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Title: Darton's Great Picture/Darton's Successor Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1500911h.html Language: English Date first posted: Sep 2015 Most recent update: Jan 2017 This eBook was produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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"Darton's Great Picture" made its first apperance on April 1, 1896, in The Sketch, a weekly glossy magazine published in London from 1893 to 1959, for a time under the pretentious sub-title "An Illustrated Weekly Magazine of Society and Aristocracy." This and a number of other stories by Oppenheim (for example, "A Commonplace Jest" and "The Reformation of Circe," qv) were printed as part of an open-end series called "A Novel in a Nutshell." This series included, in the magazine's early issues, Bram Stoker's Gothic murder story "A Dream of Red Hands" (1894), George Moore's "An Episode in Bachelor Life" and "An Episode in Married Life" (both 1894), Grant Allen's "Amour de Voyage" (1894), and Walter de La Mare's "Kismet" (1895)
The Sketch printed two or three stories in each issue, mostly "society" stories, but also mysteries. Agatha Christie's first twelve Poirot stories appeared in The Sketch in 1923 under the general title "The Grey Cells of M. Poirot." The magazine also published a noteworthy series called "Tales with a Sting," which included contributions by Edwin Baird, E.M. Delafield and Marjorie Bowen.
The following image of an 1894 issue of The Sketch will give the reader an impression of the appearance and "feel" of the weekly during the late Victorian and early Edwardian period.
"Darton's Great Picture" features the same group of Bohemian artists as "Darton's Successor," which was included in the collection Those Other Days, published by Ward, Lock & Co., London, in 1912. "Darton's Successor" made its first appearance in The Sketch on April 8, 1896. A copy of this story is included here.
—Roy Glashan, January 3, 2017
ALL that we knew of her was that her name was Bertha, and that she was Darton's model. As for me, I had never spoken to her in my life. When she knocked at my door at considerably after midnight, and brushed past me into my room without a word of explanation, I naturally concluded that something was up.
"Anything wrong with Darton?" I asked quickly. "Is he worse?"
I was out of candles, and, owing to a difference with a myrmidon of the gas company, my supply had been cut off. Therefore I was sitting in the darkness. But I had a great north window, curtainless and blindless, and a flooding shaft of yellow moonlight lay diagonally across my floor. She had stopped in the very centre of it, and I smoked my pipe and looked at her. For the first time I understood Darton's enthusiasm. I looked at her with a new respect. Her black gown was shabby and untidy, and the hall-mark of what usually passes for profligacy was upon her cheeks. She was swaying, too, a little unsteadily—perhaps she was drunk. But all the same, I looked at her with new eyes.
"Take a chair," I suggested, placing one by her side. "It's all right if you sit down carefully, and keep your skirts off the broken canes."
She shook her head, but drew the chair towards her, and leaned over its back. I looked at her and sighed. There was immortality in that pose. If Darton failed, it would be his own fault. By-the-bye, perhaps he had heard. Perhaps that was why she was here.
"Any news of the picture?" I asked.
She took not the slightest notice of my question. I don't think she even heard it. I smoked on and wondered. Not that I was in any hurry. The longer she remained like that the better I was pleased. As a whole, she was beyond my powers of reproduction, but the lines of her half-crouching figure, the pose of her drooped head, one faint suggestion of the writing upon her face, was capital to me. My personal curiosity was already gone. There was something greater in the room, and I was being drawn into it. I cared not why she had come. I was only anxious that she should not go. When she spoke, I was sorry.
"Do me a service!"
I nodded. What did she want? Not money! People knew better than to come to me for that. Nevertheless, there was a half-sovereign in my pocket—my last—and it was hers for the asking. My fingers closed upon it that I might be prompt in offering, but it was not money.
"They say that you are clever at making rapid sketches. Come and make one for me."
I took up a block of paper and a couple of pencils.
"In Darton's studio."
I nodded. "Half a minute!"
I filled my pipe, and handed her a cigarette. She took no notice of the proffered box. She was looking through me, through the walls of my room, away into some dark corner of the world. She did not see me, or hear my voice. I would have given that half-sovereign, and gone dinnerless for a week, to know what thoughts were rushing through her brain—what she saw behind that lifted curtain. For a moment I envied her. She was living! The limits of her little life had fallen away. She was in that shadowy second world where the great winds of fate go roaring over the sterile plains, and the flames of passion leap up to the dark sky. How I envied her! To have felt like that with my brush in my hand would have meant immortality. To her, the model, it came; and me, the artist, it passed by. I sighed, and struck a light.
