The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 56

Gerard took a modest lodging on the west bank of the Tiber, and every day went forth in search of work, taking a specimen round to every shop he could hear of that executed such commissions.

They received him coldly. “We make our letter somewhat thinner than this,” said one. “How dark your ink is,” said another. But the main cry was, “What avails this? Scant is the Latin writ here now. Can ye not write Greek?”

“Ay, but not nigh so well as Latin.”

“Then you shall never make your bread at Rome.”

Gerard borrowed a beautiful Greek manuscript at a high price, and went home with a sad hole in his purse, but none in his courage.

In a fortnight he had made vast progress with the Greek character; so then, to lose no time, he used to work at it till noon, and hunt customers the rest of the day.

When he carried round a better Greek specimen than any they possessed, the traders informed him that Greek and Latin were alike unsaleable; the city was thronged with works from all Europe. He should have come last year.

Gerard bought a psaltery. His landlady, pleased with his looks and manners, used often to speak a kind word in passing. One day she made him dine with her, and somewhat to his surprise asked him what had dashed his spirits. He told her. She gave him her reading of the matter. “Those sly traders,” she would be bound, “had writers in their pay, for whose work they received a noble price, and paid a sorry one. So no wonder they blow cold on you. Methinks you write too well. How know I that? say you. Marry — marry, because you lock not your door, like the churl Pietro, and women will be curious. Ay, ay, you write too well for them.”

Gerard asked an explanation.

“Why,” said she, “your good work might put out the eyes of that they are selling.”

Gerard sighed. “Alas! dame, you read folk on the ill side, and you so kind and frank yourself.”

“My dear little heart, these Romans are a subtle race. Me? I am a Siennese, thanks to the Virgin.”

“My mistake was leaving Augsburg,” said Gerard.

“Augsburg?” said she haughtily: “is that a place to even to Rome? I never heard of it, for my part.”

She then assured him that he should make his fortune in spite of the booksellers. “Seeing thee a stranger, they lie to thee without sense or discretion. Why, all the world knows that our great folk are bitten with the writing spider this many years, and pour out their money like water, and turn good land and houses into writ sheepskins, to keep in a chest or a cupboard. God help them, and send them safe through this fury, as He hath through a heap of others; and in sooth hath been somewhat less cutting and stabbing among rival factions, and vindictive eating of their opposites’ livers, minced and fried, since Scribbling came in. Why, I can tell you two. There is his eminence Cardinal Bassarion, and his holiness the Pope himself. There be a pair could keep a score such as thee a writing night and day. But I’ll speak to Teresa; she hears the gossip of the court.”

The next day she told him she had seen Teresa, and had heard of five more signors who were bitten with the writing spider. Gerard took down their names, and bought parchment, and busied himself for some days in preparing specimens. He left one, with his name and address, at each of these signors’ doors, and hopefully awaited the result.

There was none.

Day after day passed and left him heartsick.

And strange to say this was just the time when Margaret was fighting so hard against odds to feed her male dependents at Rotterdam, and arrested for curing without a licence instead of killing with one.

Gerard saw ruin staring him in the face.

He spent the afternoons picking up canzonets and mastering them. He laid in playing cards to colour, and struck off a meal per day.

This last stroke of genius got him into fresh trouble.

In these “camere locande” the landlady dressed all the meals, though the lodgers bought the provisions. So Gerard’s hostess speedily detected him, and asked him if he was not ashamed himself: by which brusque opening, having made him blush and look scared, she pacified herself all in a moment, and appealed to his good sense whether Adversity was a thing to be overcome on an empty stomach.

“Patienza, my lad! times will mend; meantime I will feed you for the love of heaven.” (Italian for “gratis.”)

“Nay, hostess,” said Gerard, “my purse is not yet quite void, and it would add to my trouble an if true folk should lose their due by me.”

“Why, you are as mad as your neighbour Pietro, with his one bad picture.”

“Why, how know you ’tis a bad picture?”

“Because nobody will buy it. There is one that hath no gift. He will have to don casque and glaive, and carry his panel for a shield.”

Gerard pricked up his ears at this: so she told him more. Pietro had come from Florence with money in his purse, and an unfinished picture; had taken her one unfurnished room, opposite Gerard’s, and furnished it neatly. When his picture was finished, he received visitors and had offers for it: though in her opinion liberal ones, he had refused so disdainfully as to make enemies of his customers. Since then he had often taken it out with him to try and sell, but had always brought it back; and the last month, she had seen one movable after another go out of his room, and now he wore but one suit, and lay at night on a great chest. She had found this out only by peeping through the keyhole, for he locked the door most vigilantly whenever he went out. “Is he afraid we shall steal his chest, or his picture, that no soul in all Rome is weak enough to buy?”

