The next week was a busy one for the Montagues. The Robbie Wallings had come to town and opened their house, and the time drew near for the wonderful débutante dance at which Alice was to be formally presented to Society. And of course Alice must have a new dress for the occasion, and it must be absolutely the most beautiful dress ever known. In an idle moment her cousin figured out that it was to cost her about five dollars a minute to be entertained by the Wallings!
What it would cost the Wallings, one scarcely dared to think. Their ballroom would be turned into a flower-garden; and there would be a supper for a hundred guests, and still another supper after the dance, and costly favours for every figure. The purchasing of these latter had been entrusted to Oliver, and Montague heard with dismay what they were to cost. "Robbie couldn't afford to do anything second-rate," was the younger brother's only reply to his exclamations.
Alice divided her time between the Wallings and her costumiers, and every evening she came home with a new tale of important developments. Alice was new at the game, and could afford to be excited; and Mrs. Robbie liked to see her bright face, and to smile indulgently at her eager inquiries. Mrs. Robbie herself had given her orders to her steward and her florist and her secretary, and went on her way and thought no more about it. That was the way of the great ladies—or, at any rate, it was their pose.
The town-house of the Robbies was a stately palace occupying a block upon Fifth Avenue—one of the half-dozen mansions of the Walling family which were among the show places of the city. It would take a catalogue to list the establishments maintained by the Wallings—there was an estate in North Carolina, and another in the Adirondacks, and others on Long Island and in New Jersey. Also there were several in Newport—one which was almost never occupied, and which Mrs. Billy Alden sarcastically described as "a three-million-dollar castle on a desert."
Montague accompanied Alice once or twice, and had an opportunity to study Mrs. Robbie at home. There were thirty-eight servants in her establishment; it was a little state all in itself, with Mrs. Robbie as queen, and her housekeeper as prime minister, and under them as many different ranks and classes and castes as in a feudal principality. There had to be six separate dining-rooms for the various kinds of servants who scorned each other; there were servants' servants and servants of servants' servants. There were only three to whom the mistress was supposed to give orders—the butler, the steward, and the housekeeper; she did not even know the names of many of them, and they were changed so often, that, as she declared, she had to leave it to her detective to distinguish between employees and burglars.
Mrs. Robbie was quite a young woman, but it pleased her to pose as a care-worn matron, weary of the responsibilities of her exalted station. The ignorant looked on and pictured her as living in the lap of ease, endowed with every opportunity: in reality the meanest kitchen-maid was freer—she was quite worn thin with the burdens that fell upon her. The huge machine was for ever threatening to fall to pieces, and required the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job to keep it running. One paid one's steward a fortune, and yet he robbed right and left, and quarrelled with the chef besides. The butler was suspected of getting drunk upon rare and costly vintages, and the new parlour-maid had turned out to be a Sunday reporter in disguise. The man who had come every day for ten years to wind the clocks of the establishment was dead, and the one who took care of the bric-a-brac was sick, and the housekeeper was in a panic over the prospect of having to train another.
And even suppose that you escaped from these things, the real problems of your life had still to be faced. It was not enough to keep alive; you had your career—your duties as a leader of Society. There was the daily mail, with all the pitiful letters from people begging money—actually in one single week there were demands for two million dollars. There were geniuses with patent incubators and stove-lifters, and every time you gave a ball you stirred up swarms of anarchists and cranks. And then there were the letters you really had to answer, and the calls that had to be paid. These latter were so many that people in the same neighbourhood had arranged to have the same day at home; thus, if you lived on Madison Avenue you had Thursday; but even then it took a whole afternoon to leave your cards. And then there were invitations to be sent and accepted; and one was always making mistakes and offending somebody—people would become mortal enemies overnight, and expect all the world to know it the next morning. And now there were so many divorces and remarryings, with consequent changing of names; and some men knew about their wives' lovers and didn't care, and some did care, but didn't know—altogether it was like carrying a dozen chess games in your head. And then there was the hairdresser and the manicurist and the masseuse, and the tailor and the bootmaker and the jeweller; and then one absolutely had to glance through a newspaper, and to see one's children now and then.
