HENRY BLAKE FULLER
UNDER THE SKYLIGHTS
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The short concluding section of this book—that relating to Dr. Gowdy and the Squash—is reprinted by permission from Harper's Magazine. All the remaining material appears now for the first time.
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THE DOWNFALL OF ABNER JOYCE
LITTLE O'GRADY VS. THE GRINDSTONE
DR. GOWDY AND THE SQUASH.
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THE DOWNFALL OF ABNER JOYCE
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THE DOWNFALL OF ABNER JOYCE
With the publication of his first book, This Weary World, Abner Joyce immediately took a place in literature. Or rather, he made it; the book was not like other books, and readers felt the field of fiction to be the richer by one very vital and authentic personality.
This Weary World was grim and it was rugged, but it was sincere and it was significant. Abner's intense earnestness had left but little room for the graces;—while he was bent upon being recognised as a "writer," yet to be a mere writer and nothing more would not have satisfied him at all. Here was the world with its many wrongs, with its numberless crying needs; and the thing for the strong young man to do was to help set matters right. This was a simple enough task, were it but approached with courage, zeal, determination. A few brief years, if lived strenuously and intensely, would suffice. "Man individually is all right enough," said Abner; "it is only collectively that he is wrong." What was at fault was the social scheme,—the general understanding, or lack of understanding. A short sharp hour's work before breakfast would count for a hundred times more than a feeble dawdling prolonged throughout the whole day. Abner rose betimes and did his hour's work; sweaty, panting, begrimed, hopeful, indignant, sincere, self-confident, he set his product full in the world's eye.
Abner's book comprised a dozen short stories—twelve clods of earth gathered, as it were, from the very fields across which he himself, a farmer's boy, had once guided the plough. The soil itself spoke, the intimate, humble ground; warmed by his own passionate sense of right, it steamed incense-like aloft and cried to the blue skies for justice. He pleaded for the farmer, the first, the oldest, the most necessary of all the world's workers; for the man who was the foundation of civilized society, yet who was yearly gravitating downward through new depths of slighting indifference, of careless contempt, of rank injustice and gross tyranny; for the man who sowed so plenteously, so laboriously, yet reaped so scantily and in such bitter and benumbing toil; for the man who lived indeed beneath the heavens, yet must forever fasten his solicitous eye upon the earth. All this revolted Abner; the indignation of a youth that had not yet made its compromise with the world burned on every page. Some of his stories seemed written not so much by the hand as by the fist, a fist quivering from the tension of muscles and sinews fully ready to act for truth and right; and there were paragraphs upon which the intent and blazing eye of the writer appeared to rest with no less fierceness, coldly printed as they were, than it had rested upon the manuscript itself.
"Men shall hear me—and heed me," Abner declared stoutly.
A few of those who read his book happened to meet him personally, and one or two of this number—clever but inconspicuous people—lucidly apprehended him for what he was: that rare phenomenon, the artist (such he was already calling himself)—the artist whose personality, whose opinions and whose work are in exact accord. The reading public—a body rather captious and blase, possibly—overlooked his rugged diction in favour of his novel point of view; and when word was passed around that the new author was actually in town a number of the illuminati expressed their gracious desire to meet him.
But Abner remained for some time ignorant of "society's" willingness to give him welcome. He was lodged in a remote and obscure quarter of the city and was already part of a little coterie from which earnestness had quite crowded out tact and in which the development of the energies left but scant room for the cultivation of the amenities. With this small group reform and oratory went hand in hand; its members talked to spare audiences on Sunday afternoons about the Readjusted Tax. Such a combination of matter and manner had pleased and attracted Abner from the start. The land question was the question, after all, and eloquence must help the contention of these ardent spirits toward a final issue in success. Abner thirstily imbibed the doctrine and added his tongue to the others. Nor was it a tongue altogether unschooled. For Abner had left the plough at sixteen to take a course in the Flatfield Academy, and after some three years there as a pupil he had remained as a teacher; he became the instructor in elocution. Here his allegiance was all to the old-time classic school, to the ideal that still survives, and inexpugnably, in the rustic breast and even in the national senate; the Roman Forum was never completely absent from his eye, and Daniel Webster remained the undimmed pattern of all that man—man mounted on his legs—should be.
Abner, then, went on speaking from the platform or distributing pamphlets, his own and others', at the door, and remained unconscious that Mrs. Palmer Pence was desirous of knowing him, that Leverett Whyland would have been interested in meeting him, and that Adrian Bond, whose work he knew without liking it, would have been glad to make him acquainted with their fellow authors. Nor did he enjoy any familiarity with Clytie Summers and her sociological studies, while Medora Giles, as yet, was not even a name.
Mrs. Palmer Pence remained, then, in the seclusion of her "gilded halls," as Abner phrased it, save for occasional excursions and alarums that vivified the columns devoted by the press to the doings of the polite world; and Adrian Bond kept between the covers of his two or three thin little books—a confinement richly deserved by a writer so futile, superficial and insincere; but Leverett Whyland was less easily evaded by anybody who "banged about town" and who happened to be interested in public matters. Abner came against him at one of the sessions of the Tax Commission, a body that was hoping—almost against hope—to introduce some measure of reason and justice into the collection of the public funds.
"Huh! I shouldn't expect much from him!" commented Abner, as Whyland began to speak.
Whyland was a genial, gentlemanly fellow of thirty-eight or forty. He was in the world and of it, but was little the worse, thus far, for that. He had been singled out for favours, to a very exceptional degree, by that monster of inconsistency and injustice, the Unearned Increment, but his intentions toward society were still fairly good. If he may be capitalized (and surely he was rich enough to be), he might be described as hesitating whether to be a Plutocrat or a Good Citizen; perhaps he was hoping to be both.
