Digitized by Robert Bamford. Further proofreading and formatting by Andrew Sly.
A COMEDY OF MASKS
ERNEST DOWSON and ARTHUR MOORE
In that intricate and obscure locality, which stretches between the Tower and Poplar, a tarry region, scarcely suspected by the majority of Londoners, to whom the "Port of London" is an expression purely geographical, there is, or was not many years ago, to be found a certain dry dock called Blackpool, but better known from time immemorial to skippers and longshoremen, and all who go down to the sea in ships, as "Rainham's Dock."
Many years ago, in the days of the first Rainham and of wooden ships, it had been no doubt a flourishing ship-yard; and, indeed, models of wooden leviathans of the period, which had been turned out, not a few, in those palmy days, were still dusty ornaments of its somewhat antique office. But as time went on, and the age of iron intervened, and the advance on the Clyde and the Tyne had made Thames ship-building a thing of the past, Blackpool Dock had ceased to be of commercial importance. No more ships were built there, and fewer ships put in to be overhauled and painted; while even these were for the most part of a class viewed at Lloyd's with scant favour, which seemed, like the yard itself, to have fallen somewhat behind the day. The original Rainham had not bequeathed his energy along with his hoards to his descendants; and, indeed, the last of these, Philip Rainham, a man of weak health, original Rainham had not bequeathed his energy along with his hoards to his descendants; and, indeed, the last of these, Philip Rainham, a man of weak health, whose tastes, although these were veiled in obscurity, were supposed to trench little upon shipping, let the business jog along so much after its own fashion, that the popular view hinted at its imminent dissolution. A dignified, scarcely prosperous quiet seemed the normal air of Blackpool Dock, so that even when it was busiest —and work still came in, almost by tradition, with a certain steadiness—when the hammers of the riveters and the shipwrights awoke the echoes from sunrise to sunset, with a ferocious regularity which the present proprietor could almost deplore, there was still a suggestion of mildewed antiquity about it all that was, at least to the nostrils of the outsider, not unpleasing. And when the ships were painted, and had departed, it resumed very easily its more regular aspect of picturesque dilapidation. For in spite of its sordid surroundings and its occasional lapses into bustle, Blackpool Dock, as Rainham would sometimes remind himself, when its commercial motive was pressed upon him too forcibly, was deeply permeated by the spirit of the picturesque.
Certainly Mr. Richard Lightmark, a young artist, in whose work some excellent judges were beginning already to discern, if not the hand of the master, at least a touch remarkably happy, was inclined to plume himself on having discovered, in his search after originality, the artistic points of a dockyard.
It was on his first visit to Rainham, whom he had met abroad some years before, and with whom he had contracted an alliance that promised to be permanent, that Lightmark had decided his study should certainly be the river. Rainham had a set of rooms in the house of his foreman, an eighteenth-century house, full of carved oak mantels and curious alcoves, a ramshackle structure within the dock-gates, with a quaint balcony staircase, like the approach to a Swiss chalet, leading down into the yard. In London these apartments were his sole domicile; though, to his friends, none of whom lived nearer to him than Bloomsbury, this seemed a piece of conduct too flagrantly eccentric—on a parity with his explanation of it, alleging necessity of living on the spot: an explanation somewhat droll, in the face of his constant lengthy absence, during the whole of the winter, when he handed the reins of government to his manager, and took care of a diseased lung in a warmer climate. To Lightmark, however, dining with his friend for the first time on chops burnt barbarously and an inferior pudding, residence even in a less salubrious quarter than Blackpool would have been amply justified, in view of the many charming effects—for the most part coldly sad and white—which the river offered, towards evening, from the window of his friend's dining-room.
After his first visit, he availed himself eagerly of Rainham's invitation to make his property the point of view from which he could most conveniently transfer to canvas his impressions; and he worked hard for months, with an industry that came upon his friend as a surprise, at the uneven outlines of the Thames warehouses, and the sharp-pointed masts that rose so trenchantly above them. He had generated an habit of coming and going, as he pleased, without consideration of his host's absences; and latterly, in the early spring—whose caprices in England Rainham was never in a hurry to encounter—the easel and painting tools of the assiduous artist had become an almost constant feature of the landscape.
Now, towards the close of an exceptionally brilliant day in the finish of May, he was putting the last touches to a picture which had occupied him for some months, and which he hoped to have completed for Rainham's return. As he stood on the wharf, which ran down to the river-side, leaning back against a crane of ancient pattern, and viewing his easel from a few yards' distance critically, he could not contemplate the result without a certain complacency.
"It's deuced good, after all," he said to himself, with his head poised a little on one side. "Yes, old Rainham will like this. And, by Jove! what matters a good deal more, the hangers will like it, and if it's sold—and, confound it! it must be sold—it will be a case of three figures."
He had one hand in his pocket, and instinctively—it may have been the result of his meditation—he fell to jingling some coins in it. They were not very many, but just then, though he was a young gentleman keenly alive to the advantages of a full purse, their paucity hardly troubled him. He felt, for the nonce, assured of his facility, and doubtless had a vista of unlimited commissions and the world at his feet, for he drew himself up to his full height of six feet and looked out beyond the easel with a smile that had no longer its origin in the fruition of the artist. Indeed, as he stood there, in his light, lax dress and the fulness of his youth, he had (his art apart) excuse for self-complacency. He was very pleasant to look upon, with an air of having always been popular with his fellows, and the favourite of women; this, too, was borne out by his history. Not a beautiful man, by any means, but the best type of English comeliness: ruddy-coloured, straight, and healthy; muscular, but without a suggestion of brutality. His yellow moustache, a shade lighter than his hair—which, although he wore it cropped, showed a tendency to be curling—concealed a mouth that was his only questionable feature. It was not the sensitive mouth of the through and through artist, and the lines of it were vacillating. The lips, had they not been hidden, would have surprised by their fulness, contradicting, in some part, the curious coldness of his light blue eyes. All said, however, he remained a singularly handsome fellow; and the slight consciousness which he occasionally betrayed, that his personality was pleasing, hardly detracted from it; it was, after all, a harmless vanity that his friends could afford to overlook. Just then his thoughts, which had wandered many leagues from the warehouses of Blackpool, were brought up sharply by the noise of an approaching footstep. He started slightly, but a moment later greeted the new-comer with a pleasant smile of recognition. It was Rainham's foreman and general manager, with whom the artist, as with most persons with whom he was often in contact, was on excellent, and even familiar, terms.
"Look here, Bullen," he said, twisting the easel round a little, "the picture is practically finished. A few more strokes—I shall do them at home—and it is ready for the Academy. How do you like it?"
Mr. Bullen bent down his burly form and honoured the little canvas with a respectful scrutiny.
"That is Trinidad Wharf, sir, I suppose?" he suggested, pointing with a huge forefinger at the background a little uncertainly.
"That is Trinidad Wharf, Bullen, certainly! And those masts are from the ships in the Commercial Docks. But the river, the atmosphere—that's the point—how do they strike you?"
"Well, it's beautiful, sir," remarked Bullen cordially; "painted like the life, you may say. But isn't it just a little smudgy, sir?"
"That's the beauty of it, Bullen. It's impressionism, you Philistine!—a sort of modified impressionism, you know, to suit the hangers. 'Gad, Bullen, you ought to be a hanger yourself! Bullen, my dear man, if it wasn't that you do know how to paint a ship's side, I would even go so far as to say that you have all the qualifications of an Academician."
"Ah, if it comes to that, Mr. Lightmark, I dare say I could put them up to some dodges. I am a judge of 'composition.'"
"Composition? The devil you are! Ah, you mean that infernal compound which they cover ships' bottoms with? What an atrocious pun!" The man looked puzzled. "Bullen, R.A., great at composition; it sounds well," continued Lightmark gaily, just touching in the brown sail of a barge.
"I've a nephew in the Royal Artillery, sir," said Mr. Bullen; "but I fear he is a bad lot."
"Oh, they all are!" said Lightmark, "an abandoned crew."
His eyes wandered off to the bridge over which the road ran, dividing the dry dock from the outer basin and wharf on which they stood. A bevy of factory girls in extensive hats stuck with brilliant Whitechapel feathers were passing; one of them, who was pretty, caught Lightmark's eyes and flung him a saucy compliment, which he returned with light badinage in kind that made the foreman grin.
"They know a fine man when they see one, as well as my lady," he said. Then he added, as if by an afterthought, lowering his voice a little: "By the way, Mr. Lightmark, there was a young lady—a young person here yesterday—making inquiries."
Lightmark bent down, frowning a little at a fly which had entangled itself on his palette.
"Yes?" he remarked tentatively, when the offender had been removed.
"It was a young lady come after someone, who, she said, had been here lately: a Mr. Dighton or Crichton was the name, I think. It was the dockman she asked."
"Nobody comes here of that name that I know of," said Lightmark.
"Not to my knowledge," said Bullen.
"Curious!" remarked Lightmark gravely.
"Very, sir!" said Bullen, with equal gravity.
Lightmark looked up abruptly: the two men's eyes met, and they both laughed, the artist a little nervously.
