The Christmas Picture

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The Christmas Picture

By Robert Barr

ALTHOUGH it was a lovely day, with the sky bluer than an English sky has any right to be, Jimmy Sprowle came away from his interview with the grocer very much depressed in spirits. The interview had been extremely unsatisfactory from Jimmy's standpoint. The grocer, good man, was not in the business for his health, and wanted his money. He refused point blank to furnish Jimmy with any more of the supplies of life. This being the case, young Sprowle did not see how he was going to manage. He had been living on that grocer for the past two weeks, and the tradesman, beginning to get anxious, had made inquiries. Notwithstanding the fact that Jimmy lived in the most expensive studio buildings in London, the grocer found reason to doubt that he was as prosperous as he seemed, and so refused further credit.

Jimmy was very much disappointed, because his friend had told him that the simple address of the Stilvio Studios was good for any amount of credit with any tradesman in London. The grocer was a shrewd man; and he discovered, first, that Jimmy was not a tenant of the Stilvio Studios, but that a friend had lent him his two rooms in that palatial building, while the friend, an artist of some note, had gone off to Switzerland for the summer. The grocer further ascertained that Jimmy was a man of no repute whatever; and, what was more to the point, had no effects and no customers.

"If you could show me an order from some one," said the grocer, "even a £10 order for a picture, why then I might let you have a little credit. But as it is, I see no chance of being repaid, and I can't support the unemployed of London, you know."

The attitude assumed by the grocer was so reasonable that Jimmy could find no words with which to combat, it; so he left the place with bowed head, and spirits away down below zero. Life was not so easy a problem as he had thought. He imagined that when Brentwood had so generously given up' his studio free of rent and taxes, to him, that he would have no difficulty in earning at least his daily sandwich. But two weeks of semi-starvation had shown him his mistake. He was sure of a place to sleep and work in for the next few months, and that was something; besides, summer was coming on, so he needed to buy no coals.

Rich customers sometimes rapped at his door, but they were always in quest of some other man; and if no one ever came to even look at his pictures, what was a young fellow to do? All he wanted was a chance. He knew that he drew better pictures than many who were daily refusing work; but then every young artist knows that, and it doesn't count. Thus he meditated bitterly on things as they were until he came to the door of the huge Stilvio Studio Buildings, and there his reverie was interrupted by a small boy in buttons, who asked him if he knew where Mr. Sprowle lived.

"Mr. Sprowle?" asked Jimmy, in surprise. "I'm Mr. Sprowle."

"Mr. J. Sprowle?" said the boy, cautiously.

"Yes, that is my name."

"Then here is a letter for you," said Buttons.

As Jimmy took the letter he noticed on the envelope the name, The Illustrated Sphinx, and his heart beat high. Here, perhaps, might be an offer of work. Even before he took the letter from the envelope he looked upon himself as a made man.

The letter began familiarly, "My dear Sprowle," and went on to say that he, the editor, wanted a Christmas picture in Sprowle's usual style.

"My usual style," said Jimmy, meditatively; "they must have seen some of my pictures at the Earl's Court Exhibition." The sum to be paid was £300. Again Jimmy's eyes opened, and he whistled a long whistle. The editor would give till the last day possible for the finishing of the picture, as he knew that Sprowle liked plenty of time. That is true, thought Jimmy, but how in the world did he know it! The note ended by naming the day on which the picture must be in their hands for putting on the stone. There would be fifteen printings, the editor said, and he then signed himself "Yours very truly, R. Spending." There was a postscript to the letter, to the effect that if the terms were acceptable, and the time sufficient, Mr. Sprowle was to intimate the same to the bearer.

Jimmy looked at the boy standing there so respectfully and said: "You may tell Mr. Spending that it is all right have the picture ready for him by the date he names."

When the boy had departed Jimmy, highly elated, with the letter in his hand, made his way as quickly as he could to the grocer.

"There," he said, to that good man, who was astonished at seeing him return so soon. "Read this note that I have just received from the editor of The Sphinx. As a usual thing," continued Jimmy, loftily, "I don't say much about my commissions or my customers, but as you seem to be afraid that the money I owe you will not be paid, kindly cast your eyes over that."

