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Title: A Vision Of Toyokuni
Author: Arthur Morrison
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1600531h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  Mar 2016
Most recent update: Mar 2016

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A Vision Of Toyokuni


Arthur Morrison

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First published in Black and White, July 25, 1896
Reprinted in The Chap-Book, Chicago, August 1, 1896
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2016

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FOR some years now old Balmer's has been the figure most familiar to my sight. Servants at my chambers come and go, from my club members disappear and new arrive, but every day old Balmer comes to my door, shabby, patient, obsequious, anxious for work. Before he came to my rooms I knew him by sight. At the first bend of a crooked turning behind Chancery Lane stands an old public-house, with an interior snuggery sacred by daylight to a small group of barrister's clerks. But in the evening the clerks vanish, and it has long been my practice to sit there at night to such small supper as the landlady may devise for me. For she is a cook of infinite resource and, given the comparative leisure that comes with the dark, can turn a savoury with the firm touch of genius. Moreover, from a low open window in the snuggery one may see into the bottle and jug department, the public bar and the private bar, filled at night with people interesting to see and to hear, though at times undesirably noisy. It was among these that I was used to see old Balmer before I knew his name.

Shabby, wizen and dusty, the old man had a complaisant, untaught civility that served him ill in the public bar, where his gentle pliancy gained him no more than contempt for weak-wittedness, and made him the butt of coarser creatures. He drank very little indeed, and rarely: perhaps no more than once in an evening; and his drink was always a small glass of the cheapest sherry. This alone made him notable among the rest, and his taste provoked many gibes; though probably the stuff was wretched enough.

That he was of a sensitive intelligence was plain, plain it was also that his life must be a lonely one, since he sought company amid the discrepant boorishness of the public bar; and it was partly because these things were so plain that I invited him one evening into my snuggery. Two of the habitual loafers in the bar, by a clumsy affectation of friendly respect, and to the accompaniment of winks, had induced the old man to treat them--with the last of his money, as I afterwards found. Then in their turn, with signs of growing mirth, they asked what he would take.

"Thankee, gentlemen," the old fellow piped, with a slight cough behind his hand, "I'll take a two o' sherry wine, if it's all the same."

The sole answer was an offensive guffaw, and the old man shrank, hurt and abashed, under a volley of gross laughter from all the bar. The joke did not please me, and I contrived a message by the barman to bring the victim quietly to my snuggery.

He came, obsequious but mystified. I rose and gave him a chair.

"This evening," I said, "I am alone here, and lonely. I shall feel it a favour if you will take a glass of wine with me."

He sat on the edge of his chair, with his hat on his knee.

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"Thankee, sir," he answered, with a smile, conciliatory though doubtful, and a bob of the head. "I take it very kind of you, I'm sure.

"Not at all," I said. "Suppose we pull a little nearer the fire. I am drinking whisky, but perhaps you'd prefer wine.

"Yes, sir, thankee. A little sherry wine, if it's all the same."

Presently I found, notwithstanding his protestations, that his sherry did not please him. They had brought a better sort, but what best satisfied his taste was the sherry of the public bar; and it was to a glass of this that he settled down in the end.

His conversation was dull. Chiefly it was the expression of civil agreement with what I might say. There was no trace of a thought, an opinion, or a fancy of his own. If any such he had ever possessed, he had long lost the courage to put it forth. Yet he was a man of incomparably finer grain than those he had left in the public bar. But the man's individuality had broken and withered from its long stay in an atmosphere of vulgar ridicule. His mind was a mere cloudy mirror, apt to flatter; and he was pitiably uninteresting.

When we parted, he handed me, with timid excuses, a card bearing the written words "R. Balmer, copyist." The writing was so fine and regular that the card seemed, at first view, to be printed from an engraved plate. He would be glad of any opportunity to copy documents or manuscripts, he said, and he would do it neatly and quickly, at less than the cost of type-writing. He trusted I would pardon the liberty he took in introducing a matter of business on such an occasion, but work was often difficult to get, and he hoped therefore that I should not consider it an offence; and so forth.

Thus I first met old Balmer, and now, as I have said, his has grown the most familiar figure in my daily outlook. I gave him some small matter of copying to do, and was surprised at the quickness, the accuracy and the particular beauty of his work. His was the calligraphy of the old writing-masters, ruled with a firm elegance, clear as type. Such copying by pen or type-writer as I had hitherto had done had been chiefly a matter of interpretation of my own ill scrawl, but now I was moved as much by consideration of a comely manuscript. I cannot remember his making a single mistake of transcript, though he has copied my writing for five years. I suspect, indeed, that I am near being his sole employer, for a shabby man of his age, with nothing in his appearance to recommend him, and no knowledge of any language but his own, can find, I imagine, very little casual copying work. And so every evening old Balmer stands in the lobby of my chambers, shabby, wrinkled, and apologetic, to know if I have any orders for the morning, or for immediate execution. The visit is a superfluity, since, as a rule, he has already called twice during the day, and certainly once in the morning, when it is commonly my practice to set him to work in the little office I keep on the floor below. But it is always best to make quite sure, he says, in case of anything unforeseen: if it be all the same to me, and provided I will excuse the intrusion.

