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- The Marquis of Lossie - 30/95 -
"Don't swear, Mr Lenorme," said Malcolm. "--Besides, that's my Lord Liftore's oath.--If you do, you will teach my lady to swear."
"What do you mean by that?" asked Lenorme, with offence plain enough in his tone.
Thereupon Malcolm told him how on one occasion, himself being present, the marquis her father happening to utter an imprecation, Lady Florimel took the first possible opportunity of using the very same words on her own account, much to the marquis's amusement and Malcolm's astonishment. But upon reflection he had come to see that she only wanted to cure her father of the bad habit.
The painter laughed heartily, but stopped all at once and said, "It's enough to make any fellow swear though, to hear a--groom talk as you do about art."
"Have I the impudence? I didn't know it," said Malcolm, with some dismay. "I seemed to myself merely saying the obvious thing, the common sense, about the picture, on the ground of your own statement of your meaning in it. I am annoyed with myself if I have been talking of things I know nothing about."
"On the contrary, MacPhail, you are so entirely right in what you say, that I cannot for the life of me understand where or how you can have got it."
"Mr Graham used to talk to me about everything."
"Well, but he was only a country schoolmaster."
"A good deal more than that, sir," said Malcolm, solemnly. "He is a disciple of him that knows everything. And now I think of it, I do believe that what I've been saying about your picture, I must have got from hearing him talk about the revelation, in which is included Isis herself, with her brother and all their train."
Lenorme held his peace. Malcolm had taken his place again unconsciously, and the painter was working hard, and looking very thoughtful. Malcolm went again to the picture.
"Hillo!" cried Lenorme, looking up and finding no object in the focus of his eyes.
Malcolm returned directly.
"There was just one thing I wanted to see," he said, "--whether the youth worshipping his goddess, had come into her presence clean."
"And what is your impression of him?" half murmured Lenorme, without lifting his head.
"The one that's painted there," answered Malcolm, "does look as if he might know that the least a goddess may claim of a worshipper is, that he should come into her presence pure enough to understand her purity. I came upon a fine phrase the other evening in your English prayer book. I never looked into it before, but I found one lying on a book stall, and it happened to open at the marriage service. There, amongst other good things, the bridegroom says: 'With my body I thee worship.'--'That's grand,' I said to myself. 'That's as it should be. The man whose body does not worship the woman he weds, should marry a harlot.' God bless Mr William Shakspere!--he knew that. I remember Mr Graham telling me once, before I had read the play, that the critics condemn Measure for Measure as failing in poetic justice. I know little about the critics, and care less, for a man who has to earn his bread and feed his soul as well, has enough to do with the books themselves without what people say about them; and Mr Graham would not tell me whether he thought the critics right or wrong; he wanted me to judge for myself. But when I came to read the play, I found, to my mind, a most absolute and splendid justice in it. They think, I suppose, that my lord Angelo should have been put to death. It just reveals the low breed of them; they think death the worst thing, therefore the greatest punishment. But Angelo prays for death, that it may hide him from his shame: it is too good for him, and he shall not have it. He must live to remove the shame from Mariana. And then see how Lucio is served!"
While Malcolm talked, Lenorme went on painting diligently, listening and saying nothing. When he had thus ended, a pause of some duration followed.
"A goddess has a right to claim that one thing--has she not, Mr Lenorme?" said Malcolm at length, winding up a silent train of thought aloud.
"What thing?" asked Lenorme, still without lifting his head.
"Purity in the arms a man holds out to her," answered Malcolm.
"Certainly," replied Lenorme, with a sort of mechanical absoluteness.
"And according to your picture, every woman whom a man loves is a goddess--the goddess of nature?"
"Certainly;--but what are you driving at? I can't paint for you. There you stand," he went on, half angrily, "as if you were Socrates himself, driving some poor Athenian buck into the corner of his deserts! I don't deserve any such insinuations, I would have you know."
