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   Chapter 15 THE CLEVEREST MAN IN LONDON

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 21244

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Alec Feilding-everybody, even those who had never seen him, called him Alec-stood before the fire in his own den. In his hand he held a manuscript, which he was reading with great care, making dabs and dashes on it with a thick red pencil.

Sometimes he called the place his studio, sometimes his study. No other man in London, I believe, has so good a right to call his workshop by either name. No other man in London, certainly, is so well known both for pen and pencil. To be at once a poet, a novelist, an essayist, and a painter, and to do all these things well, if not splendidly, is given to few.

The room was large and lofty, as becomes a studio. A heavy curtain hung across the door: the carpet was thick: there was a great fireplace, as deep and broad as that of an old hall, the fire burning on bricks in the ancient style. Above the fireplace there was no modern overmantel, but dark panels of oak, carved in flowers and grapes, with a coat of arms-his own: he claimed descent from the noble House of Feilding: and in the centre panel his own portrait let into the wall without a frame-the work was executed by the most illustrious portrait-painter of the day-the face full of thought, the eyes charged with feeling, the features clear, regular, and classical. A beautiful portrait, with every point idealised. Three sides of the room were fitted with bookshelves, as becomes a study, and these were filled with books. The fourth side was partly hung with tapestry and partly adorned with armour and weapons. Here were also two small pictures, representing the illustrious Alec in childhood-the light of future genius already in his eyes-and in early manhood.

A large library table, littered with books, manuscripts, and proofs, belonged to the study. An easel before the north light, and another table provided with palettes, brushes, paints, and all the tools of the limning trade, belonged to the studio.

The house, which was in St. John's Wood, stood in an old garden at the end of a cul-de-sac off the main road: it was, therefore, quiet: the house itself was new, built in the style now familiar, and put up for the convenience of those who believe that there is nothing in the world to be considered except Art. Therefore there was a spacious hall: stairs broad enough for an ancient mansion led to the first floor and to the great studio. There were also three or four small cupboards, called bedrooms, dining-room, and anything else you might please. But the studio was the real thing. The house was built for the studio.

The place was charged with an atmosphere of peace. Intellectual calm reigned here. Art of all kinds abhors noise. One could feel here the silence necessary for intellectual efforts of the highest order. Apart from the books and the easel and this silence, the character of the occupant was betrayed-or perhaps proclaimed-by other things. The furniture was massive: the library table of the largest kind: the easy chairs by the fire as solid and comfortable as if they had been designed for a club smoking-room: a cabinet showed a collection of china behind glass: the appointments, down to the inkstand and the paper-knife, were large and solid: all together spoke not only of the artist but of the successful artist: not only of the man who works, but of one who works with success and honour: the man arrived. The things also spoke of the splendid man, the man who knows that success should be followed by the splendid life. Too often the successful man is a poor-spirited creature, who continues in the humble middle-class style to which he was born; is satisfied with his suburban villa, never wants a better house or one more finely appointed, and has no craving for society. What is success worth if one does not live up to it? Success is not an end: it is the means: it brings the power of getting the things that make life-wine-horses-the best cook at the best club-sport-the society, every day, of beautiful and well-bred women-all these things the man who has succeeded can enjoy. Those who have not yet succeeded may envy the favourite of Fortune.

As for his work, this highly successful man owned that he could not desert the Muse of Painting any more than her sister of Belles-Lettres. Happy would he be with either, were t'other dear charmer away! Happier still was he with both! And they were not jealous. They allowed him-these tender creatures-to love them both. He was by nature polygamous, perhaps.

Therefore those who were invited to see his latest picture-the lucky few, because you must not think that his studio was open on Show Sunday for all the world to see-stayed, when they had admired that production, to talk of his latest poem or his latest story.

Over the mantelshelf was quite a stack of invitations. And really one hardly knows whether Alec Feilding was most to be envied for his success as a painter-though he painted little: or for his stories-though these were all short-much too short: or for his verses-certainly written in the most delightful vein of vers de société: or for his essays, full of observation: or for his social success, which was undoubted. And there is no doubt that there was not any man in London more envied, or who occupied a more enviable position, than Alec Feilding. To be sure, he deserved it: because, without any exception, he was the cleverest man in town.

