The Last Chronicle of Barset CHAPTER XXVI.


On that same afternoon Conway Dalrymple rolled up his sketch of Jael and Sisera, put it into his pocket, dressed himself with some considerable care, putting on a velvet coat which he was in the habit of wearing out of doors when he did not intend to wander beyond Kensington Gardens and the neighbourhood and which was supposed to become him well, yellow gloves, and a certain Spanish hat of which he was fond, and slowly sauntered across to the house of his friend Mrs. Dobbs Broughton. When the door was opened to him he did not ask if the lady were at home, but muttering some word to the servant, made his way through the hall, upstairs, to a certain small sitting-room looking to the north, which was much used by the mistress of the house. It was quite clear that Conway Dalrymple had arranged his visit beforehand, and that he was expected. He opened the door without knocking, and, though the servant had followed him, he entered without being announced. “I’m afraid I’m late,” he said, as he gave his hand to Mrs. Broughton; “but for the life I could not get away sooner.”

“You are quite in time,” said the lady, “for any good that you are likely to do.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means this, my friend, that you had better give the idea up. I have been thinking of it all day, and I do not approve of it.”

“What nonsense!”

“Of course you will say so, Conway. I have observed of late that whatever I say to you is called nonsense. I suppose it is the new fashion that gentlemen should so express themselves, but I am not quite sure that I like it.”

“You know what I mean. I am very anxious about this picture, and I shall be much disappointed if it cannot be done now. It was you put it into my head first.”

“I regret it very much, I can assure you; but it will not be generous in you to urge that against me.”

“But why shouldn’t it succeed?”

“There are many reasons,—some personal to myself.”

“I do not know what they can be. You hinted at something which I only took as having been said in joke.”

“If you mean about Miss Van Siever and yourself, I was quite in earnest, Conway. I do not think you could do better, and I should be glad to see it of all things. Nothing would please me more than to bring Miss Van Siever and you together.”

“And nothing would please me less.”

“But why so?”

“Because,—because—. I can do nothing but tell you the truth, carina; because my heart is not free to present itself at Miss Van Siever’s feet.”

“It ought to be free, Conway, and you must make it free. It will be well that you should be married, and well for others besides yourself. I tell you so as your friend, and you have no truer friend. Sit where you are, if you please. You can say anything you have to say without stalking about the room.”

“I was not going to stalk,—as you call it.”

“You will be safer and quieter while you are sitting. I heard a knock at the door, and I do not doubt that it is Clara. She said she would be here.”

“And you have told her of the picture?”

“Yes; I have told her. She said that it would be impossible, and that her mother would not allow it. Here she is.” Then Miss Van Siever was shown into the room, and Dalrymple perceived that she was a girl the peculiarity of whose complexion bore daylight better even than candlelight. There was something in her countenance which seemed to declare that she could bear any light to which it might be subjected without flinching from it. And her bonnet, which was very plain, and her simple brown morning gown, suited her well. She was one who required none of the circumstances of studied dress to carry off aught in her own appearance. She could look her best when other women look their worst, and could dare to be seen at all times. Dalrymple, with an artist’s eye, saw this at once, and immediately confessed to himself that there was something great about her. He could not deny her beauty. But there was ever present to him that look of hardness which had struck him when he first saw her. He could not but fancy that though at times she might be playful, and allow the fur of her coat to be stroked with good-humour,—she would be a dangerous plaything, using her claws unpleasantly when the good-humour should have passed away. But not the less was she beautiful, and—beyond that and better than that, for his purpose,—she was picturesque.

“Clara,” said Mrs. Broughton, “here is this mad painter, and he says that he will have you on his canvas, either with your will or without it.”

“Even if he could do that, I am sure he would not,” said Miss Van Siever.

“To prove to you that I can, I think I need only show you the sketch,” said Dalrymple, taking the drawing out of his pocket. “As regards the face, I know it so well by heart already, that I feel certain I could produce a likeness without even a sitting. What do you think of it, Mrs. Broughton?”

“What do you think of it, Mrs. Broughton?”

“It is clever,” said she, looking at it with all that enthusiasm which women are able to throw into their eyes on such occasions; “very clever. The subject would just suit her. I have never doubted that.”

“Eames says that it is confused,” said the artist.

“I don’t see that at all,” said Mrs. Broughton.

“Of course a sketch must be rough. This one has been rubbed about and altered,—but I think there is something in it.”

“An immense deal,” said Mrs. Broughton. “Don’t you think so, Clara?”

“I am not a judge.”

“But you can see the woman’s fixed purpose; and her stealthiness as well;—and the man sleeps like a log. What is that dim outline?”

“Nothing in particular,” said Dalrymple. But the dim outline was intended to represent Mrs. Van Siever.

