and said that her uncle was resting quietly. (She did not say that his physician had come post-haste, with two nurses, and taken up his residence in the house, and that the poor old millionaire was denied even his graham crackers and milk). Instead she said that he had mentioned Montague's kindness particularly, and asked her to thank him. Montague was cynical enough to doubt this.
It was the first time that he had ever had any occasion to talk with Miss Hegan. He noticed her gentle and caressing voice, with the least touch of the South in it; and he was glad to find that it was possible for her to talk without breaking the spell of her serene and noble beauty. Montague stayed as long as he had any right to stay.
And all the way as he rode home he was thinking about Laura Hegan. Here for the first time was a woman whom he felt he should like to know; a woman with reserve and dignity, and some ideas in her life. And it was impossible for him to know her—because she was rich!
There was no dodging this fact—Montague did not even try. He had met women with fortunes already, and he knew how they felt about themselves, and how the rest of the world felt about them. They might wish in their hearts to be something else besides the keepers of a treasure-chest, but their wishes were futile; the money went with them, and they had to defend it against all comers. Montague recalled one heiress after another—debutantes, some of them, exquisite and delicate as butterflies—but under the surface as hard as chain-armour. All their lives they had been trained to think of themselves as representing money, and of every one who came near them as adventurers seeking money. In every word they uttered, in every glance and motion, one might read this meaning. And then he thought of Laura Hegan, with the fortune she would inherit; and he pictured what her life must be—the toadies and parasites and flatterers who would lay siege to her—the scheming mammas and the affectionate sisters and cousins who would plot to gain her confidence! For a man who was poor, and who meant to keep his self-respect, was there any possible conclusion except that she was entirely unknowable to him?
Montague came back to the city, and dug into his books again; while Alice gave her spare hours to watching the progress of the new gown in which she was to uphold the honour of the family at Mrs. Devon's opening ball. The great event was due in the next week and Society was as much excited about it as a family of children before Christmas. All whom Montague met were invited and all were going unless they happened to be in mourning. Their gossip was all of the disappointed ones, and their bitterness and heartburning.
Mrs. Devon's mansion was thrown open early on the eventful evening, but few would come until midnight. It was the fashion to attend the Opera first, and previous to that half a dozen people would give big dinners. He was a fortunate person who did not hear from his liver after this occasion; for at one o'clock came Mrs. Devon's massive supper, and then again at four o'clock another supper. To prepare these repasts a dozen extra chefs had been imported into the Devon establishment for a week—for it was part of the great lady's pride to permit no outside caterer to prepare anything for her guests.
Montague had never been able to get over his wonder at the social phenomenon known as Mrs. Devon. He came and took his chances in the jostling throngs; and except that he got into casual conversation with one of the numerous detectives whom he took for a guest he came off fairly well. But all the time that he was being passed about and introduced and danced with, he was looking about him and wondering. The grand staircase and the hall and parlours had been turned into tropical gardens, with palms and trailing vines, and azaleas and roses, and great vases of scarlet poinsettia, with hundreds of lights glowing through them. (It was said that this ball had exhausted the flower supply of the country as far south as Atlanta.) And then in the reception room one came upon the little old lady, standing' beneath a bower of orchids. She was clad in a robe of royal purple trimmed with silver, and girdled about with an armour-plate of gems. If one might credit the papers, the diamonds that were worn at one of these balls were valued at twenty million dollars.
The stranger was quite overwhelmed by all the splendour. There was a cotillion danced by two hundred gorgeously clad women and their partners—a scene so gay that one could only think of it as happening in a fairy legend, or some old romance of knighthood. Four sets of favours were given during this function, and jewels and objects of art were showered forth as if from a magician's wand. Mrs. Devon herself soon disappeared, but the riot of music and merry-making went on until near morning, and during all this time the halls and rooms of the great mansion were so crowded that one could scarcely move about.
Then one went home, and realized that all this splendour, and the human effort which it represented, had been for nothing but a memory! Nor would he get the full meaning of it if he failed to realize that it was simply one of thousands—a pattern which every one there would strive to follow in some function of his own. It was a signal bell, which told the world that the "season" was open. It loosed the floodgates of extravagance, and the torrent of dissipation poured forth. From then on there would be a continuous round of gaieties; one might have three banquets every single night—for a dinner and two suppers was now the custom, at entertainments! And filling the rest of one's day were receptions and teas and musicales—a person might take his choice among a score of opportunities, and never leave the circle he met at Mrs. Devon's. Nor was this counting the tens of thousands of aspirants and imitators all over the city; nor in a host of other cities, each with thousands of women who had nothing to do save to ape the ways of the Metropolis. The mind could not realize the volume of this deluge of destruction—it was a thing which stunned the senses, and thundered in one's ears like Niagara.
The meaning of it all did not stop with the people who poured it forth; its effects were to be traced through the whole country. There were hordes of tradesmen and manufacturers who supplied what Society bought, and whose study it was to induce people to buy as much as possible. And so they devised what were called "fashions"—little eccentricities of cut and material, which made everything go out of date quickly. There had once been two seasons, but now there were four; and through window displays and millions of advertisements the public was lured into the trap. The "yellow" journals would give whole pages to describing "What the 400 are wearing"; there were magazines with many millions of readers, which existed for nothing save to propagate these ideas. And everywhere, in all classes of Society, men and women were starving their minds and hearts, and straining their energies to follow this phantom of fashion; the masses were kept poor because of it, and the youth and hope of the world was betrayed by it. In country villages poor farmers' wives were trimming their bonnets over to be "stylish"; and servant-girls in the cities were wearing imitation sealskins, and shop-clerks and sempstresses selling themselves into brothels for the sake of ribbons and gilt jewellery.
It was the instinct of decoration, perverted by the money-lust. In the Metropolis the sole test of excellence was money, and the possession of money was the proof of power; and every natural desire of men and women had been tainted by this influence. The love of beauty, the impulse to hospitality, the joys of music and dancing and love—all these things had become simply means to the demonstration of money-power! The men were busy making more money—but their idle women had nothing in life save this mad race in display. So it had come about that the woman who could consume wealth most conspicuously—who was the most effective instrument for the destroying of the labour and the lives of other people—this was the woman who was most applauded and most noticed.
