An Idyll of London by Beatrice Harraden

It was one o'clock, and many of the students in the National Gallery had left off work and were refreshing themselves with lunch and conversation. There was one old worker who had not stirred from his place, but he had put down his brush, and had taken from his pocket a small book, which was like its owner—thin and shabby of covering. He seemed to find pleasure in reading it, for he turned over its pages with all the tenderness characteristic of one who loves what he reads. Now and again he glanced at his unfinished copy of the beautiful portrait of Andrea del Sarto, and once his eyes rested on another copy next to his, better and truer than his, and once he stopped to pick up a girl's prune-coloured tie, which had fallen from the neighbouring easel. After this he seemed to become unconscious of his surroundings, as unconscious, indeed, as any one of the pictures near him. Any one might have been justified in mistaking him for the portrait of a man, but that his lips moved; for it was his custom to read softly to himself.

The students passed back to their places, not troubling to notice him, because they knew from experience that he never noticed them, and that all greetings were wasted on him and all words were wanton expenditure of breath. They had come to regard him very much in the same way as many of us regard the wonders of nature, without astonishment, without any questionings, and often without any interest. One girl, a new-comer, did chance to say to her companion:

"How ill that old man looks!"

"Oh, he always looks like that," was the answer. "You will soon get accustomed to him. Come along! I must finish my 'Blind Beggar' this afternoon."

In a few minutes most of the workers were busy again, although there were some who continued to chat quietly, and several young men who seemed reluctant to leave their girl friends, and who were by no means encouraged to go! One young man came to claim his book and pipe, which he had left in the charge of a bright-eyed girl, who was copying Sir Joshua's "Angels." She gave him his treasures, and received in exchange a dark-red rose, which she fastened in her belt; and then he returned to his portrait of Mrs. Siddons. But there was something in his disconsolate manner which made one suspect that he thought less of Mrs. Siddons's beauty than of the beauty of the girl who was wearing the dark-red rose! The strangers, strolling through the rooms, stopped now and again to peer curiously at the students' work. They were stared at indignantly by the students themselves, but they made no attempt to move away, and even ventured sometimes to pass criticisms of no tender character on some of the copies. The fierce-looking man who was copying "The Horse Fair" deliberately put down his brushes, folded his arms, and waited defiantly until they had gone by; but others, wiser in their generation, went on painting calmly. Several workers were painting the new Raphael; one of them was a white-haired old gentlewoman, whose hand was trembling, and yet skilful still. More than once she turned to give a few hints to the young girl near her, who looked in some distress and doubt. Just the needful help was given, and then the girl plied her brush merrily, smiling the while with pleasure and gratitude. There seemed to be a genial, kindly influence at work, a certain homeliness too, which must needs assert itself where many are gathered together, working side by side. All made a harmony; the wonderful pictures, collected from many lands and many centuries, each with its meaning and its message from the past; the ever-present memories of the painters themselves, who had worked and striven and conquered; and the living human beings, each with his wealth of earnest endeavour and hope.

Meanwhile the old man read on uninterruptedly until two hands were put over his book and a gentle voice said:

"Mr. Lindall, you have had no lunch again. Do you know, I begin to hate Lucretius. He always makes you forget your food."

The old man looked up, and something like a smile passed over his joyless face when he saw Helen Stanley bending over him.

"Ah," he answered, "you must not hate Lucretius. I have had more pleasant hours with him than with any living person."

He rose and came forward to examine her copy of Andrea del Sarto's portrait.

"Yours is better than mine," he said, critically; "in fact, mine is a failure. I think I shall only get a small price for mine; indeed, I doubt whether I shall get sufficient to pay for my funeral."

"You speak dismally," she answered, smiling.

"I missed you yesterday," he continued, half dreamily. "I left my work, and I wandered through the rooms, and I did not even read Lucretius. Something seemed to have gone from my life. At first I thought it must be my favourite Raphael, or the Murillo; but it was neither the one nor the other; it was you. That was strange, wasn't it? But you know we get accustomed to anything, and perhaps I should have missed you less the second day, and by the end of a week I should not have missed you at all. Mercifully, we have in us the power of forgetting."

