The Nebuly Coat/Chapter Five

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After a week's trial, Westray made up his mind that Miss Joliffe's lodgings would suit him. It was true that the Hand of God was somewhat distant from the church, but, then, it stood higher than the rest of the town, and the architect's fads were not confined to matters of eating and drinking, but attached exaggerated importance to bracing air and the avoidance of low-lying situations. He was pleased also by the scrupulous cleanliness pervading the place, and by Miss Joliffe's cooking, which a long experience had brought to some perfection, so far as plain dishes were concerned.

He found that no servant was kept, and that Miss Joliffe never allowed her niece to wait at table, so long as she herself was in the house. This occasioned him some little inconvenience, for his naturally considerate disposition made him careful of overtaxing a landlady no longer young. He rang his bell with reluctance, and when he did so, often went out on to the landing and shouted directions down the well-staircase, in the hopes of sparing any unnecessary climbing of the great nights of stone steps. This consideration was not lost upon Miss Joliffe, and Westray was flattered by an evident anxiety which she displayed to retain him as a lodger.

It was, then, with a proper appreciation of the favour which he was conferring, that he summoned her one evening near teatime, to communicate to her his intention of remaining at Bellevue Lodge. As an outward and visible sign of more permanent tenure, he decided to ask for the removal of some of those articles which did not meet his taste, and especially of the great flower-picture that hung over the sideboard.

Miss Joliffe was sitting in what she called her study. It was a little apartment at the back of the house (once the still-room of the old inn), to which she retreated when any financial problem had to be grappled. Such problems had presented themselves with unpleasant frequency for many years past, and now her brother's long illness and death brought about something like a crisis in the weary struggle to make two and two into five. She had spared him no luxury that illness is supposed to justify, nor was Martin himself a man to be over-scrupulous in such matters. Bedroom fires, beef-tea, champagne, the thousand and one little matters which scarcely come within the cognisance of the rich, but tax so heavily the devotion of the poor, had all left their mark on the score. That such items should figure in her domestic accounts, seemed to Miss Joliffe so great a violation of the rules which govern prudent housekeeping, that all the urgency of the situation was needed to free her conscience from the guilt of extravagance—from that luxuria or wantonness, which leads the van among the seven deadly sins.

Philpotts the butcher had half smiled, half sighed to see sweetbreads entered in Miss Joliffe's book, and had, indeed, forgotten to keep record of many a similar purchase; using that kindly, quiet charity which the recipient is none the less aware of, and values the more from its very unostentation. So, too, did Custance the grocer tremble in executing champagne orders for the thin and wayworn old lady, and gave her full measure pressed down and running over in teas and sugars, to make up for the price which he was compelled to charge for such refinements in the way of wine. Yet the total had mounted up in spite of all forbearance, and Miss Joliffe was at this moment reminded of its gravity by the gold-foil necks of three bottles of the universally-appreciated Duc de Bentivoglio brand, which still projected from a shelf above her head. Of Dr Ennefer's account she scarcely dared even to think; and there was perhaps less need of her doing so, for he never sent it in, knowing very well that she would pay it as she could, and being quite prepared to remit it entirely if she could never pay it at all.

She appreciated his consideration, and overlooked with rare tolerance a peculiarly irritating breach of propriety of which he was constantly guilty. This was nothing less than addressing medicines to her house as if it were still an inn. Before Miss Joliffe moved into the Hand of God, she had spent much of the little allowed her for repairs, in covering up the name of the inn painted on the front. But after heavy rains the great black letters stared perversely through their veil, and the organist made small jokes about it being a difficult thing to thwart the Hand of God. Silly and indecorous, Miss Joliffe termed such witticisms, and had Bellevue House painted in gold upon the fanlight over the door. But the Cullerne painter wrote Bellevue too small, and had to fill up the space by writing House too large; and the organist sneered again at the disproportion, saying it should have been the other way, for everyone knew it was a house, but none knew it was Bellevue.

And then Dr Ennefer addressed his medicine to "Mr Joliffe, The Hand"— not even to The Hand of God, but simply The Hand; and Miss Joliffe eyed the bottles askance as they lay on the table in the dreary hall, and tore the wrappers off them quickly, holding her breath the while that no exclamation of impatience might escape her. Thus, the kindly doctor, in the hurry of his workaday life, vexed, without knowing it, the heart of the kindly lady, till she was constrained to retire to her study, and read the precepts about turning the other cheek to the smiters, before she could quite recover her serenity.

