Montague had now been officially pronounced complete by his tailor; and Reval had sent home the first of Alice's street gowns, elaborately plain, but fitting her conspicuously, and costing accordingly. So the next morning they were ready to be taken to call upon Mrs. Devon.
Of course Montague had heard of the Devons, but he was not sufficiently initiated to comprehend just what it meant to be asked to call. But when Oliver came in, a little before noon, and proceeded to examine his costume and to put him to rights, and insisted that Alice should have her hair done over, he began to realize that this was a special occasion. Oliver was in quite a state of excitement; and after they had left the hotel, and were driving up the Avenue, he explained to them that their future in Society depended upon the outcome of this visit. Calling upon Mrs. Devon, it seemed, was the American equivalent to being presented at court. For twenty-five years this grand lady had been the undisputed mistress of the Society of the metropolis; and if she liked them, they would be invited to her annual ball, which took place in January, and then for ever after their position would be assured. Mrs. Devon's ball was the one great event of the social year; about one thousand people were asked, while ten thousand disappointed ones gnashed their teeth in outer darkness.
All of which threw Alice into a state of trepidation.
"Suppose we don't suit her!" she said.
To that the other replied that their way had been made smooth by Reggie Mann, who was one of Mrs. Devon's favourites.
A century and more ago the founder of the Devon line had come to America, and invested his savings in land on Manhattan Island. Other people had toiled and built a city there, and generation after generation of the Devons had sat by and collected the rents, until now their fortune amounted to four or five hundred millions of dollars. They were the richest old family in America, and the most famous; and in Mrs. Devon, the oldest member of the line, was centred all its social majesty and dominion. She lived a stately and formal life, precisely like a queen; no one ever saw her save upon her raised chair of state, and she wore her jewels even at breakfast. She was the arbiter of social destinies, and the breakwater against which the floods of new wealth beat in vain. Reggie Mann told wonderful tales about the contents of her enormous mail—about wives and daughters of mighty rich men who flung themselves at her feet and pleaded abjectly for her favour—who laid siege to her house for months, and intrigued and pulled wires to get near her, and even bought the favour of her servants! If Reggie might be believed, great financial wars had been fought, and the stock-markets of the world convulsed more than once, because of these social struggles; and women of wealth and beauty had offered to sell themselves for the privilege which was so freely granted to them.
They came to the old family mansion and rang the bell, and the solemn butler ushered them past the grand staircase and into the front reception-room to wait. Perhaps five minutes later he came in and rolled back the doors, and they stood up, and beheld a withered old lady, nearly eighty years of age, bedecked with diamonds and seated upon a sort of throne. They approached, and Oliver introduced them, and the old lady held out a lifeless hand; and then they sat down.
Mrs. Devon asked them a few questions as to how much of New York they had seen, and how they liked it, and whom they had met; but most of the time she simply looked them over, and left the making of conversation to Oliver. As for Montague, he sat, feeling perplexed and uncomfortable, and wondering, deep down in him, whether it could really be America in which this was happening.
"You see," Oliver explained to them, when they were seated in their carriage again, "her mind is failing, and it's really quite difficult for her to receive."
"I'm glad I don't have to call on her more than once," was Alice's comment. "When do we know the verdict?"
"When you get a card marked 'Mrs. Devon at home,'" said Oliver. And he went on to tell them about the war which had shaken Society long ago, when the mighty dame had asserted her right to be "Mrs. Devon," and the only "Mrs. Devon." He told them also about her wonderful dinner-set of china, which had cost thirty thousand dollars, and was as fragile as a humming-bird's wing. Each piece bore her crest, and she had a china expert to attend to washing and packing it—no common hand was ever allowed to touch it. He told them, also, how Mrs. Devon's housekeeper had wrestled for so long, trying to teach the maids to arrange the furniture in the great reception-rooms precisely as the mistress ordered; until finally a complete set of photographs had been taken, so that the maids might do their work by chart.
Alice went back to the hotel, for Mrs. Robbie Walling was to call and take her home to lunch; and Montague and his brother strolled round to Reggie Mann's apartments, to report upon their visit.
Reggie received them in a pair of pink silk pyjamas, decorated with ribbons and bows, and with silk-embroidered slippers, set with pearls—a present from a feminine adorer. Montague noticed, to his dismay, that the little man wore a gold bracelet upon one arm! He explained that he had led a cotillion the night before—or rather this morning; he had got home at five o'clock. He looked quite white and tired, and there were the remains of a breakfast of brandy-and-soda on the table.
"Did you see the old girl?" he asked. "And how does she hold up?"
