A Rejected Titian by Robert Herrick

 

"John," my wife remarked in horrified tones, "he's coming to Rome!"

"Who is coming to Rome—the Emperor?"

"Uncle Ezra—see," she handed me the telegram. "Shall arrive in Rome
Wednesday morning; have Watkins at the Grand Hotel."

I handed the despatch to Watkins.

"Poor uncle!" my wife remarked.

"He will get it in the neck," I added, profanely.

"They ought to put nice old gentlemen like your uncle in bond when they reach Italy," Watkins mused, as if bored in advance. "The antichitàs get after them, like—like confidence-men in an American city, and the same old story is the result; they find, in some mysterious fashion, a wonderful Titian, a forgotten Giorgione, cheap at cinque mille lire. Then it's all up with them. His pictures are probably decalcomanias, you know, just colored prints pasted over board. Why, we know every picture in Venice; it's simply impossible—"

Watkins was a connoisseur; he had bought his knowledge in the dearest school of experience.

"What are you going to do, Mr. Watkins?" my wife put in. "Tell him the truth?"

"There's nothing else to do. I used up all my ambiguous terms over that daub he bought in the Piazza di Spagna—'reminiscential' of half a dozen worthless things, 'suggestive,' etc. I can't work them over again." Watkins was lugubrious.

"Tell him the truth as straight as you can; it's the best medicine." I was Uncle Ezra's heir; naturally, I felt for the inheritance.

"Well," my wife was invariably cheerful, "perhaps he has found something valuable; at least, one of them may be; isn't it possible?"

Watkins looked at my wife indulgently.

"He's been writing me about them for a month, suggesting that, as I was about to go on to Venice, he would like to have me see them; such treasures as I should find them. I have been waiting until he should get out. It isn't a nice job, and your uncle—"

"There are three of them, Aunt Mary writes: Cousin Maud has bought one, with the advice of Uncle Ezra and Professor Augustus Painter, and Painter himself is the last one to succumb."

"They have all gone mad," Watkins murmured.

"Where did Maudie get the cash?" I asked.

"She had a special gift on coming of age, and she has been looking about for an opportunity for throwing it away"—my wife had never sympathized with my cousin, Maud Vantweekle. "She had better save it for her trousseau, if she goes on much more with that young professor. Aunt Mary should look after her."

Watkins rose to go.

"Hold on a minute," I said. "Just listen to this delicious epistle from
Uncle Ezra."

"'… We have hoped that you would arrive in Venice before we break up our charming home here. Mary has written you that Professor Painter has joined us at the Palazzo Palladio, complementing our needs and completing our circle. He has an excellent influence for seriousness upon Maud; his fine, manly qualities have come out. Venice, after two years of Berlin, has opened his soul in a really remarkable manner. All the beauty lying loose around here has been a revelation to him—'"

"Maud's beauty," my wife interpreted.

"'And our treasures you will enjoy so much—such dashes of color, such great slaps of light! I was the first to buy—they call it a Savoldo, but I think no third-rate man could be capable of so much—such reaching out after infinity. However, that makes little difference. I would not part with it, now that I have lived these weeks with so fine a thing. Maud won a prize in her Bonifazio, which she bought under my advice. Then Augustus secured the third one, a Bissola, and it has had the greatest influence upon him already; it has given him his education in art. He sits with it by the hour while he is at work, and its charm has gradually produced a revolution in his character. We had always found him too Germanic, and he had immured himself in that barbarous country for so long over his Semitic books that his nature was stunted on one side. His picture has opened a new world for him. Your Aunt Mary and I already see the difference in his character; he is gentler, less narrowly interested in the world. This precious bit of fine art has been worth its price many times, but I don't think Augustus would part with it for any consideration now that he has lived with it and learned to know its power.'"

"I can't see why he is coming to Rome," Watkins commented at the end. "If they are confident that they know all about their pictures, and don't care anyway who did them, and are having all this spiritual love-feast, what in the world do they want any expert criticism of their text for? Now for such people to buy pictures, when they haven't a mint of money! Why don't they buy something within their means really fine—a coin, a Van Dyck print? I could get your uncle a Whistler etching for twenty-five pounds; a really fine thing, you know—"

This was Watkins's hobby.

