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   Chapter 29 THE NATIONAL GALLERY

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 16801

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Contrary to all reasonable expectation, Alec Feilding called at Armorel's rooms the very next morning-and quite early in the morning, when it was not yet eleven. Armorel, however, had already gone out. He was received by Mrs. Elstree, who was, as usual, sitting, apparently asleep, by the fire.

'You have come in the hope of seeing Armorel alone, I suppose?' she said.

'Yes. You remember, Zoe,' he replied quickly-she observed that he was pale, and that he fidgeted nervously, and that his eyes, restless and scared, looked as if somebody was hunting him-'that we had a talk about it. You said you wouldn't make a row. You know you did. You consented.'

'Oh, yes! I remember. I am to play another part, and quite a new one. You too are about to play a new part-one not generally desired-quite the stage villain.' He made a gesture of impatience. 'Consider, however,' she went on quickly, before he could speak. 'Do you think this morning-the day after yesterday-quite propitious for your purpose?'

'What do you mean?' he asked quickly. 'Why not the day after yesterday?'

'Nothing. Still, if I might advise--'

'Zoe, you know nothing at all. And time presses. If there was reason, a week ago, for me to be the reputed and accepted lover of this girl, there is tenfold more reason now. You don't know, I say. For Heaven's sake don't spoil things now by any interference.'

He was at least in earnest. Mrs. Elstree contemplated him with curiosity. It seemed as if she had never seen him really in earnest before. But now she understood. He knew by this time that Armorel had discovered the source, the origins, of his greatness. She might destroy him by a word. This knowledge would pierce the hide of the most pachydermatous: his strength, you see, was like that of Samson-it depended on a secret: it also now resembled that of Samson in that it lay at the mercy of a woman.

'Alec,' said Mrs. Elstree, softly, 'you were greatly moved last night by several things-by the play, by the picture, by the song. I watched you. While the rest were listening to the play, I watched you. The room was dark, and you thought no one could see you. But I could make out your features. Armorel watched you, too, but for other motives. I was wondering. She was triumphant. You know why?'

'What do you know?'

'Your face, which is generally so well under command, expressed surprise, rage, disgust, and terror-all these passions, dear Alec. On the stage we study how to express them. We represent an exaggeration so that the gallery shall understand, and we call it Art. But I know the symptoms.'

'What else do you know, I ask?'

'This morning you are nervous and agitated. You are afraid of something. Alec, you know what I think of the cruelty and hardheartedness of this project of yours-to sustain your credit on an engagement which will certainly not last a month-I could not possibly suffer the girl to be entangled longer than that-now give it over.'

'I cannot give it over: it is my only chance. Zoe, you don't know the mischief she has done me, and will do me again. It is ruin-ruin!'

'Well then, Alec, don't go after her to-day. Indeed, I advise you not. You are not in a condition to approach the subject, and she is not in a condition to be approached. I do not ask your reasons, or the kind of mischief you mean. I sit here and watch. In the course of time I find out all things.'

'How much do you know, Zoe? What have you found out?'

'Knowledge, Alec, is power. Should I part in a moment, and for nothing, with what I have acquired at the expense of a great deal of contriving and putting together? Certainly not. You can go and find Armorel, if you persist in choosing such a day for such a purpose. She has gone, I believe, to the National Gallery.'

'I must find her to-day. I must bring things to a head. Good Heavens! I don't know what new mischief they may be designing.'

'Go home and wait, Alec. No one will do anything to you to-day. You are nervous and excited.'

'You don't understand, I say. Tell me, did the men talk last night-about me-in your hearing?'

'Not in my hearing, certainly. Go home and rest, Alec.'

'I cannot rest. I must find the girl.'

'Well, if you want her-go and find her. Alec, remember, if you stood the faintest chance of success with her, I think I should have to get up and warn her. Even for your sake I do not think I could suffer this wickedness to be done. But you have no chance-none-not on any day, particularly on this day-and after last night. Go, however-go.'

When things have gone so far that assignations and appointments are made and places of secret meeting agreed upon, there is hardly any place in the whole of London more central, more convenient, or safer than the National Gallery. Here the young lady of society may be perfectly certain of remaining undiscovered. At the South Kensington no one is quite safe, because in the modern enthusiasm for art all kinds of people-even people in society-sometimes go there to see embroideries and hangings, and handiwork of every sort. The India Museum is perhaps safer even than the National Gallery-safer, for such a purpose, than any other spot in the world. But there is a loneliness in its galleries which strikes a chill to the most ardent heart, and damps the spirit of the most resolute lover.

