THE COMEDY BEGINS
The Art Critic who had smiled was--like all men--a subject for pity rather than for blame. An Irishman of real ability, he had started life with high ideals and a belief that he could live with them. He had hoped to serve Art, to keep his service pure; but, having one day let his acid temperament out of hand to revel in an orgy of personal retaliation, he had since never known when she would slip her chain and come home smothered in mire. Moreover, he no longer chastised her when she came. His ideals had left him, one by one; he now lived alone, immune from dignity and shame, soothing himself with whisky. A man of rancour, meet for pity, and, in his cups, contented. He had lunched freely before coming to Blanca's Christmas function, but by four o'clock, the gases which had made him feel the world a pleasant place had nearly all evaporated, and he was suffering from a wish to drink again. Or it may have been that this girl, with her soft look, gave him the feeling that she ought to have belonged to him; and as she did not, he felt, perhaps, a natural irritation that she belonged, or might belong, to somebody else. Or, again, it was possibly his natural male distaste for the works of women painters which induced an awkward frame of mind.
Two days later in a daily paper over no signature, appeared this little paragraph: "We learn that 'The Shadow,' painted by Bianca Stone, who is not generally known to be the wife of the writer, Mr. Hilary Dallison, will soon be exhibited at the Bencox Gallery. This very 'fin-de-siecle' creation, with its unpleasant subject, representing a woman (presumably of the streets) standing beneath a gas-lamp, is a somewhat anaemic piece of painting. If Mr. Dallison, who finds the type an interesting one, embodies her in one of his very charming poems, we trust the result will be less bloodless."
The little piece of green-white paper containing this information was handed to Hilary by his wife at breakfast. The blood mounted slowly in his cheeks. Bianca's eyes fastened themselves on that flush. Whether or no--as philosophers say--little things are all big with the past, of whose chain they are the latest links, they frequently produce what apparently are great results.
The marital relations of Hilary and his wife, which till then had been those of, at all events, formal conjugality, changed from that moment. After ten o'clock at night their lives became as separate as though they lived in different houses. And this change came about without expostulations, reproach, or explanation, just by the turning of a key; and even this was the merest symbol, employed once only, to save the ungracefulness of words. Such a hint was quite enough for a man like Hilary, whose delicacy, sense of the ridiculous, and peculiar faculty of starting back and retiring into himself, put the need of anything further out of the question. Both must have felt, too, that there was nothing that could be explained. An anonymous double entendre was not precisely evidence on which to found a rupture of the marital tie. The trouble was so much deeper than that--the throbbing of a woman's wounded self-esteem, of the feeling that she was no longer loved, which had long cried out for revenge.
One morning in the middle of the week after this incident the innocent author of it presented herself in Hilary's study, and, standing in her peculiar patient attitude, made her little statements. As usual, they were very little ones; as usual, she seemed helpless, and suggested a child with a sore finger. She had no other work; she owed the week's rent; she did not know what would happen to her; Mrs. Dallison did not want her any more; she could not tell what she had done! The picture was finished, she knew, but Mrs. Dallison had said she was going to paint her again in another picture....
Hilary did not reply.
"....That old gentleman, Mr.--Mr. Stone, had been to see her. He wanted her to come and copy out his book for two hours a day, from four to six, at a shilling an hour. Ought she to come, please? He said his book would take him years."
Before answering her Hilary stood for a full minute staring at the fire. The little model stole a look at him. He suddenly turned and faced her. His glance was evidently disconcerting to the girl. It was, indeed, a critical and dubious look, such as he might have bent on a folio of doubtful origin.
"Don't you think," he said at last, "that it would be much better for you to go back into the country?"
The little model shook her head vehemently.
"Well, but why not? This is a most unsatisfactory sort of life."
The girl stole another look at him, then said sullenly:
"I can't go back there."
"What is it? Aren't your people nice to you?"
She grew red.
"No; and I don't want to go"; then, evidently seeing from Hilary's face that his delicacy forbade his questioning her further, she brightened up, and murmured: "The old gentleman said it would make me independent."
"Well," replied Hilary, with a shrug, "you'd better take his offer."
She kept turning her face back as she went down the path, as though to show her gratitude. And presently, looking up from his manuscript, he saw her face still at the railings, peering through a lilac bush. Suddenly she skipped, like a child let out of school. Hilary got up, perturbed. The sight of that skipping was like the rays of a lantern turned on the dark street of another human being's life. It revealed, as in a flash, the loneliness of this child, without money and without friends, in the midst of this great town.
The months of January, February, March passed, and the little model came daily to copy the "Book of Universal Brotherhood."
Mr. Stone's room, for which he insisted on paying rent, was never entered by a servant. It was on the ground-floor, and anyone passing the door between the hours of four and six could hear him dictating slowly, pausing now and then to spell a word. In these two hours it appeared to be his custom to read out, for fair copying, the labours of the other seven.
At five o'clock there was invariably a sound of plates and cups, and out of it the little model's voice would rise, matter-of-fact, soft, monotoned, making little statements; and in turn Mr. Stone's, also making statements which clearly lacked cohesion with those of his young friend. On one occasion, the door being open, Hilary heard distinctly the following conversation:
The LITTLE MODEL: "Mr. Creed says he was a butler. He's got an ugly nose." (A pause.)
Mr. STONE: "In those days men were absorbed in thinking of their individualities. Their occupations seemed to them important---"
The LITTLE MODEL: "Mr. Creed says his savings were all swallowed up by illness."
Mr. STONE: "---it was not so."
