To the visiting stranger Hillbridge's first question was, "Have you seen
Keniston's things?" Keniston took precedence of the colonial State House,
the Gilbert Stuart Washington and the Ethnological Museum; nay, he ran neck
and neck with the President of the University, a prehistoric relic who had
known Emerson, and who was still sent about the country in cotton-wool to
open educational institutions with a toothless oration on Brook Farm.
Keniston was sent about the country too: he opened art exhibitions, laid
the foundation of academies, and acted in a general sense as the spokesman
and apologist of art. Hillbridge was proud of him in his peripatetic
character, but his fellow-townsmen let it be understood that to "know"
Keniston one must come to Hillbridge. Never was work more dependent for its
effect on "atmosphere," on _milieu_. Hillbridge was Keniston's milieu,
and there was one lady, a devotee of his art, who went so far as to assert
that once, at an exhibition in New York, she had passed a Keniston without
recognizing it. "It simply didn't want to be seen in such surroundings; it
was hiding itself under an incognito," she declared.
It was a source of special pride to Hillbridge that it contained all the
artist's best works. Strangers were told that Hillbridge had discovered
him. The discovery had come about in the simplest manner. Professor
Driffert, who had a reputation for "collecting," had one day hung a sketch
on his drawing-room wall, and thereafter Mrs. Driffert's visitors (always
a little flurried by the sense that it was the kind of house in which one
might be suddenly called upon to distinguish between a dry-point and an
etching, or between Raphael Mengs and Raphael Sanzio) were not infrequently
subjected to the Professor's off-hand inquiry, "By-the-way, have you seen
my Keniston?" The visitors, perceptibly awed, would retreat to a critical
distance and murmur the usual guarded generalities, while they tried to
keep the name in mind long enough to look it up in the Encyclopędia. The
name was not in the Encyclopędia; but, as a compensating fact, it became
known that the man himself was in Hillbridge. Hillbridge, then, owned an
artist whose celebrity it was the proper thing to take for granted! Some
one else, emboldened by the thought, bought a Keniston; and the next
year, on the occasion of the President's golden jubilee, the Faculty, by
unanimous consent, presented him with a Keniston. Two years later there
was a Keniston exhibition, to which the art-critics came from New York
and Boston; and not long afterward a well-known Chicago collector vainly
attempted to buy Professor Driffert's sketch, which the art journals cited
as a rare example of the painter's first or silvery manner. Thus there
gradually grew up a small circle of connoisseurs known in artistic, circles
as men who collected Kenistons.
Professor Wildmarsh, of the chair of Fine Arts and Archaeology, was the
first critic to publish a detailed analysis of the master's methods and
purpose. The article was illustrated by engravings which (though they had
cost the magazine a fortune) were declared by Professor Wildmarsh to give
but an imperfect suggestion of the esoteric significance of the originals.
The Professor, with a tact that contrived to make each reader feel himself
included among the exceptions, went on to say that Keniston's work would
never appeal to any but exceptional natures; and he closed with the usual
assertion that to apprehend the full meaning of the master's "message" it
was necessary to see him in the surroundings of his own home at Hillbridge.
Professor Wildmarsh's article was read one spring afternoon by a young
lady just speeding eastward on her first visit to Hillbridge, and already
flushed with anticipation of the intellectual opportunities awaiting her.
In East Onondaigua, where she lived, Hillbridge was looked on as an Oxford.
Magazine writers, with the easy American use of the superlative, designated
it as "the venerable Alma Mater," the "antique seat of learning," and
Claudia Day had been brought up to regard it as the fountain-head of
knowledge, and of that mental distinction which is so much rarer than
knowledge. An innate passion for all that was thus distinguished and
exceptional made her revere Hillbridge as the native soil of those
intellectual amenities that were of such difficult growth in the
thin air of East Onondaigua. At the first suggestion of a visit to
Hillbridge--whither she went at the invitation of a girl friend
who (incredible apotheosis!) had married one of the University
professors--Claudia's spirit dilated with the sense of new possibilities.
The vision of herself walking under the "historic elms" toward the Memorial
Library, standing rapt before the Stuart Washington, or drinking in,
from some obscure corner of an academic drawing-room, the President's
reminiscences of the Concord group--this vividness of self-projection into
the emotions awaiting her made her glad of any delay that prolonged so
exquisite a moment.
