Part 2 out of 2
woman. A glance at Crocker's uncompromising sturdiness convinced him that
on that side the situation might be quickly exhausted. Emma he could
trust to do it full justice. Excusing himself abruptly, he made for Frau
Stern's lodgings, and with the taste of Crocker's vermouth still in his
faithless mouth, told her that Emma's Crivelli was no other than the
missing St. Michael. To make matters sure he solemnly bound Frau Stern to
secrecy. That accomplished, he strode whistling down through the purple
twilight to his well-earned _fritto_ at Paoli's. The next day began our
wondering what Emma would do. She did, as is known, a thing that her
simple Knickerbocker ancestresses would have approved--presented Crocker
to the St. Michael and left the decision modestly to the men. Behind the
frankness of her procedure lay, perhaps, a curiosity to see how Crocker
would bear himself in a delicate emergency. It was to be in some fashion
his ordeal. Thus she might at least shake the appalling equanimity with
which he had passed from the stage of comrade to that of suppliant. Not
that she doubted him; nobody did that, but she resented a little in
retrospect his silence on the subject of the great quest. Was it possible
that for these five years he had chatted only about his college pranks,
his fishing trips, his orchards and vineyards, and the views? As she
reviewed their countless walks and teas, it really seemed as if he had
never paid her the compliment of being impersonal. Well, that was ended
now at any rate. A little misgiving filled her that she had never
revealed the presence of the St. Michael to so good a play-fellow. A
delicacy, knowing his incorrigible zeal as a collector, had restrained
her, and then, as Dennis had guessed, her den was her sanctuary,
admission to which implied an intimacy difficult to concede. Whatever the
merits of the case, the rupture had produced in a milieu consumed by the
desire to guess what Emma would do, at least one person who was solely
interested in what Crocker's next move might be. For the first time in a
singularly calculable life he had become an object of genuine curiosity.
He acted with his usual simplicity. To Emma he wrote a brief note
upbraiding her for fearing the voices of the valley, professing his
eagerness to return when the St. Michael had been put out of the
reckoning, and declaring that if it were not soon, he would willy-nilly
come back and see how things were between them. It was a letter that
wounded Emma, yet somehow warmed her, too, and from its reception we
found her in an unwonted attitude of nonconformity to the verdicts of the
valley. She began to speak up in behalf of this or that human specimen
under our diminishing lenses with the unsubtle and disconcerting
bluntness of Morton Crocker himself. The phenomenon kept alive our waning
interest during nearly a year of waiting. As for Crocker he gave it out
ostentatiously that he was bound for a wonderful Cima in Northumbria and
afterward was to try dry-fly fishing on the Itchen. Beyond that he had no
plans. All this was characteristically the truth; he bought the Cima,
wrote of his baskets to Harwood, but stayed away past his melons, his
grapes and his olives. By early winter we heard of him shooting the moose
in New Brunswick, and later planning a system of art education in the
Massachusetts schools, and it was not till the brisk days of March that
we learned the west wind was bringing him our way again.
Meanwhile Emma had acquired a few more grey hairs and had resolutely
declined to dispossess herself of the St. Michael. A couple of months
after Crocker's leave-taking, a note had come to her from Crespi, the
unfrocked priest and consummate antiquarian, who, to the point of
improvising a _chef d'oeuvre_, will furnish anything that this gilded
age demands. Crespi most respectfully begged to represent an urgent
client, a Russian prince, who desired a fine Crivelli. Would the most
gentle Miss Verplanck haply part with hers? The price should be what she
chose to name. It was no question of money, but of obliging a client
whom Crespi could ill afford to disappoint. Emma curtly declined the
offer. The St. Michael was valued for personal reasons and was not for
sale. Six weeks later came a more insidious suggestion. The Director of
the Uffizi, learning that she possessed a masterpiece of a school
sparsely represented in the first Italian gallery, pleading that such an
object should not pass from Italy, and representing a number of generous
art-lovers who desired to add it to the collections under his care, made
the following offer, trusting, however, not to any pecuniary inducement
but to her loyalty as an honorary citizen of Florence. The price named
was something less than the London value, but its acceptance would have
perpetually endowed the victoria, and perhaps--. If the malicious
Harwood had not passed the word that the offer was a ruse of the wily
Crocker, we all believed that she would have accepted. Indeed, we
regretted her obduracy. It would have been such a capital way out, with
no sacrifice of her scruples nor waiver of our collective
impressiveness. So Harwood came in for mild reprehension, the Sage
Dennis remarking with some asperity that when the gods have provided us
with farces, comedies, and tragedies in from one to five acts it is
unseemly to string them out to six or seven.
Early March, then, saw the deadlock unbroken. The St. Michael had not
been dislodged. Emma still was unwavering so far as we knew. We were
unable, had we willed, to divest ourselves of our deterrent attributes.
But the situation had changed to this extent that Crocker was said to be
on his way down to oversee a new system of spring tillage in person.
Emma took his approach with something between terror and an unwonted
resignation. From the day when he had planted himself firmly beside her
fireplace with a boyish wonder at finding himself so much at home, he had
represented the incalculable in her carefully planned life. Declining to
accept the attitude of other people toward her, he had almost upset her
attitude toward herself. He was the first man since the scapegrace cousin
who had neither feared nor yet provoked her sharp tongue. While he
relished her wit, it had always been with an unspoken deprecation of its
cutting edge. He gave her a queer feeling of having allowances made for
her--a condescension that in anybody but this big, likable boy she would
have requited with sarcasm. But against him the _cheveux de frise_ she
successfully presented to the world seemed of no avail. He knew it was
not timber but twigs, and that at worst one was scratched and not
impaled. Day by day she watched the cropping of the long line of flaming
willow plumes that escorted her brook toward the level. The line dwindled
as the shorn pollards gave up their withes to bind the vines to the dwarf
maples. She felt the miles between herself and Crocker lessening, and (at
rare moments) her scruples ready to be garnered for some sweet and
ill-defined but surely serviceable use. But she would not have been Emma
Verplanck if the manner of her not impossible surrender had not troubled
her more than the act itself. Any lack of tact on the part of the
husbandman might still spoil things. She had a whimsical sense that any
one of the flaming willows might refuse its contribution to the vineyard
should the pruner approach with anything short of a persuasive "_con
Crocker's "by your leave" was so far from persuasive that it left her
with a panicky desire to run away--again a new sensation. He wrote:
"We have had an endless year to think it over, and the only change on my
side is that I need you more than ever. I will go away for real reasons,
for your reasons, but for no others. If it is only their talk that
separates us, their talk has had twelve good months and shall have no
more. I must see you. May I come tomorrow at the old hour?
"As always yours,
Something between wrath and dismay was the result of this challenge. She
sat down to answer him according to his impudence, and the words would
not come. The greatness of the required sacrifice came over her and
therewith the desire to temporise. The voice of many Knickerbocker
ancestresses spoke in her, and between herself and a real emergency she
interposed the impenetrable buckler of a conventionality. She wrote:
"PENSIOIN SCHALCK, Bad Weisstein, Austrian Tyrol.
"MY DEAR CROCKER--
"It would be pleasant to see you and talk over your trip, but you see by
this address it is for the present impossible. As always,
When Crocker found Emma's valley as effectually barred as if a battery
guarded the approaches, he gave way to a deep resentment. Instinctively
hating anything like a trick, to be tricked by Emma at this point was
intolerable. His gloom was such that he confided to the malicious Harwood
a profound disgust with the irreality of the life Italianate. The
_podere_ should be sold as soon as it could be put in order. Such
pictures as the Italian Government coveted, it should keep, the rest
should go to the Museum at Boston. He himself would grow orange trees in
North Cuba where there were things to shoot and, thank heaven, no
civilisation. Harwood came breathlessly to Dennis's with the tale,
gloating openly that there was to be a seventh act if not an eighth.
A long hard day with his bailiff and the peasants restored Crocker's
poise. He looked for the hundredth time over into Emma's valley and
divined her attitude. Dreading an interview, she had left the way open to
parley. She virtually pleaded for a delay. It was a new and, in a way,
delightful sensation to be feared. For the first time in any human
relation he exploited a personal advantage and wrote, addressing Bad
"You have wanted a delay. Well, you have it--probably a week already.
