The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXIII

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXIII
by George MacDonald



The address upon the note Malcolm had to deliver took him to a house in Chelsea — one of a row of beautiful old houses fronting the Thames, with little gardens between them and the road. The one he sought was overgrown with creepers, most of them now covered with fresh spring buds. The afternoon had turned cloudy, and a cold east wind came up the river, which, as the tide was falling, raised little waves on its surface and made Malcolm think of the herring. Somehow, as he went up to the door, a new chapter of his life seemed about to commence. The servant who took the note returned immediately and showed him up to the study, a large back room looking over a good-sized garden, with stables on one side. There Lenorme sat at his easel. "Ah!" he said, "I'm glad to see that wild animal has not quite torn you to pieces. Take a chair. What on earth made you bring such an incarnate fury to London?"

"I see well enough now, sir, she's not exactly the one for London use, but if you had once ridden her, you would never quite enjoy another between your knees."

"She's such an infernal brute!"

"You can't say too ill of her. But I fancy a jail-chaplain sometimes takes the most interest in the worst villain under his charge. I should be a proud man to make her fit to live with decent people."

"I'm afraid she'll be too much for you. At last you'll have to part with her, I fear."

"If she had bitten you as often she has me, sir, you wouldn't part with her. Besides, it would be wrong to sell her. She would only be worse with any one else. But, indeed, though you will hardly believe it, she is better than she was."

"Then what must she have been?"

"You may well say that, sir."

"Here your mistress tells me you want my assistance in choosing another horse."

"Yes, sir — to attend upon her in London."

"I don't profess to be knowing in horses: what made you think of me?"

"I saw how you sat your own horse, sir, and I heard you say you bought him out of a butterman's cart and treated him like a human being: that was enough for me, sir. I've long had the notion that the beasts, poor things! have a half-sleeping, half-waking human soul in them, and it was a great pleasure to hear you say something of the same sort. 'That gentleman,' I said to myself — 'he and I would understand one another.'"

"I am glad you think so," said Lenorme, with entire courtesy. It was not merely that the very doubtful recognition of his profession by society had tended to keep him clear of its prejudices, but both as a painter and a man he found the young fellow exceedingly attractive; — as a painter from the rare combination of such strength with such beauty, and as a man from a certain yet rarer clarity of nature which to the vulgar observer seems fatuity until he has to encounter it inaction, when the contrast is like meeting a thunderbolt. Naturally, the dishonest takes the honest for a fool. Beyond his understanding, he imagines him beneath it. But Lenorme, although so much more a man of the world, was able in a measure to look into Malcolm and appreciate him. His nature and his art combined in enabling him to do this.

"You see, sir," Malcolm went on, encouraged by the simplicity of Lenorme's manner, "if they were nothing like us, how should we be able to get on with them at all, teach them anything, or come a hair nearer them, do what we might? For all her wickedness, I firmly believe Kelpie has a sort of regard for me: I won't call it affection, but perhaps it comes as near that as may be possible in the time to one of her temper."

"Now I hope you will permit me, Mr. MacPhail," said Lenorme, who had been paying more attention to Malcolm than to his words, "to give a violent wrench to the conversation, and turn it upon yourself. You can't be surprised, and I hope you will not be annoyed, if I say you strike one as not altogether like your calling. No London groom I have ever spoken to in the least resembles you. How is it?"

"I hope you don't mean to imply, sir, that I don't know my business?" returned Malcolm, laughing.

"Anything but that. It were nearer the thing to say that, for all I know, you may understand mine as well."

"I wish I did, sir. Except the pictures at Lossie House and those in Portland Place, I've never seen one in my life. About most of them I must say I find it hard to imagine what better the world is for them. Mr. Graham says that no work that doesn't tend to make the world better makes it richer. If he were a heathen, he says, he would build a temple to Ses, the sister of Psyche."

"Ses? — I don't remember her," said Lenorme.

"The moth, sir — 'the moth and the rust,' you know."