He owned and edited a paper of his own-a weekly journal devoted to the higher interests of Art. It was called The Muses Nine. It was illustrated especially by blocks from art books noticed in its columns. In this paper his own things first appeared: his verses, his stories, his essays. The columns signed Editor were the leading feature of the paper, for which alone many people bought it every week. The contents of these columns were always fresh, epigrammatic, and delightful: in the stories a certain feminine quality lent piquancy-it seemed sometimes as if a man could not have written these stories: the verses always tripped lightly, merrily, and gracefully along. An Abbé de la Cour in the last century might have served up such a weekly dish for the Parisians, had he been the cleverest man in Paris.

Alec Feilding's enemies-every man who is rising or has risen has enemies-consoled themselves for a success which could not be denied by sneering at the ephemeral character of his work. It was for to-day: to-morrow, they said, it would be flat. This was not quite true, but, as it is equally true of nearly every piece of modern work, the successful author could afford to disregard this criticism. Perhaps there may be, here and there, a writer who expects more than a limited immortality: I do not know any, but there may be some. And these will probably be disappointed. The enemies said further that his social success-also undoubted-was due to his unbounded cheek. This, too, was partly true, because, if one would rise at all, one must possess that useful quality: without it one will surely sink. It is not to be denied that this young man walked into drawing-rooms as if his presence was a favour: that he spoke as one who delivers a judgment: and that he professed a profound belief in himself. With such gifts and graces-the gift of painting, the gift of verse, the gift of fiction, a handsome presence, good manners, and unbounded cheek-Alec Feilding had already risen very high indeed for so young a man. His enemies, again, said that he was looking out for an heiress.

His enemies, as sometimes but not often happens, spoke from imperfect knowledge. Every man has his weak points, and should be careful to keep them to himself-friends may become enemies-and to let no one know them or suspect them. As for the weak points of Alec Feilding-had his enemies known them-- But you shall see.

He sat down at his library-table and began to copy the manuscript that he had been reading. It was a laborious task, first because copying work is always tedious, and next because he was making alterations-changing names and places-and leaving out bits. He worked on steadily for about half an hour.

Then there was a gentle tap at the door, and his servant-who looked as solemn and discreet as if he had been Charles the Second's confidential clerk of the Back-stairs-came in noiselessly on tiptoe and whispered a name. Alec placed the manuscript and his copy carefully in a drawer, and nodded his head.

You have already seen the man who came in. Five years older, and a good deal altered-changed, perhaps, for the worse-but then the freshness of twenty-one cannot be expected to last. The man who stayed three weeks in Samson, and promised a girl that he would return. The man who broke that promise, and forgot the girl. He never went back to Scilly. Perhaps he had grown handsomer: his Vandyke beard and moustache were by this time thicker and longer: he was more picturesque in appearance than of old: he still wore a brown velvet coat: he looked still more what he was-an artist. But his cheek was thin and pale, dark rings were round his eyes, his face was gloomy: he wore the look of waste-the waste of energy and of purpose. It is not good to see this look in the eyes of a young man.

'You sent for me,' he said, with no other greeting.

'I did. Come in. Is the door shut? I've got some good news for you. Heavens! you look as if you wanted good news badly! What's the matter, man? More debts and duns? And I want to consult you a little about this picture of yours'-he pointed to the easel.

'I want to consult you a little about this picture of yours.'

'Mine? No: yours. You have bought me-pictures and all.'

'Just as you like. What does it matter-here-within these walls?'

'Hush! Even here you should not whisper it. The birds of the air, you know-- Take great care'-- Roland laughed, but not mirthfully. 'Mine?' he repeated; 'mine? Suppose I were to call together the fellows at the club, and suppose I were to tell the story of the last three years?-eh? eh? How a man was fooled on until he sold himself and became a slave-eh?'

'You can't tell that story, Roland, you know.'

'Some day I will-I must.'

Alec Feilding threw himself back in his chair, crossed his legs, and joined his fingers. It is an attitude of judicial remonstrance.

'Come, Roland,' he said, smiling blandly. 'Let us have it out. It galls sometimes, doesn't it? But remember you can't have everything-come, now. If you were to tell the fellows at the club, truthfully, the whole story, they would, I dare say, be glad to get such a beautiful pile of stones to throw at me. One more reputation bui

lt on pretence and humbug-eh? Yes: the little edifice which you and I have reared together with so much care would be shattered at a single stroke, wouldn't it? You could do that: you can always do that. But at some little cost to yourself-some little cost, remember.'

