Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
Abner accepted his environment; after all, he might force the conversation to soar far above the mere materialities. His hobbies began to poke forth their noses, to whinny, to neigh; but some force stronger or more dexterous than himself seemed to be guiding the talk, and the name of Medora Giles began to mingle with the click of silver on china and to weave itself into the progress of the service.
"A very sweet girl," declared Edith Whyland. "Nothing pleased me more than her nice domestic ways at the farm. I had got the impression in Paris that, though she was quite the pride of their little coterie, she was not exactly looked upon as practical,--not considered particularly efficient, in a word."
Abner's thoughts instantly reverted to the farm-house kitchen. What were the paid services of menials, however deft and practised, compared with the intimate, personal exertions, the--the--yes, the ministrations of a woman like Medora Giles?
"She was probably just waiting for the chance," said Whyland heartily. "You don't often find talent and real practicality combined in one girl as they are in Miss Giles. Even little Clytie Summers----"
"We must not disparage little Clytie," said his wife gravely.
"Oh, Clytie!" returned Whyland, giving his head a careless, sidelong jerk. "Still, she's good fun." He laughed. "That child is always breaking out in some new place. The next place will probably be the students' ball. You'll be there to see?" he inquired of Abner.
"No wine, thank you," said Abner to the maid, placing his broad hand on the foot of a glass already turned down. "At the ball? I hardly think so. I never----"
"You might find it amusing," said Mrs. Whyland. "A good many of your friends will be there--ourselves among them."
"Yes," said Whyland, turning his eyes away from the uncontaminated glass, "my wife is a patroness, or whatever they call it. We go to help receive and to look on during the march and to see the dancing started."
"I should like to have a hand in helping Medora contrive a costume that would do her justice," said Mrs. Whyland. "She is really quite a beauty, and she has a great deal of distinction. Nothing could be better than her profile and those exquisite black eyebrows." Then, mindful of the presence of the children, she proceeded by means of graceful periphrase and carefully studied generalizations to a presentation of Medora's mental and spiritual attributes. She said many things, in the tone of kindly, half-veiled patronage; after all she was talking to a country man about a country maid. She even praised Abner himself by indirection--as one strand in the general rustic theme. The children, who caught every word and put this and that together with marvellous celerity and precision, were vastly impressed by the attributes of the invisible paragon. They looked at Abner's bigness with their own big eyes--though ignored by him, his interest being, despite his former championship of them, less in children than in "the child"--and envied him her acquaintance; and they began to ask that very evening how soon the admirable Medora might swim into their ken.
The first result from Abner's dinner with the Whylands was that Medora, thus formulated by the sympathetic and appreciative Edith, now became definitely crystallized in his mind; the second was that he changed his boarding-house. Mere crudity for its own sake no longer charmed. The curtains and bedspreads at the farm had served as the earliest prompters to this step, and the furnishings of the Whyland interior now decided him to take it. Mrs. Cole's stained and spotted lambrequin became more offensive than ever, and the industrious hands of Maggie, which did much more than merely to pass things at table, were now less easy to endure.
"I know I'm a fastidious, ungrateful wretch," he said to himself, as he saw his trunk started off to a better neighbourhood and prepared to follow it. "They've been very kind to me, and little Maggie would do almost anything for me"--little Maggie, whom he treated as a mere asexual biped and hectored in the most lordly way, and who yet entertained for him a puzzled, secret admiration;--"but I can't stand it any longer, that's all."
A few days later Bond called at Abner's old address and was referred by a grieved landlady to his new one. "I don't make out Mr. Joyce," said poor, hurt Mrs. Cole.
Bond went down the steps whistling, "They're after me, they're after me!" in a thoughtful undertone.