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   Chapter 5 No.5

Muslin By George Augustus Moore Characters: 8694

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Mr. Barton, or Arthur, as he was usually called, always returned to his studio immediately after breakfast, and, as Mrs. Barton had domestic duties to attend to, the girls were left to themselves to appreciate their return home from school and look forward to their entry into the life of the world.

The two girls descended the stairs with their summer hats and sunshades, and Alice stopped at the door of the schoolroom. It was here that, only a few years ago, she had interceded with the dear old governess, and aided Olive to master the difficulties against which the light brain could not contend singly-the hardships of striving to recall the number of continents the world possesses, the impossibility of learning to say definitely if seven times four made twenty-eight or thirty.

At the end of the passage under the stairs the children used to play for hours, building strange houses out of boxes of bricks, or dressing dolls in fantastic costumes. Olive had forgotten, but Alice remembered, and her thoughts wandered through the land of toys. The box of bricks had come from an aunt that was now dead; the big doll mother had brought from Dublin when she went to see the oculist about her eyes; and then there were other toys that suggested nothing, and whose history was entirely forgotten. But the clock that stood in the passage was well remembered, and Alice thought how this old-fashioned timepiece used to be the regulator and confidant of all their joys and hopes. She saw herself again listening, amid her sums, for the welcome voice that would call her away; she saw herself again examining its grave face and striving to calculate, with childish eagerness, if she would have time to build another Tower of Babel or put another tack in the doll's frock before the ruthless iron tongue struck the fatal hour.

'Olive, is it possible you don't remember how we used to listen to the dear old clock when we were children?'

'You are a funny girl, Alice; you remember everything. Fancy thinking of that old clock! I hated it, for it brought me to lessons when it struck eleven.'

'Yes, but it brought you out to play when it struck twelve. See! the hands are just on the hour; let us wait to hear it strike.'

The girls listened vainly for a sound; and Alice felt as if she had been apprised of the loss of a tried friend when one of the servants told them the clock had been broken some years ago.

The kitchen windows looked on a street made by a line of buildings parallel with the house. These were the stables and outhouses, and they formed one of the walls of the garden that lay behind, sheltered on the north side by a thin curtain of beeches, filled every evening with noisy rooks; and, coming round to the front of the house, the girls lingered beneath the chestnut-trees, and in the rosary, where a little fountain played when visitors were present, and then stood leaning over the wooden paling that defended the pleasure-ground from the cows that grazed in the generous expanse of grass extending up to the trees of the Lawler domain. Brookfield was therefore without pretensions-it could hardly be called 'a place'-but, manifolded in dreams past and present, it extended indefinitely before Alice's eyes, and, absorbed by the sad sweetness of retrospection, she lingered while Olive ran through the rosary from the stables and back again, calling to her sister, making the sunlight ring with her light laughter. She refrained, therefore, from reminding her that it was here they used to play with Nell, the old setter, and that it was there they gave bread to the blind beggar; Olive had no heart for these things, and when she admired the sleek carriage-horses that had lately been bought to take them to balls and tennis-parties, Alice thought of the old brown mare that used to take them for such delightful drives.

Suddenly Mrs. Barton's voice was heard calling. Milord had arrived: they were to go into the garden and pick a few flowers to make a buttonhole for him. Olive darted off at once to execute the commission, and soon returned with a rose set round with stephanotis. The old lord, seated in the dining-room, in an arm-chair which Mrs. Barton had drawn up to the window so that he might enjoy the air, sipped his sherry, and Alice, as she entered the room, heard him say:

'Quand on aim

e on est toujours bien portant.'

She stopped abruptly, and Mrs. Barton, who already suspected her of secret criticism, whispered, as she glided across the room:

'Now, my dear girl, go and talk to Milord and make yourself agreeable.'

The girl felt she was incapable of this, and it pained her to listen to her sister's facile hilarity, and her mother's coaxing observations. Milord did not, however, neglect her; he made suitable remarks concerning her school successes, and asked appropriate questions anent her little play of King Cophetua. But whatever interest the subject possessed was found in the fact that Olive had taken the part of the Princess; and, re-arranging the story a little, Mrs. Barton declared, with a shower of little laughs, and many waves of the white hands, that 'my lady there had refused a King; a nice beginning, indeed, and a pleasant future for her chaperon.'

The few books the house possessed lay on the drawing-room table, or were piled, in dusty confusion, in the bookcase in Mr. Barton's studio; and, thinking of them, Alice determined she would pay her father a visit in his studio.

At her knock he ceased singing Il Balen, and cried, 'Come in!'

'I beg your pardon, papa; I'm afraid I am interrupting you.'

'Not at all-not at all, I assure you; come in. I will have a cigarette; there is nothing like reconsidering one's work through the smoke of a cigarette. The most beautiful pictures I have ever seen I have seen in the smoke of a cigarette; nothing can beat those, particularly if you are lying back looking up at a dirty ceiling.'

War and women were the two poles of Arthur's mind. Cain shielding his Wife from Wild Beasts had often been painted, numberless Bridals of Triermain; and as for the Rape of the Sabines, it seemed as if it could never be sufficiently accomplished. Opposite the door was a huge design representing Samson and Delilah; opposite the fireplace, Julius Caesar overturning the Altars of the Druids occupied nearly the entire wall. Nymphs and tigers were scattered in between; canvases were also propped against almost every piece of furniture.

At last Alice's eyes were suddenly caught by a picture representing three women bathing. It was a very rough sketch, but, before she had time to examine it, Arthur turned it against the wall. Why he hid two pictures from her she could not help wondering. It could not be for propriety's sake, for there were nudities on every side of her.

Then, lying upon the sofa, he explained how So-and-so had told him, when he was a boy in London, that no one since Michael Angelo had been able to design as he could; how he had modelled a colossal statue of Lucifer before he was sixteen, how he had painted a picture of the Battle of Arbela, forty feet by twenty, before he was eighteen; but that was of no use, the world nowadays only cared for execution, and he could not wait until he had got the bit of ribbon in Delilah's hair to look exactly like silk.

Alice listened to her father babbling, her heart and her mind at variance. A want of knowledge of painting might blind her to the effects of his pictures (there was in them all a certain crude merit of design), but it was impossible not to see that they were lacking in something, in what she could not say, having no knowledge of painting. Nor was she sure that her father believed in his pictures, though he had just declared they had all the beauties of Raphael and other beauties besides. He had a trick of never appearing to thoroughly believe in them and in himself. She listened interested and amused, not knowing how to take him. She had been away at school for nearly ten years, coming home for rare holidays, and was, therefore, without any real knowledge of her parents. She understood her father even less than her mother; but she was certain that if he were not a great genius he might have been one, and she resolved to find out Lord Dungory's opinions on her father. But the opportunity for five minutes quiet chat behind her mother's back did not present itself. As soon as he arrived her mother sent her out of the room on some pretext more or less valid, and at the end of the week the gowns that had been ordered in Dublin arrived: ecstasy consumed the house, and she heard him say that he would give a great dinner-party to show them off.

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