In the morning they went home with others of the party by train. They could not wait for Charlie and his automobile, because Monday was the opening night of the Opera, and no one could miss that. Here Society would appear in its most gorgeous raiment, and, there would be a show of jewellery such as could be seen nowhere else in the world.
General Prentice and his wife had opened their town-house, and had invited them to dinner and to share their box; and so at about half-past nine o'clock Montague found himself seated in a great balcony of the shape of a horseshoe, with several hundred of the richest people in the city. There was another tier of boxes above, and three galleries above that, and a thousand or more people seated and standing below him. Upon the big stage there was an elaborate and showy play, the words of which were sung to the accompaniment of an orchestra.
Now Montague had never heard an opera, and he was fond of music. The second act had just begun when he came in, and all through it he sat quite spellbound, listening to the most ravishing strains that ever he had heard in his life. He scarcely noticed that Mrs. Prentice was spending her time studying the occupants of the other boxes through a jewelled lorgnette, or that Oliver was chattering to her daughter.
But after the act was over, Oliver got him alone outside the box, and whispered, "For God's sake, Allan, don't make a fool of yourself."
"Why, what's the matter?" asked the other.
"What will people think," exclaimed Oliver, "seeing you sitting there like a man in a dope dream?"
"Why," laughed the other, "they'll think I'm listening to the music."
To which Oliver responded, "People don't come to the Opera to listen to the music."
This sounded like a joke, but it was not. To Society the Opera was a great state function, an exhibition of far more exclusiveness and magnificence than the Horse Show; and Society certainly had the right to say, for it owned the opera-house and ran it. The real music-lovers who came, either stood up in the back, or sat in the fifth gallery, close to the ceiling, where the air was foul and hot. How much Society cared about the play was sufficiently indicated by the fact that all of the operas were sung in foreign languages, and sung so carelessly that the few who understood the languages could make but little of the words. Once there was a world-poet who devoted his life to trying to make the Opera an art; and in the battle with Society he all but starved to death. Now, after half a century, his genius had triumphed, and Society consented to sit for hours in darkness and listen to the domestic disputes of German gods and goddesses. But what Society really cared for was a play with beautiful costumes and scenery and dancing, and pretty songs to which one could listen while one talked; the story must be elemental and passionate, so that one could understand it in pantomime—say the tragic love of a beautiful and noble-minded courtesan for a gallant young man of fashion.
Nearly every one who came to the Opera had a glass, by means of which he could bring each gorgeously-clad society dame close to him, and study her at leisure. There were said to be two hundred million dollars' worth of diamonds in New York, and those that were not in the stores were very apt to be at this show; for here was where they could accomplish the purpose for which they existed—here was where all the world came to stare at them. There were nine prominent Society women, who among them displayed five million dollars' worth of jewels. You would see stomachers which looked like a piece of a coat of mail, and were made wholly of blazing diamonds. You would see emeralds and rubies and diamonds and pearls made in tiaras—that is to say, imitation crowns and coronets—and exhibited with a stout and solemn dowager for a pediment. One of the Wallings had set this fashion, and now every one of importance wore them. One lady to whom Montague was introduced made a speciality of pearls—two black pearl ear-rings at forty thousand dollars, a string at three hundred thousand, a brooch of pink pearls at fifty thousand, and two necklaces at a quarter of a million each!
This incessant repetition of the prices of things came to seem very sordid; but Montague found that there was no getting away from it. The people in Society who paid these prices affected to be above all such considerations, to be interested only in the beauty and artistic excellence of the things themselves; but one found that they always talked about the prices which other people had paid, and that somehow other people always knew what they had paid. They took care also to see that the public and the newspapers knew what they had paid, and knew everything else that they were doing. At this Opera, for instance, there was a diagram of the boxes printed upon the programme, and a list of all the box-holders, so that anyone could tell who was who. You might see these great dames in their gorgeous robes coming from their carriages, with crowds staring at them and detectives hovering about. And the bosom of each would be throbbing with a wild and wonderful vision of the moment when she would enter her box, and the music would be forgotten, and all eyes would be turned upon her; and she would lay aside her wraps, and flash upon the staring throngs, a vision of dazzling splendour.