"What did you tell her, Bullen?"
"No such person known here, sir. I sent her away as wise as she came. I hold with minding my own business, and asking no questions."
"An excellent maxim, Bullen!" said Lightmark, preparing to pack up his easel. "I have long believed you to be a man of discretion. Well, I must even be moving."
"You know the governor is back, sir?"
Lightmark dropped the paint-brush he was cleaning, with a movement of genuine surprise.
"I never knew it," he said; "I will run up and have a yarn with him. I thought he wasn't expected till to-morrow at the earliest?"
"Nor he was, Mr. Lightmark. But he travelled right through from Italy, and got to London late last night. He slept at the Great Eastern, and I went up to him in the City this morning. He hasn't been here more than half an hour."
"Nobody told me," said Lightmark. "Gad! I am glad. I will take him up the picture. Will you carry the other traps into the house, Bullen?"
He packed them up, and then stood a trifle irresolutely, his hand feeling over the coins in his pocket. Presently he produced two of them, a sovereign and a shilling.
"By the way, Bullen!" he said, "there is a little function common in your trade, the gift of a new hat. It costs a guinea, I am told; though judging from the general appearance of longshoremen, the result seems a little inadequate. Bullen, we are pretty old friends now, and I expect I shall not be down here so often just at present. Allow me—to give you a new hat."
The foreman's huge fist closed on the artist's slender one.
"Thank you, sir! You are such a facetious gentleman. You may depend upon me."
"I do," said Lightmark, with a sudden lapse into seriousness, and frowning a little.
If something had cast a shadow over the artist for the moment he must have had a faculty of quick recovery, for there was certainly no shade of constraint upon his handsome face when a minute later he made his way up the balcony steps and into the office labelled "Private," and, depositing his canvas upon the floor, treated his friend to a prolonged handshaking.
"My dear Dick!" said Rainham, "this is a pleasant surprise. I had not the remotest notion you were here."
"I thought you were at Bordighera, till Bullen told me of your arrival ten minutes ago," said Lightmark, with a frank laugh. "And how well——"
Rainham held up his hand—a very white, nervous hand with one ring of quaint pattern on the forefinger—deprecatingly.
"My dear fellow, I know exactly what you are going to say. Don't be conventional—don't say it. I have a fraudulent countenance if I do look well; and I don't, and I am not. I am as bad as I ever was."
"Well, come now, Rainham, at any rate you are no worse."
"Oh, I am no worse!" admitted the dry dock proprietor. "But, then, I could not afford to be much worse. However, my health is a subject which palls on me after a time. Tell me about yourself."
He looked up with a smile, in which an onlooker might have detected a spark of malice, as though Rainham were aware that his suggested topic was not without attraction to his friend. He was a slight man of middle height, and of no apparent distinction, and his face with all its petulant lines of lassitude and ill-health—the wear and tear of forty years having done with him the work of fifty—struck one who saw Philip Rainham for the first time by nothing so much as by his ugliness. And yet few persons who knew him would have hesitated to allow to his nervous, suffering visage a certain indefinable charm. The large head set on a figure markedly ungraceful, on which the clothes seldom fitted, was shapely and refined, although the features were indefensible, even grotesque. And his mouth, with its constrained thin lips and the acrid lines about it, was unmistakably a strong one. His deep-set eyes, moreover, of a dark gray colour, gleamed from under his thick eyebrows with a pleasant directness; while his smile, which some people called cynical, as his habit of speech most certainly was, was found by others extraordinarily sympathetic.
"Yes, tell me about yourself, Dick," he said again.
"I have done a picture, if that is what you mean, besides some portraits; I have worked down here like a galley slave for the last three months."
"And is the queer little estaminet in Soho still in evidence? Do the men of to-morrow still meet there nightly and weigh the claims of the men of to-day?"
Lightmark smiled a trifle absently; his eyes had wandered off to his picture in the corner.
"Oh, I believe so!" he said at last; "I dine there occasionally when I have time. But I have been going out a good deal lately, and I hardly ever do have time.... May I smoke, by the way?"
Rainham nodded gently, and the artist pulled out his case and started a fragrant cigarette.
"You see, Rainham," he continued, sending a blue ring sailing across the room, "I am not so young as I was last year, and I have seen a good deal more of the world."
"I see, Dick," said Rainham. "Well, go on!"
"I mean," he explained, "that those men who meet at Brodonowski's are very good fellows, and deuced clever, and all that; but I doubt if they are the sort of men it is well to get too much mixed up with. They are rather outre, you know; though, of course, they are awfully good fellows in their way."
"Precisely!" said Rainham, "you are becoming a very Solomon, Dick!"
He sat playing idly with the ring on his forefinger, watching the artist's smoke with the same curiously obscure smile. It had the effect on Lightmark now, as Rainham's smile did on many people, however innocent it might be of satiric intention, of infusing his next remarks with the accent of apology.
"You see, Rainham, one has to think of what will help one on, as well as what one likes. There is a man I have come to know lately—a very good man too, a barrister—who is always dinning that into me. He has introduced me to some very useful people, and is always urging me not to commit myself. And Brodonowski's is rather committal, you know. However, we must dine there together again one day, soon, and then you will understand it."
"Oh, I understand it, Dick!" said Rainham. "But let me see the picture while the light lasts."
"Oh, yes!" cried Lightmark eagerly. "We must not forget the picture." He hoisted it up to a suitable light, and Rainham stood by the bow-window, from which one almost obtained the point of view which the artist had chosen, regarding it in a critical silence.
"What do you call it?" he asked at last.
"'The Gray River,'" said Lightmark; then a little impatiently: "But how do you find it? Are you waiting for a tripod?"
"I don't think I shall tell you. By falling into personal criticism, unless one is either dishonest or trivial, one runs the risk of losing a friend."
"Oh, nonsense, man! It's not such a daub as that. I will risk your candour."
Rainham shrugged his shoulder.
"If you will have it, Dick—only, don't think that I am to be coaxed into compliments."
"Is it bad?" asked Lightmark sceptically.
"On the contrary, it is surprisingly good. It's clever and pretty; sure to be hung, sure to sell. Only you have come down a peg. The sentiment about that river is very pretty, and that mist is eminently pictorial; but it's not the river you would have painted last year; and that mist—I have seen it in a good many pictures now—is a mist that one can't quite believe in. It's the art that pays, but it's not the art you talked at Brodonowski's last summer, that is all."
Lightmark tugged at his moustache a little ruefully. Rainham had an idea that his ups and downs were tremendous. His mind was a mountainous country, and if he had elations, he had also depressions as acute. Yet his elasticity was enormous, and he could throw off troublesome intruders, in the shape of memories or regrets, with the ease of a slow-worm casting its skin. And so now his confidence was only shaken for a moment, and he was able to reply gaily to Rainham's last thrust:
"My dear fellow, I expect I talked a good deal of trash last year, after all"—a statement which the other did not find it worth while to deny.
They had resumed their places at the table, and Lightmark, with a half-sheet of note-paper before him, was dashing off profiles. They were all the same—the head of a girl: a childish face with a straight, small nose, and rough hair gathered up high above her head in a plain knot. Rainham, leaning over, watched him with an amused smile.
"The current infatuation, Dick, or the last but one?"
"No," he said; "only a girl I know. Awfully pretty, isn't she?"
Rainham, who was a little short-sighted, took up the paper carelessly. He dropped it after a minute with a slight start.
"I think I know her," he said. "You have a knack of catching faces. Is it Miss Sylvester?"
"Yes; it is Eve Sylvester," said Lightmark. "Do you know them? I see a good deal of them now."
"I have known them a good many years," said Rainham.
"They have never spoken of you to me," said Lightmark.
"No? I dare say not. Why should they?" He was silent for a moment, looking thoughtfully at his ring. Then he said abruptly: "I think I know now who your friend the barrister is, Dick. I recognise the style. It is Charles Sylvester, is it not?"
"You are a wizard," answered the other, laughing. "Yes, it is." Then he asked: "Don't you think she is awfully pretty?"
"Miss Sylvester?... Very likely; she was a very pretty child. You know, she had not come out last year. Are you going?"
Lightmark had pulled out his watch absently, and he leapt up as he discovered the lateness of the hour.
"Heavens, yes! I am dining out, and I shall barely have time to dress. I will fetch my traps to-morrow; then we might dine together afterwards."
"As you like," said the elder man. "I have no engagements yet."
Lightmark left him with a genial nod, and a moment later Rainham saw him through the window passing with long impetuous strides across the bridge. Then he returned to his desk, and wrote a letter or two until the light failed, when he pushed his chair back, and sat, pen in hand, looking meditatively, vaguely, at the antiquated maps upon the walls.
Presently his eye fell on Lightmark's derelict paper, with its scribble of a girl's head. He considered it thoughtfully for some time, starting a little, and covering it with his blotting-paper, when Mrs. Bullen, his housekeeper, entered with a cup of tea—a freak of his nerves which made him smile when she had gone.
Even then he left his tea for a long time, cooling and untasted, while he sat lethargically lolling back, and regarding from time to time the pencilled profile with his sad eyes.
