Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
"Well, good luck on your trip," said Giles, accompanying Abner to the door of the studio.
"And let us hear from you once in a while," added Medora.
"Surely," said Abner. "Look for a clipping, now and then, to show you what they are saying of me."
"And for what you have to say of them we must wait until your return?" said Medora.
"Not necessarily," rejoined Abner. "I might"--with the emission of an obscure, self-conscious sound between a chortle and a gasp, instantly suppressed--"I might write."
"Do, by all means," said Stephen.
"We shall follow your course with the greatest interest," added Medora.
Almost forthwith began the receipt of newspapers--indifferently printed sheets from minor cities scattered across Indiana and Ohio. The first two or three of them came addressed to Giles, but all the subsequent ones were sent direct to Medora. These publications invariably praised Abner's presence--for he always towered magnificently on the lecture-platform, and his delivery--for he read resoundingly with a great deal of clearness and precision. But they frequently deplored the sombreness of his subject-matter, and as the tour came to extend farther east, these objections began to assume a jocular and satirical cast, until the seaboard itself was reached, when newspapers ceased altogether and letters began to take their place. These were addressed, with complete absence of subterfuge, to Medora, and they displayed an increasing tendency toward the drawing of comparisons between the East and the West, with the difference more and more in favour of the latter. Abner felt with growing keenness the formality and insincerity of an old society, its cynical note, its materialistic ideals, the intrenched injustice resulting from accumulated and inherited wealth, the conventions that hampered initiative and froze goodwill. "I shall be glad to get back West again," he wrote.
Medora smiled over these observations. "What would the poor dear fellow think of London or Paris, then, I wonder?" she said.
"I am glad to see that you will come back to us better satisfied with us," she wrote,--"if only by comparison. Meanwhile, remember that whether other audiences may be agreeable or the reverse, there is one audience waiting for you here with which you ought to feel at home and--by this time--in sympathy."
And indeed Abner faced Mrs. Whyland's little circle, when the time finally came round, with much less sense of irksomeness and repugnance than he had expected. Some twenty or thirty people assembled in the Whyland drawing-room on one mid-March evening, and he soon perceived, with a great relief, that they meant to respect both him and their hostess.
"There is every indication that they intend to behave," said Bond in a reassuring whisper. "Everything will go charmingly."
People arrived slowly and it was after nine before the slightest evidence that anything like a programme had been arranged came into view. Abner, by reason of this delay, would have had serious doubts of any real interest in his art if a number of ladies had not plied him in the interval with various little compliments and attentions. He found things to say in reply; he also engaged in converse with a number of gentlemen, who possibly had slight regard for literature but who could not help respecting his size and sincerity. He loomed up impressively in his frock-coat and steel-gray scarf, and nobody, as in the satiric East, was heard to comment on his lack of conformity with the customs of "society."
"Tkh!" said Whyland. "You have come again without your overcoat, they tell me."
The lake wind was fiercely hectoring the bare elm-trees before the house, and the electric globes registered their tortures on the wide reach of the curving roadway.
Abner tossed his head carelessly, in proud boast of his own robustness. "What's three blocks?" he asked.
"Come into the dining-room and have something," said his host.
Abner shrank back. "You know I never take wine."
"Wine!" cried Whyland. "You want something different from wine. You want a good hot whisky----"
"No," said Abner. "No."
The male guests were mostly professional men and representatives of great corporate interests. They talked together in low undertones about familiar concerns during their half-hour or so of grace.
"I see you have begun stringing your wires," said one of them to Whyland. "We are meeting with them all over town."
"Yes, yes," replied Whyland, with the sprightly ingenuousness of a boy. "Whoever looks for a fair return on his money nowadays must keep a little in advance of legislation."
"Just what Pence was saying only yesterday."
"I snatched that great truth from my slight association with the Tax Commission," burbled Whyland. "Almost everything marked, spotted: property, real and personal; lands, lots, improvements; bonds, stocks, mortgages----"
"Everything, in short, but franchises?"
"Franchises, yes. Nothing left but to turn one's attention to the public utilities----"
"And to hope that legislation may lag as far behind and as long behind as possible."
"Precisely," said Whyland. "Meanwhile, we string our wires----"
"Pence up one pole and you up the next--"
Whyland shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "And may it be long before they call us down!"
Abner listened to all this in silence, shaking his head sadly and conscious of a deep and growing depression. Here was Whyland, a clever, likeable fellow--and his host too--disintegrating before his very eyes.
Whyland looked askant at Abner. "Yes, yes, I know," he almost seemed to be saying. "But who can tell if a helping hand, extended at the critical moment, might not have...."