Abner disliked and doubted him from the start. The fellow was almost foppish;—could anybody who wore such good clothes have also good motives and good principles? Abner disdained him too as a public speaker;—what could a man hope to accomplish by a few quiet colloquial remarks delivered in his ordinary voice? The man who expected to get attention should claim it by the strident shrillness of his tones, should be able to bend his two knees in eloquent unison, and send one clenched hand with a driving swoop into the palm of the other—and repeat as often as necessary. Abner questioned as well his mental powers, his quality of brain-fibre, his breadth of view. The feeble creature rested in no degree upon the great, broad, fundamental principles—principles whose adoption and enforcement would reshape and glorify human society as nothing else ever had done or ever could do. No, he fell back on mere expediency, mere practicability, weakly acquiescing in acknowledged and long-established evils, and trying for nothing more than fairness and justice on a foundation utterly unjust and vicious to begin with.
"Let me get out of this," said Abner.
But a few of his own intimates detained him at the door, and presently Whyland, who had ended his remarks and was on his way to other matters, overtook him. An officious bystander made the two acquainted, and Whyland, who identified Abner with the author of This Weary World, paused for a few smiling and good-humoured remarks.
"Glad to see you here," he said, with a kind of bright buoyancy. "It's a complicated question, but we shall straighten it out one way or another."
Abner stared at him sternly. The question was not complicated, but it was vital—too vital for smiles.
"There is only one way," he said: "our way."
"Our way?" asked Whyland, still smiling.
"The Readjusted Tax," pronounced Abner, with a gesture toward two or three of his supporters at his elbow.
"Ah, yes," said Whyland quickly, recognising the faces. "If the idea could only be applied!"
"It can be," said Abner severely. "It must be."
"Yes, it is a very complicated question," the other repeated. "I have read your stories," he went on immediately. "Two or three of them impressed me very much. I hope we shall become better acquainted."
"Thank you," said Abner stiffly. Whyland meant to be cordial, but Abner found him patronizing. He could not endure to be patronized by anybody, least of all by a person of mental calibre inferior to his own. He resented too the other's advantage in age (Whyland was ten or twelve years his senior), and his advantage in experience (for Whyland had lived in the city all his life, as Abner could not but feel).
"I should be glad if you could lunch with me at the club," said Whyland in the friendliest fashion possible. "I am on my way there now."
"Club"—fatal word; it chilled Abner in a second. He knew about clubs! Clubs were the places where the profligate children of Privilege drank improper drinks and told improper stories and kept improper hours. Abner, who was perfectly pure in word, thought and deed and always in bed betimes, shrank from a club as from a lazaret.
"Thank you," he responded bleakly; "but I am very busy."
"Another time, then," said Whyland, with unimpaired kindliness. "And we may be able to come to some agreement, after all," he added, in reference to the tax-levy.
"We are not likely to agree," said Abner gloomily.
Whyland went on, just a trifle dashed. Abner presently came to further knowledge of him—his wealth, position, influence, activity—and hardened his heart against him the more. He commented openly on the selfishness and greed of the Money Power in pungent phrases that did not all fall short of Whyland's ear. And when, later on, Leverett Whyland became less the "good citizen" and more the "plutocrat"—a course perhaps inevitable under certain circumstances—he would sometimes smile over those unsuccessful advances and would ask himself to what extent the discouraging unfaith of our Abner might be responsible for his choice and his fall.
Though Mrs. Palmer Pence kept looking forward, off and on, to the pleasure of making Abner's acquaintance, it was a full six months before the happy day finally came round. But when she read The Rod of the Oppressor that seemed to settle it; her salon would be incomplete without its author, and she must take steps to find him.
Abner's second book, in spirit and substance, was a good deal like his first: the man who has succeeded follows up his success, naturally, with something of the same sort. The new book was a novel, however,—the first of the long series that Abner was to put forth with the prodigal ease and carelessness of Nature herself; and it was as gloomy, strenuous and positive as its predecessor.
Abner, by this time, had enlarged his circle. Through the reformers he had become acquainted with a few journalists, and journalists had led on to versifiers and novelists, and these to a small clique of artists and musicians. Abner was now beginning to find his best account in a sort of decorous Bohemia and to feel that such, after all, was the atmosphere he had been really destined to breathe. The morals of his new associates were as correct as even he could have insisted upon, and their manners were kindly and not too ornate. They indulged in a number of little practices caught, he supposed, from "society," but after all their modes were pleasantly trustful and informal and presently quite ceased to irk and to intimidate him. Many members of his new circle were massed in one large building whose owner had attempted to name it the Warren Block; but the artists and the rest simply called it the Warren—sometimes the Burrow or the Rabbit-Hutch—and referred to themselves collectively as the Bunnies.
Abner found it hard to countenance such facetiousness in a world so full of pain; yet after all these dear people did much to cushion his discomfort, and before long hardly a Saturday afternoon came round without his dropping into one studio or another for a chat and a cup of tea. To tell the truth, Abner could hardly "chat" as yet, but he was beginning to learn, and he was becoming more reconciled as well to all the paraphernalia involved in the brewing of the draught. He was boarding rather roughly with a landlady who, like himself, was from "down state" and who had never cultivated fastidiousness in table-linen or in tableware, and he sniffed at the fanciful cups and spoons and pink candle-shades that helped to insure the attendance of the "desirable people," as the Burrow phrased it, and at the manifold methods of tea-making that were designed to turn the desirable people into profitable patrons. That is, he sniffed at the samovar and the lemons and so on; but when the rum came along he looked away sternly and in silence.
Well, the desirable people came in numbers—studios were the fad that year—and as soon as Mrs. Palmer Pence understood that Abner was to be met with somewhere in the Burrow she hastened to enroll herself among them.