Roland remarked that the cost or consequences of that little exploit might be condemned.

'Truly. If you will. But not until you realise what they are. Now my version of the story is this. There was once-three years ago-a fellow who had failed. The Academy wouldn't accept his pictures; no one would buy them. And yet he had some power and true feeling. But he could not succeed: he could not get anybody to buy his pictures. And then he was an extravagant kind of man: he was head over ears in debt: he liked to lead the easy life-dinner and billiards at the club-all the rest of it. Then there was another man-an old schoolfellow of his-a man who wanted, for purposes of his own, a reputation for genius in more than one branch of Art. He wanted to seem a master of painting as well as poetry and fiction. This man addressed the Failure. He said, "Unsuccessful Greatness, I will buy your pictures of you, on the simple condition that I may call them mine." The Failure hesitated at first. Naturally. He was loth to write himself down a Failure. Everybody would be. Then he consented. He promised to paint no more in the style in which he had failed except for this other man. Then the other man, who knew his way about, called his friends together, set up a picture painted by the Failure on an easel, bought the tools, laid them out on the table-there they are-and launched himself upon the world as an artist as well as a poet and author. A Fraud, wasn't he? Yet it paid both men-the Fraud and the Failure. For the Fraud knew how to puff the work and to get it puffed and praised and noticed everywhere; he made people talk about it: he had paragraphs about it: he got critics to treat his-or the Failure's-pictures seriously: in fact, he advertised them as successfully and as systematically as if he had been a soap-man. Is this true, so far?'

'Quite true. Go on-Fraud.'

'I will-Failure. Then the price of the pictures went up. The Fraud was able to sell them at a price continually rising. And the Failure received a price in proportion. He shared in the proceeds. The Fraud gave him two thirds. Is that true? Two thirds. He ran your price, Failure, from nothing at all to four hundred and fifty pounds-your last, and biggest price. And he gave you two thirds. All you had to do was to produce the pictures. What he did was to persuade the world that they were great and valuable pictures. Is that true?'

Roland grunted.

'Three years ago you were at your wits' end for the next day's dinner. You had borrowed of all your friends: you had pawned your watch and chain: you were face to face with poverty-no; starvation. Deny that, if you can.' He turned fiercely on Roland. 'You can't deny it. What are you now? You have a good income: you dine every day on the best of everything: you do yourself well in every respect. Hang it, Roland, you are an ungrateful dog!'

'You have ruined my life. You have robbed me of my name.'

'Let us stop heroics. If you are useful to me, I am ten times as useful to you. Because, my dear boy, without me you cannot live. Without you I can do very well. Indeed, I have only to find another starving genius-there are plenty about-in order to keep up my reputation as a painter. Go to the club. Call the men together. Tell them if you like, and what you like. You have no proofs. I can deny it, and I can give you the sack, and I can get that other starving genius to carry on the work.'

Roland made no reply.

'Why, my dear fellow-why should we quarrel? What does it matter about a little reputation? What is the good of your precious name to you when you are dead? Here you are-painting better and better every day-your price rising-your position more assured-what on earth can any man want more? As for me, you are useful to me. If you were not, I should put an end to the arrangement. That is understood. Very well, then. Enough said. Now, if you please, we will look at the picture.'

He got up and walked across the room to the easel. Roland followed submissively, with hanging head. He staggered as he went: not with strong drink, but with the rage that tore his heart.

'It is really a very beautiful thing,' said the cleverest man in all London, looking at it critically. 'I think that even you have never done anything quite so good.'

The picture showed a great rock rising precipitous from the sea-at its base was a reef or projecting shelf. The shags stood in a line on the top of the rock: the sea-gulls flew around the rock and sailed merrily before the breeze: there was a little sea on, but not much: a boat with a young man in it lay off the rock, and a girl was on the reef standing among the long yellow sea-weed: the spray flew up the sides of the rock: the sun was sinking. What was it but one of Roland's sketches made in the Outer Islands, with Armorel for his companion?

'It is very good, Roland,' Alec repeated. 'If I am not so good a painter myself, I am not envious. I can appreciate and acknowledge good work.' Under the circumstances, rather an extraordinary speech. But Roland's gloomy face softened a little. Even at such a moment the artist feels the power of praise. The other, standing before the picture, watched the softening of the face. 'Good work?' he repeated by way of question. 'Man! it is splendid work! I can feel the breath of the salt breeze: I can see the white spray flying over the rock: the girl stands out real and living. It is a splendid piece of work, Roland.'

