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The Madonna of the Future by Henry James

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This etext was prepared by David Price, email ccx074@coventry.ac.uk
from the 1887 Macmillan and Co. edition. Proofing was by Jennifer


by Henry James

We had been talking about the masters who had achieved but a single
masterpiece--the artists and poets who but once in their lives had
known the divine afflatus and touched the high level of perfection.
Our host had been showing us a charming little cabinet picture by a
painter whose name we had never heard, and who, after this single
spasmodic bid for fame, had apparently relapsed into obscurity and
mediocrity. There was some discussion as to the frequency of this
phenomenon; during which, I observed, H- sat silent, finishing his
cigar with a meditative air, and looking at the picture which was
being handed round the table. "I don't know how common a case it
is," he said at last, "but I have seen it. I have known a poor
fellow who painted his one masterpiece, and"--he added with a smile--
"he didn't even paint that. He made his bid for fame and missed it."
We all knew H- for a clever man who had seen much of men and manners,
and had a great stock of reminiscences. Some one immediately
questioned him further, and while I was engrossed with the raptures
of my neighbour over the little picture, he was induced to tell his
tale. If I were to doubt whether it would bear repeating, I should
only have to remember how that charming woman, our hostess, who had
left the table, ventured back in rustling rose-colour to pronounce
our lingering a want of gallantry, and, finding us a listening
circle, sank into her chair in spite of our cigars, and heard the
story out so graciously that, when the catastrophe was reached, she
glanced across at me and showed me a tear in each of her beautiful

It relates to my youth, and to Italy: two fine things! (H- began).
I had arrived late in the evening at Florence, and while I finished
my bottle of wine at supper, had fancied that, tired traveller though
I was, I might pay the city a finer compliment than by going vulgarly
to bed. A narrow passage wandered darkly away out of the little
square before my hotel, and looked as if it bored into the heart of
Florence. I followed it, and at the end of ten minutes emerged upon
a great piazza, filled only with the mild autumn moonlight. Opposite
rose the Palazzo Vecchio, like some huge civic fortress, with the
great bell-tower springing from its embattled verge as a mountain-
pine from the edge of a cliff. At its base, in its projected shadow,
gleamed certain dim sculptures which I wonderingly approached. One
of the images, on the left of the palace door, was a magnificent
colossus, shining through the dusky air like a sentinel who has taken
the alarm. In a moment I recognised him as Michael Angelo's David.
I turned with a certain relief from his sinister strength to a
slender figure in bronze, stationed beneath the high light loggia,
which opposes the free and elegant span of its arches to the dead
masonry of the palace; a figure supremely shapely and graceful;
gentle, almost, in spite of his holding out with his light nervous
arm the snaky head of the slaughtered Gorgon. His name is Perseus,
and you may read his story, not in the Greek mythology, but in the
memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini. Glancing from one of these fine
fellows to the other, I probably uttered some irrepressible
commonplace of praise, for, as if provoked by my voice, a man rose
from the steps of the loggia, where he had been sitting in the
shadow, and addressed me in good English--a small, slim personage,
clad in a sort of black velvet tunic (as it seemed), and with a mass
of auburn hair, which gleamed in the moonlight, escaping from a
little mediaeval birretta. In a tone of the most insinuating
deference he asked me for my "impressions." He seemed picturesque,
fantastic, slightly unreal. Hovering there in this consecrated
neighbourhood, he might have passed for the genius of aesthetic
hospitality--if the genius of aesthetic hospitality were not commonly
some shabby little custode, flourishing a calico pocket-handkerchief
and openly resentful of the divided franc. This analogy was made
none the less complete by the brilliant tirade with which he greeted
my embarrassed silence.

"I have known Florence long, sir, but I have never known her so
lovely as tonight. It's as if the ghosts of her past were abroad in
the empty streets. The present is sleeping; the past hovers about us
like a dream made visible. Fancy the old Florentines strolling up in
couples to pass judgment on the last performance of Michael, of
Benvenuto! We should come in for a precious lesson if we might
overhear what they say. The plainest burgher of them, in his cap and
gown, had a taste in the matter! That was the prime of art, sir.
The sun stood high in heaven, and his broad and equal blaze made the
darkest places bright and the dullest eyes clear. We live in the
evening of time! We grope in the gray dusk, carrying each our poor
little taper of selfish and painful wisdom, holding it up to the
great models and to the dim idea, and seeing nothing but overwhelming
greatness and dimness. The days of illumination are gone! But do
you know I fancy--I fancy"--and he grew suddenly almost familiar in
this visionary fervour--"I fancy the light of that time rests upon us
here for an hour! I have never seen the David so grand, the Perseus
so fair! Even the inferior productions of John of Bologna and of
Baccio Bandinelli seem to realise the artist's dream. I feel as if
the moonlit air were charged with the secrets of the masters, and as
if, standing here in religious attention, we might--we might witness
a revelation!" Perceiving at this moment, I suppose, my halting
comprehension reflected in my puzzled face, this interesting
rhapsodist paused and blushed. Then with a melancholy smile, "You
think me a moonstruck charlatan, I suppose. It's not my habit to
bang about the piazza and pounce upon innocent tourists. But
tonight, I confess, I am under the charm. And then, somehow, I
fancied you too were an artist!"

