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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 17446

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Roland had moved into his new studio before Armorel became, as she had promised, his model in the new picture. She began to go there nearly every morning, accompanied by Effie, and faithfully sat for two or three hours while the painting went on. It was the picture which he had begun under the old conditions, her own figure being substituted for that of the girl which the artist originally designed. The studio was one of a nest of such offices crowded together under a great roof and lying on many floors. The others were, I dare say, prettily furnished and decorated with the customary furniture of a studio, with pictures, sketches, screens, and pretty things of all kinds. This studio was nothing but a great gaunt room, with a big window, and no furniture in it except an easel, a table, and two or three chairs. There was simply nothing else. Under the pressure of want and failure the unfortunate artist had long ago parted with all the pretty things with which he had begun his career, and the present was no time to replace them.

'I have got the studio,' he said, 'for the remainder of a lease, pretty cheap. Unfortunately, I cannot furnish it yet. Wait until the tide turns. I am full of hope. Then this arid wall and this great staring Sahara of a floor shall blossom with all manner of lovely things-armour and weapons, bits of carving and tapestry, drawings. You shall see how jolly it will be.'

Next to the studio there were two rooms. In one of these, his bedroom, he had placed the barest necessaries; the other was empty and unfurnished, so that he had no place to sit in during the evening but his gaunt and ghostly studio. However, the tide had turned in one respect. He was now full of hope.

There is no better time for conversation than when one is sitting for a portrait or standing for a model. The subject has to remain motionless. This would be irksome if silence were imposed as well as inaction. Happily, the painter finds that his sitter only exhibits a natural expression when he or she is talking and thinking about something else. And, which is certainly a Providential arrangement, the painter alone among mortals, if we except the cobbler, can talk and work at the same time. I do not mean that he can talk about the Differential Calculus, or about the relations of Capital and Labour, or about a hot corner in politics: but he can talk of things light, pleasant, and on the surface.

'I feel myself back in Scilly,' said Armorel. 'Whenever I come here and think of what you are painting, I am in the boat, watching the race of the tide through the channel. The puffins are swarming on Camber Rock, and swimming in the smooth water outside: there is the head of a seal, black above the water, shining in the sunlight-how he flounders in the current! The sea-gulls are flying and crying overhead: the shags stand in rows upon the farthest rocks: the sea-breeze blows upon my cheek. I suppose I have changed so much that when I go back I shall have lost the old feeling. But it was joy enough in those days only to sit in the boat and watch it all. Do you remember, Roland?'

'I remember very well. You are not changed a bit, Armorel: you have only grown larger and--' 'More beautiful,' he would have added, but refrained. 'You will find that the old joy will return again-la joie de vivre-only to breathe and feel and look around. But it will be then ten times as joyous. If you loved Scilly when you were a child and had seen nothing else, how much more will you love the place now that you have travelled and seen strange lands and other coasts and the islands of the Mediterranean!'

'I fear that I shall find the place small: the house will have shrunk-children's houses always shrink. I hope that Holy Farm will not have become mean.'

'Mean? with the verbena-trees, the fuchsias, the tall pampas-grass, and the palms! Mean? with the old ship's lanthorn and the gilded figure-head? Mean, Armorel? with the old orchard behind and the twisted trees with their fringe of grey moss? You talk rank blasphemy! Something dreadful will happen to you.'

'Perhaps it will be I myself, then, that will have grown mean enough to think the old house mean. But Samson is a very little place, isn't it? One cannot make out Samson to be a big place. I could no longer live there always. We will go there for three or four months every year; just for refreshment of the soul, and then return here among men and women or travel abroad together, Effie. We could be happy for a time there: we could sail and row about the rocks in calm weather: and in stormy weather we should watch the waves breaking over the headlands, and in the evening I would play "The Chirping of the Lark."'

'I am ready to go to-morrow, if you will take me with you,' said Effie.

Then they were silent again. Roland walked backwards and forwards, brush and palette in hand, looking at his model and at his canvas. Effie stood beside the picture, watching it grow. To one who cannot paint, the growth of a portrait on the canvas is a kind of magic. The bare outline and shape of head and face, the colour of the eyes, the curve of the neck, the lines of the lips-anyone might draw these. But to transfer to the canvas the very soul that lies beneath the features-that, if you please, is different. Oh! How does the painter catch the soul of the man and show it in his face? One must be oneself an artist of some kind even to appreciate the greatness of the portrait painter.

'When this picture is finished,' said Armorel, 'there will be nothing to keep me in London; and we will go then.'

'At the very beginning of the season?'

'The season is nothing to me. My companion, Mrs. Elstree, who was to have launched me so beautifully into the very best society, turns out not to have any friends; so that there is no society for me, after all. Perhaps it is as well.'

