A ROGUE'S LIFE
by Wilkie Collins
The following pages were written more than twenty years since, and were then published periodically in Household Words.
In the original form of publication the Rogue was very favorably received. Year after year, I delayed the republication, proposing, at the suggestion of my old friend, Mr. Charles Reade, to enlarge the present sketch of the hero's adventures in Australia. But the opportunity of carrying out this project has proved to be one of the lost opportunities of my life. I republish the story with its original conclusion unaltered, but with such occasional additions and improvements as will, I hope, render it more worthy of attention at the present time.
The critical reader may possibly notice a tone of almost boisterous gayety in certain parts of these imaginary Confessions. I can only plead, in defense, that the story offers the faithful reflection of a very happy time in my past life. It was written at Paris, when I had Charles Dickens for a near neighbor and a daily companion, and when my leisure hours were joyously passed with many other friends, all associated with literature and art, of whom the admirable comedian, Regnier, is now the only survivor. The revising of these pages has been to me a melancholy task. I can only hope that they may cheer the sad moments of others. The Rogue may surely claim two merits, at least, in the eyes of the new generation—he is never serious for two moments together; and he "doesn't take long to read." W. C.
GLOUCESTER PLACE, LONDON, March 6th, 1879.
A ROGUE'S LIFE.
I AM going to try if I can't write something about myself. My life has been rather a strange one. It may not seem particularly useful or respectable; but it has been, in some respects, adventurous; and that may give it claims to be read, even in the most prejudiced circles. I am an example of some of the workings of the social system of this illustrious country on the individual native, during the early part of the present century; and, if I may say so without unbecoming vanity, I should like to quote myself for the edification of my countrymen.
Who am I.
I am remarkably well connected, I can tell you. I came into this world with the great advantage of having Lady Malkinshaw for a grandmother, her ladyship's daughter for a mother, and Francis James Softly, Esq., M. D. (commonly called Doctor Softly), for a father. I put my father last, because he was not so well connected as my mother, and my grandmother first, because she was the most nobly-born person of the three. I have been, am still, and may continue to be, a Rogue; but I hope I am not abandoned enough yet to forget the respect that is due to rank. On this account, I trust, nobody will show such want of regard for my feelings as to expect me to say much about my mother's brother. That inhuman person committed an outrage on his family by making a fortune in the soap and candle trade. I apologize for mentioning him, even in an accidental way. The fact is, he left my sister, Annabella, a legacy of rather a peculiar kind, saddled with certain conditions which indirectly affected me; but this passage of family history need not be produced just yet. I apologize a second time for alluding to money matters before it was absolutely necessary. Let me get back to a pleasing and reputable subject, by saying a word or two more about my father.
I am rather afraid that Doctor Softly was not a clever medical man; for in spite of his great connections, he did not get a very magnificent practice as a physician.
As a general practitioner, he might have bought a comfortable business, with a house and snug surgery-shop attached; but the son-in-law of Lady Malkinshaw was obliged to hold up his head, and set up his carriage, and live in a street near a fashionable square, and keep an expensive and clumsy footman to answer the door, instead of a cheap and tidy housemaid. How he managed to "maintain his position" (that is the right phrase, I think), I never could tell. His wife did not bring him a farthing. When the honorable and gallant baronet, her father, died, he left the widowed Lady Malkinshaw with her worldly affairs in a curiously involved state. Her son (of whom I feel truly ashamed to be obliged to speak again so soon) made an effort to extricate his mother—involved himself in a series of pecuniary disasters, which commercial people call, I believe, transactions—struggled for a little while to get out of them in the character of an independent gentleman—failed—and then spiritlessly availed himself of the oleaginous refuge of the soap and candle trade. His mother always looked down upon him after this; but borrowed money of him also—in order to show, I suppose, that her maternal interest in her son was not quite extinct. My father tried to follow her example—in his wife's interests, of course; but the soap-boiler brutally buttoned up his pockets, and told my father to go into business for himself. Thus it happened that we were certainly a poor family, in spite of the fine appearance we made, the fashionable street we lived in, the neat brougham we kept, and the clumsy and expensive footman who answered our door.
What was to be done with me in the way of education?
If my father had consulted his means, I should have been sent to a cheap commercial academy; but he had to consult his relationship to Lady Malkinshaw; so I was sent to one of the most fashionable and famous of the great public schools. I will not mention it by name, because I don't think the masters would be proud of my connection with it. I ran away three times, and was flogged three times. I made four aristocratic connections, and had four pitched battles with them: three thrashed me, and one I thrashed. I learned to play at cricket, to hate rich people, to cure warts, to write Latin verses, to swim, to recite speeches, to cook kidneys on toast, to draw caricatures of the masters, to construe Greek plays, to black boots, and to receive kicks and serious advice resignedly. Who will say that the fashionable public school was of no use to me after that?
After I left school, I had the narrowest escape possible of intruding myself into another place of accommodation for distinguished people; in other words, I was very nearly being sent to college. Fortunately for me, my father lost a lawsuit just in the nick of time, and was obliged to scrape together every farthing of available money that he possessed to pay for the luxury of going to law. If he could have saved his seven shillings, he would certainly have sent me to scramble for a place in the pit of the great university theater; but his purse was empty, and his son was not eligible therefore for admission, in a gentlemanly capacity, at the doors.
The next thing was to choose a profession.
Here the Doctor was liberality itself, in leaving me to my own devices. I was of a roving adventurous temperament, and I should have liked to go into the army. But where was the money to come from, to pay for my commission? As to enlisting in the ranks, and working my way up, the social institutions of my country obliged the grandson of Lady Malkinshaw to begin military life as an officer and gentleman, or not to begin it at all. The army, therefore, was out of the question. The Church? Equally out of the question: since I could not pay for admission to the prepared place of accommodation for distinguished people, and could not accept a charitable free pass, in consequence of my high connections. The Bar? I should be five years getting to it, and should have to spend two hundred a year in going circuit before I had earned a farthing. Physic? This really seemed the only gentlemanly refuge left; and yet, with the knowledge of my father's experience before me, I was ungrateful enough to feel a secret dislike for it. It is a degrading confession to make; but I remember wishing I was not so highly connected, and absolutely thinking that the life of a commercial traveler would have suited me exactly, if I had not been a poor gentleman. Driving about from place to place, living jovially at inns, seeing fresh faces constantly, and getting money by all this enjoyment, instead of spending it—what a life for me, if I had been the son of a haberdasher and the grandson of a groom's widow!
While my father was uncertain what to do with me, a new profession was suggested by a friend, which I shall repent not having been allowed to adopt, to the last day of my life. This friend was an eccentric old gentleman of large property, much respected in our family. One day, my father, in my presence, asked his advice about the best manner of starting me in life, with due credit to my connections and sufficient advantage to myself.
"Listen to my experience," said our eccentric friend, "and, if you are a wise man, you will make up your mind as soon as you have heard me. I have three sons. I brought my eldest son up to the Church; he is said to be getting on admirably, and he costs me three hundred a year. I brought my second son up to the Bar; he is said to be getting on admirably, and he costs me four hundred a year. I brought my third son up to Quadrilles—he has married an heiress, and he costs me nothing."
Ah, me! if that worthy sage's advice had only been followed—if I had been brought up to Quadrilles!—if I had only been cast loose on the ballrooms of London, to qualify under Hymen, for a golden degree! Oh! you young ladies with money, I was five feet ten in my stockings; I was great at small-talk and dancing; I had glossy whiskers, curling locks, and a rich voice! Ye girls with golden guineas, ye nymphs with crisp bank-notes, mourn over the husband you have lost among you—over the Rogue who has broken the laws which, as the partner of a landed or fund-holding woman, he might have helped to make on the benches of the British Parliament! Oh! ye hearths and homes sung about in so many songs—written about in so many books—shouted about in so many speeches, with accompaniment of so much loud cheering: what a settler on the hearth-rug; what a possessor of property; what a bringer-up of a family, was snatched away from you, when the son of Dr. Softly was lost to the profession of Quadrilles!
It ended in my resigning myself to the misfortune of being a doctor.
If I was a very good boy and took pains, and carefully mixed in the best society, I might hope in the course of years to succeed to my father's brougham, fashionably-situated house, and clumsy and expensive footman. There was a prospect for a lad of spirit, with the blood of the early Malkinshaws (who were Rogues of great capacity and distinction in the feudal times) coursing adventurous through every vein! I look back on my career, and when I remember the patience with which I accepted a medical destiny, I appear to myself in the light of a hero. Nay, I even went beyond the passive virtue of accepting my destiny—I actually studied, I made the acquaintance of the skeleton, I was on friendly terms with the muscular system, and the mysteries of Physiology dropped in on me in the kindest manner whenever they had an evening to spare.
