Arnold Bennett.

Buried Alive: a Tale of These Days online

. (page 10 of 14)
Online LibraryArnold BennettBuried Alive: a Tale of These Days → online text (page 10 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

sleeves. He wore a black silk necktie, with a small pearl pin in the
mathematical centre of the perfect rhomboid of the upper part of a
sailor's knot. His gloves were of slate colour. The chief characteristic
of his faintly striped trousers was the crease, which seemed more than
mortal. His boots were of _glacé_ kid and as smooth as his cheeks. The
cheeks had a fresh boyish colour, and between them, over admirable snowy
teeth, projected the hooked key to this temperament. It _is_ possible
that Alice, from sheer thoughtlessness, shared the vulgar prejudice
against Jews; but certainly she did not now feel it. The man's personal
charm, his exceeding niceness, had always conquered that prejudice,
whenever encountered. Moreover, he was only about thirty-five in years,
and no such costly and beautiful male had ever yet stood on Alice's

She at once, in her mind, contrasted him with the curates of the
previous week, to the disadvantage of the Established Church. She did
not know that this man was more dangerous than a thousand curates.

"Is this Mr. Leek's?" he inquired smilingly, and raised his hat.

"Yes," said Alice with a responsive smile.

"Is he in?"

"Well," said Alice, "he's busy at his work. You see in this weather he
can't go out much - not to work - and so he - "

"Could I see him in his studio?" asked the glossy man, with the air of
saying, "Can you grant me this supreme favour?"

It was the first time that Alice had heard the attic called a studio.
She paused.

"It's about pictures," explained the visitor.

"Oh!" said Alice. "Will you come in?"

"I've run down specially to see Mr. Leek," said the visitor with

Alice's opinion as to the seriousness of her husband's gift for painting
had of course changed in two years. A man who can make two or three
hundred a year by sticking colours anyhow, at any hazard, on canvases -
by producing alleged pictures that in Alice's secret view bore only a
comic resemblance to anything at all - that man had to be taken seriously
in his attic as an artisan. It is true that Alice thought the payment he
received miraculously high for the quality of work done; but, with this
agreeable Jew in the hall, and the _coupé_ at the kerb, she suddenly
perceived the probability of even greater miracles in the matter of
price. She saw the average price of ten pounds rising to fifteen, or
even twenty, pounds - provided her husband was given no opportunity to
ruin the affair by his absurd, retiring shyness.

"Will you come this way?" she suggested briskly.

And all that elegance followed her up to the attic door: which door she
threw open, remarking simply -

"Henry, here is a gentleman come to see you about pictures."

_A Connoisseur_

Priam recovered more quickly than might have been expected. His first
thought was naturally that women are uncalculated, if not incalculable,
creatures, and that the best of them will do impossible things - things
inconceivable till actually done! Fancy her introducing a stranger,
without a word of warning, direct into his attic! However, when he rose
he saw the visitor's nose (whose nostrils were delicately expanding and
contracting in the fumes of the oil-stove), and he was at once
reassured. He knew that he would have to face neither rudeness, nor
bluntness, nor lack of imagination, nor lack of quick sympathy. Besides,
the visitor, with practical assurance, set the tone of the interview

"Good-morning, _maître_," he began, right off. "I must apologize for
breaking in upon you. But I've come to see if you have any work to sell.
My name is Oxford, and I'm acting for a collector."

He said this with a very agreeable mingling of sincerity, deference, and
mercantile directness, also with a bright, admiring smile. He showed no
astonishment at the interior of the attic.


Well, of course, it would be idle to pretend that the greatest artists
do not enjoy being addressed as _maître_. 'Master' is the same word, but
entirely different. It was a long time since Priam Farll had been called
_maître_. Indeed, owing to his retiring habits, he had very seldom been
called _maître_ at all. A just-finished picture stood on an easel near
the window; it represented one of the most wonderful scenes in London:
Putney High Street at night; two omnibus horses stepped strongly and
willingly out of a dark side street, and under the cold glare of the
main road they somehow took on the quality of equestrian sculpture. The
altercation of lights was in the highest degree complex. Priam
understood immediately, from the man's calm glance at the picture, and
the position which he instinctively took up to see it, that he was
accustomed to looking at pictures. The visitor did not start back, nor
rush forward, nor dissolve into hysterics, nor behave as though
confronted by the ghost of a murdered victim. He just gazed at the
picture, keeping his nerve and holding his tongue. And yet it was not an
easy picture to look at. It was a picture of an advanced
experimentalism, and would have appealed to nothing but the sense of
humour in a person not a connoisseur.