Some of these jewels were family treasures, well known to New York for generations; and in such cases it was becoming the fashion to leave the real jewels in the safe-deposit vault, and to wear imitation stones exactly like them. From homes where the jewels were kept, detectives were never absent, and in many cases there were detectives watching the detectives; and yet every once in a while the newspapers would be full of a sensational story of a robbery. Then the unfortunates who chanced to be suspected would be seized by the police and subjected to what was jocularly termed the "third degree," and consisted of tortures as elaborate and cruel as any which the Spanish Inquisition had invented. The advertising value of this kind of thing was found to be so great that famous actresses also had costly jewels, and now and then would have them stolen.
That night, when they had got home, Montague had a talk with his cousin about Charlie Carter. He discovered a peculiar situation. It seemed that Alice already knew that Charlie had been "bad." He was sick and miserable; and her beauty and innocence had touched him and made him ashamed of himself, and he had hinted darkly at dreadful evils. Thus carefully veiled, and tinged with mystery and romance, Montague could understand how Charlie made an interesting and appealing figure. "He says I'm different from any girl he ever met," said Alice—a remark of such striking originality that her cousin could not keep back his smile.
Alice was not the least bit in love with him, and had no idea of being; and she said that she would accept no invitations, and never go alone with him; but she did not see how she could avoid him when she met him at other people's houses. And to this Montague had to assent.
General Prentice had inquired kindly as to what Montague had seen in New York, and how he was getting along. He added that he had talked about him to Judge Ellis, and that when he was ready to get to work, the Judge would perhaps have some suggestions to make to him. He approved, however, of Montague's plan of getting his bearings first; and said that he would introduce him and put him up at a couple of the leading clubs.
All this remained in Montague's mind; but there was no use trying to think of it at the moment. Thanksgiving was at hand, and in countless country mansions there would be gaieties under way. Bertie Stuyvesant had planned an excursion to his Adirondack camp, and had invited a score or so of young people, including the Montagues. This would be a new feature of the city's life, worth knowing about.
Their expedition began with a theatre-party. Bertie had engaged four boxes, and they met there, an hour or so after the performance had begun. This made no difference, however, for the play was like the opera-a number of songs and dances strung together, and with only plot enough to provide occasion for elaborate scenery and costumes. From the play they were carried to the Grand Central Station, and a little before midnight Bertie's private train set out on its journey.
This train was a completely equipped hotel. There was a baggage compartment and a dining-car and kitchen; and a drawing-room and library-car; and a bedroom-car—not with berths, such as the ordinary sleeping-car provides, but with comfortable bedrooms, furnished in white mahogany, and provided with running water and electric light. All these cars were built of steel, and automatically ventilated: and they were furnished in the luxurious fashion of everything with which Bertie Stuyvesant had anything to do. In the library-car there were velvet carpets upon the floor, and furniture of South American mahogany, and paintings upon the walls over which great artists had laboured for years.
Bertie's chef and servants were on board, and a supper was ready in the dining-car, which they ate while watching the Hudson by moonlight. And the next morning they reached their destination, a little station in the mountain wilderness. The train lay upon a switch, and so they had breakfast at their leisure, and then, bundled in furs, came out into the crisp pine-laden air of the woods. There was snow upon the ground, and eight big sleighs waiting; and for nearly three hours they drove in the frosty sunlight, through most beautiful mountain scenery. A good part of the drive was in Bertie's "preserve," and the road was private, as big signs notified one every hundred yards or so.
So at last they reached a lake, winding like a snake among towering hills, and with a huge baronial castle standing out upon the rocky shore. This imitation fortress was the "camp."
