Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
"Go? Of course we'll go!" said Little O'Grady spiritedly. "Anybody may go who's able to pay a dollar and who's got a friend to name him. I hope you and I can cough up as much as that, Ignace; and then if we have to live the rest of the week on sawdust, why, we will. Go? I guess yes. If I'm ever to make the Queen's acquaintance and get her profile, this is no chance to throw away."
Prochnow was in a deplorable state and needed all the support Little O'Grady could give him. He had not seen Preciosa for several days. He had called at the house once or twice--that vast florid pile, which had always looked lackadaisical rather than cruel; but it had refused to admit him. Euphrosyne had repulsed him with the utmost contumely; even old Jeremiah (who may not have meant to be harsh, but who seemed to be acting under superior orders) told him he must not appear there again. Nothing came to console him except three or four tear-stained little scrawls from Preciosa herself. In these she vowed in simple and slightly varying phrases to be faithful; nobody should come between them, nobody should make her untrue, nobody should prevent her from keeping her promise, nobody should take her away from him, and the like.
"What does it mean, Terence?" asked Prochnow, vastly perturbed by these blind reiterations.
Little O'Grady pondered. "Her folks are against us, that's all," he replied. "They're trying to marry her to somebody else," he told himself. "Who can it be?" Then, aloud and cheerfully: "If you can't see her at one house, why, just see her at another. Come along with you."
They found the town moving on Eudoxia Pence en masse, with several policemen in front to keep order. On the front steps they grazed elbows with the Joyces and the Gowans; and with these and other members of the general public they swept on, joining the vast throng of those who were so eager to press the great lady's Smyrna rugs with their own feet and fumble her silk hangings with their own fingers and rap her Japanese jars with their own knuckles and smell her new paintings with their own noses and see Mrs. Palmer Pence herself with their own eyes. "Gee! ain't it swell!" whispered Little O'Grady, who could make swans out of geese or geese out of swans with equal facility.
Prochnow ignored the swells, the jars, the pictures and all the rest; he sought only Preciosa. Little O'Grady was not in a new field for nothing, and he looked at everybody. First of all, there was the great Eudoxia herself, and her profile was as lovely as ever. When, when, when should he reach the point of modelling it? She stood there with a vain pretence of receiving,--she was too conventional to dispense with the recognised forms even on the occasion of a mere popular outpouring. Little O'Grady went up to her boldly and shook hands; he was outside the general understanding that made her, in so promiscuous a function, something to be looked at rather than touched--save by a few intimates. Only let him bring her within range of his aura, he thought, and her subjugation would inevitably follow. Then he stepped back and watched her. There was still a determined cordiality in her smile, but a furtive anxiety marked the glance she sent now and then into the second or third room beyond, where a pressing crowd and a subdued glare of candle-light seemed to indicate a focus of interest hardly second to the picture gallery itself. Little O'Grady caught this anxious look. "Is she afraid for her bric-a-brac or her spoons?" he wondered. "No, it's something more than that."
Beside Eudoxia stood Almira Hill,--"a mother in Israel, if ever there was one," O'Grady commented. "And what's the matter with her? Shy? Awkward? No, she's too old and experienced for that. There, she's looking in the same direction. Something's up. What is it?"
It was this: Almira's husband had told her that morning how it all depended upon Preciosa McNulty.
Roscoe Orlando Gibbons came through the crowd, with a great effect of smiling joviality. But he too glanced over the press of heads toward the glare of candle-light with a strained intensity not to be concealed.
Roscoe Orlando suddenly turned aside toward an old fellow who sat on a pink brocade sofa. "See, there's her grandfather," whispered Prochnow. Old Jeremiah had instinctively taken refuge on the one piece of furniture that reminded him of home. Here he sat, awkwardly twisting his hands and blinking every now and then at the great light that shone afar off. "I could never in the world have got him to anything resembling a dinner," declared Eudoxia. "He acts like a stray cat," said Little O'Grady. "But he needn't,--there seem to be plenty of the same sort here, after all." Yes, at a second glance old Jeremiah appeared to be less the victim of society than of circumstances; and when Roscoe Orlando Gibbons bowed over him and whispered and they both looked toward the illumination while Eudoxia Pence looked at them, Little O'Grady was surer than ever that something was in the air.
He felt Prochnow suddenly slipping behind him. "Her mother!" the young fellow explained. Yes, it was Euphrosyne in full fig and in very active circulation. She rustled, she swooped, she darted, she was as if on springs. "Well, she feels her oats," commented Little O'Grady. He looked at her again. No, what moved her was not vainglory, not a restless sense of triumph. She was keyed up to the most racking pitch of anxious expectation. She looked whither Eudoxia and Roscoe Orlando and all the others had looked, but with an intensified expression, and Little O'Grady almost felt as if challenged to solve some obscure yet widely ramified enigma.
He turned round as if in search of help. In a doorway near-by he saw another familiar face. "Why, there's Daff!" he cried. "It's Dill, our hated rival," he explained to Prochnow. "And that girl with him is Miss Jeffreys, the one he's going to marry."
Prochnow looked at the tall handsome figure in the long frock-coat with the bunch of violets, and felt abashed by his own short jacket and indifferent shoes. He noted too the assumption of ease and suavity with which the other was entertaining a little knot of ladies. It was this person, then, an out-and-out man of the world, against whom he, uncouth and unpractised boy, had presumed to pit himself!
