Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
"Then I don't see but that he is about the man for us," said Roscoe Orlando Gibbons;--"at least he seems to provide a point for us to start from."
Jeremiah McNulty rescued some loose memoranda from the absent-minded pokings of his caller's plump forefinger and scratched his chin.
"You were pretty favourably impressed, weren't you?" asked Roscoe Orlando, leaning forward across the corner of the other's desk. "I was. I thought he had something in him, and something behind him. Seemed to me like a very dependable chap--for one in that line. These artists, you know,--erratic, notional, irresponsible. You never feel sure how you have them; you can't treat with them as you can with a downright, sensible, methodical business-man. I assure you I've heard the most astonishing tales about them. There's Whistley, for example--sort of sharp, perverse spoiled child, I should say. And the time my own brother-in-law had over the portrait painted by that man from Sweden! We've got to make up our minds to be patient with them, to humour them. But Dill, now----" Roscoe Orlando Gibbons ran his fingers through his graying whiskers and waited for Jeremiah's belated observation.
Jeremiah took his time in making it. He had accompanied his granddaughter to Daffingdon Dill's studio, but he was in no haste to formulate his impressions. His eyes were still blinking at the duskiness of the place, his nose was still sniffing the curious odour of burning pastilles, his ears were still full of the low-voiced chatter of a swarm of idle fashionables, and his feet (that humpy tiger-rug once passed) still had a lingering sense of the shining slipperiness of the brown polished floor. That floor!--poor Jeremiah had stood upon it as helpless as a cripple on a wide glare of ice, at a cruelly embarrassing disadvantage and wholly at the mercy of that original and anomalous person in the brown Van Dyck beard. Vainly had he cast about for something to lay hold of. None of the people there had he ever seen before; none of the topics bandied about so lightly and carelessly had he ever heard broached before. The sole prop upon which he had tried to repose his sinking spirit had looked indeed like an oak, but had turned out to be merely a broken reed. "That's the only man here," he had muttered, on looking across toward a stalwart, broad-shouldered figure standing half in the shadow of some frayed and discoloured drapery. "He's sort o' like one of those 'swells,' in that slick new coat and all, but I'll risk him." However, this robust young man had shown himself as prompt as any in his use of the teasing jargon of the place; he assumed on Jeremiah's part some interest and some knowledge and dogmatized as readily and energetically on the general concerns of culture as any of the others. Jeremiah, prostrate, soon moved away.
"Who is he--that tall young fellow over by that curtain?" he could not refrain from asking his granddaughter. How, he was thinking to himself,--how could such a big, vigorous young man betray such a range of trivial interests?
"Why, grandpa," Preciosa had returned reproachfully, "that's Mr. Joyce--Abner Joyce, the great writer. You've heard of him, surely?"
"H'm," said Jeremiah. He hadn't.
"And that lovely creature in the long, bottle-green coat," Preciosa went on, "is his wife. Isn't it stylish, though?--they're just back from London. Aren't they a splendid couple? And isn't she just the ideal type of the young matron----?"
Jeremiah touched bottom. It was all of a piece--everything was growing worse and worse. "Young matron," indeed!--where had his grandchild picked up that precious phrase? She was growing all too worldly-wise for his simple old mind. His abashed eyes turned away from her and began to blink at the twinkling candles on the tea-table; it stood there like an altar raised for the celebration of some strange, fearsome ritual--an incident in the dubious life toward which a heartless and ambitious daughter-in-law was pushing his poor little Preciosa. He almost felt like grasping her by the arm and bolting with her from the place.
But most uncertain of all these uncertainties had been the young painter himself. He could not be brought down to business. He dodged; he slipped away; he procrastinated. He wouldn't show his work; he wouldn't talk in figures; he wouldn't come within a mile of a contract. Instead, he slid about, asking people if they wouldn't have another biscuit, dropping a word to a lady here and there about Pater or Morelli (who were probably somewhere over there in the dark), confabulating determinedly with people who were pointed out as authors (more of them!), urging other people, who were musical, in the direction of the piano....
Some of these considerations Jeremiah haltingly placed before Roscoe Orlando.