“It is very good,—unquestionably good,” said Mrs. Dobbs Broughton. “I do not for a moment doubt that you would make a great picture of it. It is just the subject for you, Conway; so much imagination, and yet such a scope for portraiture. It would be full of action, and yet such perfect repose. And the lights and shadows would be exactly in your line. I can see at a glance how you would manage the light in the tent, and bring it down just on the nail. And then the pose of the woman would be so good, so much strength, and yet such grace! You should have the bowl he drank the milk out of, so as to tell the whole story. No painter living tells a story so well as you do, Conway.” Conway Dalrymple knew that the woman was talking nonsense to him, and yet he liked it, and liked her for talking it.

“But Mr. Dalrymple can paint his Sisera without making me a Jael,” said Miss Van Siever.

“Of course he can,” said Mrs. Broughton.

“But I never will,” said the artist. “I conceived the subject as connected with you, and I will never disjoin the two ideas.”

“I think it no compliment, I can assure you,” said Miss Van Siever.

“And none was intended. But you may observe that artists in all ages have sought for higher types of models in painting women who have been violent or criminal, than have sufficed for them in their portraitures of gentleness and virtue. Look at all the Judiths, and the Lucretias, and the Charlotte Cordays; how much finer the women are than the Madonnas and the Saint Cecilias.”

“After that, Clara, you need not scruple to be a Jael,” said Mrs. Broughton.

“But I do scruple,—very much; so strongly that I know I never shall do it. In the first place I don’t know why Mr. Dalrymple wants it.”

“Want it!” said Conway. “I want to paint a striking picture.”

“But you can do that without putting me into it.”

“No;—not this picture. And why should you object? It is the commonest thing in the world for ladies to sit to artists in that manner.”

“People would know it.”

“Nobody would know it, so that you need care about it. What would it matter if everybody knew it? We are not proposing anything improper;—are we, Mrs. Broughton?”

“She shall not be pressed if she does not like it,” said Mrs. Broughton. “You know I told you before Clara came in, that I was afraid it could not be done.”

“And I don’t like it,” said Miss Van Siever, with some little hesitation in her voice.

“I don’t see anything improper in it, if you mean that,” said Mrs. Broughton.

“But, mamma!”

“Well, yes; that is the difficulty, no doubt. The only question is, whether your mother is not so very singular, as to make it impossible that you should comply with her in everything.”

“I am afraid that I do not comply with her in very much,” said Miss Van Siever in her gentlest voice.

“Oh, Clara!”

“You drive me to say so, as otherwise I should be a hypocrite. Of course I ought not to have said it before Mr. Dalrymple.”

“You and Mr. Dalrymple will understand all about that, I daresay, before the picture is finished,” said Mrs. Broughton.

It did not take much persuasion on the part of Conway Dalrymple to get the consent of the younger lady to be painted, or of the elder to allow the sitting to go on in her room. When the question of easels and other apparatus came to be considered Mrs. Broughton was rather flustered, and again declared with energy that the whole thing must fall to the ground; but a few more words from the painter restored her, and at last the arrangements were made. As Mrs. Dobbs Broughton’s dear friend, Madalina Demolines had said, Mrs. Dobbs Broughton liked a fevered existence. “What will Dobbs say?” she exclaimed more than once. And it was decided at last that Dobbs should know nothing about it as long as it could be kept from him. “Of course he shall be told at last,” said his wife. “I wouldn’t keep anything from the dear fellow for all the world. But if he knew it at first it would be sure to get through Musselboro to your mother.”

“I certainly shall beg that Mr. Broughton may not be taken into confidence if Mr. Musselboro is to follow,” said Clara. “And it must be understood that I must cease to sit immediately, whatever may be the inconvenience, should mamma speak to me about it.”

This stipulation was made and conceded, and then Miss Van Siever went away, leaving the artist with Mrs. Dobbs Broughton. “And now, if you please, Conway, you had better go too,” said the lady, as soon as there had been time for Miss Van Siever to get downstairs and out of the hall-door.

“Of course you are in a hurry to get rid of me.”

“Yes, I am.”

“A little while ago I improperly said that some suggestion of yours was nonsense and you rebuked me for my blunt incivility. Might not I rebuke you now with equal justice?”

“Do so, if you will;—but leave me. I tell you, Conway, that in these matters you must either be guided by me, or you and I must cease to see each other. It does not do that you should remain here with me longer than the time usually allowed for a morning call. Clara has come and gone, and you also must go. I am sorry to disturb you, for you seem to be so very comfortable in that chair.”

“I am comfortable,—and I can look at you. Come;—there can be no harm in saying that, if I say nothing else. Well;—there, now I am gone.” Whereupon he got up from his arm-chair.

“But you are not gone while you stand there.”

“And you would really wish me to marry that girl?”

“I do,—if you can love her.”

“And what about her love?”

“You must win it, of course. She is to be won, like any other woman. The fruit won’t fall into your mouth merely because you open your lips. You must climb the tree.”

