The Bond/Part 1/Chapter 1

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THE painter had worked for half an hour almost silently, absorbed in his task; and his sitter had watched him with interest which finally demanded a more active expression. She moved abruptly and said with a plaintive air:

"Do you know, I think I'm tired. I'd like to rest a little now."

"Oh, of course—I beg your pardon, I'm afraid I wasn't thinking of the time," he said quickly, but still hovering before his canvas he splashed in another touch or two of violet colour and then stood back, frowning, and blinking his eyes as though suddenly roused. "Have we been at it very long?"

"Hours, I think," said the lady, smiling and stretching her arms languidly. "It's gone well to-day, hasn't it?"

"Awfully well. But I'm afraid I've been a brute, keeping you at it so." He laid down his brushes and looked at his watch. "By Jove, it's nearly five! Why didn't you speak before?"

"Oh, I hated to interrupt, you seemed so interested. And I was interested, too, watching your face. But I should like some tea now. Shall I make it?"

"Oh, will you? I'm not very good at it——"

Still he seemed but half awake to anything but the canvas, which he was studying with knitted brows. The lady stepped down, moving her shoulders with an expression of fatigue, and her black floating skirts touched him in passing. She paused behind him, glanced at the portrait, and then at him. Her eyes caressed his bent head, joined powerfully to the shoulders, rather rough-hewn under the close-clipped hair, full of vitality and force. With a quick breath he laid down his palette and turned toward her. She was looking at the portrait.

"It has got on," she said.

"Oh, yes—all that modelling of the face, you see—it came like a flash to-day. But now let's have tea, and forgive me for tiring you."

Now he looked at her as though he saw her. He looked tired, too, all at once; light had gone out of his face, and lines of nervous fatigue showed in it. Yet it was an essentially vital face; handsome, clear in form, with a warm mouth, cool eyes, a determined chin.

The lady smiled at him and went to the tea-table, which stood behind a painted screen and was elaborately furnished. The alcohol lamp had to be filled, and this Basil accomplished deftly, with an ease that characterised all the movements of his hands. The lamp once going, he threw himself on a couch beside the table, lit a cigarette for the lady, and his own, and definitely gave up his work for the day. His whole attitude expressed fatigue, and he hid his face for a moment on his outstretched arm and yawned. Then he woke to the social demand. The lady was looking at him with exigent eyes.

"I don't think I shall be so good to you another time," she said. "It tires you as well as me, and then you don't talk!" And she laughed a little. "And I believe I like your talk even better than your picture, though I don't doubt that's going to be good. But I don't want you to be entirely drowned in it!"

"That's the worst of work," said Basil, leaning forward and looking smilingly attentive. "It prevents one from doing more interesting things."

"Not more interesting to you. I watched your face that last half hour, and I never saw you so absorbed in anything. You change quite amazingly—you look keener, harder, and all the friendliness goes out of you. I don't think I like you as much that way. But I believe it's the real you, and the other thing is only a social form. You don't really like people as much as you pretend to!"

"I like some people as much as I pretend to," said Basil amiably. "And I like people really more than work, if that's what you mean. I enjoy talking to you, for example, much more than painting your portrait—only, you see, you wanted the portrait painted."

"Oh, I know. I tell you, I never saw you so much alive—the mental part of you so completely awake—as in that last half hour, when you'd forgotten all about me! Your talk with me is only play, by comparison—it's like a cigarette or a cup of tea."

"It's play in the sense of being pleasure, if you like. But that's what talk with a charming woman ought to be, if I may state my humble opinion. No matter how clever the woman may be, or how much what she talks about may interest you, I maintain that the mere fact that you like to look at her, that you feel her charm, lightens the most intellectual conversation to a point where it may be called, perhaps, play. And for my part, I rejoice in it. A purely mental effort, a problem of form to solve, is something else. It demands a narrower, fiercer concentration. But how many things it leaves out!"

He laughed again, and his look expressed, certainly, a definite pleasure and some playfulness.

Impatience flashed from the lady's passionate eyes.