"Oh, well, it won't be bad in the end of the hall at New York; it's as dark as pitch there; and then Uncle Ezra can leave it to the Metropolitan as a Giorgione. It will give the critics something to do. And I suppose that in coming on here he has in mind to get an indorsement for his picture that will give it a commercial value. He's canny, is my Uncle Ezra, and he likes to gamble too, like the rest of us. If he should draw a prize, it wouldn't be a bad thing to brag of."

Watkins called again the next morning.

"Have you seen Uncle Ezra?" my wife asked, anxiously.

"No. Three telegrams. Train was delayed—I suppose by the importance of the works of art it's bringing on."

"When do you expect him?"

"About noon."

"Mr. Watkins," my wife flamed out, "I believe you are just shirking it, to meet that poor old man with his pictures. You ought to have been at the station, or at least at the hotel. Why, it's twelve now!"

Watkins hung his head.

"I believe you are a coward," my wife went on. "Just think of his arriving there, all excitement over his pictures, and finding you gone!"

"Well, well," I said, soothingly, "it's no use to trot off now, Watkins; stay to breakfast. He will be in shortly. When he finds you are out at the hotel he will come straight on here, I am willing to bet."

Watkins looked relieved at my suggestion.

"I believe you meant to run away all along," my wife continued, severely, "and to come here for refuge."

Watkins sulked.

We waited in suspense, straining our ears to hear the sound of a cab stopping in the street. At last one did pull up. My wife made no pretence of indifference, but hurried to the window.

"It's Uncle Ezra, with a big, black bundle. John, run down—No! there's a facchino."

We looked at each other and laughed.

"The three!"

Our patron of art came in, with a warm, gentle smile, his tall, thin figure a little bent with the fatigue of the journey, his beard a little grayer and dustier than usual, and his hands all a-tremble with nervous impatience and excitement. He had never been as tremulous before an opinion from the Supreme Court. My wife began to purr over him soothingly; Watkins looked sheepish; I hurried them all off to breakfast.

The omelette was not half eaten before Uncle Ezra jumped up, and began unstrapping the oil-cloth covering to the pictures. There was consternation at the table. My wife endeavored soothingly to bring Uncle Ezra's interest back to breakfast, but he was not to be fooled. My Uncle Ezra was a courageous man.

"Of course you fellows," he said, smiling at Watkins, in his suave fashion, "are just whetting your knives for me, I know. That's right. I want to know the worst, the hardest things you can say. You can't destroy the intrinsic worth of the pictures for us; I have lived with mine too long, and know how precious it is!"

At last the three pictures were tipped up against the wall, and the Madonnas and saints in gold, red, and blue were beaming out insipidly at us. Uncle Ezra affected indifference. Watkins continued with the omelette. "We'll look them over after breakfast," he said, severely, thus getting us out of the hole temporarily.

After breakfast my wife cooked up some engagement, and hurried me off. We left Uncle Ezra in the hands of the physician. Two hours later, when we entered, the operation had been performed—we could see at a glance—and in a bloody fashion. The pictures were lying about the vast room as if they had been spat at. Uncle Ezra smiled wanly at us, with the courage of the patient who is a sceptic about physicians.

"Just what I expected," he said, briskly, to relieve Watkins, who was smoking, with the air of a man who has finished his job and is now cooling off. "Mr. Watkins thinks Painter's picture and Maud's are copies, Painter's done a few years ago and Maud's a little older, the last century. My Savoldo he finds older, but repainted. You said cinque cento, Mr. Watkins?"

"Perhaps, Mr. Williams," Watkins answered, and added, much as a dog would give a final shake to the bird, "Much repainted, hardly anything left of the original. There may be a Savoldo underneath, but you don't see it." Watkins smiled at us knowingly. My wife snubbed him.

"Of course, Uncle Ezra, that's one man's opinion. I certainly should not put much faith in one critic, no matter how eminent he may be. Just look at the guide-books and see how the 'authorities' swear at one another. Ruskin says every man is a fool who can't appreciate his particular love, and Burckhardt calls it a daub, and Eastlake insipid. Now, there are a set of young fellows who think they know all about paint and who painted what. They're renaming all the great masterpieces. Pretty soon they will discover that some tenth-rate fellow painted the Sistine Chapel."

