"Are the New York girls so designing?" asked Percival.
"Is Higbee's ham good to eat?" replied Higbee, oracularly.
"So," he continued, "when I made up my mind to put my foot down I just casually mentioned to the old lady—say, she's got an eye that would make liquid air shiver—that cold blue like an army overcoat—well, I mentioned to her that Henry was a spendthrift and that he wasn't ever going to get another cent from me that he didn't earn just the same as if he wasn't any relation of mine. I made it plain, you bet; she found just where little Henry-boy stood with his kind-hearted, liberal old father.
"Say, maybe Henry wasn't in cold storage with the whole family from that moment. I see those fellows in the laboratories are puttering around just now trying to get the absolute zero of temperature—say, Henry got it, and he don't know a thing about chemistry.
"Then I jounced Hank. I proceeded to let him know he was up against it—right close up against it, so you couldn't see daylight between 'em. 'You're twenty-five,' I says, 'and you play the best game of pool, I'm told, of any of the chappies in that Father-Made-the-Money club you got into,' I says; 'but I've looked it up,' I says, 'and there ain't really what you could call any great future for a pool champion,' I says, 'and if you're ever going to learn anything else, it's time you was at it,' I says. 'Now you go back home and tell the manager to set you to work,' I says, 'and your wages won't be big enough to make you interesting to any skirt-dancer, either,' I says. 'And you make a study of the hog from the ground up. Exhaust his possibilities just like your father done, and make a man of yourself, and then sometime,' I says, 'you'll be able to give good medicine to a cub of your own when he needs it.'"
"And how did poor Henry take all that?"
"Well, Hank squealed at first like he was getting the knife; but finally when he see he was up against it, and especially when he see how this girl and her family throwed him down the elevator-shaft from the tenth story, why, he come around beautifully. He's really got sense, though he doesn't look it—Henry has—though Lord knows I didn't pull him up a bit too quick. But he come out and went to work like I told him. It's the greatest thing ever happened to him. He ain't so fat-headed as he was, already. Henry'll be a man before his dad's through with him."
"But weren't the young people disappointed?" asked Percival; "weren't they in love with each other?"
"In love?" In an effort to express scorn adequately Mr. Higbee came perilously near to snorting. "What do you suppose a girl like that cares for love? She was dead in love with the nice long yellow-backs that I've piled up because the public knows good ham when they taste it. As for being in love with Henry or with any man—say, young fellow, you've got something to learn about those New York girls. And this one, especially. Why, it's been known for the three years we've been there that she's simply hunting night and day for a rich husband. She tries for 'em all as fast as they get in line."
"Henry was unlucky in finding that kind. They're not all like that—those New York girls are not," and he had the air of being able if he chose to name one or two luminous exceptions.
"Silas," called Mrs. Higbee, "are you telling Mr. Bines about our Henry and that Milbrey girl?"
"Yep," answered Higbee, "I told him."
"About what girl?—what was her name?" asked Percival, in a lower tone.
"Milbrey's that family's name—Horace Milbrey—"
"Why," Percival interrupted, somewhat awkwardly, "I know the family—the young lady—we met the family out in Montana a few weeks ago."
"Sure enough—they were in Chicago and had dinner with us on their way out." "I remember Mr. Milbrey spoke of what fine claret you gave him."
"Yes, and I wasn't stingy with ice, either, the way those New York people always are. Why, at that fellow's house he gives you that claret wine as warm as soup.
"But as for that girl," he added, "say, she'd marry me in a minute if I wasn't tied up with the little lady over there. Of course she'd rather marry a sub-treasury; she's got about that much heart in her—cold-blooded as a German carp. She'd marry me—she'd marry you, if you was the best thing in sight. But say, if you was broke, she'd have about as much use for you as Chicago's got for St. Louis."
Some Light With a Few Side-lights
The real spring in New York comes when blundering nature has painted the outer wilderness for autumn. What is called "spring" in the city by unreflecting users of the word is a tame, insipid season yawning into not more than half-wakefulness at best. The trees in the gas-poisoned soil are slow in their greening, the grass has but a pallid city vitality, and the rows of gaudy tulips set out primly about the fountains in the squares are palpably forced and alien.
For the sumptuous blending and flaunt of colour, the spontaneous awakening of warm, throbbing new life, and all those inspiring miracles of regeneration which are performed elsewhere in April and May, the city-pent must wait until mid-October.
This is the spring of the city's year. There be those to hint captiously that they find it an affair of false seeming; that the gorgeous colouring is a mere trick of shop-window cunning; that the time is juiceless and devoid of all but the specious delights of surface. Yet these, perhaps, are unduly imaginative for a world where any satisfaction is held by a tenure precarious at best. And even these carpers, be they never so analytical, can at least find no lack of springtime fervour in the eager throngs that pass entranced before the window show. They, the free-swinging, quick-moving men and women—the best dressed of all throngs in this young world—sun-browned, sun-enlivened, recreated to a fine mettle for enjoyment by their months of mountain or ocean sport—these are, indeed, the ones for whom this afterspring is made to bloom. And, since they find it to be a shifting miracle of perfections, how are they to be quarrelled with?
In the big polished windows waxen effigies of fine ladies, gracefully patient, display the latest dinner-gown from Paris, or the creamiest of be-ribboned tea-gowns. Or they pose in attitudes of polite adieux and greeting, all but smothered in a king's ransom of sable and ermine. Or, to the other extreme, they complacently permit themselves to be observed in the intimate revelations of Parisian lingerie, with its misty froth of embroideries, its fine-spun webs of foamy lace.
In another window, behold a sprightly and enlivening ballet of shapely silken hosiery, fitting its sculptured models to perfection, ranging in tints from the first tender green of spring foliage to the rose-pink of the spring sun's after-glow.
A few steps beyond we may study a window where the waxen ladies have been dismembered. Yet a second glance shows the retained portions to be all that woman herself considers important when she tries on the bird-toque or the picture hat, or the gauze confection for afternoons. The satisfied smiles of these waxen counterfeits show them to have been amply recompensed, with the headgear, for their physical incompleteness.
But if these terraces of colour and grace that line the sides of this narrow spring valley be said to contain only the dry husks of adornment, surely there may be found others more technically springlike.
Here in this broad window, foregathered in a congress of colours designed to appetise, are the ripe fruits of every clime and every season: the Southern pomegranate beside the hardy Northern apple, scarlet and yellow; the early strawberry and the late ruddy peach; figs from the Orient and pines from the Antilles; dates from Tunis and tawny persimmons from Japan; misty sea-green grapes and those from the hothouse—tasteless, it is true, but so lordly in their girth, and royal purple; portly golden oranges and fat plums; pears of mellow blondness and pink-skinned apricots. Here at least is the veritable stuff and essence of spring with all its attending aromas—of more integrity, perhaps, than the same colourings simulated by the confectioner's craft, in the near-by window-display of impossible sweets.
And still more of this belated spring will gladden the eye in the florist's window. In June the florist's shop is a poor place, sedulously to be shunned. Nothing of note blooms there then. The florist himself is patently ashamed of himself. The burden of sustaining his traditions he puts upon a few dejected shrubs called "hardy perennials" that have to labour the year around. All summer it is as if the place feared to compete with nature when colour and grace flower so cheaply on every southern hillside. But now its glories bloom anew, and its superiority over nature becomes again manifest. Now it assembles the blossoms of a whole long year to bewilder and allure. Its windows are shaded glens, vine-embowered, where spring, summer, and autumn blend in all their regal and diverse abundance; and the closing door of the shop fans out odours as from a thousand Persian gardens.
But spring is not all of life, nor what at once chiefly concerns us. There are people to be noted: a little series of more or less related phenomena to be observed.
One of the people, a young man, stands conveniently before this same florist's window, at that hour when the sun briefly flushes this narrow canon of Broadway from wall to wall.
He had loitered along the lively highway an hour or more, his nerves tingling responsively to all its stimuli. And now he mused as he stared at the tangled tracery of ferns against the high bank of wine-red autumn foliage, the royal cluster of white chrysanthemums and the big jar of American Beauties.
He had looked forward to this moment, too—when he should enter that same door and order at least an armful of those same haughty roses sent to an address his memory cherished. Yet now, the time having come, the zest for the feat was gone. It would be done; it were ungraceful not to do it, after certain expressions; but it would be done with no heart because of the certain knowledge that no one—at least no one to be desired—could possibly care for him, or consider him even with interest for anything but his money—the same kind of money Higbee made by purveying hams—"and she wouldn't care in the least whether it was mine or Higbee's, so there was a lot of it."
Yet he stepped in and ordered the roses, nor did the florist once suspect that so lavish a buyer of flowers could be a prey to emotions of corroding cynicism toward the person for whom they were meant.
