Story type: Literature
John Clayton had pretty nearly run the gamut of the fine arts. As a boy at college he had taken a dilettante interest in music, and having shown some power of sketching the summer girl he had determined to become an artist. His numerous friends had hoped such great things for him that he had been encouraged to spend the rest of his little patrimony in educating himself abroad. It took him nearly two years to find out what being an artist meant, and the next three in thinking what he wanted to do. In Paris and Munich and Rome, the wealth of the possible had dazzled him and confused his aims; he was so skilful and adaptable that in turn he had wooed almost all the arts, and had accomplished enough trivial things to raise very pretty expectations of his future powers. He had enjoyed an uncertain glory among the crowd of American amateurs. When his purse had become empty he returned to America to realize on his prospects.
On his arrival he had elaborately equipped a studio in Boston, but as he found the atmosphere “too provincial” he removed to New York. There he was much courted at a certain class of afternoon teas. He was in full bloom of the “might do,” but he had his suspicions that a fatally limited term of years would translate the tense into “might have done.” He argued, however, that he had not yet found the right milieu; he was fond of that word–conveniently comprehensive of all things that might stimulate his will. He doubted if America ever could furnish him a suitable milieu for the expression of his artistic instincts. But in the meantime necessity for effort was becoming more urgent; he could not live at afternoon teas.
Clayton was related widely to interesting and even influential people. One woman, a distant cousin, had taken upon herself his affairs.
“I will give you another chance,” she said, in a business-like tone, after he had been languidly detailing his condition to her and indicating politely that he was coming to extremities. “Visit me this summer at Bar Harbor. You shall have the little lodge at the Point for a studio, and you can take your meals at the hotel near by. In that way you will be independent. Now, there are three ways, any one of which will lead you out of your difficulties, and if you don’t find one that suits you before October, I shall leave you to your fate.”
The young man appeared interested.
“You can model something–that’s your line, isn’t it?”
Clayton nodded meekly. He had resolved to become a sculptor during his last six months in Italy.
“And so put you on your feet, professionally.” Clayton sighed. “Or you can find some rich patron or patroness who will send you over for a couple of years more until your chef d’ oeuvre makes its appearance.” Her pupil turned red, and began to murmur, but she kept on unperturbed. “Or, best of all, you can marry a girl with some money and then do what you like.” At this Clayton rose abruptly.
“I haven’t come to that,” he growled.
“Don’t be silly,” she pursued. “You are really charming; good character; exquisite manners; pleasant habits; success with women. You needn’t feel flattered, for this is your stock in trade. You are decidedly interesting, and lots of those girls who are brought there every year to get them in would be glad to make such an exchange. You know everybody, and you could give any girl a good standing in Boston or New York. Besides, there is your genius, which may develop. That will be thrown in to boot; it may bear interest.”
Clayton, who had begun by feeling how disagreeable his situation was when it exposed him to this kind of hauling over, ended by bursting into a cordial laugh at the frank materialism with which his cousin presented his case. “Well,” he exclaimed, “it’s no go to talk to you about the claims and ideals of art, Cousin Della, but I will accept your offer, if only for the sake of modelling a bust of ‘The Energetic Matron (American).’”
“Of course, I don’t make much of ideals in art and all that,” replied his cousin, “but I will put this through for you, as Harry says. You must promise me only one thing: no flirting with Harriet and Mary. Henry has been foolish and lost money, as you know, and I cannot have another beggar on my hands!”
By the end of July Clayton had found out two things definitely; he was standing in his little workshop, pulling at his mustache and looking sometimes at a half-completed sketch, and sometimes at the blue stretch of water below the cliff. The conclusions were that he certainly should not become interested in Harriet and Mary, and, secondly, that Mount Desert made him paint rather than model.
“It’s no place,” he muttered, “except for color and for a poet. A man would have to shut himself up in a cellar to escape those glorious hills and the bay, if he wanted to work at that putty.” He cast a contemptuous glance at a rough bust of his Cousin Della, the only thing he had attempted. As a solution of his hopeless problem he picked up a pipe and was hunting for some tobacco, preparatory to a stroll up Newport, when someone sounded timidly at the show knocker of the front door.
“Is that you, Miss Marston?” Clayton remarked, in a disappointed tone, as a middle-aged woman entered.
“The servants were all away,” she replied, “and Della thought you might like some lunch to recuperate you from your labors.” This was said a little maliciously, as she looked about and found nothing noteworthy going on.
