Memling in Paris
Memling in Paris
When it comes to art, commend us to Dirk Memling. If he paints a picture it is a real painting, not a daub. His heart is in it; his soul. This is the story of how, during his stay in the beautiful city on the Seine, he painted, alas, too well
IF I’d ’a’ been slammed ashore on Robinson Caruso’s island all by me lonesome, I couldn’t feel lonesomer than what I feel lonesome now.” Nellie Gaskell was mumbling to herself for company. Crowds surrounded her, but she knew nobody. She faced the city of Cherbourg, and was afraid of it. She looked back over her left shoulder, and saw the huge steamer Mutterland that had brought her across the sea, already dwindling off toward its German port, after exuding its Paris-bound passengers on board a tender.
Nellie sat on somebody’s else trunk, and kicked her heels against somebody’s else initials. And then a porter came up and pulled the trunk out from under her. She had to stand up, and her shoes were too tight. She had saved them to wear down the gangplank, because he was to have met her, and a gangplank is a good place to show off shoes. Item, the toes were patent leather; item, buckles of silver-near.
Her plight was pitiful. She was friendless and Frenchless in France. And her shoes were too tight. And her other shoes were in her trunk. And she didn’t know where her trunk was.
After the harrowing series of mishaps that had attended her efforts to reach Paris with Dirk Memling, it seemed hardly possible that Fate should have another knife up her sleeve. She and Dirk had managed to get themselves separated in New York, and take different ships oversea. That ought to have been enough. But evidently it was not. Nellie bitterly recalled her motto:
“Poik up, old goil, the woist that ever was can always get a little woisser.”
But Doik hadn’t otta not met her. He knew she didn’t know enough French to keep from starving at a tabble dot. Besides, he had sent her a wireless that he would be at the shore end of the gangplank, and she had hurried down the cleated way with her face all made up to greet him. Her smiles had relaxed like curtains slowly lowered.
She had run hither and yon about the dock, dodging the facteurs as they catapulted trunks in all directions and howled “At-taw-shaw!” whatever that meant. But never a Memling she found. The other passengers had stampeded every which way, identifying luggage, and seeing it carried into the room where the customs officers made a polite pretense of examining things.
In time the trunks and the passengers and their parcels were stowed on the funny train which was evidently panting to get back to Paris. But no Memling came for Nellie.
A number of uniformed Frenchmen poured out a vast amount of words which Nellie supposed to be French; but she drearily shook her head, and answered:
“I don’t get you, Gastong.”
Nellie was so pretty that it was not hard even for a Frenchman to be polite to her, but she could not, or would not, understand.
Finally two interpreters approached her, and addressed her in English. They explained graciously that she should get her trunks through the customs, and get herself on board the train. They thought they knew English, but they had not met with East Side New Yorkese. Her answer threw them into complete disorder:
“Nay, nay, Pauline! Nix on the choo-choo for mine. A soitain poisson Marconies me he’ll toin up at the dock; so I’m all to the Cassie Bianca; ‘the goil stood on the boinin’ dock’—you know the rest.”
The first interpreter walked apart with the second interpreter, and said:
“What language is it she speaks? And who is Pauline?”
The second interpreter leaned on the first interpreter, and answered:
“But yes; but who is Choo-Choo? Some words are nearly Angleesh, but they do not mean somesing togezzer, and some words mean nossing alone, so perhaps it is Indian she talks.”
“But Choo-Choo is Chinois!”
They debated the mystic syllables, but all they got from them was a headache; also a vague notion that she was waiting for somebody named Bianca.
They asked her again if she were expecting perhaps somebody.
“Sure, Mike!” she brightened.
“What is it her name, please? Is it Pauline or Bianca?”
Nellie laughed Nellishly. “Her name! Pauline! I’d like you to hand that to him!”
“Ah, she is a him?”
“Then perhaps if you will tell us who it is he is, we could write him a little blue—a telegram, and he comes or answers. Who is it he is and where, please?”
Nellie could not resist answering with an expression her Irish mother had used to use:
“If you knew that and had your supper, you could go to bed.”
The interpreters looked at each other and blushed, particularly the married one. She explained:
“If you could put me wise to where he is, you’d be some intoipreter.”
The unmarried interpreter desperately urged:
“You wish to go to Paris, yes?”
“Yes, but not as any monologue act. I’m one of a team. Get me?”
The married interpreter found Nellie so pretty that he was tempted to the romantic sublimity of offering to leave wife and children to beg in Cherbourg while he escorted her; and the unmarried interpreter trembled with a similar declaration; but the chief guard of the train intervened with a Now or Never, and Nellie, answering rather what his watch implied than what his French declared, said:
“Don’t let me lose your job on you, conductor. I couldn’t get you another.”