All this Mrs. Robbie explained at luncheon; it was the rich man's burden, about which common people had no conception whatever. A person with a lot of money was like a barrel of molasses—all the flies in the neighbourhood came buzzing about. It was perfectly incredible, the lengths to which people would go to get invited to your house; not only would they write and beg you, they might attack your business interests, and even bribe your friends. And on the other hand, when people thought you needed them, the time you had to get them to come! "Fancy," said Mrs. Robbie, "offering to give a dinner to an English countess, and having her try to charge you for coming!" And incredible as it might seem, some people had actually yielded to her, and the disgusting creature had played the social celebrity for a whole season, and made quite a handsome income out of it. There seemed to be no limit to the abjectness of some of the tuft-hunters in Society.
It was instructive to hear Mrs. Robbie denounce such evils; and yet—alas for human frailty—the next time that Montague called, the great lady was blazing with wrath over the tidings that a new foreign prince was coming to America, and that Mrs. Ridgely-Clieveden had stolen a march upon her and grabbed him. He was to be under her tutelage the entire time, and all the effulgence of his magnificence would be radiated upon that upstart house. Mrs. Robbie revenged herself by saying as many disagreeable things about Mrs. Ridgley-Clieveden as she could think of; winding up with the declaration that if she behaved with this prince as she had with the Russian grand duke, Mrs. Robbie Walling, for one, would cut her dead. And truly the details which Mrs. Robbie cited were calculated to suggest that her rival's hospitality was a reversion to the customs of primitive savagery.
The above is a fair sample of the kind of conversation that one heard whenever one visited any of the Wallings. Perhaps, as Mrs. Robbie said, it may have been their millions that made necessary their attitude toward other people; certain it was, at any rate, that Montague found them all most disagreeable people to know. There was always some tempest in a teapot over the latest machinations of their enemies. And then there was the whole dead mass of people who sponged upon them and toadied to them; and finally the barbarian hordes outside the magic circle of their acquaintance—some specimens of whom came up every day for ridicule. They had big feet and false teeth; they ate mush and molasses; they wore ready-made ties; they said: "Do you wish that I should do it?" Their grandfathers had been butchers and pedlars and other abhorrent things. Montague tried his best to like the Wallings, because of what they were doing for Alice; but after he had sat at their lunch-table and listened to a conversation such as this, he found himself in need of fresh air.
And then he would begin to wonder about his own relation to these people. If they talked about every one else behind their backs, certainly they must talk about him behind his. And why did they go out of their way to make him at home, and why were they spending their money to launch Alice in Society? In the beginning he had assumed that they did it out of the goodness of their hearts; but now that he had looked into their hearts, he rejected the explanation. It was not their way to shower princely gifts upon strangers; in general, the attitude of all the Wallings toward a stranger was that of the London hooligan—"'Eave a 'arf a brick at 'im!" They considered themselves especially appointed by Providence to protect Society from the vulgar newly rich who poured into the city, seeking for notoriety and recognition. They prided themselves upon this attitude—they called it their "exclusiveness"; and the exclusiveness of the younger generations of Wallings had become a kind of insanity.
Nor could the reason be that Alice was beautiful and attractive. One could have imagined it if Mrs. Robbie had been like—say, Mrs. Winnie Duval. It was easy to think of Mrs. Winnie taking a fancy to a girl, and spending half her fortune upon her. But from a hundred little things that he had seen, Montague had come to realize that the Robbie Wallings, with all their wealth and power and grandeur, were actually quite stingy. While all the world saw them scattering fortunes in their pathway, in reality they were keeping track of every dollar. And Robbie himself was liable to panic fits of economy, in which he went to the most absurd excesses—Montague once heard him haggling over fifty cents with a cabman. Lavish hosts though they both were, it was the literal truth that they never spent money upon anyone but themselves—the end and aim of their every action was the power and prestige of the Robbie Wallings.
"They do it because they are friends of mine," said Oliver, and evidently wished that to satisfy his brother. But it only shifted the problem and set him to watching Robbie and Oliver, and trying to make out the basis of their relationship. There was a very grave question concerned in this. Oliver had come to New York comparatively poor, and now he was rich—or, at any rate, he lived like a rich man. And his brother, whose scent was growing keener with every day of his stay in New York, had about made up his mind that Oliver got his money from Robbie Walling.