"Yes, yes — now I know. Capital! Only more things may tend to make the world better than some people think. Who is this Mr. Graham of yours? He must be no common man."

"You are right there, sir: there is not another like him in the whole world, I believe." And thereupon Malcolm set himself to give the painter an idea of the schoolmaster.

When they had talked about him for a little while, "Well, all this accounts for your being a scholar," said Lenorme; "but ——"

"I am little enough of that, sir," interrupted Malcolm. "Any Scotch boy that likes to learn finds the way open to him."

"I am aware of that. But were you really reading Epictetus when we left you in the park this morning?"

"Yes, sir; why not?"

"In the original?"

"Yes, sir, but not very readily. I am a poor Greek scholar. But my copy has a rough Latin translation on the opposite page, and that helps me out. It's not difficult. You would think nothing of it if it had been Cornelius Nepos or Cordery's 'Colloquies.' It's only a better, not a more difficult book."

"I don't know about that. It's not every one who can read Greek that can understand Epictetus. Tell me what you have learned from him?"

"That would be hard to do. A man is very ready to forget how he came first to think of the things he loves best. You see, they are as much a necessity of your being as they are of the man's who thought them first. I can no more do without the truth than Plato. It is as much my needful food, and as fully mine to possess, as his. His having it, Mr. Graham says, was for my sake as well as his own. It's just like what Sir Thomas Browne says about the faces of those we love — that we cannot retain the idea of them, because they are ourselves. Those that help the world must be served like their Master and a good deal forgotten, I fancy. Of course they don't mind it. I remember another passage I think say's something to the same purpose — one in Epictetus himself," continued Malcolm, drawing the little book from his pocket and turning over the leaves, while Lenorme sat waiting, wondering, and careful not to interrupt him. He turned to the forty-second chapter and began to read from the Greek. I've forgotten all the Greek I ever had," said Lenorme.

Then Malcolm turned to the opposite page and began to read the Latin.

"Tut! tut!" said Lenorme, "I can't follow your Scotch pronunciation."

"That's a pity," said Malcolm: "it's the right way."

"I don't doubt it: you Scotch are always in the right. But just read it off in English, will you?"

Thus adjured, Malcolm read slowly and with choice of word and phrase: "'And if any one shall say unto thee that thou knowest nothing, notwithstanding thou must not be vexed: then know thou that thou hast begun thy work.' — That is," explained Malcolm, "when you keep silence about principles in the presence of those that are incapable of understanding them. — 'For the sheep also do not manifest to the shepherds how much they have eaten by producing fodder; but, inwardly digesting their food, they produce outwardly wool and milk. And thou therefore set not forth principles before the unthinking, but the actions that result from the digestion of them.' — That last is not quite literal, but I think it's about right," concluded Malcolm, putting the book again in the breast pocket of his silver-buttoned coat. "That's the passage I thought of, but I see now it won't apply. He speaks of not saying what you know: I spoke of forgetting where you got it."

"Come, now," said Lenorme, growing more and more interested in his new acquaintance, "tell me something about your life. Account for yourself. If you will make a friendship of it, you must do that."

"I will, sir," said Malcolm, and with the word began to tell him most things he could think of as bearing upon his mental history up to and after the time also when his birth was disclosed to him. In omitting that disclosure he believed he had without it quite accounted for himself. Through the whole recital he dwelt chiefly on the lessons and influences of the schoolmaster.

"Well, I must admit," said Lenorme when he had ended, "that you are no longer unintelligible, not to say incredible. You have had a splendid education, in which I hope you give the herring and Kelpie their due share." He sat silently regarding him for a few moments. Then he said, "I'll tell you what, now: if I help you to buy a horse, you must help me to paint a picture."

"I don't know how I'm to do that," said Malcolm, "but if you do, that's enough. I shall only be too happy to do what I can."