She left the room, and I followed her down on to the second landing, where Darton's studio was. She held up a warning finger, and opened the door softly. I passed by her side across the threshold. A tallow candle was burning upon a box. She took it up and held it over her head. I stood by her side.
I knew then why, for the last month, we had all been excluded from Darton's studio. I knew what had been thrown under the mighty wheels of the Juggernaut of success, what had gone to the making of Darton's great picture. Poverty had swept me bare enough—we were all poor together in our little colony. Most of us had kept starvation off with pot-boilers, and renovations, and hack-dealer's work of some sort or other but Darton, since his great picture had come to him, had put away all these things as unholy. How he had lived had been a mystery to us. Now that I looked around his room, and at the girl by my side, things seemed clearer to me. Every article of furniture was gone, except the easel. The walls and the carpets were perfectly bare. There was no fire in the grate, nor any signs of food. On the box, close to where the candle had been, was a pile of pawn-tickets. There was the brand of starvation in the room, in the spiritualised thinness of the figure by my side. The first glimmerings of the truth commenced to dawn upon me.
In the far corner the foot of an iron bedstead protruded from behind a torn and faded curtain of red baize. Shading the candle in her hand, she glided from my side, and drew it back along the bending string. Darton was sleeping there upon the bare frame of the bedstead, his body covered by a woman's brown ulster, his head resting upon a rolled-up skirt His face was so white and thin that, for a moment, a new terror seized me. Then I saw that he was breathing heavily. His hand, drooping down to the floor, clutched a letter, retained even through his sleep by the spasmodic clasp of those long, delicate fingers. She let the curtain fall, and came back to my side.
"Draw it for me," she whispered. "Everything! Him"—she pointed to the bedstead—"the letter, those"—she pointed downwards at the pawn-tickets. "Everything! Softly! Let him sleep; he is worn out."
I did her bidding. It was a trick of mine, this rapid sketching. Sometimes it brought me money when my art failed me. So I did her bidding.
She moved to the curtain. "Put me in."
She turned to face me, and my heart was sick for a north light, for my palette and brushes. But, as the thing seemed to me by the miserable light of that single candle, I put it down on the paper. When I had finished, I looked at it almost with awe—for the first time my knack had come into touch with what there was of the artist in me. There was a tragedy there, in those few hasty strokes. I looked at my work, and I coveted it.
"Is it finished?" she asked, looking half-fearfully towards the bed.
"It is finished."
She came to my side, and held out her hand; but I hesitated.
"Let me make you a copy. This is so rough, and it would be useful to me."
"There must be no copy. Let me have it!"
She raised her eyes, and I hesitated no longer. I gave it to her.
She offered no thanks, for which I was grateful. How the night was passing with them below I could not tell. But I sat over my fire till its white ashes were cold, and the chill dawn-light filled the room.
NEXT morning we all knew the news. The Royal Academy had been graciously pleased to accept Darton's great picture, and by almost the same post he had received news of a legacy of three thousand pounds. I am free to admit that the last piece of news had an immensely exhilarating effect upon me. He came up to my room with a fat bundle of notes in his hand. He had been to see the lawyer.
"How much is it, old chap? You haven't kept my I.O.U.'s, have you?"
I laughed at him, and we sat down together and pondered over the matter. He made it at least fifty. I put it down at thirty. We struck a balance at forty, and I stuffed the notes into my trouser pockets with a feeling of great wealth. It was more money than I had possessed all at once for many years.
Darton was excited. He walked backwards and forwards across my bare floor, with a scarlet spot burning in his pale cheeks, talking incessantly. Every now and then he stood where she had stood last night. I looked at him, and I longed to ask a question. But my tongue was tied. So he talked, and I listened. He was to become famous; his pictures were to fetch great prices; he was to build that wonderful studio of which he had dreamed, and in it there was always to be a corner for me, or any of his old pals who chose to come to him. The world of which we had talked and wondered over together was to be opened for him, and, through him, for Fred, and for Dick, and for me. And still I listened, and listened in vain. He did not speak of her.
