No man knew when the Shuttle began its slow and heavy weaving from shore to shore, that it was held and guided by the great hand of Fate. Fate alone saw the meaning of the web it wove, the might of it, and its place in the making of a world’s history. Men thought but little of either web or weaving, calling them by other names and lighter ones, for the time unconscious of the strength of the thread thrown across thousands of miles of leaping, heaving, grey or blue ocean.
Fate and Life planned the weaving, and it seemed mere circumstance which guided the Shuttle to and fro between two worlds divided by a gulf broader and deeper than the thousands of miles of salt, fierce sea — the gulf of a bitter quarrel deepened by hatred and the shedding of brothers’ blood. Between the two worlds of East and West there was no will to draw nearer. Each held apart. Those who had rebelled against that which their souls called tyranny, having struggled madly and shed blood in tearing themselves free, turned stern backs upon their unconquered enemies, broke all cords that bound them to the past, flinging off ties of name, kinship and rank, beginning with fierce disdain a new life.
Those who, being rebelled against, found the rebels too passionate in their determination and too desperate in their defence of their strongholds to be less than unconquerable, sailed back haughtily to the world which seemed so far the greater power. Plunging into new battles, they added new conquests and splendour to their land, looking back with something of contempt to the half-savage West left to build its own civilisation without other aid than the strength of its own strong right hand and strong uncultured brain.
But while the two worlds held apart, the Shuttle, weaving slowly in the great hand of Fate, drew them closer and held them firm, each of them all unknowing for many a year, that what had at first been mere threads of gossamer, was forming a web whose strength in time none could compute, whose severance could be accomplished but by tragedy and convulsion.
The weaving was but in its early and slow-moving years when this story opens. Steamers crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, but they accomplished the journey at leisure and with heavy rollings and all such discomforts as small craft can afford. Their staterooms and decks were not crowded with people to whom the voyage was a mere incident — in many cases a yearly one. “A crossing” in those days was an event. It was planned seriously, long thought of, discussed and re-discussed, with and among the various members of the family to which the voyager belonged. A certain boldness, bordering on recklessness, was almost to be presupposed in the individual who, turning his back upon New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and like cities, turned his face towards “Europe.” In those days when the Shuttle wove at leisure, a man did not lightly run over to London, or Paris, or Berlin, he gravely went to “Europe.”
The journey being likely to be made once in a lifetime, the traveller’s intention was to see as much as possible, to visit as many cities cathedrals, ruins, galleries, as his time and purse would allow. People who could speak with any degree of familiarity of Hyde Park, the Champs Elysees, the Pincio, had gained a certain dignity. The ability to touch with an intimate bearing upon such localities was a raison de plus for being asked out to tea or to dinner. To possess photographs and relics was to be of interest, to have seen European celebrities even at a distance, to have wandered about the outside of poets’ gardens and philosophers’ houses, was to be entitled to respect. The period was a far cry from the time when the Shuttle, having shot to and fro, faster and faster, week by week, month by month, weaving new threads into its web each year, has woven warp and woof until they bind far shore to shore.
It was in comparatively early days that the first thread we follow was woven into the web. Many such have been woven since and have added greater strength than any others, twining the cord of sex and home-building and race-founding. But this was a slight and weak one, being only the thread of the life of one of Reuben Vanderpoel’s daughters — the pretty little simple one whose name was Rosalie.
They were — the Vanderpoels — of the Americans whose fortunes were a portion of the history of their country. The building of these fortunes had been a part of, or had created epochs and crises. Their millions could scarcely be regarded as private property. Newspapers bandied them about, so to speak, employing them as factors in argument, using them as figures of speech, incorporating them into methods of calculation. Literature touched upon them, moral systems considered them, stories for the young treated them gravely as illustrative.
