Henry Dunbar, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 36

Looking for the Portrait.

The Rue Cailoux was a very quiet little street — a narrow, winding street, with tall shabby-looking houses, and untidy-little greengrocers’ shops peeping out here and there.

The pavement suggested the idea that there had just been an outbreak of the populace, and that the stones had been ruthlessly torn up to serve in the construction of barricades, and only very carelessly put down again. It was a street which seemed to have been built with a view to achieving the largest amount of inconvenience out of a minimum of materials; and looked at in this light the Rue Cailoux was a triumph: it was a street in which Parisian drivers clacked their whips to a running accompaniment of imprecations: it was a street in which you met dirty porters carrying six feet of highly-baked bread, and shrill old women with wonderful bandanas bound about their grisly heads: but above all, it was a street in which you were so shaken and jostled, and bumped and startled, by the ups and downs of the pavement, that you had very little leisure to notice the distinctive features of the neighbourhood.

The house in which Mr. Kerstall, the English artist, lived was a gloomy-looking building with a dingy archway, beneath which Sir Philip Jocelyn and his wife alighted.

There was a door under this archway, and there was a yard beyond it, with the door of another house opening upon it, and ranges of black curtainless windows looking down upon it, and an air of dried herbs, green-stuff, chickens in the moulting stage, and old women, generally pervading it. The door which belonged to Mr. Kerstall’s house, or rather the house in which Mr. Kerstall lived in common with a colony of unknown number and various avocations, was open, and Sir Philip and his wife went into the hall.

There was no such thing as a porter or portress; but a stray old woman, hovering under the archway, informed Philip Jocelyn that Mr. Kerstall was to be found on the second story. So Laura and her husband ascended the stairs, which were bare of any covering except dirt, and went on mounting through comparative darkness, past the office of the Parisian journal, till they came to a very dingy black door.

Philip knocked, and, after a considerable interval, the door was opened by another old woman, tidier and cleaner than the old women who pervaded the yard, but looking very like a near relation to those ladies.

Philip inquired in French for the senior Mr. Kerstall; and the old woman told him, very much through her nose, that Mr. Kerstall father saw no one; but that Mr. Kerstall son was at his service.

Philip Jocelyn said that in that case he would be glad to see Mr. Kerstall junior; upon which the old woman ushered the baronet and his wife into a saloon, distinguished by an air of faded splendour, and in which the French clocks and ormolu candelabras were in the proportion of two to one to the chairs and tables.

Sir Philip gave his card to the old woman, and she carried it into the adjoining chamber, whence there issued a gush of tobacco-smoke, as the door between the two rooms was opened and then shut again.

In less than three minutes by the minute-hand of the only one of the ormolu clocks which made any pretence of going, the door was opened again, and a burly-looking, middle-aged gentleman, with a very black beard, and a dirty holland blouse all smeared with smudges of oil-colour, appeared upon the threshold of the adjoining chamber, surrounded by a cloud of tobacco-smoke — like a heathen deity, or a good-tempered-looking African genie newly escaped from his bottle.

This was Mr. Kerstall junior. He introduced himself to Sir Philip, and waited to hear what that gentleman required of him.

Philip Jocelyn explained his business, and told the painter how, more than five-and-thirty years before, the portrait of Henry Dunbar, only son of Percival Dunbar the great banker, had been painted by Mr. Michael Kerstall, at that time a fashionable artist.

“Five-and-thirty years ago!” said the painter, pulling thoughtfully at his beard; “five-and-thirty years ago! that’s a very long time, my lord, and I’m afraid it’s not likely my father will remember the circumstance; for I regret to say that he is slow to remember the events of a few days past. His memory has been failing a long time. You wish to know the fate of this portrait of Mr. Dunbar, I think you said?”

Laura answered this question, although it had been addressed to her husband.

“Yes, we want to see the picture, if possible,” she said; “Mr. Dunbar is my father, and there is no other portrait of him in existence. I do so want to see this one, and to obtain possession of it, if it is possible for me to do so.”

“And you are of opinion that my father took the picture to Italy with him when he left England more than five-and-thirty years ago?”

“Yes; I’ve heard my grandfather say so. He lost sight of Mr. Kerstall, and could never obtain any tidings of the picture. But I hope that, late as it is, we may be more fortunate now. You do not think the picture has been destroyed, do you?” Laura asked eagerly.

“Well,” the artist answered, doubtfully, “I should be inclined to fear that the portrait may have been painted out: and yet, by the bye, as the picture belonged by right to Mr. Percival Dunbar, and not to my father, that circumstance may have preserved it uninjured through all these years. My father has a heap of unframed canvases, inches thick in dust, and littering every corner of his room. Mr. Dunbar’s portrait may be amongst them.

