The Goldfish


Mary Cholmondeley

First published in The Romance of His Life: and other romances, John Murray, 1921.

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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The Goldfish

A Favourite has no Friends.

It was my first professional visit to the Robinsons. I had been called in to prescribe for Arthur Robinson, a nervous, emaciated young man, whom I found extended on a black satin sofa, in a purple silk dressing gown embroidered with life-sized hydrangeas. The sofa and the dressing gown shrieked aloud his artistic temperament.

He had a bronchial cold, and my visit was, as he said, purely precautionary. He kept me a long time recounting his symptoms, and assuring me that he was absolutely fearless, and then dragged himself to his feet and led me into the magnificent studio his mother had built for him, where his sketches were arranged on easels, and where we found his wife, a pale, dark-eyed young creature cleaning his brushes.

He appeared—like most egotistic people—to be greatly in need of a listener, and he poured forth his views on art, and the form his own message to the world would probably take. I am unfortunately quite inartistic, but I gave him my attention. I was in no hurry, for at that time the one perpetual anxiety that dogged my waking hours was that I had not enough patients.

At last I remembered that I ought not to appear to have time to spare, and his wife took me downstairs to the drawing-room, where his mother was awaiting us, a large, fair woman, with a kindly foolish face.

I saw at once that I was in for another interview as long as the first.

Mrs. Robinson did not wait for me to give an opinion on her son’s condition. She pressed me to be perfectly frank, and, before I could open my mouth to reply, poured forth a stream of information on what was evidently her only theme—Arthur’s health.

“I said the day before yesterday—didn’t I, Blanche. ‘Arthur, you have got a cold.’ And he said, so like him—‘No Mother, I haven’t.’ That is Arthur all over. Isn’t it, Blanche?”

Blanche made no response. She sat motionless, gazing at her mother-in-law with half absent eyes, as if she were trying—and failing—to give her whole attention to the matter in hand.

“Then I said in my joking way, ‘Arthur, I can’t have you starting a cold, and giving it to me and Blanche.’ We don’t want any presents of that kind. Do we, Blanche?”

Blanche made no reply. Perhaps experience had taught her that it was a waste of energy.

“So I said, ‘with your tendency to bronchitis I shall send for Doctor Giles, and it will be a good opportunity to make his acquaintance now that our dear Doctor Whittington has retired.’”

It went on a long time, Mrs. Robinson beaming indiscriminately on me and her daughter-in-law.

At last, when she was deeply involved in Arthur’s teething, I murmured a few words and stood up to go.

“You will promise faithfully, won’t you, to look in again tomorrow.”

I said that a telephone message would summon me at any moment. As I held out my hand I heard a loud splash.

“Now, Dr. Giles, you are wondering what that is,” said Mrs. Robinson gleefully.

I looked round and saw at the further end of the immense bemirrored double drawing-room a grove of begonias, and heard a faint trickle of water.

“It’s an aquarium,” said Mrs. Robinson triumphantly, and she looked archly at me. “Shall we tell Dr. Giles about it, Blanche?”

“It has a goldfish in it,” said Blanche, opening her lips for the first time.

“That was the splash you heard,” continued Mrs. Robinson, as if she were imparting a secret. “That splash was made by the goldfish.”

I gave up any thought I may have had of paying other professional calls that morning, and allowed Mrs. Robinson to lead me to the aquarium.

As aquariums in back drawing-rooms go it was a very superior aquarium, designed especially for the house, so Mrs. Robinson informed me, by a very superior young man at Maple’s——quite a gentleman.

The aquarium had gravel upon its shallow bottom, and large pointed shells strewed upon the gravel. The water trickled in through a narrow grating on one side, and trickled out through another on the other side. An array of flowering begonias arranged round the irregularly shaped basin, gave the whole what Maple’s young man had pronounced to be “a natural aspect,” and effectually hid the two gratings while affording an unimpeded view of the shells, and the inmate.

In the shallow water, motionless, save for his opening and shutting gills, and a faint movement of his tail, was poised a large obese goldfish.

I looked at him through the gilt wire-netting stretched across the basin a few inches above the surface of the water, and it seemed as if he looked at me.

I wondered with vague repugnance how anyone could regard him as a pet. To me he was wholly repulsive, swollen, unhealthy looking.

“He knows me,” said Mrs. Robinson, with a vain attempt at modesty. “He has taken a fancy to me. Cupboard love I’m afraid, Dr. Giles. You see I feed him every day. He just swims about or stays still if I am near, like I am now, and he can see me. But if I am some way off and he can’t see me he tries to jump out to get to me. He never tries to jump when I am near him. I call him Goldy, Dr. Giles, and I’m just as fond of him as he is of me. Isn’t it touching that a dumb creature should have such affection? If it were a dog or a cat of course I could understand it, and I once heard of a wolf that was loving, but I have always supposed till now that fishes were cold by nature. I daresay, dear Dr. Whittington told you about him? No! Well I am surprised, for he took such an interest in Goldy. It was Dr. Whittington who made me put the wire-netting over the aquarium. He said ‘Some day that poor fellow will jump out in your absence to try and get to you, and you will find him dead on the carpet.’ So we put the wire-netting across.”