The grocer adjusted his spectacles and read the letter twice. Then he turned it over and over several times doubtingly, looking every now and again across his glasses at Jimmy.

"When did you get this?" he finally asked.

"Just a moment ago. The Sphinx office-boy brought it, and was waiting for me when I got back."

"It is a very large sum for one picture," demurred the grocer.

Jimmy waved his hand with an air of the utmost importance and superiority, as he answered, "Oh, it's nothing to what some of us get; I intend to raise my prices next year."

"Well," said the grocer, who had been some time in trade and had been bilked before, "you will, of course, have this stamped? It is not a contract otherwise."

"Oh, I don't know about that," replied Jimmy; "I never have these things stamped." But he did not add that he had not the sixpence. "It is always wise to be on the safe side," shrewdly rejoined the grocer. "I am going to the Strand this afternoon, and if you will leave this with me, I'll have it stamped, and," he carefully added, "I'll charge the sixpence in the bill. A busy man like you won't want to bother with these things. When it is all stamped and regular, I will give you what credit you want up to the time that you are paid for the picture."

"That is perfectly satisfactory to me," replied Jimmy. The grocer, folding the document and putting it in his pocket, asked what he might have the pleasure of sending to his rooms in the Stilvio Studio.

The grocer was a wise man in his generation, and, before banging his sixpence at Somerset House, he called at the imposing offices of The Illustrated Sphinx and asked to see some one in authority. After waiting for some time in a room where copies of that celebrated paper lay on a table for the entertainment of visitors, a man came in and asked what the grocer was so good as to want. The grocer took the paper from his pocket and handed it to this person, saying:

"Is that all right?"

"What do you mean by all right?"

"I mean is it true that you are going to pay Mr. Sprowle £300 for one picture?"

"Well," said the man, hesitatingly, "I can hardly see how that concerns you. How did you come by this paper?"

"Mr. Sprowle is a customer of mine, and a new customer," explained the grocer, "and I don't feel altogether sure of payment. He showed me this paper in proof that people did buy his pictures."

The man in authority laughed, and said: "Oh, I think you will find Mr. Sprowle good for any credit that he cares to ask of you. You supply him at the Stilvio Studios, do you not?"

"Yes," said the grocer.

"Oh, well, you may make your mind easy about Mr. Sprowle. That paper is all right. He will get the £300 as soon as he delivers his picture, or before, if he wants it."

"Thank you," said the grocer, and he departed to expend his sixpence on the stamping of the document.

Although the man in authority wondered that so celebrated a man as Sprowle would give such a paper to a grocer, he, however, knew much about artists, and was well aware that there was no accounting for what they might do.

The grocer handed back the paper to Jimmy with greater deference than he had, up-to-date, shown that young man. Jimmy noticed that the paper had a beautiful red stamp embossed on the corner of it.

"That," said the grocer, "makes it a contract. You could not sue for your money otherwise."

"Oh, that is all right," said Jimmy, nonchalantly, as if commissions like this dropped in on him every day. "I have no fear about the money."

He went back to his studio and began to plan his picture, throwing his heart and soul into the work. He knew the kind of thing The Sphinx wanted: a pretty child with a dog or a cat. This represented the standard of art at the end of the century, attained by the great British public. It must be done in flaming colours, and would, as the editor had written, be printed on fifteen lithographic stones.

About the time the picture was finished, Sprowle received word from the owner of the studio that he was unexpectedly coming home. "Don't be afraid that you will be evicted," Brentwood wrote; "I am going to be in London for a day or two only, as business calls me to America, where I intend to remain for the next two or three months. Nevertheless, I shall drop in on you and see how you are getting on."

In due time, Brentwood came and looked at the big picture on the easel. " Ah, Jimmy," he said, "you've struck the right gait at last. That's the thing that pays. French art doesn't go down in this country; you have adopted the true British style, too. Where are you going to exhibit?"