Make the most of it, for two weeks from this date--I give you time to
recover from your journey--I am coming for tea in the old way. Meanwhile
you can hardly imagine the impatience of
"Yours more than ever,
Whether Crocker or Emma was more miserable during the fortnight even
Dennis could not have told. But there was in his woe something of the
sublime stolidity of the man who is going to stand up to be shot or
reprieved, whereas she suffered the uncertainty of the soldier who has
been drawn to make up the "firing party" for a comrade. She feared that
she would not have courage enough to despatch him, and then she feared
she would. Meantime the days passed, and she woke up one morning with an
odd little shiver reminding her that it was no longer possible to get a
note to him by way of Bad Weisstein. Nor had she the heart to move to a
nearer coign of constructive absence. Of half measures she was, after
all, a foe. Her determination to send Crocker away daily increased, and
the implacable St. Michael seemed to command that course. "You are not
for him. You represent a whole artificial world in which he cannot
breathe. I, the finest incarnation of the most exquisite mannerism of a
bygone time, am your spiritual spouse, and you may not lightly renounce
me. You have devoted yourself to graceful irrealities and must now abide
by your choice." Thus the St. Michael had spoken in a dream in the
troubled hours before daybreak, and when Emma went to her den late the
next morning she confronted him and admitted, "You are right, St.
Michael. It's all true." That afternoon Crocker was coming for tea, and
if her New York aunts could have known, even they would have granted
that, for the second time in a thoroughly selfish life, Emma was
displaying capacities for self-sacrifice.
As Emma and Crocker shook hands that afternoon, one might see that both
had aged a little, but he most. Something of the appealing boyishness
had gone out of his eyes. He had become her contemporary. A certain
moral advantage, too, had passed to his side and she, whose prerogative
it had been to take the leading part, now waited for him to begin. As
if on honour to do nothing abruptly, he sketched his year for her--his
sports and committees, his kinsfolk and hers; their fresh,
invigorating, half-made land. She listened almost in silence until he
turned to her and said:
"With me, Emma, it is and always will be the same. You know that. Has
anything changed with you?"
"I don't think so, Crocker. How can I tell? I'm glad you're here, in
spite of the shabby trick I've played you. Let me say just that I'm
heartily glad to see an old friend."
"No, I must have more than that or less. I want much more than that."
"You want too much. You want more than I can give to anybody. O! Why
can't you see it all? You are alive, even here in Florence but, I, I am
no longer a real person that can love or be loved. Can't you see that I
am only a sensibility that absorbs the sweetness of this valley, a mere
bundle of scruples and fears, a weather-cock veering with the talk of
the rest of them? Think of that and take back what you have thought
"Emma, you admit a need, and that is very sweet to me. You want some one
to strengthen you against all this that you call the valley. Mightn't
that helper be I?"
"You shan't be committed to anything so hopeless."
"It isn't as hopeless as it seems. The strength of the valley is only in
its weakness, and we shall be strong together."
"I have forgotten how to be strong, for years I have only been clever."
"You'd be dull enough with me as you well know. I can do that for
both. But don't talk as if there were some fate between us. There can
be none except your indifference, and I believe you do care a little
and will more."
"Of course, I care, Crocker, but not as you wish. You have refreshed me
in this opiate air. You have represented the real country I have
exchanged for this illusion, the real life I might have lived had I been
braver or more fortunate. But you can have no part in what I have come to
be. Go, for both our sakes."
"Not for any such reason. I can't surrender my happiness for a phrase; I
can't leave you to these delusions about yourself."
"It is no delusion; I wish it were. It's in my blood and breeding. For
generations my people have lived the unreal life. I am the fine flower of
my race, and in coming to this valley of dreams and this no-life I am
merely fulfilling a destiny--a fate, as you say--and coming to my own."
"But Emma, the worthy Verplancks?"
"No, listen to me. For generations the Verplancks have been what people
expected them to be, incarnate formulas of etiquette and timid living.
They took their colour from the gossiping society in which they seemed to
live. They prudently married other Verplancks, cousins or cousins'
cousins. They hoarded their little fortunes without increasing them, and
if what they called the rabble had not peopled New York and raised the
price of land, which my people were merely too stolid to sell, we should
long ago have gone under in penury. We have led nobody and made nothing,
but have been maintained by stronger forces and persons, toward whom we
have always taken the air of doing a favour. That mistake at least I
shall not make with you, Crocker. I want you to feel the full nullity of
me. As I see you now I have a twinge because my great grandfather, who
was a small banker, would have called yours, who was a farmer--you see I
have looked you up--not 'Mister' but 'My Good Man.'"
For a moment she paused, and Crocker groped for a reply. "All this may be
true, Emma," he said at last, "and yet mean very little to you and me.
Besides, I'm quite willing you should call me your Good Man. In fact, I'd
rather like it."
"You must take me seriously--you shall. I cannot marry. I'm married
already. Dennis says I am. Come and see my bridegroom." And she fairly
dragged the bewildered Crocker into her den and set him once more before
the missing St. Michael.
"There he is, an incarnated weakness and fastidiousness. His hand is too
delicate to draw his own sword. If he really cast out Satan, it must have
been by merely staring him down. His helmet rests with no weight upon his
curled and perfumed locks--his buckles are soft gold where iron should
be. He represents the dull, collective, aristocratic intolerance of
Heaven for the only individualist it ever managed to produce. He pretends
to be a warrior and is as feminine as your St. Catherine. He is the
imperturbable champion of celestial good form, and Dennis, who sees
through things, says he is my spiritual husband. He is the weakest of the
weak and is too strong for you, Crocker."
For a space that seemed minutes they faced each other, Emma excited, with
a diffused indignation that defied impartially the missing St. Michael
and the puzzled man before her; Crocker with a perplexity that renewed
the old boyish expression in his eyes. He seemed to be thinking, and, as
he thought, the tension of Emma's attitude relaxed, she forgot to look at
the St. Michael and wondered at the even, steady patience of the big
likable boy she was dismissing. She pitied him in advance for the futile
argument he must be revolving. She had despatched him as in duty bound
and was both sorry and glad.
But his counterplea when it came was of a disconcerting briefness and
potency. He said very slowly, "Yes, I see it all. There is your spiritual
husband; there are they" (indicating the valley with a sweep of a big
hand), "and there are you, Emma, caught in a web of baffling and false
ideas; and here am I, a real man who loves you, fearing neither the St.
Michael nor them" (another gesture) "nor your doubts. I set myself,
Morton Crocker, your lover, against them all and take my own so."
There was a frightened second in which his sturdy arms closed about her.
There was a little shudder, as the same big hand that had defied the
valley sought her head and pressed it to his shoulder. When Emma at last
looked up the mockery she always carried in her eyes had given place to a
new serenity, and her hand reached up timidly for his.
Crocker and Emma--we now instinctively gave him the precedence--were
inconsiderate enough to remove themselves without making clear the fate
of the no longer missing St. Michael. We still speculated indolently as
to the nature of the afterpiece in which we assumed this ex-hero of our
comedy might yet appear. Then we learned that Emma was to be married
without delay from the stone manor house under the Taconics where her
people had dwelt since patroon days. Only a handful of friends with
Crocker's nearest kin and her inevitable New York aunts were to be
present. These venerable ladies had admitted that in marrying, even
opulently, out of the family, Emma had once more shown velleities of
self-sacrifice. Then we heard of Crocker and Emma on his boat along the
coast "Down East." Later we were shocked by rumours of a canoe trip
through Canadian waterways. Hereupon the usually benevolent Dennis
protested as he glanced approvingly at the well-kept Tuscan landscape.
"Crocker needn't rub it in," he opined. "Why, it's the same scrubby
spruce tree from the Plains of Abraham to James's Bay-and Emma, who hated
being bored! Why, it's marriage by capture; it's barbaric." "It's worse;
it's rheumatic," shuddered Harwood as he declined Marsala and took
whisky. "But he'll have to bring her back to civilisation some time, if
only to hospital. We shall have her again." "He will bring her back, but
we shall never have her again," said Dennis solemnly. "She has renounced
us and all our works." "Renouncing our works isn't so difficult," smiled
Mrs. Dennis, and then the talk drifted elsewhere, to new Emmas who were
just beginning to eat the Tuscan lotus.