Bertie's father had built it, and visited it only half a dozen times in his life. Bertie himself had only been here twice, he said. The deer were so plentiful that in the winter they died in scores. Nevertheless there were thirty game-keepers to guard the ten thousand acres of forest, and prevent anyone's hunting in it. There were many such "preserves" in this Adirondack wilderness, so Montague was told; one man had a whole mountain fenced about with heavy iron railing, and had moose and elk and even wild boar inside. And as for the "camps," there were so many that a new style of architecture had been developed here—to say nothing of those which followed old styles, like this imported Rhine castle. One of Bertie's crowd had a big Swiss chalet; and one of the Wallings had a Japanese palace to which he came every August—a house which had been built from plans drawn in Japan, and by labourers imported especially from Japan. It was full of Japanese ware—furniture, tapestry, and mosaics; and the guides remembered with wonder the strange silent, brown-skinned little men who had laboured for days at carving a bit of wood, and had built a tiny pagoda-like tea-house with more bits of wood in it than a man could count in a week.
They had a luncheon of fresh venison and partridges and trout, and in the afternoon a hunt. The more active set out to track the deer in the snow; but most prepared to watch the lake-shore, while the game-keepers turned loose the dogs back in the hills. This "hounding" was against the law, but Bertie was his own law here—and at the worst there could simply be a small fine, imposed upon some of the keepers. They drove eight or ten deer to water; and as they fired as many as twenty shots at one deer, they had quite a lively time. Then at dusk they came back, in a fine glow of excitement, and spent the evening before the blazing logs, telling over their adventures.
The party spent two days and a half here, and on the last evening, which was Thanksgiving, they had a wild turkey which Bertie had shot the week before in Virginia, and were entertained by a minstrel show which had been brought up from New York the night before. The next afternoon they drove back to the train.
In the morning, when they reached the city, Alice found a note from Mrs. Winnie Duval, begging her and Montague to come to lunch and attend a private lecture by the Swami Babubanana, who would tell them all about the previous states of their souls. They went—though not without a protest from old Mrs. Montague, who declared it was "worse than Bob Ingersoll."
And then, in the evening, came Mrs. de Graffenried's opening entertainment, which was one of the great events of the social year. In the general rush of things Montague had not had a chance properly to realize it; but Reggie Mann and Mrs. de Graffenried had been working over it for weeks. When the Montagues arrived, they found the Riverside mansion—which was decorated in imitation of an Arabian palace—turned into a jungle of tropical plants.
They had come early at Reggie's request, and he introduced them to Mrs. de Graffenried, a tall and angular lady with a leathern complexion painfully painted; Mrs. de Graffenried was about fifty years of age, but like all the women of Society she was made up for thirty. Just at present there were beads of perspiration upon her forehead; something had gone wrong at the last moment, and so Reggie would have no time to show them the favours, as he had intended.
About a hundred and fifty guests were invited to this entertainment. A supper was served at little tables in the great ball-room, and afterward the guests wandered about the house while the tables were whisked out of the way and the room turned into a play-house. A company from one of the Broadway theatres would be bundled into cabs at the end of the performance, and by midnight they would be ready to repeat the performance at Mrs. de Graffenried's. Montague chanced to be near when this company arrived, and he observed that the guests had crowded up too close, and not left room enough for the actors. So the manager had placed them in a little ante-room, and when Mrs. de Graffenried observed this, she rushed at the man, and swore at him like a dragoon, and ordered the bewildered performers out into the main room.
But this was peering behind the scenes, and he was supposed to be watching the play. The entertainment was another "musical comedy" like the one he had seen a few nights before. On that occasion, however, Bertie Stuyvesant's sister had talked to him the whole time, while now he was let alone, and had a chance to watch the performance.
This was a very popular play; it had had a long run, and the papers told how its author had an income of a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year. And here was an audience of the most rich and influential people in the city; and they laughed and clapped, and made it clear that they were enjoying themselves heartily. And what sort of a play was it?
It was called "The Kaliph of Kamskatka." It had no shred of a plot; the Kaliph had seventeen wives, and there was an American drummer who wanted to sell him another—but then you did not need to remember this, for nothing came of it. There was nothing in the play which could be called a character—there was nothing which could be connected with any real emotion ever felt by human beings. Nor could one say that there was any incident—at least nothing happened because of anything else. Each event was a separate thing, like the spasmodic jerking in the face of an idiot. Of this sort of "action" there was any quantity—at an instant's notice every one on the stage would fall simultaneously into this condition of idiotic jerking. There was rushing about, shouting, laughing, exclaiming; the stage was in a continual uproar of excitement, which was without any reason or meaning. So it was impossible to think of the actors in their parts; one kept thinking of them as human beings—thinking of the awful tragedy of full-grown men and women being compelled by the pressure of hunger to dress up and paint themselves, and then come out in public and dance, stamp, leap about, wring their hands, make faces, and otherwise be "lively."
