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Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 18510

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


'I am so very pleased to see you here, Mr. Stephenson.' Mrs. Feilding welcomed him with her sweetest and most gracious smile. 'To attract our few really sincere critics-there are so many incompetent pretenders-as well as the leaders in all the Arts is my great ambition. And now you have come.'

'You are very kind,' said Dick, blushing. I dare say he is a really great critic at the hours when he is not a most superior clerk in the Admiralty. At the same time, one is not often told the whole, the naked, the gratifying truth.

'To have a salon, that is my desire: to fill it with men of light and leading. Now you have broken the ice, you will come often, will you not? Every Sunday evening, at least. My husband will be most pleased to find you here.'

'Again, you are very kind.'

'We saw you yesterday afternoon at that poor boy's matinée; did we not? The crush was too great for us to exchange a word with you. What do you think of the piece?'

'I always liked it. I was present, you know, at the reading that night.'

'Oh yes; the reading-Armorel Rosevean's Reading. Yes. Though that hardly gave one an idea of the play.'

'The piece went very well indeed. I should think it will catch on; but of course the public are very capricious. One never knows whether they will take to a thing or not. To my mind there is every prospect of success. In any case, young Wilmot has shown that he possesses poetical and dramatic powers of a very high order indeed. He seems the most promising of the men before us at present. That is, if he keeps up to the standard of this first effort.'

'Ye-es? Of course we must discount some of the promise. You have heard, for instance, that my husband lent his advice and assistance?'

'He said so, after the reading, did he not?'

'Nobody knows, Mr. Stephenson,' she clasped her hands and turned those eyes of limpid blue upon the young man, 'how many successes my husband has helped to make by his timely assistance! What he did to this particular play I do not know, of course. During the reading and during yesterday's performance, I seemed to hear his voice through all the acts. It haunted me. But Alec said nothing. He sat in silence, smiling, as if he had never heard the words before. Oh! It is wonderful! And now-not a word of recognition! You help people to climb up, and then they pretend-they pretend-to have got up by their own exertions! Not that Alec expects gratitude or troubles himself much about these things, but, naturally, I feel hurt. And oh! Mr. Stephenson, what must be the conscience of the man-how can he bear to live-who goes about the world pretending-pretending,' she shook her head sadly, 'pretending to have written other men's works!'

'Men will do anything, I suppose. This kind of assistance ought, however, to be recognised. I will make some allusion to it in my notice of the play. Meantime, if I can read the future at all, Master Archie Wilmot's fortune is made, and he will.'

'Mr. Roland Lee showed his picture that night. He had just come out of a madhouse, had he not?'

'Not quite that. He failed, and dropped out. But what he did with himself or how he lived for three years I do not exactly know. He has returned, and never alludes to that time.'

'And he exactly imitates my husband, I am told.'

'No, no-not exactly. The resemblance is close, only an experienced critic'-Oh! Dick Stephenson!-'could discern the real differences of treatment.' Mrs. Feilding smiled. 'But I knew him before he disappeared, and I assure you his method was then the same as it is now. Very much like your husband's style, yet with a difference.'

'I am glad there is a difference. An artist ought, at least, to have a style of his own. You know, I suppose, that Armorel has gone away?'

'I have heard so.'

'It became possible for us at last to acknowledge things. So I joined my husband. Armorel went home-to her own home in the Scilly Islands. She took Effie Wilmot with her. Indeed, the girl's flatteries have become necessary to her. I fear she was unhappy, poor child! I sometimes think, Mr. Stephenson, that she saw too much of Alec. Of course he was a good deal with us, and I could not tell her the whole truth, and-and-girls' heads are easily turned, you know, when genius seems to be attracted. Poor Armorel!' she sighed, playing with her fan. 'Time, I dare say, will help her to forget.'

'It is a pity,' said Dick Stephenson, changing the subject, because he did not quite believe this version, 'it is a pity that Mr. Feilding, who can give such admirable advice to a young dramatist, does not write a play himself.'

