The Liar, by Henry James


At last he broached the question of painting the Colonel: it was now very late in the season — there would be little time before the general dispersal. He said they must make the most of it; the great thing was to begin; then in the autumn, with the resumption of their London life, they could go forward. Mrs. Capadose objected to this that she really could not consent to accept another present of such value. Lyon had given her the portrait of herself of old, and he had seen what they had had the indelicacy to do with it. Now he had offered her this beautiful memorial of the child — beautiful it would evidently be when it was finished, if he could ever satisfy himself; a precious possession which they would cherish for ever. But his generosity must stop there — they couldn’t be so tremendously ‘beholden’ to him. They couldn’t order the picture — of course he would understand that, without her explaining: it was a luxury beyond their reach, for they knew the great prices he received. Besides, what had they ever done — what above all had she ever done, that he should overload them with benefits? No, he was too dreadfully good; it was really impossible that Clement should sit. Lyon listened to her without protest, without interruption, while he bent forward at his work, and at last he said: ‘Well, if you won’t take it why not let him sit for me for my own pleasure and profit? Let it be a favour, a service I ask of him. It will do me a lot of good to paint him and the picture will remain in my hands.’

‘How will it do you a lot of good?’ Mrs. Capadose asked.

‘Why, he’s such a rare model — such an interesting subject. He has such an expressive face. It will teach me no end of things.’

‘Expressive of what?’ said Mrs. Capadose.

‘Why, of his nature.’

‘And do you want to paint his nature?’

‘Of course I do. That’s what a great portrait gives you, and I shall make the Colonel’s a great one. It will put me up high. So you see my request is eminently interested.’

‘How can you be higher than you are?’

‘Oh, I’m insatiable! Do consent,’ said Lyon.

‘Well, his nature is very noble,’ Mrs. Capadose remarked.

‘Ah, trust me, I shall bring it out!’ Lyon exclaimed, feeling a little ashamed of himself.

Mrs. Capadose said before she went away that her husband would probably comply with his invitation, but she added, ‘Nothing would induce me to let you pry into me that way!’

‘Oh, you,’ Lyon laughed — ‘I could do you in the dark!’

The Colonel shortly afterwards placed his leisure at the painter’s disposal and by the end of July had paid him several visits. Lyon was disappointed neither in the quality of his sitter nor in the degree to which he himself rose to the occasion; he felt really confident that he should produce a fine thing. He was in the humour; he was charmed with his motif and deeply interested in his problem. The only point that troubled him was the idea that when he should send his picture to the Academy he should not be able to give the title, for the catalogue, simply as ‘The Liar.’ However, it little mattered, for he had now determined that this character should be perceptible even to the meanest intelligence — as overtopping as it had become to his own sense in the living man. As he saw nothing else in the Colonel to-day, so he gave himself up to the joy of painting nothing else. How he did it he could not have told you, but it seemed to him that the mystery of how to do it was revealed to him afresh every time he sat down to his work. It was in the eyes and it was in the mouth, it was in every line of the face and every fact of the attitude, in the indentation of the chin, in the way the hair was planted, the moustache was twisted, the smile came and went, the breath rose and fell. It was in the way he looked out at a bamboozled world in short — the way he would look out for ever. There were half a dozen portraits in Europe that Lyon rated as supreme; he regarded them as immortal, for they were as perfectly preserved as they were consummately painted. It was to this small exemplary group that he aspired to annex the canvas on which he was now engaged. One of the productions that helped to compose it was the magnificent Moroni of the National Gallery — the young tailor, in the white jacket, at his board with his shears. The Colonel was not a tailor, nor was Moroni’s model, unlike many tailors, a liar; but as regards the masterly clearness with which the individual should be rendered his work would be on the same line as that. He had to a degree in which he had rarely had it before the satisfaction of feeling life grow and grow under his brush. The Colonel, as it turned out, liked to sit and he liked to talk while he was sitting: which was very fortunate, as his talk largely constituted Lyon’s inspiration. Lyon put into practice that idea of drawing him out which he had been nursing for so many weeks: he could not possibly have been in a better relation to him for the purpose. He encouraged, beguiled, excited him, manifested an unfathomable credulity, and his only interruptions were when the Colonel did not respond to it. He had his intermissions, his hours of sterility, and then Lyon felt that the picture also languished. The higher his companion soared, the more gyrations he executed, in the blue, the better he painted; he couldn’t make his flights long enough. He lashed him on when he flagged; his apprehension became great at moments that the Colonel would discover his game. But he never did, apparently; he basked and expanded in the fine steady light of the painter’s attention. In this way the picture grew very fast; it was astonishing what a short business it was, compared with the little girl’s. By the fifth of August it was pretty well finished: that was the date of the last sitting the Colonel was for the present able to give, as he was leaving town the next day with his wife. Lyon was amply content — he saw his way so clear: he should be able to do at his convenience what remained, with or without his friend’s attendance. At any rate, as there was no hurry, he would let the thing stand over till his own return to London, in November, when he would come back to it with a fresh eye. On the Colonel’s asking him if his wife might come and see it the next day, if she should find a minute — this was so greatly her desire — Lyon begged as a special favour that she would wait: he was so far from satisfied as yet. This was the repetition of a proposal Mrs. Capadose had made on the occasion of his last visit to her, and he had then asked for a delay — declared that he was by no means content. He was really delighted, and he was again a little ashamed of himself.

