TAKEN BY SURPRISE
By F. Anstey
The surprise was complete and the result will no doubt be wholly satisfactory to the reader of this amusing story. Copyright by U. S. Book Company.
For some years I, Bedell Cruncher, have consecrated my poor talents to the guidance and education of public taste in questions of art and literature. To do this effectively I have labored—at the cost of some personal inconvenience—to acquire a critical style of light and playful badinage. My lash has ever been wreathed in ribbons of rare texture and daintiest hues; I have thrown cold water in abundance over the nascent flames of young ambition—but such water was systematically tinctured with attar of roses. And in time the articles appearing in various periodicals above the signature of "Vitriol" became, I may acknowledge without false modesty, so many literary events of the first magnitude. At first my identity with the lively but terrible "Vitriol" was kept a profound secret, but gradually by some means which I do not at present remember it leaked out, and I immediately became a social as well as a literary celebrity. Physically I have been endowed with a presence which, though not of unusual height and somewhat inclined to central expansion, produces, I find, an invariably imposing effect, especially with members of the more emotional and impressionable sex. Consequently I was not surprised even at the really extraordinary sensation I inspired upon my first introduction to a very charming young lady. Miss Iris Waverley, as soon as my nom de guerre was (I forget just now by whom) incidentally alluded to. However, as it turned out, she had another and a deeper reason for emotion: it seemed she had been engaged to a young poet whose verses, to her untaught and girlish judgment, seemed inspired by draughts of the true Helicon, and whose rhythmical raptures had stirred her maiden heart to its depths.
Well, that young poet's latest volume of verse came under my notice for review, and in my customary light-hearted fashion I held it up to general derision for a column or two, and then dismissed it, with an ineffaceable epigrammatic kick, to spin forever (approximately) down the ringing grooves of criticism.
Miss Waverley, it happened, was inclined to correct her own views by the opinions of others, and was, moreover, exceptionally sensitive to any association of ridicule with the objects of her attachment—indeed, she once dispatched a dog she fondly loved to the lethal chamber at Battersea, merely because all the hair had come off the poor animal's tail! My trenchant sarcasms had depoetized her lover in a similar fashion; their livid lightning had revealed the baldness, the glaring absurdity, of the very stanzas which once had filled her eyes with delicious tears; he was dismissed, and soon disappeared altogether from the circles which I had (in perfect innocence) rendered impossible to him.
Notwithstanding this, Miss Waverley's first sentiments toward me were scarcely, oddly enough, of unmixed gratitude. I represented the rod, and a very commendable feeling of propriety made her unwilling to kiss me on a first interview, though, as our intimacy advanced—well, there are subjects on which I claim the privilege of a manly reticence.
I hasten over, then, the intermediate stages of antipathy, fear, respect, interest, and adoration. In me she recognized an intellect naturally superior, too indifferent and unambitious to give life to its own imaginings—too honest, too devoted to humanity, to withhold merited condemnation from those of others.
One trait in my character which Iris valued above all others was the caution with which I habitually avoided all associations of a ridiculous nature; for it was my pride to preserve a demeanor of unsullied dignity under circumstances which would have been trying, if not fatal, to an ordinary person. So we became engaged; and if, pecuniarily speaking, the advantage of the union inclined to my side, I cannot consider that I was the party most benefited by the transaction.
It was soon after this happy event that Iris entreated from me, as a gift, a photograph of myself. I could not help being struck by this instance of feminine parsimony with regard to small disbursements, since for the trifling sum of one shilling it was perfectly open to her to procure an admirable presentment of me at almost any stationer's; for in obedience to a widely expressed demand, I had already more than once undergone the ordeal by camera.
But no; she professed to desire a portrait more peculiarly her own—one that should mark the precise epoch of our mutual happiness—a caprice which reminded me of the Salvation Army recruit who was photographed, by desire, "before and after conversion;" and I demurred a little, until Iris insisted with such captivating pertinacity that—although my personal expenses (always slightly in excess of my income) had been further swelled since my engagement by the innumerable petits soins expected by an absurd custom from every lover—I gave way at length.