In the National Gallery there are plenty of people: but they are all country visitors, or Americans, or copyists: never any people of the young lady's own set: and there is never any crowd. One can sit and talk undisturbed and quiet: the copyists chatter or go on with their work regardless of anything: the attendants slumber: the visitors pass round room after room, looking for pictures which have a story to tell-and a story which they can read. That, you see, is the only kind of picture-unless it be a picture of a pretty face-which the ordinary visitor commonly understands. Not many young people know of this place, and those who do keep the knowledge to themselves. The upper rooms of the British Museum are also commended by some for the same reason, but the approaches are difficult.

This use of the National Gallery once understood, the thing which happened here the day after the reading of the play will not seem incredible, though it certainly was not intended by the architect when he designed the building. Otherwise there might have been convenient arbours.

Armorel went often to the Gallery: the English girl reserves, as a rule, her study of pictures, and art generally, till she gets to Florence. Armorel, who had also studied art in Florence, found much to learn in our own neglected Gallery. Sometimes she went alone: sometimes she went with Effie, and then, being quite a learned person in the matter of pictures and their makers, she would discourse from room to room, till the day was all too short. The country visitors streamed past her in languid procession: the lovers met by appointment at her very elbow: the copyists flirted, talked scandal, wasted time, and sighed for commissions: but Armorel had not learned to watch people: she came to see the pictures: she had not begun to detach an individual from the crowd as a representative: in other words, she was not a novelist.

This morning she was alone. She carried a notebook and pencil, and was standing before a picture making notes. It was a wet morning: the rooms were nearly empty, and the galleries were very quiet.

She heard a manly step striding across the floor. She half turned as it approached her. Mr. Alec Feilding took off his hat.

'Mrs. Elstree told me you were here,' he said. 'I ventured to follow.'

'Yes?'

'You-you-come often, I believe?' He looked pale, and, for the first time in Armorel's recollection of him, he was nervous. 'There is, I believe, a good deal to be learned here.'

'There is, especially by those who want to paint-of course, I mean-who want to do their own paintings by themselves. Mr. Feilding, frankly, what do you want? Why do you come here in search of me?' Her face hardened: her eyes were cold and resolved. But the man was full of himself; he noted not these symptoms.

'I came because I have something to say.'

'Of importance?'

'Of great importance.'

'Not, I hope, connected with Art. Do not talk to me about Art, if you please, Mr. Feilding-not about any kind of Art.'

He bowed

gravely. 'One cannot always listen to conversation involving canons and first principles,' he said, with much condescension. 'Let me, however, congratulate you on the promise of your protégés, Archie and Effie Wilmot.'

'They are clever.'

'They are distinctly clever,' he repeated, recovering his usual self-possession. 'Effie, as perhaps she has told you, has been my pupil for a long time.'

'She has told me, in fact, something about her relations to you.'

'Yes.' The man was preoccupied and rather dense by nature. Therefore he caught only imperfectly these side meanings in Armorel's replies. 'Yes-quite so-I have been able to be useful to her, and to her brother also-very useful, indeed, happily.'

'And to-to others-as well-very useful, indeed,' Armorel echoed.

He understood that there was some kind of menace in these words. But the very air, this morning, was full of menace. He passed them by.

'It is a curious coincidence that you should also have taken up this interesting pair. It ought to bring us closer.'

'Quite the contrary, Mr. Feilding. It puts us far more widely apart.'

'I do not understand that. We have a common interest. For instance, only the other day I accepted a poem of Effie's--'

'Only the other day, Mr. Feilding?'

'Yes, the day before yesterday. I had it set up, and I added a few words introducing the writer. That was the day before yesterday. Judge of my astonishment when, only yesterday, you sang that very song, and handed it round printed with the accompaniment. I have made no alteration. The verses will appear to-night, with my laudatory introduction. Some men might complain that they had not been taken into confidence. But I do not. Effie is a little genius in her way. She is not practical: she does not understand that having disposed of her verses to one editor she is not free to give them to another. But I do not complain, if your action in her cause brings her into notice.'

Here was a turning of tables! Now, some men overdo a thing. They smile too much: they rub their hands nervously: they show a nervous anxiety to be believed. Not so this man. He spoke naturally-he had now recovered his usual equanimity: he looked blankly unconscious that any doubt could possibly be thrown upon his word. Since he said it, the thing must be so. Men of honour have always claimed and exacted this concession. Therefore, the following syllogism:-

Mr. Alec Feilding is a man of honour:

Everybody must acknowledge so much.

A man of honour cannot lie:

Else-what becomes of his honour?

Therefore:

Any statement made by Mr. Alec Feilding is literally true.

Armorel showed no doubt in her face. Why should she? There was no doubt in her mind. The man was a Liar.