It was in this mood that she opened the article on Keniston. She knew about
him, of course; she was wonderfully "well up," even for East Onondaigua.
She had read of him in the magazines; she had met, on a visit to New York,
a man who collected Kenistons, and a photogravure of a Keniston in an
"artistic" frame hung above her writing-table at home. But Professor
Wildmarsh's article made her feel how little she really knew of the master;
and she trembled to think of the state of relative ignorance in which, but
for the timely purchase of the magazine, she might have entered Hillbridge.
She had, for instance, been densely unaware that Keniston had already had
three "manners," and was showing symptoms of a fourth. She was equally
ignorant of the fact that he had founded a school and "created a formula";
and she learned with a thrill that no one could hope to understand him who
had not seen him in his studio at Hillbridge, surrounded by his own works.
"The man and the art interpret each other," their exponent declared; and
Claudia Day, bending a brilliant eye on the future, wondered if she were
ever to be admitted to the privilege of that double initiation.
Keniston, to his other claims to distinction, added that of being hard to
know. His friends always hastened to announce the fact to strangers--adding
after a pause of suspense that they "would see what they could do."
Visitors in whose favor he was induced to make an exception were further
warned that he never spoke unless he was interested--so that they mustn't
mind if he remained silent. It was under these reassuring conditions that,
some ten days after her arrival at Hillbridge, Miss Day was introduced
to the master's studio. She found him a tall listless-looking man, who
appeared middle-aged to her youth, and who stood before his own pictures
with a vaguely interrogative gaze, leaving the task of their interpretation
to the lady who had courageously contrived the visit. The studio, to
Claudia's surprise, was bare and shabby. It formed a rambling addition to
the small cheerless house in which the artist lived with his mother and
a widowed sister. For Claudia it added the last touch to his distinction
to learn that he was poor, and that what he earned was devoted to the
maintenance of the two limp women who formed a neutral-tinted background to
his impressive outline. His pictures of course fetched high prices; but he
worked slowly--"painfully," as his devotees preferred to phrase it--with
frequent intervals of ill health and inactivity, and the circle of Keniston
connoisseurs was still as small as it was distinguished. The girl's fancy
instantly hailed in him that favorite figure of imaginative youth, the
artist who would rather starve than paint a pot-boiler. It is known to
comparatively few that the production of successful pot-boilers is an art
in itself, and that such heroic abstentions as Keniston's are not always
purely voluntary. On the occasion of her first visit the artist said so
little that Claudia was able to indulge to the full the harrowing sense of
her inadequacy. No wonder she had not been one of the few that he cared
to talk to; every word she uttered must so obviously have diminished the
inducement! She had been cheap, trivial, conventional; at once gushing
and inexpressive, eager and constrained. She could feel him counting the
minutes till the visit was over, and as the door finally closed on the
scene of her discomfiture she almost shared the hope with which she
confidently credited him--that they might never meet again.
Mrs. Davant glanced reverentially about the studio. "I have always said,"
she murmured, "that they ought to be seen in Europe."
Mrs. Davant was young, credulous and emotionally extravagant: she reminded
Claudia of her earlier self--the self that, ten years before, had first set
an awestruck foot on that very threshold.
"Not for _his_ sake," Mrs. Davant continued, "but for Europe's."
Claudia smiled. She was glad that her husband's pictures were to be
exhibited in Paris. She concurred in Mrs. Davant's view of the importance
of the event; but she thought her visitor's way of putting the case a
little overcharged. Ten years spent in an atmosphere of Keniston-worship
had insensibly developed in Claudia a preference for moderation of speech.
