It was now well on in May, and most of the people of Montague's acquaintance had moved out to their country places; and those who were chained to their desks had yachts or automobiles or private cars, and made the trip into the country every afternoon. Montague was invited to spend another week at Eldridge Devon's, where Alice had been for a week; but he could not spare the time until Saturday afternoon, when he made the trip up the Hudson in Devon's new three-hundred-foot steam-yacht, the Triton. Some unkind person had described Devon to Montague as "a human yawn"; but he appeared to have a very keen interest in life that Saturday afternoon. He had been seized by a sudden conviction that a new and but little advertised automobile had proven its superiority to any of the seventeen cars which he at present maintained in his establishment. He had got three of these new cars, and while Montague sat upon the quarter-deck of the Triton and gazed at the magnificent scenery of the river, he had in his ear the monotonous hum of Devon's voice, discussing annular ball-bearings and water-jacketed cylinders.
One of the new cars met them at Devon's private pier, and swept them over the hill to the mansion. The Devon place had never looked more wonderful to Montague than it did just then, with fruit trees in full blossom, and the wonder of springtime upon everything. For miles about one might see hillsides that were one unbroken stretch of luscious green lawn. But alas, Eldridge Devon had no interest in these hills, except to pursue a golf-ball over them. Montague never felt more keenly the pitiful quality of the people among whom he found himself than when he stood upon the portico of this house--a portico huge enough to belong to some fairy palace in a dream--and gazed at the sweeping vista of the Hudson over the heads of Mrs. Billy Alden and several of her cronies, playing bridge.
* * *
After luncheon, he went for a stroll with Alice, and she told him how she had been passing the time. "Young Curtiss was here for a couple of days," she said.
"General Prentice's nephew?" he asked.
"Yes. He told me he had met you," said she. "What do you think of him?"
"He struck me as a sensible chap," said Montague.
"I like him very much," said Alice. "I think we shall be friends. He is interesting to talk to; you know he was in a militia regiment that went to Cuba, and also he's been a cowboy, and all sorts of exciting things. We took a walk the other morning, and he told me some of his adventures. They say he's quite a successful lawyer."
"He is in a very successful firm," said Montague. "And he'd hardly have got there unless he had ability."
"He's a great friend of Laura Hegan's," said Alice. "She was over here to spend the day. She doesn't approve of many people, so that is a compliment."
Montague spoke of a visit which he had paid to Laura Hegan, at one of the neighbouring estates.
"I had quite a talk with her," said Alice. "And she invited me to luncheon, and took me driving. I like her better than I thought I would. Don't you like her, Allan?"
"I couldn't say that I really know her," said Montague. "I thought I might like her, but she did not happen to like me."
"But how could that be?" asked the girl.
Montague smiled. "Tastes are different," he said.
"But there must be some reason," protested Alice. "For she looks at many things in the same way that you do. I told her I thought she would be interested to talk to you."
"What did she say?" asked the other.
"She didn't say anything," answered Alice; and then suddenly she turned to him. "I am sure you must know some reason. I wish you would tell me."
"I don't know anything definite," Montague answered. "I have always imagined it had to do with Mrs. Winnie."
"With Mrs. Winnie!" exclaimed Alice, in perplexing wonder.
"I suppose she heard gossip and believed it," he added.
"But that is a shame!" exclaimed the girl. "Why don't you tell her the truth?"
"_I_ tell her?" laughed Montague. "I have no reason for telling her. She doesn't care anything in particular about me."
He was silent for a moment or two. "I thought of it once or twice," he said. "For it made me rather angry at first. I saw myself going up to her, and startling her with the statement, 'What you believe about me is not true!' Then again, I thought I might write her a letter and tell her. But of course it would be absurd; she would never acknowledge that she had believed anything, and she would think I was impertinent."
"I don't believe she would do anything of the sort," Alice answered. "At least, not if she meant what she said to me. She was talking about people one met in Society, and how tiresome and conventional it all was. 'No one ever speaks the truth or deals frankly with you,' she said. 'All the men spend their time in paying you compliments about your looks. They think that is all a woman cares about. The more I come to know them, the less I think of them.'"
"That's just it," said Montague. "One cannot feel comfortable knowing a girl in her position. Her father is powerful, and some day she will be enormously rich herself; and the people who gather about her are seeking to make use of her. I was interested in her when I first met her. But when I learned more about the world in which she lives, I shrank from even talking to her."
"But that is rather unfair to her," said Alice. "Suppose all decent people felt that way. And she is really quite easy to know. She told me about some charities she is interested in. She goes down into the slums, on the East Side, and teaches poor children. It seemed to me a wonderfully daring sort of thing, but she laughed when I said so. She says those people are just the same as other people, when you come to know them; you get used to their ways, and then it does not seem so terrible and far off."
