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these particular sounds died away, but there was a steady tramp of feet
over our heads until three. About this hour, also, the bridge party
broke up and the guests came upstairs.

There were no outside doors to our rooms. Bells rang, water ran, and
there was that curious vibration which even hairbrushing seems to set
going in a country house. Then with a final bang, comparative silence
descended. Occasionally still, to be sure, the floor squeaked over our
heads. Once somebody got up and closed a window. I could hear two
distant snorings in major and minor keys. I managed to snatch a few
winks and then an alarm-clock went off. At no great distance the
scrubbing maid was getting up. I could hear her every move.

The sun also rose and threw fire-pointed darts at us through the
windowshades. By five o'clock I was ready to scream with nerves; and,
having dug a lounge suit out of the gentlemen's furnishing store in my
trunk, I cautiously descended into the lower regions. There was a rich
smell of cigarettes everywhere. In the hall I stumbled over the feet of
the sleeping night-watchman. But the birds were twittering in the
bushes; the grassblades threw back a million flashes to the sun.

Not before a quarter to ten could I secure a cup of coffee, though
several footmen, in answer to my insistent bell, had been running round
apparently for hours in a vain endeavor to get it for me. At eleven a
couple of languid younger men made their appearance and conversed
apathetically with one another over the papers. The hours drew on.

Lunch came at two o'clock, bursting like a thunder-storm out of a
sunlit sky. Afterward the guests sat round and talked. People were
coming to tea at five, and there was hardly any use in doing anything
before that time. A few took naps. A young lady and gentleman played an
impersonal game of tennis; but at five an avalanche of social leaders
poured out of a dozen shrieking motors and stormed the castle with
salvos of strident laughter. The cannonade continued, with one brief
truce in which to dress for dinner, until long after midnight. _Vox, et
praeterea nihil!_

I look back on that house party with vivid horror. Yet it was one of the
most valuable of my social experiences. We were guests invited for the
first time to one of the smartest houses on Long Island; yet we were
neglected by male and female servants alike, deprived of all possibility
of sleep, and not the slightest effort was made to look after our
personal comfort and enjoyment by either our host or hostess.
Incidentally on my departure I distributed about forty dollars among
various dignitaries who then made their appearance.

It is probable that time has somewhat exaggerated my recollections of
the miseries of this our first adventure into ultrasmart society, but
its salient characteristics have since repeated themselves in countless
others. I no longer accept week-end invitations; - for me the quiet of my
library or the Turkish bath at my club; for they are all essentially
alike. Surrounded by luxury, the guests yet know no comfort!

After a couple of days of ennui and an equal number of sleepless nights,
his brain foggy with innumerable drinks, his eyes dizzy with the pips of
playing cards, and his ears still echoing with senseless hilarity, the
guest rises while it is not yet dawn, and, fortified by a lukewarm cup
of faint coffee boiled by the kitchen maid and a slice of leatherlike
toast left over from Sunday's breakfast, presses ten dollars on the
butler and five on the chauffeur - and boards the train for the city,
nervous, disgruntled, his digestion upset and his head totally out of
kilter for the day's work.

Since my first experience in house parties I have yielded weakly to my
wife's importunities on several hundred similar occasions. Some of these
visits have been fairly enjoyable. Sleep is sometimes possible. Servants
are not always neglectful. Discretion in the matter of food and drink is
conceivable, even if not probable, and occasionally one meets congenial
persons.

As a rule, however, all the hypocrisies of society are intensified
threefold when heterogeneous people are thrown into the enforced contact
of a Sunday together in the country; but the artificiality and
insincerity of smart society is far less offensive than the
pretentiousness of mere wealth.

* * * * *

Not long ago I attended a dinner given on Fifth Avenue the invitation to
which had been eagerly awaited by my wife. We were asked to dine
informally with a middle-aged couple who for no obvious reason have been
accepted as fashionable desirables. He is the retired head of a great
combination of capital usually described as a trust. A canopy and a
carpet covered the sidewalk outside the house. Two flunkies in cockaded
hats stood beside the door, and in the hall was a line of six liveried
lackeys. Three maids helped my wife remove her wraps and adjust her
hair.

