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The Masterpiece:
Marjorie Bowen:
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The Masterpiece


Marjorie Bowen

Cover Image

Cover based on an art nouveau poster.

First published in The Windsor Magazine, January 1917

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2023



"It isn't finished," he remarked defensively. Margaret could say nothing.

MARGARET LENNOX drew aside the rose-coloured curtains and looked out on to the dull afternoon. No rose- coloured curtains could make such an afternoon beautiful or cheerful. The spring green in the square showed motionless as if petrified against a leaden sky; the air was chill and rain threatened; these heavy clouds seemed to have descended on the city like a pall, enclosing everything in a breathless, suffocating cold—an English spring.

Margaret let the curtain fall; she had her moment of rebellion.

There had been other springs in her life—springs of sunshine and flowers, roses and music—real gaiety—France, Italy—that May in Rome when she had first met George.

Poor George!

If the memory was a little poignant for her, it must be deadly for him. She had comfort, even luxury, for times that were difficult and vexatious, her decent friends, her orderly pleasures, her work done at leisure, her pleasant prospects of future travel, going abroad, the sun, the flowers, the music again. George lived in a horrible little suburb with a common wife and a baby, and with no prospect whatever of anything but a grind of work to keep poverty from becoming destitution. He did cheap press work—covers for magazines that never appeared above the kitchen stairs, posters for provincial hoardings, designs for boxes of cheap soap, show-cards for the counters of third-rate shops. Poor George!

Margaret remembered how they had stood together before the Raphaels in the Vatican, the Titians in the Borghese. He was going to be a great painter, and she was going to be his inspiration—Egeria, Hypatia, Aspasia.

She had always known that her own talent was a very little thing; she had been content to submerge it altogether in his service; she had felt proud to be his fellow-student.

Now—well, she was not doing show-cards or chemists' wrappers. Leisure, money, and patience had enabled her to achieve some creditable work. Her name was to be seen in the catalogue of some quite good exhibitions; she was pleasantly known for sound, accomplished work.

There was a picture on the easel now—a landscape worked up from sketches made last summer. She turned it with the back to the room in a corner; she did not want to hurt George's feelings.

But she was afraid the studio would do that—it must remind him of what he had lost. The neutral-coloured walls, with the few rare casts and prints, the beautiful flowers finely placed, the old exquisite furniture, the comfortable chairs drawn up near the wood fire that burnt on the red-tiled hearth, the tea-table with the lace and silver and gay china—Margaret was not in the least Bohemian in these matters—the piles of books and periodicals from all countries, the box of Venetian shawls just opened, the slight perfume in the air—everything, even to the China tea, the cream, and the expensive cakes—wouldn't all these be so many bitter reminders of what he had lost?

And Margaret herself, who had so much time and money and taste to spend on herself, whose brown hair was so full of light and fragrance, whose skin was so fine, whose specially designed gown of heavy neutral silk set off so delicately her string of tourmalines, who didn't look thirty-five as she was, but who yet possessed all the grace of achieved womanhood—how would she contrast with the wife from the wretched little suburb—a twopence 'bus ride from where the Tube stops, George had said, as if the important thing in the matter was the twopence?

Margaret settled comfortably into the deep chair with the amber-coloured cushions. She was glad that she hadn't married George.

Of course it would not have meant poverty, for her father had left her well enough off to be able to afford the luxury of a penniless husband, but she liked to be free. Her life was really very pleasant, and now it seemed clear that it would have required a great effort on her part to make George paint that masterpiece, and she wasn't at all inclined for great efforts.

They had been engaged for a year, and then the War had sharply divided them.

He had gone soldiering and she had done a little nursing, a little clerking, a great deal of odd work, so enjoying it all that she had hardly noticed it when George, with as much tact as is possible to a man under the circumstances, had suggested breaking off the engagement. He was afraid he wouldn't be able to earn enough for both. Her father's death had made her a bit of an heiress—that made a difference; one or two good commissions he had had in 1914 had, of course, fallen through—that made a difference, too.

He thought she ought to be free.

And so did Margaret.

Lately she had met so many men, and they all seemed more distinguished, more interesting than George, whose war record was dull. He didn't get wounded, and he didn't get promotion, and he seemed to have entirely given up his painting.

