It was wintry weather — not such a November winter’s day as some of us may remember looking at fourteen years ago, in Baregrove Square, but a brisk frosty morning in January. The country view visible from the back windows of Mr. Blyth’s house, which stood on the extreme limit of the new suburb, was thinly and brightly dressed out for the sun’s morning levee, in its finest raiment of pure snow. The cold blue sky was cloudless; every sound out of doors fell on the ear with a hearty and jocund ring; all newly-lit fires burnt up brightly and willingly without coaxing; and the robin-redbreasts hopped about expectantly on balconies and windowsills, as if they only waited for an invitation to walk in and warm themselves, along with their larger fellow creatures, round the kindly hearth.
The Studio was a large and lofty room, lighted by a skylight, and running along the side of the house throughout its whole depth. Its walls were covered with plain brown paper, and its floor was only carpeted in the middle. The most prominent pieces of furniture were two large easels placed at either extremity of the room; each supporting a picture of considerable size, covered over for the present with a pair of sheets which looked woefully in want of washing. There was a painting-stand with quantities of shallow little drawers, some too full to open, others, again, too full to shut; there was a movable platform to put sitters on, covered with red cloth much disguised in dust; there was a small square table of new deal, and a large round table of dilapidated rosewood, both laden with sketch-books, portfolios, dog’s-eared sheets of drawing paper, tin pots, scattered brushes, palette-knives, rags variously defiled by paint and oil, pencils, chalks, port-crayons — the whole smelling powerfully at all points of turpentine.
Finally, there were chairs in plenty, no one of which, however, at all resembled the other. In one corner stood a moldy antique chair with a high back, and a basin of dirty water on the seat. By the side of the fireplace a cheap straw chair of the beehive pattern was tilted over against a dining-room chair, with a horse-hair cushion. Before the largest of the two pictures, and hard by a portable flight of steps, stood a rickety office-stool. On the platform for sitters a modern easy chair, with the cover in tatters, invited all models to picturesque repose. Close to the rosewood table was placed a rocking-chair, and between the legs of the deal table were huddled together a camp-stool and a hassock. In short, every remarkable variety of the illustrious family of Seats was represented in one corner or another of Mr. Blyth’s painting-room.
All the surplus small articles which shelves, tables, and chairs were unable to accommodate, reposed in comfortable confusion on the floor. One half at least of a pack of cards seemed to be scattered about in this way. A shirt-collar, three gloves, a boot, a shoe, and half a slipper; a silk stocking, and a pair of worsted muffetees; three old play-bills rolled into a ball; a pencil-case, a paper-knife, a tooth-powder-box without a lid, and a superannuated black-beetle trap turned bottom upwards, assisted in forming part of the heterogeneous collection of rubbish strewed about the studio floor. And worse than all — as tending to show that the painter absolutely enjoyed his own disorderly habits — Mr. Blyth had jocosely desecrated his art, by making it imitate litter where, in all conscience, there was real litter enough already. Just in the way of anybody entering the room, he had painted, on the bare floor, exact representations of a new quill pen and a very expensive-looking sable brush, lying all ready to be trodden upon by entering feet. Fresh visitors constantly attested the skillfulness of these imitations by involuntarily stooping to pick up the illusive pen and brush; Mr. Blyth always enjoying the discomfiture and astonishment of every new victim, as thoroughly as if the practical joke had been a perfectly new one on each successive occasion.
Such was the interior condition of the painting-room, after the owner had inhabited it for a period of little more than two months!
The church-clock of the suburb has just struck ten, when quick, light steps approach the studio door. A gentleman enters — trips gaily over the imitative pen and brush — and, walking up to the fire, begins to warm his back at it, looking about him rather absently, and whistling “Drops of Brandy” in the minor key. This gentleman is Mr. Valentine Blyth.