The period of Lightmark's boyhood had not been an altogether happy one. His earliest recollections carried him back to a time when he lived a wandering, desolate life with his father and mother, in an endless series of Continental hotels and pensions. He was prepared to assert, with confidence, that his mother had been a very beautiful person, who carried an air of the most abundant affection for him on the numerous occasions when she received her friends. Of his father, who had, as far as possible, ignored his existence, he remembered very little.
During these years there had been frequent difficulties, the nature of which he had since learned entirely to comprehend; controversies with white-waistcoated proprietors of hotels and voluble tradespeople, generally followed by a severance of hastily-cemented friendships, and a departure of apparently unpremeditated abruptness.
When his mother died, he was sent to a fairly good school in England, where his father occasionally visited him, and where he had been terribly bullied at first, and had afterwards learned to bully in turn. He spent his holidays in London, at the house of his grandmother—an excellent old lady, who petted and scolded him almost simultaneously, who talked mysteriously about his "poor dear father," and took care that he went to church regularly, and had dancing-lessons three times a week.
His father's death, which occurred at Monaco somewhat unexpectedly, and on the subject of which his grandmother maintained a certain reserve, affected the boy but little; in fact, the first real grief which he could remember to have experienced was when the old lady herself died—he was then nineteen years old—leaving him her blessing and a sum of Consols sufficient to produce an income of about L250 a year.
The boy's inclinations leaned in the direction of Oxford, and in this he was supported by his only-surviving relative, his uncle, Colonel Lightmark, a loud-voiced cavalry officer, who had been the terror of Richard's juvenile existence, and who, as executor of the old lady's will, was fully aware of the position in which her death had left him, and her desire that he should go into the Church.
At one of the less fashionable colleges, which he selected because he was enamoured of its picturesque inner quadrangle, and of the quaint Dutch glass in the chapel windows, Lightmark was popular with his peers, and, for his first term, in tolerably good odour with the dons, who decided, on his coming up to matriculate, that he ought to read for honours. And he did read for honours, after a fashion, for nearly a scholastic year, after which an unfortunate excursion to Abingdon, and a boisterous re-entry into the University precincts, at the latter part of which the junior proctor and his satellites were painfully conspicuous, ended in his being "sent down" for a term. Whereupon he decided to travel, a decision prompted as much by a not unnatural desire to avoid avuncular criticism as by a constitutional yearning for the sunny South. Besides, one could live for next to nothing abroad.
During the next few years his proceedings were wrapped in a veil of mystery which he never entirely threw aside. Rainham, it is true, saw him occasionally at this time, for, indeed, it was soon after his first arrival in Paris that Lightmark made his friend's acquaintance, sealed by their subsequent journey together to Rome. But Rainham was discreet. Lightmark before long informed his uncle, with whom he at first communicated through the post on the subject of dividends, that he was studying Art, to which his uncle had replied:
"Don't be a d——d fool. Come back and take your degree."
This letter Dick had light-heartedly ignored, and he received his next cheque from his uncle's solicitors, together with a polite request that he would keep them informed as to his wanderings, and an intimation that his uncle found it more convenient to make them the channel of correspondence for the future.
At Paris it was generally conceded that, for an Englishman, the delicacy of Lightmark's touch, and the daring of his conception and execution, were really marvellous; and if only he could draw! But he was too impatient for the end to spend the necessary time in perfecting the means.
At Rome he tried his hand at sculpture, and made a few sketches which his attractive personality rather than their intrinsic merit enabled him to sell. The camaraderie of the Cafe Grecco welcomed him with open arms; and he was to be encountered, in the season, at the most fashionable studio tea-parties and diplomatic dances. Before long his talent in the direction of seizing likenesses secured him a well-paid post as caricaturist-in-chief on the staff of a Republican journal of more wit than discretion; and it was in this capacity that he gained his literary experience. On the eve of the suppression of this enterprising organ the Minister of Police thought it a favourable opportunity to express to Lightmark privately his opinion that he was not likely to find the atmosphere of Rome particularly salubrious during the next few months. Whereupon our friend had shrugged his shoulders, and after ironically thanking the official for his disinterested advice, he had given a farewell banquet of great splendour at the Grecco, packed up palettes and paint-boxes, and started for London, where his friends persuaded him that his talent would be recognised. And at London he had arrived, travelling by ruinously easy stages, and breaking the journey at Florence, where he sketched and smoked pipes innumerable on the Lung Arno; at Venice, where he affected cigarettes, and indulged in a desperate flirtation with a pretty black-eyed marchesa; at Monaco, where he gambled; and at Paris, where he spent his winnings, and foregathered with his friends of the Quartier Latin.
His empty pockets suggested the immediate necessity for work in a manner more emphatic than agreeable. His uncle, upon whom he called at his club, invited him to dinner, lectured him with considerable eloquence, and practically declined to have any more to do with the young reprobate, which shook Lightmark's faith in the teaching of parables.
However, he set to work in the two little rooms beneath the tiles which he rented in Bloomsbury, and which served him as bedroom and studio; and for a few weeks he finished sketches by day, and wrote sonnets for magazines, and frivolous articles for dailies, by night. And, strange to say, though there were times when success seemed very hard to grasp, and when he was obliged to forestall quarter-day, and even to borrow money from Rainham—when that bird of passage was within reach—he sold sketches from time to time; he obtained commissions for portraits; and the editors occasionally read and retained his contributions.
In course of time he moved further west, to the then unfashionable neighbourhood of Holland Park, and devoted his energies to the production of a work which should make an impression at the Academy. It was his first large picture in oils, an anonymous portrait, treated with all the audacity and chic of the modern French school, of a fair-haired girl in a quaint fancy dress, standing under the soft light of Japanese lanterns, in a conservatory, with a background of masses of flowers.
And when it was finished, Rainham and the small coterie of artists who were intimate with Lightmark were generously enthusiastic in their expressions of approval.
"But I don't know about the Academy, old man," said one of these critics dubiously, after the first spontaneous outburst of discussion. "Of course it's good enough, but it's not exactly their style, you know. The old duffers on the Hanging Committee wouldn't understand it——"
And though Lightmark maintained his intention in the face of this criticism, the picture was never submitted to the hangers. Rainham brought a wealthy American ship-owner to see it, and when the committee sat in judgment, the work was already on the high seas on its way to New York.
After all, Lightmark owed his nascent reputation to work of a less important nature—a few landscapes which appeared on the walls of Bond Street galleries, and were transferred in course of time to fashionable drawing-rooms; a few portraits, which the uninitiated thought admirable because they were so "like." Moreover, he could flatter discreetly, and he took care not to bore his sitter; two admirable qualities in a portrait-painter who desires to succeed.
It was to one of his sitters that Lightmark owed his introduction to the Sylvesters. Charles Sylvester had been told that Lightmark was a man who would certainly achieve greatness, and he felt that here was an opportunity to add all hitherto missing leaf to his laurels, by constituting himself a patron of art, a position not often attained by young barristers even when, as in Sylvester's case, they have already designs upon a snug constituency.
Sylvester began by giving his protege a commission to paint his mother's portrait, and before this work was finished a very appreciable degree of intimacy had sprung up between the Sylvester family and the young painter, who found no difficulty in gratifying a woman-of-the-world's passion for small-talk and fashionable intelligence—judiciously culled from the columns of the daily newspapers with the art of a practised wielder of the scissors and paste-brush.
With Miss Sylvester he had a less easy task. She was a girl who had from a very early age been accustomed to have her impressions moulded by her self-assertive elder brother; and he, at any rate at first, had been careful to show that he regarded Lightmark as an object of his patronage rather than as a friend who could meet him on his own exalted level. He had been known, in his earlier years, to speak somewhat contemptuously of "artists"; and, indeed, his want of sympathy with Bohemians in general had given Eve occasion for much wondering mental comment, when her brother first spoke of introducing the portrait-painter to the family circle.
However, brotherly rule over a girl's opinions is apt to be disestablished when she draws near the autumn of her teens; and after her emancipation from the schoolroom and short frocks, Miss Eve began to think it was time that she should be allowed to entertain and express views of her own. And after her first ball, an occasion on which her programme had speedily been besieged, and the debutante marked as dangerous by the observant mothers of marriageable sons and daughters—after this important function, even Charles had begun to regard his pretty sister with a certain amount of deference. He certainly had reason to congratulate himself on having so attractive a young person to pour out his coffee and compose his "buttonholes" before he started for chambers in the morning. Eve was at an age when the wild-rose tints of a complexion fostered by judicious walks and schoolroom teas had not yet yielded to the baneful influence of late dinners and the other orgies which society conducts in an unduly-heated atmosphere. Her figure was still almost childishly slim, but graceful, and straight enough to defy criticism in the ball-room or the saddle. Her eyes were gray, with a curious, starry expression in their depths, which always suggested that the smile which was so often on her lips was quite ready to exaggerate the dimples in her cheeks. Her hair was refractory, from her own point of view; but Lightmark found the tangled brown masses, which she wore gathered into a loose knot high at the back of her shapely head, entirely charming, and suggestive, in a way, of one of Lancret's wood nymphs.
