Twin Tales/The Lost Titian/Chapter 7


 

CHAPTER SEVEN


Julia Keswick stooped low as she stepped in under the sloping roof, coming to a stop before a large canvas, covered with faded blue-and-white ticking, which leaned against the wall. Conkling watched her, with a revived impression of the epochal close about him, as she drew away this ticking and swung the framed picture about so that it faced him.

Yet his next impression was one of sharp disappointment, for all he saw was a mediocre landscape of muddy and mediocre colors. It struck him as a climax of disillusionment, and his heart went down like a lift. And like a lift, having reached bottom, it began to ascend again, for he could see the stooping girl oddly intent on turning the metal latches on the back of the heavy frame. When the inclosed canvas was released she let it fall back a little from its confining ledges, and then drew it sidewise out of the frame. The movement reminded him of a photographer withdrawing the slide from a plate holder.

But he had no chance to let his mind dwell on that movement, for a moment later his eyes were startled by a sudden impression of gold and ivory merging into a flow of soft and melting line and re-emerging into vivid and gracious contours which brought a catch in his throat. He stood staring at this second canvas which had been hidden under the first, stood staring at it with that faint tingling of the nerve ends with which the astonished senses sometimes dizzily capitulate to sheer bewilderment.

"Great God!" he gasped. And there was reverence in that ejaculation, for all its sharpness.

"What is it?" whispered the girl, catching an echo of his amazement.

"Great God!" he repeated in his own whisper of awe. "It's a Titian!"

He saw before him the figure of a woman holding an apple. The apple was golden, but not more golden than the soft ivory glow of the woman's body, bathed in its wash of purifying color. That body made Conkling's mind flash back to the Borghese with its Sacred and Profane Love and a moment later revert to the Magdalen in the Pitti. There was the same divine fullness of throat and breast, the same wealth of red-gold hair, the unmistakable mellowness of color and melting loveliness of line. There was a largeness and power in the conception of the figure, a stubborn yet exalted animality, which convinced Conkling the canvas before him belonged to Titian's later days. Yet as he studied it he objected to the word "animality." He preferred to substitute the phrase "spiritualized paganism" as he deciphered subtler effects which made him think of the National Gallery Magdalen and remember the abundant glow of bosom in the Flora of the Uffizi, the machinery of human life made adorable to human eyes.

"It's a Titian!" he repeated in a shocked and half incredulous whisper as he stepped still closer to the canvas.

That canvas, he could see, had suffered somewhat through the vicissitudes of its history. Extremes of heat and cold obviously had imposed a slight rimple of fine lines on its surface. But this did not greatly trouble Conkling. He even found in it, in fact, an accidental and subsidiary delight, for it added eloquence to its tone of time and enriched its note of history with an accentuation of age. But the miracle that it could have been carried unknown and unheralded across the Atlantic, that it could lie for years in the attic of a dilapidated Ontario manor-house, tended to take his breath away. He knew enough of Titian to remember that much of that great Venetian's work had been lost. He had Vasari to back him up in that. More had been lost, in fact, than had survived, but behind the possession of that painting, he knew, lay a history which would not be easy to unravel. It impressed him as something which kings might have intrigued over. He recalled how nearly two centuries ago, when the Flora was unearthed to Florence, a nation practically ceased warfare to come and stare at the canvas—and it would soon be America's time to stop and stare.

The girl moved closer to his side, but he remained unconscious of her presence there. He did not see the rapt light in her eyes. The look of vague triumph on her face was lost to him. It was, in fact, several minutes before he even remembered her. Then it came home to him what the picture meant, not to the America which was to stop and stare, but to the impoverished household where it lay like a jewel hidden away in a straw mattress. He remembered what it would mean to that haughty and broken pair so in need of sustenance. It was their release—their salvation. That benignant golden figure with the apple of desire in her clustered fingers stood the goddess who was to work the miracle, who in a day might transform their penury into plenty. And this thought took his attention back to Julia Keswick.

She was studying him, he saw, with troubled eyes in which some new anxiety seemed to be formulating itself.

"You needn't worry," he told her, though he smiled the next moment at the inadequacy of his phrasing. "That canvas is a Titian. There's not a shadow of doubt about it. There's no chance of a mistake. No copyist could ever turn the trick like that—not in a thousand years! The only thing that leaves me stumped is how it ever got here."

"I've never been told about it, of course," she explained, with a slight tremolo of excitement in her voice. "I don't think there was anybody to tell about it after my father died. But in a letter to a French artist named Branchaud, which must have been returned undelivered after he went to Italy for the last time and was among his papers, father wrote that he'd live on acorns and sleep in a dog kennel before he'd part with the T. 'T,' I remember, was all he had written. He said it had cost him too much—too much in blood and tears and worry and work. There was something about a monk at Parma, a monk who had sinned against both God and man, as the letter put it, to whom father had first gone to buy one of West's portraits of Shelley."

