Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
The clear, placid weather had been waiting several days for Sunday to come and possess it, and now Sunday was here. The young people stood bareheaded on the porch and looked down toward the village.
"Do I hear the church bells?" asked Abner. He was a punctilious observer of Sabbath ordinances and always reached a state of subdued inner bustle shortly after the finish of the Sunday breakfast.
"We sometimes make them out," replied Stephen Giles, "when the wind happens to blow right."
"We are all going down this morning, I suppose?" observed Abner, confidently taking the initiative.
"I expect so," replied Giles.
"Count me out," said Clytie.
"You do not go to church?" asked Abner.
"You have no religion?"
"Yes, I have," replied Clytie, with much pomp: "the religion of humanity."
"You run and get your things on," said Medora. "You'll find as much humanity at the First Church as you will anywhere else."
The party set out in two vehicles. Old Mr. Giles drove one and the "hired man" the other. Clytie, despite her best endeavours to go in company with Bond, found herself associated with Abner, and a spirit of unchristian perversity took complete possession of her.
She cast her eye about, viewing the prosperous country-side, the well-kept farms, the modest comfort symbolized in her host's equipage itself.
"You're a great sufferer, Mr. Giles," she said suddenly; "aren't you?"
The old gentleman let the lines fall slackly on the fat backs of his sleek horses. "How? What's that?"
"I say you're a great sufferer. You're a downtrodden slave."
"Why, am I? How do you make that out?"
"Well, if you don't know without having it explained to you! The world is against you--it's making a doormat of you."
Medora looked askant. What was the child up to now?
"Poor father," she said. "If he hasn't found it out yet, don't tell him."
"No wonder he hasn't found it out," returned Clytie, making a sudden veer. "Is he suffering for lack of fresh air and pure water? And does he have to pay an extra price for sunlight? And must he herd in a filthy slum full of awful plumbing and crowded by more awful neighbours? Does he have to put up with municipal neglect and corruption, and worry along on make-believe milk and doctored bread and adulterated medicines, and endure long hours in unsanitary places under a tyrannical foreman and in constant dread of fines----?"
Abner was beginning to shift uneasily upon his seat. "Clytie, please!" said Medora, laying her hand upon the other's.
"Well, they're realities!" declared Clytie stoutly.
"They're not my realities," growled Abner, without turning round.
"Can we pick and choose our realities?" asked Clytie sharply. "Well, if you are at liberty to pick yours, I am at liberty to pick mine. Yes, sir, I'll go to that settlement right after New-Year's, and I'll have a class in basket-making and hammock-weaving before I'm a month older."
"It will take more than basket-making to set the world right," said Abner.
"Basket-making is enough to teach boys the use of their hands and to keep them off the street at night," sputtered Clytie.
"Clytie, please!" said Medora once more.
Clytie fell into silence and nursed her wrath through a long service and through a hearty rustic sermon from the text, "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men." Abner, in exacerbated mood, watched her narrowly throughout, that he might tax her, if possible, with a humorous attitude toward the preacher or a quizzical treatment of his flock. He had not yet pardoned her "ways" along Main Street, on the occasion of one or two shopping excursions. She had not hesitated to banter the admiring young clerks that held their places behind those shop-fronts of galvanized iron in simulation of red brick and of cut limestone, and she had been startlingly free in her accosting of several time-honoured worthies encountered on the dislocated plank walks outside. "Now," said Abner, "if she sniggers at that old deacon's whiskers or says a single facetious word about the best bonnets of any of these worthy women round about us----" But Clytie, outwardly, was propriety itself. Inwardly she was revolving burning plans to show Abner Joyce that none of his despising, disparaging, discouraging words could have the least power to move her from her purpose; and on the way back to the farm she declared herself--to Bond, in whose company, this time, she had contrived to be;--they sat on the back seat together.
"That's what I'll do," she stated, with great positiveness. "I'll go right over there as soon as I get back to town. I don't care if the streets are dirty, and the street-cars dirtier; and if I have to look after my own room, why, I will. I'll take along my biggest trunk and my full-length mirror and the very pick of my new clothes----You know they like to have us dress; it interests them,--they take it as a great compliment----"
"And all for Abner Joyce!" said Bond. "Another pillar of the temple tottering, eh? and trying to brace itself against the modern Samson."
"Not one bit! Not one speck!" cried Clytie. "Only----"
"Well, there are others," said Bond. "I'm prostrate already, as you know. And Whyland, only a few mornings back, got a good jar that will help finish him, I'm thinking."
"Did he? And there's Aunt Eudoxia too. If you could have seen how discouraged she was after she came home from that first meeting with him, when he took the wind out of her training-school----"
"But he isn't going to jar you? He isn't going to cause you to totter?"
"Not a jar! Not a tot! You'll see whether----"
"Your object, then, is to show how much stronger you are than I am?"
Clytie suddenly paused in her impetuous rush. "Adrian," she breathed, with plaintive contrition, "I wish you wouldn't say such things--no, nor even think them."
Her fierce alertness fled. She leaned a little toward him, droopingly, a poor, feeble, timid child in need of some strong man to shield her from the rough world.
The other carriage reached home first. Medora alighted gaily on the horse-block. Abner helped her down with an earnest endeavour not to seem too attentive.
"Come," she said; "let's see how those pies have turned out--Cordelia is so absent-minded."
And Abner followed gladly.