Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Dr. Gowdy and the Squash
Before Jared could catch up with the Doctor a new tidal wave broke upon the town and slopped through the corridors of the hotels. The provincials (both clerical and lay) were enticed to the metropolis by a "Trade Carnival." The Squash met them everywhere. Here, in the midst of the city's strange and shifting life, was something simple, tangible, familiar, appealing. Jared had had the happy thought to mount one or two of his best pieces on easels fitted out with a receptacle for holding a real squash. "Which is which?" cried the dear people, delightedly. The country merchants expressed their appreciation to the commercial travellers, and these factors in modern life, whose business it was to know what the "public wanted" and to act accordingly, passed on the word (casually, perhaps) to the heads of the great mercantile houses. In this way the eminent firm of Meyer, Van Horn, and Co. became conscious of the Squash.
Now, individually considered, the members of this firm made no great figure. Nobody knew Meyer from Adam. Nobody knew Van Horn from a hole in the wall. Who the "Co." might be there was nobody outside of certain trade circles that had the slightest notion. But collectively these people were a power. Except the street-railway companies, they were the greatest influence of the town. They paved the thoroughfares around their premises to suit themselves; they threw out show-windows and bridged alleys in complete disregard of the city ordinances; they advertised so extensively that they dictated the make-up of the newspapers, and almost their policy. Above all, they were the arbiters of taste, the directors of popular education. That they sold shoes, hardware, soda-water, and sofa-pillows to myriads was nothing; that they pulled your teeth, took your photograph, kept your bank account, was little more. For they supplied the public with ideas and ideals. They determined the public's reading by booming this book and barring that; their pianos clanged all day with the kind of music people ought to like and to buy; and the display in their fifteen great windows (during the Christmas season people came from the remotest suburbs expressly to see them) solidified and confirmed the popular notions on art.
Well, Meyer, Van Horn, and Co. had set their minds on having a "ten-thousand-dollar painting." It would be a good advertisement.
They sent for Jared.
"Ten thousand dollars!" gasped the young fellow. He saw the heavens opening. "Why, I could get up a great thing for that!"
"I guess you could!" retorted old Meyer brusquely. "You could do it for five hundred. That's what you will do it for, if you do it at all." He treated Jared with no more consideration than he would have given a peddler vending shoe-strings and suspenders from the curb.
"Why," said Jared, abashed, indignant, "you said ten thou----"
"Let me explain," put in Van Horn, a little less inconsiderately. "We want a ten-thousand-dollar painting, and we're willing to pay five hundred dollars for it."
"Who'd come to see a painting billed at five hundred dollars, do you think?" snarled Meyer. "Nobody. You can see that kind of thing anywhere, can't you?"
"I s'pose you can," assented Jared, mindful of his first exhibition.
"But ten thousand will fetch 'em."
"Five hundred dollars, then," said Van Horn; "that's what we'll give you. And it wants to be bigger than anything you've got on show anywhere, and the frame wants to be twice as wide. I suppose you've got plenty more of that fence left?"
"Yes," assented Jared.
"Well," said Meyer, "you'll never have a chance to realize any more on it than you've got right here. And don't economize with your seeds--stick 'em on good and plenty."
"We'll give you a whole window, or a place at the foot of the main stairs close to the fountain," proceeded Van Horn. "We put it out as a ten-thousand-dollar production and bill you big as the artist. Everybody in town will see it, and the advertising you'll get--why, ten thousand won't begin to express it."
"And we want you to put in a lot of farm stuff," said Meyer junior, whose taste in window-dressing had often roused the admiration of the entire town. "Vines and grasses, and a lot of squashes--real ones. I suppose you've got enough faith in your work to face the comparison?"
"I s'pose I have," said Jared. "I guess I've faced it before this."
"I want some real squashes on the frame too," said the elder Meyer, from whom the son's fine taste was directly derived. "Ever tried that?"
"In a small way," said Jared.
"Try it now in a large way. Half a squash, like a big rosette, on each corner of the frame--the half with the handle on it, y'understand." Meyer saw the squash as a kind of minor pumpkin.
"If I put it in the window," said the son thoughtfully, "I shall want some saw-horses and bushel baskets and----"
"Take 'em right out of stock," said his fond father.
--"something to make a real country scene, in fact. And possibly a farmer sitting alongside in jeans. Just the place for the artist himself. It might be better, though, to put the whole show by the fountain. In that case I'd have a band, and it would play, 'On the Banks of the Kankakee.'"
"Have you got that song on hand?" asked his father.
"It ain't written yet, but it will be inside of a week; and in a week more the whole town will be going wild over it, or my name----"
Van Horn cut short the youthful visionary. "Well," he said to Jared, "you hustle off and get the show together. Check for five hundred on delivery. And mum's the word," he added, with good-natured vulgarity, "on both sides."
"Ain't nobody ever said I talked too much," mumbled Jared, reaching for his hat.