“Nay, sweet hostess; see you not ’tis his poverty he would screen from view?”

“And the more fool he! Are all our hearts as ill as his? A might give us a trial first, anyway.”

“How you speak of him. Why, his case is mine; and your countryman to boot.”

“Oh, we Siennese love strangers. His case yours? Nay, ’tis just the contrary. You are the comeliest youth ever lodged in this house; hair like gold: he is a dark, sour-visaged loon. Besides, you know how to take a woman on her better side; but not he. Natheless, I wish he would not starve to death in my house, to get me a bad name. Anyway, one starveling is enough in any house. You are far from home, and it is for me, which am the mistress here, to number your meals — for me and the Dutch wife, your mother, that is far away: we two women shall settle that matter. Mind thou thine own business, being a man, and leave cooking and the like to us, that are in the world for little else that I see but to roast fowls, and suckle men at starting, and sweep their grownup cobwebs.”

“Dear kind dame, in sooth you do often put me in mind of my mother that is far away.”

“All the better; I’ll put you more in mind of her before I have done with you.” And the honest soul beamed with pleasure.

Gerard not being an egotist, nor blinded by female partialities, saw his own grief in poor proud Pietro; and the more he thought of it the more he resolved to share his humble means with that unlucky artist; Pietro’s sympathy would repay him. He tried to waylay him; but without success.

One day he heard a groaning in the room. He knocked at the door, but received no answer. He knocked again. A surly voice bade him enter.

He obeyed somewhat timidly, and entered a garret furnished with a chair, a picture, face to wall, an iron basin, an easel, and a long chest, on which was coiled a haggard young man with a wonderfully bright eye. Anything more like a coiled cobra ripe for striking the first comer was never seen.

“Good Signor Pietro,” said Gerard, “forgive me that, weary of my own solitude, I intrude on yours; but I am your nighest neighbour in this house, and methinks your brother in fortune. I am an artist too.”

“You are a painter? Welcome, signer. Sit down on my bed.”

And Pietro jumped off and waved him into the vacant throne with a magnificent demonstration of courtesy.

Gerard bowed, and smiled; but hesitated a little. “I may not call myself a painter. I am a writer, a caligraph. I copy Greek and Latin manuscripts, when I can get them to copy.”

“And you call that an artist?”

“Without offence to your superior merit, Signor Pietro.”

“No offence, stranger, none. Only, meseemeth an artist is one who thinks, and paints his thought. Now a caligraph but draws in black and white the thoughts of another.”

“’Tis well distinguished, signor. But then, a writer can write the thoughts of the great ancients, and matters of pure reason, such as no man may paint: ay, and the thoughts of God, which angels could not paint. But let that pass. I am a painter as well; but a sorry one.”

“The better thy luck. ‘They will buy thy work in Rome.”

“But seeking to commend myself to one of thy eminence, I thought it well rather to call myself a capable writer, than a scurvy painter.”

At this moment a step was heard on the stair. “Ah! ’tis the good dame,” cried Gerard. “What oh! hostess, I am here in conversation with Signor Pietro. I dare say he will let me have my humble dinner here.”

The Italian bowed gravely.

The landlady brought in Gerard’s dinner smoking and savoury. She put the dish down on the bed with a face divested of all expression, and went.

Gerard fell to. But ere he had eaten many mouthfuls, he stopped, and said: “I am an ill-mannered churl, Signor Pietro. I ne’er eat to my mind when I eat alone. For our Lady’s sake put a spoon into this ragout with me; ’tis not unsavoury, I promise you.”

Pietro fixed his glittering eye on him.

“What, good youth, thou a stranger, and offerest me thy dinner?”

“Why, see, there is more than one can eat.”

“Well, I accept,” said Pietro; and took the dish with some appearance of calmness, and flung the contents out of window.

Then he turned, trembling with mortification and ire, and said: “Let that teach thee to offer alms to an artist thou knowest not, master writer.”

Gerard’s face flushed with anger, and it cost him a bitter struggle not to box this high-souled creature’s ears. And then to go and destroy good food! His mother’s milk curdled in his veins with horror at such impiety. Finally, pity at Pietro’s petulance and egotism, and a touch of respect for poverty-struck pride, prevailed.

However, he said coldly, “Likely what thou hast done might pass in a novel of thy countryman, Signor Boccaccio; but ’twas not honest.”

“Make that good!” said the painter sullenly.

“I offered thee half my dinner; no more. But thou hast ta’en it all. Hadst a right to throw away thy share, but not mine. Pride is well, but justice is better.”

Pietro stared, then reflected.

“’Tis well. I took thee for a fool, so transparent was thine artifice. Forgive me! And prithee leave me! Thou seest how ’tis with me. The world hath soured me. I hate mankind. I was not always so. Once more excuse that my discourtesy, and fare thee well.”