“I was just thinking of knocking off for this morning and taking a walk. Won’t you come? It’s such glorious weather and no fog,” he added, parenthetically, as if in justification of his idleness.
“Why do you happen to ask me?” Miss Marston exclaimed, impetuously. “You have hitherto never paid any more attention to my existence than if I had been Jane, the woman who usually brings your lunch.” She gasped at her own boldness. This was not coquettishness, and was evidently unusual.
“Why! I really wish you would come,” said the young man, helplessly. “Then I’ll have a chance to know you better.”
“Well! I will.” She seemed to have taken a desperate step. Miss Jane Marston, Della’s sister-in-law, had always been the superfluous member of her family. Such unenviable tasks as amusing or teaching the younger children, sewing, or making up whist sets, had, as is usual with the odd members in a family, fallen to her share. All this Miss Marston hated in a slow, rebellious manner. From always having just too little money to live independently, she had been forced to accept invitations for long visits in uninteresting places. As a girl and a young woman, she had shown a delicate, retiring beauty that might have been made much of, and in spite of gray hair, thirty-five years, and a somewhat drawn look, arising from her discontent, one might discover sufficient traces of this fading beauty to idealize her. All this summer she had watched the wayward young artist with a keen interest in the fresh life he brought among her flat surroundings. His buoyancy cheered her habitual depression; his eagerness and love of life made her blood flow more quickly, out of sympathy; and his intellectual alertness bewildered and fascinated her. She was still shy at thirty-five, and really very timid and apologetic for her commonplaceness; but at times the rebellious bitterness at the bottom of her heart would leap forth in a brusque or bold speech. She was still capable of affording surprise.
“Won’t I spoil the inspiration?” she ventured, after a long silence.
“Bother the inspiration!” groaned Clayton. “I wish I were a blacksmith, or a sailor, or something honest. I feel like a hypocrite. I have started out at a pace that I can’t keep up!”
Miss Marston felt complimented by this apparent confidence. If she had had experience in that kind of nature, she would have understood how indifferent Clayton was to her personally. He would have made the same confession to the birds, if they had happened to produce the same irritation in his mind.
“They all say your work is so brilliant,” she said, soothingly.
“Thunder!” he commented. “I wish they would not say anything kind and pleasant and cheap. At college they praised my verses, and the theatres stole my music for the Pudding play, and the girls giggled over my sketches. And now, at twenty-six, I don’t know whether I want to fiddle, or to write an epic, or to model, or to paint. I am a victim of every artistic impulse.”
“I know what you should do,” she said, wisely, when they had reached a shady spot and were cooling themselves.
“Smoke?” queried Clayton, quizzically.
“You ought to marry!”
“That’s every woman’s great solution, great panacea,” he replied, contemptuously.
“It would steady you and make you work.”
“No,” he replied, thoughtfully, “not unless she were poor, and in that case it would be from the frying-pan into the fire!”
“You should work,” she went on, more courageously. “And a wife would give you inspiration and sympathy.”
“I have had too much of the last already,” he sighed. “And it’s better not to have it all of one sort. After awhile a woman doesn’t produce pleasant or profitable reactions in my soul. Yes, I know,” he added, as he noticed her look of wonderment, “I am selfish and supremely egotistical. Every artist is; his only lookout, however, should be that his surroundings don’t become stale. Or, if you prefer to put it more humanely, an artist isn’t fit to marry; it’s criminal for him to marry and break a woman’s heart.”
After this heroic confession he paused to smoke. “Besides, no woman whom I ever knew really understands art and the ends which the artist is after. She has the temperament, a superficial appreciation and interest, but she hasn’t the stimulus of insight. She’s got the nerves, but not the head.”
“But you just said that you had had too much sympathy and molly-coddling.”
“Did I? Well, I was wrong. I need a lot, and I don’t care how idiotic. It makes me courageous to have even a child approve. I suppose that shows how closely we human animals are linked together. We have got to have the consent of the world, or at any rate a small part of it, to believe ourselves sane. So I need the chorus of patrons, admiring friends, kind women, etc., while I play the Protagonist, to tell me that I am all right, to go ahead. Do you suppose any one woman would be enough? What a great posture for an arm!” His sudden exclamation was called out by the attitude that Miss Marston had unconsciously assumed in the eagerness of her interest. She had thrown her hand over a ledge above them, and was leaning lightly upon it. The loose muslin sleeve had fallen back, revealing a pretty, delicately rounded arm, not to be suspected from her slight figure. Clayton quickly squirmed a little nearer, and touching the arm with an artist’s instinct, brought out still more the fresh white flesh and the delicate veining.
