Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
The Downfall of Abner Joyce
Abner spent Christmas at the Giles farm, as Stephen had understood him to promise; and Medora, as her brother had engaged, "went along" too, and "ran the whole thing" from start to finish. Abner, with a secret interest compounded half of attraction, half of repulsion, promised himself a careful study of this "new type"--a type so bizarre, so artificial, and in all probability so thoroughly reprehensible.
Medora made up the rest of the party to suit herself. She had heard of Adrian Bond's struggles toward the indigenous, the simplified, and she was willing enough to give him a chance to see the cows in their winter quarters. Clytie Summers had begged very prettily for her glimpse too of the country at this time of year. "It's rather soon, I know, for that spring barn-yard; but I should so enjoy the ennui of some village Main Street in the early winter."
"Come along, then," said Medora. "We'll do part of our Christmas shopping there."
Giles accepted these two new recruits gladly. "Good thing for both of them," he declared to Joyce. "They'll make more progress on our farm in a week than they could in six months of studio teas."
This remark admitted of but one interpretation.
"Why!" said Abner; "do you want her to marry him?"--him, a fellow so slight, frivolous, invertebrate!
"Oh, he's a very decent little chap," returned Giles. "He'll be kind to her--he'll see she's taken good care of."
"But do you want him to marry her?"--her, so bold, so improper, so prone to seek entertainment in the woes of others!
"Oh, well, she's a very fair little chick," replied Giles patiently. "She'll get past her notions pretty soon and be just as good a wife as anybody could ask."
One of those quiescent, featureless Decembers was on the land--a November prolonged. The brown country-side, swept and garnished, was still awaiting the touch of winter's hand. The air was crisp yet passive, and abundant sunshine flooded alike the heights and hollows of the rolling uplands that spread through various shades of subdued umber and meditative blue toward the confines of a wavering, indeterminate horizon. The Giles homestead stood high on a bluff; and above the last of the islands that cluttered the river beneath it the spires of the village appeared, a mile or two down-stream.
"Now for the barn-yard!" cried Clytie, after the first roundabout view from the front of the bluff. "Adrian mustn't lose any time with his cows."
Giles led the way to a trim inclosure.
"Why, it's as dry as a bone!" she declared.
"Would you want us water-logged the whole year through?" asked Abner pungently.
"And as for ennui," she pursued, "I'm sure it isn't going to be found here--no more in winter than in summer. However"--with a wave of the hand toward the spires--"there is always the town."
No, the parents of Giles had taken strong measures to keep boredom at bay. They had their books and magazines; they had a pair of good trotters and a capacious carryall, with other like aids to locomotion in reserve; they had a telephone; they had a pianola, with a change of rolls once a month; they had neighbours of their own sort and were indomitable in keeping up neighbourly relations.
"I think you'll be able to stand it for a week," said Medora serenely.
"We've done it once before," said Bond.
"Don't be anxious about us!" added Clytie.
Medora Giles took Abner in her own special care. She knew pretty nearly what he thought of her, and she was inclined to amuse herself--though at the same time making no considerable concession--by placing herself before him in a more favourable light. In her dress, her manner, her bearing there was a certain half-alien delicacy, finesse, aloofness. She would not lay this altogether aside, even at home, even in the informal country; but she would provide a homely medium, suited to Abner's rustic vision, through which her exotic airs and graces might be more tolerantly perceived.
The illness of one of the servants came just here to assist her. She descended upon the kitchen, taking full charge and carrying Abner with her. She initiated him at the chopping-block, she conferred the second degree at the pump-handle, and by the time he was beating up eggs in a big yellow bowl beside the kitchen stove his eyes had come to be focused on her in quite a different fashion. Surely no one could be more deft, light-handed, practical. Was this the same young woman who had sat in the midst of that absurd outfit and had juggled rather affectedly and self-consciously with tea-urn and sugar-tongs and had palavered in empty nothings with a troop of overdressed and overmannered feather-heads? She was still graceful, still fluent, still endowed with that baffling little air of distinction; but she knew where things were--down to the last strainer or nutmeg-grater--and she knew how to use them. She was completely at home. And so--by this time--was he.
To deepen the impression, Medora asked Abner to help her lay the table. There were no studio gimcracks, mercifully, to put into place; but the tableware was as far removed, on the other hand, from the ugly, heavy, time-scarred things at Flatfield and from the careless crudities of his own boarding-house. Abner had had a tolerance, even a liking, for his landlady's indifference toward finicky table-furnishings; but now there came a sudden vision of her dining-room, and the spots on the table-cloth, the nicks in the crockery, the shabbiness of the lambrequin drooping from the mantel-piece, and the slovenliness of the sole handmaiden had never been so vivid.
"Shall I be able to go back there?" he asked himself.