“Oh, I should be so very much obliged if you would allow me to examine those pictures,” said Laura.

“You think you would recognize the portrait?”

“Yes, surely; I could not fail to do so. I know my father’s face so well as it is, that I must certainly have some knowledge of it as it was five-and-thirty years ago, however much he may have altered in the interval. Pray, Mr. Kerstall, oblige me by letting me see the pictures.”

“I should be very churlish were I to refuse to do so,” the painter answered, good-naturedly. “I will just go and see if my father is able to receive visitors. He has been a voluntary exile from England for the last five-and-thirty years, so I fear he will have forgotten the name of Dunbar; but he may by chance be able to give us some slight assistance.”

Mr. Kerstall left his visitors for about ten minutes, and at the end of that time he returned to say that his father was quite ready to receive Sir Philip and Lady Jocelyn.

“I mentioned the name of Dunbar to him,” the painter said; “but he remembers nothing. He has been painting a little this morning, and is in very high spirits about his work. It pleases him to handle the brushes, though his hand is terribly shaky, and he can scarcely hold the palette.”

The artist led the way to a large room, comfortably but plainly furnished, and heated to a pitch of suffocation by a stove. There was a bed in a curtained alcove at the end of the apartment; an easel stood near the large window; and the proprietor of the chamber sat in a cushioned arm-chair close to the suffocating stove.

Michael Kerstall was an old man, who looked even older than he was. He was a picturesque-looking old man, with long white hair dropping down over his coat-collar, and a black-velvet skull-cap upon his head. He was a cheerful old man, and life seemed very pleasant to him; for Frenchmen have a habit of honouring their fathers and mothers, and Mr. Frederick Kerstall was a naturalized citizen of the French republic.

The old man nodded and smiled and chuckled as Sir Philip and Laura were presented to him, and pointed with a courtly grace to the chairs which his son set for his guests.

“You want to see my pictures, sir? Ah, yes; to be sure, to be sure! The modern school of painting, sir, is something marvellous to an old man, sir; an old man who remembers Sir Thomas Lawrence — ay, sir, I had the honour to know him intimately. No pre-Raphaelite theories in those days, sir; no figures cut of coloured pasteboard and glued on to the canvas; no green trees and vermilion draperies, and chocolate-coloured streaks across an ultramarine background, sir; and I’m told the young people call that a sky. No pointed chins, and angular knees and elbows, and frizzy red hair — red, sir, and as frizzy as a blackamoor’s — and I’m told the young people call that female beauty. No, sir; nothing of that sort in my day. There was a French painter in my day, sir, called David, and there was an English painter in my day called Lawrence; and they painted ladies and gentlemen, sir; and they instituted a gentlemanly school, sir. And you put a crimson curtain behind your subject, and you put a bran-new hat, or a roll of paper, in his right hand, and you thrust his left hand in his waistcoat — the best black satin, sir, with strong light in the texture — and you made your subject look like a gentleman. Yes, sir, if he was a chimney-sweep when he went into your studio, he went out of it a gentleman.”

The old man would have gone on talking for any length of time, for pre-Raphaelitism was his favourite antipathy; and the black-bearded gentleman standing behind his chair was an enthusiastic member of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

Mr. Kerstall senior seemed so thoroughly in possession of all his faculties while he held forth upon modern art, that Laura began to hope his memory could scarcely be so much impaired as his son had represented it to be.

“When you painted portraits in England, Mr. Kerstall,” she said, “before you went to Italy, you painted a likeness of my father, Henry Dunbar, who was then a young man. Do you remember that circumstance?”

Laura asked this question very hopefully; but to her surprise, Mr. Kerstall took no notice whatever of her inquiry, but went rambling on about the degeneracy of modern art.

“I am told there is a young man called Millais, sir, and another young man called Holman Hunt, sir — positive boys, sir; actually very little more than boys, sir; and I’m given to understand, sir, that when these young men’s works are exhibited at the Royal Academy in London, sir, people crowd round them, and go raving mad about them; while a gentlemanly portrait of a county member, with a Corinthian pillar and a crimson curtain, gets no more attention than if it was a bishop’s half-length of black canvas. I am told so, sir, and I am obliged to believe it, sir.”

Poor Laura listened very impatiently to all this talk about painters and their pictures. But Mr. Kerstall the younger perceived her anxiety, and came to her relief.

“Lady Jocelyn would very much like to see the pictures you have scattered about in this room, my dear father,” he said, “if you have no objection to our turning them over?”

The old man chuckled and nodded.

“You’ll find ’em gentlemanly,” he said; “you’ll find ’em all more or less gentlemanly.”