A year of wide events, of national crises that made personal affairs seem utterly dwarfed, entirely divided them.

Then she heard that he was married—just to some little creature he had "picked up," as Margaret's informant had said, a nurse or something, or a W.A.A.C.—anyhow, the girl herself was impossible.

And when George was demobilised, he had spent his gratuity on getting together what his wife called "a home," and taken on hack work to keep it going. And, of course, there was a baby—there always was in marriages of this sort.

Margaret did not want to be unnatural or prejudiced, but she could not help feeling that the baby was the last touch of the commonplace.

Poor George!

She had had these particulars from his own lips, for she had met him by chance in the street. He so shabby, so changed, that she had been quite confused.

He had been quite touchingly friendly, and she had asked him to tea on an impulse of pure charity—and his wife, of course.

It was really all rather dreadful. There were the memories of Rome, of certain walks under the pines of the Villa Borghese, where one had at least touched the edge of that marvellous emotion that alone can transform the world, of long hours of companionship, dreams of the great picture, certain kisses, certain handclasps; and now tea laid for three, and George coming by 'bus and Tube on this dreadful leaden afternoon, with a little alien wife! Why did men make these marriages?

Margaret really wondered, and George had always had good taste.

She wished she had not asked them—it was really rather foolish; she could have spent the afternoon in so many ways so much more pleasant.

She looked ruefully at her cakes and sandwiches. Had she made too much display? She took these things for granted, but the other woman might think she was "showing off." That would be insufferable. She put the most pretentious-looking cake on the shelf under the table, where the cloth hid it, just as the maid opened the door and announced:

"Mr. and Mrs. Guthrie."

Margaret rose, flushing. How silly it all seemed! But she must not think of that; she had got to be very, very kind.

George seemed embarrassed. He was too neat; he looked somehow like a clerk. He gave a mumbled introduction without looking at either of the women.

Margaret's trained civility passed the moment over, got them into chairs by the fire, and started the usual conversation—the weather, and "Did you find your way all right?" and "It was awfully good of you to come on a day like this."

Under cover of this, Margaret was observing Mrs. Guthrie. Everything about her was wrong, just as Margaret had known that it would be.

She was young and healthy—there seemed nothing else in her favour. She wore Oxford Street fashion with a suburban air. Her pink straw hat, with the bead ornament, was one of hundreds turned out mechanically from the workshops every year; her grey frock-coat was of shoddy suit adorned with meaningless "motifs"; she had a string of imitation pearls and a piece of dyed rabbit fur round her neck; her stockings were of artificial silk, with a thick square showing above the back of the hideous pointed shoes that were crushing her feet, but which were embellished by a pair of showy buckles. She had gold curb bracelets, a black silk and beaded hand-bag, a silver-topped umbrella, too much powder on her face, and, when she took off her brand-new brown kid gloves, a tiny diamond showed in a claw above her wedding ring.

Poor George!

Margaret braced herself. Somehow this seemed more than she had anticipated. She caught the girl's glance at her necklace, at her doeskin shoes, at the tea-table, and felt a wretched snob.

George began to talk pictures. Margaret had to respond. It seemed to her bad taste, since it left the wife out altogether. But what were they to talk of?

The girl sipped her tea and nibbled her cake in silence. Her manners were desperately refined. She sat on the edge of the chair, and seemed worried by her rolled-up gloves, her bit of fur, her umbrella, and her bag, from which she drew a folded handkerchief that whiffed of "violette de Parme," ignoring Margaret's fine tea-napkin.

Poor George!

No, he didn't get much time for big paintings now. There wasn't really room it The Laurels, but he'd a kind of shed in the garden, and he was doing a. thing there. He'd thought of sending it to the International. One chap who had seen it thought it rather decent.

Thus George!

"Tell me about it, Mrs. Guthrie," said Margaret, trying desperately to drag the other woman into the conversation.

"Oh, you mustn't ask me. I'm no judge; I don't rightly understand these things, Miss Lennox. I dare say it is very fine, but they don't seem to sell, not those big oils."

"Enid is very practical," said George.

Enid! That would be her name, Margaret thought, just like their home would be called The Laurels.