"I imagine it would be so," said Montague, with a smile.
"Her father came over to meet her," Alice added. "She said that was the first time he had been out of the city in six months. Just fancy working so hard, and with all the money he has! What in the world do you suppose he wants more for?"
"I don't suppose it is the money," said he. "It's the power. And when you have so much money, you have to work hard to keep other people from taking it away from you."
"He certainly looks as if he ought to be able to protect himself," said the girl. "His face is so grim and forbidding. You would hardly think he could smile, to look at him."
"He is very pleasant, when you know him," said Montague.
"He remembered you, and asked about you," said she. "Wasn't it he who was going to buy Lucy Dupree's stock?"
"I spoke to him about it," he answered, "but nothing came of it."
There was a moment's pause. "Allan," said Alice, suddenly, "what is this I hear about Lucy?"
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"People are talking about her and Mr. Ryder. I overheard Mrs. Landis yesterday. It's outrageous!"
Montague did hot know what to say. "What can I do?" he asked.
"I don't know," said Alice, "but I think that Victoria Landis is a horrible woman. I know she herself does exactly as she pleases. And she tells such shocking stories--"
Montague said nothing.
"Tell me," asked the other, after a pause, "because you've given up Lucy's business affairs, are we to have nothing to do with her at all?"
"I don't know," he answered. "I don't imagine she will care to see me. I have told her about the mistake she's making, and she chooses to go her own way. So what more can I do?"
* * *
That evening Montague found himself settled on a sofa next to Mrs. Billy Alden. "What's this I hear about your friend, Mrs. Taylor?" she asked.
"I don't know," said he, abruptly.
"The fascinating widow seems to be throwing herself away," continued the other.
"What makes you say that?" he asked.
"Vivie Patton told me," said she. "She's an old flame of Stanley Ryder's, you know; and so I imagine it came directly from him."
Montague was dumb; he could think of nothing to say.
"It's too bad," said Mrs. Billy. "She is really a charming creature. And it will hurt her, you know--she is a stranger, and it's a trifle too sudden. Is that the Mississippi way?"
Montague forced himself to say, "Lucy is her own mistress." But his feeble impulse toward conversation was checked by Mrs. Billy's prompt response, "Vivie said she was Stanley Ryder's."
"I understand how you feel," continued the great lady, after a pause. "Everybody will be talking about it.--Your friend Reggie Mann heard what Vivie said, and he will see to that."
"Reggie Mann is no friend of mine," said Montague, abruptly.
There was a pause. "How in the world do you stand that man?" he asked, by way of changing the conversation.
"Oh, Reggie fills his place," was the reply. And Mrs. Billy gazed about the room. "You see all these women?" she said. "Take them in the morning and put half a dozen of them together in one room; they all hate each other like poison, and there are no men around, and there is nothing to do; and how are you to keep them from quarrelling?"
"Is that Reggie's role?" asked the other.
"Precisely. He sees a spark fly, and he jumps up and cracks a joke. It doesn't make any difference what he does--I've known him to crow like a rooster, or stumble over his own feet--anything to raise a laugh."
"Aren't you afraid these epigrams may reach your victim?" asked Montague, with a smile.
"That is what they are intended to do," was the reply.
"I judge you have not many enemies," added Mrs. Billy, after a pause.
"No especial ones," said he.
"Well," said she, "you should cultivate some. Enemies are the spice of life. I mean it, really," she declared, as she saw him smile.
"I had never thought of it," said he.
"Have you never known what it is to get into a really good fight? You see, you are conventional, and you don't like to acknowledge it. But what is there that wakes one up more than a good, vigorous hatred? Some day you will realise it--the chief zest in life is to go after somebody who hates you, and to get him down and see him squirm."
"But suppose he gets you down?" interposed Montague.
"Ah!" said she, "you mustn't let him! That is what you go into the fight for. Get after him, and do him first."
"It sounds rather barbarous," said he.
"On the contrary," was the answer, "it's the highest reach of civilisation. That is what Society is for--the cultivation of the art of hatred. It is the survival of the fittest in a new realm. You study your victim, you find out his weaknesses and his foibles, and you know just where to plant your sting. You learn what he wants, and you take it away from him. You choose your allies carefully, and you surround him and overwhelm him; then when you get through with him, you go after another."
And Mrs. Billy glanced about her at the exquisite assemblage in Mrs. Devon's Louis Seize drawing-room. "What do you suppose these people are here for to-night?" she asked.