Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
Preciosa McNulty, after all, lost nothing of The Princess Pattie except half of the overture--a loss that, as operettas go, might indeed be counted a gain; but the succeeding activities of the prima donna, the ponderous basso and the brace of "comedians" were subject to a series of very sensible impediments and interruptions. Several times--and often at the most inopportune of moments--a swarthy, earnest young man walked across the stage, throwing out big sheets of brown paper right and left and looking at her and her alone. He wore one unvarying expression--a mingling of reproach and of admiration. His eyes said across the footlights: "You are a heartless, cruel little creature, but that green velvet hat looks amazingly well on your chestnut hair--so amazingly well that I almost forgive you. Yet an hour lost by you from the theatre is nothing, while an hour gained by me here in your home almost makes the difference between life and death." Yes, there the young man was, fifty feet away from her, yet she could plainly see the blood pulsing through his veined hands and could almost hear the ideas ticking in his brain. How they had ticked, to be sure, and clicked and clanked and jarred and rattled and rumbled--a perfect factory, a perfect foundry of ideas! Preciosa, who had never had a dozen ideas in her life, and had seldom encountered a human brain running full force and full time, was a good deal impressed. "I shouldn't wonder but what he was a pretty smart fellow, after all. It was rather sudden, the way I brought him up. Yes, I'm afraid I'm a real cruel girl," said Preciosa complacently, and reverted to the deplorable antics of the "comedians."
Within a day or two Preciosa began to notice the railway trains. Whenever she was detained at a "grade crossing" she caught herself looking at the locomotive to find a lady in a blue himation. Then the telegraph poles began to trouble her; she got into the habit of glancing aloft for nests of Cupids, and once or twice she thought she saw them. Then her father's letter-heads began to affect her. They sometimes lay carelessly about the house, and whenever she saw the tall chimney of his sash-and-blind factory looming above the blank date-line she always looked for a female in Greek drapery seated on a cogged wheel at the base of it.
"This won't do," she told herself. "Dear me, I don't even know his name. Why, for heaven's sake, didn't I pay better attention?"
Not knowing his name did not prevent her from thinking about him, nor even from talking about him. When Virgilia Jeffreys started her up, she went on because she couldn't stop and because she didn't want to, anyway. She would not deny herself that small comfort.
Preciosa was the pride and the hope of the McNultys--especially of her mother. This ambitious lady had lived long in obscurity--a prosperous, well-fed obscurity, but an obscurity all the same--and now she was tired of it and was rebelling against it and was meaning to emerge from it. Every inch of her tall, meagre figure was straining with the wish to attract attention; every feature of her thin, eager, big-eyed face showed forth the tense desire to shine. She realized that Preciosa was the only one of them who could raise the family to a higher level and bring it within range of the glamouring illumination of "society." The child's grandfather doted on her, true, but had never been quite able to leave behind him the lusty young peasant of the bogs. He had a regrettable taste in foot-gear, a teasingly uncertain fashion of lapsing back into his shirtsleeves at table, and a slight brogue that had stood a good deal of smothering without ever reaching the point of actually giving up the ghost. The girl's father lived and thought in terms of blinds and frames and panellings; he could never bring himself into sympathy with his wife's social yearnings or even realize the verity of their existence. Their boy was too young; besides, what can be done with a boy, anyway? As for herself, she had begun too late; she was a little too stiff, too diffident; society slightly intimidated her; she felt sure she could never hope to associate in easy, intimate fashion--even should the most abundant opportunity present--with the ladies whose names were so often printed in the papers. She might serve as a chaperon, a supernumerary, perhaps, but as a leading figure, no.
There remained only Preciosa. But Preciosa would suffice. So the child was bundled out at the earliest moment. She was made to fence at the Young Ladies' Athletic League, where the Gibbons girls went, and rather enjoyed it. She was made to study and discuss at the Philomathian Club, of which Virgilia Jeffreys was a shining light, and enjoyed it not at all. Then she began to go to musicales and dramatic matinees at the Temple of Art, finding a wide range of novel diversion at these little functions and making some acquaintances worth while. "And as soon as spring is fairly here," said her indefatigable mother, "she shall join a good golf club; and then things will really have begun to move."
But things had begun to move already. The fairest, topmost blossom on the family tree had set itself to swaying in the gentle breezes of sentiment, regardless of the dotings of the gnarled old root, of the indifference of the sturdy trunk, of the solicitous rustlings of the foliage. The blossom began to peer over and to look down, as if conscious of the honest, earthy odour of the dear lowly soil itself--though not, perhaps, the soil of the links. Preciosa was preparing to revert.
"No," she said again, "I don't even know his name."