Even this was not the worst of it. I disliked the abstruse studies of my new profession; but I absolutely hated the diurnal slavery of qualifying myself, in a social point of view, for future success in it. My fond medical parent insisted on introducing me to his whole connection. I went round visiting in the neat brougham—with a stethoscope and medical review in the front-pocket, with Doctor Softly by my side, keeping his face well in view at the window—to canvass for patients, in the character of my father's hopeful successor. Never have I been so ill at ease in prison, as I was in that carriage. I have felt more at home in the dock (such is the natural depravity and perversity of my disposition) than ever I felt in the drawing-rooms of my father's distinguished patrons and respectable friends. Nor did my miseries end with the morning calls. I was commanded to attend all dinner-parties, and to make myself agreeable at all balls. The dinners were the worst trial. Sometimes, indeed, we contrived to get ourselves asked to the houses of high and mighty entertainers, where we ate the finest French dishes and drank the oldest vintages, and fortified ourselves sensibly and snugly in that way against the frigidity of the company. Of these repasts I have no hard words to say; it is of the dinners we gave ourselves, and of the dinners which people in our rank of life gave to us, that I now bitterly complain.
Have you ever observed the remarkable adherence to set forms of speech which characterizes the talkers of arrant nonsense! Precisely the same sheepish following of one given example distinguishes the ordering of genteel dinners.
When we gave a dinner at home, we had gravy soup, turbot and lobster-sauce, haunch of mutton, boiled fowls and tongue, lukewarm oyster-patties and sticky curry for side-dishes; wild duck, cabinet-pudding, jelly, cream and tartlets. All excellent things, except when you have to eat them continually. We lived upon them entirely in the season. Every one of our hospitable friends gave us a return dinner, which was a perfect copy of ours—just as ours was a perfect copy of theirs, last year. They boiled what we boiled, and we roasted what they roasted. We none of us ever changed the succession of the courses—or made more or less of them—or altered the position of the fowls opposite the mistress and the haunch opposite the master. My stomach used to quail within me, in those times, when the tureen was taken off and the inevitable gravy-soup smell renewed its daily acquaintance with my nostrils, and warned me of the persistent eatable formalities that were certain to follow. I suppose that honest people, who have known what it is to get no dinner (being a Rogue, I have myself never wanted for one), have gone through some very acute suffering under that privation. It may be some consolation to them to know that, next to absolute starvation, the same company-dinner, every day, is one of the hardest trials that assail human endurance. I date my first serious determination to throw over the medical profession at the earliest convenient opportunity, from the second season's series of dinners at which my aspirations, as a rising physician, unavoidably and regularly condemned me to be present.
THE opportunity I wanted presented itself in a curious way, and led, unexpectedly enough, to some rather important consequences.
I have already stated, among the other branches of human attainment which I acquired at the public school, that I learned to draw caricatures of the masters who were so obliging as to educate me. I had a natural faculty for this useful department of art. I improved it greatly by practice in secret after I left school, and I ended by making it a source of profit and pocket money to me when I entered the medical profession. What was I to do? I could not expect for years to make a halfpenny, as a physician. My genteel walk in life led me away from all immediate sources of emolument, and my father could only afford to give me an allowance which was too preposterously small to be mentioned. I had helped myself surreptitiously to pocket-money at school, by selling my caricatures, and I was obliged to repeat the process at home!
At the time of which I write, the Art of Caricature was just approaching the close of its colored and most extravagant stage of development. The subtlety and truth to Nature required for the pursuit of it now, had hardly begun to be thought of then. Sheer farce and coarse burlesque, with plenty of color for the money, still made up the sum of what the public of those days wanted. I was first assured of my capacity for the production of these requisites, by a medical friend of the ripe critical age of nineteen. He knew a print-publisher, and enthusiastically showed him a portfolio full of my sketches, taking care at my request not to mention my name. Rather to my surprise (for I was too conceited to be greatly amazed by the circumstance), the publisher picked out a few of the best of my wares, and boldly bought them of me—of course, at his own price. From that time I became, in an anonymous way, one of the young buccaneers of British Caricature; cruising about here, there and everywhere, at all my intervals of spare time, for any prize in the shape of a subject which it was possible to pick up. Little did my highly-connected mother think that, among the colored prints in the shop-window, which disrespectfully illustrated the public and private proceedings of distinguished individuals, certain specimens bearing the classic signature of "Thersites Junior," were produced from designs furnished by her studious and medical son. Little did my respectable father imagine when, with great difficulty and vexation, he succeeded in getting me now and then smuggled, along with himself, inside the pale of fashionable society—that he was helping me to study likenesses which were destined under my reckless treatment to make the public laugh at some of his most august patrons, and to fill the pockets of his son with professional fees, never once dreamed of in his philosophy.
For more than a year I managed, unsuspected, to keep the Privy Purse fairly supplied by the exercise of my caricaturing abilities. But the day of detection was to come.
Whether my medical friend's admiration of my satirical sketches led him into talking about them in public with too little reserve; or whether the servants at home found private means of watching me in my moments of Art-study, I know not: but that some one betrayed me, and that the discovery of my illicit manufacture of caricatures was actually communicated even to the grandmotherly head and fount of the family honor, is a most certain and lamentable matter of fact. One morning my father received a letter from Lady Malkinshaw herself, informing him, in a handwriting crooked with poignant grief, and blotted at every third word by the violence of virtuous indignation, that "Thersites Junior" was his own son, and that, in one of the last of the "ribald's" caricatures her own venerable features were unmistakably represented as belonging to the body of a large owl!
Of course, I laid my hand on my heart and indignantly denied everything. Useless. My original model for the owl had got proofs of my guilt that were not to be resisted.
The doctor, ordinarily the most mellifluous and self-possessed of men, flew into a violent, roaring, cursing passion, on this occasion—declared that I was imperiling the honor and standing of the family—insisted on my never drawing another caricature, either for public or private purposes, as long as I lived; and ordered me to go forthwith and ask pardon of Lady Malkinshaw in the humblest terms that it was possible to select. I answered dutifully that I was quite ready to obey, on the condition that he should reimburse me by a trebled allowance for what I should lose by giving up the Art of Caricature, or that Lady Malkinshaw should confer on me the appointment of physician-in-waiting on her, with a handsome salary attached. These extremely moderate stipulations so increased my father's anger, that he asserted, with an unmentionably vulgar oath, his resolution to turn me out of doors if I did not do as he bid me, without daring to hint at any conditions whatsoever. I bowed, and said that I would save him the exertion of turning me out of doors, by going of my own accord. He shook his fist at me; after which it obviously became my duty, as a member of a gentlemanly and peaceful profession, to leave the room. The same evening I left the house, and I have never once given the clumsy and expensive footman the trouble of answering the door to me since that time.
I have reason to believe that my exodus from home was, on the whole, favorably viewed by my mother, as tending to remove any possibility of my bad character and conduct interfering with my sister's advancement in life.
By dint of angling with great dexterity and patience, under the direction of both her parents, my handsome sister Annabella had succeeded in catching an eligible husband, in the shape of a wizen, miserly, mahogany-colored man, turned fifty, who had made a fortune in the West Indies. His name was Batterbury; he had been dried up under a tropical sun, so as to look as if he would keep for ages; he had two subjects of conversation, the yellow-fever and the advantage of walking exercise: and he was barbarian enough to take a violent dislike to me. He had proved a very delicate fish to hook; and, even when Annabella had caught him, my father and mother had great difficulty in landing him—principally, they were good enough to say, in consequence of my presence on the scene. Hence the decided advantage of my removal from home. It is a very pleasant reflection to me, now, to remember how disinterestedly I studied the good of my family in those early days.
Abandoned entirely to my own resources, I naturally returned to the business of caricaturing with renewed ardor.
About this time Thersites Junior really began to make something like a reputation, and to walk abroad habitually with a bank-note comfortably lodged among the other papers in his pocketbook. For a year I lived a gay and glorious life in some of the freest society in London; at the end of that time, my tradesmen, without any provocation on my part, sent in their bills. I found myself in the very absurd position of having no money to pay them, and told them all so with the frankness which is one of the best sides of my character. They received my advances toward a better understanding with brutal incivility, and treated me soon afterward with a want of confidence which I may forgive, but can never forget. One day, a dirty stranger touched me on the shoulder, and showed me a dirty slip of paper which I at first presumed to be his card. Before I could tell him what a vulgar document it looked like, two more dirty strangers put me into a hackney coach. Before I could prove to them that this proceeding was a gross infringement on the liberties of the British subject, I found myself lodged within the walls of a prison.