"I am not an artist, I am sorry to say, as you must understand the
term. But pray make no apologies. I am also under the charm; your
eloquent remarks have only deepened it."

"If you are not an artist you are worthy to be one!" he rejoined,
with an expressive smile. "A young man who arrives at Florence late
in the evening, and, instead of going prosaically to bed, or hanging
over the traveller's book at his hotel, walks forth without loss of
time to pay his devoirs to the beautiful, is a young man after my own

The mystery was suddenly solved; my friend was an American! He must
have been, to take the picturesque so prodigiously to heart. "None
the less so, I trust," I answered, "if the young man is a sordid New

"New Yorkers have been munificent patrons of art!" he answered,

For a moment I was alarmed. Was this midnight reverie mere Yankee
enterprise, and was he simply a desperate brother of the brush who
had posted himself here to extort an "order" from a sauntering
tourist? But I was not called to defend myself. A great brazen note
broke suddenly from the far-off summit of the bell-tower above us,
and sounded the first stroke of midnight. My companion started,
apologised for detaining me, and prepared to retire. But he seemed
to offer so lively a promise of further entertainment that I was
indisposed to part with him, and suggested that we should stroll
homeward together. He cordially assented; so we turned out of the
Piazza, passed down before the statued arcade of the Uffizi, and came
out upon the Arno. What course we took I hardly remember, but we
roamed slowly about for an hour, my companion delivering by snatches
a sort of moon-touched aesthetic lecture. I listened in puzzled
fascination, and wondered who the deuce he was. He confessed with a
melancholy but all-respectful head-shake to his American origin.

"We are the disinherited of Art!" he cried. "We are condemned to be
superficial! We are excluded from the magic circle. The soil of
American perception is a poor little barren artificial deposit. Yes!
we are wedded to imperfection. An American, to excel, has just ten
times as much to learn as a European. We lack the deeper sense. We
have neither taste, nor tact, nor power. How should we have them?
Our crude and garish climate, our silent past, our deafening present,
the constant pressure about us of unlovely circumstance, are as void
of all that nourishes and prompts and inspires the artist, as my sad
heart is void of bitterness in saying so! We poor aspirants must
live in perpetual exile."

"You seem fairly at home in exile," I answered, "and Florence seems
to me a very pretty Siberia. But do you know my own thought?
Nothing is so idle as to talk about our want of a nutritive soil, of
opportunity, of inspiration, and all the rest of it. The worthy part
is to do something fine! There is no law in our glorious
Constitution against that. Invent, create, achieve! No matter if
you have to study fifty times as much as one of these! What else are
you an artist for? Be you our Moses," I added, laughing, and laying
my hand on his shoulder, "and lead us out of the house of bondage!"

"Golden words--golden words, young man!" he cried, with a tender
smile. "'Invent, create, achieve!' Yes, that's our business; I know
it well. Don't take me, in Heaven's name, for one of your barren
complainers--impotent cynics who have neither talent nor faith! I am
at work!"--and he glanced about him and lowered his voice as if this
were a quite peculiar secret--"I'm at work night and day. I have
undertaken a CREATION! I am no Moses; I am only a poor patient
artist; but it would be a fine thing if I were to cause some slender
stream of beauty to flow in our thirsty land! Don't think me a
monster of conceit," he went on, as he saw me smile at the avidity
with which he adopted my illustration; "I confess that I am in one of
those moods when great things seem possible! This is one of my
nervous nights--I dream waking! When the south wind blows over
Florence at midnight it seems to coax the soul from all the fair
things locked away in her churches and galleries; it comes into my
own little studio with the moonlight, and sets my heart beating too
deeply for rest. You see I am always adding a thought to my
conception! This evening I felt that I couldn't sleep unless I had
communed with the genius of Buonarotti!"

He seemed deeply versed in local history and tradition, and he
expatiated con amore on the charms of Florence. I gathered that he
was an old resident, and that he had taken the lovely city into his
heart. "I owe her everything," he declared. "It's only since I came
here that I have really lived, intellectually. One by one, all
profane desires, all mere worldly aims, have dropped away from me,
and left me nothing but my pencil, my little note-book" (and he
tapped his breast-pocket), "and the worship of the pure masters--
those who were pure because they were innocent, and those who were
pure because they were strong!"