The conductor lifted his hat and signaled the engine drivers to move on.
The train writhed out of the station, glided along the quay, and slid from sight like a many-jointed snake. It left the interpreters to their own desperate devices with Nellie.
Once more they asked her who it was that that gentleman was who was so blessed as to be waited for by her, and so cursed as to keep her waiting. Nellie began to explain Dirk Memling’s name and appearance, when an old habit of caution checked her.
An iciclic chill formed on her heart, in a sudden dread that Memling had failed her because he had been arrested on some one of the dozen charges that were always hanging over his beautiful head. Or perhaps he was hovering in the vicinity, not daring to appear. Perhaps he was even now watching her from behind some building, or trunk, or door. Perhaps he was waving vain signals to her from a lair.
To give Memling’s name or describe him might bring down no end of disasters. She decided not to divulge, at any hazard of distress for herself.
Herein must lie one of the chief inconveniences of the thief’s profession. Every art has its drawbacks, of course, and this must be thievery’s. The constant necessity for anonymity or pseudonymity is surely one of the major hardships of dishonesty. And, until the invisible cloak on the ring of Gyges becomes a practical reality instead of a fictional dream, thieves must put up with the most irritating complications of this sort.
But Nellie looked so little like a thief that dear old Lombroso himself would have gladly welcomed her into his household. As for the interpreters, when she turned pale at their query, and declined to name or limn her absent cavalier, they could imagine nothing wickeder than a lovers’ tryst, a clandestine adventure, or an elopement.
Their romantic hearts bled to see it so mismanaged. They offered the waif all the hospitality they could afford. They answered such questions of hers as they could understand, and they saw that she had refreshments. Both of them were impelled to submit themselves as substitutes for the missing eloper, and neither quite dared.
The distant town looked fascinatingly attractive to Nellie; it seemed to beckon her to wander the twisted streets among the crazy roofs.
But she refused to be beguiled from that platform. She was sure that the moment she left it Memling would arrive, look about, and, not finding her, disappear forever.
And so she waited hour upon hour, crying a little now and then, swearing a little now and then, and simply perishing for a cigarette all the while.
Eventually the afternoon waned into evening; the gloaming deepened, and the fears that had come with twilight gathered round her. It was lonely on the dock, and even the interpreters had gone to dinner; the refreshment room and the telegraph office were closed.
And then a loping cab horse came scrambling into view, striking sparks from the sharp paving stones. Nellie knew who was in the cab before she saw the dim figure, familiar even in silhouette, standing up and waving frantically.
She ran to meet him, crying “Doik! Doik!” and nearly embraced the horse. The driver furiously hauled the poor old hack to its bony haunches, and emitted guttural protests, while Memling leaped to the ground, caught Nellie in his arms, and encouraged her to a few comfortable tears.
“I knew you’d wait for me,” Memling murmured. “You always stay put, don’t you?”
“Do I?” she asked, sobbing deliciously. “But what on oith detained you, Doik? Did you oversleep as per usual, or just forget, or what?”
“Oversleep! Forget! What made me late was being too early.”
“Oily? Yes, for the next boat; but I came on this one.”
“I’ll never do it again,” Memling vowed.
“Do what again?”
“Use forethought and caution, and all that sort of thing. Every time I take old Father Time by the forelock, he knees me in the stomach. Never in my life did I set out extra early to make a train that I didn’t get left.”
“There’s sumpum in what you say, Doik,” Nellie philosophized. “Trust to luck and you got a chance—not much, but some. But use your brain and it seems like you was challengin’ the Fates to a duel. They feel they gotta show you what a woim you really are.”
“I was so afraid that the regular boat express from Paris might be delayed, and you might have to wait here, that I took a train four hours earlier. And so, of course, I ran into a neat bit of sabotage.”
“It’s the latest French invention. You see, there’s a big railroad strike on, and the strikers do all the damage they can by leaving things undone. They didn’t want to upset the boat express, so they chose the train I took. Some track layers took the spikes out of a couple of rails, and just forgot to put them back. My train came along, and turned a somersault at a little village—there’s a beautiful old church there, built in the thirteenth century.”
“That thoiteen explains it,” Nellie interposed. “Weren’t you killed or anything?”
“I got a few bumps, that’s all; and I stood on my head for twenty minutes till I was pulled out feet first, but I wasn’t damaged.”
“Maybe you got intoinal injuries!” Nellie gasped, with all of the laity’s superstitious dread of that mystic form of damage.
“Maybe,” said Memling; “but the main thing is I’m so mad I could whip the entire labor union single-handed. They got the track repaired and the wreckage cleared up just in time to let the boat express go through. I watched it shoot past at sixty-five miles an hour. Then my train got under way, and limped along, stopping at every little village, and pausing to let six expresses go by. I couldn’t catch one of them. I got into the main station at Cherbourg a few minutes ago, and took a cab to the dock, hoping against hope that you would have stayed. And you did. God bless you, you did!”
