THE MADONNA OF THE FUTURE
We had been talking about the masters who had achieved but a single masterpiece—the artists and poets who but once in their lives had known the divine afflatus and touched the high level of perfection. Our host had been showing us a charming little cabinet picture by a painter whose name we had never heard, and who, after this single spasmodic bid for fame, had apparently relapsed into obscurity and mediocrity. There was some discussion as to the frequency of this phenomenon; during which, I observed, H--- sat silent, finishing his cigar with a meditative air, and looking at the picture which was being handed round the table. “I don’t know how common a case it is,” he said at last, “but I have seen it. I have known a poor fellow who painted his one masterpiece, and”—he added with a smile—“he didn’t even paint that. He made his bid for fame and missed it.” We all knew H--- for a clever man who had seen much of men and manners, and had a great stock of reminiscences. Some one immediately questioned him further, and while I was engrossed with the raptures of my neighbour over the little picture, he was induced to tell his tale. If I were to doubt whether it would bear repeating, I should only have to remember how that charming woman, our hostess, who had left the table, ventured back in rustling rose-colour to pronounce our lingering a want of gallantry, and, finding us a listening circle, sank into her chair in spite of our cigars, and heard the story out so graciously that, when the catastrophe was reached, she glanced across at me and showed me a tear in each of her beautiful eyes.
* * * * *
relates to my youth, and to
“I am not an artist, I am sorry to say, as you must understand the term. But pray make no apologies. I am also under the charm; your eloquent remarks have only deepened it.”
you are not an artist you are worthy to be one!” he rejoined, with an
expressive smile. “A young man who arrives at
The mystery was suddenly solved; my friend was an American! He must have been, to take the picturesque so prodigiously to heart. “None the less so, I trust,” I answered, “if the young man is a sordid New Yorker.”
“New Yorkers have been munificent patrons of art!” he answered, urbanely.
a moment I was alarmed. Was this midnight reverie mere Yankee enterprise,
and was he simply a desperate brother of the brush who had posted himself here
to extort an “order” from a sauntering tourist? But I was not
called to defend myself. A great brazen note broke suddenly from the
far-off summit of the bell-tower above us, and sounded the first stroke of
midnight. My companion started, apologised for
detaining me, and prepared to retire. But he seemed to offer so lively a
promise of further entertainment that I was indisposed to part with him, and
suggested that we should stroll homeward together. He cordially assented;
so we turned out of the Piazza, passed down before the statued
arcade of the Uffizi, and came out upon the
“We are the disinherited of Art!” he cried. “We are condemned to be superficial! We are excluded from the magic circle. The soil of American perception is a poor little barren artificial deposit. Yes! we are wedded to imperfection. An American, to excel, has just ten times as much to learn as a European. We lack the deeper sense. We have neither taste, nor tact, nor power. How should we have them? Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present, the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, are as void of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist, as my sad heart is void of bitterness in saying so! We poor aspirants must live in perpetual exile.”
seem fairly at home in exile,” I answered, “and
words—golden words, young man!” he cried, with a tender
smile. “‘Invent, create, achieve!’ Yes,
that’s our business; I know it well. Don’t take me, in
Heaven’s name, for one of your barren complainers—impotent cynics
who have neither talent nor faith! I am at work!”—and he
glanced about him and lowered his voice as if this were a quite peculiar
secret—“I’m at work night and day. I have undertaken a creation!
I am no Moses; I am only a poor patient artist; but it would be a fine thing if
I were to cause some slender stream of beauty to flow in our thirsty
land! Don’t think me a monster of conceit,” he went on, as he
saw me smile at the avidity with which he adopted my illustration; “I
confess that I am in one of those moods when great things seem possible!
This is one of my nervous nights—I dream waking! When the south
wind blows over
seemed deeply versed in local history and tradition, and he expatiated con
amore on the charms of
“And have you been very productive all this time?” I asked sympathetically.
He was silent a while before replying. “Not in the vulgar sense!” he said at last. “I have chosen never to manifest myself by imperfection. The good in every performance I have re-absorbed into the generative force of new creations; the bad—there is always plenty of that—I have religiously destroyed. I may say, with some satisfaction, that I have not added a mite to the rubbish of the world. As a proof of my conscientiousness”—and he stopped short, and eyed me with extraordinary candour, as if the proof were to be overwhelming—“I have never sold a picture! ‘At least no merchant traffics in my heart!’ Do you remember that divine line in Browning? My little studio has never been profaned by superficial, feverish, mercenary work. It’s a temple of labour, but of leisure! Art is long. If we work for ourselves, of course we must hurry. If we work for her, we must often pause. She can wait!”
had brought us to my hotel door, somewhat to my relief, I confess, for I had
begun to feel unequal to the society of a genius of this heroic strain. I
left him, however, not without expressing a friendly hope that we should meet
again. The next morning my curiosity had not abated; I was anxious to see
him by common daylight. I counted upon meeting him in one of the many pictorial
“And this is your first visit to these enchanted halls?” he cried. “Happy, thrice happy youth!” And taking me by the arm, he prepared to lead me to each of the pre-eminent works in turn and show me the cream of the gallery. But before we left the Mantegna he pressed my arm and gave it a loving look. “He was not in a hurry,” he murmured. “He knew nothing of ‘raw Haste, half-sister to Delay!’” How sound a critic my friend was I am unable to say, but he was an extremely amusing one; overflowing with opinions, theories, and sympathies, with disquisition and gossip and anecdote. He was a shade too sentimental for my own sympathies, and I fancied he was rather too fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle intentions in shallow places. At moments, too, he plunged into the sea of metaphysics, and floundered a while in waters too deep for intellectual security. But his abounding knowledge and happy judgment told a touching story of long attentive hours in this worshipful company; there was a reproach to my wasteful saunterings in so devoted a culture of opportunity. “There are two moods,” I remember his saying, “in which we may walk through galleries—the critical and the ideal. They seize us at their pleasure, and we can never tell which is to take its turn. The critical mood, oddly, is the genial one, the friendly, the condescending. It relishes the pretty trivialities of art, its vulgar cleverness, its conscious graces. It has a kindly greeting for anything which looks as if, according to his light, the painter had enjoyed doing it—for the little Dutch cabbages and kettles, for the taper fingers and breezy mantles of late-coming Madonnas, for the little blue-hilled, pastoral, sceptical Italian landscapes. Then there are the days of fierce, fastidious longing—solemn church feasts of the intellect—when all vulgar effort and all petty success is a weariness, and everything but the best—the best of the best—disgusts. In these hours we are relentless aristocrats of taste. We will not take Michael Angelo for granted, we will not swallow Raphael whole!”