“He jumps,” said the young girl gazing intently at the goldfish. “When we sit playing cards in the evening he jumps again and again. But the wire always throws him back.”

I looked for the first time at Mrs. Robinson’s daughter-in-law; her colourless young face bent over the aquarium with an expression of horror. And as I looked the luncheon bell rang, and with it arose a clamour of invitation from Mrs. Robinson that I should stay for the meal. Pot luck! Quite informal! etc., etc., but I wrenched myself away.

A few days later I called on my predecessor, Dr. Whittington, and found him sitting in his garden at East Sheen. He was, as always, communicative and genial, but it was evident that his interest in his late patients had migrated to his roses.

“Mrs. Robinson is an egregious goose, my dear Giles, as you must have already perceived, but she is a goose that lays golden eggs. You simply can’t go too often to please them. I went nearly every day, and they constantly asked me to dinner. They have an excellent cook.”

“They adored you,” I said.

“They did; and some great writer has said somewhere that we must pay the penalty for our deepest affections. I—ahem! exacted the penalty; you see part of the results in my Malmaisons, and I advise you to follow in my footsteps. They are made of money.”

“They look it.”

“And they are, if I may say so, a private preserve. They know nobody. I always thought that everybody knew somebody, at any rate every one who is wealthy, but they don’t seem to know a soul. If you dine there you’ll meet a High Church parson whom they sit under, or the family solicitor, or a servile female imbecile who was Arthur’s governess, and laughs at everything he says—no one else.”

“Didn’t he go to school?”

“Never. His mother said it would break his spirit. I’ve attended him from his birth. A very costly affair that was to Mrs. Robinson, for I had to live in the house for weeks, in order to help to usher in young Robinson, and at the same time usher out old Robinson, noisily dying of locomotor ataxia, and drink on the ground floor. I’ve since come to the conclusion that she never was legally his wife, and that is why they know no one, and don’t seem to make any effort socially. She had all the money, there’s no doubt of that, and she wasn’t by any means in her first youth. I rather think he must have been a bigamist or something large hearted of that kind. Perhaps like Henry the Eighth he suffered from a want of concentration of the domestic affections.”

“And what is the son like, a malade imaginaire? I’ve never seen anything like his dressing gowns except in futurist pictures.”

“A malade imaginaire! Good Lord! no. Where are your professional eyes? Arthur is his father’s son, that is what is the matter with him. Abnormal irritability and inertia, and a tendency to dessimated sclerosis. He may have talent, I’m no judge of that; but he’ll never do anything. No sticking power. He’s doomed. If ever any one was born under an unlucky star that poor lad was. He began to cause a good deal of anxiety when he was about twenty, made a determined attempt to go to the devil: women, drink, drugs. In short, it looked at one moment as if he would be his father over again without his father’s vitality. His mother was in despair. I said to her, ‘My good woman, find him a wife; a pretty young wife who will exert a good influence over him and keep him straight.’”

“Apparently she followed your advice.”

“She did. It was the only chance for him, and not a chance worth betting on even then. I’ve often wondered how she found the girl. She makes no end of a pet of her. She’s a warmhearted old thing. She ought to have had a dozen children, and a score of grandchildren. Introduce your wife and family to her, Giles. She’ll take to them at once. She’s fond of all young people. She’s wrapped up in her son and daughter-in-law and—”

“Her goldfish?” I suggested.

“Her goldfish,” assented Dr. Whittington, with a grin. “What an ass she is. She actually believes the brute tries to jump out of the aquarium to get to her.”

“You encouraged her in that belief.”

“My dear Giles,” said my predecessor drily, “I have indicated to you the path your feet should assiduously tread as regards the Robinsons. Now come and look at my Blush Ramblers.”

Dr. Whittington was right. The Robinson family was a gold mine. It is not for me to say whether I resorted to a pick and shovel as he had done, or whether, resisting temptation, I held the balance even between my duty, and the natural cupidity of a man with an imperceptible income, and three small children. At any rate I saw a great deal of the Robinsons.

Arthur was a most interesting case, to which I brought a deep professional interest. Perhaps also I was touched by his youth and good looks, and felt compassion for the heavy handicap which life had laid upon him. I strained every nerve to help him. Dr. Whittington had been an old-fashioned somewhat narrow-minded practitioner close on seventy. I was a young man, fresh from walking the hospitals. I used modern methods, and they were at first attended with marked success. Mrs. Robinson was at my feet. She regarded me, as did Arthur, as a heaven-born genius. She openly blessed the day that had seen the retirement of Dr. Whittington. She transferred her adoration from him to me as easily as a book is transferred from one table to another. She called on my wife; and instantly enfolded her and the children in her capacious affections, and showered on us cream-cheeses, perambulators, rocking-chairs, special brands of marmalade, “The Souls’ Awakening” in a plush and gilt frame, chocolate horses and dogs, eiderdown quilts and her favourite selection from the works of Marie Corelli and Ella Wheeler–Wilcox.