The costumes were of two sorts: one fantastic, supposed to represent the East, and the other a kind of reductio ad absurdum of fashionable garb. The leading man wore a "natty" outing-suit, and strutted with a little cane; his stock-in-trade was a jaunty air, a kind of perpetual flourish, and a wink that suggested the cunning of a satyr. The leading lady changed her costume several times in each act; but it invariably contained the elements of bare arms and bosom and back, and a skirt which did not reach her knees, and bright-coloured silk stockings, and slippers with heels two inches high. Upon the least provocation she would execute a little pirouette, which would reveal the rest of her legs, surrounded by a mass of lace ruffles. It is the nature of the human mind to seek the end of things; if this woman had worn a suit of tights and nothing else, she would have been as uninteresting as an underwear advertisement in a magazine; but this incessant not-quite-revealing of herself exerted a subtle fascination. At frequent intervals the orchestra would start up a jerky little tune, and the two "stars" would begin to sing in nasal voices some words expressive of passion; then the man would take the woman about the waist and dance and swing her about and bend her backward and gaze into her eyes—actions all vaguely suggestive of the relationship of sex. At the end of the verse a chorus would come gliding on, clad in any sort of costume which admitted of colour and the display of legs; the painted women of this chorus were never still for an instant—if they were not actually dancing, they were wriggling their legs, and jerking their bodies from side to side, and nodding their heads, and in all other possible ways being "lively."
But it was not the physical indecency of this show that struck Montague so much as its intellectual content. The dialogue of the piece was what is called "smart"; that is, it was full of a kind of innuendo which implied a secret understanding of evil between the actor and his audience—a sort of countersign which passed between them. After all, it would have been an error to say that there were no ideas in the play—there was one idea upon which all the interest of it was based; and Montague strove to analyze this idea and formulate it to himself. There are certain life principles-one might call them moral axioms—which are the result of the experience of countless ages of the human race, and upon the adherence to which the continuance of the race depends. And here was an audience by whom all these principles were—not questioned, nor yet disputed, nor yet denied—but to whom the denial was the axiom, something which it would be too banal to state flatly, but which it was elegant and witty to take for granted. In this audience there were elderly people, and married men and women, and young men and maidens; and a perfect gale of laughter swept through it at a story of a married woman whose lover had left her when he got married:—
"She must have been heartbroken," said the leading lady.
"She was desperate," said the leading man, with a grin.
"What did she do?" asked the lady "Go and shoot herself?"
"Worse than that," said the man. "She, went back to her husband and had a baby!"
But to complete your understanding of the significance of this play, you must bring yourself to realize that it was not merely a play, but a kind of a play; it had a name—a "musical comedy"—the meaning of which every one understood. Hundreds of such plays were written and produced, and "dramatic critics" went to see them and gravely discussed them, and many thousands of people made their livings by travelling over the country and playing them; stately theatres were built for them, and hundreds of thousands of people paid their money every night to see them. And all this no joke and no nightmare—but a thing that really existed. Men and women were doing these things—actual flesh-and-blood human beings.
Montague wondered, in an awestricken sort of way, what kind of human being it could be who had flourished the cane and made the grimaces in that play. Later on, when he came to know the "Tenderloin," he met this same actor, and he found that he had begun life as a little Irish "mick" who lived in a tenement, and whose mother stood at the head of the stairway and defended him with a rolling-pin against a policeman who was chasing him. He had discovered that he could make a living by his comical antics; but when he came home and told his mother that he had been offered twenty dollars a week by a show manager, she gave him a licking for lying to her. Now he was making three thousand dollars a week—more than the President of the United States and his Cabinet; but he was not happy, as he confided to Montague, because he did not know how to read, and this was a cause of perpetual humiliation. The secret desire of this little actor's heart was to play Shakespeare; he had "Hamlet" read to him, and pondered how to act it—all the time that he was flourishing his little cane and making his grimaces! He had chanced to be on the stage when a fire had broken out, and five or six hundred victims of greed were roasted to death. The actor had pleaded with the people to keep their seats, but all in vain; and all his life thereafter he went about with this vision of horror in his mind, and haunted by the passionate conviction that he had failed because of his lack of education—that if only he had been a man of culture, he would have been able to think of something to say to hold those terror-stricken people!
