Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
The Morrell Twins were among the newer powers. They had rolled up a surprisingly big fortune--if it was a fortune--in a surprisingly short time, and were looked up to as very perfect gentle knights by all the ambitious young fry of the "street." They were the head and front of the Pin-and-Needle Combine. They did not deal with the Grindstone only; they had made their business the business of half the banks of the town,--for how could these institutions be expected to stand out when all the investors and speculators of the street were pressing forward eager to add to their collections a few good specimens of the admirably engraved and printed certificates of the Combine, and more than willing to pay any price that anybody might ask? Some of the banks--the more fortunate among them--were attending to this business during business hours; others of them worked on it overtime, and one or two were beginning to work on it all night as well as all day. They worried. The Twins were not worrying nearly so much,--they knew they must be seen through.
The Twins had been grinding pins and needles for a year or two with striking acumen and dexterity. Sometimes Richard would turn the handle and Robin would hold the poor dull pins to the stone; and then again they would change places. Whichever arrangement happened to be in force, people said the work had never been done more neatly, more precisely. And now the Twins had enlarged their field and had begun to grind noses. They were showing themselves past masters in the art. They had all the legislation of nose-grinding at their fingers' ends; the lack of legislation, too, as well as the probabilities of legislation yet to come. They knew just how fast the wheel might be turned in this State, and just how close the nose might be held in that, and just how loud the victim must cry out before the Rescue Band might be moved to issue from some Committee Room to stop the treatment. They knew where nose-grinding was prohibited altogether, and they knew where enactments against it had thus far completely failed. They knew where the penalty was likely to be enforced, and they knew where it might be evaded. "Learn familiarly the whole body of legislative enactment, state by state, and then keep a little in advance of it,"--such was their simple rule.
No man is to be denied the right to profit by his own discovery, and so, though the glory of the Twins was envied, their right to luxuriate in it was seldom questioned. They were seen in all sorts of prominent and expensive places--at the opera, at the horse-show, on the golf links, and were very much envied and admired,--envied by other young men that were trying to do as they had done, but not succeeding; admired by multitudes of young women who felt pretty sure that to "have things," and to have them with great abundance and promptness and conspicuousness, was all that made life worth living. In this environment Richard Morrell could hardly fail to be fairly well satisfied with himself. To ask and to receive would come to the same thing. And so he spoke to Virgilia one crisp October morning, between the fifth and sixth holes in Smoky Hollow, and awaited in all confidence her reply. But Virgilia quickly made it plain that he would not do--not for her, at least. She was by no means one of the kind to be impressed by tally-ho coaches, however loudly and discordantly the grooms might trumpet, nor to be brought round by country-club dinners, however deafening the chatter or however preponderant the phalanx of long-necked bottles. So his raw, red face turned a shade redder still; and as he sat, later, on the club veranda, hectoring the waiter and scowling into his empty glass, he growled to himself in a thick undertone:
"What's the matter with the girl, anyway? If she doesn't want me, who does she want?"
Virgilia wanted, in a general way, an intimate and equal companionship, a trafficking in the things that interested her--the higher things, she sometimes called them to herself. She wanted a gentleman; she wanted cultivation, refinement--even to its last debilitating excess. What she wanted least of all was a "provider," a steward, an agent, a business machine. "We must live," she would say, looking forward toward her matrimonial ideal; "we mustn't let our whole life run out in a mere stupid endeavour to accumulate the means of living, and then find ourselves only beginning when at the finish:"--an idea held substantially by so different a young person as Preciosa McNulty, who was preparing to set aside her mother's careful ambitions and to take a step forward on her own account. Only, Preciosa was looking less for cultivation and gentility than for "temperament." Less the dry specialist, however successful in the accumulation of this world's goods, than the resonant adventurer that would bring her full chance at all the manifold haps and mishaps of life as it runs.
"Nothing more tedious than a set programme," declared Preciosa. "If my whole future were to be arranged for me to-morrow, I should want to die the day after. A whole play"--Preciosa was a most persevering little theatre-goer--"carried through with one stage-setting--how tiresome that would be!"