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Chapter 26

Wetmore came the next morning with Ludlow, and looked at Cornelia's studies. "Well, there's no doubt about her talent. I wonder why it was wasted on one of her sex! These gifted girls, poor things, there don't seem to be any real call for them." He turned from the sketches a moment to the arrangement of Charmian's studio. "I suppose this is the other girl's expression." He looked more closely at the keeping of the room, and said, with a smile of mixed compassion and amusement, "Why, this girl seems to be trying to do the Bohemian act!"

"That is her pose," Ludlow admitted.

"And does she get a great deal of satisfaction out of it?"

"The usual amount I fancy." Ludlow began to tell of some of Charmian's attempts to realize her ideal.

Wetmore listened with a pitying smile. "Poor thing! It isn't much like the genuine thing, as we used to see it in Paris, is it? We Americans are too innocent in our traditions and experiences; our Bohemia is a non-alcoholic, unfermented condition. When it is diluted down to the apprehension of an American girl it's no better, or no worse, than a kind of Arcadia. Miss Maybough ought to go round with a shepherdess's crook and a straw hat with daisies in it. That's what she wants to do, if she knew it. Is that a practicable pipe? I suppose those cigarettes are chocolates in disguise. Well!" He reverted to Cornelia's canvases. "Why, of course they're good. She's doomed. She will have to exhibit. You couldn't do less, Ludlow, than have her carry this one a little farther"—he picked out one of the canvases and set it apart—"and offer it to the Academy."

"Do you really think so?" asked Ludlow, looking at it gravely.

"I don't know. With the friends you've got on the Committee—— But you don't suppose I came up here to see these things alone, did you? Where's your picture?"

"I haven't any," said Ludlow.

"Ob, rubbish! Where's your theory of a picture, then? I don't care what you call it. My only anxiety, when you got a plain, simple, every-day conundrum like Miss Maybough to paint, was that you would try to paint the answer instead of the conundrum, and I dare say that's the trouble. You've been trying to give something more of her character than you found in her face; is that it? Well, you deserved to fail, then. You've been trying to interpret her; to come the prophet! I don't condemn the poetry in your nature, Ludlow," Wetmore went on, "and if I could manage it for you, I think I could keep it from doing mischief. That is why I am so plain-spoken with you."

"Do you call it plain-speaking?" Ludlow said, putting his picture where it could be seen best. "I was going to accuse you of flattery."

"Well, you had better ponder the weighty truths I have let fall. I don't go round dropping them on everybody's toes."

"Probably there are not enough of them," Ludlow suggested.

"Oh, yes, there are." Wetmore waited till Ludlow should say he was ready to have him look at his picture. "The fact is, I've been giving a good deal of attention to your case, lately. You're not simple enough, and you've had the wrong training. You would naturally like to paint the literature of a thing, and let it go at that. But you've studied in France, where they know better, and you can't bring yourself to do it. Your nature and your school are at odds. You ought to have studied in England. They don't know how to paint there, but they've brought fiction in color to the highest point, and they're not ashamed of it."

"Perhaps you've boon theorizing, too," said Ludlow, stepping aside from his picture.

"Not on canvas," Wetmore returned. He put himself in the place Ludlow had just left. "Hello!" he began, but after a glance at Ludlow he went on, with the effect of having checked himself, to speak carefully and guardedly of the work in detail. His specific criticism was as gentle and diffident as his general censure of Ludlow was blunt and outright. It was given mostly in questions, and in recognitions of intention.

"Well, the sum of it is," said Ludlow at last, "you see it's a failure."

Wetmore shrugged, as if this were something Ludlow ought not to have asked. He went back to Cornelia's sketches, and looked at them one after another. "That girl knows what she's about, or what she wants to do, and she goes for it every time. She has got talent. Whether she's got enough to stand the training! That's the great difference, after all. Lots of people have talent; that's the gift. The question is whether one has it in paying quantity, or enough of it to amount to anything after the digging and refining. I should say that girl had, but very likely I might be mistaken."

Ludlow joined in the examination of the sketches. He put his hand on the weak points as well as on the strong ones; he enjoyed with Wetmore the places where her artlessness had frankly offered itself instead of her art. There was something ingenuous and honest in it all that made it all charming.

"Yes, I think she can do it," said Wetmore, "if she wants to bad enough, or if she doesn't want to get married worse."

Ludlow winced. "Isn't there something a little vulgar in that notion of ours that a woman always wishes first and most of all to get married?"

"My dear boy," said Wetmore, with an affectionate hand on Ludlow's shoulder, "I never denied being vulgar."

"Oh, I dare say. But I was thinking of myself."