He looks under forty, but is really a little over fifty. His face is round and rosy, and not marked by a single wrinkle in any part of it. He has large, sparkling black eyes; wears neither whiskers, beard, nor mustache; keeps his thick curly black hair rather too closely cut; and has a briskly-comical kindness of expression in his face, which it is not easy to contemplate for the first time without smiling at him. He is tall and stout, always wears very tight trousers, and generally keeps his wristbands turned up over the cuffs of his coat. All his movements are quick and fidgety. He appears to walk principally on his toes, and seems always on the point of beginning to dance, or jump, or run whenever he moves about, either in or out of doors. When he speaks he has an odd habit of ducking his head suddenly, and looking at the person whom he addresses over his shoulder. These, and other little personal peculiarities of the same undignified nature, all contribute to make him exactly that sort of person whom everybody shakes hands with, and nobody bows to, on a first introduction. Men instinctively choose him to be the recipient of a joke, girls to be the male confidant of all flirtations which they like to talk about, children to be their petitioner for the pardon of a fault, or the reward of a half-holiday. On the other hand, he is decidedly unpopular among that large class of Englishmen, whose only topics of conversation are public nuisances and political abuses; for he resolutely looks at everything on the bright side, and has never read a leading article or a parliamentary debate in his life. In brief, men of business habits think him a fool, and intellectual women with independent views cite him triumphantly as an excellent specimen of the inferior male sex.
Still whistling, Mr. Blyth walks towards an earthen pipkin in one corner of the studio, and takes from it a little china palette which he has neglected to clean since he last used it. Looking round the room for some waste paper, on which he can deposit the half-dried old paint that has been scraped off with the palette knife, Mr. Blyth’s eyes happen to light first on the deal table, and on four or five notes which lie scattered over it.
These he thinks will suit his purpose as well as anything else, so he takes up the notes, but before making use of them, reads their contents over for the second time — partly by way of caution, partly though a dawdling habit, which men of his absent disposition are always too ready to contract. Three of these letters happen to be in the same scrambling, blotted handwriting. They are none of them very long, and are the production of a former acquaintance of the reader’s, who has somewhat altered in height and personal appearance during the course of the last fourteen years. Here is the first of the notes which Valentine is now reading:—
“Dear Blyth, — My father says Theaters are the Devil’s Houses, and I must be home by eleven o’clock. I’m sure I never did anything wrong at a Theater, which I might not have done just the same anywhere else; unless laughing over a good play is one of the national sins he’s always talking about. I can’t stand it much longer, even for my mother’s sake! You are my only friend. I shall come and see you to-morrow, so mind and be at home. How I wish I was an artist! Yours ever, Z. THORPE, JUN.”
Shaking his head and smiling at the same time, Mr. Blyth finishes this letter — drops a perfect puddle of dirty paint and turpentine in the middle, over the words “national sins,” throws the paper into the fire — and goes on to note number two:
“Dear Blyth, — I couldn’t come yesterday, because of another quarrel at home, and my mother crying about it, of course. My father smelt tobacco smoke at morning prayers. It was my coat, which I forgot to air at the fire the night before; and he found it out, and said he wouldn’t have me smoke, because it led to dissipation — but I told him (which is true) that lots of parsons smoked. I wish you visited at our house, and could come and say a word on my side. Dear Blyth, I am perfectly wretched; for I have had all my cigars taken from me; and I am, yours truly, Z. THORPE, JUN.”
A third note is required before the palette can be scraped clean. Mr. Blyth reads the contents rather gravely on this occasion; rapidly plastering his last morsels of waste paint upon the paper as he goes on, until at length it looks as if it had been well peppered with all the colors of the rainbow.
Zack’s third letter of complaint certainly promised serious domestic tribulation for the ruling power at Baregrove Square:—
“Dear Blyth, — I have given in — at least for the present. I told my father about my wanting to be an artist, and about your saying that I had a good notion of drawing, and an eye for a likeness; but I might just as well have talked to one of your easels. He means to make a man of business of me. And here I have been, for the last three weeks, at a Tea Broker’s office in the city, in consequence. They all say it’s a good opening for me, and talk about the respectability of commercial pursuits. I don’t want to be respectable, and I hate commercial pursuits. What is the good of forcing me into a merchant’s office, when I can’t say my Multiplication table? Ask my mother about that: she’ll tell you! Only fancy me going round tea warehouses in filthy Jewish places like St. Mary–Axe, to take samples, with a blue bag to carry them about in; and a dirty junior clerk, who cleans his pen in his hair, to teach me how to fold up parcels! Isn’t it enough to make my blood boil to think of it? I can’t go on, and I won’t go on in this way! Mind you’re at home to-morrow; I’m coming to speak to you about how I’m to begin learning to be an artist. The junior clerk is going to do all my sampling work for me in the morning; and we are to meet in the afternoon, after I have come away from you, at a chop-house; and then go back to the office as if we had been together all day, just as usual. Ever yours, Z. THORPE, JUN. — P. S. My mind’s made up: if the worst comes to the worst, I shall leave home.”