It was her desire that my portrait should form a pendant to one of herself which had been recently taken by a fashionable photographer, and I promised to see that this wish should be gratified. It is possible that she expected me to resort to the same artist; but there were considerations which induced me to avoid this if I could. To the extent of a guinea (or even thirty shillings) I could refuse her nothing; but every one knows what sums are demanded by a photographer who is at all in vogue.
So, keeping my promise constantly in mind, I never entered a secluded neighborhood without being on the lookout for some unpretending photographic studio which would combine artistic excellence with moderate charges.
And at last I discovered this photographic phœnix, whose nest, if I may so term it, was in a retired suburb which I do not care to particularize. After a brief period of hesitation I stepped inside, and, on stating my wish to be photographed at once, was invited by a very civil youth with a slight cast in his eye to walk upstairs, which I accordingly did.
I mounted flight after flight of stairs, till I eventually found myself at the top of the house, in an apartment pervaded by a strong odor of chemicals, and glazed along the roof and the whole of one side with panes of a bluish tint. It was empty at the moment of my entrance, but, after a few minutes, the photographer burst impetuously in—a tall young man with long hair and pale eyes, whose appearance denoted a nervous and high-strung temperament.
"You will find me," I told him frankly, "a little more difficult to satisfy than your ordinary clièntele; but, on the other hand, I am peculiarly capable of appreciating really good work. Now, I was struck at once by the delicacy of tone, the nice discrimination of values, the atmosphere, gradation, feeling, and surface of the examples displayed in your window."
He bowed almost to the ground; but having taken careful note of his prices, I felt secure in commending him, even to the verge of extravagance; and besides, does not the artistic nature demand the stimulus of praise to enable it to put forth its full powers?
He inquired in what style I wished to be taken, whether full-length, half-length, or vignette. "I will answer you as concisely as possible," I said. "I have been pressed, by one whose least preference is a law to me, to have a photograph of myself executed which shall form a counterpart, or pendant as it were, to her own. I have therefore taken the precaution to bring her portrait with me for your guidance. You will observe it is the work of a firm in my opinion greatly overrated—Messrs. Lenz, Kamerer & Co.; and, while you will follow it in style and the disposition of the accessories, you will, I make no doubt, produce, if you take ordinary pains, a picture vastly superior in artistic merit."
This, as will be perceived, was skilfully designed to put him on his mettle and rouse a useful spirit of emulation. He took the portrait of Iris from my hands and carried it to the light, where he examined it gravely in silence.
"I presume," he said at length, "that I need hardly tell you I cannot pledge myself to produce a result as pleasing as this—under the circumstances."
"That," I replied, "rests entirely with you. If you overcome your natural diffidence and do yourself full justice, I see no reason why you should not obtain something even more satisfactory."
My encouragement almost unmanned him. He turned abruptly away and blew his nose violently with a colored silk handkerchief.
"Come, come," I said, smiling kindly, "you see I have every confidence in you—let us begin. I don't know, by the way," I added, with a sudden after-thought, "whether in your leisure moments you take any interest in contemporary literature?"
"I—I have done so in my time," he admitted; "not very lately."
"Then," I continued, watching his countenance with secret amusement for the spasm I find this announcement invariably produces upon persons of any education, "it may possibly call up some associations in your mind if I tell you that I am perhaps better known by my self-conferred sobriquet of 'Vitriol.’"
Evidently I had to do with a man of some intelligence—I obtained an even more electrical effect than usual. "‘Vitriol!’" he cried, "not surely Vitriol, the great critic?"
"The same," I said carelessly. "I thought I had better mention it."
"You did well," he rejoined, "very well! Pardon my emotion—may I wring that hand?"
It is not my practice to shake hands with a photographer, but I was touched and gratified by his boyish enthusiasm, and he seemed a gentlemanly young fellow too, so I made an exception in his favor; and he did wring my hand—hard.
"So you are Vitriol?" he repeated in a kind of daze, "and you have sought me out—me of all people in the world—to have the honor of taking your photograph!"