“You’re sure you don’t remember painting the portrait of a Mr. Dunbar?” Mr. Kerstall the younger said, bending over his father’s chair as he spoke. “Try again, father — try to remember — Henry Dunbar, the son of Percival Dunbar, the great banker.”

Mr. Kerstall senior, who never left off smiling, nodded and chuckled, and scratched his head, and seemed to plunge into a depth of profound thought.

Laura began to hope again.

“I remember painting Sir Jasper Rivington, who was Lord Mayor in the year — bless my heart how the dates do slip out of my mind, to be sure! — I remember painting him, in his robes too; yes, sir — by gad, sir, his official robes. He’d liked me to have painted him looking out of the window of his state-coach, sir, bowing to the populace on Ludgate Hill, with the dome of St. Paul’s in the background; but I told him the notion wasn’t practicable, sir; I told him it couldn’t be done, sir; I——”

Laura looked despairingly at Mr. Kerstall the younger.

“May we see the pictures?” she asked. “I am sure that I shall recognize my father’s portrait, if by any chance it should be amongst them.”

“We will set to work at once, then,” the artist said, briskly. “We’re going to look at your pictures, father.”

Unframed canvases, and unfinished sketches on millboard, were lying about the room in every direction, piled against the wall, heaped on side-tables, and stowed out of the way upon shelves, and everywhere the dust lay thick upon them.

“It was quite a chamber of horrors,” Mr. Kerstall the younger said, gaily: for it was here that he banished his own failures; his sketches for his pictures that were to be painted upon some future occasion; carelessly-drawn groups that he meant some day to improve upon; finished pictures that he had been unable to sell; and all the other useless litter of an artist’s studio.

There were a great many dingy performances of Mr. Kerstall senior; very classical, and extremely uninteresting; studies from the life, grey and chalky and muscular, with here and there a knotty-looking foot or a lumpy arm, in the most unpleasant phases of foreshortening. There were a good many portraits, gentlemanly to the last degree; but poor Laura looked in vain for the face she wanted to see — the hard cold face, as she fancied it must have been in youth.

There were portraits of elderly ladies with stately head-gear, and simpering young ladies with innocent short-waisted bodices and flowers held gracefully, in their white-muslin draperies; there were portraits of stern clerical grandees, and parliamentary non-celebrities, with popular bills rolled up in their hands, ready to be laid upon the speaker’s table, and with a tight look about the lips, that seemed to say the member was prepared to carry his motion, or perish on the floor of the House.

There were only a few portraits of young men of military aspect, looking fiercely over regulation stocks, and with forked lightning and little pyramids of cannon-balls in the background.

Laura sighed heavily at last, for amongst all these portraits there was not one which in the least possible degree recalled the hard handsome face with which she was familiar.

“I’m afraid my father’s picture has been lost or destroyed,” she said, mournfully.

But Mr. Kerstall would not allow this.

I have said that it was Laura’s peculiar privilege to bewitch everybody with whom she came in contact, and to transform them, for the nonce, into her willing slaves, eager to go through fire and water in the service of this beautiful creature, whose eyes and hair were like blue skies and golden sunshine, and carried light and summer wherever they went.

The black-bearded artist in the paint-smeared holland blouse was in no manner proof against Lady Jocelyn’s fascinations.

He had well-nigh suffocated himself with dust half-a-dozen times already in her service, and was ready to inhale as much more dust if she desired him so to do.

“We won’t give it up just yet, Lady Jocelyn,” he said, cheerfully; “there’s a couple of shelves still to examine. Suppose we try shelf number one, and see if we can find Mr. Henry Dunbar up there.”

Mr. Kerstall junior mounted upon a chair, and brought down another heap of canvases, dirtier than any previous collection. He brought these to a table by the side of his father’s easel, and one by one he wiped them clean with a large ragged silk handkerchief, and then placed them on the easel.

The easel stood in the full light of the broad window. The day was bright and clear, and there was no lack of light, therefore, upon the portraits.

Mr. Kerstall senior began to be quite interested in his son’s proceedings, and contemplated the younger man’s operations with a perpetual chuckling and nodding of the head, that were expressive of unmitigated satisfaction.

“Yes, they’re gentlemanly,” the old man mumbled; “nobody can deny that they’re gentlemanly. They may make a cabal against me in Trafalgar Square, and decline to hang ’em: but they can’t say my pictures are ungentlemanly. No, no. Take a basin of water and a sponge, Fred, and wash the dust off. It pleases me to see ’em again — yes, by gad, sir, it pleases me to see ’em again!”