"And have you been very productive all this time?" I asked

He was silent a while before replying. "Not in the vulgar sense!" he
said at last. "I have chosen never to manifest myself by
imperfection. The good in every performance I have re-absorbed into
the generative force of new creations; the bad--there is always
plenty of that--I have religiously destroyed. I may say, with some
satisfaction, that I have not added a mite to the rubbish of the
world. As a proof of my conscientiousness and he stopped short, and
eyed me with extraordinary candour, as if the proof were to be
overwhelming--"I have never sold a picture! 'At least no merchant
traffics in my heart!' Do you remember that divine line in Browning?
My little studio has never been profaned by superficial, feverish,
mercenary work. It's a temple of labour, but of leisure! Art is
long. If we work for ourselves, of course we must hurry. If we work
for her, we must often pause. She can wait!"

This had brought us to my hotel door, somewhat to my relief, I
confess, for I had begun to feel unequal to the society of a genius
of this heroic strain. I left him, however, not without expressing a
friendly hope that we should meet again. The next morning my
curiosity had not abated; I was anxious to see him by common
daylight. I counted upon meeting him in one of the many pictorial
haunts of Florence, and I was gratified without delay. I found him
in the course of the morning in the Tribune of the Uffizi--that
little treasure-chamber of world-famous things. He had turned his
back on the Venus de' Medici, and with his arms resting on the rail-
mug which protects the pictures, and his head buried in his hands, he
was lost in the contemplation of that superb triptych of Andrea
Mantegna--a work which has neither the material splendour nor the
commanding force of some of its neighbours, but which, glowing there
with the loveliness of patient labour, suits possibly a more constant
need of the soul. I looked at the picture for some time over his
shoulder; at last, with a heavy sigh, he turned away and our eyes
met. As he recognised me a deep blush rose to his face; he fancied,
perhaps, that he had made a fool of himself overnight. But I offered
him my hand with a friendliness which assured him I was not a
scoffer. I knew him by his ardent chevelure; otherwise he was much
altered. His midnight mood was over, and he looked as haggard as an
actor by daylight. He was far older than I had supposed, and he had
less bravery of costume and gesture. He seemed the quiet, poor,
patient artist he had proclaimed himself, and the fact that he had
never sold a picture was more obvious than glorious. His velvet coat
was threadbare, and his short slouched hat, of an antique pattern,
revealed a rustiness which marked it an "original," and not one of
the picturesque reproductions which brethren of his craft affect.
His eye was mild and heavy, and his expression singularly gentle and
acquiescent; the more so for a certain pallid leanness of visage,
which I hardly knew whether to refer to the consuming fire of genius
or to a meagre diet. A very little talk, however, cleared his brow
and brought back his eloquence.

"And this is your first visit to these enchanted halls?" he cried.
"Happy, thrice happy youth!" And taking me by the arm, he prepared to
lead me to each of the pre-eminent works in turn and show me the
cream of the gallery. But before we left the Mantegna he pressed my
arm and gave it a loving look. "HE was not in a hurry," he murmured.
"He knew nothing of "raw Haste, half-sister to Delay!" How sound a
critic my friend was I am unable to say, but he was an extremely
amusing one; overflowing with opinions, theories, and sympathies,
with disquisition and gossip and anecdote. He was a shade too
sentimental for my own sympathies, and I fancied he was rather too
fond of superfine discriminations and of discovering subtle
intentions in shallow places. At moments, too, he plunged into the
sea of metaphysics, and floundered a while in waters too deep for
intellectual security. But his abounding knowledge and happy
judgment told a touching story of long attentive hours in this
worshipful company; there was a reproach to my wasteful saunterings
in so devoted a culture of opportunity. "There are two moods," I
remember his saying, "in which we may walk through galleries--the
critical and the ideal. They seize us at their pleasure, and we can
never tell which is to take its turn. The critical mood, oddly, is
the genial one, the friendly, the condescending. It relishes the
pretty trivialities of art, its vulgar cleverness, its conscious
graces. It has a kindly greeting for anything which looks as if,
according to his light, the painter had enjoyed doing it--for the
little Dutch cabbages and kettles, for the taper fingers and breezy
mantles of late-coming Madonnas, for the little blue-hilled,
pastoral, sceptical Italian landscapes. Then there are the days of
fierce, fastidious longing--solemn church feasts of the intellect--
when all vulgar effort and all petty success is a weariness, and
everything but the best--the best of the best--disgusts. In these
hours we are relentless aristocrats of taste. We will not take
Michael Angelo for granted, we will not swallow Raphael whole!"

