Edward Benson.

Thorley Weir



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Mrs. Lathom sat down in obedience to this peremptory son. She clacked her machine, and turned woodenly round, with a smile as wooden as her gesture.

"No, not at all like that," said Charles. He had set his easel up, and was waiting with poised charcoal. "Can't you manage to get up, as you did when I came in this morning? Exercise your imagination. Look surprised! Will you try again? You are working hard with your typewriter: is that clear? You are thinking that there is a debt of sixty pounds to clear off, and that Reggie is very ill. Then on a sudden the door opens, here to your right, and Reggie comes in, quite well, bursting with health, and a stack of sovereigns. Do attend, think of what I tell you to think of. Then you get up, and say 'Darling Reggie!' I shall say, 'One, two, three,' and then do it, and then stop just in the position I have told you. Never mind about your face."

Charles took up his charcoal again, and stood with hand poised.

"One, two, three," he said.

She got up, and the seconds added themselves into minutes. There was no sound at all except the dry grating of the charcoal on the canvas. Otherwise the austere stillness of the actual creation of art filled the room. Once again, as on the morning of yesterday, Charles knew his hand was attuned to his eye, and his eye attuned to the vision that lay behind it. Rapidly and unerringly the bold strokes grated across the canvas. Then they ceased altogether.

"You beautiful woman," said Charles. "I've got you. You can't escape me now."

Then his face which had been grave and frowning lit into smiles.

"Mother darling," he said. "I'm going to make such a queen of you with your shabby old dress and your eyes of love. Now for a treat you may dust the skeleton for ten minutes, and then you must give me your face again. I see it: I see it all."

He rummaged behind the terrible curtain, and found a palette and a couple of brushes. He squirted onto it worm casts of colour, and filled his tin with turpentine.

It was a medium-sized canvas he had chosen, about three feet six by three feet, and with big brushfuls of colour very thinly laid on, he splashed in the dull neutrality of greys and browns to frame his figure, making notes rather than painting. A blot of black indicated the typewriter, and then with greater care he filled in the black of her dress, and smeared in the white of the apron she wore with body colour. This took but ten minutes for his bold brush, and then standing a little back from it, he half-closed his eyes and looked a long time at it to see whether the value of background to figure, and figure to background, were as he meant them to be. He did not want the figure to jump out from its place, for even as she rose to greet the incomer with that face of loving welcome, her left hand still hovered with fingers outstretched over her typewriter. It had to be felt that the greeting over, her work must occupy her again.

She had not detached herself from it, for all the leaping-forth of her heart in shining eyes and smiling mouth. As yet the figure was a little too near the spectator, a little too far off from its background, and while he puzzled over this the solution struck him. A little more emphasis given to the chair, the arm of which she grasped gave him what he wanted: she belonged to the chair and it anchored her in her place.

Charles suddenly threw back his head and laughed.

"Oh, jolly good!" he exclaimed, "and I don't care if nobody else agrees with me. Mother, leave that silly skeleton, please, and get back to your place. You may sit down, but turn your face towards me, and remember that Reggie is just coming in, and you've thought he was ill and – "

Charles' voice suddenly ceased, and he stared at his mother as she obeyed these instructions with eyes as of some inspired seer. Very slowly his hand moved to his brush which he had laid down, very slowly and quietly as if afraid of startling away the vision which he saw, he mixed his paint, and laid on the first brushful in planes of colour bold and firm and defined. Between the strokes he paused a long while, but the actual application was but the work of a second. But it was in these pauses when he stood with drooping mouth, head thrust forward, and eyes that seemed as if they burned their way into that beloved face that his work was done. To record what he saw was far less an effort than to see. The insight was what demanded all the fire and effort and imagination which possessed him. He had set himself to divine and to show what motherhood meant.

For half an hour he worked thus, he, too absorbed for speech, she wise enough not to risk an interruption. Then from mere fatigue of brain and eye with this sustained white-heat effort, he felt his power of vision slipping from him, and laid his palette down.

"Come and look at it," he said to his mother.

The face was but roughly put in as yet, but the spirit of the face was there.

"Oh, Charles, dear," she said. "That is just how I love Reggie and you. How did you guess?"

He took her face in his hands and kissed her.

"Guess? I didn't guess," he said. "You told me: your face told me."