But it came in a day or two. Darton was giving us a dinner at Mariette's—he had spoken of the Savoy, but we had laughed in derision. Where were our dress-coats, our patent boots—even our tall hats? We were not of the world of the Savoy diners. Besides, had not Mariette trusted us, one and all, in our direst straits? There was not one of us who had not owed him for many dinners—as a matter of fact, there was not one of us who was not at that moment in his debt. Mariette had treated us, and Mariette should have our cash. Besides, was there not Burgundy in his cellars—old Burgundy, with a yellow seal and a cunning flavour; and as for the dinner, Mariette himself would put on his white apron and cook for us! What could be better? So Mariette's it was.
We were all there, Darton at the head of the table, in the wildest spirits, Fred at his left hand, and I at his right. Dick had come late, and sat by my side. A dandy was Dick, with a great bunch of violets in his coat, and a flavour of the West End in his clothes and bearing. Anyhow, we were all there, and dinner was half-way through, when I could stand it no longer. I tossed off a glass of Burgundy, and looked at him.
His face clouded over. He set down his glass with a gesture of annoyance.
"She has left me."
I looked at him hard. We all looked at him. He helped himself to an entrée with nervous, shaking fingers. No one went on eating; no one spoke. He threw down his knife and fork like an angry child, and looked at us defiantly.
"How can I help it?" he exclaimed. "I did not drive her away. She left me of her own free will. I offered her half my legacy, yet she went."
"Tell us," Dick said quietly, and I echoed his word. We were all grave. Eating had become a farce.
Darton poured himself out wine and drank.
"Well, I will tell you then. You should hear the whole story. You shall be my judges and hers. You know that I took her for a model. Where she came from, and who she was, God only knows! But her face is the soul of my picture. You see, I admit it. Not only that; I was poor; I could not pay her. She came still. Presently she gave up her rooms and came to me. Her little odds and ends of furniture she sold, and the money came to our joint housekeeping account. You know what that meant. It went into my picture. She was in the chorus of the Frivolity, and every penny she earned went the same way. I earned no money for months, as you fellows know. My picture absorbed me; I was drunk with it. Bertha found me food, and drink, and tobacco, and she paid the rent. She was my model, and I simply lived upon her. But that isn't the worst."
He threw himself back in his chair, and wiped his forehead. The perspiration was standing out upon it in beads. Fred leaned forward encouragingly.
"Never mind, old chap; you can make it all square with her now. What luck!"
Darton took no notice. I do not think that he heard him.
"Towards the end," he went on, leaning forward, and speaking in a thick whisper, "things went worse. Her play was taken off at the Frivolity. Bit by bit, we sold every stick of furniture. When my picture was finished we were half starved—and there was the frame. I went to David's; the fellow had lost faith in me—he would not advance a penny. All one night we sat and looked at one another. The picture was finished, but we were faint from want of food, and there was no frame. I had borrowed from all you fellows. There was no one else in the wide world. We looked into one another's faces, and Bertha—she had been so plucky all along—burst out sobbing, and then I'm afraid I wasn't what you'd call manly myself. Then she sprang up, and threw her arms around my neck and kissed me. When I looked up, she had gone.
"Well, in less than an hour a commissionaire brought me an envelope, with a sovereign in it. I knew that it came from Bertha, for the address was in her handwriting, and I thought she must have found out some old acquaintance and borrowed it. I bought food and drink, and it was life to me! Presently she returned. She came in, followed by one of David's men, and, without looking at me, she pointed to the picture. The man took it away, and I went with him. The frame was paid for, she had paid for it—and the money—was stolen!"
He poured out a glass of wine and drank it. The look of gaiety had fallen from his face. He was ghastly pale. And we were all silent. We waited.
"It was not until I came back from David's that I knew the truth. She was lying sobbing upon the bed, and when I would have gone to her she pushed me away. I must not touch her! she moaned. I must never touch her again. And then at last I saw her face—"
He held out his hand across the table.
"D—m! Let me finish! She did not go away! I fainted and for many days I was scarcely conscious. All the time she watched me, brought me food and wine, and kept me alive. And when I got well—she was in prison!"
I tried to raise my glass to my lips, but it fell shattered upon the table. We scarcely noticed it or the little stream of red wine. Dick retained presence of mind enough to wave away the advancing waiter. We were all breathless.
He looked from one to the other of us, and swore a deep oath.
"Haven't you fellows a single grain of sympathy to offer me?" he cried. "Why do you all look at me like that? Am I a culprit? Are you my judges? They were very lenient with her. She was not in a fortnight. I showed her my letters. Half of my legacy was hers, I told her. What in the name of all that is horrible could I do more? Could I keep her with me? Would you have had her here with us?"