Watkins put on an aggrieved and expostulatory manner. Uncle Ezra cut in.

"Oh! my dear! Mr. Watkins may be right, quite right. It's his business to know, I am sure, and I anticipated all that he would say; indeed, I have come off rather better than I expected. There is old paint in it somewhere."

"Pretty far down," Watkins muttered. My wife bristled up, but Uncle
Ezra assumed his most superb calm.

"It makes no difference to me, of course, as far as the worth of the work of art is concerned. I made up my mind before I came here that my picture was worth a great deal to me, much more than I paid for it." There was a heroic gasp. Watkins interposed mercilessly, "And may I ask, Mr. Williams, what you did give for it?"

Uncle Ezra was an honest man. "Twenty-five hundred lire," he replied, sullenly.

"Excuse me" (Watkins was behaving like a pitiless cad), "but you paid a great deal too much for it, I assure you. I could have got it for——"

"Mr. Watkins," my wife was hardly civil to him, "it doesn't matter much what you could have got it for."

"No," Uncle Ezra went on bravely, "I am a little troubled as to what this may mean to Maud and Professor Painter, for you see their pictures are copies."

"Undoubted modern copies," the unquenchable Watkins emended.

"Maud has learned a great deal from her picture. And as for Painter, it has been an education in art, an education in life. He said to me the night before I came away, 'Mr. Williams, I wouldn't take two thousand for that picture; it's been the greatest influence in my life.'"

I thought Watkins would have convulsions.

"And it has brought those two young souls together in a marvellous way, this common interest in fine art. You will find Maud a much more serious person, Jane. No, if I were Painter I certainly should not care a fig whether it proves to be a copy or not. I shouldn't let that influence me in my love for such an educational wonder."

The bluff was really sublime, but painful. My wife gave a decided hint to Watkins that his presence in such a family scene was awkward. He took his hat and cane. Uncle Ezra rose and grasped him cordially by the hand.

"You have been very generous, Mr. Watkins," he said, in his own sweet way, "to do such an unpleasant job. It's a large draft to make on the kindness of a friend."

"Oh, don't mention it, Mr. Williams; and if you want to buy something really fine, a Van Dyck print—a——"

Uncle Ezra was shooing him toward the door. From the stairs we could still hear his voice. "Or a Whistler etching for twenty-five pounds, I could get you, now, a very fine——"

"No, thank you, Mr. Watkins," Uncle Ezra said, firmly. "I don't believe
I have any money just now for such an investment."

My wife tiptoed about the room, making faces at the exposed masterpieces. "What shall we do?" Uncle Ezra came back into the room, his face a trifle grayer and more worn. "Capital fellow, that Watkins," he said; "so firm and frank."

"Uncle," I ventured at random, "I met Flügel the other day in the street. You know Flügel's new book on the Renaissance. He's the coming young critic in art, has made a wonderful reputation the last three years, is on the Beaux Arts staff, and really knows. He is living out at Frascati. I could telegraph and have him here this afternoon, perhaps."

"Well, I don't know;" his tone, however, said "Yes." "I don't care much for expert advice—for specialists. But it wouldn't do any harm to hear what he has to say. And Maud and Painter have made up their minds that Maud's is a Titian."

So I ran out and sent off the despatch. My wife took Uncle Ezra down to the Forum and attempted to console him with the ugliness of genuine antiquity, while I waited for Flügel. He came in a tremendous hurry, his little, muddy eyes winking hard behind gold spectacles.

"Ah, yes," he began to paw the pictures over as if they were live stock, "that was bought for a Bonifazio," he had picked up Maud's ruby-colored prize. "Of course, of course, it's a copy, an old copy, of Titian's picture, No. 3,405, in the National Gallery at London. There is a replica in the Villa Ludovisi here at Rome. It's a stupid copy, some alterations, all for the bad—worthless—well, not to the antichità, for it must be 1590, I should say. But worthless for us and in bad condition. I wouldn't give cinque lire for it."