By the fifth of August the weather was very warm, and on that day, while the Colonel sat straight and gossiped, Lyon opened for the sake of ventilation a little subsidiary door which led directly from his studio into the garden and sometimes served as an entrance and an exit for models and for visitors of the humbler sort, and as a passage for canvases, frames, packing-boxes and other professional gear. The main entrance was through the house and his own apartments, and this approach had the charming effect of admitting you first to a high gallery, from which a crooked picturesque staircase enabled you to descend to the wide, decorated, encumbered room. The view of this room, beneath them, with all its artistic ingenuities and the objects of value that Lyon had collected, never failed to elicit exclamations of delight from persons stepping into the gallery. The way from the garden was plainer and at once more practicable and more private. Lyon’s domain, in St. John’s Wood, was not vast, but when the door stood open of a summer’s day it offered a glimpse of flowers and trees, you smelt something sweet and you heard the birds. On this particular morning the side-door had been found convenient by an unannounced visitor, a youngish woman who stood in the room before the Colonel perceived her and whom he perceived before she was noticed by his friend. She was very quiet, and she looked from one of the men to the other. ‘Oh, dear, here’s another!’ Lyon exclaimed, as soon as his eyes rested on her. She belonged, in fact, to a somewhat importunate class — the model in search of employment, and she explained that she had ventured to come straight in, that way, because very often when she went to call upon gentlemen the servants played her tricks, turned her off and wouldn’t take in her name.

‘But how did you get into the garden?’ Lyon asked.

‘The gate was open, sir — the servants’ gate. The butcher’s cart was there.’

‘The butcher ought to have closed it,’ said Lyon.

‘Then you don’t require me, sir?’ the lady continued.

Lyon went on with his painting; he had given her a sharp look at first, but now his eyes lighted on her no more. The Colonel, however, examined her with interest. She was a person of whom you could scarcely say whether being young she looked old or old she looked young; she had at any rate evidently rounded several of the corners of life and had a face that was rosy but that somehow failed to suggest freshness. Nevertheless she was pretty and even looked as if at one time she might have sat for the complexion. She wore a hat with many feathers, a dress with many bugles, long black gloves, encircled with silver bracelets, and very bad shoes. There was something about her that was not exactly of the governess out of place nor completely of the actress seeking an engagement, but that savoured of an interrupted profession or even of a blighted career. She was rather soiled and tarnished, and after she had been in the room a few moments the air, or at any rate the nostril, became acquainted with a certain alcoholic waft. She was unpractised in the h, and when Lyon at last thanked her and said he didn’t want her — he was doing nothing for which she could be useful — she replied with rather a wounded manner, ‘Well, you know you ’ave ‘ad me!’

‘I don’t remember you,’ Lyon answered.

‘Well, I daresay the people that saw your pictures do! I haven’t much time, but I thought I would look in.’

‘I am much obliged to you.’

‘If ever you should require me, if you just send me a postcard —— ’

‘I never send postcards,’ said Lyon.

‘Oh well, I should value a private letter! Anything to Miss Geraldine, Mortimer Terrace Mews, Notting ‘ill —— ’

‘Very good; I’ll remember,’ said Lyon.

Miss Geraldine lingered. ‘I thought I’d just stop, on the chance.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t hold out hopes, I’m so busy with portraits,’ Lyon continued.

‘Yes; I see you are. I wish I was in the gentleman’s place.’

‘I’m afraid in that case it wouldn’t look like me,’ said the Colonel, laughing.

‘Oh, of course it couldn’t compare — it wouldn’t be so ‘andsome! But I do hate them portraits!’ Miss Geraldine declared. ‘It’s so much bread out of our mouths.’

‘Well, there are many who can’t paint them,’ Lyon suggested, comfortingly.

‘Oh, I’ve sat to the very first — and only to the first! There’s many that couldn’t do anything without me.’

‘I’m glad you’re in such demand.’ Lyon was beginning to be bored and he added that he wouldn’t detain her — he would send for her in case of need.