Mr. Frederick Kerstall obeyed his father, and the pictures brightened wonderfully under the influence of a damp sponge. It was rather a slow operation; but Laura was bent upon seeing every picture, and Philip Jocelyn waited patiently enough until the inspection should be concluded.

The old man brightened up as much as his paintings, and began presently to call out the names of the subjects.

“The member for Slopton-on-the-Tees,” he said, as his son placed a portrait on the easel; “that was a presentation picture, but the subscriptions were never paid up, and the committee left the portrait upon my hands. I don’t remember the name of the member, because my memory isn’t quite so good as it used to be; but the borough was Slopton-on-the-Tees — Slopton — yes, yes, I remember that.”

The younger Kerstall took away the member for Slopton, and put another picture on the easel. But this was like the rest; the pictured face bore no trace of resemblance to that face for which Laura was looking.

“I remember him too,” the old man cried, with a triumphant chuckle. “He was an officer in the East–India Company’s service. I remember him; a dashing young fellow he was too. He had the picture painted for his mother: paid me a third of the money at the first sitting; never paid me a sixpence afterwards; and went off to India, promising to send me a bill of exchange for the balance by the next mail; but I never heard any more of him.”

Mr. Kerstall removed the Indian officer, and substituted another portrait.

Sir Philip, who was sitting near the window, looking on rather listlessly, cried —

“What a handsome face!”

It was a handsome face — a bright young face, which smiled haughty defiance at the world — a splendid face, with perhaps a shade of insolence in the curve of the upper lip, sharply denned under a thick auburn moustache, with pointed ends that curled fiercely upwards. It was such a face as might have belonged to the favourite of a powerful king; the face of the Cinq Mars, on the very summit of his giddy eminence, with a hundred pairs of boots in his dressing-room, and quiet Cardinal Richelieu watching silently for the day of his doom. English Buckingham may have worn the same insolent smile upon his lips, the same bright triumph in his glance, when he walked up to the throne of Louis the Just, with the pearls and diamonds dropping from his garments as he went along, and with forbidden love beaming on him out of Austrian Anne’s blue eyes. It was such a face as could only belong to some high favourite of fortune, defiant of all mankind in the consciousness of his own supreme advantages.

But Laura Jocelyn shook her head as she looked at the picture.

“I begin to despair of finding my father’s portrait,” she said; “I have seen nothing at all like it yet.”

The old man lifted up his bony hand, and pointed to the picture on the easel.

“That’s the best thing I ever did,” he said, “the very best thing I ever did. It was exhibited in the Academy six-and-thirty years ago — yes, by gad, sir, six-and-thirty years ago! and the papers mentioned it very favourably, sir; but the man who commissioned it, sent it back to me for alteration. The expression of the face didn’t please him; but he paid me two hundred guineas for the picture, so I had no reason to complain; and if I’d remained in England, the connection might have been advantageous to me; for they were rich city people, sir — enormously wealthy — something in the banking-line, and the name, the name — let me see — let me see!”

The old man tapped his forehead thoughtfully.

“I remember,” he added presently: “it was a great name in the City — it was a well-known name — Dun — Dunbar — Dunbar.”

“Why, father, that was the very name I was asking you about, half an hour ago!”

“I don’t remember your asking me any such thing,” the old man answered, rather snappishly; “but I do know that the picture on that easel is the portrait of Mr. Dunbar’s only son.”

Mr. Kerstall the younger looked at Laura Jocelyn, full; expecting to see her face beaming with satisfaction; but, to his own surprise, she looked more disappointed than ever.

“Your poor father’s memory deceives him,” she said, in a low voice; “that is not my father’s portrait.”

“No,” said Philip Jocelyn, “that was never the likeness of Henry Dunbar.”

Mr. Frederick Kerstall shrugged his shoulders.

“I told you as much,” he murmured, confidentially. “I told you my poor father’s memory was gone. Would you like to see the rest of the pictures?”

“Oh, yes, if you do not mind all this trouble.”

Mr. Kerstall brought down another heap of unframed canvases from shelf number two. Some of these were fancy heads, and some sketches for grand historical pictures. There were only about four portraits, and not one of them bore the faintest likeness to the face that Laura wanted to see.

The old man chuckled as his son exhibited the pictures, and every now and then volunteered some scrap of information about these various works of art, to which his son listened patiently and respectfully.

So at last the inspection was ended. The baronet and his wife thanked the artist very warmly for his politeness, and Philip gave him a commission for a replica of the picture which Laura had admired in the Luxembourg. Mr. Frederick Kerstall conducted his guests down the dingy staircase, and saw them to the hired carriage that was waiting under the archway.

And this was all that came of Laura Jocelyn’s search for her father’s portrait.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31