Before the year had turned to June again we had nearly forgotten our
runaways, when a quite unusual activity about her villa and Crocker's
warned us that they were coming back. Harwood had seen in transit a box
which he thought corresponded to the St. Michael's stature, but was not
sure. In a few days came a circular note from Crocker through Dennis
saying that they were fairly settled and he glad to see any or all of
us. She, however, was still fatigued by the journey and must for a time
keep her room.
Harwood straightway volunteered to undertake the preliminary
reconnaissance, while Frau Stern engaged to penetrate to Emma herself.
On a beatific afternoon we sat in council on Dennis's terrace awaiting
the envoys. Below, the misty plain rose on and on till it gathered into
an amber surge in Monte Morello and rippled away again through the
Fiesolan hills. Nearer, torrid bell-towers pierced the shimmering reek,
like stakes in a sweltering lagoon. In the centre of all, the great dome
swam lightly, a gigantic celestial buoy in a vaporous sea. The spell that
bound us all was doubly potent that day. The sense of a continuous life
that had made the dome and the belfries an inevitable emanation from the
clean crumbling earth, lulled us all, and we hardly stirred when Harwood
bustled in, saying, "Cheer up. I have seen Crocker, and it isn't there."
"You mean," said the cautious Dennis, "that Crocker still possesses only
the hole, aperture, frame, or niche that the missing St. Michael may yet
adorn." "I only know that it isn't there now," growled Harwood. "I deal
merely in facts, but you may get theories, if you must have them, from
Frau Stern, who heroically forced her way to Emma over Crocker's
As he spoke we heard Frau Stern's timid, well-meaning ring, and in a
moment her smile filled the archway.
"We don't need to ask if you have news," cried Mrs. Dennis from afar.
"If I haf news. Guess what it is. It is too lovely. You cannot think?
Well, there will be a baby next autumn, what you call it?" "Michaelmas, I
suppose," grunted Harwood through his pipe-smoke and subsided into
"All this is most charming and interesting, Frau Stern," expostulated
Dennis, "but, as our enthusiastic friend Harwood delicately hints,
what we really let you go for was to locate the Missing St. Michael."
"I haf almost forgot that," she apologised as she nibbled her
_brioche_, "Emma was so happy. But for the bothersome St. Michael
there is no change. I saw it in what she calls her new den. She
laughed to me and said, 'I cannot let him have it, you see, you would
all say he married me for it.'"
"Bravo!" shouted Dennis and Harwood in unison, and the Sage added with
unction, "So she has not been able to renounce us utterly."
"It is not now for long," rejoined Frau Stern, "it is only to the time we
haf said." "Michaelmas," repeated Harwood disgustedly.
"Yes, that is it," she pursued tranquilly, "Emma told me in confidence,
'To Crocker I cannot give it because of you all, but to our child I may,
and it shall do with it what it will.' Now do you prevail, Misters Dennis
"We are a bit downcast but not discomfited," acknowledged Dennis,
while Harwood remained glumly within his smoke. "Emma has escaped us,
but she still pays us the tribute of a subterfuge. It is enough, we
will forgive her, even if her way lies from us dozers here. For to-day
the same sunshine drenches her and us. It is a bond. Let us enjoy it
while we may."
THE LUSTRED POTS
"Haul away, Sam. This is the real thing" came from the depths of the
well. Sam Cleghorn stumbled in the gloom towards the windlass, avoiding
on the way a rude handpump and two heaps of dirt and broken pottery that
sloped threateningly upon the low curb, where balanced a perforated disc
of marble, the great bottom-stone of the well. All these properties
caught a little light from a beam that came through a slit in the wall,
casting most of its uncertain bloom up into a low groined vault, the
heavy round arches of which were separated from squat piers by clumsy
brackets. Outside at the level of the reticulated stone floor one could
hear the rushing of a river. As Cleghorn leaned over the well-mouth
before seizing the crank, a glimmer of yellow light flooded his face and
again came up the hollow impatient cry, "Haul away, Sam. This lot's a
good one, and it's mine." Replying "All right, Dick," Cleghorn bent to
the crank. With much creaking the coils crept along the spindle and the
light burden began to rise jerkily.
* * * * *
Although neither the well nor the vaulted cellar chamber belonged to Sam
Cleghorn or to Dick Webb, their presence and actions there were not
surreptitious. Stanton Mayhew, who ignorantly owned the well, had given
them plenary permission to pump and dig, mildly pitying their apparent
lunacy. The palace above was his in virtue of his sensible preference for
living twice as well on the Arno for half the cost on the Hudson. This
rule of two, like so many foreign residents of Florence, he
unquestioningly obeyed, and it constituted practically the whole of his
philosophy and maxims. Hence he was not the man to prize a Tuscan well
dug in the fourteenth century, cleaned perhaps never, and gradually
filled to the brim with what the forwardlooking past benightedly took for
rubbish. So when Cleghorn and Webb made him an overture for the right to
clean the well, he had genially replied, "Why, go ahead, boys, and enjoy
yourselves. It's you who ought to be paid, but for your healths' sake you
really ought to wait till I've punched some decent windows through that
damp cellar wall and let the air in."
If neither Sam nor Dick waited even a day, it was because each was a bit
afraid that the other would begin alone. College mates, collectors both,
they were fast friends in a way and rivals beyond dispute. Their common
taste for antiquity and adequacy of means had made their graduate course
chiefly one of travel. And when travel wore out its novelty they
naturally settled in the easiest, as the least exacting, European city,
occupying two halves of one floor in the same palace. Their apartments
started full, and quickly overflowed with objects of curiosity and
art--all old, for their knowledge was considerable; some fine, for
neither was without taste. But taste neither had in any austere sense,
for they collected art much as a dredge collects marine specimens.
Nothing came amiss to them. Wood, ivory, silver, bronze, marble,
plaster--they repudiated no material or period. Stuffs, glass, pictures,
porcelains, potteries--it was all one to them so the object were old and
rare. Inevitably, then, they had come to primitive pots, and
simultaneously, for they not only watched each other closely, but almost
read each other's minds. And when they came to primitive pots it was
certain that they would beg, borrow, or steal a well, since in old wells,
and cisterns, besides less mentionable places, primitive pots abide. Many
pots were there, as we shall see, from the first, and the maids and
children of the centuries, by way of concealing breakages, have usually
made notable secondary contributions. So when amiable Stanton Mayhew
freely conceded a most ancient well to Cleghorn and Webb, it was like
receiving Pandora's box, with the difference that the well might safely
Here had ensued a most delicate negotiation concerning the division of
the spoil. A mathematical partition of the fragmentary material that an
old Italian well contains is extremely difficult if at all possible.
After much debate it was agreed that after they struck pay dirt, each
should dig in turn, each to have the bucketful that came under his trowel
or fingers. Scattered fragments of the same pot and other complications
were to be adjudicated by Mayhew, whose ignorance and disinterestedness
were safe to assume. But the well gave up quantities of noncontentious
matter before Mayhew's services were required. The first five feet had
revealed nothing but fragments of kitchen pottery of our time and a
fairly perfect hoopskirt of Garibaldian date. A little lower had emerged
the skeleton of a cat. Similar tragedies were in evidence, on an average,
at every quarter century of depth. Between the second and third cat, lay
Ginori imitations of Sevres and Wedgewood, scraps too of gilded
glass--the earnest of better things below. Five cats down, some
eighteenth-century apothecary pots, damaged but amenable to repair, had
inaugurated the alternation of buckets under the agreement. It were
tedious to follow the ascending scale of excellence as the digging went
deeper. Enough to say that below the mixed ingredients and the nethermost
cat they found a homogeneous layer of beautiful fourteenth-century
shards, affording many buckets full, and promising delicate adjudication
to the referee.
Before the lustred pots themselves shed a baleful gleam over this
narrative, something should obviously be said about Italian wells and why
they contain pots. Beyond those casually acquired from careless or
secretive servants, there is, if the well be old and of good make, a
certain number of intact pieces put in to serve as a filter. Often a
group of pitchers or similar crocks is imprisoned between the two
bottom-stones. Sometimes there are two such layers. After this filter had
been made there was frequently scattered a bushel or more of small shards
above. From these by careful sorting complete or nearly complete pieces
may be recovered. Through all this mass of whole or broken pottery the
water had to find its way up, for the cement sides of an Italian well are
watertight. Thus, barring the indiscretions of housemaids and cats, the
early Italians drank pure water.
