Montague came back to the city, and dug into his books again; while Alice gave her spare hours to watching the progress of the new gown in which she was to uphold the honour of the family at Mrs. Devon's opening ball. The great event was due in the next week and Society was as much excited about it as a family of children before Christmas. All whom Montague met were invited and all were going unless they happened to be in mourning. Their gossip was all of the disappointed ones, and their bitterness and heartburning.
Mrs. Devon's mansion was thrown open early on the eventful evening, but few would come until midnight. It was the fashion to attend the Opera first, and previous to that half a dozen people would give big dinners. He was a fortunate person who did not hear from his liver after this occasion; for at one o'clock came Mrs. Devon's massive supper, and then again at four o'clock another supper. To prepare these repasts a dozen extra chefs had been imported into the Devon establishment for a week—for it was part of the great lady's pride to permit no outside caterer to prepare anything for her guests.
Montague had never been able to get over his wonder at the social phenomenon known as Mrs. Devon. He came and took his chances in the jostling throngs; and except that he got into casual conversation with one of the numerous detectives whom he took for a guest he came off fairly well. But all the time that he was being passed about and introduced and danced with, he was looking about him and wondering. The grand staircase and the hall and parlours had been turned into tropical gardens, with palms and trailing vines, and azaleas and roses, and great vases of scarlet poinsettia, with hundreds of lights glowing through them. (It was said that this ball had exhausted the flower supply of the country as far south as Atlanta.) And then in the reception room one came upon the little old lady, standing' beneath a bower of orchids. She was clad in a robe of royal purple trimmed with silver, and girdled about with an armour-plate of gems. If one might credit the papers, the diamonds that were worn at one of these balls were valued at twenty million dollars.
The stranger was quite overwhelmed by all the splendour. There was a cotillion danced by two hundred gorgeously clad women and their partners—a scene so gay that one could only think of it as happening in a fairy legend, or some old romance of knighthood. Four sets of favours were given during this function, and jewels and objects of art were showered forth as if from a magician's wand. Mrs. Devon herself soon disappeared, but the riot of music and merry-making went on until near morning, and during all this time the halls and rooms of the great mansion were so crowded that one could scarcely move about.
Then one went home, and realized that all this splendour, and the human effort which it represented, had been for nothing but a memory! Nor would he get the full meaning of it if he failed to realize that it was simply one of thousands—a pattern which every one there would strive to follow in some function of his own. It was a signal bell, which told the world that the "season" was open. It loosed the floodgates of extravagance, and the torrent of dissipation poured forth. From then on there would be a continuous round of gaieties; one might have three banquets every single night—for a dinner and two suppers was now the custom, at entertainments! And filling the rest of one's day were receptions and teas and musicales—a person might take his choice among a score of opportunities, and never leave the circle he met at Mrs. Devon's. Nor was this counting the tens of thousands of aspirants and imitators all over the city; nor in a host of other cities, each with thousands of women who had nothing to do save to ape the ways of the Metropolis. The mind could not realize the volume of this deluge of destruction—it was a thing which stunned the senses, and thundered in one's ears like Niagara.
The meaning of it all did not stop with the people who poured it forth; its effects were to be traced through the whole country. There were hordes of tradesmen and manufacturers who supplied what Society bought, and whose study it was to induce people to buy as much as possible. And so they devised what were called "fashions"—little eccentricities of cut and material, which made everything go out of date quickly. There had once been two seasons, but now there were four; and through window displays and millions of advertisements the public was lured into the trap. The "yellow" journals would give whole pages to describing "What the 400 are wearing"; there were magazines with many millions of readers, which existed for nothing save to propagate these ideas. And everywhere, in all classes of Society, men and women were starving their minds and hearts, and straining their energies to follow this phantom of fashion; the masses were kept poor because of it, and the youth and hope of the world was betrayed by it. In country villages poor farmers' wives were trimming their bonnets over to be "stylish"; and servant-girls in the cities were wearing imitation sealskins, and shop-clerks and sempstresses selling themselves into brothels for the sake of ribbons and gilt jewellery.