"Then I'll tell you. But you're not to tell anybody: it's a secret. I have discovered that there is no suitable portrait of Lady Lossie's father. It is a great pity. His brother and his father and grandfather are all in Portland Place, in Highland costume, as chiefs of their clan: his place only is vacant. Lady Lossie, however, has in her possession one or two miniatures of him, which, although badly painted, I should think may give the outlines of his face and head with tolerable correctness. From the portraits of his predecessors, and from Lady Lossie herself, I gain some knowledge of what is common to the family; and from all together I hope to gather and paint what will be recognizable by her as a likeness of her father; which afterward I hope to better by her remarks. These remarks I hope to get first from her feelings unadulterated by criticism, through the surprise of coming upon the picture suddenly: afterward from her judgment at its leisure. Now, I remember seeing you wait at table — the first time I saw you — in the Highland dress: will you come to me so dressed, and let me paint from you?"

"I'll do better than that, sir," cried Malcolm, eagerly. "I'll get up from Lossie House my lord's very dress that he wore when he went to court — his jewelled dirk, and Andrew Ferrara broadsword with the hilt of real silver. That'll greatly help your design upon my lady, for he dressed up in them all more than once just to please her."

"Thank you!" said Lenorme very heartily: "that will be of immense advantage. Write at once."

"I will, sir. Only I'm a bigger man than my — late master; and you must mind that."

"I'll see to it. You get the clothes and all the rest of the accoutrements — rich with barbaric gems and gold, and ——"

"Neither gems nor gold, sir — honest Scotch cairngorms and plain silver," said Malcolm.

"I only quoted Milton," returned Lenorme.

"Then you should have quoted correctly, sir. 'Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold' — that's the line, and you can't better it. Mr. Graham always pulled me up if I didn't quote correctly. By-the-bye, sir, some say it's kings barbaric, but there's barbaric gold in Virgil."

"I dare say you are right," said Lenorme. "But you are far too learned for me."

"Don't make game of me, sir. I know two or three books pretty well, and when I get a chance I can't help talking about them. It's so seldom now I can get a mouthful of Milton. There's no cave here to go into and roll the mimic thunder in your mouth. If the people here heard me reading loud out, they would call me mad. It's a mercy in this London if a workingman get loneliness enough to say his prayers in."

"You do say your prayers, then?" asked Lenorme, looking at him curiously.

"Yes: don't you, sir? You had so much sense about the beasts, I thought you must be a man that said his prayers."

Lenorme was silent. He was not altogether innocent of saying prayers, but of late years it had grown a more formal and gradually a rarer thing. One reason of this was that it had never come into his head that God cared about pictures, or had the slightest interest whether he painted well or ill. If a man's earnest calling, to which of necessity the greater part of his thought is given, is altogether dissociated in his mind from his religion, it is not wonderful that his prayers should by degrees wither and die. The question is, whether they ever had much vitality. But one mighty negative was yet true of Lenorme: he had not got in his head, still less had he ever cherished in his heart, the thought that there was anything fine in disbelieving in a God, or anything

contemptible in imagining communication with a being of grander essence than himself. That in which Socrates rejoiced with exultant humility many a youth nowadays thinks himself a fine fellow for casting from him with ignorant scorn.

A true conception of the conversation above recorded can hardly be had except my reader will take the trouble to imagine the contrast between the Scotch accent and inflection, the largeness and prolongation of vowel-sounds, and, above all, the Scotch tone of Malcolm, and the pure, clear articulation and decided utterance of the perfect London speech of Lenorme. It was something like the difference between the blank verse of Young and the prose of Burke.

The silence endured so long that Malcolm began to fear he had hurt his new friend, and thought it better to take his leave. "I'll go and write to Mrs. Courthope — that's the housekeeper — to-night, to send up the things at once. When would it be convenient for you to go and look at some horses with me, Mr. Lenorme?" he said.

"I shall be at home all to-morrrow," answered the painter, "and ready to go with you any time you like to come for me."

As he spoke he held out his hand, and they parted like old friends.