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The Pool in the Desert By Sara Jeannette Duncan Characters: 11036

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


The art of the photographer usually arouses in me all that is splenetic, and I had not submitted myself to him for years before Dora made such a preposterous point of it-years in which, as I sadly explained to her, I might have submitted to the ordeal with much more 'pleasing' results. She had often insisted before, but I could never see that she made out a particularly good case for the operation until one afternoon when she showed me the bold counterfeit presentment of an Assistant Adjutant-General or some such person, much flattered as to features but singularly faithful in its reproduction of the straps and buttons attached. To my post also there belongs a uniform and a cocked hat sufficiently dramatic, but persons who serve the State primarily with the intelligence are supposed to have a mind above buttons; and when I decided that my photograph should compete with the Assistant Adjutant-General's, I gave him every sartorial advantage. I gathered that the offer, cabinet size, of this gentleman had been a spontaneous one; that certainly could not be said of mine. Most unwillingly I turned one morning into Kauffer's; and I can not now imagine why I did it, for emulation of the Assistant Adjutant-General was really not motive enough, unless it was with an instinct prepared to stumble upon matter germane in an absurd degree to this little history.

I had the honour to be subjected to the searching analysis of Mr. Kauffer himself. It was he who placed the chair and arranged the screw, he who fixed the angle of my chin and gently disposed my fingers on my knee. He gave me, I remember, a recent portrait of the Viceroy to fix my eye upon, doubtless with the purpose of inspiring my countenance with the devotion which would sit suitably upon one of His Excellency's slaves, and when it was all over he conducted me into another apartment in order that I might see the very latest viceregal group-a domestic one, including the Staff. The walls of the room contained what is usually there, the enlarged photograph, the coloured photograph, the amateur theatrical group, the group of His Excellency's Executive Council, the native dignitary with a diamond-tipped aigrette in the front of his turban. The copy in oils of some old Italian landscape, very black and yellow, also held its invariable place, and above it, very near the ceiling, a line of canvases which, had I not been led past them to inspect our ruler and his family, who sat transfixed on an easel in a resplendent frame, would probably have escaped my attention. I did proper homage to the easel, and then turned to those pictures. It was plain enough who had painted them. Armour's broad brush stood out all over them. They were mostly Indian sporting subjects, the incident a trifle elliptical, the drawing unequal, but the verve and feeling unmistakeable, and colour to send a quiver of glorious acquiescence through you like a pang. What astonished me was the number of them; there must have been at least a dozen, all the same size and shape, all hanging in a line of dazzling repetition. Here then was the explanation of Armour's seeming curious lack of output, and plain denial of the supposition that he spent the whole of his time in doing the little wooden 'pochade' things whose sweetness and delicacy had so feasted our eyes elsewhere. It was part, no doubt, of his absolutely uncommercial nature-we had experienced together passages of the keenest embarrassment over my purchase of some of his studies-that he had not mentioned these more serious things exposed at Kauffer's; one had the feeling of coming unexpectedly on treasure left upon the wayside and forgotten.

'Hullo!' I said, at a standstill, 'I see you've got some of Mr. Armour's work there.'

Mr. Kauffer, with his hands behind him, made the sound which has its counterpart in a shrug. 'Yass,' he said, 'I haf some of Mr. Armour's work there. This one, that one, all those remaining pictures-they are all the work of Mr. Armour.'

'I didn't know that any of his things were to be seen outside his studio,' I observed.

'So? They are to be seen here. There is no objection.'

'Why should there be any objection?' I demanded, slightly nettled. 'People must see them before they buy them.'

'Buy them!' Kauffer's tone was distinctly exasperated. 'Who will buy these pictures? Nobody. They are all, every one of them to REfuse.'

'If you know Mr. Armour well enough,' I said, 'you should advise him to exhibit some of his local studies and sketches here. They might sell better.'

My words seemed unfortunately chosen. Mr. Kauffer turned an honest angry red.

'Do I not know Mr. Armour well enough-und better!' he exclaimed. 'What this man wass doing when I in Paris find him oudt? Shtarving, mein Gott! I see his work. I see he paint a very goot horse, very goot animal subject. I bring him oudt on contract, five hundred rupees the monnth to paint for me, for my firm. Sir, it is now nine monnth. I am yoost four tousand five hundred rupees out of my pocket by this gentleman!'

To enable me to cope with this astonishing tale I asked Mr. Kauffer for a chair, which he obligingly gave me, and begged that he also would be seated. The files at my office were my business, and this was not, but no matter of Imperial concern seemed at the moment half so urgently to require probing. 'Surely,' I said, 'that is an unusual piece of enterprise for a photographic firm to employ an artist to paint on a salary. I don't know even a regular de

aler who does it.'

