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The Artist by Dorothy Canfield

 

“After the sickening stench of personality in theatrical life,” the great Madame Orloff told the doctor with her usual free-handed use of language, “it is like breathing a thin, pure air to be here again with our dear inhuman old Vieyra. He hypnotizes me into his own belief that nothing matters—not broken hearts, nor death, nor success, nor first love, nor old age—-nothing but the chiaroscuro of his latest acquisition.”

The picture-dealer looked at her in silence, bringing the point of his white beard up to his chin with a meditative fist. The big surgeon gazed about him with appreciative eyes, touched his mustache to his gold-lined coffee-cup, and sighed contentedly. “You're not the only one, my dear Olga,” he said, “who finds Vieyra's hard heart a blessing. When I am here in his magnificent old den, listening to one of his frank accounts of his own artistic acumen and rejoicing in his beautiful possessions, why the rest of the world—real humanity—seems in retrospect like one great hospital full of shrieking incurables.”

“Oh, humanity——!” The actress thrust it away with one of her startling, vivid gestures.

“You think it very clever, my distinguished friends, to discuss me before my face,” commented the old picture-dealer indifferently. He fingered the bright-colored decorations on his breast, looking down at them with absent eyes. After a moment he added, “and to show your in-ti-mate knowledge of my character.” Only its careful correctness betrayed the foreignness of his speech.

There was a pause in which the three gazed idly at the fire's reflection in the brass of the superb old andirons Then, “Haven't you something new to show us?” asked the woman. “Some genuine Masaccio, picked up in a hill-town monastery—a real Ribera?”

The small old Jew drew a long breath. “Yes, I have something new.” He hesitated, opened his lips, closed them again and, looking at the fire, “Oh yes, very new indeed—new to me.”

“Is it here?” The great surgeon looked about the picture-covered walls.

“No; I have it in—you know what you call the inner sanctuary—the light here is not good enough.”

The actress stood up, her glittering dress flashing a thousand eyes at the fire. “Let me see it,” she commanded. “Certainly I would like to see anything that was new to you!”

“You shall amuse yourself by identifying the artist without my aid,” said old Vieyra.

He opened a door, held back a portiere, let his guests pass through into a darkened room, turned on a softly brilliant light, and: “Whom do you make the artist?” he said. He did not look at the picture. He looked at the faces of his guests, and after a long silent pause, he smiled faintly into his beard. “Let us go back to the fire,” he said, and clicked them into darkness again.

“And what do you say?” he asked as they sat down.

“By Jove!” cried the doctor. “By Jove!”

Madame Orloff turned on the collector the somber glow of her deep-set eyes. “I have dreamed it,” she said.

“It is real,” said Vieyra. “You are the first to see it. I wished to observe how——”

“It's an unknown Vermeer!” The doctor brought his big white hand down loudly on this discovery. “Nobody but Vermeer could have done the plaster wall in the sunlight. And the girl's strange gray head-dress must be seventeenth-century Dutch of some province I don't——”

“I am a rich man, for a picture-dealer,” said Vieyra, “but only national governments can afford to buy Vermeers nowadays.”

“But you picked it up from some corner, some attic, some stable——”

“Yes, I picked it up from a stable,” said the collector.

The actress laid her slender, burning fingers on his cool old hand. “Tell us—tell us,” she urged. “There is something different here.”

“Yes, there is something different,” he stirred in his chair and thrust out his lips. “So different that I don't know if you——”

“Try me! try me!” she assured him ardently. “You have educated me well to your own hard standards all these years.”

At this he looked at her, startled, frowning, attentive, and ended by shaking off her hand. “No, I will not tell you.”

“You shall——” her eyes commanded, adjured him. There was a silence. “I will understand,” she said under her breath.

