Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
She handed back her cup to Dill. "What are those two girls giggling about?" she asked him.
Dill snatched a moment from his cares as host. Little had he expected to hear Virgilia Jeffreys taxed with giggling.
Yet giggling she was,--with some emphasis and spirit too. She seemed to have slipped back from sedate and dignified young womanhood to mere flippant girlishness and not to have gained appreciably by the transition. Preciosa McNulty, still a girl and giving no immediate promise of developing into anything more, shared with her the over-cushioned disorder of the Persian canopy and giggled too.
Preciosa could laugh and chatter easily, volubly, spontaneously--all this, as yet, was the natural utterance of her being. But Virgilia was keeping pace with her, was even surpassing her. Yet she showed evidences of effort, of self-consciousness, of serious intention; now and then the arriere pensee disclosed its puckered front.
This, and nothing but this, could excuse Virgilia to-day. For she was too old to giggle, far too learned, much too sober-minded. Dill himself felt this, and shook his head in reply to Eudoxia Pence's question, as he stepped away for a moment to accompany a pair of gracious amateurs to the door.
A little figure that was passing rapidly along the corridor stopped on seeing the door ajar and waved a long supple hand and wagged a frizzly flaxen poll and gave a humorous wink out of his gray-green eyes and called unabashedly, before he resumed his skurrying flight:
"I've got 'em on the run, Daff; I've got 'em on the run!"
"Oh, that little O'Grady!" sighed Dill genteelly; "he is impossible; he will end with disgracing us. What can the fellow be up to now?" he wondered, closing the door, and preparing to return to his study of Virgilia Jeffreys.
"Your poor grandfather!--can't I fancy him!" Virgilia was saying to Preciosa. She gave a light dab at the other's muff with her long slender hand. "Dear, puzzled old soul!"--and she crinkled up her narrow green eyes.
"Can't you?" Preciosa laughed back. "'I don't know anything about such things,' grandpa insisted. 'Go and see Mr. Hill, young man, or Mr. Gibbons.' But the young man kept unrolling sheet after sheet. 'Grandpa,' I said, 'we shall miss the whole of the first act.' Then the young man had to go. He didn't want to, but he had to."
"The 'young man'!" laughed Virgilia, dandling a cushion. "Didn't he have any name?"
"Some queer one: Ig--Ig----I don't remember."
"Nor any address?"
"Some far-away street you never heard of."
"How ridiculous!" chirped Virgilia, throwing back her head. "Do let them give you another cup of tea or some more of those biscuits. Ask for what you want. Don't be backward, even if you are a newcomer."
"Dear me," said Preciosa; "don't tell me I'm bashful."
"Did his sketches amount to anything?" asked Virgilia, herself reaching for the biscuits.
"Well, there were plenty of them. By a quarter to eight they had covered all the tables and chairs and about two-thirds of the floor. There was every evidence of that young man's being after us--a regular siege. I have no doubt he was waiting outside all through dinner; he rang the bell the very minute poor unsuspecting grandpa turned up the gas in the front parlour. But that's nothing to the one just before him."
"What did he do?" asked Virgilia, with all her fine blonde intentness.
Preciosa threw back her mop of chestnut hair. "Followed grandpa all the way home and would hardly let him have his dinner. He had it this time, however. And then, as I say, he turned up the gas; and then----"
"And then the shower began?" suggested Virgilia, putting her delicate eyebrows through their paces.
"The downpour. I never knew anybody to talk faster, or give out more ideas, or wave his hands harder,--like this." Preciosa cast her muff away completely and abandoned her plump little fingers to unbridled pantomime. "The room was peopled--isn't that the way they say it, peopled?--in no time; a regular reception. There were ladies in Greek draperies seated on big cogged wheels with factory chimneys rising behind, and strong young fellows in leather aprons leaning against anvils and forges, and there were----"
"I know, I know," declared Virgilia, ducking her head into her cushion, with the effect of suppressing a shriek of laughter. "And more 'ladies' reading from scrolls to children standing at their knee. And all sorts of folks blowing trumpets and bestowing garlands; Commerce, Industry, Art, Manufacturing, Education, and the rest of them. Dear child! how good of you to call all these things 'ideas'! No wonder such novelties puzzled your poor dear grandfather!"