"Well," said Mrs. Guthrie, with defiant embarrassment, "I don't pretend to understand what is beyond me, I dare say. George always knew I wasn't artistic, but I like pretty things."

"Needlework, perhaps," suggested Margaret in despair.

"Yes, that's nice. I'm very fond of that—embroidery and fancy work."

Margaret, catching at straws, opened one of the quarterlies and showed her an illustration of a Chinese needlework panel.

"No, not that—I never tried that kind of thing. Mustn't it have cost a lot in silks? And the price of them now! And bad at that!"

It seemed that she had meant pen-painting and stitching on an ironed-off pattern.

"But I don't get much time now, not with baby."

Margaret clutched at the subject of baby.

"You have a dear little girl, haven't you, Mrs. Guthrie?"

How foolish it sounded, even to herself!

"A boy."

Mrs. Guthrie became taciturn.

"How lovely!" cried Margaret. "Let me see, how old is he?"

"Fifteen months."

"That's a delightful age!"

"Oh, I don't know. They're a lot of trouble, all over the place and into everything."'

Margaret glanced at George, who was staring into the fire.

"It ties you up," added Mrs. Guthrie. "The girls being as they are, I don't hold with leaving him, not often. The only time he was ill was from a bit of cornflour pudding Annie gave him when I was out. She hadn't cooked it properly, and it swelled inside him."

Margaret felt utterly at sea. To carry on a conversation on these lines was quite beyond her powers. The young wife seemed to notice her embarrassment, for she added quickly:

"What must you think of me, Miss Lennox, talking like this?"

It was getting worse. Margaret began to talk of nursing, of the War—of anything in which this dreadful young woman might possibly be interested.

But no, it was soon clear that she hadn't been a nurse, or a W.A.A.C., or, indeed, anything useful. Where had George met her?

Margaret thought wildly of a shop, but the modern shop-girl was finished compared to Mrs. Guthrie, who had now put her gloves on again, secured her muff and umbrella, and contributed to the conversation such remarks as "she did hold with" something, or "You know what the girls are, Miss Lennox," and "Aren't the prices beyond everything? Why, Mrs. Jones, who lives next door, was saying—"

Margaret forced George into speech by deliberately appealing to him about a certain exhibition. No, he hadn't been. He hadn't been anywhere. He didn't seem to know any of the new names. He was completely out of it—absorbed and overwhelmed by The Laurels, by Enid, by the baby, by the getting of enough work to keep these three things "going," as his wife would have said.

The visit came to an end at last, after much glancing at the clock and awkward remarks about the length of time stayed, and the difficulties of getting home.

Margaret found herself accepting an invitation to The Laurels, fixing the day and listening to minute directions about Tube and 'bus and tram—she could still afford taxis.

Well, at last they were gone. Margaret rang the bell rather violently for the tea-things to be taken away, and settled herself luxuriously, with a sigh of relief, among the amber-coloured cushions.

How could poor old George bear it?

Didn't he remember the sun, the music, the flowers, the dreams of greatness, the cultured companionship?

Didn't he recall those student days in Rome? Was it possible that, with these memories, it was endurable to him to take that girl back to a house called The Laurels on a grey London spring day—a day that Margaret, with all her luxuries, shuddered at? And she had prospects of other things ahead—visits abroad again, pleasant friends, fresh acquaintances, music, pictures. But he? What could there be but The Laurels, and more posters, and more babies, and perhaps here and there "days at" Kew or Margate?

Margaret had a horrid selfish feeling of self-congratulation. Her own life seemed so delightful in comparison with the dreadful fate that; had overtaken poor George.

That very evening she was going with a gay party to the theatre. She would enjoy it all—the beautiful dress she would wear, the dinner, the play, the supper, the friendly women, the courteous men—and her life was full of such happenings.

She had a generous impulse, as she smoked the fine cigarettes she had not dared to produce before, to "take up" the Guthries, to give them "treats," to let George again into the world where he had once belonged, to let him hear some good music, see some good shows, to give him some good dinners that he had not smelt cooking all day.

But, upon reflection, it was of course impossible. The girl would never be able to come, and even if she did, what would one do with such material? And to let George come without her would be a disastrously unfair thing to do.