Miss Joliffe sat in her study considering how Martin's accounts were to be met. Her brother, throughout his disorderly and unbusinesslike life, had prided himself on orderly and business habits. It was true that these were only manifested in the neat and methodical arrangement of his bills, but there he certainly excelled. He never paid a bill; it was believed it never occurred to him to pay one; but he folded each account to exactly the same breadth, using the cover of an old glove-box as a gauge, wrote very neatly on the outside the date, the name of the creditor, and the amount of the debt, and with an indiarubber band enrolled it in a company of its fellows. Miss Joliffe found drawers full of such disheartening packets after his death, for Martin had a talent for distributing his favours, and of planting small debts far and wide, which by-and-by grew up into a very upas forest.

Miss Joliffe's difficulties were increased a thousandfold by a letter which had reached her some days before, and which raised a case of conscience. It lay open on the little table before her:

"139, New Bond Street.
"Madam,
"We are entrusted with a commission to purchase several pictures of still-life, and believe that you have a large painting of flowers for the acquiring of which we should be glad to treat. The picture to which we refer was formerly in the possession of the late Michael Joliffe, Esquire, and consists of a basket of flowers on a mahogany table, with a caterpillar in the left-hand corner. We are so sure of our client's taste and of the excellence of the painting that we are prepared to offer for it a sum of fifty pounds, and to dispense with any previous inspection.
"We shall be glad to receive a reply at your early convenience, and in the meantime
"We remain, madam,
"Your most obedient servants,
"Baunton and Lutterworth."

Miss Joliffe read this letter for the hundredth time, and dwelt with unabated complacency on the "formerly in the possession of the late Michael Joliffe, Esquire." There was about the phrase something of ancestral dignity and importance that gratified her, and dulled the sordid bitterness of her surroundings. "The late Michael Joliffe, Esquire"—it read like a banker's will; and she was once more Euphemia Joliffe, a romantic girl sitting in Wydcombe church of a summer Sunday morning, proud of a new sprigged muslin, and proud of many tablets to older Joliffes on the walls about her; for yeomen in Southavonshire have pedigrees as well as Dukes.

At first sight it seemed as if Providence had offered her in this letter a special solution of her difficulties, but afterwards scruples had arisen that barred the way of escape. "A large painting of flowers"— her father had been proud of it—proud of his worthless wife's work; and when she herself was a little child, had often held her up in his arms to see the shining table-top and touch the caterpillar. The wound his wife had given him must still have been raw, for that was only a year after Sophia had left him and the children; yet he was proud of her cleverness, and perhaps not without hope of her coming back. And when he died he left to poor Euphemia, then half-way through the dark gorge of middle age, an old writing-desk full of little tokens of her mother— the pair of gloves she wore at her wedding, a flashy brooch, a pair of flashy earrings, and many other unconsidered trifles that he had cherished. He left her, too, Sophia's long wood paint-box, with its little bottles of coloured powders for mixing oil-paints, and this same "basket of flowers on a mahogany table, with a caterpillar in the left-hand corner."

There had always been a tradition as to the value of this picture. Her father had spoken little of his wife to the children, and it was only piecemeal, as she grew into womanhood, that Miss Euphemia learnt from hints and half-told truths the story of her mother's shame. But Michael Joliffe was known to have considered this painting his wife's masterpiece, and old Mrs Janaway reported that Sophia had told her many a time it would fetch a hundred pounds. Miss Euphemia herself never had any doubt as to its worth, and so the offer in this letter occasioned her no surprise. She thought, in fact, that the sum named was considerably less than its market value, but sell it she could not. It was a sacred trust, and the last link (except the silver spoons marked "J.") that bound the squalid present to the comfortable past. It was an heirloom, and she could never bring herself to part with it.