'Will Mrs. Elstree go to Scilly with you?' asked Roland.

'No,' said Armorel, with decision. 'On Samson, at least, one needs no companion.'

Again they relapsed into silence for a space. Conversation in the studio is fitful.

'I have a thing to talk over with you two,' she said. 'First, I thought it would be best to talk about it to you singly; but now I think that you should both hear the whole story, and so we can all three take counsel as to what is best.'

'Your head a little more-so.' Roland indicated the movement with his forefinger. 'That will do. Now pray go on, Armorel.'

'Once there was a man,' she began, as if she was telling a story to children-and, indeed, there is no better way ever found out of beginning a story-'a man who was, in no sense at all, and could never become, try as much as he could, an artist. He was, in fact, entirely devoid of the artistic faculty: he had no ear for music or for poetry, no eye for beauty of form or for colour, no hand for drawing, no brain to conceive: he was quite a prosaic person. Whether he was clever in things that do not require the artistic faculty, I do not know. I should hardly think he could be clever in anything. Perhaps he might be good at buying cheap and selling dear.'

'Won't you take five minutes' rest?' asked the painter; hardly listening at all to the beginning, which, as you see, promised very little in the way of amusement. There are, however, many ways by which the story-teller gets a grip of his hearer, and a dull beginning is not always the least effective. He put down his palette. 'You must be tired,' he said. 'Come and tell me what you think.' He looked thoughtfully at his picture. Armorel's poor little beginning of a story was slighted.

'You are satisfied, so far?' she asked.

'I will tell you when it is finished. Is the water quite right?'

'We are in shoal, close behind us are the broad Black Rock Ledges. The water might be even more transparent still. It is the dark water racing through the narrow ravine that I think of most. It will be a great picture, Roland. Now I will take my place again.' She did so. 'And, with your permission, I will go on with my story: you heard the beginning, Roland?'

'Oh! Yes! Unfortunate man with no eyes and no ears,' he replied, unsuspecting. 'Worse than a one-eyed Calender.'

'This preposterous person, then, with neither eye, nor ear, nor hand, nor understanding, had the absurd ambition to succeed. This you will hardly believe. But he did. And, what is more, he had no patience, but wanted to succeed all at once. I am told that lots of young men, nowadays, are consumed with that yearning to succeed all at once. It seems such a pity, when they should be happily dancing and singing and playing at the time when they were not working. I think they would suc

ceed so very much better afterwards. Well, this person very soon found that in the law-did I say he was a barrister?-he had no chance of success except after long years. Then he looked round the fields of art and literature. Mind, he could neither write nor practise any art. What was he to do? Every day the ambition to seem great filled his soul more and more, and every day the thing appeared to him more hopeless: because, you see, he had no imagination, and therefore could not send his soul to sleep with illusions. I wonder he did not go mad. Perhaps he did, for he resolved to pretend. First, he thought he would pretend to be a painter'-here Roland, who had been listening languidly, started, and became attentive. 'He could neither paint nor draw, remember. He began, I think, by learning the language of Art. He frequented studios, heard the talk and read the books. It must have been weary work for him. But, of course, he was no nearer his object than before; and then a great chance came to him. He found a young artist full of promise-a real artist-one filled with the whole spirit of Art: but he was starving. He was actually penniless, and he had no friends who could help him, because he was an Australian by birth. This young man was not only penniless, but in despair. He was ready to do anything. I suppose, when one is actually starving and sees no prospect of success or any hope, ambition dies away and even self-respect may seem a foolish thing.' Roland listened now, his picture forgotten. What was Armorel intending? 'It must be a most dreadful kind of temptation. There can be nothing like it in the world. That is why we pray for our daily bread. Oh! a terrible temptation. I never understood before how great and terrible a temptation it is. Then the man without eye, or hand, or brain saw a chance for himself. He would profit by his brother's weakness. He proposed to buy the work of this painter and to call it his own.'

'Armorel, must you tell this story?'

'Patience, Roland. In his despair the artist gave way. He consented. For three years and more he received the wages of-of sin. But his food was like ashes in his mouth, and his front was stamped-yes, stamped-by the curse of those who sin against their own soul.'

'Armorel--' But she went on, ruthless.

'The pictures were very good: they were exhibited, praised, and sold. And the man grew quickly in reputation. But he wasn't satisfied. He thought that as it was so easy to be a painter, it would be equally easy to become a poet. All the Arts are allied: many painters have been also poets. He had never written a single line of poetry. I do not know that he had ever read any. He found a girl who was struggling, working, and hoping.' Effie started and turned roseate red. 'He took her poems-bought them-and, on the pretence of having improved them and so made them his own, he published them in his own name. They were pretty, bright verses, and presently people began to look for them and to like them. So he got a double reputation. But the poor girl remained unknown. At first she was so pleased at seeing her verses in print-it looked so much like success-that she hardly minded seeing his name at the end. But presently he brought out a little volume of them with his name on the title-page, and then a second volume-also with his name--'

'The scoundrel!' cried Roland. 'He cribbed his poetry too?'