The gallery of the Uffizi is not only rich in its possessions, but
peculiarly fortunate in that fine architectural accident, as one may
call it, which unites it--with the breadth of river and city between
them--to those princely chambers of the Pitti Palace. The Louvre and
the Vatican hardly give you such a sense of sustained inclosure as
those long passages projected over street and stream to establish a
sort of inviolate transition between the two palaces of art. We
passed along the gallery in which those precious drawings by eminent
hands hang chaste and gray above the swirl and murmur of the yellow
Arno, and reached the ducal saloons of the Pitti. Ducal as they are,
it must be confessed that they are imperfect as show-rooms, and that,
with their deep-set windows and their massive mouldings, it is rather
a broken light that reaches the pictured walls. But here the
masterpieces hang thick, and you seem to see them in a luminous
atmosphere of their own. And the great saloons, with their superb
dim ceilings, their outer wall in splendid shadow, and the sombre
opposite glow of mellow canvas and dusky gilding, make, themselves,
almost as fine a picture as the Titians and Raphaels they imperfectly
reveal. We lingered briefly before many a Raphael and Titian; but I
saw my friend was impatient, and I suffered him at last to lead me
directly to the goal of our journey--the most tenderly fair of
Raphael's virgins, the Madonna in the Chair. Of all the fine
pictures of the world, it seemed to me this is the one with which
criticism has least to do. None betrays less effort, less of the
mechanism of success and of the irrepressible discord between
conception and result, which shows dimly in so many consummate works.
Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of
manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in
rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate
exhalation of genius. The figure melts away the spectator's mind
into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he
has given to heavenly purity or to earthly charm. He is intoxicated
with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever
bloomed on earth.

"That's what I call a fine picture," said my companion, after we had
gazed a while in silence. "I have a right to say so, for I have
copied it so often and so carefully that I could repeat it now with
my eyes shut. Other works are of Raphael: this IS Raphael himself.
Others you can praise, you can qualify, you can measure, explain,
account for: this you can only love and admire. I don't know in
what seeming he walked among men while this divine mood was upon him;
but after it, surely, he could do nothing but die; this world had
nothing more to teach him. Think of it a while, my friend, and you
will admit that I am not raving. Think of his seeing that spotless
image, not for a moment, for a day, in a happy dream, or a restless
fever-fit; not as a poet in a five minutes' frenzy--time to snatch
his phrase and scribble his immortal stanza; but for days together,
while the slow labour of the brush went on, while the foul vapours of
life interposed, and the fancy ached with tension, fixed, radiant,
distinct, as we see it now! What a master, certainly! But ah! what
a seer!"

"Don't you imagine," I answered, "that he had a model, and that some
pretty young woman--"

"As pretty a young woman as you please! It doesn't diminish the
miracle! He took his hint, of course, and the young woman, possibly,
sat smiling before his canvas. But, meanwhile, the painter's idea
had taken wings. No lovely human outline could charm it to vulgar
fact. He saw the fair form made perfect; he rose to the vision
without tremor, without effort of wing; he communed with it face to
face, and resolved into finer and lovelier truth the purity which
completes it as the fragrance completes the rose. That's what they
call idealism; the word's vastly abused, but the thing is good. It's
my own creed, at any rate. Lovely Madonna, model at once and muse, I
call you to witness that I too am an idealist!"

"An idealist, then," I said, half jocosely, wishing to provoke him to
further utterance, "is a gentleman who says to Nature in the person
of a beautiful girl, 'Go to, you are all wrong! Your fine is coarse,
your bright is dim, your grace is gaucherie. This is the way you
should have done it!' Is not the chance against him?"

He turned upon me almost angrily, but perceiving the genial savour of
my sarcasm, he smiled gravely. "Look at that picture," he said, "and
cease your irreverent mockery! Idealism is THAT! There's no
explaining it; one must feel the flame! It says nothing to Nature,
or to any beautiful girl, that they will not both forgive! It says
to the fair woman, 'Accept me as your artist friend, lend me your
beautiful face, trust me, help me, and your eyes shall be half my
masterpiece!' No one so loves and respects the rich realities of
nature as the artist whose imagination caresses and flatters them.
He knows what a fact may hold (whether Raphael knew, you may judge by
his portrait, behind us there, of Tommaso Inghirami); bad his fancy
hovers above it, as Anal hovered above the sleeping prince. There is
only one Raphael, bad an artist may still be an artist. As I said
last night, the days of illumination are gone; visions are rare; we
have to look long to see them. But in meditation we may still
cultivate the ideal; round it, smooth it, perfect it. The result--
the result," (here his voice faltered suddenly, and he fixed his eyes
for a moment on the picture; when they met my own again they were
full of tears)--"the result may be less than this; but still it may
be good, it may be GREAT!" he cried with vehemence. "It may hang
somewhere, in after years, in goodly company, and keep the artist's
memory warm. Think of being known to mankind after some such fashion
as this! of hanging here through the slow centuries in the gaze of an
altered world; living on and on in the cunning of an eye and hand
that are part of the dust of ages, a delight and a law to remote
generations; making beauty a force and purity an example!"

