The Marquis of Lossie/Chapter XXVIII

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The Marquis of Lossie - Chapter XXVIII
by George MacDonald

CHAPTER XXVIII.

THE PORTRAIT.

Florimel had found her daring visit to Lenorme stranger and more fearful than she had expected: her courage was not quite so masterful as she had thought. The next day she got Mrs. Barnardiston to meet her at the studio. But she contrived to be there first by some minutes, and her friend found her seated and the painter looking as if he had fairly begun his morning's work. When she apologized for being late, Florimel said she supposed her groom had brought round the horses before his time: being ready she had not looked at her watch. She was sharp on other people for telling stories, but had of late ceased to see any great harm in telling one to protect herself. The fact, however, had begun to present itself in those awful morning hours that seem a mingling of time and eternity, and she did not like the discovery that since her intimacy with Lenorme, she had begun to tell lies: what would he say if he knew?

Malcolm found it dreary waiting in the street while she sat to the painter. He would not have minded it on Kelpie, for she was always occupation enough, but with only a couple of quiet horses to hold it was dreary. He took to scrutinizing the faces that passed him, trying to understand them. To his surprise, he found that almost every one reminded him of somebody he had known before, though he could not always identify the likeness.

It was a pleasure to see his yacht lying so near him, and Davy on the deck, and to hear the blows of the hammer and the swish of the plane as the carpenter went on with the alterations to which he had set him; but he got tired of sharing in activity only with his ears and eyes. One thing he had by it, however, and that was a good lesson in quiescent waiting — a grand thing for any man, and most of all for those in whom the active is strong.

The next day Florimel did not ride until after lunch, but took her maid with her to the studio, and Malcolm had a long morning with Kelpie. Once again he passed the beautiful lady in Rotten Row, but Kelpie was behaving in a most exemplary manner, and he could not tell whether she even saw him. I believe she thought her lecture had done him good. The day after that Lord Liftore was able to ride, and for some days Florimel and he rode in the park before dinner, when, as Malcolm followed on the new horse, he had to see his lordship make love to his sister without being able to find the least colorable pretext of involuntary interference.

At length the parcel he had sent for from Lossie House arrived. He had explained to Mrs. Courthope what he wanted the things for, and she had made no difficulty of sending them to the address he gave her. Lenorme had already begun the portrait, had indeed been working at it very busily, and was now quite ready for him to sit. The early morning being the only time a groom could contrive to spare — and that involved yet earlier attention to his horses — they arranged that Malcolm should be at the study every day by seven o'clock until the painter's object was gained. So he mounted Kelpie at half past six of a fine breezy spring morning, rode across Hyde Park and down Grosvenor Place, and so reached Chelsea, where he put up his mare in Lenorme's stable — fortunately, large enough to admit of an empty stall between her and the painter's grand screw, else a battle frightful to relate might have fallen to my lot.

Nothing could have been more to Malcolm's mind than such a surpassing opportunity of learning with assurance what sort of man Lenorme was; and the relation that arose between them extended the sittings far beyond the number necessary for the object proposed. How the first of them passed I must recount with some detail.

As soon as he arrived he was shown into the painter's bedroom, where lay the portmanteau he had carried thither himself the night before: out of it, with a strange mingling of pleasure and sadness, he now took the garments of his father's vanished state — the fillibeg of the dark tartan of his clan, in which green predominated; the French coat of black velvet of Genoa, with silver buttons; the bonnet, which ought to have had an eagle's feather, but had only an aigrette of diamonds; the black sporran of long goat's hair, with the silver clasp; the silver-mounted dirk, with its appendages, set all with pale cairngorms nearly as good as Oriental topazes; and the claymore of the renowned Andrew's forging, with its basket hilt of silver and its black, silver-mounted sheath. He handled each with the reverence of a son. Having dressed in them, he drew himself up with not a little of the Celt's pleasure in fine clothes, and walked into the painting-room. Lenorme started with admiration of his figure and wonder at the dignity of his carriage, while mingled with these feelings he was aware of an indescribable doubt — something to which he could give no name. He almost sprang at his palette and brushes; whether he succeeded with the likeness of the late marquis or not, it would be his own fault if he did not make a good picture. He painted eagerly and they talked little, and only about things indifferent.

At length the painter said, "Thank you! Now walk about the room while I spread a spadeful of paint: you must be tired standing."

Malcolm did as he was told, and walked straight up to the "Temple of Isis," in which the painter had now long been at work on the goddess. He recognized his sister at once, but a sudden pinch of prudence checked the exclamation that had almost burst from his lips. "What a beautiful picture!" he said. "What does it mean? Surely it is Hermione coming to life, and Leontes dying of joy. But no: that would not fit They are both too young — and —"

"You read Shakespeare, I see," said Lenorme, "as well as Epictetus."

"I do — a good deal," answered Malcolm. "But please tell me what you painted this for."