“You will not understand,” he said in the same tone; but aloud he began: “I heard of it first from an American picture-dealer over here scraping up a mock-Barbizon collection for a new millionaire. He wanted to get my judgment, he said, on a canvas that had been brought to him by a cousin of his children's governess. I was to be sure to see it when I went to New York—you knew did you not, that I had been called to New York to testify in the prosecution of Paullsen for selling a signed copy?”

“Did you really go?” asked the doctor. “I thought you swore that nothing could take you to America.”

“I went,” said the old man grimly. “Paullsen did me a bad turn once, thirty years ago. And while I was there I went to see the unknown canvas. The dealer half apologized for taking my time—said he did not as a rule pay any attention to freak things brought in from country holes by amateurs, but—I remember his wording—this thing, some ways he looked at it, didn't seem bad somehow.”

The collector paused, passed his tongue over his lips, and said briefly: “Then he showed it to me. It was the young girl and kitten in there.”

“By Jove!” cried the doctor.

“You have too exciting a profession, my good old dear,” said the actress. “Some day you will die of a heart failure.”

“Not after living through that!”

“What did you tell him?”

“I asked for the address of the cousin of his children's governess, of course. When I had it, I bought a ticket to the place, and when I reached there, I found myself at the end of all things—an abomination of desolation, a parched place in the wilderness. Do you know America, either of you?”

The doctor shook his head.

“I have toured there, three times,” said the actress.

“Did you ever hear of a place called Vermont?”

Madame Orloff looked blank. “It sounds French, not English. Perhaps you do not pronounce it as they do.”

“Heaven forbid that I should do anything as 'they' do! This place, then, call it what you will, is inhabited by a lean, tall, sullenly silent race who live in preposterously ugly little wooden houses of the most naked cleanliness ... God of my Fathers! the hideousness of the huddle of those huts where I finally found the cousin! He was a seller of letter-paper and cheap chromos and he knew nothing of the picture except that it was brought to him to sell by the countryman who sold him butter. So I found the address of the butter-maker and drove endless miles over an execrable road to his house, and encountered at last a person who could tell me something of what I wanted to know. It was the butter-maker's mother, a stolid, middle-aged woman, who looked at me out of the most uncanny quiet eyes ... all the people in that valley have extraordinary piercing and quiet eyes ... and asked, 'Is it about the picture? For if it is, I don't want you should let on about it to anybody but me. Nobody but the family knows he paints 'em!”

At this the doctor burst out, “Gracious powers! You don't mean to say that the man who painted that picture is alive now ... in 1915!”

The actress frowned at the interruption and turned with a lithe petulance on the big Briton. “If you want to know, let him alone!” she commanded.

“And soon I had it all,” the narrator went on. “Almost more than I could bear. The old woman could tell me what I wished to know, she said. He was her uncle, the only brother of her mother, and he had brought up her and her brothers and sisters. She knew... oh, she knew with good reason, all of his life. All, that is, but the beginning. She had heard from the older people in the valley that he had been wild in his youth (he has always been, she told me gravely, 'queer') and she knew that he had traveled far in his young days, very, very far.”

“'To New York?' I ventured.

“'Oh, no, beyond that. Across the water.'

“'To Paris?'

“That she didn't know. It was a foreign country at least, and he had stayed there two, three years, until he was called back by her father's death—his brother-in-law's—to take care of his mother, and his sister and the children. Here her mind went back to my question, and she said she had something perhaps I could tell from, where he had been. She kept it in her Bible. He had given it to her when she was a child as a reward the day she had kept her little brother from falling in the fire. She brought it out. It was a sketch, hasty, vigorous, suggestive, haunting as the original itself, of the Leonardo da Vinci Ste. Anne.

“Yes, I told her, now I knew where he had been. And they had called him back from there—here?

“'When my father died,' she repeated, 'my uncle was all my grandmother and my mother had. We were five little children, and the oldest not seven, and we were all very poor,'

“'How old was your uncle then?' I asked.

“'A young man—he was younger than my mother. Perhaps he was twenty-five,'

“I looked at the sketch in my hand. Twenty-five, and called back from Paris—here!