"I do not wish to plead for myself," she said, "but I do not believe that you or any one could really forget. That which outsiders call forgetfulness might be called by the better name of resignation."

"I don't care about talking any more now," he said, suddenly, and he went to his easel and worked silently at his picture; and Helen Stanley glanced at him, and thought she had never seen her old companion look so forlorn and desolate as he did to-day. He looked as if no gentle hand had ever been placed on him in kindliness and affection, and that seemed to her a terrible thing; for she was one of those prehistorically minded persons who persist in believing that affection is as needful to human life as rain to flower life. When first she came to work at the gallery—some twelve months ago—she had noticed this old man, and had wished for his companionship; she was herself lonely and sorrowful, and, although young, had to fight her own battles, and had learned something of the difficulties of fighting, and this had given her an experience beyond her years. She was not more than twenty-four years of age, but she looked rather older, and, though she had beautiful eyes, full of meaning and kindness, her features were decidedly plain as well as unattractive. There were some in the gallery who said among themselves that, as Mr. Lindall had waited so many years before talking to any one, he might have chosen some one better worth the waiting for! But they soon became accustomed to seeing Helen Stanley and Mr. Lindall together, and they laughed less than before; and meanwhile the acquaintance ripened into a sort of friendship, half sulky on his part and wholly kind on her part. He told her nothing about himself, and he asked nothing about herself; for weeks he never even knew her name. Sometimes he did not speak at all, and the two friends would work silently side by side until it was time to go; and then he waited until she was ready, and walked with her across Trafalgar Square, where they parted and went their own ways.

But occasionally, when she least expected it, he would speak with glowing enthusiasm on art; then his eyes seemed to become bright, and his bent figure more erect, and his whole bearing proud and dignified. There were times, too, when he would speak on other subjects: on the morality of free thought—on Bruno, of blessed memory, on him, and scores of others too. He would speak of the different schools of philosophy; he would laugh at himself, and at all who, having given time and thought to the study of life's complicated problems, had not reached one step further than the Old-World thinkers. Perhaps he would quote one of his favourite philosophers, and then suddenly relapse into silence, returning to his wonted abstraction and to his indifference to his surroundings. Helen Stanley had learned to understand his ways and to appreciate his mind, and, without intruding on him in any manner, had put herself gently into his life as his quiet champion and his friend. No one in her presence dared speak slightingly of the old man, or to make fun of his tumble-down appearance, or of his worn-out silk hat with a crack in the side, or of his rag of a black tie, which, together with his overcoat, had "seen better days." Once she brought her needle and thread, and darned the torn sleeve during her lunch-time; and, though he never knew it, it was a satisfaction to her to have helped him.

To-day she noticed that he was painting badly, and that he seemed to take no interest in his work; but she went on busily with her own picture, and was so engrossed in it that she did not at first observe that he had packed up his brushes and was preparing to go home.

"Three more strokes," he said, quietly, "and you will have finished your picture. I shall never finish mine; perhaps you will be good enough to set it right for me. I am not coming here again. I don't seem to have caught the true expression; what do you think? But I am not going to let it worry me, for I am sure you will promise to do your best for me. See, I will hand over these colours and these brushes to you, and no doubt you will accept the palette as well. I have no further use for it."

Helen Stanley took the palette which he held out toward her, and looked at him as though she would wish to question him.

"It is very hot here," he continued, "and I am going out. I am tired of work."

He hesitated, and then added, "I should like you to come with me, if you can spare the time."

She packed up her things at once, and the two friends moved slowly away, he gazing absently at the pictures, and she wondering in her mind as to the meaning of his strange mood.