I began to think that Dr. Whittington had not put such an exorbitant price on the practise as I had at first surmised.

I fought with all my strength for Arthur, and it was many months before I allowed myself to realise that I was waging a losing battle. I had unlimited funds at my disposal, the Robinson purse had apparently no bottom to it. My word was law. What I ordered Mrs. Robinson obsequiously carried out. Nevertheless, at last I had to own to myself that I was vanquished. Arthur was doomed, as Dr. Whittington had said, and certain sinister symptoms were making themselves more and more apparent. His temper always moody and irritable, was becoming morose, vindictive, with sudden outbursts of foolish mirth. The outposts were being driven in one after another. I saw with profound discouragement that in time—perhaps not for a long time if I could fend it off—his malady would reach the brain.

I encouraged him to be much in the open air. I planned expeditions by motor to Epping Forest, to Virginia Water, on which his young wife accompanied him. She was constantly with him, walked with him, drove with him, played patience with him, painted with him, or rather watched him paint until the trembling of his hand obliged him to lay down his brush. I hardly exchanged a word with her from one week’s end to another. She seemed a dutiful, docile, lifeless sort of person, without any of the spontaneity and gaiety of youth. Mrs. Robinson owned to me that fond as she was of her daughter-in-law, her companionship had not done all she hoped for her son.

“So absent-minded, Dr. Giles, so silent, never keeps the ball rolling at meals; the very reverse of chatty, I do assure you. I don’t know what’s coming to young people now-a-days. In my youth,” etc., etc.

Gradually I conceived a slight dislike to Blanche. She seemed colourless, lethargic, one of those people who without vitality themselves, sap that of others, and expect to be dragged through life by the energy of those with whom they live. It was perfectly obvious that fat and foolish Mrs. Robinson was the only person in the house with any energy whatever.

Presently the whole family had influenza. Then for the first time I saw Blanche alone. She was laid up with the malady at the same time as her husband and mother-in-law. I went to her room, to see how she did, and found her in bed.

She looked very small and young and wan, in an immense gilt four poster with a magnificent satin quilt.

I reassured her as to her husband’s condition, and then asked her a few questions about herself, and told her that she would soon be well again.

She gave polite answers, but again I had that first impression of her that she was making an effort to keep her attention from wandering, that she felt no interest in what I was saying.

“Have you an amusing book to pass the time?” I asked.

She looked at a pile on the table near her.

“Perhaps your eyes are too tired to read?”

“No,” she said, “I had forgotten they were there. I don’t care for reading.”

Her eyes left the books and travelled back to the other end of the large ornate room, overfilled with richly gilt Empire furniture.

I turned and followed her rapt gaze.

There were half-a-dozen yellow chrysanthemums in a dull green jar on a Buhl chiffonier. The slanting November sunshine fell on them, and threw against the white wall a shadow of them. It was a shadow transfigured, intricate yet vague, mysterious, beautiful exceedingly.

I should never have noticed it if she had not looked at it with such intentness. For a moment I saw it with her eyes. I was touched; I hardly knew why. All the apathy was gone from her face. There was passion in it. She looked entirely exhausted, and yet it was the first time I had seen her really alive.

The sunshine went out suddenly, and she sighed.

“You may get up tomorrow, and go downstairs,” I said. “It is dull for you alone up here.”

“I like being here,” she said.

Was she, like so many women, “contrary?” Always opposing the suggestions of others, never willing to fall in with family arrangements.

“Don’t you want to see the goldfish?” I hazarded, speaking as if to a child. “He must be lonely now Mrs. Robinson is laid up. And who will give him his crumbs?”

“No, I don’t want to see him,” she said passionately. “I never look at him if I can help it. Oh Dr. Giles, everyone seems to shut their eyes who comes into this house—everyone—but don’t you see how dreadful it is to be a prisoner?”

She looked at me with timid despairing eyes, which yet had a flicker of hope in them. I patted her hand gently, and found she still had a little fever.

“But he gets plenty of crumbs,” I said soothingly, “and it is a nice aquarium with fresh water running through all the time. I think he is a very lucky goldfish.”

She looked fixedly at me, and the faint colour in her cheeks faded, the imploring look vanished from her eyes.

She leaned back among her lace pillows.

“That is what Mrs. Robinson says,” she said with a quivering lip, and I perceived that I was relegated to the same category in her mind as her mother-in-law.

She withdrew her thin hand and retreated once more behind the frail bastion of silence from which she had looked out at me for all these months; from which she had for one moment emerged, only to creep back to its forlorn shelter.

