Victoria Cross.

Five Nights online

. (page 5 of 18)
Online LibraryVictoria CrossFive Nights → online text (page 5 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


absolutely straight. To my practised eyes the clothing had little
concealment. I knew that here was all that I wanted.

"I am supposed to have a very perfect figure," she said with a faint
smile, "and it seems rather a pity to use it so little. To let it be
of service to you, to give you just what you want, to create a great
picture, to save you all further worry over it, which is quite
knocking you up, would be a great happiness to me."

She paused. I said nothing.

"I do not think I must stay any longer," she said glancing at my
clock, "nor shall I persuade you any more. I leave it entirely in your
hands. Write to me if you want me to come. Perhaps you may find
another model."

She smiled up at me. Her face had a curious delicate beauty hard to
define. The beauty of a very transparent skin and sapphire eyes.

I bent over her and kissed her bright scarlet lips.

"Dearest! if you only knew how I appreciate all you have said, how
good I think it of you! And I could never find a lovelier model; you
know it is not that thought which influences me, but it is impossible.
You must not think of it."

"Very well," she said with a laugh in her lovely eyes, "but _you_
will!"

She disengaged herself from me, picked up a fur necklet from her
chair, and went to the door.

"Good-night," she said softly, and went out.

Left to myself, I walked restlessly up and down the room. She was
right. I could think of nothing but her words to me, and how her visit
had changed my mood and all the atmosphere about me! It seemed as if
she had filled it with electricity. My pulses were all beating hard.
The quiet of the studio was intolerable. I was dining out that
evening, and then going on to a dance. I would dress now a little
early and then go to the club and spend the intermediate time there.

My bedroom opened out of the studio by a small door, before which I
generally had a red and gold Japanese screen. I went in and switched
on the light and began to dress, trying to get away from my crowding
thoughts.

The temptation to accept Viola's suggestion was the greater because
she was so absolutely free and mistress of her own actions.

If she chose of her own free will to do any particular thing there was
practically no one else to be consulted and no one to trouble her with
reproof or reproaches.

Early left an orphan and in possession of a small fortune in her own
right, she had been brought up by an old aunt who simply worshipped
her and never questioned nor allowed to be questioned anything which
Viola did.

She had given her niece an elaborate education, believing that a
girl's mental training should be as severe as a boy's, and Viola knew
her Greek and Latin and mathematics better than I knew mine, though
all these had lately given way to the study of music, for which she
had a great and peculiar gift.

The old lady was delighted when she found her favourite niece was
really one of the children of the gods, as she put it, and henceforth
Viola's life was left still more unrestrained.

"She has genius, Trevor," she would say to me, "just as you have, and
we ordinary people can't profess to guide or control those who in
reality are so much greater than we are. I leave Viola to judge for
herself about life, I always have since she was quite a little thing,
and I have no fear for her. Whatever she does I know it will always be
right."

Viola was just twenty, but this kind of training had given her an
intelligence and developed her intellect far beyond her years.

In her outlook upon life she was more like a man than a woman, and,
never having been to school nor mixed much with other girls of her own
age, she was free from all those small, petty habits of mind, that
littleness of mental vision that so mars and dwarfs the ordinary
feminine character.

In this question of posing for the picture, to take her face also
would, of course, be quite impossible, but I had my own ideal for the
Phryne's face, nor was that important.

That the figure should be something of unusual beauty, something
peculiarly distinctive seemed to me a necessity. For the form of the
Grecian Phryne had, by the mere force of its perfect and triumphant
beauty, swept away the reason of all that circle of grey-bearded
hostile judges called upon to condemn it, had carved for itself a
place in history for ever. There should in its presentment be
something peculiarly arresting and enchanting, or the artistic idea,
the spirit of the picture, would be lost.

The next morning I interviewed models again, and so strange is the
human mind that while I honestly tried to find one that suited me,
tried to be satisfied, I was full of feverish apprehension that I
might do so, and when I had seen the last and could with perfect
honesty reject her, I felt a rush of extraordinary elation all through
me. I knew, and told myself so, every half second, that Viola's
temptation was one I ought to and must resist, and yet the idea of
yielding filled me with a wild instinctive delight that no reason
could suppress. Yes, because once an artist has seen or conceived by
his own imagination his perfect ideal, nothing else, nothing short of
this will satisfy him. If it was difficult for me to find a model
before, it was practically impossible to do so now. For, having once
realised what it wanted, the mind impatiently rejected everything
else, though it might possibly have accepted something less than its
desire before that realisation of it.