When they were on the steps inside the building, he turned to Helen Stanley and said:

"I should like to go back to the pictures once more. I feel as if I must stand among them just a little longer. They have been my companions for so long that they are almost part of myself. I can close my eyes and recall them faithfully. But I want to take a last look at them; I want to feel once more the presence of the great masters, and to refresh my mind with their genius. When I look at their work I think of their life, and can only wonder at their death. It was so strange that they should die."

They went back together, and he took her to his favourite pictures, but remained speechless before them, and she did not disturb his thoughts. At last he said:

"I am ready to go. I have said farewell to them all. I know nothing more wonderful than being among a number of fine pictures. It is almost overwhelming. Once expects nature to be grand, but one does not expect man to be grand."

"You know we don't agree there," she answered. "I expect everything grand and great from man."

They went out of the gallery, and into Trafalgar Square. It was a scorching afternoon in August, but there was some cooling comfort in seeing the dancing water of the fountains sparkling so brightly in the sunshine.

"Do you mind stopping here a few minutes?" he said. "I should like to sit down and watch. There is so much to see."

She led the way to a seat, one end of which was occupied by a workman, who was sleeping soundly, and snoring too, his arms folded tightly together. He had a little clay pipe in the corner of his mouth; it seemed to be tucked in so snugly that there was not much danger of its falling to the ground. At last Helen spoke to her companion.

"What do you mean by saying that you will not be able to finish your picture? Perhaps you are not well. Indeed, you don't look well. You make me anxious, for I have a great regard for you."

"I am ill and suffering," he answered, quietly. "I thought I should have died yesterday; but I made up my mind to live until I saw you again, and I thought I would ask you to spend the afternoon with me, and go with me to Westminster Abbey, and sit with me in the cloisters. I do not feel able to go by myself, and I know of no one to ask except you; and I believed you would not refuse me, for you have been very kind to me. I do not quite understand why you have been kind to me, but I am wonderfully grateful to you. Today I heard some one in the gallery say that you were plain. I turned round and I said, 'I beg your pardon; I think she is very beautiful.' I think they laughed, and that puzzled me; for you have always seemed to me a very beautiful person."

At that moment the little clay pipe fell from the workman's mouth and was broken into bits. He awoke with a start, gazed stupidly at the old man and his companion, and at the broken clay pipe.

"Curse my luck!" he said, yawning. "I was fond of that damned little pipe."

The old man drew his own pipe and his own tobacco-pouch from his pocket.

"Take these, stranger," he said. "I don't want them. And good luck to you."

The man's face brightened up as he took the pipe and pouch.

"You're uncommon kind," he said. "Can you spare them?" he added, holding them out half reluctantly.

"Yes," answered the old man; "I shall not smoke again. You may as well have these matches too."

The labourer put them in his pocket, smiled his thanks, and walked some little distance off; and Helen watched him examine his new pipe, and then fill it with tobacco and light it.

Mr. Lindall proposed that they should be getting on their way to Westminster, and they soon found themselves in the abbey. They sat together in the Poets' Corner; a smile of quiet happiness broke over the old man's tired face as he looked around and took in all the solemn beauty and grandeur of the resting-place of the great.

"You know," he said, half to himself, half to his companion, "I have no belief of any kind, and no hopes and no fears; but all through my life it has been a comfort to me to sit quietly in a church or a cathedral. The graceful arches, the sun shining through the stained windows, the vaulted roof, the noble columns, have helped me to understand the mystery which all our books of philosophy cannot make clear, though we bend over them year after year, and grow old over them, old in age and in spirit. Though I myself have never been outwardly a worshipper, I have never sat in a place of worship but that, for the time being, I have felt a better man. But directly the voice of doctrine or dogma was raised the spell was broken for me, and that which I hoped was being made clear had no further meaning for me. There was only one voice which ever helped me, the voice of the organ, arousing me, thrilling me, filling me with strange longing, with welcome sadness, with solemn gladness. I have always thought that music can give an answer when everything else is of no avail. I do not know what you believe."

