Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
Dill passed out into the cool starry night to recover his breath and to regain his composure. It was as if he had struggled through a whirlpool or had wrenched himself away from the downpour of a cataract. Virgilia's interest, her enthusiasm, her co-operation had reared itself above him and toppled over on him just like a high, ponderous wall; the bricks bruised him, the dust of scattered mortar filled his lungs and his eyes. "Such a mind!" he thought; "such readiness; such a fund of information!" Never before had anybody offered so panting, so militant a participation in his doings. He doubted too whether Virgilia could ever have felt so extreme an interest in the doings of any other man whomsoever. Certainly it was a fair surmise that Richard Morrell, during the formative period of the Pin-and-Needle Combine, had never so succeeded in enlisting her sympathy and support,--otherwise she would not have turned him off in the summary fashion that had kept society smiling and gossiping for a fortnight.
As Daffingdon walked thoughtfully down the quiet street a deep sense of gratitude stirred within him--he felt himself prompted to the most chivalrous of acknowledgments. He saw himself taking her hand--with such deliberation as to preclude any shock of surprise, and looking into her eyes as ardently and earnestly as good taste would permit; and heard himself saying, in a voice as tremulous with passion as the voice of a well-bred gentleman could be allowed to become, such things as should make quite unmistakable his appreciation of her qualities both as an amateur and a woman. Certainly if this great undertaking went through he should be able to say all that was in him and to maintain it to the last word. She had turned a deaf ear to others, but there was reason to think she might listen to him.
Then all at once the magnitude of the scheme rose before him; such a vast expenditure of time on books of plates in libraries--and weeks and months to be devoted to sketches, to compositions, to colour-schemes of this sort and that; such a tremendous outlay for models, for costumes, for multifarious accessories! But as Daffingdon gradually pulled himself together, a comforting little sense of flattery came to soothe his bruises and to clear his eyes. Yes, she believed in him. This brilliant and learned young woman had impetuously placed her boundless stores of erudition at his disposal; she had loaded the work of twenty men on his shoulders and was confidently expecting him to carry off the whole vast undertaking with jaunty ease. He must not fail. Fortunately, she was willing to admit the co-operation of a few of his brother artists.
Dill laid her plan--their plan--before two or three of his own guild, experimentally. They gaped at it as a plainsman would gape at the Himalayas. Nor was it, as has been said, the smallest of mouthfuls to himself. However, the distinguished assistance of a young woman of fashion, means and cultivation was not a matter to hide under a bushel; besides, some firm, concrete scheme must be put promptly before the Nine Old Men of the Bank before they should have glued their desires undetachably upon some crude, preposterous plan of their own.
"It would cost like smoke," said Giles, "but it's an idea."
"Let's try it on," said the Academy professor. "It would show us as on deck and would help us to take their measure. Who knows but it might be the means of staving off a series of medallion portraits of the board themselves!"
"An idea, yes," reiterated Giles. "But it lays out a terrible lot of work for us. Such a job would be enormous."
"Tackle it," said Abner Joyce. He claimed as a matter of course the right to be present at such conferences. Joyce himself had the strength and the pluck to tackle anything.
"Well, let's try it on," assented Giles. "We've got to cut in first, that's sure--if we can. Come, let's put out our feelers."
This was more or less in harmony with Virgilia's parting advice. "Show them to themselves in historical perspective," she had suggested to Dill in bidding him good-night at the front door,--"the last link in one long, glittering chain. Flatter them; associate them with the Romans and Venetians--bring in the Assyrians if need be. Tell them how the Bardi and the Peruzzi ruled the roost in old Florence. Work in Sir Thomas Gresham and the Royal Exchange--ruffs, rapiers, farthingales, Drake, Shakespeare and the whole 'spacious' time of Elizabeth. Make them a part of the poetry of it--make them a part of the picturesqueness of it. That will bring Mr. Gibbons around easily enough, and ought to budge two or three of the others."
Daffingdon took his great scheme to the bank, but it failed to charm. Andrew P. Hill poked at Daffingdon's neatly drawn-up memorandum with a callous finger and blighted it with an indifferent look out of a lack-lustre eye. The mensarii of Rome and the trapezites of Athens seemed a long way off. The picturesque beginnings of the Bank of Genoa left him cold. The raid of the Stuart king on the Tower mint appeared to have very little to do with the case. And Jeremiah McNulty, who happened to be about the premises, showed himself but slightly disposed to fan Hill's feeble interest to a flame.
"This is not just what we want," said Hill. "It is not at all what any of us had in mind. It is very little in accord, I must say, with the ideas I gave you last week. I don't think it will do. Still, if you want to get up some drawings to show about how it would come out, and bring them around in a week or so...."
Daffingdon groaned inwardly; after all, they were wedded to their own notion. He explained to them the unfairness of their proposal--detailing the cost of models, the matter of draperies, the time required for study, the labours and difficulties of composition. To do experimentally what they were asking him to do would be to execute half the entire work on a mere chance.
"Well, we won't buy a pig in a poke," said old Jeremiah sturdily. He was now on the familiar chequered pavement of black and white and felt a good deal at home. "We've got to see what we're going to pay for. That's business."
"Never mind," said Andrew. "After all, we want something nearer to our own time and closer to our own town. We want to show ourselves loyal to the place where we've made our money. We want to put on record the humble beginnings of this great metropolis. The early days of our own city are plenty good enough for us."
"That's right," said Jeremiah. He saw himself a lusty young fellow of twenty-five, the proud new head of a contractor's shop, with his own lumber pile, a dozen lengths of sewer pipe, a mortar bed, a wheelbarrow or two and a horse and cart. No need of going farther back than that. Those early days were glorious and fully worthy to be immortalized.
"We want to make our new building talked about," said Hill. "We want every daily paper in town, and throughout the whole country, to be full of it. We want to make it an object of interest to every man, woman and child in our own community. When the little boys and girls come down Saturday morning to deposit their pennies--for we shall open a savings department that will welcome the humblest--we want them to learn from our walls the story of the struggles and the triumphs of their fathers' early days----"
"That's right," said Jeremiah again. "If you had lived here as long as I have, young man, you would understand that there's no need of going outside our own bor-r-ders for anything we may require."
"Yes, a great deal of history has been transacted on this site," said Hill,--"more than enough to meet the requirements of our present purpose. I have here"--he opened a drawer in one side of his desk and drew out a paper--"I have here a list of subjects that I think would do. Mr. McNulty and I drew it up together. Take it and look it over; it might be an----"
A shadow darkened the door. It was another interruption from the Morrell Twins. This time it was not Richard Morrell, but Robin, his brother. His pocket bulged with what seemed to be papers of importance, and his face signalled to Andrew P. Hill to clear the deck of lesser matters.
"--it might be an advantage to you," Andrew concluded. "This about represents our ideas; see what you can do with it."
Andrew passed the paper over to Jeremiah, and Jeremiah passed it on to Daffingdon with an expression of unalterable firmness and decision. "You must do something with this, if you are going to do anything for us at all," his air said. "It's this or nothing. It is our own idea; we're proud of it, and we insist upon it. Go."