Naturally Cleghorn and Webb were conversant with these refinements of
mediaeval hydraulics. In fact when Webb, the sturdier of the two, hauled
up the bottom-stone all dripping, Cleghorn promptly declared that in the
sense of the contract it was a bucketful; hence his first go at the now
uncovered pots. So heated grew the debate, that finally the grimy
excavators climbed to the upper air and appealed to Mayhew, who promptly
denied the quibble, deciding that stones and pots were not
interchangeable. The diversion drew attention from the great perforated
disc itself, and as the sullen Cleghorn let the exultant Webb down upon
the ancient pots, it lay badly bestowed near the curb on the crumbling
slope of a rubbish heap. And now Cleghorn with bitterness of heart was
reeling up Webb's find. As the coils broadened on the windlass a small
iron bucket rose above the parapet, brimming with something that glinted
metallically under the dirt. Beside the bucket flapped the rude swing in
which the entrances and exits of the partners were made. As Cleghorn
grasped the bail and swung the precious cargo clear of the well, came up
once more the voice of Webb: "Hustle, Old Man, I'm keen to see them, they
Good they were indeed. Cleghorn, who for fifteen years had haunted shops
and museums had never seen the like in equal compass. As he took them
cautiously one by one and held them high in the uncertain light, each
revealed a desirable point. Here was a coat of arms, a date, the initial
of an owner. There were grotesque birds and beasts. Differing in form and
colour, the entire lot agreed in possessing that dull early Italian
lustre, which perhaps accidental and less distinguished than that of
Spain, is even dearer in a collector's eyes. They hinted of all enamelled
things that come out of the East--of the peacock reflections of the tiles
of Damascus and Cordova, of the franker polychromy of Rhodian kilns, of
the subtler bloom of the dishes of Moorish Spain, of the brassier glazes
of Minorca and Sicily--all these things lay enticingly in epitome in
these lustred Italian pots, as they glimmered with a furtive splendour.
Yes, they were a good lot, thought Cleghorn as he placed them reverently
on the flagging. It was the find of a lifetime. A man with nothing else
in his cupboard must be mentioned respectfully among collectors from Dan
Again the impatient voice of Webb below: "Hurry up, I say. It's getting
cold: the water is gaining."
"All right," called Cleghorn, giving a few strokes of the pump, but never
taking his eyes from the lustred pots. Then as if by a sudden inspiration
he asked, "Any more in that lot, Dick?"
"Not a one," cried Webb jubilantly, "there was just a bucketful and a
squeeze at that. But there may be others beneath. There's another
bottom-stone, and it's your next turn. But why don't you hurry up?"
A scowl passed over Cleghorn's thin face set unswervingly towards the
pots. They glimmered in the shadow with an unholy phosphorescence--green,
blue, carmine, strange purplish browns. So the glittering coils of the
serpent may have bewildered our first Mother. There were other pots
below, reflected Cleghorn, yes, but there never could be again such a
batch as these. And then his dazed eye for a second left the fascinating
pots, and mechanically searched the vaulted chamber. To his excited gaze
the rubbish heaps centring about the curb seemed already in movement. The
massive bottom-stone overhung the parapet, resting only on loose dirt and
shards. With horror he noted that a breath might send it down. If it
slipped, whose were the lustred pots? Against his will the phrase said
itself over and over again throbbingly behind his eyes, and again he
forgot everything in the vision of the lustred pots.
"Damn it, hurry up," came thunderously from below. Cleghorn stumbled with
a curious hesitation between the crank and the poised bottom-stone. The
clumsy movement loosened a handful of shards which went clattering down;
the great stone slid, caught on the parapet, and hung once more in
uncertain oscillation. Profanity unrestrained transpired from the mouth
of the well.
It was a tremulous Cleghorn that sent down the bucket and reeled up an
irate and vociferous Webb. Words abounded without explanations, and blows
seemed possible, when Cleghorn, as it were apologetically raised a
pitcher and a bowl into the shaft of light that came through the
oubliette. "They're all like that, Dick," he protested. "It's your lucky
day. I congratulate you." It was a silenced and mollified Webb that
clutched at the pots, and noted wisely that every one had been brushed by
the peacock's tail. With a kind of pity at last he turned to the
deprecating Cleghorn and said, "That was an awkward business of yours
about the shards, and the bottom-stone there is a pretty sight for a man
who left it so and went down to work under it, but one couldn't wait for
such pots as these. On my soul, Old Man, if you had dumped it all down on
me I could hardly have blamed you."
Welcomed with a loud laugh by its maker, the joke jarred on Cleghorn, who
merely answered, "It's very good of you, Dick, to say so."
"But there may be quite as good ones below," pursued Webb genially.
"We'll rest up a bit and then you have your go and finish the job."
"If you don't mind, Dick, I'd rather not," was the embarrassed answer.
"The fact is I'm too nervous and absentminded for this work." He looked
down into the blackness with a shudder and said. "No, I don't want to go
down there again. One can't tell what might happen there."
"Then you've dropped your nerve. Sorry for it," came from a baffled and
disgusted partner, but as he spoke a smile drew across the broad, amiable
face, and he added insinuatingly, "Then the rest are mine, Old Man?"
"Yes they're yours fast enough."
"It's mighty good of you, Sam. I won't forget it. I'll share sometime on
a good thing like this. I'm all ready to go down again when you've had a
smoke. Only we'll set that stone right and you'll be more careful about
"If you'll excuse me, Dick, I'd rather not." Cleghorn looked at his
watch. "You see I ought to be out of these duds already. I have a very
particular tea outside. Didn't I tell you about it? I'll send Mayhew
down to help."
"All right, just as you please," was the indifferent reply. But as
Cleghorn turned up the narrow steps, Webb muttered perplexedly, "To funk
at this point and for a tea! The man is touched or in love."
* * * * *
Webb with Mayhew's dispassionate aid made a considerable haul below the
second stone, though in truth there was nothing there to compare with the
first lot. The batch of lustred pots is the pride of his eye, and when it
is suggested that he values them highly he answers, "Well rather, they're
pretty good, you know, and then they nearly cost me a broken head. I was
so keen for them that I set a big stone where it might easily have
tumbled on me." Then the rest of the anecdote, which Cleghorn, in whose
presence it frequently is told, never hears with complete equanimity. The
causes of his uneasiness I do not engage to analyse, for, unlike Webb,
Cleghorn is imaginative and difficult.
THE BALAKLAVA CORONAL
As the dinner wore on endlessly, I consoled myself by the thought of the
Balaklava Coronal. There in the toastmaster's seat was Morrison who had
bought it, at my right loomed Vogelstein who had sold it, far across,
towards the foot of the board, sat the critic Brush in whose presence I
understood the infamous sale had been made. I missed only Sarafoff, the
marvellous peasant-silversmith, who wrought the coronal in his prison
workshop in the Viennese ghetto. Now there was nothing strange about
Vogelstein's selling it, nor yet about Morrison's buying it; only the
making of it by the illiterate Sarafoff and the silence of Brush when it
was sold required explanation. Vogelstein, who breathed heavily beside
me, undoubtedly held the secret. I felt so hopeful that time and the
champagne which we were drinking for the sake of art would give him to me
that I took no pains meanwhile to disturb his elaborate indifference to
Between him and me little love was lost. As the editor of a moneylosing
art magazine in the interior, it was my duty occasionally to visit his
galleries. After such visits the remnant of my New England conscience
usually forced me to diminish or actually to spoil many a sale of the
dubious or merely fashionable antiquities in which he dealt. But in the
main my power to harm him was slight. He held in a knowing grip the
strings of his patrons' vanity and taste. So he regarded me with
something between scorn and uneasiness--as a pachyderm might take a
predatory bee. For the sake of my steady production of the honey of free
advertising he forgave a sting from which he was after all immune. At the
beginning of the dinner he had greeted me with what was meant for a
civility and then had relapsed into silence. To escape the loquacity of
my other neighbour I gave myself to parallel observation of Vogelstein
and Morrison--the great dealer and his greater customer.
