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   Chapter 23 A CRITIC ON TRUTH

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 21288

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


One painter may make use of another man's sketches for his own pictures. The thing is conceivable, though one cannot recall, and there is no record of, any such case. It is, perhaps, possible. Portrait-painters have employed other men to paint backgrounds and even hands and drapery. Now, the two pictures hanging in Philippa's room were most certainly painted from Roland's sketches. If there were any room for doubt the figure of Armorel herself in the foreground removed that doubt. Therefore, Roland must have lent his sketches to Mr. Feilding. What else did he lend? Can one man lend another his eye, his hand, his sense of colour, his touch, his style? There was once, I seem to have read, a man who sold his soul to the only Functionary who buys such things, and keeps a stock of them second-hand, on the condition that he should be able to paint as well as the immortal Raffaello. He obtained his wish, because the Devil always keeps his bargain to the letter, with the result that, instead of winning the imperishable wreath for himself that he expected, he was never known at all, and his pictures are now sold as those of the master whose works they so miraculously resemble. Armorel had perhaps heard this story somewhere. Could the cleverest man in all London have made a similar transaction, taking Roland Lee for his model? If so, the Devil had not cheated him at all, and he got out of the bargain all he expected, because he not only painted quite as well as his master, and in exactly the same style, so that it was impossible to distinguish between them, but, which the other unfortunate did not get, all the credit was given to him, while the original model or master languished in obscurity.

It was obvious to a trained eye, at very first sight, that the style of the pictures was that of Roland Lee. He had a style of his own. The first mark of genius in any art is individuality. His style was no more to be imitated in painting than the style of Robert Browning can be followed in poetry. Painters there are who have been imitated and have created a school of imitators: even these can always be distinguished from their copyists. The subtle touch of the master, the personal presence of his hand, cannot be copied or imitated. In these two pictures the hand of Roland was clearly, unmistakably visible. The light thrown over them, the atmosphere with which they were charged-everything was his. He had caught the September sunshine as it lies over and enfolds the Scilly Islands-who should know that soft and golden light better than Armorel?-he had caught the transparencies of the seas, the shining yellows of the sea-weed, the browns and purples of bramble and fern, the greyness and the blackness of the rock: you could hear the rush of the water eddying among the boulders; you could see the rapid movement of the sea-gulls' wings as they swept along with the wind. Could another, even with the original sketches lying before him, even with skill and feeling of his own, reproduce these things in Roland's own individual style?

'No,' she cried, but not aloud; 'I know these pictures. They are not his at all. They are Roland's.'

Every line of thought that she followed-to write these down would be to produce another 'Ring and Book'-in her troubled meditations after the discovery led her to the same conclusion. It was that at which she had arrived in a single moment of time, without argument or reasoning, and at the very first sight of the pictures. The first thought is always right. 'They are Roland's pictures'-that was the first thought. The second thought brings along the doubts, suggests objections, endeavours to be judicial, deprecates haste, and calls for the scales. 'They cannot,' said the second thought, 'be Roland's paintings, because Mr. Feilding says they are his.' The third thought, which is the first strengthened by evidence, declared emphatically that they were Roland's, whatever Mr. Feilding might say, and could be the work of none other.

Therefore, the cleverest man in all London, according to everybody, the best and most generous and most honourable, according to Armorel's companion, was an impostor and a Liar. Never before had she ever heard of such a Liar.

Armorel, it is true, knew but little of the crooked paths by which many men perform this earthly pilgrimage from the world which is to the world which is to come. Children born on Samson-nay, even those also of St. Mary's-have few opportunities of observing these ways. That is why all Scillonians are perfectly honest: they do not know how to cheat-even those who might wish to become dishonest, if they knew. In her five years' apprenticeship the tree of knowledge had dropped some of its baleful fruit at Armorel's feet: that cannot be avoided even in a convent garden. Yet she had not eaten largely of the fruit, nor with the voracity that distinguishes many young people of both sexes when they get hold of these apples. In other words, she only knew of craft and falsehood in general terms, as they are set forth in the Gospels and by the Apostles, and especially in the Book of Revelation, which expressly states the portion of liars. Yet, even with this slight foundation to build upon, Armorel was well aware that here was a fraud of a most monstrous character. Surely, there never was, before this man, any man in the world who dared to present to the world another man's paintings, and to call them his own? Men and women have claimed books which they never wrote-witness the leading case of the false George Eliot and the story told by Anthony Trollope; men have pretended to be well-known writers-did I not myself once meet a man in an hotel pretending to be one of our most genial of story-tellers? Men have written things and pretended that they were the work of famous hands. Literature-alas!-hath many impostors. But in Art the record is clean. There are a few ghosts, to be sure, here and there-sporadic spectres!-but they are obscure and mostly unknown. Armorel had never heard or seen any of them. Surely there never before was any man like unto this man!