Eudoxia Pence was a robust and vigorous woman in her prime—and by "prime" I mean about thirty-six. She was handsome and rich and intelligent and ambitious, and she was hesitating between a career as a Society Queen and a self-devotion to the Better Things: perhaps she was hoping to combine both. With her she brought her niece, Miss Clytie Summers, who had been in society but a month, yet who was enterprising enough to have joined already a class in sociological science, composed of girls that were quite the ones to know, and to have undertaken two or three little excursions into the slums. Clytie hardly felt sure just yet whether what she most wanted was to gain a Social Triumph or to lend a Helping Hand. It was Abner's lot to help influence her decision.
The Bunnies could hardly believe their eyes when, one day, Mrs. Palmer Pence came rolling into the Burrow. She was well enough known indeed at the "rival shop"—by which the Bunnies meant a neighbouring edifice loftily denominated the Temple of Art, a vast structure full of theatres and recital-halls and studios and assembly-rooms and dramatic schools; but this was the first time she had favoured the humbler building, at least on the formal, official Saturday afternoon. Long had they looked for her coming, and now at last the most desirable of all the desirable people was here.
"Ah-h-h!" breathed Little O'Grady, who made reliefs in plastina.
It was for Mrs. Palmer Pence that the samovar steamed to-day in the dimly lighted studio of Stephen Giles, for her that the candles fluttered within their pink shades, for her that the white peppermints lay in orderly little rows upon the silver tray, for her that young Medora Giles, lately back to her brother from Paris, wore her freshest gown and drew tea with her prettiest smile. Mrs. Pence was building a new house and there was more than an even chance that Stephen Giles might decorate it. He held a middle ground between the "artist-architects" on the one hand and the painters on the other, and with this advantageous footing he was gradually drawing a strong cordon round "society" and was looking forward to a day not very distant when he might leave the Burrow for the Temple of Art itself.
Mrs. Pence sat liberally cushioned in her old carved pew and amiably sipped her tea beneath a jewelled censer and admired the dark beauty of the slender and graceful Medora. Presently she became so taken by the girl that (despite her own superabundant bulk) she must needs cross over and sit beside her and pat her hand at intervals. In certain extreme cases Eudoxia was willing to waive the matter of comparison with other women; but to find herself seated beside a man of lesser bulk than herself seriously inconvenienced her, while to realize herself standing beside a man of lesser stature embarrassed her most cruelly. As she was fond of mixed society, her liberal figure was on the move most of the time.
She was too enchanted with Medora Giles to be able to keep away from her, but the approach of Adrian Bond—he was a great studio dawdler—presently put her to rout. For Adrian was much too small. He was spare, he was meagre; he was sapless, like his books; and the part in his smoothly plastered black hair scarcely reached to her eyebrows. She felt herself swelling, distending, filling her place to repletion, to suffocation, and rose to flee. She was for seeking refuge in the brown beard of Stephen Giles, which was at least on a level with her own chin, when suddenly she perceived, in a dark corner of the place, a tower of strength more promising still—a man even taller, broader, bulkier than herself, a grand figure that might serve to reduce her to more desirable proportions.
"Who is he?" she asked Giles, as she seized him by the elbow. "Take me over there at once."
Giles laughed. "Why, that's Joyce," he said. "He's got so that he looks in on us now and then."
"Joyce? What Joyce?"
"Why, Joyce. The one, the only,—as we believe."
"Abner Joyce? This Weary World? The Rod of the Oppressor?"
"Exactly. Let me bring him over and present him."
"Whichever you like; arrange it between Mohammed and the Mountain just as you please." She looked over her shoulder; little Bond was following. "Waive all ceremony," she begged. "I will go to him."
Giles trundled her over toward the dusky canopy under which Abner stood chafing, conscious at once of his own powers and of his own social inexpertness. In particular had he looked out with bitterness upon the airy circulations of Adrian Bond—Adrian who smirked here and nodded there and chaffed a bit now and then with the blonde Clytie and openly philandered over the tea-urn with the brunette Medora. "That snip! That water-fly! That whipper-snapper! That——"
Abner turned with a start. A worldly person, clad voluminously in furs, was extending a hand that sparkled with many rings and was composing a pair of smiling lips to say the pleasant thing. This attention was startlingly, embarrassingly sudden, but it was welcome and it was appropriate. Abner was little able to realize the quality of aggressive homage that resided in Mrs. Pence's resolute and unconventional advance, but it was natural enough that this showy woman should wish to manifest her appreciation of a gifted and rising author. He took her hand with a graceless gravity.
Mrs. Pence, upon a nearer view, found Abner all she had hoped. Confronted by his stalwart limbs and expansive shoulders, she was no longer a behemoth,—she felt almost like a sylph. She looked up frankly, and with a sense of growing comfort, into his broad face where a good strong growth of chestnut beard was bursting through his ruddy cheeks and swirling abundantly beneath his nose. She looked up higher, to his wide forehead, where a big shock of confident hair rolled and tumbled about with careless affluence. And with no great shyness she appraised his hands and his feet—those strong forceful hands that had dominated the lurching, self-willed plough, those sturdy feet that had resolutely tramped the miles of humpy furrow the ploughshare had turned up blackly to sun and air. She shrank. She dwindled. Her slender girlhood—that remote, incredible time—was on her once more.
"I shall never feel large again," she said.
How right she was! Nobody ever felt large for long when Abner Joyce happened to be about.