Then the bell rang, and she slipped the letter into her pocket, smoothed the front of her dress, and climbed the stone stairs to see what Mr Westray wanted. The architect told her that he hoped to remain as her lodger during his stay in Cullerne, and he was pleased at his own magnanimity when he saw what pleasure the announcement gave Miss Joliffe. She felt it as a great relief, and consented readily enough to take away the ferns, and the mats, and the shell flowers, and the wax fruit, and to make sundry small alterations of the furniture which he desired. It seemed to her, indeed, that, considering he was an architect, Mr Westray's taste was strangely at fault; but she extended to him all possible forbearance, in view of his kindly manner and of his intention to remain with her. Then the architect approached the removal of the flower-painting. He hinted delicately that it was perhaps rather too large for the room, and that he should be glad of the space to hang a plan of Cullerne Church, to which he would have constantly to refer. The rays of the setting sun fell full on the picture at the time, and, lighting up its vulgar showiness, strengthened him in his resolution to be free of it at any cost. But the courage of his attack flagged a little, as he saw the look of dismay which overspread Miss Joliffe's face.

"I think, you know, it is a little too bright and distracting for this room, which will really be my workshop."

Miss Joliffe was now convinced that her lodger was devoid of all appreciation, and she could not altogether conceal her surprise and sadness in replying:

"I am sure I want to oblige you in every way, sir, and to make you comfortable, for I always hope to have gentlefolk for my lodgers, and could never bring myself to letting the rooms down by taking anyone who was not a gentleman; but I hope you will not ask me to move the picture. It has hung here ever since I took the house, and my brother, 'the late Martin Joliffe'"—she was unconsciously influenced by the letter which she had in her pocket, and almost said "the late Martin Joliffe, Esquire"—"thought very highly of it, and used to sit here for hours in his last illness studying it. I hope you will not ask me to move the picture. You may not be aware, perhaps, that, besides being painted by my mother, it is in itself a very valuable work of art."

There was a suggestion, however faint, in her words, of condescension for her lodger's bad taste, and a desire to enlighten his ignorance which nettled Westray; and he contrived in his turn to throw a tone of superciliousness into his reply.

"Oh, of course, if you wish it to remain from sentimental reasons, I have nothing more to say, and I must not criticise your mother's work; but—" And he broke off, seeing that the old lady took the matter so much to heart, and being sorry that he had been ruffled at a trifle.

Miss Joliffe gulped down her chagrin. It was the first time she had heard the picture openly disparaged, though she had thought that on more than one occasion it had not been appreciated so much as it deserved. But she carried a guarantee of its value in her pocket, and could afford to be magnanimous.

"It has always been considered very valuable," she went on, "though I daresay I do not myself understand all its beauties, because I have not been sufficiently trained in art. But I am quite sure that it could be sold for a great deal of money, if I could only bring myself to part with it."

Westray was irritated by the hint that he knew little of art, and his sympathy for his landlady in her family attachment to the picture was much discounted by what he knew must be wilful exaggeration as to its selling value.

Miss Joliffe read his thoughts, and took a piece of paper from her pocket.

"I have here," she said, "an offer of fifty pounds for the picture from some gentlemen in London. Please read it, that you may see it is not I who am mistaken."

She held him out the dealers' letter, and Westray took it to humour her. He read it carefully, and wondered more and more as he went on. What could be the explanation? Could the offer refer to some other picture? for he knew Baunton and Lutterworth as being most reputable among London picture-dealers; and the idea of the letter being a hoax was precluded by the headed paper and general style of the communication. He glanced at the picture. The sunlight was still on it, and it stood out more hideous than ever; but his tone was altered as he spoke again to Miss Joliffe.

"Do you think," he said, "that this is the picture mentioned? Have you no other pictures?"

"No, nothing of this sort. It is certainly this one; you see, they speak of the caterpillar in the corner." And she pointed to the bulbous green animal that wriggled on the table-top.

"So they do," he said; "but how did they know anything about it?"—quite forgetting the question of its removal in the new problem that was presented.

"Oh, I fancy that most really good paintings are well-known to dealers. This is not the first inquiry we have had, for the very day of my dear brother's death a gentleman called here about it. None of us were at home except my brother, so I did not see him; but I believe he wanted to buy it, only my dear brother would never have consented to its being sold."

"It seems to me a handsome offer," Westray said; "I should think very seriously before I refused it."

