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As a matter of fact, Craddock had done so for exactly the same reasons as that which prompted him to give Charles Lathom sixty pounds for his sketch: he wanted to earn a sort of blind unreasoning gratitude from his new client, since clients possessed of this convenient spirit were far easier to manage and to deal with. But he had failed, and knew it: this new client, though he looked forward to finding him very remunerative indeed, could not possibly be considered to be blind with gratitude. But after all the main point was that he should sign the contract that embodied Craddock's proposals, which he was perfectly willing to do, and Craddock's butler, coming in with coffee, witnessed the transaction. A leaf from Craddock's cheque-book completed it.
All the appliances of refrigeration, in the way of electric fans and outside blinds, were not more than sufficient to keep Craddock's flat at an agreeable temperature and when, that evening, about six o'clock Mrs. Lathom put away her typewriter, and the neat piles of manuscript and transcription which had occupied her all day the heat in the little sunbaked sitting room in Sidney Street, which at meal times did duty also as dining-room, was almost overpowering. But she expected the younger of her two handsome boys to arrive from his holiday on the Thames with Charles in time for supper, and tired as she was and worn out with her daily work in this little furnace of a room, her fatigue forgot itself in thought of and preparation for his home-coming.
Reggie had, on a picture postcard that showed Thorley Weir, advertised her of the hour of his train's arrival, and before she need busy herself over the gas-stove that stood in the corner of the passage outside the sitting-room, and had to be fed with pennies to keep its flame burning, she found there was a quarter of an hour left her to rest herself, and if possible to get a few minutes' doze to clear the heat and heaviness from her eyes. This evening in spite of the home-coming of one of her darlings, she was conscious of an unusual despondency, which, quite rightly, she told herself was only physical, and did not touch her spirits or her essential self. But this utter fatigue of body apparently reached down to her mind, and she could not help, since dozing proved an impossible feat, receding backwards into the ashes and desolation of the past. Yet, when she allowed herself to do so something stronger than any sense of desolation met her, love and her womanhood and her motherhood, and the blessing of her boys. And the tired eyes grew brighter again.
Strawberries had been very cheap that morning, and she had bought a basket of them which she had laid out on a newspaper on her bed, each separate, so that they should not bruise each other. She could give Reggie some toasted cheese as well, and tea and bread and butter. It was not such a feast as she had planned for him on the evening of his return, before he went back to his work again at Thistleton's Gallery next morning, but she had sent the boys a sovereign only the day before, in order to let them have a plethora of boat-hire and general jubilance, and until she took the completed copy of the manuscript back to the office next day, there was nothing more in the way of cash that could be expended.Womanlike, with all the direct and tender instincts of womanhood alert, she loved to treat her males to the material comforts of life. Her love had to express itself not only in affection but in the edible transcription of it, and while she would not have denied that Mary had chosen the good part, she had a strong sympathy with Martha, who showed her love in a fashion less purely spiritual perhaps, but none the less authentic. To serve, even if the only monument of service was unbruised strawberries, and the preparation of toasted cheese, cooked over a smelling gas-stove in the heat of this broiling evening, did not seem to her an inferior lot. She knew she had the Mary-love for her boys, but, though she did not reason about the point, nor even was conscious of it, she believed Martha had not chosen a bad part, when she put on her apron, so to speak, and got uncomfortably warm over the kitchen fire.
There were still a few minutes left before she need stir. Reggie's train was just about arriving now, and it would take him a good half-hour to walk home. In twenty minutes she could do her best by his supper, and have the toast and cheese hot and crisp for him, and she had already put the kettle on: tea would be ready simultaneously. She knew the chronology of these simple suppers very well.
She sat in a frayed arm-chair. The room looked west, and at this hour it was not possible to place it entirely out of the sun, and since there was a little wind blowing in she drew up the blind of the window, admitting both. It was her hands and her eyes that were so tired; for a couple of months now it had been something of a strain to read small writing, and to-day even the clear-cut letters of her typewriter were hard to focus. Very probably she was in need of glasses, but an oculist's fee, when expenses so nearly met income, was not a disbursement to be incurred lightly, and certainly her eyesight was not always so bad as it had been to-day. The strain of continual focussing had ruled two vertical lines between her eyebrows, as she had seen when she went to wash her hands after putting away her machine and before cooking Reggie's supper. She had seen them there before, but more faintly. To-day they were deeply carved.