gallery of the Uffizi is not only rich in its possessions, but peculiarly
fortunate in that fine architectural accident, as one may call it, which unites
it—with the breadth of river and city between them—to those
princely chambers of the Pitti Palace. The Louvre and the
“That’s what I call a fine picture,” said my companion, after we had gazed a while in silence. “I have a right to say so, for I have copied it so often and so carefully that I could repeat it now with my eyes shut. Other works are of Raphael: this is Raphael himself. Others you can praise, you can qualify, you can measure, explain, account for: this you can only love and admire. I don’t know in what seeming he walked among men while this divine mood was upon him; but after it, surely, he could do nothing but die; this world had nothing more to teach him. Think of it a while, my friend, and you will admit that I am not raving. Think of his seeing that spotless image, not for a moment, for a day, in a happy dream, or a restless fever-fit; not as a poet in a five minutes’ frenzy—time to snatch his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza; but for days together, while the slow labour of the brush went on, while the foul vapours of life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant, distinct, as we see it now! What a master, certainly! But ah! what a seer!”
“Don’t you imagine,” I answered, “that he had a model, and that some pretty young woman—”
“As pretty a young woman as you please! It doesn’t diminish the miracle! He took his hint, of course, and the young woman, possibly, sat smiling before his canvas. But, meanwhile, the painter’s idea had taken wings. No lovely human outline could charm it to vulgar fact. He saw the fair form made perfect; he rose to the vision without tremor, without effort of wing; he communed with it face to face, and resolved into finer and lovelier truth the purity which completes it as the fragrance completes the rose. That’s what they call idealism; the word’s vastly abused, but the thing is good. It’s my own creed, at any rate. Lovely Madonna, model at once and muse, I call you to witness that I too am an idealist!”
“An idealist, then,” I said, half jocosely, wishing to provoke him to further utterance, “is a gentleman who says to Nature in the person of a beautiful girl, ‘Go to, you are all wrong! Your fine is coarse, your bright is dim, your grace is gaucherie. This is the way you should have done it!’ Is not the chance against him?”
He turned upon me almost angrily, but perceiving the genial savour of my sarcasm, he smiled gravely. “Look at that picture,” he said, “and cease your irreverent mockery! Idealism is that! There’s no explaining it; one must feel the flame! It says nothing to Nature, or to any beautiful girl, that they will not both forgive! It says to the fair woman, ‘Accept me as your artist friend, lend me your beautiful face, trust me, help me, and your eyes shall be half my masterpiece!’ No one so loves and respects the rich realities of nature as the artist whose imagination caresses and flatters them. He knows what a fact may hold (whether Raphael knew, you may judge by his portrait, behind us there, of Tommaso Inghirami); bad his fancy hovers above it, as Anal hovered above the sleeping prince. There is only one Raphael, bad an artist may still be an artist. As I said last night, the days of illumination are gone; visions are rare; we have to look long to see them. But in meditation we may still cultivate the ideal; round it, smooth it, perfect it. The result—the result,” (here his voice faltered suddenly, and he fixed his eyes for a moment on the picture; when they met my own again they were full of tears)—“the result may be less than this; but still it may be good, it may be great!” he cried with vehemence. “It may hang somewhere, in after years, in goodly company, and keep the artist’s memory warm. Think of being known to mankind after some such fashion as this! of hanging here through the slow centuries in the gaze of an altered world; living on and on in the cunning of an eye and hand that are part of the dust of ages, a delight and a law to remote generations; making beauty a force and purity an example!”
“Heaven forbid,” I said, smiling, “that I should take the wind out of your sails! But doesn’t it occur to you that, besides being strong in his genius, Raphael was happy in a certain good faith of which we have lost the trick? There are people, I know, who deny that his spotless Madonnas are anything more than pretty blondes of that period enhanced by the Raphaelesque touch, which they declare is a profane touch. Be that as it may, people’s religious and æsthetic needs went arm in arm, and there was, as I may say, a demand for the Blessed Virgin, visible and adorable, which must have given firmness to the artist’s hand. I am afraid there is no demand now.”
My companion seemed painfully puzzled; he shivered, as it were, in this chilling blast of scepticism. Then shaking his head with sublime confidence—“There is always a demand!” he cried; “that ineffable type is one of the eternal needs of man’s heart; but pious souls long for it in silence, almost in shame. Let it appear, and their faith grows brave. How should it appear in this corrupt generation? It cannot be made to order. It could, indeed, when the order came, trumpet-toned, from the lips of the Church herself, and was addressed to genius panting with inspiration. But it can spring now only from the soil of passionate labour and culture. Do you really fancy that while, from time to time, a man of complete artistic vision is born into the world, that image can perish? The man who paints it has painted everything. The subject admits of every perfection—form, colour, expression, composition. It can be as simple as you please, and yet as rich; as broad and pure, and yet as full of delicate detail. Think of the chance for flesh in the little naked, nestling child, irradiating divinity; of the chance for drapery in the chaste and ample garment of the mother! think of the great story you compress into that simple theme! Think, above all, of the mother’s face and its ineffable suggestiveness, of the mingled burden of joy and trouble, the tenderness turned to worship, and the worship turned to far-seeing pity! Then look at it all in perfect line and lovely colour, breathing truth and beauty and mastery!”
son pittore!” I cried.
