Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
Abner lingered on. He had meant to leave early, but it was as easy to stay as to go; besides, he felt the stirring of a curiosity to see what the closing hour of such an occasion might be like. Everything, thus far, had been most seemly, most decorous, full of a pleasant informality and a friendly, trustful goodwill; but the crucial point, he had read, always came about supper-time, after which the rout turned into an orgy.
Dr. Gowdy came across and launched himself upon Abner, just as he had done before, when Mrs. Whyland had first made them acquainted. He frankly admired the strength and the stature of the only man in the room who was taller and more robust than himself, as well as the intent sobriety of his glance and the laconic gravity of his speech.
"An admirable young fellow!" he had exclaimed to Edith Whyland, upon Abner's leaving them to cross over to Medora.
"Oh yes, yes!" she had returned with conviction.
"Oh yes,"--with less emphasis. She knew Abner was serious because he was puzzled.
"Yes,"--faintly. She knew Abner was grave because he was shocked.
"He has personality. He will make a name for himself, I am sure."
The good Doctor, now alone with Abner, gave him a chance to celebrate himself, to make known what there was in him. But Abner remained inexpressive; and the Doctor, who himself was very ready of tongue and who, like all fluent people, was much impressed by reserve, presently went away with a higher opinion of Abner than ever.
Medora came up, extending her card. "I have secured another dance for you," she said. "Mr. Bond was kind enough to give it up. He will know what to do with the time. On this occasion, if you please, we might walk it out instead of sitting it out. At least we might walk to the supper-room."
Abner rose. He had never before offered his arm to a lady and was not sure that he had offered it now, yet Medora's fingers rested upon his coat-sleeve. For a few moments he felt himself, half proudly, half uncomfortably, a part of the spectacle, and then they entered the room where the spare refreshments were dispensed.
Medora found a place, and Abner, doing as he saw the other men do, went forward to traffic across a long table with a coloured waiter. He brought back to Medora what he saw the other men bringing--a spoonful of ice-cream with a thin slice of cake, and a cup of coffee of limited size. Truly the material for an orgy seemed rather scanty.
"I am glad you promised to read," said Medora. "It is a favour that Mrs. Whyland will appreciate very much."
Abner bowed. Surely it was a favour, and appreciation was no more than his due.
"I only wish you could have seen your way to being as nice to poor Mrs. Pence. I overheard her--didn't I?--asking you once more to call. Weren't you rather non-committal? Were you, strictly speaking, quite civil?"
"I was as civil as those silly, chattering people round her would let me be--that niece of hers and the rest. I'm sure I was careful to ask after her Training School."
"Oh, that's what made her look so dazed!"
"Why should it?" asked Abner, his spoon checked in mid-air.
"She could hardly have expected such an inquiry from you. Haven't I heard that you threw her down on this training-school idea, and threw her down pretty hard too, the very first time you met her? She wanted help, sympathy, encouragement, suggestions, and instead of that you gave her the--the marble heart, as they say. You made her feel so feeble and flimsy----"
"Did I?" asked Abner gropingly. Eudoxia loomed before him in all her largeness.
"You did. She was disposed to be a noble, useful worker, but now it seems as if she might drop to the level of a mere social leader. Do, please, treat Mrs. Whyland more considerately. She means to arrange quite a nice little programme, and it will be no disadvantage to you to take part in it. Mr. Bond will read one or two of his travel-sketches, and I may do a little something myself--a bit in the way of music, perhaps."
"H'm," said Abner. "Travel-sketches?" He ignored the promise of music.
"With folk-songs on the violin."
"I shall hope to offer something better worth while than travel-sketches," said Abner. "His things will hardly harmonize with mine, I'm afraid; but possibly they will serve as a sort of contrast."
"His things will be slight, of course, but the songs will help him out. Very simple arrangements; people don't care much for anything serious or heavy."
"I shall not show myself a mere frivolous entertainer--a simple filler-in of the leisure moments of the wealthy," said Abner.
Medora banished the violin--and herself. "What do you think of reading?" she asked.
"One or two pieces from my first book, I expect,--Jim McKay's Defeat and Less Than the Beasts, with possibly one of the later chapters in Regeneration."
"M--m," said Medora.
"You don't like Regeneration, I'm afraid; but there's going to be some good stuff in it, let me tell you. People will open their eyes and begin to think. This question of marriage----"
"You will read that part, then?"
"Why not? It's a vital question. It concerns everybody, at all times."
"Yes, it always has--for thousands of years."
"I don't know that I care for the thousands of years. I care for this year and next year."
"And a great deal of good thought has been put into it already."
"But not the best. The whole subject needs ventilating, shaking up."
"You would attack the fundamentals, then?"
"Why not? I'm a radical. I've always called myself such. I go to the root, without fear, without favour."
"Still, the present arrangement, resulting from the collective wisdom and experience of the race ..." said Medora, crumbling her last bit of cake.
"You make me think of Bond and his 'historical perspective.'"
"I meant to. It isn't enough to know at just what point in the road we are; we must know what steps we have taken, what course we have traversed, to reach it."
"I never look behind. The hopes and possibilities of the immediate future are the things that interest me. I shall read several chapters of Regeneration--not merely one--on my tour."
"On your tour, yes. But for Mrs. Whyland substitute something else. There was a story you wrote at the farm--the one about the girl and her step-mother--"
"H'm, yes," said Abner, with less enthusiasm than he usually showed for his own work. "In Winter Weather? H'm."
This was a short tale, of a somewhat grisly character, which Abner had composed during the holiday season. Bond had taxed him with using this work as a buffer to stave off other work of a practical nature such as was abundantly offered by Giles and his father about the farm; and, to tell the truth, Abner had limited his physical exertions to half-hour periods that most other men would have charged to the account of mere exercise.
"I might read that, I suppose," he said.
"And if there is any wild wind in it--why, I should be on hand with my violin, you know. I might be in white, as I am now, with snow-flakes in my hair;--they would show, I think, if this mistletoe does----"
"Not that it represents my best and most characteristic work," he went on, "or that it bears upon any of the great problems of the day...."
Medora dashed her spoon against her saucer. Was there no power equal to teaching this masterful, self-centred creature that a woman was a woman and not a cold abstraction composed merely of the generalized attributes of the race, male and female alike? She had been his guide to-night, when she might have left him to his own helpless flounderings: might he not try now to show some slight shade of interest in her as an individual, at least,--as a distinct personality?
"Shall we be moving?" she suggested. "It should not have taken so long to eat so little."