Antic Hay/Chapter 6

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It was between Whitefield Street and the Tottenham Court Road, in a ‘heavenly Mews,’ as he liked to call it (for he had a characteristic weakness for philosophical paronomasia), that Casimir Lypiatt lived and worked. You passed under an archway of bald and sooty brick—and at night, when the green gas-lamp underneath the arch threw livid lights and enormous architectural shadows, you could fancy yourself at the entrance of one of Piranesi’s prisons—and you found yourself in a long cul-de-sac, flanked on either side by low buildings, having stabling for horses below and, less commodiously, stabling for human beings in the attics above. An old-fashioned smell of animals mingled with the more progressive stink of burnt oil. The air was a little thicker here, it seemed, than in the streets outside; looking down the mews on even the clearest day, you could see the forms of things dimming and softening, the colours growing richer and deeper with every yard of distance. It was the best place in the world, Lypiatt used to say, for studying aerial perspective; that was why he lived there. But you always felt about poor Lypiatt that he was facing misfortune with a jest a little too self-consciously.

Mrs. Viveash’s taxi drove in under the Piranesian arch, drove in slowly and as though with a gingerly reluctance to soil its white wheels on pavements so sordid. The cabman looked round inquiringly.

“This right?” he asked.

With a white-gloved finger Mrs. Viveash prodded the air two or three times, indicating that he was to drive straight on. Half-way down the mews she rapped the glass; the man drew up.

“Never been down ’ere before,” he said, for the sake of making a little conversation, while Mrs. Viveash fumbled for her money. He looked at her with a polite and slightly ironic curiosity that was frankly mingled with admiration.

“You’re lucky,” said Mrs. Viveash. “We poor decayed gentlewomen—you see what we’re reduced to.” And she handed him a florin.

Slowly the taxi-man unbuttoned his coat and put the coin away in an inner pocket. He watched her as she crossed the dirty street, placing her feet with a meticulous precision one after the other in the same straight line, as though she were treading a knife edge between goodness only knew what invisible gulfs. Floating she seemed to go, with a little spring at every step and the skirt of her summery dress—white it was, with a florid pattern printed in black all over it—blowing airily out around her swaying march. Decayed gentlewomen indeed! The driver started his machine with an unnecessary violence; he felt, for some reason, positively indignant.

Between the broad double-doors through which the horses passed to their fodder and repose were little narrow human doors—for the Yahoos, Lypiatt used to say in his large allusive way; and when he said it he laughed with the loud and bell-mouthed cynicism of one who sees himself as a misunderstood and embittered Prometheus. At one of these little Yahoo doors Mrs. Viveash halted and rapped as loudly as a small and stiff-hinged knocker would permit. Patiently she waited; several small and dirty children collected to stare at her. She knocked again and again waited. More children came running up from the farther end of the mews; two young girls of fifteen or sixteen appeared at a neighbouring doorway and immediately gave tongue in whoops of mirthless, hyena-like laughter.

“Have you ever read about the pied piper of Hamelin?” Mrs. Viveash asked the nearest child. Terrified, it shrank away. “I thought not,” she said, and knocked again.

There was a sound, at last, of heavy feet slowly descending steep stairs; the door opened.

“Welcome to the palazzo!” It was Lypiatt’s heroic formula of hospitality.

“Welcome at last,” Mrs. Viveash corrected, and followed him up a narrow, dark staircase that was as steep as a ladder. He was dressed in a velveteen jacket and linen trousers that should have been white, but needed washing. He was dishevelled and his hands were dirty.

“Did you knock more than once?” he asked, looking back over his shoulder.

“More than twenty times,” Mrs. Viveash justifiably exaggerated.

“I’m infinitely sorry,” protested Lypiatt. “I get so deeply absorbed in my work, you know. Did you wait long?”

“The children enjoyed it, at any rate.” Mrs. Viveash was irritated by a suspicion, which was probably, after all, quite unjustified, that Casimir had been rather consciously absorbed in his work; that he had heard her first knock and plunged the more profoundly into those depths of absorption where the true artist always dwells, or at any rate ought to dwell; to rise at her third appeal with a slow, pained reluctance, cursing, perhaps, at the importunity of a world which thus noisily interrupted the flow of his inspiration. “Queer, the way they stare at one,” she went on, with a note in her dying voice of a petulance that the children had not inspired. “Does one look such a guy?”