"That is so," I said, "but pardon me if I warn you that you must not allow your head to be turned by what is, in truth, due to the merest accident."
"But what an accident!" he cried; "after what I have learned I really could not think of making any charge for this privilege!"
That was a creditable and not unnatural impulse, and I did not check it. "You shall take me as often as you please," I said, "and for nothing."
"And may I," he said a little timidly—"would you give me permission to exhibit the results?"
"If I followed my own inclinations," I replied, "I should answer, 'Certainly not.' But perhaps I have no right to deprive you of the advertisement, and still less to withhold my unworthy features from public comment. I may, for private reasons," I added, thinking of Iris, "find it advisable to make some show of displeasure, but you need not fear my taking any proceedings to restrain you."
"We struggling photographers must be so careful," he sighed. "Suppose the case of your lamented demise—it would be a protection if I had some written authority under your hand to show your legal representatives."
"Actio personalis moriiur cum personæ" I replied; "if my executors brought an action, they would find themselves non-suited." (I had studied for the bar at one period of my life.)
"Quite so," he said, "but they might drag me into court, nevertheless. I should really prefer to be on the safe side."
It did not seem unreasonable, particularly as I had not the remotest intention either of bringing an action or dying; so I wrote him a hasty memorandum to the effect that in consideration of his photographing me free of charge (I took care to put that in), I undertook to hold him free from all molestation or hindrance whatever in respect of the sale and circulation of all copies resulting from such photographing as aforesaid.
"Will that do?" I said as I handed it to him.
His eyes gleamed as he took the document. "It is just what I wanted," he said gratefully; "and now, if you will excuse me, I will go and bring in a few accessories, and then we will get to work."
He withdrew in a state of positive exultation, leaving me to congratulate myself upon the happy chance which had led me to his door. One does not discover a true artist every day, capable of approaching his task in a proper spirit of reverence and enthusiasm; and I had hardly expected, after my previous failures, to be spared all personal outlay. My sole regret, indeed, was that I had not stipulated for a share in the profits arising from the sale—which would be doubtless a large one; but meanness is not one of my vices, and I decided not to press this point.
Presently he returned with something which bulged inside his velvet jacket, and a heap of things which he threw down in a corner behind a screen.
"A few little properties," he said; "we may be able to introduce them by and by."
Then he went to the door and, with a rapid action, turned the key and placed it in his pocket.
"You will hardly believe," he explained, "how nervous I am on occasions of importance like this; the bare possibility of interruption would render me quite incapable of doing myself justice."
I had never met any photographer quite so sensitive as that before, and I began to be uneasy about his success; but I know what the artistic temperament is, and, as he said, this was not like an ordinary occasion.
"Before I proceed to business," he said, in a voice that positively trembled, "I must tell you what an exceptional claim you have to my undying gratitude. Among the many productions which you have visited with your salutary satire you may possibly recall a little volume of poems entitled 'Pants of Passion'?"
I shook my head good-humoredly. "My good friend," I told him, "if I burdened my memory with all the stuff I have to pronounce sentence upon, do you suppose my brain would be what it is?"
He looked crestfallen. "No," he said slowly, "I ought to have known—you would not remember, of course. But I do. I brought out those Pants. Your mordant pen tore them to tatters. You convinced me that I had mistaken my career and, thanks to your monitions, I ceased to practise as a poet and became the photographer you now behold!"
"And I have known poets," I said encouragingly, "who have ended far less creditably. For even an indifferent photographer is in closer harmony with nature than a mediocre poet."
"And I was mediocre, wasn't I?" he inquired humbly.
"So far as I recollect," I replied (for I did begin to remember him now), "to attribute mediocrity to you would have been beyond the audacity of the grossest sycophant."
"Thank you," he said; "you little know how you encourage me in my present undertaking—for you will admit that I can photograph?"
"That," I replied, "is intelligible enough; photography being a pursuit demanding less mental ability in its votaries than that of metrical composition, however halting."