“Oh, dear me! oh, dear! dear me!” says Valentine, mournfully rubbing his palette clean with a bit of rag. “What will it all end in, I wonder. Old Thorpe’s going just the way, with his obstinate severity, to drive Zack to something desperate. Coming here to-morrow, he says?” continues Mr. Blyth, approaching the smallest of the two pictures, placed on easels at opposite extremities of the room. “Coming to-morrow! He never dates his notes; but I suppose, as this one came last night, to-morrow means to-day.”
Saying these words with eyes absently fixed on his picture, Valentine withdraws the sheet stretched over the canvas, and discloses a Classical Landscape of his own composition.
If Mr. Blyth had done nothing else in producing the picture which now confronted him, he had at least achieved one great end of all Classic Art, by reminding nobody of anything simple, familiar, or pleasing to them in nature. In the foreground of his composition, were the three lanky ruined columns, the dancing Bacchantes, the musing philosopher, the mahogany-colored vegetation, and the bosky and branchless trees, with which we have all been familiar, from our youth upwards, in “classical compositions.” Down the middle of the scene ran that wonderful river, which is always rippling with the same regular waves; and always bearing onward the same capsizable galleys, with the same vermilion and blue revelers striking lyres on the deck. On the bank where there was most room for it, appeared our old, old friend, the architectural City, which nobody could possibly live in; and which is composed of nothing but temples, towers, monuments, flights of steps, and bewildering rows of pillars. In the distance, our favorite blue mountains were as blue and as peaky as ever, on Valentine’s canvas; and our generally-approved pale yellow sun was still disfigured by the same attack of aerial jaundice, from which he has suffered ever since classical compositions first forbade him to take refuge from the sight behind a friendly cloud.
After standing before his picture in affectionate contemplation of its beauties for a minute or so, Valentine resumes the business of preparing his palette.
As the bee comes and goes irregularly from flower to flower; as the butterfly flutters in a zig-zag course from one sunny place on the garden wall to another — or, as an old woman runs from wrong omnibus to wrong omnibus, at the Elephant and Castle, before she can discover the right one; as a countryman blunders up one street, and down another, before he can find the way to his place of destination in London — so does Mr. Blyth now come and go, flutter, run, and blunder in a mighty hurry about his studio, in search of missing colors which ought to be in his painting-box, but which are not to be found there. While he is still hunting through the room, his legs come into collision with a large drawing-board on which there is a blank sheet of paper stretched. This board seems to remind Mr. Blyth of some duty connected with it. He places it against two chairs, in a good light; then approaching a shelf on which some plaster-casts are arranged, takes down from it a bust of the Venus de Medici — which bust he next places on his old office stool, opposite to the two chairs and the drawing-board. Just as these preparations are completed, the door of the studio opens, and a very important member of the painter’s household — who has not yet been introduced to the reader, and who is in no way related either to Valentine or his wife — enters the room.
This mysterious resident under Mr. Blyth’s roof is a Young Lady.
She is dressed in very pretty, simple, Quaker-like attire. Her gown is of a light-gray color, covered by a neat little black apron in front, and fastened round the throat over a frill collar. The sleeves of this dress are worn tight to the arm, and are terminated at the wrists by quaint-looking cuffs of antique lace, the only ornamental morsels of costume which she has on. It is impossible to describe how deliciously soft, bright, fresh, pure, and delicate, this young lady is, merely as an object to look at, contrasted with the dingy disorder of the studio-sphere through which she now moves. The keenest observers, beholding her as she at present appears, would detect nothing in her face or figure, her manner or her costume, in the slightest degree suggestive of impenetrable mystery, or incurable misfortune. And yet, she happens to be the only person in Mr. Blyth’s household at whom prying glances are directed, whenever she walks out; whose very existence is referred to by the painter’s neighbors with an invariable accompaniment of shrugs, sighs, and lamenting looks; and whose “case” is always compassionately designated as “a sad one,” whenever it is brought forward, in the course of conversation, at dinner-tables and tea-tables in the new suburb.
