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A Cathedral Singer By James Lane Allen Characters: 16824

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Slowly on Morningside Heights rises the Cathedral of St. John the Divine: standing on a high rock under the Northern sky above the long wash of the untroubled sea, above the wash of the troubled waves of men.

It has fit neighbors. Across the street to the north looms the many-towered gray-walled Hospital of St. Luke-cathedral of our ruins, of our sufferings and our dust, near the cathedral of our souls.

Across the block to the south is situated a shed-like two-story building with dormer-windows and a crumpled three-sided roof, the studios of the National Academy of Design; and under that low brittle skylight youth toils over the shapes and colors of the visible vanishing paradise of the earth in the shadow of the cathedral which promises an unseen, an eternal one.

At the rear of the cathedral, across the roadway, stands a low stone wall. Just over the wall the earth sinks like a precipice to a green valley bottom far below. Out here is a rugged slope of rock and verdure and forest growth which brings into the city an ancient presence, nature-nature, the Elysian Fields of the art school, the potter's field of the hospital, the harvest field of the church.

This strip of nature fronts the dawn and is called Morningside Park. Past the foot of it a thoroughfare stretches northward and southward, level and wide and smooth. Over this thoroughfare the two opposite-moving streams of the city's traffic and travel rush headlong. Beyond the thoroughfare an embankment of houses shoves its mass before the eyes, and beyond the embankment the city spreads out over flats where human beings are as thick as river reeds.

Thus within small compass humanity is here: the cathedral, the hospital, the art school, and a strip of nature, and a broad highway along which, with their hearth-fires flickering fitfully under their tents of stone, are encamped life's restless, light-hearted, heavy-hearted Gipsies.

* * *

It was Monday morning and it was nine o'clock. Over at the National Academy of Design, in an upper room, the members of one of the women's portrait classes were assembled, ready to begin work. Easels had been drawn into position; a clear light from the blue sky of the last of April fell through the opened roof upon new canvases fastened to the frames. And it poured down bountifully upon intelligent young faces. The scene was a beautiful one, and it was complete except in one particular: the teacher of the class was missing-the teacher and a model.

Minutes passed without his coming, and when at last he did enter the room, he advanced two or three steps and paused as though he meant presently to go out again. After his usual quiet good-morning with his sober smile, he gave his alert listeners the clue to an unusual situation:

"I told the class that to-day we should begin a fresh study. I had not myself decided what this should be. Several models were in reserve, any one of whom could have been used to advantage at this closing stage of the year's course. Then the unexpected happened: on Saturday a stranger, a woman, came to see me and asked to be engaged. It is this model that I have been waiting for down-stairs."

Their thoughts instantly passed to the model: his impressive manner, his respectful words, invested her with mystery, with fascination. His countenance lighted up with wonderful interest as he went on:

"She is not a professional; she has never posed. In asking me to engage her she proffered barely the explanation which she seemed to feel due herself. I turn this explanation over to you because she wished, I think, that you also should not misunderstand her. It is the fee, then, that is needed, the model's wage; she has felt the common lash of the poor. Plainly here is some one who has stepped down from her place in life, who has descended far below her inclinations, to raise a small sum of money. Why she does so is of course her own sacred and delicate affair. But the spirit in which she does this becomes our affair, because it becomes a matter of expression with her. This self-sacrifice, this ordeal which she voluntarily undergoes to gain her end, shows in her face; and if while she poses, you should be fortunate enough to see this look along with other fine things, great things, it will be your aim to transfer them all to your canvases-if you can."

He smiled at them with a kind of fostering challenge to their over-confident impulses and immature art. But he had not yet fully brought out what he had in mind about the mysterious stranger and he continued:

"We teachers of art schools in engaging models have to take from human material as we find it. The best we find is seldom or never what we would prefer. If I, for instance, could have my choice, my students would never be allowed to work from a model who repelled the student or left the student indifferent. No students of mine, if I could have my way, should ever paint from a model that failed to call forth the finest feelings. Otherwise, how can your best emotions have full play in your work; and unless your best emotions enter into your work, what will your work be worth? For if you have never before understood the truth, try to realize it now: that you will succeed in painting only through the best that is in you; just as only the best in you will ever carry you triumphantly to the end of any practical human road that is worth the travel; just as you will reach all life's best goals only through your best. And in painting remember that the best is never in the eye, for the eye can only perceive, the eye can only direct; and the best is never in the hand, for the hand can only measure, the hand can only move. In painting the best comes from emotion. A human being may lack eyes and be none the poorer in character; a human being may lack hands and be none the poorer in character; but whenever in life a person lacks any great emotion, that person is the poorer in everything. And so in painting you can fail after the eye has gained all necessary knowledge, you can fail after your hand has received all necessary training, either because nature has denied you the foundations of great feeling, or because, having these foundations, you have failed to make them the foundations of your work.