Lypiatt threw open the door at the head of the stairs and stood there on the threshold, waiting for her. “Queer?” he repeated. “Not a bit.” And as she moved past him into the room, he laid his hand on her shoulder and fell into step with her, leaving the door to slam behind them. “Merely an example of the mob’s instinctive dislike of the aristocratic individual. That’s all. ‘Oh, why was I born with a different face?’ Thank God I was, though. And so were you. But the difference has its disadvantages; the children throw stones.”

“They didn’t throw stones.” Mrs. Viveash was too truthful, this time.

They halted in the middle of the studio. It was not a very large room and there were too many things in it. The easel stood near the centre of the studio; round it Lypiatt kept a space permanently cleared. There was a broad fairway leading to the door, and another, narrower and tortuously winding between boxes and piled-up furniture and tumbled books, gave access to his bed. There was a piano and a table permanently set with dirty plates and strewed with the relics of two or three meals. Bookshelves stood on either side of the fireplace and lying on the floor were still more books, piles on dusty piles. Mrs. Viveash stood looking at the picture on the easel (abstract again—she didn’t like it), and Lypiatt, who had dropped his hand from her shoulder, had stepped back the better to see her, stood earnestly looking at Mrs. Viveash.

“May I kiss you?” he asked after a silence.

Mrs. Viveash turned towards him, smiling agonizingly, her eyebrows ironically lifted, her eyes steady and calm and palely, brightly inexpressive. “If it really gives you any pleasure,” she said. “It won’t, I may say, to me.”

“You make me suffer a great deal,” said Lypiatt, and said it so quietly and unaffectedly, that Myra was almost startled; she was accustomed, with Casimir, to noisier and more magniloquent protestations.

“I’m very sorry,” she said; and, really, she felt sorry. “But I can’t help it, can I?”

“I suppose you can’t,” he said. “You can’t,” he repeated and his voice had now become the voice of Prometheus in his bitterness. “Nor can tigresses.” He had begun to pace up and down the unobstructed fairway between his easel and the door; Lypiatt liked pacing while he talked. “You like playing with the victim,” he went on; “he must die slowly.”

Reassured, Mrs. Viveash faintly smiled. This was the familiar Casimir. So long as he could talk like this, could talk like an old-fashioned French novel, it was all right; he couldn’t really be so very unhappy. She sat down on the nearest unencumbered chair. Lypiatt continued to walk back and forth, waving his arms as he walked.

“But perhaps it’s good for one to suffer,” he went on, “perhaps it’s unavoidable and necessary. Perhaps I ought to thank you. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?” He halted in front of her, with arms extended in a questioning gesture. Mrs. Viveash slightly shrugged her shoulders. She really didn’t know; she couldn’t answer. “Ah, but that’s all nonsense,” he burst out again, “all rot. I want to be happy and contented and successful; and of course I should work better if I were. And I want, oh, above everything, everything, I want you: to possess you completely and exclusively and jealously and for ever. And the desire is like rust corroding my heart, it’s like moth eating holes in the fabric of my mind. And you merely laugh.” He threw up his hands and let them limply fall again.

“But I don’t laugh,” said Mrs. Viveash. On the contrary, she was very sorry for him; and, what was more, he rather bored her. For a few days, once, she had thought she might be in love with him. His impetuosity had seemed a torrent strong enough to carry her away. She had found out her mistake very soon. After that he had rather amused her: and now he rather bored her. No, decidedly, she never laughed. She wondered why she still went on seeing him. Simply because one must see some one? or why? “Are you going to go on with my portrait?” she asked.

Lypiatt sighed. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose I’d better be getting on with my work. Work—it’s the only thing. ‘Portrait of a Tigress.’” The cynical Titan spoke again. “Or shall I call it, ‘Portrait of a Woman who has never been in Love?’”

“That would be a very stupid title,” said Mrs. Viveash.

“Or, ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Heart Disease’? That would be good, that would be damned good!” Lypiatt laughed very loudly and slapped his thighs. He looked, Mrs. Viveash thought, peculiarly ugly when he laughed. His face seemed to go all to pieces; not a corner of it but was wrinkled and distorted by the violent grimace of mirth. Even the forehead was ruined when he laughed. Foreheads are generally the human part of people’s faces. Let the nose twitch and the mouth grin and the eyes twinkle as monkeyishly as you like; the forehead can still be calm and serene, the forehead still knows how to be human. But when Casimir laughed, his forehead joined in the general disintegrating grimace. And sometimes even when he wasn’t laughing, when he was just vivaciously talking, his forehead seemed to lose its calm and would twitch and wrinkle itself in a dreadful kind of agitation. ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Heart Disease’—she didn’t find it so very funny.