The first Reuben Vanderpoel, who in early days of danger had traded with savages for the pelts of wild animals, was the lauded hero of stories of thrift and enterprise. Throughout his hard-working life he had been irresistibly impelled to action by an absolute genius of commerce, expressing itself at the outset by the exhibition of courage in mere exchange and barter. An alert power to perceive the potential value of things and the possible malleability of men and circumstances, had stood him in marvellous good stead. He had bought at low prices things which in the eyes of the less discerning were worthless, but, having obtained possession of such things, the less discerning had almost invariably awakened to the fact that, in his hands, values increased, and methods of remunerative disposition, being sought, were found. Nothing remained unutilisable. The practical, sordid, uneducated little man developed the power to create demand for his own supplies. If he was betrayed into an error, he quickly retrieved it. He could live upon nothing and consequently could travel anywhere in search of such things as he desired. He could barely read and write, and could not spell, but he was daring and astute. His untaught brain was that of a financier, his blood burned with the fever of but one desire — the desire to accumulate. Money expressed to his nature, not expenditure, but investment in such small or large properties as could be resold at profit in the near or far future. The future held fascinations for him. He bought nothing for his own pleasure or comfort, nothing which could not be sold or bartered again. He married a woman who was a trader’s daughter and shared his passion for gain. She was of North of England blood, her father having been a hard-fisted small tradesman in an unimportant town, who had been daring enough to emigrate when emigration meant the facing of unknown dangers in a half-savage land. She had excited Reuben Vanderpoel’s admiration by taking off her petticoat one bitter winter’s day to sell it to a squaw in exchange for an ornament for which she chanced to know another squaw would pay with a skin of value. The first Mrs. Vanderpoel was as wonderful as her husband. They were both wonderful. They were the founders of the fortune which a century and a half later was the delight — in fact the piece de resistance — of New York society reporters, its enormity being restated in round figures when a blank space must be filled up. The method of statement lent itself to infinite variety and was always interesting to a particular class, some elements of which felt it encouraging to be assured that so much money could be a personal possession, some elements feeling the fact an additional argument to be used against the infamy of monopoly.
The first Reuben Vanderpoel transmitted to his son his accumulations and his fever for gain. He had but one child. The second Reuben built upon the foundations this afforded him, a fortune as much larger than the first as the rapid growth and increasing capabilities of the country gave him enlarging opportunities to acquire. It was no longer necessary to deal with savages: his powers were called upon to cope with those of white men who came to a new country to struggle for livelihood and fortune. Some were shrewd, some were desperate, some were dishonest. But shrewdness never outwitted, desperation never overcame, dishonesty never deceived the second Reuben Vanderpoel. Each characteristic ended by adapting itself to his own purposes and qualities, and as a result of each it was he who in any business transaction was the gainer. It was the common saying that the Vanderpoels were possessed of a money-making spell. Their spell lay in their entire mental and physical absorption in one idea. Their peculiarity was not so much that they wished to be rich as that Nature itself impelled them to collect wealth as the load-stone draws towards it iron. Having possessed nothing, they became rich, having become rich they became richer, having founded their fortunes on small schemes, they increased them by enormous ones. In time they attained that omnipotence of wealth which it would seem no circumstance can control or limit. The first Reuben Vanderpoel could not spell, the second could, the third was as well educated as a man could be whose sole profession is money-making. His children were taught all that expensive teachers and expensive opportunities could teach them. After the second generation the meagre and mercantile physical type of the Vanderpoels improved upon itself. Feminine good looks appeared and were made the most of. The Vanderpoel element invested even good looks to an advantage. The fourth Reuben Vanderpoel had no son and two daughters. They were brought up in a brown-stone mansion built upon a fashionable New York thoroughfare roaring with traffic. To the farthest point of the Rocky Mountains the number of dollars this “mansion” (it was always called so) had cost, was known. There may have existed Pueblo Indians who had heard rumours of the price of it. All the shop-keepers and farmers in the United States had read newspaper descriptions of its furnishings and knew the value of the brocade which hung in the bedrooms and boudoirs of the Misses Vanderpoel. It was a fact much cherished that Miss Rosalie’s bath was of Carrara marble, and to good souls actively engaged in doing their own washing in small New England or Western towns, it was a distinct luxury to be aware that the water in the Carrara marble bath was perfumed with Florentine Iris. Circumstances such as these seemed to become personal possessions and even to lighten somewhat the burden of toil.
