After such a victory one felt in a mood for Christmas festivities,—for music and dancing and all beautiful and happy things.
Such a thing, for instance, as Mrs. Winnie, when she came to meet him; clad in her best automobile coat, a thing of purest snowy ermine, so truly gorgeous that wherever she went, people turned and stared and caught their breath. Mrs. Winnie was a picture of joyful health, with a glow in her rich complexion, and a sparkle in her black eyes.
She sat in her big touring-car—in which one could afford to wear ermine. It was a little private self-moving hotel; in the limousine were seats for six persons, with revolving easy chairs, and berths for sleeping, and a writing-desk and a wash-stand, and a beautiful electric chandelier to light it at night. Its trimmings were of South American mahogany, and its upholstering of Spanish and Morocco leathers; it had a telephone with which one spoke to the driver; an ice-box and a lunch hamper—in fact, one might have spent an hour discovering new gimcracks in this magic automobile. It had been made especially for Mrs. Winnie a couple of years ago, and the newspapers said it had cost thirty thousand dollars; it had then been quite a novelty, but now "everybody" was getting them. In this car one might sit at ease, and laugh and chat, and travel at the rate of an express train; and with never a jar or a quiver, nor the faintest sound of any sort.
The streets of the city sped by them as if by enchantment. They went through the park, and out Riverside Drive, and up the river-road which runs out of Broadway all the way to Albany. It was a macadamized avenue, lined with beautiful and stately homes. As one went farther yet, he came to the great country estates-a whole district of hundreds of square miles given up to them. There were forests and lakes and streams; there were gardens and greenhouses filled with rare plants and flowers, and parks with deer browsing, and peacocks and lyre-birds strutting about. The road wound in and out among hills, the surfaces of which would be one unbroken lawn; and upon the highest points stood palaces of every conceivable style and shape.
One might find these great domains anywhere around the city, at a distance of from thirty to sixty miles; there were two or three hundred of them, and incredible were the sums of money which had been spent upon their decoration. One saw an artificial lake of ten thousand acres, made upon land which had cost several hundred dollars an acre; one saw gardens with ten thousand rose-bushes, and a quarter of a million dollars' worth of lilies from Japan; there was one estate in which had been planted a million dollars' worth of rare trees, imported from all over the world. Some rich men, who had nothing else to amuse them, would make their estates over and over again, changing the view about their homes as one changes the scenery in a play. Over in New Jersey the Hegans were building a castle upon a mountain-top, and had built a special railroad simply to carry the materials. Here, also, was the estate of the tobacco king, upon which three million dollars had been spent before the plans of the mansion had even been drawn; there were artificial lakes and streams, and fantastic bridges and statuary, and scores of little model plantations and estates, according to the whim of the owner. And here in the Pocantico Hills was the estate of the oil king, about four square miles, with thirty miles of model driveways; many car-loads of rare plants had been imported for its gardens, and it took six hundred men to keep it in order. There was a golf course, a little miniature Alps, upon which the richest man in the world pursued his lost health, with armed guards and detectives patrolling the place all day, and a tower with a search-light, whereby at night he could flood the grounds with light by pressing a button.
In one of these places lived the heir of the great house of Devon. His cousin dwelt in Europe, saying that America was not a fit place for a gentleman to live in. Each of them owned a hundred million dollars' worth of New York real estate, and drew their tribute of rents from the toil of the swarming millions of the city. And always, according to the policy of the family, they bought new real estate. They were directors of the great railroads tributary to the city, and in touch with the political machines, and in every other way in position to know what was under way: if a new subway were built to set the swarming millions free, the millions would find the land all taken up, and apartment-houses newly built for them—and the Devons were the owners. They had a score of the city's greatest hotels—and also slum tenements, and brothels and dives in the Tenderloin. They did not even have to know what they owned; they did not have to know anything, or do anything—they lived in their palaces, at home or abroad, and in their offices in the city the great rent-gathering machine ground on.
Eldridge Devon's occupation was playing with his country-place and his automobiles. He had recently sold all his horses, and turned his stables into a garage equipped with a score or so of cars; he was always getting a new one, and discussing its merits. As to Hudson Cliff, the estate, he had conceived the brilliant idea of establishing a gentleman's country-place which should be self-supporting—that is to say, which should furnish the luxuries and necessities of its owner's table for no more than it would have cost to buy them. Considering the prices usually paid, this was no astonishing feat, but Devon took a child's delight in it; he showed Montague his greenhouses, filled with rare flowers and fruits, and his model dairy, with marble stables and nickel plumbing, and attendants in white uniforms and rubber gloves. He was a short and very stout gentleman with red cheeks, and his conversation was not brilliant.