“I’ve loined that when you say ‘Meet me at a soitain spot,’ that’s the spot I’m supposed to meet you at.”
“Weren’t you worried sick?”
“Oh, no; I was simply in a Toikish bath, that’s all. But the main thing is, we’ve met up again. Let’s get a pair of handcuffs and lock ourselves together, and throw the key away, so we won’t lose us any more.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Memling, locking hands with her. “Jump in the cab.”
“You’re not goin’ to drive to Paris in this poor old horse and buggy?”
“Lord, no! We’re going to the gare in Cherbourg, and take an express to Paris. There’s one leaving in a few minutes.”
“But what about the dinner question? I could take care of sumpum to eat simply elegant about now.”
“We’ll eat on the train.”
“Do they have dining cars in this country?”
“Now, Nellie, you mustn’t think that France is slow. In a thousand ways it makes New York look like the little neck of the backwoods.”
“Well, o’ course, the only Frenchmen I ever knew were waiters. They weren’t any slower than all waiters are. And, then again, I saw Sarah Boinhardt in the moving pitchers, but I couldn’t get much of a line on what she said. Still, live and loin is my trade-mark.”
They caught the train, and it swept them to Paris at a speed that set Nellie to gasping. She could see little of France but the lights of the cities they sped through, and she saw little of these because she slept most of the way. The sea air and the long vigil on the dock had tired her, and now she felt a drowsy luxury in the protection of Memling.
He hated to waken her, but finally he must, and he woke her with the magic words:
“Paris, Nellie! We’re in Paris!”
“My Gawd—or should I say—Moan Doo?”
“They’re more apt to understand the former.”
She primped in haste, yawning shamelessly, and stepped from the railroad carriage as if Paris were her very own.
Memling gave the hand luggage to one of the swarming porters, and went with Nellie to the customs officer at the station, where he speedily discovered that Nellie’s trunk had been shipped to Paris under a seal. With the aid of Memling’s almost perfect French, the trunk was quickly passed, and carried out to a cab.
“They get taxis here, too, haven’t, they?” said Nellie. “This is really quite a modern little boig.”
The taxicab skated along boulevards lined with cafés, and nearly every café crowded.
“They’re late upsitters, too, these Parishes,” said Nellie.
As soon as the trunk was taken to her room at the hotel Memling had selected, she was all for venturing forth again.
Refreshed by her sleep on the train, and stimulated by the ozone of Paris air, she had the mood of a summer dawn. And Mending, renewing his acquaintance with the Paris of his young art-student days, felt youth throbbing again in his arteries.
He kept full stride with Nellie’s zestful pace, and the sidewalk café, which was such a joyous discovery to her, was a paradise regained to him.
She took an infantile delight in everything, every person, every trick of costume or manner. Her comments were like a child’s.
“Say, Doik, the cops wear swords here, don’t they? And I haven’t seen an Irish-looking one yet. They soive the beer with a saucer under the glass, see? And you get a new saucer with every glass of beer, don’t you? And they stack them up, don’t they? You’re not supposed to take ’em home with you, are you?”
The much-decorated women, drifting decoratively along the streets, interested her immensely.
“I suppose those are demimondes traipsing up and down the bullyvard.”
“I suppose they are.”
“Is that why you came over on another steamer from mine, so as to watch them go demimonding along?”
“Nellie! You know I thought you would be here ahead of me.”
“Well, maybe you did. But you got here foist, didn’t you? And you came right along on down to Paris instead of waiting for me at Choiboig, didn’t you?”
All she wanted was to be a little jealous, and to be reassured. He did his best.
“I had to arrange the business of the paintings.”
“The pictures, that’s so! Why haven’t you told me about them?”
“Why haven’t you asked me?”
“I haven’t had time, but I’m askin’ you now. How about it?”
Memling looked around to note if he were in earshot or eyeshot of anybody. He could hear nothing but a jabber of French; he could see nobody who looked Anglo-Saxon. English seemed disguise enough. So he bent closer to Nellie, and told his story.
“That old crook of a Max Strubel gave me a letter of introduction to his fellow crook in Paris—Bertrand de Vervins.”
“Slip me that again, please.”
“Bertrand de Vervins.”
“Oh! I get you! Boitrong de Voivang!”
“Does he deal in pictures, too?”
“Yes; he’s a crooked dealer who mixes up genuine and forgery till he can hardly tell where he stands himself. Well, I explained my great invention to him, and at first he was so very polite that I knew he wasn’t convinced at all. That made me mad, and I said: ‘Pas de cérémonies, monsieur.’”