No, Margaret's friendship with the Guthries must be strictly confined to the "return" visit to The Laurels and a present, she supposed, for the baby.

Margaret disliked that baby. All infants seemed to her slightly repellant. She had never known one intimately, and those she saw in the streets or glimpsed occasionally in a friend's house didn't attract her at all.

And this baby, she thought fastidiously, probably wouldn't even be clean, and when she went to The Laurels it would certainly be "dressed up," as Enid Guthrie would say, and she would have to praise it. What an ordeal!

As the last trail of smoke from her last cigarette end curled away into the warm air, Margaret, with her hands clasped behind her fair head, tried to dream again some of the dreams she had once dreamt with George Guthrie.

They had the power to cause her a pang even now. It did not do to think too closely of these things.

The great picture! Could he ever have painted it?

She still believed that, under her inspiration, he could have achieved a masterpiece: he surely had possessed great talent, almost genius. Perhaps the War had killed his gift. Though he bore such little trace of his soldiering, it must have left some trace on his mind and soul.

She recalled some of his sketches—only sketches—but perfect things. She recalled his fine taste, at once catholic and serene, his imagination, both delicate and splendid, his lofty ideals of women, his great ambitions, and she smiled with the tears in her eyes.

The days that intervened between her meeting with the Guthries and promised visit to The Laurels were full of a vague discomfort. Margaret felt as if something very unpleasant was hanging over her head.

She was quite sure that Mrs. Guthrie would not expect her to come "empty-handed," but she did not know what to get that would be neither ostentatious nor mean.

A visit to an expensive toy-shop resulted in the purchase of a very strange-looking doll that looked like a caricature of itself, and a box of bricks so heavy that Margaret had to leave them behind.

To repair this, she bought a box of chocolates so expensive that her conscience was satisfied, and set out with dreary forebodings for The Laurels.

Dismissing her cab at the point where, to her, civilisation ended, she made her way by tram—a heavy, dirty, mournful sort of vehicle that swung along gleaming iron rails—through a wide, noisy, incredibly sordid thoroughfare.

Margaret had never seen anything quite so forlorn. People seemed to be prosperous enough. The shops were full of good food, of good clothes; there were plenty of cinemas and music-halls and shooting-galleries, but the atmosphere of poverty, of brutality, of ill-health, of uncongenial work, of overcrowding, of utter lack of taste, leisure, or repose, depressed Margaret's soul to the very depths.

Of course she was late; of course she lost her way. She was tired and disgusted to the verge of tears when at last she turned down the lost side-street that held The Laurels.

The neighbourhood, though hopelessly "out of the way," and third-class, was yet better than that through which the tram had clattered. There was a faint, very faint, sense of the country in the air, as if, not too far away to be reached by a long walk, there might be green fields. And the tiny red villas with the big bow windows had a little strip of garden in front, and most of them grew a few violas and double daisies, as well as the usual "ornamental" shrubs.

Almost every house had Nottingham lace curtains and a pot of ferns in the bow window, and they all had most extraordinary titles, such as "Kandahar," "Mon Repos," "Sans Souci," "Clinton Hall," "Kashmir," "Estelle," and "Rosedene."

Margaret wondered what possible connection such names could have with the people who lived within. Was it pretentious vulgarity, or some touching yearning after the ideal, that made them give the names of palaces, of manor houses, of foreign women, of Indian towns, to such homes as these?

By comparison The Laurels sounded quite modest and in good taste, and there were some laurels either side of the little painted iron gate, though they were certainly London laurels, flecked with yellow as with disease, and with an unnatural look of never either having bloomed or faded. Margaret knew their species well—she considered it a national misfortune that they chose to flourish in London.

Supremely self-conscious, she stood under the rural porch, over which a young clematis was clutching desperate trails, and pressed the electric bell, which she heard whirring within.

She noticed the windows—faded casement cloth inside of cotton lace; George had impressed himself so far—and there was no fern.

It was George himself who opened the door—a relief, for Margaret had expected a timid scrubbed little "general."

She stepped inside, so overwhelmed by the smallness of the place that she had to say something at once.

"I'm afraid I'm late. I think I took the wrong tram or something."

