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The hottest day of all days in the hottest June of all Junes was beginning to abate its burning, and the inhabitants of close-packed cities and their perspiring congregations cherished the hope that before long some semblance of briskness might return into the ardent streets. Providence, it would appear, justly resentful at the long-continued complaints that hot summers were altogether a thing of the past, had determined to show that something could still be done in that line, but this rejoinder, humorous at first, had long ago ceased to amuse. From morning till night for the last six weeks an unveiled sun had shed a terrific ray on to the baked pavements and reverberating house-walls, but to-day had beaten all previous records, and a solemn glee pervaded the meteorological offices, the reports of which seemed to claim a sort of proprietary credit in the readings of their incredible thermometers.
Under these conditions it was with a sigh of relief that Arthur Craddock subsided into the corner-seat of a first-class smoking carriage at Paddington, finding that it was smoking, figuratively speaking, in less specialized a sense than that intended by the railway-company, for it had been standing for an hour or two in the sun outside the station. But he had clear notions about the risk of chill even on so hot a day, and when the train moved out from the dusky glass vault, he drew up the window beside which he sat, for it was impossible for him to take a seat with his back to the direction of progress, since the sight of receding landscape always made him feel slightly unwell. But, as he was alone in his carriage, there was no reason why he should not refresh his clay-coloured face with a mist of wall-flower scent which he squirted delicately over his forehead and closed eyes from a bottle in his silver-mounted dressing-case. Then he pulled down all the blinds in his carriage and sitting quite still in this restorative gloom indulged in pleasant anticipations.
He was a very large stout person, wearing his hair, which was beginning to grow thin, though no hint of greyness invaded its sleek blackness, conspicuously long. Round his ears and the back of his head it was still thick, but it no longer felt capable of growth on the top of his high peaked head, and in consequence he brushed it from the territories on the left side of his head over the top of his bald skull, and mingled the extremities of these locks with those that grew on the territories on the right of his head. It might thus be hoped that short-sighted and unobservant persons would come to the gratifying conclusion that the thatch was complete. He wore a small reddish moustache which in the centre of his immense colourless face might remind a Biblical beholder of the Burning Bush in the desert of Sin, for he looked vaguely debauched (which he was not) and overfed (which was probable to the verge of certainty). His hands, of which he was exceedingly proud, were small and white and plump; they were carefully manicured and decorated with a couple of rings, each set with a large cabochon stone.When, as now, they were not otherwise occupied, he habitually used one of them to caress the side of this desert of Sin, as if to make sure that no whisker was surreptitiously sprouting there. In dress, though he was certainly old enough to know better, he affected the contemporary style of a fashionable young man, and his brown flannel suit had evidently the benediction of the tailor fresh upon it. His tie, in which was pinned a remarkably fine pearl, was slightly more vivid than his suit, but of the same colour as his socks, a smooth two inches of which appeared below his turned-up trousers, and his shirt had a stripe of the same colour as his tie. No watch-chain glittered on the amplitude where it would naturally repose, but on his left wrist he wore a narrow band of gold braid with a lady's watch set in it. A white straw hat and brown shoes were the alpha and omega of his costume.
