Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
"Do you take her money--such money?" Abner asked of Giles with severity. Eudoxia had returned to Medora and the samovar.
"Such money?" returned Giles. "Is it different from other money? What do you mean?"
"Isn't her husband the head of some trust or other?"
"Why, yes, I believe so: the Feather-bed Trust, or the Air-and-Sunlight Trust--something of that sort; I've never looked into it closely."
"Yet you accept what it offers you."
"And give a good return for it. Yes, she had paid me already for my sketches--a prompt and business-like way of doing things that I should be glad to encounter oftener."
Abner shook his head sadly. "I thought we might come to be real friends."
"And I hope so yet. Anyway, it takes a little money to keep the tea-pot boiling."
Abner drifted back to the shelter of his canopy and darkly accused himself for his acceptance of such hospitality. He ought to go, to go at once, and never to come back. But before he found out how to go, Clytie Summers came along and hemmed him in.
Clytie was not at all afraid of big men; she had already found them easier to manage than little ones. Indeed she had pretty nearly come to the conclusion that a lively young girl with a trim figure and a bright, confident manner and a fetching mop of sunlit hair and a pair of wide, forthputting, blue eyes was predestined to have her own way with about everybody alike. But Clytie had never met an Abner Joyce.
And as soon as Clytie entered upon the particulars of her last slumming trip through the river wards she began to discover the difference. She chanced to mention incidentally certain low-grade places of amusement.
"What!" cried Abner; "you go to theatres--and such theatres?"
"Surely I do!" cried Clytie in turn, no less disconcerted than Abner himself. "Surely I go to theatres; don't you?"
"Never," replied Abner firmly. "I have other uses for my money." His rules of conduct marshalled themselves in a stiff row before him; forlorn Flatfield came into view. Neither his principles nor his practice of making monthly remittances to the farm permitted such excesses.
"Why, it doesn't cost anything," rejoined Clytie. "There's no admission charge. All you have to do is to buy a drink now and then."
"Buy a drink?"
"Beer--that will do. You can stay as long as you want to on a couple of glasses. Lots of our girls didn't take but one."
"Yes, the whole class went. We found the place most interesting--and the audience. The men sit about with their hats on, you know, in a big hall full of round tables, drinking and smoking----"
"And you mixed up in such a----?"
"Well, no; not exactly. We had a box--as I suppose you would call it; three of them. Of course that did cost a little something. And then Mr. Whyland bought a few cigars----"
"Yes, he was with us; he thought there ought to be at least one gentleman along. He couldn't smoke the cigars, but one of the girls happened to have some cigarettes----"
"Yes, and we found their smoke much more endurable. That was the worst about the place--the smoke; unless it was the performance----"
"Oh!" said Abner, with a groan of disgust.
"Well, it wasn't as bad as that!" returned Clytie. "It was only dull and stale and stupid; the same old sort of knockabouts and serio-comics you can see everywhere down town, only not a quarter so good--just cheap imitations. And all those poor fellows sat moping over their beer-mugs waiting, waiting, waiting for something new and entertaining to happen. I never felt so sorry for anybody in my life. We girls about made up our minds that we would get together a little fund and see if we couldn't do some missionary work in that neighbourhood--hire some real good artists"--Abner winced at this hideous perversion of the word--"hire some real good artists to go over there and let those poor creatures see what a first-class show was like; and Mr. Whyland promised to contribute----"
"Stop!" said Abner.
Clytie paused abruptly, astonished by his tone and by the expression on his face. The flush of innocent enthusiasm and high resolve left her cheek, her pretty little lips parted in amaze, and her wide blue eyes opened wider than ever. What a singular man! What a way of accepting her expression of interest in her kind, of receiving her plan for helping the other half to lead a happier life! Adrian Bond, a dozen, a hundred other men would have known how to give her credit for her kindly intentions toward the less fortunate, would have found a ready way to praise her, to compliment her....
Abner Joyce had a great respect for woman in general, but he entertained an utter detestation of anything like gallantry; in his chaste anxiety he leaned the other way. He was brusque; he often rode roughshod over feminine sensibilities. He was very slightly influenced by considerations of sex. He viewed everybody asexually, as a generalized human being. He dealt with women just as he dealt with men, and he treated young women just as he treated older ones. He treated Clytie just as he treated Eudoxia Pence, just as he would have treated Whyland himself--but with a little added severity, called forth by her peculiar presence and her specific offence. He brought her to book just as she deserved to be brought to book--a girl who went to low theatres and wore frizzled yellow hair and made eyes at strangers and took her share in the heartless amusements of plutocrats.
"Why, what is it?" asked Clytie. "Don't you think we ought to try to understand modern social conditions and do what we can to improve them? If you would only go through some of those streets in the river wards and into some of the houses--oh, dear me, dear me!"
But Abner would none of this. "Do you think your river wards, as you call them, are any worse than our barn-yard in the early days of March? Do you imagine your cheap vawdyville theatres are any more tiresome than our Main Street through the winter months?"
No, Abner's thoughts had been focused too long on the wrongs of the rural regions to be able to transfer themselves to the sufferings and injustices of the town. He saw the city collectively as the oppressor of the country, and Leverett Whyland, by reason of Clytie's innocent prattle, became the city incarnate in a single figure.
"I know your Mr. Whyland," he said. "I've met him; I know all about him. He lives on his rents. His property came to him by inheritance, and half its value to-day is due to the general rise brought about by the exertions of others. He is indebted for food, clothing and shelter to the unearned increment."
"Lives on his rents? Is there anything wrong in that? So do I, too--when they can be collected. And if you talk about the unearned increment, let me tell you there is such a thing as the unearned decrement."
"Nonsense. That's merely a backward swirl in a rushing stream."
"Not at all!" cried Clytie, now in the full heat of controversy. "If you were used to a big growing city, with all its sudden shifts and changes, you would understand. Even the new neighbourhoods get spoiled before they are half put together--builders treat one another so unfairly; while, as for the old ones--why, my poor dear father is coming to have row after row that he can't find tenants for at all, unless he were to let them to--to objectionable characters."
Clytie threw this out with all boldness. The matter was purely economic, sociological; they were talking quite as man to man. Abner brought every woman to this point sooner or later.
As for the troubles of landlords, he had no sympathy with them. And to him the most objectionable of all "objectionable characters" was the man who had a strong box stuffed with farm mortgages--town-dwellers, the great bulk of them. "Oh, the cities, the cities!" he groaned. Then, more cheerfully: "But never mind: they are passing."
"Passing? I like that! Do you know that eighteen and two-thirds per cent of the population of the United States lives in towns of one hundred thousand inhabitants and above, and that the number is increasing at the rate of----"
"They are disintegrating," pursued Abner stolidly. "By their own bulk--like a big snowball. And by their own badness. People are rolling back to the country--the country they came from. Improved transportation will do it." The troubles of the town were ephemeral--he waved them aside. But his face was set in a frown--doubtless at the thought of the perdurable afflictions of the country.
"Don't worry over these passing difficulties that arise from a mere temporary congestion of population. They will take care of themselves. Meanwhile, don't sport with them; don't encourage your young friends to make them a vehicle of their own selfish pleasures; don't----"
Clytie caught her breath. So she was a mere frivolous, inconsequential butterfly, after all. Why try longer to lend the Helping Hand--why not cut things short and be satisfied with the Social Triumph and let it go at that? "I was meaning to ask you to dine with me some evening next week at a settlement I know, but now...."
"I never 'dine,'" said Abner.