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Chapter 26: The Climber

THAT form of misplaced ambition, which is the subject of the preceding chapter, can only be regarded seriously when it occurs among simple and sincere people, who, however derided, honestly believe that they are doing their duty to themselves and their families when they move heaven and earth to rise a few steps in the world. The moment we find ambition taking a purely social form, it becomes ridiculous. The aim is so paltry in comparison with the effort, and so out of proportion with the energy-exerted to attain it, that one can only laugh and wonder! Unfortunately, signs of this puerile spirit (peculiar to the last quarter of the nineteenth century) can be seen on all hands and in almost every society.

That any man or woman should make it the unique aim and object of existence to get into a certain "set," not from any hope of profit or benefit, nor from the belief that it is composed of brilliant and amusing people, but simply because it passes for being exclusive and difficult of access, does at first seem incredible.

That humble young painters or singers should long to know personally the great lights of their professions, and should strive to be accepted among them is easily understood, since the aspirants can reap but benefit, present and future, from such companionship. That a rising politician should deem it all-important to be on friendly terms with the "bosses" is not astonishing, for those magnates have it in their power to make or mar his fortune. But in a MILIEU as fluctuating as any social circle must necessarily be, shading off on all sides and changing as constantly as light on water, the end can never be considered as achieved or the goal attained.

Neither does any particular result accompany success, more substantial than the moral one which lies in self-congratulation. That, however, is enough for a climber if she is bitten with the "ascending" madness. (I say "she," because this form of ambition is more frequent among women, although by no means unknown to the sterner sex.)

It amuses me vastly to sit in my corner and watch one of these FIN- DE-SIECLE diplomatists work out her little problem. She generally comes plunging into our city from outside, hot for conquest, making acquaintances right and left, indiscriminately; thus falling an easy prey to the wolves that prowl around the edges of society, waiting for just such lambs to devour. Her first entertainments are worth attending for she has ingeniously contrived to get together all the people she should have left out, and failed to attract the social lights and powers of the moment. If she be a quick-witted lady, she soon sees the error of her ways and begins a process of "weeding" - as difficult as it is unwise, each rejected "weed" instantly becoming an enemy for life, not to speak of the risk she, in her ignorance, runs of mistaking for "detrimentals" the FINES FLEURS of the worldly parterre. Ah! the way of the Climber is hard; she now begins to see that her path is not strewn with flowers.

One tactful person of this kind, whose gradual "unfolding" was watched with much amusement and wonder by her acquaintances, avoided all these errors by going in early for a "dear friend." Having, after mature reflection, chosen her guide among the most exclusive of the young matrons, she proceeded quietly to pay her court EN REGLE. Flattering little notes, boxes of candy, and bunches of flowers were among the forms her devotion took. As a natural result, these two ladies became inseparable, and the most hermetically sealed doors opened before the new arrival.

A talent for music or acting is another aid. A few years ago an entire family were floated into the desired haven on the waves of the sister's voice, and one young couple achieved success by the husband's aptitude for games and sports. In the latter case it was the man of the family who did the work, dragging his wife up after him. A polo pony is hardly one's idea of a battle-horse, but in this case it bore its rider on to success.

Once climbers have succeeded in installing themselves in the stronghold of their ambitions, they become more exclusive than their new friends ever dreamed of being, and it tries one's self- restraint to hear these new arrivals deploring "the levelling tendencies of the age," or wondering "how nice people can be beginning to call on those horrid So-and-Sos. Their father sold shoes, you know." This ultra-exclusiveness is not to be wondered at. The only attraction the circle they have just entered has for the climbers is its exclusiveness, and they do not intend that it shall lose its market value in their hands. Like Baudelaire, they believe that "it is only the small number saved that makes the charm of Paradise." Having spent hard cash in this investment, they have every intention of getting their money's worth.

In order to give outsiders a vivid impression of the footing on which they stand with the great of the world, all the women they have just met become Nellys and Jennys, and all the men Dicks and Freds - behind their backs, BIEN ENTENDU - for Mrs. "Newcome" has not yet reached that point of intimacy which warrants using such abbreviations directly to the owners.

Another amiable weakness common to the climber is that of knowing everybody. No name can be mentioned at home or abroad but Parvenu happens to be on the most intimate terms with the owner, and when he is conversing, great names drop out of his mouth as plentifully as did the pearls from the pretty lips of the girl in the fairy story. All the world knows how such a gentleman, being asked on his return from the East if he had seen "the Dardanelles," answered, "Oh, dear, yes! I dined with them several times!" thus settling satisfactorily his standing in the Orient!

Climbing, like every other habit, soon takes possession of the whole nature. To abstain from it is torture. Napoleon, we are told, found it impossible to rest contented on his successes, but was impelled onward by a force stronger than his volition. In some such spirit the ambitious souls here referred to, after "the Conquest of America" and the discovery that the fruit of their struggles was not worth very much, victory having brought the inevitable satiety in its wake, sail away in search of new fields of adventure. They have long ago left behind the friends and acquaintances of their childhood. Relations they apparently have none, which accounts for the curious phenomenon that a parvenu is never in mourning. As no friendships bind them to their new circle, the ties are easily loosened. Why should they care for one city more than for another, unless it offer more of the sport they love? This continent has become tame, since there is no longer any struggle, while over the sea vast hunting grounds and game worthy of their powder, form an irresistible temptation - old and exclusive societies to be besieged, and contests to be waged compared to which their American experiences are but light skirmishes. As the polo pony is supposed to pant for the fray, so the hearts of social conquerors warm within them at the prospect of more brilliant victories.

The pleasure of following them on their hunting parties abroad will have to be deferred, so vast is the subject, so full of thrilling adventure and, alas! also of humiliating defeat.

Eliot Gregory