"Oh," said Jimmy, in an off-hand manner, "it is a commission, and is not intended for exhibition."

"A commission! From whom?"

"From The Illustrated Sphinx," quietly responded Jimmy,

Brentwood whistled a note of incredulity before he said: "By George! you are getting on. How came you to receive a commission from The Sphinx? They are generally satisfied with nothing less than a Royal Academician, How much do they give you for it?"

"Only a little matter of £300," said Jimmy.

"Look here, young man," replied Brentwood, earnestly, "I dislike very much to call any one a liar."

"Don't hesitate on my account," said Sprowle. "Here is the contract, if you care to read it."

Brentwood took the paper and read it carefully. Then he threw back his head and laughed.

"You don't mean to say," he cried, "that you imagined for a moment that this was meant for you? How did you get possession of it?"

"Get possession of it?" cried Jimmy. "How should I get possession of it? It was sent to me by the editor, and I answered it."

"Yes, and I see that you have had it stamped at Somerset House, which was very wise of you, Jimmy. I didn't think you had so much business mingled with your art."

"It was the grocer who did that. I didn't know anything about it. He said stamping made it a contract."

"So it does; but you don't mean to say you did not know that this was intended for Sir John Sprowle, the Academician, who has the whole upper flat of this building for his studio?"

"I never heard of him," said Jimmy, blankly.

"And yet you pretend to practise art in Great Britain."

"Well, you know," protested Sprowle, "that I am better acquainted with French art than with English artists. I never heard of Sir John Sprowle, and why was the letter not addressed to Sir John Sprowle? It was addressed to me, 'J. Sprowle, Esq.’"

"Have you got the envelope?"

"No, I tore it up."

"Ah, I see, the letter was written in April; that accounts for it. Sir John was knighted on the twenty-fourth of May, in the distribution of birthday honours, you know. Well, you have got old Sponding in a nice box. I should like to see his face when he learns the truth. He thinks that Sir John Sprowle is doing a picture for him, when down comes an unknown Jimmy Sprowle on him with a dull thud, saying, 'Here is the kid and the dog, and I want my little £30O, if you please.' I say, Jimmy, there will be a row in The Sphinx office when Sponding realises the situation. It's a blessing the grocer had that embossing done on the paper."

Young Sprowle sat down with a look of despair, and dropped his brush on to the floor.

"Are you really in earnest?" he said at last; "and not chaffing me? Do you think the letter was intended for another man?"

"Why, of course it was. You haven't any doubt about it, have you?" asked Brentwood.

"This is awful," said Jimmy, mopping his brow. "What can I do with the grocer? I owe him pounds and pounds."

"Do!" exclaimed Brentwood; "why bluff them out of the three hundred. That's the only thing to do. You've been waiting for your chance, and here it has come. Make them take the picture."

"Oh, but that wouldn't be honest," said Jimmy, in agony.

"My dear fellow, the picture will be a boon to Sponding when he understands his position."

"Oh," groaned Jimmy again.

"You see, my dear boy, he can't help himself, the time is too short; besides, the picture is quite as good as anything the other Sprowle would have done for him. In fact, after he recovers from his anger, Sponding will be very glad to have the picture ready for him—nice new paint and all. I have a score or two to settle with the editor of The Sphinx myself, arising out of some dealings we had when I was young and unsophisticated. This affair has gone beyond you, Jimmy, my boy. It requires a diplomat to deal with it now. You must let me take the picture to Sponding, so that I may break the news gently to him. I will take all responsibility. I would give £300 to see Sponding when he learns the truth. The Sphinx has plenty of money, and you may as well have some of it. You must stand by your grocer, too, Jimmy, for he has stood by you nobly."

Sprowle still sat dejectedly; his bowed head in his hands; all his jauntiness departed. He was crushed under the blow, and Brentwood felt very sorry for him.

"Come, old man, cheer up," he said; "finish your picture and scrawl the well-known name of Sprowle in the corner; choose a frame that will suit the style and subject, and let me carry it off to Sponding. Truly, Jimmy, I think I see the hand of Providence in this. I have come home just in the nick of time; for if you had taken the picture to Sponding yourself, never suspecting that you had not had a genuine order for it, you would have gone to pieces under the shock of the discovery, and would have meekly brought your work back to the studio."