The most appalling fact about Society was this utter blind materialism. Such expectations as Montague had brought with him had been derived from the literature of Europe; in a grand monde such as this, he expected to meet diplomats and statesmen, scientists and explorers, philosophers and poets and painters. But one never heard anything about such people in Society. It was a mark of eccentricity to be interested in intellectual affairs, and one might go about for weeks and not meet a person with an idea. When these people read, it was a sugar-candy novel, and when they went to the play, it was a musical comedy. The one single intellectual product which it could point to as its own, was a rancid scandal-sheet, used mainly as a means of blackmail. Now and then some aspiring young matron of the "elite" would try to set up a salon after the fashion of the continent, and would gather a few feeble wits about her for a time. But for the most part the intellectual workers of the city held themselves severely aloof; and Society was left a little clique of people whose fortunes had become historic in a decade or two, and who got together in each other's palaces and gorged themselves, and gambled and gossiped about each other, and wove about their personalities a veil of awful and exclusive majesty.
Montague found himself thinking that perhaps it was not they who were to blame. It was not they who had set up wealth as the end and goal of things—it was the whole community, of which they were a part. It was not their fault that they had been left with power and nothing to use it for; it was not their fault that their sons and daughters found themselves stranded in the world, deprived of all necessity, and of the possibility of doing anything useful.
The most pitiful aspect of the whole thing to Montague was this "second generation" who were coming upon the scene, with their lives all poisoned in advance. No wrong which they could do to the world would ever equal the wrong which the world had done them, in permitting them to have money which they had not earned. They were cut off for ever from reality, and from the possibility of understanding life; they had big, healthy bodies, and they craved experience—and they had absolutely nothing to do. That was the real meaning of all this orgy of dissipation—this "social whirl" as it was called; it was the frantic chase of some new thrill, some excitement that would stir the senses of people who had nothing in the world to interest them. That was why they were building palaces, and flinging largesses of banquets and balls, and tearing about the country in automobiles, and travelling over the earth in steam yachts and private trains.
And first and last, the lesson of their efforts was, that the chase was futile; the jaded nerves would not thrill. The most conspicuous fact about Society was its unutterable and agonizing boredom; of its great solemn functions the shop-girl would read with greedy envy, but the women who attended them would be half asleep behind their jewelled fans. It was typified to Montague by Mrs. Billy Alden's yachting party on the Nile; yawning in the face of the Sphinx, and playing bridge beneath the shadow of the pyramids—and counting the crocodiles and proposing to jump in by way of "changing the pain"!
People attended these ceaseless rounds of entertainments, simply because they dreaded to be left alone. They wandered from place to place, following like a herd of sheep whatever leader would inaugurate a new diversion. One could have filled a volume with the list of their "fads." There were new ones every week—if Society did not invent them, the yellow journals invented them. There was a woman who had her teeth filled with diamonds; and another who was driving a pair of zebras. One heard of monkey dinners and pyjama dinners at Newport, of horseback dinners and vegetable dances in New York. One heard of fashion-albums and autograph-fans and talking crows and rare orchids and reindeer meat; of bracelets for men and ankle rings for women; of "vanity-boxes" at ten and twenty thousand dollars each; of weird and repulsive pets, chameleons and lizards and king-snakes—there was one young woman who wore a cat-snake as a necklace. One would take to slumming and another to sniffing brandy through the nose; one had a table-cover made of woven roses, and another was wearing perfumed flannel at sixteen dollars a yard; one had inaugurated ice-skating in August, and another had started a class for the study of Plato. Some were giving tennis tournaments in bathing-suits, and playing leap-frog after dinner; others had got dispensations from the Pope, so that they might have private chapels and confessors; and yet others were giving "progressive dinners," moving from one restaurant to another—a cocktail and blue-points at Sherry's, a soup and Madeira at Delmonico's, some terrapin with amontillado at the Waldorf—and so on.
One of the consequences of the furious pace was that people's health broke down very quickly; and there were all sorts of bizarre ways of restoring it. One person would be eating nothing but spinach, and another would be living on grass. One would chew a mouthful of soup thirty-two times; another would eat every two hours, and another only once a week. Some went out in the early morning and walked bare-footed in the grass, and others went hopping about the floor on their hands and knees to take off fat. There were "rest cures" and "water cures," "new thought" and "metaphysical healing" and "Christian Science"; there was an automatic horse, which one might ride indoors, with a register showing the distance travelled. Montague met one man who had an electric machine, which cost thirty thousand dollars, and which took hold of his arms and feet and exercised him while he waited. He met a woman who told him she was riding an electric camel!
Everywhere one went there were new people, spending their money in new and incredible ways. Here was a man who had bought a chapel and turned it into a theatre, and hired professional actors, and persuaded his friends to come and see him act Shakespeare. Here was a woman who costumed herself after figures in famous paintings, with arrangements of roses and cherry leaves, and wreaths of ivy and laurel—and with costumes for her pet dogs to match! Here was a man who paid six dollars a day for a carnation four inches across; and a girl who wore a hat trimmed with fresh morning-glories, and a ball costume with swarms of real butterflies tied with silk threads; and another with a hat made of woven silver, with ostrich plumes forty inches long made entirely of silver films. Here was a man who hired a military company to drill all day long to prepare a floor for dancing; and another who put up a building at a cost of thirty thousand dollars to give a debutante dance for his daughter, and then had it torn down the day after. Here was a man who bred rattlesnakes and turned them loose by thousands, and had driven everybody away from the North Carolina estate of one of the Wallings. Here was a man who was building himself a yacht with a model dairy and bakery on board, and a French laundry and a brass band. Here was a million-dollar racing-yacht with auto-boats on it and a platoon of marksmen, and some Chinese laundrymen, and two physicians for its half-insane occupant. Here was a man who had bought a Rhine castle for three-quarters of a million, and spent as much in restoring it, and filled it with servants dressed in fourteenth-century costumes. Here was a five-million-dollar art collection hidden away where nobody ever saw it!
One saw the meaning of this madness most clearly in the young men of Society. Some were killing themselves and other people in automobile races at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. Some went in for auto-boats, mere shells of things, shaped like a knife-blade, that tore through the water at forty miles an hour. Some would hire professional pugilists to knock them out; others would get up dog-fights and bear-fights, and boxing matches with kangaroos. Montague was taken to the home of one young man who had given his life to hunting wild game in every corner of the globe, and would travel round the world for a new species to add to his museum of trophies. He had heard that Baron Rothschild had offered a thousand pounds for a "bongo," a huge grass-eating animal, which no white man had ever seen; and he had taken a year's trip into the interior, with a train of a hundred and thirty natives, and had brought out the heads of forty different species, including a bongo—which the Baron did not get! He met another who had helped to organize a balloon club, and two twenty-four-hour trips in the clouds. (This, by the way, was the latest sport—at Tuxedo they had races between balloons and automobiles; and Montague met one young lady who boasted that she had been up five times.) There was another young millionaire who sat and patiently taught Sunday School, in the presence of a host of reporters; there was another who set up a chain of newspapers all over the country and made war upon his class. There were others who went in for settlement work and Russian revolutionists—there were even some who called themselves Socialists! Montague thought that this was the strangest fad of all; and when he met one of these young men at an afternoon tea, he gazed at him with wonder and perplexity—thinking of the man he had heard ranting on the street-corner.