"I am making none, sir. I dare never insinuate except I were prepared to charge. But I have told you I was bred up a fisher lad, and partly among the fishers, to begin with. I half learned, half discovered things that tended to give me what some would count severe notions: I count them common sense. Then, as you know, I went into service, and in that position it is easy enough to gather that many people hold very loose and very nasty notions about some things; so I just wanted to see how you felt about such. If I had a sister now, and saw a man coming to woo her, all beclotted with puddle filth--or if I knew that he had just left some woman as good as she, crying eyes and heart out over his child--I don't know that I could keep my hands off him--at least if I feared she might take him. What do you think now? Mightn't it be a righteous thing to throttle the scum and be hanged for it?"
"Well," said Lenorme, "I don't know why I should justify myself, especially where no charge is made, MacPhail; and I don't know why to you any more than another man; but at this moment I am weak, or egotistic, or sympathetic enough to wish you to understand that, so far as the poor matter of one virtue goes, I might without remorse act Sir Galahad in a play."
"Now you are beyond me," said Malcolm. "I don't know what you mean."
So Lenorme had to tell him the old Armoric tale which Tennyson has since rendered so lovelily, for, amongst artists at least, he was one of the earlier borrowers in the British legends. And as he told it, in a half sullen kind of way, the heart of the young marquis glowed within him, and he vowed to himself that Lenorme and no other should marry his sister. But, lest he should reveal more emotion than the obvious occasion justified, he restrained speech, and again silence fell, during which Lenorme was painting furiously.
"Confound it!" he cried at last, and sprang to his feet, but without taking his eyes from his picture, "what have I been doing all this time but making a portrait of you, MacPhail, and forgetting what you were there for! And yet," he went on, hesitating and catching up the miniature, "I have got a certain likeness! Yes, it must be so, for I see in it also a certain look of Lady Lossie. Well! I suppose a man can't altogether help what he paints any more than what he dreams. That will do for this morning, anyhow, I think, MacPhail. Make haste and put on your own clothes, and come into the next room to breakfast. You must be tired with standing so long.
"It is about the hardest work I ever tried," answered Malcolm; "but I doubt if I am as tired as Kelpie. I've been listening for the last half hour to hear the stalls flying."
CHAPTER XXIX: AN EVIL OMEN
Florimel was beginning to understand that the shield of the portrait was not large enough to cover many more visits to the studio. Still she must and would venture; and should anything be said, there at least was the portrait. For some weeks it had been all but finished, was never off its easel, and always showed a touch of wet paint somewhere--he kept the last of it lingering, ready to prove itself almost yet not altogether finished. What was to follow its absolute completion, neither of them could tell. The worst of it was that their thoughts about it differed discordantly. Florimel not unfrequently regarded the rupture of their intimacy as a thing not undesirable--this chiefly after such a talk with Lady Bellair as had been illustrated by some tale of misalliance or scandal between high or low, of which kind of provision for age the bold faced countess had a large store: her memory was little better than an ashpit of scandal. Amongst other biographical scraps one day she produced the case of a certain earl's daughter, who, having disgraced herself by marrying a low fellow--an artist, she believed--was as a matter of course neglected by the man whom, in accepting him, she had taught to despise her, and, before a twelvemonth was over--her family finding it impossible to hold communication with her--was actually seen by her late maid scrubbing her own floor.
"Why couldn't she leave it dirty?" said Florimel.
"Why indeed," returned Lady Bellair, "but that people sink to their fortunes! Blue blood won't keep them out of the gutter."
The remark was true, but of more general application than she intended, seeing she herself was in the gutter and did not know it. She spoke only of what followed on marriage beneath one's natal position, than which she declared there was nothing worse a woman of rank could do.
"She may get over anything but that," she would say, believing, but not saying, that she spoke from experience.
Was it part of the late marquis's purgatory to see now, as the natural result of the sins of his youth, the daughter whose innocence was dear to him exposed to all the undermining influences of this good natured but low moralled woman, whose ideas of the most mysterious relations of humanity were in no respect higher than those of a class which must not even be mentioned in my pages? At such tales the high born heart would flutter in Florimel's bosom, beat itself against its bars, turn sick at the sight of its danger, imagine
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