From the florist's he returned directly to the hotel to find his mother and Psyche making homelike the suite to which they had been assigned. A maid was unpacking trunks under his sister's supervision. Mrs. Bines was in converse with a person of authoritative manner regarding the service to be supplied them. Two maids would be required, and madame would of course wish a butler—
Mrs. Bines looked helplessly at her son who had just entered.
"I think—we've—we've always did our own buttling," she faltered.
The person was politely interested.
"I'll attend to these things, ma," said Percival, rather suddenly. "Yes, we'll want a butler and the two maids, and see that the butler knows his business, please, and—here—take this, and see that we're properly looked after, will you?"
As the bill bore a large "C" on its face, and the person was rather a gentleman anyway, this unfortunate essay at irregular conjugation never fell into a certain class of anecdotes which Mrs. Bines's best friends could now and then bring themselves to relate of her.
But other matters are forward. We may next overtake two people who loiter on this bracing October day down a leaf-strewn aisle in Central Park.
"You," said the girl of the pair, "least of all men can accuse me of lacking heart."
"You are cold to me now."
"But look, think—what did I offer—you've had my trust,—everything I could bring myself to give you. Look what I would have sacrificed at your call. Think how I waited and longed for that call."
"You know how helpless I was."
"Yes, if you wanted more than my bare self. I should have been helpless, too, if I had wanted more than—than you."
"It would have been folly—madness—that way."
"Folly—madness? Do you remember the 'Sonnet of Revolt' you sent me? Sit on this bench; I wish to say it over to you, very slowly; I want you to hear it while you keep your later attitude in mind.
"Life—what is life? To do without avail The decent ordered tasks of every day: Talk with the sober: join the solemn play: Tell for the hundredth time the self-same tale Told by our grandsires in the self-same vale Where the sun sets with even, level ray, And nights, eternally the same, make way For hueless dawns, intolerably pale—'"
"But I know the verse."
"No; hear it out;—hear what you sent me:
"'And this is life? Nay, I would rather see The man who sells his soul in some wild cause: The fool who spurns, for momentary bliss, All that he was and all he thought to be: The rebel stark against his country's laws: God's own mad lover, dying on a kiss.'"
She had completed the verse with the hint of a sneer in her tones.
"Yes, truly, I remember it; but some day you'll thank me for saving you; of course it would have been regular in a way, but people here never really forget those things—and we'd have been helpless—some day you'll thank me for thinking for you."
"Why do you believe I'm not thanking you already?"
"Hang it all! that's what you made me think yesterday when I met you." "And so you called me heartless? Now tell me just what you expect a woman in my position to do. I offered to go to you when you were ready. Surely that showed my spirit—and you haven't known me these years without knowing it would have to be that or nothing."
"Well, hang it, it wasn't like the last time, and you know it; you're not kind any longer. You can be kind, can't you?"
Her lip showed faintly the curl of scorn.
"No, I can't be kind any longer. Oh, I see you've known your own mind so little; there's been so little depth to it all; you couldn't dare. It was foolish to think I could show you my mind."
"But you still care for me?"
"No; no, I don't. You should have no reason to think so if I did. When I heard you'd made it up I hated you, and I think I hate you now. Let us go back. No, no, please don't touch me—ever again."
Farther down-town in the cosy drawing-room of a house in a side street east of the Avenue, two other persons were talking. A florid and profusely freckled young Englishman spoke protestingly from the hearth-rug to a woman who had the air of knowing emphatically better.
"But, my dear Mrs. Drelmer, you know, really, I can't take a curate with me, you know, and send up word won't she be good enough to come downstairs and marry me directly—not when I've not seen her, you know!" "Nonsense!" replied the lady, unimpressed. "You can do it nearly that way, if you'll listen to me. Those Westerners perform quite in that manner, I assure you. They call it 'hustling.'"
"Yes, indeed, 'dear you.' And another thing, I want you to forestall that Milbrey youth, and you may be sure he's no farther away than Tuxedo or Meadowbrook. Now, they arrived yesterday; they'll be unpacking to-day and settling to-morrow; I'll call the day after, and you shall be with me."
"And you forget that—that devil—suppose she's as good as her threat?"
"Absurd! how could she be?"
"You don't know her, you know, nor the old beggar either, by Jove!"
"All the more reason for haste. We'll call to-morrow. Wait. Better still, perhaps I can enlist the Gwilt-Athelston; I'm to meet her to-morrow. I'll let you know. Now I must get into my teaharness, so run along."
We are next constrained to glance at a strong man bowed in the hurt of a great grief. Horace Milbrey sits alone in his gloomy, high-ceilinged library. His attire is immaculate. His slender, delicate hands are beautifully white. The sensitive lines of his fine face tell of the strain under which he labours. What dire tragedies are those we must face wholly alone—where we must hide the wound, perforce, because no comprehending sympathy flows out to us; because instinct warns that no help may come save from the soul's own well of divine fortitude. Some hope, tenderly, almost fearfully, held and guarded, had perished on the day that should have seen its triumphant fruition. He raised his handsome head from the antique, claw-footed desk, sat up in his chair, and stared tensely before him. His emotion was not to be suppressed. Do tears tremble in the eyes of the strong man? Let us not inquire too curiously. If they tremble down the fine-skinned cheek, let us avert our gaze. For grief in men is no thing to make a show of.
A servant passed the open door bearing an immense pasteboard box with one end cut out to accommodate the long stems of many roses.
"What is it?"
"Flowers, sir, for Miss Avice."
"Let me see—and the card?"
He took the card from the florist's envelope and glanced at the name.
"Take them away."
The stricken man was once more alone; yet now it was as if the tender beauty of the flowers had balmed his hurt—taught him to hope anew. Let us in all sympathy and hope retire.
For cheerfuller sights we might observe Launton Oldaker in a musty curio-shop, delighted over a pair of silver candlesticks with square bases and fluted columns, fabricated in the reign of that fortuitous monarch, Charles the Second; or we might glance in upon the Higbees in their section of a French chateau, reproduced up on the stately Riverside Drive, where they complete the details of a dinner to be given on the morrow.
Or perhaps it were better to be concerned with a matter more weighty than dinners and antique candlesticks. The search need never be vain, even in this world of persistent frivolity. As, for example:
"Tell Mrs. Van Geist if she can't come down, I'll run up to her."
"Yes, Miss Milbrey."
Mrs. Van Geist entered a moment later.
"Why, Avice, child, you're glowing, aren't you?"
"I must be, I suppose—I've just walked down from 59th Street, and before that I walked in the Park. Feel how cold my cheeks are,—Muetterchen."
"It's good for you. Now we shall have some tea, and talk."
"Yes—I'm hungry for both, and some of those funny little cakes."
"Come back where the fire is, dear; the tea has just been brought. There, take the big chair."
"It always feels like you—like your arms, Muetterchen—and I am tired."
"And throw off that coat. There's the lemon, if you're afraid of cream."
"I wish I weren't afraid of anything but cream."
"You told me you weren't afraid of that—that cad—any more."
"I'm not—I just told him so. But I'm afraid of it all; I'm tired trying not to drift—tired trying not to try, and tired trying to try—Oh, dear—sounds like a nonsense verse, doesn't it? Have you any one to-night? No? I think I must stay with you till morning. Send some one home to say I'll be here. I can always think so much better here—and you, dear old thing, to mother me!"
"Do, child; I'll send Sandon directly."
"He will go to the house of mourning."
"What's the latest?"
"Papa was on the verge of collapse this morning, and yet he was striving so bravely and nobly to bear up. No one knows what that man suffers; it makes him gloomy all the time about everything. Just before I left, he was saying that, when one considers the number of American homes in which a green salad is never served, one must be appalled. Are you appalled, auntie? But that isn't it."
"Nothing has happened?"
"Well, there'll be no sensation about it in the papers to-morrow, but a very dreadful thing has happened. Papa has suffered one of the cruellest blows of his life. I fancy he didn't sleep at all last night, and he looked thoroughly bowled over this morning."
"But what is it?"
"Well—oh, it's awful!—first of all there were six dozen of early-bottled, 1875 Chateau Lafitte—that was the bitterest—but he had to see the rest go, too—Chateau Margeaux of '80—some terribly ancient port and Madeira—the dryest kind of sherry—a lot of fine, full clarets of '77 and '78—oh, you can't know how agonising it was to him—I've heard them so often I know them all myself."
"But what on earth about them?"
"Nothing, only the Cosmopolitan Club's wine cellar—auctioned off, you know. For over a year papa has looked forward to it. He knew every bottle of wine in it. He could recite the list without looking at it. Sometimes he sounded like a French lesson—and he's been under a fearful strain ever since the announcement was made. Well, the great day came yesterday, and poor pater simply couldn't bid in a single drop. It needed ready money, you know. And he had hoped so cheerfully all the time to do something. It broke his heart, I'm sure, to see that Chateau Lafitte go—and only imagine, it was bid in by the butler of that odious Higbee. You should have heard papa rail about the vulgar nouveaux riches when he came home—he talked quite like an anarchist. But by to-night he'll be blaming me for his misfortunes. That's why I chose to stay here with you."
