It was quite futile to attempt to induce anyone to talk about serious matters just now—for the coming week all Society belonged to the horse. The parties which went to church on Sunday morning talked about horses on the way, and the crowds that gathered in front of the church door to watch them descend from their automobiles, and to get "points" on their conspicuous costumes—these would read about horses all afternoon in the Sunday papers, and about the gowns which the women would wear at the show.
Some of the party went up on Sunday evening; Montague went with the rest on Monday morning, and had lunch with Mrs. Robbie Walling and Oliver and Alice. They had arrayed him in a frock coat and silk hat and fancy "spats"; and they took him and sat him in the front row of Robbie's box.
There was a great tan-bark arena, in which the horses performed; and then a railing, and a broad promenade for the spectators; and then, raised a few feet above, the boxes in which sat all Society. For the Horse Show had now become a great social function. Last year a visiting foreign prince had seen fit to attend it, and this year "everybody" would come.
Montague was rapidly getting used to things; he observed with a smile how easy it was to take for granted embroidered bed and table linen, and mural paintings, and private cars, and gold plate. At first it had seemed to him strange to be waited upon by a white woman, and by a white man quite unthinkable; but he was becoming accustomed to having silent and expressionless lackeys everywhere about him, attending to his slightest want. So he presumed that if he waited long enough, he might even get used to horses which had their tails cut off to stumps, and their manes to rows of bristles, and which had been taught to lift their feet in strange and eccentric ways, and were driven with burred bits in their mouths to torture them and make them step lively.
There were road-horses, coach-horses, saddle-horses and hunters, polo-ponies, stud-horses—every kind of horse that is used for pleasure, over a hundred different "classes" of them. They were put through their paces about the ring, and there was a committee which judged them, and awarded blue and red ribbons. Apparently their highly artificial kind of excellence was a real thing to the people who took part in the show; for the spectators thrilled with excitement, and applauded the popular victors. There was a whole set of conventions which were generally understood—there was even a new language. You were told that these "turnouts" were "nobby" and "natty"; they were "swagger" and "smart" and "swell."
However, the horse was really a small part of this show; before one had sat out an afternoon he realized that the function was in reality a show of Society. For six or seven hours during the day the broad promenade would be so packed with human beings that one moved about with difficulty; and this throng gazed towards the ring almost never—it stared up into the boxes. All the year round the discontented millions of the middle classes read of the doings of the "smart set"; and here they had a chance to come and see them-alive, and real, and dressed in their showiest costumes. Here was all the grand monde, in numbered boxes, and with their names upon the programmes, so that one could get them straight. Ten thousand people from other cities had come to New York on purpose to get a look. Women who lived in boarding-houses and made their own clothes, had come to get hints; all the dressmakers in town were present for the same purpose.. Society reporters had come, with notebooks in hand; and next morning the imitators of Society all over the United States would read about it, in such fashion as this: "Mrs. Chauncey Venable was becomingly gowned in mauve cloth, made with an Eton jacket trimmed with silk braid, and opening over a chemisette of lace. Her hat was of the same colour, draped with a great quantity of mauve and orange tulle, and surmounted with birds of paradise to match. Her furs were silver fox."
The most intelligent of the great metropolitan dailies would print columns of this sort of material; and as for the "yellow" journals, they would have discussions of the costumes by "experts," and half a page of pictures of the most conspicuous of the box-holders. While Montague sat talking with Mrs. Walling, half a dozen cameras were snapped at them; and once a young man with a sketch-book placed himself in front of them and went placidly to work.—Concerning such things the society dame had three different sets of emotions: first, the one which she showed in public, that of bored and contemptuous indifference; second, the one which she expressed to her friends, that of outraged but helpless indignation; and third, the one which she really felt, that of triumphant exultation over her rivals, whose pictures were not published and whose costumes were not described.
