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   Chapter 18 THE MASTERPIECE

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 23709

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The third day after the Mambare sailed found me southbound for Sydney, with Paris as my ultimate objective. The thought that a striking-possibly a great-picture might be painted about the face I had already done came to me the first time I threw back the veiling rug and encountered poor Allen's terror-haunted eyes staring back into my own. In deciding to finish the work in Paris I missed whatever chance I might have had of doing something really worth while. That I did finally complete a picture that was striking, arresting-something to set the tongues of the art world wagging for many a day-was due to the effort I had already made-The Face.

With small chance of being able to do anything for Hartley Allen-at that time believed to be permanently insane,-there was no reason for my remaining longer in Townsville. As nothing that the good Chief of Police had learned-or ever did learn, so far as I know-was calculated to connect me with his failure to run Ranga to earth, he, naturally made no objection to my leaving. The whole affair was a complete mystery to him. The disappearance of Rona was rated only as a minor mystery. The amusing part of it was that it never occurred to the dear man to connect the two. The last thing that I fixed my glass upon as my southbound boat steamed out of the harbour was a confused mass of wreckage, blurring darkly against the mangroves a few miles north of the town. It was all that the late storm had left of the grounded labour schooner, Cora Andrews.

Missing the P. & O. boat by twenty-four hours at Melbourne-too late to overtake it by train to Adelaide,-I found the next sailing was a Messageries Maritime steamer. Rather than wait a week for the next Orient liner, I booked for the French boat. This was all against my better judgment, especially in the light of the fact that I had work ahead. The one most effective influence I had known in keeping my use of absinthe at a point where it was not entirely beyond my control was the scathing if unspoken contempt of men of my own race for another of that race addicted to the insidious Latin habit. The nearest thing to a clean break-away I had ever made up to this time came after a stony-faced Cockney steward on a transatlantic Cunarder, who had put my whisky-drunken cabin-mate to bed one night as a matter of course, slammed the door with a snort when he surprised me pouring absinthe into cracked ice the following afternoon. In France, in French colonies, on French steamers-wherever the tri-colour flapped, in short-that restraining contempt was non-existent. There one found palliation, indulgence, even encouragement. That was the reason I had always become so abject a slave of the "Green Lady" during my sojourns in Paris, in Algiers, in Saigon, in Noumea. With no one to remind me of my shame, I forgot it, sinking ever lower and lower the while. This time, it had been my plan so to occupy myself with work on my picture in Paris that I should be able to keep my absinthe appetite just about where I had managed to hold it during the last six months in Kai and Australia. It is quite possible I might have kept to this program had I caught the P. & O. from Melbourne, or had the sense to wait for another British boat. As it was, five weeks of dolce far niente were too much for me. By the time we reached Suez, I was seeing so green that the desert banks of the Canal looked like verdant lawns to me, and at Marseilles they took me straight from the ship to the hospital, pretty well all in mentally and physically. As my case presented some interesting complications of malaria and tropical anaemia, the doctors took a good deal of interest in it. Under the circumstances, I was dead lucky to get out of their hands at the end of a month.

Thoroughly disgusted with the world in general and myself in particular on the day I was discharged from the hospital, it was a toss-up for a few hours as to whether I should jump out for the Islands by the first boat, or push on to Paris. That I finally plumped for the latter was due more to the fact that there was no east-bound sailing for a couple of days, than to any faith that remained in my ability to get on with the picture. Considering all this, it seems to me that the effort I finally did pull myself together for was fairly creditable in its results.

It was The Face itself-after I had unpacked and set up the canvas in a studio that a former friend kindly placed at my disposal-that was responsible for finally jolting me into action. Even at the end of ten weeks, Hartley Allen's tortured features seemed as real to me as on the night I had finished transferring them from my burning brain to the canvas. It struck me then-as it seemed to strike the public later-as the nearest thing to flesh and blood ever flicked off the tip of an artist's brush; and I felt that I had only to daub in some kind of an ensemble around it to have a work that would at least give Parisian art circles something to talk about for a while.

It seemed to me that the most effective thing to do would be to make Allen, lashed to the schooner's wheel, the central and dominating figure on the canvas, and to have the other figures the creatures of his imagination-the phantoms conjured up by his reeling brain. These would include Bell, Rona, Ranga and a background of plague-stricken niggers. It was not to be-as we had planned the "Black-birder"-an attempt to portray some incident of the voyage. The "phantoms" were to be done in greys and blues, filmy and indistinct, to differentiate them from the solider flesh of the maniac tied to the wheel. It was not an uneffective conception, had I been up to carrying it out-which I wasn't.

By a remarkable coincidence, as I have already mentioned, The Face was in exactly the right place to fit into the ensemble I had planned. This was a good omen and I derived no little encouragement from it. Fearful of the effect that terror-stricken gaze might have upon my models, I stuck an opaque square of paper over the distorted features, with the intention of leaving it there until the rest of the picture was finished. This was a wise precaution, as the sequel proved.

