When Lancelot reached the banker’s a letter was put into his hand; it bore the Whitford postmark, and Mrs. Lavington’s handwriting. He tore it open; it contained a letter from Argemone, which, it is needless to say, he read before her mother’s:—
‘My beloved! my husband! — Yes — though you may fancy me fickle and proud — I will call you so to the last; for were I fickle, I could have saved myself the agony of writing this; and as for pride, oh! how that darling vice has been crushed out of me! I have rolled at my mother’s feet with bitter tears, and vain entreaties — and been refused; and yet I have obeyed her after all. We must write to each other no more. This one last letter must explain the forced silence which has been driving me mad with fears that you would suspect me. And now you may call me weak; but it is your love which has made me strong to do this — which has taught me to see with new intensity my duty, not only to you, but to every human being — to my parents. By this self-sacrifice alone can I atone to them for all my past undutifulness. Let me, then, thus be worthy of you. Hope that by this submission we may win even her to change. How calmly I write! but it is only my hand that is calm. As for my heart, read Tennyson’s Fatima, and then know how I feel towards you! Yes, I love you — madly, the world would say. I seem to understand now how women have died of love. Ay, that indeed would be blessed; for then my spirit would seek out yours, and hover over it for ever! Farewell, beloved! and let me hear of you through your deeds. A feeling at my heart, which should not be, although it is, a sad one, tells me that we shall meet soon — soon.’
Stupefied and sickened, Lancelot turned carelessly to Mrs. Lavington’s cover, whose blameless respectability thus uttered itself:—
‘I cannot deceive you or myself by saying I regret that providential circumstances should have been permitted to break off a connection which I always felt to be most unsuitable; and I rejoice that the intercourse my dear child has had with you has not so far undermined her principles as to prevent her yielding the most filial obedience to my wishes on the point of her future correspondence with you. Hoping that all that has occurred will be truly blessed to you, and lead your thoughts to another world, and to a true concern for the safety of your immortal soul,
‘I remain, yours truly,
‘Another world!’ said Lancelot to himself. ‘It is most merciful of you, certainly, my dear madame, to put one in mind of the existence of another world, while such as you have their own way in this one!’ and thrusting the latter epistle into the fire, he tried to collect his thoughts.
What had he lost? The oftener he asked himself, the less he found to unman him. Argemone’s letters were so new a want, that the craving for them was not yet established. His intense imagination, resting on the delicious certainty of her faith, seemed ready to fill the silence with bright hopes and noble purposes. She herself had said that he would see her soon. But yet — but yet — why did that allusion to death strike chilly through him? They were but words — a melancholy fancy, such as women love at times to play with. He would toss it from him. At least here was another reason for bestirring himself at once to win fame in the noble profession he had chosen.
And yet his brain reeled as he went upstairs to his uncle’s private room.
There, however, he found a person closeted with the banker, whose remarkable appearance drove everything else out of his mind. He was a huge, shaggy, toil-worn man, the deep melancholy earnestness of whose rugged features reminded him almost ludicrously of one of Land-seer’s bloodhounds. But withal there was a tenderness — a genial, though covert humour playing about his massive features, which awakened in Lancelot at first sight a fantastic longing to open his whole heart to him. He was dressed like a foreigner, but spoke English with perfect fluency. The banker sat listening, quite crestfallen, beneath his intense and melancholy gaze, in which, nevertheless, there twinkled some rays of kindly sympathy.
‘It was all those foreign railways,’ said Mr. Smith pensively.
‘And it serves you quite right,’ answered the stranger. ‘Did I not warn you of the folly and sin of sinking capital in foreign countries while English land was crying out for tillage, and English poor for employment?’
‘My dear friend’ (in a deprecatory tone), ‘it was the best possible investment I could make.’
‘And pray, who told you that you were sent into the world to make investments?’
‘But me no buts, or I won’t stir a finger towards helping you. What are you going to do with this money if I procure it for you?’
‘Work till I can pay back that poor fellow’s fortune,’ said the banker, earnestly pointing to Lancelot. ‘And if I could clear my conscience of that, I would not care if I starved myself, hardly if my own children did.’
‘Spoken like a man!’ answered the stranger; ‘work for that and I’ll help you. Be a new man, once and for all, my friend. Don’t even make this younker your first object. Say to yourself, not “I will invest this money where it shall pay me most, but I will invest it where it shall give most employment to English hands, and produce most manufactures for English bodies.” In short, seek first the kingdom of God and His justice with this money of yours, and see if all other things, profits and suchlike included, are not added unto you.’
‘And you are certain you can obtain the money?’