Finally, to seal the matter completely, Medora led Abner to the place of honour and bade him eat the meal she had prepared. Abner ate and was hers. Even a good boarding-house, he now felt, was a mistake; the best, but a makeshift.
During the day the telephone had made common property of the news of Abner's arrival, and the next morning, an hour or so after breakfast, the front yard resounded with the loud cry of, "What ho, neighbours!" and Leverett Whyland was revealed in a trig cart drawn by a handsome cob.
"Why, what's that man doing here?" Abner asked Giles, as they stood by the living-room window.
"He has a place three or four miles down the river," replied Giles, casting about for his hat. Clytie, meanwhile, had drubbed a glad welcome upon the adjoining window and then rushed out bareheaded to give greeting.
"He always comes out here with his family for Christmas," said Stephen.
"His family? Is he married? Has he a wife and children?"
"Yet he goes slam-banging around with a lot of young girls into all sorts of doubtful places?"
"Oh, I've heard something about that," said Giles. "Well, you wouldn't have them in charge of a bachelor, would you?"
"What's he farming for?" asked Abner, left behind with Medora.
"Sentiment," she replied. "He was born down there, and has never wanted to let the old place go. Do you think any the worse of him for that?"
Whyland had come to fetch the men and to show them his model farm. They spent the forenoon in going over this expensive place. Bond gave vent to all the "oh's" and "ah's" that indicate the perfect visitor. Abner took their host's various amateurish doings in glum silence. It was all very well to indulge in these costly contraptions as a pastime, but if the man had to get his actual living from the soil where would he be? Almost anybody could stand on two legs. How many on one?
"Do you make it pay?" Abner asked bluntly.
"Pay? I'm a by-word all over the county. Half the town lives on my lack of 'gumption.'"
"H'm," said Abner darkly. He was as far as ever from hitting it off with this smiling, dapper product of artificial city conditions.
"I came across some of your Readjusters the other day," observed Whyland, at the door of his hen-house--a prodigal place with a dozen wired-in "runs" for a dozen different varieties of poultry: "Leghorns, Plymouth Rocks, Jerseys, Angoras, Hambletonians and what not," as Bond irresponsibly remarked. "They say they haven't been seeing much of you lately."
Abner frowned. Whyland, he felt, was trying to put him at a disadvantage. But, in truth, it could not be denied that he had practically left one circle for another,--was showing himself much more disposed to favour the skylights of the studios than the footlights of the rostrum.
"I am still for the cause," he said. "But it can be helped from one side as well as from another. My next book----"
"I didn't dispute your idea; only its application. I should be glad if you could make it go. Anything would be better than the present horrible mess. We have 'equality,' and to spare, in the Declaration and the Constitution, but whether or not we shall ever get it in our taxing----"
"I am glad to hear you speaking a word for the country people----" began Abner.
"The country people?" interrupted Whyland quickly, with a stare. Never more than when among his cattle and poultry was he moved to draw contrasts between the security of his possessions in the country and the insecurity of his possessions in town. "What I am thinking of is the city tax-payer. Urban democracy, working on a large scale, has declared itself finally, and what we have is the organization of the careless, the ignorant, the envious, brought about by the criminal and the semi-criminal, for the spoliation of the well-to-do."
Abner began to be ruffled by these cross-references to the city--they were out of place in the uncontaminated country. "I believe in the people," he declared, with his thoughts on the rustic portion of the population.
"So do I--within a certain range, and up to a certain point. But I do not believe in the populace," declared Whyland, with his thoughts on the urban portion.
"All the difference between potatoes and potato-parings," said Bond, catching at a passing feather.
"Soon it will be simply dog eat dog," said Whyland. "No course will be left, even for the best-disposed of us, but to fight the devil with fire. From the assessor and all his works----"
"Good Lord deliver us," intoned Bond, who fully shared Whyland's ideas.
Abner frowned. His religious sensibilities were affronted by this response.
"And from all his followers," added Whyland. "They threaten me in my own office--it comes to that. Well, what shall a man do? Shall he fight or shall he submit? Shall I go into court or shall I compromise with them?"
"It comes to one thing in the end," said Bond, "if you value your peace of mind. But even then you can put the best face on it."
Whyland sighed. "You mean that there is some choice between my bribing them and their blackmailing me? Well, I expect I may slip down several pegs this coming year--morally."
Abner drew away. He was absolutely without any intimacy with the intricacies of civic finances. He merely saw a man--his host--who seemed cynically to be avowing his own corruption and shame,--or at least his willingness to lean in that direction.
"Reform," he announced grandly, "will come only from the disinterested efforts of those who bring to the task pure motives and unimpeachable practices."
Whyland sighed again. He thought of his realty interests in town, as they lay exposed to spoliation, to confiscation. "I am afraid I shall not be a reformer," he said, in discouragement.
Abner shook a condemnatory head in full corroboration. And Whyland, who may have been looking for a prop to wavering principles, shook his own head too.