“Still climbing trees in the Hesperides,” said Conway. “Love does that, you know; but it is hard to climb the trees without the love. It seems to me that I have done my climbing,—have clomb as high as I knew how, and that the boughs are breaking with me, and that I am likely to get a fall. Do you understand me?”

“I would rather not understand you.”

“That is no answer to my question. Do you understand that at this moment I am getting a fall which will break every bone in my skin and put any other climbing out of the question as far as I am concerned? Do you understand that?”

“No; I do not,” said Mrs. Broughton, in a tremulous voice.

“Then I’ll go and make love at once to Clara Van Siever. There’s enough of pluck left in me to ask her to marry me, and I suppose I could manage to go through the ceremony if she accepted me.”

“But I want you to love her,” said Mrs. Dobbs Broughton.

“I daresay I should love her well enough after a bit;—that is, if she didn’t break my head or comb my hair. I suppose there will be no objection to my saying that you sent me when I ask her?”

“Conway, you will of course not mention my name to her. I have suggested to you a marriage which I think would tend to make you happy, and would give you a stability in life which you want. It is perhaps better that I should be explicit at once. As an unmarried man I cannot continue to know you. You have said words of late which have driven me to this conclusion. I have thought about it much,—too much, perhaps, and I know that I am right. Miss Van Siever has beauty and wealth and intellect, and I think that she would appreciate the love of such a man as you are. Now go.” And Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, standing upright, pointed to the door. Conway Dalrymple slowly took his Spanish hat from off the marble slab on which he had laid it, and left the room without saying a word. The interview had been quite long enough, and there was nothing else which he knew how to say with effect.

Croquet is a pretty game out of doors, and chess is delightful in a drawing-room. Battledoor and shuttlecock and hunt-the-slipper have also their attractions. Proverbs are good, and cross questions with crooked answers may be made very amusing. But none of these games are equal to the game of love-making,—providing that the players can be quite sure that there shall be no heart in the matter. Any touch of heart not only destroys the pleasure of the game, but makes the player awkward and incapable and robs him of his skill. And thus it is that there are many people who cannot play the game at all. A deficiency of some needed internal physical strength prevents the owners of the heart from keeping a proper control over its valves, and thus emotion sets in, and the pulses are accelerated, and feeling supervenes. For such a one to attempt a game of love-making, is as though your friend with the gout should insist on playing croquet. A sense of the ridiculous, if nothing else, should in either case deter the afflicted one from the attempt. There was no such absurdity with our friend Mrs. Dobbs Broughton and Conway Dalrymple. Their valves and pulses were all right. They could play the game without the slightest danger of any inconvenient result;—of any inconvenient result, that is, as regarded their own feelings. Blind people cannot see and stupid people cannot understand,—and it might be that Mr. Dobbs Broughton, being both blind and stupid in such matters, might perceive something of the playing of the game and not know that it was only a game of skill.

When I say that as regarded these two lovers there was nothing of love between them, and that the game was therefore so far innocent, I would not be understood as asserting that these people had no hearts within their bosoms. Mrs. Dobbs Broughton probably loved her husband in a sensible, humdrum way, feeling him to be a bore, knowing him to be vulgar, aware that he often took a good deal more wine than was good for him, and that he was almost as uneducated as a hog. Yet she loved him, and showed her love by taking care that he should have things for dinner which he liked to eat. But in this alone there were to be found none of the charms of a fevered existence, and therefore Mrs. Dobbs Broughton, requiring those charms for her comfort, played her little game with Conway Dalrymple. And as regarded the artist himself, let no reader presume him to have been heartless because he flirted with Mrs. Dobbs Broughton. Doubtless he will marry some day, will have a large family for which he will work hard, and will make a good husband to some stout lady who will be careful in looking after his linen. But on the present occasion he fell into some slight trouble in spite of the innocence of his game. As he quitted his friend’s room he heard the hall-door slammed heavily; then there was a quick step on the stairs, and on the landing-place above the first flight he met the master of the house, somewhat flurried, as it seemed, and not looking comfortable, either as regarded his person or his temper. “By George, he’s been drinking!” Conway said to himself, after the first glance. Now it certainly was the case that poor Dobbs Broughton would sometimes drink at improper hours.

“What the devil are you doing here?” said Dobbs Broughton to his friend the artist. “You’re always here. You’re here a doosed sight more than I like.” Husbands when they have been drinking are very apt to make mistakes as to the purport of the game.

“Why, Dobbs,” said the painter, “there’s something wrong with you.”

“No, there ain’t. There’s nothing wrong; and if there was, what’s that to you? I shan’t ask you to pay anything for me, I suppose.”

“Well;—I hope not.”

“I won’t have you here, and let that be an end of it. It’s all very well when I choose to have a few friends to dinner, but my wife can do very well without your fal-lalling here all day. Will you remember that, if you please?”

Conway Dalrymple, knowing that he had better not argue any question with a drunken man, took himself out of the house, shrugging his shoulders as he thought of the misery which his poor dear playfellow would now be called upon to endure.