‘Very well; remember it’s the Mews — more’s the pity! You don’t sit so well as us!’ Miss Geraldine pursued, looking at the Colonel. ‘If you should require me, sir —— ’

‘You put him out; you embarrass him,’ said Lyon.

‘Embarrass him, oh gracious!’ the visitor cried, with a laugh which diffused a fragrance. ‘Perhaps you send postcards, eh?’ she went on to the Colonel; and then she retreated with a wavering step. She passed out into the garden as she had come.

‘How very dreadful — she’s drunk!’ said Lyon. He was painting hard, but he looked up, checking himself: Miss Geraldine, in the open doorway, had thrust back her head.

‘Yes, I do hate it — that sort of thing!’ she cried with an explosion of mirth which confirmed Lyon’s declaration. And then she disappeared.

‘What sort of thing — what does she mean?’ the Colonel asked.

‘Oh, my painting you, when I might be painting her.’

‘And have you ever painted her?’

‘Never in the world; I have never seen her. She is quite mistaken.’

The Colonel was silent a moment; then he remarked, ‘She was very pretty — ten years ago.’

‘I daresay, but she’s quite ruined. For me the least drop too much spoils them; I shouldn’t care for her at all.’

‘My dear fellow, she’s not a model,’ said the Colonel, laughing.

‘To-day, no doubt, she’s not worthy of the name; but she has been one.’

Jamais de la vie! That’s all a pretext.’

‘A pretext?’ Lyon pricked up his ears — he began to wonder what was coming now.

‘She didn’t want you — she wanted me.’

‘I noticed she paid you some attention. What does she want of you?’

‘Oh, to do me an ill turn. She hates me — lots of women do. She’s watching me — she follows me.’

Lyon leaned back in his chair — he didn’t believe a word of this. He was all the more delighted with it and with the Colonel’s bright, candid manner. The story had bloomed, fragrant, on the spot. ‘My dear Colonel!’ he murmured, with friendly interest and commiseration.

‘I was annoyed when she came in — but I wasn’t startled,’ his sitter continued.

‘You concealed it very well, if you were.’

‘Ah, when one has been through what I have! To-day however I confess I was half prepared. I have seen her hanging about — she knows my movements. She was near my house this morning — she must have followed me.’

‘But who is she then — with such a toupet?’

‘Yes, she has that,’ said the Colonel; ‘but as you observe she was primed. Still, there was a cheek, as they say, in her coming in. Oh, she’s a bad one! She isn’t a model and she never was; no doubt she has known some of those women and picked up their form. She had hold of a friend of mine ten years ago — a stupid young gander who might have been left to be plucked but whom I was obliged to take an interest in for family reasons. It’s a long story — I had really forgotten all about it. She’s thirty-seven if she’s a day. I cut in and made him get rid of her — I sent her about her business. She knew it was me she had to thank. She has never forgiven me — I think she’s off her head. Her name isn’t Geraldine at all and I doubt very much if that’s her address.’

‘Ah, what is her name?’ Lyon asked, most attentive. The details always began to multiply, to abound, when once his companion was well launched — they flowed forth in battalions.

‘It’s Pearson — Harriet Pearson; but she used to call herself Grenadine — wasn’t that a rum appellation? Grenadine — Geraldine — the jump was easy.’ Lyon was charmed with the promptitude of this response, and his interlocutor went on: ‘I hadn’t thought of her for years — I had quite lost sight of her. I don’t know what her idea is, but practically she’s harmless. As I came in I thought I saw her a little way up the road. She must have found out I come here and have arrived before me. I daresay — or rather I’m sure — she is waiting for me there now.’

‘Hadn’t you better have protection?’ Lyon asked, laughing.

‘The best protection is five shillings — I’m willing to go that length. Unless indeed she has a bottle of vitriol. But they only throw vitriol on the men who have deceived them, and I never deceived her — I told her the first time I saw her that it wouldn’t do. Oh, if she’s there we’ll walk a little way together and talk it over and, as I say, I’ll go as far as five shillings.’

‘Well,’ said Lyon, ‘I’ll contribute another five.’ He felt that this was little to pay for his entertainment.

