Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/Spirit painting
“Standish, by all that’s acceptable!”
“Frank Markham, by all that is hairy! Why Frank, man, where do you spring from, after being lost to the world for years?”
“I have been completing my education as a painter, my dear Alf. Last of all I come from my studio in Brompton, and before that from Jerusalem, where I have been painting a big picture; and if you will look for it next year at the Academy, your weak mind will be astonished to find all my Jews with blue eyes and unobtrusive noses, which, after all, is the most frequent type out there. And now, Alfred, what of you during the four years I have been travelling;—married?” (I knew Alfred had been in love for years.)
“Yes; my uncle, Sir James, is dead, and I have been married these three years and more. And some day, Frank, you must see my little son.”
“And his mamma,” interrupted I. “Why, Sir Alfred, have you forgotten the old agreement that I was to take your wife’s picture. Luckily, I have waited so long that I can now introduce the young heir too.”
So it was all arranged; and soon after (it was in the pleasant month of August) I found myself on my way to Garton. It was a quaint and castellated house, consisting mostly of several octagon towers. There was a fine view of the sea from the hall-door; indeed you had not many hundred yards to go to find yourself on the edge of the cliff, against which, at high tides, the sea impatiently beat, as if longing to undermine it all. I found myself alone on arriving at Garton; both Sir Alfred and Lady Standish were out; but, as I returned from a short ramble on the shore, I found Lady Standish just alighting from her carriage at her own door.
“Mr. Markham, I presume,” she said: and apologising for the absence of Sir Alfred, she led the way to a bench in the garden, where we sat talking for some time.
I remembered how Alfred used to rave to me about his Isabel’s wonderful hair, in the days when I was his confidant; he used to declare it would puzzle me when I came to paint it, being the true “blue-black” which was so rare and beautiful. I smiled to myself now, as I glanced at Lady Standish’s head, for I could see nothing peculiar in her hair; it was fine dark hair, but very much like anybody else’s. So much, thought I, for lovers’ rhapsodies! I was examining her attentively, as we sat talking, and approved what I saw very much. She was handsome, with a regular style of beauty, and a slightly disdainful expression about the Ups, which I fancied deepened as Sir Alfred by-and-bye came out of the house to us, and began overwhelming me with apologies for having mistaken the day of my arrival.
“And have you seen the boy?” asked Alfred eagerly. “Oh I must fetch him to you, he is just gone into his tea; he has been with me all the afternoon. Now, Markham, you must admire him.” And off he ran to the house.
“Sir Alfred is mad about the child,” said Lady Standish to me, as we watched his retreating figure. “I believe he considers it quite perfect, and thinks of nothing else.”
“An amiable weakness, we must allow,” said I, smiling.
“Must we?” said she. “I am afraid I should never consider any weakness amiable, at any rate in a man.”
“You would not expect any very great decision from Alfred’s chin, would you?”
“You are a physiognomist?” she asked, in answer.
“I could scarely be a painter without having a little knowledge of the science,” I replied. “I am going to study you for the next two days if you will allow me; for I should like the picture to be a picture of you, not only of Lady Standish the outer.”
She turned and gave me her first smile, which made her face positively beautiful for a moment; but the next it faded, as Sir Alfred reappeared, carrying his son.
“I must go in,” she said, hurriedly; and passing them without a word, she left her husband to show off the child to me, which he did with the greatest delight: indeed he might well be proud of the handsome little fellow, though I certainly thought he looked delicate.
I thought Sir Alfred and his wife the most melancholy examples of married lovers I had ever come across—how sad, I mused, if so much love can so degenerate by custom. I knew how madly Alfred had been in love, and I saw there was much about her that might have warranted it when her manner to him had not that blighting bitterness, almost insulting to a man. It was at times difficult, as I often found, to keep up the ball of conversation at dinner. She talked well, and was evidently clever, but the moment he joined in the discussion, on whatever subject it might be, she instantly closed her lips and retired from the field.
It was after one of these rather awkward pauses, that to introduce a new subject, I one evening brought forward some sentiment about the sea:
“You must love it dearly, Lady Standish, for I believe you have lived near it all your life, have you not?”
“Never till I married, and I dislike it particularly,” was her reply, and gathering the lace shawl she wore round her line figure, she rose and left the dining room.
“I thought Lady Standish used to live near here in your uncle’s time,” I said to Standish.
“It was not that Isabel I married,” said Sir Alfred, rising, and going to the chimney-piece, against which he leant his head as he spoke. “The manœuvres of others, and my own lamentable weakness, against which you, Markham, so often warned me, separated us.”