Little O'Grady was not able immediately to detach Dill's attention from his associates. Meanwhile he studied both Dill and Virgilia. The general effect was brilliant enough, yet----Yes, surely they were too loquacious, too demonstrative; they were talking against time, they were working under cover, they were kicking up a dust. And, yes--both Daff and Virgilia, in the midst of this gay chatter, shot certain furtive, sidelong glances whither so many had been sent before.
The group in the doorway showed signs of breaking up. "Daff," said Little O'Grady, "for the Lord's sake, what's on?"
"Ah, O'Grady," said Dill, in a cool, formal manner; "are you here?" Since that calamitous episode at the bank, he had cared less than ever for O'Grady: they had been quite right in throwing him out. He had found it hard to tolerate his forwardness at the beginning of the negotiations, and to carry the burden of his Bohemian eccentricity through them; and harder still to pardon the slap-dash sally that had thrown the common fat into the fire. Now up popped the fellow, knowing him as intimately and familiarly as ever.
"Oh, Daff," said Little O'Grady earnestly, and all unmindful of any possible rebuff, "what's out in that room?"
Daffingdon smiled at Virgilia. "Why don't you go and see?" he asked.
"But don't break off the match!" said Virgilia, with a nervous titter. What state of overtension could have prompted her to a piece of bravado so rash, so superfluous?
Little O'Grady gave her one look and sped away.
After pushing through two or three roomfuls of tall people, he finally reached the desired threshold. He felt a hand upon his arm and found Prochnow beside him. They both saw the same sight together.
It was a table like Dill's--only larger, with candles on it--five times as many, and flowers--ten times as handsome, and silver and glass and china--only a hundred times more brilliant, and girls seated about it--a thousand times more fetching than poor sister Judith. Among them was Preciosa, with a big feathered hat toppling on her head and the desperate look of some hunted creature on her face. Yes, they had hung her with chains and tied her to the stake. "If she is to pour here, after all," Eudoxia had said grimly, "let her pay for the privilege." And close to the girl's elbow sat the chief inquisitor, Robin Morrell, big, bold, unabashed, persevering, bringing all possible pressure to force her to recant. People about them--his unconscious familiars--sipped and chattered, and fluttered up and away, but he remained fixed throughout. He must have her, he was determined to dominate her; in the end she could not but yield. There was no other way out for her, and none for him. And that sole way must be taken at once.
Little O'Grady recognised the red face, the broad shoulders, the thick neck, the heavy hand; he still felt those fingers in his collar, that palm against his ear. "A-a-ah!" he emitted in a long sibilant cry of repressed rage.
"Stay where you are a minute," he said to Prochnow, and slipped away. Ignace stared now at his rival in love just as before he had stared at his rival in art,--yet held in check both by the intimidating splendour of the ceremonial and by his own uncertainty as to the precise significance of the situation.
O'Grady hurried back to Dill. "Daff, Daff!" he cried with wide eyes and with a tremulous finger that pointed back toward the tea-table, "is that the man?"
"The big brute sitting beside her."
"Robin Morrell to a 't,'" said Virgilia. "Or Richard, either."
"Are they trying to make her marry him?" demanded Little O'Grady, his gray-green eyes staring their widest.
"That is the plan, I believe," returned Dill.
"It won't come off!" cried Little O'Grady, and dashed away.
He pushed and trampled his course back to Prochnow. In the library he brushed against Medora Joyce.
"Oh, Dodie," he panted, "they're sacrificin' our little Preciosa to that big brute of a Morrell!"
"I was afraid so," said Medora, with concern. "Stop it."
"I'm going to!" said O'Grady.
As he regained Prochnow's side Preciosa was just rising from the table, and Elizabeth Gibbons was slipping into her place. Preciosa left the room by another door, and Morrell walked close beside her.
He looked about the crowded place with an air that was both determined and desperate. People here, there, everywhere; the rabble swarmed in the library, the morning-room, the den, chattering, staring, gaping, wondering. It was disgusting, it was barbarous, it made matters impossible. Every corner bespoken, every angle occupied. Nothing left save a nook under the great stairway--a nook shaded by dwarf palms, however, and not too open to the general eye. He half led, half crowded Preciosa toward it. He should speak now, a second time, and trust to bear her down.
He spoke a second time, and a second time Preciosa refused. She had but one idea,--an idea a bit obscured by Prochnow's absence,--yet she held it fast.
"You will not marry me, then?"
"You have a reason?"
"What is it?"
"I am engaged to marry some one else."
"Who is he?"
Prochnow appeared in the hall, with Little O'Grady close behind him. Little O'Grady's mobile face was taxed to the utmost to express all that was within him, but Preciosa saw sympathy and the promise of instant help as clearly as Morrell saw detestation and mocking mischievousness. O'Grady pushed aside a palm-frond and pointed toward Prochnow. "We've come for you, darlin'," he said.
Preciosa rose; the one idea to which she had clung throughout came uppermost and crystallized before her eyes. "Who is he?" Morrell had asked. She raised her arm, pointed to Ignace like a true little heroine of the drama, and said:
"There he stands!"
She went out to meet them, and the three instinctively began to push toward the front door. She had her hat--never mind her jacket. Dill saw them moving away and bit his lip. Roscoe Orlando Gibbons grasped a door-jamb for support. A smothered scream was heard behind the palms; it was Euphrosyne McNulty, fainting away, as Preciosa, Prochnow and Little O'Grady went out through the vestibule and down the front steps together.