Rosalie Vanderpoel married an Englishman of title, and part of the story of her married life forms my prologue. Hers was of the early international marriages, and the republican mind had not yet adjusted itself to all that such alliances might imply. It was yet ingenuous, imaginative and confiding in such matters. A baronetcy and a manor house reigning over an old English village and over villagers in possible smock frocks, presented elements of picturesque dignity to people whose intimacy with such allurements had been limited by the novels of Mrs. Oliphant and other writers. The most ordinary little anecdotes in which vicarages, gamekeepers, and dowagers figured, were exciting in these early days. “Sir Nigel Anstruthers,” when engraved upon a visiting card, wore an air of distinction almost startling. Sir Nigel himself was not as picturesque as his name, though he was not entirely without attraction, when for reasons of his own he chose to aim at agreeableness of bearing. He was a man with a good figure and a good voice, and but for a heaviness of feature the result of objectionable living, might have given the impression of being better looking than he really was. New York laid amused and at the same time, charmed stress upon the fact that he spoke with an “English accent.” His enunciation was in fact clear cut and treated its vowels well. He was a man who observed with an air of accustomed punctiliousness such social rules and courtesies as he deemed it expedient to consider. An astute worldling had remarked that he was at once more ceremonious and more casual in his manner than men bred in America.
“If you invite him to dinner,” the wording said, “or if you die, or marry, or meet with an accident, his notes of condolence or congratulation are prompt and civil, but the actual truth is that he cares nothing whatever about you or your relations, and if you don’t please him he does not hesitate to sulk or be astonishingly rude, which last an American does not allow himself to be, as a rule.”
By many people Sir Nigel was not analysed, but accepted. He was of the early English who came to New York, and was a novelty of interest, with his background of Manor House and village and old family name. He was very much talked of at vivacious ladies’ luncheon parties, he was very much talked to at equally vivacious afternoon teas. At dinner parties he was furtively watched a good deal, but after dinner when he sat with the men over their wine, he was not popular. He was not perhaps exactly disliked, but men whose chief interest at that period lay in stocks and railroads, did not find conversation easy with a man whose sole occupation had been the shooting of birds and the hunting of foxes, when he was not absolutely loitering about London, with his time on his hands. The stories he told — and they were few — were chiefly anecdotes whose points gained their humour by the fact that a man was a comically bad shot or bad rider and either peppered a gamekeeper or was thrown into a ditch when his horse went over a hedge, and such relations did not increase in the poignancy of their interest by being filtered through brains accustomed to applying their powers to problems of speculation and commerce. He was not so dull but that he perceived this at an early stage of his visit to New York, which was probably the reason of the infrequency of his stories.
He on his side was naturally not quick to rise to the humour of a “big deal” or a big blunder made on Wall Street — or to the wit of jokes concerning them. Upon the whole he would have been glad to have understood such matters more clearly. His circumstances were such as had at last forced him to contemplate the world of money-makers with something of an annoyed respect. “These fellows” who had neither titles nor estates to keep up could make money. He, as he acknowledged disgustedly to himself, was much worse than a beggar. There was Stornham Court in a state of ruin — the estate going to the dogs, the farmhouses tumbling to pieces and he, so to speak, without a sixpence to bless himself with, and head over heels in debt. Englishmen of the rank which in bygone times had not associated itself with trade had begun at least to trifle with it — to consider its potentialities as factors possibly to be made useful by the aristocracy. Countesses had not yet spiritedly opened milliners’ shops, nor belted Earls adorned the stage, but certain noblemen had dallied with beer and coquetted with stocks. One of the first commercial developments had been the discovery of America — particularly of New York — as a place where if one could make up one’s mind to the plunge, one might marry one’s sons profitably. At the outset it presented a field so promising as to lead to rashness and indiscretion on the part of persons not given to analysis of character and in consequence relying too serenely upon an ingenuousness which rather speedily revealed that it had its limits. Ingenuousness combining itself with remarkable alertness of perception on occasion, is rather American than English, and is, therefore, to the English mind, misleading.
At first younger sons, who “gave trouble” to their families, were sent out. Their names, their backgrounds of castles or manors, relatives of distinction, London seasons, fox hunting, Buckingham Palace and Goodwood Races, formed a picturesque allurement. That the castles and manors would belong to their elder brothers, that the relatives of distinction did not encourage intimacy with swarms of the younger branches of their families; that London seasons, hunting, and racing were for their elders and betters, were facts not realised in all their importance by the republican mind. In the course of time they were realised to the full, but in Rosalie Vanderpoel’s nineteenth year they covered what was at that time almost unknown territory. One may rest assured Sir Nigel Anstruthers said nothing whatsoever in New York of an interview he had had before sailing with an intensely disagreeable great-aunt, who was the wife of a Bishop. She was a horrible old woman with a broad face, blunt features and a raucous voice, whose tones added acridity to her observations when she was indulging in her favourite pastime of interfering with the business of her acquaintances and relations.