That entertainment was interrupted however for the time by the Colonel’s departure. Lyon hoped for a letter recounting the fictive sequel; but apparently his brilliant sitter did not operate with the pen. At any rate he left town without writing; they had taken a rendezvous for three months later. Oliver Lyon always passed the holidays in the same way; during the first weeks he paid a visit to his elder brother, the happy possessor, in the south of England, of a rambling old house with formal gardens, in which he delighted, and then he went abroad — usually to Italy or Spain. This year he carried out his custom after taking a last look at his all but finished work and feeling as nearly pleased with it as he ever felt with the translation of the idea by the hand — always, as it seemed to him, a pitiful compromise. One yellow afternoon, in the country, as he was smoking his pipe on one of the old terraces he was seized with the desire to see it again and do two or three things more to it: he had thought of it so often while he lounged there. The impulse was too strong to be dismissed, and though he expected to return to town in the course of another week he was unable to face the delay. To look at the picture for five minutes would be enough — it would clear up certain questions which hummed in his brain; so that the next morning, to give himself this luxury, he took the train for London. He sent no word in advance; he would lunch at his club and probably return into Sussex by the 5.45.

In St. John’s Wood the tide of human life flows at no time very fast, and in the first days of September Lyon found unmitigated emptiness in the straight sunny roads where the little plastered garden-walls, with their incommunicative doors, looked slightly Oriental. There was definite stillness in his own house, to which he admitted himself by his pass-key, having a theory that it was well sometimes to take servants unprepared. The good woman who was mainly in charge and who cumulated the functions of cook and housekeeper was, however, quickly summoned by his step, and (he cultivated frankness of intercourse with his domestics) received him without the confusion of surprise. He told her that she needn’t mind the place being not quite straight, he had only come up for a few hours — he should be busy in the studio. To this she replied that he was just in time to see a lady and a gentleman who were there at the moment — they had arrived five minutes before. She had told them he was away from home but they said it was all right; they only wanted to look at a picture and would be very careful of everything. ‘I hope it is all right, sir,’ the housekeeper concluded. ‘The gentleman says he’s a sitter and he gave me his name — rather an odd name; I think it’s military. The lady’s a very fine lady, sir; at any rate there they are.’

‘Oh, it’s all right,’ Lyon said, the identity of his visitors being clear. The good woman couldn’t know, for she usually had little to do with the comings and goings; his man, who showed people in and out, had accompanied him to the country. He was a good deal surprised at Mrs. Capadose’s having come to see her husband’s portrait when she knew that the artist himself wished her to forbear; but it was a familiar truth to him that she was a woman of a high spirit. Besides, perhaps the lady was not Mrs. Capadose; the Colonel might have brought some inquisitive friend, a person who wanted a portrait of her husband. What were they doing in town, at any rate, at that moment? Lyon made his way to the studio with a certain curiosity; he wondered vaguely what his friends were ‘up to.’ He pushed aside the curtain that hung in the door of communication — the door opening upon the gallery which it had been found convenient to construct at the time the studio was added to the house. When I say he pushed it aside I should amend my phrase; he laid his hand upon it, but at that moment he was arrested by a very singular sound. It came from the floor of the room beneath him and it startled him extremely, consisting apparently as it did of a passionate wail — a sort of smothered shriek — accompanied by a violent burst of tears. Oliver Lyon listened intently a moment, and then he passed out upon the balcony, which was covered with an old thick Moorish rug. His step was noiseless, though he had not endeavoured to make it so, and after that first instant he found himself profiting irresistibly by the accident of his not having attracted the attention of the two persons in the studio, who were some twenty feet below him. In truth they were so deeply and so strangely engaged that their unconsciousness of observation was explained. The scene that took place before Lyon’s eyes was one of the most extraordinary they had ever rested upon. Delicacy and the failure to comprehend kept him at first from interrupting it — for what he saw was a woman who had thrown herself in a flood of tears on her companion’s bosom — and these influences were succeeded after a minute (the minutes were very few and very short) by a definite motive which presently had the force to make him step back behind the curtain. I may add that it also had the force to make him avail himself for further contemplation of a crevice formed by his gathering together the two halves of the portière. He was perfectly aware of what he was about — he was for the moment an eavesdropper, a spy; but he was also aware that a very odd business, in which his confidence had been trifled with, was going forward, and that if in a measure it didn’t concern him, in a measure it very definitely did. His observation, his reflections, accomplished themselves in a flash.

His visitors were in the middle of the room; Mrs. Capadose clung to her husband, weeping, sobbing as if her heart would break. Her distress was horrible to Oliver Lyon but his astonishment was greater than his horror when he heard the Colonel respond to it by the words, vehemently uttered, ‘Damn him, damn him, damn him!’ What in the world had happened? Why was she sobbing and whom was he damning? What had happened, Lyon saw the next instant, was that the Colonel had finally rummaged out his unfinished portrait (he knew the corner where the artist usually placed it, out of the way, with its face to the wall) and had set it up before his wife on an empty easel. She had looked at it a few moments and then — apparently — what she saw in it had produced an explosion of dismay and resentment. She was too busy sobbing and the Colonel was too busy holding her and reiterating his objurgation, to look round or look up. The scene was so unexpected to Lyon that he could not take it, on the spot, as a proof of the triumph of his hand — of a tremendous hit: he could only wonder what on earth was the matter. The idea of the triumph came a little later. Yet he could see the portrait from where he stood; he was startled with its look of life — he had not thought it so masterly. Mrs. Capadose flung herself away from her husband — she dropped into the nearest chair, buried her face in her arms, leaning on a table. Her weeping suddenly ceased to be audible, but she shuddered there as if she were overwhelmed with anguish and shame. Her husband remained a moment staring at the picture; then he went to her, bent over her, took hold of her again, soothed her. ‘What is it, darling, what the devil is it?’ he demanded.