"I don't say that I give you any intellectual problems to solve," she said impetuously, " or that I make many calls on your deep mental capacity. Only one would like to be taken as seriously, now and then, as a canvas and a handful of paints!"

"Dear Mrs. Perry," said Basil quickly, and it seemed the right thing to do to lay his hand on hers. But at that moment the kettle, like an echo, boiled over passionately, and the lady hastily made tea.

"You know," he went on, "how much I'm interested in you, in your personality, and how much I've enjoyed these talks. A human being interests me much more than a canvas and a handful of paints—but in so many different ways that the expression, at one time and another, is different——"

"Oh, I quite understand," said the lady quickly, as she gave him his cup of tea. "And you know I'm interested in your work," she assured him emphatically. "One reason I wanted to stop posing to-day is that you promised to show me some drawings, you know."

"Yes, of course, if you like——"

He started to put down his cup, but she said petulantly, "Oh, finish your tea first. I'm in no hurry—I mean, to go away."

"I'm awfully sorry, but I've got an engagement a little later," said Basil, and he absently looked at his watch again. "Teresa's coming in. She's due now, but she's always late." He smiled at that. "I daresay we'll have time for tea and the drawings, too, before she gets round."

"Oh," said Mrs. Perry, looking suddenly rather bored. She leaned back in her chair and drank her tea slowly.

She was a woman of about thirty, simply but richly dressed all in black. Her figure was tall, slender, nervous; her face oval and heavier in the lower part; her mouth thin-lipped and imperious; her eyes set rather close together, very dark, full of intensity and will. Her thick black hair was parted on her forehead under her feathery hat. On her fingers she wore a number of jewels. She was handsome, and every motion she made breathed coquetry—not light, however, but passionate and serious—not intentional, but an involuntary appeal.

"This is your wife's tea-table, of course," she said, glancing at the silver and porcelain. "You wouldn't have anything so pretty for yourself, would you?"

"I don't believe so," said Basil cheerfully. "She often works here, you see. This is her corner. She models little things very well. I'll show you something she's doing, if you like."

"Yes, thanks, later. But the drawings first, if you please. Another cup of tea?"

"No, thanks—yes, I will, if you don't mind."

He put down his cup, lit another cigarette, and went to get the drawings, which were in a large portfolio, tucked away in a corner of the rather untidy studio. He held them up one by one before Mrs. Perry, who lay back in her chair and looked, without other comment than a desire to look at each drawing longer than Basil seemed to expect.

They were nearly all in black and white; here and there a few had touches of colour; all were done with apparent economy of means, with hard simple lines which made a curious effect of life, brutal or pathetic. The subjects helped this effect. They were studies of the life of the city, generally in its rougher aspects. A street-girl and a man sitting at a table in a bare café; two tramps on a bench in the park; a chorus-girl, singing; a vaudeville dancer; a girl lying on a bed, smoking opium; a negro drinking-place; a scene from a Japanese play, a man seated in the middle of the stage committing hara-kiri; the audience at the Chinese theatre, a row of laughing faces; the Italian puppet-show; an East Side café, full of Slavic types; some Eastern women doing the danse du ventre; street scenes in the Jewish and Syrian quarters; a Bowery bartender; some immigrants at the Barge Office; a row of men at a gambling-table; a drunken group at the Haymarket.

"What life you put into them!" said Mrs. Perry as he laid the last one down, and she shivered.

"You don't like that kind of life?" Basil asked, laughing.

"Why do you take those particular forms—sordid forms?"

"Because they interest me."

"Yes, but why do they interest you? It seems to me that art ought to show us the beautiful, the ideal—not sordid, revolting things." She was genuinely moved. Her eyes looked near to tears. "Life is too terrible when you take it that way—you play with it!"

"No," said Basil. "I try only to show it as it seems to me in some of its significant aspects. I don't claim anything large in the way of art for these sketches—but one might perhaps detect some sort of intellectual intention in them. They're comments on social man—man at play, trying to amuse himself. Perhaps you've noticed that nearly all of them are that."

