Passages from the Journal of A Social Wreak

by Margaret Floyd

January 13th, 188-.—Twenty-nine to-day, with two painful facts staring me blankly in the face. I am reduced almost literally to my last cent, and have no prospect of increasing this sum. For the first time in my life I may as well examine the situation impartially. It is not my fault that it is a physical impossibility for me to get up early in the morning, and therefore that I never have stayed in any office more than two or three weeks at the longest. It is constitutional. I can’t write a good hand, or keep books correctly, for the same reason. Mathematics were left out of my composition. I must smoke, and it is impossible for me to smoke a poor cigar. If I am in debt for cigars, as well as other necessities, how can I help it? I would willingly work if I could only find the kind of work that would suit me. I am not a fool. There is not a man in New York who speaks French with a better accent than I do. I can sing better than most amateurs. There is no vanity in saying that people consider me good-looking. I don’t find it difficult to please when I make an effort, and yet I am a complete failure. It is not my fault. I’m a round peg in a square hole. I ought to have been the oldest son of a duke, with a large allowance. Instead, I am a helpless orphan, with nothing a year. I seem to joke; in reality I am in despair. Fortunately, my landlady trusts me blindly, or I would be turned into the street.

I have sold or pawned all my valuables. I might pawn my dress suit and studs, but if I did, I couldn’t go out to dinner if I were asked, and that is always a saving. I cannot get a place in an opera company, because my voice has not been sufficiently trained. There always is something to prevent my success, no matter what I try.

To-day I met Morton in the street. He stopped me and said: “By the way, Valentine, your name will come up at the Amsterdam very soon. You are sure to get in.”

Imagine paying club dues in my present condition! Yet to belong to the Amsterdam has been one of my ambitions. I had to get out of it, and said, in an offhand way: “Ah, thanks, Morton, but you may as well take my name off the list. I’m thinking of living out of town.”

So I am—I think of occupying six feet of real estate in the country, if something doesn’t happen soon. Morton always irritates me. He is one of those prosperous, fortunate creatures, always so completely the thing, that I feel hopelessly my own deficiencies.

January 15th.—Something has happened. I have an idea. It strikes me as strange, yet feasible. When I came in this afternoon I found a letter lying on my table. I opened it; it ran as follows:

New York, January 14, 188-.

“Families who are about to give receptions, dinner parties, or other entertainments will be gratified to know that persons who will assist in making these events pleasant and enjoyable can be obtained through the medium of the Globe Employment Bureau. These persons will not be professionals, but parties of culture and refinement, who will appear well, dress elegantly, and mingle with the guests, while able and willing to play, sing, converse fluently, tell a good story, give a recitation, or anything that will help to make an evening pass pleasantly.

“The Globe Employment Bureau in this plan simply complies with the increasing demands of a large class of its patrons. The attendance of these persons, young or old, can be had for the sum of fifteen dollars per evening each. We will guarantee them to be strictly honorable and reliable persons. Respectfully yours,

The Globe Employment Bureau.

The idea amused me. I moralized on it as a phase of New York society; wondered what sort of people would employ these individuals; wondered what the individuals would feel like themselves; smiled grimly at the inference that I could go to the expense of fifteen dollars to procure the services of one of the persons. While I stood with the letter in my hand, a thought flashed into my mind. It widened and developed, until now it possesses my whole being. I can’t hire a Globe young man, but anything is better than starvation: I will be a Globe young man!

January 18th.—It is all settled, and I am in the service of the New York Globe. After two days of hesitation, I presented myself this morning at the Globe office. I was shown to the Employment Bureau, and there, through a little grating, I was interviewed by a young clerk of supernatural composure. He had a cool discerning eye that seemed to read my very soul, and take in my situation and errand at a glance. I produced the Globe letter as the simplest method of introducing myself.

He looked at me with his discriminating expression. “Let me see,” he murmured. “We have had three thousand applications since the day before yesterday, and our list is complete. But six feet—blonde—good-looking—distinguished, in fact”—he bit the handle of his pen meditatively. His air of reflection changed to one of decision. “Just follow me, please,” he concluded.