Lyon heard her answer. ‘It’s cruel — oh, it’s too cruel!’

‘Damn him — damn him — damn him!’ the Colonel repeated.

‘It’s all there — it’s all there!’ Mrs. Capadose went on.

‘Hang it, what’s all there?’

‘Everything there oughtn’t to be — everything he has seen — it’s too dreadful!’

‘Everything he has seen? Why, ain’t I a good-looking fellow? He has made me rather handsome.’

Mrs. Capadose had sprung up again; she had darted another glance at the painted betrayal. ‘Handsome? Hideous, hideous! Not that — never, never!’

‘Not what, in heaven’s name?’ the Colonel almost shouted. Lyon could see his flushed, bewildered face.

‘What he has made of you — what you know! He knows — he has seen. Every one will know — every one will see. Fancy that thing in the Academy!’

‘You’re going wild, darling; but if you hate it so it needn’t go.’

‘Oh, he’ll send it — it’s so good! Come away — come away!’ Mrs. Capadose wailed, seizing her husband.

‘It’s so good?’ the poor man cried.

‘Come away — come away,’ she only repeated; and she turned toward the staircase that ascended to the gallery.

‘Not that way — not through the house, in the state you’re in,’ Lyon heard the Colonel object. ‘This way — we can pass,’ he added; and he drew his wife to the small door that opened into the garden. It was bolted, but he pushed the bolt and opened the door. She passed out quickly, but he stood there looking back into the room. ‘Wait for me a moment!’ he cried out to her; and with an excited stride he re-entered the studio. He came up to the picture again, and again he stood looking at it. ‘Damn him — damn him — damn him!’ he broke out once more. It was not clear to Lyon whether this malediction had for its object the original or the painter of the portrait. The Colonel turned away and moved rapidly about the room, as if he were looking for something; Lyon was unable for the instant to guess his intention. Then the artist said to himself, below his breath, ‘He’s going to do it a harm!’ His first impulse was to rush down and stop him; but he paused, with the sound of Everina Brant’s sobs still in his ears. The Colonel found what he was looking for — found it among some odds and ends on a small table and rushed back with it to the easel. At one and the same moment Lyon perceived that the object he had seized was a small Eastern dagger and that he had plunged it into the canvas. He seemed animated by a sudden fury, for with extreme vigour of hand he dragged the instrument down (Lyon knew it to have no very fine edge) making a long, abominable gash. Then he plucked it out and dashed it again several times into the face of the likeness, exactly as if he were stabbing a human victim: it had the oddest effect — that of a sort of figurative suicide. In a few seconds more the Colonel had tossed the dagger away — he looked at it as he did so, as if he expected it to reek with blood — and hurried out of the place, closing the door after him.

The strangest part of all was — as will doubtless appear — that Oliver Lyon made no movement to save his picture. But he did not feel as if he were losing it or cared not if he were, so much more did he feel that he was gaining a certitude. His old friend was ashamed of her husband, and he had made her so, and he had scored a great success, even though the picture had been reduced to rags. The revelation excited him so — as indeed the whole scene did — that when he came down the steps after the Colonel had gone he trembled with his happy agitation; he was dizzy and had to sit down a moment. The portrait had a dozen jagged wounds — the Colonel literally had hacked it to death. Lyon left it where it was, never touched it, scarcely looked at it; he only walked up and down his studio, still excited, for an hour. At the end of this time his good woman came to recommend that he should have some luncheon; there was a passage under the staircase from the offices.

‘Ah, the lady and gentleman have gone, sir? I didn’t hear them.’

‘Yes; they went by the garden.’

But she had stopped, staring at the picture on the easel. ‘Gracious, how you ’ave served it, sir!’

Lyon imitated the Colonel. ‘Yes, I cut it up — in a fit of disgust.’

‘Mercy, after all your trouble! Because they weren’t pleased, sir?’

‘Yes; they weren’t pleased.’

‘Well, they must be very grand! Blessed if I would!’

‘Have it chopped up; it will do to light fires,’ Lyon said.