Abner regarded Mrs. Pence and her magnificence with a sombre intensity, far from ready to approve. He knew far more about her than she could know about him—thanks to the activities of a shamefully discriminating (or undiscriminating) press—and he was by no means prepared to give her his countenance. Face to face with her opulence and splendour he set the figure of his own mother—that sweet, patient, plaintive little presence, now docilely habituated, at the closing in of a long pinched life, to unremitting daily toil still unrewarded by ease and comfort or by any hope or promise or prospect of it. There was his father too—that good gray elder who had done so much faithful work, yet had so little to show for it, who had fished all day and had caught next to nothing, who had given four years out of his young life to the fight for freedom only to see the reward so shamefully fall elsewhere.... Abner evoked here a fanciful figure of Palmer Pence himself, whom he knew in a general way to be high up in some monstrous Trust. He saw a prosperous, domineering man who with a single turn of the hand had swept together a hundred little enterprises and at the same time had swept out a thousand of the lesser fry into the wide spaces of empty ruin, and who had insolently settled down beside his new machine to catch the rain of coins minted for him from the wrongs of an injured and insulted people....
Abner accepted in awkward silence Mrs. Pence's liberal and fluent praise of The Rod of the Oppressor,—aside from his deep-seated indignation he had not yet mastered any of those serviceable phrases by means of which such a volley may be returned; but he found words when she presently set foot in the roomy field of the betterment of local conditions. What she had in mind, it appeared, was a training-school—it might be called the Pence Institute if it went through—and she was ready to listen to any one who was likely to encourage her with hints or advice.
"So much energy, so much talent going to waste, so many young people tumbling up anyhow and presently tumbling over—all for lack of thorough and systematic training," she said, across her own broad bosom.
"I know of but one training that is needed," said Abner massively: "the training of the sense of social justice—such training of the public conscience as will insist upon seeing that each and every freeman gets an even chance."
"An even chance?" repeated Eudoxia, rather dashed. "What I think of offering is an even start. Doesn't it come to much the same thing?"
But Abner would none of it. Possessed of the fatalistic belief in the efficacy of mere legislation such as dominates the rural townships of the West, he grasped his companion firmly by the arm, set his sturdy legs in rapid motion, walked her from assembly hall to assembly hall through this State, that and the other, and finally fetched up with her under the dome of the national Capitol. Senators and representatives co-operated here, there and everywhere, the chosen spokesmen of the sovereign people; Abner seemed almost to have enrolled himself among them. Confronted with this august company, whose work it was to set things right, Eudoxia Pence felt smaller than ever. What were her imponderable emanations of goodwill and good intention when compared with the robust masculinity that was marching in firm phalanxes over solid ground toward the mastery of the great Problem? She drooped visibly. Little O'Grady, studying her pose and expression from afar, wrung his hands. "That fellow will drive her away. Ten to one we shall never see her profile here again!" Yes, Eudoxia was feeling, with a sudden faintness, that the Better Things might after all be beyond her reach. She looked about for herself without finding herself: she had dwindled away to nothingness.
"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.
"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.
Abner tramped down the corridor and walked in on Giles. He found the decorator busy over two or three large sketches for panels.
"For another Trust man?" he asked.
"No," replied Giles; "these are for a blameless old gentleman that has passed a life of honest toil in the wholesale hardware business. Don't you think he's entitled to a few flowers by this time?"
"What kind of flowers are they?"
"Passion-flowers and camellias."
"Humph! Do they grow round here?"
"Hardly. My old gentleman hasn't given himself a vacation for twenty-five years, and he wants to get as far away from 'here' as possible."
Abner gave another "Humph!" Wigs and brocades; passion-flowers and camellias. All this in a town that had just seen the completion of the eighteenth chapter of Regeneration. Well, regeneration was coming none too soon.
"What's the matter with Bond?" he asked suddenly.
"I do' know. Is anything?"
"I've just been talking with him, and he seemed sort of skittish and dissatisfied and paradoxical."
"He's often like that. We never notice."
"He seemed to shilly-shally considerable too. Has he got any convictions, any principles?"
"I can't say I've ever thought much about that. He never mentions such things himself, but I suppose he must have them about him somewhere. He generally behaves himself and treats other people kindly. Everybody trusts him and seems to believe in him. I presume he's got something inside that holds him up—moral framework, so to speak."
Abner shook his head. If the framework was there it ought to show through. Every articulation should tell; every rib should count.
"If a man has got principles and beliefs, why not come out flat-footedly with them like a man?"
"I do' know. Dare say Bond doesn't want to wear his heart on his sleeve. Hates to live in the show-window, you understand."
"He was fussing most about writing some new thing or other in a new way. I seem to have kind of started him up."
"He has been talking like that for quite a little while. He's tenderly interested—that's the real reason for it. He wants more reputation—something to lay at the dear one's feet, you know. And he wants bigger returns—though he has got something in the way of an independent income, I believe."
"Who is she?"
"That little Miss Summers."
"He may have her," said Abner quickly. "She may 'dine' him at her settlement." Then, more slowly: "Why, they hardly spoke to each other, that day—except once or twice to joke. They barely noticed each other."
"What should they have done? Sit side by side, holding hands?"
"Oh, the city, the city!" murmured Abner, overcome by the artificiality of urban society and the mockery in Giles's tone.
"You should have seen them in the country last summer."
"Them! In the country!"
"Why, yes; why not? We had them both out on the farm."
"My father's. We try to do a little livening up for the old people every July and August. They got acquainted there; they took to it like ducks to water. That's where Bond got his idea for his cow masterpiece,—he may have spoken to you about it."
"Humph!" said Abner. Why heed such insignificant poachings as these on his own preserves?
"We're going out home week after next for the holidays," continued Giles. "Better go with us."
"So you're a farmer's boy?" pondered Abner. He looked again at the camellias, then at Giles's loose Parisian tie, and lastly at his finger-nails,—all too exquisite by half.
"Certainly. Brought up on burdock and smart-weed. That's why I'm so fond of this,"—with a wave toward one of his panels.
"Well, what do you say? Will you go? We should like first-rate to have you."
Abner considered. The invitation was as hearty and informal as he could have wished, and it would take him within thirty miles of Flatfield itself.