Socially, we may be all easily divided into two classes in this world — at least in the civilized part of it. If we are not the people whom others talk about, then we are sure to be the people who talk about others. The young lady who had just entered Mr. Blyth’s painting-room, belonged to the former order of human beings.
She seemed fated to be used as a constant subject of conversation by her fellow-creatures. Even her face alone — simply as a face — could not escape perpetual discussion; and that, too, among Valentine’s friends, who all knew her well, and loved her dearly. It was the oddest thing in the world, but no one of them could ever agree with another (except on a certain point, to be presently mentioned) as to which of her personal attractions ought to be first selected for approval, or quoted as particularly asserting her claims to the admiration of all worshippers of beauty.
To take three or four instances of this. There was Mr. Gimble, the civil little picture-dealers and a very good friend in every way to Valentine: there was Mr. Gimble, who declared that her principal charm was in her complexion — her fair, clear, wonderful complexion — which he would defy any artist alive to paint, let him try ever so hard, or be ever so great a man. Then came the Dowager Countess of Brambledown, the frolicsome old aristocrat, who was generally believed to be “a little cracked;” who haunted Mr. Blyth’s studio, after having once given him an order to paint her rare China tea-service, and her favorite muff, in one group; and who differed entirely from the little picture-dealer. “Fiddle-de-dee!” cried her ladyship, scornfully, on hearing Mr. Gimble’s opinion quoted one day. “The man may know something about pictures, but he is an idiot about women. Her complexions indeed! I could make as good a complexion for myself (we old women are painters too, in our way, Blyth). Don’t tell me about her complexion — it’s her eyes! her incomparable blue eyes, which would have driven the young men of my time mad — mad, I give you my word of honor! Not a gentleman, sir, in my youthful days — and they were gentlemen then — but would have been too happy to run away with her for her eyes alone; and what’s more, to have shot any man who said as much as ‘Stop him!’ Complexion, indeed, Mr. Gimble? I’ll complexion you, next time I find my way into your picture-gallery! Take a pinch of snuff, Blyth; and never repeat nonsense in my hearing again.”
There was Mr. Bullivant, the enthusiastic young sculptor, with the mangy flow of flaxen hair, and the plump, waxy face, who wrote poetry, and showed, by various sonnets, that he again differed completely about the young lady from the Dowager Countess of Brambledown and Mr. Gimble. This gentleman sang fluently, on paper — using, by the way, a professional epithet — about her “chiselled mouth”,
“Which breathed of rapture and the balmy South.”
He expatiated on
“Her sweet lips smiling at her dimpled chin,
Whose wealth of kisses gods might long to win — ”
and much more to the same maudlin effect. In plain prose, the ardent Bullivant was all for the lower part of the young lady’s face, and actually worried her, and Mr. Blyth, and everybody in the house, until he got leave to take a cast of it.
Lastly, there was Mrs. Blyth’s father; a meek old gentleman, with a continual cold in the head; who lived on marvelously to the utmost verge of human existence — as very poor men, with very large families, who would be much better out of this world than in it, very often do. There was this low-speaking, mildly-infirm, and perpetually-snuffling engraver, who, on being asked to mention what he most admired in her, answered that he thought it was her hair, “which was of such a nice light brown color; or, perhaps, it might be the pleasant way in which she carried her head, or, perhaps, her shoulders — or, perhaps, her head and shoulders, both together. Not that his opinion was good for much in tasty matters of this kind, for which reason he begged to apologize for expressing it at all.” In speaking thus of his opinion, the worthy engraver surely depreciated himself most unjustly: for, if the father of eight daughters cannot succeed in learning (philoprogenitively speaking) to be a good judge of women, what man can?