To Hudson Cliff came many of Montague's earlier acquaintances, and others whom he had not met before. They amused themselves in all the ways with which-he had become familiar at house-parties; likewise on Christmas Eve there were festivities for the children, and on Christmas night a costume ball, very beautiful and stately. Many came from New York to attend this, and others from the neighbourhood; and in returning calls, Montague saw others of these hill-top mansions.
Also, and most important of all, they played bridge—as they had played at every function which he had attended so far. Here Mrs. Winnie, who had rather taken him up, and threatened to supplant Oliver as his social guide and chaperon, insisted that no more excuses would be accepted; and so for two mornings he sat with her in one of the sun-parlours, and diligently put his mind upon the game. As he proved an apt pupil, he was then advised that he might take a trial plunge.
And so Montague came into touch with a new social phenomenon; perhaps on the whole the most significant and soul-disturbing phenomenon which Society had exhibited to him. He had just had the experience of getting a great deal of money without earning it, and was fresh from the disagreeable memories of it—the trembling and suspense, the burning lustful greed, the terrible nerve-devouring excitement. He had hoped that he would not soon have to go through such an experience again-and here was the prospect of an endless dalliance with it!
For that was the meaning of bridge; it was a penalty which people were paying for getting their money without earning it. The disease got into their blood, and they could no longer live without the excitement of gain and the hope of gain. So after their labours were over, when they were supposed to be resting and enjoying themselves, they would get together and torment themselves with an imitation struggle, mimicking the grim and dreadful gamble of business. Down in the Street, Oliver had pointed out to his brother a celebrated "plunger," who had sometimes won six or eight millions in a single day; and that man would play at stocks all morning, and "play the ponies" in the afternoon, and then spend the evening in a millionaires' gambling-house. And so it was with the bridge fiends.
It was a social plague; it had run through all Society, high and low. It had destroyed conversation and all good-fellowship—it would end by destroying even common decency, and turning the best people into vulgar gamblers.—Thus spoke Mrs. Billy Alden, who was one of the guests; and Montague thought that Mrs. Billy ought to know, for she herself was playing all the time.
Mrs. Billy did not like Mrs. Winnie Duval; and the beginning of the conversation was her inquiry why he let that woman corrupt him. Then the good lady went on to tell him what bridge had come to be; how people played it on the trains all the way from New York to San Francisco; how they had tables in their autos, and played while they were touring over the world. "Once," said she, "I took a party to see the America's Cup races off Sandy Hook; and when we got back to the pier, some one called, 'Who won?' And the answer was, 'Mrs. Billy's ahead, but we're going on this evening.' I took a party of friends through the Mediterranean and up the Nile, and we passed Venice and Cairo and the Pyramids and the Suez Canal, and they never once looked up—they were playing bridge. And you think I'm joking, but I mean just literally what I say. I know a man who was travelling from New York to Philadelphia, and got into a game with some strangers, and rode all the way to Palm Beach to finish it!"
Montague heard later of a well-known Society leader who was totally incapacitated that winter, from too much bridge at Newport; and she was passing the winter at Hot Springs and Palm Beach—and playing bridge there. They played it even in sanitariums, to which they had been driven by nervous breakdown. It was an occupation so exhausting to the physique of women that physicians came to know the symptoms of it, and before they diagnosed a case, they would ask, "Do you play bridge?" It had destroyed the last remnants of the Sabbath—it was a universal custom to have card-parties on that day.
It was a very expensive game, as they played it in Society; one might easily win or lose several thousand dollars in an evening, and there were many who could not afford this. If one did not play, he would be dropped from the lists of those invited; and when one entered a game, etiquette required him to stay in until it was finished. So one heard of young girls who had pawned their family plate, or who had sold their honour, to pay their bills at the game; and all Society knew of one youth who had robbed his hostess of her jewels and pawned them, and then taken her the tickets—telling her that her guests had robbed him. There were women received in the best Society, who lived as adventuresses pure and simple, upon their skill at the game; hostesses would invite rich guests and fleece them. Montague never forgot the sense of amazement and dismay with which he listened while first Mrs. Winnie and then his brother warned him that he must avoid playing with a certain aristocratic dame whom he met in this most aristocratic household—because she was such a notorious cheater!
