Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
"Is that her? Is that her?" asked the children, the nursery door ajar.
"Yes, that is 'her,'" said their mother, as Medora, muffled in white and with her violin-case under her arm, slipped along through the hall.
"How soon is she going to play? And won't you please let us hear just one piece, mamma?"
"You may lean over the banister. But if you let anybody catch you at it----"
"How soon is she going to begin?"
"Not for some time yet."
"Oh-h! Then won't you bring her in so that----"
"'Sh! 'sh! And shut the door."
But the door opened again and the banister was called upon to shield, if it could, three little figures in white night-dresses as soon as Medora began to "illustrate" Adrian Bond. The children upstairs were delighted, and the grown-up children downstairs scarcely less so--for Medora knew the infirmities of the polite world and never tired its habitues by her suites and sonatas. She took her cue from Bond's crisp, brief sketches of amusing travel-types, and gave them a folk-song from the Bavarian highlands and one or two quaint bits that she had picked up in Brittany. Abner, who knew her abilities, was vastly disconcerted to find her thus minimizing herself; as for his own part of the performance, emphasis should not fail. No, these rich, comfortable, prosperous people should drink the cup to the dregs--the cup of mire, of slackness, of drudgery, of dull hopelessness that he alone could mix. To tell the truth, his auditors tasted of the cup with much docility and appeared to enjoy its novel flavour. They listened closely and applauded civilly--and waited for more of Bond and Medora.
Abner was piqued. The situation did not justify itself. There was no reason why Medora Giles should lend her talents to promote the success of Adrian Bond--Bond with his thin hair plastered so pitifully over his poor little skull and his insignificant face awry with a conventional society smirk. Yet how, pray, could she contribute to his own? What was there in any work of his for her to take hold upon? He himself could not claim charm for it, nor an alluring atmosphere, nor a soft poetical perspective, nor participation in the consecrated traditions so dear, apparently, to the sophisticated folk around him. Medora, in fact, had shaken herself loose from the farmyard, and if he were to follow her must he not do the same?
He meant to follow her--he had come to feel sure of that. He was not certain what it would lead to, he was not certain what he wanted it to lead to; but if he had not fully realized her to be most rare and desirable there were many round about him now to help open his eyes. Hers, after all, was the triumph; everybody was applauding her grace, her tact, her beauty, her dress, discreetly classical, her distinction; while she herself parried compliments with smiling good-humour in the very accents of society itself.
And he was to follow her with Less Than the Beasts. The farm-yard claimed him for its own once more. He must go in up to his knees, up to his middle, up to his chin. But as he progressed he forgot his surroundings, his auditory; all he felt was the fate of his poor heroine, the pitiful farm-drudge, sunk in hopeless wrong and misery. He read in his very best manner, with abundant feeling and full conviction, and for a moment his hearers felt with him. Then came a last elegiac paragraph, and here Abner's voice grew husky, his throat filled, he coughed, and as he laid aside his last sheet and turned to rise a quick pain darted through his chest; he coughed again and involuntarily raised his hand against his breast, and the acute and sudden pang was signalled clearly in his face.
Whyland advanced quickly. "Now," he said, in a low tone, "you must let me have my way--if it isn't too late. Come." He led Abner toward the dining-room.
"It is nothing," said Abner, on his return.
"It is something, I am sure," said Edith Whyland, with great solicitude.
"It is something serious, I feel certain," said Medora, pale as her dress.
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Abner. "I shall know just what to do as soon as I get home----" He clutched at his breast again.
"You will not go home to-night," said Whyland.
Abner did not go home that night, nor the next, nor the next. He was put to bed in an upper chamber and remained there. Outside was the gray welter of the lake. Its white-capped waves knocked viciously against the trembling sea-wall, and their spray, flying across the drenched bed of the Drive, stung on the window-panes as if to say, in every drop, "It is we, we who have brought you to this!"
Medora sent her brother next morning to make inquiries, and at noon she came herself.
"The nurse will be here in an hour or two," said Edith Whyland.
"I will stay till she arrives," said Medora.
For a fortnight Abner lay muffled in that big, luxurious bed and did as he was told.
"Men!" said Medora. "They don't know anything; they have no idea of looking after themselves. And the bigger they are, the more helpless."
Abner had his good days and his bad, and suffered the gentle tyranny of two or three solicitous women, and trusted that his sudden illness was making due public stir.
The Readjusters, who had lately been asking after him, first heard of his plight from the press. The same newspapers that brought them further details of the adventures of the new Pence-Whyland Franchise in the Common Council informed them that Abner Joyce--Abner, the one time foe of privilege--lay ill in Leverett Whyland's own house.
"He is no longer one of us," pronounced the Readjusters. "We disown him; we cast him off."