Though his face was singularly unwrinkled, except for rather heavy bags of loose skin below his eyes, it was quite evident that Arthur Craddock had left youth far behind him, but it would have been an imprudent man who would have wagered as to his ability to guess it within the limits of four or five years, for his corpulence was of the somewhat gross sort that may come early to an inactive man, in whose sedentary day dinner is something of an event. But it would not have required a very subtle physiognomist to conjecture for him an alert and athletic mind. His small grey eyes, which were unsurmounted by any hint of eyebrow, were, though a little red and moist, of a singular intensity in focus, and as active in poise and dart as a hovering dragon-fly, while even in repose they wore a notably watchful and observant look. His hands, too, which afforded him so constant a gratification, were undeniably the hands of an artist, long-fingered in proportion to the palms, and taper-nailed. Artist he was, too, to the very tips of those pink and shining triumphs of the manicurist, and though he neither painted nor played nor set forth on adventures in romance or poetry, his judgment and perception in all such achievements on the part of others was a marvel of unerring instinct, and was solidly based on an unrivalled knowledge of the arts. Not only, too, could he appreciate and condemn with faultless acumen, but side by side with that gift, and totally distinct from it, he had an astonishing flair for perceiving what the public would appreciate, and just as he was seldom at fault in true artistic judgment, so also was he an accurate appraiser of the money-earning value of play or picture. He was, it may be stated, not unconnected with the artistic columns of the daily press, and the frequent articles he contributed to three leading papers on pictures, concerts and plays, were often masterpieces of criticism, while at other times and for other reasons he plentifully belauded work in which, though he might artistically despise it, he was financially interested. His critical powers and the practical use to which he put them in purchases and in these penetrating paragraphs had proved most remunerative to him during these last fifteen or twenty years, and he had already laid by a very comfortable provision for his declining days, which he sincerely hoped were as yet very far off. He was fond of money, and, very wisely, had not the least objection to spending it in works of art which gave him pleasure, especially when his judgment told him that they would go up in value. Then, if a picture or a bronze could be sold again at a much higher price than that which he paid for it, he would part with it without any agony of reluctance. These transactions were conducted unobtrusively and it occurred to nobody to call him a dealer. If such a supposition ever occurred to himself, he put it from him with the utmost promptitude. But every quarter he paid the rent of Thistleton's Gallery in Bond Street, from which so many of the English masters set forth on their voyage to the United States.
His immediate anticipations, as has been already remarked, were pleasurable, for the Thames-side house at Thorley where he was to dine and sleep would certainly be a refreshing exchange from the baking airlessness of town. It was true that there would be nothing special in the way of dinner to look forward to, for his host Philip Wroughton was a penurious dyspeptic of long but hypochondriacal standing, and Arthur Craddock, made wise by a previous experience, had directed his valet to take with him certain palatable and nutritious biscuits in case dinner proved to be not only plain in quality but deficient in quantity. But there were two attractions which he was sure of finding there, each of which more than compensated the certain short-comings of the table. These were Philip Wroughton's daughter and Philip Wroughton's Reynolds: briefly, he hoped to possess himself of both.
It was impossible to decide between the rival excellencies of these. The Reynolds picture was exquisite: it represented his host's great-grandmother. But Joyce Wroughton his host's daughter might have sat in person for it, and the artist would have congratulated himself on having so supremely caught the frank charm and vigour of her beauty. More than most of the master's portraits it set forth a breezy and glorious vitality; it was as if Diana and an Amazon had been ancestresses to the sitter, in so swift and active a poise the slim white-clad figure paused with head turned and beckoning hand and smile before it passed up the glade of dark-foliaged trees behind it. How often had Craddock seen Joyce Wroughton in just such a momentary attitude as she swung across the lawn from her punting on the river, and turned to call her collies lest they should enter the tent where her father sat and disturb him at his employment of doing nothing at all. Craddock, sluggish of blood and corpulent of limb, found a charm of wonderful potency in the girl's lithe and athletic youth, and his own subtle intricate-weaving mind admired hardly less the serenity and simplicity of hers, which seemed as untroubled and unmorbid as that which he would conjecture for some white Hellenic marble. It cannot be truthfully stated that in the common acceptance of the word he was in love with her, but he immensely admired her, and, being of the age when a man says to himself that if he intends to marry he must without delay put out from the harbour of his bachelorhood, he had decided to set his sails. She, only just twenty years of age, was more than a quarter of a century his junior, but this seemed to him a perfectly satisfactory chronology, since for full twenty years more her beauty would but ripen and develop.
His desire to possess himself of the Reynolds portrait was in a sense more altruistic, since he did not propose to keep it himself. He was prepared to offer to the present owner of it what would certainly appear to one not conversant with salesrooms a very generous price, and he was also prepared to take a far more generous price for it himself from an American friend who was victim to a trans-Atlantic ambition to possess a dozen portraits by this master. He scarcely knew a picture from a statue, but he wanted pictures, and Craddock in previous transactions with him had learned not to be shy of asking enormous sums for them, since Mr. William P. Ward's comment was invariable, laconic and satisfactory. "I'm sure I'm very much indebted to you," was all he said, and proceeded to discharge his indebtedness.
Craddock's precautions with regard to the sun that beat on the carriage windows were quite successful, and he felt cool and presentable when he was shown into this riverside house and out again onto the lawn that bordered the Thames where tea was laid under the big plane tree that shaded a drowsy area of cool green. Joyce, inimitable save for the foreshadowing Sir Joshua, rose to receive him, forgetting to turn off the water from the urn which was ministering to the teapot. Upon which a thin hand came out of an encompassing chair, and a rather fretful voice said:
"The tea will be drowned, Joyce. Oh, is that Mr. Craddock? Charmed."