These models were all well-formed women, but they were commonplace.
The hold Viola's form had upon the eye was that it was not
commonplace. Its beauty was distinctive, peculiar, arresting. I was
not a painter of types, but of exceptions. The common things of life
are not interesting, nor do I think they are worthy subjects for Art
to concern itself with. Something unusually beautiful, transcending
the common type, is surely the best for the artist to try to
perpetuate.

Friday came, the end of the week, and I was still without a model. My
nights had been nearly sleepless, and my days full of feverish
anxiety: an active anxiety to accept another sitter and withstand the
temptation of Viola, which fought desperately with the more passive
anxiety not to be satisfied and to be obliged to yield. Between these
two I had grown thin, as they fought within me, tearing me in the
struggle.

To-day, Friday, the war was over. I had sent a note to Viola asking
her to have tea with me. If she came, if she still held to her wish, I
should accept, and the Phryne was assured. How my heart leapt at the
thought! Those last hours before an artist gives the first concrete
form to the brain children of his intangible dreams, how full of a
double life he seems! I was back from lunch and in the studio early; I
could not tell when she might come, and I closed all the windows and
made up the fire till the room seemed like a hot-house. I arranged a
dais with screens of flaming colour behind it reflecting the red rays
of the fire.

If she consented, she should stand here after having changed into the
Greek dress. And as the moment chosen for the picture was that in
which Phryne is unveiling herself before her judges, I intended to let
her discard the drapery as she liked. I should not attempt to pose
her; I would not even direct her; I should simply watch her, and at
some moment during the unveiling she would fall naturally into just
the pose - some pose - I did not know myself yet which might give me my
inspiration - that I wished. Then I would arrest her, ask her to remain
in it. I thought so we should arrive nearest to the effect of that
famous scene of long ago.

The dress I had chosen was of a dull red tint, not unlike that of
Leighton's picture, but I had no fear of seeming to copy Leighton.
What true artist ever fears he may be considered a copyist? He knows
the strength and vitality of his conception will need no spokesman
when it appears.

I felt frightfully restless and excited, a mad longing filled me to
get the first sketch on paper. I hardly thought of Viola as Viola or
my cousin then. She was already the Phryne of Athens for me, but when
suddenly a light knock came on the door outside my heart seemed to
stand still and I could hardly find voice to say, "Come in." When she
entered, dressed in her modern clothes and hat, and held out her hand,
all the modern, mundane atmosphere came back and brought confusion
with it.

"You said come early, so here I am," she said lightly. "Trevor," she
added, gazing at me closely, "you are looking awfully handsome, but so
white and ill. What is the matter?"

"I have been utterly wretched about the picture. I know I ought not to
accept your offer, but the temptation is too great. If you feel the
same as you did about it, I am going to ask you to pose for me this
afternoon."

"I do feel just the same, Trevor," she answered earnestly. "You can't
think how happy and proud I am to be of use to you."

"You know what the picture is?" I asked her, holding her two hands
and looking down into the great eyes raised confidently to mine.

"I want you to dress in all those red draperies, and then, standing on
the dais, to drop them, let them fall from you."

"Yes, I think I know exactly. I will try, and, if I don't do it
rightly, you must tell me and we must begin again."

She took off her hat and cloak and gloves. Then she turned to me and
asked for the dress. I gave it to her and showed her how it fastened
and unfastened with a clasp on the shoulder.

She listened quietly to my directions, then, gathering up all the thin
drapery, walked to the screen and disappeared from my view.

I sat down waiting. A great nervous tension held me. I had ceased to
think of the right or wrong of my action. I was too absorbed now in
the thought of the picture to be conscious of anything else.