"She's game," said Oliver.
"I had the devil's own time getting you in," said the other. "It's getting harder every day."
"You'll excuse me," Reggie added, "if I get ready. I have an engagement." And he turned to his dressing-table, which was covered with an array of cosmetics and perfumes, and proceeded, in a matter-of-fact way, to paint his face. Meanwhile his valet was flitting silently here and there, getting ready his afternoon costume; and Montague, in spite of himself, followed the man with his eyes. A haberdasher's shop might have been kept going for quite a while upon the contents of Reggie's dressers. His clothing was kept in a room adjoining the dressing-room; Montague, who was near the door, could see the rosewood wardrobes, each devoted to a separate article of clothing-shirts, for instance, laid upon sliding racks, tier upon tier of them, of every material and colour. There was a closet fitted with shelves and equipped like a little shoe store—high shoes and low shoes, black ones, brown ones, and white ones, and each fitted over a last to keep its shape perfect. These shoes were all made to order according to Reggie's designs, and three or-four times a year there was a cleaning out, and those which had gone out of fashion became the prey of his "man." There was a safe in one closet, in which Reggie's jewellery was kept.
The dressing-room was furnished like a lady's boudoir, the furniture upholstered with exquisite embroidered silk, and the bed hung with curtains of the same material. There was a huge bunch of roses on the centre-table, and the odour of roses hung heavy in the room.
The valet stood at attention with a rack of neckties, from which Reggie critically selected one to match his shirt. "Are you going to take Alice with you down to the Havens's?" he was asking; and he added, "You'll meet Vivie Patton down there—she's had another row at home."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Oliver.
"Yes," said the other. "Frank waited up all night for her, and he wept and tore his hair and vowed he would kill the Count. Vivie told him to go to hell."
"Good God!" said Oliver. "Who told you that?"
"The faithful Alphonse," said Reggie, nodding toward his valet. "Her maid told him. And Frank vows he'll sue—I half expected to see it in the papers this morning."
"I met Vivie on the street yesterday," said Oliver. "She looked as chipper as ever."
Reggie shrugged his shoulders. "Have you seen this week's paper?" he asked. "They've got another of Ysabel's suppressed poems in."—And then he turned toward Montague to explain that "Ysabel" was the pseudonym of a young débutante who had fallen under the spell of Baudelaire and Wilde, and had published a volume of poems of such furious eroticism that her parents were buying up stray copies at fabulous prices.
Then the conversation turned to the Horse Show, and for quite a while they talked about who was going to wear what. Finally Oliver rose, saying that they would have to get a bite to eat before leaving for the Havens's. "You'll have a good time," said Reggie. "I'd have gone myself, only I promised to stay and help Mrs. de Graffenried design a dinner. So long!"
Montague had heard nothing about the visit to the Havens's; but now, as they strolled down the Avenue, Oliver explained that they were to spend the weekend at Castle Havens. There was quite a party going up this Friday afternoon, and they would find one of the Havens's private cars waiting. They had nothing to do meantime, for their valets would attend to their packing, and Alice and her maid would meet them at the depot.
"Castle Havens is one of the show places of the country," Oliver added. "You'll see the real thing this time." And while they lunched, he went on to entertain his brother with particulars concerning the place and its owners. John had inherited the bulk of the enormous Havens fortune, and he posed as his father's successor in the Steel Trust. Some day some one of the big men would gobble him up; meantime he amused himself fussing over the petty details of administration. Mrs. Havens had taken a fancy to a rural life, and they had built this huge palace in the hills of Connecticut, and she wrote verses in which she pictured herself as a simple shepherdess—and all that sort of stuff. But no one minded that, because the place was grand, and there was always so much to do. They had forty or fifty polo ponies, for instance, and every spring the place was filled with polo men.
At the depot they caught sight of Charlie Carter, in his big red touring-car. "Are you going to the Havens's?" he said. "Tell them we're going to pick up Chauncey on the way."
"That's Chauncey Venable, the Major's nephew," said Oliver, as they strolled to the train. "Poor Chauncey—he's in exile!"
"How do you mean?" asked Montague.
"Why, he daren't come into New York," said the other. "Haven't you read about it in the papers? He lost one or two hundred thousand the other night in a gambling place, and the district attorney's trying to catch him."
"Does he want to put him in jail?" asked Montague.
"Heavens, no!" said Oliver. "Put a Venable in jail? He wants him for a witness against the gambler; and poor Chauncey is flitting about the country hiding with his friends, and wailing because he'll miss the Horse Show."