"Is your sister going along?"
"Surely. She will run the whole thing."
"Well," said Abner slowly, "I don't know but that I might find it interesting." This, Giles understood, was his rustic manner of accepting.
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.
"Don't work so hard at it," said Medora, laying her violin on top of the pianola. "You shake the house. A minute more and you'll have that lamp toppling over. And you'll tire yourself out."
Abner wiped his damp brow and felt of his wilted collar. He never put less than his whole self into anything he attempted. "Tire myself? I'm strong enough, I guess."
"Well, use your strength to better advantage. Let me show you."
Medora slipped into his place, reset the roll, pulled a stop or two, and trod out a dozen ringing measures with no particular effort. "Like that."
"Very well," said Abner, resuming his seat docilely. The rest wondered; he seldom welcomed suggestions or accepted correction.
"Now let's try it once more," said Medora.
An evening devoted to literature was ending with a bit of music. Abner and Bond had both read unpublished manuscripts with the fierce joy that authors feel on such occasions, and the others had listened with patience if not with pleasure. Abner gave two or three of the newest chapters of Regeneration, and Bond read a few pages to show what progress an alien romanticist was making in homely fields nearer at hand. He had hoped for Abner's encouragement and approval in this new venture of his, but he got neither.
"The way to write about cows in a pasture," commented Abner, "is just to write about them—in a simple, straightforward style without any slant toward history or mythology, and without any cross-references to remote scenes of foreign travel. For instance, you speak of a Ranz——"
"Ranz des Vaches," said Medora: "a sort of thing the Alpine what's-his-name sings."
"It's for atmosphere," said Bond, on the defensive.
"Let the pasture furnish its own atmosphere. And you had something about a certain breed of cattle near Rome—Rome, was it?"
"Roman Campagna. Travel reminiscences."
"Travel is a mistake," declared Abner.
"So it is," broke in Clytie. "Squat on your own door-step, as Emerson says."
"Does he?—I think not," interposed Giles the elder. "What he does say is——"
"We all know," interrupted Stephen, "and ignore the counsel."
Abner did not know, but he would not stoop to ask. "And there was a quotation from one of those old authors,—Theocritus?"
"Theocritus, yes. Historical perspective."
"Leave the past alone. Live in the present. The past,—bury it, forget it."
"So hard. Heir of the ages, you know. Good deal harder to forget than never to have learned at all. That's easy," jibed Bond, with a touch of temper.
"Oh, now!" cried Medora, fearful that another temper might respond.
"If you must bring in those old Greeks," Abner proceeded, "take their method and let the rest drop. All they knew, as I understand it, they learned from men and things close round them and from the nature in whose midst they lived. They didn't quote; they didn't range the world; they didn't go for sanction outside of themselves and their own environment."
"The Greeks didn't know so much," interjected Clytie.
"Oh, didn't they, though!" cried Adrian, sending a glance of thanks to counteract his contradiction. "They finished things. The temple wasn't complete till they had swept all the marble chips off the back stoop, and had kind of curry-combed down the front yard, and had——"
"'Sh,'sh!" said Medora. Abner looked about, more puzzled than offended. "Let's have some music, before our breasts get too savage," said the girl, starting up.
Bond followed with the rest. "I'll stick to my regular field," he said to Clytie, as he thrust his crumpled-up manuscript into his pocket. "Griffins, gorgons, hydras, chimeras dire,—but no more cows. I was never meant for a veritist."
"Samson is pulling down the temple," observed Clytie. "Crash goes the first pillar. Who will be next?"
"He'll be caught in the wreck," said Bond, in a shattered voice. "Just watch and see."
Medora, long before Abner had learned to work the pedals of the pianola and to wrench any expression from its stops, had banished most of her "rolls" from sight. "Siegfried's Funeral March" was unintelligible to him; the tawdry, meretricious Italian overtures filled him with disgust. In the end the two confined themselves to patriotic airs and old-time domestic ditties. Medora accompanied on her second-best violin (which was kept at the farm) and Abner enjoyed a heart-warming sense of doing his full share in "Tenting Tonight" or "Lily Dale." The girl's parents had advanced far beyond this stage, but willingly relapsed into it now and then for Auld Lang Syne.
The final roll wound up with a quick snap.
"Well, you haven't told me what you thought of that last chapter," said Abner, putting the roll back in its box. He made no demand on Medora's interest to the exclusion of that of the others, however. His general glance around invited comment from any quarter. He had merely looked at her first.
"M—no," said Medora.
The girl, a few weeks before, had looked over The Rod of the Oppressor. The Rod's force had made itself felt most largely on economics; but in its blossoming it had put forth a few secondary sprigs, and one of these curled over in the direction of domestic life, of marital relation. Abner's chivalry—a chivalry totally guiltless of gallantry—had gone out to the suffering wife doomed to a lifelong yoking with a cruel, coarse-natured husband: must such a yoking be lifelong? he asked earnestly. Was it not right and just and reasonable that she should fly (with or without companion)—nor be too particular over the formalities of her departure? Medora had smiled and shaken her head; but now the question somehow seemed less remote than before. She paused over this bird-like irresponsibility and rather wondered that it should have the power to detain her.
The new chapters of Regeneration had taken up the same matter and had displayed it in a somewhat different light. Abner had got hold of the idea of limited partnership and had sought to apply it, in roundabout fashion, to the matrimonial relation. His treatment, far from suggesting an academic aloofness, was as concrete as characterization and conversation could make it; no one would have supposed, at first glance, that what chiefly moved him was a chaste abstract Platonic regard for the whole gentler sex. In short, people—such seemed to be his thesis—might very advantageously separate, and most informally too, as soon as they discovered they were incompatible.
"M—no," said Medora.