“Unless I am mistaken, you have a masterpiece on the stocks. If you
put all that in, you will do more than Raphael himself did. Let me know
when your picture is finished, and wherever in the wide world I may be, I will
post back to
He blushed vividly and gave a heavy sigh, half of protest, half of resignation. “I don’t often mention my picture by name. I detest this modern custom of premature publicity. A great work needs silence, privacy, mystery even. And then, do you know, people are so cruel, so frivolous, so unable to imagine a man’s wishing to paint a Madonna at this time of day, that I have been laughed at—laughed at, sir!” and his blush deepened to crimson. “I don’t know what has prompted me to be so frank and trustful with you. You look as if you wouldn’t laugh at me. My dear young man”—and he laid his hand on my arm—“I am worthy of respect. Whatever my talents may be, I am honest. There is nothing grotesque in a pure ambition, or in a life devoted to it.”
was something so sternly sincere in his look and tone that further questions
seemed impertinent. I had repeated opportunity to ask them, however, for
after this we spent much time together. Daily for a fortnight, we met by
appointment, to see the sights. He knew the city so well, he had strolled
and lounged so often through its streets and churches and galleries, he was so
deeply versed in its greater and lesser memories, so imbued with the local
genius, that he was an altogether ideal valet de place, and I was glad
enough to leave my Murray at home, and gather facts and opinions alike from his
gossiping commentary. He talked of
I was more and more impressed with my companion’s remarkable singleness of purpose. Everything was a pretext for some wildly idealistic rhapsody or reverie. Nothing could be seen or said that did not lead him sooner or later to a glowing discourse on the true, the beautiful, and the good. If my friend was not a genius, he was certainly a monomaniac; and I found as great a fascination in watching the odd lights and shades of his character as if he had been a creature from another planet. He seemed, indeed, to know very little of this one, and lived and moved altogether in his own little province of art. A creature more unsullied by the world it is impossible to conceive, and I often thought it a flaw in his artistic character that he had not a harmless vice or two. It amused me greatly at times to think that he was of our shrewd Yankee race; but, after all, there could be no better token of his American origin than this high æsthetic fever. The very heat of his devotion was a sign of conversion; those born to European opportunity manage better to reconcile enthusiasm with comfort. He had, moreover, all our native mistrust for intellectual discretion, and our native relish for sonorous superlatives. As a critic he was very much more generous than just, and his mildest terms of approbation were “stupendous,” “transcendent,” and “incomparable.” The small change of admiration seemed to him no coin for a gentleman to handle; and yet, frank as he was intellectually, he was personally altogether a mystery. His professions, somehow, were all half-professions, and his allusions to his work and circumstances left something dimly ambiguous in the background. He was modest and proud, and never spoke of his domestic matters. He was evidently poor; yet he must have had some slender independence, since he could afford to make so merry over the fact that his culture of ideal beauty had never brought him a penny. His poverty, I supposed, was his motive for neither inviting me to his lodging nor mentioning its whereabouts. We met either in some public place or at my hotel, where I entertained him as freely as I might without appearing to be prompted by charity. He seemed always hungry, and this was his nearest approach to human grossness. I made a point of asking no impertinent questions, but, each time we met, I ventured to make some respectful allusion to the magnum opus, to inquire, as it were, as to its health and progress. “We are getting on, with the Lord’s help,” he would say, with a grave smile. “We are doing well. You see, I have the grand advantage that I lose no time. These hours I spend with you are pure profit. They are suggestive! Just as the truly religious soul is always at worship, the genuine artist is always in labour. He takes his property wherever he finds it, and learns some precious secret from every object that stands up in the light. If you but knew the rapture of observation! I gather with every glance some hint for light, for colour, or relief! When I get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of toy Madonna. Oh, I am not idle! Nulla dies sine linea.”
was introduced in
“Know him!” she exclaimed; “know poor Theobald! All Florence knows him, his flame-coloured locks, his black velvet coat, his interminable harangues on the beautiful, and his wondrous Madonna that mortal eye has never seen, and that mortal patience has quite given up expecting.”
“Really,” I cried, “you don’t believe in his Madonna?”
dear ingenuous youth,” rejoined my shrewd friend, “has he made a
convert of you? Well, we all believed in him once; he came down upon
I listened to this pungent recital in silent wonder. It had a painfully plausible sound, and was not inconsistent with certain shy suspicions of my own. My hostess was not only a clever woman, but presumably a generous one. I determined to let my judgment wait upon events. Possibly she was right; but if she was wrong, she was cruelly wrong! Her version of my friend’s eccentricities made me impatient to see him again and examine him in the light of public opinion. On our next meeting I immediately asked him if he knew Mrs. Coventry. He laid his hand on my arm and gave me a sad smile. “Has she taxed your gallantry at last?” he asked. “She’s a foolish woman. She’s frivolous and heartless, and she pretends to be serious and kind. She prattles about Giotto’s second manner and Vittoria Colonna’s liaison with ‘Michael’—one would think that Michael lived across the way and was expected in to take a hand at whist—but she knows as little about art, and about the conditions of production, as I know about Buddhism. She profanes sacred words,” he added more vehemently, after a pause. “She cares for you only as some one to band teacups in that horrible mendacious little parlour of hers, with its trumpery Peruginos! If you can’t dash off a new picture every three days, and let her hand it round among her guests, she tells them in plain English that you are an impostor!”
attempt of mine to test Mrs. Coventry’s accuracy was made in the course
of a late afternoon walk to the quiet old
He made no immediate response, but at last he turned to me solemnly. “Can you look upon a beautiful woman with reverent eyes?”
