The Portrait by Edith Wharton
It was at Mrs. Mellish's, one Sunday afternoon last spring. We were
talking over George Lillo's portraits—a collection of them was being
shown at Durand-Ruel's—and a pretty woman had emphatically declared:—
"Nothing on earth would induce me to sit to him!"
There was a chorus of interrogations.
"Oh, because—he makes people look so horrid; the way one looks on
board ship, or early in the morning, or when one's hair is out of curl and
one knows it. I'd so much rather be done by Mr. Cumberton!"
Little Cumberton, the fashionable purveyor of rose-water pastels, stroked
his moustache to hide a conscious smile.
"Lillo is a genius—that we must all admit," he said indulgently, as
though condoning a friend's weakness; "but he has an unfortunate
temperament. He has been denied the gift—so precious to an artist—of
perceiving the ideal. He sees only the defects of his sitters; one might
almost fancy that he takes a morbid pleasure in exaggerating their weak
points, in painting them on their worst days; but I honestly believe he
can't help himself. His peculiar limitations prevent his seeing anything
but the most prosaic side of human nature—
"'A primrose by the river's brim
A yellow primrose is to him,
And it is nothing more.'"
Cumberton looked round to surprise an order in the eye of the lady whose
sentiments he had so deftly interpreted, but poetry always made her
uncomfortable, and her nomadic attention had strayed to other topics. His
glance was tripped up by Mrs. Mellish.
"Limitations? But, my dear man, it's because he hasn't any limitations,
because he doesn't wear the portrait-painter's conventional blinders, that
we're all so afraid of being painted by him. It's not because he sees only
one aspect of his sitters, it's because he selects the real, the typical
one, as instinctively as a detective collars a pick-pocket in a crowd. If
there's nothing to paint—no real person—he paints nothing;
look at the sumptuous emptiness of his portrait of Mrs. Guy Awdrey"—("Why,"
the pretty woman perplexedly interjected, "that's the only nice picture he
ever did!") "If there's one positive trait in a negative whole he brings
it out in spite of himself; if it isn't a nice trait, so much the worse
for the sitter; it isn't Lillo's fault: he's no more to blame than a
mirror. Your other painters do the surface—he does the depths; they
paint the ripples on the pond, he drags the bottom. He makes flesh seem as
fortuitous as clothes. When I look at his portraits of fine ladies in
pearls and velvet I seem to see a little naked cowering wisp of a soul
sitting beside the big splendid body, like a poor relation in the darkest
corner of an opera-box. But look at his pictures of really great people—how
great they are! There's plenty of ideal there. Take his Professor
Clyde; how clearly the man's history is written in those broad steady
strokes of the brush: the hard work, the endless patience, the fearless
imagination of the great savant! Or the picture of Mr. Domfrey—the
man who has felt beauty without having the power to create it. The very
brush-work expresses the difference between the two; the crowding of
nervous tentative lines, the subtler gradations of color, somehow convey a
suggestion of dilettantism. You feel what a delicate instrument the man
is, how every sense has been tuned to the finest responsiveness." Mrs.
Mellish paused, blushing a little at the echo of her own eloquence. "My
advice is, don't let George Lillo paint you if you don't want to be found
out—or to find yourself out. That's why I've never let him do me;
I'm waiting for the day of judgment," she ended with a laugh.
Every one but the pretty woman, whose eyes betrayed a quivering impatience
to discuss clothes, had listened attentively to Mrs. Mellish. Lillo's
presence in New York—he had come over from Paris for the first time
in twelve years, to arrange the exhibition of his pictures—gave to
the analysis of his methods as personal a flavor as though one had been
furtively dissecting his domestic relations. The analogy, indeed, is not
unapt; for in Lillo's curiously detached existence it is difficult to
figure any closer tie than that which unites him to his pictures. In this
light, Mrs. Mellish's flushed harangue seemed not unfitted to the
trivialities of the tea hour, and some one almost at once carried on the
argument by saying:—"But according to your theory—that the
significance of his work depends on the significance of the sitter—his
portrait of Vard ought to be a master-piece; and it's his biggest
Alonzo Vard's suicide—he killed himself, strangely enough, the day
that Lillo's pictures were first shown—had made his portrait the
chief feature of the exhibition. It had been painted ten or twelve years
earlier, when the terrible "Boss" was at the height of his power; and if
ever man presented a type to stimulate such insight as Lillo's, that man
was Vard; yet the portrait was a failure. It was magnificently composed;
the technique was dazzling; but the face had been—well, expurgated.