It was a great dress parade of society women. One who wished to play a proper part in it would spend at least ten thousand dollars upon her costumes for the week. It was necessary to have a different gown for the afternoon and evening of each day; and some, who were adepts at quick changes and were proud of it, would wear three or four a day, and so need a couple of dozen gowns for the show. And of course there had to be hats and shoes and gloves to match. There would be robes of priceless fur hung carelessly over the balcony to make a setting; and in the evening there would be pyrotechnical displays of jewels. Mrs. Virginia Landis wore a pair of simple pearl earrings, which she told the reporters had cost twenty thousand dollars; and there were two women who displayed four hundred thousand dollars' worth of diamonds—and each of them had hired a detective to hover about in the crowd and keep watch over her!
Nor must one suppose, because the horse was an inconspicuous part of the show, that he was therefore an inexpensive part. One man was to be seen here driving a four-in-hand of black stallions which had cost forty thousand; there were other men who drove only one horse, and had paid forty thousand for that. Half a million was a moderate estimate of the cost of the "string" which some would exhibit. And of course these horses were useless, save for show purposes, and to breed other horses like them. Many of them never went out of their stables except for exercise upon a track; and the cumbrous and enormous; expensive coaches were never by any possibility used elsewhere—when they were taken from place to place they seldom went upon their own wheels.
And there were people here who made their chief occupation in life the winning of blue ribbons at these shows. They kept great country estates especially for the horses, and had private indoor exhibition rings. Robbie Walling and Chauncey Venable were both such people; in the summer of next year another of the Wallings took a string across the water to teach the horse-show game to Society in London. He took twenty or thirty horses, under the charge of an expert manager and a dozen assistants; he sent sixteen different kinds of carriages, and two great coaches, and a ton of harness and other stuff. It required one whole deck of a steamer, and the expedition enabled him to get rid of six hundred thousand dollars.
All through the day, of course, Robbie was down in the ring with his trainers and his competitors, and Montague sat and kept his wife company. There was a steady stream of visitors, who came to congratulate her upon their successes, and to commiserate with Mrs. Chauncey Venable over the sufferings of the un-happy victim of a notoriety-seeking district attorney.
There was just one drawback to the Horse Show, as Montague gathered from the conversation that went on among the callers: it was public, and there was no way to prevent undesirable people from taking part. There were, it appeared, hordes of rich people in New York who were not in Society, and of whose existence Society was haughtily unaware; but these people might enter horses and win prizes, and even rent a box and exhibit their clothes. And they might induce the reporters to mention them—and of course the ignorant populace did not know the difference, and stared at them just as hard as at Mrs. Robbie or Mrs. Winnie. And so for a whole blissful week these people had all the sensations of being in Society! "It won't be very long before that will kill the Horse Show," said Mrs. Vivie Patton, with a snap of her black eyes.
There was Miss Yvette Simpkins, for instance; Society frothed at the mouth when her name was mentioned. Miss Yvette was the niece of a stock-broker who was wealthy, and she thought that she was in Society, and the foolish public thought so, too. Miss Yvette made a speciality of newspaper publicity; you were always seeing her picture, with some new "Worth creation," and the picture would be labelled "Miss Yvette Simpkins, the best-dressed woman in New York," or "Miss Yvette Simpkins, who is known as the best woman whip in Society." It was said that Miss Yvette, who was short and stout, and had a rosy German face, had paid five thousand dollars at one clip for photographs of herself in a new wardrobe; and her pictures were sent to the newspapers in bundles of a dozen at a time. Miss Yvette possessed over a million dollars' worth of diamonds—the finest in the country, according to the newspapers; she had spent a hundred and twenty-six thousand dollars this year upon her clothes, and she gave long interviews, in which she set forth the fact that a woman nowadays could not really be well dressed upon less than a hundred thousand a year. It was Miss Yvette's boast that she had never ridden in a street-car in her life.
