Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
"I should be so glad to have you call." Mrs. Pence was peering about among the lanterns and tapestries and the stirring throng with the idea of picking up Clytie and taking leave. "My niece is staying with me just now, and I'm sure she would be glad to see you again too."
Abner looked about to help her find her charge. Clytie had gone over to the tea-table, where she was snapping vindictively at the half of a ginger-wafer somebody else had left and was gesticulating in the face of Medora Giles.
"I never met such a man in my life!" she was declaring. "I'll never speak to him again as long as I live! He's a bear; he's a brute!"
Little O'Grady, bringing forward another sliced lemon, shook in his shoes. "He'll have everybody scared away before long!" the poor fellow thought.
Medora smiled on Clytie. "Oh, not so bad as that, I hope," she said serenely. "Stephen, now, is beginning to have quite a liking for him. So earnest; so well-intentioned...."
"And you yourself?" asked Clytie.
"I haven't met him yet. I'm only on probation. He has looked me over--from afar, but has his doubts. I may get the benefit of them, or I may not."
"Why, I'm a renegade, a European. I'm effete, contaminate, taboo."
"Has he said so?"
"Said so? Do I need to have things 'said'?"
"Well, if you really are all this, you'll find it out soon enough."
"He's a touchstone, then?"
"Yes. And I'm a nonentity, lightly concerning myself about light nothings. He won't mince matters."
"Don't worry about me," said Medora confidently. "I shall know how to handle him."
Mrs. Pence kept on peering. Dusk was upon the place, and the few dim lights were more ineffectual than ever. "There she is," said Abner, with a bob of the head.
"Good-bye, then," said Eudoxia, grasping his hand effusively, as she took her first step toward Clytie. "Now, you will come and see us, won't you?"
"Thank you; but----"
Abner paused for the evocation of an instantaneous vision of the household thus thrown open to him. Such opportunities for falsity, artificiality, downright humbuggery, for plutocratic upholstery and indecorous statues and light-minded paintings, for cynical and insolent servants, for the deployment of vast gains got by methods that at best were questionable! Could he accept such hospitality as this?
"Thank you. I might come, possibly, if I can find the time. But I warn you I am very busy."
"Make time," said Eudoxia good-humouredly, and passed along.
Abner made a good deal of time for the Burrow, but it was long before he brought himself to make any for Eudoxia Pence. He came to see a great deal of the Bunnies; in a month or two he quite had the run of the place. There were friendly fellows who heaved big lumps of clay upon huge nail-studded scantlings, and nice little girls who designed book-plates, and more mature ones who painted miniatures, and many earnest, earnest persons of both sexes who were hurrying, hurrying ahead on their wet canvases so that the next exhibition might not be incomplete by reason of lacking a "Smith," a "Jones," a "Robinson." Abner gave each and every one of these pleasant people his company and imparted to them his views on the great principles that underlie all the arts in common.
"So that's what you call it--a marquise," Abner observed on a certain occasion to one of the miniature painters. "This creature with a fluffy white wig and a low-necked dress is a marquise, is she? Do you like that sort of thing?"
"Why, yes,--rather," said the artist.
"Well,I don't," declared Abner, returning the trifle to the girl's hands.
"I'll paint my next sitter as a milkmaid--if she'll let me."
"As a milkmaid? No; paint the milkmaid herself. Deal with the verities. Like them before you paint them. Paint them because you like them."
"I don't know whether I should like milkmaids or not. I've never seen one."
"They don't exist," chimed in Adrian Bond, who was dawdling in the background. "The milkmaids are all men. And as for the dairy-farms themselves----!" He sank back among his cushions. "I visited one in the suburbs last month--the same time when I was going round among the markets. I have been of half a mind, lately," he said, more directly to Abner, "to do a large, serious thing based on local actualities; The City's Maw--something like that. My things so far, I know (none better) are slight, flimsy, exotic, factitious. The first-hand study of actuality, thought I----But no, no, no! It was a place fit only for a reporter in search of a--of a--I don't know what. I shall never drink coffee again; while as for milk punch----"
"And what is the artist," asked Abner, "but the reporter sublimated? Why must the artist go afield to dabble in far-fetched artificialities that have nothing to do with his own proper time and place? Our people go abroad for study, instead of staying at home and guarding their native quality. They return affected, lackadaisical, self-conscious--they bring the hothouse with them. Why, I have seen such a simple matter as the pouring of a cup of tea turned into----"
"You can't mean Medora Giles," said the miniaturist quickly, pausing amidst the laces of her bodice. "Don't make any mistake about Medora. When she goes in for all that sort of thing, she's merely 'creating atmosphere,' as we say,--she's simply after the 'envelopment,' in fact."