"It was good of you to come at all. I expect you found it a long way. But one gets used to it, and there is plenty of light and air."

The pitch-pine staircase with the key-patterned linoleum, the doors with the white china handles, seemed all to crowd on Margaret at once. George took her into the room with the bow window.

There were just chairs and tables, distempered walls, a few sketches fastened up with drawing pins, chintz cushions, and a string carpet.

The poverty of it all was stark, but it might have been so much worse. Nothing could redeem the ugliness of the fireplace and the woodwork, yet there was a certain pathetic distinction about the room. Evidently Enid had not entirely over whelmed her husband.

The tea was set out and a kettle was on the fire. Everything was clean. There was a plate of neatly-cut bread-and-butter and a cake.

"Enid asked me to give you your tea," said George. "You see, she has to put the baby to bed. Annie couldn't come to-day."

Margaret cut him short. She felt incredibly confused.

"Oh, I am dreadfully late—I am so sorry."

He seemed more or less at his ease, but she swallowed a cup of tea in haste, and begged that she might go upstairs and see the baby. She felt she could not any longer remain shut up with George in this tiny absurd room, with the cheap teapot and cups between them.

She had selected a plain dress, but she possessed nothing plain enough for such surroundings. She felt vulgarly conspicuous. Why had they asked her?

It was a tremendous relief when a voice called over the stairs: "If Miss Lennox is here, George, and would like to see baby, she can come up."

Margaret went up. She had wondered if Enid knew of her husband's previous engagement, and had thought no. Now she was sure, from something in the girl's words and tone, yes.

"She is going to triumph over me with the baby," was the unmarried woman's swift and sudden thought. "That is all she has got, and she is setting it against all I've got. That is why I was asked."

Mrs. Guthrie was at the door of the bedroom. She wore a print overall, and looked frankly common. Her shoes were flat, her face without powder and red, her hands damp. She seemed at her ease.

"He's just had his bath," she said. "He sits like that and plays, ever so pretty, while I get his milk heated."

Margaret followed her into the room, which was clean, bare, and sweet with the scent of violet powder. She was instantly conscious of some radiance, something glowing and lovely that glorified the entire room.

On a pink chintz cushion by the guard that protected the tiny fire sat a naked baby playing with a couple of clothes-pegs that he was putting on and taking off the side of a small cardboard notepaper box.

Margaret stared.

The little creature was completely beautiful. His perfectly moulded body seemed to give off light; he was glowing white and tender rose-colour, with a great tuft of pale yellow hair, with delicious feet and hands quivering with the excitement of his play, and an exquisite face, grave, unconscious, full of dignity and strength.

Margaret had not known babies could be like this.

She took the chair Mrs. Guthrie gave her, and said weakly:

"I've brought him a doll."

"It is very kind of you," said the mother, "but he doesn't altogether hold with dolls—being a boy, perhaps."

The child had dropped his toys and sat gravely studying the stranger.

Margaret heard herself asking banal questions.

"How old is he?"

"Eighteen months."

"Can he walk?"

"Walk? Come here, baby!"

The woman held out her arms. The child laughed and ran across the room like a flash of light, like a tossed flower, and was caught triumphantly to his mother's heart.

Margaret felt abashed.

"He is lovely," she said bravely.

"Isn't he? I've taken a lot of care of him."

It looked as if she had—the child and his surroundings seemed to show knowledge as well as love.

"It must be a labour—and a science," said Margaret weakly.

"That was my work," answered the girl, "right through the War."

She looked quite beautiful now, with the baby ruffling her hair, clinging to her, laughing till his face was like a crumpled rose.

"Your work?"

"Yes, infant welfare centre and baby crèche. I was always fond of it—the little things! And one learns a lot. They are so kind, the doctors and visitors, if they see you are interested, you know."

So that was it—that was her milieu—children, the "little things."

"I met George that way," she continued, carrying the child round the room so that he might touch the one or two pictures, the thermometer hanging on the wall, evidently his nightly ceremony. "I was working near his headquarters—rather a low part—and I had a crèche, with a garden. He used to see us as he went by—me and the toddlers, and then he brought us some toys once, and some flowers."