‘My good friend the Begum of the Cannibal Islands has more than she knows what to do with; and she owes me a good turn, you know.’
‘What are you jesting about now?’
‘Did I never tell you? The new king of the Cannibal Islands, just like your European ones, ran away, and would neither govern himself nor let any one else govern; so one morning his ministers, getting impatient, ate him, and then asked my advice. I recommended them to put his mother on the throne, who, being old and tough, would run less danger; and since then everything has gone on smoothly as anywhere else.’
‘Are you mad?’ thought Lancelot to himself, as he stared at the speaker’s matter-of-fact face.
‘No, I am not mad, my young friend,’ quoth he, facing right round upon him, as if he had divined his thoughts.
‘I— I beg your pardon, I did not speak,’ stammered Lancelot, abashed at a pair of eyes which could have looked down the boldest mesmerist in three seconds.
‘I am perfectly well aware that you did not. I must have some talk with you: I’ve heard a good deal about you. You wrote those articles in the —— Review about George Sand, did you not?’
‘Well, there was a great deal of noble feeling in them, and a great deal of abominable nonsense. You seem to be very anxious to reform society?’
‘Don’t you think you had better begin by reforming yourself?’
‘Really, sir,’ answered Lancelot, ‘I am too old for that worn-out quibble. The root of all my sins has been selfishness and sloth. Am I to cure them by becoming still more selfish and slothful? What part of myself can I reform except my actions? and the very sin of my actions has been, as I take it, that I’ve been doing nothing to reform others; never fighting against the world, the flesh, and the devil, as your Prayer-book has it.’
‘My Prayer-book?’ answered the stranger, with a quaint smile.
‘Upon my word, Lancelot,’ interposed the banker, with a frightened look, ‘you must not get into an argument: you must be more respectful: you don’t know to whom you are speaking.’
‘And I don’t much care,’ answered he. ‘Life is really too grim earnest in these days to stand on ceremony. I am sick of blind leaders of the blind, of respectable preachers to the respectable, who drawl out second-hand trivialities, which they neither practise nor wish to see practised. I’ve had enough all my life of Scribes and Pharisees in white cravats, laying on man heavy burdens, and grievous to be borne, and then not touching them themselves with one of their fingers.’
‘Silence, sir!’ roared the banker, while the stranger threw himself into a chair, and burst into a storm of laughter.
‘Upon my word, friend Mammon, here’s another of Hans Andersen’s ugly ducks!’
‘I really do not mean to be rude,’ said Lancelot, recollecting himself, ‘but I am nearly desperate. If your heart is in the right place, you will understand me! if not, the less we talk to each other the better.’
‘Most true,’ answered the stranger; ‘and I do understand you; and if, as I hope, we see more of each other henceforth, we will see if we cannot solve one or two of these problems between us.’
At this moment Lancelot was summoned downstairs, and found, to his great pleasure, Tregarva waiting for him. That worthy personage bowed to Lancelot reverently and distantly.
‘I am quite ashamed to intrude myself upon you, sir, but I could not rest without coming to ask whether you have had any news.’— He broke down at this point in the sentence, but Lancelot understood him.
‘I have no news,’ he said. ‘But what do you mean by standing off in that way, as if we were not old and fast friends? Remember, I am as poor as you are now; you may look me in the face and call me your equal, if you will, or your inferior; I shall not deny it.’
‘Pardon me, sir,’ answered Tregarva; ‘but I never felt what a real substantial thing rank is, as I have since this sad misfortune of yours.’
‘And I have never till now found out its worthlessness.’
‘You’re wrong, sir, you are wrong; look at the difference between yourself and me. When you’ve lost all you have, and seven times more, you’re still a gentleman. No man can take that from you. You may look the proudest duchess in the land in the face, and claim her as your equal; while I, sir — I don’t mean, though, to talk of myself — but suppose that you had loved a pious and a beautiful lady, and among all your worship of her, and your awe of her, had felt that you were worthy of her, that you could become her comforter, and her pride, and her joy, if it wasn’t for that accursed gulf that men had put between you, that you were no gentleman; that you didn’t know how to walk, and how to pronounce, and when to speak, and when to be silent, not even how to handle your own knife and fork without disgusting her, or how to keep your own body clean and sweet — Ah, sir, I see it now as I never did before, what a wall all these little defects build up round a poor man; how he longs and struggles to show himself as he is at heart, and cannot, till he feels sometimes as if he was enchanted, pent up, like folks in fairy tales, in the body of some dumb beast. But, sir,’ he went on, with a concentrated bitterness which Lancelot had never seen in him before, ‘just because this gulf which rank makes is such a deep one, therefore it looks to me all the more devilish; not that I want to pull down any man to my level; I despise my own level too much; I want to rise; I want those like me to rise with me. Let the rich be as rich as they will. — I, and those like me, covet not money, but manners. Why should not the workman be a gentleman, and a workman still? Why are they to be shut out from all that is beautiful, and delicate, and winning, and stately?’