“The critics would think it was a problem picture,” Lypiatt went on. “And so it would be, by God, so it would be. You are a problem. You’re the Sphinx. I wish I were Œdipus and could kill you.”

All this mythology! Mrs. Viveash shook her head.

He made his way through the intervening litter and picked up a canvas that was leaning with averted face against the wall near the window. He held it out at arm’s length and examined it, his head critically cocked on one side. “Oh, it’s good,” he said softly. “It’s good. Look at it.” And, stepping out once more into the open, he propped it up against the table so that Mrs. Viveash could see it without moving from her chair.

It was a stormy vision of her; it was Myra seen, so to speak, through a tornado. He had distorted her in the portrait, had made her longer and thinner than she really was, had turned her arms into sleek tubes and put a bright, metallic polish on the curve of her cheek. The figure in the portrait seemed to be leaning backwards a little from the surface of the canvas, leaning sideways too, with the twist of an ivory statuette carved out of the curving tip of a great tusk. Only somehow in Lypiatt’s portrait the curve seemed to lack grace, it was without point, it had no sense.

“You’ve made me look,” said Mrs. Viveash at last, “as though I were being blown out of shape by the wind.” All this show of violence—what was the point of it? She didn’t like it, she didn’t like it at all. But Casimir was delighted with her comment. He slapped his thighs and once more laughed his restless, sharp-featured face to pieces.

“Yes, by God,” he shouted, “by God, that’s right! Blown out of shape by the wind. That’s it: you’ve said it.” He began stamping up and down the room again, gesticulating. “The wind, the great wind that’s in me.” He struck his forehead. “The wind of life, the wild west wind. I feel it inside me, blowing, blowing. It carries me along with it; for though it’s inside me, it’s more than I am, it’s a force that comes from somewhere else, it’s Life itself, it’s God. It blows me along in the teeth of opposing fate, it makes me work on, fight on.” He was like a man who walks along a sinister road at night and sings to keep up his own spirits, to emphasize and magnify his own existence. “And when I paint, when I write or improvise my music, it bends the things I have in my mind, it pushes them in one direction, so that everything I do has the look of a tree that streams north-east with all its branches and all its trunk from the root upwards, as though it were trying to run from before the Atlantic gale.”

Lypiatt stretched out his two hands and, with fingers splayed out to the widest and trembling in the excessive tension of the muscles, moved them slowly upwards and sideways, as though he were running his palms up the stem of a little wind-wizened tree on a hilltop above the ocean.

Mrs. Viveash continued to look at the unfinished portrait. It was as noisy and easy and immediately effective as a Vermouth advertisement in the streets of Padua. Cinzano, Bonomelli, Campari—illustrious names. Giotto and Mantegna mouldered meanwhile in their respective chapels.

“And look at this,” Lypiatt went on. He took down the canvas that was clamped to the easel and held it out for her inspection. It was one of Casimir’s abstract paintings: a procession of machine-like forms rushing up diagonally from right to left across the canvas, with as it were a spray of energy blowing back from the crest of the wave towards the top right-hand corner. “In this painting,” he said, “I symbolize the Artist’s conquering spirit—rushing on the universe, making it its own.” He began to declaim:

“Look down, Conquistador,

There on the valley’s broad green floor,

There lies the lake, the jewelled cities gleam,

Chalco and Tlacopan

Awaiting the coming Man;

Look down on Mexico, Conquistador,

Land of your golden dream.

Or the same idea in terms of music——” and Lypiatt dashed to the piano and evoked a distorted ghost of Scriabin. “You see?” he asked feverishly, when the ghost was laid again and the sad cheap jangling had faded again into silence. “You feel? The artist rushes on the world, conquers it, gives it beauty, imposes a moral significance.” He returned to the picture. “This will be fine when it’s finished,” he said. “Tremendous. You feel the wind blowing there, too.” And with a pointing finger he followed up the onrush of the forms. “The great southwester driving them on. ‘Like leaves from an enchanter fleeing.’ Only not chaotically, not in disorder. They’re blown, so to speak, in column of four—by a conscious wind.” He leaned the canvas against the table and was free again to march and brandish his conquering fists.