In the salon where our hostess received us were hung pictures
representing an outlay of nearly two million dollars - part of a
collection the balance of which they keep in their house in Paris; for
these people are not content with one mansion on Fifth Avenue and a
country house on Long Island, but own a palace overlooking the Bois de
Boulogne and an enormous estate in Scotland. They spend less than ten
weeks in New York, six in the country, and the rest of the year abroad.

The other male guests had all amassed huge fortunes and had given up
active work. They had been, in their time, in the thick of the fray. Yet
these men, who had swayed the destinies of the industrial world, stood
about awkwardly discussing the most trivial of banalities, as if they
had never had a vital interest in anything.

Then the doors leading into the dining room were thrown open, disclosing
a table covered with rosetrees in full bloom five feet in height and a
concealed orchestra began to play. There were twenty-four seats and a
footman for each two chairs, besides two butlers, who directed the
service. The dinner consisted of hors-d'oeuvre and grapefruit, turtle
soup, fish of all sorts, elaborate entrées, roasts, breasts of plover
served separately with salad, and a riot of ices and exotic fruits.

Throughout the meal the host discoursed learnedly on the relative
excellence of various vintages of champagne and the difficulty of
procuring cigars suitable for a gentleman to smoke. It appeared that
there was no longer any wine - except a few bottles in his own
cellar - which was palatable or healthful. Even coffee was not fit for
use unless it had been kept for six years! His own cigars were made to
order from a selected crop of tobacco he had bought up entire. His
cigarettes, which were the size of small sausages, were prepared from
specially cured leaves of plants grown on "sunny corners of the walls of
Smyrna." His Rembrandts, his Botticellis, his Sir Joshuas, his Hoppners,
were little things he had picked up here and there, but which, he
admitted, were said to be rather good.

Soon all the others were talking wine, tobacco and Botticelli as well as
they could, though most of them knew more about coal, cotton or creosote
than the subjects they were affecting to discuss.

This, then, was success! To flounder helplessly in a mire of
artificiality and deception to Tales of Hoffmann!

If I were asked what was the object of our going to such a dinner I
could only answer that it was in order to be invited to others of the
same kind. Is it for this we labor and worry - that we scheme and
conspire - that we debase ourselves and lose our self-respect? Is there
no wine good enough for my host? Will God let such arrogance be without
a blast of fire from heaven?

* * * * *

There was a time not so very long ago when this same man was thankful
enough for a slice of meat and a chunk of bread carried in a tin
pail - content with the comfort of an old brier pipe filled with cut plug
and smoked in a sunny corner of the factory yard. "Sunny corners of the
walls of Smyrna!"

It is a fine thing to assert that here in America we have "out of a
democracy of opportunity" created "an aristocracy of achievement." The
phrase is stimulating and perhaps truly expresses the spirit of our
energetic and ambitious country; but an aristocracy of achievement is
truly noble only when the achievements themselves are fine. What are the
achievements that win our applause, for which we bestow our decorations
in America? Do we honor most the men who truly serve their generation
and their country? Or do we fawn, rather, on those who merely serve
themselves?

It is a matter of pride with us - frequently expressed in disparagement
of our European contemporaries - that we are a nation of workers; that to
hold any position in the community every man must have a job or
otherwise lose caste; that we tolerate no loafing. We do not conceal our
contempt for the chap who fails to go down every day to the office or
business. Often, of course, our ostentatious workers go down, but do
very little work. We feel somehow that every man owes it to the
community to put in from six to ten hours' time below the residential
district.

Young men who have inherited wealth are as chary of losing one hour as
their clerks. The busy millionaire sits at his desk all day - his ear to
the telephone. We assume that these men are useful because they are
busy; but in what does their usefulness consist? What are they busy
about? They are setting an example of mere industry, perhaps - but to
what end? Simply, in seven cases out of ten, in order to get a few
dollars or a few millions more than they have already. Their exertions
have no result except to enable their families to live in even greater
luxury.