‘Now perhaps,’ said Lancelot, ‘you begin to understand what I was driving at on that night of the revel?’
‘It has come home to me lately, sir, bitterly enough. If you knew what had gone on in me this last fortnight, you would know that I had cause to curse the state of things which brings a man up a savage against his will, and cuts him off, as if he were an ape or a monster, from those for whom the same Lord died, and on whom the same Spirit rests. Is that God’s will, sir? No, it is the devil’s will. “Those whom God hath joined, let no man put asunder.”’
Lancelot coloured, for he remembered with how much less reason he had been lately invoking in his own cause those very words. He was at a loss for an answer; but seeing, to his relief, that Tregarva had returned to his usual impassive calm, he forced him to sit down, and began questioning him as to his own prospects and employment.
About them Tregarva seemed hopeful enough. He had found out a Wesleyan minister in town who knew him, and had, by his means, after assisting for a week or two in the London City Mission, got some similar appointment in a large manufacturing town. Of the state of things he spoke more sadly than ever. ‘The rich cannot guess, sir, how high ill-feeling is rising in these days. It’s not only those who are outwardly poorest who long for change; the middling people, sir, the small town shopkeepers especially, are nearly past all patience. One of the City Mission assured me that he has been watching them these several years past, and that nothing could beat their fortitude and industry, and their determination to stand peaceably by law and order; but yet, this last year or two, things are growing too bad to bear. Do what they will, they cannot get their bread; and when a man cannot get that, sir —’
‘But what do you think is the reason of it?’
‘How should I tell, sir? But if I had to say, I should say this — just what they say themselves — that there are too many of them. Go where you will, in town or country, you’ll find half-a-dozen shops struggling for a custom that would only keep up one, and so they’re forced to undersell one another. And when they’ve got down prices all they can by fair means, they’re forced to get them down lower by foul — to sand the sugar, and sloe-leave the tea, and put — Satan only that prompts ’em knows what — into the bread; and then they don’t thrive — they can’t thrive; God’s curse must be on them. They begin by trying to oust each other, and eat each other up; and while they’re eating up their neighbours, their neighbours eat up them; and so they all come to ruin together.’
‘Why, you talk like Mr. Mill himself, Tregarva; you ought to have been a political economist, and not a City missionary. By the bye, I don’t like that profession for you.’
‘It’s the Lord’s work, sir. It’s the very sending to the Gentiles that the Lord promised me.’
‘I don’t doubt it, Paul; but you are meant for other things, if not better. There are plenty of smaller men than you to do that work. Do you think that God would have given you that strength, that brain, to waste on a work which could be done without them? Those limbs would certainly be good capital for you, if you turned a live model at the Academy. Perhaps you’d better be mine; but you can’t even be that if you go to Manchester.’
The giant looked hopelessly down at his huge limbs. ‘Well! God only knows what use they are of just now. But as for the brains, sir — in much learning is much sorrow. One had much better work than read, I find. If I read much more about what men might be, and are not, and what English soil might be, and is not, I shall go mad. And that puts me in mind of one thing I came here for, though, like a poor rude country fellow as I am, I clean forgot it a thinking of — Look here, sir; you’ve given me a sight of books in my time, and God bless you for it. But now I hear that — that you are determined to be a poor man like us; and that you shan’t be, while Paul Tregarva has ought of yours. So I’ve just brought all the books back, and there they lie in the hall; and may God reward you for the loan of them to his poor child! And so, sir, farewell;’ and he rose to go.
‘No, Paul; the books and you shall never part.’
‘And I say, sir, the books and you shall never part.’
‘Then we two can never part’— and a sudden impulse flashed over him —‘and we will not part, Paul! The only man whom I utterly love, and trust, and respect on the face of God’s earth, is you; and I cannot lose sight of you. If we are to earn our bread, let us earn it together; if we are to endure poverty, and sorrow, and struggle to find out the way of bettering these wretched millions round us, let us learn our lesson together, and help each other to spell it out.’
‘Do you mean what you say?’ asked Paul slowly.
‘Then I say what you say. Where thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge. Come what will, I will be your servant, for good luck or bad, for ever.’
‘My equal, Paul, not my servant.’