So far as I remember, on only a single occasion have I had anything of the least importance to communicate to the old man at his evening visit. It was then, indeed, nothing but a desire that he should attend unusually early the next morning; which desire he never understood, because of a coincident singularity.

The day had been hot, and I had had an uncommonly tiring afternoon out of doors. I dined rather early, and returned to my rooms for an evening's rest. I sat in my easiest chair--resolved, however, not to fall asleep (as the circumstances made possible) lest I should not hear old Balmer's tapping at the outer door--and I turned pleasantly through my albums of Japanese colour-prints. My colour-prints are to me something of a physical luxury: Utamaro's delicacy of line, Toyokuni's wealth of mellow colour, the bridled richness of Harunobu, soothe my sight and reach my brain like some strange sedative incense. Nerves, jangled and strained by the day's petty discords, fall in tune by the note of clear harmony struck in these colour-fantasies of old Japan. I may be afflicted with a morbid excess of sensibility to colour, or some such deplorable thing, but that is not a matter of concern.

I live on a high floor, and as I sat the room was barred across with the rays of the low evening sun. They threw an added glory about certain of my best prints that hung in frames on the wall facing me. One in particular caught the full light--an aged triple-sheet Toyokuni--that had often provoked in me an odd fancy; for it might have been an earlier avatar, in lines and hues, of the incomparable Ballade of a Toyokuni Colour-print. It was a fancy that it pleased me to return to, this of the metempsychosis of a work in art, conceived anew and presented in the bodily technic of each art in turn. The two flanking figures in the print stood, strong and nervous, two-sworded Samaurai both, each with hand clapped to hilt, and between them swept a female figure of flowing lines and gentle luxuriance of tint, truly in its place as middle verse in this painted poem of Utagawa Toyokuni.

As here you loiter, flowing-gowned
And hugely sashed, with pins a-row
Your quaint head as with flannelets crowned,
Demure, inviting--even so,
When merry maids in Miyako
To feel the sweet o' the year began,
And green gardens to overflow,
I loved you once in old Japan.

The halo of sunlight took a redder tinge about the figures. Truly Toyokuni was gracious to-night.

I was roused by a familiar tap at the outer door, a tap perhaps even a little more timid and indistinct than usual. I remembered my message for old Balmer, and went to admit him. He bobbed rather more extravagantly than was his custom, and stepped into the lobby with something of a lurch. There was an oddity in his voice, and he mumbled. I brought him from the twilight of the lobby--till then he had never penetrated further--into my sitting-room, when the case grew plain. Old Balmer was drunk. It was a new thing for him, but there was no doubt of it--on the testimony even of smell.

He stared dully at my necktie, and said, "Goorev'nin' sir, goo-goorev'nin' sir." Then a mumble. "Scusem-taken'-lib'ty comin' sevnin', sir. Goorev'nin'." And he swayed gently backward and forward.

I led him to the sofa, which stood end on to the wall whereon hung my triple Toyokuni. He sat on it with a flop, and calmly curled one leg under him, once or twice lifting the other as though to bring that up too, and dropping it feebly. Sober, he would rather have jumped out of window.

"Come, Balmer," I said, with what severity I might assume, "this won't do at all."

"Cer'nly, sir. Ik--ik--ik won'do'tall." He leaned slowly and unsteadily back, as though for support from the rail of the sofa. As he did it, his eyes lifted till they ranged as high as the colour-print on the wall.

Instantly, with a strange shudder, he sat erect and firm, staring at the print. After a few seconds, his gaze still fixed, his arm rose and stretched before him, and with shut fist and extended thumb he followed, with a lively, dashing motion, the curves in the picture, as some painters will do, discussing work on an easel.

His eyes fixed steadily on the middle of the print, his thumb flourishing mechanically below, and his head inclining in unison now this way, now that, old Balmer presented from behind a shape of queer incongruity. With a thought of the japonaiserie wherein he was so odd a blot, I said, laughing:

"Balmer, Balmer, I fear you've taken too much saké!"

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The thumb stopped and the head turned slowly. "Iya!--saké, saké?" said old Balmer, in a soft, foreign voice. The patient old face was in apotheosis--keen, confident, masterly--the vision far away. But as he faced me the eyes returned to earth and, with a sharper shudder, he was again but old Balmer--drunk.

"Sherry wine, sir; li'l' sherry wine. 'Fraid I novverywell."

What was this? What could Balmer know of saké? And then his face as he studied the colour-print! I took a portfolio of loose prints and placed it open before him. He bent unsteadily to look, and as he looked his gaze grew in intensity, as I have seen that of a subject set by a hypnotist to look on a metal disc. Presently he lifted the print, and passed his right finger and thumb along its edges as an expert does. The print was a bright example of Kunisada, Toyokuni's pupil--not faultless. He placed his finger on a small region of overwrought colour, and rubbed it to and fro, gently shaking his head and clicking his tongue as he did so. Then, with a slight sigh, he turned the next print.