"Sell!" exclaimed Priam. Like all shy men he could hide his shyness in
an exaggerated familiarity. "What price this?" And he pointed to the

There were no other preliminaries.

"It is excessively distinguished," murmured Mr. Oxford, in the accents
of expert appreciation. "Excessively distinguished. May I ask how much?"

"That's what I'm asking you," said Priam, fiddling with a paint rag.

"Hum!" observed Mr. Oxford, and gazed in silence. Then: "Two hundred and

Priam had virtually promised to deliver that picture to the
picture-framer on the next day, and he had not expected to receive a
penny more than twelve pounds for it. But artists are strange organisms.

He shook his head. Although two hundred and fifty pounds was as much as
he had earned in the previous twelve months, he shook his grey head.

"No?" said Mr. Oxford kindly and respectfully, putting his hands behind
his back. "By the way," he turned with eagerness to Priam, "I presume
you have seen the portrait of Ariosto by Titian that they've bought for
the National Gallery? What is your opinion of it, _maître_?" He stood
expectant, glowing with interest.

"Except that it isn't Ariosto, and it certainly isn't by Titian, it's a
pretty high-class sort of thing," said Priam.

Mr. Oxford smiled with appreciative content, nodding his head. "I hoped
you would say so," he remarked. And swiftly he passed on to Segantini,
then to J.W. Morrice, and then to Bonnard, demanding the _maître's_
views. In a few moments they were really discussing pictures. And it was
years since Priam had listened to the voice of informed common sense on
the subject of painting. It was years since he had heard anything but
exceeding puerility concerning pictures. He had, in fact, accustomed
himself not to listen; he had excavated a passage direct from one ear to
the other for such remarks. And now he drank up the conversation of Mr.
Oxford, and perceived that he had long been thirsty. And he spoke his
mind. He grew warmer, more enthusiastic, more impassioned. And Mr.
Oxford listened with ecstasy. Mr. Oxford had apparently a natural
discretion. He simply accepted Priam, as he stood, for a great painter.
No reference to the enigma why a great painter should be painting in an
attic in Werter Road, Putney! No inconvenient queries about the great
painter's previous history and productions. Just the frank, full
acceptance of his genius! It was odd, but it was comfortable.

"So you won't take two hundred and fifty?" asked Mr. Oxford, hopping
back to business.

"No," said Priam sturdily. "The truth is," he added, "I should rather
like to keep that picture for myself."

"Will you take five hundred, _maître_?"

"Yes, I suppose I will," and Priam sighed. A genuine sigh! For he would
really have liked to keep the picture. He knew he had never painted a

"And may I carry it away with me?" asked Mr. Oxford.

"I expect so," said Priam.

"I wonder if I might venture to ask you to come back to town with me?"
Mr. Oxford went on, in gentle deference. "I have one or two pictures I
should very much like you to see, and I fancy they might give you
pleasure. And we could talk over future business. If possibly you could
spare an hour or so. If I might request - - "

A desire rose in Priam's breast and fought against his timidity. The
tone in which Mr. Oxford had said "I fancy they might give you pleasure"
appeared to indicate something very much out of the common. And Priam
could scarcely recollect when last his eyes had rested on a picture that
was at once unfamiliar and great.

_Parfitts' Galleries_

I have already indicated that the machine was somewhat out of the
ordinary. It was, as a fact, exceedingly out of the ordinary. It was
much larger than electric carriages usually are. It had what the writers
of 'motoring notes' in papers written by the wealthy for the wealthy
love to call a 'limousine body.' And outside and in, it was miraculously
new and spotless. On the ivory handles of its doors, on its soft yellow
leather upholstery, on its cedar woodwork, on its patent blind
apparatus, on its silver fittings, on its lamps, on its footstools, on
its silken arm-slings - not the minutest trace of usage! Mr. Oxford's car
seemed to show that Mr. Oxford never used a car twice, purchasing a new
car every morning, like stockbrokers their silk hats, or the Duke of
Selsea his trousers. There was a table in the 'body' for writing, and
pockets up and down devised to hold documents, also two arm-chairs, and
a suspended contrivance which showed the hour, the temperature, and the
fluctuations of the barometer; there was also a speaking-tube. One felt
that if the machine had been connected by wireless telegraphy with the
Stock Exchange, the leading studios and the Houses of Parliament, and if
a little restaurant had been constructed in the rear, Mr. Oxford might
never have been under the necessity of leaving the car; that he might
have passed all his days in it from morn to latest eve.