When she came from behind the screen clothed in the red Athenian
draperies her face was quite white, but composed and calm. She did not
look at me, but walked to the platform at once. I had withdrawn to a
chair as far from it as was practicable, divining that the nearer I
was the more my presence would weigh upon her. She faced me now on the
dais, and very slowly began to unfasten the buckle on her shoulder. I
sat watching her intently, hardly breathing, waiting for the moment.

She was to me nothing now but the Phryne, and I was nothing but a
pencil held in the hand of Art.

The first folds of crimson fell, disclosing her throat and shoulders,
the others followed, piling softly one on the other to her waist,
where they stayed held by her girdle. The shoulders and breasts were
revealed exquisite, gleaming white against the dull glow of the
crimson stuff. I waited. It was a lovely, entrancing vision but I
waited. She lowered her hand from her shoulder and brought it to her
waist, firmly and without hesitation she unclasped the belt, and then
taking the sides of it, one in each hand, with its enclosed drapery,
which parted easily in the centre, she made a half step forwards to
free herself from it, and stood revealed from head to foot. It was the
moment. Her head thrown up, with her eyes fixed far above me, her
throat and the perfect breast thrown outwards and forwards, the slight
bend at the slim waist accentuating the round curves of the hips, one
straight limb with the delicate foot advanced just before the other,
the arms round, beautifully moulded, held tense at her sides, as the
hands clutched tightly the falling folds behind her, these made up the
physical pose, and the pride, the tense nervousness, the defiance of
her own feelings gave its meaning expression. I raised my hand and
called to her to pause just so, to be still, if she could, without
stirring.

She quivered all through her frame at the sudden shock of hearing my
voice; then stood rigid. I had my paper ready, and began to sketch
rapidly.

How beautiful she was! In all my experience, in the whole of my
career, I had never had such a model. The skin was a marvellous
whiteness: there seemed no brown, red, or yellow shades upon it; nor
any of that mottled soap appearance that ruins so many models. She was
white, with the warm, true dazzling whiteness of the perfect blonde.

My head burned: I felt that great wave of inspiration roll through me
that lifts the artist to the feet of heaven. There is no happiness
like it. No, not even the divine transports and triumph of love can
equal it.

I sketched rapidly, every line fell on the paper as I wished it. The
time flew. I felt nothing, knew nothing, but that the glorious image
was growing, taking life under my hand. I was in a world of utter
silence, alone with the spirit of divine beauty directing me, creating
through me.

Suddenly, from a long distance it seemed, a little cry or exclamation
came to me.

"Trevor, I must move!"

I started, dropped the paper, and rose.

The light had grown dim, the fire had burned hollow. Viola had
dropped to her knees, and was for the moment a huddled blot of
whiteness amongst the crimson tones. I advanced, filled with
self-reproach for my selfish absorption. But she rose almost directly,
wrapped in some of the muslin, and walked from the dais to the screen.
I hesitated to follow her there, and went back to the fallen picture.
I picked it up and gazed on it with rapture - how perfect it was! The
best thing of a lifetime! Viola seemed so long behind the screen I
grew anxious and walked over to it. As I came round it, she was just
drawing on her bodice, her arms and neck were still bare. She motioned
me back imperatively, and I saw the colour stream across her face. I
retreated. It was absurd in a way, that blush as my eyes rested on her
then, I who just now ... and yet perfectly reasonable, understandable.
Then she was the Phryne, a vision to me, as she had said, in ancient
Athens. And now we were modern man and woman again. All that we do in
this life takes its colour from our attitude of mind towards it, and
but for her artist's mind, a girl like Viola could never have done
what she had at all.

In a moment more she came from behind the screen. She looked white and
cold, and came towards the fire shivering. I drew her into my arms,
strained her against my breast, and kissed her over and over again in
a passion of gratitude.

"How can I thank you! You have done for me what no one else could. I
can never tell you what I feel about it."

She put her arms round my neck, and kissed me in return.

"Any one would do all they could for you, I think," she said softly.
"You are so beautiful and so nice about things I am only too happy to
have been of use to you."

"What a brute I was to have forgotten you were standing so long. Was
it very bad? Were you cold?"

"At the end I was, but I shouldn't have moved for that. I got so
cramped. I couldn't keep my limbs still any longer. I was sorry to be
so stupid and have to disturb you."