They boarded the palatial private car, and were introduced to a number of other guests. Among them was Major Venable; and while Oliver buried himself in the new issue of the fantastic-covered society journal, which contained the poem of the erotic "Ysabel," his brother chatted with the Major. The latter had taken quite a fancy to the big handsome stranger, to whom everything in the city was so new and interesting."
"Tell me what you thought of the Snow Palace," said he. "I've an idea that Mrs. Winnie's got quite a crush on you. You'll find her dangerous, my boy—she'll make you pay for your dinners before you get through!"
After the train was under way, the Major got himself surrounded with some apollinaris and Scotch, and then settled back to enjoy himself. "Did you see the 'drunken kid' at the ferry?" he asked. "(That's what our abstemious district attorney terms my precious young heir-apparent.) You'll meet him at the Castle—the Havens are good to him. They know how it feels, I guess; when John was a youngster his piratical uncle had to camp in Jersey for six months or so, to escape the strong arm of the law."
"Don't you know about it?" continued the Major, sipping at his beverage. "Sic transit gloria mundi! That was when the great Captain Kidd Havens was piling up the millions which his survivors are spending with such charming insouciance. He was plundering a railroad, and the original progenitor of the Wallings tried to buy the control away from him, and Havens issued ten or twenty millions of new stock overnight, in the face of a court injunction, and got away with most of his money. It reads like opera bouffe, you know—they had a regular armed camp across the river for about six months—until Captain Kidd went up to Albany with half a million dollars' worth of greenbacks in a satchel, and induced the legislature to legalize the proceedings. That was just after the war, you know, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. It seems strange to think that anyone shouldn't know about it."
"I know about Havens in a general way," said Montague.
"Yes," said the Major. "But I know in a particular way, because I've carried some of that railroad's paper all these years, and it's never paid any dividends since. It has a tendency to interfere with my appreciation of John's lavish hospitality."
Montague was reminded of the story of the Roman emperor who pointed out that money had no smell.
"Maybe not," said the Major. "But all the same, if you were superstitious, you might make out an argument from the Havens fortune. Take that poor girl who married the Count."
And the Major went on to picture the denouement of that famous international alliance, which, many years ago, had been the sensation of two continents. All Society had attended the gorgeous wedding, an archbishop had performed the ceremony, and the newspapers had devoted pages to describing the gowns and the jewels and the presents and all the rest of the magnificence. And the Count was a wretched little degenerate, who beat and kicked his wife, and flaunted his mistresses in her face, and wasted fourteen million dollars of her money in a couple of years. The mind could scarcely follow the orgies of this half-insane creature—he had spent two hundred thousand dollars on a banquet, and half as much again for a tortoise-shell wardrobe in which Louis the Sixteenth had kept his clothes! He had charged a diamond necklace to his wife, and taken two of the four rows of diamonds out of it before he presented it to her! He had paid a hundred thousand dollars a year to a jockey whom the Parisian populace admired, and a fortune for a palace in Verona, which he had promptly torn down, for the sake of a few painted ceilings. The Major told about one outdoor fete, which he had given upon a sudden whim: ten thousand Venetian lanterns, ten thousand metres of carpet; three thousand gilded chairs, and two or three hundred waiters in fancy costumes; two palaces built in a lake, with sea-horses and dolphins, and half a dozen orchestras, and several hundred chorus—girls from the Grand Opera! And in between adventures such as these, he bought a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, and made speeches and fought duels in defence of the Holy Catholic Church—and wrote articles for the yellow journals of America. "And that's the fate of my lost dividends!" growled the Major.
There were several automobiles to meet the party at the depot, and they were whirled through a broad avenue up a valley, and past a little lake, and so to the gates of Castle Havens.
It was a tremendous building, a couple of hundred feet long. One entered into a main hall, perhaps fifty feet wide, with a great fireplace arid staircase of marble and bronze, and furniture of gilded wood and crimson velvet, and a huge painting, covering three of the walls, representing the Conquest of Peru. Each of the rooms was furnished in the style of a different period—one Louis Quatorze, one Louis Quinze, one Marie Antoinette, and so on. There was a drawing-room and a regal music-room; a dining-room in the Georgian style, and a billiard-room, also in the English fashion, with high wainscoting and open beams in the ceiling; and a library, and a morning-room and conservatory. Upstairs in the main suite of rooms was a royal bedstead, which alone was rumoured to have cost twenty-five thousand dollars; and you might have some idea of the magnificence of things when you learned that underneath the gilding of the furniture was the rare and precious Circassian walnut.