Then the next moment, as though to console himself, he began talking about his boy. Certainly never was any one more wrapped up in another, than Standish in that child; a frail tenure of happiness, I used to think, as I was drawing his pale oval face. His very beauty had a warning in it, those strange spiritual eyes, in a child, with the dark rims under them, predicted anything but a long or easy life. Meantime I seemed to have a talent for introducing disagreeable subjects: one evening, Alfred Standish, approaching a side-table uttered a sudden exclamation, then correcting himself said angrily, as he took up a vase with some passion flowers in it:
“Who brought these flowers here?”
“I did,” said I, looking up from the sofa where I was lounging exhausted with the day’s labours; “I brought them for Lady Standish, thinking she might like the novelty of them. I have not seen any in your gardens: they are passion flowers, Lady Standish, and the place where I found them would make a picture in itself—they were the sole remains of civilisation in a deserted house, about five miles from here, along the cliff; it seems partly pulled down. Who lived there, Alfred?”
“I—What does it signify? I am sure, Isabel—Lady Standish does not care for those flowers.”
“You are mistaken, Sir Alfred,” replied Lady Standish, for once looking full at him with her clear liquid eyes. “I like them very much, and am much obliged to Mr. Markham.”
Before her hand could touch the flower I extended to hers, Sir Alfred had snatched it from me.
“I can’t bear the sight of them,” he said—then as if ashamed of his impetuosity, he walked to the other end of the room.
“Let us have some music,” said Lady Standish, calmly, after following him with her eyes, in a disdainful questioning manner, for a moment; but I thought her hand shook as she turned over the music in the portfolio, and her full deep voice was more passionate than ever, as its rich cadence swelled on my ear. There were tones in her voice that quite surprised you with their pathos. When she was about to retire for the night, she said: “I forgot to tell you, Sir Alfred, that the Bruces were here to-day, and I asked them to dinner next week. We owe the county a feast, so we may as well get over them all at once. I fixed Friday week, the 20th.”
When I came back from opening the door for her, I found Alfred as pale as death.
“Is it not astonishing, amazing,” he said passionately, “how some women love to wound and hurt you. Was there no other day she could have fixed for her company than this one—this 20th. She knew how I must feel it.”
“Is it an anniversary then?” I asked.
“Markham! it is the day she—my Isabel destroyed herself—for my sake.”
He remained silent for some moments, not appearing to heed my expressions of regret at having involuntarily introduced so painful a subject, but after a while, endeavouring to recover himself, he asked me to come to his private room.
“I want to show you her picture, that you may see what you might have painted.”
He took it from a secret drawer in his desk. It was no photograph, none of those soulless things, giving the most unnatural of all expressions, a fixed one; it was a miniature, beautifully painted, the artist had felt what he represented in his own soul, and so passed it on to yours. The globular under eye-lid, the short upper lip, spoke of a very sensitive character, the heavy brow of a melancholy one; there too was the blue-black hair of which I had heard so much, in which was placed the only ornament in the picture, a passion flower.
“It was her favourite flower: you can imagine that I can bear to see no one else wearing one;” Standish said, and then all his fortitude deserted him, and he gave way to one of those bursts of despair to which you sometimes see rather weak people abandon themselves. I soothed him as well as I could, and far, far into the night remained talking to him, and hearing from him many details of the past I had never heard before—perhaps, if Lady Standish guessed half these regrets for the dead, her evident alienation from her husband was partly justifiable, or at any rate, comprehensible. On the other hand, Alfred seemed to have reason almost to accuse himself as the cause of the death of his first love, a report of his intended marriage to the lady chosen by his mother and uncle, after his separation from her, seemed to have turned her brain, and there was too much reason to fear she had died by her own hand.
In spite of my late vigil with Standish, I rose very early next morning, having a good deal of work to do on Lady Standish’s picture before our next sitting. I took care to remove the occasion of the previous night’s discomfort from the drawing-room by carrying the passion flowers down to my studio with me. The room given up to my painting was on the ground-floor in the end tower which formed the corner of the house, and had a separate entrance. I was working away steadily at Lady Standish’s portrait, thinking, I must confess, less of the features before me than of Alfred’s sad history, which had procured me a sleepless night—for I was really much attached to him—when the light in the room seemed suddenly to diminish. I thought the morning had turned very cold, and the sun gone in; when, looking quickly up, I saw that a lady had entered the room, and now stood by the door, which she had closed after her. She was dressed wholly in dark violet, and a large shawl of the same material as her dress was draped round her. Her face was almost hidden by a large drooping hat with a long feather, which she wore very low over her eyes.