“Really,” I said, “I don’t pretend to be sheepish, but I should be sorry to think I was impudent.” And I asked him what in the world he meant. When at last I had assured him that I could undertake to temper admiration with respect, he informed me, with an air of religious mystery, that it was in his power to introduce me to the most beautiful woman in Italy—“A beauty with a soul!”
“Upon my word,” I cried, “you are extremely fortunate, and that is a most attractive description.”
“This woman’s beauty,” he went on, “is a lesson, a morality, a poem! It’s my daily study.”
Of course, after this, I lost no time in reminding him of what, before we parted, had taken the shape of a promise. “I feel somehow,” he had said, “as if it were a sort of violation of that privacy in which I have always contemplated her beauty. This is friendship, my friend. No hint of her existence has ever fallen from my lips. But with too great a familiarity we are apt to lose a sense of the real value of things, and you perhaps will throw some new light upon it and offer a fresher interpretation.”
went accordingly by appointment to a certain ancient house in the heart of
“Behold the Serafina!” said Theobald, frankly, waving me forward. “This is a friend, and a lover of the arts,” he added, introducing me. I received a smile, a curtsey, and a request to be seated.
most beautiful woman in
That she was indeed a beautiful woman I perceived, after recovering from the surprise of finding her without the freshness of youth. Her beauty was of a sort which, in losing youth, loses little of its essential charm, expressed for the most part as it was in form and structure, and, as Theobald would have said, in “composition.” She was broad and ample, low-browed and large-eyed, dark and pale. Her thick brown hair hung low beside her cheek and ear, and seemed to drape her head with a covering as chaste and formal as the veil of a nun. The poise and carriage of her head were admirably free and noble, and they were the more effective that their freedom was at moments discreetly corrected by a little sanctimonious droop, which harmonised admirably with the level gaze of her dark and quiet eye. A strong, serene, physical nature, and the placid temper which comes of no nerves and no troubles, seemed this lady’s comfortable portion. She was dressed in plain dull black, save for a sort of dark blue kerchief which was folded across her bosom and exposed a glimpse of her massive throat. Over this kerchief was suspended a little silver cross. I admired her greatly, and yet with a large reserve. A certain mild intellectual apathy belonged properly to her type of beauty, and had always seemed to round and enrich it; but this bourgeoise Egeria, if I viewed her right, betrayed a rather vulgar stagnation of mind. There might have been once a dim spiritual light in her face; but it had long since begun to wane. And furthermore, in plain prose, she was growing stout. My disappointment amounted very nearly to complete disenchantment when Theobald, as if to facilitate my covert inspection, declaring that the lamp was very dim, and that she would ruin her eyes without more light, rose and fetched a couple of candles from the mantelpiece, which he placed lighted on the table. In this brighter illumination I perceived that our hostess was decidedly an elderly woman. She was neither haggard, nor worn, nor gray; she was simply coarse. The “soul” which Theobald had promised seemed scarcely worth making such a point of; it was no deeper mystery than a sort of matronly mildness of lip and brow. I should have been ready even to declare that that sanctified bend of the head was nothing more than the trick of a person constantly working at embroidery. It occurred to me even that it was a trick of a less innocent sort; for, in spite of the mellow quietude of her wits, this stately needlewoman dropped a hint that she took the situation rather less seriously than her friend. When he rose to light the candles she looked across at me with a quick, intelligent smile, and tapped her forehead with her forefinger; then, as from a sudden feeling of compassionate loyalty to poor Theobald, I preserved a blank face, she gave a little shrug and resumed her work.
What was the relation of this singular couple? Was he the most ardent of friends or the most reverent of lovers? Did she regard him as an eccentric swain, whose benevolent admiration of her beauty she was not ill pleased to humour at this small cost of having him climb into her little parlour and gossip of summer nights? With her decent and sombre dress, her simple gravity, and that fine piece of priestly needlework, she looked like some pious lay-member of a sisterhood, living by special permission outside her convent walls. Or was she maintained here aloft by her friend in comfortable leisure, so that he might have before him the perfect, eternal type, uncorrupted and untarnished by the struggle for existence? Her shapely hands, I observed, wore very fair and white; they lacked the traces of what is called honest toil.
“And the pictures, how do they come on?” she asked of Theobald, after a long pause.
“Finely, finely! I have here a friend whose sympathy and encouragement give me new faith and ardour.”
Our hostess turned to me, gazed at me a moment rather inscrutably, and then tapping her forehead with the gesture she had used a minute before, “He has a magnificent genius!” she said, with perfect gravity.
“I am inclined to think so,” I answered, with a smile.
“Eh, why do you smile?” she cried. “If you doubt it, you must see the bambino!” And she took the lamp and conducted me to the other side of the room, where on the wall, in a plain black frame, hung a large drawing in red chalk. Beneath it was fastened a little howl for holy water. The drawing represented a very young child, entirely naked, half nestling back against his mother’s gown, but with his two little arms outstretched, as if in the act of benediction. It was executed with singular freedom and power, and yet seemed vivid with the sacred bloom of infancy. A sort of dimpled elegance and grace, mingled with its boldness, recalled the touch of Correggio. “That’s what he can do!” said my hostess. “It’s the blessed little boy whom I lost. It’s his very image, and the Signor Teobaldo gave it me as a gift. He has given me many things besides!”