“Pa de Sarah who?”
“I said: ‘No ceremonies, monsieur. I have invented the greatest scheme ever known for smuggling paintings into America without paying duty on them.’ He shrugged his shoulders: ‘So many people tell me that, and they are always being caught,’ he said, ‘and the pictures are taken away from them,’ he said. But I told him I had a new way. I told him that I had invented a marvelous method of painting another painting over another painting so that later I could remove the other painting from the other painting without injuring the other painting.”
“But what becomes of the other painting?” Nellie queried sarcastically. “Are you talking ragtime? You’ve got so many ‘others’ I don’t know one other from t’other other.”
“That’s what he said. But I said: ‘Look here, Monsieur de Vervins,’ I said. ‘You give me a valuable masterpiece of modern art, say, a canvas by Cézanne, or Dégas, or Renoir,’ I said. ‘It is worth, say, a hundred thousand francs.’”
“How much is that in Christian money?”
Memling tossed her the information impatiently: “Twenty thousand dollars.”
“It must be a big picture to pull down that much cush!” Nellie mused.
“Nonsense!” said Memling. “Meissonier sold one of his pictures for fifty thousand dollars while he was alive, and Millet’s ‘Angelus’ was sold to America for over a hundred thousand dollars fourteen years after his death, and a year later it was bought back by a Frenchman for three-quarters of a million francs. The duty on that alone would have been—let me see—at fifteen per cent”—he figured on the marble-topped table—“it would have been twenty-two thousand five hundred dollars. And when Millet was young he was so poor that he couldn’t afford canvas, and he painted a new picture over an old one, just as I propose to do.”
“Art is a good business when it’s good,” Nellie concluded.
“That’s what I told that old fat cook of a Vervins. I explained to him that if he would give me a few paintings by modern masters, worth, say, a hundred thousand dollars, I could save him fifteen thousand dollars duty on them.”
“Didn’t that put old Voivang into a poisperation?”
“He sweat a little round the collar. But he cooled off with fright. ‘But, yes,’ he said, ‘but how do I assure myself,’ he said, ‘that when you have painted over them you have not ruined them?’ he said. ‘It would be small profit to save the fifteen-per-cent duty and destroy the one-hundred-per-cent painting,’ he said. I told him I would guarantee him against loss. He smiled very politely, and said: ‘Is it that monsieur would permit that I demand what securities he has?’
“Well, of course, he had me there; so I said I would give him a demonstration. If he could lend me a painting I would paint another over it, and then remove the other painting, leaving the oth——”
“Doik, if you say another ‘other,’ I’ll soitain’y have to moider you with one of these beer saucers.”
“Well, he brought out an old canvas, a beautiful, time-mellowed masterpiece. I said: ‘It looks like a Rembrandt.’ He said: ‘It is a Rembrandt.’ I hated to risk destroying an old master—the new ones don’t count; they can paint more. Still, I didn’t want to show him I lacked confidence in my scheme, so I swallowed hard, and said carelessly: ‘And if this should be ruined—not that it would or could, but if it should, how much would it cost?’ I said.
“‘Ten dollars,’ he said, or at least, he said ‘Fifty francs.’ I gasped. ‘Fifty francs for a Rembrandt!’ He smiled. ‘The man who paints these for me would paint me a thousand at that rate.’ So I took the Rembrandt to the hotel, covered it with the layer of paint I have specially prepared, then daubed on a rough portrait.”
“Who was the model?” Nellie put in hastily.
“But I was on that Joiman steamship.”
“You were present in my heart,” Memling answered with a bow.
“Paris is doin’ you good already,” Nellie beamed. “Keep right on.”
“I painted a portrait of you, and showed it to old Vervins. He said: ‘You are a very poor painter, monsieur, but if you can remove what you put on, I shall do myself the honor of calling you a great artist.’”
Nellie was furious. “He’s got a noive! Why didn’t you smack his fat face off for him?” she demanded. “Telling you you weren’t a great painter. Didn’t you tell him you were a great sculptor?”
“I wanted to, but I didn’t have the courage. I simply asked for another room to work in. He showed me into an empty studio, and I restored the Rembrandt in a jiffy.”
“But what became of the portrait of me?” Nellie anxiously demanded.
“Heaven knows! Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
“You hadda rub me off the slate,” she pouted.
“I had to. I hated it, but Vervins wanted to see his Rembrandt reappear. I knew he’d try to snoop and steal my secret, so I hung my hat over the keyhole, and worked away till every trace of my portrait of you was gone. I could have hung my hat on his eyeballs when I handed him back the canvas just as it was before. He expressed great admiration of the work, and tried to steal some of my bottles of mixture. I took them away from him politely, and then he tried to smell the sponges and brushes to see if he could not sniff the secret chemicals.”