This was the "second generation." Appalling as it was to think of, there was a third growing up, and getting ready to take the stage. And with wealth accumulating faster than ever, who could guess what they might do? There were still in Society a few men and women who had earned their money, and had some idea of the toil and suffering that it stood for; but when the third generation had taken possession, these would all be dead or forgotten, and there would no longer be any link to connect them with reality!
In the light of this thought one was moved to watch the children of the rich. Some of these had inherited scores of millions of dollars while they were still in the cradle; now and then one of them would be presented with a million-dollar house for a birthday gift. When such a baby was born, the newspapers would give pages to describing its layette, with baby dresses at a hundred dollars each, and lace handkerchiefs at five dollars, and dressing-sets with tiny gold brushes and powder-boxes; one might see a picture of the precious object in a "Moses basket," covered with rare and wonderful Valenciennes lace.
This child would grow up in an atmosphere of luxury and self-indulgence; it would be bullying the servants at the age of six, and talking scandal and smoking cigarettes at twelve. It would be petted and admired and stared at, and paraded about in state, dressed up like a French doll; it would drink in snobbery and hatefulness with the very air it breathed. One might meet in these great houses little tots not yet in their teens whose talk was all of the cost of things, and of the inferiority of their neighbours. There was nothing in the world too good for them.—They had little miniature automobiles to ride about the country in, and blooded Arabian ponies, and doll-houses in real Louis Seize, with jewelled rugs and miniature electric lights. At Mrs. Caroline Smythe's, Montague was introduced to a pale and anaemic-looking youth of thirteen, who dined in solemn state alone when the rest of the family was away, and insisted upon having all the footmen in attendance; and his unfortunate aunt brought a storm about her ears by forbidding the butler to take champagne upstairs into the nursery before lunch.
A little remark stayed in Montague's mind as expressing the attitude of Society toward such matters. Major Venable had chanced to remark jestingly that children were coming to understand so much nowadays that it was necessary for the ladies to be careful. To which Mrs. Vivie Patton answered, with a sudden access of seriousness: "I don't know—do you find that children have any morals? Mine haven't."
And then the fascinating Mrs. Vivie went on to tell the truth about her own children. They were natural-born savages, and that was all there was to it. They did as they pleased, and no one could stop them. The Major replied that nowadays all the world was doing as it pleased, and no one seemed to be able to stop it; and with that jest the conversation was turned to other matters. But Montague sat in silence, thinking about it—wondering what would happen to the world when it had fallen under the sway of this generation of spoiled children, and had adopted altogether the religion of doing as one pleased.
In the beginning people had simply done as they pleased spontaneously, and without thinking about it; but now, Montague discovered, the custom had spread to such an extent that it was developing a philosophy. There was springing up a new cult, whose devotees were planning to make over the world upon the plan of doing as one pleased. Because its members were wealthy, and able to command the talent of the world, the cult was developing an art, with a highly perfected technique, and a literature which was subtle and exquisite and alluring. Europe had had such a literature for a century, and England for a generation or two. And now America was having it, too!
Montague had an amusing insight into this one day, when Mrs. Vivie invited him to one of her "artistic evenings." Mrs. Vivie was in touch with a special set which went in for intellectual things, and included some amateur Bohemians and men of "genius." "Don't you come if you'll be shocked," she had said to him—"for Strathcona will be there."
Montague deemed himself able to stand a good deal by this time. He went, and found Mrs. Vivie and her Count (Mr. Vivie had apparently not been invited) and also the young poet of Diabolism, whose work was just then the talk of the town. He was a tall, slender youth with a white face and melancholy black eyes, and black locks falling in cascades about his ears; he sat in an Oriental corner, with a manuscript copied in tiny handwriting upon delicately scented "art paper," and tied with passionate purple ribbons. A young girl clad in white sat by his side and held a candle, while he read from this manuscript his unprinted (because unprintable) verses.
And between the readings the young poet talked. He talked about himself and his work—apparently that was what he had come to talk about. His words flowed like a swift stream, limpid, sparkling, incessant; leaping from place to place—here, there, quick as the play of light upon the water. Montague laboured to follow the speaker's ideas, until he found his mind in a whirl and gave it up. Afterward, when he thought it over, he laughed at himself; for Strathcona's ideas were not serious things, having relationship to truth—they were epigrams put together to dazzle the hearer, studies in paradox, with as much relation to life as fireworks. He took the sum-total of the moral experience of the human race, and turned it upside down and jumbled it about, and used it as bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. And the hearers would gasp, and whisper, "Diabolical!"
The motto of this "school" of poets was that there was neither good nor evil, but that all things were "interesting." After listening to Strathcona for half an hour, one felt like hiding his head, and denying that he had ever thought of having any virtue; in a world where all things were uncertain, it was presumptuous even to pretend to know what virtue was. One could only be what one was; and did not that mean that one must do as one pleased?
You could feel a shudder run through the company at his audacity. And the worst of it was that you could not dismiss it with a laugh; for the boy was really a poet—he had fire and passion, the gift of melodious ecstacy. He was only twenty, and in his brief meteor flight he had run the gamut of all experience; he had familiarized himself with all human achievement—past, present, and future. There was nothing any one could mention that he did not perfectly comprehend: the raptures of the saints, the consecration of the martyrs—yes, he had known them; likewise he had touched the depths of depravity, he had been lost in the innermost passages of the caverns of hell. And all this had been interesting—in its time; now he was sighing for new worlds of experience—say for unrequited love, which should drive him to madness.
It was at this point that Montague dropped out of the race, and took to studying from the outside the mechanism of this young poet's conversation. Strathcona flouted the idea of a moral sense; but in reality he was quite dependent upon it—his recipe for making epigrams was to take what other people's moral sense made them respect, and identify it with something which their moral sense made them abhor. Thus, for instance, the tale which he told about one of the members of his set, who was a relative of a bishop. The great man had occasion to rebuke him for his profligate ways, declaring in the course of his lecture that he was living off the reputation of his father; to which the boy made the crushing rejoinder: "It may be bad to live off the reputation of one's father, but it's better than living off the reputation of God."—This was very subtle and it was necessary to ponder it. God was dead; and the worthy bishop did not know it! But let him take a new God, who had no reputation, and go out into the world and make a living out of him!