"Yes, it is very serious to me in my position," answered Miss Joliffe; "for I am not rich; but I could not sell this picture. You see, I have known it ever since I was a little girl, and my father set such store by it. I hope, Mr Westray, you will not want it moved. I think, if you let it stop a little, you will get to like it very much yourself."

Westray did not press the matter further; he saw it was a sore point with his landlady, and reflected that he might hang a plan in front of the painting, if need be, as a temporary measure. So a concordat was established, and Miss Joliffe put Baunton and Lutterworth's letter back into her pocket, and returned to her accounts with equanimity at least partially restored.

After she had left the room, Westray examined the picture once more, and more than ever was he convinced of its worthlessness. It had all the crude colouring and hard outlines of the worst amateur work, and gave the impression of being painted with no other object than to cover a given space. This view was, moreover, supported by the fact that the gilt frame was exceptionally elaborate and well made, and he came to the conclusion that Sophia must somehow have come into possession of the frame, and had painted the flower-piece to fill it.

The sun was a red ball on the horizon as he flung up the window and looked out over the roofs towards the sea. The evening was very still, and the town lay steeped in deep repose. The smoke hung blue above it in long, level strata, and there was perceptible in the air a faint smell of burning weeds. The belfry story of the centre tower glowed with a pink flush in the sunset, and a cloud of jackdaws wheeled round the golden vanes, chattering and fluttering before they went to bed.

"It is a striking scene, is it not?" said a voice at his elbow; "there is a curious aromatic scent in this autumn air that makes one catch one's breath." It was the organist who had slipped in unawares. "I feel down on my luck," he said. "Take your supper in my room to-night, and let us have a talk."

Westray had not seen much of him for the last few days, and agreed gladly enough that they should spend the evening together; only the venue was changed, and supper taken in the architect's room. They talked over many things that night, and Westray let his companion ramble on to his heart's content about Cullerne men and manners; for he was of a receptive mind, and anxious to learn what he could about those among whom he had taken up his abode.

He told Mr Sharnall of his conversation with Miss Joliffe, and of the unsuccessful attempt to get the picture removed. The organist knew all about Baunton and Lutterworth's letter.

"The poor thing has made the question a matter of conscience for the last fortnight," he said, "and worried herself into many a sleepless night over that picture. 'Shall I sell it, or shall I not?' 'Yes,' says poverty—'sell it, and show a brave front to your creditors.' 'Yes,' say Martin's debts, clamouring about her with open mouths, like a nest of young starlings, 'sell it, and satisfy us.' 'No,' says pride, 'don't sell it; it is a patent of respectability to have an oil-painting in the house.' 'No,' says family affection, and the queer little piping voice of her own childhood—'don't sell it. Don't you remember how fond poor daddy was of it, and how dear Martin treasured it?' 'Dear Martin'—psh! Martin never did her anything but evil turns all his threescore years, but women canonise their own folk when they die. Haven't you seen what they call a religious woman damn the whole world for evil-doers? and then her husband or her brother dies, and may have lived as ill a life as any other upon earth, but she don't damn him. Love bids her penal code halt; she makes a way of escape for her own, and speaks of dear Dick and dear Tom for all the world as if they had been double Baxter-saints. No, blood is thicker than water; damnation doesn't hold good for her own. Love is stronger than hell-fire, and works a miracle for Dick and Tom; only she has to make up the balance by giving other folks an extra dose of brimstone.

"Lastly, worldly wisdom, or what Miss Joliffe thinks wisdom, says, 'No, don't sell it; you should get more than fifty pounds for such a gem.' So she is tossed about, and if she'd lived when there were monks in Cullerne Church, she would have asked her father confessor, and he would have taken down his 'Summa Angelica,' and looked it out under V.—'Vendetur? utrum vendetur an non?'—and set her mind at rest. You didn't know I could chaffer Latin with the best of 'em, did you? Ah, but I can, even with the Rector, for all the nebulus and nebulum; only I don't trot it out too often. I'll show you a copy of the 'Summa' when you come down to my room; but there aren't any confessors now, and dear Protestant Parkyn couldn't read the 'Summa' if he had it; so there is no one to settle the case for her."