‘I know my place, sir. When I am as learned and as well-bred as you, I shall not refuse to call myself your equal; and the sooner that day comes, the better I shall be pleased. Till then I am your friend and your brother; but I am your scholar too, and I shall not set up myself against my master.’
‘I have learnt more of you, Paul, than ever you have learnt of me. But be it as you will; only whatever you may call yourself, we must eat at the same table, live in the same room, and share alike all this world’s good things — or we shall have no right to share together this world’s bad things. If that is your bargain, there is my hand on it.’
‘Amen!’ quoth Tregarva; and the two young men joined hands in that sacred bond — now growing rarer and rarer year by year — the utter friendship of two equal manful hearts.
‘And now, sir, I have promised — and you would have me keep my promise — to go and work for the City Mission in Manchester — at least, for the next month, till a young man’s place who has just left, is filled up. Will you let me go for that time? and then, if you hold your present mind, we will join home and fortunes thenceforth, and go wherever the Lord shall send us. There’s work enough of His waiting to be done. I don’t doubt but if we are willing and able, He will set us about the thing we’re meant for.’
As Lancelot opened the door for him, he lingered on the steps, and grasping his hand, said, in a low, earnest voice: ‘The Lord be with you, sir. Be sure that He has mighty things in store for you, or He would not have brought you so low in the days of your youth.’
‘And so,’ as John Bunyan has it, ‘he went on his way;’ and Lancelot saw him no more till — but I must not outrun the order of time.
After all, this visit came to Lancelot timely. It had roused him to hope, and turned off his feelings from the startling news he had just heard. He stepped along arm in arm with Luke, cheerful, and fate-defiant, and as he thought of Tregarva’s complaints —
‘The beautiful?’ he said to himself, ‘they shall have it! At least they shall be awakened to feel their need of it, their right to it. What a high destiny, to be the artist of the people! to devote one’s powers of painting, not to mimicking obsolete legends, Pagan or Popish, but to representing to the working men of England the triumphs of the Past and the yet greater triumphs of the Future!’
Luke began at once questioning him about his father.
‘And is he contrite and humbled? Does he see that he has sinned?’
‘It is not for us to judge; but surely it must have been some sin or other of his which has drawn down such a sore judgment on him.’
Lancelot smiled; but Luke went on, not perceiving him.
‘Ah! we cannot find out for him. Nor has he, alas! as a Protestant, much likelihood of finding out for himself. In our holy church he would have been compelled to discriminate his faults by methodic self-examination, and lay them one by one before his priest for advice and pardon, and so start a new and free man once more.’
‘Do you think,’ asked Lancelot with a smile, ‘that he who will not confess his faults either to God or to himself, would confess them to man? And would his priest honestly tell him what he really wants to know? which sin of his has called down this so-called judgment? It would be imputed, I suppose, to some vague generality, to inattention to religious duties, to idolatry of the world, and so forth. But a Romish priest would be the last person, I should think, who could tell him fairly, in the present case, the cause of his affliction; and I question whether he would give a patient hearing to any one who told it him.’
‘How so? Though, indeed, I have remarked that people are perfectly willing to be told they are miserable sinners, and to confess themselves such, in a general way; but if the preacher once begins to specify, to fix on any particular act or habit, he is accused of personality or uncharitableness; his hearers are ready to confess guilty to any sin but the very one with which he charges them. But, surely, this is just what I am urging against you Protestants — just what the Catholic use of confession obviates.’
‘Attempts to do so, you mean!’ answered Lancelot. ‘But what if your religion preaches formally that which only remains in our religion as a fast-dying superstition? — That those judgments of God, as you call them, are not judgments at all in any fair use of the word, but capricious acts of punishment on the part of Heaven, which have no more reference to the fault which provokes them, than if you cut off a man’s finger because he made a bad use of his tongue. That is part, but only a part, of what I meant just now, by saying that people represent God as capricious, proud, revengeful.’
‘But do not Protestants themselves confess that our sins provoke God’s anger?’
‘Your common creed, when it talks rightly of God as one “who has no passions,” ought to make you speak more reverently of the possibility of any act of ours disturbing the everlasting equanimity of the absolute Love. Why will men so often impute to God the miseries which they bring upon themselves?’
‘Because, I suppose, their pride makes them more willing to confess themselves sinners than fools.’
‘Right, my friend; they will not remember that it is of “their pleasant vices that God makes whips to scourge them.” Oh, I at least have felt the deep wisdom of that saying of Wilhelm Meister’s harper, that it is
“Voices from the depth of Nature borne Which woe upon the guilty head proclaim.”
