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Under the Skylights (Book1 Chapter17)

2006-08-22 21:44

  The Downfall of Abner Joyce Chapter XVII

  The two long winding lines of gaily attired young people joined forces and the procession came marching down the hall by fours, by eights, by sixteens, and Abner sat against the wall next to Edith Whyland and watched the shifting spectacle with a sort of fearful joy. Eudoxia Pence, seated against the opposite wall, glanced across at him, when occasion once offered, and nodded and smiled, as if to say, “Isn't it lovely! Isn't it fascinating!” and Abner, in sudden alarm, recomposed his tell-tale face and frowningly responded with a grave bow.

  Abner wore his double-breasted frock-coat and his white lawn tie; and Edith Whyland, who had come in a plain dark reception costume to stand in a row near the door with the wives of the professors at the Art Academy, now sat with him and brought him as far into drawing as might be with the abounding masculine figures in evening dress. Many of these appeared in the march itself, along with the sailors, the Indian chiefs and the young blades out of Perugino. Giles passed by as a Florentine noble of the late Quattrocento, in a black silk robe that muffled his slight indifference to a function familiar from many repetitions. Little O'Grady wore his plaster-flecked blue blouse over his shabby brown suit and hardily announced himself as Phidias. Medora walked with a languid grace as a Druid priestess, and Miss Wilbur, the miniaturist, showed forth as Madame Le Brun, without whose presence no fancy-dress ball could be regarded as complete.

  High above the marching host rose dozens of the tall conical head-dresses of mediaeval France with their dependent veils. A great Parisian painter had just been exhibiting some mural decorations in the galleries of the Academy, and half the girls, from the life class down, wore candle-extinguishers on their heads and trailed full robes of startlingly figured chintz——a material that was expected to effect to the charitable eye and the friendly imagination the richness of brocade. Many of the younger men too had succumbed to the same influence and appeared in long skin-tight hose and bobby little doublets edged with fur.

  “How can they? How can they?” wondered Abner.

  The music abruptly changed its tempo and the march broke up into a waltz. Through the swirling dancers a single figure, clad in violet and green, zigzagged across to Eudoxia Pence and bowed over her for a word or two. Eudoxia moved her lips and spread out her plump hands deprecatingly and shook her head with a smile.

  “I should hope she wouldn't,” thought Abner;——“not with a little squirt like that.”

  The figure immediately zigzagged back, with the same effect of eager, inquiring haste. It paused before Abner and Mrs. Whyland and suddenly sidled up. Abner recognised Adrian Bond.

  “Clytie?” said Bond. “Has anybody seen or heard anything of Clytie Summers?”

  “Well, well,” said Mrs. Whyland, looking him over; “you are enrolled among the Boutet de Monvel boys too, are you?”

  Bond ran his eye down his slim legs with fatuous complacency and fingered the fur fringe of his doublet and pushed his steep flat-topped cap over to a different angle. Abner looked at him with contemptuous amazement and would not even speak.

  “Her aunt hasn't heard a word from her for a week,” said Bond. “That settlement has claimed her, body and soul. All she does is to write home for more clothes. I expect she has completely forgotten all about our little affair to-night. I thought of course she was going to march with me, but——”

  And he darted away to resume his quest.

  “She will come,” said Mrs. Whyland. “And her cap will be higher and her veil longer and the pattern of her brocade bigger and more startling than anybody else can show.”

  Little O'Grady moved past with a Maid of Astolat, who wore white cloth-of-gold and carried a big lily above each ear and dropped a long full-flowered stalk over her partner's shoulder. Medora drifted by in company with a Mexican vaquero. Her white garments fluttered famously against the other's costume of yellow and black. She had let down her abundant dark hair and then carelessly caught it up again and woven into it a garland of mistletoe. She smiled on Abner with a plaintive, weary lifting of her eyebrows; she appeared to be “creating atmosphere” again, just as on the afternoon when he had first seen her pouring tea. She seemed a long way off. The occasion itself removed her one stage from him, and her costume another, and her bearing a third. Was this the same girl who had so dexterously snatched open the stove door in that farm-house kitchen and had been so active, as revealed by glimpses from the corridor, in beating up pillows and in casting sheets and coverlets to the morning air?

  The waltz suddenly ended and the Mexican renounced Medora only a few steps beyond Abner. She came along and took a vacant chair next to Edith Whyland.

  “Are you enjoying it?” she asked Abner.

  “It is very instructive; it is most typical,” he replied.

  The orchestra presently began again, but Medora remained in her place.

  “Aren't you dancing this time?” asked Mrs. Whyland.

  “Yes,” replied Medora deliberately; “I'm dancing with Mr. Joyce.”

  She handed Edith her card. Abner looked across to her with a startled, puzzled expression.

  “So you are,” said Mrs. Whyland. “J-o-y-c-e,” she read, and handed the card back.

  “I don't care for the redowa, anyway,” Medora explained; “and I didn't want to dance with the man that was moving along in my direction to ask me. It was the only vacant line. What could I do? I looked about and saw you”——to Abner——“standing by the door——”

  “I suppose I was tall enough to see,” said Abner, feeling very huge and uncomfortable.

  “A tower of strength, a city of refuge,” suggested Mrs. Whyland.

  “Precisely,” said Medora. “So I snatched a pencil out of Adrian Bond's hand——he had just put himself down four times——”

  “What impudence!” thought Abner savagely.

  “——and scribbled this,”——dropping her eye on the card. “I hope you don't mind my having taken your name?” she concluded.

  A sudden gust of gallantry swept over Abner. “Let me have the card,” he said. “I have given my autograph a good many times”——looking at the faint pencilling——“but I don't recognise this.” He drew out a lead-pencil and rewrote the name big and black above the other. “There,” he said,——“a souvenir of the occasion.” He handed the card back with the authentic autograph of a distinguished author. His name there wiped out not merely one scribble but all, even to the impertinent four traced by insignificant Bond. A man who could pen such a signature need have no regret for not being a carpet-knight besides.

  Medora took back her card, highly gratified; her cavalier had made a long stride ahead. Abner himself rejoiced at his dexterity in asserting the man——almost the man of gallantry, at that——under the shield of the writer. Mrs. Whyland kindly refrained from entering upon an analysis to determine just what percentage of egotism was to be detected in Abner's act, and felt emboldened by such unlooked-for graciousness and by the sustaining presence of Medora to ask a favour for herself——that “evening” was still in her mind.

  “You will read, won't you?” pleaded Medora.

  “After my return from the East,” acquiesced Abner.

  The two women looked at each other, well pleased.

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