And, apart from the colossal impudence of the thing, she began to consider the profound difficulties in carrying it out. Because, you see, no one man, unaided, could carry it through. It requires the consent, the silence, and the active-nay, the zealous-cooperation of another man. And how are you to get that man?

In order to get this other man-this active and zealous fellow-conspirator-you must find means to persuade him to sacrifice every single thing that men care for-honour, reputation, success. He must be satisfied to pursue Art, actually and literally, for Art's own sake. This is, I know, a rule of conduct preached by every art critic, every ?sthete, every lecturer or writer on Art. Yet observe what it may lead to. Was there, for instance, an unknown genius who gave his work to Giotto, with permission to call it his own? And was that obscure genius content to sit and watch that work in the crowd, unseen and unsuspected, while he murmured praises and thanksgiving for the skill of hand and eye which had been given to him, but claimed by that other young man, Messer Giotto? Did Turner have his ghost? Sublime sacrifice of self! So to pursue Art for Art's sake as to give your pictures to another man by which he may rise to honour-even, it may be, to the Presidency of the Royal Academy, contented only with the consciousness of good and sincere work, and with the possession of mastery! It is beyond us: we cannot achieve this greatness-we cannot rise to this devotion. Art hath no such votaries. By what persuasions, then-by what bribes-was Roland induced to consent to his own suicide-ignoble, secret, and shameful suicide?

He must have consented; in no other way could the thing be done. He must have agreed to efface himself-but not out of pure devotion to Art. Not so. The Roland of the past survived still. The burning desire for distinction and recognition still flamed in his soul. The bitterness and shame with which he spoke of himself proved that his consent had been wrung from him. He was ashamed. Why? Because another bore the honours that should be his. Because he was a bondman of the impostor. Of this Armorel was certain. Roland Lee-the man whom for five long years she had imagined to be marching from triumph to triumph-conqueror of the world-had sold himself-for what consideration she knew not-hand and eye, genius and brain, heart and soul-had sold himself into slavery. He had consented to a monstrous and most impudent fraud! And the man who stood before the canvas in public, writing his name in the corner, was-the noun appellative, the proper noun-belonging to such an act. And her own friend-her gallant hero of Art-what else was he in this conspiracy of two? You cannot persuade a woman-such is the poverty of the feminine imagination-to call a thing like this by any other name than its plain, simple, and natural one. A man may explain away, find excuses, make suggestions, point out extenuating circumstances, show how the force of events destroys free will, and propose a surplice and a golden crown for the unfortunate victim of fate, instead of bare shoulders and the nine-clawed cat. But a woman-never. If the thing done is a Lie, the man who did it is a --

'Armorel,' said her companion-it was in the afternoon, and she had been dozing after her lunch-'what is the matter? You have been sitting in the window, which has a detestable view of a dismal street, for two long hours without talking. At lunch you sat as if in a dream. Are you ill? Has anything happened? Has the respectable Mr. Jagenal robbed you of your money? Has Philippa been saying amiable things about me?'

'I have found out something which has disquieted me beyond expression,' said Armorel, gravely.

Zoe changed colour. 'Heavens!'-she laughed curiously. 'What has come out now? Anything about me? One never knows what may come out next. It is very odd what a lot of things may be said about everybody.'

'My discovery has nothing to do with you, at least-no, nothing at all.'

'That is reassuring.' It certainly was, as everybody knows who does not wish the curtain to draw up once again on the earlier and half-forgotten scenes of the play. 'Perhaps it might relieve you, dear, if you were to tell me. But do not think I am curious. Besides, I dare say I could tell you more than you could tell me. Is it about Philippa's hopeless attachment for the man who will never marry her, and her cruelty to the reverend gentleman who will?'

'No-no: it is nothing about Philippa. I kno

w nothing about any attachments.'