The model whom I chanced to secure to pose for Allen's figure was an especially fortunate choice. He had recently finished spending six or eight hours a day lashed to a hollow canvas cross in connection with a mural decoration at some cathedral-Sacré C?ur, I believe it was,-so he stood up rather well under the strain being triced to the property steering-gear I had contrived to borrow from the Folies-Bergère, where the "marine" revue in which it had figured was just over. Considering the fact that I had never done anything but seascapes and was notably weak in anatomy, my work on this figure was far from being as bad as might have been expected. It was not seriously out of drawing, and, even with The Face covered up, one was conscious of an unmistakable suggestion of agony in the tensely-strained limbs and back-drawn torso. From the artistic side, I would undoubtedly have done better to have trimmed down my canvas and limited the picture to this single figure. This, however, never occurred to me until a long time afterwards. At the moment, my mind was quite incapable of running away from the track on which I had started it.

Although I knew that one of the things that must have been in Hartley Allen's mind was Bell's face, as he had described it to me-pain-twisted, with the lower lip bitten clean through, and a bar of light from the cracked binnacle slashing across it,-I could not bring myself to attempt to dramatize the sufferings of my friend. (Indeed, even at that time I had a guilty feeling that I was not doing the decent thing in using that of Allen in a picture to be exhibited to the public.) All that I did in Bell's case, therefore, was a back view of a huddled figure, sitting on the rail of the cockpit, with a half-empty whisky bottle rolling on the deck behind. It was not destined to draw much attention or comment one way or the other, for which I was duly thankful.

Ranga, as a consequence of being unable to find a model that would do him justice, I finally omitted. Rona came near to elimination for a similar reason, but in her case fortune, in the end, was more kind. It may be remembered that there was a so-called Hindu dancer leading the Oriental ballets at the Comique about this time. She was really an Eurasian half-caste-the daughter of a British "Tommy" and a Mahratta girl, born in Poona. With little of Rona's beauty of face and winsomeness of manner, she was still possessed of the same flaming temperament and a figure that might have been poured from the same mould. It was the lithe, sinewy, serpentine shape of her that caught my eye when I chanced to drop in at the Comique for a matinée of Marouf, and (as she was still a few strokes short of the crest of the wave of popularity on which she rode for the next season or two), I had little difficulty in persuading her to give me a few sittings. She insisted she was doing it for art's sake, but it was really vanity that brought her into line. Also, as transpired shortly, she had a very sharp weather eye for the main chance. In any event, the picture proved both her immediate making and her ultimate undoing. The advertising she got out of the fact that her living, breathing likeness had been painted into the most talked-about picture at the spring Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts doubled and trebled her salary several times in the course of the next year. But it was also a reproduction of that same picture in a Vienna art journal that was directly responsible for luring to Paris the young Serbian ex-prince who chopped the girl to pieces with a curved Arabian scimitar-a part of her dancing toggery-as she was dressing to go on at a gala night of A?da.

It had been my original intention to paint Rona issuing from the companionway, just as Allen had seen her rush out on the morning Bell died. This, however, was far from meeting with the approval of Keeora (that was what she called herself at the time; it was only in her hey-day that she was known as Kismeta), who insisted upon breaking in full length or not at all. I was so sodden with absinthe by this time, so sick of the whole job, so anxious to get quit of it for good, that I raised no objections. The flighty thing proposed a sort of near-aerial posture on the deck-house that was something like a cross between the wing-footed Mercury and one of Puck's getaways in Midsummer Night's Dream. Rather than lose the girl outright, I let her have her own way. Steadied by two or three convenient guy-wires and puffing contentedly at one of my hemp-doped cigarettes, she held her painful pose with a fortitude truly Oriental. I can see yet the queer little heart-shaped pucker that dented the muscle-knotted calf of her leg when she swung up to the tips of her toes.

I fancy it must have been a certain appeal the audacious minx made to my physical senses that prodded on my flagging energies. Everything that was left in me I devoted to making her absurd conception effective on its own account. To make it so as an integral part of the picture was, of course, out of the question. It is still a matter of a good deal of wonder to me that I succeeded as well as I did. The pirouetting figure on the Cora's deck-house might just as well have symbolized Peter Pan, or The Spirit of Spring, as Rona Rampant; but the fact remained that it was exceedingly pleasing to the eye. In this connection I thought an American tourist-from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line by his accent-expressed himself rather well. I overheard the remark on my first and only visit to the Salon. "If that little filly doan leave off kickin' up so neah them buck niggahs," he drawled

, "things ah suah fixin' fo' a lynchin' pa'ty. By cracky, if she doan look good enuf to eat!"