Margaret took her glance from the glowing child that had sprung from this strange romance. What a contrast to Rome, the sun, the flowers, the music, the great pictures, this plain girl surrounded by underfed children, in a squalid playground in a "low" London street!

By what strange freak of Fate or disposition had George been attracted to something so different from anything he had ever shown any interest in before?

The baby was set down now, and was walking about the floor with sweet and unconscious pride.

He had no shame for the shabbiness of his domain, no sense of the ugliness of The Laurels, no distaste for the poverty of his little possessions; his serenity was truly angelic, a beautiful thing to see.

Margaret felt hot about the heart; she had never thought that a baby could be so—important. He was light, perfume, music in the room; he seemed to dignify and sweeten all he touched.

Margaret produced her gorgeous doll from the many wrappings and rather awkwardly offered it.

The little creature eyed the new toy, circled nearer, snatched it and ran off with it to his mother, holding it up for her to kiss.

Margaret rose.

"I mustn't interrupt you any longer, Mrs. Guthrie; it was very good of you to let me come up."

She felt she was being ungracious, but could not find any of the usual agreeable things to say. Her tongue seemed tied, and she was usually so fluent of speech.

Mrs. Guthrie made no effort to detain her. She also had left off her simpering "company" manners; she was quite natural now, if not very friendly.

"You must see the picture before you go, Miss Lennox."

Then, as Margaret had the open door in her hand: "Would you like to kiss him?" She picked the baby up and held him forward:

Margaret felt his wee mouth actually kissing her. He was redolent of milk and raspberries, she thought; his grey eyes, of a crystal clearness, had for a second looked directly at her.

Margaret went down the shabby stairs with a curious throb in her heart.

"But, after all," she steadied herself, "is it worth—is that child worth all that George had—all he might have been, the picture he might have painted?"

She would have liked to have hurried away at once; but George was waiting for her by the tiny back-door with the border of blue glass. There was no escape; she had got to see the picture. Rather dreadful that, to have to stand in front of the measure, the depths of George's failure, and say something pleasant and courteous.

She followed him down the narrow strip of yard, where there were pails and brooms and humble garments blowing on a clothesline, to a new well-built shed with a glass top-light.

George, instinctively defending his one luxury, said it hadn't been expensive for these times, and he had done a lot of the work himself.

They entered.

The grey light fell on the usual litter—some few poor remnants of other times, a bit of French brocade, of Italian faïence, and one large picture on a big easel.

This George turned round and stood gazing at dubiously.

"Oh!" said Margaret.

"It isn't finished," he remarked defensively.

Margaret could say nothing; she stared like a fool, like an ignoramus. She was in the presence of a masterpiece, a creation glowing with colour, life, joy, beauty, seemingly palpitating with vigour and energy.

Just Enid in a wicker chair, with the baby climbing up her knee, a sheaf of flowers such as grow in common little gardens, in his hand; on the deal table near, a blue mug; through an open window at the back, the sunshine. Nothing else, but the canvas bore the impress of immortality.

"How did you do it?" she asked at last.

He glanced at her anxiously.

"You think it is—good?"

"I know it is great."

The painter flushed,

"She inspires me—she always did—and the baby! He's rather wonderful, isn't he? One can't help painting him."

Margaret drew on her gloves. There was nothing more to be done or said. Of course he would be famous, "made" as soon as the picture was seen.

She thought of her smug landscapes with shame—she was so hopelessly one of the little people—and of her wretched comforts and luxuries—she had so hopelessly missed everything.

"I congratulate you," she said.

He only answered rather awkwardly:

"I'm glad that you think it all right."

But she knew that he knew the value of his work. Of course that accounted for his serenity—that and Enid and the baby.

And she had pitied him!

Somehow she made her escape. Mrs. Guthrie was at the gate between the spotted laurels.

"Baby went to sleep at once, so I came to say good-bye again, and thank you for coming all this way, Miss Lennox."

She held out her hand.

"Have you seen the picture?"

"Yes. Of course it is—a masterpiece," Margaret got out.

Enid gave a curious smile.

"I'm glad you think so. I wanted you to see it. I don't like his old friends to think that, because I'm not artistic, George had gone off in his work."

The two women glanced into each other's eyes, understanding each other perfectly. Margaret turned away and went down the long road towards the trams.


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