It was the instinct of decoration, perverted by the money-lust. In the Metropolis the sole test of excellence was money, and the possession of money was the proof of power; and every natural desire of men and women had been tainted by this influence. The love of beauty, the impulse to hospitality, the joys of music and dancing and love—all these things had become simply means to the demonstration of money-power! The men were busy making more money—but their idle women had nothing in life save this mad race in display. So it had come about that the woman who could consume wealth most conspicuously—who was the most effective instrument for the destroying of the labour and the lives of other people—this was the woman who was most applauded and most noticed.
The most appalling fact about Society was this utter blind materialism. Such expectations as Montague had brought with him had been derived from the literature of Europe; in a grand monde such as this, he expected to meet diplomats and statesmen, scientists and explorers, philosophers and poets and painters. But one never heard anything about such people in Society. It was a mark of eccentricity to be interested in intellectual affairs, and one might go about for weeks and not meet a person with an idea. When these people read, it was a sugar-candy novel, and when they went to the play, it was a musical comedy. The one single intellectual product which it could point to as its own, was a rancid scandal-sheet, used mainly as a means of blackmail. Now and then some aspiring young matron of the "elite" would try to set up a salon after the fashion of the continent, and would gather a few feeble wits about her for a time. But for the most part the intellectual workers of the city held themselves severely aloof; and Society was left a little clique of people whose fortunes had become historic in a decade or two, and who got together in each other's palaces and gorged themselves, and gambled and gossiped about each other, and wove about their personalities a veil of awful and exclusive majesty.
Montague found himself thinking that perhaps it was not they who were to blame. It was not they who had set up wealth as the end and goal of things—it was the whole community, of which they were a part. It was not their fault that they had been left with power and nothing to use it for; it was not their fault that their sons and daughters found themselves stranded in the world, deprived of all necessity, and of the possibility of doing anything useful.
The most pitiful aspect of the whole thing to Montague was this "second generation" who were coming upon the scene, with their lives all poisoned in advance. No wrong which they could do to the world would ever equal the wrong which the world had done them, in permitting them to have money which they had not earned. They were cut off for ever from reality, and from the possibility of understanding life; they had big, healthy bodies, and they craved experience—and they had absolutely nothing to do. That was the real meaning of all this orgy of dissipation—this "social whirl" as it was called; it was the frantic chase of some new thrill, some excitement that would stir the senses of people who had nothing in the world to interest them. That was why they were building palaces, and flinging largesses of banquets and balls, and tearing about the country in automobiles, and travelling over the earth in steam yachts and private trains.
And first and last, the lesson of their efforts was, that the chase was futile; the jaded nerves would not thrill. The most conspicuous fact about Society was its unutterable and agonizing boredom; of its great solemn functions the shop-girl would read with greedy envy, but the women who attended them would be half asleep behind their jewelled fans. It was typified to Montague by Mrs. Billy Alden's yachting party on the Nile; yawning in the face of the Sphinx, and playing bridge beneath the shadow of the pyramids—and counting the crocodiles and proposing to jump in by way of "changing the pain"!
People attended these ceaseless rounds of entertainments, simply because they dreaded to be left alone. They wandered from place to place, following like a herd of sheep whatever leader would inaugurate a new diversion. One could have filled a volume with the list of their "fads." There were new ones every week—if Society did not invent them, the yellow journals invented them. There was a woman who had her teeth filled with diamonds; and another who was driving a pair of zebras. One heard of monkey dinners and pyjama dinners at Newport, of horseback dinners and vegetable dances in New York. One heard of fashion-albums and autograph-fans and talking crows and rare orchids and reindeer meat; of bracelets for men and ankle rings for women; of "vanity-boxes" at ten and twenty thousand dollars each; of weird and repulsive pets, chameleons and lizards and king-snakes—there was one young woman who wore a cat-snake as a necklace. One would take to slumming and another to sniffing brandy through the nose; one had a table-cover made of woven roses, and another was wearing perfumed flannel at sixteen dollars a yard; one had inaugurated ice-skating in August, and another had started a class for the study of Plato. Some were giving tennis tournaments in bathing-suits, and playing leap-frog after dinner; others had got dispensations from the Pope, so that they might have private chapels and confessors; and yet others were giving "progressive dinners," moving from one restaurant to another—a cocktail and blue-points at Sherry's, a soup and Madeira at Delmonico's, some terrapin with amontillado at the Waldorf—and so on.