It was "them big buck niggahs" that were responsible for bringing my labours to a sudden end. I had managed to round up a half-dozen hulking Senegambians from the docks at Havre to pose for my plague-stricken Solomon Islanders, and for the first two or three days things went very well. I was striving for a sort of Doré-esque effect, by painting a tangled bunch of blacks writhing in the half-light of the shadowed waist of the schooner. The lazy brutes found lolling round on the studio floor a deal more congenial work than humping cotton bales, and I was getting on very encouragingly considering my wretched condition, when one of the prying rascals, taking advantage of a moment when my back was turned, turned down a corner of the patch that hid the face of the man lashed to the wheel. What damage was wrought was inflicted on such flimsy furniture as chanced to be in a direct line of flight from the "models' throne" to the door. Fortunately, the canvas was well to one side. The Senegalese, it seems, have a raw, red terror of the "Evil Eye."

That little episode brought to an end my work with models. I simply blocked in my plague-stricken blacks in a rough sort of way and let it go at that. The effect was hardly as crude as one would think. The remark of the Southern gentleman I have quoted proved that a man not unfamiliar with niggers could at least distinguish of what the tangle in the waist was intended to be made up.

I have definite recollection of only one further occasion on which I tried to work. The interval in which I had anything approximating command of my normal faculties had dwindled to a half-hour or so in the afternoon, and I quickly found that I was utterly unable to concentrate my mind sufficiently for connected effort even then. On the occasion I have mentioned, I knocked off dead after discovering that I was trying to decorate Keeora's brow with the wreath of maiden's hair fern that had crowned the aviating "Green Lady" in her flight of the night before. I chucked in my hand complete after that, and had the whole monkey-show packed off to the Selection Committee. As might have been expected, the picture nearly caused a riot in that temperamental bunch of "pickers," but, in the end, The Face won the day with them, just as it did with the public.

Of the furore created by "Hell's Hatches" in the Salon it will hardly be necessary for me to write. Most of the excitement it stirred up was traceable to the haunting horror of the face of the wretch tied to the wheel; the rest was due to its name, which only suggested itself to me at the last moment. Perhaps the fact that everyone was baffled from the outset in trying to discover the motif of the bizarre thing also contributed to the impulse of the whirlpool of morbid curiosity with which it was engulfed. And who could blame them for failing to discover any connection between a tied-up maniac, a hunched-up drunkard, a kicking-up dancer and a bunch of tangled-up niggers? The avalanche of surmises would have been highly diverting had not my sense of humour already fallen a victim to the apathy that was rapidly settling upon my mind and body.

My outstanding recollection of the whole affair is of a highly effective by-play staged by that keen little publicist, Keeora, who had become a bit piqued over the slowness of the Press to broadcast the identity of the lady dancing on the deck-house. Utterly indifferent, I had avoided the Grand Palais not only on the opening day of the Salon, but also during the week that followed, when it was reported that the Avenue Alexander III was at times blocked with the throngs striving to get within sight of the most intriguing picture shown in years. My telephone was disconnected; telegrams and letters by the stacks lay unopened; a pile of newspapers were unread. Growing more sullen and sodden day by day, I had eyes for nothing but the green bottle at my elbow and the constantly replenished glass of cracked ice by its side. All the rest of the world was one soft, verdant tunnel-nothing else. I had been drinking steadily for days, afraid to face the reaction that must inevitably follow the first break in the continuity of the flow of the life-saving trickle of green.

In a way, I suppose, it is Keeora I have to thank for the fact that, when I finally left my room in the Continental, it was to be headed for the Grand Palais instead of to La Morgue. I am quite convinced that nothing short of the violent eruption of hysteria that soulful lady brought off outside my door would have induced me to open it, and probably no one else in Paris could have been equal to just that kind of an outburst. In passionate French-Cockney, Keeora told how, after failing for days to reach me by 'phone and telegraph, she had at last come in person to bear me to the Salon to share with her our common triumph. That didn't move me greatly, but when she swore that she was going to stay until she "jolly well croaked, G'bly'me," unless I let her in, something inside of my head snapped and I gave way. (I always was like that with hysterical women.) When I opened the door I discovered that she was dressed in some Mogul princess sort of a rigout, and accompanied by an Italian Marchesa and two or three lesser satellites. Between them and my valet they got me dressed and down to a waiting carriage.

To get away from the mob at the main entrance, they took me around to the Avenue d'Antin side of the Grand Palais, where Keeora pointed out with glee that the Salon of the Société des Artistes Fran?ais, which had opened a week or two previous to that of the Beaux-Arts outfit, was almost deserted. "Et tout, mon cher Monseer W'itney, por raison de-de la grand success de 'Aykootillys don fur.'"

"And what might they be?" I asked dully, rather fancying some new sort of epidemic had broken out.