The perfection of the machine and of Mr. Oxford's attire and complexion
caused Priam to look rather shabby. Indeed, he was rather shabby.
Shabbiness had slightly overtaken him in Putney. Once he had been a
dandy; but that was in the lamented Leek's time. And as the car glided,
without smell and without noise, through the encumbered avenues of
London towards the centre, now shooting forward like a star, now
stopping with gentle suddenness, now swerving in a swift curve round a
vehicle earthy and leaden-wheeled, Priam grew more and more
uncomfortable. He had sunk into a groove at Putney. He never left
Putney, save occasionally to refresh himself at the National Gallery,
and thither he invariably went by train and tube, because the tube
always filled him with wonder and romance, and always threw him up out
of the earth at the corner of Trafalgar Square with such a strange
exhilaration in his soul. So that he had not seen the main avenues of
London for a long time. He had been forgetting riches and luxury, and
the oriental cigarette-shops whose proprietors' names end in 'opoulos,'
and the haughtiness of the ruling classes, and the still sterner
haughtiness of their footmen. He had now abandoned Alice in Putney. And
a mysterious demon seized him and gripped him, and sought to pull him
back in the direction of the simplicity of Putney, and struggled with
him fiercely, and made him writhe and shrink before the brilliant
phenomena of London's centre, and indeed almost pitched him out of the
car and set him running as hard as legs would carry to Putney. It was
the demon which we call habit. He would have given a picture to be in
Putney, instead of swimming past Hyde Park Corner to the accompaniment
of Mr. Oxford's amiable and deferential and tactful conversation.

However, his other demon, shyness, kept him from imperiously stopping
the car.

The car stopped itself in Bond Street, in front of a building with a
wide archway, and the symbol of empire floating largely over its roof.
Placards said that admission through the archway was a shilling; but Mr.
Oxford, bearing Priam's latest picture as though it had cost fifty
thousand instead of five hundred pounds, went straight into the place
without paying, and Priam accepted his impressive invitation to follow.
Aged military veterans whose breasts carried a row of medals saluted Mr.
Oxford as he entered, and, within the penetralia, beings in silk hats as
faultless as Mr. Oxford's raised those hats to Mr. Oxford, who did not
raise his in reply. Merely nodded, Napoleonically! His demeanour had
greatly changed. You saw here the man of unbending will, accustomed to
use men as pawns in the chess of a complicated career. Presently they
reached a private office where Mr. Oxford, with the assistance of a
page, removed his gloves, furs, and hat, and sent sharply for a man who
at once brought a frame which fitted Priam's picture.

"Do have a cigar," Mr. Oxford urged Priam, with a quick return to his
earlier manner, offering a box in which each cigar was separately
encased in gold-leaf. The cigar was such as costs a crown in a
restaurant, half-a-crown in a shop, and twopence in Amsterdam. It was a
princely cigar, with the odour of paradise and an ash as white as snow.
But Priam could not appreciate it. No! He had seen on a beaten copper
plate under the archway these words: 'Parfitts' Galleries.' He was in
the celebrated galleries of his former dealers, whom by the way he had
never seen. And he was afraid. He was mortally apprehensive, and had a
sickly sensation in the stomach.

After they had scrupulously inspected the picture, through the clouds of
incense, Mr. Oxford wrote out a cheque for five hundred pounds, and,
cigar in mouth, handed it to Priam, who tried to take it with a casual
air and did not succeed. It was signed 'Parfitts'.'

"I dare say you have heard that I'm now the sole proprietor of this
place," said Mr. Oxford through his cigar.

"Really!" said Priam, feeling just as nervous as an inexperienced youth.

Then Mr. Oxford led Priam over thick carpets to a saloon where electric
light was thrown by means of reflectors on to a small but incomparable
band of pictures. Mr. Oxford had not exaggerated. They did give pleasure
to Priam. They were not the pictures one sees every day, nor once a
year. There was the finest Delacroix of its size that Priam had ever met
with; also a Vermeer that made it unnecessary to visit the Ryks Museum.
And on the more distant wall, to which Mr. Oxford came last, in a place
of marked honour, was an evening landscape of Volterra, a hill-town in
Italy. The bolts of Priam's very soul started when he caught sight of
that picture. On the lower edge of the rich frame were two words in
black lettering: 'Priam Farll.' How well he remembered painting it! And
how masterfully beautiful it was!

