And Mrs. Vertrees, with many misgivings, set forth with her daughter for their gracious assault upon the New House next door.
Mr. Vertrees, having watched their departure with the air of a man who had something at hazard upon the expedition, turned from the window and began to pace the library thoughtfully, pending their return. He was about sixty; a small man, withered and dry and fine, a trim little sketch of an elderly dandy. His lambrequin mustache —relic of a forgotten Anglomania—had been profoundly black, but now, like his smooth hair, it was approaching an equally sheer whiteness; and though his clothes were old, they had shapeliness and a flavor of mode. And for greater spruceness there were some jaunty touches; gray spats, a narrow black ribbon across the gray waistcoat to the eye-glasses in a pocket, a fleck of color from a button in the lapel of the black coat, labeling him the descendant of patriot warriors.
The room was not like him, being cheerful and hideous, whereas Mr. Vertrees was anxious and decorative. Under a mantel of imitation black marble a merry little coal-fire beamed forth upon high and narrow “Eastlake” bookcases with long glass doors, and upon comfortable, incongruous furniture, and upon meaningless “woodwork” everywhere, and upon half a dozen Landseer engravings which Mr. and Mrs. Vertrees sometimes mentioned to each other, after thirty years of possession, as “very fine things.” They had been the first people in town to possess Landseer engravings, and there, in art, they had rested, but they still had a feeling that in all such matters they were in the van; and when Mr. Vertrees discovered Landseers upon the walls of other people’s houses he thawed, as a chieftain to a trusted follower; and if he found an edition of Bulwer Lytton accompanying the Landseers as a final corroboration of culture, he would say, inevitably, “Those people know good pictures and they know good books.”
The growth of the city, which might easily have made him a millionaire, had ruined him because he had failed to understand it. When towns begin to grow they have whims, and the whims of a town always ruin somebody. Mr. Vertrees had been most strikingly the somebody in this case. At about the time he bought the Landseers, he owned, through inheritance, an office-building and a large house not far from it, where he spent the winter; and he had a country place—a farm of four hundred acres—where he went for the summers to the comfortable, ugly old house that was his home now, perforce, all the year round. If he had known how to sit still and let things happen he would have prospered miraculously; but, strangely enough, the dainty little man was one of the first to fall down and worship Bigness, the which proceeded straightway to enact the role of Juggernaut for his better education. He was a true prophet of the prodigious growth, but he had a fatal gift for selling