"But among a hundred models there might not be one to arouse such emotion. Actually in the world, among the thousands of people we know, how few stir in us our best, force us to our best! It is the rarest experience of our lifetimes that we meet a man or a woman who literally drives us to the realization of what we really are and can really do when we do our best. What we all most need in our careers is the one who can liberate within us that lifelong prisoner whose doom it is to remain a captive until another sets it free-our best. For we can never set our best free by our own hands; that must always be done by another."

They were listening to him with a startled recognition of their inmost selves. He went on to drive home his point about the stranger:

"I am going to introduce to you, then, a model who beyond all the others you have worked with will liberate in you your finer selves. It is a rare opportunity. Do not thank me. I did not find her. Life's storms have blown her violently against the walls of the art school; we must see to it at least that she be not further bruised while it becomes her shelter, her refuge. Who she is, what her life has been, where she comes from, how she happens to arrive here-these are privacies into which of course we do not intrude. Immediately behind herself she drops a curtain of silence which shuts away every such sign of her past. But there are other signs of that past which she cannot hide and which it is our privilege, our duty, the province of our art, to read. They are written on her face, on her hands, on her bearing; they are written all over her-the bruises of life's rudenesses, the lingering shadows of dark days, the unwounded pride once and the wounded pride now, the unconquerable will, a soaring spirit whose wings were meant for the upper air but which are broken and beat the dust. All these are sublime things to paint in any human countenance; they are the footprints of destiny on our faces. The greatest masters of the brush that the world has ever known could not have asked for anything greater. When you behold her, perhaps some of you

may think of certain brief but eternal words of Pascal: 'Man is a reed that bends but does not break.' Such is your model, then, a woman with a great countenance; the fighting face of a woman at peace. Now out upon the darkened battle-field of this woman's face shines one serene sun, and it is that sun that brings out upon it its marvelous human radiance, its supreme expression: the love of the mother. Your model is the beauty of motherhood, the sacredness of motherhood, the glory of motherhood: that is to be the portrait of her that you are to paint."

He stopped. Their faces glowed; their eyes disclosed depths in their natures never stirred before; from out those depths youthful, tender creative forces came forth, eager to serve, to obey. He added a few particulars:

"For a while after she is posed you will no doubt see many different expressions pass rapidly over her face. This will be a new and painful experience to which she will not be able to adapt herself at once. She will be uncomfortable, she will be awkward, she will be embarrassed, she will be without her full value. But I think from what I discovered while talking with her that she will soon grow oblivious to her surroundings. They will not overwhelm her; she will finally overwhelm them. She will soon forget you and me and the studio; the one ruling passion of her life will sweep back into consciousness; and then out upon her features will come again that marvelous look which has almost remodeled them to itself alone."

He added, "I will go for her. By this time she must be waiting down-stairs."

As he turned he glanced at the screens placed at that end of the room; behind these the models made their preparations to pose.

"I have arranged," he said significantly, "that she shall leave her things down-stairs."

It seemed long before they heard him on the way back. He came slowly, as though concerned not to hurry his model, as though to save her from the disrespect of urgency. Even the natural noise of his feet on the bare hallway was restrained. They listened for the sounds of her footsteps. In the tense silence of the studio a pin-drop might have been noticeable, a breath would have been audible; but they could not hear her footsteps. He might have been followed by a spirit. Those feet of hers must be very light feet, very quiet feet, the feet of the well-bred.

He entered and advanced a few paces and turned as though to make way for some one of far more importance than himself; and there walked forward and stopped at a delicate distance from them all a woman, bareheaded, ungloved, slender, straight, of middle height, and in life's middle years-Rachel Truesdale.