Well! and what of that? Who am I that I should object to being in prison, when so many of the royal personages and illustrious characters of history have been there before me? Can I not carry on my vocation in greater comfort here than I could in my father's house? Have I any anxieties outside these walls? No: for my beloved sister is married—the family net has landed Mr. Batterbury at last. No: for I read in the paper the other day, that Doctor Softly (doubtless through the interest of Lady Malkinshaw) has been appointed the King's-Barber-Surgeon's-Deputy-Consulting Physician. My relatives are comfortable in their sphere—let me proceed forthwith to make myself comfortable in mine. Pen, ink, and paper, if you please, Mr. Jailer: I wish to write to my esteemed publisher.
"DEAR SIR—Please advertise a series of twelve Racy Prints, from my fertile pencil, entitled, 'Scenes of Modern Prison Life,' by Thersites Junior. The two first designs will be ready by the end of the week, to be paid for on delivery, according to the terms settled between us for my previous publications of the same size.
"With great regard and esteem, faithfully yours,
Having thus provided for my support in prison, I was enabled to introduce myself to my fellow-debtors, and to study character for the new series of prints, on the very first day of my incarceration, with my mind quite at ease.
If the reader desires to make acquaintance with the associates of my captivity, I must refer him to "Scenes of Modern Prison Life," by Thersites Junior, now doubtless extremely scarce, but producible to the demands of patience and perseverance, I should imagine, if anybody will be so obliging as to pass a week or so over the catalogue of the British Museum. My fertile pencil has delineated the characters I met with, at that period of my life, with a force and distinctness which my pen cannot hope to rival—has portrayed them all more or less prominently, with the one solitary exception of a prisoner called Gentleman Jones. The reasons why I excluded him from my portrait-gallery are so honorable to both of us, that I must ask permission briefly to record them.
My fellow-captives soon discovered that I was studying their personal peculiarities for my own advantage and for the public amusement. Some thought the thing a good joke; some objected to it, and quarreled with me. Liberality in the matter of liquor and small loans, reconciled a large proportion of the objectors to their fate; the sulky minority I treated with contempt, and scourged avengingly with the smart lash of caricature. I was at that time probably the most impudent man of my age in all England, and the common flock of jail-birds quailed before the magnificence of my assurance. One prisoner only set me and my pencil successfully at defiance. That prisoner was Gentleman Jones.
He had received his name from the suavity of his countenance, the inveterate politeness of his language, and the unassailable composure of his manner. He was in the prime of life, but very bald—had been in the army and the coal trade—wore very stiff collars and prodigiously long wristbands—seldom laughed, but talked with remarkable glibness, and was never known to lose his temper under the most aggravating circumstances of prison existence.
He abstained from interfering with me and my studies, until it was reported in our society, that in the sixth print of my series, Gentleman Jones, highly caricatured, was to form one of the principal figures. He then appealed to me personally and publicly, on the racket-ground, in the following terms:
"Sir," said he, with his usual politeness and his unwavering smile, "you will greatly oblige me by not caricaturing my personal peculiarities. I am so unfortunate as not to possess a sense of humor; and if you did my likeness, I am afraid I should not see the joke of it."
"Sir," I returned, with my customary impudence, "it is not of the slightest importance whether you see the joke of it or not. The public will—and that is enough for me."
With that civil speech, I turned on my heel; and the prisoners near all burst out laughing. Gentleman Jones, not in the least altered or ruffled, smoothed down his wristbands, smiled, and walked away.
The same evening I was in my room alone, designing the new print, when there came a knock at the door, and Gentleman Jones walked in. I got up, and asked what the devil he wanted. He smiled, and turned up his long wristbands.
"Only to give you a lesson in politeness," said Gentleman Jones.
"What do you mean, sir? How dare you—?"
The answer was a smart slap on the face. I instantly struck out in a state of fury—was stopped with great neatness—and received in return a blow on the head, which sent me down on the carpet half stunned, and too giddy to know the difference between the floor and the ceiling.
"Sir," said Gentleman Jones, smoothing down his wristbands again, and addressing me blandly as I lay on the floor, "I have the honor to inform you that you have now received your first lesson in politeness. Always be civil to those who are civil to you. The little matter of the caricature we will settle on a future occasion. I wish you good-evening."
The noise of my fall had been heard by the other occupants of rooms on my landing. Most fortunately for my dignity, they did not come in to see what was the matter until I had been able to get into my chair again. When they entered, I felt that the impression of the slap was red on my face still, but the mark of the blow was hidden by my hair. Under these fortunate circumstances, I was able to keep up my character among my friends, when they inquired about the scuffle, by informing them that Gentleman Jones had audaciously slapped my face, and that I had been obliged to retaliate by knocking him down. My word in the prison was as good as his; and if my version of the story got fairly the start of his, I had the better chance of the two of being believed.
I was rather anxious, the next day, to know what course my polite and pugilistic instructor would take. To my utter amazement, he bowed to me as civilly as usual when we met in the yard; he never denied my version of the story; and when my friends laughed at him as a thrashed man, he took not the slightest notice of their agreeable merriment. Antiquity, I think, furnishes us with few more remarkable characters than Gentleman Jones.
That evening I thought it desirable to invite a friend to pass the time with me. As long as my liquor lasted he stopped; when it was gone, he went away. I was just locking the door after him, when it was pushed open gently, but very firmly, and Gentleman Jones walked in.
My pride, which had not allowed me to apply for protection to the prison authorities, would not allow me now to call for help. I tried to get to the fireplace and arm myself with the poker, but Gentleman Jones was too quick for me. "I have come, sir, to give you a lesson in morality to-night," he said; and up went his right hand.
I stopped the preliminary slap, but before I could hit him, his terrible left fist reached my head again; and down I fell once more—upon the hearth-rug this time—not over-heavily.
"Sir," said Gentleman Jones, making me a bow, "you have now received your first lesson in morality. Always speak the truth; and never say what is false of another man behind his back. To-morrow, with your kind permission, we will finally settle the adjourned question of the caricature. Good-night."
I was far too sensible a man to leave the settling of that question to him. The first thing in the morning I sent a polite note to Gentleman Jones, informing him that I had abandoned all idea of exhibiting his likeness to the public in my series of prints, and giving him full permission to inspect every design I made before it went out of the prison. I received a most civil answer, thanking me for my courtesy, and complimenting me on the extraordinary aptitude with which I profited by the most incomplete and elementary instruction. I thought I deserved the compliment, and I think so still. Our conduct, as I have already intimated, was honorable to us, on either side. It was honorable attention on the part of Gentleman Jones to correct me when I was in error; it was honorable common sense in me to profit by the correction. I have never seen this great man since he compounded with his creditors and got out of prison; but my feelings toward him are still those of profound gratitude and respect. He gave me the only useful teaching I ever had; and if this should meet the eye of Gentleman Jones I hereby thank him for beginning and ending my education in two evenings, without costing me or my family a single farthing.
To return to my business affairs. When I was comfortably settled in the prison, and knew exactly what I owed, I thought it my duty to my father to give him the first chance of getting me out. His answer to my letter contained a quotation from Shakespeare on the subject of thankless children, but no remittance of money. After that, my only course was to employ a lawyer and be declared a bankrupt. I was most uncivilly treated, and remanded two or three times. When everything I possessed had been sold for the benefit of my creditors, I was reprimanded and let out. It is pleasant to think that, even then, my faith in myself and in human nature was still not shaken.
About ten days before my liberation, I was thunderstruck at receiving a visit from my sister's mahogany-colored husband, Mr. Batterbury. When I was respectably settled at home, this gentleman would not so much as look at me without a frown; and now, when I was a scamp, in prison, he mercifully and fraternally came to condole with me on my misfortunes. A little dexterous questioning disclosed the secret of this prodigious change in our relations toward each other, and informed me of a family event which altered my position toward my sister in the most whimsical manner.
While I was being removed to the bankruptcy court, my uncle in the soap and candle trade was being removed to the other world. His will took no notice of my father or my mother; but he left to my sister (always supposed to be his favorite in the family) a most extraordinary legacy of possible pin-money, in the shape of a contingent reversion to the sum of three thousand pounds, payable on the death of Lady Malkinshaw, provided I survived her.
Whether this document sprang into existence out of any of his involved money transactions with his mother was more than Mr. Batterbury could tell. I could ascertain nothing in relation to it, except that the bequest was accompanied by some cynical remarks, to the effect that the testator would feel happy if his legacy were instrumental in reviving the dormant interest of only one member of Doctor Softly's family in the fortunes of the hopeful young gentleman who had run away from home. My esteemed uncle evidently felt that he could not in common decency avoid doing something for his sister's family; and he had done it accordingly in the most malicious and mischievous manner. This was characteristic of him; he was just the man, if he had not possessed the document before, to have had it drawn out on his death-bed for the amiable purpose which it was now devoted to serve.