"Poor Horace. Whatever are you going to do?"
"Well, dearie, as for me, it doesn't look as if I could do anything but one thing. And here is my ardent young Croesus coming out of the West."
"You called him your 'athletic Bayard' once."
"The other's more to the point at present. And what else can I do? Oh, if some one would just be brave enough to live the raw, quivering life with me, I could do it, I give you my word. I could let everything go by the board—but I am so alone and so helpless and no man is equal to it, nowadays. All of us here seem to be content to order a 'half portion' of life."
"Child, those dreams are beautiful, but they're like those flying-machines that are constantly being tested by the credulous inventors. A wheel or a pinion goes wrong and down the silly things come tumbling."
"Very well; then I shall be wise—I suppose I shall be—and I'll do it quickly. This fortune of good gold shall propose marriage to me at once, and be accepted—so that I shall be able to look my dear old father in the face again—and then, after I'm married—well, don't blame me for anything that happens."
"I'm sure you'll be happy with him—it's only your silly notions. He's in love with you."
"That makes me hesitate. He really is a man—I like him—see this letter—a long review from the Arcady Lyre of the 'poem' he wrote, a poem consisting of 'Avice Milbrey.' The reviewer has been quite enthusiastic over it, too,—written from some awful place in Montana."
"What more could you ask? He'll be kind."
"You don't understand, Muetterchen. He seems too decent to marry that way—and yet it's the only way I could marry him. And after he found me out—oh, think of what marriage is—he'd have to find it out—I couldn't act long—doubtless he wouldn't even be kind to me then."
"You are morbid, child."
"But I will do it; I shall; I will be a credit to my training—and I shall learn to hate him and he will have to learn—well, a great deal that he doesn't know about women."
She stared into the fire and added, after a moment's silence:
"Oh, if a man only could live up to the verses he cuts out of magazines!"
With the Barbaric Hosts
History repeats itself so cleverly, with a variance of stage-settings and accessories so cunning, that the repetition seldom bores, and is, indeed, frequently undetected. Thus, the descent of the Barbarians upon a decadent people is a little tour de force that has been performed again and again since the oldest day. But because the assault nowadays is made not with force of arms we are prone to believe it is no longer made at all;—as if human ways had changed a bit since those ugly, hairy tribes from the Northern forests descended upon the Roman empire. And yet the mere difference that the assault is now made with force of money in no way alters the process nor does it permit the result to vary. On the surface all is cordiality and peaceful negotiation. Beneath is the same immemorial strife, the life-and-death struggle,—pitiless, inexorable.
What would have been a hostile bivouac within the city's gates, but for the matter of a few centuries, is now, to select an example which remotely concerns us, a noble structure on Riverside Drive, facing the lordly Hudson and the majestic Palisades that form its farther wall. And, for the horde of Goths and Visigoths, Huns and Vandals, drunkenly reeling in the fitful light of camp-fires, chanting weird battle-runes, fighting for captive vestals, and bickering in uncouth tongues over the golden spoils, what have we now to make the parallel convince? Why, the same Barbarians, actually; the same hairy rudeness, the same unrefined, all-conquering, animal force; a red-faced, big-handed lot, imbued with hearty good nature and an easy tolerance for the ways of those upon whom they have descended.
Here are chiefs of renown from the farthest fastnesses; they and their curious households: the ironmonger from Pittsburg, the gold-miner from Dawson, the copper chief from Butte, the silver chief from Denver, the cattle chief from Oklahoma, lord of three hundred thousand good acres and thirty thousand cattle, the lumber prince from Michigan, the founder of a later dynasty in oil, from Texas. And, for the unaesthetic but effective Attila, an able fashioner of pork products from Chicago.
Here they make festival, carelessly, unafraid, unmolested. For, in the lapse of time, the older peoples have learned not only the folly of resisting inevitables, but that the huge and hairy invaders may be treated and bartered with not unprofitably. Doubtless it often results from this amity that the patrician strain is corrupted by the alien admixture,—but business has been business since as many as two persons met on the face of the new earth.
For example, this particular shelter is builded upon land which one of the patrician families had held for a century solely because it could not be disposed of. Yet the tribesmen came, clamouring for palaces, and now this same land, with some adjoining areas of trifling extent, produces an income that will suffice to maintain that family almost in its ancient and befitting estate.
In this mammoth pile, for the petty rental of ten or fifteen thousand dollars a year, many tribes of the invaders have found shelter and entertainment in apartments of many rooms. Outwardly, in details of ornamentation, the building is said to duplicate the Chateaux Blois, those splendid palaces of Francis I. Inside are all the line and colour and device of elegant opulence, modern to the last note.
To this palace of an October evening comes the tribe of Bines, and many another such, for a triumphal feast in the abode of Barbarian Silas Higbee. The carriages pass through a pair of lordly iron gates, swung from massive stone pillars, under an arch of wrought iron with its antique lamp, and into the echoing courtyard flanked by trim hedges of box.
Alighting, the barbaric guests of Higbee are ushered through a marble-walled vestibule, from which a wrought-iron and bronze screen gives way to the main entrance-hall. The ceiling here reproduces that of a feudal castle in Rouen, with some trifling and effective touches of decoration in blue, scarlet, and gold. The walls are of white Caen stone, with ornate windows and balconies jutting out above. In one corner is a stately stone mantel with richly carved hood, bearing in its central panel the escutcheon of the gallant French monarch. Up a little flight of marble steps, guarded by its hand-rail of heavy metal, shod with crimson velvet, one reaches the elevator. This pretty enclosure of iron and glass, of classic detail in the period of Henry II., of Circassian walnut trim, with crotch panels, has more the aspect of boudoir than elevator. The deep seat is of walnut, upholstered with fat cushions of crimson velvet edged in dull gold galloon. Over the seat is a mirror cut into small squares by wooden muntins. At each side are electric candles softened by red silk shades. One's last view before the door closes noiselessly is of a bay-window opposite, set with cathedral glass casement-lights, which sheds soft colours upon the hall-bench of carven stone and upon the tessellated floor.
The door to the Higbee domain is of polished mahogany, set between lights of antique verte Italian glass, and bearing an ancient brass knocker. From the reception-room, with its walls of green empire silk, one passes through a foyer hall, of Cordova leather hangings, to the drawing-room with its three broad windows. Opposite the entrance to this superb room is a mantel of carved Caen stone, faced with golden Pavanazza marble, with old Roman andirons of gold ending in the fleur-de-lis. The walls are hung with blue Florentine silk, embossed in silver. Beyond a bronze grill is the music-room, a library done in Austrian oak with stained burlap panelled by dull-forged nails, a conservatory, a billiard-room, a smoking-room. This latter has walls of red damask and a mantel with "Post Tenebras Lux" cut into one of its marble panels,—a legend at which the worthy lessee of all this splendour is wont often to glance with respectful interest.
The admirable host—if one be broad-minded—is now in the drawing-room, seconding his worthy wife and pretty daughter who welcome the dinner-guests.
For a man who has a fad for ham and doesn't care who knows it, his bearing is all we have a right to expect that it should be. Among the group of arrivals, men of his own sort, he is speaking of the ever-shifting fashion in beards, to the evangel of a Texas oil-field who flaunts to the world one of those heavy moustaches spuriously extended below the corners of the mouth by means of the chin-growth of hair. Another, a worthy tribesman from Snohomish, Washington, wears a beard which, for a score of years, has been let to be its own true self; to express, fearlessly, its own unique capacity for variation from type. These two have rallied their host upon his modishly trimmed side-whiskers.
"You're right," says Mr. Higbee, amiably, "I ain't stuck any myself on this way of trimming up a man's face, but the madam will have it this way—says it looks more refined and New Yorky. And now, do you know, ever since I've wore 'em this way—ever since I had 'em scraped from around under my neck here—I have to go to Florida every winter. Come January or February, I get bronchitis every blamed year!"
Two of the guests only are alien to the barbaric throng.
There is the noble Baron Ronault de Palliac, decorated, reserved, observant,—almost wistful. For the moment he is picturing dutifully the luxuries a certain marriage would enable him to procure for his noble father and his aged mother, who eagerly await the news of his quest for the golden fleece. For the baron contemplates, after the fashion of many conscientious explorers, a marriage with a native woman; though he permits himself to cherish the hope that it may not be conditioned upon his adopting the manners and customs of the particular tribe that he means to honour. Monsieur the Baron has long since been obliged to confess that a suitable mesalliance is none too easy of achievement, and, in testimony of his vicissitudes, he has written for a Paris comic paper a series of grimly satiric essays upon New York society. Recently, moreover, he has been upon the verge of accepting employment in the candy factory of a bourgeois compatriot. But hope has a little revived in the noble breast since chance brought him and his title under the scrutiny of the bewitching Miss Millicent Higbee and her appreciative mother.