"In the seat of honour!" cried Dick, his eyes all ablaze. "At your right hand, now and for ever!"
"That's d—d nonsense! She had behaved nobly. I know it, and I told her so. But how could I go on living with a woman who had been—who had been—in prison? A thief!"
I got up and struck him across the lips, so that the blood came through my fingers. Then my hands were held. The others hesitated; but I went away, for I knew more than they knew.
PERHAPS, after all, the blow was a mistake. At any rate, the breach between Darton and myself was not final. We met afterwards, and spoke for the sake of those days of wonderful good-fellowship, when we four had fought our great battle with poverty so cheerfully. So it was that Darton sent me a card to see his pictures, when his new studio was built.
Darton had become fashionable, and he was engaged to a rich girl. I stood in a corner of his long reception-room, watching the throngs of people passing through, until I hated the man. I could not go and speak to him. That night still stood out from all others in my memory. Across the daintily tinted walls I seemed to see, in letters of fire, the price of his great picture, his great success—a woman's soul!
A rustling of skirts, the floating into the air of a familiar cheap scent, the uplifting of a closely drawn veil! I looked around in horror, but there was no one to see us.
"You have not forgotten me yet, I see," she said, with something of the old softness in her tone. "Well, you see, I am here! Don't you think it is time?"
She held up a little roll she was carrying. I recognized it and my heart stood still. It was my sketch. Now I understood. I looked away from her over the heads of the people, to where Darton was standing, with one hand resting upon his easel, talking to a tall, handsome girl. "He's going to be married, they say," she whispered.
"I have heard so."
She opened the sketch, and looked at it. Then she glanced up at me with an old smile.
"Will you show me the young lady?"
I waved my hand around the room.
"It's all your doing," I said softly; "the picture was yours; it was your flesh and blood."
"And my soul," she murmured.
"Is it worth while to undo it all? You have made your sacrifice; why render it useless? Let him alone."
"You are right," she said quietly; "it is not worth while. Here!"
She tore the sketch in pieces, and placed them in my hands. There was a dampness in my eyes as I took them. When I could see clearly, she was gone.
I hurried after her. Darton's butler stopped me in the doorway.
"I trust that that person did not annoy you, sir," he began, anxiously. "She had a card, and I could not catch Mr. Darton's eye, so I was forced to admit her."
I pushed him on one side and hurried down the steps on to the pavement. She was out of sight. There was a grey mist hanging upon the pavements, and somewhere she vanished into it. I have never seen her since. I do not expect to see her again. Darton and I are strangers.
THERE were four of us when we first came to Stile's Row—Darton, Fred, Dick, and myself. Fred and I were old chums. We had been at college together, and, in palmier days, had shared a studio in St. John's Wood. Dick Maynard was a very prince of good fellows, but his career as an artist and a Bohemian was, unfortunately, nipped in the bud by an inconsiderate great-aunt, who died and left him a fortune. The old life had still some fascination for him, however, and when we moved to Stile's Row, he took the fourth studio there, and occasionally came and lectured about art. Darton, too, had been with us from the first; and, when he left, and his rooms stood empty, it was astonishing how little we missed him.
Our tiny circle seemed only drawn the closer for his defection. Probably, as Fred remarked, it was only propinquity which had made him one of us at all. He had always had a hankering for the brazen pots of Philistinism. Penury had been a source of constant irritation to him. The small privations, which we had learnt to look upon as a sort of philosophic tolerance, galled him. The jest of empty pockets appealed in no way to his sense of humour. His Bohemianism had been only skin-deep. With us it seemed to have passed into our blood, and into the very sinews of our daily life. But that we were still human, however, we had soon to learn.
Fred had brought his work into my room, one afternoon, and was standing before his easel gazing at an unfinished picture, with a frown upon his handsome face. There was a knock at the door. Fred looked at me and scowled.
"It's that grocer Johnny," he remarked savagely. "He said he should come this afternoon. Who told him I was up here, I wonder? Meddlesome idiot! Hold on a minute!"
He passed behind the high screen which partitioned off my room, and threw himself upon the bed. "Come in!" I called out.
The door was opened, and a girl crossed the threshold. We did not want to see any woman about the place. In this respect we were peculiar, but sincere. I went on painting, without a second glance at her.
"We neither of us want a model," I volunteered; "can't afford to pay them. Shut the door, please."