I know at least fifty men, fathers of families, whose homes might
radiate kindliness and sympathy and set an example of wise, generous and
broad-minded living, who, already rich beyond their needs, rush
downtown before their children have gone to school, pass hectic,
nerve-racking days in the amassing of more money, and return after their
little ones have gone to bed, too utterly exhausted to take the
slightest interest in what their wives have been doing or in the
pleasure and welfare of their friends.

These men doubtless give liberally to charity, but they give
impersonally, not generously; they are in reality utterly selfish,
engrossed in the enthralling game of becoming successful or more
successful men, sacrificing their homes, their families and their
health - for what? To get on; to better their position; to push in among
those others who, simply because they have outstripped the rest in the
matter of filling their own pockets, are hailed with acclamation.

It is pathetic to see intelligent, capable men bending their energies
not to leading wholesome, well-rounded, serviceable lives but to gaining
a slender foothold among those who are far less worthy of emulation than
themselves and with whom they have nothing whatsoever in common except a
despicable ambition to display their wealth and to demonstrate that they
have "social position."

In what we call the Old World a man's social position is a matter of
fixed classification - that is to say, his presumptive ability and
qualifications to amuse and be amused; to hunt, fish and shoot; to ride,
dance, and make himself generally agreeable - are known from the start.
And, based on the premise that what is known as society exists simply
for the purpose of enabling people to have a good time, there is far
more reason to suppose that one who comes of a family which has made a
specialty of this pursuit for several hundred years is better endowed by
Nature for that purpose than one who has made a million dollars out of a
patent medicine or a lucky speculation in industrial securities.

The great manufacturer or chemist in England, France, Italy, or Germany,
the clever inventor, the astute banker, the successful merchant, have
their due rewards; but, except in obvious instances, they are not
presumed to have acquired incidentally to their material prosperity the
arts of playing billiards, making love, shooting game on the wing,
entertaining a house party or riding to hounds. Occasionally one of them
becomes by special favor of the sovereign a baronet; but, as a rule his
so-called social position is little affected by his business success,
and there is no reason why it should be. He may make a fortune out of a
new process, but he invites the same people to dinner, frequents the
same club and enjoys himself in just about the same way as he did
before. His newly acquired wealth is not regarded as in itself likely to
make him a more congenial dinner-table companion or any more delightful
at five-o'clock tea.

The aristocracy of England and the Continent is not an aristocracy of
achievement but of the polite art of killing time pleasantly. As such it
has a reason for existence. Yet it can at least be said for it that its
founders, however their descendants may have deteriorated, gained their
original titles and positions by virtue of their services to their king
and country.

However, with a strange perversity - due perhaps to our having the
Declaration of Independence crammed down our throats as children - we in
America seem obsessed with an ambition to create a social aristocracy,
loudly proclaimed as founded on achievement, which, in point of fact, is
based on nothing but the possession of money. The achievement that most
certainly lands one among the crowned heads of the American nobility is
admittedly the achievement of having acquired in some way or other about
five million dollars; and it is immaterial whether its possessor got it
by hard work, inheritance, marriage or the invention of a porous
plaster.

In the wider circle of New York society are to be found a considerable
number of amiable persons who have bought their position by the lavish
expenditure of money amassed through the clever advertising and sale of
table relishes, throat emollients, fireside novels, canned edibles,
cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. The money was no doubt legitimately
earned. The patent-medicine man and the millionaire tailor have my
entire respect. I do not sneer at honest wealth acquired by these
humble means. The rise - if it be a rise - of these and others like them
is superficial evidence, perhaps, that ours is a democracy. Looking
deeper, we see that it is, in fact, proof of our utter and shameless
snobbery.