"Oh, well," returned Roscoe, twiddling his fingers vaguely in the air, "you can't expect anything different on an 'afternoon.' There are occasions when a man must let down, must expand, must cultivate society a little. It was very much like that the first time I went there myself."
Roscoe Orlando's "first time" had been but a week before. Preciosa McNulty had communicated her novel impressions to his daughters, who, in turn, had commented on Preciosa's naivete in their father's hearing; then Roscoe Orlando, who had never hurt himself by overwork and who was developing a growing willingness to leave his maps and his plats and his subdivisions a little earlier in the afternoon, had determined to step round and patronize the new man.
"That we should never have met before!" said Roscoe Orlando to Daffingdon; "I can hardly credit it. Certainly it is no great thing in my own favour, for I really claim to know what is going on and to keep in touch with the better things. In my own defence I must say that I am an annual member of the Art Academy and that people who have etchings to sell invariably send me a copy of the catalogue. Your atelier is charming--most charming."
Roscoe Orlando was fat, florid and forty-eight, and as he began to expand he promised to take up a good deal of room. But Dill did not grudge the space when he learned that Roscoe Orlando was one of the directors of the Grindstone. Roscoe Orlando declared this with a broad, benevolent smile, accompanied by a confidential little gesture to indicate that a golden shower might soon descend and that it was by no means out of his power to help determine the favoured quarter.
"But this is no time to talk about that," declared Roscoe Orlando, casting an eye over the other visitors present. "I may drift in again before long and look at some of your things more seriously and have a little chat with you about our project."
Roscoe Orlando had somehow failed to drift in again, but he was now having the little chat--or trying to have it--with Jeremiah McNulty.
He looked across at the old man once more. "Yes, I rather think, after all, that if we were to try to arrange things with Dill we shouldn't be going much amiss."
Jeremiah scratched his chin slowly, and worked the tip of a square-toed boot against his waste-paper basket. "I dunno. It's a good deal of an undertaking," he declared.
"Surely," assented Roscoe Orlando. "Do we want it to be anything less? Don't we want to do something--a big thing, too--that will be a credit to ourselves and a real adornment to our city?"
Jeremiah puckered up his mouth and slowly blinked his little red eyes. "I've had one or two of those young painter fellows after me lately," he said in ruminative tone, as he picked at the green baize of his desk-top. He spoke with a slight querulousness, as if these wily and hardy adventurers had wilfully hit upon him as the weak spot in the defences, as the vulnerable point of the Grindstone. In particular he saw a pair of burning black eyes, a pair of eager, sinewy hands strewing drawings over the pink and gold brocades of his front parlour suite, and a shock of dark hair that swished about over a high square forehead as the work of hurried exposition raged along against a pitiless ticking of the marble-and-gilt clock and Preciosa's hasty adjustment of the green velvet toque.
"Haven't I had them after me!" cried Roscoe Orlando, jealous of his standing as an enlightened and sympathetic amateur. "But we ought to deal--really, we ought to--with painters of standing and responsibility, and no others. We must keep in mind such things as position, reputation, clientele. My partner, for example, once contracted--or tried to--for a large landscape of his stock-farm out beyond Glenwood Park; and the artist, sir----Well, you wouldn't believe the trouble we had before we got through. Our lawyer himself said that never in the whole course of his professional career had he----"
Jeremiah blinked and puckered a little more, and sighed as he abstractedly prodded among his pigeonholes. That slippery floor typified it all,--that dim room full of dusky corners! Ah, if he could only get that slim young man with the long coat and the pointed beard out on the black-and-white chequered pavement of the Grindstone, fair and square in the honest light of day! In such a situation a downright, straightforward old contractor could do himself something like justice. It would be playing a return match on his own ground.
"I dunno," said Jeremiah. "I'd 'most as soon not have anything to do with such matters and with that sort of people----"
He saw Dill as a dog might view a lizard, or a goat a swan; after all, there was no common ground for them--no way of coming together.
"But if it's got to be done," he concluded, "perhaps he would do as well to start with as anybody else."
"I think so," said Roscoe Orlando. "I'll speak about it in a day or so to Hill."