She could never bring herself to believe that her nose was pretty, although in the seclusion of her chamber she had frankly criticised her reflected image; and perhaps it was a trifle too small for most critics. Still, her admirers declared that, especially in profile, it was delightfully piquant, and vastly preferable to the uninteresting aquilines which adorned the countenances of her mother and brother. A provoking, childish, charming face, when all was said; it was not wonderful that Lightmark would fain put it upon canvas. And, indeed, so far as the young girl herself was concerned, he had already a conditional promise. She had no objection whatever to make, provided that Charles was first consulted; only she had no dress that would meet the occasion. And when Lightmark protested that the airy white garment, with here and there a suggestion of cream-coloured lace and sulphur ribbons, which she was wearing, was entirely right, she scouted the idea with scorn.
"This old frock, Mr. Lightmark," she exclaimed, with a pretty display of disdain for his taste, "why, I've worn the old thing for months! No; if Charles says I may have my portrait painted, I shall go straight off to Madame Sophie, and then you may paint me and send me to the Academy or Grosvenor in all my glory."
Lightmark had found it quite useless to protest, well as he knew that the ordinary French milliner can be warranted to succeed in producing a garment almost as unpaintable as a masculine black frock-coat.
On the afternoon of the day after Rainham's return to the dock, Lightmark was caressing his fair moustache upon the doorstep of the Sylvesters' house, No. 137, Park Street, West, a mansion of unpretending size, glorious in its summer coat of white paint, relieved only by the turquoise-blue tiles which surrounded the window-boxes, and the darker blue of the railings and front-door. He was calling ostensibly for the purpose of inquiring how Charles Sylvester liked the frame which he had selected for the recently-finished portrait; really in order to induce her brother to allow Eve to sit to him. Sounds as of discussion floated down the wide staircase; and when the servant opened the drawing-room door preparatory to announcing him, Lightmark heard—and it startled him—a well-remembered voice upraised in playful protest.
"No, 'pon my word, Mrs. Sylvester, my young scamp of a nephew hasn't done you justice, 'pon my soul he hasn't."
At first he felt almost inclined to turn tail; though he had long been aware that the Sylvesters were cognisant of his relationship to the somewhat notorious old Colonel, and that they knew him, as everyone did, he had never contemplated the possibility of meeting his uncle there.
And when he had shaken hands in a bewildered manner with Mrs. Sylvester and Eve, he perceived that his uncle was greeting him with an almost paternal cordiality.
"Why, Dick, my boy, 'pon my soul I haven't seen you for an age! You mustn't neglect your gouty old uncle, you know, Dick; when are you going to paint his portrait, in review order, eh? Not until you've painted Miss Eve here, I'll be bound."
The prodigal nephew needed all his by no means deficient stock of nerve to enable him to present an unmoved countenance to this unexpected attack of geniality. This, he thought, as he returned the other's greeting with as great a semblance of ease as he could muster—this was the uncle who had declined to recognise him when they met a few months ago, in the broadest daylight, in Pall Mall!
Presently, while he was trying to recover his equanimity by devoting himself to the cult of Eve, he heard the colonel whisper in a confidential undertone to their hostess:
"Devilish clever fellow, my nephew, y'know, though perhaps I oughtn't to say so. Those newspaper beggars think very highly of him—the critics, y'know, and all that; why, 'pon my soul, I was reading something about him only this morning at the club in the what's-his-name—the Outcry. Said he ought to be in the Academy."
"Yes," said Mrs. Sylvester sympathetically, "you are quite right to be proud of him, Colonel Lightmark. Charles thinks he is very clever, and he is so pleased with my portrait. We want him to paint Eve, you know, only—— Oh, do let me give you another cup of tea, Mr. Lightmark! Two lumps of sugar, I think?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Sylvester. Do you know, I have discovered that we have a mutual friend—that is to say, I found out not long ago, quite by accident, that my very good friend, Philip Rainham, has the pleasure of your acquaintance."
"Oh, really!" said Eve delightedly; "do you know Philip—Mr. Rainham? And have you seen him lately? We haven't heard anything of him for weeks and weeks—not since Christmas, have we, mamma?"
"Ah!" answered Lightmark, smiling, and letting his eyes wander over the white expanse of the Colonel's waistcoat. "I don't wonder at that. You see, he has been nursing himself on the Riviera all the winter, lucky dog! He only came back last night. I saw him at his dock, you know, down the river—such a jolly old place. I have been sketching there, on and off, nearly all the spring. He lets me make myself quite at home."
"Take care, Dick, my boy," said the Colonel sententiously, fixing his black-rimmed eyeglass under the bushy white brow that shaded his right eye; "don't you let him entice you into that business. Don't pay nowadays! All the shipping goes up North, y'know. The poor old Thames is only used for regattas now, and penny steamers."
"How very nice for the Thames!" cried Eve. "Why, there's nothing I like more than regattas! I do so hope we shall go to Henley this year; but houseboats are so expensive, and it's no fun unless you have a houseboat. We had a punt last year, a sort of thing like a long butler's tray, and Charles got into fearful difficulties. You know, it looks so easy to push a punt along with a pole, but the pole has a wicked way of sticking in the mud at critical moments—when they are clearing the course, for instance. Oh, it was dreadful! Everybody was looking at us, and I felt like one of those horrid people who always get in the way at the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race!"
"Or the Derby dog, by Jove!" suggested the Colonel.
"I can sympathize with you fully, Miss Sylvester," said his nephew. "I shouldn't like to say how many times in the course of my first summer term at Oxford I found myself sprawling ignominiously in the Cherwell, instead of posing in a picturesque attitude in the stern of my punt. And one looked such a fool going up to college in wet things. But there aren't many regattas going on in the regions below London Bridge nowadays. It's not much like Henley or Marlow, though it's pretty enough in its way at times. You ought to get Rainham to invite you to the dock; you would create an impression on the natives, and of course he would be delighted. He's got a most amiable housekeeper, though I don't think she has heard of thin bread-and-butter; and I have discovered that his foreman is a judge of art—a regular Ruskin."
"And how is poor Philip, Mr. Lightmark?" asked Mrs. Sylvester tentatively. "You must bring him here very soon, and make him give an account of himself."
"Oh," said Lightmark vaguely, "he's looking pretty fit, though he doesn't like to be told so. I really believe he would be unhappy if he were in robust health. He finds his damaged lung such a good pretext for neglecting the dock; and if it got quite well, half the occupation of his life would be gone."
Mrs. Sylvester and Eve both protested laughingly against this somewhat heartless view of the case; and after declining an offer of the back seats of the carriage, which was already waiting at the door to take Mrs. Sylvester and her daughter for their anteprandial drive in the Park, and expressing their regret that they had not seen Charles, uncle and nephew took their leave together.
"Dick, my boy," said the colonel, when they were safely in the street, "you must come and dine with me. Not tonight; I am going to take Lady Dulminster to the French play. Let me have your address, or come and look me up at the club. I'm dev'lish glad you're getting on so well, my boy, though you were a fool not to stay up at Oxford and take your degree. After all, though, perhaps you aren't quite the cut for the Church or a fellowship, and—and the Sylvesters are dev'lish good people to know, Dick. Ta, ta! Don't forget to come and see me."
So saying, Dick's versatile uncle waved his cheroot by way of adieu, and clambered laboriously into a hansom.
"By Jove!" said the younger man blankly, "what a ridiculous old humbug it is! And how he used to frighten me in the old days with his confounded cavalry bluster! I rather think I will look him up: and I'll dine with him three times a week if he likes. Meanwhile, it's time for me to go and meet old Rainham, and take him round to Brodonowski's. What a ripping sunset!"
And he strolled light-heartedly through Grosvenor Square, the smoke of his cigarette fading away behind him.
When Rainham pushed back the door of the dim little restaurant in Turk Street, Soho, he stood a moment, blinking his eyes a little in the sudden change from the bright summer sunshine, before he assured himself that his friend had not yet arrived. Half a dozen men were sitting about smoking or discussing various drinks. The faces of several were familiar to him, but there were none of them whom he knew; so he took his seat at a table near the door and ordered a vermouth to occupy him until Lightmark, whose unpunctuality was notorious, should put in an appearance. In the interim his eyes strayed round the establishment, taking stock of the walls with their rough decorations, and the clientele, and noting, not without a certain pleasure, that during the six months in which he had been absent neither had suffered much alteration.
Indeed, to Philip Rainham, who had doubtless in his blood the taint of Bohemia, Brodonowski's and the enthusiasm of its guests had a very definite charm. They were almost all of them artists; they were all of them young and ardent; and they had a habit of propounding their views, which were always of the most advanced nature, with a vehemence which to Rainham represented all the disinterestedness of youth. Very often they were exceedingly well worth knowing, though in the majority of cases the world had not found it out. He knew very few of them personally; he had been taken there first by Lightmark, when the latter was fresh from Paris, and had been himself more in touch with them. But he had often sat smoking silently a little outside the main group, listening, with a deferential air that sat upon his age somewhat oddly, to their audacious propaganda.