She closed the door, but remained inside.
"Can't you?" she said. "I am sorry. But, you see, I'm not a model."
I turned round, and looked at her. She was tall, and she wore an artist's smock over a plain dark dress. As to her appearance, I have never attempted to describe her, and I never shall. Dick could do it by the hour. I never could. I only know that she was beautiful, and she stood there laughing at me.
"I am your new neighbour," she explained, the corners of her mouth still twitching. "I have taken the rooms below, which a Mr. Darton used to have. Do you understand stoves? I have been trying to make some tea for half an hour, but, voilà! that is all I have succeeded in doing."
She held up a pair of small, black hands, and laughed. I laughed too. It was irresistible.
"Stoves?" I repeated. "I don't know; I'll come and see, if you like."
"If you really wouldn't mind! Good gracious! What is that?"
I followed her startled eyes. In his eagerness to see the new-comer, Fred had mounted on to my bed, and was looking over the screen. I frowned at him severely.
"It's my friend," I explained. "He has the room above here, and he was working with me when you knocked. And the fact is, we thought you were a dun, so he was in retirement. Come out, Fred!"
Fred appeared with a very red face, and bowed with such dignity as a man may who is wearing a dirty smock in lieu of a coat, and carpet slippers. But our visitor was very gracious.
"My name is D'Auxelles," she said. "Come, both of you, and see if you can put my stove right, and I will give you some tea. That is, if you are not too busy, of course."
Busy! We scouted the idea, and followed her down to the next floor. Darton's room was witnessing a metamorphosis indeed. We found the floor strewn with a motley collection of feminine belongings, including an easel, and all the paraphernalia of an artist. In the centre was a black iron tubular concern, emitting puffs of smoke from the top.
"It is a patent arrangement," she remarked, looking at it thoughtfully. "The man from whom I bought it declared that it would cook anything, from an egg to a haunch of mutton. It only wants managing. Here is a book of instructions. I have tried to understand them, but I am so stupid!"
She handed us a little pamphlet. It was all very simple. We went for it boldly.
"I will cut some bread-and-butter and open the jam, while you boil the kettle," she proposed. "Perhaps you will be able to make some toast when you have found out how the thing works."
"We will try," I answered dubiously. "The first thing to do is to thoroughly master the principle of the thing. Read those instructions again, Fred."
We approached our task with a certain amount of cheerfulness. As time went on our faces fell, our complacency deserted us. Fred, with a great smut on his left cheek, had commenced to swear to himself softly, but with terrible earnestness. I was struggling with an insane desire to seek out the maker of the thing and kick him. She came over and stood by our side.
"I am afraid that you are not getting on very well," she remarked. She seemed disappointed.
I rose to my feet. "The fact is, we are not getting on at all," I confessed. "There is a big fire in my room. Let us take the things in there and boil the kettle."
"Delightful!" she exclaimed. "Here, hold out your hands."
She loaded us with plates of bread-and-butter, and scones, and jam. Fred loitered behind to help her with the kettle. He muttered something about the handle being hot. At the door our eyes met, and he positively blushed. They were both carrying the kettle.
Such an afternoon-tea my studio had never witnessed before. Certainly it will never witness anything of the sort again. She sat in my easy-chair, and we both waited upon her—with more than average clumsiness. But she enjoyed it. She told us a little about herself—not much. She was an orphan, and she had been living with some relatives in London who bored her. They were apparently addicted to the vice of fashionable life. Helen—she told us that we were to call her Helen—had only one desire: it was to become an artist. She did not tell us so point-blank, but we gathered that she had run away. That there was anything unusual in her having rooms in Stile's Row, Chelsea, she did not seem to appreciate in the least. She was sublimely unconscious—sublimely ignorant. She looked out upon life with a naive and eager curiosity. Bohemia was her Promised Land. To be a denizen in it seemed to be the limit of her desires. Her sex did not seem in the least to embarrass her. She talked to us as an equal and a comrade. We were artists. In less than half an hour we had forgotten our shabbiness and the poverty of our surroundings. We were all the best of friends. It was very surprising.
After tea, she took out a dainty little cigarette-case, and smoked, while we showed her our work, or such part of it as we thought worthy of her inspection. Fred accepted a cigarette, and smoked it in lieu of his pipe. He told me afterwards that it was the best Egyptian cigarette he had ever tasted.
When she left us, she held out her hand with a little impulsive gesture.