“Don’t move. That would be superb in marble!” Miss Marston blushed painfully.
“How strange you are,” she murmured, as she rose. “You just said that you had given up modelling, or I would let you model my arm in order to give you something to do. You should try to stick to something.”
“Don’t be trite,” laughed Clayton, “and don’t make me consistent. You will keep yourself breathless if you try that!”
“I know what you need,” she said, persistently unmindful of his admonition. “You need the spur. It doesn’t make so much difference what you do–you’re clever enough.”
“‘Truth from the mouths of babes—-‘”
“I am not a babe.” She replied to his mocking, literally. “Even if I am stupid and commonplace, I may have intuitions like other women.”
“Which lead you to think that it’s all chance whether Raphael paints or plays on the piano. Well, I don’t know that you are so absurd. That’s my theory: an artist is a fund of concentrated, undistributed energy that has any number of possible outlets, but selects one. Most of us are artists, but we take so many outlets that the hogshead becomes empty by leaking. Which shall it be? Shall we toss up a penny?”
“Painting,” said Miss Marston, decisively. “You must stick to that.”
“How did you arrive at that conclusion–have you observed my work?”
“No! I’ll let you know some time, but now you must go to work. Come!” She rose, as if to go down to the lodge that instant. Clayton, without feeling the absurdity of the comedy, rose docilely and followed her down the path for some distance. He seemed completely dominated by the sudden enthusiasm and will that chance had flung him.
“There’s no such blessed hurry,” he remarked at last, when the first excitement had evanesced. “The light will be too bad for work by the time we reach Bar Harbor. Let’s rest here in this dark nook, and talk it all over.”
Clayton was always abnormally eager to talk over anything. Much of his artistic energy had trickled away in elusive snatches of talk. “Come,” he exclaimed, enthusiastically, “I have it. I will begin a great work–a modern Magdalen or something of that sort. We can use you in just that posture, kneeling before a rock with outstretched hands, and head turned away. We will make everything of the hands and arms!”
Miss Marston blushed her slow, unaccustomed blush. At first sight it pleased her to think that she had become so much a part of this interesting young man’s plans, but in a moment she laughed calmly at the frank desire he expressed to leave out her face, and the characteristic indifference he had shown in suggesting negligently such a subject.
“All right. I am willing to be of any service. But you will have to make use of the early hours. I teach the children at nine.”
“Splendid!” he replied, as the vista of a new era of righteousness dawned upon him. “We shall have the fresh morning light, and the cool and the beauty of the day. And I shall have plenty of time to loaf, too.”
“No, you mustn’t loaf. You will find me a hard task-mistress!”
True to her word, Miss Marston rapped at the door of the studio promptly at six the next morning. She smiled fearfully, and finding no response, tried stones at the windows above. She kept saying to herself, to keep up her courage: “He won’t think about me, and I am too old to care, anyway.” Soon a head appeared, and Clayton called out, in a sleepy voice:
“I dreamt it was all a joke; but wait a bit, and we will talk it over.”
Miss Marston entered the untidy studio, where the debris of a month’s fruitless efforts strewed the floor. Bits of clay and carving-tools, canvases hurled face downward in disgust and covered with paint-rags, lay scattered about. She tip-toed around, carefully raising her skirt, and examined everything. Finally, discovering an alcohol-lamp and a coffee- pot, she prepared some coffee, and when Clayton appeared–a somewhat dishevelled god–he found her hunting for biscuit.
“You can’t make an artist of me at six in the morning,” he growled.
In sudden inspiration, Miss Marston threw open the upper half of the door and admitted a straight pathway of warm sun that led across the water just rippling at their feet. The hills behind the steep shore were dark with a mysterious green and fresh with a heavy dew, and from the nooks in the woods around them thrush was answering thrush. Miss Marston gave a sigh of content. The warm, strong sunlight strengthened her and filled her wan cheeks, as the sudden interest in the artist’s life seemed to have awakened once more the vigor of her feelings. She clasped her thin hands and accepted both blessings. Clayton also revived. At first he leant listlessly against the door-post, but as minute by minute he drank in the air and the beauty and the hope, his weary frame dilated with incoming sensations. “God, what beauty!” he murmured, and he accepted unquestioningly the interference in his life brought by this woman just as he accepted the gift of sunshine and desire.
