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Chapter 2
He went wherever he was asked, on principle, partly to study American society
and partly because in Washington pastimes seemed to him not so numerous that
one could afford to neglect occasions. At the end of two winters he had naturally
had a good many of various kinds--his study of American society had yielded
considerable fruit. When, however, in April, during the second year of his
residence, he presented himself at a large party given by Mrs. Bonnycastle and
of which it was believed that it would be the last serious affair of the season, his
being there (and still more his looking very fresh and talkative) was not the
consequence of a rule of conduct. He went to Mrs. Bonnycastle's simply because
he liked the lady, whose receptions were the pleasantest in Washington, and
because if he didn't go there he didn't know what he should do; that absence of
alternatives having become familiar to him by the waters of the Potomac. There
were a great many things he did because if he didn't do them he didn't know
what he should do. It must be added that in this case even if there had been an
alternative he would still have decided to go to Mrs. Bonnycastle's. If her house
wasn't the pleasantest there it was at least difficult to say which was pleasanter;
and the complaint sometimes made of it that it was too limited, that it left out, on
the whole, more people than it took in, applied with much less force when it was
thrown open for a general party. Toward the end of the social year, in those soft
scented days of the Washington spring when the air began to show a southern
glow and the Squares and Circles (to which the wide empty avenues converged
according to a plan so ingenious, yet so bewildering) to flush with pink blossom
and to make one wish to sit on benches--under this magic of expansion and
condonation Mrs. Bonnycastle, who during the winter had been a good deal on
the defensive, relaxed her vigilance a little, became whimsically wilful, vernally
reckless, as it were, and ceased to calculate the consequences of an hospitality
which a reference to the back files or even to the morning's issue of the
newspapers might easily prove a mistake. But Washington life, to Count Otto's
apprehension, was paved with mistakes; he felt himself in a society founded on
fundamental fallacies and triumphant blunders. Little addicted as he was to the
sportive view of existence, he had said to himself at an early stage of his sojourn
that the only way to enjoy the great Republic would be to burn one's standards
and warm one's self at the blaze. Such were the reflexions of a theoretic Teuton
who now walked for the most part amid the ashes of his prejudices.
Mrs. Bonnycastle had endeavoured more than once to explain to him the
principles on which she received certain people and ignored certain others; but it
was with difficulty that he entered into her discriminations. American promiscuity,