A few days later Mrs. Robinson was convalescent, sitting up in bed in a garish cap festooned with cherry-coloured ribbons, and a silk wadded jacket to match. I questioned her about her daughter-in-law, in whom for the first time I felt interested. It needed no acumen on my part to draw forth the whole of Blanche’s short history. One slight question was all that was necessary to turn on the cock of Mrs. Robinson’s confidences. The stream gushed forth at once, it overflowed, it could hardly be turned off again. I was drenched.

“How long has Blanche been married? Two years, Dr. Giles. She’s just nineteen. That’s her age—nineteen. Seventeen and three days when she married. Such a romance. She was seventeen and Arthur was twenty-two. Five years difference. Just right, and you never saw two young people so much in love with each other. And such a beautiful couple. It was a love match. Made in heaven. Just like his father and me over again. That is what I said to them. I said on their wedding day: ‘Well, I hope you will be as happy as your father and I were.’”

There was not much information to be retrieved from Mrs. Robinson’s gushings, but in the course of the next few days I hooked up out of a flood of extraneous matter a few facts which had apparently escaped her notice.

Blanche it seemed was the niece of a former Senior Curate of St. Botolph’s. “A splendid preacher, Dr. Giles, and a real churchman, high mass and confession, and incense, just the priest for St. Botolph’s, a dedicated celibate and vegetarian—such a saintly example to us all.”

It appeared obvious to me, though not to Mrs. Robinson, that the vegetarian celebate had been embarrassed as to what to do with his niece, when at the age of seventeen she had been suddenly left on his hands owing to the inconvenient death of her widowed mother. Evidently Blanche had not had a farthing.

“But he was such a wide-minded man. Of course he wanted dear Blanche to lead the highest life, and to dedicate herself as he had done, and to go into a sisterhood. But she cried all the time when he explained it to her, and said she could not paint in a sisterhood. And she didn’t seem to fancy illuminating missals, or church embroidery, just what he had thought she would like. He was always thinking what would make her happy. And then it turned out there was some question of expense as well which he had not foreseen, so he gave up the idea. And just at that time I had a lot of trouble with Arthur—with drink—between you and me. It was such a hot summer. I am convinced it was the heat that started it; too much whiskey in the soda water—and other things as well. Arthur was got hold of and led away. And Dr. Whittington advised me to find a nice young wife for him. And I told Mr. Copton—that was the priest’s name, all about it—I always told him everything, and he was most kind, and interested, and so understanding, and he agreed a good wife was just what Arthur wanted, and marriage was an honourable estate, those were his very words. And Arthur was fond of painting, and Blanche was fond of painting too, simply devoted to it, and they had lessons together in a private studio and—”

It went on and on for ever.

“And her uncle gave her away. He was quite distressed that he could not afford a trousseau, for he was Rector Designate of Saint Oressa’s at Liverpool, but I told him not to trouble about that. I gave her everything just as if she had been my own child. I spent hundreds on her trousseau, and she was married in my Brussels lace veil that I wore at my own wedding. I just took to her as my own child from the first. And would you believe it before he went away on his honeymoon, Arthur brought me the goldfish to keep me company. In a bowl it was. Such a quaint idea, wasn’t it, so like Arthur. They are my two pets, Blanche and Goldy.”

I am not an artistic person, but even I was beginning to have doubts about Arthur’s talent. It seemed somehow unnatural that he was always having his work enlarged by a third or a fifth, or both. Every picture he had painted, before his hands trembled too much to hold a brush, was faithfully copied and enlarged by his wife. She reproduced his dreary compositions with amazing exactitude, working for hours together in a corner of his studio, while he lay pallid, with half-closed eyes on the black satin sofa, watching her.

I had always taken for granted they were a devoted couple. Mrs. Robinson was always saying so, and it was obvious that Arthur never willingly allowed his wife out of his sight.

However, one morning I came into the studio when there was trouble between them. I saw at once it was one of his worst days.

He was standing before an enlargement of one of his pictures livid with anger.

“How often am I to to tell you that a copy must be exact,” he stammered in his disjointed staccato speech. “If you quote a line of poetry do you alter one of the words? If I trust you to reproduce a picture surely you know you are not at liberty to change it.”

She was as pale as he was. She looked dully at him, and then at her own canvas on the easel.

“I forgot,” she said, in a suffocated voice.

I looked at the original and the copy, and even my stolid heart beat a little quicker.

The original represented a young girl—his wife had evidently sat for him—playing on a harp, while a man listened, leaning against a table, with a bowl of chrysanthemums upon it.

The copy was much larger than the original, and its wooden smugness was faithfully reproduced. The faulty drawing of the two figures seemed to have been accentuated by doubling its size. It was an amazingly exact reproduction, except in one particular. In Blanche’s copy she had made the shadow of the chrysanthemums fall upon the wall. It was a wonderful, a mysterious shadow, I had seen it before.

“I hadn’t indicated the slightest shadow,” Arthur continued. “There is no sunshine in the room. You have deliberately falsified my composition.”