Here, again, the problem would have been simple, if it had been another person than Robbie; Montague would have concluded that his brother was a "hanger-on." There were many great families whose establishments were infested with such parasites. Siegfried Harvey, for instance, was a man who had always half a dozen young chaps hanging about him; good-looking and lively fellows, who hunted and played bridge, and amused the married women while their husbands were at work, and who, if ever they dropped a hint that they were hard up, might be reasonably certain of being offered a cheque. But if the Robbie Wallings were to write cheques, it must be for value received. And what could the value be?
"Ollie" was rather a little god among the ultra-swagger; his taste was a kind of inspiration. And yet his brother noticed that in such questions he always deferred instantly to the Wallings; and surely the Wallings were not people to be persuaded that they needed anyone to guide them in matters of taste. Again, Ollie was the very devil of a wit, and people were heartily afraid of him; and Montague had noticed that he never by any chance made fun of Robbie—that the fetiches of the house of Walling were always treated with respect. So he had wondered if by any chance Robbie was maintaining his brother in princely state for the sake of his ability to make other people uncomfortable. But he realized that the Robbies, in their own view of it, could have no more need of wit than a battleship has need of popguns. Oliver's position, when they were about, was rather that of the man who hardly ever dared to be as clever as he might, because of the restless jealousy of his friend.
It was a mystery; and it made the elder brother very uncomfortable. Alice was young and guileless, and a pleasant person to patronize; but he was a man of the world, and it was his business to protect her. He had always paid his own way through life, and he was very loath to put himself under obligations to people like the Wallings, whom he did not like, and who, he felt instinctively, could not like him.
But of course there was nothing he could do about it. The date for the great festivity was set; and the Wallings were affable and friendly, and Alice all a-tremble with excitement. The evening arrived, and with it came the enemies of the Wallings, dressed in their jewels and fine raiment. They had been asked because they were too important to be skipped, and they had come because the Wallings were too powerful to be ignored. They revenged themselves by consuming many courses of elaborate and costly viands; and they shook hands with Alice and beamed upon her, and then discussed her behind her back as if she were a French doll in a show-case. They decided unanimously that her elder cousin was a "stick," and that the whole family were interlopers and shameless adventurers; but it was understood that since the Robbie Wallings had seen fit to take them up, it would be necessary to invite them about.
At any rate, that was the way it all seemed to Montague, who had been brooding. To Alice it was a splendid festivity, to which exquisite people came to take delight in each other's society. There were gorgeous costumes and sparkling gems; there was a symphony of perfumes, intoxicating the senses, and a golden flood of music streaming by; there were laughing voices and admiring glances, and handsome partners with whom one might dance through the portals of fairyland.—And then, next morning, there were accounts in all the newspapers, with descriptions of one's costume and then some of those present, and even the complete menus of the supper, to assist in preserving the memories of the wonderful occasion.
Now they were really in Society. A reporter called to get Alice's photo for the Sunday supplement; and floods of invitations came—and with them all the cares and perplexities about which Mrs. Robbie had told. Some of these invitations had to be declined, and one must know whom it was safe to offend. Also, there was a long letter from a destitute widow, and a proposal from a foreign count. Mrs. Robbie's secretary had a list of many hundreds of these professional beggars and blackmailers.
Conspicuous at the dance was Mrs. Winnie, in a glorious electric-blue silk gown. And she shook her fan at Montague, exclaiming, "You wretched man—you promised to come and see me!"
"I've been out of town," Montague protested.
"Well, come to dinner to-morrow night," said Mrs. Winnie. "There'll be some bridge fiends."
"You forget I haven't learned to play," he objected.
"Well, come anyhow," she replied. "We'll teach you. I'm no player myself, and my husband will be there, and he's good-natured; and my brother Dan—he'll have to be whether he likes it or not."
So Montague visited the Snow Palace again, and met Winton Duval, the banker,—a tall, military-looking man of about fifty, with a big grey moustache, and bushy eyebrows, and the head of a lion. His was one of the city's biggest banking-houses, and in alliance with powerful interests in the Street. At present he was going in for mines in Mexico and South America, and so he was very seldom at home. He was a man of most rigid habits—he would come back unexpectedly after a month's trip, and expect to find everything ready for him, both at home and in his office, as if he had just stepped round the corner. Montague observed that he took his menu-card and jotted down his comments upon each dish, and then sent it down to the chef. Other people's dinners he very seldom attended, and when his wife gave her entertainments, he invariably dined at the club.