Gerard sighed, and made for the door.

But suddenly a thought struck him. “Signor Pietro,” said he, “we Dutchmen are hard bargainers. We are the lads ‘een eij scheeren,’ that is, ‘to shave an egg.’ Therefore, I, for my lost dinner, do claim to feast mine eyes on your picture, whose face is toward the wall.”

“Nay, nay,” said the painter hastily, “ask me not that; I have already misconducted myself enough towards thee. I would not shed thy blood.”

“Saints forbid! My blood?”

“Stranger,” said Pietro sullenly, “irritated by repeated insults to my picture, which is my child, my heart, I did in a moment of rage make a solemn vow to drive my dagger into the next one that should flout it, and the labour and love that I have given to it.”

“What, are all to be slain that will not praise this picture?” and he looked at its back with curiosity.

“Nay, nay; if you would but look at it, and hold your parrot tongues. But you will be talking. So I have turned it to the wall for ever. Would I were dead, and buried in it for my coffin!”

Gerard reflected.

“I accept the condition. Show me the picture! I can but hold my peace.”

Pietro went and turned its face, and put it in the best light the room afforded, and coiled himself again on his chest, with his eye, and stiletto, glittering.

The picture represented the Virgin and Christ, flying through the air in a sort of cloud of shadowy cherubic faces; underneath was a landscape, forty or fifty miles in extent, and a purple sky above.

Gerard stood and looked at it in silence. Then he stepped close, and looked. Then he retired as far off as he could, and looked; but said not a word.

When he had been at this game half an hour, Pietro cried out querulously and somewhat inconsistently: “well, have you not a word to say about it?”

Gerard started. “I cry your mercy; I forgot there were three of us here. Ay, I have much to say.” And he drew his sword.

“Alas! alas!” cried Pietro, jumping in terror from his lair. “What wouldst thou?”

“Marry, defend myself against thy bodkin, signor; and at due odds, being, as aforesaid, a Dutchman. Therefore, hold aloof, while I deliver judgment, or I will pin thee to the wall like a cockchafer.”

“Oh! is that all?” said Pietro, greatly relieved. “I feared you were going to stab my poor picture with your sword, stabbed already by so many foul tongues.”

Gerard “pursued criticism under difficulties.” Put himself in a position of defence, with his sword’s point covering Pietro, and one eye glancing aside at the picture. “First, signor, I would have you know that, in the mixing of certain colours, and in the preparation of your oil, you Italians are far behind us Flemings. But let that flea stick. For as small as I am, I can show you certain secrets of the Van Eycks, that you will put to marvellous profit in your next picture. Meantime I see in this one the great qualities of your nation. Verily, ye are solis filii. If we have colour, you have imagination. Mother of Heaven! an he hath not flung his immortal soul upon the panel. One thing I go by is this; it makes other pictures I once admired seem drossy, earth-born things. The drapery here is somewhat short and stiff, why not let it float freely, the figures being in air and motion?

“I will! I will!” cried Pietro eagerly. “I will do anything for those who will but see what I have done.”

“Humph! This landscape it enlightens me. Henceforth I scorn those little huddled landscapes that did erst content me. Here is nature’s very face: a spacious plain, each distance marked, and every tree, house, figure, field, and river smaller and less plain, by exquisite gradation, till vision itself melts into distance. O, beautiful! And the cunning rogue hath hung his celestial figure in air out of the way of his little world below. Here, floating saints beneath heaven’s purple canopy. There, far down, earth and her busy hives. And they let you take this painted poetry, this blooming hymn, through the streets of Rome and bring it home unsold. But I tell thee in Ghent or Bruges, or even in Rotterdam, they would tear it out of thy hands. But it is a common saying that a stranger’s eye sees clearest. Courage, Pietro Vanucci! I reverence thee and though myself a scurvy painter, do forgive thee for being a great one. Forgive thee? I thank God for thee and such rare men as thou art; and bow the knee to thee in just homage. Thy picture is immortal, and thou, that hast but a chest to sit on, art a king in thy most royal art. Viva, il maestro! Viva!”

At this unexpected burst the painter, with all the abandon of his nation, flung himself on Gerard’s neck. “They said it was a maniac’s dream,” he sobbed.

“Maniacs themselves! no, idiots!” shouted Gerard.

“Generous stranger! I will hate men no more since the world hath such as thee. I was a viper to fling thy poor dinner away; a wretch, a monster.”

“Well, monster, wilt be gentle now, and sup with me?”

“Ah! that I will. Whither goest thou?”

“To order supper on the instant. We will have the picture for third man.”

“I will invite it whiles thou art gone. My poor picture, child of my heart.”

“Ah, master, ’twill look on many a supper after the worms have eaten you and me.”

“I hope so,” said Pietro.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33