“Life,” he said, “life—that’s the great, essential thing. You’ve got to get life into your art, otherwise it’s nothing. And life only comes out of life, out of passion and feeling; it can’t come out of theories. That’s the stupidity of all this chatter about art for art’s sake and the æsthetic emotions and purely formal values and all that. It’s only the formal relations that matter; one subject is just as good as another—that’s the theory. You’ve only got to look at the pictures of the people who put it into practice to see that it won’t do. Life comes out of life. You must paint with passion and the passion will stimulate your intellect to create the right formal relations. And to paint with passion, you must paint things that passionately interest you, moving things, human things. Nobody, except a mystical pantheist, like Van Gogh, can seriously be as much interested in napkins, apples and bottles as in his lover’s face, or the resurrection, or the destiny of man. Could Mantegna have devised his splendid compositions if he had painted arrangements of Chianti flasks and cheeses instead of Crucifixions, martyrs and triumphs of great men? Nobody but a fool could believe it. And could I have painted that portrait if I hadn’t loved you, if you weren’t killing me?”

Ah, Bonomelli and illustrious Cinzano!

“Passionately I paint passion. I draw life out of life. And I wish them joy of their bottles and their Canadian apples and their muddy table napkins with the beastly folds in them that look like loops of tripe.” Once more Lypiatt disintegrated himself with laughter; then was silent.

Mrs. Viveash nodded, slowly and reflectively. “I think you’re right,” she said. Yes, he was surely right; there must be life, life was the important thing. That was precisely why his paintings were so bad—she saw now; there was no life in them. Plenty of noise there was, and gesticulation and a violent galvanized twitching; but no life, only the theatrical show of it. There was a flaw in the conduit; somewhere between the man and his work life leaked out. He protested too much. But it was no good; there was no disguising the deadness. Her portrait was a dancing mummy. He bored her now. Did she even positively dislike him? Behind her unchanging pale eyes Mrs. Viveash wondered. But in any case, she reflected, one needn’t always like the people with whom one associates. There are music halls as well as confidential boudoirs; some people are admitted to the tea-party and the tête-à-tête, others, on a stage invisible, poor things! to themselves, do their little song-and-dance, roll out their characteristic patter, and having provided you with your entertainment are dismissed with their due share of applause. But then, what if they become boring?

“Well,” said Lypiatt at last—he had stood there, motionless, for a long time, biting his nails, “I suppose we’d better begin our sitting.” He picked up the unfinished portrait and adjusted it on the easel. “I’ve wasted a lot of time,” he said, “and there isn’t, after all, so much of it to waste.” He spoke gloomily, and his whole person had become, all of a sudden, curiously shrunken and deflated. “There isn’t so much of it,” he repeated, and sighed. “I still think of myself as a young man, young and promising, don’t you know. Casimir Lypiatt—it’s a young, promising sort of name, isn’t it? But I’m not young, I’ve passed the age of promise. Every now and then I realize it, and it’s painful, it’s depressing.”

Mrs. Viveash stepped up on to the model’s dais and took her seat. “Is that right?” she asked.

Lypiatt looked first at her, then at his picture. Her beauty, his passion—were they only to meet on the canvas? Opps was her lover. Time was passing; he felt tired. “That’ll do,” he said and began painting. “How young are you?” he asked after a moment.

“Twenty-five, I should imagine,” said Mrs. Viveash.

“Twenty-five? Good Lord, it’s nearly fifteen years since I was twenty-five. Fifteen years, fighting all the time. God, how I hate people sometimes! Everybody. It’s not their malignity I mind; I can give them back as good as they give me. It’s their power of silence and indifference, it’s their capacity for making themselves deaf. Here am I with something to say to them, something important and essential. And I’ve been saying it for more than fifteen years, I’ve been shouting it. They pay no attention. I bring them my head and heart on a charger, and they don’t even notice that the things are there. I sometimes wonder how much longer I can manage to go on.” His voice had become very low, and it trembled. “One’s nearly forty, you know....” The voice faded huskily away into silence. Languidly and as though the business exhausted him, he began mixing colours on his palette.

Mrs. Viveash looked at him. No, he wasn’t young; at the moment, indeed, he seemed to have become much older than he really was. An old man was standing there, peaked and sharp and worn. He had failed, he was unhappy. But the world would have been unjuster, less discriminating if it had given him success.

“Some people believe in you,” she said; there was nothing else for her to say.

Lypiatt looked up at her. “You?” he asked.

Mrs. Viveash nodded, deliberately. It was a lie. But was it possible to tell the truth? “And then there is the future,” she reassured him, and her faint death-bed voice seemed to prophesy with a perfect certainty. “You’re not forty yet; you’ve got twenty, thirty years of work in front of you. And there were others, after all, who had to wait—a long time—sometimes till after they were dead. Great men; Blake, for instance....” She felt positively ashamed; it was like a little talk by Doctor Frank Crane. But she felt still more ashamed, when she saw that Casimir had begun to cry and that the tears were rolling, one after another, slowly down his face.