Here was a pretty complication! Here was my sister's handsome legacy made dependent on my outliving my grandmother! This was diverting enough; but Mr. Batterbury's conduct was more amusing still.
The miserly little wretch not only tried to conceal his greedy desire to save his own pockets by securing the allowance of pin-money left to his wife, but absolutely persisted in ignoring the plain fact that his visit to me sprang from the serious pecuniary interest which he and Annabella now had in the life and health of your humble servant. I made all the necessary jokes about the strength of the vital principle in Lady Malkinshaw, and the broken condition of my own constitution; but he solemnly abstained from understanding one of them. He resolutely kept up appearances in the very face of detection; not the faintest shade of red came over his wicked old mahogany face as he told me how shocked he and his wife were at my present position, and how anxious Annabella was that he should not forget to give me her love. Tenderhearted creature! I had only been in prison six months when that overwhelming testimony of sisterly affection came to console me in my captivity. Ministering angel! you shall get your three thousand pounds. I am fifty years younger than Lady Malkinshaw, and I will take care of myself, Annabella, for thy dear sake!
The next time I saw Mr. Batterbury was on the day when I at last got my discharge. He was not waiting to see where I was going next, or what vital risks I was likely to run on the recovery of my freedom, but to congratulate me, and to give me Annabella's love. It was a very gratifying attention, and I said as much, in tones of the deepest feeling.
"How is dear Lady Malkinshaw?" I asked, when my grateful emotions had subsided.
Mr. Batterbury shook his head mournfully. "I regret to say, not quite so well as her friends could wish," he answered. "The last time I had the pleasure of seeing her ladyship, she looked so yellow that if we had been in Jamaica I should have said it was a case of death in twelve hours. I respectfully endeavored to impress upon her ladyship the necessity of keeping the functions of the liver active by daily walking exercise; time, distance, and pace being regulated with proper regard to her age—you understand me?—of course, with proper regard to her age."
"You could not possibly have given her better advice," I said. "When I saw her, as long as two years ago, Lady Malkinshaw's favorite delusion was that she was the most active woman of seventy-five in all England. She used to tumble downstairs two or three times a week, then, because she never would allow any one to help her; and could not be brought to believe that she was as blind as a mole, and as rickety on her legs as a child of a year old. Now you have encouraged her to take to walking, she will be more obstinate than ever, and is sure to tumble down daily, out of doors as well as in. Not even the celebrated Malkinshaw toughness can last out more than a few weeks of that practice. Considering the present shattered condition of my constitution, you couldn't have given her better advice—upon my word of honor, you couldn't have given her better advice!"
"I am afraid," said Mr. Batterbury, with a power of face I envied; "I am afraid, my dear Frank (let me call you Frank), that I don't quite apprehend your meaning: and we have unfortunately no time to enter into explanations. Five miles here by a roundabout way is only half my daily allowance of walking exercise; five miles back by a roundabout way remain to be now accomplished. So glad to see you at liberty again! Mind you let us know where you settle, and take care of yourself; and do recognize the importance to the whole animal economy of daily walking exercise—do now! Did I give you Annabella's love? She's so well. Good-by."
Away went Mr. Batterbury to finish his walk for the sake of his health, and away went I to visit my publisher for the sake of my pocket.
An unexpected disappointment awaited me. My "Scenes of Modern Prison Life" had not sold so well as had been anticipated, and my publisher was gruffly disinclined to speculate in any future works done in the same style. During the time of my imprisonment, a new caricaturist had started, with a manner of his own; he had already formed a new school, and the fickle public were all running together after him and his disciples. I said to myself: "This scene in the drama of your life, my friend, has closed in; you must enter on another, or drop the curtain at once." Of course I entered on another.
Taking leave of my publisher, I went to consult an artist-friend on my future prospects. I supposed myself to be merely on my way to a change of profession. As destiny ordered it, I was also on my way to the woman who was not only to be the object of my first love, but the innocent cause of the great disaster of my life.
I first saw her in one of the narrow streets leading from Leicester Square to the Strand. There was something in her face (dimly visible behind a thick veil) that instantly stopped me as I passed her. I looked back and hesitated. Her figure was the perfection of modest grace. I yielded to the impulse of the moment. In plain words, I did what you would have done, in my place—I followed her.
She looked round—discovered me—and instantly quickened her pace. Reaching the westward end of the Strand, she crossed the street and suddenly entered a shop.
I looked through the window, and saw her speak to a respectable elderly person behind the counter, who darted an indignant look at me, and at once led my charming stranger into a back office. For the moment, I was fool enough to feel puzzled; it was out of my character you will say—but remember, all men are fools when they first fall in love. After a little while I recovered the use of my senses. The shop was at the corner of a side street, leading to the market, since removed to make room for the railway. "There's a back entrance to the house!" I thought to myself—and ran down the side street. Too late! the lovely fugitive had escaped me. Had I lost her forever in the great world of London? I thought so at the time. Events will show that I never was more mistaken in my life.
I was in no humor to call on my friend. It was not until another day had passed that I sufficiently recovered my composure to see poverty staring me in the face, and to understand that I had really no alternative but to ask the good-natured artist to lend me a helping hand.
I had heard it darkly whispered that he was something of a vagabond. But the term is so loosely applied, and it seems so difficult, after all, to define what a vagabond is, or to strike the right moral balance between the vagabond work which is boldly published, and the vagabond work which is reserved for private circulation only, that I did not feel justified in holding aloof from my former friend. Accordingly, I renewed our acquaintance, and told him my present difficulty. He was a sharp man, and he showed me a way out of it directly.
"You have a good eye for a likeness," he said; "and you have made it keep you hitherto. Very well. Make it keep you still. You can't profitably caricature people's faces any longer—never mind! go to the other extreme, and flatter them now. Turn portrait-painter. You shall have the use of this study three days in the week, for ten shillings a week—sleeping on the hearth-rug included, if you like. Get your paints, rouse up your friends, set to work at once. Drawing is of no consequence; painting is of no consequence; perspective is of no consequence; ideas are of no consequence. Everything is of no consequence, except catching a likeness and flattering your sitter—and that you know you can do."
I felt that I could; and left him for the nearest colorman's.
Before I got to the shop, I met Mr. Batterbury taking his walking exercise. He stopped, shook hands with me affectionately, and asked where I was going. A wonderful idea struck me. Instead of answering his question, I asked after Lady Malkinshaw.
"Don't be alarmed," said Mr. Batterbury; "her ladyship tumbled downstairs yesterday morning."
"My dear sir, allow me to congratulate you!"
"Most fortunately," continued Mr. Batterbury, with a strong emphasis on the words, and a fixed stare at me; "most fortunately, the servant had been careless enough to leave a large bundle of clothes for the wash at the foot of the stairs, while she went to answer the door. Falling headlong from the landing, her ladyship pitched (pardon me the expression)—pitched into the very middle of the bundle. She was a little shaken at the time, but is reported to be going on charmingly this morning. Most fortunate, was it not? Seen the papers? Awful news from Demerara—the yellow fever—"
"I wish I was at Demerara," I said, in a hollow voice.
"You! Why?" exclaimed Mr. Batterbury, aghast.
"I am homeless, friendless, penniless," I went on, getting more hollow at every word. "All my intellectual instincts tell me that I could retrieve my position and live respectably in the world, if I might only try my hand at portrait-painting—the thing of all others that I am naturally fittest for. But I have nobody to start me; no sitter to give me a first chance; nothing in my pocket but three-and-sixpence; and nothing in my mind but a doubt whether I shall struggle on a little longer, or end it immediately in the Thames. Don't let me detain you from your walk, my dear sir. I'm afraid Lady Malkinshaw will outlive me, after all!"
"Stop!" cried Mr. Batterbury; his mahogany face actually getting white with alarm. "Stop! Don't talk in that dreadfully unprincipled manner—don't, I implore, I insist! You have plenty of friends—you have me, and your sister. Take to portrait-painting—think of your family, and take to portrait-painting!"
"Where am I to get a sitter?' I inquired, with a gloomy shake of the head.
"Me," said Mr. Batterbury, with an effort. "I'll be your first sitter. As a beginner, and especially to a member of the family, I suppose your terms will be moderate. Small beginnings—you know the proverb?" Here he stopped; and a miserly leer puckered up his mahogany cheeks.
