Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
Mrs. Palmer Pence was a stock-holder in any number of banks--twenty shares here, fifty there, a hundred elsewhere; but she was a stock-holder and nothing more, while what she most desired was to be a director: to act on the board of one at least of these grandiose institutions would have given her a great deal of comfort. She was clever, she was forceful, she was ambitious,--but she was a woman; and however keen her desire, her fellow stockholders seemed bound by the ancient prejudice that barred woman from such a position of power and honour and left the whole flagrant monopoly with man.
"Such discrimination is miserably unjust," she would remonstrate.
Amongst her other holdings, Mrs. Pence had forty-five shares in the Grindstone National. This was her favourite bank. Her accounts with the great retail houses along Broad Street were always settled by checks on the Grindstone, as well as her obligations to the insatiable cormorants that trafficked in "robes and manteaux" farther up town. The bank was close to the shopping centre, and the paying-teller of the Grindstone was never happier than on those occasions when Eudoxia Pence would roll in voluminous and majestic and ask him to break a hundred-dollar bill.
This had last happened during the press of the Christmas shopping. As Eudoxia turned away from the window of the complaisant teller, a door opened for a moment in a near-by partition and gave her a glimpse of eight or ten elderly men seated round a long solid table whose top bore a litter of papers--among them, many big sheets of light brown. She saw what was going on,--a directors' meeting. Her unappeased longing rose and stirred once more within her, and a shadow crossed her broad handsome face--the face that Little O'Grady had resolutely pursued all over the hall the evening she had deigned to show it at the Art Students' dance, with his long fingers curved and straining as if ready to dig themselves instantly into the clay itself.
"I don't care so much about the other banks," she sighed; "but if I could only be one of the board here!"
The door closed immediately, but not before she had caught the essential mass and outline of the situation. This august though limited gathering was submitting to an harangue--it seemed nothing less--from a little fellow who stood before the fireplace and wagged a big head covered with frizzled sandy hair, and gave them glances of humorous determination from his narrow gray-green eyes, and waved a pair of long supple hands in their protesting faces. Yes, the faces were protesting all. "Who are you, to claim our attention in this summary fashion?" asked one. "What do you mean by thrusting yourself upon us quite unbidden?" asked another. "Why do you come here to complicate a question that is much too complicated for us already?" demanded a third.
Yes, the door closed immediately, yet Eudoxia Pence had a clairvoyant sense of what was going on behind that rather plebeian partition of black walnut and frosted glass. She knew how they must all be hesitating, fumbling, floundering--snared by a problem wholly new and unfamiliar, and readily falling victims to intimidation from the humblest source. The entire situation was as clear as sunlight in the gesture with which Jeremiah McNulty, blinking his ancient eyes, had laid down that sheet of yellow-brown paper and had scratched his gray old chin.
"They need me," said Eudoxia Pence. "Indeed, they might be glad to have me. I feel certain that, if left to themselves, they will end by doing something awful."
She was perfectly confident that she could be of service in the bank's affairs. Had she not always been successful with her own? So it pleased her to think--and indeed nothing had developed in connection with her private finances to bring her under the shadow of self-doubt. The elderly hand of her husband, which was deep in vaster concerns, seldom interfered in hers, and never obtrusively. Now and then he dropped for a moment his own interests--he was engaged in forming the trustful into trusts and in massing such combinations into combinations greater still--to steady or to direct his wife's; but in general Eudoxia was left to regard herself as the guiding force of her own fortunes, and to believe herself capable of almost anything in the field of general finance.
The Grindstone National Bank, after ten years of prosperity in rather shabby rented quarters, had determined to present a better face to the world by putting up a building of its own. The day was really past when an institution of such calibre could fittingly occupy a mere room or two in a big "block" given over to miscellaneous business purposes. It was little to the advantage of the Grindstone that it shared its entrance-way with a steamship company and a fire-insurance concern, and was roofed over by a dubious herd of lightweight loan brokers, and undermined by boot-blacking parlours, and barnacled with peanut and banana stands. Such a situation called loudly for betterment.
