Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
While Ignace Prochnow was busy in adjusting science, democracy and progress to the requirements of finance, Preciosa, in whose behalf this great work had been undertaken, was lunching with Virgilia Jeffreys at the Whip and Spur. A mild, snowless season and dry firm roads had induced the managers of this club to try the experiment of reopening for the remainder of the winter: surely enough devotees of out-of-door activity, desirous of filling in the weeks that intervened between now and spring, must exist to make the step worth while.
At first Preciosa had had her doubts. But Virgilia had known how to execute a cordial grasp with her cold slim hand and how to put a warm friendly look into those cool narrow eyes. After all, Preciosa was not one to hold a grudge; besides, she could think of none of those cutting things she had once wished to say.
Virgilia had asked Elizabeth Gibbons, from whom she had heard the particulars about the portrait, and whom she hoped to bring round even if she had not succeeded with the girl's father. She had asked Dill too, and his sister Judith, both of whom were to show themselves very gracious and winning with the granddaughter of Jeremiah McNulty and the supporter of a rival painter. And she had added two or three other young men, who might be expected to appreciate this chance of making a fresh, youthful addition to their own limited and tiresome circle. There was a crackling fire in the big dining-room chimney-place; and three or four other little parties, scattered about, helped to remove some of the empty chill from the great, bare, shining place so full of disused chairs and tables.
Preciosa, who somehow found it impossible to take the thing simply, was decked out to considerable effect; most of the other young women struck her as rather underdressed, and she wondered that they could seem so very much at home. She felt they viewed her, as they passed, first with a slight curiosity (giving questioning glances that referred the matter to their sweet, whimsical Virgilia), and then with a slighting indifference. Clearly, in their eyes, she was here for just this once; she would not occur again, and they need not bother Virgilia by asking reasons. Preciosa began to feel very cold and lonely.
But Virgilia had no idea of permitting any such effect as this. She had been very gracious all the way out, and now she stared her inquiring friends into the background and worked with redoubled vigour to restore Preciosa's circulation. The fire helped; so did the good cheer--including some excellent bouillon; and so did the rattling remarks of the two or three young men, who were not at all overcome by Preciosa and who treated her with an ingenuously condescending informality that she took for the friendliest goodwill.
But most of all was the dear child affected by the confidential hints and whisperings of Virgilia, as they came to her in the wardrobe, or before the great fireplace, or across the corner of the table itself, or up in the bay-window, overlooking the gray lake, where they cosily took their coffee. This delightful function, Virgilia as much as intimated, might be but the beginning of many; this, if little Preciosa rightly understood, was only the withdrawal of the first of the filmy, silvery curtains that intervened between her and the full splendour of society. Virgilia murmured of the present opening of the golf season--it would come early this year; and she did not stop with proposing Preciosa for the Knockabout (which was good enough for a certain sort of people), but even suggested the possibility of her little friend's reception within her own club, the Fairview itself. She had charming acquaintances too, it delicately transpired, who had taken an opera-box for the season, but who were kept away from it by a sudden death in the family; and she, Virgilia, had the use of the tickets as freely as another. Certain dear friends of hers, she added, were expecting to give a cotillon next month--and why should they call her friend if she were not at liberty to ask cards for a friend or two of her own? And it was an easy probability, she intimated further, that Mamma McNulty might receive the honour of a call from one lady or another of the Pence connection and even be invited to assist at her aunt's charity bazar for the benefit of the Well-Connected Poor....
Yes, the veils lifted one by one, and the shining heavenly host of society drew nearer and nearer. And finally, as in the Lohengrin Vorspiel, the surcharged moment came when the violins, though pushed to their utmost, could go no further, and the clashing cymbals took up the bursting tale. The last clouds rolled away, the Ultimate Effulgence was revealed, and Preciosa McNulty was vouchsafed a vision of herself as the central figure in a blinding apocalypse: she was pouring tea at one of Mrs. Palmer Pence's authentic Thursday afternoons, with the curtains drawn, the candles glimmering, the right girls lending their aid, the street outside blocked with shimmering carriages, and the great ones of the earth saying to an alien, inexperienced little nonentity, "No lemon, thank you," or, "Another lump of sugar, please,"--a palpitating child who felt that now it but rested with her to readjust her halo and clap her wings and soar onward and upward with the departing host toward the realm of glory.
Preciosa was in a glow. She forgot the nippy ride out through the bare, bleak suburbs, and the weltering waste of the raw gray lake just below, and the cold glare from the dozens of disused table-tops, and the cool stares of people who wondered why she was here. Let them but wait a little, and they might soon meet her elsewhere.