She believed in her husband, of course; to believe in him, with an
increasing abandonment and tenacity, had become one of the necessary laws
of being; but she did not believe in his admirers. Their faith in him was
perhaps as genuine as her own; but it seemed to her less able to give an
account of itself. Some few of his appreciators doubtless measured him
by their own standards; but it was difficult not to feel that in the
Hillbridge circle, where rapture ran the highest, he was accepted on
what was at best but an indirect valuation; and now and then she had a
frightened doubt as to the independence of her own convictions. That
innate sense of relativity which even East Onondaigua had not been able to
check in Claudia Day had been fostered in Mrs. Keniston by the artistic
absolutism of Hillbridge, and she often wondered that her husband remained
so uncritical of the quality of admiration accorded him. Her husband's
uncritical attitude toward himself and his admirers had in fact been one of
the surprises of her marriage. That an artist should believe in his
potential powers seemed to her at once the incentive and the pledge of
excellence: she knew there was no future for a hesitating talent. What
perplexed her was Keniston's satisfaction in his achievement. She had
always imagined that the true artist must regard himself as the imperfect
vehicle of the cosmic emotion--that beneath every difficulty overcome a new
one lurked, the vision widening as the scope enlarged. To be initiated into
these creative struggles, to shed on the toiler's path the consolatory ray
of faith and encouragement, had seemed the chief privilege of her marriage.
But there is something supererogatory in believing in a man obviously
disposed to perform that service for himself; and Claudia's ardor gradually
spent itself against the dense surface of her husband's complacency. She
could smile now at her vision of an intellectual communion which should
admit her to the inmost precincts of his inspiration. She had learned
that the creative processes are seldom self-explanatory, and Keniston's
inarticulateness no longer discouraged her; but she could not reconcile
her sense of the continuity of all high effort to his unperturbed air
of finishing each picture as though he had despatched a masterpiece to
posterity. In the first recoil from her disillusionment she even allowed
herself to perceive that, if he worked slowly, it was not because he
mistrusted his powers of expression, but because he had really so little to
"It's for Europe," Mrs. Davant vaguely repeated; and Claudia noticed that
she was blushingly intent on tracing with the tip of her elaborate sunshade
the pattern of the shabby carpet.
"It will be a revelation to them," she went on provisionally, as though
Claudia had missed her cue and left an awkward interval to fill.
Claudia had in fact a sudden sense of deficient intuition. She felt that
her visitor had something to communicate which required, on her own part,
an intelligent co-operation; but what it was her insight failed to suggest.
She was, in truth, a little tired of Mrs. Davant, who was Keniston's latest
worshipper, who ordered pictures recklessly, who paid for them regally
in advance, and whose gallery was, figuratively speaking, crowded with
the artist's unpainted masterpieces. Claudia's impatience was perhaps
complicated by the uneasy sense that Mrs. Davant was too young, too rich,
too inexperienced; that somehow she ought to be warned.--Warned of what?
That some of the pictures might never be painted? Scarcely that, since
Keniston, who was scrupulous in business transactions, might be trusted not
to take any material advantage of such evidence of faith. Claudia's impulse
remained undefined. She merely felt that she would have liked to help Mrs.
Davant, and that she did not know how.
"You'll be there to see them?" she asked, as her visitor lingered.
"In Paris?" Mrs. Davant's blush deepened. "We must all be there together."
Claudia smiled. "My husband and I mean to go abroad some day--but I don't
see any chance of it at present."
"But he _ought_ to go--you ought both to go this summer!" Mrs. Davant
persisted. "I know Professor Wildmarsh and Professor Driffert and all the
other critics think that Mr. Keniston's never having been to Europe has
given his work much of its wonderful individuality, its peculiar flavor
and meaning--but now that his talent is formed, that he has full command
of his means of expression," (Claudia recognized one of Professor
Driffert's favorite formulas) "they all think he ought to see the work of
the _other_ great masters--that he ought to visit the home of his
ancestors, as Professor Wildmarsh says!" She stretched an impulsive hand to
Claudia. "You ought to let him go, Mrs. Keniston!"
Claudia accepted the admonition with the philosophy of the wife who is used
to being advised on the management of her husband. "I sha'n't interfere
with him," she declared; and Mrs. Davant instantly caught her up with a cry
of, "Oh, it's too lovely of you to say that!" With this exclamation she
left Claudia to a silent renewal of wonder.
A moment later Keniston entered: to a mind curious in combinations it
might have occurred that he had met Mrs. Davant on the door-step. In one
sense he might, for all his wife cared, have met fifty Mrs. Davants on the
door-step: it was long since Claudia had enjoyed the solace of resenting
such coincidences. Her only thought now was that her husband's first words
might not improbably explain Mrs. Davant's last; and she waited for him to
He paused with his hands in his pockets before an unfinished picture on the
easel; then, as his habit was, he began to stroll touristlike from canvas
to canvas, standing before each in a musing ecstasy of contemplation that
no readjustment of view ever seemed to disturb. Her eye instinctively
joined his in its inspection; it was the one point where their natures
merged. Thank God, there, was no doubt about the pictures! She was what she
had always dreamed of being--the wife of a great artist. Keniston dropped
into an armchair and filled his pipe. "How should you like to go to
Europe?" he asked.