“Can I be of any service to you, madam?” I asked, advancing to her with my palette still in my hand, as she did not seem about to speak.
“Of the very greatest, sir, if you will,” was the reply, in a sweet voice which had the peculiarity of a total want of intonation. “Indeed I am come here to ask you a favour.”
I bowed, and renewed my offers of service.
“You will think my request a very extraordinary one. I am come to ask you to take my picture.”
As she spoke she removed her hat, and stood motionless before me, as if prepared for my examination. I saw a face, which without having positive beauty, you could not look at once without longing to see it again. Some memory, I know not what, haunted me as I gazed at her. Yet I felt sure I had never seen her before. The peculiarity of her face was her low white forehead, over which the dark hair was tightly drawn. As I looked at her I thought what a splendid Judith she would make, after the sacrifice of Holofernes. Yet there was a look of deep sorrow in her eyes which, when she raised, I saw to my surprise were deep blue—a most uncommon conjunction with such black hair.
“You would not refuse me, indeed you would not,” she said, finding I did not immediately reply to her request, clasping her hands in front of her, “if you knew how much depended on it—and I must add to this another petition, strange as you may think it—that you will mention to no one my having been here, and if you do paint me, that you will show the picture to no one until it is finished—then I will release you from the promise of secresy, and you will understand the reasons for it.”
The mystery of the affair piqued and pleased me. “I shall be happy,” I said, “to accede to your request.”
“Thank you—I thank you—you know not how much. Can you begin directly?”
I looked round, somewhat surprised at this great haste. Fortunately, I had brought two ready stretched and prepared canvases, not being sure of the right size for Lady Standish’s picture, and placing the one not yet used on the easel, I invited my visitor to take her place.
“What is your idea for the picture?” said I. “Have you any particular fancy or wish?”
“I wish for no ornament,” she replied. “Yet stay,” looking round, and seeing the passion flowers on the table, “if you will allow me, I will place one of these in my hair.”
She did so, and again stood before me. Where had I seen that face before?
“That is a very despairing attitude you have chosen,” said I, with a smile, as she hung down her clasped hands and drooped her head a little.
“That is what it should be,” she replied. “Oblige me by letting it be so.”
It was as well to humour her to her full bent; therefore I began to sketch, and continued steadily at work for the next hour or more, till the sounds of life and resumed animation began to reach us from the house. Then she suddenly looked up.
“I will, if you please, return to-morrow morning at the same hour,” she said, and replacing her I large hat, she besought me to remember her injunction of secresy, which I promised to do, made me a little inclination of the head, and glided from the room.
Every morning she came again, and the picture grew beneath my hand till I almost loved it. There was something wild and strange about it for all the graceful quiet of the figure before me. I never had so still a model: she never wanted to move, and her very words came from her lips without seeming to make them stir. The subject she liked speaking of best was the Standish child. She never wearied of hearing all I could tell about him; she seemed to forget herself and all else gazing at this picture, and sometimes she would draw me on to tell her of his father’s great love for him, which it seemed had almost passed into a proverb in the country. I so often heard people attacking him for “doating” on his boy.
We were discussing this subject as usual one morning, about a week after her first appearance in my room.
“I really believe,” I was saying, “Standish makes a perfect idol of that boy!”
“If we have idols, we shall suffer through them,” replied my visitor, in her calm, quiet voice.
“Ah! I fear there is only too much truth in that,” I answered; “it is not only the heathen who require to have their idols taken away from I them. We too—almost every one of us—have something—"
“Frank! who in the name of goodness are you talking to?”
I looked up, and saw Standish’s amused questioning face looking in at the open window. To spring forward and place myself between the lady and him was the impulse of the moment.
“What brings you out so early, my good friend?” I said, to parry the question.
“The natural restlessness of the individual, I suppose. Seriously, Frank, who were you talking to! I have heard you morning after morning as I passed the window, but have had too much discretion to look in before, thinking I might disturb you.”
“You can’t come in—don’t come in. Lady Standish never sits so early.”
I hastened to interpose, thinking perhaps he was jealous.
“Lady Standish—nonsense—come, who was it, Frank!” and placing his hand on the window-bench, he, to my extreme discomfiture, vaulted in. I looked round in terror at the thought of my visitor’s dismay.
“It is not my fault, madam; this is Sir Alfred Stan—"
I was spared the trouble of explanation.
She had disappeared.
“Frank,” exclaimed the agitated voice of Standish, “in the name of Heaven, what is this?” He was standing opposite the uncovered picture I had been interrupted in.
“That—oh—a—a fancy—an idea,” stammered I.
“Idea! Fancy! Oh, Isabel!” was the reply.