Then Strathcona discussed literature. He paid his tribute to the "Fleurs de Mal" and the "Songs before Sunrise"; but most, he said, he owed to "the divine Oscar." This English poet of many poses and some vices the law had seized and flung into jail; and since the law is a thing so brutal and wicked that whoever is touched by it is made thereby a martyr and a hero, there had grown up quite a cult about the memory of "Oscar." All up-to-date poets imitated his style and his attitude to life; and so the most revolting of vices had the cloak of romance flung about them—were given long Greek and Latin names, and discussed with parade of learning as revivals of Hellenic ideals. The young men in Strathcona's set referred to each other as their "lovers"; and if one showed any perplexity over this, he was regarded, not with contempt—for it was not aesthetic to feel contempt—but with a slight lifting of the eyebrows, intended to annihilate.
One must not forget, of course, that these young people were poets, and to that extent were protected from their own doctrines. They were interested, not in life, but in making pretty verses about life; there were some among them who lived as cheerful ascetics in garret rooms, and gave melodious expression to devilish emotions. But, on the other hand, for every poet, there were thousands who were not poets, but people to whom life was real. And these lived out the creed, and wrecked their lives; and with the aid of the poet's magic, the glamour of melody and the fire divine, they wrecked the lives with which they came into contact. The new generation of boys and girls were deriving their spiritual sustenance from the poetry of Baudelaire and Wilde; and rushing with the hot impulsiveness of youth into the dreadful traps which the traders in vice prepared for them. One's heart bled to see them, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, pursuing the hem of the Muse's robe in brothels and dens of infamy!
The social mill ground on for another month. Montague withdrew himself as much as his brother would let him; but Alice, was on the go all night and half the day. Oliver had sold his racing automobile to a friend—he was a man of family now, he said, and his wild days were over. He had got, instead, a limousine car for Alice; though she declared she had no need of it—if ever she was going to any place, Charlie Carter always begged her to use his. Charlie's siege was as persistent as ever, as Montague noticed with annoyance.
The great law case was going forward. After weeks of study and investigation, Montague felt that he had the matter well in hand; and he had taken Mr. Hasbrook's memoranda as a basis for a new work of his own, much more substantial. Bit by bit; as he dug into the subject, he had discovered a state of affairs in the Fidelity Company, and, indeed, in the whole insurance business and its allied realms of banking and finance, which shocked him profoundly. It was impossible for him to imagine how such conditions could exist and remain unknown to the public—more especially as every one in Wall Street with whom he talked seemed to know about them and to take them for granted.
His client's papers had provided him with references to the books; Montague had taken this dry material and made of it a protest which had the breath of life in it. It was a thing at which he toiled with deadly earnestness; it was not merely a struggle of one man to get a few thousand dollars, it was an appeal in behalf of millions of helpless people whose trust had been betrayed. It was the first step in a long campaign, which the young lawyer meant should force a great evil into the light of day.
He went over his bill of complaint with Mr. Hasbrook, and he was glad to see that the work he had done made its impression upon him. In fact, his client was a little afraid that some of his arguments might be too radical in tone—from the strictly legal point of view, he made haste to explain. But Montague reassured him upon this point.
And then came the day when the great ship was ready for launching. The news must have spread quickly, for a few hours after the papers in the suit had been filed, Montague received a call from a newspaper reporter, who told him of the excitement in financial circles, where the thing had fallen like a bomb. Montague explained the purpose of the suit, and gave the reporter a number of facts which he felt certain would attract attention to the matter. When he picked up the paper the next morning, however, he was surprised to find that only a few lines had been given to the case, and that his interview had been replaced by one with an unnamed official of the Fidelity, to the effect that the attack upon the company was obviously for black-mailing purposes.
That was the only ripple which Montague's work produced upon the surface of the pool; but there was a great commotion among the fish at the bottom, about which he was soon to learn.
That evening, while he was hard at work in his study, he received a telephone call from his brother. "I'm coming round to see you," said Oliver. "Wait for me."
"All right," said the other, and added, "I thought you were dining at the Wallings'."
"I'm there now," was the answer. "I'm leaving."
"What is the matter?" Montague asked.
"There's hell to pay," was the reply—and then silence.
When Oliver appeared, a few minutes later, he did not even stop to set down his hat, but exclaimed, "Allan, what in heaven's name have you been doing?"
"What do you mean?" asked the other.
"Why, that suit!"
"What about it?"
"Good God, man!" cried Oliver. "Do you mean that you really don't know what you've done?"
Montague was staring at him. "I'm afraid I don't," said he.
"Why, you're turning the world upside down!" exclaimed the other. "Everybody you know is crazy about it."
"Everybody I know!" echoed Montague. "What have they to do with it?"
"Why, you've stabbed them in the back!" half shouted Oliver. "I could hardly believe my ears when they told me. Robbie Walling is simply wild—I never had such a time in my life."
"I don't understand yet," said Montague, more and more amazed. "What has he to do with it?"
"Why, man," cried Oliver, "his brother's a director in the Fidelity! And his own interests—and all the other companies! You've struck at the whole insurance business!"
Montague caught his breath. "Oh, I see!" he said.
"How could you think of such a thing?" cried the other, wildly. "You promised to consult me about things—"
"I told you when I took this case," put in Montague, quickly.
"I know," said his brother. "But you didn't explain—and what did I know about it? I thought I could leave it to your common sense not to mix up in a thing like this."
"I'm very sorry," said Montague, gravely. "I had no idea of any such result."
"That's what I told Robbie," said Oliver. "Good God, what a time I had!"
He took his hat and coat and laid them on the bed, and sat down and began to tell about it. "I made him realize the disadvantage you were under," he said, "being a stranger and not knowing the ground. I believe he had an idea that you tried to get his confidence on purpose to attack him. It was Mrs. Robbie, I guess—you know her fortune is all in that quarter."
Oliver wiped the perspiration from his forehead. "My!" he said.—"And fancy what old Wyman must be saying about this! And what a time poor Betty must be having! And then Freddie Vandam—the air will be blue for half a mile round his place! I must send him a wire and explain that it was a mistake, and that we're getting out of it."
And he got up, to suit the action to the word. But half-way to the desk he heard his brother say, "Wait."
He turned, and saw Montague, quite pale. "I suppose by 'getting out of it,'" said the latter, "you mean dropping the case."
"Of course," was the answer.
"Well, then," he continued, very gravely,—"I can see that it's going to be hard, and I'm sorry. But you might as well understand me at the very beginning—I will never drop this case."
Oliver's jaw fell limp. "Allan!" he gasped.
