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   Chapter 18 THE OTHER STUDIO

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 12755

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The Failure was at work in his own studio. Not the large and lofty chamber fitted and furnished as if for Michael Angelo himself, which served for the Fraud. Not at all. The Failure did his work in a simple second-floor back, a chamber in a commonplace lodging-house of Keppel Street, Bloomsbury. Nowhere in the realms of Art was there a more dismal studio. The walls were bare, save for one picture which was turned round and showed its artistic back. The floor had no carpet: there was no other furniture than a table, strewn and littered with sketches, paints, palettes, brushes: there were canvases leaning against the wall: there was a portfolio also leaning against the wall: there was an easel and the man standing before it: and there was a single chair.

For three years Roland Lee had withdrawn from his former haunts and companions. No one knew now where he lived: he had not exhibited: he had resigned his membership at the club: he had gone out of sight. Many London men every year go out of sight. It is quite easy. You have only to leave off going to the well-known places of resort: very soon-so soon that it is humiliating only to think of it-men cease asking where you are: then they cease speaking of you: you are clean gone out of their memory-you and your works-it is as if the sea had closed over you. There is not left a trace or a sign of your existence. Perhaps, now and then, something may revive your name: some little adventure may be remembered: some frolic of youth-for the rest-nothing: Silence: Oblivion. It does, indeed, humiliate those who look on. When such an accident revived the memory of Roland Lee, one would ask another what had become of him. And no one knew. But, of course, he had gone down-down-down. When a man disappears it means that he sinks. He had gone out of sight: therefore he had gone under. Yet, when you climb, you can never get so high as to be invisible. Even the President, R.A., is not invisible. Again, the higher that a balloon soars, the smaller does it grow; but the higher a man climbs up the Hill of Fame the bigger does he show. It is quite certain that when a man has disappeared he has sunk. The only question-and this can never be answered-is, what becomes of the men who sink? One man I heard of-also, like Roland, an artist-who has been traced to a certain tavern, where he fuddles himself every evening, and where you may treat with him for the purchase of his pictures at ten shillings-ay, or even five shillings-apiece. And two scholars-scholars gone under-I heard of the other day. They now reside in the same lodging-house. It is close to the Gray's Inn Road. One lives in the garret, and the other occupies the cellar. In the evening they get drunk together and dispute on points of the finer scholarship. But this only accounts for three. And where are all the rest?

Of Roland Lee nobody knew anything. There was no story or scandal attached to him: he was no drinker: he was no gambler: he was no profligate. But he had vanished.

Yet he had not gone far-only to Keppel Street, which is really a central place. Here he occupied a second floor, and lived alone. Nobody ever called upon him: he had no friends. Sometimes he sat all day long in his studio doing nothing: sometimes he went forth, and wandered about the streets: in the evening he dined at restaurants where he was certain to meet none of his old friends. He lived quite alone. As to that rumour concerning opium, it was an invention of his employer and proprietor. He did not take opium. Day after day, however, he grew more moody. What developments might have followed in this lonely life I know not. Opium, perhaps: whisky, perhaps: melancholia, perhaps. And from melancholia-Good Lord deliver us!

One thing saved him. The work which filled his soul with rage also kept his soul from madness. When the spirit of his Art seized him and held him he forgot everything. He worked as if he was a free man: he forgot everything, until the time came when he had to lay down his palette and to come back to the reality of his life. Some men would have accepted the position: there were, as we have seen, compensations of a solid and comfortable kind: had he chosen to work his hardest, these golden compensations might have run into four figures. Some men might have sat and laughed among their friends, forgetting the ignominy of their slavery. Not so Roland. His chains jangled as he walked; they cut his wrists and galled his ankles: they filled him with so much shame that he was fain to go away and hide himself. And in this manner he enjoyed the great success which his employer had achieved for his pictures. To arrive at the success for which you have always longed and prayed-and to enjoy it in such a fashion. Oh! mockery of fate!

This morning he was at work contentedly-with ardour. He was beginning a picture from one of his sketches: it was to be another study of rocks and sea: as yet there was little to show: it was growing in his brain, and he was so fully wrapped in his invention that he did not hear the door open, and was not conscious that for the first time within three years he had a visitor.

She opened the door and stood for a moment looking about her. The bare and dingy walls, the scanty furniture, the meanness of the place, made her very soul sink within her. For they cried aloud the story of the painter.

For five long years she had thought of him. He was successful: he was rising to the top of the tree: he was conquering the world-so brave, so strong, so clever! There was no height to which he could not rise. She should find him splendid, triumphant, and yet modest-her old friend the same, but glorified. And she found him thus, in this dingy den-so low, so shabby! Consider, if she had risen while he was sinking, how great was now the gulf between them! Then she stepped into the room and stood beside the artist at his easel.

'Roland Lee,' she whispered.

He started, looked up, and recognised her. 'Armorel!' he cried.

Then, strange to say, instead of hastening to meet and greet her, and to hold out hands of welcome, he stood gazing at her stupidly, his face changing colour from crimson to white. His hair was unkempt, she saw; his cheeks worn; his eyes haggard, with deep lines round them; and his dress was shabby and uncared for.

'You have not forgotten me, the

n?' she said.

'Forgotten you? No. How could I forget you?'

'Then are you pleased to see me? Shake hands with me, Roland Lee.'