I followed him through a dim passage to a little room where there was a piano with some music on it. Standing beside the piano was a small dark man, rubbing his hands and bowing politely as we entered. It reminded me of one of the torture chambers of the Inquisition. What were they going to do to me?

The chief inquisitor, in the shape of the clerk, began the ceremonies by saying: “I suppose you would not have come here without being able to fill the requirements of the Globe circular. Be kind enough to sit down and sing and play that song.”

It proved to be “In the Gloaming.” I was in good voice, and managed to sing it with some expression.

“Bravo!” said the second inquisitor, in the shape of the little dark man.

He then took me in hand. He proved to be an Italian, and asked me questions in Italian and French, in both of which languages I answered as well as I could. I was then obliged to sing pathetic songs, drinking songs, comic songs, opéra bouffe, English ballads, and then—worse than all—requested to recite some dramatic poetry. Here I was at sea. I confessed that I knew none.

“Never mind,” said the clerk, encouragingly; “you have done remarkably well in other respects, and you can easily learn the regulation pieces.”

He handed me a list, beginning with “Curfew shall not ring To-night” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and ending with “Betsy and I are Out” and “The May Queen.” I choked down my rising resentment. What wouldn’t I do for fifteen dollars an evening, short of crime?

“Very well,” I said, obediently.

I was led out of the torture chamber, exhausted, but still living. It is queer. I feel shaky. I had to give them my own name. I found that there was no getting out of this. They said that the whole matter was strictly in confidence. They required references, and I had taken the precaution to bring several letters of recommendation from well-known business men—letters that had been given to me a short while before when I was trying to get a situation in a business house down town. These were satisfactory as to my character.

I have put the halter around my own neck now.

N.B.—Suppose Morton were to find this out!

January 20th.—I have had my first experience in my new character. I had been told to be ready every afternoon by five o’clock for orders. Yesterday, about six in the afternoon, I received a message from the Globe, directing me to go to a house in East Seventy-fourth Street, near Fifth Avenue, at nine o’clock that evening, and submit myself to the orders of Mr. Q. K. Slater. It was a consoling thought that I had never heard of Mr. Q. K. Slater, and that East Seventy-fourth Street was an unknown region to me.

Punctually at nine that evening I found myself in the large parlor of a house in Seventy-fourth Street, brightly lighted, and filled with people. The centre of the room was cleared, and several people were dancing to the strains of a band. Near the door stood a tall imposing gentleman with gray whiskers, and a lady in full evening dress. Doubtless my hosts, or rather my proprietors.

What was I to do? How were they to know who and what I was? As I stood hesitating, I found that their eyes were fixed upon me with a significant glance. I immediately went toward them. To my astonishment the lady greeted me by my name with the utmost suavity.

“Good-evening, Mr. Valentine,” she said. “I am delighted to see you.”

Mr. Slater murmured something that sounded like “How do you do?”

I said that I was delighted to meet—see them. Mrs. Slater turned to another lady standing near her.

“Mrs. Raggles, do let me introduce Mr. Valentine. We were so afraid that he would not be able to come.”

While I talked as well as I could to Mrs. Raggles, I surreptitiously observed my host and hostess. Mr. Slater looked uncomfortable. There was a consciousness in his uneasy manner that if I was a sham, so was he. I feared that he might give us both away before the evening was over. Mrs. Slater, on the contrary, soared above any feeling of this sort. Her party was to be a success; that was evidently her principal object. What a comfort this was to me! I felt safe in her hands. Of course it was as much of an object to her as to me to conceal the fact that I was not a bona fide invited guest. I took my cue at once. Avoid Mr. Slater; arrange matters in such a way that Mrs. Slater could engineer me through the evening. All the time I had a sensation that in avoiding Mr. Slater I was avoiding an old and tried friend. There was something strangely familiar in his face; in the almost courtly wave of his hand as he directed his guests to the refreshment-room; in his protecting manner as he walked about, first with one lady, then with another. I cannot recall distinctly the events of the evening. I have a confused impression of lights, flowers, music, and people, much like any other party, yet with certain differences. The dressing was not in particularly good taste, and the German was managed in a most extraordinary manner. At eleven o’clock the man who was to lead it came forward with a hat containing scraps of paper. I noticed that all the men went up and drew a slip of paper. They examined it, and retired into the crowd. I couldn’t imagine what this ceremony meant, and felt sure that when my turn came I should make some frightful blunder. As I thought this, I found Mrs. Slater beside me. She hurriedly explained to me that this party was one of a series of Germans given at the houses of her friends, and that there had been some feeling on the part of certain young ladies because others had been oftener asked to dance the German and drive home afterward than they had. In order to obviate this a system of lots had been arranged, by which chance alone decided the matter. “Each young gentleman,” concluded Mrs. Slater, “can bring any young lady that he wishes to the party; but he is expected to go home with the lady whom he draws for the German. I hope you understand what is expected of you. You dance, of course?” she added, with a slightly stern manner—the manner of a proprietor. I said that I could.