It was Vard as Cumberton might have painted him—a common man trying
to look at ease in a good coat. The picture had never before been
exhibited, and there was a general outcry of disappointment. It wasn't
only the critics and the artists who grumbled. Even the big public, which
had gaped and shuddered at Vard, revelling in his genial villany, and
enjoying in his death that succumbing to divine wrath which, as a
spectacle, is next best to its successful defiance—even the public
felt itself defrauded. What had the painter done with their hero? Where
was the big sneering domineering face that figured so convincingly in
political cartoons and patent-medicine advertisements, on cigar-boxes and
electioneering posters? They had admired the man for looking his part so
boldly; for showing the undisguised blackguard in every line of his coarse
body and cruel face; the pseudo-gentleman of Lillo's picture was a poor
thing compared to the real Vard. It had been vaguely expected that the
great boss's portrait would have the zest of an incriminating document,
the scandalous attraction of secret memoirs; and instead, it was as
insipid as an obituary. It was as though the artist had been in league
with his sitter, had pledged himself to oppose to the lust for post-mortem
"revelations" an impassable blank wall of negation. The public was
resentful, the critics were aggrieved. Even Mrs. Mellish had to lay down
"Yes, the portrait of Vard is a failure," she admitted, "and I've
never known why. If he'd been an obscure elusive type of villain, one
could understand Lillo's missing the mark for once; but with that face
from the pit—!"
She turned at the announcement of a name which our discussion had drowned,
and found herself shaking hands with Lillo.
The pretty woman started and put her hands to her curls; Cumberton dropped
a condescending eyelid (he never classed himself by recognizing degrees in
the profession), and Mrs. Mellish, cheerfully aware that she had been
overheard, said, as she made room for Lillo—
"I wish you'd explain it."
Lillo smoothed his beard and waited for a cup of tea. Then, "Would there
be any failures," he said, "if one could explain them?"
"Ah, in some cases I can imagine it's impossible to seize the type—or
to say why one has missed it. Some people are like daguerreotypes; in
certain lights one can't see them at all. But surely Vard was obvious
enough. What I want to know is, what became of him? What did you do with
him? How did you manage to shuffle him out of sight?"
"It was much easier than you think. I simply missed an opportunity—"
"That a sign-painter would have seen!"
"Very likely. In fighting shy of the obvious one may miss the significant—"
"—And when I got back from Paris," the pretty woman was heard to
wail, "I found all the women here were wearing the very models I'd brought
home with me!"
Mrs. Mellish, as became a vigilant hostess, got up and shuffled her
guests; and the question of Yard's portrait was dropped.
I left the house with Lillo; and on the way down Fifth Avenue, after one
of his long silences, he suddenly asked:
"Is that what is generally said of my picture of Vard? I don't mean in the
newspapers, but by the fellows who know?"
I said it was.
He drew a deep breath. "Well," he said, "it's good to know that when one
tries to fail one can make such a complete success of it."
"Tries to fail?"
"Well, no; that's not quite it, either; I didn't want to make a failure of
Vard's picture, but I did so deliberately, with my eyes open, all the
same. It was what one might call a lucid failure."
"The why of it is rather complicated. I'll tell you some time—" He
hesitated. "Come and dine with me at the club by and by, and I'll tell you
afterwards. It's a nice morsel for a psychologist."
At dinner he said little; but I didn't mind that. I had known him for
years, and had always found something soothing and companionable in his
long abstentions from speech. His silence was never unsocial; it was bland
as a natural hush; one felt one's self included in it, not left out. He
stroked his beard and gazed absently at me; and when we had finished our
coffee and liqueurs we strolled down to his studio.
