Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
Abner, on his return to town, found its unpleasant precincts more crowded than ever with matters of doubtful expediency and propriety. Not that he felt the strain of any temptation; he knew that he was fully capable of keeping himself unspotted from the world--the world of urban society--if only people would leave him alone. Two dangers stood out before all others: his impending call upon Mrs. Whyland and the approaching annual fancy-dress ball of the Art Students' League. He had rashly committed himself to the one, and his officious friends of the studios were rapidly pushing him upon the other. He must indeed present himself beneath the roof of a man whom he could not regard as a "good citizen," and must thus seem to approve his host's improper composition, now imminent, with the powers that be; but he should bestir himself to withstand the pressure exerted by Giles, by Medora herself, by Bond, by mischievous Clytie Summers, by the whole idle horde of studio loungers to force him into such an atmosphere of frivolity, license and dissipation as could not but inwrap one of those wild student "dances."
"We should so like to have you present," said Medora. "It will be rather bright and lively, and you would be sure to meet any number of pleasant people. You would enjoy it, I know."
Abner shook his head. Fancy him, a serious man, with a reputation to nourish and to safeguard, caught up in any such fandango as that!
"I have never attended a dancing-party yet," he said. "I couldn't waltz if my life depended on it. And I wouldn't, either."
"You needn't," said Medora. "But you would be interested in the grand march. It's always very pictorial, and the girls are arranging to have it more so than ever this year."
Abner shook his head again. "I have never had any fancy togs on. I--I couldn't wear anything like that."
"You needn't. A great many of the gentlemen go in simple evening dress."
Abner shook his head a third time. "I thought you understood my principles on that point. Dress is a badge, an index. I could not openly brand myself as having surrendered to the--to the----"
Medora sighed. "You are making a great many difficulties," she said. "But you will call on Mrs. Whyland?"
"I have promised, and I shall do so," he said, with all the good grace of a despairing bear caught in a trap.
"I think she suggested some--some afternoon?"
"You will go at about half-past four or five, possibly?"
Abner suddenly saw himself as he was six months before: little likelihood then of his devoting an afternoon--fruitful working hours of a crowded day--to the demands of mere social observances. Which of his Readjusters would have had the time or the inclination to do as he had bound himself to do? But now he was "running" less with reformers than with artists, and these ill-regulated spendthrift folk were prone to break up the day and send its fragments broadcast as they would, without forethought, scruple, compunction.
One day before long, then, Abner buttoned his handsome double-breasted frock-coat across his capacious chest and put on a neat white lawn tie and sallied forth to call on Edith Whyland. The day was sunny--almost deceptively so--and Abner, who knew the good points in his own figure and was glad to dispense with a heavy overcoat whenever possible, limited his panoply to a soft felt hat and a pair of good stout gloves. The wind came down the lake and sent the waves in small splashes over the gray sea-wall and teased the bare elms along the wide, winding roadway, and tousled Abner's abundant chestnut moustache and reddened his ruddy cheeks and nipped his vigorous nose--all as a reminder that January was here and ought not to be disregarded. But Abner was thinking less of meteorological conditions than of Mrs. Whyland's butler. He knew he could be brusquely haughty toward this menial, but could he be easy and indifferent? Yet was it right to seem coolly callous toward another human creature? But, on the other hand, might not a cheery, informal friendliness, he wondered, as his hand sought the bell-push, be misconstrued, be ridiculed, be resented, be taken advantage of....
The door was opened by a subdued young woman who wore a white cap and presented a small silver tray. Abner, who dispensed with calling cards on principle and who would have blushed to read his own name in script on a piece of white cardboard, asked in a stern voice if Mrs. Whyland was at home. The maid dropped the tray into the folds of her black dress; she seemed habituated enough to the sudden appearance of the cardless. She looked up respectfully, admiringly--she had opened the door for a good many gentlemen, but seldom for so magnificent and masterful a creature as Abner--and said yes. But alas for the credit of her mistress and of her mistress' household: here was a lordly person who had arrived with the open expectation of meeting a "man" who should "announce" him!
Abner had come full of subject-matter; he knew just what he was going to say. And during the interval before Mrs. Whyland's appearance he should briefly run over his principal points. But he found Mrs. Whyland already on the ground. Nor was she alone. Two or three other ladies were chatting with her on minor topics, and before all of these had gone others arrived to take their places. Not a moment did he spend with her alone; briefly, it was her "day."