There was a silence; and then the storm broke. Oliver knew his brother well enough to realize just how thoroughly he meant what he said; and so he got the full force of the shock all at once. He raved and swore and wrung his hands, and declaimed at his brother, saying that he had betrayed him, that he was ruining him—dumping himself and the whole family into the ditch. They would be jeered at and insulted—they would be blacklisted and thrown out of Society. Alice's career would be cut short—every door would be closed to her. His own career would die before it was born; he would never get into the clubs—he would be a pariah—he would be bankrupted and penniless. Again and again Oliver went over the situation, naming person after person who would be outraged, and describing what that person would do; there were the Wallings and the Venables and the Havens, the Vandams and the Todds and the Wymans—they were all one regiment, and Montague had flung a bomb into the centre of them!
It was very terrible to him to see his brother's rage and despair; but he had seen his way clear through this matter, and he knew that there was no turning back for him. "It is painful to learn that all one's acquaintances are thieves," he said. "But that does not change my opinion of stealing."
"But my God!" cried Oliver; "did you come to New York to preach sermons?"
To which the other answered, "I came to practise law. And the lawyer who will not fight injustice is a traitor to his profession."
Oliver threw up his hands in despair. What could one say to a sentiment such as that?
—But then again he came to the charge, pointing out to his brother the position in which he had placed himself with the Wallings. He had accepted their hospitality; they had taken him and Alice in, and done everything in the world for them—things for which no money could ever repay them. And now he had struck them!
But the only effect of that was to make Montague regret that he had ever had anything to do with the Wallings. If they expected to use their friendship to tie his hands in such a matter, they were people he would have left alone.
"But do you realize that it's not merely yourself you're ruining?" cried Oliver. "Do you know what you're doing to Alice?"
"That is harder yet for me," the other replied. "But I am sure that Alice would not ask me to stop."
Montague was firmly set in his own mind; but it seemed to be quite impossible for his brother to realize that this was the case. He would give up; but then, going back into his own mind, and facing the thought of this person and that, and the impossibility of the situation which would arise, he would return to the attack with new anguish in his voice. He implored and scolded, and even wept; and then he would get himself together again, and come and sit in front of his brother and try to reason with him.
And so it was that in the small hours of the morning, Montague, pale and nervous, but quite unshaken, was sitting and listening while his brother unfolded before him a picture of the Metropolis as he had come to see it. It was a city ruled by mighty forces—money-forces; great families and fortunes, which had held their sway for generations, and regarded the place, with all its swarming millions, as their birthright. They possessed it utterly—they held it in the hollow of their hands. Railroads and telegraphs and telephones—banks and insurance and trust companies—all these they owned; and the political machines and the legislatures, the courts and the newspapers, the churches and the colleges. And their rule was for plunder; all the streams of profit ran into their coffers. The stranger who came to their city succeeded as he helped them in their purposes, and failed if they could not use him. A great editor or bishop was a man who taught their doctrines; a great statesman was a man who made the laws for them; a great lawyer was one who helped them to outwit the public. Any man who dared to oppose them, they would cast out and trample on, they would slander and ridicule and ruin.
And Oliver came down to particulars—he named these powerful men, one after one, and showed what they could do. If his brother would only be a man of the world, and see the thing! Look at all the successful lawyers! Oliver named them, one after one—shrewd devisers of corporation trickery, with incomes of hundreds of thousands a year. He could not name the men who had refused to play the game—for no one had ever heard of them. But it was so evident what would happen in this case! His friends would cast him off; his own client would get his price—whatever it was—and then leave him in the lurch, and laugh at him! "If you can't make up your mind to play the game," cried Oliver, frantically, "at least you can give it up! There are plenty of other ways of getting a living—if you'll let me, I'll take care of you myself, rather than have you disgrace me. Tell me—will you do that? Will you quit altogether?"
And Montague suddenly leaped to his feet, and brought his fist down upon the desk with a bang. "No!" he cried; "by God, no!"
"Let me make you understand me once for all," he rushed on. "You've shown me New York as you see it. I don't believe it's the truth—I don't believe it for one single moment! But let me tell you this, I shall stay here and find out—and if it is true, it won't stop me! I shall stay here and defy those people! I shall stay and fight them till the day I die! They may ruin me,—I'll go and live in a garret if I have to,—but as sure as there's a God that made me, I'll never stop till I've opened the eyes of the people to what they're doing!"
Montague towered over his brother, white-hot and terrible. Oliver shrank from him—he never had seen such a burst of wrath from him before. "Do you understand me now?" Montague cried; and he answered, in a despairing voice, "Yes, yes."
"I see it's all up," he added weakly. "You and I can't pull together."
"No," exclaimed the other, passionately, "we can't. And we might as well give up trying. You have chosen to be a time-server and a lick-spittle, and I don't choose it! Do you think I've learned nothing in the time I've been here? Why, man, you used to be daring and clever—and now you never draw a breath without wondering if these rich snobs will like the way you do it! And you want Alice to sell herself to them—you want me to sell my career to them!"
There was a long pause. Oliver had turned very pale. And then suddenly his brother caught himself together, and said: "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to quarrel, but you've goaded me too much. I'm grateful for what you have tried to do for me, and I'll pay you back as soon as I can. But I can't go on with this game. I'll quit, and you can disown me to your friends—tell them that I've run amuck, and to forget they ever knew me. They'll hardly blame you for it—they know you too well for that. And as for Alice, I'll talk it out with her to-morrow, and let her decide for herself—if she wants to be a Society queen, she can put herself in your hands, and I'll get out of her way. On the other hand, if she approves of what I'm doing, why we'll both quit, and you won't have to bother with either of us."
That was the basis upon which they parted for the night; but like most resolutions taken at white heat, it was not followed literally. It was very hard for Montague to have to confront Alice with such a choice; and as for Oliver, when he went home and thought it over, he began to discover gleams of hope. He might make it clear to every one that he was not responsible for his brother's business vagaries, and take his chances upon that basis. After all, there were wheels within wheels in Society; and if the Robbie Wallings chose to break with him—why, they had plenty of enemies. There might even be interests which would be benefited by Allan's course, and would take him up.
Montague had resolved to write and break every engagement which he had made, and to sever his connection with Society at one stroke. But the next day his brother came again, with compromises and new protestations. There was no use going to the other extreme: he, Oliver, would have it out with the Wallings, and they might all go on their way as if nothing had happened.
So Montague made his debut in the role of knight-errant. He went with many qualms and misgivings, uncertain how each new person would take it. The next evening he was promised for a theatre-party with Siegfried Harvey; and they had supper in a private room at Delmonico's, and there came Mrs. Winnie, resplendent as an apple tree in early April—and murmuring with bated breath, "Oh, you dreadful man, what have you been doing?"