All this was beautiful. But what brought the guests to Castle Havens was the casino, so the Major had remarked. It was really a private athletic club—with tan-bark hippodrome, having a ring the size of that in Madison Square Garden, and a skylight roof, and thirty or forty arc-lights for night events. There were bowling-alleys, billiard and lounging-rooms, hand-ball, tennis and racket-courts, a completely equipped gymnasium, a shooting-gallery, and a swimming-pool with Turkish and Russian baths. In this casino alone there were rooms for forty guests.
Such was Castle Havens; it had cost three or four millions of dollars, and within the twelve-foot wall which surrounded its grounds lived two world-weary people who dreaded nothing so much as to be alone. There were always guests, and on special occasions there might be three or four score. They went whirling about the country in their autos; they rode and drove; they played games, outdoor and indoor, or gambled, or lounged and chatted, or wandered about at their own sweet will. Coming to one of these places was not different from staying at a great hotel, save that the company was selected, and instead of paying a bill, you gave twenty or thirty dollars to the servants when you left.
It was a great palace of pleasure, in which beautiful and graceful men and women played together in all sorts of beautiful and graceful ways. In the evenings great logs blazed in the fireplace in the hall, and there might be an informal dance—there was always music at hand. Now and then there would be a stately ball, with rich gowns and flashing jewels, and the grounds ablaze with lights, and a full orchestra, and special trains from the city. Or a whole theatrical company would be brought down to give an entertainment in the theatre; or a minstrel show, or a troupe of acrobats, or a menagerie of trained animals. Or perhaps there would be a great pianist, or a palmist, or a trance medium. Anyone at all would be welcome who could bring a new thrill—it mattered nothing at all, though the price might be several hundred dollars a minute.
Montague shook hands with his host and hostess, and with a number of others; among them Billy Price who forthwith challenged him, and carried him off to the shooting-gallery. Here he took a rifle, and proceeded to satisfy her as to his skill. This brought him to the notice of Siegfried Harvey, who was a famous cross-country rider and "polo-man." Harvey's father owned a score of copper-mines, and had named him after a race-horse; he was a big broad-shouldered fellow, a favourite of every one; and next morning, when he found that Montague sat a horse like one who was born to it, he invited him to come out to his place on Long Island, and see some of the fox-hunting.
Then, after he had dressed for dinner, Montague came downstairs, and found Betty Wyman, shining like Aurora in an orange-coloured cloud. She introduced him to Mrs. Vivie Patton, who was tall and slender and fascinating, and had told her husband to go to hell. Mrs. Vivie had black eyes that snapped and sparkled, and she was a geyser of animation in a perpetual condition of eruption. Montague wondered if she would have talked with him so gaily had she known what he knew about her domestic entanglements.
The company moved into the dining-room, where there was served another of those elaborate and enormously expensive meals which he concluded he was fated to eat for the rest of his life. Only, instead of Mrs. Billy Alden with her Scotch, there was Mrs. Vivie, who drank champagne in terrifying quantities; and afterward there was the inevitable grouping of the bridge fiends.
Among the guests there was a long-haired and wild-looking foreign personage, who was the "lion" of the evening, and sat with half a dozen admiring women about him. Now he was escorted to the music-room, and revealed the fact that he was a violin virtuoso. He played what was called "salon music"—music written especially for ladies and gentlemen to listen to after dinner; and also a strange contrivance called a concerto, put together to enable the player to exhibit within a brief space the utmost possible variety of finger gymnastics. To learn to perform these feats one had to devote his whole lifetime to practising them, just like any circus acrobat; and so his mind became atrophied, and a naive and elemental vanity was all that was left to him.
Montague stood for a while staring; and then took to watching the company, who chattered and laughed all through the performance. Afterward, he strolled into the billiard-room, where Billy Price and Chauncey Venable were having an exciting bout; and from there to the smoking-room, where the stout little Major had gotten a group of young bloods about him to play "Klondike." This was a game of deadly hazards, which they played without limit; the players themselves were silent and impassive, but the spectators who gathered about were tense with excitement.
In the morning Charlie Carter carried off Alice and Oliver and Betty in his auto; and Montague spent his time in trying some of Havens's jumping horses. The Horse Show was to open in New York on Monday, and there was an atmosphere of suppressed excitement because of this prospect; Mrs. Caroline Smythe, a charming young widow, strolled about with him and told him all about this Show, and the people who would take part in it.