"I am so young to have found out," she said, almost pleadingly.

"Don't worry yourself," he answered, kindly. "Be brave and strong, and let the rest go. I should like to live long enough to see what you will make of your life. I believe you will never be false to yourself or to any one. That is rare. I believe you will not let any lower ideal take the place of your high ideal of what is beautiful and noble in art, in life. I believe that you will never let despair get the upper hand of you. If it does you may as well die; yes, you may as well. And I entreat you not to lose your entire faith in humanity. There is nothing like that for withering up the very core of the heart. I tell you, humanity and nature have so much in common with each other that if you lose part of your pleasure in the latter; you will see less beauty in the trees, the flowers, and the fields, less grandeur in the mighty mountains and the sea. The seasons will come and go, and you will scarcely heed their coming and going: winter will settle over your soul, just as it settled over mine. And you see what I am."

They had now passed into the cloisters, and they sat down in one of the recesses of the windows, and looked out upon the rich plot of grass which the cloisters enclose. There was not a soul there except themselves; the cool and the quiet and the beauty of the spot refreshed these pilgrims, and they rested in calm enjoyment.

Helen was the first to break the silence.

"I am glad you have brought me here," she said; "I shall never grumble now at not being able to afford a fortnight in the country. This is better than anything else."

"It has always been my summer holiday to come here," he said. "When I first came I was like you, young and hopeful, and I had wonderful visions of what I intended to do and to be. Here it was I made a vow that I would become a great painter, and win for myself a resting place in this very abbey. There is humour in the situation, is there not?"

"I don't like to hear you say that," she answered. "It is not always possible for us to fulfil all our ambitions. Still, it is better to have had them, and failed of them, than not to have had them at all."

"Possibly," he replied, coldly. Then he added, "I wish you would tell me about yourself. You have always interested me."

"I have nothing to tell you about myself," she answered, frankly. "I am alone in the world, without friends and without relations. The very name I use is not a real name. I was a foundling. At times I am sorry I do not belong to any one, and at other times I am glad. You know I am fond of books and of art, so my life is not altogether empty; and I find my pleasure in hard work. When I saw you at the gallery I wished to know you, and I asked one of the students who you were. He told me you were a misanthrope. Then I did not care so much about knowing you, until one day you spoke to me about my painting, and that was the beginning of our friendship."

"Forty years ago," he said, sadly, "the friend of my boyhood deceived me. I had not thought it possible that he could be false to me. He screened himself behind me, and became prosperous and respected at the expense of my honour. I vowed I would never again make a friend. A few years later, when I was beginning to hold up my head, the woman whom I loved deceived me. Then I put from me all affection and all love. Greater natures than mine are better able to bear these troubles, but my heart contracted and withered up."

He paused for a moment, many recollections overpowering him. Then he went on telling her the history of his life, unfolding to her the story of his hopes and ambitions, describing to her the very home where he was born, and the dark-eyed sister whom he had loved, and with whom he had played over the daisied fields, and through the carpeted woods, and all among the richly tinted bracken. One day he was told she was dead, and that he must never speak her name; but he spoke it all the day and all the night,—Beryl, nothing but Beryl,—and he looked for her in the fields and in the woods and among the bracken. It seemed as if he had unlocked the casket of his heart, closed for so many years, and as if all the memories of the past and all the secrets of his life were rushing out, glad to be free once more, and grateful for the open air of sympathy.

"Beryl was as swift as a deer!" he exclaimed. "You would have laughed to see her on the moor. Ah, it was hard to give up all the thoughts of meeting her again. They told me I should see her in heaven, but I did not care about heaven. I wanted Beryl on earth, as I knew her, a merry laughing sister. I think you are right: we don't forget; we become resigned in a dead, dull kind of way."

Suddenly he said, "I don't know why I have told you all this. And yet it has been such a pleasure to me. You are the only person to whom I could have spoken about myself, for no one else but you would have cared."