He put down his palette, he stepped on to the dais, he came and knelt at Mrs. Viveash’s feet. He took one of her hands between his own and he bent over it, pressing it to his forehead, as though it were a charm against unhappy thoughts, sometimes kissing it; soon it was wet with tears. He wept almost in silence.

“It’s all right,” Mrs. Viveash kept repeating, “it’s all right,” and she laid her free hand on his bowed head, she patted it comfortingly as one might pat the head of a large dog that comes and thrusts its muzzle between one’s knees. She felt, even as she made it, how meaningless and unintimate the gesture was. If she had liked him, she would have run her fingers through his hair; but somehow his hair rather disgusted her. “It’s all right, all right.” But, of course, it wasn’t all right; and she was comforting him under false pretences and he was kneeling at the feet of somebody who simply wasn’t there—so utterly detached, so far away she was from all this scene and all his misery.

“You’re the only person,” he said at last, “who cares or understands.”

Mrs. Viveash could almost have laughed.

He began once more to kiss her hand.

“Beautiful and enchanting Myra—you were always that. But now you’re good and dear as well, now I know you’re kind.”

“Poor Casimir!” she said. Why was it that people always got involved in one’s life? If only one could manage things on the principle of the railways! Parallel tracks—that was the thing. For a few miles you’d be running at the same speed. There’d be delightful conversation out of the windows; you’d exchange the omelette in your restaurant car for the vol-au-vent in theirs. And when you’d said all there was to say, you’d put on a little more steam, wave your hand, blow a kiss and away you’d go, forging ahead along the smooth, polished rails. But instead of that, there were these dreadful accidents; the points were wrongly set, the trains came crashing together; or people jumped on as you were passing through the stations and made a nuisance of themselves and wouldn’t allow themselves to be turned off. Poor Casimir! But he irritated her, he was a horrible bore. She ought to have stopped seeing him.

“You can’t wholly dislike me, then?”

“But of course not, my poor Casimir!”

“If you knew how horribly I loved you!” He looked up at her despairingly.

“But what’s the good?” said Mrs. Viveash.

“Have you ever known what it’s like to love some one so much that you feel you could die of it? So that it hurts all the time. As though there were a wound. Have you ever known that?”

Mrs. Viveash smiled her agonizing smile, nodded slowly and said, “Perhaps. And one doesn’t die, you know. One doesn’t die.”

Lypiatt was leaning back, staring fixedly up at her. The tears were dry on his face, his cheeks were flushed. “Do you know what it is,” he asked, “to love so much, that you begin to long for the anodyne of physical pain to quench the pain in the soul? You don’t know that.” And suddenly, with his clenched fist, he began to bang the wooden dais on which he was kneeling, blow after blow, with all his strength.

Mrs. Viveash leant forward and tried to arrest his hand. “You’re mad, Casimir,” she said. “You’re mad. Don’t do that.” She spoke with anger.

Lypiatt laughed till his face was all broken up with the grimace, and proffered for her inspection his bleeding knuckles. The skin hung in little white tags and tatters, and from below the blood was slowly oozing up to the surface. “Look,” he said, and laughed again. Then suddenly, with an extraordinary agility, he jumped to his feet, bounded from the dais and began once more to stride up and down the fairway between his easel and the door.

“By God,” he kept repeating, “by God, by God. I feel it in me. I can face the whole lot of you; the whole damned lot. Yes, and I shall get the better of you yet. An Artist”—he called up that traditional ghost and it comforted him; he wrapped himself with a protective gesture within the ample folds of its bright mantle—“an Artist doesn’t fail under unhappiness. He gets new strength from it. The torture makes him sweat new masterpieces....”

He began to talk about his books, his poems and pictures; all the great things in his head, the things he had already done. He talked about his exhibition—ah, by God, that would astonish them, that would bowl them over, this time. The blood mounted to his face; there was a flush over the high projecting cheek-bones. He could feel the warm blood behind his eyes. He laughed aloud; he was a laughing lion. He stretched out his arms; he was enormous, his arms reached out like the branches of a cedar. The Artist walked across the world and the mangy dogs ran yelping and snapping behind him. The great wind blew and blew, driving him on; it lifted him and he began to fly.

Mrs. Viveash listened. It didn’t look as though he would get much further with the portrait.