Who was this old man, who, sober, was an ignorant copyist, but, drunk, could place his finger unerringly on the one fault on that fine piece of outlandish decoration, and express his opinion by the sounds and gestures that are the painters' freemasonry the world over? There he sat, erect, absorbed, with eyes that saw more than Balmer could imagine, and with an expressive finger passed judgment on one print after another. At a well-flown piece of drapery the finger swung in loops and curves; at a truly-laid scheme of colour the finger tapped the foot of the print and the head nodded gravely. The face seemed younger than old Balmer's, but of a deeper experience; with a strength and a kindly shrewdness that I noticed a singular twitching of the muscles that drew the toothless mouth down to the right, as with a freakish smile. I remembered some of Mrs. Crowe's anecdotes of entranced living bodies temporarily possessed by wandering spirits of the dead. What errant Nipponese shadow had fallen about the helpless carcase of Balmer?

I ventured to speak. Quietly, but distinctly, from behind his shoulder, I spoke of the print he was examining. He turned to other prints, and I spoke of them, but I got no word in answer. He came to a Toyokuni, lifted it in his left hand with scarcely a glance and searched among the sheets on each side. Now the print he held was my sole part of a double sheet, though there was nothing in the single figure it carried to indicate the fact that it was incomplete, whereof I was aware myself only because of having seen a copy of the double sheet in another man's collection. Yet this old man would seem to know it all, and to search for the missing half. Distinctly, slowly, and with a level emphasis I said in his ear, "What is it? What do you see?"

For many seconds--perhaps even minutes, I cannot tell--he was silent. Then came the voice of old Balmer, but in a barely distinct mutter, as of one talking in a dream: "The other. There is another."

Presently he gave over his search, placing the single sheet aside, as though in hope of shortly coming upon its twin piece. He uncovered an Utamaro--an aberrant example that I keep as supporting a conjecture of mine. His forefinger tapped on the broad purple of the robe on the sitting figure, and in his face there was something of triumph and something of amused contempt. Now purple was Toyokuni's own colour, first made foundation for a scheme of colour by himself: and my print went to suggest that at some time Utamaro must have been influenced by his rival Toyokuni: for in the use of the purple and, indeed, in the whole colour scheme, this print was a clear imitation of Toyokuni. And there sat old Balmer, if in truth this shape could be his, and pointed triumphantly to that patch of purple. I spoke again. "Kitagawa Utamaro," I said, "was he not good?"

Again silence, while the forefinger tapped the purple patch. Then the sleepy mutter of old Balmer, "Good? Yes, yes. Good. But I can teach better."

I was strangely excited, nervous. What was I doing? What thing was being told me? I possessed myself barely enough to keep my voice steady, and I asked, "Whom--whom have you taught?"

Prompt and clear came the answer, as though from the sleeper roused, "Kunisada, Kunimaru, Kuniyoshi!"

"Utagawa Toyokuni!" I shouted, springing erect and facing this man, my wrists trembling.

The prints fell to the floor and the face that turned up to mine was a face of grey horror, drawn and staring. Backward on the sofa he dropped, taken head to foot in a shuddering spasm, as of an epileptic. Then the face turned on the cushion and a hand and forearm fell over it. I went and lifted the arm, and there lay old Balmer, merely drunk and asleep.

I shook him, but he lay like a mere bundle, and began to snore. In the end I had to call the porter, and the old man was taken to his lodgings in a cab.

* * * * * *

SICK and penitent, old Balmer stood before me next morning. At first he apologised for having omitted his regular evening call. I assured him that indeed the call had not been omitted, whereupon he was overwhelmed with apprehension that he had said or done something unpardonable, and had alienated me for ever. He remembered nothing; nothing but that some blackguards of the public bar had partly cajoled and partly bullied him to drink too much unaccustomed rum and water. I took him into my sitting-room and stood him before the colour-prints on the walls. I tapped them with my fingers and asked what he thought of them.

He grinned an uneasy, conciliatory grin. To me he had slowly learned to express himself with something less than his common timidity, and now he said:

"Well, sir, hem--hem--they're very beautiful, no doubt, of course. But I must say--if you'll excuse the liberty---they---they're uncommonly ugly!"

It was all one could expect from Balmer.

I confess that more than once since that time I have tried to make old Balmer drunk. Why not? How much better be drunk and Toyokuni than sober and--Balmer! But no: Balmer has had his lesson. He will never be drunk again. No wandering spirit will seize the impotent old body as it lolls and sways; no reminiscence of old lives flicker up among the poor old ashes damped down with liquor. Old Balmer has grown firm in this one thing.

Once, as he wrote in my little office, I asked him his age.

"I was born, sir," he said, without looking up, "in 1828."

It is a coincidence, for that was the year of Toyokuni's death, according to Anderson. But then Gonse puts it at 1825.

Often now I let old Balmer write in my sitting-room. More than once I have caught him regarding my Japanese prints curiously, with a doubtful, puzzled eye. But I have seen other people doing the same thing.


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