He returned to the country by the 3.30 and a few days later passed over to France. During the two months that he was absent from England he expected something — he could hardly have said what; a manifestation of some sort on the Colonel’s part. Wouldn’t he write, wouldn’t he explain, wouldn’t he take for granted Lyon had discovered the way he had, as the cook said, served him and deem it only decent to take pity in some fashion or other on his mystification? Would he plead guilty or would he repudiate suspicion? The latter course would be difficult and make a considerable draft upon his genius, in view of the certain testimony of Lyon’s housekeeper, who had admitted the visitors and would establish the connection between their presence and the violence wrought. Would the Colonel proffer some apology or some amends, or would any word from him be only a further expression of that destructive petulance which our friend had seen his wife so suddenly and so potently communicate to him? He would have either to declare that he had not touched the picture or to admit that he had, and in either case he would have to tell a fine story. Lyon was impatient for the story and, as no letter came, disappointed that it was not produced. His impatience however was much greater in respect to Mrs. Capadose’s version, if version there was to be; for certainly that would be the real test, would show how far she would go for her husband, on the one side, or for him, Oliver Lyon, on the other. He could scarcely wait to see what line she would take; whether she would simply adopt the Colonel’s, whatever it might be. He wanted to draw her out without waiting, to get an idea in advance. He wrote to her, to this end, from Venice, in the tone of their established friendship, asking for news, narrating his wanderings, hoping they should soon meet in town and not saying a word about the picture. Day followed day, after the time, and he received no answer; upon which he reflected that she couldn’t trust herself to write — was still too much under the influence of the emotion produced by his ‘betrayal.’ Her husband had espoused that emotion and she had espoused the action he had taken in consequence of it, and it was a complete rupture and everything was at an end. Lyon considered this prospect rather ruefully, at the same time that he thought it deplorable that such charming people should have put themselves so grossly in the wrong. He was at last cheered, though little further enlightened, by the arrival of a letter, brief but breathing good-humour and hinting neither at a grievance nor at a bad conscience. The most interesting part of it to Lyon was the postscript, which consisted of these words: ‘I have a confession to make to you. We were in town for a couple of days, the 1st of September, and I took the occasion to defy your authority — it was very bad of me but I couldn’t help it. I made Clement take me to your studio — I wanted so dreadfully to see what you had done with him, your wishes to the contrary notwithstanding. We made your servants let us in and I took a good look at the picture. It is really wonderful!’ ‘Wonderful’ was non-committal, but at least with this letter there was no rupture.

The third day after Lyon’s return to London was a Sunday, so that he could go and ask Mrs. Capadose for luncheon. She had given him in the spring a general invitation to do so and he had availed himself of it several times. These had been the occasions (before he sat to him) when he saw the Colonel most familiarly. Directly after the meal his host disappeared (he went out, as he said, to call on his women) and the second half-hour was the best, even when there were other people. Now, in the first days of December, Lyon had the luck to find the pair alone, without even Amy, who appeared but little in public. They were in the drawing-room, waiting for the repast to be announced, and as soon as he came in the Colonel broke out, ‘My dear fellow, I’m delighted to see you! I’m so keen to begin again.’

‘Oh, do go on, it’s so beautiful,’ Mrs. Capadose said, as she gave him her hand.

Lyon looked from one to the other; he didn’t know what he had expected, but he had not expected this. ‘Ah, then, you think I’ve got something?’

‘You’ve got everything,’ said Mrs. Capadose, smiling from her golden-brown eyes.

‘She wrote you of our little crime?’ her husband asked. ‘She dragged me there — I had to go.’ Lyon wondered for a moment whether he meant by their little crime the assault on the canvas; but the Colonel’s next words didn’t confirm this interpretation. ‘You know I like to sit — it gives such a chance to my bavardise. And just now I have time.’

‘You must remember I had almost finished,’ Lyon remarked.

‘So you had. More’s the pity. I should like you to begin again.’

‘My dear fellow, I shall have to begin again!’ said Oliver Lyon with a laugh, looking at Mrs. Capadose. She did not meet his eyes — she had got up to ring for luncheon. ‘The picture has been smashed,’ Lyon continued.

‘Smashed? Ah, what did you do that for?’ Mrs. Capadose asked, standing there before him in all her clear, rich beauty. Now that she looked at him she was impenetrable.

‘I didn’t — I found it so — with a dozen holes punched in it!’

‘I say!’ cried the Colonel.

Lyon turned his eyes to him, smiling. ‘I hope you didn’t do it?’

‘Is it ruined?’ the Colonel inquired. He was as brightly true as his wife and he looked simply as if Lyon’s question could not be serious. ‘For the love of sitting to you? My dear fellow, if I had thought of it I would!’