"My dear fellow," laughed his brother, when he protested, "we have a phrase 'to cheat at cards like a woman.'" And then Oliver went on to tell him of his own first experience at cards in Society, when he had played poker with several charming young débutantes; they would call their hands and take the money without showing their cards, and he had been too gallant to ask to see them. But later he learned that this was a regular practice, and so he never played poker with women. And Oliver pointed out one of these girls to his brother—sitting, as beautiful as a picture and as cold as marble, with a half-smoked cigarette on the edge of the table, and whisky and soda and glasses of cracked ice beside her. Later on, as he chanced to be reading a newspaper, his brother leaned over his shoulder and pointed out another of the symptoms of the craze—an advertisement headed, "Your luck will change." It gave notice that at Rosenstein's Parlours, just off Fifth Avenue, one might borrow money upon expensive gowns and furs!
All during the ten days of this house-party, Mrs. Winnie devoted herself to seeing that Montague had a good time; Mrs. Winnie sat beside him at table—he found that somehow a convention had been established which assigned him to Mrs. Winnie as a matter of course. Nobody said anything to him about it, but knowing how relentlessly the affairs of other people were probed and analyzed, he began to feel exceedingly uncomfortable.
There came a time when he felt quite smothered by Mrs. Winnie; and immediately after lunch one day he broke away and went for a long walk by himself. This was the occasion of his meeting with an adventure.
An inch or two of snow had fallen, and lay gleaming in the sunlight. The air was keen, and he drank deep draughts of it, and went striding away over the hills for an hour or so. There was a gale blowing, and as he came over the summits it would strike him, and he would see the river white with foam. And then down in the valleys again all would be still.
Here, in a thickly wooded place, Montague's attention was arrested suddenly by a peculiar sound, a heavy thud, which seemed to shake the earth. It suggested a distant explosion, and he stopped for a moment and then went on, gazing ahead. He passed a turn, and then he saw a great tree which had fallen directly across the road.
He went on, thinking that this was what he had heard. But as he came nearer, he saw his mistake. Beyond the tree lay something else, and he began to run toward it. It was two wheels of an automobile, sticking up into the air.
He sprang upon the tree-trunk, and in one glance he saw the whole story. A big touring-car had swept round the sharp turn, and swerved to avoid the unexpected obstruction, and so turned a somersault into the ditch.
Montague gave a thrill of horror, for there was the form of a man pinned beneath the body of the car. He sprang toward it, but a second glance made him stop—he saw that blood had gushed from the man's mouth and soaked the snow all about. His chest was visibly crushed flat, and his eyes were dreadful, half-started from their sockets.
For a moment Montague stood staring, as if turned to stone. Then from the other side of the car came a moan, and he ran toward the sound. A second man lay in the ditch, moving feebly. Montague sprang to help him.
The man wore a heavy bearskin coat. Montague lifted him, and saw that he was a very elderly person, with a cut across his forehead, and a face as white as chalk. The other helped him to a position with his back against the bank, and he opened his eyes and groaned.
Montague knelt beside him, watching his breathing. He had a sense of utter helplessness—there was nothing he could think of to do, save to unbutton the man's coat and keep wiping the blood from his face.
"Some whisky," the stranger moaned. Montague answered that he had none; but the other replied that there was some in the car.
The slope of the bank was such that Montague could crawl under, and find the compartment with the bottle in it. The old man drank some, and a little colour came back to his face. As the other watched him, it came to him that this face was familiar; but he could not place it.
"How many were there with you?" Montague asked; and the man answered, "Only one."
Montague went over and made certain that the other man—who was obviously the chauffeur—was dead. Then he hurried down the road, and dragged some brush out into the middle of it, where it could be seen from a distance by any other automobile that came along; after which he went back to the stranger, and bound his handkerchief about his forehead to stop the bleeding from the cut.
The old man's lips were tightly set, as if he were suffering great pain. "I'm done for!" he moaned, again and again.
"Where are you hurt?" Montague asked.
"I don't know," he gasped. "But it's finished me! I know it—it's the last straw."
Then he closed his eyes and lay back. "Can't you get a doctor?" he asked.
"There are no houses very near," said Montague. "But I can run—"
"No, no!" the other interrupted, anxiously. "Don't leave me! Some one will come.—Oh, that fool of a chauffeur—why couldn't he go slow when I told him? That's always the way with them—they're always trying to show off."
"The man is dead," said Montague, quietly.
The other started upon his elbow. "Dead!" he gasped.
"Yes," said Montague. "He's under the car."
The old man's eyes had started wild with fright; and he caught Montague by the arm. "Dead!" he said. "O my God—and it might have been me!"
There was a moment's pause. The stranger caught his breath, and whispered again: "I'm done for! I can't stand it! it's too much!"