“The villain!” Nellie fumed. “Trying to steal from a—a——” She began to back pedal, but Memling smiled cynically.
“That’s what I told him. ‘It is unprofessional to rob the profession,’ I said. Then he tried to buy the process, but I made a great mystery of it. I didn’t tell him it was all printed in the textbooks on restoring, and that I had simply developed a hint. I did tell him, however, that it would do him no good to know the method, because that was only part of the campaign. I explained that the disguised paintings had to be taken to America, and edged through the customhouse; only a native American could do that, and I told him that I was planning to go back home as a painter returning from foreign studies and bringing with him his canvases. After I floated through the customs, I would unpaint what I had painted, and—voilà!
“Finally, he gave in. He decided to risk the canvases, and he promised me two or three good ones to work on as an experiment. But I stormed at him. ‘This experiment can only be worked once,’ I said, ‘and it must be done on a large scale or not at all.’ At last I browbeat him into promising me twenty-five of his best possessions, twenty-five of the most fashionable living artists’ chefs-d'œuvre.”
“Whyn’t you take some of those old masters? They bring fancy premiums.”
“Yes, but there is no duty nowadays on foreign paintings over twenty years old. There is no encouragement to the skillful smuggler of the old masters. I’ve got to try the new. But some of them are all the rage, and their prices are sky high.”
“How much do you think the bunch is woith?”
Mending's chest inflated a trifle as he tried to speak carelessly:
“The cash value of the twenty-five he has promised me will total about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars; fifteen-per-cent duty on that will be thirty-seven thousand five hundred dollars. And we divide the loot into three equal parts. It will net me twelve thousand five hundred dollars, for Strubel and Vervins pay the freight. Not bad, eh, Nellie, considering the fact that we get the trip to France thrown in.”
“It’s supoib—simpluh supoib!” she gasped. “You soitan’y are the greatest genius I ever hoid of.”
“We’ll get out of Paris and settle down in some quiet place where I can paint undisturbed.”
“You needn’t hurry out of Paris on my account,” said Nellie. “It’s distoibin’, but I like it.”
They looked about, and saw that the crowd had gradually dispersed, and that they were alone in the restaurant, save for the hideously fatigued waiter, and the cashier asleep at the desk.
A few people on early-morning errands moved drowsily about their tasks, but Paris, as Paris, was asleep.
“Say,” said Nellie, “this place looks like Williamsboig on a Sunday night. I hope we’re not keeping anybody up.”
“We’d better go home.”
“But I thought Paris never slept,” Nellie complained.
“Oh, Paris is turning respectable. It’s Berlin that is the naughty city nowadays. In Berlin people are just beginning their evenings out now.”
“I wish we were in Boilin,” said Nellie, “for I feel all fussed up by what you’ve told me.”
“To-morrow is another day,” Memling said, and gave the waiter a royal tip from his future earnings.
They strolled out to the curb. Memling looked for a taxicab.
“Let’s take one of those open-face, low-necked hacks,” said Nellie. “Maybe if we gave the driver a job, he’d buy the horse a coupla oats.”
Memling assented, and they were soon rolling along the affable streets of after-midnight Paris. The city slumbered like a beautiful siren, reclining in the moonlight, and dreaming of raptures past and future.
“There’s only one thing troubling me now,” said Memling.
“What’s that, Doik? This hat I got on?”
“Of course not. That art dealer said I was a bad painter. Those art dealers always say that of truly great painters at first. What if I should paint so much better than the men whose pictures I’m to disguise, that I should feel it my duty to art not to rub out my own pictures?”
“Well, I should worry!”
In the emerald depths of Fontainebleau Forest, Memling sat painting the portrait of an ancient oak, a veritable grand duke of a tree. Nellie was sitting on the turf, watching him.
“How soon’ll it be my toin to pose?” she said.
He mumbled through a mouthful of brush handles: “Lord, I wish you didn’t have to pose in that awful studio; if only you could pose out in the open air.”
“You want to hand me a nice little case of pneumonia, so’s you’ll be free to marry somebody else, or floit with some of these French demonselles. I’m wise to your fiendish poipose, you Desprut Desmond.”
“Hush!” said Memling. “You know I worship you, Nellie.”
“Well, poissons that woishop other poissons have got a right to say so once in a while. You haven’t said a woid for thoity minutes.”
“If you’d been trying as hard as I have to see just what that tree really looks like, and to express a dry, mossy bark in smeary oil paint, you wouldn’t have much to say, either. That tree ought to be carved, not painted.”
“I suppose it is hard woik, but it looks lazy; just sitting there dabbing a little brush in some colored goo and flicking it on a canvas.”