"Have I been poaching on YOUR preserves?" he asked promptly.
"No, not mine," she said, "but—" and then she hesitated.
"On Mr. Duval's?" he asked.
"No," she said, "not his—but everybody else's! He was telling me about it to-day—there's a most dreadful uproar. He wanted me to try to find out what you were up to, and who was behind it."
Montague listened, wonderingly. Did Mrs. Winnie mean to imply that her husband had asked her to try to worm his business secrets out of him? That was what she seemed to imply. "I told him I never talked business with my friends," she said. "He can ask you himself, if he chooses. But what DOES it all mean, anyhow?"
Montague smiled at the naive inconsistency.
"It means nothing," said he, "except that I am trying to get justice for a client."
"But can you afford to make so many powerful enemies?" she asked.
"I've taken my chances on that," he replied.
Mrs. Winnie answered nothing, but looked at him with wondering admiration in her eyes. "You arc different from the men about you," she remarked, after a while-and her tone gave Montague to understand that there was one person who meant to stand by him.
But Mrs. Winnie Duval was not all Society. Montague was amused to notice with what suddenness the stream of invitations slacked up; it was necessary for Alice to give her calling list many revisions. Freddie Vandam had promised to invite them to his place on Long Island, and of course that invitation would never come; likewise they would never again see the palace of the Lester Todds, upon the Jersey mountain-top.
Oliver put in the next few days in calling upon people to explain his embarrassing situation. He washed his hands of his brother's affairs, he said; and his friends might do the same, if they saw fit. With the Robbie Wallings he had a stormy half hour, about which he thought it best to say little to the rest of the family. Robbie did not break with him utterly, because of their Wall Street Alliance; but Mrs. Robbie's feeling was so bitter, he said, that it would be best if Alice saw nothing of her for a while. He had a long talk with Alice, and explained the situation. The girl was utterly dumbfounded, for she was deeply grateful to Mrs. Robbie, and fond of her as well; and she could not believe that a friend could be so cruelly unjust to her.
The upshot of the whole situation was a very painful episode. A few days later Alice met Mrs. Robbie at a reception; and she took the lady aside, and tried to tell her how distressed and helpless she was. And the result was that Mrs. Robbie flew into a passion and railed at her, declaring in the presence of several people that she had sponged upon her and abused her hospitality! And so poor Alice came home, weeping and half hysterical.
All of which, of course, was like oil upon a fire; the heavens were lighted up with the conflagration. The next development was a paragraph in Society's scandal-sheet—telling with infinite gusto how a certain ultra-fashionable matron had taken up a family of stranded waifs from a far State, and introduced them into the best circles, and even gone so far as to give a magnificent dance in their honour; and how the discovery had been made that the head of the family had been secretly preparing an attack upon their business interests; and of the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth which had followed—and the violent quarrel in a public place. The paragraph concluded with the prediction that the strangers would find themselves the centre of a merry social war.
Oliver was the first to show them this paper. But lest by any chance they should miss it, half a dozen unknown friends were good enough to mail them copies, carefully marked.—And then came Reggie Mann, who as free-lance and gossip-gatherer sat on the fence and watched the fun; Reggie wore a thin veil of sympathy over his naked glee, and brought them the latest reports from all portions of the battle-ground. Thus they were able to know exactly what everybody was saying about them—who was amused and who was outraged, and who proposed to drop them and who to take them up.
Montague listened for a while, but then he got tired of it, and went for a walk to escape it—but only to run into another trap. It was dark, and he was strolling down the Avenue, when out of a brilliantly lighted jewellery shop came Mrs. Billy Alden to her carriage. And she hailed him with an exclamation.
"You man," she cried, "what have you been doing?"
He tried to laugh it off and escape, but she took him by the arm, commanding, "Get in here and tell me about it."
So he found himself moving with the slow stream of vehicles on the Avenue, and with Mrs. Billy gazing at him quizzically and asking him if he did not feel like a hippopotamus in a frog-pond.
He replied to her raillery by asking her under which flag she stood. But there was little need to ask that, for anyone who was fighting a Walling became ipso facto a friend of Mrs. Billy's. She told Montague that if he felt his social position was imperilled, all he had to do was to come to her. She would gird on her armour and take the field.
"But tell me how you came to do it," she said.
He answered that there was very little to tell. He had taken up a case which was obviously just, but having no idea what a storm it would raise.
Then he noticed that his companion was looking at him sharply. "Do you really mean that's all there is to it?" she asked.
"Of course I do," said he, perplexed.
"Do you know," was her unexpected response, "I hardly know what to make of you. I'm afraid to trust you, on account of your brother."
Montague was embarrassed. "I don't know what you mean," he said.
"Everybody thinks there's some trickery in that suit," she answered.
"Oh," said Montague, "I see. Well, they will find out. If it will help you any to know it, I've been having no end of scenes with my brother."
"I'll believe you," said Mrs. Billy, genially. "But it seems strange that a man could have been so blind to a situation! I feel quite ashamed because I didn't help you myself!"
The carriage had stopped at Mrs. Billy's home, and she asked him to dinner. "There'll be nobody but my brother," she said,—"we're resting this evening. And I can make up to you for my negligence!"
Montague had no engagement, and so he went in, and saw Mrs. Billy's mansion, which was decorated in imitation of a Doge's palace, and met Mr. "Davy" Alden, a mild-mannered little gentleman who obeyed orders promptly. They had a comfortable dinner of half-a-dozen courses, and then retired to the drawing-room, where Mrs. Billy sank into a huge easy chair, with a decanter of whisky and some cracked ice in readiness beside it. Then from a tray she selected a thick black cigar, and placidly bit off the end and lighted it, and then settled back at her ease, and proceeded to tell Montague about New York, and about the great families who ruled it, and where and how they had got their money, and who were their allies and who their enemies, and what particular skeletons were hidden in each of their closets.
It was worth coming a long way to listen to Mrs. Billy tete-a-tete; her thoughts were vigorous, and her imagery was picturesque. She spoke of old Dan Waterman, and described him as a wild boar rooting chestnuts. He was all right, she said, if you didn't come under his tree. And Montague asked, "Which is his tree?" and she answered, "Any one he happens to be under at the time."
And then she came to the Wallings. Mrs. Billy had been in on the inside of that family, and there was nothing she didn't know about it; and she brought the members up, one by one, and dissected them, and exhibited them for Montague's benefit. They were typical bourgeois people, she said. They were burghers. They had never shown the least capacity for refinement—they ate and drank, and jostled other people out of the way. The old ones had been boors, and the new ones were cads.