One of the consequences of the furious pace was that people's health broke down very quickly; and there were all sorts of bizarre ways of restoring it. One person would be eating nothing but spinach, and another would be living on grass. One would chew a mouthful of soup thirty-two times; another would eat every two hours, and another only once a week. Some went out in the early morning and walked bare-footed in the grass, and others went hopping about the floor on their hands and knees to take off fat. There were "rest cures" and "water cures," "new thought" and "metaphysical healing" and "Christian Science"; there was an automatic horse, which one might ride indoors, with a register showing the distance travelled. Montague met one man who had an electric machine, which cost thirty thousand dollars, and which took hold of his arms and feet and exercised him while he waited. He met a woman who told him she was riding an electric camel!
Everywhere one went there were new people, spending their money in new and incredible ways. Here was a man who had bought a chapel and turned it into a theatre, and hired professional actors, and persuaded his friends to come and see him act Shakespeare. Here was a woman who costumed herself after figures in famous paintings, with arrangements of roses and cherry leaves, and wreaths of ivy and laurel—and with costumes for her pet dogs to match! Here was a man who paid six dollars a day for a carnation four inches across; and a girl who wore a hat trimmed with fresh morning-glories, and a ball costume with swarms of real butterflies tied with silk threads; and another with a hat made of woven silver, with ostrich plumes forty inches long made entirely of silver films. Here was a man who hired a military company to drill all day long to prepare a floor for dancing; and another who put up a building at a cost of thirty thousand dollars to give a débutante dance for his daughter, and then had it torn down the day after. Here was a man who bred rattlesnakes and turned them loose by thousands, and had driven everybody away from the North Carolina estate of one of the Wallings. Here was a man who was building himself a yacht with a model dairy and bakery on board, and a French laundry and a brass band. Here was a million-dollar racing-yacht with auto-boats on it and a platoon of marksmen, and some Chinese laundrymen, and two physicians for its half-insane occupant. Here was a man who had bought a Rhine castle for three-quarters of a million, and spent as much in restoring it, and filled it with servants dressed in fourteenth-century costumes. Here was a five-million-dollar art collection hidden away where nobody ever saw it!
One saw the meaning of this madness most clearly in the young men of Society. Some were killing themselves and other people in automobile races at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. Some went in for auto-boats, mere shells of things, shaped like a knife-blade, that tore through the water at forty miles an hour. Some would hire professional pugilists to knock them out; others would get up dog-fights and bear-fights, and boxing matches with kangaroos. Montague was taken to the home of one young man who had given his life to hunting wild game in every corner of the globe, and would travel round the world for a new species to add to his museum of trophies. He had heard that Baron Rothschild had offered a thousand pounds for a "bongo," a huge grass-eating animal, which no white man had ever seen; and he had taken a year's trip into the interior, with a train of a hundred and thirty natives, and had brought out the heads of forty different species, including a bongo—which the Baron did not get! He met another who had helped to organize a balloon club, and two twenty-four-hour trips in the clouds. (This, by the way, was the latest sport—at Tuxedo they had races between balloons and automobiles; and Montague met one young lady who boasted that she had been up five times.) There was another young millionaire who sat and patiently taught Sunday School, in the presence of a host of reporters; there was another who set up a chain of newspapers all over the country and made war upon his class. There were others who went in for settlement work and Russian revolutionists—there were even some who called themselves Socialists! Montague thought that this was the strangest fad of all; and when he met one of these young men at an afternoon tea, he gazed at him with wonder and perplexity—thinking of the man he had heard ranting on the street-corner.