His wife looked up quickly. "When?"
"Now--this spring, I mean." He paused to light the pipe. "I should like to
be over there while these things are being exhibited."
Claudia was silent.
"Well?" he repeated after a moment.
"How can we afford it?" she asked.
Keniston had always scrupulously fulfilled his duty to the mother and
sister whom his marriage had dislodged; and Claudia, who had the atoning
temperament which seeks to pay for every happiness by making it a source
of fresh obligations, had from the outset accepted his ties with an
exaggerated devotion. Any disregard of such a claim would have vulgarized
her most delicate pleasures; and her husband's sensitiveness to it in great
measure extenuated the artistic obtuseness that often seemed to her like a
failure of the moral sense. His loyalty to the dull women who depended on
him was, after all, compounded of finer tissues than any mere sensibility
to ideal demands.
"Oh, I don't see why we shouldn't," he rejoined. "I think we might manage
"At Mrs. Davant's expense?" leaped from Claudia. She could not tell why she
had said it; some inner barrier seemed to have given way under a confused
pressure of emotions.
He looked up at her with frank surprise. "Well, she has been very jolly
about it--why not? She has a tremendous feeling for art--the keenest I
ever knew in a woman." Claudia imperceptibly smiled. "She wants me to let
her pay in advance for the four panels she has ordered for the Memorial
Library. That would give us plenty of money for the trip, and my having the
panels to do is another reason for my wanting to go abroad just now."
"Yes; I've never worked on such a big scale. I want to see how those old
chaps did the trick; I want to measure myself with the big fellows over
there. An artist ought to, once in his life."
She gave him a wondering look. For the first time his words implied a sense
of possible limitation; but his easy tone seemed to retract what they
conceded. What he really wanted was fresh food for his self-satisfaction:
he was like an army that moves on after exhausting the resources of the
Womanlike, she abandoned the general survey of the case for the
consideration of a minor point.
"Are you sure you can do that kind of thing?" she asked.
"What kind of thing?"
He glanced at her indulgently: his self-confidence was too impenetrable to
feel the pin-prick of such a doubt.
"Immensely sure," he said with a smile.
"And you don't mind taking so much money from her in advance?"
He stared. "Why should I? She'll get it back--with interest!" He laughed
and drew at his pipe. "It will be an uncommonly interesting experience. I
shouldn't wonder if it freshened me up a bit."
She looked at him again. This second hint of self-distrust struck her as
the sign of a quickened sensibility. What if, after all, he was beginning
to be dissatisfied with his work? The thought filled her with a renovating
sense of his sufficiency.
They stopped in London to see the National Gallery.
It was thus that, in their inexperience, they had narrowly put it; but in
reality every stone of the streets, every trick of the atmosphere, had
its message of surprise for their virgin sensibilities. The pictures were
simply the summing up, the final interpretation, of the cumulative pressure
of an unimagined world; and it seemed to Claudia that long before they
reached the doors of the gallery she had some intuitive revelation of what
awaited them within.
They moved about from room to room without exchanging a word. The vast
noiseless spaces seemed full of sound, like the roar of a distant multitude
heard only by the inner ear. Had their speech been articulate their
language would have been incomprehensible; and even that far-off murmur
of meaning pressed intolerably on Claudia's nerves. Keniston took the
onset without outward sign of disturbance. Now and then he paused before a
canvas, or prolonged from one of the benches his silent communion with some
miracle of line or color; but he neither looked at his wife nor spoke to
her. He seemed to have forgotten her presence.