“Come to work,” said Miss Marston, at last.
“That’s no go,” he replied, “that subject we selected.”
“I dare say you won’t do much with it, but it will do as well as any other for experiment and practice.”
“I see that you want those arms preserved.”
The little woman shrank into her shell for a moment: her lazy artist could scatter insults as negligently as epigrams. Then she blazed out.
“Mr. Clayton, I didn’t come here to be insulted.”
Clayton, utterly surprised, opened his sleepy eyes in real alarm.
“Bless you, my dear Miss Marston, I can’t insult anybody. I never mean anything.”
“Perhaps that’s the trouble,” replied Miss Marston, somewhat mollified. But the sitting was hardly a success. Clayton wasted almost all his time in improvising an easel and in preparing his brushes. Miss Marston had to leave him just as he was ready to throw himself into his work. He was discontented, and, instead of improving the good light and the long day, he took a pipe and went away into the hills. The next morning he felt curiously ashamed when Miss Marston, after examining the rough sketch on the easel, said:
“Is that all?”
And this day he painted, but in a fit of gloomy disgust destroyed everything. So it went on for a few weeks. Miss Marston was more regular than an alarm-clock; sometimes she brought some work, but oftener she sat vacantly watching the young man at work. Her only standard of accomplishment was quantity. One day, when Clayton had industriously employed a rainy afternoon in putting in the drapery for the figure, she was so much pleased by the quantity of the work accomplished that she praised him gleefully. Clayton, who was, as usual, in an ugly mood, cast an utterly contemptuous look at her and then turned to his easel.
“You mustn’t look at me like that,” the woman said, almost frightened.
“Then don’t jabber about my pictures.”
Her lips quivered, but she was silent. She began to realize her position of galley-slave, and welcomed with a dull joy the contempt and insults to come.
One morning Clayton was not to be found. He did not appear during that week, and at last Miss Marston determined to find him. She made an excuse for a journey to Boston, and divining where Clayton could be found, she sent him word at a certain favorite club that she wanted to see him. He called at her modest hotel, dejected, listless, and somewhat shamefaced; he found Miss Marston calm and commonplace as usual. But it was the calm of a desperate resolve, won after painful hours, that he little recognized. Her instinct to attach herself to this strange, unaccountable creature, to make him effective to himself, had triumphed over her prejudices. She humbled herself joyfully, recognizing a mission.
“Della said that I might presume on your escort home,” she remarked dryly, trembling for fear that she had exposed herself to some contemptuous retort. One great attraction, however, in Clayton was that he never expected the conventional. It did not occur to him as particularly absurd that this woman, ten years his senior, should hunt him up in this fashion. He took such eccentricities as a matter of course, and whatever the circumstances or the conversation, found it all natural and reasonable. Women did not fear him, but talked indiscreetly to him about all things.
“What’s the use of keeping up this ridiculous farce about my work?” he said, sadly. Then he sought for a conventional phrase. “Your unexpected interest and enthusiasm in my poor attempts have been most kind, my dear Miss Marston. But you must allow me to go to the dogs in my own fashion; that’s the inalienable right of every emancipated soul in these days.” The politeness and mockery of this little epigram stung the woman.
“Don’t be brutal, as well as good for nothing,” she said, bitterly. “You’re as low as if you took to drink or any other vice, and you know it. I can’t appreciate your fine ideas, perhaps, but I know you ought to do something more than talk. You’re terribly ambitious, but you’re too weak to do anything but talk. I don’t care what you think about my interference. I can make you work, and I will make you do something. You know you need the whip, and if none of your pleasant friends will give it to you, I can. Come!” she added, pleadingly.
“Jove!” exclaimed the young man, slowly, “I believe you’re an awful trump. I will go back.”
On their return they scarcely spoke. Miss Marston divined that her companion felt ashamed and awkward, and that his momentary enthusiasm had evaporated under the influence of a long railroad ride. While they were waiting for the steamer at the Mount Desert ferry, she said, as negligently as she could, “I have telegraphed for a carriage, but you had better walk up by yourself.”
He nodded assent. “So you will supply the will for the machine, if I will grind out the ideas. But it will never succeed,” he added, gloomily. “Of course I am greatly obliged and all that, and I will stick to it until October for the sake of your interest.” In answer she smiled with an air of proprietorship.
