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It was on the evening of Charles' return from Paris, as they sat in the still house that till to-day had always rung with jollity, while heathery sweetness and the resinous odour of pines came in at the open windows, that she told them everything, quite shortly, and when that was done and they were still half stunned with the sudden horror that had blackened life, she rallied her own courage by awakening theirs.
"You know it all, my darlings," she said, "and now whenever you think of it, and for a long time it will always be in your thoughts, you must think of it all as some dreadful mistake that dear Dad made, something he never meant at all. He got his troubles muddled up in his head till he didn't know what he was doing. He felt he couldn't bear it, just as sometimes he used to call out when we were playing some silly game like Animal Grab 'I can't bear it: I can't bear it.' Oh, Charles, my darling, don't cry so awfully. We've got to go straight ahead again, with all our courage undismayed, and show that we can face anything that God chooses to send us."
She waited a little, comforting now one and now the other.
"It was all a mistake," she went on, "and we must never allow ourselves to think that it was the dear Dad we knew who did it. He wasn't himself: trouble had made him forget himself and all of us just for a moment. We will think about that moment as little as we can, and then only as a mistake, but we will think constantly and lovingly of the dear Dad we have known all these years, who was so loving and tender to all three of us, and whom we knew as so gay and light-hearted. We will have him constantly in our thoughts like that, this and all the loving-kindness of the years in which we laughed and loved together. And if we can't help, as we shan't be able to do, thinking with a sort of wondering despair of that blunder, that mistake, we must remember that, somehow or other, though we can't explain how, it is and was even then in the hands of God."
It had been no vague piety or bloodless resignation that had inspired her then, nor in the year that followed, and it had required a very full measure of the essential spirit of youth, which never sits down with folded hands, but despises resignation as it despises any other sort of inaction, to bring them all to the point where they stood to-day. Whether the boys helped their mother most, or she them, is one of those problems of psychological proportions into which it is unnecessary to enquire, since each had been throughout the year, essential to the others. For if there had been no jolly boys coming home at evening to Mrs. Lathom in their lodgings in the meagre gentility of Sidney Street, she could no more have got through her industrious day with hope never quenched in her heart than could they if there had been no mother waiting to welcome them. She without waiting a day after they moved to London invested a few pounds of their exiguous capital in buying a typewriting machine, and before long, by dint of unremitting work was earning a wage sufficient, with Reggie's office salary, to keep the three of them in independence and adequate comfort, as well as to pay for a slip of a dilapidated studio in a neighbouring street, where Charles toiled with all the fire of his young heart and swiftly-growing skill of hand at his interrupted studies.
It was for him, of all the three, that life was most difficult since he was an expense only to the others and it required all the young man's courage to persevere in work which at present brought in almost nothing.But his mother's courage reinforced his: while it was possible for him to continue working, it would be a cowardly surrender to give up tending the ripening fruit of his years in Paris, and let the tree wither, and turn his brushes, so to speak, into pens, and his palette into an office stool. Besides, he had within him, lying secret and shy but vitally alive, the unalterable conviction of the true artist that his work was ordained to be art, and that where his heart was there would sufficient treasure be found also. But it was hard for him, even with the endorsing sincerity of his mother's encouragement, to continue being the drone of the hive so far as actual earning was concerned, and it had demanded the utmost he had of faith in himself and love for his art to continue working with that ecstasy of toil that art demands at all that which his education needed, and not to grudge days and weeks spent in work as profitless from the earning point of view as he believed it to be profitable in his own artistic equipment. Drawing had always been his weak point, and hour after interminable hour from casts or from the skeleton, properties saved from the lavish Paris days, he would patiently copy the framework of bones and patiently clothe them in their appropriate muscles and sinews. As must always happen, long weeks of work went by without progress as noticed by himself, until once and once again he found himself standing on firm ground instead of floundering through bogs and quick-sands which endlessly engulfed his charcoal and his hours, and knew that certain haltings and uncertainties of line troubled him no longer. But he made no pause for self-congratulation but continued with that mingling of fire and unremitting patience which is characteristic of the true and inspired learner. Colour and the whole complex conception of values, which go to make up the single picture, instead of a collection, however well rendered, of different objects was naturally his: he had by instinct that embracing vision that takes in the subject as a whole.