However, there was one point on which Mr. Gimble, Lady Brambledown, Mr. Bullivant, Mrs. Blyth’s father, and hosts of friends besides, were all agreed, without one discordant exception.
They unanimously asserted that the young lady’s face was the nearest living approach they had ever seen to that immortal “Madonna” face, which has for ever associated the idea of beauty with the name of RAPHAEL. The resemblance struck everybody alike, even those who were but slightly conversant with pictures, the moment they saw her. Taken in detail, her features might be easily found fault with. Her eyes might be pronounced too large, her mouth too small, her nose not Grecian enough for some people’s tastes. But the general effect of these features, the shape of her head and face, and especially her habitual expression, reminded all beholders at once, and irresistibly, of that image of softness, purity, and feminine gentleness, which has been engraven on all civilized memories by the “Madonnas” of Raphael.
It was in consequence of this extraordinary resemblance, that her own English name of Mary had been, from the first, altered and Italianized by Mr. and Mrs. Blyth, and by all intimate friends, into “Madonna.” One or two extremely strict and extremely foolish people objected to any such familiar application of this name, as being open, in certain directions, to an imputation of irreverence. Mr. Blyth was not generally very quick at an answer; but, on this occasion, he had three answers ready before the objections were quite out of his friends’ mouths.
In the first place, he said that he and his friends used the name only in an artist-sense, and only with reference to Raphael’s pictures. In the next place, he produced an Italian dictionary, and showed that “Madonna” had a second meaning in the language, signifying simply and literally, “My lady.” And, in conclusion, he proved historically, that “Madonna” had been used in the old times as a prefix to the names of Italian women; quoting, for example, “Madonna Pia,” whom he happened to remember just at that moment, from having once painted a picture from one of the scenes of her terrible story. These statements silenced all objections; and the young lady was accordingly much better known in the painter’s house as “Madonna” than as “Mary.”
On now entering the studio, she walked up to Valentine, laid a hand lightly on each of his shoulders, and so lifted herself to be kissed on the forehead. Then she looked down on his palette, and observing that some colors were still missing from it, began to search for them directly in the painting-box. She found them in a moment, and appealed to Mr. Blyth with an arch look of inquiry and triumph. He nodded, smiled, and held out his palette for her to put the colors on it herself. Having done this very neatly and delicately, she next looked round the room, and at once observed the bust of Venus placed on the office stool.
At the same time, Mr. Blyth, who saw the direction taken by her eyes, handed to her a port-crayon with some black chalk, which he had been carefully cutting to a point for the last minute or two. She took it with a little mock curtsey, pouting her lip slightly, as if drawing the Venus was work not much to her taste — smiled when she saw Valentine shaking his head, and frowning comically at her — then went away at once to the drawing-board, and sat down opposite Venus, in which position she offered as decided a living contradiction as ever was seen to the assertion of the classical idea of beauty, as expressed in the cast that she was about to copy.
Mr. Blyth, on his side, set to work at last on the Landscape; painting upon the dancing Bacchantes in the foreground of his picture, whose scanty dresses stood sadly in need of a little brightening up. While the painter and the young lady are thus industriously occupied with the business of the studio, there is leisure to remark on one rather perplexing characteristic of their intercourse, so far as it has yet proceeded on this particular winter’s morning.
Ever since Madonna has been in the room, not one word has she spoken to Valentine; and not one word has Valentine (who can talk glibly enough to himself) spoken to her. He never said “Good morning,” when he kissed her — or, “Thank you for finding my lost colors,” — or, “I have set the Venus, my dear, for your drawing lesson to-day.” And she, woman as she is, has actually not asked him a single question, since she entered the studio! What can this absolute and remarkable silence mean between two people who look as affectionately on each other as these two look, every time their eyes meet!
Is this one of the Mysteries of the painter’s fireside?
Who is Madonna?
What is her real name besides Mary?
Is it Mary Blyth?
Some years ago, an extraordinary adventure happened to Valentine in the circus of an itinerant Equestrian Company. In that adventure, and in the strange results attending it, the clue lies hidden, which leads to the Mystery of the painter’s fireside, and reveals the story of this book.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06