In his mind he would sometimes contrast the coterie with certain artistic houses, more socially important, which he had from time to time frequented: where earnest-eyed women in graceful garments—which certainly afforded a rest to the eye—dispensed tea from a samovar, and discoursed discreetly of the current Academy and the most recent symptomatic novel.
The delight of a visible, orderly culture permeating their manners and their conversation was a real one, and yet, Rainham reflected, it left one at the last a trifle weary, a little cold. It seemed to him that this restaurant, with its perennial smell of garlic, its discoloured knife-handles, its frequentation of picturesque poverty, possessed actually an horizon that was somewhat less limited.
Indeed, the dingy room, its assemblage apart, had many traces of an artistic patronage. The rough walls were adorned, in imitation of the familiar Roman haunt, of which this was, so to speak, a colony, with a host of fantastic sketches: rapid silhouettes in charcoal, drawn for illustration or refutation in the heat of some strenuous argument; caricatures in the same medium, some of them trenchantly like, of the customers as well as of certain artistic celebrities, whose laurels Brodonowski's had not approved, varied here and there by an epigram or a doggerel couplet, damning the Philistine.
Rainham smiled as he recognised occasionally the grotesque travesty of a familiar face. Presently his eyes were arrested by a drawing which was new to him, a face of striking ugliness, offering advantages to the caricaturist of which, doubtless, he had not omitted to avail himself. It imposed itself on Rainham, for the savage strength which it displayed, and for an element in its hideousness which suggested beauty. He was still absorbed in the study of this face when Lightmark entered and took his place opposite him with a brief apology for his tardiness. He was dressed well, with a white orchid in his button-hole, and looked prosperous and rosy. Some light badinage on this score from his various acquaintances in the restaurant he parried with a good-humoured nonchalance; then he betook himself to consideration of the menu.
"I have been calling on your friends, the Sylvesters," he explained after a while, "and I could not get away before. My uncle was there, by the way. You have heard me speak of him?"
"Your uncle, who holds such a lax view of the avuncular offices?"
Lightmark smiled a little self-congratulatory smile.
"Ah, that's changed. The old boy was deuced friendly—gave me his whole hand instead of two fingers, and asked me to dine with him. I think," he went on after a moment, "the Sylvesters have been putting in a good word for me. Or perhaps it was Mrs. Sylvester's portrait which did the job."
"Ah," said Rainham, "you have painted her, have you?"
Their fish occupied them in silence. Lightmark, a trifle flushed from his rapid walk, smiled from time to time absently, as though his thoughts were pleasant ones. The older man thought he had seldom seen him looking more boyishly handsome. Presently his eyes again caught the head which had so struck his fancy.
"Is that yours, Dick?" he asked.
Lightmark followed the direction of his eyes to the opposite wall.
"I believe it is," he remarked, with a shade of deprecation in his manner. "It is Oswyn. Don't you know him?"
"I don't know him," said the other, sipping his thin Medoc. "But I think I should like to. What is he?"
"He will be here soon, no doubt, and then you will see for yourself. He is Oswyn! I knew him in Paris better than I do now. He was in B——'s studio; and B—— swore that he had a magnificent genius. He painted a monstrous picture which the Salon wouldn't hang; but B—— bought it, and hung it in his studio, where it frightened his models into fits. Last year he came to London, where he makes enough, when he is sober, by painting pot-boilers for the dealers, to keep him in absinthe and tobacco, which are apparently his sole sustenance. In the meanwhile he is painting a masterpiece; at least, so he will tell you. He is a virulent fanatic, whose art is the most monstrous thing imaginable. He is—but talk of the devil——"
He broke off and nodded to a little, lean man of ambiguous age, in a strained coat, who entered at this moment with a rapid lurching gait. He sat down immediately opposite them, under Lightmark's presentment, with which Rainham curiously compared him. And it struck him that there was something in that oddly repulsive figure which Lightmark's superficial crayon had missed. The long, haggard face was there, with its ill-kempt hair and beard; and the lips, which, when they parted in a smile that was too full of irony, revealed the man's uneven, discoloured teeth. Rainham lost sight of his uncouthness in a sense of his extreme power. His eyes, which were restless and extraordinarily brilliant, met Rainham's presently; and the latter was conscious of a certain fascination in their sustained gaze. In spite of the air of savagery which pervaded the man, it was a movement of sympathy which, on the whole, he experienced towards him. And it seemed as if this sentiment were reciprocal, for when the German youth, who was the cupbearer of the establishment, had taken Oswyn's order, and had brought him absinthe in a long glass, he motioned it abruptly to the opposite table. Then he crossed over and accosted Lightmark, whom he had not hitherto appeared to recognise, with a word of greeting. Lightmark murmured his name and Rainham's, and the strange, little man nodded to him not unamiably.
"I must smoke, if you don't mind," he said, after a moment.
They nodded assent, and he produced tobacco in a screw of newspaper from the pocket of his coat, and began rapidly to make cigarettes. Rainham watched the dexterous movements of his long nervous hands—the colour of old ivory—and found them noticeable.
"You are not an artist, I think," he suggested after a moment, fixing his curiously intent eyes on Rainham.
"No," admitted the other, smiling, "I am afraid I am not. I am only here on sufferance. I am a mender of ships."
"He is a connoisseur," put in Lightmark gaily. "It's an accident that he happens to be connected with shipping—a fortunate one, though, for he owns a most picturesque old shanty in the far East. But actually he does not know a rudder post from a jib-boom."
"I suppose you have been painting it?" said Oswyn shortly.
"I have been painting the river from his wharf. The picture is just finished, and on the whole I am pleased with it. You should come in and give it a look, Oswyn, some time. You haven't seen my new studio."
"I never go west of Regent Street," said Oswyn brusquely.
Lightmark laughed a little nervously.
"Oswyn doesn't believe in me, you know, Philip," he explained lightly. "It is a humiliating thing to have to say, but I may as well say it, to save him the trouble. He is so infernally frank about it, you know. He thinks that I am a humbug, that I don't take my art seriously, and because, when I have painted my picture, I begin to think about the pieces of silver, he is not quite sure that I may not be a descendant of Judas. And then, worst of all, I have committed the unpardonable sin: I have been hung at Burlington House. Isn't that about it, Oswyn?"
The elder man laughed his low, mirthless laugh.
"We understand each other, Dick; but you don't quite do yourself justice—or me. I have an immense respect for your talent. I feel sure you will achieve greatness—in Burlington House."
"Well, it's a respectable institution," said the young man soberly.
Oswyn finished his drink at a long, thirsty gulp, watching the young man askance with his impressive eyes. Rainham noticed for the first time that he had a curious trick of smiling with his lips only—or was it of sneering?—while the upper part of his face and his heavy brows frowned.
"By the way, Lightmark," he observed presently, "I have to congratulate you on your renown. There is quite a long panegyric on your picture in the Outcry this week. Do you know who wrote it?"
"Damn it, man!" broke out Lightmark, with a vehemence which, to Rainham, seemed uncalled for, "how should I know? I haven't seen the rag for an age."
There was an angry light in his eyes, but it faded immediately.
Oswyn continued apologetically:
"I beg your pardon. It must be very annoying to you to be puffed indiscreetly. But I fancied, you know——"
Lightmark, flushing a little, interrupted him, laying his hand with a quick gesture, that might have contained an appeal in it, on the painter's frayed coat-sleeve.
"Your glass is empty, and we are about ready for our coffee. What will you take?"
Oswyn repeated his order, smiling still a little remotely, as he let the water trickle down from a scientific height to his glass, whipping the crystal green of its contents into a nebulous yellow. Rainham, who had listened to the little passage of arms in silence, felt troubled, uneasy. The air seemed thunderous, and was heavy with unspoken words. There appeared to be an under-current of understanding between the two painters which was the reverse of sympathetic, and made conversation difficult and volcanic. It caused him to remind himself, a trifle sadly, how little, after all, one knew of even one's nearest friend—and Lightmark, perhaps, occupied to him that relation—how much of the country of his mind remains perpetually undiscovered; and it made him wonder, as he had sometimes wondered before, whether the very open and sunny nature of the young painter, which was so large a part of his charm, had not its concealed shadows—how far, briefly, Lightmark's very frankness might not be a refinement of secretiveness?
If, however, a word here and there, a trait surprised, indefinable, led him on occasion to doubt of his dominant impression of Lightmark's character, these doubts were never of long duration; and he would dismiss them, barely entertained, even as a sort of disloyalty, to the limbo of stillborn fancies. And so now, with his accustomed generosity, he speedily flung himself into the breach, and did his best to drive the conversation into impersonal and presumably safer channels. He touched on the prospects of the Academy, of academic art, and art in general, and by-and-by, as Oswyn rose to the discussion, he became himself interested, and was actuated less by a wish to make conversation than to draw his new friend out. And as the artist leant forward, grew excited, with his white, lean face working into strange contortions—as he shot out his savage paradoxes, expounding the gospel of the new art a trifle thickly now, and rolling and as rapidly smoking perpetual cigarettes, he found him again strangely attractive.