"Now that," said Mr. Oxford, "is in my humble opinion one of the finest
Farlls in existence. What do you think, Mr. Leek?"

Priam paused. "I agree with you," said he.

"Farll," said Mr. Oxford, "is about the only modern painter that can
stand the company that that picture has in this room, eh?"

Priam blushed. "Yes," he said.

There is a considerable difference, in various matters, between Putney
and Volterra; but the picture of Volterra and the picture of Putney High
Street were obviously, strikingly, incontestably, by the same hand; one
could not but perceive the same brush-work, the same masses, the same
manner of seeing and of grasping, in a word the same dazzling and
austere translation of nature. The resemblance jumped at one and shook
one by the shoulders. It could not have escaped even an auctioneer. Yet
Mr. Oxford did not refer to it. He seemed quite blind to it. All he said
was, as they left the room, and Priam finished his rather monosyllabic
praise -

"Yes, that's the little collection I've just got together, and I am very
proud to have shown it to you. Now I want you to come and lunch with me
at my club. Please do. I should be desolated if you refused."

Priam did not care a halfpenny about the desolation of Mr. Oxford; and
he most sincerely objected to lunch at Mr. Oxford's club. But he said
"Yes" because it was the easiest thing for his shyness to do, Mr. Oxford
being a determined man. Priam was afraid to go. He was disturbed,
alarmed, affrighted, by the mystery of Mr. Oxford's silence.

They arrived at the club in the car.

_The Club_

Priam had never been in a club before. The statement may astonish, may
even meet with incredulity, but it is true. He had left the land of
clubs early in life. As for the English clubs in European towns, he was
familiar with their exteriors, and with the amiable babble of their
supporters at _tables d'hôte,_ and his desire for further knowledge had
not been so hot as to inconvenience him. Hence he knew nothing of clubs.

Mr. Oxford's club alarmed and intimidated him; it was so big and so
black. Externally it resembled a town-hall of some great industrial
town. As you stood on the pavement at the bottom of the flight of giant
steps that led to the first pair of swinging doors, your head was
certainly lower than the feet of a being who examined you sternly from
the other side of the glass. Your head was also far below the sills of
the mighty windows of the ground-floor. There were two storeys above the
ground-floor, and above them a projecting eave of carven stone that
threatened the uplifted eye like a menace. The tenth part of a slate,
the merest chip of a corner, falling from the lofty summit of that pile,
would have slain elephants. And all the façade was black, black with
ages of carbonic deposit. The notion that the building was a town-hall
that had got itself misplaced and perverted gradually left you as you
gazed. You perceived its falseness. You perceived that Mr. Oxford's club
was a monument, a relic of the days when there were giants on earth,
that it had come down unimpaired to a race of pigmies, who were making
the best of it. The sole descendant of the giants was the scout behind
the door. As Mr. Oxford and Priam climbed towards it, this unique giant,
with a giant's force, pulled open the gigantic door, and Mr. Oxford and
Priam walked imperceptibly in, and the door swung to with a large
displacement of air. Priam found himself in an immense interior, under a
distant carved ceiling, far, far upwards, like heaven. He watched Mr.
Oxford write his name in a gigantic folio, under a gigantic clock. This
accomplished, Mr. Oxford led him past enormous vistas to right and left,
into a very long chamber, both of whose long walls were studded with
thousands upon thousands of massive hooks - and here and there upon a
hook a silk hat or an overcoat. Mr. Oxford chose a couple of hooks in
the expanse, and when they had divested themselves sufficiently he led
Priam forwards into another great chamber evidently meant to recall the
baths of Carcalla. In gigantic basins chiselled out of solid granite,
Priam scrubbed his finger-nails with a nail-brush larger than he had
previously encountered, even in nightmares, and an attendant brushed his
coat with a utensil that resembled a weapon of offence lately the
property of Anak.

"Shall we go straight to the dining-room now," asked Mr. Oxford, "or
will you have a gin and angostura first?"