One effect of this spree upon Clayton was that he took to landscape during the hours that he had formerly loafed. He found some quiet bits of dell with water, and planted his easel regularly every day. Sometimes he sat dreaming or reading, but he felt an unaccustomed responsibility if, when his mentor appeared with the children late in the afternoon, he hadn’t something to show for his day. She never attempted to criticise except as to the amount performed, and she soon learned enough not to measure this by the area of canvas. Although Clayton had abandoned the Magdalen in utter disgust, Miss Marston persisted in the early morning sittings. She made herself useful in preparing his coffee and in getting his canvas ready. They rarely talked. Sometimes Clayton, in a spirit of deviltry, would tease his mentor about their peculiar relationship, about herself, or, worse than all, would run himself and say very true things about his own imperfections. Then, on detecting the tears that would rise in the tired, faded eyes of the woman he tortured, he would throw himself into his work.
So the summer wore away and the brilliant September came. The unsanctified crowds flitted to the mountains or the town, and the island and sea resumed the air of free-hearted peace which was theirs by right. Clayton worked still more out of doors on marines, attempting to grasp the perplexing brilliancy that flooded everything.
“It’s no use,” he said, sadly, as he packed up his kit one evening in the last of September. “I really don’t know the first thing about color. I couldn’t exhibit a single thing I have done this entire summer.”
“What’s the real matter?” asked Miss Marston, with a desperate calm.
“Why, I have fooled about so much that I have lost a lot I learnt over there in Paris.”
“Why don’t you get–get a teacher?”
Clayton laughed ironically. “I am pretty old to start in, especially as I have just fifty dollars to my name, and a whole winter before me.”
They returned silently. The next morning Miss Marston appeared at the usual hour and made the coffee. After Clayton had finished his meagre meal, she sat down shyly and looked at him.
“You’ve never interested yourself much in my plans, but I am going to tell you some of them. I’m sick of living about like a neglected cat, and I am going to New York to–to keep boarders.” Her face grew very red. “They will make a fuss, but I am ready to break with them all.”
“So you, too, find dependence a burden?” commented Clayton, indifferently.
“You haven’t taken much pains to know me,” she replied. “And if I were a man,” she went on, with great scorn, “I would die before I would be dependent!”
“Talking about insults–but an artist isn’t a man,” remarked Clayton, philosophically smoking his pipe.
“I hate you when you’re like that,” Miss Marston remarked, with intense bitterness.
“Then you must hate me pretty often! But continue with your plans. Don’t let our little differences in temperament disturb us.”
“Well,” she continued, “I have written to some friends who spend the winters in New York, and out of them I think I shall find enough boarders–enough to keep me from starving. And the house has a large upper story with a north light.” She stopped and peeped at him furtively.
“Oh,” said Clayton, coolly, “and you’re thinking that I would make a good tenant.”
“Exactly,” assented Miss Marston, uncomfortably.
“And who will put up the tin: for you don’t suppose that I am low enough to live off you?”
“No,” replied the woman, quietly. “I shouldn’t allow that, though I was not quite sure you would be unwilling. But you can borrow two or three hundred dollars from your brother, and by the time that’s gone you ought to be earning something. You could join a class; the house isn’t far from those studios.”
Clayton impulsively seized her arms and looked into her face. She was startled and almost frightened.
“I believe,” he began, but the words faded away.
“No, don’t say it. You believe that I am in love with you, and do this to keep you near me. Don’t be quite such a brute, for you are a brute, a grasping, egotistical, intolerant brute.” She smiled slightly. “But don’t think that I am such a fool as not to know how impossible that is.”
Clayton still held her in astonishment. “I think I was going to say that I was in love with you.”
“Oh, no,” she laughed, sadly. “I am coffee and milk and bread and butter, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on.’ You want some noble young woman–a goddess, to make you over, to make you human. I only save you from the poor-house.”
There followed a bitter two years for this strange couple. Clayton borrowed a thousand dollars–a more convenient number to remember, he said, than three hundred dollars–and induced a prominent artist “who happens to know something,” to take him into his crowded classes for a year. He began with true grit to learn again what he had forgotten and some things that he had never known. At the end of the year he felt that he could go alone, and the artist agreed, adding, nonchalantly: “You may get there; God knows; but you need loads of work.”