Accordingly I drew my lot, and found myself the partner of a pretty girl, who proved to be the daughter of Mrs. Raggles.

This is my journal; no one will ever see it; I can be honest. I impressed Miss Raggles. I think I impressed every one that I met. I realized that on the mere making a good impression depended my success in the future. To talk, to dance, to flirt, to eat ice-cream, at the rate of three or four dollars an hour—for the present this was my profession. Why not elevate it, glorify it, by doing these things better than any one else had ever done them? There was an exhilaration in the thought. It positively inspired me. I was in constant demand, and was presented to almost every one. Toward the end of the evening Mrs. Slater asked me to sing. I thought it odd for a large party, but I sang my best. One thing damped my spirits. I had been standing in the doorway, when I suddenly became aware of two waiters who were whispering together at a short distance. In a lull of the music their words reached me.

“Which did yer say he was?” said one in a loud whisper.

“That’s him—him there by the door, the good-lookin’ fellow. Looks as if he didn’t have nothin’ in the world to do but stand there all the evening,” answered the other.

“You don’t say!” ejaculated the first; “and he gets fifteen dollars for doin’ the likes of that? You and me has missed our vocation, Bill.”

I could have knocked down the impertinent fellows, but, after all, what right had I to do it? It was all true. “Noblesse oblige,” I muttered through my clinched teeth; and catching Mrs. Slater’s stern glance, I went to do my duty by taking my partner to supper.

At the close of the evening Mr. Slater came up to me. He was certainly a dignified-looking old fellow, but he seemed unhappy. “Well, Mr. Valentine,” he said, with rather a melancholy smile, “you have done remarkably well. Been quite the life of the evening. Trying thing to entertain a party of this size. This is the first time we have done it. How do you think it went off? Your candid opinion now.”

“Remarkably well,” I said.

I noticed that his manner to me was secret and confidential, as if we had entered into some dark partnership of crime.

“Mrs. Slater,” he continued, “is an ambitious woman, and it was her idea having you. She wanted a different style of young man from those we have been accustomed to, and”—looking at me with a sad pride—“she got it—she got it.”

As I looked at him his face seemed to grow more familiar. At this moment Miss Raggles, who had gone up-stairs to get her cloak, made her appearance. I bade a hurried good-night to Mr. and Mrs. Slater, and accompanied the young lady home. She lived in that part of Fifth Avenue which is on the confines of both New York and Harlem. She treated me as a distinguished stranger, and ended by inviting me to call. Unsuspecting Miss Raggles! Her mother had apparently gone home hours before. In the Slater set they managed things in this way.

I wonder when I am to be paid.

January 22d.—I have discovered where I have seen Mr. Slater before. I stopped at Stewart’s yesterday to buy some gloves (I was paid the morning after the Slater party), and as I walked down the shop one of the individuals popularly known as “walkers” approached me.

“What do you desire, sir?” I heard a pompous voice say. “Where may I direct you?”

“Gloves,” I said, mechanically.

“Third section on the right hand, Fourth Avenue side, sir.”

I looked at my guide, as a familiar tone struck my ear. It was Mr. Slater. At the same instant he recognized me. A moment before we had been independent human beings—at the next our consciousness of the mutual knowledge we possessed of each other destroyed our comfort. Mr. Slater walked away in one direction and I in another. Still, it was a comfort to know where I had seen him before.