Of nature — of those eternal laws of hers which we daily break. Yes! it is not because God’s temper changes, but because God’s universe is unchangeable, that such as I, such as your poor father, having sown the wind, must reap the whirlwind. I have fed my self-esteem with luxuries and not with virtue, and, losing them, have nothing left. He has sold himself to a system which is its own punishment. And yet the last place in which he will look for the cause of his misery is in that very money-mongering to which he now clings as frantically as ever. But so it is throughout the world. Only look down over that bridge-parapet, at that huge black-mouthed sewer, vomiting its pestilential riches across the mud. There it runs, and will run, hurrying to the sea vast stores of wealth, elaborated by Nature’s chemistry into the ready materials of food; which proclaim, too, by their own foul smell, God’s will that they should be buried out of sight in the fruitful all-regenerating grave of earth: there it runs, turning them all into the seeds of pestilence, filth, and drunkenness. — And then, when it obeys the laws which we despise, and the pestilence is come at last, men will pray against it, and confess it to be “a judgment for their sins;” but if you ask what sin, people will talk about “les voiles d’airain,” as Fourier says, and tell you that it is presumptuous to pry into God’s secret counsels, unless, perhaps, some fanatic should inform you that the cholera has been drawn down on the poor by the endowment of Maynooth by the rich.’
‘It is most fearful, indeed, to think that these diseases should be confined to the poor — that a man should be exposed to cholera, typhus, and a host of attendant diseases, simply because he is born into the world an artisan; while the rich, by the mere fact of money, are exempt from such curses, except when they come in contact with those whom they call on Sunday “their brethren,” and on week days the “masses.”
‘Thank Heaven that you do see that — that in a country calling itself civilised and Christian, pestilence should be the peculiar heritage of the poor! It is past all comment.’
‘And yet are not these pestilences a judgment, even on them, for their dirt and profligacy?’
‘And how should they be clean without water? And how can you wonder if their appetites, sickened with filth and self-disgust, crave after the gin-shop for temporary strength, and then for temporary forgetfulness? Every London doctor knows that I speak the truth; would that every London preacher would tell that truth from his pulpit!’
‘Then would you too say, that God punishes one class for the sins of another?’
‘Some would say,’ answered Lancelot, half aside, ‘that He may be punishing them for not demanding their right to live like human beings, to all those social circumstances which shall not make their children’s life one long disease. But are not these pestilences a judgment on the rich, too, in the truest sense of the word? Are they not the broad, unmistakable seal to God’s opinion of a state of society which confesses its economic relations to be so utterly rotten and confused, that it actually cannot afford to save yearly millions of pounds’ worth of the materials of food, not to mention thousands of human lives? Is not every man who allows such things hastening the ruin of the society in which he lives, by helping to foster the indignation and fury of its victims? Look at that group of stunted, haggard artisans, who are passing us. What if one day they should call to account the landlords whose coveteousness and ignorance make their dwellings hells on earth?’
By this time they had reached the artist’s house.
Luke refused to enter. . . . ‘He had done with this world, and the painters of this world.’ . . . And with a tearful last farewell, he turned away up the street, leaving Lancelot to gaze at his slow, painful steps, and abject, earth-fixed mien.
‘Ah!’ thought Lancelot, ‘here is the end of your anthropology! At first, your ideal man is an angel. But your angel is merely an unsexed woman; and so you are forced to go back to the humanity after all — but to a woman, not a man? And this, in the nineteenth century, when men are telling us that the poetic and enthusiastic have become impossible, and that the only possible state of the world henceforward will be a universal good-humoured hive, of the Franklin–Benthamite religion . . . a vast prosaic Cockaigne of steam mills for grinding sausages — for those who can get at them. And all the while, in spite of all Manchester schools, and high and dry orthodox schools, here are the strangest phantasms, new and old, sane and insane, starting up suddenly into live practical power, to give their prosaic theories the lie — Popish conversions, Mormonisms, Mesmerisms, Californias, Continental revolutions, Paris days of June . . . Ye hypocrites! ye can discern the face of the sky, and yet ye cannot discern the signs of this time!’
He was ushered upstairs to the door of his studio, at which he knocked, and was answered by a loud ‘Come in.’ Lancelot heard a rustle as he entered, and caught sight of a most charming little white foot retreating hastily through the folding doors into the inner room.
The artist, who was seated at his easel, held up his brush as a signal of silence, and did not even raise his eyes till he had finished the touches on which he was engaged.
‘And now — what do I see! — the last man I should have expected! I thought you were far down in the country. And what brings you to me with such serious and business-like looks?’