She clutched Preciosa's chubby little hand with her long white fingers, as if to squeeze from it an answering shriek.
But Preciosa contained herself. "And there was a lady engineer," she went on, after a short pause, "in a light blue himation--is that what they call it, himation?--and she was fluttering it out of the cab-window----"
"The Railway!" declared Virgilia, trying to laugh tears into her eyes.
"And one drawing showed a lot of Cupids nesting on top of a telegraph pole----"
"What did Jeremiah McNulty think of that?"
"--with their little pink heels dangling down just as cute----"
"In a bank!" cried Virgilia, in a perfect transport of merriment. Preciosa, with whom a growing admiration for these abundant decorative details seemed to be overlaying her sense of fun, stopped in her account and then complaisantly gave forth the laugh that Virgilia seemed to expect.
"Oh, these young men!" exclaimed Virgilia, with a gasp and a gurgle to indicate that the limit was nearly reached; "these young men whom you never heard of, whose names you can't pronounce, and who live you don't know where! They will be too much for your poor grandfather. Let him escape them while he can. He is too old and too busy for such annoyances. Let him find some other young man whose name is known and whose studio is in a civilized part of the town and who has done some rather good work for some rather nice people." Virgilia crinkled up her eyes in a little spasm of confidential merriment and then opened them on her surroundings--the rich sobriety of the furniture; the casual picturesque groupings of "nice people"; the shining tea-urn flanked by the candles in their fluted paper shades; the heavy gilded frames inclosing copies made by Dill in the galleries of Madrid and St. Petersburg; other canvases set against the base-boards face back so as at once to pique and to balk curiosity with regard to the host's own work; the graceful dignity of Dill himself, upon whom Virgilia's eyes rested last yet longest.
"I might mention Mr. Dill to grandpa," said Preciosa, with returning seriousness. This, her first intrusion into the strange, rich world of art, had rather impressed her, after all; such novel hospitality really required some acknowledgment.
"Do," said Virgilia, now in quite a gale. "Don't drink his tea for nothing! And if it's 'ideas' that are wanted," she went on, as she grasped Preciosa lightly by both shoulders and gave her a humorous shake, "this is the shop!"
Preciosa paused for a moment's consideration. She was not sure that Virgilia knew her well enough to shake her, nor had she supposed that Virgilia was giddy enough to shake anybody. Neither was she sure that what she most wanted was to ridicule the facile and voluminous sketches spread out so widely and so rapidly by that young man with the burning eyes and the quick, nervous hands and the big shock of wavy black hair. Still, it was as easy to laugh as not to laugh; besides, which of the two might better set the tone, and authoritatively? Virgilia, surely; by reason of her age--she was some six or eight years the senior, by reason of her stature--she was several inches the taller, and by reason of her standing as an habituee--surely she must know how to behave in a studio. So Preciosa tossed her pretty little head, and laughed, as she felt herself expected to.
"The shop, yes," she acquiesced gaily. "And if I come again----"
"If?" repeated Virgilia, raising her eyebrows archly.
"And when I come again," amended Preciosa, rising, "I might bring grandpa with me. I'm sure all this would be new to him."
"Do, by all means," cried Virgilia. "And don't be too long doing it. We won't keep him from his food and drink; we won't worry his poor tired brain, if we can help it; we won't give him ladies seated beneath factory chimneys; we won't----You are going? Goodbye, dear. So glad to have met you here. Aunt and I drop in quite frequently, and you should learn to do so too."
She gave Preciosa a parting smile, then composed her features to a look of grave intentness and turned about to impose this look upon Daffingdon Dill wherever found.
Her eyes found him on the opposite side of the room, in company with her aunt. Both of them were studying her with some seriousness and some surprise. Virgilia, having already resumed her customary facial expression, now took on her usual self-contained manner as well and crossed over to them.