"There is something very soothing about your conversation," he remarked; "it heals my self-love—which really was wounded by the things you wrote."
"Pooh, pooh!" I said indulgently, "we must all of us go through that in our time—at least all of you must go through it."
"Yes," he admitted sadly, "but it ain't pleasant, is it?"
"Of that I have never been in a position to judge," said I; "but you must remember that your sufferings, though doubtless painful to yourself, are the cause, under capable treatment, of infinite pleasure and amusement to others. Try to look at the thing without egotism. Shall I seat myself on that chair I see over there?"
He was eying me in a curious manner. "Allow me," he said; "I always pose my sitters myself." With that he seized me by the neck and elsewhere without the slightest warning, and carrying me to the further end of the studio, flung me carelessly, face downward, over the cane-bottomed chair to which I had referred. He was a strong, athletic young man, in spite of his long hair—or might that have been, as in Samson's case, a contributory cause? I was like an infant in his hands, and lay across the chair, in an exceedingly uncomfortable position, gasping for breath.
"Try to keep as limp as you can, please," he said, "the mouth wide open, as you have it now, the legs careless—in fact, trailing. Beautiful! don't move."
And he went to the camera. I succeeded in partly twisting my head round. "Are you mad?" I cried indignantly; "do you really suppose I shall consent to go down to posterity in such a position as this?"
I heard a click, and, to my unspeakable horror, saw that he was deliberately covering me from behind the camera with a revolver—that was what I had seen bulging inside his pocket.
"I should be sorry to slay any sitter in cold blood," he said, "but I must tell you solemnly that unless you instantly resume your original pose—which was charming—you are a dead man!"
Not till then did I realize the awful truth I was locked up alone, at the top of a house, in a quiet neighborhood, with a mad photographer! Summoning to my aid all my presence of mind, I resumed the original pose for the space of forty-five hours—they were seconds really, but they seemed hours; it was not needful for him to exhort me to be limp again; I was limper than the dampest towel.
"Thank you very much," he said gravely as he covered the lens; "I think that will come out very well indeed. You may move now."
I rose, puffing, but perfectly collected. "Ha, ha," I laughed in a sickly manner (for felt sick), "I perceive, sir, that you are a humorist."
"Since I have abandoned poetry," he said as he carefully removed the negative to a dark place " I have developed a considerable sense of quiet humor. You will find a large Gainsborough hat in that corner—might I trouble you to put it on for the next sitting?"
"Never!" I cried, thoroughly revolted. "Surely, with your rare artistic perception, you must be aware that such a head-dress as that (which is no longer worn even by females) is out of all keeping with my physiognomy. I will not sit for my photograph in such a preposterous thing!"
"I shall count ten very slowly," he replied pensively, "and if by the time I have finished you are not seated on the back of that chair, your feet crossed so as to overlap, your right thumb in the corner of your mouth, a pleasant smile on your countenance, and the Gainsborough hat on your head, you will need no more hats on this sorrowful earth. One—two——"
I was perched on that chair in the prescribed attitude long before he had got to seven! How can I describe what it cost me to smile, as I sat there under the dry blue light, the perspiration rolling in beads down my cheeks, exposed to the gleaming muzzle of the revolver, and the steady Gorgon glare of that infernal camera?
"That will be extremely popular," he said, lowering the weapon as he concluded. "Your smile, perhaps, was a little too broad, but the pose was very fresh and unstudied."
I have always read of the controlling power of the human eye upon wild beasts and dangerous maniacs, and I fixed mine firmly upon him now as I said sternly, "Let me out at once—I wish to go."
Perhaps I did not fix them quite long enough; perhaps the power of the human eye has been exaggerated: I only know that for all the effect mine had on him they might have been oysters.
"Not yet," he said persuasively, "not when we're getting on so nicely. I may never be able to take you under such favorable conditions again."
That, I thought, I could undertake to answer for; but who, alas! could say whether I should ever leave that studio alive? For all I knew, he might spend the whole day in photographing me, and then, with a madman's caprice, shoot me as soon as it became too dark to go on any longer! The proper course to take, I knew, was to humor him, to keep him in a good temper, fool him to the top of his bent—it was my only chance.