‘I am a penniless youth —’
‘Ruined to my last shilling, and I want to turn artist.’
‘Oh, ye gracious powers! Come to my arms, brother at last with me in the holy order of those who must work or starve. Long have I wept in secret over the pernicious fulness of your purse!’
‘Dry your tears, then, now,’ said Lancelot, ‘for I neither have ten pounds in the world, nor intend to have till I can earn them.’
‘Artist!’ ran on Mellot; ‘ah! you shall be an artist, indeed! You shall stay with me and become the English Michael Angelo; or, if you are fool enough, go to Rome, and utterly eclipse Overbeck, and throw Schadow for ever into the shade.’
‘I fine you a supper,’ said Lancelot, ‘for that execrable attempt at a pun.’
‘Agreed! Here, Sabina, send to Covent Garden for huge nosegays, and get out the best bottle of Burgundy. We will pass an evening worthy of Horace, and with garlands and libations honour the muse of painting.’
‘Luxurious dog!’ said Lancelot, ‘with all your cant about poverty.’
As he spoke, the folding doors opened, and an exquisite little brunette danced in from the inner room, in which, by the bye, had been going on all the while a suspicious rustling, as of garments hastily arranged. She was dressed gracefully in a loose French morning-gown, down which Lancelot’s eye glanced towards the little foot, which, however, was now hidden in a tiny velvet slipper. The artist’s wife was a real beauty, though without a single perfect feature, except a most delicious little mouth, a skin like velvet, and clear brown eyes, from which beamed earnest simplicity and arch good humour. She darted forward to her husband’s friend, while her rippling brown hair, fantastically arranged, fluttered about her neck, and seizing Lancelot’s hands successively in both of hers, broke out in an accent prettily tinged with French —
‘Charming! — delightful! And so you are really going to turn painter! And I have longed so to be introduced to you! Claude has been raving about you these two years; you already seem to me the oldest friend in the world. You must not go to Rome. We shall keep you, Mr. Lancelot; positively you must come and live with us — we shall be the happiest trio in London. I will make you so comfortable: you must let me cater for you — cook for you.’
‘And be my study sometimes?’ said Lancelot, smiling.
‘Ah,’ she said, blushing, and shaking her pretty little fist at Claude, ‘that madcap! how he has betrayed me! When he is at his easel, he is so in the seventh heaven, that he sees nothing, thinks of nothing, but his own dreams.’
At this moment a heavy step sounded on the stairs, the door opened, and there entered, to Lancelot’s astonishment, the stranger who had just puzzled him so much at his uncle’s.
Claude rose reverentially, and came forward, but Sabina was beforehand with him, and running up to her visitor, kissed his hand again and again, almost kneeling to him.
‘The dear master!’ she cried; ‘what a delightful surprise! we have not seen you this fortnight past, and gave you up for lost.’
‘Where do you come from, my dear master?’ asked Claude.
‘From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it,’ answered he, smiling, and laying his finger on his lips, ‘my dear pupils. And you are both well and happy?’
‘Perfectly, and doubly delighted at your presence today, for your advice will come in a providential moment for my friend here.’
‘Ah!’ said the strange man, ‘well met once more! So you are going to turn painter?’
He bent a severe and searching look on Lancelot.
‘You have a painter’s face, young man,’ he said; ‘go on and prosper. What branch of art do you intend to study?’
‘The ancient Italian painters, as my first step.’
‘Ancient? it is not four hundred years since Perugino died. But I should suppose you do not intend to ignore classic art?’
‘You have divined rightly. I wish, in the study of the antique, to arrive at the primeval laws of unfallen human beauty.’
‘Were Phidias and Praxiteles, then, so primeval? the world had lasted many a thousand years before their turn came. If you intend to begin at the beginning, why not go back at once to the garden of Eden, and there study the true antique?’
‘If there were but any relics of it,’ said Lancelot, puzzled, and laughing.
‘You would find it very near you, young man, if you had but eyes to see it.’
Claude Mellot laughed significantly, and Sabina clapped her little hands.
‘Yet till you take him with you, master, and show it to him, he must needs be content with the Royal Academy and the Elgin marbles.’
‘But to what branch of painting, pray,’ said the master to Lancelot, ‘will you apply your knowledge of the antique? Will you, like this foolish fellow here’ (with a kindly glance at Claude), ‘fritter yourself away on Nymphs and Venuses, in which neither he nor any one else believes?’
‘Historic art, as the highest,’ answered Lancelot, ‘is my ambition.’