He pleaded a business engagement for the evening; and as brother Dan did not appear, Montague did not learn any bridge. The other four guests settled down to the game, and Montague and Mrs. Winnie sat and chatted, basking before the fireplace in the great entrance-hall.
"Have you seen Charlie Carter?" was the first question she asked him.
"Not lately," he answered; "I met him at Harvey's."
"I know that," said she. "They tell me he got drunk."
"I'm afraid he did," said Montague.
"Poor boy!" exclaimed Mrs. Winnie. "And Alice saw him! He must be heartbroken!"
Montague said nothing. "You know," she went on, "Charlie really means well. He has honestly an affectionate nature."
She paused; and Montague Said, vaguely, "I suppose so."
"You don't like him," said the other. "I can see that. And I suppose now Alice will have no use for him, either. And I had it all fixed up for her to reform him!"
Montague smiled in spite of himself.
"Oh, I know," said she. "It wouldn't have been easy. But you've no idea what a beautiful boy Charlie used to be, until all the women set to work to ruin him."
"I can imagine it," said Montague; but he did not warm to the subject.
"You're just like my husband," said Mrs. Winnie, sadly. "You have no use at all for anything that's weak or unfortunate."
There was a pause. "And I suppose," she said finally, "you'll be turning into a business man also—with no time for anybody or anything. Have you begun yet?"
"Not yet," he answered. "I'm still looking round."
"I haven't the least idea about business," she confessed. "How does one begin at it?"
"I can't say I know that myself as yet," said Montague, laughing.
"Would you like to be a protege of my husband's?" she asked.
The proposition was rather sudden, but he answered, with a smile, "I should have no objections. What would he do with me?"
"I don't know that. But he can do whatever he wants down town. And he'd show you how to make a lot of money if I asked him to." Then Mrs. Winnie added, quickly, "I mean it—he could do it, really."
"I haven't the least doubt of it," responded Montague.
"And what's more," she went on, "you don't want to be shy about taking advantage of the opportunities that come to you. You'll find you won't get along in New York unless you go right in and grab what you can. People will be quick enough to take advantage of you."
"They have all been very kind to me so far," said he. "But when I get ready for business, I'll harden my heart."
Mrs. Winnie sat lost in meditation. "I think business is dreadful," she said. "So much hard work and worry! Why can't men learn to get along without it?"
"There are bills that have to be paid," Montague replied.
"It's our dreadfully extravagant way of life," exclaimed the other. "Sometimes I wish I had never had any money in my life."
"You would soon tire of it," said he. "You would miss this house."
"I should not miss it a bit," said Mrs. Winnie, promptly. "That is really the truth—I don't care for this sort of thing at all. I'd like to live simply, and without so many cares and responsibilities. And some day I'm going to do it, too—I really am. I'm going to get myself a little farm, away off somewhere in the country. And I'm going there to live and raise chickens and vegetables, and have my own flower-gardens, that I can take care of myself. It will all be plain and simple—" and then Mrs. Winnie stopped short, exclaiming, "You are laughing at me!"
"Not at all!" said Montague. "But I couldn't help thinking about the newspaper reporters—"
"There you are!" said she. "One can never have a beautiful dream, or try to do anything sensible—because of the newspaper reporters!"
If Montague had been meeting Mrs. Winnie Duval for the first time, he would have been impressed by her yearnings for the simple life; he would have thought it an important sign of the times. But alas, he knew by this time that his charming hostess had more flummery about her than anybody else he had encountered—and all of her own devising! Mrs. Winnie smoked her own private brand of cigarettes, and when she offered them to you, there were the arms of the old ducal house of Montmorenci on the wrappers! And when you got a letter from Mrs. Winnie, you observed a three-cent stamp upon the envelope—for lavender was her colour, and two-cent stamps were an atrocious red! So one might feel certain that it Mrs. Winnie ever went in for chicken-raising, the chickens would be especially imported from China or Patagonia, and the chicken-coops would be precise replicas of those in the old Chateau de Montmorenci which she had visited in her automobile.