And to-night there is not only the pretty Miss Higbee, but the winning Miss Bines, whose dot, the baron has been led to understand, would permit his beloved father unlimited piquet at his club, to say nothing of regenerating the family chateau. Yet these are hardly matters to be gossiped of. It is enough to know that the Baron Ronault de Palliac when he discovers himself at table between Miss Bines and the adorable Miss Higbee, becomes less saturnine than has for some time been his wont. He does not forget previous disappointments, but desperately snaps his swarthy jaws in commendable superiority to any adverse fate.
"Je ne donne pas un damn," he says to himself, and translates, as was his practice, to better his English—"I do not present a damn. I shall take what it is that it may be."
The noble Baron de Palliac at this feast of the tribesmen was like the captive patrician of old led in chains that galled. The other alien, Launton Oldaker, was present under terms of honourable truce, willingly and without ulterior motive saving—as he confessed to himself—a consuming desire to see "how the other half lives." He was no longer the hunted and dismayed being Percival had met in that far-off and impossible Montana; but was now untroubled, remembering, it is true, that this "slumming expedition," as he termed it, had taken him beyond the recognised bounds of his beloved New York, but serene in the consciousness that half an hour's drive would land him safely back at his club.
Oldaker observed Miss Psyche Bines approvingly.
"We are so glad to be in New York!" she had confided to him, sitting at her right.
"My dear young woman," he warned her, "you haven't reached New York yet." The talk being general and loud, he ventured further.
"This is Pittsburg, Chicago, Kansas City, Denver—almost anything but New York."
"Of course I know these are not the swell old families."
Oldaker sipped his glass of old Oloroso sherry and discoursed.
"And our prominent families, the ones whose names you read, are not New York any more, either. They are rather London and Paris. Their furniture, clothing, plate, pictures, and servants come from one or the other. Yes, and their manners, too, their interests and sympathies and concerns, their fashions—and—sometimes, their—er—morals. They are assuredly not New York any more than Gobelin tapestries and Fortuny pictures and Louis Seize chairs are New York."
"How queerly you talk. Where is New York, then?"
Oldaker sighed thoughtfully between two spoonfuls of tortue verte, claire.
"Well, I suppose the truth is that there isn't much of New York left in New York. As a matter of fact I think it died with the old Volunteer Fire Department. Anyway the surviving remnant is coy. Real old New Yorkers like myself—neither poor nor rich—are swamped in these days like those prehistoric animals whose bones we find. There comes a time when we can't live, and deposits form over us and we're lost even to memory."
But this talk was even harder for Miss Bines to understand than the English speech of the Baron Ronault de Palliac, and she turned to that noble gentleman as the turbot with sauce Corail was served.
The dining-room, its wall wainscotted from floor to ceiling in Spanish oak, was flooded with soft light from the red silk dome that depended from its crown of gold above the table. The laughter and talk were as little subdued as the scheme of the rooms. It was an atmosphere of prodigal and confident opulence. From the music-room near by came the soft strains of a Haydn quartet, exquisitely performed by finished and expensive artists.
"Say, Higbee!" it was the oil chief from Texas, "see if them fiddlers of yours can't play 'Ma Honolulu Lulu!'"
Oldaker, wincing and turning to Miss Bines for sympathy, heard her say:
"Yes, do, Mr. Higbee! I do love those ragtime songs—and then have them play 'Tell Me, Pretty Maiden,' and the 'Intermezzo.'"
He groaned in anguish.
The talk ran mostly on practical affairs: the current values of the great staple commodities; why the corn crop had been light; what wheat promised to bring; how young Burman of the Chicago Board of Trade had been pinched in his own wheat corner for four millions—"put up" by his admiring father; what beef on the hoof commanded; how the Federal Oil Company would presently own the State of Texas.
Almost every Barbarian at the table had made his own fortune. Hardly one but could recall early days when he toiled on farm or in shop or forest, herded cattle, prospected, sought adventure in remote and hazardous wilds.
"'Tain't much like them old days, eh, Higbee?" queried the Crown Prince of Cripple Creek—"when you and me had to walk from Chicago to Green Bay, Wisconsin, because we didn't have enough shillings for stage-fare?" He gazed about him suggestively.
"Corn-beef and cabbage was pretty good then, eh?" and with sure, vigorous strokes he fell to demolishing his filet de dinde a la Perigueux, while a butler refilled his glass with Chateau Malescot, 1878.
"Well, it does beat the two rooms the madam and me started to keep house in when we was married," admitted the host. "That was on the banks of the Chicago River, and now we got the Hudson flowin' right through the front yard, you might say, right past our own yacht-landing."
From old days of work and hardship they came to discuss the present and their immediate surroundings, social and financial.
Their daughters, it appeared, were being sought in marriage by the sons of those among whom they sojourned.
"Oh, they're a nice band of hand-shakers, all right, all right," asserted the gentleman from Kansas City. "One of 'em tried to keep company with our Caroline, but I wouldn't stand for it. He was a crackin' good shinny player, and he could lead them cotillion-dances blowin' a whistle and callin', 'All right, Up!' or something, like a car-starter,—but, 'Tell me something good about him,' I says to an old friend of his family. Well, he hemmed and hawed—he was a New York gentleman, and says he, 'I don't know whether I could make you understand or not,' he says, 'but he's got Family,' jest like that, bearin' down hard on 'Family'—'and you've got money,' he says, 'and Money and Family need each other badly in this town,' he says. 'Yes,' says I, 'I met up with a number of people here,' I says, 'but I ain't met none yet that you'd have to blindfold and back into a lot of money,' I says, 'family or no family,' I says. 'And that young man,' he says, 'is a pleasant, charming fellow; why,' he says, 'he's the best-coated man in New York.' Well, I looked at him and I says, 'Well,' says I, 'he may be the best-coated man in New York, but he'll be the best-booted man in New York, too,' I says, 'if he comes around trying to spark Caroline any more,—or would be if I had my way. His chin's pushed too far back under his face,' I says, 'and besides,' I says, 'Caroline is being waited on by a young hardware drummer, a good steady young fellow travelling out of little old K.C.,' I says, 'and while he ain't much for fam'ly,' I says, he'll have one of his own before he gets through,' I says; 'we start fam'lies where I come from,' I says."
"Good boy! Good for you," cheered the self-made Barbarians, and drank success to the absent disseminator of hardware.
With much loud talk of this unedifying character the dinner progressed to an end; through selle d'agneau, floated in '84 champagne, terrapin convoyed by a special Madeira of 1850, and canvas-back duck with Romanee Conti, 1865, to a triumphant finale of Turkish coffee and 1811 brandy.
After dinner the ladies gossiped of New York society, while the barbaric males smoked their big oily cigars and bandied reminiscences. Higbee showed them through every one of the apartment's twenty-two rooms, from reception-hall to laundry, manipulating the electric lights with the skill of a stage-manager.
The evening ended with a cake-walk, for the musical artists had by rare wines been mellowed from their classic reserve into a mood of ragtime abandon. And if Monsieur the Baron with his ceremonious grace was less exuberant than the Crown Prince of Cripple Creek, who sang as he stepped the sensuous measure, his pleasure was not less. He joyed to observe that these men of incredible millions had no hauteur.
"I do not," wrote the baron to his noble father the marquis, that night, "yet understand their joke; why should it be droll to wish that the man whose coat is of the best should also wear boots of the best? but as for what they call une promenade de gateau, I find it very enjoyable. I have met a Mlle. Bines to whom I shall at once pay my addresses. Unlike Mlle. Higbee, she has not the father from Chicago nor elsewhere. Quel diable d'homme!"
The Patricians Entertain
To reward the enduring who read politely through the garish revel of the preceding chapter, covers for fourteen are now laid with correct and tasteful quietness at the sophisticated board of that fine old New York family, the Milbreys. Shaded candles leave all but the glowing table in a gloom discreetly pleasant. One need not look so high as the old-fashioned stuccoed ceiling. The family portraits tone agreeably into the halflight of the walls; the huge old-fashioned walnut sideboard, soberly ornate with its mirrors, its white marble top and its wood-carved fruit, towers majestically aloft in proud scorn of the frivolous Chippendale fad.
Jarvis, the accomplished and incomparable butler, would be subdued and scholarly looking but for the flagrant scandal of his port-wine nose. He gives finishing little fillips to the white chrysanthemums massed in the central epergne on the long silver plateau, and bestows a last cautious survey upon the cut-glass and silver radiating over the dull white damask. Finding the table and its appointments faultless, he assures himself once more that the sherry will come on irreproachably at a temperature of 60 degrees; that the Burgundy will not fall below 65 nor mount above 70; for Jarvis wots of a palate so acutely sensitive that it never fails to record a variation of so much as one degree from the approved standard of temperature.