I looked at the picture for some time and admired it immensely. Turning back to Theobald I assured him that if it were hung among the drawings in the Uffizi and labelled with a glorious name it would hold its own. My praise seemed to give him extreme pleasure; he pressed my hands, and his eyes filled with tears. It moved him apparently with the desire to expatiate on the history of the drawing, for he rose and made his adieux to our companion, kissing her band with the same mild ardour as before. It occurred to me that the offer of a similar piece of gallantry on my own part might help me to know what manner of woman she was. When she perceived my intention she withdrew her hand, dropped her eyes solemnly, and made me a severe curtsey. Theobald took my arm and led me rapidly into the street.
“And what do you think of the divine Serafina?” he cried with fervour.
“It is certainly an excellent style of good looks!” I answered.
eyed me an instant askance, and then seemed hurried along by the current of
remembrance. “You should have seen the mother and the child together,
seen them as I first saw them—the mother with her head draped in a shawl,
a divine trouble in her face, and the bambino pressed to her bosom. You
would have said, I think, that Raphael had found his
match in common chance. I was coming in, one summer night, from a long
walk in the country, when I met this apparition at the city gate. The
woman held out her hand. I hardly knew whether to say, ‘What do you
want?’ or to fall down and worship. She asked for a little money.
I saw that she was beautiful and pale; she might have stepped out of the stable
“‘At last—at last’?” I repeated, in much amazement. “Do you mean that she has never done so yet?”
“I have not really had—a—a sitting,” said Theobald, speaking very slowly. “I have taken notes, you know; I have got my grand fundamental impression. That’s the great thing! But I have not actually had her as a model, posed and draped and lighted, before my easel.”
What had become for the moment of my perception and my tact I am at a loss to say; in their absence I was unable to repress a headlong exclamation. I was destined to regret it. We had stopped at a turning, beneath a lamp. “My poor friend,” I exclaimed, laying my hand on his shoulder, “you have dawdled! She’s an old, old woman—for a Madonna!”
It was as if I had brutally struck him; I shall never forget the long, slow, almost ghastly look of pain, with which he answered me.
“Dawdled?—old, old?” he stammered. “Are you joking?”
“Why, my dear fellow, I suppose you don’t take her for a woman of twenty?”
He drew a long breath and leaned against a house, looking at me with questioning, protesting, reproachful eyes. At last, starting forward, and grasping my arm—“Answer me solemnly: does she seem to you truly old? Is she wrinkled, is she faded, am I blind?”
Then at last I understood the immensity of his illusion how, one by one, the noiseless years had ebbed away and left him brooding in charmed inaction, for ever preparing for a work for ever deferred. It seemed to me almost a kindness now to tell him the plain truth. “I should be sorry to say you are blind,” I answered, “but I think you are deceived. You have lost time in effortless contemplation. Your friend was once young and fresh and virginal; but, I protest, that was some years ago. Still, she has de beaux restes. By all means make her sit for you!” I broke down; his face was too horribly reproachful.
He took off his hat and stood passing his handkerchief mechanically over his forehead. “De beaux restes? I thank you for sparing me the plain English. I must make up my Madonna out of de beaux restes! What a masterpiece she will be! Old—old! Old—old!” he murmured.
“Never mind her age,” I cried, revolted at what I had done, “never mind my impression of her! You have your memory, your notes, your genius. Finish your picture in a month. I pronounce it beforehand a masterpiece, and I hereby offer you for it any sum you may choose to ask.”
He stared, but he seemed scarcely to understand me. “Old—old!” he kept stupidly repeating. “If she is old, what am I? If her beauty has faded, where—where is my strength? Has life been a dream? Have I worshipped too long—have I loved too well?” The charm, in truth, was broken. That the chord of illusion should have snapped at my light accidental touch showed how it had been weakened by excessive tension. The poor fellow’s sense of wasted time, of vanished opportunity, seemed to roll in upon his soul in waves of darkness. He suddenly dropped his head and burst into tears.
I led him homeward with all possible tenderness, but I attempted neither to check his grief, to restore his equanimity, nor to unsay the hard truth. When we reached my hotel I tried to induce him to come so.
“We will drink a glass of wine,” I said, smiling, “to the completion of the Madonna.”
With a violent effort he held up his head, mused for a moment with a formidably sombre frown, and then giving me his hand, “I will finish it,” he cried, “in a month! No, in a fortnight! After all, I have it here!” And he tapped his forehead. “Of course she’s old! She can afford to have it said of her—a woman who has made twenty years pass like a twelvemonth! Old—old! Why, sir, she shall be eternal!”
I wished to see him safely to his own door, but he waved me back and walked away with an air of resolution, whistling and swinging his cane. I waited a moment, and then followed him at a distance, and saw him proceed to cross the Santa Trinità Bridge. When he reached the middle he suddenly paused, as if his strength had deserted him, and leaned upon the parapet gazing over into the river. I was careful to keep him in sight; I confess that I passed ten very nervous minutes. He recovered himself at last, and went his way, slowly and with hanging head.