"Heaven forbid," I said, smiling, "that I should take the wind out of
your sails! But doesn't it occur to you that, besides being strong
in his genius, Raphael was happy in a certain good faith of which we
have lost the trick? There are people, I know, who deny that his
spotless Madonnas are anything more than pretty blondes of that
period enhanced by the Raphaelesque touch, which they declare is a
profane touch. Be that as it may, people's religious and aesthetic
needs went arm in arm, and there was, as I may say, a demand for the
Blessed Virgin, visible and adorable, which must have given firmness
to the artist's hand. I am afraid there is no demand now."

My companion seemed painfully puzzled; he shivered, as it were, in
this chilling blast of scepticism. Then shaking his head with
sublime confidence--"There is always a demand!" he cried; "that
ineffable type is one of the eternal needs of man's heart; but pious
souls long for it in silence, almost in shame. Let it appear, and
their faith grows brave. How SHOULD it appear in this corrupt
generation? It cannot be made to order. It could, indeed, when the
order came, trumpet-toned, from the lips of the Church herself, and
was addressed to genius panting with inspiration. But it can spring
now only from the soil of passionate labour and culture. Do you
really fancy that while, from time to time, a man of complete
artistic vision is born into the world, that image can perish? The
man who paints it has painted everything. The subject admits of
every perfection--form, colour, expression, composition. It can be
as simple as you please, and yet as rich; as broad and pure, and yet
as full of delicate detail. Think of the chance for flesh in the
little naked, nestling child, irradiating divinity; of the chance for
drapery in the chaste and ample garment of the mother! think of the
great story you compress into that simple theme! Think, above all,
of the mother's face and its ineffable suggestiveness, of the mingled
burden of joy and trouble, the tenderness turned to worship, and the
worship turned to far-seeing pity! Then look at it all in perfect
line and lovely colour, breathing truth and beauty and mastery!"

"Anch' io son pittore!" I cried. "Unless I am mistaken, you have a
masterpiece on the stocks. If you put all that in, you will do more
than Raphael himself did. Let me know when your picture is finished,
and wherever in the wide world I may be, I will post back to Florence
and pay my respects to--the MADONNA OF THE FUTURE!"

He blushed vividly and gave a heavy sigh, half of protest, half of
resignation. "I don't often mention my picture by name. I detest
this modem custom of premature publicity. A great work needs
silence, privacy, mystery even. And then, do you know, people are so
cruel, so frivolous, so unable to imagine a man's wishing to paint a
Madonna at this time of day, that I have been laughed at--laughed at,
sir!" and his blush deepened to crimson. "I don't know what has
prompted me to be so frank and trustful with you. You look as if you
wouldn't laugh at me. My dear young man"--and he laid his hand on my
arm--"I am worthy of respect. Whatever my talents may be, I am
honest. There is nothing grotesque in a pure ambition, or in a life
devoted to it."

There was something so sternly sincere in his look and tone that
further questions seemed impertinent. I had repeated opportunity to
ask them, however, for after this we spent much time together. Daily
for a fortnight, we met by appointment, to see the sights. He knew
the city so well, he had strolled and lounged so often through its
streets and churches and galleries, he was so deeply versed in its
greater and lesser memories, so imbued with the local genius, that he
was an altogether ideal valet de place, and I was glad enough to
leave my Murray at home, and gather facts and opinions alike from his
gossiping commentary. He talked of Florence like a lover, and
admitted that it was a very old affair; he had lost his heart to her
at first sight. "It's the fashion to talk of all cities as
feminine," he said, "but, as a rule, it's a monstrous mistake. Is
Florence of the same sex as New York, as Chicago? She is the sole
perfect lady of them all; one feels towards her as a lad in his teens
feels to some beautiful older woman with a 'history.' She fills you
with a sort of aspiring gallantry." This disinterested passion
seemed to stand my friend in stead of the common social ties; he led
a lonely life, and cared for nothing but his work. I was duly
flattered by his having taken my frivolous self into his favour, and
by his generous sacrifice of precious hours to my society. We spent
many of these hours among those early paintings in which Florence is
so rich, returning ever and anon, with restless sympathies, to wonder
whether these tender blossoms of art had not a vital fragrance and
savour more precious than the full-fruited knowledge of the later
works. We lingered often in the sepulchral chapel of San Lorenzo,
and watched Michael Angelo's dim-visaged warrior sitting there like
some awful Genius of Doubt and brooding behind his eternal mask upon
the mysteries of life. We stood more than once in the little convent
chambers where Fra Angelico wrought as if an angel indeed had held
his hand, and gathered that sense of scattered dews and early bird-
notes which makes an hour among his relics seem like a morning stroll
in some monkish garden. We did all this and much more--wandered into
dark chapels, damp courts, and dusty palace-rooms, in quest of
lingering hints of fresco and lurking treasures of carving.