The heat of the morning disposed to quiescence, and the two boys with the spice of meadow-sweet and loosestrife round them, and the coolness of the running water, drowsily booming, to temper the growing swelter of the day, talked lazily and desultorily, concerned with these things, for a long time after breakfast was over. But they were vividly concerned with them no more: to each the opening pageant of life was more engrossing than the tragedy of the past, being young they looked forward, where the middle-aged would have dwelt with the present, and the old have mumbled and starved with the past. But to them it was but dawn, and the promise of day was the insistent thing, and there was no temptation to dwell in ruins, and conjure back the night. But before long the itch for activity, in spite of their resolve of a lazy morning, possessed each, and Reggie fervidly washed up the used crockery of breakfast, while Charles went up the few yards of path that lay between the tent and the side of the weir, to behold again the picture he had left standing on its easel. In his heart he knew it was finished, but in the eagerness of his youth he almost looked forward to some further brushful of inspiration. He would not touch what he knew was good: he hoped only to find something that could be touched with advantage.
He turned a sharp corner, where willows screened the weir; his picture was planted within a dozen yards of him. But between him and his picture was planted a big white-faced man who was regarding it so intently that he did not hear the swish of the parted willows. It was not till Charles was at his elbow that Craddock turned and saw him.
And he put into his manner the deference which he reserved for duchesses and talent.
"I have come to your private view," he said, "without being asked, and it was very impertinent of me. But really this is my second visit. I had my first private view yesterday, when I looked at your picture from a punt in which I happened to be. I had just a couple of glimpses at your work before this. You have been very fortunate in your inspiration since then. The Muse paid you a good visit this morning."
Charles said nothing, but his eyes questioned this intruder, giving him a tentative welcome. But before the pause was at all prolonged the tentative welcome had been changed into a wondering and tremulous expectancy. Were there fairies still by the Thames-side? Was this fat white man to prove a fairy?
"You have painted an admirable picture," continued the possible fairy, "and the handling of the most difficult part of all – of course you know I mean the lights and shadows on that delightful figure – is masterly. Of course there are faults, plenty of them, but you can see, and you can draw, and you can paint."
Craddock saw Charles' lip quiver, and heard that it cost him an effort to command his voice.
"Not really?" he stammered.
"Unless I am much mistaken, and it has been the business of my life to seek out those who can see and draw and paint. Now I don't know your name, and assuredly I have never seen your work before, and since it is my business also to know the names and the works of all young men who can paint, I imagine that you have your artistic d?but, so to speak, still in front of you. But I shall be exceedingly grateful to you if you will sell me your picture, straight away, here and now. And if you won't let me have it for fifty pounds, I shall have to offer you sixty."
Charles looked vaguely round, first at Craddock then at his picture, then at the spouting weir, almost expecting to see them melt, as is the manner of dreams, into some other farrago as fantastical as this, or dissolve altogether into a waking reality.
"Do you really mean you will give me fifty pounds for it," he asked.
"No: I will give you sixty. But don't touch it again. Take my word for it that it is finished. Or did you know that already?"
"Oh, yes," said the boy. "I finished it an hour ago. But I came back to make sure."
"Well, then, when you leave your encampment here, will you please send it to me at this address? That is to say, if I am to have the privilege of purchasing it."
This repetition gave reality to the interview: people in dreams were not so persistent, and Charles gave a little joyous laugh, as Craddock took a card out of his pocket and gave it to him.
"Or were you thinking of exhibiting it?" he asked.
"I was meaning to have a try with it at the autumn Exhibition of the 'Artists and Etchers,'" said Charles.
"I have no objection to that, provided you will let me have a little talk with you first, and put certain proposals before you."
He looked at the picture again, and saw more surely than ever its admirable quality. It had unity: it was a picture of a boy just about to plunge into a sunlit pool, not a boy, and a pool, and some sunlight, a mere pictorial map, or painted enumeration of objects. It was all tingling with freshness and vitality and the rapture of early achievement: no artist, however skilled, if he had outgrown his youthful enthusiasm could have done it like that, though he would easily have produced a work more technically faultless. Eagerness, though wonderfully controlled, burned in it; the joy of life shouted from it. And when he looked from it to the tall shy boy whose grey eyes had seen that, whose long fingers had handled the brushes that recorded it, he felt sure he would not go far wrong in his own interests in making a proposal to him that would seem to him fantastical in its encouraging generosity. Indeed he felt that there was no element of chance in the matter, for there could be no doubt about this young man's temperament, which lies at the bottom of all artistic achievement, and in this case was so clearly to be read in those eager eyes and sensitive mouth. Naturally he had a tremendous lot to learn, but a temperament so full of ardent life and romantic perception as that which had inspired this idyll of youth and sunshine and outpouring waters would never rest from the realization of its dreams and visions.
He looked at his watch and found he had still half an hour before he need to go to the station.
"Can you give me a few minutes of your time now?" he said.
"Of course. I will just tell my brother that I can't come with him at once. We were going on the river."