Domestically, the life was monotonous. Clayton had abandoned his old habits, finding it difficult to harmonize his present existence with his clubs and his fashionable friends. Besides, he hoarded every cent and, with Miss Marston’s aid, wrung the utmost of existence out of the few dollars he had left. Miss Marston’s modest house was patronized by elderly single ladies. It was situated on one of those uninteresting East Side streets where you can walk a mile without remembering an individual stone. The table, in food and conversation, was monotonous. In fact, Clayton could not dream of a more inferior milieu for the birth of the great artist.
Miss Marston had fitted herself to suit his needs, and in submitting to this difficult position felt that she was repaying a loan of a new life. He was so curious, so free, so unusual, so fond of ideas, so entertaining, even in his grim moods, that he made her stupid life over. She could enjoy vicariously by feeling his intense interest in all living things. In return, she learnt the exact time to bring him an attractive lunch, and just where to place it so that it would catch his eye without calling out a scowl of impatience. She made herself at home in his premises, so that all friction was removed from the young artist’s life. He made no acknowledgment of her devotion, but he worked grimly, doggedly, with a steadiness that he had never before known. Once, early in the first winter, having to return to Boston on some slight business, he permitted himself to be entrapped by old friends and lazed away a fortnight. On his return Miss Marston noticed with a pang that this outing had done him good; that he seemed to have more spirit, more vivaciousness, more ideas, and more zest for his work. So, in a methodical fashion, she thought out harmless dissipations for him. She induced him to take her to the opera, even allowing him to think that it was done from pure charity to her. Sunday walks in the picturesque nooks of New York–they both shunned the Fifth Avenue promenade for different reasons–church music, interesting novels, all the “fuel,” as Clayton remarked, that she could find she piled into his furnace. She made herself acquainted with the peculiar literature that seemed to stimulate his imagination, and sometimes she read him asleep in the evenings to save his overworked eyes. Her devotion he took serenely, as a rule. During the second winter, however, after a slight illness brought on by over-application, he seemed to have a thought upon his mind that troubled him. One day he impatiently threw down his palette and put his hands upon her shoulders.
“Little woman, why do you persist in using up your life on me?”
“I am gambling,” she replied, evasively.
“What do you expect to get if you win?”
“A few contemptuous thanks; perhaps free tickets when you exhibit, or a line in your biography. But seriously, Jack, don’t you know women well enough to understand how they enjoy drudging for someone who is powerful?”
“But even if I have any ability, which you can’t tell, how do you enjoy it? You can’t appreciate a picture.”
She smiled. “Don’t bother yourself about me. I get my fun, as you say, because you make me feel things I shouldn’t otherwise. I suppose that’s the only pay you artists ever give those who slave for you?”
Such talks were rare. They experienced that physical and mental unity in duality which comes to people who live and think and work together for a common aim. They had not separated a day since that first visit to Boston. The summer had been spent at a cheap boarding-house on Cape Ann, in order that Clayton might sketch in company with the artist who had been teaching him. Neither thought of conventionality; it was too late for that.
As the second year came to an end, the pressure of poverty began to be felt. Clayton refused to make any efforts to sell his pictures. He eked out his capital and went on. The end of his thousand came; he took to feeding himself in his rooms. He sold his clothes, his watch, his books, and at last the truck he had accumulated abroad. “More fuel for the fire,” he said bitterly.
“I will lend you something,” remarked Miss Marston.
“No, thanks,” he said, shortly, and then added, with characteristic brutality, “my body is worth a hundred. Stevens will give that for it, which would cover the room-rent. And my brother will have to whistle for his cash or take it out in paint and canvas.”
She said nothing, for she had a scheme in reserve. She was content meantime to see him pinched; it brought out the firmer qualities in the man. Her own resources, moreover, were small, for the character of her boarders had fallen. Unpleasant rumors had deprived her of the unexceptionable set of middle-aged ladies with whom she had started, but she had pursued her course unaltered. The reproach of her relatives, who considered her disgraced, had been a sweet solace to her pride.
The rough struggle had told on them both. He had forgotten his delicate habits, his nicety of dress. A cheap suit once in six months was all that he could afford. His mind had become stolidly fixed, so that he did not notice the gradual change. It was a grim fight! The elements were relentless; day by day the pounding was harder, and the end of his resistance seemed nearer. Although he was deeply discontented with his work, he did not dare to think of ultimate failure, for it unnerved him for several days. Miss Marston’s quiet assumption, however, that it was only a question of months, irritated him.