I was more and more impressed with my companion's remarkable
singleness of purpose. Everything was a pretext for some wildly
idealistic rhapsody or reverie. Nothing could be seen or said that
did not lead him sooner or later to a glowing discourse on the true,
the beautiful, and the good. If my friend was not a genius, he was
certainly a monomaniac; and I found as great a fascination in
watching the odd lights and shades of his character as if he had been
a creature from another planet. He seemed, indeed, to know very
little of this one, and lived and moved altogether in his own little
province of art. A creature more unsullied by the world it is
impossible to conceive, and I often thought it a flaw in his artistic
character that he had not a harmless vice or two. It amused me
greatly at times to think that he was of our shrewd Yankee race; but,
after all, there could be no better token of his American origin than
this high aesthetic fever. The very heat of his devotion was a sign
of conversion; those born to European opportunity manage better to
reconcile enthusiasm with comfort. He had, moreover, all our native
mistrust for intellectual discretion, and our native relish for
sonorous superlatives. As a critic he was very much more generous
than just, and his mildest terms of approbation were "stupendous,"
"transcendent," and "incomparable." The small change of admiration
seemed to him no coin for a gentleman to handle; and yet, frank as he
was intellectually, he was personally altogether a mystery. His
professions, somehow, were all half-professions, and his allusions to
his work and circumstances left something dimly ambiguous in the
background. He was modest and proud, and never spoke of his domestic
matters. He was evidently poor; yet he must have had some slender
independence, since he could afford to make so merry over the fact
that his culture of ideal beauty had never brought him a penny. His
poverty, I supposed, was his motive for neither inviting me to his
lodging nor mentioning its whereabouts. We met either in some public
place or at my hotel, where I entertained him as freely as I might
without appearing to be prompted by charity. He seemed always
hungry, and this was his nearest approach to human grossness. I made
a point of asking no impertinent questions, but, each time we met, I
ventured to make some respectful allusion to the magnum opus, to
inquire, as it were, as to its health and progress. "We are getting
on, with the Lord's help," he would say, with a grave smile. "We are
doing well. You see, I have the grand advantage that I lose no time.
These hours I spend with you are pure profit. They are SUGGESTIVE!
Just as the truly religious soul is always at worship, the genuine
artist is always in labour. He takes his property wherever he finds
it, and learns some precious secret from every object that stands up
in the light. If you but knew the rapture of observation! I gather
with every glance some hint for light, for colour, or relief! When I
get home, I pour out my treasures into the lap of toy Madonna. Oh, I
am not idle! Nulla dies sine linea."

I was introduced in Florence to an American lady whose drawing-room
had long formed an attractive place of reunion for the foreign
residents. She lived on a fourth floor, and she was not rich; but
she offered her visitors very good tea, little cakes at option, and
conversation not quite to match. Her conversation had mainly an
aesthetic flavour, for Mrs. Coventry was famously ''artistic." Her
apartment was a sort of Pitti Palace au petit pied. She possessed
"early masters" by the dozen--a cluster of Peruginos in her dining-
room, a Giotto in her boudoir, an Andrea del Sarto over her drawing-
room chimney-piece. Surrounded by these treasures, and by
innumerable bronzes, mosaics, majolica dishes, and little worm-eaten
diptychs covered with angular saints on gilded backgrounds, our
hostess enjoyed the dignity of a sort of high-priestess of the arts.
She always wore on her bosom a huge miniature copy of the Madonna
della Seggiola. Gaining her ear quietly one evening, I asked her
whether she knew that remarkable man, Mr. Theobald.

"Know him!" she exclaimed; "know poor Theobald! All Florence knows
him, his flame-coloured locks, his black velvet coat, his
interminable harangues on the beautiful, and his wondrous Madonna
that mortal eye has never seen, and that mortal patience has quite
given up expecting."

"Really," I cried, "you don't believe in his Madonna?"