“I did it without thinking,” said Blanche shivering. “It is a mistake.”

“A mistake,” he said sullenly. “Your heart isn’t in your work, that is the truth. You don’t really care to help me to find my true expression.”

And he took the canvas from the easel and tore it in two.

Did he half know, did some voice in the back of his twisted brain cry out to him that his part of the picture was hopelessly mediocre and out of drawing, that the only value it possessed was the shadow of the chrysanthemums? Was there jealousy in his rage? Who shall say!

I butted in at this point, and made a pretext for sending Blanche out of the room.

“Now, my dear fellow,” I said confidentially, “don’t in future try to associate your wife with your art. It is quite beyond her. Women, sir, have no artistic feeling. The home, dress, amusement that is their department. ‘Occupy till I come,’ might well have been said of feminine talent. It does occupy—till—ahem! we arrive. When a woman is happily married like your wife she doesn’t care a fig for anything else. Let her share your lighter moments, your walks and drives, allow her to solace your leisure. The bow, sir, must not be always at full stretch. But promise me you won’t allow her to copy any more of your pictures.”

“Never again,” said Arthur sepulchrally, stretched face downwards on the satin sofa.

I picked up the two pieces of torn canvas. A sudden idea seized me.

“And now,” I said, “I shall say a few words of reprimand to Mrs. Robinson. You need not fear that I shall be too severe with her.”

Arthur made no movement, and I left him, and after taking the torn picture to my car I climbed to the top of the house where I suspected I should find Blanche.

Her mother-in-law had reluctantly given her leave to use an attic lumber room, and, amid a litter of old trunks and derelict furniture and cardboard boxes, she had made a little clearing near the window, where she worked feverishly at her painting in her rare leisure.

I had seen the room once when I had helped the nurse to carry down a screen put away there, and suddenly needed in one of Arthur’s many illnesses. I had been touched by the evident attempt to make some sort of refuge in that large house, where there were several empty rooms on the lower floors, but—perhaps—no privacy.

I quickly found that Mrs. Robinson tacitly disapproved of Blanche working in the attic. Her kind face became almost hard when she spoke of the hours her daughter-in-law spent there, when her sick husband wanted her downstairs.

I tapped at the door, but there was no answer, and I went in. Blanche was sitting near the window on a leather trunk.

I expected to find her distressed, but her eyes, as they were raised to meet mine, were untroubled. An uncomprehending calm dwelt in them. I saw that she had already forgotten her husband’s anger in her complete absorption in something else.

For the first time it struck me that her mental condition was not quite normal. Had she then no memory; or did she continually revert, as soon as she was left to herself to some world of her own imagination, where her harassed, bewildered soul was refreshed? I remembered the look I had often seen in her face, the piteous expression of one anxiously endeavouring and failing to fix her attention.

She was giving the whole of it now to a picture on a low easel before her. I drew near and looked at it also.

It was a portrait of the goldfish. It was really exactly like him with his eye turned up on the look out for crumbs. He was outlined against a charming assortment of foreign shells, strewn artistically on a zinc floor. The aquarium was encircled by a pretty little grove of cowslips and primroses, which gave the picture a cheerful and pleasing aspect.

“It is lovely,” I said.

“He is a lucky goldfish, isn’t he?” she said apathetically.

I pondered long that night over Blanche. I reproached myself that I had not perceived earlier that she was overwrought. When I came to think of it her life was deeply overshadowed by her husband’s illness. Was it possible that she was the more talented of the two, and that it was not congenial to her to spend so much of her time docilely copying Arthur’s pictures? I had never thought of that before. I knew nothing about art myself, but I could find out. I was becoming much more occupied by this time, and one of my patients was the celebrated artist, M., whose slow death I was trying to make as painless as possible.

A day or two later I laid before him the picture Arthur had torn in two.

I can still see M. sitting in his arm-chair in the ragged dressing gown which he wore day and night, unshaved, wrinkled, sixty.

He threw the larger half of the canvas on the floor, and held the piece containing the chrysanthemums and their shadow in his thin shaking talon of a hand, moving it now nearer now further away from his half blind blood-shot eyes.

I began to explain that only the chrysanthemums were by the wife of the painter of the picture, but he brushed me aside.

“She can see,” he said at last. “And she’s honest. I was honest once. She can’t always say all she sees—who can—but she sees everything. Bring me something more of hers.”

Reader, after immense cogitation I decided to take him two of Arthur’s compositions, the couple which after hours of agitated vacillation he considered to be his best. They were all spread out in his studio, and I had to assist in his decision. He had on several occasions—knowing I attended the great man—hinted to me that he should like M. to see his work and advise him upon it, but I had never taken the hint. Mrs. Robinson was only surprised that he had not pressed to see her son’s pictures earlier. She and Arthur evidently thought I had kept them from the famous painter’s notice until now, as, indeed, I had.

“And I must take something of yours too,” I said kindly to Blanche as she put the two selected works of art into a magnificent portfolio.

