Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
While Richard Morrell charmed the ears of the Grindstone's directors with his tuneful periods, and dazzled their eyes by the slow waving to and fro of certain elegantly engraved certificates of stock, and made his determined chin and his big round shoulders say to the assembled body that there was no chance of his going away before he had carried his point, Eudoxia Pence was taking tea at the Temple of Art. The early twilight of mid-December had descended. "It's too late for any more shopping," said Eudoxia, "and I'm too tired." Though she was still on the right side of forty by a year or two, this advantage of youth was counterbalanced by the great effort of pushing her abundant bulk through the throng of Christmas strugglers that crowded shop and sidewalk alike. "Only to sit down for half an hour in some quiet place!" she panted. "I believe I'll just drop up and see Daffingdon for a bit. That will give me a chance at the same time to keep half an eye on Virgilia," she added soberly. "A hundred to one she'll be there; and if anybody's to blame for her being there, I'm that body."
The Temple of Art, after rooting itself in drama and oratory, after throwing out a sturdy limb of chaste traffic in bibelots here and instruments of music there and books and engravings elsewhere, and after putting forth much foliage in the shape of string-scraping and key-teasing and anguished vocalizing and determined paper-reading and indomitable lecture-hearing, blossomed forth at last in a number of skylights, and under one of these lofty covers Daffingdon Dill carried on his professional activities. Eudoxia sank down upon his big settle covered with Spanish leather, and took her tea and her biscuits, and declined the pink peppermints, and looked around to discover, by the dim help of the Japanese lantern and the battered old brass lamp from Damascus, just who might be present. Several people were scattered about in various dusky corners, and Virgilia Jeffreys was no doubt among them. "I don't know just how all this is going to end," sighed Eudoxia dubiously. "I presume I'm as responsible as anybody else," she added, in a reflective, judicial tone. "More so," she tacked on. "Altogether so," she added further, as she took a first sip.
Daffingdon Dill was a newcomer, but he had taken hold of things in a pretty confident, competent fashion and had made more of an impression in one year than many of his confreres had made in five or ten. To begin with, he had unhesitatingly quartered himself in the most desirable building the town could boast. Many of his colleagues, no less clever (save in this one respect), still lingered in the old Rabbit-Hutch, a building which had been good enough in its day but which belonged, like the building that Andrew P. Hill was preparing to leave, to a day now past. Fearful of the higher rents that more modern quarters exacted, they went on paying their monthly stipend to old Ezekiel Warren, with such regularity as circumstances would admit, and made no effort to escape the affectionate banter that grouped them under the common name of the Bunnies.
Dill kept his studio up to the general level of the Temple, and himself up to the general level of the studio. There was little trace of Bohemia about either. Society found his workroom a veritable salon de reception. He himself never permitted the painter to eclipse the gentleman. People who came late in the afternoon found his tall, slender figure inclosed in a coat of precisely the right length, shape, cut. People who came earlier found him in guise more professional but no less elegant. He took a great deal of pains with his handsome hands, which many visitors pressed with cautious, admiring respect, as something a little too good to be true, as something a little too fine for this workaday world, and with his well-grown beard, which hugged his cheeks closely to make a telling manifestation upon his chin, after the manner of Van Dyck. This beard cried, almost clamoured, for picturesque accessories, and when Daffingdon went to a costume ball he generally wore a ruff and carried a rapier. All these things had their effect, and when people said, "How much?" and Daffingdon with unblinking serenity said, "So much," they quailed sometimes, but they never tried to beat him down.
"Why, after all, you know," they would say to one another, as they reconsidered his effective presence and his expensive surroundings,--"why, after all, it isn't as if----" Then they would think of the Rabbit-Hutch and acknowledge that here was a great advance. The poor Bunnies would have blinked--and often had, you may be sure.
Daffingdon was a bachelor, and he was old enough or young enough for anything, being just thirty; and his sister Judith, who was some years his senior, sat behind his tea-urn on most occasions and made it possible for the young things of society to flutter in as freely as they willed. The young things came to little in themselves, but some of them had vainglorious mothers and ambitious, pomp-loving fathers, and who could tell in what richly promising crevice their light-minded chatter might lodge and sprout? So Daffingdon and his sister encouraged them to come, and the young things came gladly, willing enough to meet with a break in the social round that was already becoming monotonous; and among the others came Preciosa McNulty,--dear little Preciosa, pretty, warm-hearted, self-willed----But we will wait a bit for her, if you please.
Daffingdon had spent many years abroad and still kept au courant with European art matters in general; he knew what they were doing in Munich no less than in Paris, and letters with foreign postmarks were always dropping in on him to tempt his mind to little excursions backward across the sea. He kept himself more or less in touch too with the kindred arts, and readily passed in certain circles for a man of the most pronouncedly intellectual and cultivated type.
Thus, at least, Virgilia Jeffreys saw him. Virgilia herself was intellectual to excess and cultivated beyond the utmost bounds of reason; indeed, her people were beginning to wonder where in the world they were to find a husband for her. Not that Virgilia intimidated the men, but that the men disappointed Virgilia. They stayed where they always had stayed--close to the ground, whereas Virgilia, with each successive season, soared higher through the blue empyrean of general culture. She had not stopped with a mere going to college, nor even with a good deal of post-graduate work to supplement this, nor even with an extended range of travel to supplement that; she was still reading, writing, studying, debating as hard as ever, and paying dues to this improving institution and making copious observations at the other. She too had her foreign correspondents and knew just what was going on at Florence and what people were up to in Leipsic and Dresden. She possessed, so she considered, a wide outlook and the greatest possible breadth of interests, and she knew she was a dozen times too good for any man she had ever met.
There were scores of other girls like her--girls who were forging ahead while the men were standing still: a phenomenon with all the fine threatenings of a general calamity. Where should these girls go to find husbands? Virgilia herself had been very curt with a young real-estate dealer, who was that and nothing more; and she had been even more summary with a stock-broker's clerk who, flashing upon her all of a sudden, had pointed an unwavering forefinger toward a roseate, coruscating future, but who had finished his schooling at seventeen and had had neither time nor inclination since to make good his deficiencies. The first had just installed his bride in a house of significant breadth and pomposity, and the other, having detached himself from the parent office, was now executing a comet-like flight that set the entire town astare and agape.
"Well, that's nothing to me," said Virgilia disdainfully. "I couldn't have lived with either of them a month. I'm only twenty-six and I don't feel at all alarmed."
Then somebody or other had piloted her aunt Eudoxia toward the Temple of Art, and Eudoxia, after about so much of dawdling and of sipping and of nibbling and of gentle patronage and of dilettante comment and criticism through this studio and that, had opened up a like privilege to her niece. Together they had dawdled and sipped and suggested up one corridor and down another, and in due course they arrived at the studio of Daffingdon Dill, and presently they were as good as enrolled among the habitues of the place.
Eudoxia peered about among the tapestries and the sombre old furniture. "Yes, there she is over in the corner with Preciosa McNulty." Then she looked back toward Dill and sighed lightly. "I wonder how this thing is coming out? I wonder how I want it to come out? And I wonder how much responsibility I must really bear for the way it does come out?"