'Hush!' she looked all round, 'nobody is listening. Alec has written a play, Mr. Stephenson. It is a three-act drama-a tragedy-strong-oh! so strong-so strong!' She clasped her hands again, letting the fan dangle from her wrist. 'So effective! I don't know when I have seen a play with more striking situations. It is accepted. But not a word has yet been said about it.'

'May I say something about it? Will you let me be the first to announce it, and to give some little account of it?'

'I will ask Alec. If he consents, I will tell you more about the play. And, my dear Mr. Stephenson, you, one of our old friends, really ought to do some work for the paper.'

'I have not been asked,' he replied, colouring, for he was still at that stage when the dramatic critic is flattered by being invited to write for a paper.

'You shall be. How do you like the paper?'

'It has so completely changed its character, one would think that the whole staff had been changed. Everybody reads it now, and everybody takes it, I believe.'

'The circulation has gone up by leaps and bounds. It is really wonderful. But, Mr. Stephenson, here is one of the reasons. Give me a little credit-poor me! I cannot write, but I can look on, and I have a pair of eyes, and I can see things. Now, I saw that Alec was killing himself with writing. Every week a story; also, every week, a poem; every week an original article; and then those notes. I made him stop. I said to him, "Stamp your own individuality on every line of the paper; but write it yourself no longer. Edit it." You see, it is not as if Alec had to prove his powers: he has proved them already. So he can afford to let others do the hard work, while he adds the magic touch-the touch of genius-that touch that goes to the heart. And the result you see.'

'Yes; the brightest-cleverest-most varied paper that exists.'

'With a large staff. Formerly Alec and one or two others formed the whole staff. Well, Mr. Stephenson, I know that Alec is going to ask you to do some of the dramatic criticism, and if you consent I shall be very pleased to have been the first to mention it.'

* * *

It will be understood from this conversation that the new methods of managing the business of the Firm were essentially different from the old. The paper had taken a new departure: it prospered. It was understood that the editor put less of his own work into it; but the articles, verses, and stories were all unsigned, and no one could tell exactly which were his papers: therefore, as all were clever, his reputation remained on the same level. Also, there was a thick and solid mass of advertisements each week, which represented public confidence widespread and deep. 'Give me,' cries the proprietor of a paper, 'the confidence of advertisers. That is proof enough of popularity.'

* * *

Mrs. Feilding moved to another part of the room, and began to talk with another man.

'My husband,' she said, 'has prepared a little surprise for us this evening. I say for us, because I have not seen what he has to show-since it came back from the frame-maker.'

'It is a picture, then?'

'A picture in a new style. He has abandoned for a time his coast and sea-shore studies. This is in quite a new style. I think-I hope-that it will be liked as well as his old.'

'He is indeed a wonderful man!'

'Is he not?' She laughed-a low and musical-a contented and a happy laugh. 'Is he not? You never know what Alec may be going to do next.'

Mrs. Feilding's Sundays have already become a great success: such a success as a woman of the world may desire, and a clever woman can achieve. There is once more, as she says proudly, a salon in London. If it does not quite take the lead that she pretends in Art and Letters, it is always full. Men who go there once, go again: they find the kind of entertainment that they like: plenty of people for talk, to begin with. Then, every man is made, by the hostess, to feel that his own position in the literary and artistic world is above even his own estimate: that is soothing: in fact, the note of the salon is appreciation-not mutual admiration, as the envious do enviously affirm. Moreover, everybody in the salon has done something-perhaps not much, but something. And then the place is one where the talk is delightfully free, almost as free as in a club smoking-room. Every evening, again, there is some kind of entertainment, but not too much, because the salon has to keep up its reputation for conversation, and music destroys conversation. 'Let us,' said Mrs. Feilding, 'revive the dead art of conversation. Let the

men in this room make their reputation as they did a hundred years ago, for brilliant talk.' I have not heard that Mrs. Feilding has yet developed a talker like the mighty men of old: perhaps one will come along later: those, however, who have looked into the subject with an ambition in that line, and have ascertained the nature of the epigrams, repartees, retorts, quips, jokes, and personal observations attributed to Messrs. Douglas Jerrold and his brilliant circle are doubtful of reviving that Art except in a modified and a greatly chastened, even an effeminate form.