I had really startled poor Theobald into a bolder use
of his long-garnered stores of knowledge and taste, into the vulgar effort and
hazard of production, seemed at first reason enough for his continued silence
and absence; but as day followed day without his either calling or sending me a
line, and without my meeting him in his customary haunts, in the galleries, in
the Chapel at San Lorenzo, or strolling between the Arno
side and the great hedge-screen of verdure which, along the drive of the Cascine, throws the fair occupants of barouche and phaeton
into such becoming relief—as for more than a week I got neither tidings
nor sight of him, I began to fear that I had fatally offended him, and that,
instead of giving a wholesome impetus to his talent, I had brutally paralysed it. I had a wretched suspicion that I had
made him ill. My stay at
Evidently I darkened the door. My hostess dropped liner maccaroni—into her mouth, and rose hastily with a harsh exclamation and a flushed face. I immediately perceived that the Signora Serafina’s secret was even better worth knowing than I had supposed, and that the way to learn it was to take it for granted. I summoned my best Italian, I smiled and bowed and apologised for my intrusion; and in a moment, whether or no I had dispelled the lady’s irritation, I had at least stimulated her prudence. I was welcome, she said; I must take a seat. This was another friend of hers—also an artist, she declared with a smile which was almost amiable. Her companion wiped his moustache and bowed with great civility. I saw at a glance that he was equal to the situation. He was presumably the author of the statuettes on the table, and he knew a money-spending forestiére when he saw one. He was a small wiry man, with a clever, impudent, tossed-up nose, a sharp little black eye, and waxed ends to his moustache. On the side of his head he wore jauntily a little crimson velvet smoking-cap, and I observed that his feet were encased in brilliant slippers. On Serafina’s remarking with dignity that I was the friend of Mr. Theobald, he broke out into that fantastic French of which certain Italians are so insistently lavish, and declared with fervour that Mr. Theobald was a magnificent genius.
“I am sure I don’t know,” I answered with a shrug. “If you are in a position to affirm it, you have the advantage of me. I have seen nothing from his hand but the bambino yonder, which certainly is fine.”
He declared that the bambino was a masterpiece, a pure Corregio. It was only a pity, he added with a knowing laugh, that the sketch had not been made on some good bit of honeycombed old panel. The stately Serafina hereupon protested that Mr. Theobald was the soul of honour, and that he would never lend himself to a deceit. “I am not a judge of genius,” she said, “and I know nothing of pictures. I am but a poor simple widow; but I know that the Signor Teobaldo has the heart of an angel and the virtue of a saint. He is my benefactor,” she added sententiously. The after-glow of the somewhat sinister flush with which she had greeted me still lingered in her cheek, and perhaps did not favour her beauty; I could not but fancy it a wise custom of Theobald’s to visit her only by candle-light. She was coarse, and her pour adorer was a poet.
“I have the greatest esteem for him,” I said; “it is for this reason that I have been uneasy at not seeing him for ten days. Have you seen him? Is he perhaps ill?”
Her companion uttered a rapid expletive, and reproached her with not having been to see him. She hesitated a moment; then she simpered the least bit and bridled. “He comes to see me—without reproach! But it would not be the same for me to go to him, though, indeed, you may almost call him a man of holy life.”
“He has the greatest admiration for you,” I said. “He would have been honoured by your visit.”
She looked at me a moment sharply. “More admiration than you. Admit that!” Of course I protested with all the eloquence at my command, and my mysterious hostess then confessed that she had taken no fancy to me on my former visit, and that, Theobald not having returned, she believed I had poisoned his mind against her. “It would be no kindness to the poor gentleman, I can tell you that,” she said. “He has come to see me every evening for years. It’s a long friendship! No one knows him as well as I.”
“I don’t pretend to know him or to understand him,” I said. “He’s a mystery! Nevertheless, he seems to me a little—” And I touched my forehead and waved my hand in the air.
Serafina glanced at her companion a moment, as if for inspiration.
He contented himself with shrugging his shoulders as he filled his glass
again. The padrona hereupon gave me a
more softly insinuating smile than would have seemed likely to bloom on so
candid a brow. “It’s for that that I love him!” she said.
“The world has so little kindness for such persons. It laughs at
them, and despises them, and cheats them. He is too good for this wicked
life! It’s his fancy that he finds a little
“Eh!” cried the man, “the blessed saints were all a little cracked!”
Serafina, I fancied, left part of her story untold; but she told enough of it to make poor Theobald’s own statement seem intensely pathetic in its exalted simplicity. “It’s a strange fortune, certainly,” she went on, “to have such a friend as this dear man—a friend who is less than a lover and more than a friend.” I glanced at her companion, who preserved an impenetrable smile, twisted the end of his moustache, and disposed of a copious mouthful. Was he less than a lover? “But what will you have?” Serafina pursued. “In this hard world one must not ask too many questions; one must take what comes and keep what one gets. I have kept my good friend for twenty years, and I do hope that, at this time of day, signore, you have not come to turn him against me!”
I assured her that I had no such design, and that I should vastly regret disturbing Mr. Theobald’s habits or convictions. On the contrary, I was alarmed about him, and I should immediately go in search of him. She gave me his address, and a florid account of her sufferings at his non-appearance. She had not been to him for various reasons; chiefly because she was afraid of displeasing him, as he had always made such a mystery of his home. “You might have sent this gentleman!” I ventured to suggest.
“Ah,” cried the gentleman, “he admires the Signora Serafina, but he wouldn’t admire me.” And then, confidentially, with his finger on his nose, “He’s a purist!”