This was the "second generation." Appalling as it was to think of, there was a third growing up, and getting ready to take the stage. And with wealth accumulating faster than ever, who could guess what they might do? There were still in Society a few men and women who had earned their money, and had some idea of the toil and suffering that it stood for; but when the third generation had taken possession, these would all be dead or forgotten, and there would no longer be any link to connect them with reality!
In the light of this thought one was moved to watch the children of the rich. Some of these had inherited scores of millions of dollars while they were still in the cradle; now and then one of them would be presented with a million-dollar house for a birthday gift. When such a baby was born, the newspapers would give pages to describing its layette, with baby dresses at a hundred dollars each, and lace handkerchiefs at five dollars, and dressing-sets with tiny gold brushes and powder-boxes; one might see a picture of the precious object in a "Moses basket," covered with rare and wonderful Valenciennes lace.
This child would grow up in an atmosphere of luxury and self-indulgence; it would be bullying the servants at the age of six, and talking scandal and smoking cigarettes at twelve. It would be petted and admired and stared at, and paraded about in state, dressed up like a French doll; it would drink in snobbery and hatefulness with the very air it breathed. One might meet in these great houses little tots not yet in their teens whose talk was all of the cost of things, and of the inferiority of their neighbours. There was nothing in the world too good for them.—They had little miniature automobiles to ride about the country in, and blooded Arabian ponies, and doll-houses in real Louis Seize, with jewelled rugs and miniature electric lights. At Mrs. Caroline Smythe's, Montague was introduced to a pale and anaemic-looking youth of thirteen, who dined in solemn state alone when the rest of the family was away, and insisted upon having all the footmen in attendance; and his unfortunate aunt brought a storm about her ears by forbidding the butler to take champagne upstairs into the nursery before lunch.
A little remark stayed in Montague's mind as expressing the attitude of Society toward such matters. Major Venable had chanced to remark jestingly that children were coming to understand so much nowadays that it was necessary for the ladies to be careful. To which Mrs. Vivie Patton answered, with a sudden access of seriousness: "I don't know—do you find that children have any morals? Mine haven't."
And then the fascinating Mrs. Vivie went on to tell the truth about her own children. They were natural-born savages, and that was all there was to it. They did as they pleased, and no one could stop them. The Major replied that nowadays all the world was doing as it pleased, and no one seemed to be able to stop it; and with that jest the conversation was turned to other matters. But Montague sat in silence, thinking about it—wondering what would happen to the world when it had fallen under the sway of this generation of spoiled children, and had adopted altogether the religion of doing as one pleased.
In the beginning people had simply done as they pleased spontaneously, and without thinking about it; but now, Montague discovered, the custom had spread to such an extent that it was developing a philosophy. There was springing up a new cult, whose devotees were planning to make over the world upon the plan of doing as one pleased. Because its members were wealthy, and able to command the talent of the world, the cult was developing an art, with a highly perfected technique, and a literature which was subtle and exquisite and alluring. Europe had had such a literature for a century, and England for a generation or two. And now America was having it, too!
Montague had an amusing insight into this one day, when Mrs. Vivie invited him to one of her "artistic evenings." Mrs. Vivie was in touch with a special set which went in for intellectual things, and included some amateur Bohemians and men of "genius." "Don't you come if you'll be shocked," she had said to him—"for Strathcona will be there."
Montague deemed himself able to stand a good deal by this time. He went, and found Mrs. Vivie and her Count (Mr. Vivie had apparently not been invited) and also the young poet of Diabolism, whose work was just then the talk of the town. He was a tall, slender youth with a white face and melancholy black eyes, and black locks falling in cascades about his ears; he sat in an Oriental corner, with a manuscript copied in tiny handwriting upon delicately scented "art paper," and tied with passionate purple ribbons. A young girl clad in white sat by his side and held a candle, while he read from this manuscript his unprinted (because unprintable) verses.