Mrs. Lathom was but a year or two over forty, and she was aware that wrinkles such as these had no right as yet to set up so firm a dwelling-house on her face. But they only troubled her as a sign of eye-strain, a direction-post to the oculist's, and as symbols of approaching age they concerned her not at all, except in so far that approaching age might prove a drag on her energies and her work. Yet it was easy to see that as a girl she must have been beautiful, and women who have been beautiful as girls are not usually so careless over the signs of their lost youth. But the moment's glance sufficient to disentangle from her face the loveliness of its youth, would have been, except to the most superficial observers, enough to make him desist from his disentangling, and stand charmed and almost awed at the gifts the advance of years had brought her which so vastly out-valued the mere smoothness of line and brightness of colour that they had taken away. They with the losses and griefs that had visited her had taken so little in comparison with the love and the patience and the proved unconquerable serenity which they had brought her. Nor, except that for the moment, when heat and physical fatigue lay like a mist over her face, dimming the inward brightness of it, had they robbed her of the lighter gifts of the spirit, humour and the appreciation of the kindly merriment that to cheerful souls runs through the web of life like some gold thread in the windings of a labyrinth. High moral courage and simple faith are without doubt essential to noble living on whatever scale, but it is only the puritanically minded who would discount the piquancy that an appreciation of the comical aspects of a world, possibly tragic, gives to the business of life. And a certain sparkle in Mrs. Lathom's grey eyes, a certain twist in her mouth clearly betokened that she was quite capable of laughing at those she loved when they behaved in a ridiculous manner. In the end without doubt a deeper-abiding tenderness would overscore her amusement, but she would never commit the error of blindly spoiling her idols.
But her ten minutes' rest was over, and she got out of her cupboard the materials for supper, and went out onto the landing where stood the gas-stove that browsed on inserted pennies. Mercifully it stood near the window that looked out on to Sidney Street at the top of this shabby genteel house, and the generous fumes grafted on to the faint odour of oil-cloth and a more pronounced smell of other culinary operations on some lower storey did not hang in stagnation on the landing. Outside on the pavements and roadway shadowed by the houses, children, not quite gutter-snipes, but markedly a little lower than the angels, played about with the eked-out contrivances of childhood, a pair of ill-running skates shared between two, a small box on wheels which would hold a baby, and cabalistically labelled squares drawn on the paving-stones. Opposite there were no houses, for a stiff church stood in an acre of disused graveyard. Rather sad and spiritless marriages used sometimes to be officiated there, and on Sunday a great clamour of four bells brought together a sparser congregation than so much noise seemed to deserve. Over all lay a grey heat-hazed sky.
Somehow the gas-stove with its accompanying odour of oil-cloth and another supper below, in which it was now clear that fish was an ingredient, was more encouraging than those symbols of worship and mortality. The gas-stove promised supper anyhow, and supper is a symbol that life not only is not extinct, but that it demands to be maintained, and Mrs. Lathom turned to the kettle from which steam was beginning to spurt, and put her saucepan on the bars of the top of the range. Simultaneously a motor-car hooted outside, and appeared to draw up, still throbbing, at the house. Then there came an impatient roulade on the bell, and the moment after the leap of active ascending feet on the staircase. It was impossible to mistake that tread: nobody in the house but Reggie came upstairs like a charging brigade, and yet how should Reggie have taken a motor from Paddington? It could scarcely be that Charles was ill, that there had been some accident, for then surely he would have telegraphed: nor did these flying feet sound like the bearer of ill news. But she left her gas-stove and went to the head of the stairs, not exactly expecting ill-news, but wanting to know.
Reggie flung himself upon her in his usual tornado of welcome.
"Oh, Mother, things have happened," he said, "and Charles hasn't decided whether Berkeley Square or Grosvenor Square is the nicest, and so he'll leave it to you. Yes, quite right: I'm mad, and I've kept the taxi because Charles orders you to drive out with me and have supper somewhere. It's his treat. To come to the point, he has sold his picture right off the easel for sixty pounds – I said pounds – and it seems that's only the beginning."
"Oh, my dear!" said Mrs. Lathom.
"I know I am, so put on your hat. Goodness, how hot the house is, and oil-cloth and fish and cheese don't smell as good as Thorley Weir."