Both plainly belonged to the same species and it pleased my whim to
symbolise them as a mastodon and a rogue elephant. Morrison, the dreaded
agent and operator, was unquestionably the finer creature. He moved more
precisely and with a sense of wieldy power. His phrases cut where
Vogelstein's merely smote. His bigness had something genial about it. He
looked the amateur, and indeed does not the rogue elephant trample down
villages chiefly for the joy of the affray? One felt that something more
than Morrison's preposterous winnings had been involved in the clashes of
railroads and cataclysms on the exchange which had for years past been
his major recreation. Vogelstein, though evidently of coarser fibre,
belonged to the same formidable breed. The mastodon, we must suppose,
lacked much of the finesse of the rogue elephant of later evolution. And
Vogelstein's Semitism was of the archaic, potent, monumental type. His
abundant fat looked hard. For all the sagging double chin, his jaw
retained the character of a clamp. Among the strong race of art dealers
he was feared. Whole collections not single objects were his quarry. He
paid lavishly, foolishly, counting as confidently on the ignorance and
vanity of his clients, as ever Morrison upon the brute expansion of the
national wealth. But Vogelstein looked and was as completely the
professional as Morrison the amateur. There remained this essential
difference that if nothing could be too big to stagger Vogelstein,
nothing likewise could be too small to deter him. I knew his shop, or
rather his palace, and had observed the relish with which he could shame
a timorous art student into giving three prices for a print. It afforded
him no more pleasure, one could surmise, to impose a false Rembrandt at
six figures upon a wavering iron-master, or, indeed to unload an historic
but rather worthless collection upon Morrison himself. For Vogelstein was
after all of primitive stamp, to wit the militant publican. So he took
toll and plenty, it mattered little where or whence.
To Morrison and Vogelstein no better foil could be imagined than Brush.
If they recalled the tusked monsters that charged in the van of Asiatic
armies, his analogue was the desert horse. Small, spare, sensitive, shy,
his every posture suggested race, training, spirit, and docility. His
_flair_ for classical art had become proverbial. By mere touch he
detected those remarkable counterfeits of Syracusan coins. It was he who
segregated the Renaissance intaglios at Bloomsbury only the winter before
he exposed the composite figurines at Berlin. To him the Balaklava
Coronal must have proclaimed its nullity as far as its red gold could be
seen. For that matter the coronal was a bye-word, and why not? The same
dealers who had landed the more famous Tiara in the Louvre had the
selling of it. The greater museums in Europe and America had refused it
at a bargain. On Fifth Avenue and the Rue Lafitte all the dealers were
joking about the Balaklava Coronal. The name of Sarafoff, its maker, had
even become accepted slang. For a season we "Sarafoffed" our intimates
instead of hoaxing them. And in the face of all this Vogelstein had sold
the Coronal to Morrison under Brush's very nose. It seemed so wholly
incredible that I began counting Vogelstein's heavy respirations, to make
sure I was really awake.
Then the pale, tense mask of Brush--so isolated in the apoplectic row
across the table--calmed me. That he was Vogelstein's or anyone's tool
was unthinkable. Mercenary suspicions, to be sure, had been put about,
but those who knew him merely laughed at such a notion. Vogelstein also
laughed, shaking volcanically within, whenever the Coronal, the
genuineness of which he still maintained, was mentioned. And he always
treated Brush with a curious and almost tender condescension, much in
fact as the mastodon might have regarded that fragile ancestor of the
horse, the five-toed protohippos.
I have neglected to explain that the occasion which brought me at one
table with such major celebrities as Morrison, Vogelstein, and Brush was
a public dinner in behalf of civic art. For just as we find the celestial
compromised by the naughty Aphrodite, so we distinguish two antithetical
sorts of art. There is a bad private art which is produced for dealers
and millionaires and takes care of itself, and there is a virtuous public
art which we hope to have some day and meanwhile has to be taken care of
by special societies. It was one of these that was now dining for the
good of the cause. Under the benevolent eye of Morrison, our acting
president, we had put pompano upon a soup underlaid with oysters, and
then a larded fillet upon some casual tidbit of terrapins. Whereupon a
frozen punch. Thus courage was gained, the consecrated sequence of
sherry, hock, claret and champagne being absolved, for the proper
discussion of woodcock in the red with a famous old burgundy--Morrison's
personal compliment to the apostolate of civic art.
At the dessert, Morrison himself spoke a few words. The little speech
came brusquely from him, and no one who knew his rapacity for the
beautiful could doubt his faith in the universal superlatives he now
advocated. Our art, he held, must weigh with our mills and railroads,
else our life is out of balance. We never grudged millions to burrow
beneath New York for light, or for drink or speed, why then should we
grudge them for the beautiful inutilities that might make the surface of
the city splendid. A craving for fine objects was his own dearest
emotion, he wanted to see cities, states, and the nation ready to spend
with equal fervour. It all came apparently to a matter of spending.
Morrison entertained no doubt that an imperious demand would create an
abundant supply of what he called the best art. Whether we were to
transport bodily the great monuments of Europe to America, or merely were
to supply beauty off our indigenous bat, was not clear from Morrison's
address, and possibly was not wholly so in his own mind. But the talk was
solid and forceful, and I could hear Vogelstein grunt with inward joy
when he contemplated the city, the state, and the nation in their
predicted role as customers. I too felt that a real if an incoherent
voice had spoken, and that if civic art were indeed to come, it would be
through such neo-Roman visionaries as Morrison.
Then the mood changed and a willowy, hirsute, and earnest reviver of
tapestry weaving rose and pleaded for the "City Beautiful," castigating
the Philistine the while, and looking forward to a time when "the pomp,
and chronicle of our time should be splendidly committed to illumined
window and pictured wall," with some slight allusion to "those ancient
webs through which the Middle Ages still speak glowingly to us."
About midway in the speech Morrison, who had another public dinner down
the avenue slipped away. As he nodded "See you later perhaps" I marked
the adoring eye and smile of Vogelstein, and then the great folds settled
back into their places about his mouth and my neighbour once more gave an
uneasy attention to the weaver of beautiful phrases, meanwhile drinking
repeated glasses of burgundy. Soon his huge form heaved with an
inarticulate discontent, and as the speaker sat down amid perfunctory
applause Vogelstein snorted twice into the air.
"It is rather absurd, as you say," I ventured.
"It's sickening," wheezed Vogelstein. "Why can't he sell his tapestries
without all that talk?"
"Oh, he enjoys the talk and probably believes it, and you and I do better
after all to hear his talk than to see his tapestries." A mastodonic
chuckle welcomed this mild sally. The burgundy was taking effect.
As the diners rose stiffly or alertly, according to their several grades
of repletion, Vogelstein attached himself to me almost affectionately.
"Do stop in the cafe and talk to me," he urged. "It's queer, here are a
lot of my customers, some of my artists, besides you literary chaps, and
except Morrison, nobody wants to talk to me. Morrison and I, we
understand each other. It's early yet. Come along with me and talk. I've
wanted to talk to you for a long time, but always was too busy in my
place. You see you writers don't buy, in fact those that know almost
never do. It's really queer."
Knowing the might of burgundy when a due foundation of champagne has been
laid, I hardly took this effusion as personal to myself, but I also saw
no reason, too, why I should not profit by the occasion. "I'll gladly
chat with you, Mr. Vogelstein," I answered, "but you must let me choose
the subject. We will talk about the Balaklava Coronal."
As he led me into the elevator by the arm he whispered "All right, Old
Man, but why? You know just as much as I about it."
There was no chance to reply until he had selected his table and ordered
two Scotches and soda. "Yes, I know something about it," I said at last;
"everyone does apparently except Morrison. I know that Sarafoff made the
Coronal, but I don't know who taught him how to make it, nor yet how
Morrison was idiot enough to buy it, when anybody could have told him
what it was, nor yet how Brush came to let it be sold. These are the
interesting parts of the story, and I'll drink no drink of yours unless
At the mention of idiocy in connection with Morrison Vogelstein shuddered
and raised a massive deprecating hand. The gesture was arrested by the
entrance of Brush, who with a slight nod to us passed to a distant
corner. Suddenly Vogelstein's expression had become one beaming,
condescending paternalism. "Good man but impracticable," he muttered.