Claudia was conscious of keeping a furtive watch on him; but the sum total
of her impressions was negative. She remembered thinking when she first
met him that his face was rather expressionless; and he had the habit of
All that evening, at the hotel, they talked about London, and he surprised
her by an acuteness of observation that she had sometimes inwardly accused
him of lacking. He seemed to have seen everything, to have examined, felt,
compared, with nerves as finely adjusted as her own; but he said nothing
of the pictures. The next day they returned to the National Gallery, and
he began to study the paintings in detail, pointing out differences of
technique, analyzing and criticising, but still without summing up his
conclusions. He seemed to have a sort of provincial dread of showing
himself too much impressed. Claudia's own sensations were too complex, too
overwhelming, to be readily classified. Lacking the craftsman's instinct to
steady her, she felt herself carried off her feet by the rush of incoherent
impressions. One point she consciously avoided, and that was the comparison
of her husband's work with what they were daily seeing. Art, she inwardly
argued, was too various, too complex, dependent on too many inter-relations
of feeling and environment, to allow of its being judged by any provisional
standard. Even the subtleties of technique must be modified by the artist's
changing purpose, as this in turn is acted on by influences of which
he is himself unconscious. How, then, was an unprepared imagination to
distinguish between such varied reflections of the elusive vision? She took
refuge in a passionate exaggeration of her own ignorance and insufficiency.
After a week in London they went to Paris. The exhibition of Keniston's
pictures had been opened a few days earlier; and as they drove through the
streets on the way to the station an "impressionist" poster here and there
invited them to the display of the American artist's work. Mrs. Davant, who
had been in Paris for the opening, had already written rapturously of the
impression produced, enclosing commendatory notices from one or two papers.
She reported that there had been a great crowd on the first day, and that
the critics had been "immensely struck."
The Kenistons arrived in the evening, and the next morning Claudia, as a
matter of course, asked her husband at what time he meant to go and see the
He looked up absently from his guide-book.
"Why--yours," she said, surprised.
"Oh, they'll keep," he answered; adding with a slightly embarrassed laugh,
"We'll give the other chaps a show first." Presently he laid down his book
and proposed that they should go to the Louvre.
They spent the morning there, lunched at a restaurant near by, and returned
to the gallery in the afternoon. Keniston had passed from inarticulateness
to an eager volubility. It was clear that he was beginning to co-ordinate
his impressions, to find his way about in a corner of the great imaginative
universe. He seemed extraordinarily ready to impart his discoveries; and
Claudia felt that her ignorance served him as a convenient buffer against
the terrific impact of new sensations.
On the way home she asked when he meant to see Mrs. Davant.
His answer surprised her. "Does she know we're here?"
"Not unless you've sent her word," said Claudia, with a touch of harmless
"That's all right, then," he returned simply. "I want to wait and look
about a day or two longer. She'd want us to go sight-seeing with her; and
I'd rather get my impressions alone."
The next two days were hampered by the necessity of eluding Mrs. Davant.
Claudia, under different circumstances, would have scrupled to share in
this somewhat shabby conspiracy; but she found herself in a state of
suspended judgment, wherein her husband's treatment of Mrs. Davant became
for the moment merely a clue to larger meanings.
They had been four days in Paris when Claudia, returning one afternoon from
a parenthetical excursion to the Rue de la Paix, was confronted on her
threshold by the reproachful figure of their benefactress. It was not to
her, however, that Mrs. Davant's reproaches were addressed. Keniston, it
appeared, had borne the brunt of them; for he stood leaning against the
mantelpiece of their modest _salon_ in that attitude of convicted
negligence when, if ever, a man is glad to take refuge behind his wife.
Claudia had however no immediate intention of affording him such shelter.
She wanted to observe and wait.
"He's too impossible!" cried Mrs. Davant, sweeping her at once into the
central current of her grievance.
Claudia looked from one to the other.
"For not going to see you?"
"For not going to see his pictures!" cried the other nobly.
Claudia colored and Keniston shifted his position uneasily.
"I can't make her understand," he said, turning to his wife.
"I don't care about myself!" Mrs. Davant interjected.
"_I_ do, then; it's the only thing I do care about," he hurriedly
protested. "I meant to go at once--to write--Claudia wanted to go, but I
wouldn't let her." He looked helplessly about the pleasant red-curtained
room, which was rapidly burning itself into Claudia's consciousness as a
visible extension of Mrs. Davant's claims.
"I can't explain," he broke off.
Mrs. Davant in turn addressed herself to Claudia.