January 27th.—I find that a whole week has elapsed since I have written anything in my journal. The truth is, I have been too miserable. This occupation is degrading. Everywhere I go some fresh humiliation awaits me. The very servants look on me with suspicion. At one place the butler followed me around all the evening as if I were a thief. I don’t think any one noticed it, yet I could not rid myself of the feeling that Morton, who happened to be there, looked at me suspiciously once or twice. Suppose he were to discover everything, and tell it at the club! It is too hideous to be thought of.

At another house, where I had been obliged to sing comic songs and make a buffoon of myself for two hours, my host—an enormously rich and illiterate person—presented me with a check for twenty-five dollars as I left the house. I returned it indignantly, but he pressed it into my hand, saying, heartily:

“I ain’t goin’ to take it back, so you may as well keep it. You done first-rate this evening—first-rate! ’Tain’t charity, but because what you done is worth more than fifteen dollars by a long shot; and when I have pleasure, I expect to pay for it, like I do for everything else.”

To avoid a scene, I had to keep the money. I am certainly richer than I was. I have been able, by my honest exertions, to supply myself with the luxuries without which I cannot exist; and when my present income is doubled, I shall be able to pay something on account for my board bill here, and settle some of my other bills. The question that now troubles me is, Are they honest exertions?

Since the evening at Mr. Griddle’s (the rich manufacturer who gave me the check) I have been to several places, at all of which, among others that I knew, I saw Morton. His manner is becoming most unpleasant. He said to me the other night, with that satirical grin of his:

“You’re getting to be quite a society man, Valentine. Never used to see you about so much. It’s always been my way, but it’s something new for you.”

I felt sure he suspected something. Another time he said:

“By the way, I thought you were going out of town to live? As you seem to have changed your mind, I suppose it is all right about the Amsterdam?”

I would not dare to join a club now. I stammered out something about talking it over another time, and left the room. I begin to hate him. He suspects the truth, and knows that I am in his power, and enjoys it.

February 4th.—Added to the mortifications I am exposed to, the feeling that I am a sham grows on me. I impose on every one wherever I go. This thought has robbed me of my peace of mind. However poor I was before, I had nothing to be ashamed of. Now I am a man with a Secret.

February 5th.—I have realized this too late. Last night I was sent for to fill a place at a dinner-table where fourteen had been expected, and at the last minute one had failed. Mr. Courtland, the gentleman at whose house the dinner was given, treated me politely before his guests, yet with him I felt all the odium of my position. I was there as a convenience, and nothing else. My relation to him was purely a business one. The house was on Washington Square, and was old-fashioned but magnificent. The dining-room was hung with tapestry, and we sat around the dinner-table in carved arm-chairs. I made a pretence of talking to the old lady whom I took in to dinner, and whom I had met before, but in reality my attention was absorbed by a beautiful young girl who sat opposite to me. She had dark hair, brilliant coloring, and deep-set brown eyes. She wore an oddly old-fashioned gown of yellow satin, cut square in the neck. I found that she was Mr. Courtland’s niece and heiress, and lived with him. He was a widower without any children. After dinner, when the men went into the drawing-room, I determined to leave. Mr. Courtland’s manner was too much for my self-respect. Miss Courtland stood by the piano, and every one was begging her to sing.

“My music has gone to be bound,” she said, “and I cannot sing without it.”

Her uncle would not accept this refusal, and produced a portfolio of old music. His niece selected a duet for soprano and tenor, and said that she would sing if any one would take the tenor; she stood with the music in her hand, looking dubiously at the circle of men around her. Not one could sing. Mrs. Delancey, my companion at the dinner-table, looked at me.

“Mr. Valentine sings, Helen. I am sure he will be happy to sing with you.”

Miss Courtland turned to me with a smile that was positively bewildering. “Will you sing this duet with me, Mr. Valentine?”

Mr. Courtland flashed a furious glance at me, which said, “Don’t dare to sing with my niece.” Of all my humiliations this stung me the most. Mr. Courtland, however, seemed to regret having shown so much feeling, for his manner changed.

“I hope you will oblige us by singing, Mr. Valentine,” he said, stiffly.