Charles was not to be induced to leave his picture while daylight lasted, but he wheeled it round with its face to the wall, before he shut up his studio for the night. He was not sure whether he wished Craddock to see it in its present stage: somehow, it seemed to him private, not for everybody, until it had been clothed, so to speak, in paint. He felt shy, though at the same time he told himself he was merely fantastical at exhibiting so crude a confidence … and while he was in two minds about it next morning, he heard his visitor's footstep on the bare and creaky staircase outside. The last flight of steps as he knew well was a mere trap to the ignorant, with the darkness of it, and its angles and corners, and he set his door wide to give light to his visitor. Then, just before Craddock came in, he told himself he was ridiculous in imagining that there could be privacy in a portrait, and wheeled the easel round so that it stood just opposite the door.

Craddock, large and white and gently perspiring, emerged from the stairs with outstretched hand, and —

"Good morning, my dear fellow," he said. "It is very well for Art to sequester herself and live alone, but four flights of break-neck stairs are really an exaggerated precaution against intrusion. However, here I am – "

Suddenly he caught sight of the portrait and he dropped Charles' hand without another word, and stared at it. The silent seconds grew into a minute, and more than a minute passed without a sound. Hard and commercial and self-seeking as Craddock was he had the saving grace of true reverence for genius, and there was not the smallest question in his mind that it was a master's work that stood before him. There was no need to ask who was this tired and beautiful woman, for no one but her son could have painted a woman so, and have divined that unique inimitable love that no woman ever felt even for husband or lover, but only for those who have been born of her body and her soul. It was that tenderness and love, no other, that Charles had seen, and for none but a son could it have glowed in that worn and lovely face.

Craddock was immensely touched. He had expected a good deal from this visit to Charles' studio, but he had never dreamed of so noble, and simple a triumph, as that unfinished portrait presented. And when at length he turned to Charles, his eyes were moist, and he spoke with a simplicity that was quite unusual to him.

"That is very true and beautiful," he said. "You are fortunate to have a mother to love you like that."

Charles gave an exultant laugh.

"Then I have shown that?" he asked, his shyness entirely vanishing before this penetrating person Where was the point of being shy when a man understood like that?

"Indeed you have," said Craddock. "And you have shown it very tenderly and very truly. It required a son to show it."

He looked again at the eager welcoming face on the canvas, and from it to the face of the boy beside him, and asked himself, impatiently, what was this mysterious feeling of perception that underlay and transcended all technique. Here was a portrait with perhaps two days' work only (it happened to be less than that) expended on it, and even now it had arrived at a level to which mere technique could never lift it. Love and the inspiration that love gave it caught it up, gave it wings, caused it to soar… Yet how, why? There were hundreds and hundreds of artists, who as far as mere technique went, could paint with the same precision and delicacy: why should not any of them have put on the brushful just so? Yet even in the most famous of all portraits of the artist's mother, there was not such a glow of motherhood.

Then he turned from it abruptly. He had not come here merely to admire, though he hoped that he should admire. He had come on a business proposal, which should satisfy both himself and the young man to whom it was made, and he began examining the smaller canvases which Charles and his mother had displayed round the room. Here were a couple of studies of Thorley Weir, here half a dozen sketches of Reggie prepared to take his plunge, with details thereof, a raised arm, a bent knee, the toes of a foot pressed heavily in the act of springing. There were copies of casts, there were portraits and numerous transcriptions of leg-bones, arm-bones, ribs, with muscles, without muscles, and all betokened the same indomitable resolve to draw. Then there were the copies or bits of copies from masterpieces in the National Gallery: half a dozen heads of Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante, and in particular Philip IV. of Spain, quantities of Philip IV. – his head sometimes, sometimes a dozen of his left eyebrow with the eye beneath: his right hand, a finger of his right hand, the thumb of his right hand: could they have been put together like the dry bones of Ezekiel's vision, there would be a great army of Philip IV. And in none was there any sign of impatience: the Argus of eyes was drawn for a purpose; and till that purpose was achieved, it was evident that the artist was prepared to go on copying eyes until his own were dim. Admirable also was the determination to achieve the result by the same process as that employed by the master: to get the general effect was clearly not sufficient, else there would not have been so copious a repetition.

An examination of a quarter of these delicate copies was sufficient for Craddock's purpose in looking at them. His only doubt was whether it was not mere waste of time to give this youth more copying work to do. But the study of a picture so admirable as Wroughton's Reynolds could hardly be waste of time for anybody. Also, he was not sure whether his involuntary tribute to the unfinished portrait had not been too strong: he did not wish Charles to think of himself as one with the world at his feet.