“Cracking rocks is nothing to it. The artist has to crack rocks inside his skull, and half the time he cracks his own head.”
“The woist of it is, you’re woikin’ as hard as if it was to be poimanent, when you’re going to rub it all off as soon as you get to America. Why don’t you just slap on any old thing?”
“A true artist’s conscience nags the life out of him, Nellie. It would be dishonest to that noble old oak to fake his portrait. Besides, the painting must look real, or it would excite suspicion. And now, kindly shut up for half an hour, and then we’ll go to lunch.”
Nellie was silent for what seemed a full hour to her, though the minute hand on Memling’s watch had made only ten steps. She sighed heavily under the burden of her thought:
“I was thinking——”
“Go right on thinking, but quit speaking, please.”
“I was wondering what becomes of beautiful things like paintings and statues that get rubbed out or boined up or things like that. Seems like there’d ought to be some place to find ’em again.”
“You’ll find them where Jenny Lind’s voice has gone, and the tears of Lady Jane Grey, and—— Oh, please hush your noise.”
“I will, but I think it’s a pity you can’t presoive what you’re painting.”
“So do I, and it’s a pity you can’t let me alone long enough to paint it. Come on, we might as well eat.”
She smiled contentedly. She was hungry, and she liked what they had to eat at Montigny.
“Insult me as much as you like, Doik, as long as you end up with a dinner bell. A goil will forgive a lotta hard woids as long as a man feeds her good afterward.”
They found their bicycles where they had laid them—for the bicycle is still popular round Fontainebleau—and went rolling out of the forest-cool into the sun-beaten roads that led across the levels and down the steep hill to the little village of Montigny on the tiny river Loing, whose name Nellie could never pronounce nearer than a Chinesy “ler-wang.”
As Memling unslung his canvas from his back, he bowed to the old artist who lived at their little hotel, a genial patriarch who was so kindly of soul that Memling felt ashamed of himself for not admiring the veteran’s art as much as his heart.
Nellie had quite fallen in love with him. Old Henri la Berthe—which Nellie called “Ornery lar Boit—knew a little English, and enjoyed trying to make Nellie understand it. He even enjoyed trying to comprehend her. It was a sort of game of chess. To-day he insisted on seeing Memling's work, and it evoked his intense enthusiasm. He poured forth a French rhapsody which Memling translated to Nellie in the crevices of the conversation.
“He says it’s wonderful—I’ve got the texture—better than Diaz, he says—no, not the Mexican—Diaz, the immortal painter—he says Diaz’s trees were too velvety—too plushy. But he says I ought to get the human note in—just a picture of a tree is not popular—he suggests a nymph or something—a dryad—or a Watteau shepherdess—not a bad idea—fun to do, anyway.”
Later, Memling talked it over with Nellie as they rowed a flat-bottomed boat on the flat-topped riverlet.
“I don’t want to put any of those dryad things in—or any dressed-up ladies—just a peasant girl or something. Let’s go look through the village, and see if we can find a good-looking peasant girl.”
“Let’s not,” said Nellie. “I thought I was brang over here to do any posing that was to be posed. And now you’re going gunning for French pheasants.”
“But you’re not one, my dear. You haven’t the clothes, or the wooden shoes, or——”
“There’s a wooden-shoe store here, and I bet any of these goils would sell all the duds off her back for a franc and a half. But o’ course, if you’d rather sit out there and paint one of these French beauts, go on—ally voo song.”
Memling seized her hand. He laughed, and blamed himself for a numskull. Of course she should pose. She should fit herself out with the costume, and lean against the tree.
She paid dearly for her jealousy as day after day went by. He posed her leaning against his noble oak, with one foot held back against it. She was knitting; her hands were knitting; her eyes were turned away in some dim reverie.
“Say, Doik, how much longer before I get a rest?”
“Oh, rest any time you say,” he snapped, flinging down the brush. “I was just trying to get that foot, and now you’ve moved it.”
“It had went to sleep, and it tingles clear up behind my ears. How’d you like to stand here on one Trilby like a stork forever, and then some? And my back—whew! I think my shoulder blades are grafted into the bark.”
As soon as she had shaken her foot awake, she resumed her pose, and he his work. But a moment later she was at him again:
“Did you say you was painting my off hoof, Doik?”
“No!” he snarled. “I said I was trying to.”
“Well, say, would you mind slipping me a cigarette? I’m just thoisting to death for a puff. It won’t hoit the expression of the foot, will it?”
He rose grimly, lighted a cigarette, and stuck it between her teeth. Then he kissed her cheek roughly, and went back to his post.
“If you speak again till I tell you to, I’ll hire another model—the prettiest one I can find.”
A little later she wailed: “Say, Doik, can I move my left hand a minute? This smoke’s going up me nose, and I’m famished to sneeze.”