"I can't think how you stood so well," I said remorsefully, "and so
long. It is so different for a practised model."

"Well, I did practise keeping quite still in one position every day
all this last week, but of course a week is not long."

I had pressed the bell, and tea was brought in. I busied myself with
making it for her. She looked white and ill. I felt burning with a
sense of elation, of delighted triumph. The picture was there. It
glimmered a white patch against the chair a little way off. The idea
was realised, the inspiration caught, all the rest was only a matter
of time.

We drank our tea in silence. Viola looked away from me into the fire.
She did not seem constrained or embarrassed. Having decided to do, as
she had, and conquer her own feelings, she did so simply, grandly, in
a way that suited the greatness of her nature. There was no mincing
modesty, no self-conscious affectation. The agony of confusion that
she had felt in that moment when she had stood before me with her hand
on the clasp of her girdle, had been evident to me, but her pride
forced her to crush it out of sight.

I went over to her low chair and sat down at her feet.

"Do you know you have shown me this afternoon something which I did
not believe existed - an absolutely perfect body without a fault or
flaw anywhere. I did not believe there could be anything so
exquisitely beautiful."

She coloured, but a warm happy look came into her eyes as she gazed
back at me.

"So I did really satisfy you? I realised your expectations?" she
murmured. I lifted one of her hands to my lips and kissed it.

"Satisfied is not the word," I returned, looking up into the dark blue
eyes above me with my own burning with admiration. "I was entranced.
May I shew it to you?"

"Yes, I should like to see it," she answered.

I rose and brought over to her the picture and set it so that we both
could see it together. She gazed at it some time in silence.

"Do you like it?" I asked suddenly with keen anxiety.

"You have idealised me, Trevor!"

"It is impossible to idealise what is in itself divine," I replied
quietly. She looked at me, her face full Of colour but her eyes alight
and smiling.

"I am so glad, so happy that you are pleased. You have drawn it
magnificently. What life you put into your things - they live and
breathe."

She turned and looked at my clock.

"I must go now, I have been here ages." She began to put on her hat
and cloak. When I had fastened the latter round her throat, I took
both her hands in mine.

"May I expect you to-morrow?"

"To-morrow? Let me see. Well, I was going to the Carrington's to
lunch. I promised to go, so I must; but I need not stay long. I can
leave at three and be here at half past; only that will be too late in
any case on account of the light, won't it?"

"Not if it is a bright day."

"You see, I need not accept any more invitations. I shan't, if I am
coming here, but I have one or two old engagements I must keep."

I dropped her hands and turned away.

"But I can't let you give up your amusements, your time for me in this
way!" I said.

Viola laughed.

"It's not much to give up - a few luncheons and teas! As long as I have
time for my music I will give you all the rest."

She stood drawing on her gloves, facing the fire; her large soft,
fearless eyes met mine across the red light.

I stepped forwards towards her impulsively.

"What _can_ I say? How can I thank you or express a hundredth part of
my gratitude?"

Viola shook her head with her softest smile and a warm caressing light
in her eyes.

"You look at it quite wrongly," she said lightly. "My reward is great
enough, surely! You are giving me immortality."

Then she went out, and I was alone.

* * * * *

For a fortnight I was happy. Viola came regularly every day to the
studio, and the picture grew rapidly, I was absorbed in it, lived for
it, and had that strange peace and glowing content that Art bestows,
and which like that other peace "passeth all understanding."

Then gradually a sense of unrest mingled with the calm. The whole
afternoon while Viola was with me I worked happily, content to the
point of being absolutely oblivious of everything except ourselves and
the picture. Our tea together afterwards, when we discussed the
progress made and the colour effects, was a delight. But the moment
the door was closed after her, when she had left me, a blank seemed to
spread round me. The picture itself could not console me. I gazed and
gazed at it, but the gaze did not satisfy me nor soothe the feverish
unrest. I longed for her presence beside me again.

One day after the posing she seemed so tired and exhausted that I
begged her to lie down a little and drew up my great comfortable
couch, like a Turkish divan, to the fire. She did as she was bid, and
I heaped up a pile of blue cushions behind her fair head.