She did not look at him or at them; she did not look at anything. It was not her role to notice. She merely waited, perfectly composed, to be told what to do. Her thoughts and emotions did not enter into the scene at all; she was there solely as having been hired for work.

One privilege she had exercised unsparingly-not to offer herself for this employment as becomingly dressed for it. She submitted herself to be painted in austerest fidelity to nature, plainly dressed, her hair parted and brushed severely back. Women, sometimes great women, have in history, at the hour of their supreme tragedies, thus demeaned themselves-for the hospital, for baptism, for the guillotine, for the stake, for the cross.

But because she made herself poor in apparel, she became most rich in her humanity. There was nothing for the eye to rest upon but her bare self. And thus the contours of the head, the beauty of the hair, the line of it along the forehead and temples, the curvature of the brows, the chiseling of the proud nostrils and the high bridge of the nose, the molding of the mouth, the modeling of the throat, the shaping of the shoulders, the grace of the arms and the hands-all became conspicuous, absorbing. The slightest elements of physique and of personality came into view powerful, unforgetable.

She stood, not noticing anything, waiting for instructions. With the courtesy which was the soul of him and the secret of his genius for inspiring others to do their utmost, the master of the class glanced at her and glanced at the members of the class, and tried to draw them together with a mere smile of sympathetic introduction. It was an attempt to break the ice. For them it did break the ice; all responded with a smile for her or with other play of the features that meant gracious recognition. With her the ice remained unbroken; she withheld all response to their courteous overtures. Either she may not have trusted herself to respond; or waiting there merely as a model, she declined to establish any other understanding with them whatsoever. So that he went further in the kindness of his intention and said:

"Madam, this is my class of eager, warm, generous young natures who are to have the opportunity of trying to paint you. They are mere beginners; their art is still unformed. But you may believe that they will put their best into what they are about to undertake; the loyalty of the hand, the respect of the eye, the tenderness of their memories, consecration to their art, their dreams and hopes of future success. Now if you will be good enough to sit here, I will pose you."

He stepped toward a circular revolving-platform placed at the focus of the massed easels: it was the model's rack of patience, the mount of humiliation, the scaffold of exposure.

She had perhaps not understood that this would be required of her, this indignity, that she must climb upon a block like an old-time slave at an auction. For one instant her fighting look came back and her eyes, though they rested on vacancy, blazed on vacancy and an ugly red rushed over her face which had been whiter than colorless. Then as though she had become disciplined through years of necessity to do the unworthy things that must be done, she stepped resolutely though unsteadily upon the platform. A long procession of men and women had climbed thither from many a motive on life's upward or downward road.

He had specially chosen a chair for a three-quarter portrait, stately, richly carved; about it hung an atmosphere of high-born things.

Now, the body has definite memories as the mind has definite memories, and scarcely had she seated herself before the recollections of former years revived in her and she yielded herself to the chair as though she had risen from it a moment before. He did not have to pose her; she had posed herself by grace of bygone luxurious ways. A few changes in the arrangement of the hands he did make. There was required some separation of the fingers; excitement caused her to hold them too closely together. And he drew the entire hands into notice; he specially wished them to be appreciated in the portrait. They were wonderful hands: they looked eloquent with the histories of generations; their youthfulness seemed centuries old. Yet all over them, barely to be seen, were the marks of life's experience, the delicate but dread sculpture of adversity.

For a while it was as he had foreseen. She was aware only of the brutality of her position; and her face, by its confused expressions and quick changes of color, showed what painful thoughts surged. Afterward a change came gradually. As though she could endure the ordeal only by forgetting it and could forget it only by looking ahead into the happiness for which it was endured, slowly there began to shine out upon her face its ruling passion-the acceptance of life and the love of the mother glinting as from a cloud-hidden sun across the world's storm. When this expression had come out, it stayed there. She had forgotten her surroundings, she had forgotten herself. Poor indeed must have been the soul that would not have been touched by the spectacle of her, thrilled by her as by a great vision.

There was silence in the room of young workers. Before them, on the face of the unknown, was the only look that the whole world knows-the love and self-sacrifice of the mother; perhaps the only element of our better humanity that never once in the history of man kind has been misunderstood and ridiculed or envied and reviled.

Some of them worked with faces brightened by thoughts of devoted mothers at home; the eyes of a few were shadowed by memories of mothers alienated or dead.

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