Then Lenorme told him the parable of Novalis, and Malcolm saw what the poet meant. He stood staring at the picture, and Lenorme sat working away, but a little anxious, he hardly knew why: had he bethought himself he would have put the picture out of sight before Malcolm came.

"You wouldn't be offended if I made a remark, would you, Mr. Lenorme?" said Malcolm at length.

"Certainly not," replied Lenorme, something afraid, nevertheless, of what might be coming.

"I don't know whether I can express what I mean," said Malcolm, "but I will try. I could do it better in Scotch; I believe, but then you wouldn't understand me."

"I think I should," said Lenorme. "I spent six months in Edinburgh once."

"Ow ay! but you see they dinna thraw the words there jist the same gait they du at Portlossie. Na, na! I maunna attemp' it."

"Hold! hold!" cried Lenorme. "I want to have your criticism. I don't understand a word you are saying. You must make the best you can of the English."

"I was only telling you in Scotch that I wouldn't try the Scotch," returned Malcolm. "Now I will try the English. In the first place, then — but really it's very presumptuous of me, Mr. Lenorme; and it may be that I am blind to something in the picture ——"

"Go on," said Lenorme, impatiently.

"Don't you think, then, that one of the first things you would look for in a goddess would be — what shall I call it? — an air of mystery?"

"That was so much involved in the very idea of Isis — in her especially — that they said she was always veiled, and no man had ever seen her face."

"That would greatly interfere with my notion of mystery," said Malcolm.

"There must be revelation before mystery. I take it that mystery is what lies behind revelation — that which as yet revelation has not reached. You must see something — a part of something — before you can feel any sense of mystery about it. The Isis forever veiled is the absolutely unknown, not the mysterious."

"But, you observe, the idea of the parable is different. According to that, Isis is forever unveiling; that is, revealing herself in her works, chiefly in the women she creates, and then chiefly in each of them to the man who loves her."

"I see what you mean well enough; but not the less she remains the goddess, does she not?"

"Surely she does."

"And can a goddess ever reveal all she is and has?"

"Never."

"Then ought there not to be mystery in the face and form of your Isis on her pedestal?"

"Is it not there? Is there not mystery about the face and form of every woman that walks the earth?"

"Doubtless; but you desire — do you not? — to show that although this is the very lady the young man loved before ever he sought the shrine of the goddess, not the less is she the goddess Isis herself?"

"I do, or at least. I ought; only — by Jove! — you have already looked deeper into the whole thing than I."

"There may be things to account for that on both sides," said Malcolm. "But one word more to relieve my brain: if you would embody the full meaning of the parable, you must not be content that the mystery is there: you must show in your painting that you feel it there; you must paint the invisible veil that no hand can lift, for there it is, and there it ever will be, though Isis herself raise it from morning to morning."

"How am I to do that?" said Lenorme, not that he did not see what Malcolm meant, or agree with it: he wanted to make him talk.

"How can I, who never drew a stroke or painted anything but the gunwale of a boat, tell you that?" rejoined Malcolm. "It is your business. You must paint that veil, that mystery, in the forehead and in the eyes and the lips — yes, in the cheeks and the chin and the eyebrows, and everywhere. You must make her say without saying it that she knows oh, so much, if only she could make you understand it! — that she is all there for you, but the all is infinitely more than you can know. As she stands there now ——"

"I must interrupt you," cried Lenorme, "just to say that the picture is not finished yet."

"And yet I will finish my sentence if you will allow me," returned Malcolm. "As she stands there — the goddess — she looks only a beautiful young woman, with whom the young man spreading out his arms to her is very absolutely in love. There is the glow and the mystery of love in both their faces, and nothing more."

"And is not that enough?" said Lenorme.

"No," answered Malcolm. "And yet it may be too much," he added, "if you are going to hang it up where people will see it."

As he said this he looked hard at the painter for a moment. The dark hue of Lenorme's cheek deepened, his brows lowered a little farther over the black wells of his eyes, and he painted on without answer. "By Jove!" he said at length.

"Don't swear, Mr. Lenorme," said Malcolm. "Besides, that's my Lord Liftore's oath. If you do, you will teach my lady to swear."

"What do you mean by that?" asked Lenorme, with offence plain enough in his tone.

Thereupon Malcolm told him how on one occasion, himself being present, the marquis her father happening to utter an imprecation, Lady Florimel took the first possible opportunity of using the very same words on her own account, much to the marquis's amusement and Malcolm's astonishment. But upon reflection he had come to see that she only wanted to cure her father of the bad habit.

The painter laughed heartily, but stopped all at once and said, "It's enough to make any fellow swear, though, to hear a — groom talk as you do about art."

"Have I the impudence? I didn't know it," said Malcolm, with some dismay. "I seemed to myself merely saying the obvious thing, the common sense, about the picture, on the ground of your own statement of your meaning in it. I am annoyed with myself if I have been talking of things I know nothing about."

"On the contrary, MacPhail, you are so entirely right in what you say that I cannot for the life of me understand where or how you can have got at it."

"Mr. Graham used to talk to me about everything."