"Well," I said, "perhaps you're right. I—I'm in no great hurry. Were you thinking of taking me in some different style? I am quite at your disposition."
He brought out a small but stout property-mast and arranged it against a canvas background of coast scenery. "I generally use it for children in sailor costume," he said, "but I think it will bear your weight long enough for the purpose."
I wiped my brow. "You are not going to ask me to climb that thing?" I faltered.
"Well," he suggested, "if you will just arrange yourself upon the cross-trees in a negligent attitude, upside down, with your tongue protruded as if for medical inspection, I shall be perfectly satisfied."
I tried argument. "I should have no objection in the world," I said; "it's an excellent idea—only do sailors ever climb masts in that way? Wouldn't it be better to have the thing correct while we're about it?"
"I was not aware that you were a sailor," he said; "are you?"
I was afraid to say I was, because I apprehended that, if I did, it might occur to him to put me through some still more frightful performance.
"Come," he said, "you won't compel me to shed blood so early in the afternoon, will you? Up with you."
I got up, but, as I hung there, I tried to obtain a modification of some of the details. "I don't think," I said artfully, "that I'll put out my tongue—it's rather overdone, eh? Everybody is taken with his tongue out nowadays."
"It is true," he said, "but I am not well enough known in the profession yet to depart entirely from the conventional. Your tongue out as far as it will go, please."
"I shall have a rush of blood to the head, I know I shall," I protested.
"Look here," he said; "am I taking this photograph or are you?"
There was no possible doubt, unfortunately, as to who was taking the photograph. I made one last remonstrance. "I put it to you as a sensible man——" I began; but it is a waste of time to put anything to a raving lunatic as a sensible man. It is enough to say that he carried his point.
"I wish you could see the negative!" he said as he came back from his laboratory. "You were a little red in the face, but it will come out black, so it's all right. That carte will be quite a novelty, I flatter myself."
I groaned. However, this was the end; I would get away now at all hazards, and tell the police that there was a dangerous maniac at large. I got down from the mast with affected briskness. "Well," I said, "I mustn't take advantage of your good nature any longer. I'm exceedingly obliged to you for the—the pains you have taken. You will send all the photographs to this address, please."
"Don't go yet," he said. "Are you an equestrian, by the way?"
If I could only engage him in conversation I felt comparatively secure.
"Oh, I put in an appearance in the Row sometimes, in the season," I replied; "and, while I think of it," I added, with what I thought at the time was an inspiration, "if you will come with me now, I'll show you my horse—you might take me on horseback, eh?" I did not possess any such animal, but I wanted to have that door unlocked.
"Take you on horseback!" he repeated. "That's a good idea—I had rather thought of that myself."
"Then come along and bring your instrument," I said, "and you can take me at the stables; they're close by."
"No need for that," he replied cheerfully. "I'll find you a mount here."
And the wretched lunatic went behind the screen and wheeled out a small wooden quadruped covered with large round spots!
"She's a strawberry roan," he said; "observe the strawberries. So, my beauty, quiet, then! Now settle yourself easily in the saddle, as if you were in the Row, with your face to the tail."
Listen to me for one moment," I entreated tremulously. "I assure you that I am not in the habit of appearing in Rotten Row on a spotted wooden horse, nor does any one, I assure you—any one mount a horse of any description with his face toward the crupper! If you take me like that you will betray your ignorance—you will be laughed at!"
When people tell you it is possible to hoodwink the insane by any specious show of argument, don't believe them; my own experience is that demented persons can be quite perversely logical when it suits their purpose.
"Pardon me," he said, "you will be laughed at possibly—not I. I cannot be held responsible for the caprices of my clients. Mount, please; she'll carry you perfectly."
"I will," I said, "if you'll give me the revolver to hold. I—should like to be done with a revolver."
