Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
One after another several carriages dismissed their occupants with slams that carried far and wide on the crisp air of the early December evening, and a variety of muffled figures toiled up the broad granite steps and disappeared in the maw of the cavernous round-arched entrance-porch. At both front and flank of the house a score of curtained windows permitted the escape of hints of hospitable intentions; and in point of fact Mr. and Mrs. Palmer Pence were giving a dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Adrian Bond.
Adrian and Clytie were but lately back from their wedding-trip. Adrian, after several years of unproductive traffic in exotic literature, had finally made a hit; he had been able not only to lay a telling piece of work at the dear one's feet, but also--by a slight discounting of future certainties--to put a good deal of money in his purse. He had at last found a way to turn his "European atmosphere" and his "historical perspective" to profitable account,--to write something that thousands were willing to read and to pay for. Thirty thousand was the number thus far; and that number, reached within six weeks, meant a hundred thousand before the "run" should be over. His method involved simply a familiar offhand treatment of royalty, backed up by an excess of beauty, bravery, sword-play, costume, and irresponsible and impossible incident. "The only wonder is," he said, "that I shouldn't have taken up with this before. Anybody can do it; almost everybody else has done it."
Clytie was delighted by this sudden showy stroke of fortune, and readily allowed Adrian's long string of hints and intimations--they had come rolling in thick and fast through the advancing summer--to solidify into a concrete proposal.
"With this and my little investments," he said fondly, "we might rub along very decently."
"I hope so," said Clytie.
The Whylands were also of those who climbed the granite steps. Mrs. Whyland had required a little urging, as on some previous occasions.
"I hope you won't make difficulties," her husband had said. "Mrs. Pence is a nice enough woman, as women go; and since my new relations with her husband...."
"Well, if you think it necessary," she returned resignedly. At need she might find the means to avoid anything like a real intimacy; and, after all, there would be a certain satisfaction in finally seeing, with her own eyes, Clytie Summers as somebody's actual wife.
Last to arrive were the Joyces. Medora wore the wedding-gown that had astonished the country neighbours for ten miles around, and Abner was in the customary evening dress.
"A bachelor and a genius," Medora had declared, "may enjoy some latitude, but a married man must consider his wife."
Abner had dutifully considered. He who considers is like him who hesitates--lost.
"There will be wine," said Medora. "Drink it. There may be toasts. Be ready to respond."
Abner could think on his feet--speech would not fail. And his fortnight with the Whylands had reconciled him to more things than wine.
"Let me be proud of you," said Medora.
Abner shook to his centre. Had he married a Delilah and a Beatrice in one?
"And don't let's talk any more about our book than they talk of theirs," she counselled to end with.
Regeneration had appeared within a week of My Lady's Honour and was doing well enough among a certain class of hardy readers who did not shrink from problems. Some of the less grateful passages had been censored by Medora's own hand and the unfriendlier of the critics thus partially disarmed in advance. But Regeneration was no longer a burning matter; Medora's thoughts were on the great, new, different thing that Abner was now shaping. He had finally come to an apprehension of the city. In certain of its aspects it was as interestingly crass and crude as the country, and the deep roar of its wrongs and sufferings was becoming audible enough to his ears to exact some share of his attention. In The Fumes of the Foundry he was to show a bold advance into a new field. This book would depict the modern city in the making: the strenuous strugglings of traditionless millions; the rising of new powers, the intrusion of new factors; the hardy scorn of precedent, the decisive trampling upon conventions; the fight under new conditions for new objects and purposes, the plunging forward over a novel road toward some no less novel goal; the general clash of ill-defined, half-formulated forces. All this study would explain much that was obscure and justify much that appeared reprehensible. Such a book would find place and reason for Pences and for Whylands. Indulgence would come with understanding, and reconciliation to repellent ideals and to the men that embodied them might not unnaturally follow.
Full of his own new idea, Abner felt a greater contempt than ever for Bond's late departure and for the facile success that had attended it.
"I know how you look upon me," said Bond cheerfully. "Yet who, more than you yourself, is responsible for my come-down?"
"You. When the psychological moment was on me and I needed most of all your encouragement, you dashed me with cold water instead. Now see where I am!"
Abner presently disclosed himself as one of the major ornaments of the feast. He talked, with no lack of ease and dexterity, to three or four ladies he had never seen before in his life, and even showed his ability for give-and-take with their husbands, on the basis of mutual tolerance and consideration. The quiet dignity that was his natural though latent gift from one parent he had learned how to maintain with less of jealous and aggressive self-consciousness; and a kind of congenital geniality, his heritage from the other, had now made its belated appearance and begun to show forth its tardy glow. Everybody found Abner interesting; one or two even found him charming. Those who had never liked him before began to like him now; those who had liked him before now liked him more than ever. Medora looked across at him; her eyes shone with pleasure and pride.
Clytie sat between Pence and Whyland. Whyland's face had already begun to take on the peculiar hard-finish that follows upon success--success reached in a certain way. "How about the Settlement?" he asked.
Clytie shrugged her shoulders. "I have other interests now. Besides, I felt that my efforts on behalf of the Poor were more or less misunderstood and unappreciated." She glanced down the table toward Abner.
Whyland glanced in the same direction and shrugged his shoulders too. "I understand. I might have turned out to be an idealist myself if a certain hand had not pushed me down when it should have raised me up!"
"Ah!" sighed Clytie, who still saw the old Abner bigger than the new, "I am sure that both Adrian and I might have continued to be among the Earnest Ones, but for that ruthless creature!"
Abner sat on one side of Eudoxia Pence--Eudoxia gorgeous, affluent, worldly. Never had she disclosed herself at a further remove from all that was earnest, thoughtful, philanthropic, altruistic.
"No," she said, shaking her head with a pleasant pretence of melancholy, "I was presumptuous. I did not realize how little my poor hands could do toward untangling the tangled web of life." Eudoxia, talking to a literary man, was faithfully striving to take the literary tone. She had waited for a year now, but the tone was here and time had not impaired its quality. "There was a period when I felt the strongest impulse toward the Higher Things; but now--now my husband's growing success needs my attending step. I must walk beside him and try to find my satisfactions in the simple duties of a wife." She dropped her head in the proud humility of welcome defeat.
Yes, Abner had brought down, one after another, all the pillars of the temple. But he had dealt out his own fate along with the fate of the rest: crushed yet complacent, he lay among the ruins. The glamour of success and of association with the successful was dazzling him. The pomp and luxury of plutocracy inwrapped him, and he had a sudden sweet shuddering vision of himself dining with still others of the wealthy just because they were wealthy, and prominent, and successful. Yes, Abner had made his compromise with the world. He had conformed. He had reached an understanding with the children of Mammon. He--a great, original genius--had become just like other people. His downfall was complete.