was about to withdraw, after having promised that I would inform the Signora Serafina of my friend’s condition, when her
companion, who had risen from table and girded his loins apparently for the
onset, grasped me gently by the arm, and led me before the row of
statuettes. “I perceive by your conversation, signore, that you are
a patron of the arts. Allow me to request your honourable
attention for these modest products of my own ingenuity. They are
brand-new, fresh from my atelier, and have never been exhibited in
public. I have brought them here to receive the verdict of this dear
lady, who is a good critic, for all she may pretend to the contrary. I am
the inventor of this peculiar style of statuette—of subject, manner,
material, everything. Touch them, I pray you; handle them
freely—you needn’t fear. Delicate as they look, it is
impossible they should break! My various creations have met with great
success. They are especially admired by Americans. I have sent them
all over Europe—to
As this jaunty Juvenal of the chimney-piece delivered himself of his persuasive allocution, he took up his little groups successively from the table, held them aloft, turned them about, rapped them with his knuckles, and gazed at them lovingly, with his head on one side. They consisted each of a cat and a monkey, fantastically draped, in some preposterously sentimental conjunction. They exhibited a certain sameness of motive, and illustrated chiefly the different phases of what, in delicate terms, may be called gallantry and coquetry; but they were strikingly clever and expressive, and were at once very perfect cats and monkeys and very natural men and women. I confess, however, that they failed to amuse me. I was doubtless not in a mood to enjoy them, for they seemed to me peculiarly cynical and vulgar. Their imitative felicity was revolting. As I looked askance at the complacent little artist, brandishing them between finger and thumb and caressing them with an amorous eye, he seemed to me himself little more than an exceptionally intelligent ape. I mustered an admiring grin, however, and he blew another blast. “My figures are studied from life! I have a little menagerie of monkeys whose frolics I contemplate by the hour. As for the cats, one has only to look out of one’s back window! Since I have begun to examine these expressive little brutes, I have made many profound observations. Speaking, signore, to a man of imagination, I may say that my little designs are not without a philosophy of their own. Truly, I don’t know whether the cats and monkeys imitate us, or whether it’s we who imitate them.” I congratulated him on his philosophy, and he resumed: “You will do use the honour to admit that I have handled my subjects with delicacy. Eh, it was needed, signore! I have been free, but not too free—eh? Just a hint, you know! You may see as much or as little as you please. These little groups, however, are no measure of my invention. If you will favour me with a call at my studio, I think that you will admit that my combinations are really infinite. I likewise execute figures to command. You have perhaps some little motive—the fruit of your philosophy of life, signore—which you would like to have interpreted. I can promise to work it up to your satisfaction; it shall be as malicious as you please! Allow me to present you with my card, and to remind you that my prices are moderate. Only sixty francs for a little group like that. My statuettes are as durable as bronze—ære perennius, signore—and, between ourselves, I think they are more amusing!”
As I pocketed his card I glanced at Madonna Serafina, wondering whether she had an eye for contrasts. She had picked up one of the little couples and was tenderly dusting it with a feather broom.
What I had just seen and heard had so deepened my compassionate interest in my deluded friend that I took a summary leave, making my way directly to the house designated by this remarkable woman. It was in an obscure corner of the opposite side of the town, and presented a sombre and squalid appearance. An old woman in the doorway, on my inquiring for Theobald, ushered me in with a mumbled blessing and an expression of relief at the poor gentleman having a friend. His lodging seemed to consist of a single room at the top of the house. On getting no answer to my knock, I opened the door, supposing that he was absent, so that it gave me a certain shock to find him sitting there helpless and dumb. He was seated near the single window, facing an easel which supported a large canvas. On my entering he looked up at me blankly, without changing his position, which was that of absolute lassitude and dejection, his arms loosely folded, his legs stretched before him, his head hanging on his breast. Advancing into the room I perceived that his face vividly corresponded with his attitude. He was pale, haggard, and unshaven, and his dull and sunken eye gazed at me without a spark of recognition. I had been afraid that he would greet me with fierce reproaches, as the cruelly officious patron who had turned his contentment to bitterness, and I was relieved to find that my appearance awakened no visible resentment. “Don’t you know me?” I asked, as I put out my hand. “Have you already forgotten me?”
He made no response, kept his position stupidly, and left me staring about the room. It spoke most plaintively for itself. Shabby, sordid, naked, it contained, beyond the wretched bed, but the scantiest provision for personal comfort. It was bedroom at once and studio—a grim ghost of a studio. A few dusty casts and prints on the walls, three or four old canvases turned face inward, and a rusty-looking colour-box, formed, with the easel at the window, the sum of its appurtenances. The place savoured horribly of poverty. Its only wealth was the picture on the easel, presumably the famous Madonna. Averted as this was from the door, I was unable to see its face; but at last, sickened by the vacant misery of the spot, I passed behind Theobald, eagerly and tenderly. I can hardly say that I was surprised at what I found—a canvas that was a mere dead blank, cracked and discoloured by time. This was his immortal work! Though not surprised, I confess I was powerfully moved, and I think that for five minutes I could not have trusted myself to speak. At last my silent nearness affected him; he stirred and turned, and then rose and looked at me with a slowly kindling eye. I murmured some kind ineffective nothings about his being ill and needing advice and care, but he seemed absorbed in the effort to recall distinctly what had last passed between us. “You were right,” he said, with a pitiful smile, “I am a dawdler! I am a failure! I shall do nothing more in this world. You opened my eyes; and, though the truth is bitter, I bear you no grudge. Amen! I have been sitting here for a week, face to face with the truth, with the past, with my weakness and poverty and nullity. I shall never touch a brush! I believe I have neither eaten nor slept. Look at that canvas!” he went on, as I relieved my emotion in an urgent request that he would come home with me and dine. “That was to have contained my masterpiece! Isn’t it a promising foundation? The elements of it are all here.” And he tapped his forehead with that mystic confidence which had marked the gesture before. “If I could only transpose them into some brain that has the hand, the will! Since I have been sitting here taking stock of my intellects, I have come to believe that I have the material for a hundred masterpieces. But my hand is paralysed now, and they will never be painted. I never began! I waited and waited to be worthier to begin, and wasted my life in preparation. While I fancied my creation was growing it was dying. I have taken it all too hard! Michael Angelo didn’t, when he went at the Lorenzo! He did his best at a venture, and his venture is immortal. That’s mine!” And he pointed with a gesture I shall never forget at the empty canvas. “I suppose we are a genus by ourselves in the providential scheme—we talents that can’t act, that can’t do nor dare! We take it out in talk, in plans and promises, in study, in visions! But our visions, let me tell you,” he cried, with a toss of his head, “have a way of being brilliant, and a man has not lived in vain who has seen the things I have seen! Of course you will not believe in them when that bit of worm-eaten cloth is all I have to show for them; but to convince you, to enchant and astound the world, I need only the hand of Raphael. His brain I already have. A pity, you will say, that I haven’t his modesty! Ah, let me boast and babble now; it’s all I have left! I am the half of a genius! Where in the wide world is my other half? Lodged perhaps in the vulgar soul, the cunning, ready fingers of some dull copyist or some trivial artisan, who turns out by the dozen his easy prodigies of touch! But it’s not for me to sneer at him; he at least does something. He’s not a dawdler! Well for me if I had been vulgar and clever and reckless, if I could have shut my eyes and taken my leap.”