"I'll do you, life-size, down to your waistcoat, for fifty pounds," said I.
Mr. Batterbury winced, and looked about him to the right and left, as if he wanted to run away. He had five thousand a year, but he contrived to took, at that moment, as if his utmost income was five hundred. I walked on a few steps.
"Surely those terms are rather high to begin with?" he said, walking after me. "I should have thought five-and-thirty, or perhaps forty—"
"A gentleman, sir, cannot condescend to bargain," said I, with mournful dignity. "Farewell!" I waved my hand, and crossed over the way.
"Don't do that!" cried Mr. Batterbury. "I accept. Give me your address. I'll come tomorrow. Will it include the frame! There! there! it doesn't include the frame, of course. Where are you going now? To the colorman? He doesn't live in the Strand, I hope—or near one of the bridges. Think of Annabella, think of the family, think of the fifty pounds—an income, a year's income to a prudent man. Pray, pray be careful, and compose your mind: promise me, my dear, dear fellow—promise me, on your word of honor, to compose your mind!"
I left him still harping on that string, and suffering, I believe, the only serious attack of mental distress that had ever affected him in the whole course of his life.
Behold me, then, now starting afresh in the world, in the character of a portrait-painter; with the payment of my remuneration from my first sitter depending whimsically on the life of my grandmother. If you care to know how Lady Malkinshaw's health got on, and how I succeeded in my new profession, you have only to follow the further course of these confessions, in the next chapter.
I GAVE my orders to the colorman, and settled matters with my friend the artist that day.
The next morning, before the hour at which I expected my sitter, having just now as much interest in the life of Lady Malkinshaw as Mr. Batterbury had in her death, I went to make kind inquiries after her ladyship's health. The answer was most reassuring. Lady Malkinshaw had no present intention of permitting me to survive her. She was, at that very moment, meritoriously and heartily engaged in eating her breakfast. My prospects being now of the best possible kind, I felt encouraged to write once more to my father, telling him of my fresh start in life, and proposing a renewal of our acquaintance. I regret to say that he was so rude as not to answer my letter.
Mr. Batterbury was punctual to the moment. He gave a gasp of relief when he beheld me, full of life, with my palette on my thumb, gazing fondly on my new canvas.
"That's right!" he said. "I like to see you with your mind composed. Annabella would have come with me; but she has a little headache this morning. She sends her love and best wishes."
I seized my chalks and began with that confidence in myself which has never forsaken me in any emergency. Being perfectly well aware of the absolute dependence of the art of portrait-painting on the art of flattery, I determined to start with making the mere outline of my likeness a compliment to my sitter.
It was much easier to resolve on doing this than really to do it. In the first place, my hand would relapse into its wicked old caricaturing habits. In the second place, my brother-in-law's face was so inveterately and completely ugly as to set every artifice of pictorial improvement at flat defiance. When a man has a nose an inch long, with the nostrils set perpendicularly, it is impossible to flatter it—you must either change it into a fancy nose, or resignedly acquiesce in it. When a man has no perceptible eyelids, and when his eyes globularly project so far out of his head, that you expect to have to pick them up for him whenever you see him lean forward, how are mortal fingers and bushes to diffuse the right complimentary expression over them? You must either do them the most hideous and complete justice, or give them up altogether. The late Sir Thomas Lawrence, P.R.A., was undoubtedly the most artful and uncompromising flatterer that ever smoothed out all the natural characteristic blemishes from a sitter's face; but even that accomplished parasite would have found Mr. Batterbury too much for him, and would have been driven, for the first time in his practice of art, to the uncustomary and uncourtly resource of absolutely painting a genuine likeness.
As for me, I put my trust in Lady Malkinshaw's power of living, and portrayed the face of Mr. Batterbury in all its native horror. At the same time, I sensibly guarded against even the most improbable accidents, by making him pay me the fifty pounds as we went on, by installments. We had ten sittings. Each one of them began with a message from Mr. Batterbury, giving me Annabella's love and apologies for not being able to come and see me. Each one of them ended with an argument between Mr. Batterbury and me relative to the transfer of five pounds from his pocket to mine. I came off victorious on every occasion—being backed by the noble behavior of Lady Malkinshaw, who abstained from tumbling down, and who ate and drank, and slept and grew lusty, for three weeks together. Venerable woman! She put fifty pounds into my pocket. I shall think of her with gratitude and respect to the end of my days.
One morning, while I was sitting before my completed portrait, inwardly shuddering over the ugliness of it, a suffocating smell of musk was wafted into the studio; it was followed by a sound of rustling garments; and that again was succeeded by the personal appearance of my affectionate sister, with her husband at her heels. Annabella had got to the end of her stock of apologies, and had come to see me.
She put her handkerchief to her nose the moment she entered the room.
"How do you do, Frank? Don't kiss me: you smell of paint, and I can't bear it."
I felt a similar antipathy to the smell of musk, and had not the slightest intention of kissing her; but I was too gallant a man to say so; and I only begged her to favor me by looking at her husband's portrait.
Annabella glanced all round the room, with her handkerchief still at her nose, and gathered her magnificent silk dress close about her superb figure with her disengaged hand.
"What a horrid place!" she said faintly behind her handkerchief. "Can't you take some of the paint away? I'm sure there's oil on the floor. How am I to get past that nasty table with the palette on it? Why can't you bring the picture down to the carriage, Frank?"
Advancing a few steps, and looking suspiciously about her while she spoke, her eyes fell on the chimney-piece. An eau-de-Cologne bottle stood upon it, which she took up immediately with a languishing sigh.
It contained turpentine for washing brushes in. Before I could warn her, she had sprinkled herself absently with half the contents of the bottle. In spite of all the musk that now filled the room, the turpentine betrayed itself almost as soon as I cried "Stop!" Annabella, with a shriek of disgust, flung the bottle furiously into the fireplace. Fortunately it was summer-time, or I might have had to echo the shriek with a cry of "Fire!"
"You wretch! you brute! you low, mischievous, swindling blackguard!" cried my amiable sister, shaking her skirts with all her might, "you have done this on purpose! Don't tell me! I know you have. What do you mean by pestering me to come to this dog-kennel of a place?" she continued, turning fiercely upon the partner of her existence and legitimate receptacle of all her superfluous wrath. "What do you mean by bringing me here, to see how you have been swindled? Yes, sir, swindled! He has no more idea of painting than you have. He has cheated you out of your money. If he was starving tomorrow he would be the last man in England to make away with himself—he is too great a wretch—he is too vicious—he is too lost to all sense of respectability—he is too much of a discredit to his family. Take me away! Give me your arm directly! I told you not to go near him from the first. This is what comes of your horrid fondness for money. Suppose Lady Malkinshaw does outlive him; suppose I do lose my legacy. What is three thousand pounds to you? My dress is ruined. My shawl's spoiled. He die! If the old woman lives to the age of Methuselah, he won't die. Give me your arm. No! Go to my father. I want medical advice. My nerves are torn to pieces. I'm giddy, faint, sick—SICK, Mr. Batterbury!"
Here she became hysterical, and vanished, leaving a mixed odor of musk and turpentine behind her, which preserved the memory of her visit for nearly a week afterward.
"Another scene in the drama of my life seems likely to close in before long," thought I. "No chance now of getting my amiable sister to patronize struggling genius. Do I know of anybody else who will sit to me? No, not a soul. Having thus no portraits of other people to paint, what is it my duty, as a neglected artist, to do next? Clearly to take a portrait of myself."
I did so, making my own likeness quite a pleasant relief to the ugliness of my brother-in-law's. It was my intention to send both portraits to the Royal Academy Exhibition, to get custom, and show the public generally what I could do. I knew the institution with which I had to deal, and called my own likeness, Portrait of a Nobleman.
That dexterous appeal to the tenderest feelings of my distinguished countrymen very nearly succeeded. The portrait of Mr. Batterbury (much the more carefully-painted picture of the two) was summarily turned out. The Portrait of a Nobleman was politely reserved to be hung up, if the Royal Academicians could possibly find room for it. They could not. So that picture also vanished back into the obscurity of the artist's easel. Weak and well-meaning people would have desponded under these circumstances; but your genuine Rogue is a man of elastic temperament, not easily compressible under any pressure of disaster. I sent the portrait of Mr. Batterbury to the house of that distinguished patron, and the Portrait of a Nobleman to the Pawnbroker's. After this I had plenty of elbow-room in the studio, and could walk up and down briskly, smoking my pipe, and thinking about what I should do next.