The LITTLE MODEL: "Mr. Creed says he was always brought up to go to church."
Mr. STONE (suddenly): "There has been no church worth going to since A. D. 700."
The LITTLE MODEL: "But he doesn't go."
And with a flying glance through the just open door Hilary saw her holding bread-and-butter with inky fingers, her lips a little parted, expecting the next bite, and her eyes fixed curiously on Mr. Stone, whose transparent hand held a teacup, and whose eyes were immovably fixed on distance.
It was one day in April that Mr. Stone, heralded by the scent of Harris tweed and baked potatoes which habitually encircled him, appeared at five o'clock in Hilary's study doorway.
"She has not come," he said.
Hilary laid down his pen. It was the first real Spring day.
"Will you come for a walk with me, sir, instead?" he asked.
"Yes," said Mr. Stone.
They walked out into Kensington Gardens, Hilary with his head rather bent towards the ground, and Mr. Stone, with eyes fixed on his far thoughts, slightly poking forward his silver beard.
In their favourite firmaments the stars of crocuses and daffodils were shining. Almost every tree had its pigeon cooing, every bush its blackbird in full song. And on the paths were babies in perambulators. These were their happy hunting-grounds, and here they came each day to watch from a safe distance the little dirty girls sitting on the grass nursing little dirty boys, to listen to the ceaseless chatter of these common urchins, and learn to deal with the great problem of the lowest classes. And babies sat in their perambulators, thinking and sucking india-rubber tubes. Dogs went before them, and nursemaids followed after.
The spirit of colour was flying in the distant trees, swathing them with brownish-purple haze; the sky was saffroned by dying sunlight. It was such a day as brings a longing to the heart, like that which the moon brings to the hearts of children.
Mr. Stone and Hilary sat down in the Broad Walk.
"Elm-trees!" said Mr. Stone. "It is not known when they assumed their present shape. They have one universal soul. It is the same with man." He ceased, and Hilary looked round uneasily. They were alone on the bench.
Mr. Stone's voice rose again. "Their form and balance is their single soul; they have preserved it from century to century. This is all they live for. In those days"--his voice sank; he had plainly forgotten that he was not alone--"when men had no universal conceptions, they would have done well to look at the trees. Instead of fostering a number of little souls on the pabulum of varying theories of future life, they should have been concerned to improve their present shapes, and thus to dignify man's single soul."
"Elms were always considered dangerous trees, I believe," said Hilary.
Mr. Stone turned, and, seeing his son-in-law beside him, asked:
"You spoke to me, I think?"
Mr. Stone said wistfully:
"Shall we walk?"
They rose from the bench and walked on....
The explanation of the little model's absence was thus stated by herself to Hilary: "I had an appointment."
"A friend of Mr. French."
"Mr. Lennard. He's a sculptor; he's got a studio in Chelsea. He wants me to pose to him."
She stole a glance at Hilary, and hung her head.
Hilary turned to the window. "You know what posing to a sculptor means, of course?"
The little model's voice sounded behind him, matter-of-fact as ever: "He said I was just the figure he was looking for."
Hilary continued to stare through the window. "I thought you didn't mean to begin standing for the nude."
"I don't want to stay poor always."
Hilary turned round at the strange tone of these unexpected words.
The girl was in a streak of sunlight; her pale cheeks flushed; her pale, half-opened lips red; her eyes, in their setting of short black lashes, wide and mutinous; her young round bosom heaving as if she had been running.
"I don't want to go on copying books all my life."
"Oh, very well."
"Mr. Dallison! I didn't mean that--I didn't really! I want to do what you tell me to do--I do!"
Hilary stood contemplating her with the dubious, critical look, as though asking: "What is there behind you? Are you really a genuine edition, or what?" which had so disconcerted her before. At last he said: "You must do just as you like. I never advise anybody."
"But you don't want me to--I know you don't. Of course, if you don't want me to, then it'll be a pleasure not to!"
"Don't you like copying for Mr. Stone?"
The little model made a face. "I like Mr. Stone--he's such a funny old gentleman."
"That is the general opinion," answered Hilary. "But Mr. Stone, you know, thinks that we are funny."
The little model smiled faintly, too; the streak of sunlight had slanted past her, and, standing there behind its glamour and million floating specks of gold-dust, she looked for the moment like the young Shade of Spring, watching with expectancy for what the year would bring her.
With the words "I am ready," spoken from the doorway, Mr. Stone interrupted further colloquy....
But though the girl's position in the household had, to all seeming, become established, now and then some little incident--straws blowing down the wind--showed feelings at work beneath the family's apparent friendliness, beneath that tentative and almost apologetic manner towards the poor or helpless, which marks out those who own what Hilary had called the "social conscience." Only three days, indeed, before he sat in his brown study, meditating beneath the bust of Socrates, Cecilia, coming to lunch, had let fall this remark:
"Of course, I know nobody can read his handwriting; but I can't think why father doesn't dictate to a typist, instead of to that little girl. She could go twice the pace!"
Blanca's answer, deferred for a few seconds, was:
"Hilary perhaps knows."
"Do you dislike her coming here?" asked Hilary.
"Not particularly. Why?"
"I thought from your tone you did."
"I don't dislike her coming here for that purpose."
"Does she come for any other?"
Cecilia, dropping her quick glance to her fork, said just a little hastily: "Father is extraordinary, of course."
But the next three days Hilary was out in the afternoon when the little model came.
This, then, was the other reason, on the morning of the first of May, which made him not averse to go and visit Mrs. Hughs in Hound Street, Kensington.
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