What to say to the poor fellow, what to do for him, seemed hard to determine; I chiefly felt that I must break the spell of his present inaction, and remove him from the haunted atmosphere of the little room it was such a cruel irony to call a studio. I cannot say I persuaded him to come out with me; he simply suffered himself to be led, and when we began to walk in the open air I was able to appreciate his pitifully weakened condition. Nevertheless, he seemed in a certain way to revive, and murmured at last that he should like to go to the Pitti Gallery. I shall never forget our melancholy stroll through those gorgeous halls, every picture on whose walls seemed, even to my own sympathetic vision, to glow with a sort of insolent renewal of strength and lustre. The eyes and lips of the great portraits appeared to smile in ineffable scorn of the dejected pretender who had dreamed of competing with their triumphant authors; the celestial candour, even, of the Madonna of the Chair, as we paused in perfect silence before her, was tinged with the sinister irony of the women of Leonardo. Perfect silence, indeed, marked our whole progress—the silence of a deep farewell; for I felt in all my pulses, as Theobald, leaning on my arm, dragged one heavy foot after the other, that he was looking his last. When we came out he was so exhausted that instead of taking him to my hotel to dine, I called a carriage and drove him straight to his own poor lodging. He had sunk into an extraordinary lethargy; he lay back in the carriage, with his eyes closed, as pale as death, his faint breathing interrupted at intervals by a sudden gasp, like a smothered sob or a vain attempt to speak. With the help of the old woman who had admitted me before, and who emerged from a dark back court, I contrived to lead him up the long steep staircase and lay him on his wretched bed. To her I gave him in charge, while I prepared in all haste to seek a physician. But she followed me out of the room with a pitiful clasping of her hands.
“Poor, dear, blessed gentleman,” she murmured; “is he dying?”
“Possibly. How long has he been thus?”
“Since a certain night he passed ten days ago. I came up in the morning to make his poor bed, and found him sitting up in his clothes before that great canvas he keeps there. Poor, dear, strange man, he says his prayers to it! He had not been to bed, nor since then, properly! What has happened to him? Has he found out about the Serafina?” she whispered, with a glittering eye and a toothless grin.
at least that one old woman can be faithful,” I said, “and watch
him well till I come back.” My return was delayed, through the
absence of the English physician, who was away on a round of visits, and whom I
vainly pursued from house to house before I overtook him. I brought him
to Theobald’s bedside none too soon. A
violent fever had seized our patient, and the case was evidently grave. A
couple of hours later I knew that he had brain fever. From this moment I
was with him constantly; but I am far from wishing to describe his illness.
Excessively painful to witness, it was happily brief. Life burned out in
delirium. One night in particular that I passed at his pillow, listening
to his wild snatches of regret, of aspiration, of rapture and awe at the
phantasmal pictures with which his brain seemed to swarm, comes back to my
memory now like some stray page from a lost masterpiece of tragedy.
Before a week was over we had buried him in the little Protestant cemetery on
the way to
“Well,” she said, relieving at last with a significant smile the solemnity of our immediate greeting, “and the great Madonna? Have you seen her, after all?”
“I have seen her,” I said; “she is mine—by bequest. But I shall never show her to you.”
“And why not, pray?”
“My dear Mrs. Coventry, you would not understand her!”
“Upon my word, you are polite.”
me; I am sad and vexed and bitter.” And with reprehensible rudeness
I marched away. I was excessively impatient to leave
“His sufferings were great, but they were short.”
“And did he speak of me?” She had hesitated and dropped her eyes; she raised them with her question, and revealed in their sombre stillness a gleam of feminine confidence which, for the moment, revived and illumined her beauty. Poor Theobald! Whatever name he had given his passion, it was still her fine eyes that had charmed him.
“Be contented, madam,” I answered, gravely.
She dropped her eyes again and was silent. Then exhaling a full rich sigh, as she gathered her shawl together—“He was a magnificent genius!”
I bowed, and we separated.
Passing through a narrow side street on my way back to my hotel, I perceived above a doorway a sign which it seemed to me I had read before. I suddenly remembered that it was identical with the superscription of a card that I had carried for an hour in my waistcoat pocket. On the threshold stood the ingenious artist whose claims to public favour were thus distinctly signalised, smoking a pipe in the evening air, and giving the finishing polish with a bit of rag to one of his inimitable “combinations.” I caught the expressive curl of a couple of tails. He recognised me, removed his little red cap with a most obsequious bow, and motioned me to enter his studio. I returned his salute and passed on, vexed with the apparition. For a week afterwards, whenever I was seized among the ruins of triumphant Rome with some peculiarly poignant memory of Theobald’s transcendent illusions and deplorable failure, I seemed to hear a fantastic, impertinent murmur, “Cats and monkeys, monkeys and cats; all human life there!”