Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
The Bunnies could hardly believe their eyes when, one day, Mrs. Palmer Pence came rolling into the Burrow. She was well enough known indeed at the "rival shop"--by which the Bunnies meant a neighbouring edifice loftily denominated the Temple of Art, a vast structure full of theatres and recital-halls and studios and assembly-rooms and dramatic schools; but this was the first time she had favoured the humbler building, at least on the formal, official Saturday afternoon. Long had they looked for her coming, and now at last the most desirable of all the desirable people was here.
"Ah-h-h!" breathed Little O'Grady, who made reliefs in plastina.
It was for Mrs. Palmer Pence that the samovar steamed to-day in the dimly lighted studio of Stephen Giles, for her that the candles fluttered within their pink shades, for her that the white peppermints lay in orderly little rows upon the silver tray, for her that young Medora Giles, lately back to her brother from Paris, wore her freshest gown and drew tea with her prettiest smile. Mrs. Pence was building a new house and there was more than an even chance that Stephen Giles might decorate it. He held a middle ground between the "artist-architects" on the one hand and the painters on the other, and with this advantageous footing he was gradually drawing a strong cordon round "society" and was looking forward to a day not very distant when he might leave the Burrow for the Temple of Art itself.
Mrs. Pence sat liberally cushioned in her old carved pew and amiably sipped her tea beneath a jewelled censer and admired the dark beauty of the slender and graceful Medora. Presently she became so taken by the girl that (despite her own superabundant bulk) she must needs cross over and sit beside her and pat her hand at intervals. In certain extreme cases Eudoxia was willing to waive the matter of comparison with other women; but to find herself seated beside a man of lesser bulk than herself seriously inconvenienced her, while to realize herself standing beside a man of lesser stature embarrassed her most cruelly. As she was fond of mixed society, her liberal figure was on the move most of the time.
She was too enchanted with Medora Giles to be able to keep away from her, but the approach of Adrian Bond--he was a great studio dawdler--presently put her to rout. For Adrian was much too small. He was spare, he was meagre; he was sapless, like his books; and the part in his smoothly plastered black hair scarcely reached to her eyebrows. She felt herself swelling, distending, filling her place to repletion, to suffocation, and rose to flee. She was for seeking refuge in the brown beard of Stephen Giles, which was at least on a level with her own chin, when suddenly she perceived, in a dark corner of the place, a tower of strength more promising still--a man even taller, broader, bulkier than herself, a grand figure that might serve to reduce her to more desirable proportions.
"Who is he?" she asked Giles, as she seized him by the elbow. "Take me over there at once."
Giles laughed. "Why, that's Joyce," he said. "He's got so that he looks in on us now and then."
"Joyce? What Joyce?"
"Why, Joyce. The one, the only,--as we believe."
"Abner Joyce? This Weary World? The Rod of the Oppressor?"
"Exactly. Let me bring him over and present him."
"Whichever you like; arrange it between Mohammed and the Mountain just as you please." She looked over her shoulder; little Bond was following. "Waive all ceremony," she begged. "I will go to him."
Giles trundled her over toward the dusky canopy under which Abner stood chafing, conscious at once of his own powers and of his own social inexpertness. In particular had he looked out with bitterness upon the airy circulations of Adrian Bond--Adrian who smirked here and nodded there and chaffed a bit now and then with the blonde Clytie and openly philandered over the tea-urn with the brunette Medora. "That snip! That water-fly! That whipper-snapper! That----"
Abner turned with a start. A worldly person, clad voluminously in furs, was extending a hand that sparkled with many rings and was composing a pair of smiling lips to say the pleasant thing. This attention was startlingly, embarrassingly sudden, but it was welcome and it was appropriate. Abner was little able to realize the quality of aggressive homage that resided in Mrs. Pence's resolute and unconventional advance, but it was natural enough that this showy woman should wish to manifest her appreciation of a gifted and rising author. He took her hand with a graceless gravity.
Mrs. Pence, upon a nearer view, found Abner all she had hoped. Confronted by his stalwart limbs and expansive shoulders, she was no longer a behemoth,--she felt almost like a sylph. She looked up frankly, and with a sense of growing comfort, into his broad face where a good strong growth of chestnut beard was bursting through his ruddy cheeks and swirling abundantly beneath his nose. She looked up higher, to his wide forehead, where a big shock of confident hair rolled and tumbled about with careless affluence. And with no great shyness she appraised his hands and his feet--those strong forceful hands that had dominated the lurching, self-willed plough, those sturdy feet that had resolutely tramped the miles of humpy furrow the ploughshare had turned up blackly to sun and air. She shrank. She dwindled. Her slender girlhood--that remote, incredible time--was on her once more.
"I shall never feel large again," she said.
How right she was! Nobody ever felt large for long when Abner Joyce happened to be about.