The Story of a Lie, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Chapter III— In the Admiral’s Name

THERE was no return to the subject. Dick and his father were henceforth on terms of coldness. The upright old gentleman grew more upright when he met his son, buckrammed with immortal anger; he asked after Dick’s health, and discussed the weather and the crops with an appalling courtesy; his pronunciation was POINT-DE-VICE, his voice was distant, distinct, and sometimes almost trembling with suppressed indignation.

As for Dick, it seemed to him as if his life had come abruptly to an end. He came out of his theories and clevernesses; his premature man-of-the-worldness, on which he had prided himself on his travels, ‘shrank like a thing ashamed’ before this real sorrow. Pride, wounded honour, pity and respect tussled together daily in his heart; and now he was within an ace of throwing himself upon his father’s mercy, and now of slipping forth at night and coming back no more to Naseby House. He suffered from the sight of his father, nay, even from the neighbourhood of this familiar valley, where every corner had its legend, and he was besieged with memories of childhood. If he fled into a new land, and among none but strangers, he might escape his destiny, who knew? and begin again light-heartedly. From that chief peak of the hills, that now and then, like an uplifted finger, shone in an arrow of sunlight through the broken clouds, the shepherd in clear weather might perceive the shining of the sea. There, he thought, was hope. But his heart failed him when he saw the Squire; and he remained. His fate was not that of the voyager by sea and land; he was to travel in the spirit, and begin his journey sooner than he supposed.

For it chanced one day that his walk led him into a portion of the uplands which was almost unknown to him. Scrambling through some rough woods, he came out upon a moorland reaching towards the hills. A few lofty Scotch firs grew hard by upon a knoll; a clear fountain near the foot of the knoll sent up a miniature streamlet which meandered in the heather. A shower had just skimmed by, but now the sun shone brightly, and the air smelt of the pines and the grass. On a stone under the trees sat a young lady sketching. We have learned to think of women in a sort of symbolic transfiguration, based on clothes; and one of the readiest ways in which we conceive our mistress is as a composite thing, principally petticoats. But humanity has triumphed over clothes; the look, the touch of a dress has become alive; and the woman who stitched herself into these material integuments has now permeated right through and gone out to the tip of her skirt. It was only a black dress that caught Dick Naseby’s eye; but it took possession of his mind, and all other thoughts departed. He drew near, and the girl turned round. Her face startled him; it was a face he wanted; and he took it in at once like breathing air.

‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, taking off his hat, ‘you are sketching.’

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, ‘for my own amusement. I despise the thing.’

‘Ten to one, you do yourself injustice,’ returned Dick. ‘Besides, it’s a freemasonry. I sketch myself, and you know what that implies.’

‘No. What?’ she asked.

‘Two things,’ he answered. ‘First, that I am no very difficult critic; and second, that I have a right to see your picture.’

She covered the block with both her hands. ‘Oh no,’ she said; ‘I am ashamed.’

‘Indeed, I might give you a hint,’ said Dick. ‘Although no artist myself, I have known many; in Paris I had many for friends, and used to prowl among studios.’

‘In Paris?’ she cried, with a leap of light into her eyes. ‘Did you ever meet Mr. Van Tromp?’

‘I? Yes. Why, you’re not the Admiral’s daughter, are you?’

‘The Admiral? Do they call him that?’ she cried. ‘Oh, how nice, how nice of them! It is the younger men who call him so, is it not?’

‘Yes,’ said Dick, somewhat heavily.

‘You can understand now,’ she said, with an unspeakable accent of contented noble-minded pride, ‘why it is I do not choose to show my sketch. Van Tromp’s daughter! The Admiral’s daughter! I delight in that name. The Admiral! And so you know my father?’

‘Well,’ said Dick, ‘I met him often; we were even intimate. He may have mentioned my name — Naseby.’

‘He writes so little. He is so busy, so devoted to his art! I have had a half wish,’ she added laughing, ‘that my father was a plainer man, whom I could help — to whom I could be a credit; but only sometimes, you know, and with only half my heart. For a great painter! You have seen his works?’

‘I have seen some of them,’ returned Dick; ‘they — they are very nice.’

She laughed aloud. ‘Nice?’ she repeated. ‘I see you don’t care much for art.’

‘Not much,’ he admitted; ‘but I know that many people are glad to buy Mr. Van Tromp’s pictures.’

‘Call him the Admiral!’ she cried. ‘It sounds kindly and familiar; and I like to think that he is appreciated and looked up to by young painters. He has not always been appreciated; he had a cruel life for many years; and when I think’ — there were tears in her eyes — ‘when I think of that, I feel incline to be a fool,’ she broke off. ‘And now I shall go home. You have filled me full of happiness; for think, Mr. Naseby, I have not seen my father since I was six years old; and yet he is in my thoughts all day! You must come and call on me; my aunt will be delighted, I am sure; and then you will tell me all — all about my father, will you not?’

Dick helped her to get her sketching traps together; and when all was ready, she gave Dick her hand and a frank return of pressure.

‘You are my father’s friend,’ she said; ‘we shall be great friends too. You must come and see me soon.’

Then she was gone down the hillside at a run; and Dick stood by himself in a state of some bewilderment and even distress. There were elements of laughter in the business; but the black dress, and the face that belonged to it, and the hand that he had held in his, inclined him to a serious view. What was he, under the circumstances, called upon to do? Perhaps to avoid the girl? Well, he would think about that. Perhaps to break the truth to her? Why, ten to one, such was her infatuation, he would fail. Perhaps to keep up the illusion, to colour the raw facts; to help her to false ideas, while yet not plainly stating falsehoods? Well, he would see about that; he would also see about avoiding the girl. He saw about this last so well, that the next afternoon beheld him on his way to visit her.