"I shall be delighted to do you with a revolver," he said grimly, "but not yet; and if I lent you the weapon now, I could not answer for your being able to hold the horse as well—she has never been broken in to firearms. I'll hold the revolver. One—two—three——"
I mounted. Why had I not disregarded the expense and gone to Lenz & Kamerer? Lenz does not pose his customers by the aid of a revolver. Kamerer, I was sure, would not put his patrons through these degrading tomfooleries.
He took more trouble over this than any of the others; I was photographed from the back, in front, and in profile; and if I escaped being made to appear abjectly ridiculous, it can only be owing to the tragic earnestness which the consciousness of my awful situation lent to my expression.
As he took the last, I rolled off the horse completely prostrated. "I think," I gasped faintly, "I would rather be shot at once—without waiting to be taken in any other positions. I really am not equal to any more of this!" (He was quite capable, I felt, of photographing me in a perambulator if it once occurred to him!)
"Compose yourself," he said soothingly; "I have obtained all I wanted. I shall not detain you much longer. Your life, I may remark, was never in any imminent danger, as this revolver is unloaded. I have now only to thank you for the readiness with which you have afforded me your cooperation, and to assure you that copies of each of the photographs shall be forwarded for Miss Waverley's inspection."
"Miss Waverley!" I exclaimed; "stay, how do you know that name?"
"If I mistake not, it was her photograph that you kindly brought for my guidance. I ought to have mentioned, perhaps, that I once had the honor of being engaged to her—until you (no doubt from the highest motives) invested my little gift of song with a flavor of unromantic ridicule. That ridicule I am now enabled to repay, with interest calculated up to the present date."
"So you are Iris' poet!" I burst out, for, somehow, I had not completely identified him till that moment. "You scoundrel! do you think I shall allow you to circulate those atrocious caricatures with impunity? No, by heavens! my solicitor shall——"
"I rely upon the document you were kind enough to furnish," he said quietly. "I fear that any legal proceedings you may resort to will hardly avert the publicity you seem to fear. Allow me to unfasten the door. Good-by; mind the step on the first landing. Might I beg you to recommend me among your friends?"
I went out without another word; he was mad, of course, or he would not have devised so outrageous a revenge for a fancied injury, but he was cunning enough to be my match. I knew too well that if I took any legal measures he would contrive to shift the whole burden of lunacy upon me. I dared not court an inquiry for many reasons, and so I was compelled to pass over this unparalleled outrage in silence.
Iris made frequent inquiries after the promised photograph, and I had to parry them as well as I could—which was a mistake in judgment on my part; for one afternoon while I was actually sitting with her a packet arrived addressed to Miss Waverley.
I did not suspect what it might contain until it was too late. She recognized that photographs were inside the wrappings, which she tore open—and then!
She had a short fainting fit when she saw the Gainsborough hat, and as soon as she revived the extraordinary appearance I presented upside down on the mast sent her into violent hysterics. By the time she was in a condition to look at the equestrian portraits, she had grown cold and hard as marble. "Go," she said, indicating the door; "I see I have been wasting my affection upon a heartless buffoon!"
I went—for she would listen to no explanations; and indeed I doubt whether, even were she to come upon this statement, it would serve to restore my tarnished ideal in her estimation. But though I have lost her, I am naturally anxious (as I said when I began) that the public should not be misled into drawing harsh conclusions from what, if left unexplained, may doubtless have a singular appearance.
It is true that, up to the present, I have not been able to learn that any of those fatal portraits have absolutely been exposed for sale, though I direct my trembling steps almost every day to Regent Street, and search the windows of the Stereoscopic Company with furtive and foreboding eyes, dreading to be confronted with presentments of myself—Bedell Cruncher ("Vitriol"), the great critic!—lying across a chair in a state of collapse, sucking my thumb in a Gainsborough hat, or bestriding a ridiculous wooden horse with my face toward its tail!
But they cannot be long in coming out now; and my one hope is that these lines may appear in print in time to forestall the prejudice and scandal which are otherwise inevitable. At all events, now that the world is in possession of the real facts, I am entitled to hope that the treatment to which I have been subjected will excite the indignation and sympathy it deserves.