"Madame means to say 'Ecoutilles d'Enfer,'" began the Marchesa politely; "eet-eet ees-"

"Eat your bloomin' 'at!" cut in the lady impatiently, indignant that anyone could be so stupid as to have her Parisian interpreted to him. "Don't you twig me, old cock? That's wot them French Jo'nnys calls 'Ell's 'Atches."

The picture was extremely well hung, both for position and light; though whether this had come about as a consequence of a reshuffle after it had turned out to be the main drawing card, I did not learn. There was a roped-off area in front of it, and through this a number of perspiring attendants were feeding the crowd, working hard with tongue and hand to keep the chattering line in motion. Keeora called my attention to a woman who had fainted and was being carried out on a stretcher. "Bowls 'em over just like that right along," she giggled. "Six of 'em squealed and keeled back just w'ile I was 'angin' on 'ere yustidy. But it ain't me wot gets 'em," she hastened to explain; "it's that crazy bloke at the w'eel, wiv 'is bloomin' eyes borin' right through your chest an' raspin' up an' down your spine. Don't see wot you wanted to put 'im in for any'ow."

At a word from Keeora's sedulous satellites, the attendants opened up a line through the mob and cleared a space in front of the picture. Then, assuring herself with a critically comprehensive glance that the setting was all correct, she rushed in, threw her arms around my neck, kissed me smackingly on both cheeks, French-fashion, and began declaiming in her best Parisio-Whitechapel how I had earned her undying gratitude and affection (mon amours eternel) in making her the central figure in the greatest work of art of modern times. It was all extremely well done-from Keeora's standpoint, that is. She had a solid phalanx of reporters massed in the background, as a consequence of which, after the next morning, there was no chance for anyone to remain longer in ignorance of the fact that the nymph hot-footing around the coamings of "Hell's Hatches" was Keeora of the Comique. The following Saturday the management came round voluntarily to her hotel with a new contract worth several thousand francs a week to their rising danseuse orientale.

For myself, groggy in head and knees as I was, the experience was rather trying. Breaking away from her stranglehold at the first opportunity, I told Keeora to keep her "eternel amours" for those who wanted them, and bolted. There was some pretence at pursuit, but, with the real magnet drawing in the other direction, I finally managed to elbow clear. Hailing a cab in the Champs-Elysées, I returned to my hotel.

But the interruption, as I have said, was a fortunate one. It checked my downward slide dangerously near the point where a crash was due. I was far from being out of the woods yet, but the interval of comparative lucidity had given me enough courage to try to pull up. Unloading all the firearms I had about my suite and giving them to my man, I told him to go away for the night and not to return until noon of the following day. Then, as restrainedly as I could, I drank during the first three or four hours of the evening, before allowing myself to go to sleep. The crisis-the dread reaction I had feared to face-I knew would come on awakening in the morning. It arrived on schedule-two hours of teetering on the edge of hell and cursing myself for putting the guns beyond my reach. Even with the absintheteur's notorious dread of cold steel, I fingered Hartley Allen's Portuguese throwing-knife a long time before mustering up the courage to drop it out of the street window. That gave me a new idea, and I held lengthy debate with myself about following the knife to the pavement. If I had been on the fourth floor instead of the second, I might have tried it. As it was, fifteen feet to a glass marquee didn't look good enough. But at last I won through-just. It was a sorry looking figure that shivered back at me from the mirror after I had got up my nerve to ring for a pot of black coffee at seven; but I was off the toboggan, at any rate, with my face set unflinchingly toward the one place in the world where I felt there was at least a fighting chance for me to pull up again. I had arrived at the end of the day of which I had dreamed so long-"My Day," I had called it. Paris had come fawning to my feet-and brought me Dead Sea Fruit. I was going back to work out my own salvation in the Islands.

I had a rather trying time of it, getting packed up and away on such short notice; but I simply did what I could and let the rest go. Putting Paris behind me was the thing. It took all that was in me to do it, but I caught the Brindisi Express from the P.L.M. station that night.

My last act before leaving the hotel was to sign a paper brought there by a well-known art dealer, with whom I had talked by 'phone earlier in the day. It authorized him to sell to the highest bidder a painting in oil known by the name of "Hell's Hatches," delivery to be made immediately after the closing of the spring Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. It also provided that he should receive a liberal commission for his services. It must have been something like a month later that he collected ten per cent. on three hundred thousand francs less about five hundred paid some second-rate artist for executing a slight alteration in one of the figures. It was a petty Sultan from Morocco (high card with Keeora at the moment) to whom the picture was knocked down after a spirited run of bidding with an Irish distiller and a Chicago soap-maker. The buyer's only condition was that the man lashed to the wheel should be changed to a burnoused Arab. That would tend to give the picture an atmosphere more in keeping with his desert palace, he said; also, he wanted the efrangi's face covered up. The eyes made him jumpy.

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