How restful this quiet and reserve after the colour and line tumult of the Higbee apartment. There the flush and bloom of newness were oppressive to the right-minded. All smelt of the shop. Here the dull tones and decorous lines caress and soothe instead of overwhelming the imagination with effects too grossly literal. Here is the veritable spirit of good form.
Throughout the house this contrast might be noted. It is the brown-stone, high-stoop house, guarded by a cast-iron fence, built in vast numbers when the world of fashion moved North to Murray Hill and Fifth Avenue a generation ago. One of these houses was like all the others inside and out, built of unimaginative "builder's architecture." The hall, the long parlour, the back parlour or library, the high stuccoed ceilings—not only were these alike in all the houses, but the furnishings, too, were apt to be of a sameness in them all, rather heavy and tasteless, but serving the ends that such things should be meant to serve, and never flamboyant. Of these relics of a simpler day not many survive to us, save in the shameful degeneracy of boarding-houses. But in such as are left, we may confidently expect to find the traditions of that more dignified time kept unsullied;—to find, indeed, as we find in the house of Milbrey, a settled air of gloom that suggests insolvent but stubbornly determined exclusiveness.
Something of this air, too, may be noticed in the surviving tenants of these austere relics. Yet it would hardly be observed in this house on this night, for not only do arriving guests bring the aroma of a later prosperity, but the hearts of our host and hostess beat high with a new hope. For the fair and sometimes uncertain daughter of the house of Milbrey, after many ominous mutterings, delays, and frank rebellions, has declared at last her readiness to be a credit to her training by conferring her family prestige, distinction of manner and charms of person upon one equipped for their suitable maintenance.
Already her imaginative father is ravishing in fancy the mouldiest wine-cellars of Continental Europe. Already the fond mother has idealised a house in "Millionaire's Row" east of the Park, where there shall be twenty servants instead of three, and there shall cease that gnawing worry lest the treacherous north-setting current sweep them west of the Park into one of those hideously new apartment houses, where the halls are done in marble that seems to have been sliced from a huge Roquefort cheese, and where one must vie, perhaps, with a shop-keeper for the favours of an irreverent and materialistic janitor.
The young woman herself entertains privately a state of mind which she has no intention of making public. It is enough, she reasons, that her action should outwardly accord with the best traditions of her class; and indeed, her family would never dream of demanding more.
Her gown to-night is of orchard green, trimmed with apple-blossoms, a single pink spray of them caught in her hair. The rounding, satin grace of her slender arms, sloping to the opal-tipped fingers, the exquisite line from ear to shoulder strap, the melting ripeness of her chin and throat, the tender pink and white of her fine skin, the capricious, inciting tilt of her small head, the dainty lift of her short nose,—these allurements she has inventoried with a calculating and satisfied eye. She is glad to believe that there is every reason why it will soon be over.
And, since the whole loaf is notoriously better than a half, here is the engaging son of the house, also firmly bent upon the high emprise of matrimony; handsome, with the chin, it may be, slightly receding; but an unexcelled leader of cotillions, a surpassing polo-player, clever, winning, and dressed with an effect that has long made him remarked in polite circles, which no mere money can achieve. Money, indeed, if certain ill-natured gossip of tradesmen be true, has been an inconsiderable factor in the encompassment of this sartorial distinction. He waits now, eager for a first glimpse of the young woman whose charms, even by report, have already won the best devotion he has to give. A grievous error it is to suppose that Cupid's artillery is limited to bow and arrows.
And now, instead of the rude commercial horde that laughed loudly and ate uncouthly at the board of the Barbarian, we shall sit at table with people born to the only manner said to be worth possessing;—if we except, indeed, the visiting tribe of Bines, who may be relied upon, however, to behave at least unobtrusively.
As a contrast to the oppressively Western matron from Kansas City, here is Mistress Fidelia Oldaker on the arm of her attentive son. She would be very old but for the circumstance that she began early in life to be a belle, and age cannot stale such women. Brought up with board at her back, books on her head, to guard her complexion as if it were her fair name, to be diligent at harp practice and conscientious with the dancing-master, she is almost the last of a school that nursed but the single aim of subjugating man. To-night, at seventy-something, she is a bit of pink bisque fragility, bubbling tirelessly with reminiscence, her vivacity unimpaired, her energy amazing, and her coquetry faultless. From which we should learn, and be grateful therefor, that when a girl is brought up in the way she ought to go she will never be able to depart from it.
Here also is Cornelia Van Geist, sister of our admirable hostess—relict of a gentleman who had been first or second cousin to half the people in society it were really desirable to know, and whose taste in wines, dinners, and sports had been widely praised at his death by those who had had the fortune to be numbered among his friends. Mrs. Van Geist has a kind, shrewd face, and her hair, which turned prematurely grey while she was yet a wife, gives her a look of age that her actual years belie.
Here, too, is Rulon Shepler, the money-god, his large, round head turning upon his immense shoulders without the aid of a neck—sharp-eyed, grizzled, fifty, short of stature, and with as few illusions concerning life as the New York financier is apt to retain at his age.
If we be forced to wait for another guest of note, it is hardly more than her due; for Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan is truly a personage, and the best people on more than one continent do not become unduly provoked at being made to wait for her. Those less than the very best frankly esteem it a privilege. Yet the great lady is not careless of engagements, and the wait is never prolonged. Mrs. Milbrey has time to say to her sister, "Yes, we think it's going; and really, it will do very well, you know. The girl has had some nonsense in her mind for a year past—none of us can tell what—but now she seems actually sensible, and she's promised to accept when the chap proposes." But there is time for no more gossip.
The belated guest arrives, enveloped in a vast cloak, and accompanied by her two nephews, whom Percival Bines recognises for the solemn and taciturn young men he had met in Shepler's party at the mine.
Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan, albeit a decorative personality, is constructed on the same broad and generously graceful lines as her own victoria. The great lady has not only two chins, but what any fair-minded observer would accept as sufficient promise of a good third. Yet hardly could a slighter person display to advantage the famous Gwilt-Athelstan jewels. The rope of pierced diamonds with pigeon-blood rubies strung between them, which she wears wound over her corsage, would assuredly overweight the frail Fidelia Oldaker; the tiara of emeralds and diamonds was never meant for a brow less majestic; nor would the stomacher of lustrous grey pearls and glinting diamonds ever have clasped becomingly a figure that was svelte—or "skinny," as the great lady herself is frank enough to term all persons even remotely inclined to be svelte.
But let us sit and enliven a proper dinner with talk upon topics of legitimate interest and genuine propriety.
Here will be no discussion of the vulgar matter of markets, staples, and prices, such as we perforce endured through the overwined and too-abundant repast of Higbee. Instead of learning what beef on the hoof brings per hundred-weight, f.o.b. at Cheyenne, we shall here glean at once the invaluable fact that while good society in London used to be limited to those who had been presented at court, the presentations have now become so numerous that the limitation has lost its significance. Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan thus discloses, as if it were a trifle, something we should never learn at the table of Higbee though we ate his heavy dinners to the day of ultimate chaos. And while we learned at that distressingly new table that one should keep one's heifers and sell off one's steer calves, we never should have been informed there that Dinard had just enjoyed the gayest season of its history under the patronage of this enterprising American; nor that Lady de Muzzy had opened a tea-room in Grafton Street, and Cynthia, Marchioness of Angleberry, a beauty-improvement parlour on the Strand "because she needs the money."
"Lots of 'em takin' to trade nowadays; it's a smart sayin' there now that all the peers are marryin' actresses and all the peeresses goin' into business." Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan nodded little shocks of brilliance from her tiara and hungrily speared another oyster.
"Only trouble is, it's such rotten hard work collectin' bills from their intimate friends; they simply won't pay."
Nor at the barbaric Higbee's should we have been vouchsafed, to treasure for our own, the knowledge that Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan had merely run over for the cup-fortnight, meaning to return directly to her daughter, Katharine, Duchess of Blanchmere, in time for the Melton Mowbray hunting-season; nor that she had been rather taken by the new way of country life among us, and so tempted to protract her gracious sojourn.
"Really," she admits, "we're comin' to do the right thing over here; a few years were all we needed. Hardly a town-house to be opened before Thanksgivin', I understand; and down at the Hills some of the houses will stay open all winter. It's coachin', ridin', and golf and auto-racin' and polo and squash; really the young folks don't go in at all except to dance and eat; and it's quite right, you know. It's quite decently English, now. Why, at Morris Park the other day, the crowd on the lawn looked quite like Ascot, actually."