Having saved the tea from drowning, Philip Wroughton gave Craddock a sufficiently cordial welcome. He did not rise from his basket chair, but extended a welcoming hand. He had a footstool to keep his feet from any risk of damp from the scorched and arid grass, and a thin plaid shawl was laid across his knees, as a preventative of miasmic humours reaching those joints. In person he was a wizen bird-eyed little man, fleshless and hollow-cheeked, and grey-haired, and by the side of his daughter he looked like a dried Normandy pippin compared to a fresh apple, sun-tinted and vivid-skinned. Beside him, chiefly concealed from view by the scarlet sunshade which cast a red glow on to her face, sat his mother, old Lady Crowborough, who was by far the most juvenile of any company in which she found herself. Not being on speaking terms with her elder son (though she spoke about him a good deal) she stayed with Philip whenever she found it convenient, and gave him a great deal of good advice, which he seldom acted upon. She delighted in her age, which she habitually exaggerated, and had now for several years said that she was ninety, though as a matter of fact she would not attain that agreeable age for several years yet. She was remarkable for her shrewdness, her memory and her health, and wore a rather girlish and simple costume with a flapping linen sun-bonnet. Time, that inexorable accountant, seemed to have passed over her page, and her face was still marvellously soft and unwrinkled, and her sight and hearing were yet acute and undimmed. Arthur Craddock had not expected to find her here, and he was not sure that the discovery pleased him, for she always produced in him a sensation of being detected.
Philip Wroughton continued his low-voiced and languid phrases of welcome.
"Charmed to see you," he said. "You know my mother, do you not? It is good of you to come down and see us in our retreat. I, with my wretched health, as you know, cannot leave home, and Joyce really prefers the river and her dogs and perhaps the society of her poor old father to the distractions of town. Eh, Joyce?"
Joyce might or might not have endorsed the filial sentiments thus attributed to her, but her opportunity of doing so was snatched from her by her grandmother who endorsed none of these things.
"It's all stuff and nonsense about your health, Philip," she said. "You would be as strong as me if you only would put your medicine bottles into the grate, and eat good nourishing food, instead of the slops you stuff yourself with. And as for Joyce preferring to spend her time with you, instead of dancing and flirting with all the agreeable young fellows in London, you know quite well that it's you who keep her mewed up here to carry your cushions and pour out your medicines and put up your umbrella."
Joyce interrupted this recital of menial duties with a laugh.
"Granny, darling," she said, "how many lumps of sugar?"
"Three if they're decent big ones," said Lady Crowborough with decision. "Tell us what's going on in town, Mr. Craddock."
Arthur Craddock habitually made himself agreeable when it was worth while, and here he had three persons whom he desired to stand well with – Philip Wroughton for the sake of the Reynolds, Joyce for her own sake, and Lady Crowborough for reasons of self-protection.
"A burning fiery furnace is going on in town, my dear lady," he said. "The heat has been a torture, and I only hope I have been expiating some crime. The worst of it is that I have searched my memory without any success for something I have done to deserve these flames. But I seem to have been almost priggishly virtuous. What do you think I can have done, Miss Joyce?"
Joyce put the three decent lumps into her grandmother's tea, and laughed again. She always felt a certain slight physical repulsion for this stout white man, though she recognised his agreeable qualities.
"Ah, how can I tell?" she said. "You have not made me your confessor."
Mr. Craddock remembered that he would probably not get very much dinner, and took a large soft bun with sugar on the top of it.
"I instantly offer you the post," he said, "though I can still think of nothing to confess. You will have a sinecure. And yet after all it was one's own choice to stop in town, and certainly there have been pleasant things going on. I suppose, too, that at this moment the keenness of my pleasure in sitting on this delicious lawn in the shade and coolness of your beautiful plane tree is enhanced by the contrast with the furnace I have escaped from. And will you take me out again in your punt after tea, as you did when I was here last? All the way down I have had a prospective vision of you looking like a Victory off some Greek frieze with your punt-pole, and of myself reclining on the cushions like – like a middle-aged but unintoxicated Silenus."