Montague always had a soft spot in his heart for the unfortunate Miss Yvette, who laboured so hard to be a guiding light; for it chanced to be while she was in the ring, exhibiting her skill in driving tandem, that he met with a fateful encounter. Afterward, when he came to look back upon these early days, it seemed strange to him that he should have gone about this place, so careless and unsuspecting, while the fates were weaving strange destinies about him.
It was on Tuesday afternoon, and he sat in the box of Mrs. Venable, a sister-in-law of the Major. The Major, who was a care-free bachelor, was there himself, and also Betty Wyman, who was making sprightly comments on the passers-by; and there strolled into the box Chappie de Peyster, accompanied by a young lady.
So many people had stopped and been introduced and then passed on, that Montague merely glanced at her once. He noticed that she was tall and graceful, and caught her name, Miss Hegan.
The turnouts in the ring consisted of one horse harnessed in front of another; and Montague was wondering what conceivable motive could induce a human being to hitch and drive horses in that fashion. The conversation turned upon Miss Yvette, who was in the ring; and Betty remarked upon the airy grace with which she wielded the long whip she carried. "Did you see what the paper said about her this morning?" she asked. "' Miss Simpkins was exquisitely clad in purple velvet,' and so on! She looked for all the world like the Venus at the Hippodrome!"
"Why isn't she in Society?" asked Montague, curiously.
"She!" exclaimed Betty. "Why, she's a travesty!"
There was a moment's pause, preceding a remark by their young lady visitor. "I've an idea," said she, "that the real reason she never got into Society was that she was fond of her old father."
And Montague gave a short glance at the speaker, who was gazing fixedly into the ring. He heard the Major chuckle, and he thought that he heard Betty Wyman give a little sniff. A few moments later the young lady arose, and with some remark to Mrs. Venable about how well her costume became her, she passed on out of the box.
"Who is that?" asked Montague.
"That," the Major answered, "that's Laura Hegan—Jim Hegan's daughter."
"Oh!" said Montague, and caught his breath. Jim Hegan—Napoleon of finance—czar of a gigantic system of railroads, and the power behind the political thrones of many states.
"His only daughter, too," the Major added. "Gad, what a juicy morsel for somebody!"
"Well, she'll make him pay for all he gets, whoever he is!" retorted Betty, vindictively.
"You don't like her?" inquired Montague; and Betty replied promptly, "I do not!"
"Her daddy and Betty's granddaddy are always at swords' points," put in Major Venable.
"I have nothing to do with my granddaddy's quarrels," said the young lady. "I have troubles enough of my own."
"What is the matter with Miss Hegan?" asked Montague, laughing.
"She's an idea she's too good for the world she lives in," said Betty. "When you're with her, you feel as you will before the judgment throne."
"Undoubtedly a disturbing feeling," put in the Major.
"She never hands you anything but you find a pin hidden in it," went on the girl. "All her remarks are meant to be read backward, and my life is too short to straighten out their kinks. I like a person to say what they mean in plain English, and then I can either like them or not."
"Mostly not," said the Major, grimly; and added, "Anyway, she's beautiful."
"Perhaps," said the other. "So is the Jungfrau; but I prefer something more comfortable."
"What's Chappie de Peyster beauing her around for?" asked Mrs. Venable. "Is he a candidate?"
"Maybe his debts are troubling him again," said Mistress Betty. "He must be in a desperate plight.—Did you hear how Jack Audubon proposed to her?"
"Did Jack propose?" exclaimed the Major.
"Of course he did," said the girl. "His brother told me." Then, for Montague's benefit, she explained, "Jack Audubon is the Major's nephew, and he's a bookworm, and spends all his time collecting scarabs."
"What did he say to her?" asked the Major, highly amused.
"Why," said Betty, "he told her he knew she didn't love him; but also she knew that he didn't care anything about her money, and she might like to marry him so that other men would let her alone."
"Gad!" cried the old gentleman, slapping his knee. "A masterpiece!"
