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- The Emancipated - 20/91 -
"It is a manifest truth!" cried the other. "Who ever doubted it but a _Dummkopf_? I use the word with reference to this argument only."
So it went on for a long time. Mallard and Elgar knew no German, so could derive neither pleasure nor profit from the high debate.
"Are you as glum here as in London?" Reuben asked of his companion, in a bantering voice. "I should have pictured you grandly jovial, wreathed perhaps with ruddy vine-leaves, the light of inspiration in your eye, and in your hand a mantling goblet! Drink, man, drink! you need a stimulant, an exhilarant, an anti-phlegmatic, a counter-irritant against English spleen. You are still on the other side of the Alps, of the Channel; the fogs yet cling about you. Clear your brow, O painter of Ossianic wildernesses! Taste the foam of life! We are in the land of Horace, and _nunc est bibendum_!-- Seriously, do you never relax?"
"Oh yes. You should see me over the fifth tumbler of whiskey at Stornoway."
"Bah! you might as well say the fifth draught of fish-oil North Cape. How innocent this wine is! A gallon of it would give one no more than a pleasant glow, the faculty of genial speech. Take a glass with me to the health of your enchanting ward."
"Please to command your tongue," growled Mallard, with a look that was not to be mistaken.
"I beg your pardon. It shall be to the health of that superb girl we saw in the Mercato. But, as far as I can judge yet, the Neapolitan type doesn't appeal to me very strongly. It is finely animal, and of course that has its value; but I prefer the suggestion of a soul, don't you? I remember a model old Langton had in Rome, a girl fresh from the mountains; by Juno! a glorious creature! I dare say you have seen her portrait in his studio; he likes to show it. But it does her nothing like justice; she might have sat for the genius of the Republic. Utterly untaught, and intensely stupid; but there were marvellous things to be read in her face. Ah, but give me the girls of Venice! You know them, how they walk about the piazza; their tall, lithe forms, the counterpart of the gondolier; their splendid black hair, elaborately braided and pierced with large ornaments; their noble, aristocratic, grave features; their long shawls! What natural dignity! What eloquent eyes! I like to imagine them profoundly intellectual, which they are unhappily not."
Marsh had withdrawn from colloquy with the Germans, and kept glancing across the table at his compatriots, obviously wishing that he might join them. Mallard, upon whom Elgar's excited talk jarred more and more, noticed the stranger's looks, and at length leaned forward to speak to him.
"As usual, we are in a minority among the sun-worshippers."
"Sun-worshippers! Good!" laughed the other. "Yes, I have never met more than one or two chance Englishmen at the 'Sole.'"
"But you are at your case with our friends there.--I think you know as little German as I do, Elgar?"
"Devilish bad at languages! To tell you the truth, I can't endure the sense of inferiority one has in beginning to smatter with foreigners. I read four or five, but avoid speaking as much as possible."
Marsh took an early opportunity of alluding to the argument in which he had recently taken part. The subject was resumed. At Elgar's bidding the waiter had brought cigars, and things looked comfortable; the Germans talked with more animation than ever.
"One of the worst evils of democracy in England," said Reuben, forcibly, "is its alliance with Puritan morality."
"Oh, that is being quickly outgrown," cried Marsh. "Look at the spread of rationalism."
"You take it for granted that Puritanism doesn't survive religious dogma? Believe me, you are greatly mistaken. I am sorry to say I have a large experience in this question. The mass of the English people have no genuine religious belief, but none the less they are Puritans in morality. The same applies to the vastly greater part of those who even repudiate Christianity."
"One must take account of the national hypocrisy," remarked the younger man, with an air of superiority, shaking his head as his habit was.
"It's a complicated matter. The representative English bourgeois is a hypocrite in essence, but is perfectly serious in his judgment of the man next door; and the latter characteristic has more weight than the former in determining his life. Puritanism has aided the material progress of England; but its effect on art! But for it, we should have a school of painters corresponding in greatness to the Elizabethan dramatists. Depend upon it, the democracy will continue to be Puritan. Every picture, every book, will be tried by the same imbecile test Enforcement of Puritan morality will be one of the ways in which the mob, come to power, will revenge itself on those who still remain its superiors."