This speech, since not addressed to Lady Crowborough, was too lengthy for her taste.
"Nasty uncomfortable things are punts," she observed, "going crawling along with one person poking and fuddling away among the mud and eels at the bottom of the river, and dribbling the water from the pole over the other. Joyce made me go out with her yesterday, and one of her great dogs sat on my lap, and the other panted and slobbered over my frock, while the sun frizzled the marrow out of my bones. If I must go on the river, give me a motor-boat that takes you along instead of going backwards half the time."
"I think I shall not find it too chilly in the punt to-night, Joyce," said her father, "if I take the shawl that is next thickest to the one I have here. Or perhaps it would be more prudent to take both. Will you see to that, my dear, when you have finished tea, and tell them also to put dinner a quarter of an hour later. Then I shall be able to rest for a little after we get in. Let us start very soon. Bring Mr. Craddock one of my shawls, too; he will be likely to find it chilly after the heat of town. A Shetland wool shawl, Mr. Craddock, I find keeps one warm without any feeling of weight."
Lady Crowborough's impatience at her son's hygienic precautions fizzed and spurted again at this.
"And bring me my cough-drops, Joyce," she said, "and my goloshes, and my little fur-cape, and a digestive pill, and my liver-mixture. And don't forget to take some cotton wool, to put in your ears, and the eye-lotion. Lord save us, Philip! You and your Shetland shawls!"
"I envy you your robustness, dear mother," said he. "I only wish you had bequeathed me more of it."
Lady Crowborough had finished tea, and accompanied Joyce on her errand of Shetland shawls, thus leaving the two men together.
"Joyce will bring the punt around in ten minutes," said her father, "and in the interval I shall be glad to have a chat with you, Mr. Craddock. I have been considering the question of selling the Reynolds, if you remember our talk when you were last here, and I have come to the conclusion that it is really my duty to do so. I feel that I ought to spend next winter in some warm and sunny climate, where I may have a chance of recovering some measure of my ruined health. But that of course would cost money, and my wretched poverty puts it out of the question for me, unless I can sell some such possession. Joyce, too, poor girl, will enjoy a greater stir and gaiety than I can give her here. There is little enough of it in her life, though I know she finds compensation from its absence in the sedulous care with which she insists on looking after me. I dare say there will not be many more years of invalid-nursing before her. All I can do is to make them as little tedious as may be. Indeed, it is chiefly for her sake that I contemplate the sale of this picture."
He paused a moment and lit a curiously-smelling cigarette which counteracted a tendency to hay-fever. Like many people he was strangely credulous about his own statements, and came to believe them almost as soon as they were made. Indeed, on this occasion, before his cigarette was well alight, he fancied that in part at any rate his plans of wintering in some warm climate had been made for Joyce's sake.
"I think you mentioned some number of pounds you thought you could get me for my great-grandmother's picture," he said. "Five thousand? Was that the amount? I have no head for figures. Yes. And an American, was it not? I hate the thought of my picture going to America but poor men like me must not mind being kicked and plundered by the golden West. Probably it would be hung up in some abattoir, where oxen are driven in at one end, and tinned meat taken out at the other. And for once my mother agrees with my determination to sell it. She says that I cannot afford to have such a large cheque hanging framed in my study."
Arthur Craddock did not find much difficulty in sorting the grain from the husk, in this very characteristic speech. But he wisely treated it all as grain.
"I know well your solicitude for Miss Joyce's happiness," he said. "And I need not tell you how much it honours you. But with regard to the future home of your delightful picture I can assure you that there is no abattoir awaiting it. Mr. Ward has half a dozen Reynolds already, and some very notable examples among them. And, as I told you, I think there is no doubt he would give five thousand for it."
He caressed the side of his face, and finding no disconcerting whisker there, wondered how much he would actually venture to charge Mr. Ward for the picture.
"In fact I offer you five thousand for it here and now," he said. "Ah, here is Miss Joyce in her punt coming for us."
Philip Wroughton dismissed this insignificant interruption.
"Then call to her, Mr. Craddock," he said, "if you will be so good and tell her we shall be ready in five minutes. I cannot raise my voice above the ordinary tone of speech without excruciating pain. She will take a little turn in her punt, and come back for us. You will excuse me if I shut my ears when you shout; a loud noise tears my nerves to ribands."
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