"I am so tired," she exclaimed and let her eyes close and her arms
fall beside her.

I stood looking down on her. Her face was shell-like in its clear
fairness and transparency, and the beautiful expressive eyebrows drawn
delicately on the white forehead appealed to me.

The intimacy established between us, her complete willing sacrifice to
me, her surrender, her trust in me, the knowledge of herself and her
beauty she had allowed me gave birth suddenly in my heart to a great
overwhelming tenderness and a necessity for its expression.

I bent over her, pressed my lips down on hers and held them there. She
did not open her eyes, but raised her arms and put them round my neck,
pressing me to her. In a joyous wave of emotion I threw myself beside
her and drew the slender, supple figure into my arms.

"Trevor," she murmured, as soon as I would let her, "I am afraid you
are falling in love with me."

"I have already," I answered. "I love you, I want for my own. You must
marry me, and come and live at the studio."

"I don't think I can marry you," she replied in very soft tones, but
she did not try to move from my clasp.

"Why not?"

"Artists should not marry: it prevents their development. How old are
you?"

"Twenty-eight," I answered, half-submerged in the delight of the
contact with her, of knowing her in my arms, hardly willing or able to
listen to what she said.

"And how many women have you loved?"

"Oh, I don't know," I answered. "I have been with lots, of course, but
I don't think I have ever loved at all till now."

"What about the little girl in the tea-shop at Sitka?"

"I don't think I loved her. I wanted her as an experience."

"Is it not just the same with me?"

"No, it isn't. It's quite different. Do not worry me with questions,
Viola. Kiss me and tell me you love me."

She raised herself suddenly on one elbow and leant over me, kissing
me on the eyes and lips, all over my face, with passionate intensity.

"I do love you. You are like my life to me, but I know I ought not to
marry you. I should absorb you. You would love me. You would not want
to be unfaithful to me. But fidelity to one person is madness an
impossibility to an artist if he is to reach his highest development.
It can't be. We must not think of it."

The blood went to my head in great waves. The supreme tenderness of a
moment back seemed gone, her words had roused another phase of
passion, the harsh fury of it.

"I don't care about the art, I don't care about anything. You shall
marry me. I will make you love me."

"You don't understand. If you were fifty-eight I would marry you
directly."

"You shall marry me before then," I answered, and kissed her again and
put my hands up to her soft-haired head to pull it down to my breast
and dragged loose some of its soft coils.

"Trevor, you are mad. Let me get up."

I rose myself, and left her free to get up. She sat up on the couch,
white and trembling.

"Now you are going to say you won't come to me any more, I suppose?" I
said angrily. The nervous excitement of the moment was so great; there
was such a wild booming in my ears I could hardly hear my own voice.

She looked up. The tears welled into her luminous blue eyes.

"How unkind you are! and how unjust! Of course I shall come, must come
every day if you want it till the Phryne is done. You don't know how I
love you."

I took her dear little hand and kissed it.

"I am sorry," I said. "Forgive me, but you must not say such stupid
things. Of course you will marry me; why, we are half married already.
Most people would say we ought to be."

I turned on the lights and drew the table up to the fire, which I
stirred, and began to make the tea.

Viola sat on the edge of the couch in silence, coiling up her hair.

She seemed very pale and tired, and I tried to soothe her with
increased tenderness. I made her a cup of tea and came and sat beside
her while she drank it. Then I put my arm round her waist and got her
to lean against me, and put her soft fair-haired head down on my
shoulder and rest there in silence.

I stroked one of her hands that lay cold and nerveless in her lap with
my warm one.

"You have done so much for me," I said softly; "wonderful things which
I can never forget, and now you must belong to me altogether. No two
people could love each other more than we do. It would be absurd of
us not to marry." I kissed her, and she accepted my caresses and did
not argue with me any more; so I felt happier, and when she rose to
leave our good-bye was very tender, our last kiss an ecstasy.

When she had gone I picked up one of the sketches I had first made of
her and gazed long at it.

How extravagantly I had come to love her now. I realised in those
moments how strong this passion was that had grown up, as it were,


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryVictoria CrossFive Nights → online text (page 5 of 18)