"Don't you think," she said gently, "that you made a mistake in letting your experiences embitter you? Because you had been unlucky in one or two instances it did not follow that all the world was against you. Perhaps you unconsciously put yourself against all the world, and therefore saw every one in an unfavourable light. It seems so easy to do that. Trouble comes to most people, doesn't it? And your philosophy should have taught you to make the best of it. At least, that is my notion of the value of philosophy."

She spoke hesitatingly, as though she gave utterance to these words against her will.

"I am sure you are right, child," he said, eagerly.

He put his hands to his eyes, but he could not keep back the tears.

"I have been such a lonely old man," he sobbed; "no one can tell what a lonely, loveless life mine has been. If I were not so old and so tired I should like to begin all over again."

He sobbed for many minutes, and she did not know what to say to him of comfort; but she took his hand within her own, and gently caressed it, as one might do to a little child in pain. He looked up and smiled through his tears.

"You have been very good to me," he said, "and I dare say you have thought me ungrateful. You mended my coat for me one morning, and not a day has passed but that I have looked at that darn and thought of you. I liked to remember that you had done it for me. But you have done far more than this for me: you have put some sweetness into my life. Whatever becomes of me hereafter, I shall never be able to think of my life on earth as anything but beautiful, because you thought kindly of me and acted kindly for me. The other night, when this terrible pain came over me, I wished you were near me; I wished to hear your voice. There is very beautiful music in your voice."

"I would have come to you gladly," she said, smiling quietly at him. "You must make a promise that when you feel ill again you will send for me. Then you will see what a splendid nurse I am, and how soon you will become strong and well under my care, strong enough to paint many more pictures, each one better than the last. Now will you promise?"

"Yes," he said, and he raised her hand reverently to his lips.

"You are not angry with me for doing that?" he asked, suddenly. "I should not like to vex you."

"I am not vexed," she answered, kindly.

"Then perhaps I may kiss it once more?" he asked.

"Yes," she answered; and again he raised her hand to his lips.

"Thank you," he said quietly; "that was kind of you. Do you see that broken sun-ray yonder? Is it not golden? I find it very pleasant to sit here; and I am quite happy, and almost free from pain. Lately I have been troubled with a dull thudding pain near my heart; but now I feel so strong that I believe I shall finish that Andrea del Sarto after all."

"Of course you will," she answered, cheerily, "and I shall have to confess that yours is better than mine! I am quite willing to yield the palm to you."

"I must alter the expression of the mouth," he replied. "That is the part which has worried me. I don't think I told you that I have had a commission to copy Rembrandt's 'Old Jew.' I must set to work on that next week."

"But you have given me your palette and brushes!" she laughed.

"You must be generous enough to lend them to me," he said, smiling. "By the way, I intend to give you my books, all of them. Some day I must show them to you. I especially value my philosophical books; they have been my faithful companions through many years. I believe you do not read Greek. That is a pity, because you would surely enjoy Aristotle. I think I must teach you Greek; it would be an agreeable legacy to leave you when I pass away into the Great Silence."

"I should like to learn," she said, wondering to hear him speak so unreservedly. It seemed as if some vast barrier had been rolled aside, and as if she were getting to know him better, having been allowed to glance into his past life, to sympathise with his past mistakes, and with the failure of his ambitions, and with the deadening of his heart.

"You must read AEschylus," he continued, enthusiastically; "and, if I mistake not, the Agamemnon will be an epoch in your life. You will find that all these studies will serve to ennoble your art, and you will be able to put mind into your work, and not merely form and colour. Do you know, I feel so well that I believe I shall not only live to finish Andrea del Sarto, but also to smoke another pipe?"

"You have been too rash to-day," she laughed, "giving away your pipe and pouch, your palette and brushes, in this reckless manner! I must get you a new pipe to-morrow. I wonder you did not part with your venerable Lucretius."