"People think it's so odd," she complained. "So many of the artists
here are anxious to meet him; they've all been so charming about the
pictures; and several of our American friends have come over from London
expressly for the exhibition. I told every one that he would be here
for the opening--there was a private view, you know--and they were so
disappointed--they wanted to give him an ovation; and I didn't know what
to say. What _am_ I to say?" she abruptly ended.
"There's nothing to say," said Keniston slowly.
"But the exhibition closes the day after to-morrow."
"Well, _I_ sha'n't close--I shall be here," he declared with an effort
at playfulness. "If they want to see me--all these people you're kind
enough to mention--won't there be other chances?"
"But I wanted them to see you _among_ your pictures--to hear you talk
about them, explain them in that wonderful way. I wanted you to interpret
each other, as Professor Wildmarsh says!"
"Oh, hang Professor Wildmarsh!" said Keniston, softening the commination
with a smile. "If my pictures are good for anything they oughtn't to need
Mrs. Davant stared. "But I thought that was what made them so interesting!"
Keniston looked down. "Perhaps it was," he murmured.
There was an awkward silence, which Claudia broke by saying, with a glance
at her husband: "But if the exhibition is to remain open to-morrow, could
we not meet you there? And perhaps you could send word to some of our
Mrs. Davant brightened like a child whose broken toy is glued together.
"Oh, _do_ make him!" she implored. "I'll ask them to come in the
afternoon--we'll make it into a little tea--a _five o'clock_. I'll
send word at once to everybody!" She gathered up her beruffled boa and
sunshade, settling her plumage like a reassured bird. "It will be too
lovely!" she ended in a self-consoling murmur.
But in the doorway a new doubt assailed her. "You won't fail me?" she said,
turning plaintively to Keniston. "You'll make him come, Mrs. Keniston?"
"I'll bring him!" Claudia promised.
When, the next morning, she appeared equipped for their customary ramble,
her husband surprised her by announcing that he meant to stay at home.
"The fact is I'm rather surfeited," he said, smiling. "I suppose my
appetite isn't equal to such a plethora. I think I'll write some letters
and join you somewhere later."
She detected the wish to be alone and responded to it with her usual
"I shall sink to my proper level and buy a bonnet, then," she said. "I
haven't had time to take the edge off that appetite."
They agreed to meet at the Hotel Cluny at mid-day, and she set out alone
with a vague sense of relief. Neither she nor Keniston had made any direct
reference to Mrs. Davant's visit; but its effect was implicit in their
eagerness to avoid each other.
Claudia accomplished some shopping in the spirit of perfunctoriness that
robs even new bonnets of their bloom; and this business despatched, she
turned aimlessly into the wide inviting brightness of the streets. Never
had she felt more isolated amid that ordered beauty which gives a social
quality to the very stones and mortar of Paris. All about her were
evidences of an artistic sensibility pervading every form of life like the
nervous structure of the huge frame--a sensibility so delicate, alert and
universal that it seemed to leave no room for obtuseness or error. In such
a medium the faculty of plastic expression must develop as unconsciously
as any organ in its normal surroundings; to be "artistic" must cease to be
an attitude and become a natural function. To Claudia the significance of
the whole vast revelation was centred in the light it shed on one tiny
spot of consciousness--the value of her husband's work. There are moments
when to the groping soul the world's accumulated experiences are but
stepping-stones across a private difficulty.
She stood hesitating on a street corner. It was barely eleven, and she had
an hour to spare before going to the Hotel Cluny. She seemed to be letting
her inclination float as it would on the cross-currents of suggestion
emanating from the brilliant complex scene before her; but suddenly, in
obedience to an impulse that she became aware of only in acting on it, she
called a cab and drove to the gallery where her husband's pictures were
A magnificent official in gold braid sold her a ticket and pointed the way
up the empty crimson-carpeted stairs. His duplicate, on the upper landing,
held out a catalogue with an air of recognizing the futility of the offer;
and a moment later she found herself in the long noiseless impressive room
full of velvet-covered ottomans and exotic plants. It was clear that the
public ardor on which Mrs. Davant had expatiated had spent itself earlier
in the week; for Claudia had this luxurious apartment to herself. Something
about its air of rich privacy, its diffusion of that sympathetic quality in
other countries so conspicuously absent from the public show-room, seemed
to emphasize its present emptiness. It was as though the flowers, the
carpet, the lounges, surrounded their visitor's solitary advance with
the mute assurance that they had done all they could toward making the
thing "go off," and that if they had failed it was simply for lack of
co-operation. She stood still and looked about her. The pictures struck her
instantly as odd gaps in the general harmony; it was self-evident that they
had not co-operated. They had not been pushing, aggressive, discordant:
they had merely effaced themselves. She swept a startled eye from one
familiar painting to another. The canvases were all there--and the
frames--but the miracle, the mirage of life and meaning, had vanished
like some atmospheric illusion. What was it that had happened? And had
it happened to _her_ or to the pictures? She tried to rally her
frightened thoughts; to push or coax them into a semblance of resistance;
but argument was swept off its feet by the huge rush of a single
conviction--the conviction that the pictures were bad. There was no
standing up against that: she felt herself submerged.