Then Virgilia took Preciosa up into the bay-window on the landing and set her to sipping her coffee and delicately indicated to her the price she was to pay. She spoke of Mr. Dill's recognised primacy among the city's painters, and of the exertions by which he had won his place. She reminded Preciosa that he, as a fact, had been the first to take up and study the great problem proposed by the Grindstone, and that both professional courtesy and plain, everyday honesty forbade his summary supplanting by another. Preciosa listened with lowered eyes,--eyes that once or twice slid down the stairs and rested upon the prepossessing young gentleman for whom this plea was made. She felt that she was trapped; Virgilia Jeffreys had set a snare for her once more. She was conscious of the sidelong glance out of Virgilia's narrow green eyes, and of Virgilia's sharp nose and vibrating nostrils and fine intent eyebrows; they were all at work upon her to subdue her to Virgilia's will. She felt very feeble, very defenceless, greatly embarrassed, thoroughly uncomfortable. She thought suddenly of Medora Joyce, with her long bottle-green cloak and her friendly face. Why were not more of the "nice" people powers in the social world? Why must the gates be kept by the selfish, the insincere, the calculating? Medora, she felt sure, would have lent a hand without asking one to give up, in return, one's own thumb and forefinger....
There was a sudden stir outside--the sound of crunching wheels and grinding machinery and escaping steam. The two girls looked down from the bay. A bulky figure got out of an automobile, gave a command or two in a peremptory tone, entered the house and made his wants known to the steward.
"H'm," said Virgilia; "one of the Morrells."
The newcomer picked up all the men available and invited them to assist in his libations. Robin Morrell, the second of the Twins, had passed an active forenoon in the popularization of those unequalled certificates, and now he was more than willing to spend money freely in the eyes of the right people. Everybody he had approached earlier had met his views as to the value of those documents (they were at two-hundred-and-thirty, or some such incredible figure)--including a bank president or so, who had accepted them as collateral on this basis; and all whom he invited, or summoned, now (refusal seemed impossible), must needs show a like unanimity in sharing his pleasures. He was big and red, and took up a great deal of room. By contrast, Daffingdon Dill looked more of a gentleman than ever.
"He's like his brother--just!" said Virgilia to herself. "Imagine!" she added elliptically.
While Morrell collected the men and impressed his very urgent and particular demands upon the intimidated steward, Virgilia, leaving Preciosa, bestowed a few moments' exertions upon Elizabeth Gibbons. Virgilia gently but decidedly held the girl's father up to reprobation. Elizabeth professed herself utterly shocked by this disclosure of her parent's divagations and conveyed the impression that he should be brought back into the right path and should turn from Prochnow and all his works.
"What sort of a thing did he make of it?" asked Virgilia, thinking of the portrait.
"Why, really, do you know, it came out very well."
"What kind of a person is he?"
"Clever enough, I should say; but not by any means what you would call a gentleman."
"Um," murmured Virgilia darkly. How could anybody be interested in a painter that was not a gentleman? This was more than she could understand. "Don't let it go any further, dear," she counselled gently.
"Certainly not," said Elizabeth promptly, and put the matter out of her mind for once and for all.
After Morrell had imposed himself upon the men he turned his attention to the women. Virgilia had always impressed him as a trifle meagre and acidulous, and Elizabeth Gibbons had never impressed him at all; but he instantly caught at the flamboyant and high-charged beauty of little Preciosa McNulty. However, she was too chill and lonely once more to be greatly affected by the blusterous gallantries of this prosperous swain. She was very subdued in her acceptance of his heavy attentions;--"more so than I should--well, than I should have expected," as he himself observed. Really, she was too young for so much poise, too "temperamental," by every indication of her physiognomy, for such complete self-control.
"I say, she has a very good tone, do you know," he took occasion to remark to Dill. And he spoke as a man whose authority in such delicate matters was beyond dispute. There is only one way to impress the pusher, and that way Preciosa had unconsciously taken. The more she repulsed him the more worthy he thought her. "I must see her again, somewhere," he decided.
"Millions," whispered Virgilia to Preciosa, behind Robin Morrell's broad back. "Quite one of us. And you can see for yourself how immensely he is taken with you."
Yes, here was something more glorious even than the Thursday tea.
On the way home Preciosa was quiet and thoughtful. Her mother, devoured by a hungry curiosity and a sharp solicitude, plied her with questions. Whom had she met? What had they said and done? How had they dressed and acted? For the love of heaven, names, descriptions, particulars!
Preciosa looked back at her mother and held an unbroken silence.