"Thinks knowing it is everything. Knowing it is something, but selling it
is the real thing. Now I hardly know at all, not a tenth as much as
Brush, not a half as much as you even, but so long as I can sell, I don't
really care to know. What's the use?"
"But you did know about the Balaklava Coronal and you sold it too," I
interrupted. "How did you dare?"
"That's my secret--but here are our drinks. A bargain's a bargain. How
funny it is to be talking truth. Why, much of it would make even your job
"And yours impossible, but we're not getting to the Coronal," I insisted.
"As for that," responded Vogelstein obligingly, "the first thing was of
course the making. You know all about Sarafoff yourself. Well, he only
did the work. It was Schoenfeld who put in the brains. You don't know him?
Few do. Great man though. University professor of archaeology, trouble
with a woman, next trouble with money, now one of us. Yes Schoenfeld
thought it out and saw it through."
"And certainly made a good job of it," I admitted.
"As you see, we wanted something unique--something that could not be
compared with anything in the museums."
"Precisely," I interposed, "Product of the local, semi-barbaric school of
"You've hit it," grinned Vogelstein. "Scythian influence, to take the
professors. Schoenfeld said we must have that. And that's why it had to be
found at Balaklava."
"But it had to look Scythian too. How did you manage that?"
"Oh, that was Sarafoff's business. He had been a servant and then a
novice at one of the monasteries of Mount Athos. Could make beautiful
tenth-century Byzantine madonnas. I've sold some. Then he carved ikons
in wood, ivory, silver, or what came. His things really looked Scythian
enough to those who didn't know their modern Greece and Russia. So we
set him to work in a back alley of Vienna at three kroners a day--double
pay for him--and Schoenfeld ran down from Petersburg now and then to
"You could trust him?" I inquired, recalling how Sarafoff had
subsequently won fame by confessing to his most famous forgery.
"As much as one can anybody. You see he doesn't speak any civilised
language, and at that time we couldn't tell that the Tiara would spoil
him as it did the entire deal."
"But Schoenfeld's coaching?" I suggested. Vogelstein here winked solemnly
and drank deeply from his tall glass. "First I want to tell you all about
Sarafoff," he persisted, "of course we had him watched all the same, and
whenever he got an evening off, which was seldom, we had him filled up
with schnapps. He was a quiet drunk which is an excellent thing, Sir." As
I nodded assent to this great truth, he continued: "Yes Schoenfeld, as I
was saying, managed everything. Wonderful scholar. You would respect him
I'm sure. Why, every bit of the pattern of the Coronal was taken from
some real antique, every word of the inscription too." "Wasn't that a bit
dangerous?" "With Schoenfeld in charge, not so very. Everything was taken
from little Russian museums that even you critics don't visit. Almost no
published thing was used, you see."
"Then there was Sarafoff"--
"To give it all that quaint Scythian look," Vogelstein added joyously.
"Yes, we had just the best brains and the best hands for the job, and it
was beautiful." "Better than the Tiara?"
"Yes, far better. The Tiara was all a mistake, as I told Schoenfeld; it
was too big and too good to be true. Except for Steinbach, who fell in
love with its queerness and chipped in some money, we never could have
sold it to a museum. And it was a bad thing to have it there, it aroused
opposition, it was bound to be exposed. I was always against it, and sure
enough it spoiled the game for us. But the Balaklava Coronal that was
just right. It had a sort of well-bred modest beauty. We should have
begun instead of ending with it. Yes, Sir, there never was a more
beautiful thing, a more plausible thing, a finer object to sell than the
As he bellowed the word and beat the table in confirmation, Brush looked
over from his corner apprehensively. "Quietly, Mr. Vogelstein," I hinted,
"this is between ourselves, and we might be overheard."
"That's right," he admitted, and moodily lit another cigar. "Where were
we?" he asked uneasily. "Oh yes, we were at the Tiara. Now the Coronal
and what we could have sold on the strength of it was worth ten of the
Tiara, and if it hadn't been for the cursed thing, we could have landed
the Coronal as a starter in any one of half a dozen museums."
"As a matter of fact they were all shy of it."
"Of course. Once the Tiara was being looked into, the museum game was up,
and there was only Morrison left." Vogelstein lurched around nervously.
"He may drop in soon," he explained. "I'd like to make you acquainted."
Ignoring the offer, I persisted, "You've got to the interesting point
at last. Tell me why there was only Morrison left. To begin with
Morrison knows something about such matters, and next he can have the
best advice for the asking. And yet you tell me that Morrison was the
only great collector in the world to whom that notoriously false bauble
could be sold."
Vogelstein swayed uncomfortably in his chair, puffed, swallowed, cleared
his throat, and said, "There are some things one can't say right out; you
know that as well as I, but I can say this: there are many great and
enterprising collectors in America, and Morrison is the only one who
never doubts anything he has once bought."
"An ideal client then."
"Quite so. You see the others get worried by the critics. That means
exchanging, refunding--all sorts of trouble."
"But Morrison never?"
"Never; he's a true sport. He never squeals."
"Doesn't have to because he doesn't know he's hurt."
"That's right," concluded Vogelstein, his face corrugating into one
ample, contented smile.
"Then the big game reduces itself into selling to Morrison."
"That's more or less it, Sir. For a critic you have a business head."
"You will excuse a rather personal question, but how do you feel about
selling your best customer at enormous prices objects which you know to
"It's a fair question since we are talking between ourselves, and you
shall have a straight answer. First my business isn't just a nice one. In
the nature of the case it wouldn't do for sensitive people. I suppose you
and Brush, for instance, couldn't and wouldn't make much out of it. Then
as regards Morrison, I'm not so sure he could complain if he knew. I give
him the things he likes and the treatment he likes at the prices he
likes. What more can any merchant do?"
I saw the subject rapidly exhausting itself and tried one more tack.
"Yes, it's simpler than I supposed," I admitted, "but it doesn't seem
quite an every-day thing to sell the Balaklava Coronal to anybody under
"It's easier than you think," echoed Vogelstein. "You don't know
Morrison. Hope he'll look in to-night. You ought to meet him."
My last bolt was shot. It was my turn to sit silent and drink. What could
be this strange infatuation of the hardheaded Morrison, this avowedly
simple magic of the grossly cunning Vogelstein? As I pondered the case I
noticed Brush give a startled glance towards the entrance, heard heavy
steps behind us, and then a deep voice saying, "Hallo again, Vogelstein,
I'm lucky not to be too late to catch you."
Vogelstein lumbered to his feet and muttered an introduction. We all took
our seats, as the headwaiter bustled obsequiously up to take Morrison's
order of champagne. As if also obeying Morrison's nod, but reluctantly,
Brush crawled over from his corner, a scarcely deferential attendant
transporting his lemonade.
While casual greetings and some random talk went on I tried to picture
the scene we must present. Neither Brush nor myself is contemptible
physically or in other ways, yet we both seemed curiously the inferiors
of these troglodytic giants. Our scruples, the voluntary complication of
our lives, seemed to constitute at least a disadvantage when measured
against the primitiveness, perhaps the rather brutal simplicity, of our
It was Morrison who cut these reflections short. "You will excuse me,
gentlemen," he said, "for introducing a matter of business here, but the
case is pressing and it may even interest you as critics of art." We
nodded permission and he continued, "It's about the Bleichrode Raphael,
as of course you know, Vogelstein. I like it, I want it, but I hear all
sorts of things about it, and frankly it strikes me as dear at the price.
How do you feel about it?"
At the mention of the Bleichrode Raphael, Brush and I started. The
forgery was more than notorious. The Bleichrode panel had begun life
poorly but honestly as a Franciabigio--a portrait of an unknown
Florentine lad with a beretta, the type of which Raphael's portrait of
himself is the most famous example. The picture hung long in a private
gallery at Rome and was duly listed in the handbooks. One day it
disappeared and when it once more came to light it had become the
Bleichrode Raphael. Its Raphaelisation had been effected, as many of us
knew, by the consummate restorer Vilgard of Ghent, and for him the task
had been an easy one. It had needed only slight eliminations and discreet
additions to produce a portrait of Raphael by himself far more obviously
captivating than any of the genuine series. Soon the picture vanished
from Schloss Bleichrode, and it became anybody's guess what amateur had
been elected to become its possessor. The museums naturally were
While this came into Brush's memory and mine, Vogelstein's
countenance had become severe, almost sinister, and he was answering
Morrison as follows:
"Mr. Morrison, I have offered you the Bleichrode Raphael for half a
million dollars. You will hear all sorts of gossip about it. Doubtless
these gentlemen (indicating us) believe it is false and will tell you
so (we nodded feebly). But I offer it not to their judgment but to
yours. You and I know it is a beautiful thing and worth the money. I
make no claims, offer no guarantee for the picture. You have seen it,
and that's enough. If you don't want it, it makes no difference to me,
I can sell it to Theiss (the great Parisian amateur, Morrison's only
real rival), or I will gladly keep it myself, for I shall never have
anything as fine again."