At the studio—which was less draped, less posed, less consciously
"artistic" than those of the smaller men—he handed me a cigar, and
fell to smoking before the fire. When he began to talk it was of
indifferent matters, and I had dismissed the hope of hearing more of
Vard's portrait, when my eye lit on a photograph of the picture. I walked
across the room to look at it, and Lillo presently followed with a light.
"It certainly is a complete disguise," he muttered over my shoulder; then
he turned away and stooped to a big portfolio propped against the wall.
"Did you ever know Miss Vard?" he asked, with his head in the portfolio;
and without waiting for my answer he handed me a crayon sketch of a girl's
I had never seen a crayon of Lillo's, and I lost sight of the sitter's
personality in the interest aroused by this new aspect of the master's
complex genius. The few lines—faint, yet how decisive!—flowered
out of the rough paper with the lightness of opening petals. It was a mere
hint of a picture, but vivid as some word that wakens long reverberations
in the memory.
I felt Lillo at my shoulder again.
"You knew her, I suppose?"
I had to stop and think. Why, of course I'd known her: a silent handsome
girl, showy yet ineffective, whom I had seen without seeing the winter
that society had capitulated to Vard. Still looking at the crayon, I tried
to trace some connection between the Miss Vard I recalled and the grave
young seraph of Lillo's sketch. Had the Vards bewitched him? By what
masterstroke of suggestion had he been beguiled into drawing the terrible
father as a barber's block, the commonplace daughter as this memorable
"You don't remember much about her? No, I suppose not. She was a quiet
girl and nobody noticed her much, even when—" he paused with a smile—"you
were all asking Vard to dine."
I winced. Yes, it was true—we had all asked Vard to dine. It was
some comfort to think that fate had made him expiate our weakness.
Lillo put the sketch on the mantel-shelf and drew his arm-chair to the
"It's cold to-night. Take another cigar, old man; and some whiskey? There
ought to be a bottle and some glasses in that cupboard behind you... help
About Vard's portrait? (he began.) Well, I'll tell you. It's a queer
story, and most people wouldn't see anything in it. My enemies might say
it was a roundabout way of explaining a failure; but you know better than
that. Mrs. Mellish was right. Between me and Vard there could be no
question of failure. The man was made for me—I felt that the first
time I clapped eyes on him. I could hardly keep from asking him to sit to
me on the spot; but somehow one couldn't ask favors of the fellow. I sat
still and prayed he'd come to me, though; for I was looking for something
big for the next Salon. It was twelve years ago—the last time I was
out ere—and I was ravenous for an opportunity. I had the feeling—do
you writer-fellows have it too?—that there was something tremendous
in me if it could only be got out; and I felt Vard was the Moses to strike
the rock. There were vulgar reasons, too, that made me hunger for a
victim. I'd been grinding on obscurely for a good many years, without gold
or glory, and the first thing of mine that had made a noise was my picture
of Pepita, exhibited the year before. There'd been a lot of talk about
that, orders were beginning to come in, and I wanted to follow it up with
a rousing big thing at the next Salon. Then the critics had been
insinuating that I could do only Spanish things—I suppose I had
overdone the castanet business; it's a nursery-disease we all go through—and
I wanted to show that I had plenty more shot in my locker. Don't you get
up every morning meaning to prove you're equal to Balzac or Thackeray?
That's the way I felt then; only give me a chance, I wanted to
shout out to them; and I saw at once that Vard was my chance.
I had come over from Paris in the autumn to paint Mrs. Clingsborough, and
I met Vard and his daughter at one of the first dinners I went to. After
that I could think of nothing but that man's head. What a type! I raked up
all the details of his scandalous history; and there were enough to fill
an encyclopaedia. The papers were full of him just then; he was mud from
head to foot; it was about the time of the big viaduct steal, and
irreproachable citizens were forming ineffectual leagues to put him down.
And all the time one kept meeting him at dinners—that was the beauty
of it! Once I remember seeing him next to the Bishop's wife; I've got a
little sketch of that duet somewhere... Well, he was simply magnificent, a
born ruler; what a splendid condottiere he would have made, in gold armor,
with a griffin grinning on his casque! You remember those drawings of
Leonardo's, where the knight's face and the outline of his helmet combine
in one monstrous saurian profile? He always reminded me of that...