"Wouldn't that be rather upsetting?" asked her mother. Mrs. Giles was an easy-going old soul, from whom art, as personified by her own children, got slight consideration, and to whom literature, as embodied in a stranger, was little less than a joke. "Wouldn't it result in a good deal of a mix-up? What would have happened to you youngsters if your father and I had all at once taken it into our heads to——"
"Mother!" said Medora.
"Oh, well," began Mrs. Giles, with the idea of making a gradual descent after her sudden aerial flight. "But, then," she resumed, "you must see that——"
"Mother!" said Medora again. Abner, eager to defend his thesis, looked round in surprise.
"I agree with Mrs. Giles completely," spoke up Clytie, with much promptitude. "When I get married I want to get married for good. Most of the people I know are married in that way, and I believe it's the most satisfactory way in the long run——"
"But——" began Abner polemically.
Clytie shook her head. "No, it won't do. You've offered us the ballot, and we don't want it. And you've offered us—this, and we don't want that either. Consider it declined."
Abner stared at Clytie's brazen little face and disliked her more than ever.
"But don't you think——" began Abner, turning to Bond.
Bond shook his head slowly and made no comment.
Abner looked round at Medora. She was ranging the music-roll boxes in an orderly row. Nobody could have been more intent upon her work.
"Well, it stands, all the same," said Abner defiantly.
The clear, placid weather had been waiting several days for Sunday to come and possess it, and now Sunday was here. The young people stood bareheaded on the porch and looked down toward the village.
"Do I hear the church bells?" asked Abner. He was a punctilious observer of Sabbath ordinances and always reached a state of subdued inner bustle shortly after the finish of the Sunday breakfast.
"We sometimes make them out," replied Stephen Giles, "when the wind happens to blow right."
"We are all going down this morning, I suppose?" observed Abner, confidently taking the initiative.
"I expect so," replied Giles.
"Count me out," said Clytie.
"You do not go to church?" asked Abner.
"You have no religion?"
"Yes, I have," replied Clytie, with much pomp: "the religion of humanity."
"You run and get your things on," said Medora. "You'll find as much humanity at the First Church as you will anywhere else."
The party set out in two vehicles. Old Mr. Giles drove one and the "hired man" the other. Clytie, despite her best endeavours to go in company with Bond, found herself associated with Abner, and a spirit of unchristian perversity took complete possession of her.
She cast her eye about, viewing the prosperous country-side, the well-kept farms, the modest comfort symbolized in her host's equipage itself.
"You're a great sufferer, Mr. Giles," she said suddenly; "aren't you?"
The old gentleman let the lines fall slackly on the fat backs of his sleek horses. "How? What's that?"
"I say you're a great sufferer. You're a downtrodden slave."
"Why, am I? How do you make that out?"
"Well, if you don't know without having it explained to you! The world is against you—it's making a doormat of you."
Medora looked askant. What was the child up to now?
"Poor father," she said. "If he hasn't found it out yet, don't tell him."
"No wonder he hasn't found it out," returned Clytie, making a sudden veer. "Is he suffering for lack of fresh air and pure water? And does he have to pay an extra price for sunlight? And must he herd in a filthy slum full of awful plumbing and crowded by more awful neighbours? Does he have to put up with municipal neglect and corruption, and worry along on make-believe milk and doctored bread and adulterated medicines, and endure long hours in unsanitary places under a tyrannical foreman and in constant dread of fines——?"
Abner was beginning to shift uneasily upon his seat. "Clytie, please!" said Medora, laying her hand upon the other's.
"Well, they're realities!" declared Clytie stoutly.
"They're not my realities," growled Abner, without turning round.
"Can we pick and choose our realities?" asked Clytie sharply. "Well, if you are at liberty to pick yours, I am at liberty to pick mine. Yes, sir, I'll go to that settlement right after New-Year's, and I'll have a class in basket-making and hammock-weaving before I'm a month older."
"It will take more than basket-making to set the world right," said Abner.
"Basket-making is enough to teach boys the use of their hands and to keep them off the street at night," sputtered Clytie.
"Clytie, please!" said Medora once more.
Clytie fell into silence and nursed her wrath through a long service and through a hearty rustic sermon from the text, "Peace on earth, goodwill toward men." Abner, in exacerbated mood, watched her narrowly throughout, that he might tax her, if possible, with a humorous attitude toward the preacher or a quizzical treatment of his flock. He had not yet pardoned her "ways" along Main Street, on the occasion of one or two shopping excursions. She had not hesitated to banter the admiring young clerks that held their places behind those shop-fronts of galvanized iron in simulation of red brick and of cut limestone, and she had been startlingly free in her accosting of several time-honoured worthies encountered on the dislocated plank walks outside. "Now," said Abner, "if she sniggers at that old deacon's whiskers or says a single facetious word about the best bonnets of any of these worthy women round about us——" But Clytie, outwardly, was propriety itself. Inwardly she was revolving burning plans to show Abner Joyce that none of his despising, disparaging, discouraging words could have the least power to move her from her purpose; and on the way back to the farm she declared herself—to Bond, in whose company, this time, she had contrived to be;—they sat on the back seat together.
"That's what I'll do," she stated, with great positiveness. "I'll go right over there as soon as I get back to town. I don't care if the streets are dirty, and the street-cars dirtier; and if I have to look after my own room, why, I will. I'll take along my biggest trunk and my full-length mirror and the very pick of my new clothes——You know they like to have us dress; it interests them,—they take it as a great compliment——"
"And all for Abner Joyce!" said Bond. "Another pillar of the temple tottering, eh? and trying to brace itself against the modern Samson."
"Not one bit! Not one speck!" cried Clytie. "Only——"
"Well, there are others," said Bond. "I'm prostrate already, as you know. And Whyland, only a few mornings back, got a good jar that will help finish him, I'm thinking."