Jimmy shifted his position uneasily, but did not answer.

"Besides," continued Brentwood, "as I told you, your picture is so much better than any Sir John would have taken the trouble to do for The Sphinx that Sponding will, in time, come to be proud of the mistake."

"Yes," said Sprowle, despondingly, "but it isn't honest."

"Don't talk incongruities, Jimmy. Honesty and the editor of an illustrated weekly can have nothing to do with each other. It will do Sponding a world of good to pay a fair price to a young artist for once in his life. You go on and finish the picture, and leave the rest to me."

And so it came about in due time that Brentwood took the painting in a hansom down to the office of The Illustrated Sphinx. He sent up word to the editor that he had come with Sprowle's Christmas picture. He was at once shown into the editorial room. A stalwart man followed him, carrying the huge frame, which he placed on the floor with its back to the wall. Sponding did not recognise Brentwood, taking him, probably, for a man from Sir John's studio. Brentwood cut the string that surrounded the picture, and uncovered it.

"What do you think of it?" he asked, standing back.

"Splendid! splendid!" said Sponding, enthusiastically, as he gazed at the picture, and rubbed his hands one over the other. "He never did anything better. It is in his very best manner."

Sponding whistled down a tube and asked the art editor to come up.

"I think it is just what we want, Grime," said Sponding to the art editor when he appeared.

"It will be the most popular picture of the year," replied Grime, tersely.

"Yes," said Brentwood, impartially, "he has put his best work in that picture, and he will be very glad to know that you are satisfied with it."

"Satisfied!" cried Sponding. "Tell him that we are more than satisfied with it."

"And he said to me," continued Brentwood, "that he hoped you would reproduce it creditably."

"Oh," said Sponding, "tell him not to worry himself about that. We always do ourselves and our reputation justice. We will send him proofs as soon as it is possible to obtain them."

"Now that everything is so satisfactory!" said Brentwood, "would you mind writing out the cheque? I believe £300 was the sum agreed upon?"

"Quite right, quite right," said Sponding, glancing over his own letter which Brentwood had handed to him.

"Make it payable to J. Sprowle, if you please, Mr. Sponding," said Brentwood.

"Very good," replied Sponding, thinking that perhaps Sir John was a little sensitive about his new title. The cheque, written out and signed, was handed to Sprowle's representative.

"He asked me to say," remarked Brentwood, putting the cheque in his purse, "that if you wished it, he would be very pleased to put in any alterations."

"Alterations?" cried Sponding. "Oh dear no. The picture is perfect as it stands. I would not have a line of it changed, but still," he hesitatingly continued, as he approached the picture and looked critically at the name in the corner, "if he did not mind, I would like to have his full name and title, 'Sir John Sprowle,' on the picture."

"Oh," said Brentwood, raising his eyebrows; "I don't think he would agree to that, you know. Why should he put another man's name on his painting?

"Another man's name?" said Spending', looking up inquiringly.

"Certainly. Why should he put Sir John Sprowle's name on the picture instead of his own?"

"Instead of his own? What are you talking about, may I ask?" exclaimed Sponding.

"I'm talking about my friend, Jimmy Sprowle, and his picture."

"You mean Sir John Sprowle," said Sponding.

"Oh no, I don't," replied Brentwood; "I know them both; but my friend, Jimmy Sprowle, who painted this picture, is the tenant of my studio. He is the man to whom you gave the order, you know."

Sponding stared helplessly at the young man, and at last said, "I don't think I quite understand you. This picture, of course, was painted by Sir John Sprowle?"

"Oh dear no," said Brentwood; "Sir John Sprowle, capable painter though he is, could not do this sort of thing nearly so well as my friend, Jimmy Sprowle, recently of Paris, but now of London."

"But, hang it, man," shouted Sponding, full of wrath, as the truth began to break over him, "We don't want a picture by Jimmy Sprowle, of London, Paris, or anywhere else."