Nor could we have learned in the hostile camp the current gossip of Tuxedo, Meadowbrook, Lenox, Morristown, and Ardsley; of the mishap to Mrs. "Jimmie" Whettin, twice unseated at a recent meet; of the woman's championship tournament at Chatsworth; or the good points of the new runner-up at Baltusrol, daily to be seen on the links. Where we might incur knowledge of Beaumont "gusher" or Pittsburg mill we should never have discovered that teas and receptions are really falling into disrepute; that a series of dinner-dances will be organised by the mothers of debutantes to bring them forward; and that big subscription balls are in disfavour, since they benefit no one but the caterers who serve poor suppers and bad champagne.
Mrs. takes only Scotch whiskey and soda.
"But I'm glad," she confides to Horace Milbrey on her left, "that you haven't got to followin' this fad of havin' one wine at dinner; I know it's English, but it's downright shoddy."
Her host's eyes swam with gratitude for this appreciation.
"I stick to my peg," she continued; "but I like to see a Chablis with the oysters and good dry sherry with the soup, and a Moselle with the fish, and then you're ready to be livened with a bit of champagne for the roast, and steadied a bit by Burgundy with the game. Phim sticks to it, too; tells me my peg is downright encouragement to the bacteria. But I tell him I've no quarrel with my bacteria. 'Live and let live' is my motto, I tell him,—and if the microbes and I both like Scotch and soda, why, what harm. I'm forty-two and not so much of a fool that I ain't a little bit of a physician. I know my stomach, I tell him."
"What about these Western people?" she asked Oldaker at her other side, after a little.
"Decent, unpretentious folks, somewhat new, but with loads of money."
"I've heard how the breed's stormin' New York in droves; but they tell me some of us need the money."
"I dined with one last night, a sugar-cured ham magnate from Chicago."
"Dear me! how shockin'!"
"But they're good, whole-souled people."
"And well-heeled—and that's what we need, it seems. Some of us been so busy bein' well-familied that we've forgot to make money."
"It's a good thing, too. Nature has her own building laws about fortunes. When they get too sky-scrapy she topples them over. These people with their thrifty habits would have all the money in time if their sons and daughters didn't marry aristocrats with expensive tastes who know how to be spenders. Nature keeps things fairly even, one way or another."
"You're thinkin' about Kitty and the duke."
"No, not then I wasn't, though that's one of the class I mean. I was thinking especially about these Westerners."
"Well, my grandfather made the best barrels in New York, and I'm mother-in-law of a chap whose ancestors for three hundred and fifty years haven't done a stroke of work; but he's the Duke of Blanchmere, and I hope our friends here will come as near gettin' the worth of their money as we did. And if that chap"—she glanced at Percival—"marries a certain young woman, he'll never have a dull moment. I'd vouch for that. I'm quite sure she's the devil in her."
"And if the yellow-haired girl marries the fellow next her—"
"He might do worse."
"Yes, but might she? He's already doing worse, and he'll keep on doing it, even if he does marry her."
"Nonsense—about that, you know; all rot! What can you expect of these chaps? So does the duke do worse, but you'll never hear Kitty complain so long as he lets her alone and she can wear the strawberry leaves. I fancy I'll have those young ones down to the Hills for Hallowe'en and the week-end. Might as well help 'em along."
At the other end of the table, the fine old ivory of her cheeks gently suffused with pink until they looked like slightly crumpled leaves of a la France rose, Mrs. Oldaker was flirting brazenly with Shepler, and prattling impartially to him and to one of the twin nephews of old days in social New York; of a time when the world of fashion occupied a little space at the Battery and along Broadway; of its migration to the far north of Great Jones Street, St. Mark's Place, and Second Avenue. In Waverly Place had been the flowering of her belle-hood, and the day when her set moved on to Murray Hill was to her still recent and revolutionary.
Between the solemn Angstead twins, Mrs. Bines had sat in silence until by some happy chance it transpired that "horse" was the word to unlock their lips. As Mrs. Bines knew all about horses the twins at once became voluble, showing her marked attention. The twins were notably devoid of prejudice if your sympathies happened to run with theirs.
Miss Bines and young Milbrey were already on excellent terms. Percival and Miss Milbrey, on the other hand, were doing badly. Some disturbing element seemed to have put them aloof. Miss Milbrey wondered somewhat; but her mind was easy, for her resolution had been taken.
Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan extended her invitation to the young people, who accepted joyfully.
"Come down and camp with us, and help Phim keep the batteries of his autos run out. You know they deteriorate when they're left half-charged, and it's one of the cares of his life to see to the whole six of 'em when they come in. He gets in one and the men get in the others, and he leads a solemn parade around the stables until they've been run out. Tell me the leisure class isn't a hard-workin' class, now."
Over coffee and chartreuse in the drawing-room there was more general talk of money and marriage, and of one for the other.
"And so he married money," concluded Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan of one they had discussed.
"Happy marriage!" Shepler called out.
"No; money talks! and this time, on my word, now, it made you want to put on those thick sealskin ear-muffs. Poor chap, and he'd been talkin' to me about the monotony of married life. 'Monotony, my boy,' I said to him, 'you don't know lovely woman!' and now he wishes jolly well that he'd not done it, you know."
Here, too, was earned by Mrs. Bines a reputation for wit that she was never able quite to destroy. There had been talk of a banquet to a visiting celebrity the night before, for which the menu was one of unusual costliness. Mr. Milbrey had dwelt with feeling upon certain of its eminent excellences, such as loin of young bear, a la Granville, and the boned quail, stuffed with goose-livers.
"Really," he concluded, "from an artistic standpoint, although large dinners are apt to be slurred and slighted, it was a creation of undoubted worth."
"And the orchestra," spoke up Mrs. Bines, who had read of the banquet, "played 'Hail to the Chef!'"
The laughter at this sally was all it should have been, even the host joining in it. Only two of those present knew that the good woman had been warned not to call "chef" "chief," as Silas Higbee did. The fact that neither should "chief" be called "chef" was impressed upon her later, in a way to make her resolve ever again to eschew both of the troublesome words.
When the guests had gone Miss Milbrey received the praise of both parents for her blameless attitude toward young Bines.
"It will be fixed when we come back from Wheatly," said that knowing young woman, "and now don't worry any more about it."
"And, Fred," said the mother, "do keep straight down there. She's a commonplace girl, with lots of mannerisms to unlearn, but she's pretty and sweet and teachable."
"And she'll learn a lot from Fred that she doesn't know now," finished that young man's sister from the foot of the stairway.
Back at their hotel Psyche Bines was saying:
"Isn't it queer about Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan? We've read so much about her in the papers. I thought she must be some one awful to meet—I was that scared—and instead, she's like any one, and real chummy besides; and, actually, ma, don't you think her dress was dowdy—all except the diamonds? I suppose that comes from living in England so much. And hasn't Mrs. Milbrey twice as grand a manner, and the son—he's a precious—he knows everything and everybody; I shall like him."
Her brother, who had flung himself into a cushioned corner, spoke with the air of one who had reluctantly consented to be interviewed and who was anxious to be quoted correctly:
"Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan is all right. She reminds me of what Uncle Peter writes about that new herd of short-horns: 'This breed has a mild disposition, is a good feeder, and produces a fine quality of flesh.' But I'll tell you one thing, sis," he concluded with sudden emphasis, "with all this talk about marrying for money I'm beginning to feel as if you and I were a couple of white rabbits out in the open with all the game laws off!"
The Course of True Love at a House Party
Among sundry maxims and observations of King Solomon, collated by the discerning men of Hezekiah, it will be recalled that the way of a man with a maid is held up to wonder. "There be," says the wise king, who composed a little in the crisp manner of Mr. Kipling, "three things which are too wonderful for me; yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid." Why he neglected to include the way of a maid with a man is not at once apparent. His unusual facilities for observation must seemingly have inspired him to wonder at the maid's way even more than at the man's; and wise men later than he have not hesitated to confess their entire lack of understanding in the matter. But if Solomon included this item in his summary, the men of Hezekiah omitted to report the fact, and by their chronicles we learn only that the woman "eateth and wipeth her mouth and saith 'I have done no wickedness.'" Perhaps it was Solomon's mischance to observe phenomena of this character too much in the mass.
Miss Milbrey's way, at any rate, with the man she had decided to marry, would undoubtedly have made more work for the unnamed Boswells of the king, could it have been brought to his notice.
