The Story of the Pictures

by William A. Quayle

A man and a woman were dreaming. Both were young; and one was strong and one was fair. They were lovers, and the world was very beautiful, and life as rhythmic as a poet's verse. Things which to some seem remote as heaven, to youth and love seem near enough to touch, if one do but stretch out the hand. This youth and maid were dreaming, and their hands were clasped, and sometimes they looked in each other's eyes—sometimes out across the fields, sloping toward sunset. The world seemed young as they, and the sky was fairly singing, with voices sweet as kisses from dear lips long absent,—those voices saying, saying always, "Life is fair—is fair;" and receding, as blown by on a gentle wind, drifted "Life is fair;" and the lovers looked at each other and were glad.

He was an artist, and his idle hand wrought pictures unconsciously. He did not think things, but saw things. His lips were not given to frequent speech, even with the woman he loved. He saw her, whether he sat thus beside her or whether he sat apart from her with seas between—he saw her always; for his was the gift of sight. He saw visions as rapt prophets do. Life was a pageant, and he saw it all.

His brush is part of his hand, and his palette is as his hand's palm. Painting is to him monologue. He is telling what he sees; talking to himself, as children and poets do. Now, he talks to the woman he loves and to himself in pictures, she saying nothing, save as her hand speaks in a caress, and that her eyes are dreamy sweet; and the artist's hand dreams over the paper with glancing touch, and this picture grows before their eyes: A man and a woman, young and fair, are on a hilltop alone, looking across a meadowland, lovely with spring and blossoms and love-making of the birds; and ponds where lily-pads shine in the sun, like metal patines, floating on the pool; and a flock lying in a quiet place; and a lad plowing in a field, the blackbirds following his furrow; and a blue sky, with dainty clouds of white faint against it, like breathing against a window-pane in winter; and a farmhouse, where early roses cluster, and little children are at play,—this, and his brush loiters, and the woman knows her artist has painted a picture of youth; and both look away as in a happy dream.

The artist paints again: and the landscape is in nothing changed. It might have been a reprint rather than a repainting. A morning land, where beauty and bounty courted like man and maid. No tints were lost. The sunlight was unfailing, and roses clustered with their spendthrift grace and loveliness; and the woman, looking at her lover, wondered why he painted the same landscape twice, but, waiting, saw the artist paint two figures, a man and woman at life's prime. She sees they are the youth and maid of the first picture, only older—and what besides? Then they were a promise, a possibility, now they are—what are they? They are the same; they are not the same. She is disappointed in them; not because their beauty has faded, but that their look has changed. Their faces are not haggard, nor cut with strange arabesques of pain and care, nor are they craven or vicious; but the artist speeds his hand as if at play, while every touch is bringing the faces out until they obliterate the former beauty utterly. The landscape is still dewy fresh and fair—the faces have no hint of morning in them. Faces, not bad, but lacking tenderness; expression, self-sufficient; eyes, frosty cold; and the woman's eyes light on the children, playing beside the white farmhouse, and in them is no inexpressible tenderness of mother-love, mute, like a caress; prosperous faces the world has gone quite well with, that is plain, but faces having no beckoning in them, no tender invitation, like a sweet voice, saying, "Enter and welcome." And she who looked at the pictures sobbed, scarcely knowing why, only the man and woman sorely disappointed her when they had grown to maturity; poetry and welcome and promise had faded from them as tints fade from a withered flower. So much was promised—so little was fulfilled.

Meantime, while these lovers sit on the hillside, and the artist has been talking in pictures as the clouds do, the sun has sloped far toward setting. The west is aflame, like a burning palace; the crows are flapping tired wings toward their nests; the swallows are sporting in the air, as children do in surf of the blue seas; smoke from the farm chimneys visible begins to lie level across the sky, and stays like a cloud at anchor. But the artist's hand is busy with another picture.

And the landscape is the same. Mayhap he is not versatile; and, think again, mayhap he has purpose in his reduplication. Like wise men, let us wait and see. A springtime-land as of old, and two figures; and the woman he loves watches, while her breathing is strangely like a sob. Now the figures are a man and a woman, stooped and gray. "Age," she says, "you paint age now, and age—is not beautiful;" and he, answering with neither lips nor eyes, paints swiftly on. The man is aged and leaning on a staff. His strength is gone. His staff is not for ornament, but need. The woman is wrinkled, and her hair is snowy white; and the girl at the artist's side tries vainly to suppress a sob. She, too, will soon be gray, and she loves not age and decrepitude; and the face in the picture is faded, no rose-tints in the cheeks. So old and weak—old age is very pitiful. But the picture is not finished yet. Wait! Wait a little, and give the artist time. It is not evening yet. Sunset lingers a little for him. His hand runs now like a hurrying tide. He is painting faces. Why linger over the face of age? If it were youth—but age? But he touches these aged faces lovingly, as a son might caress his aged father and mother with hand and with kiss; and beneath his touch the aged faces grow warm and tender, passing sweet. To look at them was rest. Their eyes were tender and brave. You remember they were old and feeble folk—young once, but long ago; but how noble the old man's face, scarred though it is with saber cut! To see him makes you valiant; and to see him longer, makes you valiant for goodness, which is best of all.

And the woman's face is lit with God's calm and God's comfort. A smile is in her eyes, and a smile lies, like sunlight, across her lips. Her hair is the silver frame that hems some precious picture in. She is a benediction, blessed as the restful night to weary toilers on a burning day. And the artist, with a touch quick as a happy thought, outlined a shadow, clad in tatters, and a child clad in tatters at her side; and the girl, leaning over the painting, thought the chief shadow was Death. But the artist hasted; and on a sudden, wings sprung from the shoulders of tattered mother and child, and they two lifted up their hands; the woman, lifting her hands above the dear forms of old age, spread them out in blessing, and the little child lifted her hands, clasped as in prayer; and these angels were Poverty, praying for and blessing the man and woman who had been their help.

And the artist lover, under the first picture, in quaint letters, such as monks in remote ages used, wrote this legend, "To-morrow;" and the woman, taking the pencil, wrote in her sweet girlish hand, "Youth is Very Beautiful." The artist took back his pencil, and under the second picture scrolled, "These Loved Themselves Better Than They Loved Others;" and the woman wrote, "Their To-morrow was Failure." Under the third picture the artist wrote, "These Loved God Best and Their Neighbors as Themselves;" and the woman took the pencil from his hand and wrote, "Old Age is Very Beautiful—More Beautiful Than Youth," and a tear fell and blotted some of the words, as a drop of rain makes a blurred spot on a dusty pane. And the lover said, "Serving others is better than serving ourselves;" and the girl's sweet voice answering, like an echo, "Serving others is better than serving ourselves."

And the sun had set. The glow from the sky was fading, as embers on a hearth, pale to gray ashes; and an owl called from an elm-tree on the hillside, while these two arose, with faces like the morning, and, taking the pictures, walked slowly as lovers will; and so, fading into the deepening twilight, I heard her saying, "Serving others is life at its best," and him replying, "Jesus said, 'The poor ye have always with you;'" and their footsteps and voices died away together in the gloaming; and a whip-poor-will called often and plaintively from the woodland across the field.