I had observed that the generous friend and vagabond brother artist, whose lodger I now was, never seemed to be in absolute want of money; and yet the walls of his studio informed me that nobody bought his pictures. There hung all his great works, rejected by the Royal Academy, and neglected by the patrons of Art; and there, nevertheless, was he, blithely plying the brush; not rich, it is true, but certainly never without money enough in his pocket for the supply of all his modest wants. Where did he find his resources? I determined to ask him the question the very next time he came to the studio.
"Dick," I said (we called each other by our Christian names), "where do you get your money?"
"Frank," he answered, "what makes you ask that question?"
"Necessity," I proceeded. "My stock of money is decreasing, and I don't know how to replenish it. My pictures have been turned out of the exhibition-rooms; nobody comes to sit to me; I can't make a farthing; and I must try another line in the Arts, or leave your studio. We are old friends now. I've paid you honestly week by week; and if you can oblige me, I think you ought. You earn money somehow. Why can't I?"
"Are you at all particular?" asked Dick.
"Not in the least," I answered.
Dick nodded, and looked pleased; handed me my hat, and put on his own.
"You are just the sort of man I like," he remarked, "and I would sooner trust you than any one else I know. You ask how I contrive to earn money, seeing that all my pictures are still in my own possession. My dear fellow, whenever my pockets are empty, and I want a ten-pound note to put into them, I make an Old Master."
I stared hard at him, not at first quite understanding what he meant.
"The Old Master I can make best," continued Dick, "is Claude Lorraine, whom you may have heard of occasionally as a famous painter of classical landscapes. I don't exactly know (he has been dead so long) how many pictures he turned out, from first to last; but we will say, for the sake of argument, five hundred. Not five of these are offered for sale, perhaps, in the course of five years. Enlightened collectors of old pictures pour into the market by fifties, while genuine specimens of Claude, or of any other Old Master you like to mention, only dribble in by ones and twos. Under these circumstances, what is to be done? Are unoffending owners of galleries to be subjected to disappointment? Or are the works of Claude, and the other fellows, to be benevolently increased in number, to supply the wants of persons of taste and quality? No man of humanity but must lean to the latter alternative. The collectors, observe, don't know anything about it—they buy Claude (to take an instance from my own practice) as they buy all the other Old Masters, because of his reputation, not because of the pleasure they get from his works. Give them a picture with a good large ruin, fancy trees, prancing nymphs, and a watery sky; dirty it down dexterously to the right pitch; put it in an old frame; call it a Claude; and the sphere of the Old Master is enlarged, the collector is delighted, the picture-dealer is enriched, and the neglected modern artist claps a joyful hand on a well-filled pocket. Some men have a knack at making Rembrandts, others have a turn for Raphaels, Titians, Cuyps, Watteaus, and the rest of them. Anyhow, we are all made happy—all pleased with each other—all benefited alike. Kindness is propagated and money is dispersed. Come along, my boy, and make an Old Master!"
HE led the way into the street as he spoke. I felt the irresistible force of his logic. I sympathized with the ardent philanthropy of his motives. I burned with a noble ambition to extend the sphere of the Old Masters. In short, I took the tide at the flood, and followed Dick.
We plunged into some by-streets, struck off sharp into a court, and entered a house by a back door. A little old gentleman in a black velvet dressing-gown met us in the passage. Dick instantly presented me: "Mr. Frank Softly—Mr. Ishmael Pickup." The little old gentleman stared at me distrustfully. I bowed to him with that inexorable politeness which I first learned under the instructive fist of Gentleman Jones, and which no force of adverse circumstances has ever availed to mitigate in after life. Mr. Ishmael Pickup followed my lead. There is not the least need to describe him—he was a Jew.
"Go into the front show-room, and look at the pictures, while I speak to Mr. Pickup," said Dick, familiarly throwing open a door, and pushing me into a kind of gallery beyond. I found myself quite alone, surrounded by modern-antique pictures of all schools and sizes, of all degrees of dirt and dullness, with all the names of all the famous Old Masters, from Titian to Teniers, inscribed on their frames. A "pearly little gem," by Claude, with a ticket marked "Sold" stuck into the frame, particularly attracted my attention. It was Dick's last ten-pound job; and it did credit to the youthful master's abilities as a workman-like maker of Claudes.
I have been informed that, since the time of which I am writing, the business of gentlemen of Mr. Pickup's class has rather fallen off, and that there are dealers in pictures, nowadays, who are as just and honorable men as can be found in any profession or calling, anywhere under the sun. This change, which I report with sincerity and reflect on with amazement, is, as I suspect, mainly the result of certain wholesale modern improvements in the position of contemporary Art, which have necessitated improvements and alterations in the business of picture-dealing.
In my time, the encouragers of modern painting were limited in number to a few noblemen and gentlemen of ancient lineage, who, in matters of taste, at least, never presumed to think for themselves. They either inherited or bought a gallery more or less full of old pictures. It was as much a part of their education to put their faith in these on hearsay evidence, as to put their faith in King, Lords and Commons. It was an article of their creed to believe that the dead painters were the great men, and that the more the living painters imitated the dead, the better was their chance of becoming at some future day, and in a minor degree, great also. At certain times and seasons, these noblemen and gentlemen self-distrustfully strayed into the painting-room of a modern artist, self-distrustfully allowed themselves to be rather attracted by his pictures, self-distrustfully bought one or two of them at prices which would appear so incredibly low, in these days, that I really cannot venture to quote them. The picture was sent home; the nobleman or gentleman (almost always an amiable and a hospitable man) would ask the artist to his house and introduce him to the distinguished individuals who frequented it; but would never admit his picture, on terms of equality, into the society even of the second-rate Old Masters. His work was hung up in any out-of-the-way corner of the gallery that could be found; it had been bought under protest; it was admitted by sufferance; its freshness and brightness damaged it terribly by contrast with the dirtiness and the dinginess of its elderly predecessors; and its only points selected for praise were those in which it most nearly resembled the peculiar mannerism of some Old Master, not those in which it resembled the characteristics of the old mistress—Nature.
The unfortunate artist had no court of appeal that he could turn to. Nobody beneath the nobleman, or the gentleman of ancient lineage, so much as thought of buying a modern picture. Nobody dared to whisper that the Art of painting had in anywise been improved or worthily enlarged in its sphere by any modern professors. For one nobleman who was ready to buy one genuine modern picture at a small price, there were twenty noblemen ready to buy twenty more than doubtful old pictures at great prices. The consequence was, that some of the most famous artists of the English school, whose pictures are now bought at auction sales for fabulous sums, were then hardly able to make an income. They were a scrupulously patient and conscientious body of men, who would as soon have thought of breaking into a house, or equalizing the distribution of wealth, on the highway, by the simple machinery of a horse and pistol, as of making Old Masters to order. They sat resignedly in their lonely studios, surrounded by unsold pictures which have since been covered again and again with gold and bank-notes by eager buyers at auctions and show-rooms, whose money has gone into other than the painter's pockets—-who have never dreamed that the painter had the smallest moral right to a farthing of it. Year after year, these martyrs of the brush stood, palette in hand, fighting the old battle of individual merit against contemporary dullness—fighting bravely, patiently, independently; and leaving to Mr. Pickup and his pupils a complete monopoly of all the profit which could be extracted, in their line of business, from the feebly-buttoned pocket of the patron, and the inexhaustible credulity of the connoisseur.
Now all this is changed. Traders and makers of all kinds of commodities have effected a revolution in the picture-world, never dreamed of by the noblemen and gentlemen of ancient lineage, and consistently protested against to this day by the very few of them who still remain alive.
The daring innovators started with the new notion of buying a picture which they themselves could admire and appreciate, and for the genuineness of which the artist was still living to vouch. These rough and ready customers were not to be led by rules or frightened by precedents; they were not to be easily imposed upon, for the article they wanted was not to be easily counterfeited. Sturdily holding to their own opinions, they thought incessant repetitions of Saints, Martyrs, and Holy Families, monotonous and uninteresting—and said so. They thought little pictures of ugly Dutch women scouring pots, and drunken Dutchmen playing cards, dirty and dear at the price—and said so. They saw that trees were green in nature, and brown in the Old Masters, and they thought the latter color not an improvement on the former—and said so. They wanted interesting subjects; variety, resemblance to nature; genuineness of the article, and fresh paint; they had no ancestors whose feelings, as founders of galleries, it was necessary to consult; no critical gentlemen and writers of valuable works to snub them when they were in spirits; nothing to lead them by the nose but their own shrewdness, their own interests, and their own tastes—so they turned their backs valiantly on the Old Masters, and marched off in a body to the living men.