"Did he? And there's Aunt Eudoxia too. If you could have seen how discouraged she was after she came home from that first meeting with him, when he took the wind out of her training-school——"
"But he isn't going to jar you? He isn't going to cause you to totter?"
"Not a jar! Not a tot! You'll see whether——"
"Your object, then, is to show how much stronger you are than I am?"
Clytie suddenly paused in her impetuous rush. "Adrian," she breathed, with plaintive contrition, "I wish you wouldn't say such things—no, nor even think them."
Her fierce alertness fled. She leaned a little toward him, droopingly, a poor, feeble, timid child in need of some strong man to shield her from the rough world.
The other carriage reached home first. Medora alighted gaily on the horse-block. Abner helped her down with an earnest endeavour not to seem too attentive.
"Come," she said; "let's see how those pies have turned out—Cordelia is so absent-minded."
And Abner followed gladly.
Christmas-Day came with a slight flurry of snow. There was also a slight flurry in society: the Whylands drove over to the farmhouse for dinner.
Medora had suggested their presence to her mother, and Clytie had supported the suggestion: "the more the merrier," she declared. Whyland himself had jumped at the opportunity eagerly, and his wife, who had met Medora a number of times at the studio and in Paris and liked her, acquiesced after the due interposition of a few objections.
"About the children——" she began.
"They can take dinner with Murdock and his wife for once in their lives."
"I don't know whether I can be said to have called regularly on Mrs. Giles——"
"Is Christmas-day a time for such sophistications? And do you think that plain, simple people, like the Gileses——"
Mrs. Whyland allowed herself to be persuaded—as she had designed from the start.
She had no great fancy for a solitary Christmas dinner, such as her husband's rural tastes had so often condemned her to; besides, this new arrangement would give her an opportunity to take a look at Miss Clytie Summers, of whom she had heard things.
Medora received Edith Whyland with some empressement; she regarded her guest as the model of all that the young urban matron should be. Mrs. Whyland was rather languid, rather elegant, rather punctilious, rather evangelical, and Abner Joyce, before he realized what was happening to him, was launched upon a conversation with a woman who, as Clytie Summers intimated at the first opportunity, was really high in good society.
"One of the swells, I suppose you mean," said Abner.
"I mean nothing of the kind. Swell society is one thing and good society is another. If you don't quite manage to get good society, you do the next best thing and take swell society. I'm swell," said Clyde humbly." But I'm going to be something better, pretty soon," she added hopefully.
Abner had his little talk with Edith Whyland, all unteased by consideration of the imperceptible nuances and infinitesimal gradations that characterize the social fabric. He thought her rather quiet and inexpressive; but he felt her to be a good woman, and was inclined to like her. She dwelt at some length on Dr. McElroy's Christmas sermon, and it presently transpired that, whether in town or country, she made it a point to attend services. Abner, who for some dim reason of his own had expected little from the wife of Leverett Whyland, put down as mere calumnies the reports that made her "fashionable." Through the dinner he talked to her confidently, almost confidentially; with half the bulk of Eudoxia Pence she made twice the impression; and by the time the feast had reached the raisins and hickory-nuts his tongue, working independently of his will, was promising to call upon her in town.
This outcome was highly gratifying to Medora—it was just the one, in fact, that she had hoped to bring about. City and country, oil and water were mixing, and she herself was acting as the third element that made the emulsion possible. From her place down the other side of the table she kept her eyes and ears open for all that was going on. She saw with joy that Abner was almost chatting. He had given over for the present the ponderous consideration of knotty abstractions; he totally forgot the unearned increment; and what he was offering to quiet and self-repressed Edith Whyland was being accepted—thanks to the training and temperament of his hearer—for "small talk." Yes, Abner had broken a large bill and was dealing out the change. He knew it; he was a little ashamed of it; yet at the same time he looked about with a kind of shy triumph to see whether any one were commenting upon his address.
To tell the truth, Abner felt his success to such a degree that presently he began to presume upon it. He had heard about the children, left behind for a lonely dinner with the farm superintendent, and he began to scent cruelty and injustice in their progenitors. The wrongs of the child—they too had their share in keeping our generous Abner in his perennial state of indignation. He became didactic, judicial, hortatory; Edith Whyland almost questioned her right to be a mother. But she understood the spirit that prompted this intense young man's admonitions and exhortations; his feelings did him credit. She made a brief and quiet defence of herself, and thought no worse of Abner for his championship, however mistaken, of distressed childhood. He understood and pardoned her; she understood and pardoned him. And the more she thought things over, the more—despite his heckling of her—she liked him.
"He's a fine, serious fellow, my dear," she said to Medora, "and I'm glad to have met him."
Medora flushed, wondering why Edith Whyland should have spoken just—just like that. And Edith, noting Medora's flush, considerately let the matter drop.
Mrs. Whyland also looked over Clytie Summers, and found no serious harm in her. "She is rather underbred—or 'modern,' I suppose I should call it, and she's more or less in a state of ferment; but I dare say she will come out all right in the end. However, my Evelyn shall never be taken through the slums: I think Leverett will be willing to draw the line there." And, "Remember!" she said to Abner, as she drove away.
Medora was delighted. She saw two steps into the future. Abner should call on Mrs. Whyland. And he should read from his own works at Mrs. Whyland's house. Why not? He read with much justness and expression; he was thoroughly accustomed to facing an audience. Indeed he had lately spoken of meditating a public tour, in order to familiarize the country with This Weary World and The Rod of the Oppressor and the newer work still unfinished. Well, then: the reading-tour, like one or two other things, should begin at home.
While these generous plans pulsed through the girl's heart and brain Abner, all unaware of the future now beginning to overshadow him, was out in the stable considering the case of a lame horse and inveighing against the general irksomeness of rural conditions. He threw back his abundant hair as he rose from the study of a dubious hoof,—a Samson unconscious of the shining shears that threatened him.