Of course I sang, although I was tempted to refuse, and leave the house instead. How could I refuse Miss Courtland? Her voice was exquisite—sympathetic. It made me feel as though I could confide in her. What if I should! Yes, and be cut the next time we met. I felt painfully the chasm that divided us, gentle and cordial as she was, and left as soon as the song was over. I wonder whether I shall see her again?

February 13th.—I have been out several times this week, and twice have met Miss Courtland. Her uncle never goes out, and Mrs. Delancey chaperons her. She always seems glad to see me, and certainly has the most charming manners. Never mind the fact of my being a whited sepulchre. Let me enjoy the goods the gods have sent me. That confounded Morton! he is always at Miss Courtland’s elbow, and when he succeeds in engaging her to dance before I do, he looks at me with his insolent smile.

February 15th.—Morton’s malice is unspeakable. Feeling convinced as I do that he suspects my secret, it is positive torture to see him talk to Miss Courtland as he did last night. He evidently spoke of me, and she listened to him, looking at me meanwhile with a surprised expression. That man has me in his power.

February 20th.—I feel that it is unprincipled to send Miss Courtland flowers, for two reasons—first, because I cannot do it and pay my bills as well; secondly, because it adds to my deception in making a friend of her, and yet I cannot resist the temptation to show her my admiration.

February 21st.—Matters are coming to a climax. Last night Miss Courtland said, with a dignified sweetness that was irresistible: “Mr. Valentine, I have noticed that you have never been to see me. I have not asked you, because I supposed you would feel at liberty to come after having dined with my uncle.”

“I assure you, Miss Courtland,” I said, “I should of course have done so, but the truth is I have had a slight misunderstanding with your uncle, and I do not feel that I can go to his house.”

Of course I added a lie to the rest of my duplicity. Her face was lighted with a charming smile. “That is no reason for not coming; you owe my uncle a call at all events. I will be at home to-morrow—no, Thursday afternoon. Come in about five o’clock, and I will give you a cup of tea. My uncle is never at home until six o’clock, and when he does come in, never sees visitors. Even if you do meet him, it will be a good opportunity to make your peace with him.”

In a kind of dream I recklessly consented.

Morton came pushing up at that moment.

“By the way, Miss Courtland,” he said, “will you be at home Thursday afternoon? If so, with your permission, I will call upon you.”

Of course he had overheard me, and wished to irritate me. Fortunately some one spoke to Miss Courtland at that moment, and she turned away without having heard Morton. For once my anger flamed out. I caught him by the arm, and held it like a vise.

“Be careful,” I said, between my teeth. “This sort of thing may go too far.”

He gave me a furious look, and shaking me off, left the room.

February 22d. Two a.m.—My brain is reeling. My world is upside down. There is no use in trying to sleep. I will write down what has happened. It may calm me. This evening when I entered the house where I was to entertain others at the expense of my self-respect, I found I was before the time. The rooms were empty, with the exception of my hostess, a very old lady, who held a formidable ear-trumpet in her hand. Preceding me down the brightly lighted room was a gentleman. There was something unpleasantly familiar in the cut of his coat and the carriage of his head. It was my evil genius, Morton. I made up my mind to wait until some one else came, before going in. As I stood in the background this scene was enacted before me:

Morton bowed. The old lady looked blankly at him.

“I am Mr. Morton, madam,” said he.

She continued to stare at him, and then held out her trumpet. Morton took it, and repeated his words into its depths.

“Horton?” she said, interrogatively.

“Morton,” he called.

“Oh yes, Lawton—Mr. Lawton.”

“Morton!” he fairly shouted.

“Oh yes,” she said, intelligence breaking over her face. “Morton—Mr. Morton, from the Globe office. Where’s the other? There were to have been two. Just take care of yourself, please, for a moment. I have to go and see about something.”

She tottered out of the room, and Morton, turning, confronted me. He saw that I had overheard all. Before I could speak he came toward me with an air of desperation.

“For Heaven’s sake don’t betray me, Valentine, now that you know my secret,” he exclaimed. “I have felt from the first that you suspected—that I was in your power. I throw myself on your mercy. In your safe and prosperous condition you don’t know—you can’t know—what a frightful position I am in.”

My face must have changed in some ghastly manner as he spoke, for he stopped and looked at me with deepening consternation.

“What is it? What’s the matter?” he asked.