"Does she have so many suitors?" asked Montague; and the Major replied, "My dear boy—she'll have a hundred million dollars some day!"
At this point Oliver put in appearance, and Betty got up and went for a stroll with him; then Montague asked for light upon Miss Hegan's remark.
"What she said is perfectly true," replied the Major; "only it riled Betty. There's many a gallant dame cruising the social seas who has stowed her old relatives out of sight in the hold."
"What's the matter with old Simpkins?" asked the other.
"Just a queer boy," was the reply. "He has a big pile, and his one joy in life is the divine Yvette. It is really he who makes her ridiculous—he has a regular press agent for her, a chap he loads up with jewellery and cheques whenever he gets her picture into the papers."
The Major paused a moment to greet some acquaintance, and then resumed the conversation. Apparently he could gossip in this intimate fashion about any person whom you named. Old Simpkins had been very poor as a boy, it appeared, and he had never got over the memory of it. Miss Yvette spent fifty thousand at a clip for Paris gowns; but every day her old uncle would save up the lumps of sugar which came with the expensive lunch he had brought to his office. And when he had several pounds he would send them home by messenger!
This conversation gave Montague a new sense of the complicatedness of the world into which he had come. Miss Simpkins was "impossible"; and yet there was—for instance—that Mrs. Landis whom he had met at Mrs. Winnie Duval's. He had met her several times at the show; and he heard the Major and his sister-in-law chuckling over a paragraph in the society journal, to the effect that Mrs. Virginia van Rensselaer Landis had just returned from a successful hunting-trip in the far West. He did not see the humour of this, at least not until they had told him of another paragraph which had appeared some time before: stating that Mrs. Landis had gone to acquire residence in South Dakota, taking with her thirty-five trunks and a poodle; and that "Leanie" Hopkins, the handsome young stock-broker, had taken a six months' vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
And yet Mrs. Landis was "in" Society! And moreover, she spent nearly as much upon her clothes as Miss Yvette, and the clothes were quite as conspicuous; and if the papers did not print pages about them, it was not because Mrs. Landis was not perfectly willing. She was painted and made up quite as frankly as any chorus-girl on the stage. She laughed a great deal, and in a high key, and she and her friends told stories which made Montague wish to move out of the way.
Mrs. Landis had for some reason taken a fancy to Alice, and invited her home to lunch with her twice during the show. And after they had got home in the evening, the girl sat upon the bed in her fur-trimmed wrapper, and told Montague and his mother and Mammy Lucy all about her visit.
"I don't believe that woman has a thing to do or to think about in the world except to wear clothes!" she said. "Why, she has adjustable mirrors on ball-bearings, so that she can see every part of her skirts! And she gets all her gowns from Paris, four times a year—she says there are four seasons now, instead of two! I thought that my new clothes amounted to something, but my goodness, when I saw hers!"
Then Alice went on to describe the unpacking of fourteen trunks, which had just come up from the custom-house that day. Mrs. Virginia's couturiere had her photograph and her colouring (represented in actual paints) and a figure made up from exact measurements; and so every one of the garments would fit her perfectly. Each one came stuffed with tissue paper and held in place by a lattice-work of tape; and attached to each gown was a piece of the fabric, from which her shoemaker would make shoes or slippers. There were street-costumes and opera-wraps, robes de chambre and tea-gowns, reception-dresses, and wonderful ball and dinner gowns. Most of these latter were to be embroidered with jewellery before they were worn, and imitation jewels were sewn on, to show how the real ones were to be placed. These garments were made of real lace or Parisian embroidery, and the prices paid for them were almost impossible to credit. Some of them were made of lace so filmy that the women who made them had to sit in damp cellars, because the sunlight would dry the fine threads and they would break; a single yard of the lace represented forty days of labour. There was a pastel "batiste de soie" Pompadour robe, embroidered with cream silk flowers, which had cost one thousand dollars. There was a hat to go with it, which had cost a hundred and twenty-five, and shoes of grey antelope-skin, buckled with mother-of-pearl, which had cost forty. There was a gorgeous and intricate ball-dress of pale green chiffon satin, with orchids embroidered in oxidized silver, and a long court train, studded with diamonds—and this had cost six thousand dollars without the jewels! And there was an auto-coat which had cost three thousand; and an opera-wrap made in Leipsic, of white unborn baby lamb, lined with ermine, which had cost twelve thousand—with a thousand additional for a hat to match! Mrs. Landis thought nothing of paying thirty-five dollars for a lace handkerchief, or sixty dollars for a pair of spun silk hose, or two hundred dollars for a pearl and gold-handled parasol trimmed with cascades of chiffon, and made, like her hats, one for each gown.