"Do. Tell him to come back for you in half-an-hour. That is he, I suppose, on the header-board."
Charles went quickly down the little path to the tent.
"O, Reggie," he said. "The fat white man has come and bought my picture. Absolutely bought it. It's real: I'm just beginning to believe it."
Reggie stared for a moment. Then, for he had a poor opinion of his brother's business capacities, "How much?" he demanded.
"Sixty pounds. Not shillings, pounds. And he wants to talk to me now, so come back for me in half-an-hour. He says I can paint, and somehow I think he knows."
"Bless his fat face," said Reggie. "We'll let him have it at his own price. Anything for the model? I think the model deserves something."
"He shall get it," said Charles.
Reggie caught hold of his brother by the shoulders, and danced him round in three wild capering circles.
Arthur Craddock had sat himself down on the steps that led to the header-board waiting for Charles' return. He had turned the picture round, so that he saw it in a less perplexing light, and found that he had no need to reconsider his previous conclusions about it. It was brimful of lusty talent, and there seemed to him to be a hint of something more transcendent than talent. There was a really original note in it: it had a style of its own, not a style of others, and though he felt sure that the artist must have studied at Bonnart's in Paris, there was something about the drawing of it which had never been taught in that admirable atelier. And the artist was so young: there was no telling at what he might not arrive. Craddock had a true reverence for genius, and he suspected genius here. He also had a very keen appreciation of advantageous financial transactions, which he expected might be gratified before long. For both these reasons he awaited Charles' return with impatience. He was prepared to make his proposal to him at once, if necessary, but he felt he would prefer to see more of his work first.
Charles did not tax his patience long: he came running back.
"Let us begin at the beginning, like the catechism," said Craddock. "What is your name?"
"And mine is Arthur Craddock. So here we are."
Craddock was capable of considerable charm of manner and a disarming frankness, and already Charles felt disposed both to like and trust him.
"Your work, such as I have seen of it," Craddock went on, "interests me immensely. Also it makes me feel a hundred years old, which is not in itself pleasant, but I bear no grudge, for the means" – and he pointed at the picture, "excuse the effect. Now, my dear Lathom, be kind and answer me a few questions. You studied with Bonnart, did you not?"
"Yes, for two years."
"Only that? You used your time well. But who taught you drawing?"
Charles looked at him with a charmingly youthful modesty and candour.
"Nobody," he said. "I couldn't draw at all when I left Bonnart's. Of course I don't mean that I can draw now. But I worked very hard by myself for the last year. I felt I had to learn drawing for myself: at least Bonnart couldn't teach me."
"And have you copied much?"
"I copy in the National Gallery. I try to copy the English masters."
"There is no better practice, and you will do well to keep it up, provided you do plenty of original work too. But of course you can't help doing that. I should like to see some of your copies, unless you have sold them."
"Not I, worse luck," he said. "Indeed, I have only done bits of pictures. You see – "
He was warming to his confession: the artist within him bubbled irrepressibly in the presence of this man who seemed to understand him so well, and to invite his confidence.
"You see, I didn't care so much about copying entire pictures," he said. "It wasn't Reynolds' grouping – is that fearfully conceited? – that I wanted to learn and to understand, but his drawing, ears, noses, hands – I find I can manage the composition of my picture in a way that seems to me more or less right, and can see the values, but the drawing: that was what I wanted to get. And it has improved. It was perfectly rotten a year ago."
A further idea lit its lamp in Craddock's quick brain.
"You shall show me some of your studies," he said. "And should you care to copy a Reynolds, I feel sure I can get you a good commission, if your copies are anything like as good as your original work. Do tell me anything more about yourself, that you feel disposed to."
Charles brushed his hair back off his forehead. Craddock's manner was so supremely successful with him that he did not know that it was manner at all. He felt he could tell him anything: he trusted him completely.
"I studied with Bonnart for two years," he said, "and then there came a crash. My father died, and we were left extremely poor; in fact, we were left penniless. Perhaps you remember. My mother earns money, so does Reggie, my brother. But for this last year, you see, it is I whom they have been supporting. They wanted me to go on working, and not mind about that. So I worked on: I have been very industrious I think, but till now, till this minute, I haven't earned more than a pound or two. That's why – "
Charles had to pause a moment. The reality and significance of what was happening almost overwhelmed him. Sixty pounds meant a tremendous lot to him, but the meaning of it, that of which it was the symbol meant so infinitely more.
"That's why I could hardly believe at first that you wanted to buy my picture," he said. "It seemed too big a thing to happen. It's not only the fact of sixty pounds, it's your belief that my picture is worth it, that I can paint. But if nobody ever wanted to buy or saw any merit in what I did, I don't believe I could help going on working."