'I think it is better than the last,' the unlucky painter replied huskily.

'I should rather think it is. I expect to get a great name for this picture'-the painter winced-'and you-you-the painter, will get a much more solid thing-you will get a big cheque. I've sold it already. No dealers this time. It has been bought by a rich American. Three hundred is the figure I can offer you. And here's your cheque.'

He took it, ready drawn and signed, from his pocket-book. Roland Lee received it, but he let it drop from his fingers: the paper fluttered to the floor. He gazed upon the picture in silence.

'Well? What are you thinking of?'

'I was thinking of the day when I made the sketch for that picture. I remember what the girl said to me.'

'What the devil does it matter what the girl said? All we care about is the picture.'

'I remember her very words. You who have bought the picture can see the girl; but I, who painted it, can hear her voice.'

'You are not going off into heroics again?'

'No, no. Don't be afraid. I am not going to tell you what she said. Only I told her, being pleased with what she told me, that she was a prophetess. Nobody ought ever to prophesy good things about a man, for they never come to pass. Let them prophesy disappointment and ruin and shame, and then they always come true. My God! what a prophecy was hers! And what has come of it? I have sold my genius, which is my soul. I have traded it away. It is the sin unforgiven in this world and in the next.'

'When you give over tragedy and blank verse--'

'Oh! I have done.'

'I should like to ask you a question.'

'Ask it.'

'The foreground-the sea-weeds lying over the boulders. Does the light fall quite naturally? I hardly understand-look here. If the sunlight--'

'You to pretend to be a painter!' Roland snorted impatiently. 'You to talk about lights and shadows! Man alive! I wonder you haven't been found out ages ago! The light falls this way-this way-see!'-he turned the painting about to show how it fell.

'Oh! I understand. Yes, yes; I see now.' Alec seemed not to resent this language of contempt.

'Is there anything else you want to know before I go? Perhaps you wish the sea painted black?'

'Cornish coast again, I suppose?'

'Somewhere that way. What does it matter where you put it? Call it a view on Primrose Hill.'

He stooped and picked up the cheque. He looked at it savagely for a moment as if he would like to tear it into a thousand fragments. Then he crammed it into his pocket and turned to go.

'My American,' said Alec, 'who rolls in money, is ready to buy another. I think I can make an advance of fifty. Shall we say three hundred and fifty? And shall we expect the painting in three months or so? Before the summer holidays-say. You will become rich, old man. As for this fellow, he is going to the New Gallery. Go and gaze upon it, and say to yourself, "This was worth, to me, three hundred-three hundred." How many men at the club, Roland, can command three hundred for a picture? Thirty is nearer their figure; and your own, dear boy, would have continued to stand at double duck's egg if it had not been for me. Trust me for running up your price. Our interests, my dear Roland, are identical and indivisible. I think you are the only painter in history whose name will remain unknown though his works will live as long as the pigments keep their colour. Fortune is yours, and fame is mine. You have got the best of the bargain.'

'Curse you and your bargain!'

'Pleasant words, Roland'-his face darkened. 'Pleasant words, if you please, or perhaps ... I know, now, what is the reason of this outbreak. I heard last night a rumour. You've been taking opium again.'

'It isn't true. If it was, what does that matter to you?'

'This, my friend. The partnership exists only so long as the work continues to improve. If bad habits spoil the quality of the work I shall dissolve the partnership, and find that other starving genius-plenty, plenty, plenty about. Nothing shakes the nerves more quickly than opium. Nothing destroys the finer powers of head and hand more surely. Don't let me hear any more about opium. Don't fall into bad habits if you want to go on making an income. And don't let me have to speak of this again. Now, there is no more to be said, I think. Well, we part friends. Ta-ta, dear boy.'

Roland flung himself out of the room with an interjection of great strength not found in the school grammars.

Alec Feilding returned to his table. 'Roland's a great fool,' he murmured. 'Because there isn't a gallery in London that wouldn't jump at his pictures, and he could sell as fast as he could paint. A great fool he is. But it would be very difficult for me to find another man so good and such a fool. On fools and their folly the wise man flourishes.'

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