‘Nor you either?’ the painter demanded of Mrs. Capadose.

Before she had time to reply her husband had seized her arm, as if a highly suggestive idea had come to him. ‘I say, my dear, that woman — that woman!’

‘That woman?’ Mrs. Capadose repeated; and Lyon too wondered what woman he meant.

‘Don’t you remember when we came out, she was at the door — or a little way from it? I spoke to you of her — I told you about her. Geraldine — Grenadine — the one who burst in that day,’ he explained to Lyon. ‘We saw her hanging about — I called Everina’s attention to her.’

‘Do you mean she got at my picture?’

‘Ah yes, I remember,’ said Mrs. Capadose, with a sigh.

‘She burst in again — she had learned the way — she was waiting for her chance,’ the Colonel continued. ‘Ah, the little brute!’

Lyon looked down; he felt himself colouring. This was what he had been waiting for — the day the Colonel should wantonly sacrifice some innocent person. And could his wife be a party to that final atrocity? Lyon had reminded himself repeatedly during the previous weeks that when the Colonel perpetrated his misdeed she had already quitted the room; but he had argued none the less — it was a virtual certainty — that he had on rejoining her immediately made his achievement plain to her. He was in the flush of performance; and even if he had not mentioned what he had done she would have guessed it. He did not for an instant believe that poor Miss Geraldine had been hovering about his door, nor had the account given by the Colonel the summer before of his relations with this lady deceived him in the slightest degree. Lyon had never seen her before the day she planted herself in his studio; but he knew her and classified her as if he had made her. He was acquainted with the London female model in all her varieties — in every phase of her development and every step of her decay. When he entered his house that September morning just after the arrival of his two friends there had been no symptoms whatever, up and down the road, of Miss Geraldine’s reappearance. That fact had been fixed in his mind by his recollecting the vacancy of the prospect when his cook told him that a lady and a gentleman were in his studio: he had wondered there was not a carriage nor a cab at his door. Then he had reflected that they would have come by the underground railway; he was close to the Marlborough Road station and he knew the Colonel, coming to his sittings, more than once had availed himself of that convenience. ‘How in the world did she get in?’ He addressed the question to his companions indifferently.

‘Let us go down to luncheon,’ said Mrs. Capadose, passing out of the room.

‘We went by the garden — without troubling your servant — I wanted to show my wife.’ Lyon followed his hostess with her husband and the Colonel stopped him at the top of the stairs. ‘My dear fellow, I can’t have been guilty of the folly of not fastening the door?’

‘I am sure I don’t know, Colonel,’ Lyon said as they went down. ‘It was a very determined hand — a perfect wild-cat.’

‘Well, she is a wild-cat — confound her! That’s why I wanted to get him away from her.’

‘But I don’t understand her motive.’

‘She’s off her head — and she hates me; that was her motive.’

‘But she doesn’t hate me, my dear fellow!’ Lyon said, laughing.

‘She hated the picture — don’t you remember she said so? The more portraits there are the less employment for such as her.’

‘Yes; but if she is not really the model she pretends to be, how can that hurt her?’ Lyon asked.

The inquiry baffled the Colonel an instant — but only an instant. ‘Ah, she was in a vicious muddle! As I say, she’s off her head.’

They went into the dining-room, where Mrs. Capadose was taking her place. ‘It’s too bad, it’s too horrid!’ she said. ‘You see the fates are against you. Providence won’t let you be so disinterested — painting masterpieces for nothing.’

‘Did you see the woman?’ Lyon demanded, with something like a sternness that he could not mitigate.

Mrs. Capadose appeared not to perceive it or not to heed it if she did. ‘There was a person, not far from your door, whom Clement called my attention to. He told me something about her but we were going the other way.’

‘And do you think she did it?’

‘How can I tell? If she did she was mad, poor wretch.’

‘I should like very much to get hold of her,’ said Lyon. This was a false statement, for he had no desire for any further conversation with Miss Geraldine. He had exposed his friends to himself, but he had no desire to expose them to any one else, least of all to themselves.

‘Oh, depend upon it she will never show again. You’re safe!’ the Colonel exclaimed.

‘But I remember her address — Mortimer Terrace Mews, Notting Hill.’

‘Oh, that’s pure humbug; there isn’t any such place.’

‘Lord, what a deceiver!’ said Lyon.

‘Is there any one else you suspect?’ the Colonel went on.

‘Not a creature.’

‘And what do your servants say?’

‘They say it wasn’t them, and I reply that I never said it was. That’s about the substance of our conferences.’

‘And when did they discover the havoc?’

‘They never discovered it at all. I noticed it first — when I came back.’