And Mrs. Billy sat and puffed at her cigar. "Do you know the history of the family?" she asked. "The founder was a rough old ferryman. He fought his rivals so well that in the end he owned all the boats; and then some one discovered the idea of buying legislatures and building railroads, and he went into that. It was a time when they simply grabbed things—if you ever look into it, you'll find they're making fortunes to-day out of privileges that the old man simply sat down on and held. There's a bridge at Albany, for instance, to which they haven't the slightest right; my brother knows about it—they've given themselves a contract with their railroad by which they're paid for every passenger, and their profit every year is greater than the cost of the bridge. The son was the head of the family when I came in; and I found that he had it all arranged to leave thirty million dollars to one of his sons, and only ten million to my husband. I set to work to change that, I can tell you. I used to go around to see him, and scratch his back and tickle him and make him feel good. Of course the family went wild—my, how they hated me! They set old Ellis to work to keep me off—have you met Judge Ellis?"
"I have," said Montague.
"Well, there's a pussy-footed old hypocrite for you," said Mrs. Billy. "In those days he was Walling's business lackey—used to pass the money to the legislators and keep the wheels of the machine greased. One of the first things I said to the old man was that I didn't ask him to entertain my butler, and he mustn't ask me to entertain his valet—and so I forbid Ellis to enter my house. And when I found that he was trying to get between the old man and me, I flew into a rage and boxed his ears and chased him out of the room!"
Mrs. Billy paused, and laughed heartily over the recollection. "Of course that tickled the old man to death," she continued. "The Wallings never could make out how I managed to get round him as I did; but it was simply because I was honest with him. They'd come snivelling round, pretending they were anxious about his health; while I wanted his money, and I told him so."
The valiant lady turned to the decanter. "Have some Scotch?" she asked, and poured some for herself, and then went on with her story. "When I first came to New York," she said, "the rich people's houses were all alike—all dreary brownstone fronts, sandwiched in on one or two city lots. I vowed that I would have a house with some room all around it—and that was the beginning of those palaces that all New York walks by and stares at. You can hardly believe it now—those houses were a scandal! But the sensation tickled the old man. I remember one day we walked up the Avenue to see how they were coming on; and he pointed with his big stick to the second floor, and asked, 'What's that?' I answered, 'It's a safe I'm building into the house.' (That was a new thing, too, in those days.)—'I'm going to keep my money in that,' I said. 'Bah!' he growled, 'when you're done with this house, you won't have any money left.'—'I'm planning to make you fill it for me,' I answered; and do you know, he chuckled all the way home over it!"
Mrs. Billy sat laughing softly to herself. "We had great old battles in those days," she said. "Among other things, I had to put the Wallings into Society. They were sneaking round on the outside when I came—licking people's boots and expecting to be kicked. I said to myself, I'll put an end to that—we'll have a show-down! So I gave a ball that made the whole country sit up and gasp—it wouldn't be noticed particularly nowadays, but then people had never dreamed of anything so gorgeous. And I made out a list of all the people I wanted to know in New York, and I said to myself: 'If you come, you're a friend, and if you don't come, you're an enemy.' And they all came, let me tell you! And there was never any question about the Wallings being in Society after that."
Mrs. Billy halted; and Montague remarked, with a smile, that doubtless she was sorry now that she had done it.
"Oh, no," she answered, with a shrug of her shoulders. "I find that all I have to do is to be patient—I hate people, and think I'd like to poison them, but if I only wait long enough, something happens to them much worse than I ever dreamed of. You'll be revenged on the Robbies some day."
"I don't want any revenge," Montague answered. "I've no quarrel with them—I simply wish I hadn't accepted their hospitality. I didn't know they were such little people. It seems hard to believe it."
Mrs. Billy laughed cynically. "What could you expect?" she said. "They know there's nothing to them but their money. When that's gone, they're gone—they could never make any more."
The lady gave a chuckle, and added: "Those words make me think of Davy's experience when he wanted to go to Congress! Tell him about it, Davy."
But Mr. Alden did not warm to the subject; he left the tale to his sister.
"He was a Democrat, you know," said she, "and he went to the boss and told him he'd like to go to Congress. The answer was that it would cost him forty thousand dollars, and he kicked at the price. Others didn't have to put up such sums, he said—why should he? And the old man growled at him, 'The rest have other things to give. One can deliver the letter-carriers, another is paid for by a corporation. But what can you do? What is there to you but your money?'—So Davy paid the money—didn't you, Davy?" And Davy grinned sheepishly.
"Even so," she went on, "he came off better than poor Devon. They got fifty thousand out of him, and sold him out, and he never got to Congress after all! That was just before he concluded that America wasn't a fit place for a gentleman to live in."
And so Mrs. Billy got started on the Devons! And after that came the Havens and the Wymans and the Todds—it was midnight before she got through with them all.
The newspapers said nothing more about the Hasbrook suit; but in financial circles Montague had attained considerable notoriety because of it. And this was the means of bringing him a number of new cases.
But alas, there were no more fifty-thousand-dollar clients! The first caller was a destitute widow with a deed which would have entitled her to the greater part of a large city in Pennsylvania—only unfortunately the deed was about eighty years old. And then there was a poor old man who had been hurt in a street-car accident and had been tricked into signing away his rights; and an indignant citizen who proposed to bring a hundred suits against the traction trust for transfers refused. All were contingency cases, with the chances of success exceedingly remote. And Montague noticed that the people had come to him as a last resort, having apparently heard of him as a man of altruistic temper.
There was one case which interested him particularly, because it seemed to fit in so ominously with the grim prognosis of his brother. He received a call from an elderly gentleman, of very evident refinement and dignity of manner, who proceeded to unfold to him a most amazing story. Five or six years ago he had invented a storage-battery, which was the most efficient known. He had organised a company with three million dollars' capital to manufacture it, himself taking a third interest for his patents, and becoming president of the company. Not long afterward had come a proposal from a group of men who wished to organize a company to manufacture automobiles; they proposed to form an alliance which would give them the exclusive use of the battery. But these men were not people with whom the inventor cared to deal—they were traction and gas magnates widely known for their unscrupulous methods. And so he had declined their offer, and set to work instead to organize an automobile company himself. He had just got under way when he discovered that his rivals had set to work to take his invention away from him. A friend who owned another third share in his company had hypothecated his stock to help form the new company; and now came a call from the bank for more collateral, and he was obliged to sell out. And at the next stockholders' meeting it developed that their rivals had bought it, and likewise more stock in the open market; and they proceeded to take possession of the company, ousting the former president—and then making a contract with their automobile company to furnish the storage-battery at a price which left no profit for the manufacturers! And so for two years the inventor had not received a dollar of dividends upon his million dollars' worth of paper; and to cap the climax, the company had refused to sell the battery to his automobile company, and so that had gone into bankruptcy, and his friend was ruined also!