The stealthy fear that had been following her all these days had her by the
throat now. The great vision of beauty through which she had been moving
as one enchanted was turned to a phantasmagoria of evil mocking shapes.
She hated the past; she hated its splendor, its power, its wicked magical
vitality.... She dropped into a seat and continued to stare at the wall
before her. Gradually, as she stared, there stole out to her from the
dimmed humbled canvases a reminder of what she had once seen in them, a
spectral appeal to her faith to call them back to life. What proof had she
that her present estimate of them was less subjective than the other? The
confused impressions of the last few days were hardly to be pleaded as a
valid theory of art. How, after all, did she know that the pictures were
bad? On what suddenly acquired technical standard had she thus decided
the case against them? It seemed as though it were a standard outside of
herself, as though some unheeded inner sense were gradually making her
aware of the presence, in that empty room, of a critical intelligence that
was giving out a subtle effluence of disapproval. The fancy was so vivid
that, to shake it off, she rose and began to move about again. In the
middle of the room stood a monumental divan surmounted by a _massif_
of palms and azaleas. As Claudia's muffled wanderings carried her around
the angle of this seat, she saw that its farther side was occupied by the
figure of a man, who sat with his hands resting on his stick and his head
bowed upon them. She gave a little cry and her husband rose and faced her.
Instantly the live point of consciousness was shifted, and she became aware
that the quality of the pictures no longer mattered. It was what _he_
thought of them that counted: her life hung on that.
They looked at each other a moment in silence; such concussions are not apt
to flash into immediate speech. At length he said simply, "I didn't know
you were coming here."
She colored as though he had charged her with something underhand.
"I didn't mean to," she stammered; "but I was too early for our
Her word's cast a revealing glare on the situation. Neither of them looked
at the pictures; but to Claudia those unobtruding presences seemed suddenly
to press upon them and force them apart.
Keniston glanced at his watch. "It's twelve o'clock," he said. "Shall we go
At the door he called a cab and put her in it; then, drawing out his watch
again, he said abruptly: "I believe I'll let you go alone. I'll join you at
the hotel in time for luncheon." She wondered for a moment if he meant to
return to the gallery; but, looking back as she drove off, she saw him walk
rapidly away in the opposite direction.
The cabman had carried her half-way to the Hotel Cluny before she realized
where she was going, and cried out to him to turn home. There was an acute
irony in this mechanical prolongation of the quest of beauty. She had
had enough of it, too much of it; her one longing was to escape, to hide
herself away from its all-suffusing implacable light.
At the hotel, alone in her room, a few tears came to soften her seared
vision; but her mood was too tense to be eased by weeping. Her whole being
was centred in the longing to know what her husband thought. Their short
exchange of words had, after all, told her nothing. She had guessed a faint
resentment at her unexpected appearance; but that might merely imply a
dawning sense, on his part, of being furtively watched and criticised. She
had sometimes wondered if he was never conscious of her observation; there
were moments when it seemed to radiate from her in visible waves. Perhaps,
after all, he was aware of it, on his guard against it, as a lurking knife
behind the thick curtain of his complacency; and to-day he must have caught
the gleam of the blade.
Claudia had not reached the age when pity is the first chord to vibrate in
contact with any revelation of failure. Her one hope had been that Keniston
should be clear-eyed enough to face the truth. Whatever it turned out to
be, she wanted him to measure himself with it. But as his image rose before
her she felt a sudden half-maternal longing to thrust herself between him
and disaster. Her eagerness to see him tested by circumstances seemed now
like a cruel scientific curiosity. She saw in a flash of sympathy that he
would need her most if he fell beneath his fate.