At three o'clock in the morning the performance came to an end, and then there were more refreshments; and Mrs. Vivie Patton came and sat by him, and they had a nice comfortable gossip. When Mrs. Vivie once got started at talking about people, her tongue ran on like a windmill.
There was Reggie Mann, meandering about and simpering at people. Reggie was in his glory at Mrs. de Graffenried's affairs. Reggie had arranged all this-he did the designing and the ordering, and contracted for the shows with the agents. You could bet that he had got his commission on them, too—though sometimes Mrs. de Graffenried got the shows to come for nothing, because of the advertising her name would bring. Commissions were Reggie's speciality—he had begun life as an auto agent. Montague didn't know what that was? An auto agent was a man who was for ever begging his friends to use a certain kind of car, so that he might make a living; and Reggie had made about thirty thousand a year in that way. He had come from Boston, where his reputation had been made by the fact that early one morning, as they were driving home from a celebration, he had dared a young society matron to take off her shoes and stockings, and get out and wade in the public fountain; and she had done it, and he had followed her. On the strength of the eclat of this he had been taken up by Mrs. Devon; and one day Mrs. Devon had worn a white gown, and asked him what he thought of it. "It needs but one thing to make it perfect," said Reggie, and taking a red rose, he pinned it upon her corsage. The effect was magical; every one exclaimed with delight, and so Reggie's reputation as an authority upon dress was made for ever. Now he was Mrs. de Graffenried's right-hand man, and they made up their pranks together. Once they had walked down the street in Newport with a big rag doll between them. And Reggie had given a dinner at which the guest of honour had been a monkey—surely Montague had heard of that, for it had been the sensation of the season. It was really the funniest thing imaginable; the monkey wore a suit of broad-cloth with collar and cuffs, and he shook hands with all the guests, and behaved himself exactly like a gentleman—except that he did not get drunk.
And then Mrs. Vivie pointed out the great Mrs. Ridgley-Clieveden, who was sitting with one of her favourites, a grave, black-bearded gentleman who had leaped into fame by inheriting fifty million dollars. "Mrs. R.-C." had taken him up, and ordered his engagement book for him, and he was solemnly playing the part of a social light. He had purchased an old New York mansion, upon the decoration of which three million dollars had been spent; and when he came down to business from Tuxedo, his private train waited all day for him with steam up. Mrs. Vivie told an amusing tale of a woman who had announced her engagement to him, and borrowed large sums of money upon the strength of it, before his denial came out. That had been a source of great delight to Mrs. de Graffenried, who was furiously jealous of "Mrs. R. C."
From the anecdotes that people told, Montague judged that Mrs. de Graffenried must be one of those new leaders of Society, who, as Mrs. Alden said, were inclined to the bizarre and fantastic. Mrs. de Graffenried spent half a million dollars every season to hold the position of leader of the Newport set, and you could always count upon her for new and striking ideas. Once she had given away as cotillion favours tiny globes with goldfish in them; again she had given a dance at which everybody got themselves up as different vegetables. She was fond of going about at Newport and inviting people haphazard to lunch—thirty or forty at a time—and then surprising them with a splendid banquet. Again she would give a big formal dinner, and perplex people by offering them something which they really cared to eat. "You see," explained Mrs. Vivie, "at these dinners we generally get thick green turtle soup, and omelettes with some sort of Florida water poured over them, and mushrooms cooked under glass, and real hand-made desserts; but Mrs. de Graffenried dares to have baked ham and sweet potatoes, or even real roast beef. You saw to-night that she had green corn; she must have arranged for that months ahead—we can never get it from Porto Rico until January. And you see this little dish of wild strawberries—they were probably transplanted and raised in a hothouse, and every single one wrapped separately before they were shipped."