“'When did he go back to Paris?'

“'Oh, he never went back,' She told me this quite placidly, as she said everything else. 'He never went back at all.'

“He had stayed there the rest of his life, and worked the little farm that was all his sister had, and made a living for them—not large, the farm being poor and he not a first-class farmer, but still enough. He had always been kind to them—if he was quite queer and absent. She had heard her grandmother say that at first, the first ten years, perhaps, he had had strange, gloomy savage fits like a person possessed that you read of in the Bible; but she herself could never remember him as anything but quiet and smiling. He had a very queer smile unlike anyone else, as I would notice for myself when I went to see him about the picture. You could tell him by that, and by his being very lame.

“That brought me back with a start. I rushed at her with questions. 'How about the picture? Were there others? Were there many? Had he always painted? Had he never shown them to anyone? Was he painting now?

“She could not tell me much. It had been a detail of their common life she had but absently remarked, as though she had lived with a man who collected snail-shells, or studied the post-marks on letters. She 'had never noticed'—that was the answer to most of my questions. No, she did not think there were very many now, though he must have painted 'most a million. He was always at it, every minute he could spare from farming. But they had been so poor he had not felt he could afford many canvases. The paints cost a good deal too. So he painted them over and over, first one thing and then another, as he happened to fancy. He painted in the horse-barn. 'Had a place rigged up,' in her phrase, in one corner of the room where the hay was stored, and had cut a big window in the roof that was apt to let in water on the hay if the rain came from the north.

“'What did he paint?' 'Oh, anything. He was queer about that. He'd paint any_thing! He did one picture of nothing but the corner of the barnyard, with a big white sow and some little pigs in the straw, early in the morning, when the dew was on everything. He had thought quite a lot of that, but he had had to paint over it to make the picture of her little sister with the yellow kittie—the one she'd sent down to the village to try to sell, the one—'

“'Yes, yes,' I told her, 'the one I saw. But did he never try to sell any himself? Did he never even show them to anyone?'

“She hesitated, tried to remember, and said that once when they were very poor, and there was a big doctor's bill to pay, he had sent a picture down to New York. But it was sent back. They had made a good deal of fun of it, the people down there, because it wasn't finished off enough. She thought her uncle's feelings had been hurt by their letter. The express down and back had cost a good deal too, and the only frame he had got broken. Altogether, she guessed that discouraged him. Anyhow, he'd never tried again. He seemed to get so after a while that he didn't care whether anybody liked them or even saw them or not—he just painted them to amuse himself, she guessed. He seemed to get a good real of comfort out of it. It made his face very still and smiling to paint. Nobody around there so much as knew he did it, the farm was so far from neighbors.

“'Twas a real lonely place, she told me, and she had been glad to marry and come down in the valley to live closer to folks. Her uncle had given her her wedding outfit. He had done real well by them all, and they were grateful; and now he was getting feeble and had trouble with his heart, they wanted to do something for him. They had thought, perhaps, they could sell some of his pictures for enough to hire a man to help him with the farm work. She had heard that pictures were coming into fashion more than they had been, and she had borrowed that one of her little sister and the kittie, and without her uncle's knowing anything about it, had sent it off. She was about discouraged waiting for somebody down in the city to make up his mind whether he'd buy it or not.

“I asked her a thousand other questions but she could answer none of them. The only detail I could get from her being an account of her uncle's habit of 'staring' for sometimes a half an hour at something, without once looking away. She'd seen him stop that way, when he'd be husking corn maybe, and stare at a place where a sunbeam came in on a pile of corn. It put him back quite considerable in his work, that habit, but they had nothing to complain of. He'd done well by them, when you considered they weren't his own children.

“'Hadn't he ever tried to break away?' I asked her amazed. 'To leave them? To go back?'