But how was I to get at him?—One day it occurred to me to try
talking to Miss Vard. She was a monosyllabic person, who didn't seem to
see an inch beyond the last remark one had made; but suddenly I found
myself blurting out, "I wonder if you know how extraordinarily paintable
your father is?" and you should have seen the change that came over her.
Her eyes lit up and she looked—well, as I've tried to make her look
there. (He glanced up at the sketch.) Yes, she said, wasn't her
father splendid, and didn't I think him one of the handsomest men I'd ever
That rather staggered me, I confess; I couldn't think her capable of
joking on such a subject, yet it seemed impossible that she should be
speaking seriously. But she was. I knew it by the way she looked at Vard,
who was sitting opposite, his wolfish profile thrown back, the shaggy
locks tossed off his narrow high white forehead. The girl worshipped him.
She went on to say how glad she was that I saw him as she did. So many
artists admired only regular beauty, the stupid Greek type that was made
to be done in marble; but she'd always fancied from what she'd seen of my
work—she knew everything I'd done, it appeared—that I looked
deeper, cared more for the way in which faces are modelled by temperament
and circumstance; "and of course in that sense," she concluded, "my
father's face is beautiful."
This was even more staggering; but one couldn't question her divine
sincerity. I'm afraid my one thought was to take advantage of it; and I
let her go on, perceiving that if I wanted to paint Vard all I had to do
was to listen.
She poured out her heart. It was a glorious thing for a girl, she said,
wasn't it, to be associated with such a life as that? She felt it so
strongly, sometimes, that it oppressed her, made her shy and stupid. She
was so afraid people would expect her to live up to him. But that
was absurd, of course; brilliant men so seldom had clever children. Still—did
I know?—she would have been happier, much happier, if he hadn't been
in public life; if he and she could have hidden themselves away somewhere,
with their books and music, and she could have had it all to herself: his
cleverness, his learning, his immense unbounded goodness. For no one knew
how good he was; no one but herself. Everybody recognized his cleverness,
his brilliant abilities; even his enemies had to admit his extraordinary
intellectual gifts, and hated him the worse, of course, for the admission;
but no one, no one could guess what he was at home. She had heard of great
men who were always giving gala performances in public, but whose wives
and daughters saw only the empty theatre, with the footlights out and the
scenery stacked in the wings; but with him it was just the other way:
wonderful as he was in public, in society, she sometimes felt he wasn't
doing himself justice—he was so much more wonderful at home. It was
like carrying a guilty secret about with her: his friends, his admirers,
would never forgive her if they found out that he kept all his best things
I don't quite know what I felt in listening to her. I was chiefly taken up
with leading her on to the point I had in view; but even through my
personal preoccupation I remember being struck by the fact that, though
she talked foolishly, she didn't talk like a fool. She was not stupid; she
was not obtuse; one felt that her impassive surface was alive with
delicate points of perception; and this fact, coupled with her crystalline
frankness, flung me back on a startled revision of my impressions of her
father. He came out of the test more monstrous than ever, as an ugly image
reflected in clear water is made uglier by the purity of the medium. Even
then I felt a pang at the use to which fate had put the mountain-pool of
Miss Vard's spirit, and an uneasy sense that my own reflection there was
not one to linger over. It was odd that I should have scrupled to deceive,
on one small point, a girl already so hugely cheated; perhaps it was the
completeness of her delusion that gave it the sanctity of a religious
belief. At any rate, a distinct sense of discomfort tempered the
satisfaction with which, a day or two later, I heard from her that her
father had consented to give me a few sittings.