"Good-bye." she said, looking straight into my eyes. "I am so glad to have you two for neighbours, and I am sure that we shall be good friends. It is so good of you not to mind having a girl as a fellow-worker!"
In turn we bowed over her hand. Fred mumbled a little speech, but I said nothing. Then we went back to my fire, and smoked, and looked at one another stealthily through the twilight. Perhaps the same thought was there with both of us. Through the curling smoke from my pipe, as it spread around in faint, dim wreaths, I seemed to see something in the future which might come between us two—a little crack in the wall of our treasured friendship—just a scratch, but a scratch which might easily become a chasm. And then Fred—a fellow of great heart was Fred—laid his hand upon that crack, and sealed it up for ever. Through the shadows, I could see his soft eyes—he had woman's eyes—turned full upon me, and his hand thrust forward.
I leaned forward, and clasped his hand.
A WOMAN brings change as the spring brings flowers, but with us the change was not what we had dreaded. These were the halcyon days of our Bohemianism. We had a new comrade—gay, fascinating, sympathetic. Dick, too, came under the charm, Dick, the hardened young misogynist, who railed at women as at the plagues of Egypt. But Dick had mixed with women freely, and her society was never to him what it was to Fred and myself. Our evenings no longer hung fire. We had little dinners at Mariette's—more than we could afford—and we generally wound up the evening at a music-hall, or one of the exhibitions. Fred, somewhat shyly, had brought out a dress coat and unearthed a tall hat. I, with a sigh, furbished up my old clothes, for I was very poor in those days. Not that Helen ever cost us a penny; she paid her share of everything from the start, and she would have been grievously offended if we had treated her in any way otherwise than as one of ourselves. We even told her of our custom—the sale of a picture meant a dinner at Mariette's, if the price allowed it—and she clapped her hands with delight. But from that time she always seemed to be selling a picture; dainty little things they were, too! We seldom saw a purchaser, but her gay little summons became a familiar thing. And we went without hesitation. Helen had a way of making us do what she wanted. Our constant study was to keep her amused and interested, for there was just one disturbing element in the happiness of our days. Helen would get tired of her life in a shabby suburban street, with only us three men for her companions. She would get tired of it, and go away. So we humoured her like a child, watching her face to see if she were amused when we took her out, drinking sweet Moselle for dinner without a single wry face, holding frequent consultations, and studying her in every way that occurred to us. And, on the whole, we succeeded. As to her painting, we had no difficulty in keeping her interested in it. We taught her a little, and she was always eager to learn. She had talent, and her work, if it was not of a very high order, had a charm and originality of her own, She was a flower-painter. Often Fred and I found our way to Covent Garden, in the fresh spring twilight before the dawn, in search of roses for her, and saw the sun rise as we strode homewards together through the dim, silent streets. And on those occasions we said very little. But we each knew the other's mind.
There came a morning when Helen waltzed into my room, waving her hands above her head, and, with a fine flourish, came to a standstill before me. "Who will come with me into the Land of Goshen?" she cried breathlessly. "I want to go to my dressmaker, and to see the rhododendrons in the Park. Who will come?"
She looked at me, but I kept my eyes upon my work. Alas! I had no garments for the West.
"We have only one tall hat between us," I said sorrowfully, "and it will not fit me. Fred must be your escort."
Fred was already tearing off his smock, and handling the clothes-brush. She turned away slowly.
"I shall be ready in ten minutes," she said, without looking at me any more. "Don't dare to keep me waiting!"
I laid down my brush and watched them cross the street. Fred, tall and aristocratic, wearing his shabby clothes with an air of a prince, and Helen—what a metamorphosis! she had become a woman of fashion. She was wearing the garments of a world which had no kin with ours, wearing them gracefully and naturally. I watched them until they were out of sight, and an odd thing happened to me. I, a hardened outcast from the world, a wanderer in its by-ways, a would-be cynic, became suddenly the slave of an emotional crisis. A mist swam before my eyes, a lump crept into my throat. My brush slipped from my nerveless fingers. I was leaning against my easel, and my head was resting in my clasped hands. This, then, was what I had made of life! My best years were stealing away. Middle-age stared me in the face. What had I made of myself? What was I?—a vagabond, a strolling artist, a loiterer along the broad avenue, at whose end was the Temple of Fame, with my hands in my pockets, while others girded up their loins, and passed me, now one by one, now in a stream. The ignominy of content stung me to the quick. The sunshine seemed slipping from my life. And I knew whence had come this phase of sudden realization. I turned upon myself with a new fury. Fool A nameless artist, without money, or repute, a parasite hanging on to a little back-corner of the world. What folly! what folly!