“Rest!” he growled.
She strolled round behind him, and looked at the picture.
“It’s poifect, Doik! O’ course, it don’t look like me. If I met myself comin’ up the street lookin’ like that, I’d never reco’nize myself.”
“It’s not supposed to be a portrait.”
“Oh, I’m not casting any aspoisions on the painting. If I looked as handsome as that I’d expect ’em to be namin’ cigars and theaters after me.”
“You’re twice as beautiful as that.”
“Oh, Doik, you do bloit out the most gorgerous compliments now and then when you’re not thinking.” She kissed his nose, and sat on his knee.
“Say, Doik, what’s she thinking of?”
“The girl in the picture?”
“How should I know?”
“But she’s got such a wonderful expression, so wistful and wondering, and I don’t know what all.”
“What were you thinking of?”
“A cigarette, or you, or why we’re thieves instead of honest, and was it going to rain this afternoon, and how my old poiple skoit would look if I hung a coupla panniers on it—and all sorts of things.”
“Maybe that’s what she’s thinking of.”
“No; she’s got one of those expressions you read about in novels, where the great artist paints a soul's whole tradegy in one expression that haunts the beholder and tells him her life’s story.”
Memling sniffed. “Great artists don’t try to do that sort of thing, Nellie. Novelists who know as much about art as I know about astronomy—and I can hardly tell the sun from the moon—fool novelists write that way; but great painters don’t paint that way. Great painters try to put on canvas what they see and feel, and in their own dialect. I don’t know what the girl is thinking about any more than the sculptor knew what the Venus of Melos was thinking about, or Leonardo knew what Mona Lisa was musing about. The main thing is to make the face and body look as if there were a soul alive in them.”
Nellie went back to her attitude, and Memling assailed the canvas again. He had his days of triumph, when he cried: “I’ve got you now! I’m a better painter than I ever was sculptor.” And he had his days when he said: “If this canvas were mine, I’d throw' it into the River Loing. But it’s got another man’s masterpiece under this daub of mine.”
But he would not give it up, and one day he decided to call it finished, and stop before he ruined it with detail. That day he showed it to La Berthe, and the old man’s eyelids pursed with tears. He put his fingers to his lips, as if to extract a kiss from them, and threw the kiss to the little angel on the canvas. He poured out eulogies, which Memling condensed for Nellie:
“He says it’s a masterpiece—it’s so immediate—nice word, eh?—a beautiful moment fastened down like a butterfly on a pin—nice idea, eh? He says I ought to send it to the Salon. I told him that I had no acquaintances—no pull; it would be rejected. He says it wouldn’t—but of course it would.”
He and the artist exchanged rapid-fire chatter that evidently sent Memling into the seventh heaven of pride. Later he said to Nellie:
“The old man’s a bad painter, but he’s a good judge of what other people do.”
“Not knocking your own woik, at all,” Nellie had to say. But Memling was soaring too loftily to be brought down by any little shaft of irony.
The next morning he was up with the sun, for artists are Parsees by profession; they must serve in the temple of light while their god is there. By the time Nellie was awake, he had three expensive paintings, by two of the chief artists of France, and one Hungarian master, all blotted out under the first layer of paint.
“I’ll give you a day off, Nellie. I’ve got to get out in the woods and find some more subjects. I can’t spend as much time on these as I did on the peasant girl, or I’ll never get those twenty-five canvases covered. You go for a row on the river; but first you might pack that peasant girl safely and put her away for the voyage. Be careful; she’s wet yet. Good-by.”
Nellie watched him trundling his wheel up the sharp hill; then she went about various tasks, pausing to gaze at the peasant girl, and growing more and more fascinated by the mystery of her meditations.
A few hours later she went down to take out the boat. She found La Berthe just finishing his coffee at a table on the water’s very edge.
“Why aren’t you woiking, mussoo?” she said.
“Valking?” he said. “I am too fatigue to go valking.”
“No, not walking—woiking.”
“Je ne com—I am not under ze standing.”
She gave up, and smiled. “Won’t you—voules vous come for a row on the eau—a row in the—the bateau?” He understood her vigorous pantomime, at least.
“Enchanté!” he exclaimed, and she helped him in, expecting him to sit on the water any moment. But they embarked without accident, and a few stout strokes took her out of danger of the rush of water over the weir. Soon they were skimming the placid reaches of the exquisite stream, and by and by they just drifted.
“Isn’t this the sweetest little immutation river that ever was?” La Berthe knitted his gray brows. “Isn’t this—cela—the beauest petite rivare dong toot le mong? O’ course, in America we’d think it was only a bathtub—a sally de bang—running over, but—you don’t get me? Well, you’re not losing much!”