For, as she journeyed to the meeting-place on a bright October afternoon, she confessed to herself that it was of a depth beyond her own fathoming. Lolling easily back in the wicker chair of the car that bore her, and gazing idly out over the brown fields and yellow forests of Long Island as they swirled by her, she found herself wishing once that her eyes were made like those of a doll. She had lately discovered of one that when it appeared to fall asleep, it merely turned its eyes around to look into its own head. With any lesser opportunity for introspection she felt that certain doubts as to her own motives and processes would remain for ever unresolved. It was not that she could not say "I have done no wickedness;" let us place this heroine in no false light. She was little concerned with the morality of her course as others might appraise it. The fault, if fault it be, is neither ours nor hers, and Mr. Darwin wrote a big book chiefly to prove that it isn't. From the force of her environment and heredity Miss Milbrey had debated almost exclusively her own chances of happiness under given conditions; and if she had, for a time, questioned the wisdom of the obvious course, entirely from her own selfish standpoint, it is all that, and perhaps more than, we were justified in expecting from her. Let her, then, cheat the reader of no sympathy that might flow to a heroine struggling for a high moral ideal. Merely is she clear-headed enough to have discovered that selfishness is not the thing of easy bonds it is reputed to be; that its delights are not certain; that one does not unerringly achieve happiness by the bare circumstance of being uniformly selfish. Yet even this is a discovery not often made, nor one to be lightly esteemed; for have not the wise ones of Church and State ever implied that the way of selfishness is a way of sure delight, to be shunned only because its joys endure not? So it may be, after all, no small merit we claim for this girl in that, trained to selfishness and a certain course, she yet had the wit to suspect that its joys have been overvalued even by its professional enemies. It is no small merit, perhaps, even though, after due and selfish reflection, she determined upon the obvious course.
If sometimes her heart was sick with the hunger to love and be loved by the one she loved, so that there were times when she would have bartered the world for its plenary feeding, it is all that, we insist, and more, than could be expected of this sort of heroine.
And so she had resolved upon surrender—upon an outward surrender. Inwardly she knew it to be not more than a capitulation under duress, whose terms would remain for ever secret except to those clever at induction. And now, as the train took her swiftly to her fate, she made the best of it.
There would be a town-house fit for her; a country-house at Tuxedo or Lenox or Westbury, a thousand good acres with greeneries, a game preserve, trout pond, and race-course; a cottage at Newport; a place in Scotland; a house in London, perhaps. Then there would be jewels such as she had longed for, a portrait by Chartran, she thought. And there was the dazzling thought of going to Felix or Doucet with credit unlimited.
And he—would the thought of him as it had always come to her keep on hurting with a hurt she could neither explain nor appease? Would he annoy her, enrage her perhaps, or even worse, tire her? He would be very much in earnest, of course, and so few men could be in earnest gracefully. But would he be stupid enough to stay so? And if not, would he become brutal? She suspected he might have capacities for that. Would she be able to hide all but her pleasant emotions from him,—hide that want, the great want, to which she would once have done sacrifice?
Well, it was easier to try than not to try, and the sacrifice—one could always sacrifice if the need became imperative.
"And I'm making much of nothing," she concluded. "No other girl I know would do it. And papa shall 'give me away.' What a pretty euphemism that is, to be sure!"
But her troubled musings ended with her time alone. From a whirl over the crisp, firm macadam, tucked into one of Phimister Gwilt-Athelstan's automobiles with four other guests, with no less a person than her genial host for chauffeur, she was presently ushered into the great hall where a huge log-fire crackled welcome, and where blew a lively little gale of tea-chatter from a dozen people.
Tea Miss Milbrey justly reckoned among the little sanities of life. Her wrap doffed and her veil pushed up, she was in a moment restored to her normal ease, a part of the group, and making her part of the talk that touched the latest news from town, the flower show, automobile show, Irving and Terry, the morning's meet, the weekly musicale and dinner-dance at the club; and at length upon certain matters of marriage and divorce.
"Ladies, ladies—this is degenerating into a mere hammer-fest." Thus spoke a male wit who had listened. "Give over, and be nice to the absent."
"The end of the fairy story was," continued the previous speaker, unheeding, "and so they were divorced and lived happily ever after."
"I think she took the Chicago motto, 'Marry early and often,'" said another, "but here she comes."
And as blond and fluffy little Mrs. Akemit, a late divorcee, joined the group the talk ranged back to the flourishing new hunt at Goshen, the driving over of Tuxedo people for the meet, the nasty accident to Warner Ridgeway when his blue-ribbon winner Musette fell upon him in taking a double-jump.
Miss Milbrey had taken stock of her fellow guests. Especially was she interested to note the presence of Mrs. Drelmer and her protege, Mauburn. It meant, she was sure, that her brother's wooing of Miss Bines would not be uncontested.
Another load of guests from a later train bustled in, the Bineses among them, and there was more tea and fresher gossip, while the butler circulated again with his tray for the trunk-keys.
The breezy hostess now took pains to impress upon all that only by doing exactly as they pleased, as to going and coming, could they hope to please her. Had she not, by this policy, conquered the cold, Scottish exclusiveness of Inverness-shire, so that the right sort of people fought to be at her house-parties during the shooting, even though she would persist in travelling back and forth to London in gowns that would be conspicuously elaborate at an afternoon reception, and even though, in any condition of dress, she never left quite enough of her jewels in their strong-box?
During the hour of dressing-sacque and slippers, while maids fluttered through the long corridors on hair-tending and dress-hooking expeditions, Mrs. Drelmer favoured her hostess with a confidential chat in that lady's boudoir, and, over Scotch and soda and a cigarette, suggested that Mr. Mauburn, in a house where he could really do as he pleased, would assuredly take Miss Bines out to dinner.
Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan was instantly sympathetic.
"Only I can't take sides, you know, my dear, and young Milbrey will think me shabby if he doesn't have first go; but I'll be impartial; Milbrey shall take her in, and Mauburn shall be at her other side, and may God have mercy on her soul! These people have so much money, I hear, it amounts to financial embarrassment, but with those two chaps for the girl, and Avice Milbrey for that decent young chap, I fancy they'll be disembarrassed, in a measure. But I mustn't 'play favourites,' as those slangy nephews of mine put it."
And so it befell at dinner in the tapestried dining-room that Psyche Bines received assiduous attention from two gentlemen whom she considered equally and superlatively fascinating. While she looked at one, she listened to the other, and her neck grew tired with turning. Of anything, save the talk, her mind was afterward a blank; but why is not that the ideal dinner for any but mere feeders?
Nor was the dazzled girl conscious of others at the table,—of Florence Akemit, the babyish blond, listening with feverish attention to the German savant, Doctor von Herzlich, who had translated Goethe's "Iphigenie in Tauris" into Greek merely as recreation, and who was now justifying his choice of certain words and phrases by citing passages from various Greek authors; a choice which the sympathetic listener, after discreet intervals for reflection, invariably commended.
"Oh, you wonderful, wonderful man, you!" she exclaimed, resolving to sit by some one less wonderful another time.
Or there was Mrs. Gwilt-Athelstan, like a motherly Venus rising from a sea of pink velvet and white silk lace, asserting that some one or other would never get within sniffing-distance of the Sandringham set.
Or her husband, whose face, when he settled it in his collar, made the lines of a perfect lyre, and of whom it would presently become inaccurate to say that he was getting bald. He was insisting that "too many houses spoil the home," and that, with six establishments, he was without a place to lay his head, that is, with any satisfaction.
Or there was pale, thin, ascetic Winnie Wilberforce, who, as a theosophist, is understood to believe that, in a former incarnation, he came near to having an affair with a danseuse; he was expounding the esoterics of his cult to a high-coloured brunette with many turquoises, who, in turn, was rather inclined to the horse-talk of one of the nephews.
Or there were Miss Milbrey and Percival Bines, of whom the former had noted with some surprise that the latter was studying her with the eyes of rather cold calculation, something she had never before detected in him.
After dinner there were bridge and music from the big pipe-organ in the music-room, and billiards and some dancing.
The rival cavaliers of Miss Bines, perceiving simultaneously that neither would have the delicacy to withdraw from the field, cunningly inveigled each other into the billiard-room, where they watchfully consumed whiskey and soda together with the design of making each other drunk. This resulted in the two nephews, who invariably hunted as a pair, capturing Miss Bines to see if she could talk horse as ably as her mother, and, when they found that she could, planning a coaching trip for the morrow.
It also resulted in Miss Bines seeing no more of either cavalier that night, since they abandoned their contest only after every one but a sleepy butler had retired, and at a time when it became necessary for the Englishman to assist the American up the stairs, though the latter was moved to protest, as a matter of cheerful generality, that he was "aw ri'—entirely cap'le." At parting he repeatedly urged Mauburn, with tears in his eyes, to point out one single instance in which he had ever proved false to a friend.
To herself, when the pink rose came out of her hair that night, Miss Milbrey admitted that it wasn't going to be so bad, after all.
She had feared he might rush his proposal through that night; he had been so much in earnest. But he had not done so, and she was glad he could be restrained and deliberate in that "breedy" sort of way. It promised well, that he could wait until the morrow.
An Afternoon Stroll and an Evening Catastrophe
Miss Milbrey, the next morning, faced with becoming resignation what she felt would be her last day of entire freedom. She was down and out philosophically to play nine holes with her host before breakfast.