Berkeley Square and a ticking waiting taxi and a supper at a restaurant, while the root of the matter, the fountain head of all this glory was just sixty pounds, made up an admirable example of the Charles-Reginald attitude towards money. Both of them seemed to regard it, the moment that there was any immediate superfluity of it, as a thing to be got rid of as soon as possible. This Mrs. Lathom continuously and earnestly and not very successfully tried to combat: a future rainy day, in the opinion of her sons, was not worth a moment's thought if the present day was a fine one. But at this moment Mrs. Lathom also gloriously desired the swift rush through the air, the sense of shaded lights and tinkle of ice, for she was not in any way immune from the temptations of these sub-celestial pleasures. And it was with not any very great firmness that she resisted.
"It's too dear of Charles to have ordered all these nice things," she said, "but my darling it's out of proportion even to such a fortune as sixty pounds, for us to go to a restaurant. Send the taxi away, like a good boy: I was just beginning to cook your supper."
Reggie shook his head.
"Can't be done," he said. "Charles' orders and my promise to obey them are binding. And the taxi is a-ticking out the sweet little twopences."
Mrs. Lathom made one more effort.
"But it's ridiculous," she said, "and supper will be ready in two minutes, and oh, Reggie, I am longing to hear all about the sixty pounds. And there are strawberries: I separated them, so that they should not spoil each other."
"We will eat them when we come back," said the inexorable Reggie. "I shan't tell you a word about the sixty pounds unless you come. I promised Charles. I heard another twopence go then."
A little puff of air came upstairs laden and flavoured with oil-cloth and fish which would not positively improve if kept, and the curious "poor" smell that dwells in houses where in winter the windows are not very often opened for fear of losing the warmth so expensively procured when coals are high. Mrs. Lathom's resolution wavered.
"One of us has to give way," she said. "Please let it be you, Reggie."
"Can't be done. The taxi is working awful quick, mother."
All opposition collapsed.
"Oh, I will get my hat, you monster," cried she. "It's exceedingly wrong of me to come, and for that very reason I am going to enjoy it all the more. How I long to hear about the sixty pounds! Put out that dreadful gas-stove, darling: we will stop all the tickings."
Charles duly arrived next morning with the picture, not yet quite dry, on the seat opposite him propped up by a melon which he had felt compelled to buy for his mother. Reggie had already gone off to his desk at Thistleton's Gallery when he arrived, and she was at work with her typewriter, and had not heard his step above the clacking of the busy keys. She turned as the door opened, with surprise and welcome on her face, and rose, pushing herself up with a hand on the arm of her chair. A hundred times and more when he came home of an evening had Charles seen her in exactly that attitude, with all that love and welcome beaming in her face, but to-day she took his eye in a way she had never done before. The artist in him, not the affectionate son only, perceived her. He paused in the doorway without advancing.
"Oh, you picture!" he cried. "How is it I never saw you before. You are my next model please. Mother, darling, here I am! The melon, yes, that's for you, and the picture, that's for Mr. Craddock, and me, well, I'm for both of you."
Charles deposited these agreeable properties.
"And Reggie has told you all there is to be told, I expect," he said, "but unless I'm mistaken there'll be much more to tell when I've seen Mr. Craddock to-morrow morning. He's coming to my studio at ten, and I'm sure things are going to happen. What I don't know. A commission to copy a Reynolds perhaps, other things perhaps, who knows? But my next picture is going to be you: you with your typewriter, just getting up as you did this moment, because Reggie or I came in. Lord, how often have I seen you do that, and yet I saw it for the first time to-day. Now I must go and put my studio in order in preparation for to-morrow, but I shall stop and talk to you for ten minutes first. Yes: that's Reggie just going to take a header into the Weir. Dappled like a horse, and spotted like a frog, he says, but if you won't tell anybody, there's some devilish good work in it. I happen to know because I put it there. Clever handling in the modelling of the 'Nood,' as Bonnart used to call it when he talked English, and as for the light and shadow on his blessed shoulders, I call it a wonder. And if I'm not deceived it'll be Thorley Weir he's just going to dip into. Oh, mother, I've grown silly with happiness."
They sat down together on the shabby shiny American cloth sofa, which Reggie said was guaranteed to slide from under the securest sitter in ten minutes.
"It's a new world," he went on, "just because somebody who, I am sure, knows, tells me I can paint, and has already shown himself willing to back his opinion. You don't know what a nightmare it has been to me all this year, to be earning nothing while you and Reggie were supporting me."
She laid her thin white hand on his brown one.
"Ah, my dear, do you think I haven't known all along?" she said. "Couldn't I see you struggling to keep your heart above water, so to speak? All this year, my darling, you haven't chattered, as you chattered just now."