When they returned, I knew at once that something had gone wrong. Helen went straight to her room, and Fred came hurrying in to me with a white troubled face. He threw off his hat and coat, and commenced filling his pipe with trembling fingers.
"What is it?" I asked softly.
He answered me with an oath—
"We have seen some of her people. They were in the Park. We got into a hansom, but they gave chase. One of them has spotted us down. They will find her out. They will make her go back!"
We looked at one another aghast.
"Go to the window," he directed.
"Is there a fellow in a long coat watching the house?"
A man in a frock-coat stood opposite, smoking a cigarette, and looking up. I pointed him out to Fred.
"I should like to wring his neck!" muttered Fred, looking over my shoulder. "It was he who saw us, that is his carriage at the corner. He is waiting for the others."
A brougham, drawn by a pair of dark horses, turned into the narrow street. The man who was waiting handed out a lady, and together they entered the house. Helen came running into our room.
"They have found me out!" she cried sadly. "I shall have to go away!"
I pointed below. "They have come for you already," I said.
She was very pale, and her eyes were wonderfully soft.
"This has been a mad freak of mine," she said, "but I shall never regret it—never! It will be a little corner of my life which I shall cherish. You two, and Mr. Dick, have been so good to me. You have been like brothers. You will come and see me afterwards, won't you?"
We promised sadly, and without enthusiasm. She shook hands with us and hurried away.
We heard her greet the new-comers on the landing. They all went together into her room. Fred and I looked into each other's eyes. Then he rushed away, and I heard the door of his room slam. I was alone!
I sank into my chair, and I closed my eyes. After all, it was for the best. The thing could not have gone on. And yet—
And then my little chain of reasoning snapped and fell to the ground. I saw only her face. I gave way to the strong, sweet delight of memory. I fashioned my own picture, and the breath of life seemed to be in it. Everything was so real—her soft, bright voice, the silken rustling of her skirts, the dainty trifles of her toilette—all those soft, indefinable suggestions of femininity, which had been like a revelation to me. Then—surely I was dreaming, or had my picture taken life?—there was a light step in the room, the faint swish of a trailing skirt, the sweet odour of violets. I kept my eyes half-closed. I would not look up or move my head. It was too sweet! I dared not risk losing it. Nearer and nearer it came. A woman's soft breath fell upon my cheeks. Something touched my lips—something warm and delicate and trembling. Again the swish of a skirt, the opening and dosing of a door.
I opened my eyes. Of course it was a dream, but on my knee was a little cluster of violets.
IN the morning I had a visitor. Fred was away. I turned to meet him, his card in my hand, with clenched teeth and white face. He stood and bowed, a white-haired, courteous old gentleman. My resentment faded away.
"You will pardon the liberty—Mr. Montavon, I believe?"
I bowed, and pointed to my chair. He looked at it through his eye-glass, and declined it politely.
"I have only a moment," he said. "I am here at the request of the guardians of—of—"
"Of Miss D'Auxelles," I said.
He raised his eyebrows and bowed.
"Exactly. Of Miss D'Auxelles. I applaud your discretion, sir; it makes my task easier. Her guardians wish me to convey their thanks—their sincere thanks—to you, for the kindness and consideration which you showed their ward in her late most extraordinary escapade. They feel that your behaviour, and the behaviour of your friends, whom I regret not to have met, was most exceptional. I offer you their most heartfelt gratitude, and from the young lady—this."
I took the little parcel, and bowed.
"There was nothing at all exceptional in our treatment to the young lady," I said dryly; "nor can I see that there was anything very extraordinary in what you term her escapade.' We are not in the middle-ages!"
He took up his hat, looking at me fixedly, and smiled.
"You will doubtless understand better when you have examined the little offering from the young lady," he remarked. "Good-morning, sir."
He left me with another bow. I tore open the covering of the parcel, and slowly opened a jeweller's case. A magnificent opal pin, set with diamonds, flashed up at me from a bed of purple velvet. I scarcely noticed it, for I was unfolding with trembling fingers a little scrap of paper, on which was a single line of writing—
"From your comrade and sister, Helen, Princess d'Auxelles."
Then I understood.
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