"Well, but he was only a country schoolmaster."

"A good deal more than that, sir," said Malcolm solemnly. "He is a disciple of Him that knows everything. And, now I think of it, I do believe that what I've been saying about your picture I must have got from hearing him talk about the revelation, in which is included Isis herself, with her brother and all their train."

Lenorme held his peace. Malcolm had taken his place again unconsciously, and the painter was working hard and looking very thoughtful. Malcolm went again to the picture.

"Hillo!", cried Lenorme, looking up and finding no object in the focus of his eyes.

Malcolm returned directly, "There was just one thing I wanted to see," he said — "whether the youth worshipping his goddess had come into her presence clean."

"And what is your impression of him?" half murmured Lenorme, without lifting his head.

"The one that's painted there? answered Malcolm, "does look as if he might know that the least a goddess may claim of a worshipper is that he should come into her presence pure enough to understand her purity. I came upon a fine phrase the other evening in your English Prayer-Book. I never looked into it before, but I found one lying on a book-stall, and it happened to open at the marriage-service. There, amongst other good things, the bridegroom says, 'With my body I thee worship.' 'That's grand!' I said to myself: 'that's as it should be. The man whose body does not worship the woman he weds should marry a harlot.' God bless Mr. William Shakespeare! — he knew that. I remember Mr. Graham telling me once, before I had read the play, that the critics condemn "Measure for Measure" as failing in poetic justice. I know little about the critics, and care less, for a man who has to earn his bread, and feed his soul as well, has enough to do with the books themselves without what people say about them; and Mr. Graham would not tell me whether he thought the critics right or wrong: he wanted me to judge for myself. But when I came to read the play, I found, to my mind, a most absolute and splendid justice in it. They think, I suppose, that my lord Angelo should have been put to death. It just reveals the low breed of them: they think death the worst thing, therefore the greatest punishment. But Angelo prays for death, that it may hide him from his shame: it is too good for him, and he shall not have it. He must live to remove the shame from Mariana. And then see how Lucio is served!"

While Malcolm talked, Lenorme went on painting diligently, listening and saying nothing. When he had thus ended a pause of some duration followed.

"A goddess has a right to claim that one thing — has she not, Mr. Lenorme?" said Malcolm at length, winding up a silent train of thought aloud.

"What thing?" asked Lenorme, still without lifting his head.

"Purity in the arms a man holds out to her," answered Malcolm.

"Certainly," replied Lenorme, with a sort of mechanical absoluteness.

"And according to your picture every woman whom a man loves is a goddess — the goddess of nature?"

"Certainly. But what are you driving at? I can't paint for you. There you stand," he went on, half angrily, "as if you were Socrates himself driving some poor Athenian nob into the corner of his deserts! I don't deserve any such insinuations, I would have you know."

"I am making none, sir. I dare never insinuate except I were prepared to charge. But I have told you I was bred up a fisher-lad, and partly among the fishers, to begin with, I half learned, half discovered, things that tended to give me what some would count severe notions: I count them common sense. Then, as you know, I went into service, and in that position it is easy enough to gather that many people hold very loose and very nasty notions about some things; so I just wanted to see how you felt about such. If I had a sister now, and saw a man coming to woo her all beclotted with puddle-filth, or if I knew that he had just left some woman as good as she crying eyes and heart out over his child, I don't know that I could keep my hands off him — at least if I feared she might take him. What do you think now? Mightn't it be a righteous thing to throttle the scum and be hanged for it?"

"Well," said Lenorme, "I don't know why I should justify myself, especially where no charge is made, MacPhail — and I don't know why to you any more than another man — but at this moment I am weak or egotistic or sympathetic enough to wish you to understand that, so far as the poor matter of one virtue goes, I might without remorse act Sir Galahad in a play."

"Now you are beyond me," said Malcolm. "I don't know what you mean."

So Lenorme had to tell him the old armoric tale which Tennyson has since rendered so lovelily, for, amongst artists at least, he was one of the earlier burrowers in the British legends. And as he told it, in a half-sullen kind of way, the heart of the young marquis glowed within him, and he vowed to himself that Lenorme and no other should marry his sister. But, lest he should reveal more emotion than the obvious occasion justified, he restrained speech, and again silence fell, during which Lenorme was painting furiously.

"Confound it!" he cried at last, and sprang to his feet, but without taking his eyes from his picture. "What have I been doing all this time but making a portrait of you, MacPhail, and forgetting what you were there for! And yet," he went on, hesitating and catching up the miniature, "I have got a certain likeness! Yes, it must be so, for I see in it also a certain look of Lady Lossie. Well, I suppose a man can't altogether help what he paints any more than what he dreams. — That will do for this morning, anyhow, I think, MacPhail. Make haste and put on your own clothes, and come into the next room to breakfast. You must be tired with standing so long."

"It is about the hardest work I ever tried," answered Malcolm, "but I doubt if I am as tired as Kelpie. I've been listening for the last half hour to hear the stalls flying.