“God must have put the idea into your head that I am a genius,” he would mutter fiercely at her. “I never did, nor work of mine. You don’t know good from bad, anyway, and we may both be crazy.” He buried his face in his hands, overcome by the awfulness of failure. She put her arms about his head.
“Well, we can stand it a little longer, and then—-“
“And then?” he asked, grimly.
“Then,” she looked at him significantly. They both understood. “Lieber Gott,” he murmured, “thou hast a soul.” And he kissed her gently, as in momentary love. She did not resist, but both were indifferent to passion, so much their end absorbed them.
At last she insisted upon trying to sell some marines at the art stores. She brought him back twenty-five dollars, and he did not suspect that she was the patron. He looked at the money wistfully.
“I thought we should have a spree on the first money I earned. But it’s all fuel now.”
Her eyes filled with tears at this sign of humanity. “Next time, perhaps.”
“So you think that’s the beginning of a fortune. I have failed–failed if you get ten thousand dollars for every canvas in this shop. You will never know why. Perhaps I don’t myself.” And then he went to work. Some weeks later he came to her again. This time she tried to enlist the sympathy of the one successful artist Clayton knew, and through his influence she succeeded in selling a number of pictures and placed others upon sale. She was so happy, so sure that the prophetic instinct in her soul was justified, that she told Clayton of her previous fraud. He listened carefully; his face twitched, as if his mind were adjusting itself to new ideas. First he took twenty-five dollars from the money she had just brought him and handed it to her. Then putting his arms about her, he looked inquisitively down into her face, only a bit more tenderly than he squinted at his canvases.
“Jane!” She allowed him to kiss her once or twice, and then she pushed him away, making a pathetic bow.
“Thanks for your sense of gratitude. You’re becoming more civilized. Only I wish it had been something more than money you had been thankful for. Is money the only sacrifice you understand?”
“You can take your dues in taunts if you like. I never pretended to be anything but a huge, and possibly productive polypus. I am honest enough, anyway, not to fool with lovers’ wash. You ought to know how I feel toward you–you’re the best woman I ever knew.”
“Kindest to you, you mean? No, Jack,” she continued, tenderly; “you can have me, body and soul. I am yours fast enough now, what there is left of me. I have given you my reputation, and that sort of thing long ago–no, you needn’t protest. I know you despise people who talk like that, and I don’t reproach you. But don’t deceive yourself. You feel a little moved just now. If I had any charms, like a pretty model, you might acquire some kind of attachment for me, but love–you never dreamed of it. And,” she continued, after a moment, “I begin to think, after watching you these two years, never will. So I am safe in saying that I am yours to do with what you will. I am fuel. Only, oh, Jack, if you break my heart, your last fuel will be gone. You can’t do without me!”
It seemed very absurd to talk about breaking hearts–a tired, silent man; a woman unlovely from sordid surroundings, from age, and from care. Clayton pulled back the heavy curtain to admit the morning light, for they had talked for hours before coming to the money question. The terrible, passionate glare of a summer sun in the city burst in from the neighboring housetops.
“Why don’t you curse Him?” muttered Clayton.
“Because He gave you a heart to love, and made you lonely, and then wasted your love!”
“Jack, the worst hasn’t come. It’s not all wasted.”
Clayton gradually became conscious of a new feeling about his work. He was master of his tools, for one thing, and he derived exquisite pleasure from the exercise of execution. The surety of his touch, the knowledge of the exact effect he was after, made his working hours an absorbing pleasure rather than an exasperating penance. And through his secluded life, with its singleness of purpose, its absence of the social ambitions of his youth, and the complexity of life in the world, the restlessness and agitation of his earlier devotion to his art disappeared. He was content to forget the expression of himself–that youthful longing–in contemplating and enjoying the created matter. In other words, the art of creation was attended with less friction. He worked unconsciously, and he did not, hen-like, call the attention of the entire barnyard to each new- laid egg. He felt also that human, comfortable weariness after labor when self sinks out of sight in the universal wants of mankind–food and sleep. Perhaps the fact that he could now earn enough to relieve him from actual want, that to some extent he had wrestled with the world and wrung from it the conditions of subsistence, relieved the strain under which he had been laboring. He sold his pictures rarely, however, and only when absolutely compelled to get money. Miss Marston could not comprehend his feeling about the inadequacy of his work, and he gave up attempting to make her understand where he failed.