Marsh was not altogether pleased at finding his facile eloquence outdone. In comparing himself with Elgar, he was conscious of but weakly representing the tendencies which were a passionate force in this man with the singularly fine head, with such a glow of wild life about him. He abandoned the abstract argument, and struck a personal note.
"However it may be in the future, I grant you the artist has at present no scope save in one direction. For my own part, I have fallen back on landscape. Let those who will, paint Miss Wilhelmina in the nursery, with an interesting doll of her own size; or a member of Parliament rising to deliver a great speech on the liquor traffic; or Mrs. What-do-you-call-her, lecturing on woman's rights. These are the subjects our time affords."
Mallard eyed with fresh curiosity the gentleman who had "fallen back on landscape."
"What did you formerly aim at?" he inquired, with a sort of suave gruffness.
"Things which were hopelessly out of the question. I worked for a long time at a 'Death of Messalina.' That was in Rome. I had a splendid inspiration for Messalina's face. But my hand was paralyzed when I thought of the idiotic comments such a picture would occasion in England. One fellow would say I had searched through history in a prurient spirit for something sensational; another, that I read a moral lesson of terrible significance; and so on."
"A grand subject, decidedly!" exclaimed Elgar, with genuine enthusiasm, which restored Marsh to his own good opinion. "Go on with it! Bid the fools be hanged! Have you your studies here?"
"Unfortunately not. They are in Rome."
Mallard delivered himself of a blunt opinion.
"That is no subject for a picture. Use it for literature, if you like."
The inevitable discussion began, the discussion so familiar nowadays, and which would have sounded so odd to the English painters who were wont to call themselves "historical," Where is the line between subjects for the easel and subjects for the desk? What distinguishes the art of the illustrator from the art of the artist?
That was a great evening round the table at the Albergo del Sole. How gloriously the air thickened with tobacco-smoke! What removal of empty bottles and replacing them with full! The Germans were making it a set _Kneipe_; the Englishmen, unable to drink quite so heroically, were scarce behind in vehemence of debate. Mallard, grimly accepting the help of wine against his inner foes, at length earned Elgar's approval; he had relaxed indeed, and was no longer under the oppression of English fog. But with him such moods were of brief duration; he suddenly quitted the table, and went out into the night air.
The late moon was rising, amber-coloured on a sky of dusky azure. He walked from the garden, across the road, and towards the ruins of the Amphitheatre, which lie some distance apart from the Pompeian streets that have been unearthed; he passed beneath an arch, and stood looking down into the dark hollow so often thronged with citizens of Latin speech. Small wonder that Benvenuto's necromancer could evoke his myriads of flitting ghosts in the midnight Colosseum; here too it needed but to stand for a few minutes in the dead stillness, and the air grew alive with mysterious presences, murmurous with awful whisperings. Mallard enjoyed it for awhile, but at length turned away abruptly, feeling as if a cold hand had touched him.
As he re-entered the inn-precincts, he heard voices still uproarious in the dining-room; but he had no intention of going among them again. His bedroom was one of a row which opened immediately upon the garden. He locked himself in, went to bed, but did not sleep for a long time. A wind was rising, and a branch of a tree constantly tapped against the pane. It might have been some centuries-dead inhabitant of Pompeii trying to deliver a message from the silent world.
The breakfast-party next morning lacked vivacity. Clifford Marsh was mute and dolorous of aspect; no doubt his personal embarrassments were occupying him. Yesterday's wine had become his foe, instead of an ally urging him to dare all in the cause of "art." He consumed his coffee and roll in the manner of ordinary mortals, not once flourishing his dainty hand or shaking his ambrosial hair. Elgar was very stiff from his ascent of Vesuvius, and he too found that "the foam of life" had an unpleasant after-taste, suggestive of wrecked fortunes and a dubious future. Mallard was only a little gruffer than his wonted self.
"I am going on at once to Sorrento," he said, meeting Elgar afterwards in the garden. "To-morrow I shall cross over the hills to Positano and Amalfi. Suppose you come with me?"
The other hesitated.
"You mean you are going to walk?"
"No. I have traps to carry on from the station. We should have a carriage to Sorrento, and to-morrow a donkey for the baggage."
They paced about, hands in pockets. It was a keen morning; the
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