"That reminds me," he said, fumbling in his pocket; "I think I have dropped my Lucretius. I fancy I left it somewhere in the Poets' Corner. It would grieve me to lose that book."

"Let me go and look for it," she said, and she advanced a few steps, and then came back to him.

"You have been saying many kind words to me," she said, as she put her hand on his arm, "and I have not told you that I value your friendship, and am grateful to you for letting me be more than a mere stranger to you. I have been very lonely in my life, for I am not one to make friends easily, and it has been a great privilege to me to talk with you. I want you to know this: for if I have been anything to you, you have been a great deal to me. I have never met with much sympathy from those of my own age: I have found them narrow and unyielding, and they found me dull and uninteresting. They had passed through few experiences and knew nothing about failure or success, and some of them did not even understand the earnestness of endeavour, and laughed at me when I spoke of a high ideal. So I withdrew into myself, and should probably have grown still more isolated than I was before, but that I met you, and, as time went on, we became friends. I shall always remember your teaching, and I will try to keep to a high ideal of life and art and endeavour, and I will not let despair creep into my heart, and I will not lose my faith in humanity."

As she spoke a lingering ray of sunshine lit up her face and gently caressed her soft brown hair; slight though her form, sombre her clothes, and unlovely her features, she seemed a gracious presence because of her earnestness.

"Now," she said, cheerily, "you rest here until I come back with your Lucretius, and then I think I must be getting on my way home. But you must fix a time for our first Greek lesson, for we must begin to-morrow."

When she had gone he walked in the cloisters, holding his hat in his hand and his stick under his arm. There was a quiet smile on his face, which was called forth by pleasant thoughts in his mind, and he did not look quite so shrunken and shrivelled as usual. His eyes were fixed on the ground, but he raised them, and observed a white cat creeping toward him. It came and rubbed itself against his foot, and, purring with all its might, seemed determined to win some kind of notice from him. The old man stooped down to stroke it, and was just touching its sleek coat when he suddenly withdrew his hand and groaned deeply. He struggled to the recess, and sank back. The stick fell on the stone with a clatter, and the battered hat rolled down beside it, and the white cat fled away in terror; but realising that there was no cause for alarm, it came back and crouched near the silent figure of the old man, watching him intently. Then it stretched out its paw and played with his hand, doing its utmost to coax him into a little fun; but he would not be coaxed, and the cat lost all patience with him, and left him to himself.

Meanwhile Helen Stanley was looking for the lost Lucretius in the Poets' Corner. She found it laying near Chaucer's tomb, and was just going to take it to her friend when she saw the workman to whom they had spoken in Trafalgar Square. He recognised her at once, and came toward her.

"I've been having a quiet half-hour here," he said. "It does me a sight of good to sit in the abbey."

"You should go into the cloisters," she said, kindly. "I have been sitting there with my friend. He will be interested to hear that you love this beautiful abbey."

"I should like to see him again," said the workman. "He had a kind way about him, and that pipe he gave me is an uncommon good one. Still, I am sorry I smashed the little clay pipe. I'd grown used to it. I'd smoked it ever since my little girl died and left me alone in the world. I used to bring my little girl here, and now I come alone. But it isn't the same thing."

"No, it could not be the same thing," said Helen, gently. "But you find some comfort here?"

"Some little comfort," he answered. "One can't expect much."

They went together into the cloisters, and as they came near the recess where the old man rested Helen said:

"Why, he has fallen asleep! He must have been very tired. And he has dropped his hat and stick. Thank you. If you will put them down there, I will watch by his side until he wakes up. I don't suppose he will sleep for long."

The workman stooped down to pick up the hat and stick, and glanced at the sleeper. Something in the sleeper's countenance arrested his attention. He turned to the girl, and saw that she was watching him.

"What is it?" she asked anxiously. "What is the matter with you?"

He tried to speak, but his voice failed him, and all he could do was to point with trembling hand to the old man.

Helen looked, and a loud cry broke from her lips. The old man was dead.