Abner, on his return to town, found its unpleasant precincts more crowded than ever with matters of doubtful expediency and propriety. Not that he felt the strain of any temptation; he knew that he was fully capable of keeping himself unspotted from the world—the world of urban society—if only people would leave him alone. Two dangers stood out before all others: his impending call upon Mrs. Whyland and the approaching annual fancy-dress ball of the Art Students' League. He had rashly committed himself to the one, and his officious friends of the studios were rapidly pushing him upon the other. He must indeed present himself beneath the roof of a man whom he could not regard as a "good citizen," and must thus seem to approve his host's improper composition, now imminent, with the powers that be; but he should bestir himself to withstand the pressure exerted by Giles, by Medora herself, by Bond, by mischievous Clytie Summers, by the whole idle horde of studio loungers to force him into such an atmosphere of frivolity, license and dissipation as could not but inwrap one of those wild student "dances."
"We should so like to have you present," said Medora. "It will be rather bright and lively, and you would be sure to meet any number of pleasant people. You would enjoy it, I know."
Abner shook his head. Fancy him, a serious man, with a reputation to nourish and to safeguard, caught up in any such fandango as that!
"I have never attended a dancing-party yet," he said. "I couldn't waltz if my life depended on it. And I wouldn't, either."
"You needn't," said Medora. "But you would be interested in the grand march. It's always very pictorial, and the girls are arranging to have it more so than ever this year."
Abner shook his head again. "I have never had any fancy togs on. I—I couldn't wear anything like that."
"You needn't. A great many of the gentlemen go in simple evening dress."
Abner shook his head a third time. "I thought you understood my principles on that point. Dress is a badge, an index. I could not openly brand myself as having surrendered to the—to the——"
Medora sighed. "You are making a great many difficulties," she said. "But you will call on Mrs. Whyland?"
"I have promised, and I shall do so," he said, with all the good grace of a despairing bear caught in a trap.
"I think she suggested some—some afternoon?"
"You will go at about half-past four or five, possibly?"
Abner suddenly saw himself as he was six months before: little likelihood then of his devoting an afternoon—fruitful working hours of a crowded day—to the demands of mere social observances. Which of his Readjusters would have had the time or the inclination to do as he had bound himself to do? But now he was "running" less with reformers than with artists, and these ill-regulated spendthrift folk were prone to break up the day and send its fragments broadcast as they would, without forethought, scruple, compunction.
One day before long, then, Abner buttoned his handsome double-breasted frock-coat across his capacious chest and put on a neat white lawn tie and sallied forth to call on Edith Whyland. The day was sunny—almost deceptively so—and Abner, who knew the good points in his own figure and was glad to dispense with a heavy overcoat whenever possible, limited his panoply to a soft felt hat and a pair of good stout gloves. The wind came down the lake and sent the waves in small splashes over the gray sea-wall and teased the bare elms along the wide, winding roadway, and tousled Abner's abundant chestnut moustache and reddened his ruddy cheeks and nipped his vigorous nose—all as a reminder that January was here and ought not to be disregarded. But Abner was thinking less of meteorological conditions than of Mrs. Whyland's butler. He knew he could be brusquely haughty toward this menial, but could he be easy and indifferent? Yet was it right to seem coolly callous toward another human creature? But, on the other hand, might not a cheery, informal friendliness, he wondered, as his hand sought the bell-push, be misconstrued, be ridiculed, be resented, be taken advantage of....
The door was opened by a subdued young woman who wore a white cap and presented a small silver tray. Abner, who dispensed with calling cards on principle and who would have blushed to read his own name in script on a piece of white cardboard, asked in a stern voice if Mrs. Whyland was at home. The maid dropped the tray into the folds of her black dress; she seemed habituated enough to the sudden appearance of the cardless. She looked up respectfully, admiringly—she had opened the door for a good many gentlemen, but seldom for so magnificent and masterful a creature as Abner—and said yes. But alas for the credit of her mistress and of her mistress' household: here was a lordly person who had arrived with the open expectation of meeting a "man" who should "announce" him!
Abner had come full of subject-matter; he knew just what he was going to say. And during the interval before Mrs. Whyland's appearance he should briefly run over his principal points. But he found Mrs. Whyland already on the ground. Nor was she alone. Two or three other ladies were chatting with her on minor topics, and before all of these had gone others arrived to take their places. Not a moment did he spend with her alone; briefly, it was her "day."
These ladies referred occasionally to matters musical and artistic—somebody had given a recital, somebody else was soon to exhibit certain pictures—but they had little to say about books and they made no recognition of Abner as an author. "More of this artificial social repression," he thought. "Why should they be afraid of 'boring' me, as they word it? They bore Bond—they are always buzzing Giles; I think I could endure a word or two." His eye roamed over the rich but subdued furnishings of the room. "No wonder that all spontaneity should be smothered here!" And when literary topics were finally broached he experienced less of comfort than of indignation. A sweet little woman moaned that she had attempted an authors' reading, but that her authors could not command a proper degree of attention from her guests. Her eyes flashed indignantly as she called to mind the ways of the people she had presumptuously ventured to entertain. "They were swells," she murmured bitterly. "Yes, swells;—it's a harsh word, but not undeserved. I never tried having so many people of that particular sort before, and they simply overrode me. They banded against me; being quite in the majority, they could keep one another in countenance. My poor authors were offended at the open way in which they were ignored. Poor dear Edward scarcely knew what to do with such a——"
The plaintive little creature lapsed into silence; great must have been her provocation thus to speak of her own guests. Abner's eyes blazed; his blood boiled with indignation. Such treatment constituted an affront to all art, to his own art—literature, to himself.