"Well, that is remarkable," replied Brentwood, calmly. "Why then did you order one from him?"

"Order? We never ordered a picture from Jimmy Sprowle, whoever he may be," said Sponding, contemptuously. "We sent our order to Sir John Sprowle, of the Stilvio Studios, who was at that time plain John Sprowle, Esq., Royal Academician."

"In that case then," said Brentwood, quickly, "there must have been a mistake somewhere. The letter you sent was delivered to Jimmy Sprowle at the Stilvio Studios; he painted the picture, and I have the cheque for it."

"The cheque will be of no use to you," said Sponding, angrily. "I will stop payment at once."

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said Brentwood, slowly. "I should look at the matter calmly. By acting hastily you can easily make yourself the laughing stock of London. If I may venture to offer advice on the subject, being a perfect stranger, I should counsel you to consult with our good friend, Grime, here—the art editor. As for the painting, I don't admire this sort of thing myself, but you and Grime seemed to; and you both know it to be a good picture of its kind."

"Picture! I don't want a picture from an unknown man," cried Sponding, indignantly; "and I shall have nothing to do with it. It's a trick—a fraud. Take the wretched daub off instantly. Take it back to the trickster who sent it."

"Oh, very well then," said Brentwood, rising; "every man knows his own business best. I may say though, that really my friend's position is practically impregnable. In whatever way the mistake occurred it was through no fault of his; he painted the picture in perfect good faith; your messenger brought him the order, and he returned an answer by the messenger. I also happen to know, through an interview with a mutual friend this mornings that the grocer whom Jimmy honours by receiving credit from, took this letter and applied here in person to see if it was all right before giving further accommodation to Jimmy. He was assured by some one in this office that the letter was perfectly correct, and then this man, fortunately, had it stamped at Somerset House. Furthermore I am ready to go into any witness-box and testify that both of you have expressed the utmost admiration for the picture. So you can plainly see that by indulging in a fuss you will only make fools of. yourselves, for you must certainly pay in the end, whether you take the picture or not. Aside from all this, you know as well as I do that you must have a picture for your Christmas number, and that it is now too late to obtain a suitable one, unless you take some daub that no one else would have. This picture, as you also know, is as good as any you could hope to get, even by ordering at the beginning of the season; as Mr. Grime so justly said of it, it will be the picture of the year. My friend Jimmy is not an unknown artist by any means He has a great reputation in Paris, especially at the cafés, where he is probably much better known than Sir John himself."

"But the thing is a trick," repeated Sponding; "why did not your friend Sprowle come himself with the picture?"

"Too busy," said Brentwood. "Too many commissions. Working day and night, that young man is. The thing I fear is that when I go back and tell him the result of this interview, he will not let you have the picture at any price. If I were you I would accept the inevitable now. I speak as a friend of both parties. You know as well as I what pictures are in the market, and available for a Christmas number. You can do as you please, of course, but if I were in your shoes I would jump at the chance of getting this picture."

Sponding and Grime consulted together, and then gazed long and critically at the painting. Finally, Sponding said, with a sigh, "I suppose we cannot help ourselves, but it looks suspiciously like a case of sharp practice."

"I may tell you," said Brentwood, "that if you use the term 'sharp practice' in connection with my name you will pay a great deal more than £300 for the privilege. I've stood about all the talk I am going to on this subject. Do you accept my statement, or is this to go farther?"

"It need go no farther," said Sponding, coming down from his perch. "We accept the picture, and will do our best with it. Nothing more need be said about the matter."

"Very well; in that case I have nothing further to say except—'Good morning.’"

******

"It's all right, Jimmy," said Brentwood, when the hansom had brought him back to the Stilvio Studios. "It's all right. Both Sponding and Grime, the art editor, were delighted with the picture; said they had never seen anything equal to it."

"Then there was no mistake after all," cried Jimmy, exultingly.

"None, except on my part, Jimmy, in the underrating your undeniable talent. That picture will be the making of you."

And it was.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.