From that time good modern pictures have risen in the scale. Even as articles of commerce and safe investments for money, they have now (as some disinterested collectors who dine at certain annual dinners I know of, can testify) distanced the old pictures in the race. The modern painters who have survived the brunt of the battle, have lived to see pictures for which they once asked hundreds, selling for thousands, and the young generation making incomes by the brush in one year, which it would have cost the old heroes of the easel ten to accumulate. The posterity of Mr. Pickup still do a tolerable stroke of business (making bright modern masters for the market which is glutted with the dingy old material), and will, probably, continue to thrive and multiply in the future: the one venerable institution of this world which we can safely count upon as likely to last, being the institution of human folly. Nevertheless, if a wise man of the reformed taste wants a modern picture, there are places for him to go to now where he may be sure of getting it genuine; where, if the artist is not alive to vouch for his work, the facts at any rate have not had time to die which vouch for the dealer who sells it. In my time matters were rather different. The painters we throve by had died long enough ago for pedigrees to get confused, and identities disputable; and if I had been desirous of really purchasing a genuine Old Master for myself—speaking as a practical man—I don't know where I should have gone to ask for one, or whose judgment I could have safely relied on to guard me from being cheated, before I bought it.
We are stopping a long time in the picture-gallery, you will say. I am very sorry—but we must stay a little longer, for the sake of a living picture, the gem of the collection.
I was still admiring Mr. Pickup's Old Masters, when a dirty little boy opened the door of the gallery, and introduced a young lady.
My heart—fancy my having a heart!—gave one great bound in me. I recognized the charming person whom I had followed in the street.
Her veil was not down this time. All the beauty of her large, soft, melancholy, brown eyes beamed on me. Her delicate complexion became suddenly suffused with a lovely rosy flush. Her glorious black hair—no! I will make an effort, I will suppress my ecstasies. Let me only say that she evidently recognized me. Will you believe it?—I felt myself coloring as I bowed to her. I never blushed before in my life. What a very curious sensation it is!
The horrid boy claimed her attention with a grin.
"Master's engaged," he said. "Please to wait here."
"I don't wish to disturb Mr. Pickup," she answered.
What a voice! No! I am drifting back into ecstasies: her voice was worthy of her—I say no more.
"If you will be so kind as to show him this," she proceeded; "he knows what it is. And please say, my father is very ill and very anxious. It will be quite enough if Mr. Pickup will only send me word by you—Yes or No."
She gave the boy an oblong slip of stamped paper. Evidently a promissory note. An angel on earth, sent by an inhuman father, to ask a Jew for discount! Monstrous!
The boy disappeared with the message.
I seized my opportunity of speaking to her. Don't ask me what I said! Never before (or since) have I talked such utter nonsense, with such intense earnestness of purpose and such immeasurable depth of feeling. Do pray remember what you said yourself, the first time you had the chance of opening your heart to your young lady. The boy returned before I had half done, and gave her back the odious document.
"Mr. Pickup's very sorry, miss. The answer is, No."
She lost all her lovely color, and sighed, and turned away. As she pulled down her veil, I saw the tears in her eyes. Did that piteous spectacle partially deprive me of my senses? I actually entreated her to let me be of some use—as if I had been an old friend, with money enough in my pocket to discount the note myself. She brought me back to my senses with the utmost gentleness.
"I am afraid you forget, sir, that we are strangers. Good-morning."
I followed her to the door. I asked leave to call on her father, and satisfy him about myself and my family connections. She only answered that her father was too ill to see visitors. I went out with her on to the landing. She turned on me sharply for the first time.
"You can see for yourself, sir, that I am in great distress. I appeal to you, as a gentleman, to spare me."
If you still doubt whether I was really in love, let the facts speak for themselves. I hung my head, and let her go.
When I returned alone to the picture-gallery—when I remembered that I had not even had the wit to improve my opportunity by discovering her name and address—I did really and seriously ask myself if these were the first symptoms of softening of the brain. I got up, and sat down again. I, the most audacious man of my age in London, had behaved like a bashful boy! Once more I had lost her—and this time, also, I had nobody but myself to blame for it.
These melancholy meditations were interrupted by the appearance of my friend, the artist, in the picture-gallery. He approached me confidentially, and spoke in a mysterious whisper.
"Pickup is suspicious," he said; "and I have had all the difficulty in the world to pave your way smoothly for you at the outset. However, if you can contrive to make a small Rembrandt, as a specimen, you may consider yourself employed here until further notice. I am obliged to particularize Rembrandt, because he is the only Old Master disengaged at present. The professional gentleman who used to do him died the other day in the Fleet—he had a turn for Rembrandts, and can't be easily replaced. Do you think you could step into his shoes? It's a peculiar gift, like an ear for music, or a turn for mathematics. Of course you will be put up to the simple elementary rules, and will have the professional gentleman's last Rembrandt as a guide; the rest depends, my dear friend, on your powers of imitation. Don't be discouraged by failures, but try again and again; and mind you are dirty and dark enough. You have heard a great deal about the light and shade of Rembrandt—Remember always that, in your case, light means dusky yellow, and shade dense black; remember that, and—"
"No pay," said the voice of Mr. Pickup behind me; "no pay, my dear, unlesh your Rembrandt ish good enough to take me in—even me, Ishmael, who dealsh in pictersh and knowsh what'sh what."
What did I care about Rembrandt at that moment? I was thinking of my lost young lady; and I should probably have taken no notice of Mr. Pickup, if it had not occurred to me that the old wretch must know her father's name and address. I at once put the question. The Jew grinned, and shook his grisly head. "Her father'sh in difficultiesh, and mum's the word, my dear." To that answer he adhered, in spite of all that I could say to him.
With equal obstinacy I determined, sooner or later, to get my information.
I took service under Mr. Pickup, purposing to make myself essential to his prosperity, in a commercial sense—and then to threaten him with offering my services to a rival manufacturer of Old Masters, unless he trusted me with the secret of the name and address. My plan looked promising enough at the time. But, as some wise person has said, Man is the sport of circumstances. Mr. Pickup and I parted company unexpectedly, on compulsion. And, of all the people in the world, my grandmother, Lady Malkinshaw, was the unconscious first cause of the events which brought me and the beloved object together again, for the third time!
ON the next day, I was introduced to the Jew's workshop, and to the eminent gentlemen occupying it. My model Rembrandt was put before me; the simple elementary rules were explained; and my materials were all placed under my hands.
Regard for the lovers of the Old Masters, and for the moral well-being of society, forbids me to be particular about the nature of my labors, or to go into dangerous detail on the subject of my first failures and my subsequent success. I may, however, harmlessly admit that my Rembrandt was to be of the small or cabinet size, and that, as there was a run on Burgomasters just then, my subject was naturally to be of the Burgomaster sort. Three parts of my picture consisted entirely of different shades of dirty brown and black; the fourth being composed of a ray of yellow light falling upon the wrinkled face of a treacle-colored old man. A dim glimpse of a hand, and a faint suggestion of something like a brass washhand basin, completed the job, which gave great satisfaction to Mr. Pickup, and which was described in the catalogue as—
"A Burgomaster at Breakfast. Originally in the collection of Mynheer Van Grubb. Amsterdam. A rare example of the master. Not engraved. The chiar'oscuro in this extraordinary work is of a truly sublime character. Price, Two Hundred Guineas."
I got five pounds for it. I suppose Mr. Pickup got one-ninety-five.
This was perhaps not very encouraging as a beginning, in a pecuniary point of view. But I was to get five pounds more, if my Rembrandt sold within a given time. It sold a week after it was in a fit state to be trusted in the showroom. I got my money, and began enthusiastically on another Rembrandt—"A Burgomaster's Wife Poking the Fire." Last time, the chiar'oscuro of the master had been yellow and black, this time it was to be red and black. I was just on the point of forcing my way into Mr. Pickup's confidence, as I had resolved, when a catastrophe happened, which shut up the shop and abruptly terminated my experience as a maker of Old Masters.
"The Burgomaster's Breakfast" had been sold to a new customer, a venerable connoisseur, blessed with a great fortune and a large picture-gallery. The old gentleman was in raptures with the picture—with its tone, with its breadth, with its grand feeling for effect, with its simple treatment of detail. It wanted nothing, in his opinion, but a little cleaning. Mr. Pickup knew the raw and ticklish state of the surface, however, far too well, to allow of even an attempt at performing this process, and solemnly asserted, that he was acquainted with no cleansing preparation which could be used on the Rembrandt without danger of "flaying off the last exquisite glazings of the immortal master's brush." The old gentleman was quite satisfied with this reason for not cleaning the Burgomaster, and took away his purchase in his own carriage on the spot.