"And she insists that these things are worth the money," said Alice. "She says it's not only the material in them, but the ideas. Each costume is a study, like a picture. 'I pay for the creative genius of the artist,' she said to me—'for his ability to catch my ideas and apply them to my personality—my complexion and hair and eyes. Sometimes I design my own costumes, and so I know what hard work it is!'"
Mrs. Landis came from one of New York's oldest families, and she was wealthy in her own right; she had a palace on Fifth Avenue, and now that she had turned her husband out, she had nothing at all to put in it except her clothes. Alice told about the places in which she kept them—it was like a museum! There was a gown-room, made dust-proof, of polished hardwood, and with tier upon tier of long poles running across, and padded skirt-supporters hanging from them. Everywhere there was order and system—each skirt was numbered, and in a chiffonier-drawer of the same number you would find the waist—and so on with hats and stockings and gloves and shoes and parasols. There was a row of closets, having shelves piled up with dainty lace-trimmed and beribboned lingerie; there were two closets full of hats and three of shoes. "When she went West," said Alice, "one of her maids counted, and found that she had over four hundred pairs! And she actually has a cabinet with a card-catalogue to keep track of them. And all the shelves are lined with perfumed silk sachets, and she has tiny sachets sewed in every skirt and waist; and she has her own private perfume—she gave me some. She calls it Occur de Jeannette, and she says she designed it herself, and had it patented!"
And then Alice went on to describe the maid's work-room, which was also of polished hardwood, and dust-proof, and had a balcony for brushing clothes, and wires upon which to hang them, and hot and cold water, and a big ironing-table and an electric stove. "But there can't be much work to do," laughed the girl, "for she never wears a gown more than two or three times. Just think of paying several thousand dollars for a costume, and giving it to your poor relations after you have worn it only twice! And the worst of it is that Mrs. Landis says it's all nothing unusual; you'll find such arrangements in every home of people who are socially prominent. She says there are women who boast of never appearing twice in the same gown, and there's one dreadful personage in Boston who wears each costume once, and then has it solemnly cremated by her butler!"
"It is wicked to do such things," put in old Mrs. Montague, when she had heard this tale through. "I don't see how people can get any pleasure out of it."
"That's what I said," replied Alice.
"To whom did you say that?" asked Montague. "To Mrs. Landis?"
"No," said Alice, "to a cousin of hers. I was downstairs waiting for her, and this girl came in. And we got to talking about it, and I said that I didn't think I could ever get used to such things."
"What did she say?" asked the other.
"She answered me strangely," said the girl. "She's tall, and very stately, and I was a little bit afraid of her. She said, 'You'll get used to it. Everybody you know will be doing it, and if you try to do differently they'll take offence; and you won't have the courage to do without friends. You'll be meaning every day to stop, but you never will, and you'll go on until you die.'"
"What did you say to that?"
"Nothing," answered Alice. "Just then Mrs. Landis came in, and Miss Hegan went away."
"Miss Hegan?" echoed Montague.
"Yes," said the other. "That's her name—Laura Hegan. Have you met her?"