‘It is well to aim at the highest, but only when it is possible for us. And how can such a school exist in England now? You English must learn to understand your own history before you paint it. Rather follow in the steps of your Turners, and Landseers, and Standfields, and Creswicks, and add your contribution to the present noble school of naturalist painters. That is the niche in the temple which God has set you English to fill up just now. These men’s patient, reverent faith in Nature as they see her, their knowledge that the ideal is neither to be invented nor abstracted, but found and left where God has put it, and where alone it can be represented, in actual and individual phenomena; — in these lies an honest development of the true idea of Protestantism, which is paving the way to the mesothetic art of the future.’
‘Glorious!’ said Sabina: ‘not a single word that we poor creatures can understand!’
But our hero, who always took a virtuous delight in hearing what he could not comprehend, went on to question the orator.
‘What, then, is the true idea of Protestantism?’ said he.
‘The universal symbolism and dignity of matter, whether in man or nature.’
‘But the Puritans —?’
‘Were inconsistent with themselves and with Protestantism, and therefore God would not allow them to proceed. Yet their repudiation of all art was better than the Judas-kiss which Romanism bestows on it, in the meagre eclecticism of the ancient religious schools, and of your modern Overbecks and Pugins. The only really wholesome designer of great power whom I have seen in Germany is Kaulbach; and perhaps every one would not agree with my reasons for admiring him, in this whitewashed age. But you, young sir, were meant for better things than art. Many young geniuses have an early hankering, as Goethe had, to turn painters. It seems the shortest and easiest method of embodying their conceptions in visible form; but they get wiser afterwards, when they find in themselves thoughts that cannot be laid upon the canvas. Come with me — I like striking while the iron is hot; walk with me towards my lodgings, and we will discuss this weighty matter.’
And with a gay farewell to the adoring little Sabina, he passed an iron arm through Lancelot’s, and marched him down into the street.
Lancelot was surprised and almost nettled at the sudden influence which he found this quaint personage was exerting over him. But he had, of late, tasted the high delight of feeling himself under the guidance of a superior mind, and longed to enjoy it once more. Perhaps they were reminiscences of this kind which stirred in him the strange fancy of a connection, almost of a likeness, between his new acquaintance and Argemone. He asked, humbly enough, why Art was to be a forbidden path to him?
‘Besides you are an Englishman, and a man of uncommon talent, unless your physiognomy belies you; and one, too, for whom God has strange things in store, or He would not have so suddenly and strangely overthrown you.’
Lancelot started. He remembered that Tregarva had said just the same thing to him that very morning, and the (to him) strange coincidence sank deep into his heart.
‘You must be a politician,’ the stranger went on. ‘You are bound to it as your birthright. It has been England’s privilege hitherto to solve all political questions as they arise for the rest of the world; it is her duty now. Here, or nowhere, must the solution be attempted of those social problems which are convulsing more and more all Christendom. She cannot afford to waste brains like yours, while in thousands of reeking alleys, such as that one opposite us, heathens and savages are demanding the rights of citizenship. Whether they be right or wrong, is what you, and such as you, have to find out at this day.’
Silent and thoughtful, Lancelot walked on by his side.
‘What is become of your friend Tregarva? I met him this morning after he parted from you, and had some talk with him. I was sorely minded to enlist him. Perhaps I shall; in the meantime, I shall busy myself with you.’
‘In what way,’ asked Lancelot, ‘most strange sir, of whose name, much less of whose occupation, I can gain no tidings.’
‘My name for the time being is Barnakill. And as for business, as it is your English fashion to call new things obstinately by old names, careless whether they apply or not, you may consider me as a recruiting-sergeant; which trade, indeed, I follow, though I am no more like the popular red-coated ones than your present “glorious constitution” is like William the Third’s, or Overbeck’s high art like Fra Angelico’s. Farewell! When I want you, which will be most likely when you want me, I shall find you again.’
The evening was passed, as Claude had promised, in a truly Horatian manner. Sabina was most piquante, and Claude interspersed his genial and enthusiastic eloquence with various wise saws of ‘the prophet.’
‘But why on earth,’ quoth Lancelot, at last, ‘do you call him a prophet?’
‘Because he is one; it’s his business, his calling. He gets his living thereby, as the showman did by his elephant.’
‘But what does he foretell?’
‘Oh, son of the earth! And you went to Cambridge — are reported to have gone in for the thing, or phantom, called the tripos, and taken a first class! . . . Did you ever look out the word “prophetes” in Liddell and Scott?’
‘Why, what do you know about Liddell and Scott?’
‘Nothing, thank goodness; I never had time to waste over the crooked letters. But I have heard say that prophetes means, not a foreteller, but an out-teller — one who declares the will of a deity, and interprets his oracles. Is it not so?’