Most of these people are in society not on account of their personal
qualities, or even by virtue of the excellence of their cut plug or
throat wash which, in truth, may be a real boon to mankind - but because
they have that most imperative of all necessities - money. The
achievement by which they have become aristocrats is not the kind of
achievement that should have entitled them to the distinction which is
theirs. They are received and entertained for no other reason whatever
save that they can receive and entertain in return. Their bank accounts
are at the disposal of the other aristocrats - and so are their houses,
automobiles and yachts. The brevet of nobility - by achievement - is
conferred on them, and the American people read of their comings and
goings, their balls, dinners and other festivities with consuming and
reverent interest. Most dangerously significant of all is the fact that,
so long as the applicant for social honors has the money, the method by
which he got it, however reprehensible, is usually overlooked. That a
man is a thief, so long as he has stolen enough, does not impair his
desirability. The achievement of wealth is sufficient in itself to
entitle him to a seat in the American House of Lords.

A substantial portion of the entertaining that takes place on Fifth
Avenue is paid for out of pilfered money. Ten years ago this rhetorical
remark would have been sneered at as demagogic. To-day everybody knows
that it is simply the fact. Yet we continue to eat with entire unconcern
the dinners that have, as it were, been abstracted from the dinner-pails
of the poor. I cannot conduct an investigation into the business history
of every man who asks me to his house. And even if I know he has been a
crook, I cannot afford to stir up an unpleasantness by attempting in my
humble way to make him feel sorrow for his misdeeds. If I did I might
find myself alone - deserted by the rest of the aristocracy who are
concerned less with his morality than with the vintage of his wine and
the _dot_ he is going to give his daughter.

The methods by which a newly rich American purchases a place among our
nobility are simple and direct. He does not storm the inner citadel of
society but at the start ingratiates himself with its lazy and
easy-going outposts. He rents a house in a fashionable country suburb of
New York and goes in and out of town on the "dude" train. He soon learns
what professional people mingle in smart society and these he bribes to
receive him and his family. He buys land and retains a "smart" lawyer to
draw his deeds and attend to the transfer of title. He engages a
fashionable architect to build his house, and a society young lady who
has gone into landscape gardening to lay out his grounds. He cannot work
the game through his dentist or plumber, but he establishes friendly
relations with the swell local medical man and lets him treat an
imaginary illness or two. He has his wife's portrait painted by an
artist who makes a living off similar aspirants, and in exchange gets an
invitation to drop in to tea at the studio. He buys broken-winded
hunters from the hunting set, decrepit ponies from the polo players, and
stone griffins for the garden from the social sculptress.

A couple of hundred here, a couple of thousand there, and he and his
wife are dining out among the people who run things. Once he gets a
foothold, the rest is by comparison easy. The bribes merely become
bigger and more direct. He gives a landing to the yacht club, a silver
mug for the horse show, and an altar rail to the church. He entertains
wisely - gracefully discarding the doctor, lawyer, architect and artist
as soon as they are no longer necessary. He has, of course, already
opened an account with the fashionable broker who lives near him, and
insured his life with the well-known insurance man, his neighbor. He
also plays poker daily with them on the train.

This is the period during which he becomes a willing, almost eager, mark
for the decayed sport who purveys bad champagne and vends his own brand
of noxious cigarettes. He achieves the Stock Exchange Crowd without
difficulty and moves on up into the Banking Set composed of trust
company presidents, millionaires who have nothing but money, and the
élite of the stockbrokers and bond men who handle their private
business.

The family are by this time "going almost everywhere"; and in a year or
two, if the money holds out, they can buy themselves into the inner
circles. It is only necessary to take a villa at Newport and spend about
one hundred thousand dollars in the course of the season. The walls of
the city will fall down flat if the golden trumpet blows but mildly. And
then, there they are - right in the middle of the champagne, clambakes
and everything else! - invited to sit with the choicest of America's
nobility on golden chairs - supplied from New York at one dollar per - and
to dance to the strains of the most expensive music amid the subdued
popping of distant corks.

In this social Arabian Nights' dream, however, you will find no sailors
or soldiers, no great actors or writers, no real poets or artists, no
genuine statesmen. The nearest you will get to any of these is the
millionaire senator, or the amateur decorators and portrait painters
who, by making capital of their acquaintance, get a living out of
society. You will find few real people among this crowd of intellectual
children.