He complied, but with restraint. 'Have you dropped from the clouds?' he asked. 'How did you find me here?'

'I met your old friend Dick Stephenson. He told me that you lived here. You are no longer friends: but he has seen you going in and coming out. That is how I found you. Are you well, Roland?'

'Yes, I am well.'

'Does all go well with you, my old friend?'

'Why not? You see-I have got a magnificent studio: there is every outward sign of wealth and prosperity: and if you look into any art-criticisms you will find the papers ringing with my name.'

'You are changed.' Armorel passed over the bitterness of this speech. 'You are a little older, perhaps.' She did not tell him how haggard and worn he looked, how unkempt and unhappy.

'Let me see some of your work,' she said. The picture on the easel was only in its very first stage. She looked about the room. Nothing on the walls but one picture with its face turned round. 'May I look at this?' She turned it round. It was the picture of herself, 'The Princess of Lyonesse,' the sketch of which he had finished on the last day of his holiday. 'Oh!' she cried, 'I remember this. And you have kept it, Roland-you have kept it. I am glad.'

'Yes, I have kept the only picture which I can call my own.'

'Was I like that in those days?'

'You are like that now. Only, the little Princess has become a tall Queen.'

'Yes, yes; I remember. You said, then, that if I should ever look like this, you would be proved to be a painter indeed. Roland, you are a painter indeed.'

'No, no,' he said; 'I am nothing-nothing at all.'

'We were talking-when you made this sketch-of how one can grow to his highest and noblest.'

'I have grown to my lowest,' he replied. 'But you-you--'

'What has happened, my friend? You told me so much once about yourself-you taught me so much-you put so many new things into my head-you must tell me more! What has happened?'

'Nothing.'

'Why are you here in this poor room? I have been to studios in Rome and Florence, and Paris and Vienna: they are lovely rooms, fit for a man whose mind is always full of lovely images and sweet thoughts. But this-this room is not a studio. It is an ugly little prison. How can light and colour visit such a place?'

'It explains itself. It proclaims aloud-Failure-Failure-Failure!'

'This picture is not Failure.'

'My name is unknown. I work on like a mole under ground. I am a Failure. You have seen Dick Stephenson. What did he say of me?'

'He said that you must have left off working. But you have not.'

'What does it matter how much or how long a Failure goes on working?'

'Have you lost heart, Roland?'

'Heart, and hope, and faith. Everything is lost, Armorel!'

'You have lost your courage because you have failed. But many men have failed at first-great men. Robert Browning failed for years. You were brave once, Roland. You were able to say that if you knew you were doing good work you cared nothing for the critics.'

'You see, Dick was right. I no longer do any work. I never send anything to the exhibitions.'

'But why-why-why?'

'Ask me no more questions, Armorel. Go away and leave me. How beautiful and glorious you have grown, child! But I knew you would. And I have gone down so low, and-and-well, you see! Yes. I remember how we talked of growing to our full height. We did not think, you see, of the depths to which we might also drop. There are awful depths, which you could never guess.'

He sank into the chair, and his head dropped.

Armorel stood over him, the tears gathering into her eyes.

'Roland,' she laid her hand upon his shoulder-there is no action more sisterly-'since I have found you I shall not let you go again. It is five years since you went away. You will tell me about yourself, when you please. I have a great deal to tell you. Don't you remember how sympathetic you used to be in the old days? I want a great deal more sympathy now, because I am five years older, and I am trying so much. I want you to hear me play-you were the first who ever praised my playing, you know. And you must see my drawings. I have worked every day, as I promised you I would. I have remembered all your instructions. Come and see your pupil's work, my master.'

He made no reply.

'You live too much alone,' she went on. 'Dick Stephenson told me that you have given up your club, and that you go nowhere, and that no one knows how you live. You have dropped quite away from your old friends. Why did you do that? You live in this dismal room by yourself-alone with your thoughts: no wonder you lose courage and faith.' She opened the portfolio and drew out a number of the sketches. 'Why,' she said, 'here are some of those you made with me. Here is Castle Bryher-you in the boat, and I on the ledge among the sea-weed under the great rock-and the shags in a row on the top: and here is Porth Cressa-and here Peninnis-and here Round Island. Oh! we have so many things to talk about. Will you come to see me?'

'You had better leave me alone, Armorel,' he said. 'Even you can do no good to me now.'

'When will you come? See-I will write down my address. I have a flat, and it is ever so much better furnished than this, Sir. Will you come to-night? I shall be at home. There will be no one but Effie Wilmot. Oh! I am not going to talk about you, but about myself. I want your praise, Roland, and your sympathy. Both were so ready-once. Will you come to-night?'

'You will drive me mad, I think, Armorel!'

'Will you come?'

He shook his head.

'I have got to tell you how I became rich, if you will listen. You must come and hear my news. Why, there is no one but you in all London who knew me when I lived on Samson alone with those old people. You will come to-night, Roland?' Again she laid her hand upon his shoulder. 'I will ask no questions about you-none at all. You will tell me what you please about yourself. But you must let me talk to you about myself, as frankly as in the old days. If you have got any kindly memory left of me at all, Roland, you will come.'

He rose and lifted his shameful eyes to hers, so full of pity and of tears.

'Yes,' he said; 'I will do whatever you tell me.'

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