"And the Bissola?" I said. "Oh, that was done in the seventeenth century—it would make good kindling. But this," he turned away from Painter's picture with a gesture of contempt, "this is Domenico Tintoretto fast enough, at least what hasn't been stippled over and painted out. St. Agnes's leg here is entire, and that tree in the background is original. A damn bad man, but there are traces of his slop work. Perhaps the hair is by him, too. Well, good-by, old fellow; I must be off to dinner."

That was slight consolation; a leg, a tree, and some wisps of hair in a picture three feet six by four feet eight. Our dinner that evening was labored. The next morning Uncle Ezra packed his three treasures tenderly, putting in cotton-wool at the edges, my wife helping him to make them comfortable. We urged him to stay over with us for a few days; we would all go on later to Venice. But Uncle Ezra seemed moved by some hidden cause. Back he would trot at once. "Painter will want his picture," he said, "he has been waiting on in Venice just for this, and I must not keep him." Watkins turned up as we were getting into the cab to see Uncle Ezra off, and insisted upon accompanying us to the station. My wife took the opportunity to rub into him Flügel's remarks, which, at least, made Watkins out shady in chronology. At the station we encountered a new difficulty. The ticket collector would not let the pictures through the gate. My uncle expostulated in pure Tuscan. Watkins swore in Roman.

"Give him five lire, Mr. Williams."

Poor Uncle Ezra fumbled in his pocket-book for the piece of money. He had never bribed in his life. It was a terrible moral fall, to see him tremblingly offer the piece of scrip. The man refused, "positive orders, permesso necessary," etc., etc. The bell rang; there was a rush. Uncle Ezra looked unhappy.

"Here," Watkins shouted, grabbing the precious pictures in a manner far from reverent, "I'll send these on, Mr. Williams; run for your train." Uncle Ezra gave one undecided glance, and then yielded. "You will look after them," he pleaded, "carefully."

"You shall have them safe enough," my wife promised.

"Blast the pasteboards," Watkins put in under his breath, "the best thing to do with them is to chop 'em up." He was swinging them back and forth under his arm. My wife took them firmly from him. "He shall have his pictures, and not from your ribald hands."

A week later Rome became suddenly oppressively warm. We started off for Venice, Watkins tagging on incorrigibly. "I want to see 'Maud,'" he explained. The pictures had been packed and sent ahead by express. "The storm must have burst, tears shed, tempers cooled, mortification set in," I remarked, as we were being shoved up the Grand Canal toward the Palazzo Palladio. "There they are in the balcony," my wife exclaimed, "waving to us. Something is up; Maudie is hanging back, with Aunt Mary, and Professor Painter is at the other end, with Uncle Ezra."

The first thing that caught the eye after the flurry of greetings was the impudent blue and red of Uncle Ezra's "Sancta Conversazione," Domenico Tintoretto, Savoldo, or what not; St. Agnes's leg and all, beaming at us from the wall. The other two were not there. My wife looked at me. Maudie was making herself very gracious with little Watkins. Painter's solemn face began to lower more and more. Aunt Mary and Uncle Ezra industriously poured oil by the bucket upon the social sea.

At last Maud rose: "You must take me over there at once, Mr. Watkins.
It will be such an enjoyment to have someone who really knows about
pictures and has taste." This shot at poor Painter; then to my wife,
"Come, Jane, you will like to see your room."

Painter crossed to me and suggested, lugubriously, a cigar on the balcony. He smoked a few minutes in gloomy silence.

"Does that fellow know anything?" he emitted at last, jerking his head at Watkins, who was pouring out information at Uncle Ezra. I began gently to give Charles Henderson Watkins a fair reputation for intelligence. "I mean anything about art? Of course it doesn't matter what he says about my picture, whether it is a copy or not, but Miss Vantweekle takes it very hard about hers. She blames me for having been with her when she bought it, and having advised her and encouraged her to put six hundred dollars into it."

"Six hundred," I gasped.

"Cheap for a Bonifazio, or a Titian, as we thought it."

"Too cheap," I murmured.

"Well, I got bitten for about the same on my own account. I sha'n't get that Rachel's library at Berlin, that's all. The next time you catch me fooling in a subject where I don't know my bearings—like fine art—You see Mr. Williams found my picture one day when he was nosing about at an antichita's, and thought it very fine. I admire Mr. Williams tremendously, and I valued his opinion about art subjects much more then than I do now. He and Mrs. Williams were wild over it. They had just bought their picture, and they wanted us each to have one. They have lots of sentiment, you know."