The bond between them had become closer. This one woman filled many human relationships for him–mother, sister, friend, lover, and wife in one. The boarding-house had come to be an affair of transients and young clerks, so that all her time that could be spared from the drudgery of housekeeping was spent in the studio. Slowly he became amenable to her ever-present devotion, and even, in his way, thoughtful for her. And she was almost happy.
The end came in this way. One day Clayton was discovered on the street by an intimate college friend. They had run upon each other abruptly, and Clayton, finding that escape was decently impossible, submitted without much urging to be taken to one of his old clubs for a quiet luncheon. As a result he did not return that night, but sent a note to Miss Marston saying that he had gone to Lenox with a college chum. That note chilled her heart. She felt that this was the beginning of the end, and the following week she spent in loneliness in the little studio, sleeping upon the neglected lounge. And yet she divined that the movement and stimulus of this vacation was what Clayton needed most. She feared he was becoming stale, and she knew that in a week, or a fortnight, or perhaps a month, he would return and plunge again into his work.
He came back. He hardly spoke to her; he seemed absorbed in the conception of a new work. And when she brought him his usual luncheon she found the door locked, the first time in many months. She sat down on the stairs and waited–how long she did not know–waited, staring down the dreary hall and at the faded carpet and at herself, faded to suit the surroundings. At length she knocked, and Clayton came, only to take her lunch and say absently that he was much absorbed by a new picture and should not be disturbed. Would she bring his meals? He seemed to refuse tacitly an entrance to the studio. So a week passed, and then one day Clayton disappeared again, saying that he was going into the country for another rest. He went out as he had come in, absorbed in some dream or plan of great work. Pride kept her from entering his rooms during that week.
One day, however, he came back as before and plunged again into his work. This time she found the door ajar and entered noiselessly, as she had learned to move. He was hard at work; she admired his swift movements that seemed premeditated, the ease with which the picture before him was rowing. Surely he had a man’s power, now, to execute what his spirit conceived! And the mechanical effort gave him evidently great pleasure. His complete absorption indicated the most intense though unconscious pleasure.
The picture stunned her. She knew that she was totally ignorant of art, but she knew that the picture before her was the greatest thing Clayton had accomplished. It seemed to breathe power. And she saw without surprise that the subject was a young woman. Clayton’s form hid the face, but she could see the outline of a woman beside a dory, on a beach, in the early morning. So it had come.
When she was very close to Clayton, he felt her presence, and they both stood still, looking at the picture. It was almost finished–all was planned. Miss Marston saw only the woman. She was youthful, just between girlhood and womanhood–unconscious, strong, and active as the first; with the troubled mystery of the second. The artist had divined an exquisite moment in life, and into the immature figure, the face of perfect repose, the supple limbs, he had thrown the tender mystery that met the morning light. It was the new birth–that ancient, solemn, joyous beginning of things in woman and in day.
Clayton approached his picture as if lovingly to hide it. “Isn’t it immense?” he murmured. “It’s come at last. I don’t daub any more, but I can see, I can paint! God, it’s worth the hell I have been through–“
He paused, for he felt that his companion had left him.
“Jane,” he said, curiously examining her face. “Jane, what’s the matter?”
“Don’t you know?” she replied, looking steadily at him. He looked first at her and then at the picture, and then back again. Suddenly the facts in the case seemed to get hold of him. “Jane,” he cried, impetuously, “it’s all yours–you gave me the power, and made me human, too–or a little more so than I was. But I am killing you by living in this fashion. Why don’t you end it?”
She smiled feebly at his earnestness. “There is only one end,” she whispered, and pointed to his picture. Clayton comprehended, and seizing a paint-rag would have ruined it, but the woman caught his hand.
“Don’t let us be melodramatic. Would you ruin what we have been living for all these years? Don’t be silly–you would always regret it.”
“It’s your life against a little fame.”
“No, against your life.” They stood, nervelessly eying the picture.
“Oh, Jack, Jack,” she cried, at last, “why did God make men like you? You take it all, everything that life gives, sunshine and love and hope and opportunity. Your roots seem to suck out what you want from the whole earth, and you leave the soil exhausted. My time has gone; I know it, I know it, and I knew it would go. Now some other life will be sacrificed. For you’ll break her heart whether she’s alive now or you’re dreaming of someone to come. You’ll treat her as you have everything. It isn’t any fault–you don’t understand.” The words ended with a moan. Clayton sat doggedly looking at his picture. But his heart refused to be sad.
LITTLE CRANBERRY, ME.,