Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
Christmas-Day came with a slight flurry of snow. There was also a slight flurry in society: the Whylands drove over to the farmhouse for dinner.
Medora had suggested their presence to her mother, and Clytie had supported the suggestion: "the more the merrier," she declared. Whyland himself had jumped at the opportunity eagerly, and his wife, who had met Medora a number of times at the studio and in Paris and liked her, acquiesced after the due interposition of a few objections.
"About the children----" she began.
"They can take dinner with Murdock and his wife for once in their lives."
"I don't know whether I can be said to have called regularly on Mrs. Giles----"
"Is Christmas-day a time for such sophistications? And do you think that plain, simple people, like the Gileses----"
Mrs. Whyland allowed herself to be persuaded--as she had designed from the start.
She had no great fancy for a solitary Christmas dinner, such as her husband's rural tastes had so often condemned her to; besides, this new arrangement would give her an opportunity to take a look at Miss Clytie Summers, of whom she had heard things.
Medora received Edith Whyland with some empressement; she regarded her guest as the model of all that the young urban matron should be. Mrs. Whyland was rather languid, rather elegant, rather punctilious, rather evangelical, and Abner Joyce, before he realized what was happening to him, was launched upon a conversation with a woman who, as Clytie Summers intimated at the first opportunity, was really high in good society.
"One of the swells, I suppose you mean," said Abner.
"I mean nothing of the kind. Swell society is one thing and good society is another. If you don't quite manage to get good society, you do the next best thing and take swell society. I'm swell," said Clyde humbly." But I'm going to be something better, pretty soon," she added hopefully.
Abner had his little talk with Edith Whyland, all unteased by consideration of the imperceptible nuances and infinitesimal gradations that characterize the social fabric. He thought her rather quiet and inexpressive; but he felt her to be a good woman, and was inclined to like her. She dwelt at some length on Dr. McElroy's Christmas sermon, and it presently transpired that, whether in town or country, she made it a point to attend services. Abner, who for some dim reason of his own had expected little from the wife of Leverett Whyland, put down as mere calumnies the reports that made her "fashionable." Through the dinner he talked to her confidently, almost confidentially; with half the bulk of Eudoxia Pence she made twice the impression; and by the time the feast had reached the raisins and hickory-nuts his tongue, working independently of his will, was promising to call upon her in town.
This outcome was highly gratifying to Medora--it was just the one, in fact, that she had hoped to bring about. City and country, oil and water were mixing, and she herself was acting as the third element that made the emulsion possible. From her place down the other side of the table she kept her eyes and ears open for all that was going on. She saw with joy that Abner was almost chatting. He had given over for the present the ponderous consideration of knotty abstractions; he totally forgot the unearned increment; and what he was offering to quiet and self-repressed Edith Whyland was being accepted--thanks to the training and temperament of his hearer--for "small talk." Yes, Abner had broken a large bill and was dealing out the change. He knew it; he was a little ashamed of it; yet at the same time he looked about with a kind of shy triumph to see whether any one were commenting upon his address.
To tell the truth, Abner felt his success to such a degree that presently he began to presume upon it. He had heard about the children, left behind for a lonely dinner with the farm superintendent, and he began to scent cruelty and injustice in their progenitors. The wrongs of the child--they too had their share in keeping our generous Abner in his perennial state of indignation. He became didactic, judicial, hortatory; Edith Whyland almost questioned her right to be a mother. But she understood the spirit that prompted this intense young man's admonitions and exhortations; his feelings did him credit. She made a brief and quiet defence of herself, and thought no worse of Abner for his championship, however mistaken, of distressed childhood. He understood and pardoned her; she understood and pardoned him. And the more she thought things over, the more--despite his heckling of her--she liked him.
"He's a fine, serious fellow, my dear," she said to Medora, "and I'm glad to have met him."
Medora flushed, wondering why Edith Whyland should have spoken just--just like that. And Edith, noting Medora's flush, considerately let the matter drop.
Mrs. Whyland also looked over Clytie Summers, and found no serious harm in her. "She is rather underbred--or 'modern,' I suppose I should call it, and she's more or less in a state of ferment; but I dare say she will come out all right in the end. However, my Evelyn shall never be taken through the slums: I think Leverett will be willing to draw the line there." And, "Remember!" she said to Abner, as she drove away.
Medora was delighted. She saw two steps into the future. Abner should call on Mrs. Whyland. And he should read from his own works at Mrs. Whyland's house. Why not? He read with much justness and expression; he was thoroughly accustomed to facing an audience. Indeed he had lately spoken of meditating a public tour, in order to familiarize the country with This Weary World and The Rod of the Oppressor and the newer work still unfinished. Well, then: the reading-tour, like one or two other things, should begin at home.
While these generous plans pulsed through the girl's heart and brain Abner, all unaware of the future now beginning to overshadow him, was out in the stable considering the case of a lame horse and inveighing against the general irksomeness of rural conditions. He threw back his abundant hair as he rose from the study of a dubious hoof,--a Samson unconscious of the shining shears that threatened him.