'Well, you will tell me when you please.' Zoe relapsed into warmth and silence. But she watched the girl from under her heavy eyelids. Something had happened-something serious. Armorel pursued her meditations, but in a different line. She now remembered that the leader in this Fraud was the man whom Zoe professed to honour above all other living men: could she tell this disciple what she had discovered? One might as well inform Kadysha that her prophet Mohammed was an epileptic impostor. And, again, he was Philippa's first cousin, and she regarded him with pride, if not-as Zoe suggested-with a warmer feeling still. How could she bring this trouble upon Philippa?

And, again, it was Roland's secret. How could she reveal a thing which would cover him with ridicule and discredit for the rest of his life? She must be silent for the sake of everybody.

'Zoe,' she sprang to her feet, 'don't ask me anything more. Forget what I said. It is not my own secret.'

'My dear child,' Zoe murmured, 'if nobody has run away with your money, and if you have found out no mares' nests about me, I don't mind anything. I have already quite forgotten. Why should I remember?'

'Of course,' Armorel repeated impatiently-this companion of hers often made her impatient-'there is nothing about you. It concerns--'

'Mr. Feilding.'

It was only an innocent maid who opened the door to announce an afternoon caller; but Armorel started, for really it was the right completion to her sentence, though not the completion she meant to make.

He came in-the man of whom her mind was full-tall, handsome, calm, and self-possessed. Authority sat, visible to all, upon his brow. His dress, his manner, his voice, proclaimed the man who had succeeded-who deserved to succeed. Oh! how could it be possible?

Armorel mechanically gave him her hand, wondering. Then, quite in the old style, and as a survival of Samson Island, there passed rapidly through her mind the whole procession of those texts which refer to liars. For the moment she felt curious and nervously excited, as one who should talk with a man condemned. Then she came back to London and to the exigencies of the situation. Yet it was really quite wonderful. For he sat down and began to talk for all the world as if he was a perfectly truthful person: and she rang the bell for tea, and poured it out for him, as if she knew nothing to the contrary. That he, being what he was, should so carry himself; that she, who knew everything, should sit down calmly and put milk and sugar in his tea, were two facts so extraordinary that her head reeled.

Presently, however, she began to feel amused. It was like knowing beforehand, so that the mind is free to think of other things, the story and the plot of a comedy. She considered the acting and the make-up. And both were admirable. The part of successful genius could not be better played. One has known genius too modest to accept the position, happiest while sitting in a dark corner. Here, however, was genius stepping to the front and standing there boldly in sight of all, as if the place was his by the double right of birth and of conquest.

He sat down and began to talk of Art. He seldom, indeed, talked about anything else. But Art has many branches, and he talked about them all. To-day, however, he discoursed on drawing and painting. He was accustomed to patient listeners, and therefore he assumed that his discourse was received with respect, and did not observe the preoccupied look on the face of the girl to whom he discoursed-for Zoe made no pretence of listening, except when the conversation seemed likely to take a personal turn. Nor did he observe how from time to time Armorel turned her eyes upon him-eyes full of astonishment-eyes struck with amazement.

Presently he descended for awhile from the heights of principle to the lower level of personal topic. 'Mrs. Elstree tells me,' he said, smiling with some condescension, 'that you paint-of course as an amateur-as well as play. If you can draw as well as you can play you are indeed to be envied. But that is, perhaps, too much to be expected. Will you show me some of your work? And will you-without being offended-suffer me to be a candid critic?'

Armorel went gravely to her own room and returned with a small portfolio full of drawings which she placed before him, still with the wonder in her eyes. What would he say-this man who passed off another man's pictures for his own? She stood at the table over him, looking down upon him, waiting to see him betray himself-the first criminal person-the first really wicked man-she had ever encountered in the flesh.

'You are not afraid of the truth?' he asked, turning over the sketches. 'In Art-truth-truth is everything. Without truth there is no Art. Truth and sincerity should be our aim in criticism as well as in Art itself.'

Oh! what kind of conscience could this man have who was able so to talk about Art, seeing what manner of man he was? Armorel glanced at Zoe, half afraid that he would convict himself in her presence. But she seemed asleep, lying back in her cushions.

His remarks were judgments. Once pronounced, there was no appeal. Yet his judgments produced no effect upon the girl, not the least. She listened, she heard, she acquiesced in silence.