'The Wilmots will get on,' she said coldly, 'without any help from anybody. Now, Mr. Feilding, you came to say something important to me. Shall we go on to that important communication?' She took a seat on the divan in the middle of the room. He stood over her, 'There is no one here this morning,' she said. 'You can speak as freely as in your own study.'

'Among your many fine qualities, Miss Rosevean,' he began floridly, but with heightened colour, 'a certain artistic reserve is reckoned by your friends, perhaps, the highest. It makes you queenly.'

'Mr. Feilding, I cannot possibly discuss my own qualities with any but my friends.'

'Your friends! Surely, I also--'

'My friends, Mr. Feilding,' Armorel repeated, bristling like the fretful porcupine. But the man, preoccupied and thick of skin, and full of vainglory and conceit, actually did not perceive these quills erect. Armorel's pointed remarks did not prick his hide: her coldness he took for her customary reserve. Therefore he hurried to his doom.

'Give me,' he said, 'the right to speak to you as your dearest friend. You cannot possibly mistake the attentions that I have paid to you for the last few weeks. They must have indicated to you-they were, indeed, deliberately designed to indicate-a preference-deepening into a passion--'

'I think you had better stop at once, Mr. Feilding.'

There are many men who honestly believe that they are irresistible. It seems incredible, but it is really true. It is the consciousness of masculine superiority carried to an extreme. They think that they have only to repeat the conventional words in the conventional manner for the woman to be subjugated. They come: they conquer. Now, this man, who plainly saw that he was to a certain extent-he did not know how far-detected, actually imagined that the woman who had detected him in a gigantic fraud one day would accept his proffered hand and heart the very next day! There are no bounds, you see, to personal vanity. Besides, for this man, if it was necessary that he should appear as the accepted suitor of a rich girl, it was doubly necessary that the girl should be the one woman in the world who could do mischief. He was anxious to discover how much she knew. But of his wooing he had no anxiety at all. He should speak: she would yield: she could do nothing else.

'Permit me,' he replied blandly, 'to go on. I am, as you know, a leader in the world of Art. I am known as a painter, a poet, and a writer of fiction. I have other ambitions still.'

'Doubtless you will succeed in these as you have succeeded in those three Arts.'

'Thank you.' He really did not see the meaning of her words. 'I take your words as of happy augury. Armorel--'

'No, Sir! Not my Christian name, if you please.'

'Give me the right to call you by your Christian name.'

'You are asking me to marry you. Is that what you mean?'

'It is nothing less.'

'Really! When I tell you, Mr. Feilding, that I know you-that I know you-it will be plain to you that the thing is absolutely impossible.'

'To know me,' he replied, showing no outward emotion, 'should make it more than possible. What could I wish better than to be known to you?'

She looked him full in the face. He neither dropped his eyes nor changed colour.

'What could be better for me?' he repeated. 'What could I hope for better than to be known?'

'Oh! This man is truly wonderful!' she cried. 'Must I tell you what I know?'

'It would be better, perhaps. You look as if you knew something to my-actually-if I may say so-actually to my discredit!'

Armorel gasped. His impudence was colossal.

'To your discredit! Oh! Actually to your discredit! Sir, I know the whole of your disgraceful history-the history of the past three or four years. I know by what frauds you have passed yourself off as a painter and as a poet. I know by what pretences you thought to lay the foundation for a reputation as a dramatist. I know that your talk is borrowed-that you do not know art when you see it: that you could never write a single line of verse-and that of all the humbugs and quacks that ever imposed themselves upon the credulity of people you are the worst and biggest.'

He stared with a wonder which was, at least, admirably acted.

'Good Heavens!' he said. 'These words-these accusations-from you? From Armorel Rosevean-cousin of my cousin-whom I had believed to be a friend? Can this be possible? Who has put this wonderful array of charges into your head?'

'That matters nothing. They are true, and you know it.'

'They are so true,' he replied sternly, 'that if anyone were to dare to repeat these things before a third person, I should instantly-instantly-instruct my solicitors to bring an action for libel. Remember: youth and sex would not avail to protect that libeller. If anyone-anyone-dares, I say--'

'Oh! say no more. Go, and do not speak to me again! What will be done with this knowledge, I cannot say. Perhaps it will be used for the exposure which will drive you from the houses of honest people. Go, I say!'

'Oh! say no more. Go, and do not speak to me again!'

She stamped her foot and raised her voice, insomuch that two drowsy attendants woke up and looked round, thinking they had dreamed something unusual.

The injured man of Art and Letters obeyed. He strode away. He, who had come pale and hesitating, now, on learning the truth which he had suspected and on receiving this unmistakable rejection, walked away with head erect and lofty mien. He showed, at least by outward bearing, the courage which is awakened by a declaration of war.

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