"Lots," I assented.

"Mrs. Williams got at me, and well, she made me feel that it would bring me nearer to Miss Vantweekle. You know she goes in for art, and she used to be impatient with me because I couldn't appreciate. I was dumb when she walked me up to some old Madonna, and the others would go on at a great rate. Well, in a word, I bought it for my education, and I guess I have got it!

"Then the man, he's an old Jew on the Grand Canal—Raffman, you know him? He got out another picture, the Bonifazio. The Williamses began to get up steam over that, too. They hung over that thing Mr. Williams bought, that Savoldo or Domenico Tintoretto, and prowled about the churches and the galleries finding traces of it here in the style of this picture and that; in short, we all got into a fever about pictures, and Miss Vantweekle invested all the money an aunt had given her before coming abroad, in that Bonifazio.

"I must say that Miss Vantweekle held off some time, was doubtful about the picture; didn't feel that she wanted to put all her money into it. But she caught fire in the general excitement, and I may say"—here a sad sort of conscious smile crept over the young professor's face—"at that time I had a good deal of influence with her. She bought the picture, we brought it home, and put it up at the other end of the hall. We spent hours over that picture, studying out every line, placing every color. We made up our minds soon enough that it wasn't a Bonifazio, but we began to think—now don't laugh, or I'll pitch you over the balcony—it was an early work by Titian. There was an attempt in it for great things, as Mr. Williams said: no small man could have planned it. One night we had been talking for hours about them, and we were all pretty well excited. Mr. Williams suggested getting Watkins's opinion. Maud—Miss Vantweekle said, loftily, 'Oh! it does not make any difference what the critics say about it, the picture means everything to me'; and I, like a fool, felt happier than ever before in my life. The next morning Mr. Williams telegraphed you and set off."

He waited.

"And when he returned?"

"It's been hell ever since."

He was in no condition to see the comic side of the affair. Nor was
Miss Vantweekle. She was on my wife's bed in tears.

"All poor Aunt Higgins's present gone into that horrid thing," she moaned, "and all the dresses I was planning to get in Paris. I shall have to go home looking like a perfect dowd!"

"But think of the influence it has been in your life—the education you have received from that picture. How can you call all that color, those noble faces, 'that horrid thing?'" I said, reprovingly. She sat upright.

"See here, Jerome Parker, if you ever say anything like that again, I will never speak to you any more, or to Jane, though you are my cousins."

"They have tried to return the picture," my wife explained. "Professor Painter and Uncle Ezra took it over yesterday; but, of course, the Jew laughed at them."

"'A copy!' he said." Maud explained, "Why, it's no more a copy than Titian's 'Assumption.' He could show us the very place in a palace on the Grand Canal where it had hung for four hundred years. Of course, all the old masters used the same models, and grouped their pictures alike. Very probably Titian had a picture something like it. What of that? He defied us to find the exact original."

"Well," I remarked, soothingly, "that ought to comfort you, I am sure.
Call your picture a new Titian, and sell it when you get home."

"Mr. Watkins says that's an old trick," moaned Maud, "that story about the palace. He says old Raffman has a pal among the Italian nobility, and works off copies through him all the time. I won't say anything about Uncle Ezra; he has been as kind and good as he can be, only a little too enthusiastic. But Professor Painter!"

She tossed her head.

The atmosphere in the Palazzo Palladio for the next few days was highly charged.

At dinner Uncle Ezra placidly made remarks about the Domenico Tintoretto, almost vaingloriously, I thought. "Such a piece of Venice to carry away. We missed it so much, those days you had it in Rome. It is so precious that I cannot bear to pack it up and lose sight of it for five months. Mary, just see that glorious piece of color over there."

Meantime some kind of conspiracy was on foot. Maud went off whole mornings with Watkins and Uncle Ezra. We were left out as unsympathetic. Painter wandered about like a sick ghost. He would sit glowering at Maud and Watkins while they held whispered conversations at the other end of the hall. Watkins was the hero. He had accepted Flügel's judgment with impudent grace.