He had flashes of insight, it seemed to Rainham; there was something in his caustic criticism which led him to believe that he could at another time have justified himself, defended reasonably and sanely a position that was at least tenable.
But the tide of his spleen invariably overtook him, and he abandoned exegesis for tirade. The bourgeois, limited scope of the art in vogue—this was the burden of his reiterated rabid attacks; art watered down to suit the public's insipid palate, and he quoted Chamfort furiously: "Combien de sots faut-il pour faire un public?"—the art of simpering prettiness, without root or fruit in life, the art of absolute convention. He ran over a list of successful names with an ever-growing rancour—artistic hacks, the crew of them, the journalists of painting—with a side glance at Lightmark, who sat pulling his flaxen moustache, looking stiff and nervous—he would hang the lot of them to-morrow if he had his way, for corrupters of taste, or, better still, condemn them to perpetual incarceration in the company of their own daubs. These people, in fine, the mutual admiration society of incompetents—where was their justification, where would they be in a decade or so? The hangers-on of the fashionable world, caring for their art as a means of success, of acquiring guineas or a baronetcy or a couple of initials, who dropped the little technique they possessed as soon as they had a competency, and foisted their pictures most on people when they had forgotten how to paint. Pompiers, fumistes, makers of respectable pommade—as the painter's potations increased, his English became less fluent, and he was driven back constantly to the dialect of the Paris ateliers, which was more familiar to him than his mother tongue. Ah! how he hated these people and their thread-paper morality, and their sordid conception of art—a prettiness that would sell!
Rainham had heard it all before; it was full of spleen and rancour, unnecessarily violent, and, conceivably, unjust. But what he could not help recognising, in spite of his repulsion, was a certain nobility and singleness in the man, ruin as he was. Virtue came out of him; he had the saving quality of genius, and it was a veritable burning passion of perfection, which masqueraded in his spleen. His conception of art for the sake of art only might be erroneous, but it was at least exalted; and the instinct which drove him always for his material directly to life, rejecting nothing as common or unclean—in the violence of his revolt, perhaps dwelling too uniformly on what was fundamentally ugly—might be disputable, but was obviously sincere. The last notion which Rainham took away with him, when they parted late in the evening (Oswyn having suddenly lapsed from the eloquence to the incoherency of drunkenness), was a wish to see more of him. He had given him his card, and he waited until he had seen him place it—after observing it for some moments attentively with lack-lustre eyes—in the security of his waistcoat. And as the two friends walked towards Charing Cross, Rainham observed that he hoped he would call.
"He is a disreputable fellow," said Lightmark a little sullenly, "and an unprofitable acquaintance. You will find it less difficult to persuade him to make you a visit than to finish it." At which Rainham had merely shrugged his shoulders, finding his friend, perhaps for the first time, a little banal.
A day or two later, as Rainham sat in his river-bound office struggling, by way of luncheon, with the most primitive of chops, his eyes, wandering away from a somewhat mechanic scrutiny of the Shipping Gazette, fell upon the shifting calendar on the mantelpiece.
The dial noted Thursday; and he reminded himself that on that day his friend, Lady Garnett, had a perennial habit of being at home to her intimates, on the list of whom Rainham could acknowledge, without undue vanity, his name occurred high. There was a touch of self-reproach in his added reminder that a week had elapsed since his return, and he had not already hastened to clasp the excellent old lady's hand. It was an unprecedented postponement and an infringement of a time-honoured habit; and Rainham had for his habit all the respect of a man who is always indolent and often ill; though it must be admitted that to his clerks, who viewed the trait complacently, and to the importunate Bullen, who resented it, he seemed to be only regular in his irregularity. He decided that at least this occasion should not be allowed to slip; a free afternoon would benefit him. He was always rather lavish of those licenses; and it seemed to him that the tintinnabulation of teacups in Lady Garnett's primrose and gray drawing-room would be a bearable change from the din of a hundred hammers, which had pelted him through the open windows all the morning. They were patching a little wooden barque with copper, and he paused a moment in the yard, leaning on his slim umbrella to admire the brilliant yellow of the renewed sheets, standing out in vivid blots against the tarnished verdigris of the old. To pass from Blackpool to the West, however, is a tardy process; and when Rainham reached the spruce, little house in one of the most select of the discreet and uniform streets which adjoin Portman Square, he found the clatter of teacups for the most part over. There were, in fact, only two persons in the long room, which, with its open Erard, and its innumerable bibelots, and its plenitude of quaint, impossible chairs, seemed quite cosily exiguous. An old lady with a beautiful, refined face and a wealth of white hair, which was still charming to look at, sat in an attitude full of comfortable indolence, with a small pug in her lap, who bounced at Rainham with a bark of friendly recognition. A young lady, at the other side of the room (she was at least young by courtesy), who was pouring out tea, stopped short in this operation to greet the new visitor with a little soft exclamation, in which pleasure and surprise mingled equally. The old lady also looked up smiling. She seemed both good-natured and distinguished, and she had the air—a sort of tired complacency—of a person who has been saying witty things for a whole afternoon, and is at last in the enjoyment of a well-deserved rest. She extended both hands to Rainham, who held them for a minute in his own, silently smiling down at her, before he released them to greet her companion.
She was a tall, pale girl in a black dress, whom at first sight the impartial observer might easily declare to be neither pretty nor young. As a matter of fact, she was younger than she seemed, for she was barely five-and-twenty, although her face and manner belonged to a type which, even in girlhood, already forestalls some of the gravity and reserve that arrive with years. As for her beauty, there were those who disputed it altogether; and yet even when one had gone so far as to declare that Mary Masters was plain, one had, in justice, to add that she possessed none the less a distinct and delicate charm of her own. It was a daisy-like charm differing in kind from the charm of Eve Sylvester, which was that of a violet or a child, perpetually perfuming the air. It could be traced at last—for she had not a good feature—to the possession of a pair of very soft, and shy, brown eyes, and of a voice, simply agreeable in conversation, which burgeoned out in song into the richest contralto imaginable, causing her to be known widely in society as "the Miss Masters who sings." Indeed, she had a wonderful musical talent, which she had cultivated largely. Her playing had even approved itself to the difficult Rubinstein; and, although she had a certain reputation for cleverness, the loss to society when she left the music-stool to mingle in it was generally felt not to be met by a corresponding gain; and, indeed, as a rule, people did not consider her separately. The generality were inclined simply to accept her, in relation to her aunt, Lady Garnett, with whom she had lived since she was a girl of sixteen, as any other of that witty old woman's impedimenta—her pug Mefistofele, or her matchless enamels, or her Watteau fans. As she came towards him now with a cup in her hand, her pale face a little flushed, her dark hair braided very plainly and neatly above her high forehead, Rainham could not help thinking that she would make an adorable old maid.
"You look well, Mary," he remarked, holding her at arms' length critically, with the freedom of an old friend. "You look insultingly well—I hope you don't mean it."
"I am afraid I do," laughed the girl. "I wish I could say as much for you."
Rainham shook his head with burlesque solemnity, and sank down with his fragile cup into the most comfortable of the Louis Quinze chairs which he could select.
"It's delightful to be back again," he remarked, letting his eyes wander round the familiar walls. "I know your things by heart, Lady Garnett; there's not one of them I could spare. Thanks, Mary, no sugar; cream, if you please. After all, I don't know anyone who has such charming rooms. Let me see if there is anything new. Yes, those enamels; introduce me, Mary, please. Yes, they are very nice. By the way, I picked up some old point for you at Genoa, only I have not unpacked it yet. But the Gustave Moreau, where is that? Ah, I see you have shifted it over the piano. Yes, it is exactly the same; you are all precisely the same; it's delightful, such constancy—delightful! I take it as a personal compliment. But where are all the delightful people?"
Lady Garnett smiled placidly.
"The delightful people have gone. To tell you the truth, I am just a little glad, especially as you have dropped in from the clouds, or the Riviera di Ponente—which is it, Philip?"
"To be frank with you, from neither. I have it on my conscience to tell you that I have been back some days. I wanted to come here before."
"Ah well, so long as you have come now!" said the old lady.
"Your knock was mystifying, Philip," put in the girl presently; "we expected nobody else but the Sylvesters, and when we heard your solitary step our hearts sank. We thought that Charles Sylvester had taken it into his head to come by himself."
"He is a terrible young man," said Lady Garnett; "he is almost as limited as his mamma, and he takes himself more seriously. When he is with his sister one can tolerate him, but alone——"
She held up her thin wrinkled hands with a little gesture of elision, at which her expressive shoulders assisted. She was of French extraction, the last survivor of an illustrious family; and reconciled as she had become to England—for years she had hardly left London—a slight and very pretty accent, and this trick of her shoulders, remained to remind people that her point of view was still essentially foreign. Rainham, who had from his boyhood found England somewhat a prison-house, adored her for this trait. The quaint old woman, indeed, with her smooth, well-bred voice, her elaborate complexion, her little, dignified incongruities, had always been the greatest solace to him. She had the charm of all rococo things; she represented so much that had passed away, exhaling a sort of elegant wickedness to find a parallel to which one had to seek back to the days of the Regency. Of course, in society, she passed for being very devout; and, indeed, her little pieties, her unfailing attendance at Mass on days of Obligation, at the chapel of the French Embassy hard by, struck Rainham as most edifying. Really he perceived that her devout attitude was purely traditional, a form of good manners. She remained the same wicked, charming old Sadducee as before: her morocco-bound paroissien might appear on festivals and occasions; she still slept as often as not of nights with "Candide" under her pillow.