In the meantime the girl had gone straight home, light as a bird, tremulous with joy, to the little cottage where she lived alone with a maiden aunt; and to that lady, a grim, sixty years old Scotchwoman, with a nodding head, communicated news of her encounter and invitation.

‘A friend of his?’ cried the aunt. ‘What like is he? What did ye say was his name?’

She was dead silent, and stared at the old woman darkling. Then very slowly, ‘I said he was my father’s friend; I have invited him to my house, and come he shall,’ she said; and with that she walked off to her room, where she sat staring at the wall all the evening. Miss M’Glashan, for that was the aunt’s name, read a large bible in the kitchen with some of the joys of martyrdom.

It was perhaps half-past three when Dick presented himself, rather scrupulously dressed, before the cottage door; he knocked, and a voice bade him enter. The kitchen, which opened directly off the garden, was somewhat darkened by foliage; but he could see her as she approached from the far end to meet him. This second sight of her surprised him. Her strong black brows spoke of temper easily aroused and hard to quiet; her mouth was small, nervous and weak; there was something dangerous and sulky underlying, in her nature, much that was honest, compassionate, and even noble.

‘My father’s name,’ she said, ‘has made you very welcome.’

And she gave him her hand, with a sort of curtsy. It was a pretty greeting, although somewhat mannered; and Dick felt himself among the gods. She led him through the kitchen to a parlour, and presented him to Miss M’Glashan.

‘Esther,’ said the aunt, ‘see and make Mr. Naseby his tea.’

And as soon as the girl was gone upon this hospitable intent, the old woman crossed the room and came quite near to Dick as if in menace.

‘Ye know that man?’ she asked in an imperious whisper.

‘Mr. Van Tromp?’ said Dick. ‘Yes, I know him.’

‘Well, and what brings ye here?’ she said. ‘I couldn’t save the mother — her that’s dead — but the bairn!’ She had a note in her voice that filled poor Dick with consternation. ‘Man,’ she went on, ‘what is it now? Is it money?’

‘My dear lady,’ said Dick, ‘I think you misinterpret my position. I am young Mr. Naseby of Naseby House. My acquaintance with Mr. Van Tromp is really very slender; I am only afraid that Miss Van Tromp has exaggerated our intimacy in her own imagination. I know positively nothing of his private affairs, and do not care to know. I met him casually in Paris — that is all.’

Miss M’Glashan drew along breath. ‘In Paris?’ she said. ‘Well, and what do you think of him? — what do ye think of him?’ she repeated, with a different scansion, as Richard, who had not much taste for such a question, kept her waiting for an answer.

‘I found him a very agreeable companion,’ he said.

‘Ay,’ said she, ‘did ye! And how does he win his bread?’

‘I fancy,’ he gasped, ‘that Mr. Van Tromp has many generous friends.’

‘I’ll warrant!’ she sneered; and before Dick could find more to say, she was gone from the room.

Esther returned with the tea-things, and sat down.

‘Now,’ she said cosily, ‘tell me all about my father.’

‘He’ — stammered Dick, ‘he is a very agreeable companion.’

‘I shall begin to think it is more than you are, Mr. Naseby,’ she said, with a laugh. ‘I am his daughter, you forget. Begin at the beginning, and tell me all you have seen of him, all he said and all you answered. You must have met somewhere; begin with that.’

So with that he began: how he had found the Admiral painting in a cafe; how his art so possessed him that he could not wait till he got home to — well, to dash off his idea; how (this in reply to a question) his idea consisted of a cock crowing and two hens eating corn; how he was fond of cocks and hens; how this did not lead him to neglect more ambitious forms of art; how he had a picture in his studio of a Greek subject which was said to be remarkable from several points of view; how no one had seen it nor knew the precise site of the studio in which it was being vigorously though secretly confected; how (in answer to a suggestion) this shyness was common to the Admiral, Michelangelo, and others; how they (Dick and Van Tromp) had struck up an acquaintance at once, and dined together that same night; how he (the Admiral) had once given money to a beggar; how he spoke with effusion of his little daughter; how he had once borrowed money to send her a doll — a trait worthy of Newton, she being then in her nineteenth year at least; how, if the doll never arrived (which it appeared it never did), the trait was only more characteristic of the highest order of creative intellect; how he was — no, not beautiful — striking, yes, Dick would go so far, decidedly striking in appearance; how his boots were made to lace and his coat was black, not cut-away, a frock; and so on, and so on by the yard. It was astonishing how few lies were necessary. After all, people exaggerated the difficulty of life. A little steering, just a touch of the rudder now and then, and with a willing listener there is no limit to the domain of equivocal speech. Sometimes Miss M’Glashan made a freezing sojourn in the parlour; and then the task seemed unaccountably more difficult; but to Esther, who was all eyes and ears, her face alight with interest, his stream of language flowed without break or stumble, and his mind was ever fertile in ingenious evasions and —

What an afternoon it was for Esther!

‘Ah!’ she said at last, ‘it’s good to hear all this! My aunt, you should know, is narrow and too religious; she cannot understand an artist’s life. It does not frighten me,’ she added grandly; ‘I am an artist’s daughter.’

With that speech, Dick consoled himself for his imposture; she was not deceived so grossly after all; and then if a fraud, was not the fraud piety itself? — and what could be more obligatory than to keep alive in the heart of a daughter that filial trust and honour which, even although misplaced, became her like a jewel of the mind? There might be another thought, a shade of cowardice, a selfish desire to please; poor Dick was merely human; and what would you have had him do?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30