All these labours had made Mrs. de Graffenried a tremendous power in the social world. She had a savage tongue, said Mrs. Vivie, and every one lived in terror of her; but once in a while she met her match. Once she had invited a comic opera star to sing for her guests, and all the men had crowded round this actress, and Mrs. de Graffenried had flown into a passion and tried to drive them away; and the actress, lolling back in her chair, and gazing up idly at Mrs. de Graffenried, had drawled, "Ten years older than God!" Poor Mrs. de Graffenried would carry that saying with her until she died.
Something reminiscent of this came under Montague's notice that same evening. At about four o'clock Mrs. Vivie wished to go home, and asked him to find her escort, the Count St. Elmo de Champignon—the man, by the way, for whom her husband was gunning. Montague roamed all about the house, and finally went downstairs, where a room had been set apart for the theatrical company to partake of refreshments. Mrs. de Graffenried's secretary was on guard at the door; but some of the boys had got into the room, and were drinking champagne and "making dates" with the chorus-girls. And here was Mrs. de Graffenried herself, pushing them bodily out of the room, a score and more of them—and among them Mrs. Vivie's Count!
Montague delivered his message, and then went upstairs to wait until his own party should be ready to leave. In the smoking-room were a number of men, also waiting; and among them he noticed Major Venable, in conversation with a man whom he did not know. "Come over here," the Major called; and Montague obeyed, at the same time noticing the stranger.
He was a tall, loose-jointed, powerfully built man, a small head and a very striking face: a grim mouth with drooping corners tightly set, and a hawk-like nose, and deep-set, peering eyes. "Have you met Mr. Hegan?" said the Major. "Hegan, this is Mr. Allan Montague." Jim Hegan! Montague repressed a stare and took the chair which they offered him. "Have a cigar," said Hegan, holding out his case.
"Mr. Montague has just come to New York," said the Major. "He is a Southerner, too."
"Indeed?" said Hegan, and inquired what State he came from. Montague replied, and added, "I had the pleasure of meeting your daughter last week, at the Horse Show."
That served to start a conversation; for Hegan came from Texas, and when he found that Montague knew about horses—real horses—he warmed to him. Then the Major's party called him away, and the other two were left to carry on the conversation.
It was very easy to chat with Hegan; and yet underneath, in the other's mind, there lurked a vague feeling of trepidation, as he realized that he was chatting with a hundred millions of dollars. Montague was new enough at the game to imagine that there ought to be something strange, some atmosphere of awe and mystery, about a man who was master of a dozen railroads and of the politics of half a dozen States. He was simple and very kindly in his manner, a plain man, interested in plain things. There was about him, as he talked, a trace of timidity, almost of apology, which Montague noticed and wondered at. It was only later, when he had time to think about it, that he realized that Hegan had begun as a farmer's boy in Texas, a "poor white"; and could it be that after all these years an instinct remained in him, so that whenever he met a gentleman of the old South he stood by with a little deference, seeming to beg pardon for his hundred millions of dollars?
And yet there was the power of the man. Even chatting about horses, you felt it; you felt that there was a part of him which did not chat, but which sat behind and watched. And strangest of all, Montague found himself fancying that behind the face that smiled was another face, that did not smile, but that was grim and set. It was a strange face, with its broad, sweeping eyebrows and its drooping mouth; it haunted Montague and made him feel ill at ease.
There came Laura Hegan, who greeted them in her stately way; and Mrs. Hegan, bustling and vivacious, costumed en grande dame. "Come and see me some time," said the man. "You won't be apt to meet me otherwise, for I don't go about much." And so they took their departure; and Montague sat alone and smoked and thought. The face still stayed with him; and now suddenly, in a burst of light, it came to him what it was: the face of a bird of prey—of the great wild, lonely eagle! You have seen it, perhaps, in a menagerie; sitting high up, submitting patiently, biding its time. But all the while the soul of the eagle is far away, ranging the wide spaces, ready for the lightning swoop, and the clutch with the cruel talons!