Effie bowed her face, ashamed.

'And then the girl grew unhappy. For she perceived that she was in a bondage from which there was no escape except by sacrificing the money which he gave her, and that was necessary for her brother's sake. So she became very unhappy.'

'Very unhappy,' echoed Effie. Both painter and poet stood confused and ashamed.

'Then this clever man-the cleverest man in London-began to go about in society a good deal, because he was so great a genius. There he met a lady who was full of stories.'

'Oh!' said Roland. 'Is there nothing in him at all?'

'Nothing at all. There is really nothing at all. This man persuaded the lady to write down these stories, which were all based on old family scandals and episodes unknown or forgotten by the world. They form a most charming series of stories. I believe they are written in a most sparkling style-full of wit and life. Well, he did not put his name to them, but he allowed the whole world to believe that they were his own.'

'Good Heavens!' cried Roland.

'And still he was not satisfied. He found a young dramatist who had written a most charming play. He tried to persuade the poor lad that his play was worthless, and he offered to take it himself, alter it-but there needed no alteration-and convert it into a play that could be acted. He would give fifty pounds for the play, but it was to be his own.'

'Yes,' said Effie, savagely. 'He made that offer, but he will not get the play.'

'You have heard, now, what manner of man he was. Very well. I tell you two the story because I want to consult you. The other day I arranged a little play of my own. That is, I invited people to hear the reciting of that drama: I invited the pretender himself among the rest, but he did not know or guess what the play was going to be. And at the same time I invited the painter and the poet. The former brought his unfinished picture-the latter brought her latest poem, which the pretender was going that very week to bring out in his own name. I had set it to music, and I sang it. I meant that he should learn in this way, without being told, that everything was discovered. I watched his face during the recital of the play, and I saw the dismay of the discovery creeping gradually over him as he realised that he had lost his painter, his poet, and his dramatist. There remained nothing more but to discover the author of the stories-and that, too, I have found out. And I think he will lose his story-teller as well. He will be deprived of all his borrowed plumes. At one blow he saw himself ruined.'

Neither of the two made answer for a space. Then spoke Roland: 'Dux femina facti! A woman hath done this.'

'He is ruined unless he can find others to take your places. The question I want you to consider is-What shall be done next? Roland, it is your name and fame that he has stolen-your pictures that he has called his own. Effie, they are your poems that he has published under his name. What will you do? Will you demand your own again? Think.'

'He must exhibit no more pictures of mine,' said Roland. 'He has one in his studio that he has already sold. That one must not go to any gallery. That is all I have to say.'

'He cannot publish any more poems of mine,' said Effie, 'because he hasn't got any, and I shall give him no more.'

'What about the past?'

'Are we so proud of the past and of the part we have played in it'-asked Roland-'that we should desire its story published to all the world?'

Effie shook her head, approvingly.

'As for me,' he continued, 'I wish never to hear of it again. It makes me sick and ashamed even to think of it. Let it be forgotten. I was an unknown artist-I had few friends-I had exhibited one picture only-so that my work was unknown-I had painted for him six or seven pictures which are mostly bought by an American. As for the resemblance of style, that may make a few men talk for a season. Then it will be forgotten. I shall remain-he will have disappeared. I am content to take my chance with future work, even if at first I may appear to be a mere copyist of Mr. Alec Feilding.'

'And you, Effie?'

'I agree with Mr. Lee,' she replied briefly. 'Let the past alone. I shall write more verses, and, perhaps, better verses.'

'Then I will go to him and tell him that he need fear nothing. We shall hold our tongues. But he is not to exhibit the picture that is in his studio. I will tell him that.'

'You will not actually go to him yourself, Armorel-alone-after what has passed?' asked Effie.

'Why not? He can do me no harm. He knows that he has been found out, and he is tormented by the fear of what we shall do next. I bring him relief. His reputation is secured-that is to say, it will be the reputation of a man who stopped at thirty, in the fulness of his first promise and his best powers, and did no more work.'

'Oh!' cried Effie. 'I thought he was so clever! I thought that his desire to be thought a poet was only a little infirmity of temper, which would pass. And, after all, to think that--' Here the poet looked at the painter, and the painter looked at the poet-but neither spoke the thought: 'How could you-you, with your pencil: how could you-you, with your pen-consent to the iniquity of so great a fraud?'

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