"A copy of Titian, of course," he said to me; "really, it is quite hard on poor Miss Vantweekle. People, even learned people, who don't know about such things, had better not advise. I have had the photographs of all Titian's pictures sent on, and we have found the original of your cousin's picture. Isn't it very like?"

It was very like; a figure was left out in the copy, the light was changed, but still it was a happy guess of Flügel.

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" I said to Maud, who had just joined us.

"Oh, Mr. Watkins has kindly consented to manage the matter for me; I believe he has a friend here, an artist, Mr. Hare, who will give expert judgment on it. Then the American vice-consul is a personal friend of Mr. Watkins, and also Count Corner, the adviser at the Academy. We shall frighten the old Jew, sha'n't we, Mr. Watkins?"

I walked over to the despised Madonna that was tipped up on its side, ready to be walked off on another expedition of defamation.

"Poor Bonifazio," I sighed, "Maud, how can you part with a work of fine art that has meant so much to you?"

"Do you think, Jerome, I would go home and have Uncle Higgins, with his authentic Rembrandt and all his other pictures, laugh at me and my Titian? I'd burn it first."

I turned to Uncle Ezra. "Uncle, what strange metamorphosis has happened to this picture? The spiritual light from that color must shine as brightly as ever; the intrinsic value remains forever fixed in Maud's soul; it is desecration to reject such a precious message. Why, it's like sending back the girl you married because her pedigree proved defective, or because she had lost her fortune. It's positively brutal!"

Maud darted a venomous glance at me; however, I had put the judge in a hole.

"I cannot agree with you, Jerome." Uncle Ezra could never be put in a hole. "Maud's case is a very different one from Mr. Painter's or mine. We can carry back what we like personally, but for Maud to carry home a doubtful picture into the atmosphere she has to live in—why, it would be intolerable—with her uncle a connoisseur, all her friends owners of masterpieces." Uncle Ezra had a flowing style. "It would expose her to annoyance, to mortification—constant, daily. Above all, to have taken a special gift, a fund of her aunt's, and to apply it in this mistaken fashion is cruel."

Painter remarked bitterly to me afterward, "He wants to crawl on his share of the responsibility. I'd buy the picture if I could raise the cash, and end the whole miserable business."

Indeed, Watkins seemed the only one blissfully in his element. As my wife remarked, Watkins had exchanged his interest in pictures for an interest in woman. Certainly he had planned his battle well. It came off the next day. They all left in a gondola at an early hour. Painter and I watched them from the balcony. After they were seated, Watkins tossed in carelessly the suspected picture. What went on at the antichità's no one of the boat-load ever gave away. Watkins had a hold on the man somehow, and the evidence of the fraud was overwhelming. About noon they came back, Maud holding an enormous envelope in her hand.

"I can never, never thank you enough, Mr. Watkins," she beamed at him. "You have saved me from such mortification and unhappiness, and you were so clever."

That night at dinner Uncle Ezra was more than usually genial, and beamed upon Maud and Watkins perpetually. Watkins was quite the hero and did his best to look humble.

"How much rent did the spiritual influence cost, Maud?" I asked. She was too happy to be offended. "Oh, we bought an old ring to make him feel pleased, five pounds, and Mr. Hare's services were worth five pounds, and Mr. Watkins thinks we should give the vice-consul a box of cigars.

"Let's see; ten pounds and a box of cigars, that's three hundred lire at the price of exchange. You had the picture just three weeks, a hundred lire a week for the use of all that education in art, all that spiritual influence. Quite cheap, I should say."

"And Mr. Watkins's services, Maud!" my wife asked, viciously. There was a slight commotion at the table.

"May I, Maud?" Watkins murmured.

"As you please, Charles," Maud replied, with her eyes lowered to the table.

"Maud has given herself," Uncle Ezra said, gleefully.

Painter rose from the table and disappeared into his room. Pretty soon he came out bearing a tray with a dozen champagne glasses, of modern-antique Venetian glass.

"Let me present this to you, Miss Vantweekle," he pronounced, solemnly, "as an engagement token. I, I exchanged my picture for them this morning."

"Some Asti Spumante, Ricci."

"To the rejected Titian—" I suggested for the first toast.

VENICE, May, 1896.