Her brother, awakening less happily, made a series of discoveries regarding his bodily sensations that caused him to view life with disaffection. Noting that the hour was early, however, he took cheer, and after a long, strong, cold drink, which he rang for, and a pricking icy shower, which he nerved himself to, he was ready to ignore his aching head and get the start of Mauburn.
The Englishman, he seemed to recall, had drunk even more than he, and, as it was barely eight o'clock, would probably not come to life for a couple of hours yet. He made his way to the breakfast-room. The thought of food was not pleasant, but another brandy and soda, beading vivaciously in its tall glass, would enable him to watch with fortitude the spectacle of others who might chance to be eating. And he would have at least two hours of Miss Bines before Mauburn's head should ache him back to consciousness.
He opened the door of the spacious breakfast-room. Through the broad windows from the south-east came the glorious shine of the morning sun to make him blink; and seated where it flooded him as a calcium was Mauburn, resplendent in his myriad freckles, trim, alive, and obviously hungry. Around his plate were cold mutton, a game pie, eggs, bacon, tarts, toast, and sodden-looking marmalade. Mauburn was eating of these with a voracity that published his singleness of mind to all who might observe.
Milbrey steadied himself with one hand upon the door-post, and with the other he sought to brush this monstrous illusion from his fickle eyes. But Mauburn and the details of his deadly British breakfast became only more distinct. The appalled observer groaned and rushed for the sideboard, whence a decanter, a bowl of cracked ice, and a siphon beckoned.
Between two gulps of coffee Mauburn grinned affably.
"Mornin', old chap! Feelin' a bit seedy? By Jove! I don't wonder. I'm not so fit myself. I fancy, you know, it must have been that beastly anchovy paste we had on the biscuits."
Milbrey's burning eyes beheld him reach out for another slice of the cold, terrible mutton.
"Life," said Milbrey, as he inflated his brandy from the siphon, "is an empty dream this morning."
"Wake up then, old chap!" Mauburn cordially urged, engaging the game pie in deadly conflict; "try a rasher; nothing like it; better'n peggin' it so early. Never drink till dinner-time, old chap, and you'll be able to eat in the morning like—like a blooming baby." And he proceeded to crown this notion of infancy's breakfast with a jam tart of majestic proportions.
"Where are the people?" inquired Milbrey, eking out his own moist breakfast with a cigarette.
"All down and out except some of the women. Miss Bines just drove off a four-in-hand with the two Angsteads—held the reins like an old whip, too, by Jove; but they'll be back for luncheon;—and directly after luncheon she's promised to ride with me. I fancy we'll have a little practice over the sticks."
"And I fancy I'm going straight back to bed,—that is, if it's all right to fancy a thing you're certain about."
Outside most of the others had scattered for life in the open, each to his taste. Some were on the links. Some had gone with the coach. A few had ridden early to the meet of the Essex hounds near Easthampton, where a stiff run was expected. Others had gone to follow the hunt in traps. A lively group came back now to read the morning papers by the log-fire in the big cheery hall. Among these were Percival and Miss Milbrey. When they had dawdled over the papers for an hour Miss Milbrey grew slightly restive.
"Why doesn't he have it over?" she asked herself, with some impatience. And she delicately gave Percival, not an opportunity, but opportunities to make an opportunity, which is a vastly different form of procedure.
But the luncheon hour came and people straggled back, and the afternoon began, and the request for Miss Milbrey's heart and hand was still unaccountably deferred. Nor could she feel any of those subtle premonitions that usually warn a woman when the event is preparing in a lover's secret heart.
Reminding herself of his letters, she began to suspect that, while he could write unreservedly, he might be shy and reluctant of speech; and that shyness now deterred him. So much being clear, she determined to force the issue and end the strain for both.
Percival had shown not a little interest in pretty Mrs. Akemit, and was now talking with that fascinating creature as she lolled on a low seat before the fire in her lacy blue house-gown. At the moment she was adroitly posing one foot and then the other before the warmth of the grate. It may be disclosed without damage to this tale that the feet of Mrs. Akemit were not cold; but that they were trifles most daintily shod, and, as her slender silken ankles curved them toward the blaze from her froth of a petticoat, they were worth looking at.
Miss Milbrey disunited the chatting couple with swiftness and aplomb.
"Come, Mr. Bines, if I'm to take that tramp you made me promise you, it's time we were off."
Outside she laughed deliciously. "You know you did make me promise it mentally, because I knew you'd want to come and want me to come, but I was afraid Mrs. Akemit mightn't understand about telepathy, so I pretended we'd arranged it all in words."
"Of course! Great joke, wasn't it?" assented the young man, rather awkwardly.
Down the broad sweep of roadway, running between its granite coping, they strode at a smart pace.
"You know you complimented my walking powers on that other walk we took, away off there where the sun goes down."
"Yes, of course," he replied absently.
"Now, he's beginning," she said to herself, noting his absent and somewhat embarrassed manner.
In reality he was thinking how few were the days ago he would have held this the dearest of all privileges, and how strange that he should now prize it so lightly, almost prefer, indeed, not to have it; that he should regard her, of all women, "the fairest of all flesh on earth" with nervous distrust.
She was dressed in tan corduroy; elation was in her face; her waist, as she stepped, showed supple as a willow; her suede-gloved little hands were compact and tempting to his grasp. His senses breathed the air of her perfect and compelling femininity. But sharper than all these impressions rang the words of the worldly-wise Higbee: "She's hunting night and day for a rich husband; she tries for them as fast as they come; she'd rather marry a sub-treasury—she'd marry me in a minute—she'd marry YOU; but if you were broke she'd have about as much use for you...."
Her glance was frank, friendly, and encouraging. Her deep eyes were clear as a trout-brook. He thought he saw in them once almost a tenderness for him.
She thought, "He does love me!"
Outside the grounds they turned down a bridle-path that led off through the woods—off through the golden sun-wine of an October day. The air bore a clean autumn spice, and a faint salty scent blended with it from the distant Sound. The autumn silence, which is the only perfect silence in all the world, was restful, yet full of significance, suggestion, provocation. From the spongy lowland back of them came the pleading sweetness of a meadow-lark's cry. Nearer they could even hear an occasional leaf flutter and waver down. The quick thud of a falling nut was almost loud enough to earn its echo. Now and then they saw a lightning flash of vivid turquoise and heard a jay's harsh scream.
In this stillness their voices instinctively lowered, while their eyes did homage to the wondrous play of colour about them. Over a yielding brown carpet they went among maple and chestnut and oak, with their bewildering changes through crimson, russet, and amber to pale yellow; under the deep-stained leaves of the sweet-gum they went, and past the dogwood with scarlet berries gemming the clusters of its dim red leaves.
But through all this waiting, inciting silence Miss Milbrey listened in vain for the words she had felt so certain would come.
Sometimes her companion was voluble; again he was taciturn—and through it all he was doggedly aloof.
Miss Milbrey had put herself bravely in the path of Destiny. Destiny had turned aside. She had turned to meet it, and now it frankly fled. Destiny, as she had construed it, was turned a fugitive. She was bruised, puzzled, and not a little piqued. During the walk back, when this much had been made clear, the silence was intolerably oppressive. Without knowing why, they understood perfectly now that neither had been ingenuous.
"She would love the money and play me for a fool," he thought, under the surface talk. Youth is prone to endow its opinions with all the dignity of certain knowledge.
"Yet I am certain he loves me," thought she. On the other hand, youth is often gifted with a credulity divine and unerring.
At the door as they came up the roadway a trap was depositing a man whom Miss Milbrey greeted with evident surprise and some restraint. He was slight, dark, and quick of movement, with finely cut nostrils that expanded and quivered nervously like those of a high-bred horse in tight check.
Miss Milbrey introduced him to Percival as Mr. Ristine.
"I didn't know you were hereabouts," she said.
"I've run over from the Bloynes to dine and do Hallowe'en with you," he answered, flashing his dark eyes quickly over Percival and again lighting the girl with them.
"Surprises never come singly," she returned, and Percival noted a curious little air of defiance in her glance and manner.
Now it is possible that Solomon's implied distinction as to the man's way with a maid was not, after all, so ill advised.
For young Bines, after dinner, fell in love with Miss Milbrey all over again. The normal human mind going to one extreme will inevitably gravitate to its opposite if given time. Having put her away in the conviction that she was heartless and mercenary—having fasted in the desert of doubt—he now found himself detecting in her an unmistakable appeal for sympathy, for human kindness, perhaps for love. He forgot the words of Higbee and became again the confident, unquestioning lover. He noted her rather subdued and reserved demeanour, and the suggestions of weariness about her eyes. They drew him. He resolved at once to seek her and give his love freedom to tell itself. He would no longer meanly restrain it. He would even tell her all his distrust. Now that they had gone she should know every ignoble suspicion; and, whether she cared for him or not, she would comfort him for the hurt they had been to him.