The knowledge of a certain sentiment which they shared towards the limitations of London (they were both persons strikingly without prejudice) lent a certain piquancy to their old-established relations, an allusive flavour to their conversation—it was always highly seasoned with badinage—that puzzled many of their common acquaintance enormously.
Mary Masters, as a shy and serious maiden, fresh from a country parsonage, remembered well the astonishment, mingled with something not unlike awe, with which she had first heard them talk. Philip Rainham had been calling, as it might be now, when she arrived, and Lady Garnett had promptly introduced him to her as her godson, because, as she remarked lightly, if he is not, he ought to have been. To which Philip had replied, in a like humour, that it was all the same: if they hadn't that relation, at any rate their behaviour implied it.
It was a novelty in her small and serious experience to find herself in conjunction with such frivolity; she was almost inclined to be shocked. Nevertheless, in the ten years during which she had made her home in Parton Street, Mary Masters had surmounted her awe, if her astonishment still occasionally obtained. Neither her aunt nor Rainham had altered, nor had they grown perceptibly older.
Watching the latter to-day as he sat lolling back lazily, balancing his teacup, she was curiously reminded of her first impression of him; taking stock of her humorously, silently, in almost the same attitude, with the same sad eyes. And since Mary, too, had remained virtually unchanged, it is to the credit of the head of a particularly serious little daughter of the Puritans that she had ended by appreciating them both. In fact, she had discovered that neither of them was so frivolous as it appeared, or, at least, that there were visitors in Parton Street who seemed less frivolous, and whose frivolity shocked her more. Her shy brown eyes were penetrative, and often saw more than one would have imagined, and at last they believed that they had seen through the philosophic indifference of Lady Garnett's shrug, the gentle irony of Rainham's perpetual smile, the various masks of tragic comedians on a stage where there is no prompter, where the footlights are most pitiless, and where the gallery is only too lavish of its cat-calls at the smallest slip. Beneath it all she saw two people who understood each other as well as any two persons in the world. Did they understand each other so well that they could afford to trifle? She had an idea that their silences were eloquent, and that they might well be lavish of the crudity of speech. Oh, they pretended very well! The young girl found something admirable in the hard, polished surface which her aunt presented to the world: her rouge and her diamonds, her little bird-like air of living only in the present, of being intensely interested, of having no regrets—a manner to which Rainham responded so fluently with an assumption that she was right, that things were an excellent joke. After all, perhaps they pretended too much; at least, she found herself often, when they were present, falling away into reveries full of conjecture, from which, as happened now, she only awoke with a slight blush to find herself directly addressed.
"Wake up, Mary! we are talking of the Sylvesters. I was telling Philip that his little friend Eve has become entirely charming."
"Yes," said Mary slowly; "she is charming, certainly. Haven't you seen her, Philip? You used to be constantly there."
Rainham assumed the air of reflection.
"Really, I believe I used, when Eve was in short frocks, and Charles conspicuously absent. Like Lady Garnett, I find the barrister exhausting. He is very unlike his father."
"We are going to Switzerland with them this summer, you know, Philip? Will you join us?"
"Ah!" he put his cup down, not responding for a moment. "It would be delightful, but I am afraid impossible. You see, there's the dock; I have been away from it six months, and I shall have to repeat the process when the fogs begin. No, Lady Garnett, I won't be tempted."
She began to press him, and they fenced rapidly for some minutes, laughing. Rainham had just been induced to promise that he would at least consider the proposition, when the footman announced Mr. and Miss Sylvester. They came in a moment later; and while the barrister, a tall well-dressed man, with the shaven upper lip and neat whisker of his class, and a back which seemed to bend with difficulty, explained to Lady Garnett that his mother was suffering too much from neuralgia to come with them, Rainham resumed his acquaintance with the young girl. He had seen little of her during the past two years, and in the last of them, in which she had changed most, he had not seen her at all. It was with a slight shock, then, that he realized how completely she had grown up. He remembered her in so many phases of childhood and little girlhood, ranging up from a time when her speech was incoherent, and she had sat on his knee and played with his watch, to the more recent occasions when he had met her riding in the Park with her brother; and she had waved her little whip to him, looking particularly slim and pretty in the very trying costume which fashion prescribes for little girls who ride.
They had always been very good friends; she had been a most engaging little companion, and really, he reflected, he had been extremely fond of her. It gave him a distinct pain to reflect that their relation had, in the nature of things, come to an end. Gradually, as they talked, the young girl growing out of the first restraint of her shyness, and falling back into something of her old manner, the first painful impression of her entire strangeness left Rainham. In spite of her mature, little society air, her engaging attempts at worldliness, she was, after all, not so grown-up as she seemed. The child gleamed out here and there quite daintily, and as he indulged in reminiscence, and reminded her of some of their more remote adventures, her merriment found utterance very childishly.
"Our most tragical encounter, though, was with the monkey. Have you forgotten that? It was on one of your birthdays—you had a good many of them in Florence—I forget which it was. You must have been about ten. I had taken you to the Zoological Gardens, such as they were."
Her laughter rippled out softly again.
"I remember," she nodded, "it was dreadful."
"Yes," he said; "we were at the monkey-cage; you had grown tired of feeding the ostrich with centesimi."
"Oh, Philip!" she interrupted him; "I never, never would have done such a thing. It was you who used to give the poor bird centesimi. I only used to watch."
"Ah, you connived at it, anyhow," he went on. "Well, we were feeding the monkeys, this time with melon-seeds, when we somehow aroused the ire of a particularly ugly brute, who must have been distantly connected with a bull. Anyhow, he made a grab at the scarlet berret you were wearing, just missed your hair, and demolished the cap."
"I remember," she laughed. "You tied your handkerchief round my head, like an old peasant woman, and took me back in a carriage. And mamma was dreadfully angry about the cap, because she had bought it at Biarritz, and couldn't replace it in Italy. She thought you ought to have taken steps to get it back."
"Dear me!" said Rainham solemnly, "why didn't I think of it before? I wonder if it's too late to do anything now."
The girl's laughter broke out again, this time attracting the attention of her brother, who was discussing the projected travels, with the aid of Bradshaw, at Mary Masters' side. He glanced at them askance, pulling at his collar in his stiff, nervous fashion a little uneasily.
"What a long time ago all that seems, Philip!" she remarked after a while.
He was silent for a moment examining his finger-nails intently.
"Yes," he said rather sadly; "I suppose it does. I dare say you wouldn't care much for the Zoo now?"
"Oh, I shouldn't mind," she said gaily, "if you will take me."
But a move had been made opposite, and Charles Sylvester, coming up to them, overheard this last remark.
"I think we must be off," he said, consulting his watch. "Where is Rainham going to take you?"
"To Florence," she said, smiling, "to the Zoo."
"Ah, a good idea," he murmured. "Well, good-bye, Lady Garnett; good-day, Rainham. I am sorry to see you don't seem to have benefited much by your winter abroad. I almost wonder you came back so soon. Was not it rather unwise? This treacherous climate, you know."
"Yes," said Rainham; "I, too, think you are right. I think I had much better have stayed—very much better."
"Ah, well," he said, "you must take care of yourself, and give us a look in if you have time."
Eve looked up at him, flushing a little, as though she found her brother's formal politeness lacking in hospitality. She was struck then, as she had not been yet during her visit, by a curious lassitude in her old friend's face. It affected her with an unconscious pity, causing her to second her brother's somewhat chilly invitation more cordially.
The humour which had shone in Rainham's eyes while they had been talking seemed to have gone out suddenly, like a lamp, leaving them blank and tired. It shocked her to realize how old and ill he had become.
Indolence and ill-health, in the opinion of many the salient points in Philip Rainham's character, had left him at forty with little of the social habit. The circle of his intimates had sensibly narrowed, and for the rest he was becoming more and more conscious that people whom one does not know exceedingly well are not worth knowing at all. The process of dining out two or three times a week in the company of two or three persons whose claims on his attention were of the slenderest he found a process attended with less and less pleasure the older he grew. There were few houses now which he frequented, and this year, when he had made an effort to devote a couple of evenings to the renewal of some acquaintance of the winter, and had discovered, as he had discovered anew each season, that the effort gave him no appreciable compensations for the disagreeables it involved, he made fresh resolutions of abstinence, and on the whole he kept them amazingly well.