And in the afternoon Major Venable took him for a stroll and showed him the grounds. He had been told what huge sums had been expended in laying them out; but after all, the figures were nothing compared with an actual view. There were hills and slopes, and endless vistas of green lawns and gardens, dotted with the gleaming white of marble staircases and fountains and statuary. There was a great Italian walk, leading by successive esplanades to an electric fountain with a basin sixty feet across, and a bronze chariot and marble horses. There were sunken gardens, with a fountain brought from the South of France, and Greek peristyles, and seats of marble, and vases and other treasures of art.
And then there were the stables; a huge Renaissance building, with a perfectly equipped theatre above. There was a model farm and dairy; a polo-field, and an enclosed riding-ring for the children; and dog-kennels and pigeon-houses, greenhouses and deer-parks—one was prepared for bear-pits and a menagerie. Finally, on their way back, they passed the casino, where musical chimes pealed out the quarter-hours. Montague stopped and gazed up at the tower from which the sounds had come.
The more he gazed, the more he found to gaze at The roof of this building had many gables, in the Queen Anne style; and from the midst of them shot up the tower, which was octagonal and solid, suggestive of the Normans. It was decorated with Christmas-wreaths in white stucco, and a few miscellaneous ornaments like the gilded tassels one sees upon plush curtains. Overtopping all of this was the dome of a Turkish mosque. Rising out of the dome was something that looked like a dove-cot; and out of this rose the slender white steeple of a Methodist country church. On top of that was a statue of Diana.
"What are you looking at?" asked the Major.
"Nothing," said Montague, as he moved on. "Has there ever been any insanity in the Havens family?"
"I don't know," replied the other, puzzled. "They say the old man never could sleep at night, and used to wander about alone in the park. I suppose he had things on his conscience."
They strolled away; and the Major's flood-gates of gossip were opened. There was an old merchant in New York, who had been Havens's private secretary. And Havens was always in terror of assassination, and so whenever they travelled abroad he and the secretary exchanged places. "The old man is big and imposing," said the Major, "and it's funny to hear him tell how he used to receive the visitors and be stared at by the crowds, while Havens, who was little and insignificant, would pretend to make himself useful. And then one day a wild-looking creature came into the Havens office, and began tearing the wrappings off some package that shone like metal—and quick as a flash he and Havens flung themselves down on the floor upon their faces. Then, as nothing happened, they looked up, and saw the puzzled stranger gazing over the railing at them. He had a patent churn, made of copper, which he wanted Havens to market for him!"
Montague could have wished that this party might last for a week or two, instead of only two days. He was interested in the life, and in those who lived it; all whom he met were people prominent in the social world, and some in the business world as well, and one could not have asked a better chance to study them.
Montague was taking his time and feeling his way slowly. But all the time that he was playing and gossiping he never lost from mind his real purpose, which was to find a place for himself in the world of affairs; and he watched for people from whose conversation he could get a view of this aspect of things. So he was interested when Mrs. Smythe remarked that among his fellow-guests was Vandam, an official of one of the great life-insurance companies. "Freddie" Vandam, as the lady called him, was a man of might in the financial world; and Montague said to himself that in meeting him he would really be accomplishing something. Crack shots and polo-players and four-in-hand experts were all very well, but he had his living to earn, and he feared that the problem was going to prove complicated.
So he was glad when chance brought him and young Vandam together, and Siegfried Harvey introduced them. And then Montague got the biggest shock which New York had given him yet.
It was not what Freddie Vandam said; doubtless he had a right to be interested in the Horse Show, since he was to exhibit many fine horses, and he had no reason to feel called upon to talk about anything more serious to a stranger at a house party. But it was the manner of the man, his whole personality. For Freddie was a man of fashion, with all the exaggerated and farcical mannerisms of the dandy of the comic papers. He wore a conspicuous and foppish costume, and posed with a little cane; he cultivated a waving pompadour, and his silky moustache and beard were carefully trimmed to points, and kept sharp by his active fingers. His conversation was full of French phrases and French opinions; he had been reared abroad, and had a whole-souled contempt for all things American-even dictating his business letters in French, and leaving it for his stenographer to translate them. His shirts were embroidered with violets and perfumed with violets—and there were bunches of violets at his horses' heads, so that he might get the odour as he drove!
There was a cruel saying about Freddie Vandam—that if only he had had a little more brains, he would have been half-witted. And Montague sat, and watched his mannerisms and listened to his inanities, with his mind in a state of bewilderment and dismay. When at last he got up and walked away, it was with a new sense of the complicated nature of the problem that confronted him. Who was there that could give him the key to this mystery—who could interpret to him a world in which a man such as this was in control of four or five hundred millions of trust funds?