I'm afraid my scruples vanished when I got him before my easel. He was
immense, and he was unexplored. From my point of view he'd never been done
before—I was his Cortez. As he talked the wonder grew. His daughter
came with him, and I began to think she was right in saying that he kept
his best for her. It wasn't that she drew him out, or guided the
conversation; but one had a sense of delicate vigilance, hardly more
perceptible than one of those atmospheric influences that give the pulses
a happier turn. She was a vivifying climate. I had meant to turn the talk
to public affairs, but it slipped toward books and art, and I was faintly
aware of its being kept there without undue pressure. Before long I saw
the value of the diversion. It was easy enough to get at the political
Vard: the other aspect was rarer and more instructive. His daughter had
described him as a scholar. He wasn't that, of course, in any intrinsic
sense: like most men of his type he had gulped his knowledge standing, as
he had snatched his food from lunch-counters; the wonder of it lay in his
extraordinary power of assimilation. It was the strangest instance of a
mind to which erudition had given force and fluency without culture; his
learning had not educated his perceptions: it was an implement serving to
slash others rather than to polish himself. I have said that at first
sight he was immense; but as I studied him he began to lessen under my
scrutiny. His depth was a false perspective painted on a wall.
It was there that my difficulty lay: I had prepared too big a canvas for
him. Intellectually his scope was considerable, but it was like the
digital reach of a mediocre pianist—it didn't make him a great
musician. And morally he wasn't bad enough; his corruption wasn't
sufficiently imaginative to be interesting. It was not so much a means to
an end as a kind of virtuosity practised for its own sake, like a
highly-developed skill in cannoning billiard balls. After all, the point
of view is what gives distinction to either vice or virtue: a morality
with ground-glass windows is no duller than a narrow cynicism.
His daughter's presence—she always came with him—gave
unintentional emphasis to these conclusions; for where she was richest he
was naked. She had a deep-rooted delicacy that drew color and perfume from
the very centre of her being: his sentiments, good or bad, were as
detachable as his cuffs. Thus her nearness, planned, as I guessed, with
the tender intention of displaying, elucidating him, of making him
accessible in detail to my dazzled perceptions—this pious design in
fact defeated itself. She made him appear at his best, but she cheapened
that best by her proximity. For the man was vulgar to the core; vulgar in
spite of his force and magnitude; thin, hollow, spectacular; a
Did she suspect it? I think not—then. He was wrapped in her
impervious faith... The papers? Oh, their charges were set down to
political rivalry; and the only people she saw were his hangers-on, or the
fashionable set who had taken him up for their amusement. Besides, she
would never have found out in that way: at a direct accusation her
resentment would have flamed up and smothered her judgment. If the truth
came to her, it would come through knowing intimately some one—different;
through—how shall I put it?—an imperceptible shifting of her
centre of gravity. My besetting fear was that I couldn't count on her
obtuseness. She wasn't what is called clever; she left that to him; but
she was exquisitely good; and now and then she had intuitive felicities
that frightened me. Do I make you see her? We fellows can explain better
with the brush; I don't know how to mix my words or lay them on. She
wasn't clever; but her heart thought—that's all I can say...
If she'd been stupid it would have been easy enough: I could have painted
him as he was. Could have? I did—brushed the face in one day from
memory; it was the very man! I painted it out before she came: I couldn't
bear to have her see it. I had the feeling that I held her faith in him in
my hands, carrying it like a brittle object through a jostling mob; a
hair's-breadth swerve and it was in splinters.
When she wasn't there I tried to reason myself out of these subtleties. My
business was to paint Vard as he was—if his daughter didn't mind his
looks, why should I? The opportunity was magnificent—I knew that by
the way his face had leapt out of the canvas at my first touch. It would
have been a big thing. Before every sitting I swore to myself I'd do it;
then she came, and sat near him, and I—didn't.
I knew that before long she'd notice I was shirking the face. Vard himself
took little interest in the portrait, but she watched me closely, and one
day when the sitting was over she stayed behind and asked me when I meant
to begin what she called "the likeness." I guessed from her tone that the
embarrassment was all on my side, or that if she felt any it was at having
to touch a vulnerable point in my pride. Thus far the only doubt that
troubled her was a distrust of my ability. Well, I put her off with any
rot you please: told her she must trust me, must let me wait for the
inspiration; that some day the face would come; I should see it suddenly—feel
it under my brush... The poor child believed me: you can make a woman
believe almost anything she doesn't quite understand. She was abashed at
her philistinism, and begged me not to tell her father—he would make
such fun of her!