La Berthe felt that it would be easier to try to speak her language than to understand it, so he began:
“Mees Nellee, all las' night I am not sleep. I me remember Monsieur Memleeng his so sharmeeng painteeng. He did say to me: ‘No, no, I cannot make expose my painteeng to the Salon. I do not know nobody not at all. I have not the’—how did he say?—‘the pool.’ Now me, I am not great painter like Monsieur Memleeng.”
“Oh, Mussoo Ornery!” Nellie exclaimed.
“Pas de cérémonies, Mees Nellee. I have a nice talent, but not the grand talent. I know. But I have the grand talent for to make frands and to get vat you call the pool. To-morrow morneeng I go to Paris to take my painteengs for the Salon de l’automne—the late Salon.”
“Jer comprong, mussoo,” said Nellie.
“I know averybody. If I say: ‘Here is painteeng by my frand, by my pupil, by my—it imports not,’ they say, ‘Good! Let us have the honneur to see it.’ And once they see the little paysanne who is so ravissante, they will give her their hommage and a place on the best wall.”
“Pertater,” said Nellie dubiously.
“Non, non, pas de peut-êtres, mais incontestablement, sans aucun doute, sans aucun!”
“English, silver play!” Nellie gasped. The old man leaned close, and whispered as if he were transmitting a dark plot in a large crowd, instead of unfolding a benevolent scheme on a lonely river:
“Mees Nellee, I am one grand conspirateur! Me, I love to comploter. I have the inspiration. Monsieur Memleeng is afraid to send his so belle peinture to the Salon. You shall geeve it to me. I take it to the jury. Eef they say: ‘No, we do not wish,’ I bring back the peecture, and Monsieur Memleeng does not know his feeling is hurt. Eef they say: ‘Yes, we accept!’ then I bring back the triomphe!”
Nellie’s eyes and mouth widened with rapture at the conspiracy. She was so proud of Memling, and so zealous for his glory, that anything in his behalf was thrice welcome.
“Oh, that’s poifectly supoib!” she gasped.
“Aha, you like, yes?” beamed the old schemer.
“Like!” said Nellie. “I love it, and I could hug you for thinking of it.”
“Please!” was all La Berthe could say, as he leaned forward. And Nellie, leaning forward, took his snowy head in her hands, and kissed his pink old face.
Nellie rowed back to the little hotel, got the painting from its hiding place, and relinquished it to La Berthe.
Memling came back for a hasty luncheon. If his mind had not been absent on thoughts of future paintings, he would have observed with suspicion the curious behavior of La Berthe and Nellie. They were as restless as children trying to keep from giggling in church.
La Berthe said his farewells to Memling, and explained that business took him to Paris for a few days. Memling bade him an affectionate au revoir, and wheeled back to the woods.
Nellie fairly effervesced with hope, and her only dread was that Memling would insist on seeing his painting. A few times he asked for it, but she man aged to shunt him to another switch of thought.
Finally, the great day came when a telegram from Paris reached Nellie.
“Who’s telegraphing you from Paris?” Memling asked anxiously.
“Oh, a soitain party I been carrying on a little flotation with.”
While Memling stared at her aghast, she read the message:
Jury honors theirself by to accepted Monsieur Memling so charming painting. Make him the compliments. I embrace your hands.
While Nellie was reading, her face underwent so swift a suffusion of crimson delight that Memling flashed pale with jealousy. He snatched the telegram from her, and read the signature first:
“Old La Berthe, eh? He kisses your hands, eh? The old scoundrel!” Then his eyes took in the rest, but it was Greek to him. Nellie explained it in a roundabout way that drove him frantic. When at last he understood, she got herself ready to hear a shout of celebration from him; and she made ready the meek answers to his profound expressions of gratitude to her. Instead, she saw him drop into a chair, the telegram drifting to the floor like a lonesome autumn leaf. She thought that he was about to have apoplexy over the good news. But he said:
“Nellie, you meant well, but—Jumping Jupiter, how you have put the fat in the fire!”
“How have I?” she pouted.
“Don’t you realize that under my miserable daub——”
“It’s not a miserable daub; it’s a shay-doiver.”
“Well, whatever it is, it is resting on a thirty-thousand-dollar painting by the great Uzanne. And it’s got to come off.”
“Well, take it off.” Nellie was snippy with the bankruptcy of her great expectations.
“But how can I? It’s accepted now. It won’t be exhibited for three or four weeks, and it’s got to hang there for three months! And somebody might want to buy it for a few hundred dollars. And we’re supposed to start back to America in six weeks. Oh, Lord! oh, Lord!”
Nellie was so steeped in France by now that her own despair was voiced in the tragic wail of:
“Moan Doo! Moan Doo! Keskersay ker jay fay!”