Mr. Kauffer at once and frankly explained. It was unusual and entirely out of the regular line of business. It was, in fact, one of the exceptional forms of enterprise inspired in this country by the native prince. We who had to treat with the native prince solely on lofty political lines were hardly likely to remember how largely he bulked in the humbler relations of trade; but there was more than one Calcutta establishment, Mr. Kauffer declared, that would be obliged to put up its shutters without this inconstant and difficult, but liberal customer. I waited with impatience. I could not for the life of me see Armour's connection with the native prince, who is seldom a patron of the arts for their own sakes.

'Surely,' I said, 'you could not depend on the Indian nobility to buy landscapes. They never do. I know of only one distinguished exception, and he lives a thousand miles from here, in Bengal.'

'No, not landscape,' returned Mr. Kauffer; 'but that Indian nobleman will buy his portrait. We send our own man-photographic artist-to his State, and he photograph the Chief and his arab, the Chief and his Prime Minister, the Chief in his durbar, palace, gardens, stables-everything. Presently the Chief goes on a big shoot. He says he will not have a plain photograph-besides, it is difficult. He will have a painting, and he will pay.'

'Ah,' I said, 'I begin to see.'

'You see? Then I send this Armour. Look!' Mr. Kauffer continued with rising excitement, baited apparently by the unfortunate canvas to which he pointed, 'when Armour go to make that I say you go paint ze Maharajah of Gridigurh spearing ze wild pig. You see what he make?'

'Well,' I said, 'it is a wonderfully spirited, dashing thing, and the treatment of all that cane-brake and jungle grass is superb.'

'Ze treatment-pardon me, sir, I overboil-do you know which is ze Maharajah?'

'I can't say I do.'

'Neider does he. Ze Maharajah refuse zat picture; he is a good fellow, too. He says it is a portrait of ze pig.'

'But it is so good,' I protested, 'of the pig.'

'But that does not interest the Maharajah, you onderstand, no. You see this one? Nawab of Kandore on his State elephant.'

No doubt about it,' I said. 'I know the Nawab well, the young scoundrel. How dignified he looks!'

There was a note of real sorrow in Kauffer's voice. 'Dignified? Oh, yes; dignified, but, you observe, also black. The Nawab will not be painted black. At once it is on my hands.'

'But he is black,' I remonstrated. 'He's the darkest native I've ever seen among the nobility.'

'No matter for that. He will not be black. When I photograph that Nawab-any nawab-I do not him black make. But ziss ass of Armour-ach!'

It was a fascinating subject, and I could have pursued it all along the line of poor Armour's rejected canvases, but the need to get away from Kauffer with his equal claim upon my sympathy was too great. To have cracked my solemn mask by a single smile would have been to break down irrepressibly, and never since I set foot in India had I felt a parallel desire to laugh and to weep. There was a pang in it which I recognize as impossible to convey, arising from the point of contact, almost unimaginable yet so clear before me, of the uncompromising ideals of the atelier and the naive demands of the Oriental, with an unhappy photographer caught between and wriggling. The situation was really monstrous, the fatuous rejection of all that fine scheming and exquisite manipulation, and it did not grow less so as Mr. Kauffer continued to unfold it. Armour had not, apparently, proceeded to the scene of his labours without instructions. In the pig-sticking delineation he had been specially told that the Maharajah and the pig were to be in the middle, with the rest nowhere and nothing between. Other injunctions were as clear, and as clearly disregarded. Armour, like the Maharajahs, had simply 'REfuse' to abandon his premeditated conceptions of how the thing should be done. And here was the result, for the laughter of the gods and anybody else that might see. I asked Kauffer unguardedly if no sort of pressure could be brought to bear upon these chaps to make them pay up. His face beaming with hope and intelligence, he suggested that I should approach the Foreign Office in his behalf; but this I could not quite see my way to. The coercion of native rulers, I explained, was a difficult and a dangerous art, and to insist, for example, that one of them should recognize his own complexion might be to run up a disproportionate little bill of our own. I did, however, compound something with Kauffer; I hope it wasn't a felony. 'Look here,' I said to Kauffer, 'this isn't official, you know, in any way, but how would it do to write that scamp Kandore a formal letter regretting that the portrait does not suit him, and asking his permission to dispose of it to me? Of course it is yours to do as you like with already, but that is no reason why you shouldn't ask. I should like it, but the Porcha tiger beat will do as well.'

Kauffer nearly fell upon my neck.

'That Kandore will buy it to put in one bonfire first,' he assured me, and I sincerely hoped for his sake that it would be the case.

'Of course it's understood,' I bethought me to say, 'that I get it, if I do get it, at Mr. Armour's price. I'm not a Maharajah, you know, and it isn't a portrait of me.'

'Of course!' said Kauffer, 'but I sink I sell you that Porcha; it is ze best of ze two.'

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