Montague went into the case very carefully, and found that the story was true. What interested him particularly in it was the fact that he had met a couple of these financial highwaymen in social life; he had come to know the son and heir of one of them quite well, at Siegfried Harvey's. This gilded youth was engaged to be married in a very few days, and the papers had it that the father-in-law had presented the bride with a cheque for a million dollars. Montague could not but wonder if it was the million that had been taken from his client!
There was to be a "bachelor dinner" at the Millionaires' on the night before the wedding, to which he and Oliver had been invited. As he was thinking of taking up his case, he went to his brother, saying that he wished to decline; but Oliver had been getting back his courage day by day, and declared that it was more important than ever now that he should hold his ground, and face his enemies—for Alice's sake, if not for his own. And so Montague went to the dinner, and saw deeper yet into the history of the stolen millions.
It was a very beautiful affair, in the beginning. There was a large private dining-room, elaborately decorated, with a string orchestra concealed in a bower of plants. But there were cocktails even on the side-board at the doorway; and by the time the guests had got to the coffee, every one was hilariously drunk. After each toast they would hurl their glasses over their shoulders. The purpose of a "bachelor dinner," it appeared, was a farewell to the old days and the boon companions; so there were sentimental and comic songs which had been composed for the occasion, and were received with whirlwinds of laughter.
By listening closely and reading between the lines, one might get quite a history of the young host's adventurous career. There was a house up on the West Side; and there was a yacht, with, orgies in every part of the world. There was the summer night in Newport harbour, when some one had hit upon the dazzling scheme of freezing twenty-dollar gold pieces in tiny blocks of ice, to be dropped down the girls' backs! And there was a banquet in a studio in New York, when a huge pie had been brought on, from which a half-nude girl had emerged, with a flock of canary birds about her! Then there was a damsel who had been wont to dance upon the tops of supper tables, clad in diaphanous costume; and who had got drunk after a theatre-party, and set out to smash up a Broadway restaurant. There was a cousin from Chicago, a wild lad, who made a speciality of this diversion, and whose mistresses were bathed in champagne.—Apparently there were numberless places in the city where such orgies were carried on continually; there were private clubs, and artists' "studios"—there were several allusions to a high tower, which Montague did not comprehend. Many such matters, however, were explained to him by an elderly gentleman who sat on his right, and who seemed to stay sober, no matter how much he drank. Incidentally he gravely advised Montague to meet one of the young host's mistresses, who was a "stunning" girl, and was in the market.
Toward morning the festivities changed to a series of wrestling-bouts; the young men stripped off their clothing and tore the table to pieces, and piled it out of the way in a corner, smashing most of the crockery in the process. Between the matches, champagne would be opened by knocking off the heads of the bottles; and this went on until four o'clock in the morning, when many of the guests were lying in heaps upon the floor.
Montague rode home in a cab with the elderly gentleman who had sat next to him; and on the way he asked if such affairs as this were common. And his companion, who was a "steel man" from the West, replied by telling him of some which he had witnessed at home. At Siegfried Harvey's theatre-party Montague had seen a popular actress in a musical comedy, which was then the most successful play running in New York. The house was sold out weeks ahead, and after the matinee you might observe the street in front of the stage-entrance blocked by people waiting to see the woman come out. She was lithe and supple, like a panther, and wore close-fitting gowns to reveal her form. It seemed that her play must have been built with one purpose in mind, to see how much lewdness could be put upon a stage without interference by the police.—And now his companion told him how this woman had been invited to sing at a banquet given by the magnates of a mighty Trust, and had gone after midnight to the most exclusive club in the town, and sung her popular ditty, "Won't you come and play with me?" The merry magnates had taken the invitation literally—with the result that the actress had escaped from the room with half her clothing torn off her. And a little while later an official of this trust had wished to get rid of his wife and marry a chorus-girl; and when public clamour had forced the directors to ask him to resign, he had replied by threatening to tell about this banquet!
The next day—or rather, to be precise, that same morning—Montague and Alice attended the gorgeous wedding. It was declared by the newspapers to be the most "important" social event of the week; and it took half a dozen policemen to hold back the crowds which filled the street. The ceremony took place at St. Cecilia's, with the stately bishop officiating, in his purple and scarlet robes. Inside the doors were all the elect, exquisitely groomed and gowned, and such a medley of delicious perfumes as not all the vales in Arcady could equal. The groom had been polished and scrubbed, and looked very handsome, though somewhat pale; and Montague could not but smile as he observed the best man, looking so very solemn, and recollected the drunken wrestler of a few hours before, staggering about in a pale blue undershirt ripped up the back.
The Montagues knew by this time whom they were to avoid. They were graciously taken under the wing of Mrs. Eldridge Devon—whose real estate was not affected by insurance suits; and the next morning they had the satisfaction of seeing their names in the list of those present—and even a couple of lines about Alice's costume. (Alice was always referred to as "Miss Montague"; it was very pleasant to be the "Miss Montague," and to think of all the other would-be Miss Montagues in the city, who were thereby haughtily rebuked!) In the "yellow" papers there were also accounts of the trousseau of the bride, and of the wonderful gifts which she had received, and of the long honeymoon which she was to spend in the Mediterranean upon her husband's yacht. Montague found himself wondering if the ghosts of its former occupants would not haunt her, and whether she would have been as happy, had she known as much as he knew.
He found food for a good deal of thought in the memory of this banquet. Among the things which he had gathered from the songs was a hint that Oliver, also, had some secrets, which he had not seen fit to tell his brother. The keeping of young girls was apparently one of the established customs of the "little brothers of the rich"—and, for that matter, of many of the big brothers, also. A little later Montague had a curious glimpse into the life of this "half-world." He had occasion one evening to call up a certain financier whom he had come to know quite well-a man of family and a member of the church. There were some important papers to be signed and sent off by a steamer; and the great man's secretary said that he would try to find him. A minute or two later he called up Montague and asked him if he would be good enough to go to an address uptown. It was a house not far from Riverside Drive; and Montague went there and found his acquaintance, with several other prominent men of affairs whom he knew, conversing in a drawing-room with one of the most charming ladies he had ever met. She was exquisite to look at, and one of the few people in New York whom he had found worth listening to. He spent such an enjoyable evening, that when he was leaving, he remarked to the lady that he would like his cousin Alice to meet her; and then he noticed that she flushed slightly, and was embarrassed. Later on he learned to his dismay that the charming and beautiful lady did not go into Society.