"My dear ingenuous youth," rejoined my shrewd friend, "has he made a
convert of you? Well, we all believed in him once; he came down upon
Florence and took the town by storm. Another Raphael, at the very
least, had been born among men, and the poor dear United States were
to have the credit of him. Hadn't he the very hair of Raphael
flowing down on his shoulders? The hair, alas, but not the head! We
swallowed him whole, however; we hung upon his lips and proclaimed
his genius on the house-tops. The women were all dying to sit to him
for their portraits and be made immortal, like Leonardo's Joconde.
We decided that his manner was a good deal like Leonardo's--
mysterious, and inscrutable, and fascinating. Mysterious it
certainly was; mystery was the beginning and the end of it. The
months passed by, and the miracle hung fire; our master never
produced his masterpiece. He passed hours in the galleries and
churches, posturing, musing, and gazing; he talked more than ever
about the beautiful, but he never put brush to canvas. We had all
subscribed, as it were, to the great performance; but as it never
came off people began to ask for their money again. I was one of the
last of the faithful; I carried devotion so far as to sit to him for
my head. If you could have seen the horrible creature he made of me,
you would admit that even a woman with no more vanity than will tie
her bonnet straight must have cooled off then. The man didn't know
the very alphabet of drawing! His strong point, he intimated, was
his sentiment; but is it a consolation, when one has been painted a
fright, to know it has been done with peculiar gusto? One by one, I
confess, we fell away from the faith, and Mr. Theobald didn't lift
his little finger to preserve us. At the first hint that we were
tired of waiting, and that we should like the show to begin, he was
off in a huff. 'Great work requires time, contemplation, privacy,
mystery! O ye of little faith!' We answered that we didn't insist
on a great work; that the five-act tragedy might come at his
convenience; that we merely asked for something to keep us from
yawning, some inexpensive little lever de rideau. Hereupon the poor
man took his stand as a genius misconceived and persecuted, an ame
meconnue, and washed his hands of us from that hour! No, I believe
he does me the honour to consider me the head and front of the
conspiracy formed to nip his glory in the bud--a bud that has taken
twenty years to blossom. Ask him if he knows me, and he will tell
you I am a horribly ugly old woman, who has vowed his destruction
because he won't paint her portrait as a pendant to Titian's Flora.
I fancy that since then he has had none but chance followers,
innocent strangers like yourself, who have taken him at his word.
The mountain is still in labour; I have not heard that the mouse has
been born. I pass him once in a while in the galleries, and he fixes
his great dark eyes on me with a sublimity of indifference, as if I
were a bad copy of a Sassoferrato! It is a long time ago now that I
heard that he was making studies for a Madonna who was to be a resume
of all the other Madonnas of the Italian school--like that antique
Venus who borrowed a nose from one great image and an ankle from
another. It's certainly a masterly idea. The parts may be fine, but
when I think of my unhappy portrait I tremble for the whole. He has
communicated this striking idea under the pledge of solemn secrecy to
fifty chosen spirits, to every one he has ever been able to button-
hole for five minutes. I suppose he wants to get an order for it,
and he is not to blame; for Heaven knows how he lives. I see by your
blush," my hostess frankly continued, "that you have been honoured
with his confidence. You needn't be ashamed, my dear young man; a
man of your age is none the worse for a certain generous credulity.
Only allow me to give you a word of advice: keep your credulity out
of your pockets! Don't pay for the picture till it's delivered. You
have not been treated to a peep at it, I imagine! No more have your
fifty predecessors in the faith. There are people who doubt whether
there is any picture to be seen. I fancy, myself, that if one were
to get into his studio, one would find something very like the
picture in that tale of Balzac's--a mere mass of incoherent scratches
and daubs, a jumble of dead paint!"

I listened to this pungent recital in silent wonder. It had a
painfully plausible sound, and was not inconsistent with certain shy
suspicions of my own. My hostess was not only a clever woman, but
presumably a generous one. I determined to let my judgment wait upon
events. Possibly she was right; but if she was wrong, she was
cruelly wrong! Her version of my friend's eccentricities made me
impatient to see him again and examine him in the light of public
opinion. On our next meeting I immediately asked him if he knew Mrs.
Coventry. He laid his hand on my arm and gave me a sad smile. "Has
she taxed YOUR gallantry at last?" he asked. "She's a foolish woman.
She's frivolous and heartless, and she pretends to be serious and
kind. She prattles about Giotto's second manner and Vittoria
Colonna's liaison with 'Michael'--one would think that Michael lived
across the way and was expected in to take a hand at whist--but she
knows as little about art, and about the conditions of production, as
I know about Buddhism. She profanes sacred words," he added more
vehemently, after a pause. "She cares for you only as some one to
band teacups in that horrible mendacious little parlour of hers, with
its trumpery Peruginos! If you can't dash off a new picture every
three days, and let her hand it round among her guests, she tells
them in plain English that you are an impostor!"

This attempt of mine to test Mrs. Coventry's accuracy was made in the
course of a late afternoon walk to the quiet old church of San
Miniato, on one of the hill-tops which directly overlook the city,
from whose gates you are guided to it by a stony and cypress-bordered
walk, which seems a very fitting avenue to a shrine. No spot is more
propitious to lingering repose than the broad terrace in front of the
church, where, lounging against the parapet, you may glance in slow
alternation from the black and yellow marbles of the church facade,
seamed and cracked with time and wind-sown with a tender flora of its
own, down to the full domes and slender towers of Florence and over
to the blue sweep of the wide-mouthed cup of mountains into whose
hollow the little treasure city has been dropped. I had proposed, as
a diversion from the painful memories evoked by Mrs. Coventry's name,
that Theobald should go with me the next evening to the opera, where
some rarely-played work was to be given. He declined, as I half
expected, for I observed that he regularly kept his evenings in
reserve, and never alluded to his manner of passing them. "You have
reminded me before," I said, smiling, "of that charming speech of the
Florentine painter in Alfred de Musset's 'Lorenzaccio': 'I do no
harm to anyone. I pass my days in my studio, On Sunday I go to the
Annunziata or to Santa Mario; the monks think I have a voice; they
dress me in a white gown and a red cap, and I take a share in the
choruses; sometimes I do a little solo: these are the only times I
go into public. In the evening, I visit my sweetheart; when the
night is fine, we pass it on her balcony.' I don't know whether you
have a sweetheart, or whether she has a balcony. But if you are so
happy, it's certainly better than trying to find a charm in a third-
rate prima donna."