Montague had noticed when he lifted the man that he was very frail and slight of build. Now he could feel that the hand that held his arm was trembling violently. It occurred to him that perhaps the man was not really hurt, but that his nerves had been upset by the shock.
And he felt certain of this a moment later, when the stranger suddenly leaned forward, clutching him with redoubled intensity, and staring at him with wide, horror-stricken eyes.
"Do you know what it means to be afraid of death?" he panted. "Do you know what it means to be afraid of death?"
Then, without waiting for a reply, he rushed on—"No, no! You can't! you can't! I don't believe any man knows it as I do! Think of it—for ten years I've never known a minute when I wasn't afraid of death! It follows me around—it won't let me be! It leaps out at me in places, like this! And when I escape it, I can hear it laughing at me—for it knows I can't get away!"
The old man caught his breath with a choking sob. He was clinging to Montague like a frightened child, and staring with a wild, hunted look upon his face. Montague sat transfixed.
"Yes," the other rushed on, "that's the truth, as God hears me! And it's the first time I've ever spoken it in my life! I have to hide it—because men would laugh at me—they pretend they're not afraid! But I lie awake all night, and it's like a fiend that sits by my bedside! I lie and listen to my own heart—I feel it beating, and I think how weak it is, and what thin walls it has, and what a wretched, helpless thing it is to have your life depend on that!—You don't know what that is, I suppose."
Montague shook his head.
"You're young, you see," said the other. "You have health—everybody has health, except me! And everybody hates me—I haven't got a friend in the world!"
Montague was quite taken aback by the suddenness of this outburst. He tried to stop it, for he felt almost indecent in listening—it was not fair to take a man off his guard like this. But the stranger could not be stopped—he was completely unstrung, and his voice grew louder and louder.
"It's every word of it true," he exclaimed wildly. "And I can't stand it any more. I can't stand anything any more. I was young and strong once—I could take care of myself; and I said: I'll make money, I'll be master of other men! But I was a fool—I forgot my health. And now all the money on earth can't do me any good! I'd give ten million dollars to-day for a body like any other man's—and this—this is what I have!"
He struck his hands against his bosom. "Look at it!" he cried, hysterically. "This is what I've got to live in! It won't digest any food, and I can't keep it warm—there's nothing right with it! How would you like to lie awake at night and say to yourself that your teeth were decaying and you couldn't help it—your hair was falling out, and nobody could stop it? You're old and worn out—falling to pieces; and everybody hates you—everybody's waiting for you to die, so that they can get you out of the way. The doctors come, and they're all humbugs! They shake their heads and use long words—they know they can't do you any good, but they want their big fees! And all they do is to frighten you worse, and make you sicker than ever!"
There was nothing that Montague could do save to sit and listen to this outburst of wretchedness. His attempts to soothe the old man only had the effect of exciting him more.
"Why does it all have to fall on me?" he moaned. "I want to be like other people—I want to live! And instead, I'm like a man with a pack of hungry wolves prowling round him—that's what it's like! It's like Nature—hungry and cruel and savage! You think you know what life is; it seems so beautiful and gentle and pleasant—that's when you're on top! But now I'm down, and I KNOW what it is—it's a thing like a nightmare, that reaches out for you to clutch you and crush you! And you can't get away from it—you're helpless as a rat in a corner—you're damned—you're damned!" The miserable man's voice broke in a cry of despair, and he sank down in a heap in front of Montague, shaking and sobbing. The other was trembling slightly, and stricken with awe.
There was a long silence, and then the stranger lifted his tear-stained face, and Montague helped to support him. "Have a little more of the whisky," said he.
"No," the other answered feebly, "I'd better not."
"—My doctors won't let me have whisky," he added, after a while. "That's my liver. I've so many don'ts, you know, that it takes a note-book to keep track of them. And all of them together do me no good! Think of it—I have to live on graham crackers and milk—actually, not a thing has passed my lips for two years but graham crackers and milk."
And then suddenly, with a start, it came to Montague where he had seen this wrinkled old face before. It was Laura Hegan's uncle, whom the Major had pointed out to him in the dining-room of the Millionaires' Club! Old Henry S. Grimes, who was really only sixty, but looked eighty; and who owned slum tenements, and evicted more people in a month than could be crowded into the club-house!
Montague gave no sign, but sat holding the man in his arms. A little trickle of blood came from under the handkerchief and ran down his cheek; Montague felt him tremble as he touched this with his ringer.
"Is it much of a cut?" he asked.