"Yes, and you satirise the poor creatures, you make them more tragic than they are in reality! I can't see any beauty in that!"

"You really haven't seen what I've tried to do," said Basil positively. "And I believe it's your fault and not mine. As to reality what, dear Mrs. Perry, can you know about the reality of these people? … And I think your idea of beauty might seem rather chromo-lithographic to me—something like Greuze, perhaps? Or, perhaps, I don't know what you mean by beauty. I assure you that I see enormous interest in some of those things I've done—in the subjects of them, I mean. If they were to me ugly and sordid I shouldn't be interested in them. You'll probably think me sentimental, but almost any aspect of life seems to me beautiful in some way."

"Sentimental, no! I don't see any sentiment in those things—they're merciless! What you mean by beauty, I suppose, is that you see something interesting to do technically. It's your drawing you're interested in, not the poor creatures themselves."

"No, no!" said Basil, laughing. "It's really the poor creatures. I'd like to show what I see, that's all. And apropos of your demand for beauty, I remember what a good painter said to me once, in criticising one of my attempts in the Paris studio: 'Ne fais pas le reve; fais les choses qui font rêver.'"

"But what is there to make one dream in those things of yours? No, I don't mean that, they do make one dream, but nightmares! What is the good of dwelling on that side of life, so long as one can't really help those poor people——"

"Oh, you're dreaming of soup-kitchens and tracts, perhaps? That's not what I meant, either! Look at this fellow again. What do you see in him?"

He held up the sketch of the bar-keeper.

"I see," said Mrs. Perry slowly, "a big, muscular body, a sharp eye, a brutal face——"

"That's all? Look at the grip of that hand on the counter as he leans across it—look at the poise of his head and the square glance. That's a successful man. He makes the business go, and he can deal with the toughest crowd that ever tried to rush the place. I sketched him the other day while he told me some of his exploits. Do you think that man doesn't enjoy his life? Do you feel like giving him a soup ticket? … And these two bums——" he showed the two tramps on the Park bench, talking over a tattered newspaper. "That one with the spectacles is well known on the Bowery. They call him the Professor. He's a university man, and if you give him two bad whiskies he'll talk better philosophy and better English than you'd be apt to hear anywhere else in town. He went to pieces, as society would say, that is, he lost his job, because of a drug habit. Well, now, as it happens, he's lost the drug habit. He's exchanged a chronic dyspepsia and a worrying family for a tough body and a peaceful soul. Don't ask me how he did it—I only know he did. There's a lot of primitive man even in a Professor, and coming down to it may be a shock, but it isn't always a misfortune. Do you really think, dear Mrs.. Perry, that the pretty people who ride in carriages and shine in opera-boxes are dead sure to get more out of life than my friends here? Do you think they exemplify better the beautiful and the ideal? Do you think even they'd be better fun to draw, not to say talk to?"

"No, I don't think so, and that's not what I meant. I daresay tramps are more interesting to talk to and even to draw than conventional people—at least for you. You're so curious about 'life'! How young you seem to me! How old are you, anyway?"

"Thirty," said Basil, dropping down again on the couch and taking his second cup of tea.

"And I'm thirty-two. I was married at twenty. I feel about fifty. … If you'd had my experience you wouldn't think the ugly tragic things of life beautiful, or make pictures of them."

She looked tragic, her intense eyes fixed on his face. Above all, she looked confidential. It was not her first confidence. She perhaps enjoyed this situation more than Basil, but he was interested. The stuff of human life, the story, the type, appealed to him keenly under whatever form he met it, and he was apt to requite warmly whatever of interest people gave him in this way. But it was an intellectual and not an emotional warmth; and, though it might burn with a keen and deceptive flame for the time, not to be counted upon for steadiness.

Of the sort of interest that Mrs. Perry wanted to awaken in him, there was as yet, if she had known him better, no sign. He liked many people, in the degree in which they interested him; one more intimacy, of the typical sort in which he contributed intellectual frankness and the other person emotional frankness, was not enormously important to him. With the lady it was otherwise.