After that—well, the sittings went on. Not many, of course; Vard was
too busy to give me much time. Still, I could have done him ten times
over. Never had I found my formula with such ease, such assurance; there
were no hesitations, no obstructions—the face was there,
waiting for me; at times it almost shaped itself on the canvas.
Unfortunately Miss Vard was there too ...
All this time the papers were busy with the viaduct scandal. The outcry
was getting louder. You remember the circumstances? One of Vard's
associates—Bardwell, wasn't it?—threatened disclosures. The
rival machine got hold of him, the Independents took him to their bosom,
and the press shrieked for an investigation. It was not the first storm
Vard had weathered, and his face wore just the right shade of cool
vigilance; he wasn't the man to fall into the mistake of appearing too
easy. His demeanor would have been superb if it had been inspired by a
sense of his own strength; but it struck me rather as based on contempt
for his antagonists. Success is an inverted telescope through which one's
enemies are apt to look too small and too remote. As for Miss Vard, her
serenity was undiminished; but I half-detected a defiance in her unruffled
sweetness, and during the last sittings I had the factitious vivacity of a
hostess who hears her best china crashing.
One day it did crash: the head-lines of the morning papers shouted
the catastrophe at me:—"The Monster forced to disgorge—Warrant
out against Vard—Bardwell the Boss's Boomerang"—you know the
kind of thing.
When I had read the papers I threw them down and went out. As it happened,
Vard was to have given me a sitting that morning; but there would have
been a certain irony in waiting for him. I wished I had finished the
picture—I wished I'd never thought of painting it. I wanted to shake
off the whole business, to put it out of my mind, if I could: I had the
feeling—I don't know if I can describe it—that there was a
kind of disloyalty to the poor girl in my even acknowledging to myself
that I knew what all the papers were howling from the housetops....
I had walked for an hour when it suddenly occurred to me that Miss Vard
might, after all, come to the studio at the appointed hour. Why should
she? I could conceive of no reason; but the mere thought of what, if she
did come, my absence would imply to her, sent me bolting back to
Twelfth Street. It was a presentiment, if you like, for she was there.
As she rose to meet me a newspaper slipped from her hand: I'd been fool
enough, when I went out, to leave the damned things lying all over the
I muttered some apology for being late, and she said reassuringly:
"But my father's not here yet."
"Your father—?" I could have kicked myself for the way I bungled it!
"He went out very early this morning, and left word that he would meet me
here at the usual hour."
She faced me, with an eye full of bright courage, across the newspaper
lying between us.
"He ought to be here in a moment now—he's always so punctual. But my
watch is a little fast, I think."
She held it out to me almost gaily, and I was just pretending to compare
it with mine, when there was a smart rap on the door and Vard stalked in.
There was always a civic majesty in his gait, an air of having just
stepped off his pedestal and of dissembling an oration in his umbrella;
and that day he surpassed himself. Miss Vard had turned pale at the knock;
but the mere sight of him replenished her veins, and if she now avoided my
eye, it was in mere pity for my discomfiture.
I was in fact the only one of the three who didn't instantly "play up";
but such virtuosity was inspiring, and by the time Vard had thrown off his
coat and dropped into a senatorial pose, I was ready to pitch into my
work. I swore I'd do his face then and there; do it as she saw it; she sat
close to him, and I had only to glance at her while I painted—
Vard himself was masterly: his talk rattled through my hesitations and
embarrassments like a brisk northwester sweeping the dry leaves from its
path. Even his daughter showed the sudden brilliance of a lamp from which
the shade has been removed. We were all surprisingly vivid—it felt,
somehow, as though we were being photographed by flash-light...
It was the best sitting we'd ever had—but unfortunately it didn't
last more than ten minutes.
It was Vard's secretary who interrupted us—a slinking chap called
Cornley, who burst in, as white as sweetbread, with the face of a
depositor who hears his bank has stopped payment. Miss Vard started up as
he entered, but caught herself together and dropped back into her chair.
Vard, who had taken out a cigarette, held the tip tranquilly to his fusée.