The time has not yet come in America when a leader of smart society
dares to invite to her table men and women whose only merit is that
they have done something worth while. She is not sufficiently sure of
her own place. She must continue all her social life to be seen only
with the "right people." In England her position would be secure and she
could summon whom she would to dine with her; but in New York we have to
be careful lest, by asking to our houses some distinguished actor or
novelist, people might think we did not know we should select our
friends - not for what they are, but for what they have.

In a word, the viciousness of our social hierarchy lies in the fact that
it is based solely upon material success. We have no titles of nobility;
but we have Coal Barons, Merchant Princes and Kings of Finance. The very
catchwords of our slang tell the story. The achievement of which we
boast as the foundation of our aristocracy is indeed ignoble; but, since
there is no other, we and our sons, and their sons after them, will
doubtless continue to struggle - and perhaps steal - to prove, to the
satisfaction of ourselves and the world at large, that we are entitled
to be received into the nobility of America not by virtue of our good
deeds, but of our so-called success.

We would not have it otherwise. We should cry out against any serious
attempt, outside of the pulpit, to alter or readjust an order that
enables us to buy for money a position of which we would be otherwise
undeserving. It would be most discouraging to us to have substituted
for the present arrangement a society in which the only qualifications
for admittance were those of charm, wit, culture, good breeding and good
sportsmanship.




CHAPTER III

MY CHILDREN


I pride myself on being a man of the world - in the better sense of the
phrase. I feel no regret over the passing of those romantic days when
maidens swooned at the sight of a drop of blood or took refuge in the
"vapors" at the approach of a strange young man; in point of fact I do
not believe they ever did. I imagine that our popular idea of the
fragility and sensitiveness of the weaker sex, based on the accounts of
novelists of the eighteenth century, is largely a literary convention.

Heroines were endowed, as a matter of course, with the possession of all
the female virtues, intensified to such a degree that they were covered
with burning blushes most of the time. Languor, hysteria and general
debility were regarded as the outward indications of a sweet and gentle
character. Woman was a tendril clinging to the strong oak of
masculinity. Modesty was her cardinal virtue. One is, of course,
entitled to speculate on the probable contemporary causes for the
seeming overemphasis placed on this admirable characteristic. Perhaps
feminine honesty was so rare as to be at a premium and modesty was a
sort of electric sign of virtue.

I am not squeamish. I have always let my children read what they would.
I have never made a mystery of the relations of the sexes, for I know
the call of the unseen - the fascination lent by concealment, of
discovery. I believe frankness to be a good thing. A mind that is
startled or shocked by the exposure of an ankle or the sight of a
stocking must be essentially impure. Nor do I quarrel with woman's
natural desire to adorn herself for the allurement of man. That is as
inevitable as springtime.

But unquestionably the general tone of social intercourse in America, at
least in fashionable centers, has recently undergone a marked and
striking change. The athletic girl of the last twenty years, the girl
who invited tan and freckles, wielded the tennis bat in the morning and
lay basking in a bathing suit on the sand at noon, is gradually giving
way to an entirely different type - a type modeled, it would seem, at
least so far as dress and outward characteristics are concerned, on the
French demimondaine. There are plenty of athletic girls to be found on
the golf links and tennis courts; but a growing and large minority of
maidens at the present time are too chary of their complexions to brave
the sun. Big hats, cloudlike veils, high heels, paint and powder mark
the passing of the vain hope that woman can attract the male sex by
virtue of her eugenic possibilities alone.

It is but another and unpleasantly suggestive indication that the
simplicity of an older generation - the rugged virtue of a more frugal
time - has given place to the sophistication of the Continent. When I was
a lad, going abroad was a rare and costly privilege. A youth who had
been to Rome, London and Paris, and had the unusual opportunity of
studying the treasures of the Vatican, the Louvre and the National


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Online LibraryArthur Cheney TrainThe Goldfish → online text (page 5 of 15)