The little man had worked himself into a state of exaltation, and his eyes twinkled as he spoke of his scholastic attainments. "Latin," he said—"damn it! I can talk Latin against anyone—yes, with Beza himself—and could tell you tales in it which would make you stop your ears. Ah, well, more fool I—more fool I. Contentus esto, Paule mi, lasciva, Paule, pagina,'" he muttered to himself, and drummed nervously with his fingers on the table.

Westray was apprehensive of these fits of excitement, and led the conversation back to the old theme.

"It baffles me to understand how anyone with eyes at all could think a daub like this was valuable—that is strange enough; but how come these London people to have made an offer for it? I know the firm quite well; they are first-rate dealers."

"There are some people," said the organist, "who can't tell 'Pop goes the weasel' from the 'Hallelujah Chorus,' and others are as bad with pictures. I'm very much that way myself. No doubt all you say is right, and this picture an eyesore to any respectable person, but I've been used to it so long I've got to like it, and should be sorry to see her sell it. And as for these London buyers, I suppose some other ignoramus has taken a fancy to it, and wants to buy. You see, there have been chance visitors staying in this room a night or two between whiles—perhaps even Americans, for all I said about them—and you can never reckon what they'll do. The very day Martin Joliffe died there was a story of someone coming to buy the picture of him. I was at church in the afternoon, and Miss Joliffe at the Dorcas meeting, and Anastasia gone out to the chemist. When I got back, I came up to see Martin in this same room, and found him full of a tale that he had heard the bell ring, and after that someone walking in the house, and last his door opened, and in walked a stranger. Martin was sitting in the chair I'm using now, and was too weak then to move out of it; so he was forced to sit until this man came in. The stranger talked kindly to him, so he said, and wanted to buy the picture of the flowers, bidding as high as twenty pounds for it; but Martin wouldn't hear him, and said he wouldn't let him have it for ten times that, and then the man went away. That was the story, and I thought at the time 'twas all a cock-and-bull tale, and that Martin's mind was wandering; for he was very weak, and seemed flushed too, like one just waken from a dream. But he had a cunning look in his eye when he told me, and said if he lived another week he would be Lord Blandamer himself, and wouldn't want then to sell any pictures. He spoke of it again when his sister came back, but couldn't say what the man was like, except that his hair reminded him of Anastasia's.

"But Martin's time was come; he died that very night, and Miss Joliffe was terribly cast down, because she feared she had given him an overdose of sleeping-draught; for Ennefer told her he had taken too much, and she didn't see where he had got it from unless she gave it him by mistake. Ennefer wrote the death certificate, and so there was no inquest; but that put the stranger out of our thoughts until it was too late to find him, if, indeed, he ever was anything more than the phantom of a sick man's brain. No one beside had seen him, and all we had to ask for was a man with wavy hair, because he reminded Martin of Anastasia. But if 'twas true, then there was someone else who had a fancy for the painting, and poor old Michael must have thought a lot of it to frame it in such handsome style."

"I don't know," Westray said; "it looks to me as if the picture was painted to fill the frame."

"Perhaps so, perhaps so," answered the organist dryly. "What made Martin Joliffe think he was so near success?"

"Ah, that I can't tell you. He was always thinking he had squared the circle, or found the missing bit to fit into the puzzle; but he kept his schemes very dark. He left boxes full of papers behind him when he died, and Miss Joliffe handed them to me to look over, instead of burning them. I shall go through them some day; but no doubt the whole thing is moonshine, and if he ever had a clue it died with him."

There was a little pause; the chimes of Saint Sepulchre's played "Mount Ephraim," and the great bell tolled out midnight over Cullerne Flat.

"It's time to be turning in. You haven't a drop of whisky, I suppose?" he said, with a glance at the kettle which stood on a trivet in front of the fire; "I have talked myself thirsty."

There was a pathos in his appeal that would have melted many a stony heart, but Westray's principles were unassailable, and he remained obdurate.

"No, I am afraid I have not," he said; "you see, I never take spirits myself. Will you not join me in a cup of cocoa? The kettle boils."

Mr Sharnall's face fell.

"You ought to have been an old woman," he said; "only old women drink cocoa. Well, I don't mind if I do; any port in a storm."

The organist went to bed that night in a state of exemplary sobriety, for when he got down to his own room he could find no spirit in the cupboard, and remembered that he had finished the last bottle of old Martelet's eau-de-vie at his tea, and that he had no money to buy another.