And between the readings the young poet talked. He talked about himself and his work—apparently that was what he had come to talk about. His words flowed like a swift stream, limpid, sparkling, incessant; leaping from place to place—here, there, quick as the play of light upon the water. Montague laboured to follow the speaker's ideas, until he found his mind in a whirl and gave it up. Afterward, when he thought it over, he laughed at himself; for Strathcona's ideas were not serious things, having relationship to truth—they were epigrams put together to dazzle the hearer, studies in paradox, with as much relation to life as fireworks. He took the sum-total of the moral experience of the human race, and turned it upside down and jumbled it about, and used it as bits of glass in a kaleidoscope. And the hearers would gasp, and whisper, "Diabolical!"
The motto of this "school" of poets was that there was neither good nor evil, but that all things were "interesting." After listening to Strathcona for half an hour, one felt like hiding his head, and denying that he had ever thought of having any virtue; in a world where all things were uncertain, it was presumptuous even to pretend to know what virtue was. One could only be what one was; and did not that mean that one must do as one pleased?
You could feel a shudder run through the company at his audacity. And the worst of it was that you could not dismiss it with a laugh; for the boy was really a poet—he had fire and passion, the gift of melodious ecstacy. He was only twenty, and in his brief meteor flight he had run the gamut of all experience; he had familiarized himself with all human achievement—past, present, and future. There was nothing any one could mention that he did not perfectly comprehend: the raptures of the saints, the consecration of the martyrs—yes, he had known them; likewise he had touched the depths of depravity, he had been lost in the innermost passages of the caverns of hell. And all this had been interesting—in its time; now he was sighing for new worlds of experience—say for unrequited love, which should drive him to madness.
It was at this point that Montague dropped out of the race, and took to studying from the outside the mechanism of this young poet's conversation. Strathcona flouted the idea of a moral sense; but in reality he was quite dependent upon it—his recipe for making epigrams was to take what other people's moral sense made them respect, and identify it with something which their moral sense made them abhor. Thus, for instance, the tale which he told about one of the members of his set, who was a relative of a bishop. The great man had occasion to rebuke him for his profligate ways, declaring in the course of his lecture that he was living off the reputation of his father; to which the boy made the crushing rejoinder: "It may be bad to live off the reputation of one's father, but it's better than living off the reputation of God."—This was very subtle and it was necessary to ponder it. God was dead; and the worthy bishop did not know it! But let him take a new God, who had no reputation, and go out into the world and make a living out of him!
Then Strathcona discussed literature. He paid his tribute to the "Fleurs de Mal" and the "Songs before Sunrise"; but most, he said, he owed to "the divine Oscar." This English poet of many poses and some vices the law had seized and flung into jail; and since the law is a thing so brutal and wicked that whoever is touched by it is made thereby a martyr and a hero, there had grown up quite a cult about the memory of "Oscar." All up-to-date poets imitated his style and his attitude to life; and so the most revolting of vices had the cloak of romance flung about them—were given long Greek and Latin names, and discussed with parade of learning as revivals of Hellenic ideals. The young men in Strathcona's set referred to each other as their "lovers"; and if one showed any perplexity over this, he was regarded, not with contempt—for it was not aesthetic to feel contempt—but with a slight lifting of the eyebrows, intended to annihilate.
One must not forget, of course, that these young people were poets, and to that extent were protected from their own doctrines. They were interested, not in life, but in making pretty verses about life; there were some among them who lived as cheerful ascetics in garret rooms, and gave melodious expression to devilish emotions. But, on the other hand, for every poet, there were thousands who were not poets, but people to whom life was real. And these lived out the creed, and wrecked their lives; and with the aid of the poet's magic, the glamour of melody and the fire divine, they wrecked the lives with which they came into contact. The new generation of boys and girls were deriving their spiritual sustenance from the poetry of Baudelaire and Wilde; and rushing with the hot impulsiveness of youth into the dreadful traps which the traders in vice prepared for them. One's heart bled to see them, pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, pursuing the hem of the Muse's robe in brothels and dens of infamy!