“She told me: 'Oh, no, he was the only support his mother and his sister had, and there were all the little children. He had to stay.'“

The actress broke in fiercely: “Oh, stop! stop! it makes me sick to hear. I could boil them in oil, that family! Quick! You saw him? You brought him away? You—”

“I saw him,” said Vieyra, “yes, I saw him.”

Madame Orloff leaned toward him, her eyebrows a line of painful attention.

“I drove that afternoon up to a still tinier village in the mountains near where he lived, and there I slept that night—or, at least, I lay in a bed.”

“Of course, you could not sleep,” broke in the listening woman; “I shall not to-night.”

“When dawn came I dressed and went out to wander until people should be awake. I walked far, through fields, and then through a wood as red as red-gold—like nothing I ever saw. It was in October, and the sun was late to rise. When I came out on an uplying heath, the mists were just beginning to roll away from the valley below. As I stood there, leaning against a tree in the edge of the wood, some cows came by, little, pinched, lean cows and a young dog bounding along, and then, after them, slowly, an old man in gray—very lame.”

The actress closed her eyes.

“He did not see me. He whistled to the dog and stroked his head, and then as the cows went through a gate, he turned and faced the rising sun, the light full on his face. He looked at the valley coming into sight through the mists. He was so close to me I could have tossed a stone to him—I shall never know how long he stood there—how long I had that face before me.”

The narrator was silent. Madame Orloff opened her eyes and looked at him piercingly.

“I cannot tell you—I cannot!” he answered her. 'Who can tell of life and death and a new birth? It was as though I were thinking with my finger-nails, or the hair of my head—a part of me I had never before dreamed had feeling. My eyes were dazzled. I could have bowed myself to the earth like Moses before the burning bush. How can I tell you—? How can I tell you?”

“He was—?” breathed the woman.

“Hubert van Eyck might have painted God the Father with those eyes—that mouth—that face of patient power—of selfless, still beatitude.—Once the dog, nestling by his side, whimpered and licked his hand. He looked down, he turned his eyes away from his vision, and looked down at the animal and smiled. Jehovah! What a smile. It seemed to me then that if God loves humanity, he can have no kinder smile for us. And then he looked back across the valley—at the sky, at the mountains, at the smoke rising from the houses below us—he looked at the world—at some vision, some knowledge—what he saw—what he saw—!

“I did not know when he went. I was alone in that crimson wood.

“I went back to the village. I went back to the city. I would not speak to him till I had some honor worthy to offer him. I tried to think what would mean most to him. I remembered the drawing of the Ste. Anne. I remembered his years in Paris, and I knew what would seem most honor to him. I cabled Drouot of the Luxembourg Gallery. I waited in New York till he came. I showed him the picture. I told him the story. He was on fire!

“We were to go back to the mountains together, to tell him that his picture would hang in the Luxembourg, and then in the Louvre—that in all probability he would be decorated by the French government, that other pictures of his would live for all time in Paris, in London, in Brussels—a letter came from the woman, his niece. He was dead.”

The actress fell back in her chair, her hands over her face.

The surgeon stirred wrathfully. “Heavens and earth, Vieyra, what beastly, ghastly, brutally tragic horror are you telling us, anyhow?”

The old Jew moistened his lips and was silent. After a moment he said: “I should not have told you. I knew you could not understand.”

Madame Orloff looked up sharply. “Do you mean—is it possible that you mean that if we had seen him—had seen that look—we would—that he had had all that an artist—”

The picture-dealer addressed himself to her, turning his back on the doctor. “I went back to the funeral, to the mountains. The niece told me that before he died he smiled suddenly on them all and said: 'I have had a happy life,' I had taken a palm to lay on his coffin, and after I had looked long at his dead face, I put aside the palm. I felt that if he had lived I could never have spoken to him—-could never have told him.”

The old Jew looked down at the decorations on his breast, and around at the picture-covered walls. He made a sweeping gesture.

“What had I to offer him?” he said.

 
 
 

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