"I see you have got a sense of the importance of copying method," he said, "and I feel sure you will be able to produce an adequate copy of the Reynolds I have in mind. Now you will see why I told you to leave your camp at Thorley Weir unbroken, for the picture in question is at the house a little lower down the river, the Mill House. Probably you know it: the lawn comes down to the water's edge."

Certainly Charles knew it. Involuntarily there sounded in his brain a song he knew also, "See the Chariot at Hand." Decidedly he knew it. But an infantine caution possessed him, and he raised and wrinkled his eyebrows.

"I think I do," he said. "Is there a big tree on the lawn? And are there usually some dogs about?"

"Yes, and a charming young lady who looks after them. Now I can't offer you very much for the work, but if ?50 tempts you at all, I can go as far as that. I should not recommend you to do it at all, if I did not think it would be good for you. What do you say?"

Charles drew a long breath.

"I – I say 'yes,'" he remarked.

"Let us consider that settled then. I will telegraph for the exact size of the picture, and you can take your canvas down. I should start to-morrow, if I were you. Ah, and talking of ?50, here is another specimen of ?50 which I already owe you. I advanced you ten, did I not? I will take my picture away with me if I may."

The crisp crinkling notes were counted out, and Charles took them up and stood irresolute. Then by an effort the words came.

"You can't know," he said, "what you've done for me, and I feel I must tell you – "

The notes trembled and rustled in his hand.

"You've given me hope and life," he said. "I – I don't think I could have gone on much longer, with the others working and earning, and me not bringing a penny back. You've done all that. You've put me on my feet."

Craddock felt for his whisker in silence a moment. To do him justice there was a little struggle in his mind, as to whether he should put the proposal he had come here to make, or do what his better self, the self that reverenced the unfinished portrait, prompted him to do. Yet for a year now this boy had been toiling and struggling unaided and undiscovered. None of all those who must have seen him copying in the National Gallery had seen what those eyes of Philip IV., those repeated fingers and thumbs implied: none had ever suspected the fire and indomitable patience of those admirable sketches. It was but just that he, who had recognised at once what Charles already was and might easily become, should reap the fruits of his perspicuous vision. And the offer he was about to make would seem wildly generous too to his beneficiary.

"My dear Lathom," he said. "I hope to put you much more erect on your feet. I haven't said anything of what I came to say. Now let me put my whole proposal before you."

He paused a moment.

"It is quite impossible for you to continue in your studio here," he said. "You are a painter of portraits, and what sitter will come up those stairs? Your admirable portrait of your mother will certainly be seen next year, at some big exhibition, and certainly people will enquire for the artist. But it is mere folly for you to live here: You must be more accessible, more civilised. Some fine lady wants to be painted by you, but will she survive, or will her laces survive these stairs? Will she sit on a chair like this for an hour together, and look at a torn blind? I know what you will say: quite sensibly you will say that you can afford nothing better. But I can afford it for you. I will start you in a proper studio, well furnished and comfortable, and as it should be. Why, even a dentist has a comfortable chair for his sitter, and a waiting-room with papers, and a servant who opens the door."

Again Craddock paused, for he had caught sight of the unfinished portrait again, and felt desperately mean. But the pause was very short.

"I will start you decently and properly," he said, "and I will not charge you a penny. But I want a return, and you can make me that return by your paintings. I propose then that you should promise to let me have a picture of yours every year for the next three years at the price of ?100. Do you understand? In a year's time or before, I can say to you, pointing to a picture, 'I will take this for this year.' I can say the same next year: I can say the same the year after. You get your studio and all appurtenances free: you also get a hundred a year for certain, provided you only go on painting as well as you paint now. I shall get three pictures by you at a price which I honestly believe will be cheap in three years' time. I tell you that plainly. I think your pictures will fetch more than that then."

Craddock caressed the side of his face a moment.

"I shall also," he said, "have had the pleasure and the privilege of helping a young fellow like yourself, who I believe has a future in front of him, to get a footing in that arena, where attention is paid to artistic work. I have a certain command of the press. It shall assuredly be exercised on your behalf. You have heard of struggling geniuses. I do not say you have genius, but you have great talent, and I shall have enabled you to work without the cramp and constriction of poverty as you paint. Now, you need not tell me now what you decide. Think it over: talk it over with that beautiful mother, whom I hope I may see some day. It is just a business proposal. On the other hand, if you feel no doubt as to your answer, if you are going to tell me to go to the deuce for certain – "

Charles took two quick steps towards him.