‘Well, she could easily have stepped in,’ said the Colonel. ‘Don’t you remember how she turned up that day, like the clown in the ring?’

‘Yes, yes; she could have done the job in three seconds, except that the picture wasn’t out.’

‘My dear fellow, don’t curse me! — but of course I dragged it out.’

‘You didn’t put it back?’ Lyon asked tragically.

‘Ah, Clement, Clement, didn’t I tell you to?’ Mrs. Capadose exclaimed in a tone of exquisite reproach.

The Colonel groaned, dramatically; he covered his face with his hands. His wife’s words were for Lyon the finishing touch; they made his whole vision crumble — his theory that she had secretly kept herself true. Even to her old lover she wouldn’t be so! He was sick; he couldn’t eat; he knew that he looked very strange. He murmured something about it being useless to cry over spilled milk — he tried to turn the conversation to other things. But it was a horrid effort and he wondered whether they felt it as much as he. He wondered all sorts of things: whether they guessed he disbelieved them (that he had seen them of course they would never guess); whether they had arranged their story in advance or it was only an inspiration of the moment; whether she had resisted, protested, when the Colonel proposed it to her, and then had been borne down by him; whether in short she didn’t loathe herself as she sat there. The cruelty, the cowardice of fastening their unholy act upon the wretched woman struck him as monstrous — no less monstrous indeed than the levity that could make them run the risk of her giving them, in her righteous indignation, the lie. Of course that risk could only exculpate her and not inculpate them — the probabilities protected them so perfectly; and what the Colonel counted on (what he would have counted upon the day he delivered himself, after first seeing her, at the studio, if he had thought about the matter then at all and not spoken from the pure spontaneity of his genius) was simply that Miss Geraldine had really vanished for ever into her native unknown. Lyon wanted so much to quit the subject that when after a little Mrs. Capadose said to him, ‘But can nothing be done, can’t the picture be repaired? You know they do such wonders in that way now,’ he only replied, ‘I don’t know, I don’t care, it’s all over, n’en parlons plus!’ Her hypocrisy revolted him. And yet, by way of plucking off the last veil of her shame, he broke out to her again, shortly afterward, ‘And you did like it, really?’ To which she returned, looking him straight in his face, without a blush, a pallor, an evasion, ‘Oh, I loved it!’ Truly her husband had trained her well. After that Lyon said no more and his companions forbore temporarily to insist, like people of tact and sympathy aware that the odious accident had made him sore.

When they quitted the table the Colonel went away without coming upstairs; but Lyon returned to the drawing-room with his hostess, remarking to her however on the way that he could remain but a moment. He spent that moment — it prolonged itself a little — standing with her before the chimney-piece. She neither sat down nor asked him to; her manner denoted that she intended to go out. Yes, her husband had trained her well; yet Lyon dreamed for a moment that now he was alone with her she would perhaps break down, retract, apologise, confide, say to him, ‘My dear old friend, forgive this hideous comedy — you understand!’ And then how he would have loved her and pitied her, guarded her, helped her always! If she were not ready to do something of that sort why had she treated him as if he were a dear old friend; why had she let him for months suppose certain things — or almost; why had she come to his studio day after day to sit near him on the pretext of her child’s portrait, as if she liked to think what might have been? Why had she come so near a tacit confession, in a word, if she was not willing to go an inch further? And she was not willing — she was not; he could see that as he lingered there. She moved about the room a little, rearranging two or three objects on the tables, but she did nothing more. Suddenly he said to her: ‘Which way was she going, when you came out?’

‘She — the woman we saw?’

‘Yes, your husband’s strange friend. It’s a clew worth following.’ He had no desire to frighten her; he only wanted to communicate the impulse which would make her say, ‘Ah, spare me — and spare him! There was no such person.’

Instead of this Mrs. Capadose replied, ‘She was going away from us — she crossed the road. We were coming towards the station.’

‘And did she appear to recognise the Colonel — did she look round?’

‘Yes; she looked round, but I didn’t notice much. A hansom came along and we got into it. It was not till then that Clement told me who she was: I remember he said that she was there for no good. I suppose we ought to have gone back.’

‘Yes; you would have saved the picture.’

For a moment she said nothing; then she smiled. ‘For you, I am very sorry. But you must remember that I possess the original!’

At this Lyon turned away. ‘Well, I must go,’ he said; and he left her without any other farewell and made his way out of the house. As he went slowly up the street the sense came back to him of that first glimpse of her he had had at Stayes — the way he had seen her gaze across the table at her husband. Lyon stopped at the corner, looking vaguely up and down. He would never go back — he couldn’t. She was still in love with the Colonel — he had trained her too well.

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56