“Yes, indeed,” said Mrs. Robinson. “Blanche paints sweetly too, but mostly copies. She’s a wonderful hand at copying.”

“I have nothing,” said Blanche, “except the goldfish.”

“Then I must take him,” I said. This was regarded as a great joke by Arthur and his mother, and they could hardly believe I was in earnest until I sent Blanche for it.

“It’s Goldy to the very life,” said Mrs. Robinson fondly, “and the shells and everything exact. Such a beautiful home for him.”

Arthur looked gloomily at the little picture, and for a moment I thought he would forbid my taking it, but I wrapped it up with decision, put it in the portfolio with the others, and departed.

I found M. as usual in his armchair in his studio, leaning back livid and breathless, endeavouring so he whispered “to get forward with his dying.”

I assured him he was getting forward at a great pace.

“Not quick enough for me, Giles,” he said, “and you won’t help me out, d—— you.”

I put the goldfish on a chair in front of him. He looked at it for some moments without seeing it, and then reared himself slowly in his chair.

He began to speak in his broken husky voice, and for an instant I thought he had gone mad.

“Ha!” he said, leaning forward towards the picture. “You’re portrayed, sir. Your unsympathetic personality, your unhealthy spots, your dorsal redness, and your abdominal pallor, your sullen eye turned upwards to your captors and their crumbs, all these are rendered with lynx-eyed fidelity. Privacy is not for you. Like Marie Antoinette, you are always in the full view of your gaolers.”

He paused to take breath.

“This is England, a free country where we lock into tiny prisons for our amusement the swiftest of God’s creatures, birds, squirrels, rabbits, mice, fishes. You are silhouetted against a background of incongruous foreign shells strewn on a zinc floor: the nightmare of a mad conchologist. What tenderness, what beauty in the cowslips and primroses which encircle your prison and almost hide the iron grating—but not quite. The rapture of Spring is in them. They bloom, they bloom, every bud is opening. The contrast between their joyous immobility and your enforced immobility is complete. Nothing remains to you, to you once swift, once beautiful, once free, nothing remains to you in your corpulent despair except—the pleasures of the table.”

M. leaned back exhausted, trembling a little.

“It is certainly a work of the imagination,” I hazarded, “if you can read all that into it.”

“Giles, my good fellow, confine yourself to your own sphere, how to keep in life against my will and all laws of humanity my miserable worn out carcase. That is not a work of the imagination. It is the work of close and passionate observation, observation so close, and of such integrity that it fears nothing, evades nothing. It is tremendous.”

There was a moment’s silence. I was a little hurt. I knew I was ignorant about art, but after all I had brought the picture to M.‘s notice.

“How old is she?”

“Nineteen.”

“I’ve never had a pupil, but if I could live a few months longer I would take her. I suppose she’s starving. I nearly starved at her age. I’ll give her a hundred for it, and I’ll see to its future. Send her round here tomorrow morning.” He scrawled and flung me a cheque for a hundred guineas.

“Now, understand,” I said, “I will bring the girl to see you tomorrow on one condition only, that you buy her husband’s ‘Last Farewell,’ and ‘The dawn of love’ for fifty pounds each. They are in this portfolio—and ‘The Goldfish’ by his wife for five. Is that a bargain?”

“If you say so it is. You always get your own way. I suppose he’s jealous of her.”

“He’s just beginning to be, and he doesn’t do things by halves.”

Perhaps the happiest moment of poor Arthur’s tawdry inflamed existence was when I told him that the great M. had bought his pictures. The latent suspicion and smouldering animosity died out of his eyes. He became radiant, boyish, for the moment sane. Perhaps he had looked like that before the shadow fell. Blanche, too, was suffused with delight. Mrs. Robinson, hurrying in with an armful of lilac orchids, was overjoyed. She burst forth in loud jubilation, not unlike the screeches of the London “syrens” when they herald the coming in of the New Year. She it seemed had always known, always seen her boy’s genius. He would get into the Academy now, from which jealousy had so long kept him out. He would be hung on the line. He would be recognised. He would be as great as M. himself, greater, for she and others among her friends had never fancied his pictures. They had not the lofty moral tone of Arthur’s.

I produced the cheque.

“One hundred pounds for Arthur,” I said, “and five pounds for the goldfish.”

Blanche started violently and looked incredulously at me.

Arthur’s jaw dropped. Then he said patronizingly, “Well done, Blanche,” and leaned back pallid and exhausted on the satin couch.

“I must see him,” he said over and over again as his mother laid a warm rug over his knees, and his wife put a cushion behind his head. “He could tell me things, tricks of the trade. Art is all a trick.”

“He found no fault with your work,” I said, “but—don’t be discouraged, Blanche—he did criticise yours. He said you could not put down all you saw.”

“What have I always told you, Blanche?” said Arthur solemnly. “You put down what you don’t see. Look at that shadow where I had not put one.”