"I accept," he said, "how gladly and thankfully I can't tell you. But you might guess … I think you understand so well …"

Craddock, laid his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Then there's our little private bargain," he said. "Tell your mother and that bathing boy, of course. But we'll not talk about it otherwise. Our little agreement, yours and mine. I don't think we shall either of us repent it."

"It won't be me who starts repenting," said Charles joyously.

CHAPTER IV

Charles was in camp again at the little peninsula fringed with meadow-sweet and loosestrife below Thorley Weir, scarcely hearing, far less listening to its low thunder, diminished by the long continuance of the drought, scarcely seeing, far less looking at the dusky crimson behind the trees which showed where the sun had set. Probably his unconscious self, that never-resting observer and recorder of all the minutest unremembered incidents of life, saw and took note, but though his eyes were open and his ears alert, his conscious brain was busy with what concerned him more vividly than those things. Besides, in a way he had already made them his own; he had painted them half a dozen times in sketches and studies, he had guessed their secret, learned the magic of their romance, and they were his. All that was not his, all the life that was expanding and opening about him, could not but claim and receive this surrender of his brain and his heart.

He had come back here two days ago, and on the morning following, had presented his card at the Mill House to a parlour-maid who had taken it in, leaving him and the canvas easel and paint-box he had brought with him to grill at the door. This rather haughty young person returned after a while and bidding him follow, took him upstairs into what looked like a disused nursery, overlooking the lawn and river, and pointed at a picture propped against the end of a sofa.

"Mr. Wroughton hopes there is everything you require," she said, "and please to ring if you want anything."

She rustled out of the door, which she closed with elaborate precaution, exactly as if Charles had fallen into the sleep which was necessary for his recovery.

Charles' grave grey eyes had been twinkling with amusement, as he was thus led through an empty house, and stowed away like a leper, in this sequestered chamber, and, left alone, a broad grin spread over his face. Then before looking at the picture which stood with its face towards the end of the sofa, his eye made an observant tour of the room. Certainly it had been a nursery, for here stood a doll's house, here a child's crib, here a chair with a confining bar between the arms, so that no child imprisoned there could by any means escape. But there were signs of a later occupancy, a couple of big arm-chairs, and a revolving book-case stood there also, on the top of which evidently in recent use lay a writing-pad with ink-bottle and pen-tray attached. Also there was that indefinable sense in the air, manifest subtly but unmistakably that the room was still in use…

A rap at the door which indicated not "May I come in?" but "I am coming in," interrupted this short survey, and the parlour-maid entered. She cast a vulturine glance round the room: she saw and annexed the writing-pad. But again before leaving she spoke like a Delphic oracle up-to-date.

"If you desire to rest or smoke there is the garden," she observed.

Now Charles had already drawn his conclusions about the room, and he resented the removal of the writing-pad by anybody but its owner. For it required but little constructive imagination to reform the history of this room. Surely it had been the nursery of the girl of the punt, and was still used by her as a sitting room. She ought to have come and got her blotting-pad herself. However, she had done nothing of the sort, and in the meantime it was his business not to dream dreams, but see and reproduce another painter's vision. He took hold of the picture that stood against the end of the sofa, turned it round, then gave a short gasp of amazement. For here was the girl of the punt, inimitably portrayed. Just so and in no other fashion had she turned opposite their tent, and looked at Charles while his brother execrated that which should have been an omelette. There was no question that it was she: there was no question either that it was a superb Reynolds.

Instantly the artistic frenzy awoke: the dream that lay deep down in his young soul, dim and faint and asleep, seemed suddenly to awake and merge and personify itself in the treasure that it was his to copy. Instantly the whole room, too, burst into life, when this prototype of its owner was manifested. Nor, apart from the sweet and exquisite pleasure that it gave him to work here, had the room been badly chosen: there was an excellent north light and by drawing down the blinds of the window opposite, he could secure exactly the illumination he required. In five minutes he had adjusted his easel, and with his canvas already mapped faintly out into squares to guide his drawing, the charcoal began its soft grating journeys.



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