The entertainments provided by Mrs. Feilding consisted of a little music or a little singing-always by a young and little-known professional: there was generally something in the fashion-young lady with a banjo or a tum-tum, or anything which was popular: young gentleman to whistle: young actor or actress to give a character sketch: sometimes a picture sent in for private exhibition: sometimes a little poem printed for the evening and handed about-one never knew what would be done.

But always the hostess would be gracious, winning, caressing, smiling, and talking incessantly: always she would be gliding about the room, making her friends talk: the happy wife of the most accomplished and most versatile man in London. And always that illustrious genius himself, calm and grave, taking Art seriously, laying down with authority the opinion that should be held to a circle who surrounded him. The circle consisted chiefly of women and of young men. Older men, with that reluctance to listen to the voice of Authority which distinguishes many after thirty, held aloof and talked with each other. 'Alec Feilding,' said one of them, expressing the general opinion, 'may be a mighty clever fellow, but he talks like a dull book. You've heard it all before. And you've heard it better put. It's wonderful that such a clever dog should be such a dull dog.'

They came, however, in spite of the dulness: the wife would have carried off a hundred dull dogs.

As in certain earlier and better-known circles, the men greatly outnumbered the women. 'I am not in love with my own sex,' said Mrs. Feilding, quite openly. 'I prefer the society of men.' But some women came of their own accord, and some were brought by their fathers, husbands, lovers, and brothers. No one could say that ladies kept away from Mrs. Feilding's Sunday evenings.

This evening, the principal thing was the uncovering of a new picture-Mr. Feilding's new picture.

At ten o'clock the painter-poet, in obedience to a whisper from his wife, moved slowly, followed by his ring of disciples-male and female-all young-a callow brood-to the upper end of the room, where was an easel. A picture stood upon it, but a large green cloth was thrown over it.

'I thought,' said Mr. Alec Feilding, in his most dignified manner, 'that you would like to see this picture before anyone else. It is one of the little privileges of our Sunday evenings to show things to each other. Some of you may remember,' he said, with the true humility of genius, 'that I have exhibited, hitherto, chiefly pictures of coast scenery. I have always been of opinion that a man should not confine himself to one class of subjects. His purchasing public may demand it, but the true artist should disregard all and any considerations connected with money.'

'Your true artist hasn't always got a weekly journal to fall back upon,' growled a young A.R.A. who did stick to one class of subjects. He had been brought there. As a rule, artists are not found at Mrs. Feilding's, nor do they rally round the cleverest man in London.

'I say,' repeated the really great man, 'that the wishes of buyers must not be weighed for an instant in comparison with the true interests of Art.'

'Like a copy-book,' murmured the Associate.

'Therefore, I have attempted a new line altogether. I have made new studies. They have cost a great deal of time and trouble and anxious thought. It is quite a new departure. I anticipate, beforehand, what you will say at first. But-Eccolo!'

He lifted the green cloth. At the same moment his wife turned up a light that stood beside the painting. He disclosed a really very beautiful painting: a group of trees beside a shallow pool of water: the trees were leafless: a little snow lay at their roots: the pool was frozen over: there was a little mist over the ground, and between the trunks one saw the setting sun.

He disclosed a really very beautiful painting.

'By Jove! It's a Belgian picture!' cried the Associate. And, indeed, you may see hundreds of pictures exactly in this style in the Brussels galleries, where the artists are never tired of painting the flat country and the trees, at every season and under every light.