He did not, after all, return for luncheon; and when she came up-stairs
from her solitary meal their _salon_ was still untenanted. She
permitted herself no sensational fears; for she could not, at the height of
apprehension, figure Keniston as yielding to any tragic impulse; but the
lengthening hours brought an uneasiness that was fuel to her pity. Suddenly
she heard the clock strike five. It was the hour at which they had promised
to meet Mrs. Davant at the gallery--the hour of the "ovation." Claudia
rose and went to the window, straining for a glimpse of her husband in the
crowded street. Could it be that he had forgotten her, had gone to the
gallery without her? Or had something happened--that veiled "something"
which, for the last hour, had grimly hovered on the outskirts of her mind?
She heard a hand on the door and Keniston entered. As she turned to meet
him her whole being was swept forward on a great wave of pity: she was so
sure, now, that he must know.
But he confronted her with a glance of preoccupied brightness; her first
impression was that she had never seen him so vividly, so expressively
pleased. If he needed her, it was not to bind up his wounds.
He gave her a smile which was clearly the lingering reflection of some
inner light. "I didn't mean to be so late," he said, tossing aside his hat
and the little red volume that served as a clue to his explorations. "I
turned in to the Louvre for a minute after I left you this morning, and the
place fairly swallowed me up--I couldn't get away from it. I've been there
ever since." He threw himself into a chair and glanced about for his pipe.
"It takes time," he continued musingly, "to get at them, to make out what
they're saying--the big fellows, I mean. They're not a communicative lot.
At first I couldn't make much out of their lingo--it was too different from
mine! But gradually, by picking up a hint here and there, and piecing them
together, I've begun to understand; and to-day, by Jove, I got one or two
of the old chaps by the throat and fairly turned them inside out--made them
deliver up their last drop." He lifted a brilliant eye to her. "Lord, it
was tremendous!" he declared.
He had found his pipe and was musingly filling it. Claudia waited in
"At first," he began again, "I was afraid their language was too hard for
me--that I should never quite know what they were driving at; they seemed
to cold-shoulder me, to be bent on shutting me out. But I was bound I
wouldn't be beaten, and now, to-day"--he paused a moment to strike a
match--"when I went to look at those things of mine it all came over me
in a flash. By Jove! it was as if I'd made them all into a big bonfire to
light me on my road!"
His wife was trembling with a kind of sacred terror. She had been afraid
to pray for light for him, and here he was joyfully casting his whole past
upon the pyre!
"Is there nothing left?" she faltered.
"Nothing left? There's everything!" he exulted. "Why, here I am, not much
over forty, and I've found out already--already!" He stood up and began to
move excitedly about the room. "My God! Suppose I'd never known! Suppose
I'd gone on painting things like that forever! Why, I feel like those
chaps at revivalist meetings when they get up and say they're saved! Won't
somebody please start a hymn?"
Claudia, with a tremulous joy, was letting herself go on the strong
current of his emotion; but it had not yet carried her beyond her depth,
and suddenly she felt hard ground underfoot.
"Mrs. Davant--" she exclaimed.
He stared, as though suddenly recalled from a long distance. "Mrs. Davant?"
"We were to have met her--this afternoon--now--"
"At the gallery? Oh, that's all right. I put a stop to that; I went to see
her after I left you; I explained it all to her."
"I told her I was going to begin all over again."
Claudia's heart gave a forward bound and then sank back hopelessly.
"But the panels--?"
"That's all right too. I told her about the panels," he reassured her.
"You told her--?"
"That I can't paint them now. She doesn't understand, of course; but she's
the best little woman and she trusts me."
She could have wept for joy at his exquisite obtuseness. "But that isn't
all," she wailed. "It doesn't matter how much you've explained to her. It
doesn't do away with the fact that we're living on those panels!"
"Living on them?"
"On the money that she paid you to paint them. Isn't that what brought us
here? And--if you mean to do as you say--to begin all over again--how in
the world are we ever to pay her back?"
Her husband turned on her an inspired eye. "There's only one way that I
know of," he imperturbably declared, "and that's to stay out here till I
learn how to paint them."