"Where is that letter?" asked Conkling.

"My aunts burned it four or five years ago. They saw nothing in it but what was discreditable, and destroyed it along with the other things of father's which they wanted out of existence."

"The fools!" he cried with a sudden hot resentment.

"What father wrote about it costing him so much in worry and work used to make me wonder if he had copied it at some time with his own hand. I tried to believe that, and it made me prouder of him."

Conkling shook his head.

"You were wrong there," he said. "That canvas has got what you can't copy. The secret of it slipped away from the world over three centuries ago. And no one has ever got within speaking distance of it again."

Slowly she moved her head up and down, as though consoled by some final confirmation of a long doubtful issue. A faint tinge of color even crept back into her face, and Conkling stood arrested by the miraculous echo of loveliness which the living face seemed to catch from the painted face so close above it. It made him think of a woodland pool overhung by an April twilight. Then his eye wandered on to the Quaker gray of her gown. It made a frame too dull for the buoyant ardencies of her thin young body. And it came home to him how soon, now, that dullness could be done away with.

"All this reminds me of what brought me here under your roof," he went on, doing his best to key down to her own quietness of tone. "You've asked me to tell you what your pictures are worth. But all I'm going to do is to try to give you an idea of what this one is worth. I don't want to exaggerate, but I'd say this one canvas is worth your farm, and your neighbors' farms, and every farm and all they hold between here and Weston!"

"You mean to an artist?" she ventured, with the color once more slipping away from her face,

"No, I mean to a dealer, to a collector, to any one with the brains to recognize what it is. As I say, I don't want to exaggerate. In one way it's not easy to figure out—in dollars and cents, I mean. But I'm being as reasonable as a man who says a loaf of bread is worth ten cents when I say this Titian is to-day, as it stands there, worth at least three or four hundred thousand dollars."

It was bewilderment, more than elation, that showed on her face. He even detected a touch of incredulity there as she turned back to the mellow glow of light reflected from the canvas.

"That sounds ridiculous, perhaps, but I know about such things. It has been my business to know. For instance, there was the Panshanger Raphael, sometimes spoken of as the Small Cowper Madonna, which Widener paid seven hundred thousand dollars for. And the same collector, when he brought Rembrandt's Mill, paid a cool half million for it, just as he paid a half million for a Vandyke from the Cattaneo collection. And Huntington paid four hundred thousand dollars for Velasquez's Duke of Olivares, and Frick paid the same amount for a Gainsborough portrait, and a quarter of a million for a small Rembrandt. And I could go on that way until you got tired listening to me. But that's not the important thing. All you've got to do is look at it. You'd know——"

He broke off with a sense of inadequacy. Then wakening to the extent to which he had overlooked her in his excitement, he linked his arm fraternally through hers as she stood studying the canvas.

"Yes, it's lovely," she murmured, without responding to the pressure on her arm. She seemed suddenly small and fragile there under the shadow of his shoulder.

"There's only one thing in all the world lovelier," he told her as he smiled down into her face, grown pitiful with its shadows of fatigue.

"One thing lovelier?" she echoed absently, clinging to him with a touch of forlornness. That morning of tangled emotions had plainly been a little too much for her.

"I mean you," he said.

She raised ardent eyes at that, flushing happily as she looked up into his troubled face. For his thoughts, even as he spoke, had gone pioneering off into the uncertain future. And he turned her jealously away from the glow of the canvas.

"It mustn't take you away from me," he cried out, with a parade of self-pity.

She smiled surrenderingly, at that, and still again looked up into his eyes with a gaze so shot through with incongruously mingled hunger and gratitude that he turned sharply and took her in his arms.

She lay there passively, with her eyes half closed again. And he studied her, satisfied with the silence and her nearness.

He was still studying her when the sharp clangor of a bell sounded from below stairs. She drew away from him with a stricken light in her eyes.

The bell sounded again, more authoritatively, more angrily.

"That's Aunt Georgina," she said, with a look of childishness creeping back into her face. "She keeps that bell beside her bed. It means she wants me."

He arrested her retreat, resenting the meekness which that summons had imposed upon her.

"But what are we to do about this?" he demanded, with a gesture toward the Titian.

"What is best to do?" she asked in a whisper.

It took some time before he seemed able to answer that question.

"First thing, I want to wire for Banning. He's the head of our house. This thing's too big for me to handle alone. I've got to get Banning here as soon as wheels can bring him. Then—oh, confound that bell! It sounds like something out of Dante!"

"I must go!" she told him.

He was tempted to smile for a moment at what seemed like terror on her face. But there were certain things he had not forgotten.

"And what will you do with me?" he asked, holding her back by one white hand.

"You'll have to go down by the back stairway," she whispered.

"But I'm not going for long," he stoutly asserted as he held her face up to the light. "From to-day," he said, as he stooped and kissed her impassive lips, "the new era begins, and you'll see me back to-morrow with trumpets blowing."