He was sitting on the ground just below the steps which Craddock occupied, and he felt a kind hand on his shoulder, as if to calm and fortify his voice which he knew was rather unsteady.
"So I guessed," said Craddock, "but it is just as pleasant to find that somebody does believe in you, and I assure you that I am only the first of many who will. Now about our arrangements – I will give you ten pounds at once to show you I am in earnest about buying your picture – "
"O, good Lord, no," interrupted Charles.
"I should prefer it, and I will send you the balance from town. Now will you come up there to-morrow and show me what you call your bits of things? Show me them the day after to-morrow, and shall we say ten in the morning? You must give me the address of your studio and I will come there. Bring up your picture with you, but get some boy from the village to look after your tent and belongings for a night or two, if you prefer this to rooms. Very likely you will want to occupy it again. The Reynolds of which I spoke is in a house near."
Craddock got up and pulled out a Russia-leather pocketbook.
"Here is my earnest money," he said. "Your studio address? Thanks."
Charles' heart was so full that it seemed to choke his brain and his power of utterance. The first ineffable moment of recognition, dear even to the most self-reliant of artists, had come to him, and until then he had not known how nearly he had despaired of its advent. He held out his hand, and smiled and shook his head.
"It's no use my trying to thank you," he said, "for there are no words that are any use. But I expect you know."
As has been said, Arthur Craddock had a profound reverence for talent quite apart from his keen pleasure in advantageous bargains, and his answer, dictated by that was quite sincere.
"The thanks must pass from me to you," he said. "People like myself who are unable to create, find their rewards in being able to appreciate the work of those like yourself. Pray do not think of me as a patron: I am a customer, but I hope I may prove to you that I am a good one. Ten o'clock, then, the day after to-morrow."
Craddock had the invaluable mental gift of attending with a thoroughness hermetically sealed from all other distractions to the business on hand. Nor did he let his mind dribble its force into other channels, when he wanted the whole of it to gush from one nozzle, and in this interview with Charles Lathom he had summoned his whole energy, though the expression of it was very quiet, to winning the boy's confidence, and making himself appear as a discerning and generous appreciator. It would have seemed to him a very poor policy to obtain this picture, as he could no doubt have done, for a quarter of the price he had offered for it, while on the other hand, it was unnecessary to offer twice that price (which he would willingly have done) since he could make the impression that was needful for his future scheme, at the lower figure. Economy was an excellent thing, but there was no mistake more gross than to economize at the wrong time. He was satisfied as to this, and now he dismissed the subject of Charles and his picture quite completely, and turned his whole thoughts elsewhere.
There were several directions in which it might profitably have turned; he turned it to one in which any possible profit was remote. That morning, before he made this visit to Charles, Craddock had proposed to Joyce, who had refused him. He had not taken, and did not now take her refusal as final, and told her so, but it had considerably surprised him. He knew well how restricted a life she led at home, how subjected she was to her father's peevish caprices and complaints, how cut off she was from the general diversions of life, and this, added to her father's assurance that he "pleased her" was sufficient to make him frankly astonished at her rejection of him, and her refusal to walk through the door which he held open for her, and which provided so easy an escape from all these disabilities. He had put before her, though not pompously, these advantages, he had mentioned that her father endorsed his application, he had not omitted to lay stress on his devotion to her, and had ascertained that there was no rival in the field of her maidenly preference. It is true that he was not in love with her, but, acute man though he was in all that concerned the head, it never entered into his mind, even now, as he drove to the station, and thought intently about the subject, that this omission could have had anything to do with his ill-success. It is quite doubtful whether, even if he had been desperately in love with her, Joyce would conceivably have given any different answer, but, as it was, the omission was so fatal to her instinct, that there could not be a moment's struggle or debate for her. She was not even sorry for him, for clearly there was nothing real to be sorry for. Otherwise, she would have sincerely regretted her inability to accept him, for, in spite of a certain physical distaste which she felt for him, she liked him, and admired his quickness and cleverness. Had her father told her that Craddock was going to live with him, she would have hailed him with a genuine welcome. But quite apart from her feeling towards him, there was the insuperable barrier of his want of feeling towards her. Of that barrier, of the possibility of her knowing it, he, with all his cleverness, had no idea. But to Joyce the whole matter was abundantly evident; she knew he did not even love her, and his love for her was the only thing that could have made her acceptance of him ever so faintly possible. Without that all other reasons for marrying him were fly-blown; no debate, no balancings were conceivable. The scale dinted the beam with its unchecked kick.
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