‘And that he became a foreteller among heathens at least — as I consider, among all peoples whatsoever — because knowing the real bearing of what had happened, and what was happening, he could discern the signs of the times, and so had what the world calls a shrewd guess — what I, like a Pantheist as I am denominated, should call a divine and inspired foresight — of what was going to happen.’
‘A new notion, and a pleasant one, for it looks something like a law.’
‘I am no scollard, as they would say in Whitford, you know; but it has often struck me, that if folks would but believe that the Apostles talked not such very bad Greek, and had some slight notion of the received meaning of the words they used, and of the absurdity of using the same term to express nineteen different things, the New Testament would be found to be a much simpler and more severely philosophic book than “Theologians” (“Anthropo-sophists” I call them) fancy.’
‘Where on earth did you get all this wisdom, or foolishness?’
‘From the prophet, a fortnight ago.’
‘Who is this prophet? I will know.’
‘Then you will know more than I do. Sabina — light my meerschaum, there’s a darling; it will taste the sweeter after your lips.’ And Claude laid his delicate woman-like limbs upon the sofa, and looked the very picture of luxurious nonchalance.
‘What is he, you pitiless wretch?’
‘Fairest Hebe, fill our Prometheus Vinctus another glass of Burgundy, and find your guitar, to silence him.’
‘It was the ocean nymphs who came to comfort Prometheus — and unsandalled, too, if I recollect right,’ said Lancelot, smiling at Sabina. ‘Come, now, if he will not tell me, perhaps you will?’
Sabina only blushed, and laughed mysteriously.
‘You surely are intimate with him, Claude? When and where did you meet him first?’
‘Seventeen years ago, on the barricades of the three days, in the charming little pandemonium called Paris, he picked me out of a gutter, a boy of fifteen, with a musket-ball through my body; mended me, and sent me to a painter’s studio. . . . The next sejour I had with him began in sight of the Demawend. Sabina, perhaps you might like to relate to Mr. Smith that interview, and the circumstances under which you made your first sketch of that magnificent and little-known volcano?’
Sabina blushed again — this time scarlet; and, to Lancelot’s astonishment, pulled off her slipper, and brandishing it daintily, uttered some unintelligible threat, in an Oriental language, at the laughing Claude.
‘Why, you must have been in the East?’
‘Why not! Do you think that figure and that walk were picked up in stay-ridden, toe-pinching England? . . . Ay, in the East; and why not elsewhere? Do you think I got my knowledge of the human figure from the live-model in the Royal Academy?’
‘I certainly have always had my doubts of it. You are the only man I know who can paint muscle in motion.’
‘Because I am almost the only man in England who has ever seen it. Artists should go to the Cannibal Islands for that. . . . J’ai fait le grand tour. I should not wonder if the prophet made you take it.’
‘That would be very much as I chose.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That if he wills you to go, I defy you to stay. Eh, Sabina!’
‘Well, you are a very mysterious pair — and a very charming one.’
‘So we think ourselves — as to the charmingness. . . . and as for the mystery . . . “Omnia exeunt in mysterium,” says somebody, somewhere — or if he don’t, ought to, seeing that it is so. You will be a mystery some day, and a myth, and a thousand years hence pious old ladies will be pulling caps as to whether you were a saint or a devil, and whether you did really work miracles or not, as corroborations of your exsupra-lunar illumination on social questions. . . . Yes . . . you will have to submit, and see Bogy, and enter the Eleusinian mysteries. Eh, Sabina?’
‘My dear Claude, what between the Burgundy and your usual foolishness, you seem very much inclined to divulge the Eleusinian mysteries.’
‘I can’t well do that, my beauty, seeing that, if you recollect, we were both turned back at the vestibule, for a pair of naughty children as we are.’
‘Do be quiet! and let me enjoy, for once, my woman’s right to the last word!’
And in this hopeful state of mystification, Lancelot went home, and dreamt of Argemone.
His uncle would, and, indeed, as it seemed, could, give him very little information on the question which had so excited his curiosity. He had met the man in India many years before, had received there from him most important kindnesses, and considered him, from experience, of oracular wisdom. He seemed to have an unlimited command of money, though most frugal in his private habits; visited England for a short time every few years, and always under a different appellation; but as for his real name, habitation, or business, here or at home, the good banker knew nothing, except that whenever questioned on them, he wandered off into Pantagruelist jokes, and ended in Cloud-land. So that Lancelot was fain to give up his questions and content himself with longing for the reappearance of this inexplicable sage.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10