"It's time to leave all that sort of thing behind," decreed Andrew P. Hill, waggling his short chin beard decisively and shutting his handsome porcelain teeth with a snap. "What we want is to make a show and advertise our business."
Hill was president of the Grindstone and its largest stock-holder. Mr. McNulty listened to his words, and so did Mr. Rosenberg, and so did Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Holbrook and the rest of the directors; and they had all finally agreed--all save Mr. Rosenberg--that the time was come for the Grindstone to put up its own building and to occupy that building entirely and exclusively. Mr. Rosenberg imaged a few suites for tenants, but he was voted down.
They had found a moderately old young man who knew his Paris and his Vienna and who could "render" elevations and perspectives with the best. This clever person gathered together Andrew P. Hill and Simon Rosenberg and Jeremiah McNulty and all the others of the hesitating little band and with infinite tact "shood" them gently, step by step, despite multiplied protests and backdrawings, up the rugged slopes of doubt toward the summit where stood and shone his own resplendent Ideal. Each of the flock took the trip as his particular training and temperament dictated. Andrew was a bit dazed, but none the less exhilarated; Jeremiah shook his head, yet kept his feet in motion; Simon grumbled that the whole business spelt little less than ruination. But Roscoe Orlando Gibbons, who had been about the world not a little and who drew sanction for the young architect's doings from more quarters of the Continent than one, instantly rose to the occasion and landed on the topmost pinnacle of the shining temple at a single swoop. Here he stood tiptoe and beckoned. This confident pose, this encouraging gesture, had its effect; the others toiled and scrambled up, each after his own fashion, but they all got there. Even old Oliver Dowd, who had once been a member of the state legislature and had won the title of watch-dog of the treasury by opposing expenditures of any kind for any purpose whatever, finally fell into line. His name was the last to go down, but down it went after due delay; and presently the new building began to rise, only a street or two distant from the old.
The new Grindstone, of all the Temples of Finance within the town, was to be the most impressive, the most imposing, the most unmitigatedly monumental. The bold young architect had loftily renounced all economies of space, time, material, and had imagined a grandiose facade with a long colonnade of polished blue-granite pillars, a pompous attic story above, and a wide flight of marble steps below. The inside was to be quite as overbearingly classical as the outside. There was to be a sort of arched and columned court under a vast prismatic skylight; lunettes, spandrels, friezes and the like were to abound; and the opportunities for interior decoration were to be lavish, limitless.
Now these lunettes and spandrels were the things that were making all the trouble. The building itself was moving on well enough: the walls were all up; and half the columns--despite the groans of Simon Rosenberg--were in place. Here no hitch worth speaking of had occurred: merely a running short of material at the quarry, the bankruptcy of the first contractor, and a standstill of a month or two when all the bricklayers on the job had declined to work or to allow anybody else to work. Such trifles as these could be foreseen and allowed for; but not one of the Grindstone's devoted little band had ever grappled with a general decorative scheme for the embellishment of a great edifice raised to the greater glory of Six-per-cent, or had attempted to adjust the rival claims of a horde of painters, sculptors, modellers, and mosaickers all eager for a chance to distinguish themselves and to cut down the surplus and the undivided profits. No wonder that Jeremiah McNulty scratched his chin, and that Simon Rosenberg puckered up his yellow old face, and that Roscoe Orlando Gibbons ran his fingers through his florid side-whiskers as he tried to find some sanction and guidance in Berlin or in Rome, and that Andrew P. Hill frowned blackly upon all the rest for being as undecided as he was himself.
"This is awful!" he moaned. "We may have to calcimine the whole place in pale pink and let it go at that!"
The door opened and a deferential clerk announced the waiting presence of one of the Morrell Twins. Andrew, giving a sigh of relief, swept the drawings quickly aside and rose. Here, at last, his feet were back once more on solid ground.