"Not much," said Montague; "two or three stitches, perhaps."
"Send for my family physician," the other added. "If I should faint, or anything, you'll find his name in my card-case. What's that?"
There was the sound of voices down the road. "Hello!"' Montague shouted; and a moment later two men in automobile costume came running toward him. They stopped, staring in dismay at the sight which confronted them.
At Montague's suggestion they made haste to find a log by means of which they lifted the auto sufficiently to drag out the body of the chauffeur. Montague saw that it was quite cold.
He went back to old Grimes. "Where do you wish to go?" he asked.
The other hesitated. "I was bound for the Harrisons'—" he said.
"The Leslie Harrisons?" asked Montague. (They were people he had met at the Devons'.)
The other noticed his look of recognition. "Do you know them?" he asked.
"I do," said Montague.
"It isn't far," said the old man. "Perhaps I had best go there."—And then he hesitated for a moment; and catching Montague by the arm, and pulling him toward him, whispered, "Tell me—you-you won't tell—"
Montague, comprehending what he meant, answered, "It will be between us." At the same time he felt a new thrill of revulsion for this most miserable old creature.
They lifted him into the car; and because they delayed long enough to lay a blanket over the body of the chauffeur, he asked peevishly why they did not start. During the ten or fifteen minutes' trip he sat clinging to Montague, shuddering with fright every time they rounded a turn in the road.
They reached the Harrisons' place; and the footman who opened the door was startled out of his studied impassivity by the sight of a big bundle of bearskin in Montague's arms. "Send for Mrs. Harrison," said Montague, and laid the bundle upon a divan in the hall. "Get a doctor as quickly as you can," he added to a second attendant.
Mrs. Harrison came. "It's Mr. Grimes," said Montague; and then he heard a frightened exclamation, and turned and saw Laura Hegan, in a walking costume, fresh from the cold outside.
"What is it?" she cried. And he told her, as quickly as he could, and she ran to help the old man. Montague stood by, and later carried him upstairs, and waited below until the doctor came.
It was only when he set out for home again that he found time to think about Laura Hegan, and how beautiful she had looked in her furs. He wondered if it would always be his fate to meet her under circumstances which left her no time to be aware of his own existence.
At home he told about his adventure, and found himself quite a hero for the rest of the day. He was obliged to give interviews to several newspaper reporters, and to refuse to let one of them take his picture. Every one at the Devons' seemed to know old Harry Grimes, and Montague thought to himself that if the comments of this particular group of people were a fair sample, the poor wretch was right in saying that he had not a friend in the world.
When he came downstairs the next morning, he found elaborate accounts of the accident in the papers, and learned that Grimes had nothing worse than a scalp wound and a severe shock. Even so, he felt it was incumbent upon him to pay a visit of inquiry, and rode over shortly before lunch.
Laura Hegan came down to see him, wearing a morning gown of white. She confirmed the good news of the papers, and said that her uncle was resting quietly. (She did not say that his physician had come post-haste, with two nurses, and taken up his residence in the house, and that the poor old millionaire was denied even his graham crackers and milk). Instead she said that he had mentioned Montague's kindness particularly, and asked her to thank him. Montague was cynical enough to doubt this.
It was the first time that he had ever had any occasion to talk with Miss Hegan. He noticed her gentle and caressing voice, with the least touch of the South in it; and he was glad to find that it was possible for her to talk without breaking the spell of her serene and noble beauty. Montague stayed as long as he had any right to stay.
And all the way as he rode home he was thinking about Laura Hegan. Here for the first time was a woman whom he felt he should like to know; a woman with reserve and dignity, and some ideas in her life. And it was impossible for him to know her—because she was rich!
There was no dodging this fact—Montague did not even try. He had met women with fortunes already, and he knew how they felt about themselves, and how the rest of the world felt about them. They might wish in their hearts to be something else besides the keepers of a treasure-chest, but their wishes were futile; the money went with them, and they had to defend it against all comers. Montague recalled one heiress after another—débutantes, some of them, exquisite and delicate as butterflies—but under the surface as hard as chain-armour. All their lives they had been trained to think of themselves as representing money, and of every one who came near them as adventurers seeking money. In every word they uttered, in every glance and motion, one might read this meaning. And then he thought of Laura Hegan, with the fortune she would inherit; and he pictured what her life must be—the toadies and parasites and flatterers who would lay siege to her—the scheming mammas and the affectionate sisters and cousins who would plot to gain her confidence! For a man who was poor, and who meant to keep his self-respect, was there any possible conclusion except that she was entirely unknowable to him?