Priam declined the gin and angostura, and they went up an overwhelming
staircase of sombre marble, and through other apartments to the
dining-room, which would have made an excellent riding-school. Here one
had six of the gigantic windows in a row, each with curtains that fell
in huge folds from the unseen into the seen. The ceiling probably
existed. On every wall were gigantic paintings in thick ornate frames,
and between the windows stood heroic busts of marble set upon columns of
basalt. The chairs would have been immovable had they not run on castors
of weight-resisting rock, yet against the tables they had the air of
negligible toys. At one end of the room was a sideboard that would not
have groaned under an ox whole, and at the other a fire, over which an
ox might have been roasted in its entirety, leaped under a mantelpiece
upon which Goliath could not have put his elbows.

All was silent and grave; the floors were everywhere covered with heavy
carpets which hushed all echoes. There was not the faintest sound.
Sound, indeed, seemed to be deprecated. Priam had already passed the
wide entrance to one illimitable room whose walls were clothed with
warnings in gigantic letters: 'Silence.' And he had noticed that all
chairs and couches were thickly padded and upholstered in soft leather,
and that it was impossible to produce in them the slightest creak. At a
casual glance the place seemed unoccupied, but on more careful
inspection you saw midgets creeping about, or seated in easy-chairs that
had obviously been made to hold two of them; these midgets were the
members of the club, dwarfed into dolls by its tremendous dimensions. A
strange and sinister race! They looked as though in the final stages of
decay, and wherever their heads might rest was stretched a white cloth,
so that their heads might not touch the spots sanctified by the heads of
the mighty departed. They rarely spoke to one another, but exchanged
regards of mutual distrust and scorn; and if by chance they did converse
it was in tones of weary, brusque disillusion. They could at best descry
each other but indistinctly in the universal pervading gloom - a gloom
upon which electric lamps, shining dimly yellow in their vast lustres,
produced almost no impression. The whole establishment was buried in the
past, dreaming of its Titantic yore, when there were doubtless giants
who could fill those fauteuils and stick their feet on those

It was in such an environment that Mr. Oxford gave Priam to eat and to
drink off little ordinary plates and out of tiny tumblers. No hint of
the club's immemorial history in that excessively modern and excellent
repast - save in the Stilton cheese, which seemed to have descended from
the fine fruity days of some Homeric age, a cheese that Ulysses might
have inaugurated. I need hardly say that the total effect on Priam's
temperament was disastrous. (Yet how could the diplomatic Mr. Oxford
have guessed that Priam had never been in a club before?) It induced in
him a speechless anguish, and he would have paid a sum as gigantic as
the club - he would have paid the very cheque in his pocket - never to
have met Mr. Oxford. He was a far too sensitive man for a club, and his
moods were incalculable. Assuredly Mr. Oxford had miscalculated the
result of his club on Priam's humour; he soon saw his error.

"Suppose we take coffee in the smoking-room?" he said.

The populous smoking-room was the one part of the club where talking
with a natural loudness was not a crime. Mr. Oxford found a corner
fairly free from midgets, and they established themselves in it, and
liqueurs and cigars accompanied the coffee. You could actually see
midgets laughing outright in the mist of smoke; the chatter narrowly
escaped being a din; and at intervals a diminutive boy entered and
bawled the name of a midget at the top of his voice, Priam was suddenly
electrified, and Mr. Oxford, very alert, noticed the electrification.

Mr. Oxford drank his coffee somewhat quickly, and then he leaned forward
a little over the table, and put his moon-like face nearer to Priam's,
and arranged his legs in a truly comfortable position beneath the table,
and expelled a large quantity of smoke from his cigar. It was clearly
the preliminary to a scene of confidence, the approach to the crisis to
which he had for several hours been leading up.

Priam's heart trembled.

"What is your opinion, _maître_," he asked, "of the ultimate value of
Farll's pictures?"

Priam was in misery. Mr. Oxford's manner was deferential, amiable and
expectant. But Priam did not know what to say. He only knew what he
would do if he could have found the courage to do it: run away,
recklessly, unceremoniously, out of that club.

"I - I don't know," said Priam, visibly whitening.

"Because I've bought a goodish few Farlls in my time," Mr. Oxford
continued, "and I must say I've sold them well. I've only got that one
left that I showed you this morning, and I've been wondering whether I
should stick to it and wait for a possible further rise, or sell it at

"How much can you sell it for?" Priam mumbled.

"I don't mind telling you," said Mr. Oxford, "that I fancy I could sell

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 12 13 14

Online LibraryArnold BennettBuried Alive: a Tale of These Days → online text (page 10 of 14)