"I suppose not. But I mustn't chatter any more. I've got to get my studio arranged, and all my bits of things stuck out for Mr. Craddock to see. I wonder what he wants to come down to see everything for. If it had been about this Reynolds' copy only he could have asked me to bring a couple of bits of work up to him. Mother, he is such a good sort: he was so friendly over it, and considerate and understanding. I shall come back as soon as I've dusted and cleared up. It won't take long."
She glanced at the sheets on her desk.
"I think I shall come and help you," she said, "and when we've put things to rights, I will go on with my work in your studio, dear, if I shan't be in the way. It gets so baking hot here in the afternoon."
"Hurrah! And while you work I shall begin the world-famed picture of the artist's mother."
"I think you owe yourself a holiday, dear, after finishing that other picture."
"Pooh! Who wants holidays when he's happy? We'll bring the melon and the typewriter and the picture along, and have a jubilation."
Charles' studio was but a few hundred yards away down a side street leading off the Brompton Road, and had not it been called a studio it might not have been misnamed an attic. Four flights of dark and carpetless stairs led to it, and its garniture was of the most rudimentary kind. Carpet and curtains it had none: a dishevelled screen and torn blind shut the light, when so desired, from its southern facing window, but in the opposite wall was a big casement giving the rayless illumination from the north. In one corner the skeleton which had been arranged in an attitude of dejected thought by Reggie on his last visit here, had a straw hat tilted back on its skull, on a shelf by it were casts of a skinless man with flayed muscles, and three or four reproductions from Greek antiques, an easel, a rough square table and three or four cane-backed chairs in various stages of disrepair completed the furniture. In one corner a cupboard let into the wall was masked by a ragged curtain which bulged suspiciously. Thither Mrs. Lathom's housewife eyes were led, and she drew it aside with a contumelious finger.
Horror was revealed: she had scarce believed that any cupboard could contain so appalling a catalogue of evidence to prove the utter incapability of a man to live, when left to himself, in a way consistent with self-respect or tidiness or cleanliness. She had not been to his studio for a month past, and to-day she would cheerfully have sworn that for all these weeks Charles had never touched the cupboard except to stow away in it some new and disgraceful object. Crockery and knives and forks, some clean, some dirty, were lodged there, there were twisted and empty tubes that had contained colour, there was a hat without a brim and a jug without a handle, irregular shapes done up in newspaper, bottles of medium, tin tacks, sheets of paper with embryonic sketches, painting rags, half-used sticks of charcoal, remains of food, remains of everything that should have been cast into the dust-bin.
It was a withering face she turned on Charles.
"I should not have survived it if Mr. Craddock had seen in what a pig-sty you choose to live, Charles," she said. "I should have died of shame. It's little work I shall do this morning in the way of typewriting. Water and dusters and a scrubbing-brush, please."
Charles twitched the curtain over the cupboard again. Something fell behind it as he did so, and his mother groaned.
"It's little work you shall do in the way of cleaning up my messes," he said. "There's a charwoman about who brushes and scrubs and makes everything resplendent for half-a-crown per resplendency. On my word of honour she shall dust and clean. But you might help me to dust my sketches and put them out, mother. I got her to tidy-up once, and she wiped off a complete oil-sketch which was still wet."
Mrs. Lathom looked round.
"Of course I will," she said, "but oh, Charles, what squalor! A torn blind, and a broken screen, and three chairs all of which want reseating. And to think of Reggie and me last night stuffing ourselves at a restaurant with your money."
"Where shall we sup to-night?" asked Charles, bringing out a pile of canvasses.
"At twenty-three Sidney Street. Give me a duster. My dear, what a quantity of paintings."
An hour was sufficient to make Charles' private view presentable, and to display all his sketches, finished and unfinished, round the wainscot of his walls. Then without pause he put a new canvas on his easel, and bribed by his promise not to spend more than five shillings on their supper to-night, Mrs. Lathom consented to abandon her own work for an hour and sit for him. He put her typewriter on the table, and made her rehearse.
"It's like an instantaneous photograph," he said, "at least that is what the picture is going to be like. Oh, do attend, mother, and not look at the skeleton. Reggie stuck it there with a straw hat on it: it doesn't matter. You may dust it afterwards. Now! Tinkle with your typewriter, and then all of a sudden Reggie or I come in here to your right, and you put your hand on the arm of your chair, and get up saying, 'Gosh, what a surprise and how nice!' Does your poor mind take that in at all? It's rather important."
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