"You're here, thank God!" Cornley cried. "There's no time to be lost, Mr.
Vard. I've got a carriage waiting round the corner in Thirteenth Street—"
Vard looked at the tip of his cigarette.
"A carriage in Thirteenth Street? My good fellow, my own brougham is at
"I know, I know—but they're there too, sir; or they will be,
inside of a minute. For God's sake, Mr. Vard, don't trifle!—There's
a way out by Thirteenth Street, I tell you"—
"Bardwell's myrmidons, eh?" said Vard. "Help me on with my overcoat,
Cornley, will you?"
Cornley's teeth chattered.
"Mr. Vard, your best friends ... Miss Vard, won't you speak to your
father?" He turned to me haggardly;—"We can get out by the back
Vard stood towering—in some infernal way he seemed literally to rise
to the situation—one hand in the bosom of his coat, in the attitude
of patriotism in bronze. I glanced at his daughter: she hung on him with a
drowning look. Suddenly she straightened herself; there was something of
Vard in the way she faced her fears—a kind of primitive calm we
drawing-room folk don't have. She stepped to him and laid her hand on his
arm. The pause hadn't lasted ten seconds.
"Father—" she said.
Vard threw back his head and swept the studio with a sovereign eye.
"The back way, Mr. Vard, the back way," Cornley whimpered. "For God's
sake, sir, don't lose a minute."
Vard transfixed his abject henchman.
"I have never yet taken the back way," he enunciated; and, with a gesture
matching the words, he turned to me and bowed.
"I regret the disturbance"—and he walked to the door. His daughter
was at his side, alert, transfigured.
"Stay here, my dear."
They measured each other an instant; then he drew her arm in his. She
flung back one look at me—a paean of victory—and they passed
out with Cornley at their heels.
I wish I'd finished the face then; I believe I could have caught something
of the look she had tried to make me see in him. Unluckily I was too
excited to work that day or the next, and within the week the whole
business came out. If the indictment wasn't a put-up job—and on that
I believe there were two opinions—all that followed was. You
remember the farcical trial, the packed jury, the compliant judge, the
triumphant acquittal?... It's a spectacle that always carries conviction
to the voter: Vard was never more popular than after his "exoneration"...
I didn't see Miss Vard for weeks. It was she who came to me at length;
came to the studio alone, one afternoon at dusk. She had—what shall
I say?—a veiled manner; as though she had dropped a fine gauze
between us. I waited for her to speak.
She glanced about the room, admiring a hawthorn vase I had picked up at
auction. Then, after a pause, she said:
"You haven't finished the picture?"
"Not quite," I said.
She asked to see it, and I wheeled out the easel and threw the drapery
"Oh," she murmured, "you haven't gone on with the face?"
I shook my head.
She looked down on her clasped hands and up at the picture; not once at
"You—you're going to finish it?"
"Of course," I cried, throwing the revived purpose into my voice. By God,
I would finish it!
The merest tinge of relief stole over her face, faint as the first thin
chirp before daylight.
"Is it so very difficult?" she asked tentatively.
"Not insuperably, I hope."
She sat silent, her eyes on the picture. At length, with an effort, she
brought out: "Shall you want more sittings?"
For a second I blundered between two conflicting conjectures; then the
truth came to me with a leap, and I cried out, "No, no more sittings!"
She looked up at me then for the first time; looked too soon, poor child;
for in the spreading light of reassurance that made her eyes like a rainy
dawn, I saw, with terrible distinctness, the rout of her disbanded hopes.
I knew that she knew ...
I finished the picture and sent it home within a week. I tried to make it—what
you see.—Too late, you say? Yes—for her; but not for me or for
the public. If she could be made to feel, for a day longer, for an hour
even, that her miserable secret was a secret—why, she'd made
it seem worth while to me to chuck my own ambitions for that ...
Lillo rose, and taking down the sketch stood looking at it in silence.
After a while I ventured, "And Miss Vard—?"
He opened the portfolio and put the sketch back, tying the strings with
deliberation. Then, turning to relight his cigar at the lamp, he said:
"She died last year, thank God."