'Precisely,' said the painter. 'That is the remark which I anticipated. Let us call it-if you like-a Belgian picture. The subject is English: the treatment, perhaps, Belgian. For my part, I am not too proud to learn something from the Belgians.'

The Associate touched the man nearest him-an artist, not yet an Associate-by the arm.

'Ghosts!' he murmured. 'Spooks and ghosts!'

'Spectres!' replied the other. 'Phantoms and bogies!'

'A Haunted Studio!' said the Associate. 'My knees totter! My hair stands on end!'

'I tremble-I have goose-flesh!' replied his friend.

'Let us-let us run to the Society of Psychical Research!' whispered the Associate.

'Let us swiftly run!' said the other.

They fled, swiftly and softly. Only Mrs. Feilding observed their flight. She also gathered from their looks the subject of their talk. And she resolved that she would not, henceforth, encourage artists at her Sunday evenings. She turned to Dick Stephenson.

'You, Mr. Stephenson,' she said, 'who are a true critic and understand work, tell me what you think of the picture.'

The great critic-he was not really a humbug; he was very fond of looking at pictures; only, you see, he was not an artist-advanced to the front, bent forward, considered a few moments, and then spoke.

'A dexterous piece of work-truly dexterous in the highest sense: full of observation intelligently and poetically rendered: careful: truthful: with intense feeling. I could hardly have believed that any English painter was capable of work in this genre.'

The people all gazed upon the canvas with rapt admiration: they murmured that it was wonderful and beautiful. Then Alec covered up the picture, and somebody began to play something.

* * *

'Alec,' said Mr. Jagenal, who seldom came to these gatherings, 'I congratulate you. Your picture is very good. And in a new style. When will you be content to settle down in the jog-trot that the British public love?'

'Let me change my subject sometimes. When I am tired of trees I will go back, perhaps, to the coast and seapieces.'

'Ah! But take care. There's a fellow coming along-- By the way, Alec, I have made a discovery lately.'

'What is it?'

'About those rubies. Why, man'-for Alec turned suddenly pale-'you remember that business still?'

'Indeed I do,' he replied. 'And I am not likely to forget it in a hurry.'

'My dear boy, to paint such pictures is worth many such bags of precious stones, if you will only think so.'

'What's your discovery?' Alec asked hoarsely.

'Well; I have found, quite accidentally, the eldest grandchild of the second daughter-your great-aunt.'

'Oh!' Again he changed colour. 'Then you will, I suppose, hand him over the things.'

'Yes, certainly. I have sent for him. He does not yet know what I want him for. And I shall give him the jewels in obedience to Armorel's instructions. Alec, I have always been desperately sorry for your unfortunate discovery.'

'It caused a pang, certainly. And who is my cousin?'

'Well, Alec, I will not tell you until I have made quite sure. Not that there is any doubt. But I had better not. You will perhaps like to make his acquaintance. Perhaps you know him already. I don't say, mind.'

'Well, Sir,' said Alec, 'when he realises the extent and value of this windfall, I expect he will show a depth of gratitude which will astonish you. I do, indeed.'

* * *

'Zoe,' he said, when everybody was gone, 'are you quite sure that in the matter of those rubies your action can never be discovered?'

'Anything may be discovered. But I think-I believe-that it will be difficult. Why?'

'Because my cousin, the grandson of Robert Fletcher's second daughter, has been found, and he will receive the jewels to-morrow. And when he finds out what they are worth--'

'Then, Alec, it will be asked who had the jewels. They were taken to the bank by Mr. Jagenal and taken thence to Mr. Jagenal. What have you-what have I-to do with them? Don't think about it, Alec. It has nothing to do with us. No suspicion can possibly attach to us. Forget the whole business. The evening went off very well. The picture struck everybody very much. And I've laid the foundation for curiosity about the play. And as for the paper, I was going into the accounts this morning: it is paying at the rate of three thousand a year. Alec, you have never until now been really and truly the cleverest man in London.'

* * *

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