I saw my mistake, and tried to look unconcerned, but at that moment the old lady came back into the room.

“Oh, there’s the other,” she said, as she saw me. “His name’s Valentine, so that’s all right.”

Several people came into the room, and she went forward to greet them. Morton looked at me in dazed silence for a minute; then he seemed to master his astonishment by a mighty effort.

“So,” he said, huskily, “we are quits. I am in your power, but you are equally in mine. Be careful how you interfere with me.”

We did not speak again together during the evening. What is to be the end of this? To-morrow I go to see Miss Courtland, and I have made up my mind to confess everything. Perhaps she will think no worse of me. The queen still loved Ruy Blas after she found he was a lackey.

What nonsense am I dreaming of?

February 23d.—The game is up. I went this afternoon to Mr. Courtland’s house, and found Miss Courtland at home, alone. She was in a dim little room, with the firelight nickering on her beautiful face. She saw that I was constrained and anxious, and at once asked me the reason. Something in her kind manner broke down my composure.

“Miss Courtland,” I said, “how would you feel if I were to confess that I have been deceiving you—that I am not what I seem to be?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, anxiously.

“Tell me first,” I said, “that whatever I tell you, you will still be my friend, and will believe me when I say that I have not wished to deceive you—that I have bitterly regretted it.”

She looked at me with a frank smile. “You may depend upon me.”

In a few words I told her everything from the time of my going to the Globe office up to that moment. She listened gravely; then she turned to me again with a smile.

“You have told me nothing dishonorable (although you can surely find something better to do), and I will still be your friend. I am glad you told me, for Mr. Morton said some things about you last night that made me fear—”

This was too hard, and I interrupted her.

“Morton!” I said. “Morton is the last person to dare to say anything against me.”

Here I checked myself, but Miss Courtland’s curiosity was aroused.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “I will not talk of Morton; it is enough that you are still my friend.”

“Certainly I am,” she said.

She held out her hand as she spoke, and I took it and raised it to my lips. At the same moment two people entered the room by different doors. One was Mr. Courtland; the other, Morton. Mr. Courtland seemed stupefied with astonishment, for he stood motionless, but Morton strode toward me.

“How dare you!” he gasped. “I will expose you.”

His audacity was too much for my self-control.

“Morton,” I said, in a low tone, “as your position is the same as mine, I warn you to be careful of what you say.”

I spoke louder than I intended, and Miss Courtland heard my words. She gave Morton a keen look.

“Ah! now I understand!” she exclaimed, as if involuntarily.

As she said this Morton became very white, and muttering something about a broken engagement, with a hasty good-by to Mr. Courtland, left the room. He had gone a step too far at last. Mr. Courtland had by this time recovered from his astonishment.

“What do you mean by this astounding impertinence!” he exclaimed, coming toward me. He turned to his niece: “Helen, do you know on what terms this man first came here? I hired him—hired him from the Globe Employment Bureau to fill an empty place at my dinner-table. I did not warn you against him, for I thought you would not meet him again. I trusted also to his sense of decency, but I was mistaken. Your honesty was guaranteed, sir. You have not taken my silver, but you have done worse. This shall be reported to the Globe Employment Bureau immediately. First, leave this house. I shall go at once to the Globe office.”

He paused for an instant.

“My dear uncle,” said Miss Courtland, quietly, “Mr. Valentine has just told me all this himself. He only came here because I asked him to come.”

Mr. Courtland would not listen to any explanations, but only repeated his assertion that he would report me at the Globe office. There was nothing for me to do but to go.

I gave Miss Courtland one look of gratitude, then I left the house. I have but two consolations: one, that Miss Courtland still trusts me; the other, that Morton is as badly off as I am—rather worse.

My dismissal from the Globe has just come. It is a relief to be free from this bondage, but I am as much in debt as usual, and what am I to do in the future?

February 24th.—A light is beginning to break on my dark horizon. I have just received a note from Miss Courtland telling me that her uncle has been pacified by her explanations; that as I am no longer in the employ of the Globe, I am at liberty to come to his house; and that she is sure I will find something better to do in the future.

I can’t help thinking of Ruy Blas and the queen again. I feel like Ruy Blas come back to life, and my queen is not married.