“He is really too ill to see anyone, but he will speak to Blanche for a few minutes.” I turned to her. “You must not mind if he is severe. He is a drastic critic. Would you like to put on your hat and come with me? I am going on to him now.”

I had some difficulty in getting her out of the house. Mrs. Robinson wanted to come too. Arthur was determined that she should wait till he was better, and they could go together. But I had long since established my authority in that household. I had my way.

Blanche asked no questions as we drove along. She did not seem the least surprised that the greatest painter of his day had bought her husband’s pictures. Was she lacking in intelligence? Was there some tiny screw loose in her mind?

M. had not made a toilet as I half expected he would. When we came in he was standing with his back to us, leaning against the mantelpiece, his unshaved chin on his hands. His horrible old dressing gown, stained with paint, and showing numerous large patches of hostile colours, clung to him more tightly than ever. His decrepitness struck me afresh. He looked what, indeed, he was, an old and depraved man, repulsive, formidable—unwashed—a complex wreck, dying indomitably on his feet.

“And so you can do things like that,” he said, turning towards Blanche a face contracted with pain, and pointing a lean finger at the goldfish, and the chrysanthemum shadow, propped side by side on the mantel piece.

“Yes.”

“Where were you taught?”

She mentioned the school where she had studied.

“Why did you leave it?”

“Because Mother died, and I had not any money to go on with my education.”

“And so you married for a home I suppose,” he snarled, showing his black teeth, “for silken gowns and delicate fare and costly furs such as you are wearing now.”

She did not answer.

“You had better have gone on the streets and stuck to your painting.”

Blanche’s dark eyes met the painter’s horrible leer without flinching.

“I wish I had,” she said.

They had both forgotten me. They were intent upon each other.

And she who never spoke about herself said to this stranger:

“I married because I did not want to go into a sisterhood, and because Arthur said he understood what I felt about painting, and that he felt the same, and that when we were married we would both study under S., and I was grateful to him, and I thought I loved him. But S. would not take him and wanted to take me. And Arthur was dreadfully angry, and would not let me go without him. And the years passed, hundreds and hundreds of years, and Arthur changed to me. And he has to be humoured. And now—I copy his pictures. I enlarge them. Sometimes I decrease them, but not often. He likes to watch me doing them. He does not care for me to be doing anything else.”

There was a long silence.

They stood looking at each other, and it seemed as if the sword that had pierced her soul pierced his also.

“Leave all and follow me,” said the painter at last. “That is the voice of art, as well as of Jesus of Nazareth. That is the law. There is no middle course. You have not left all, you have not followed. You have dallied and faltered and betrayed your gift. You have denied your Lord. And your sin has found you out. You are miserable; you deserve to be miserable.”

She made no answer.

“But you are at the end of your tether. I know what I know. You can’t go on. You are nineteen and your life is unendurable to you. You are touching the fringe of despair. Break away from your life before it breaks you. Shake its dust from off your feet. Forsake all and find peace in following your art.”

“You might as well say to the goldfish, jump out,” said Blanche, white to the lips, pointing to the picture.

“I do say to him, ‘Jump out.’ Leap in the dark, and risk dying on a vulgar Axminster carpet, and being trodden into it, rather than pine in prison on sponge cake.”

“Yes,” said Blanche fiercely, “but there is the wire netting. It’s not in the picture, but you know it’s there. He jumps and jumps. Haven’t I said so in the picture! And it throws him back. You know that. I was like him once. I used to jump, but I always fell back. I don’t jump any more now.”

And then, without any warning, she burst into a paroxysm of tears.

For a moment I stared at her stupified, and then slipped out of the room to fetch a glass of water.

When I came back M. was sunk down in his armchair, and she was crouching on the ground before him almost beside herself, holding him by the feet.

“Let me live with you,” she gasped half distraught. “Arthur hates me, and I’m frightened of him. He’s mad, mad, mad, only Dr. Giles pretends he isn’t, and Mrs. Robinson pretends; everything in that dreadful house is pretence, nothing real anywhere. Let me live with you. Then he’ll divorce me, and you needn’t marry me. I don’t want to be married. I won’t be any trouble to you. No pretty clothes, no amusements, no expense. I don’t want anything except a little time to myself, to paint.”

“You poor soul,” said the painter faintly, and in his harsh voice was an infinite compassion.

“Help me to jump out,” she shrieked, clinging to him.

“My child,” he said. “I cannot help you. I am dying. I could not live long enough even to blacken your name. I have failed others in the past whom I might have succoured. Now I fail you as I failed them. There is no help in me.”

He closed his eyes, but nevertheless two very small tears crept from beneath the wrinkled lids, and stood in the furrows of his cheeks.

She trembled and then rose slowly to her feet, and obediently took the glass of water which I proffered to her. She drank a little, and then placed the glass carefully on the table and drew on her gloves. I saw that she had withdrawn once more after a terrible bid for freedom into her fortress of reserve. She was once more the impassive, colourless creature whom I had seen almost daily for a year without knowing in the least until today what she really was.