For three weeks we heard nothing more of him. At the end of that time, a Hebrew friend of Mr. Pickup, employed in a lawyer's office, terrified us all by the information that a gentleman related to our venerable connoisseur had seen the Rembrandt, had pronounced it to be an impudent counterfeit, and had engaged on his own account to have the picture tested in a court of law, and to charge the seller and maker thereof with conspiring to obtain money under false pretenses. Mr. Pickup and I looked at each other with very blank faces on receiving this agreeable piece of news. What was to be done? I recovered the full use of my faculties first; and I was the man who solved that important and difficult question, while the rest were still utterly bewildered by it. "Will you promise me five and twenty pounds in the presence of these gentlemen if I get you out of this scrape?" said I to my terrified employer. Ishmael Pickup wrung his dirty hands and answered, "Yesh, my dear!"
Our informant in this awkward matter was employed at the office of the lawyers who were to have the conducting of the case against us; and he was able to tell me some of the things I most wanted to know in relation to the picture.
I found out from him that the Rembrandt was still in our customer's possession. The old gentleman had consented to the question of its genuineness being tried, but had far too high an idea of his own knowledge as a connoisseur to incline to the opinion that he had been taken in. His suspicious relative was not staying in the house, but was in the habit of visiting him, every day, in the forenoon. That was as much as I wanted to know from others. The rest depended on myself, on luck, time, human credulity, and a smattering of chemical knowledge which I had acquired in the days of my medical studies. I left the conclave at the picture-dealer's forthwith, and purchased at the nearest druggist's a bottle containing a certain powerful liquid, which I decline to particularize on high moral grounds. I labeled the bottle "The Amsterdam Cleansing Compound"; and I wrapped round it the following note:
"Mr. Pickup's respectful compliments to Mr.—(let us say, Green). Is rejoiced to state that he finds himself unexpectedly able to forward Mr. Green's views relative to the cleaning of 'The Burgomaster's Breakfast.' The inclosed compound has just reached him from Amsterdam. It is made from a recipe found among the papers of Rembrandt himself—has been used with the most astonishing results on the Master's pictures in every gallery of Holland, and is now being applied to the surface of the largest Rembrandt in Mr. P.'s own collection. Directions for use: Lay the picture flat, pour the whole contents of the bottle over it gently, so as to flood the entire surface; leave the liquid on the surface for six hours, then wipe it off briskly with a soft cloth of as large a size as can be conveniently used. The effect will be the most wonderful removal of all dirt, and a complete and brilliant metamorphosis of the present dingy surface of the picture."
I left this note and the bottle myself at two o'clock that day; then went home, and confidently awaited the result.
The next morning our friend from the office called, announcing himself by a burst of laughter outside the door. Mr. Green had implicitly followed the directions in the letter the moment he received it—had allowed the "Amsterdam Cleansing Compound" to remain on the Rembrandt until eight o'clock in the evening—had called for the softest linen cloth in the whole house—and had then, with his own venerable hands, carefully wiped off the compound, and with it the whole surface of the picture! The brown, the black, the Burgomaster, the breakfast, and the ray of yellow light, all came clean off together in considerably less than a minute of time. If the picture, was brought into court now, the evidence it could give against us was limited to a bit of plain panel, and a mass of black pulp rolled up in a duster.
Our line of defense was, of course, that the compound had been improperly used. For the rest, we relied with well-placed confidence on the want of evidence against us. Mr. Pickup wisely closed his shop for a while, and went off to the Continent to ransack the foreign galleries. I received my five and twenty pounds, rubbed out the beginning of my second Rembrandt, closed the back door of the workshop behind me, and there was another scene of my life at an end. I had but one circumstance to regret—and I did regret it bitterly. I was still as ignorant as ever of the young lady's name and address.
My first visit was to the studio of my excellent artist-friend, whom I have already presented to the reader under the sympathetic name of "Dick." He greeted me with a letter in his hand. It was addressed to me—it had been left at the studio a few days since; and (marvel of all marvels!) the handwriting was Mr. Batterbury's. Had this philanthropic man not done befriending me even yet? Were there any present or prospective advantages to be got out of him still? Read his letter, and judge.
"SIR—Although you have forfeited by your ungentlemanly conduct toward myself, and your heartlessly mischievous reception of my dear wife, all claim upon the forbearance of the most forbearing of your relatives, I am disposed, from motives of regard for the tranquillity of Mrs. Batterbury's family, and of sheer good-nature so far as I am myself concerned, to afford you one more chance of retrieving your position by leading a respectable life. The situation I am enabled to offer you is that of secretary to a new Literary and Scientific Institution, about to be opened in the town of Duskydale, near which neighborhood I possess, as you must be aware, some landed property. The office has been placed at my disposal, as vice-president of the new Institution. The salary is fifty pounds a year, with apartments on the attic-floor of the building. The duties are various, and will be explained to you by the local committee, if you choose to present yourself to them with the inclosed letter of introduction. After the unscrupulous manner in which you have imposed on my liberality by deceiving me into giving you fifty pounds for an audacious caricature of myself, which it is impossible to hang up in any room of the house, I think this instance of my forgiving disposition still to befriend you, after all that has happened, ought to appeal to any better feelings that you may still have left, and revive the long dormant emotions of repentance and self-reproach, when you think on your obedient servant,
Bless me! What A long-winded style, and what a fuss about fifty pounds a year, and a bed in an attic! These were naturally the first emotions which Mr. Batterbury's letter produced in me. What was his real motive for writing it? I hope nobody will do me so great an injustice as to suppose that I hesitated for one instant about the way of finding that out. Of course I started off directly to inquire if Lady Malkinshaw had had another narrow escape of dying before me.
"Much better, sir," answered my grandmother's venerable butler, wiping his lips carefully before he spoke; "her ladyship's health has been much improved since her accident."
"Accident!" I exclaimed. "What, another? Lately? Stairs again?"
"No, sir; the drawing-room window this time," answered the butler, with semi-tipsy gravity. "Her ladyship's sight having been defective of late years, occasions her some difficulty in calculating distances. Three days ago, her ladyship went to look out of the window, and, miscalculating the distance—" Here the butler, with a fine dramatic feeling for telling a story, stopped just before the climax of the narrative, and looked me in the face with an expression of the deepest sympathy.
"And miscalculating the distance?" I repeated impatiently.
"Put her head through a pane of glass," said the butler, in a soft voice suited to the pathetic nature of the communication. "By great good fortune her ladyship had been dressed for the day, and had got her turban on. This saved her ladyship's head. But her ladyship's neck, sir, had a very narrow escape. A bit of the broken glass wounded it within half a quarter of an inch of the carotty artery" (meaning, probably, carotid); "I heard the medical gentleman say, and shall never forget it to my dying day, that her ladyship's life had been saved by a hair-breadth. As it was, the blood lost (the medical gentleman said that, too, sir) was accidentally of the greatest possible benefit, being apoplectic, in the way of clearing out the system. Her ladyship's appetite has been improved ever since—the carriage is out airing of her at this very moment—likewise, she takes the footman's arm and the maid's up and downstairs now, which she never would hear of before this last accident. 'I feel ten years younger' (those were her ladyship's own words to me, this very day), 'I feel ten years younger, Vokins, since I broke the drawing-room window.' And her ladyship looks it!"
No doubt. Here was the key to Mr. Batterbury's letter of forgiveness. His chance of receiving the legacy looked now further off than ever; he could not feel the same confidence as his wife in my power of living down any amount of starvation and adversity; and he was, therefore, quite ready to take the first opportunity of promoting my precious personal welfare and security, of which he could avail himself, without spending a farthing of money. I saw it all clearly, and admired the hereditary toughness of the Malkinshaw family more gratefully than ever. What should I do? Go to Duskydale? Why not? It didn't matter to me where I went, now that I had no hope of ever seeing those lovely brown eyes again.
I got to my new destination the next day, presented my credentials, gave myself the full advantage of my high connections, and was received with enthusiasm and distinction.
I found the new Institution torn by internal schisms even before it was opened to the public. Two factious governed it—a grave faction and a gay faction. Two questions agitated it: the first referring to the propriety of celebrating the opening season by a public ball, and the second to the expediency of admitting novels into the library. The grim Puritan interest of the whole neighborhood was, of course, on the grave side—against both dancing and novels, as proposed by local loose thinkers and latitudinarians of every degree. I was officially introduced to the debate at the height of the squabble; and found myself one of a large party in a small room, sitting round a long table, each man of us with a new pewter inkstand, a new quill pen, and a clean sheet of foolscap paper before him. Seeing that everybody spoke, I got on my legs along with the rest, and made a slashing speech on the loose-thinking side. I was followed by the leader of the grim faction—an unlicked curate of the largest dimensions.