Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
But Abner remained for some time ignorant of "society's" willingness to give him welcome. He was lodged in a remote and obscure quarter of the city and was already part of a little coterie from which earnestness had quite crowded out tact and in which the development of the energies left but scant room for the cultivation of the amenities. With this small group reform and oratory went hand in hand; its members talked to spare audiences on Sunday afternoons about the Readjusted Tax. Such a combination of matter and manner had pleased and attracted Abner from the start. The land question was the question, after all, and eloquence must help the contention of these ardent spirits toward a final issue in success. Abner thirstily imbibed the doctrine and added his tongue to the others. Nor was it a tongue altogether unschooled. For Abner had left the plough at sixteen to take a course in the Flatfield Academy, and after some three years there as a pupil he had remained as a teacher; he became the instructor in elocution. Here his allegiance was all to the old-time classic school, to the ideal that still survives, and inexpugnably, in the rustic breast and even in the national senate; the Roman Forum was never completely absent from his eye, and Daniel Webster remained the undimmed pattern of all that man--man mounted on his legs--should be.
Abner, then, went on speaking from the platform or distributing pamphlets, his own and others', at the door, and remained unconscious that Mrs. Palmer Pence was desirous of knowing him, that Leverett Whyland would have been interested in meeting him, and that Adrian Bond, whose work he knew without liking it, would have been glad to make him acquainted with their fellow authors. Nor did he enjoy any familiarity with Clytie Summers and her sociological studies, while Medora Giles, as yet, was not even a name.
Mrs. Palmer Pence remained, then, in the seclusion of her "gilded halls," as Abner phrased it, save for occasional excursions and alarums that vivified the columns devoted by the press to the doings of the polite world; and Adrian Bond kept between the covers of his two or three thin little books--a confinement richly deserved by a writer so futile, superficial and insincere; but Leverett Whyland was less easily evaded by anybody who "banged about town" and who happened to be interested in public matters. Abner came against him at one of the sessions of the Tax Commission, a body that was hoping--almost against hope--to introduce some measure of reason and justice into the collection of the public funds.
"Huh! I shouldn't expect much from him!" commented Abner, as Whyland began to speak.
Whyland was a genial, gentlemanly fellow of thirty-eight or forty. He was in the world and of it, but was little the worse, thus far, for that. He had been singled out for favours, to a very exceptional degree, by that monster of inconsistency and injustice, the Unearned Increment, but his intentions toward society were still fairly good. If he may be capitalized (and surely he was rich enough to be), he might be described as hesitating whether to be a Plutocrat or a Good Citizen; perhaps he was hoping to be both.
Abner disliked and doubted him from the start. The fellow was almost foppish;--could anybody who wore such good clothes have also good motives and good principles? Abner disdained him too as a public speaker;--what could a man hope to accomplish by a few quiet colloquial remarks delivered in his ordinary voice? The man who expected to get attention should claim it by the strident shrillness of his tones, should be able to bend his two knees in eloquent unison, and send one clenched hand with a driving swoop into the palm of the other--and repeat as often as necessary. Abner questioned as well his mental powers, his quality of brain-fibre, his breadth of view. The feeble creature rested in no degree upon the great, broad, fundamental principles--principles whose adoption and enforcement would reshape and glorify human society as nothing else ever had done or ever could do. No, he fell back on mere expediency, mere practicability, weakly acquiescing in acknowledged and long-established evils, and trying for nothing more than fairness and justice on a foundation utterly unjust and vicious to begin with.
"Let me get out of this," said Abner.
But a few of his own intimates detained him at the door, and presently Whyland, who had ended his remarks and was on his way to other matters, overtook him. An officious bystander made the two acquainted, and Whyland, who identified Abner with the author of This Weary World, paused for a few smiling and good-humoured remarks.
"Glad to see you here," he said, with a kind of bright buoyancy. "It's a complicated question, but we shall straighten it out one way or another."
Abner stared at him sternly. The question was not complicated, but it was vital--too vital for smiles.
"There is only one way," he said: "our way."
"Our way?" asked Whyland, still smiling.
"The Readjusted Tax," pronounced Abner, with a gesture toward two or three of his supporters at his elbow.
"Ah, yes," said Whyland quickly, recognising the faces. "If the idea could only be applied!"
"It can be," said Abner severely. "It must be."
"Yes, it is a very complicated question," the other repeated. "I have read your stories," he went on immediately. "Two or three of them impressed me very much. I hope we shall become better acquainted."
"Thank you," said Abner stiffly. Whyland meant to be cordial, but Abner found him patronizing. He could not endure to be patronized by anybody, least of all by a person of mental calibre inferior to his own. He resented too the other's advantage in age (Whyland was ten or twelve years his senior), and his advantage in experience (for Whyland had lived in the city all his life, as Abner could not but feel).
"I should be glad if you could lunch with me at the club," said Whyland in the friendliest fashion possible. "I am on my way there now."
"Club"--fatal word; it chilled Abner in a second. He knew about clubs! Clubs were the places where the profligate children of Privilege drank improper drinks and told improper stories and kept improper hours. Abner, who was perfectly pure in word, thought and deed and always in bed betimes, shrank from a club as from a lazaret.
"Thank you," he responded bleakly; "but I am very busy."
"Another time, then," said Whyland, with unimpaired kindliness. "And we may be able to come to some agreement, after all," he added, in reference to the tax-levy.
"We are not likely to agree," said Abner gloomily.
Whyland went on, just a trifle dashed. Abner presently came to further knowledge of him--his wealth, position, influence, activity--and hardened his heart against him the more. He commented openly on the selfishness and greed of the Money Power in pungent phrases that did not all fall short of Whyland's ear. And when, later on, Leverett Whyland became less the "good citizen" and more the "plutocrat"--a course perhaps inevitable under certain circumstances--he would sometimes smile over those unsuccessful advances and would ask himself to what extent the discouraging unfaith of our Abner might be responsible for his choice and his fall.