For the most part, when he was not routed out by Lightmark (and since the young artist was in train to become a social acquisition this happened less frequently than of old), it was at Blackpool that he spent his evenings. He had, it is true, a standing invitation to dinner at Lady Garnett's when that old lady found herself at home; but Portman Square was remote, and evening dress, to a man with one lung in a climate which had so fickle a trick of registering itself either at the extreme top or bottom of the thermometer, presented various discomforts. His den behind the office—a little sitting-room with a bay-window facing Blackpool Reach, a room filled with books that had no relation to shipping, and hung round with etchings and pictures in those curiously-low tones for which he had so unreasonable an affection—was what he cherished most in London. He read little now, but the mere presence of the books he loved best in rough, uneven cases, painted black, lining the walls, caressed him. As with persons one has loved and grown used to loving, it was not always needful that they should speak to him; it was sufficient, simply, that they should be there. Neither did he write on these long, interminable evenings, which were prolonged sometimes far into the night. He had ended by being able to smile at his literary ambitions of twenty, cultivating his indolence as something choice and original, finding his destiny appropriate.
He spent the time in interminable reveries, sitting with a volume before him, as often as not unopened, smoking incessantly, and looking out of the window. The habit amused himself at times; it was so eminently symbolic of his destiny. Life, after all, had been to him nothing so much as that—a long looking out of window, the impartial spectatorship of a crowd of persons and passions from which he had come at last to seem strangely detached, almost as much as from this chameleon river, which he had observed with such satisfaction in all its manifold gradations of character and colour; its curious cold grayness in the beginning of an autumnal dawn; the illusion of warmth and depth which it sustained at noon, bringing up its burden of leviathans on the top of the flood; its sheen on moonless nights, when only little punctures, green and red and orange, and its audible stillness, reminded him that down in the obscurity the great polluted stream stole on wearily, monotonously, everlastingly to the sea. It was changeful and changeless. He thought he knew its effects by heart, but it had always new ones in reserve to surprise and delight him. He declared it at last to be inexhaustible. It was like a diamond on sunny days, flashing out light in every little ripple; in the late, sunless afternoon the light lay deeply within it, and it seemed jealous of giving back the least particle. He compared it then to an opal or a sapphire, which shine with the same parsimonious radiance.
One night, while he sat smoking in his wonted meditative fashion, he had a visitor—the painter Oswyn. He had almost forgotten his invitation, but he reminded himself of his first impression, and greeted him with a cordiality which the other seemed to find surprising. He took him into his sanctuary and found him whisky and a pipe; then he set himself to make the painter talk, a task which he found by no means arduous.
Oswyn was sober, and Rainham was surprised after a while at his sanity. He decided that, though one might differ from him, dissent from his premises or his conclusions, he was still a man to be taken seriously. His fluency was as remarkable as ever, and at first as spleenful; by-and-by his outrageous mood gave way, and, in response to some of Rainham's adroit thrusts, he condescended to stand on his defence. He could give a reasonable account of himself; was prepared clearly, and succinctly, and seriously with his justification. Rainham was impressed anew by his singleness, the purity of his artistic passion. His life might be disgraceful, indescribable: his art lay apart from it; and when he took up a brush an enthusiasm, a devotion to art, almost religious, steadied his hand.
"You may think me a charlatan," he said, with the same savage earnestness, "but I can tell you I am not. I may fail or I may succeed, as the world counts those things. It is all the same: I believe in myself. It is sufficient to me if I approve myself, and the world may go to damnation! What I care for is my idea!... yes, my idea, that's it! They can howl at me," he went on; "but they can never say of any stroke of my brush that I put it there for them. I could have painted pictures like Lightmark if I had cared, you know, but I did not care!"
"And yet he has great facility," said Rainham tentatively.
"He has more," said Oswyn bitterly, "or, at least, he had—genius. And he has deliberately chosen to go the wrong way, to be conventional. He can't plead 'invincible ignorance' like the others; he ought to know better. Well, he has his reward; but I can't forgive him."
Rainham shrugged his shoulders with something between a sigh and a laugh.
"Poor boy! he is young, you know. Perhaps he will live to see the errors of his ways."
"When he's an Academician, I suppose?" suggested the other ironically. "Do they ever see the errors of their ways? If they do they don't show it. No; he will marry a rich wife, and make speeches at banquets, and paint portraits of celebrities, for the rest of his days. And in fifty years' time people will say, 'Lightmark, R.A.? Who the devil was he?'"
By this time the young moon had risen, and its cold light shimmered on the misty river. Rainham refilled his pipe, and opened the window still more widely.
"By Jove, what a night!" he said. "What a night for a painter! I am sure you are longing to be out in it. I'm afraid there's nothing to show you in the dock at present; you must come down again when there's a ship coming in at night. I feel quite reconciled to the dock on those occasions. Shall we go for a stroll in the moonlight—and seek impressions?"
Oswyn's restless humour welcomed the suggestion, and he was already waiting, his soft felt hat in one ungloved hand, and a heavy, quaintly carved stick in the other.
They stood for some minutes on the little, square, pulpit-like landing, at the top of the creaking wooden staircase, which led down the side of the building from office to yard, listening to the faint drip of the water through the sluice-gates; the wail of a child outside the walls, and the pacing step of the woman who hushed it; the distant intermittent roar of the song which reached them through the often opened doors of a public-house. Presently the night-watchman lumbered out of his sentry-box by the gates, his dim lantern sounding pools of mysterious darkness, which were untouched by the solitary gas-lamp in the street outside, and which the faint moonlight only seemed to intensify.
Oswyn drew in a long breath of the cool, caressing air, momentarily straightening his bent figure. Then he gave a short laugh, which startled Rainham from the familiar state of half-smiling reverie to which he was always so ready to recur.
"The last time I saw the river like this," he said—"the last time I was down here at night, that is—was when I went with a Malay model of mine to his favourite opium den."
"You have not repeated the experiment?" asked Rainham absently.
"No; not yet, at any rate. It made my hand shake so damnably for a week afterwards that I couldn't paint. Besides, I doubt if I could find the place again. I couldn't get the Malay to come away at all; he is probably there still."
"Beg your pardon, sir," said the night-watchman hoarsely, when they reached the bottom of the difficult staircase, "there's been a young woman here asking for a gentleman of the name of Crichton. I told her there weren't no one of that name here, and Mr. Bullen, sir, he saw her, and sent her away. I thought I had better mention it to you, sir."
"Crichton? Crichton?" repeated Rainham indifferently. "I don't know anyone of that name. Some mistake, I suppose, or—— Well, sailors will be sailors! Thank you, Andrewes, that will do. Good-night—or, rather, we shall be back in half an hour or so." He turned to Oswyn, who had been hanging back to avoid any appearance of interest in the conversation, for corroboration. "You will come back, of course?"
"Rather late, isn't it? I think I had better catch some train before midnight, if there is one."
"Oh, there are plenty of trains," said Rainham vaguely. "We can settle that matter later. I can give you a bed here, you know, or a berth, at any rate."
As they stepped through the narrow opening in the gate, a dark form sprang forward out of the shadow, and then stopped timidly.
"Oh, Cyril!" cried a woman's plaintive voice. "Cyril! I knew you were here, and they wouldn't let me—— Ah, my God! it isn't Cyril after all...!"
The voice—and it struck Rainham that it was not the voice of a woman of the sort one would expect to encounter in the streets at that hour—died away in a broken sob, and the girl fell back a step, almost dropping the child she carried in her arms.
Her evident despair appealed to Rainham's somewhat inconveniently assertive sensibility.
He hesitated for a moment, glancing from the girl to Oswyn, and noting that the face, too, had a certain beauty which was not of the order affected by the women of Blackpool.
"Don't go," he said to Oswyn, who had withdrawn a few paces. "I won't keep you a moment!"
The baby in the woman's arms set up a feeble wail, and it was borne in upon Rainham's mind that the unhappy creature with the white face and pleading dark eyes had been waiting long.
"Didn't my foreman tell you that the—that the gentleman you asked for is not here?" he inquired gently. "No one here has ever heard of Mr. Crichton. I'm afraid you have made a mistake.... Hadn't you better go home? I'm sure it would be best for your child."
"Home?" echoed the girl bitterly. Then, changing her tone, "But I saw him here with my own eyes!" she pleaded. "I saw him at the window there not a week ago quite plain, and then they told me he wasn't here! I'm sure he would see me if he only knew—if he only knew!"
"He may have been here," suggested Rainham doubtfully. "There are a great many people here from day to day, and we don't always know their names. But I assure you he isn't here now."
The girl—for in spite of her pale misery she did not look more—drew her dark shawl more closely round herself and the child with a little, despairing shudder, glancing over her shoulder. Rainham let his eyes rest on the frail figure pityingly, and a thought of the river behind her struck him with a sudden chill.
He put his hand, almost surreptitiously, into his pocket.
"Where do you live?" he asked. "Near here?" The girl mentioned a street which he sometimes passed through when economy of time induced him to make an otherwise undesirable short-cut to the railway station. "Well," he said presently, "I can't keep my friend here waiting, you know. Come and see me to-morrow morning about midday, and I will see if I can help you. Only you must promise me to go straight home now! And"—here he dropped a coin quickly into her hand—"buy something for your child; you both look as if you wanted it."
The girl looked at him dumbly for a moment.
"I will come, sir, and—and thank you!" she said, with a quaver in her voice. And then, in obedience to Rainham's playfully threatening gesture, she turned away.