“I ought to be going back now,” she said to me.

“I will take you home,” I said.

She went slowly up to M. and stood before him. I had never seen her look so beautiful.

The old man looked at her fixedly.

“I made up my mind,” she said, “after I spoke to Dr. Giles that I would never try to jump out any more, but you see I did.”

“Forgive me,” he said brokenly, holding out a shaking hand.

“It’s not your fault,” she said, clasping his hand in both of hers. “You are good, and you understand. You are the only person I have ever met who would help me if you could. But no one can help me. No one.”

And very reverently, very tenderly, she kissed his leaden hand and laid it down upon his knee.

As I took Blanche home I said to her:

“And when did you appeal to me, and when did I repulse you?”

“When I spoke to you about Goldy and you weren’t sorry, you did not mind a bit. You only said he was a lucky goldfish.”

“And what in Heaven’s name had that to do with you?”

She looked scornfully at me as if she were not going to be entrapped into speaking again.

I saw that she had—so to speak—ruled me out of her life. Perhaps when I first came to that unhappy house nearly a year ago she had looked to me as a possible helper, had weighed me in the balance, and had found me wanting.

I was cut to the heart, for deep down, at the bottom of my mind I saw at last, that I had failed her.

She might be, she probably was, slightly deranged, but, nevertheless, she had timidly, obscurely sought my aid, and had found no help in me.

M. died the following evening, after trying to die throughout the whole day. I never left him until, at last, late at night, he laid down his courage, having no further need of it, and reached the end of his ordeal.

Next morning after breakfast I went as usual to the Robinson’s house, and, according to custom, was shown into the drawing-room. Now that M. was out of his agony my mind reverted to Blanche. My wife and children were going to the seaside, and my wife had eagerly agreed to take Blanche with her, if she could be spared.

“But they won’t let her go,” said the little woman.

“They must if I say it’s necessary,” I said with professional dignity. I wondered as I waited in the immense Robinson drawing-room how best I could introduce the subject. Half involuntarily I approached the aquarium. As I drew near my foot caught on something slippery and stiff. I looked down, and saw it was the dead body of the goldfish on the carpet. I picked it up, and was staring at it when Mrs. Robinson came in. She gave a cry when she saw it, and wrung her hands.

“Put him back in the water,” she shrieked. “He may be still alive.”

I put him back into his cell, but it had no longer any power over that poor captive. “Goldy” floated grotesque and upside down on the surface of the water. His release had come.

“He must have jumped out to get to me when I was not there,” sobbed Mrs. Robinson, the easy tears coursing down her fat cheeks. “My poor faithful loving little pet. But someone has taken the wire off the aquarium. Who could have been so wicked? Downright cruel I call it.”

The wire, true enough, had been unhooked, and was laid among the hyacinths on the water’s edge.

“Where is Blanche?” I asked. “I want to talk to you about her. I do not think she is well, and I should advise—”

“That was just what I was going to tell you when I came in and saw that poor little darling dead in your hand. I am dreadfully worried about Blanche. She has been out all night. She hasn’t come in yet.”

“Out all night?” A vague trouble seized me.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Robinson, “all night. Would you have thought it possible? But between you and me it’s not the first time. Once long ago, just before you came to us, she did just the same. She—actually—ran away: ran away from her husband and me, and her beautiful home, though we had done everything in the world to make her happy. She went to her uncle at Liverpool, who never liked her. He telegraphed to us at once, and he brought her back next day. He spoke to her most beautifully, and left her with us. She seemed quite dazed at first, but she got round it and became as usual, always very silent and dull. Not the companion for Arthur. No brightness or gaiety. Blanche has been a great disappointment to me, tho’ I’ve never shown it, and I’m not one to bear malice, I’ve always made a pet of her. But between you and me, Dr. Giles, Arthur is convinced that she is not quite right in her head, and that she ought to be shut up.”

“But she is shut up now,” I said involuntarily.

She stared at me amazed.

A servant brought in a telegram.

“I telegraphed to her uncle first thing this morning,” said Mrs. Robinson, “to ask if she was with him. Now we shall hear what he says.”

She opened the envelope and spread out the contents.

“She’s not with him,” she said. “Then Dr. Giles, where is she? Where can she be?”

Later in the day we knew that Blanche had taken refuge in the Serpentine.

The two pets had fled together. She had made the way of escape easy for her weaker brother.


It was early in May. There was the usual crush at the Academy. I elbowed my way through the crowd to look at Serjeant’s majestic portrait of M. Near it on the line hung the picture of the goldfish.

A long-haired student and a little boy were staring at it.

“Mummy,” said the child, running to a beautifully dressed slender woman looking at the Serjeant, “I want a goldfish, too.”

“Well, darling, you shall have one,” she said, and, turning to the young man who accompanied her, she added, “You never saw a child so fond of animals as Cedric.”

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