Morrison sat impassively while Vogelstein watched him narrowly. Brush and
I felt for something that ought to be said yet would not come. At the end
of his speech, or challenge, Vogelstein's expression had softened into
one of the most courtly ingenuousness, now it hardened again into a
strange arrogance. His eyes snapped as he continued with affected
indifference, "Since you have raised the question, Mr. Morrison, the
Bleichrode Raphael is yours to take or leave--to-night."
There was a pause as the two giants faced each other. Then Morrison
smiled beamingly, as one who loved a good fighter, and said, "Send it
round tomorrow, of course I want it. Well, that's settled, and if these
gentlemen will spare you, I'll give you a lift down town."
Vogelstein's arrogance melted once more into fulsomeness as he said,
almost forgetting his Goodnight to us, "I'm sure it's very good of you,
The forms of Morrison and Vogelstein almost blocked the generous
intercolumnar space as shoulder to shoulder they moved away between the
yellow marble pillars and under the green and gold ceiling. The brown
leather doors swung silently behind them, and we were left together with
"Never mind, Old Fellow," said Brush at last. "It's the first time for
you. You'll get used to it. It's my second time; I happened to be there,
you know, when the Balaklava Coronal was sold."
SOME REFLECTIONS ON ART COLLECTING
Morally considered, the art collector is tainted with the fourth deadly
sin; pathologically, he is often afflicted by a degree of mania. His
distinguished kinsman, the connoisseur, scorns him as a kind of
mercenary, or at least a manner of renegade. I shall never forget the
expression with which a great connoisseur--who possesses one of the
finest private collections in the Val d'Arno--in speaking of a famous
colleague, declared, "Oh, X----! Why, X---- is merely a collector." The
implication is, of course, that the one who loves art truly and knows it
thoroughly will find full satisfaction in an enjoyment devoid alike of
envy or the desire of possession He is to adore all beautiful objects
with a Platonic fervour to which the idea of acquisition and
domestication is repugnant. Before going into this lofty argument, I
should perhaps explain the collection of my scornful friend. He would
have said: "I see that as I put X---- in his proper place, you look at my
pictures and smile. You have rightly divined that they are of some
rarity, of a sort, in fact, for which X---- and his kind would sell their
immortal souls. But I beg you to note that these pictures and bits of
sculpture have been bought not at all for their rarity, nor even for
their beauty as such, but simply because of their appropriateness as
decorations for this particular villa. They represent not my energy as a
collector, nor even my zeal as a connoisseur, but simply my normal
activity as a man of taste. In this villa it happens that Italian old
masters seem the proper material for decoration. In another house or in
another land you might find me employing, again solely for decorative
purposes, the prints of Japan, the landscapes of the modern
impressionists, the rugs of the East, or the blankets of the Arizona
desert. Free me, then, from the reproach implied in that covert leer at
my Early Sienese." Yes, we must, I think, exclude from the ranks of the
true zealots all who in any plausible fashion utilise the objects of art
they buy. Excess, the craving to possess what he apparently does not
need, is the mark of your true collector. Now these visionaries--at least
the true ones--honour each other according to the degree of "eye" that
each possesses. By "eye" the collector means a faculty of discerning a
fine object quickly and instinctively. And, in fact, the trained eye
becomes a magically fine instrument. It detects the fractions of a
millimetre by which a copy belies its original. In colours it
distinguishes nuances that a moderately trained vision will declare
non-existent. Nor is the trained collector bound by the evidence of the
eye alone. Of certain things he knows the taste or adhesiveness. His ear
grasps the true ring of certain potteries, porcelains, or qualities of
beaten metal. I know an expert on Japanese pottery who, when a sixth
sense tells him that two pots apparently identical come really from
different kilns, puts them behind his back and refers the matter from his
retina to his finger-tips. Thus alternately challenged and trusted, the
eye should become extraordinarily expert. A Florentine collector once saw
in a junk-shop a marble head of beautiful workmanship. Ninety-nine
amateurs out of a hundred would have said. "What a beautiful copy!" for
the same head is exhibited in a famous museum and is reproduced in
pasteboard, clay, metal, and stone _ad nauseam_. But this collector gave
the apparent copy a second look and a third. He reflected that the
example in the museum was itself no original, but a school-piece, and as
he gazed the conviction grew that here was the original. Since it was
closing time, and the marble heavy, a bargain was struck for the morrow.
After an anxious night, this fortunate amateur returned in a cab to bring
home what criticism now admits is a superb Desiderio da Settignano. The
incident illustrates capitally the combination of keenness and patience
that goes to make the collector's eye.
We may divide collectors into those who play the game and those who do
not. The wealthy gentleman who gives _carte blanche_ to his dealers and
agents is merely a spoilsport. He makes what should be a matter of
adroitness simply an issue of brute force. He robs of all delicacy what
from the first glow of discovery to actual possession should be a fine
transaction. Not only does he lose the real pleasures of the chase, but
he raises up a special clan of sycophants to part him and his money. A
mere handful of such--amassers, let us say--have demoralised the art
market. According to the length of their purses, collectors may also be
divided into those who seek and those who are sought. Wisdom lies in
making the most of either condition. The seekers unquestionably get more
pleasure; the sought achieve the more imposing results. The seekers
depend chiefly on their own judgment, buying preferably of those who know
less than themselves; the sought depend upon the judgment of those who
know more than themselves, and, naturally, must pay for such vicarious
expertise. And, rightly, they pay dear. Let no one who buys of a great
dealer imagine that he pays simply the cost of an object plus a generous
percentage of profit. No, much-sought amateur, you pay the rent of that
palace in Bond Street or Fifth Avenue; you pay the salary of the
gentlemanly assistant or partner whose time is at your disposal during
your too rare visits; you pay the commissions of an army of agents
throughout the world; you pay, alas! too often the cost of securing false
"sale records" in classic auction rooms; and, finally, it is only too
probable that you pay also a heavy secret commission to the disinterested
friend who happened to remark there was an uncommonly fine object in
Y----'s gallery. By a cheerful acquiescence in the suggestions that are
daily made to you, you may accumulate old masters as impersonally, as
genteelly, let me say, as you do railway bonds. But, of course, under
these circumstances you must not expect bargains.
Now, in objects that are out of the fashion--a category including always
many of the best things--and if approached in slack times, the great
dealers will occasionally afford bargains, but in general the
economically minded collector, who is not necessarily the poor one, must
intercept his prey before it reaches the capitals. That it makes all the
difference from whom and where you buy, let a recent example attest. A
few years ago a fine Giorgionesque portrait was offered to an American
amateur by a famous London dealer. At $60,000 the refusal was granted for
a few days only, subject to cable response. The photograph was tempting,
but the besought amateur, knowing that the authenticity of the average
Giorgione is somewhat less certain than, say, the period of the Book of
Job, let the opportunity pass. A few months after learning of this
incident, I had the pleasure of meeting in Florence an English amateur
who expatiated upon the beauty of a Giorgione that he had just acquired
at the very reasonable price of $15,000. For particulars he referred me
to one of the great dealers of Florence. The portrait, as I already
suspected, was the one I had heard of in America. Forty-five thousand
dollars represented the difference between buying it of a Florentine
rather than a London dealer. Of course, the picture itself had never left
Florence at all, the limited refusal and the rest were merely part of the
usual comedy played between the great dealer and his client. On the other
hand, if the lucky English collector had had the additional good fortune
to make his find in an Italian auction room or at a small dealer's, he
would probably have paid little more than $5,000, while the same purchase
made of a wholly ignorant dealer or direct from the reduced family who
sold this ancestor might have been made for a few hundred francs. With
the seekers obviously lie all the mystery and romance of the pursuit. The
rest surely need not be envied to the sought. One thinks of Consul J.J.