These ladies referred occasionally to matters musical and artistic--somebody had given a recital, somebody else was soon to exhibit certain pictures--but they had little to say about books and they made no recognition of Abner as an author. "More of this artificial social repression," he thought. "Why should they be afraid of 'boring' me, as they word it? They bore Bond--they are always buzzing Giles; I think I could endure a word or two." His eye roamed over the rich but subdued furnishings of the room. "No wonder that all spontaneity should be smothered here!" And when literary topics were finally broached he experienced less of comfort than of indignation. A sweet little woman moaned that she had attempted an authors' reading, but that her authors could not command a proper degree of attention from her guests. Her eyes flashed indignantly as she called to mind the ways of the people she had presumptuously ventured to entertain. "They were swells," she murmured bitterly. "Yes, swells;--it's a harsh word, but not undeserved. I never tried having so many people of that particular sort before, and they simply overrode me. They banded against me; being quite in the majority, they could keep one another in countenance. My poor authors were offended at the open way in which they were ignored. Poor dear Edward scarcely knew what to do with such a----"
The plaintive little creature lapsed into silence; great must have been her provocation thus to speak of her own guests. Abner's eyes blazed; his blood boiled with indignation. Such treatment constituted an affront to all art, to his own art--literature, to himself.
"I have heard of cases of that sort before," he blurted out. "Mr. Giles told me of one only yesterday. The victim in this case was a young gentlewoman"--Abner's lips caressed this taking word--"a young gentlewoman from the South. She had come to one of those houses"--everybody, with the help of Abner's tone, saw the insolent front of the place--"to tell some dialect stories and to sing a few little songs. The mob--it was nothing less--could hardly be reduced to order. All those people had seen one another the day before, and they were all going to see one another the day to follow, yet talk they would and must and did. Engagements, marriages, acceptances, excuses, compliments, tittle-tattle, personalities--a rolling flood of chatter and gossip. Mrs. Pence took her people for what they were, apparently, and kept up with the best of them herself. Now and then her husband would do a little feeble something to quiet the tempest, and then the poor girl, half crying with mortification, would attempt to resume her task. With her last word the flood would instantly rise and obliterate her once more----"
Abner's voice vibrated with a hot anger over this indignity put upon a fellow "artist." His view of literature was sacramental, sacerdotal. All should reverence the altar; none should insult the humblest neophyte. Mrs. Whyland indulgently overlooked his reckless use of names and liked him none the less; and the little lady who had suffered on a similar occasion, though in a different role, gave him a glance of thanks.
"I know the type," said Mrs. Whyland. "It is commoner than it should be; others of us besides are much too thoughtless. You had too many at a time, my dear," she went on quietly. "A few scattered grains of gunpowder do no great harm, but a large number of them massed together will blow anything to ruin. Our motto should be, 'Few but fit,' eh? Or ought I to say, 'Fit though few'?"
Abner stayed on, and finally the last of the ladies rose to go. Abner was just about to throw open the stable door, preparatory to giving his hobbies an airing, when a latch-key was heard operating in the front door of the house itself. Then came a man's quick step, a tussle with a heavy winter overcoat, and Whyland himself appeared on the threshold.
He came in, tingling, exhilarated, cordial. His cordiality overflowed at once; he asked Abner to remain to dinner.
Abner had not looked for this; a mere call was as far as he had meant to go. He parried, he evaded, he shuffled toward the door.
"But where's your overcoat?" asked Whyland, looking about.
"I didn't wear one."
"On such a day as this!" exclaimed Edith.
"I am strong," said Abner.
"You'll find our winter stronger," said Whyland. "You are not out there in the country a hundred miles back from the lake. You must stay, of course."
Still Abner moved toward the door. Could any city man be as friendly as Whyland seemed? "It will be colder later on," he submitted.
"Our welcome will never be warmer." Whyland looked toward his wife--their rustic appeared to be exacting the observance of all the forms.
"You will stay, of course," said Edith Whyland; "I have hardly had a word with you. And when you do go, it must be in a cab."
Abner succumbed. He was snared, as he felt. Other rooms, still more handsomely, more lavishly appointed, seemed to yawn for him. And then came crystal and silver and porcelain and exquisite napery and the rare smack of new and nameless dishes to help bind him hard and fast. Abner was in a tremor; his first compromise with Mammon was at hand.