But Mrs. Winnie was beautiful, and quite entertaining to talk to, and so he was respectfully sympathetic while she told him about her pastoral intentions. And then she told him about Mrs. Caroline Smythe, who had called a meeting of her friends at one of the big hotels, and organized a society and founded the "Bide-a-Wee Home" for destitute cats. After that she switched off into psychic research—somebody had taken her to a seance, where grave college professors and ladies in spectacles sat round and waited for ghosts to materialize. It was Mrs. Winnie's first experience at this, and she was as excited as a child who has just found the key to the jam-closet. "I hardly knew whether to laugh or to be afraid," she said. "What would you think?"
"You may have the pleasure of giving me my first impressions of it," said Montague, with a laugh.
"Well," said she, "they had table-tipping—and it was the most uncanny thing to see the table go jumping about the room! And then there were raps—and one can't imagine how strange it was to see people who really believed they were getting messages from ghosts. It positively made my flesh creep. And then this woman—Madame Somebody-or-other—went into a trance—ugh! Afterward I talked with one of the men, and he told me about how his father had appeared to him in the night and told him he had just been drowned at sea. Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
"We have such a tradition in our family," said he.
"Every family seems to have," said Mrs. Winnie. "But, dear me, it made me so uncomfortable—I lay awake all night expecting to see my own father. He had the asthma, you know; and I kept fancying I heard him breathing."
They had risen and were strolling into the conservatory; and she glanced at the man in armour. "I got to fancying that his ghost might come to see me," she said. "I don't think I shall attend any more seances. My husband was told that I promised them some money, and he was furious—he's afraid it'll get into the papers." And Montague shook with inward laughter, picturing what a time the aristocratic and stately old banker must have, trying to keep his wife out of the papers!
Mrs. Winnie turned on the lights in the fountain, and sat by the edge, gazing at her fish. Montague was half expecting her to inquire whether he thought that they had ghosts; but she spared him this, going off on another line.
"I asked Dr. Parry about it," she said. "Have you met him?"
Dr. Parry was the rector of St. Cecilia's, the fashionable Fifth Avenue church which most of Montague's acquaintances attended. "I haven't been in the city over Sunday yet," he answered. "But Alice has met him."
"You must go with me some time," said she. "But about the ghosts—"
"What did he say?"
"He seemed to be shy of them," laughed Mrs. Winnie. "He said it had a tendency to lead one into dangerous fields. But oh! I forgot—I asked my swami also, and it didn't startle him. They are used to ghosts; they believe that souls keep coming back to earth, you know. I think if it was his ghost, I wouldn't mind seeing it—for he has such beautiful eyes. He gave me a book of Hindu legends—and there was such a sweet story about a young princess who loved in vain, and died of grief; and her soul went into a tigress; and she came in the night-time where her lover lay sleeping by the firelight, and she carried him off into the ghost-world. It was a most creepy thing—I sat out here and read it, and I could imagine the terrible tigress lurking in the shadows, with its stripes shining in the firelight, and its green eyes gleaming. You know that poem—we used to read it in school—'Tiger, tiger, burning bright!'"
It was not very easy for Montague to imagine a tigress in Mrs. Winnie's conservatory; unless, indeed, one were willing to take the proposition in a metaphorical sense. There are wild creatures which sleep in the heart of man, and which growl now and then, and stir their tawny limbs, and cause one to start and turn cold. Mrs. Winnie wore a dress of filmy softness, trimmed with red flowers which paled beside her own intenser colouring. She had a perfume of her own, with a strange exotic fragrance which touched the chorus of memory as only an odour can. She leaned towards him, speaking eagerly, with her soft white arms lying upon the basin's rim. So much loveliness could not be gazed at without pain; and a faint trembling passed through Montague, like a breeze across a pool. Perhaps it touched Mrs. Winnie also, for she fell suddenly silent, and her gaze wandered off into the darkness. For a minute or two there was stillness, save for the pulse of the fountain, and the heaving of her bosom keeping time with it.
And then in the morning Oliver inquired, "Where were you, last night?" And when his brother answered, "At Mrs. Winnie's," he smiled and said, "Oh!" Then he added, gravely, "Cultivate Mrs. Winnie—you can't do better at present."