"She is just getting into tone," Bond re-enforced, "with the candle-shades and the peppermints."
"Medora," declared the painter, "is as sensible and capable a girl as I know. Why, the very dress she wore that afternoon----You noticed it?"
"I--I----" began Abner.
"No, you didn't--of course you didn't. Well, she made every stitch of it with her own hands."
"And those tea-cakes, that afternoon," supplemented Bond. "She made every stitch of them with her own hands. She told me so herself, when I stayed afterward, to help wash things up."
"I may have done her an injustice," Abner acknowledged. "Perhaps I might like to know her, after all."
"You might be proud to," said Bond.
"And the favour would be the other way round," declared the painter stoutly.
Abner passed over any such possibility as this. "How long was she abroad?" he asked Bond.
"Let's see. She studied music in Leipsic two years; she plays the violin like an angel--up to a certain point. Then she was in Paris for another year. She paints a little--not enough to hurt."
"Leipsic? Two years?" pondered Abner. It seemed more staid, less vicious, after all, than if the whole time had been spent in Paris. The violin; painting. Both required technique; each art demanded long, close application. "Well, I dare say she is excusable." But here, he thought, was just where the other arts were at a disadvantage compared with literature: you might stay at home wherever you were, if a writer, and get your own technique.
"And you have done it," said Bond. "I admire some of your things so much. Your instinct for realities, your sturdy central grasp--"
"What man has done, man may do," rejoined Abner. "Yet what is technique, after all? There remains, as ever, the problem, the great Social Problem, to be solved."
"You think so?" queried Bond.
"Think that there is a social problem?"
"Think that it can be solved. I have my own idea there. It is a secret. I am willing to tell it to one person, but not to more,--I couldn't answer for the consequences. If Miss Wilbur will just stop her ears----"
The miniaturist laughed and laid her palms against her cheeks.
"You are sure you can't hear?" asked Bond, with his eye on her spreading fingers. "Well, then"--to Abner--"there is the great Human Problem, but it is not to be solved, nor was it designed that it should be. The world is only a big coral for us to cut our teeth upon, a proving-ground, a hotbed from which we shall presently be transplanted according to our several deserts. No power can solve the puzzle save the power that cut it up into pieces to start with. Try as we may, the blanket will always be just a little too small for the bedstead. Meanwhile, the thing for us to do is to go right along figuring, figuring, figuring on our little slates,--but rather for the sake of keeping busy than from any hope of reaching the 'answer' set down in the Great Book above."
"But----" began Abner; his orthodox sensibilities were somewhat offended. Miss Wilbur, who had heard every word, laughed outright.
"I beg," Bond hurried on, "that you won't communicate this to a living soul. I am the only one who suspects the real truth. If it came to be generally known all human motives would be lacking, all human activities would be paralyzed--the whole world would come to a standstill. Mum's the word. For if the problem is insoluble and meant to be, just as sure is it that we were not intended to suspect the truth."
Abner gasped--dredging the air for a word. "Of course," Bond went ahead, less fantastically, "I know I ought to shut my eyes to all this and start in to accomplish something more vital, more indigenous--less of the marquise and more of the milkmaid, in fact----"
"Write about the things you know and like," said Abner curtly.
His tone acknowledged his inability to keep pace with such whimsicalities or to sympathize with them.
"If to know and to like were one with me, as they appear to be with you! A boyhood in the country--what a grand beginning! But the things I know are the things I don't like, and the things I like are not always the things I know--oftener the things I feel." Bond was speaking with a greater sincerity than he usually permitted himself. The right touch just then might have determined his future: he was quite as willing to become a Veritist as to remain a mere Dilettante.
Abner tossed his head with a suppressed snort; he felt but little inclined to give encouragement to this manikin, this tidier-up after studio teas, this futile spinner of sophistications. No, the curse of a city boyhood was upon the fellow. Why look for anything great or vital from one born and bred in the vitiated air of the town?
"Oh, well," he said, half-contemptuously, and not half trying to hide his contempt, "you are doing very well as it is. Some of your work is not without traces of style; and I suppose style is what you are after. But meat for me!"
Bond lapsed back into his cushions, feeling a little hurt and very feeble and unimportant. Clearly the big thing, the sincere thing, the significant thing was beyond his reach. The City's Maw must remain unwritten.