Isabel—the mystery was explained. Yes, I had seen that face before, in the miniature: but she, what was she? and what was I? I staggered and sank down on a chair.
“What is the matter, Frank? Nay, are you vexed at my coming in and discovering it before it was finished? Were you doing it for me, old fellow! It was very kind of you. But fancy being able to do that from memory, and only of a picture too! Oh, Frank! can you wonder if that one short look at her picture so impressed her on your memory, that the reality can never, never fade from mine!”
He paused, overcome. What could I say! I gasped for breath.
“It was not all imagination,” I began: then remembering my promise to her, stopped. “Alfred, promise me you will not come here again—not before breakfast, till the picture is finished; then—"
“Why, Frank, what is the matter with you? You look so queer, and ‘not come here:’ what do you mean! You little know the pleasure it is to me to gaze at her.”
“But you must not; you must not,” I repeated; “at any rate, not till it is finished. Give me air, Standish.”
“Why, old man, you are taking it quite to heart! Well, till the picture is finished, I will try and keep away.”
I did not close my eyes that night. Had they played me false the whole of the past week, and was it all a delusion; or was she—I could not mould my thoughts into shape. After a sleepless night I rose, still earlier than before, anticipating that it being the day of the great dinner party, the stir in the house would begin more betimes than usual.
Early as I was, she was before me. I felt her presence before I opened the door. She was standing in her old attitude before the picture of the child Alfred. She turned slowly to me as I muttered some incoherent greeting—some excuse for our having been disturbed the day before.
“It matters little to me,” she said: “nothing matters much; my errand is nearly done.”
Once more she placed herself as before; once more I began my work, and now I began to plead with her to make herself known to Sir Alfred.
“He recognised your picture,” I urged. “I fear he feels only too much for you as it is—for your unhappy fate; for his sake, for the sake of his future peace, do not hide yourself any longer from him: let him know the truth, and then leave.”
“The truth!” she repeated.
“The truth!” echoed another voice; and Standish was again by my side.
“Frank, my dear fellow! what are you talking about! Are you unwell?”
I looked from him to her: she did not move.
“No, Alfred,” I said; “but see, your lost Isabel is there!”
“Frank!” repeated Standish, in apparent astonishment, “what are you saying?”
“I have promised to keep her secret,” I continued, “but you have broken your word, so I must forfeit mine. Have you nothing to say to her!”
I waved my hand towards her. He stared strangely round.
“I see nothing,” he said.
“He does not see me,” the calm voice of Isabel said, breaking the silence. “He can neither see nor hear me. Tell him from me, the message I come to bring. I come from an unhallowed grave to warn him.”
The drops of agony stood on my forehead as I repeated after her that fearful message:
“‘This, this is the warning,’ I continued, still following her, word for word. ‘Beware of idols, of earthly idols, Alfred! For her great love for you she forfeited her hopes of life on earth and peace in heaven. She loved you too much for her peace; too much to live without you; and when she heard your resolution had given way, that you had proved faithless, her brain reeled, and in a moment of madness she destroyed the life she no longer valued. Now she knows how terrible it is to have an earthly idol between the soul and heaven. Now she knows to what it may lead: now that she sees you about to fall into the same error—about to set up for yourself an idol in the shape of the son as she did of the father—she comes to warn you ere it be too late; to tell you that is a sin; to remind you if we have idols, we shall suffer through them.’”
“Frank, for Heaven’s sake, compose yourself: you will go mad!” exclaimed Alfred, as I paused, almost exhausted with the impetuosity with which I had repeated her words. She was calm enough, Heaven knows!
“Hush! she speaks again,” I replied, an irresistible power again impelling me to be the interpreter of the, to him, voiceless warning. “She leaves this picture to keep this in your mind; to remind you, not in love, but in warning of one who lost her soul through idolatry. Heavens! Standish, she is crying in despair. Alfred! Alfred! do you neither hear nor see her!”
“Dear Heavens, I shall go mad!” exclaimed Alfred, pressing his hands on his eyes, then staggering forwards as I would have dragged him towards her, with his hands out.
“Touch her; feel her; it is no illusion!” I almost screamed, as I tore him on. Then the figure I gazed on seemed to fade before my eyes; the colours grew dim; the outlines blurred. There was a passionate wail of “Alfred!” and the whole vanished into mist.
And with an exclamation of horror all my senses gave way; and when, after tossing in delirium for weeks after, I at last rose from the bed which had almost been my death-bed, I smiled to myself to hear them say, too much work and exertion and an over-excited brain, had brought on brain fever.
I knew what it was, and Alfred.