Ludlow sent word to Charmian at the Synthesis that he should not ask her to sit to him that afternoon, and in the evening he went to see Wetmore. It was eleven o'clock, and he would have been welcome at Wetmore's any time between that hour of the night and two of the morning. He found a number of people. Mrs. Westley was there with Mrs. Rangeley; they had been at a concert together. Mrs. Wetmore had just made a Welsh rabbit, and they were all talking of the real meaning of the word "beautiful."

"I think," Mrs. Rangeley was saying, "that the beautiful is whatever pleases or fascinates. There are lots of good-looking people who are not beautiful at all, because they have no atmosphere: and you see other people, who are irregular, and quite plain even, and yet you come away feeling that they are perfectly beautiful." Mrs. Rangeley's own beauty was a little irregular. She looked anxiously round, and caught Wetmore in a smile. "What are you laughing at?" she demanded in rueful deprecation.

"Oh, nothing, nothing!" he said. "I was thinking how convincing you were!"

"Nothing of the kind!" said one of the men, who had been listening patiently till she fully committed herself. "There couldn't be a more fallacious notion of the meaning of beauty. The thing exists in itself, independently of our pleasure or displeasure; they have almost nothing to do with it. If you mix it with them you are lost, as far as a true conception of it goes. Beauty is something as absolute as truth, and whatever varies from it, as it was ascertained, we'll say, by the Greek sculptors and the Italian painters, is unbeautiful, just as anything that varies from the truth is untrue. Charm, fascination, atmosphere, are purely subjective; one feels them and another doesn't. But beauty is objective, and nobody can deny it who sees it, whether he likes it or not. You can't get away from it, any more than you can get away from the truth. There it is!"

"Where?" asked Wetmore. He looked at the ladies as if he thought one of them had been indicated.

"How delightful to have one's ideas jumped on just as if they were a man's!" sighed Mrs. Rangeley. Her opponent laughed a generous delight, as if he liked nothing better than having his reasoning brought to naught. He entered joyously into the tumult which the utterance of the different opinions, prejudices and prepossessions of the company became.

Ludlow escaped from it, and made his way to Mrs. Westley, in that remoter and quieter corner, which she seemed to find everywhere when you saw her out of her own house; there she was necessarily prominent.

"I think Mr. Agnew is right, and Mrs. Rangeley is altogether wrong," she said. "There couldn't be a better illustration of it than in those two young art-student friends of yours. Miss Saunders is beautiful in just that absolute way Mr. Agnew speaks of; you simply can't refuse to see it; and Miss Maybough is fascinating, if you feel her so. I should think you'd find her very difficult to paint, and with Miss Saunders there, all the time, I should be afraid of getting her decided qualities into my picture."

Ludlow said, "Ah, that's very interesting."

He meant to outstay the rest, for he wished to speak with Wetmore alone, and it seemed as though those people would never go. They went at last. Mrs. Wetmore herself went off to the domestic quarter of the apartment, and left the two men together.

"'Baccy?" asked Wetmore, with a hospitable gesture toward the pipes on his mantel.

"No, thank you," said Ludlow.

"Well?"

"Wetmore, what was it you saw in my picture today, when you began with that 'Hello' of yours, and then broke off to say something else?"

"Did I do that? Well, if you really wish to know——"

"I do!"

"I'll tell you. I was going to ask you which of those two girls you had painted it from. The topography was the topography of Miss Maybough, but the landscape was the landscape of Miss Saunders." He waited, as if for Ludlow to speak; then he went on: "I supposed you had been working from some new theory of yours, and I thought I had said about as much on your theories as you would stand for the time."

"Was that all?" Ludlow asked.

"All? It seems to me that's a good deal to be compressed into one small 'hello.'"

Wetmore lighted a pipe, and began to smoke in great comfort. "We were talking, just before you dropped in, of what you may call the psychical chemistry of our kind of shop: the way a fellow transmutes himself into everything he does. I can trace the man himself in every figure he draws or models. You can't get away from yourself, simply because you are always thinking yourself, or through yourself; you can't see or know any one else in any other way."

"It's a very curious thing," said Ludlow, uneasily. "I've noticed that, too; I suppose every one has. But—good-night."

Wetmore followed him out of the studio to the head of the public stairs with a lamp, and Ludlow stopped there again. "Should you think there was anything any one but you would notice?"

"You mean the two girls themselves? Well, I should say, on general principles, that what two such girls didn't see in your work——"

"Of course! Then—what would you do? Would you speak to her about it?"

"Which?"

"You know: Miss Saunders."

"Ah! It seems rather difficult, doesn't it?"

"Confoundedly."

"Why, if you mean to say it was unconscious, perhaps I was mistaken. The thing may have been altogether in my own mind. I'd like to take another look at it——"

"You can't. I've painted it out." Ludlow ran down one flight of the stairs, and then came stumbling quickly back. "I say, Wetmore. Do you tell your wife everything?"

"My dear boy, I don't tell her anything. She finds it out. But, then, she never tells anybody."

William Dean Howells