Mrs. Ussher was having a small house party in the country over New Year’s Day. This is equivalent to saying that the half dozen most fashionable people in New York were out of town.
Certain human beings are admitted to have a genius for discrimination in such matters as objects of art, pigs or stocks. Mrs. Ussher had this same instinct in regard to fashion, especially where fashions in people were concerned. She turned toward hidden social availability very much as the douser’s hazel wand turns toward the hidden spring. When she crossed the room to speak to some woman after dinner, whatever that woman’s social position might formerly have been, you could be sure that at present she was on the upward wing. When Mrs. Ussher discovered extraordinary qualities of mind and sympathy in some hitherto impossible man, you might be certain it was time to begin to book him in advance.
Not that Mrs. Ussher was a kingmaker; she herself had no more power over the situation than the barometer has over the weather. She merely was able to foretell; she had the sense of approaching social success.
She was unaware of her own powers, and really supposed that her sudden and usually ephemeral friendships were based on mutual attraction. The fact that for years her friends had been the small group of the momentarily fashionable required, in her eyes, no explanation. So simple was her creed that she believed people were fashionable for the same reason that they were her friends, because “they were so nice.”
During the short period of their existence, Mrs. Ussher gave to these friendships the utmost loyalty and devotion. She agonized over the financial, domestic and romantic troubles of her friends; she sat up till the small hours, talking to them like a schoolgirl; during the height of their careers she organized plots for their assistance; and even when their stars were plainly on the decline, she would often ask them to lunch, if she happened to be alone.
Many people, we know, are prone to make friends with the rich and great. Mrs. Ussher’s genius consisted in having made friends with them before they were either. When you hurried to her with some account of a newly discovered treasure—a beauty or a conversable young man—she would always say: “Oh, yes, I crossed with her two years ago,” or “Isn’t he a dear?—he was once in Jack’s office.” The strange thing was these statements were always true; the subjects of them confessed with tears that “dear Mrs. Ussher” or “darling Laura” was the kindest friend they had ever had.
Her house party was therefore likely to be notable.
First, there was of course Mrs. Almar—of course without her husband. There is only one thing, or perhaps two, to be said for Nancy Almar—that she was very handsome and that she was not a hypocrite, no more than a pirate is a hypocrite who comes aboard with his cutlass in his teeth. Mrs. Almar’s cutlass was always in her teeth, when it was not in somebody’s vitals.