Perhaps because he was struck with her coldness he left off examining the sketches, and began a learned little discourse about composition and harmony, selection and grouping. He illustrated these remarks, not obtrusively, but quite naturally, by referring to his own pictures, appealing to Zoe, who lazily raised her head and murmured response, as one who knew it all beforehand. Now, as to the discourse itself, Armorel recognised every word of it already: she had read and had been taught these very things. It showed, she thought, what a pretender the man must be not to understand work that had been done by one who had studied seriously, and already knew all that he was laboriously enforcing. But she said nothing. It was, moreover, the lesson of a professor, not of an artist. Between the professional critic who can neither paint nor draw and the smallest of the men who can paint and draw there is, if you please, a gulf fixed that cannot be passed over.

'This drawing, for instance,' he concluded, taking up one from the table, 'betrays exactly the weakness of which I have been speaking. It has some merit. There is a desire for truth-without truth what are we? The lights are managed with some dexterity, the colour has real feeling. But consider this figure. From sheer ignorance of the elementary considerations which I have been laying down, you have placed it exactly in front. Had it been here, at the right, the effect of the figure in bringing up the whole of the picture would have been heightened tenfold. For my own part, I always like a figure in a painting-a single figure for choice-a girl, because the treatment of the hair and the dress lends itself to effect.'

'His famous girl!' echoed Zoe. 'That model whom nobody is allowed to see!'

Now, the figure was placed in the middle for very excellent reasons, and in full consideration of those very principles which this expounder had been setting forth. But what yesterday would have puzzled her, now amused her one moment and irritated her the next.

He took up a crayon. 'Shall I show you,' he asked, 'exactly what I mean?'

'If you please. Here is a piece of paper which will do.'

He spoke in the style which Matthew Arnold so much admired-the Grand Style-the words clear and articulate, the emphasis just, the manner authoritative. 'I will just indicate your background,' he said, poising the pencil professionally-he looked as if the Grand Style really belonged to him-'in two or three strokes, and then I will sketch in your figure in the place-here-where it properly belongs. You will see immediately, though, of course-your eye-cannot--' He played with the chalk as one considering where to begin-but he did not begin. Armorel remembered a certain day when Roland gave her his first lesson, pencil in hand. Never was that pencil idle: it moved about of its own accord: it was drawing all the time: it seemed to be drawing out of its own head. Mr. Feilding, on the other hand, never touched the paper at all. His pencil was dumb and lifeless. But Armorel waited anxiously for him to begin. Now, at any rate, she should see if he could draw. She was disappointed. The clock on the overmantel suddenly struck six. Mr. Feilding dropped the crayon. 'Good heavens!' he cried. 'You make one forget everything, Miss Rosevean. We must put off the rest of this talk for another day. But you will persevere, dear young lady, will you not? Promise me that you will persevere. Even if the highest peak cannot be attained-we may not all reach that height-it is something to stand upon the lower slope, if it is only to recognise the greatness of those who are above and the depths below-how deep they are!-of the world which knows no art. Persevere-persevere! I will call again and help you, if I may.' He pressed her hand warmly, and departed.

'I really think,' said Zoe, 'that he believes you worth teaching, Armorel. I have never known him give so much time to any one girl before. And if you only knew how they flock about him!'

'Zoe,' said Armorel, without answering this remark, 'you have seen all Mr. Feilding's pictures, have you not?'

'I believe, all.'

'Do they all treat the same subject?'

'Up to the present, he has exhibited nothing but sea and coast pieces, headlands, low tide on the rocks, and so forth. Always with this black-haired girl-something like you, but not much more than a child.'

'Did you ever see him actually at work?'

'You mean working at an unfinished thing? No; never. He cannot endure anyone in his studio while he is at work.'

'Did he ever draw anything for you-any pen-and-ink sketch-pencil sketch? Have you got any of his sketches-rough things?'

'No. Alec has a secretive side to his character. It comes out in odd ways. No one suspected that he could paint, or even draw, until, three or four years ago, he suddenly burst upon us with a finished picture; and then it came out that he had been secretly drawing all his life, and studying seriously for years. Where he will break out next, I don't know.'

'He may break out anywhere,' said Armorel, 'except upon the fiddle. I think that he will never play the fiddle. Yes, Zoe, he really is a very, very clever man. He is certainly the very cleverest man in all London.'

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