Jarves gradually getting together that little collection of Italian
primitives, at New Haven, which, scorned in his lifetime and actually
foreclosed for a trifling debt, is now an object of pilgrimage for
European amateurs and experts. One recalls the mouse-like activities of
the Brothers Dutuit, unearthing here a gorgeous enamel, retrieving there
a Rembrandt drawing, fetching out a Gothic ivory from a junk-shop. One
sighs for those days, and declares that they are forever past. Does not
the sage M. Eudel warn us that there are no more finds--_"Surtout ne
comptez plus sur les trouvailles."_ Yet not so long ago I mildly chid a
seeker, him of the Desiderio, for not having one of his rare pictures
photographed for the use of students. He smiled and admitted that I was
perfectly right, but added pleadingly, "You know a negative costs about
twenty francs, and for that one may often get an original." Why, even I
who write--but I have promised that this essay shall not exceed
For the poor collector, however, the money consideration remains a source
of manifold embarrassment, morally and otherwise. How many an enthusiast
has justified an extravagant purchase by a flattering prevision of
profits accruing to his widow and orphans? Let the recording angel reply.
And such hopes are at times justified. There have been instances of men
refused by the life insurance companies who have deliberately adopted the
alternative of collecting for investment, and have done so successfully.
Obviously, such persons fall into the class which the French call
charitably the _marchand-amateur_. Note, however, that the merchant comes
first. Now, to be a poor yet reasonably successful collector without
becoming a _marchand-amateur_ requires moral tact and resolution. The
seeker of the short purse naturally becomes a sort of expert in prices.
As he prowls he sees many fine things which he neither covets nor could
afford to keep, but which are offered at prices temptingly below their
value in the great shops. The temptation is strong to buy and resell.
Naturally, one profitable transaction of this sort leads to another, and
soon the amateur is in the attitude of "making the collection pay for
itself." The inducement is so insidious that I presume there are rather
few persistent collectors not wealthy who are not in a measure dealers.
Now, to deal or not to deal might seem purely a matter of social and
business expediency. But the issue really lies deeper. The difficulty is
that of not letting your left hand know what your right hand does. A
morally ambidextrous person may do what he pleases. He keeps the dealer
and collector apart, and subject to his will one or the other emerges.
The feat is too difficult for average humanity. In nearly every case a
prolonged struggle will end in favour of the commercial self. I have
followed the course of many collector-dealers, and I know very few
instances in which the collection has not averaged down to the level of a
shop--a fine shop, perhaps, but still a shop. I blame no man for
following the wide road, but I feel more kinship with him who walks
scrupulously in the narrow path of strict amateurism. Let me hasten to
add that there are times when everybody must sell. Collections must
periodically be weeded out; one may be hard up and sell his pictures as
another in similar case his horses; artists will naturally draw into
their studios beautiful objects which, occasion offering, they properly
sell. With these obvious exceptions the line is absolutely sharp. Did you
buy a thing to keep? Then you are an amateur, though later your
convenience or necessity dictates a sale. Did you buy it to sell? Then
you are a dealer.
The safety of the little collector lies in specialisation, and there,
too, lies his surest satisfaction. To have a well-defined specialty
immediately simplifies the quest. There are many places where one need
never go. Moreover, where nature has provided fair intelligence, one must
die very young in order not to die an expert. As I write I think of
D----, one of the last surviving philosophers. Born with the instincts of
a man of letters, he declined to give himself to the gentler pursuit
until he had made a little competence at the law. As he followed his
disinterested course of writing and travel, his enthusiasm centred upon
the antiquities of Greece and Rome. In the engraved gems of that time he
found a beautiful epitome of his favourite studies. For ten years study
and collecting have gone patiently hand in hand. He possesses some fifty
classical gems, many of the best Greek period, all rare and interesting
from material, subject, or workmanship, and he may have spent as many
dollars in the process, but I rather doubt it. He knows his subject as
well as he loves it. Naturally he is writing a book on intaglios, and it
will be a good one. Meanwhile, if the fancy takes him to visit the site
of the Bactrian Empire, he has only to put his collection in his pocket
and enjoy it _en route_. I cannot too highly commend his example, and yet
his course is too austere for many of us. Has untrammelled curiosity no
charms? Would I, for example, forego my casual kakemonos, my ignorantly
acquired majolica, some trifling accumulation of Greek coins, that
handful of Eastern rugs? Could I prune away certain excrescent minor
Whistlers? those bits of ivory cutting from old Italy and Japan? those
tarnished Tuscan panels?--in truth, I could and would not. Yet had I
stuck to my first love, prints, I should by this time be mentioned
respectfully among the initiated, my name would be found in the
card-catalogues of the great dealers, my decease would be looked forward
to with resignation by my junior colleagues. As it is, after twenty years
of collecting, and an expenditure shameful in one of my fiscal estate, I
have nothing that even courtesy itself could call a collection. In
apology, I may plead only the sting of unchartered curiosity, the
adventurous thrill of buying on half or no knowledge, the joy of an
instinctive sympathy that, irrespective of boundaries, knows its own when
it sees it. And you austerely single-minded amateurs, you experts that
surely shall be, I revere if I may not follow you.
We have left dangling from the first paragraph the morally important
question, Is collecting merely an habitual contravention of the tenth
commandment? Now, I am far from denying that collecting has its
pathology, even its criminology, if you will. The mere lust of
acquisition may take the ugly form of coveting what one neither loves nor
understands. This pit is digged for the rich collector. Poor collectors,
on the other hand, have at times forgotten where enterprise ends and
kleptomania begins. But these excesses are, after all, rare, and for that
matter they are merely those that attach to all exaggerations of
legitimate passion. As for the notion that one should love beautiful
things without desiring them, it seems to me to lie perilously near a
sort of pseudo-Platonism, which, wherever it recurs, is the enemy of life
itself. As I write, my eye falls upon a Japanese sword-guard. I have seen
it a thousand times, but I never fail to feel the same thrill. Out of the
disc of blued steel the artisan has worked the soaring form of a bird
with upraised wings. It is indicated in skeleton fashion by bars
extraordinarily energetic, yet suavely modulated. There must have been
feeling and intelligence in every touch of the chisel and file that
wrought it. Could that same object seen occasionally in a museum showcase
afford me any comparable pleasure? Is not the education of the eye, like
the education of the sentiments, dependent upon stable associations that
can be many times repeated? Shall I seem merely covetous because I crave
besides the casual and adventurous contact with beauty in the world, a
gratification which is sure and ever waiting for me? But let me cite
rather a certain collector and man of great affairs, who perforce spends
his days in adjusting business interests that extend from the arctic
snows to the tropics. His evenings belong generally to his friends, for
he possesses in a rare degree the art of companionship. The small hours
are his own, and frequently he spends them in painting beautiful copies
of his Japanese potteries. It is his homage to the artisans who contrived
those strange forms and imagined those gorgeous glazes. In the end he
will have a catalogue illustrated from his own designs. Meanwhile, he
knows his potteries as the shepherd knows his flock. What casuist will
find the heart to deny him so innocent a pleasure? And he merely
represents in a very high degree the sort of priestliness that the true
collector feels towards his temporary possessions.
And this sense of the high, nay, supreme value of beautiful things, has
its evident uses. That the beauty of art has not largely perished from
the earth is due chiefly to the collector. He interposes his
sensitiveness between the insensibility of the average man and the always
exiled thing of beauty. If we have in a fractional measure the art
treasures of the past, it has been because the collector has given them
asylum. Museums, all manner of overt public activities, derive ultimately
from his initiative. It is he who asserts the continuity of art and
illustrates its dignity. The stewardship of art is manifold, but no one
has a clearer right to that honourable title. "Private vices, public
virtues," I hear a cynical reader murmur. So be it. I am ready to stand
with the latitudinarian Mandeville. The view makes for charity. I only
plead that he who covets his neighbour's tea-jar--I assume a desirable
one, say, in old brown Kioto--shall be judged less harshly than he who
covets his neighbour's ox.