He made no immediate response, but at last he turned to me solemnly.
"Can you look upon a beautiful woman with reverent eyes?"

"Really," I said, "I don't pretend to be sheepish, but I should be
sorry to think I was impudent." And I asked him what in the world he
meant. When at last I had assured him that I could undertake to
temper admiration with respect, he informed me, with an air of
religious mystery, that it was in his power to introduce me to the
most beautiful woman in Italy--"A beauty with a soul!"

"Upon my word," I cried, "you are extremely fortunate, and that is a
most attractive description."

"This woman's beauty," he went on, "is a lesson, a morality, a poem!
It's my daily study."

Of course, after this, I lost no time in reminding him of what,
before we parted, had taken the shape of a promise. "I feel
somehow," he had said, "as if it were a sort of violation of that
privacy in which I have always contemplated her beauty. This is
friendship, my friend. No hint of her existence has ever fallen from
my lips. But with too great a familiarity we are apt to lose a sense
of the real value of things, and you perhaps will throw some new
light upon it and offer a fresher interpretation."

We went accordingly by appointment to a certain ancient house in the
heart of Florence--the precinct of the Mercato Vecchio--and climbed a
dark, steep staircase, to the very summit of the edifice. Theobald's
beauty seemed as loftily exalted above the line of common vision as
his artistic ideal was lifted above the usual practice of men. He
passed without knocking into the dark vestibule of a small apartment,
and, flinging open an inner door, ushered me into a small saloon.
The room seemed mean and sombre, though I caught a glimpse of white
curtains swaying gently at an open window. At a table, near a lamp,
sat a woman dressed in black, working at a piece of embroidery. As
Theobald entered she looked up calmly, with a smile; but seeing me
she made a movement of surprise, and rose with a kind of stately
grace. Theobald stepped forward, took her hand and kissed it, with
an indescribable air of immemorial usage. As he bent his head she
looked at me askance, and I thought she blushed.

"Behold the Serafina!" said Theobald, frankly, waving me forward.
"This is a friend, and a lover of the arts," he added, introducing
me. I received a smile, a curtsey, and a request to be seated.

The most beautiful woman in Italy was a person of a generous Italian
type and of a great simplicity of demeanour. Seated again at her
lamp, with her embroidery, she seemed to have nothing whatever to
say. Theobald, bending towards her in a sort of Platonic ecstasy,
asked her a dozen paternally tender questions as to her health, her
state of mind, her occupations, and the progress of her embroidery,
which he examined minutely and summoned me to admire. It was some
portion of an ecclesiastical vestment--yellow satin wrought with an
elaborate design of silver and gold. She made answer in a full rich
voice, but with a brevity which I hesitated whether to attribute to
native reserve or to the profane constraint of my presence. She had
been that morning to confession; she had also been to market, and had
bought a chicken for dinner. She felt very happy; she had nothing to
complain of except that the people for whom she was making her
vestment, and who furnished her materials, should be willing to put
such rotten silver thread into the garment, as one might say, of the
Lord. From time to time, as she took her slow stitches, she raised
her eyes and covered me with a glance which seemed at first to denote
a placid curiosity, but in which, as I saw it repeated, I thought I
perceived the dim glimmer of an attempt to establish an understanding
with me at the expense of our companion. Meanwhile, as mindful as
possible of Theobald's injunction of reverence, I considered the
lady's personal claims to the fine compliment he had paid her.

That she was indeed a beautiful woman I perceived, after recovering
from the surprise of finding her without the freshness of youth. Her
beauty was of a sort which, in losing youth, loses little of its
essential charm, expressed for the most part as it was in form and
structure, and, as Theobald would have said, in "composition." She
was broad and ample, low-browed and large-eyed, dark and pale. Her
thick brown hair hung low beside her cheek and ear, and seemed to
drape her head with a covering as chaste and formal as the veil of a
nun. The poise and carriage of her head were admirably free and
noble, and they were the more effective that their freedom was at
moments discreetly corrected by a little sanctimonious droop, which
harmonised admirably with the level gaze of her dark and quiet eye.
A strong, serene, physical nature, and the placid temper which comes
of no nerves and no troubles, seemed this lady's comfortable portion.
She was dressed in plain dull black, save for a sort of dark blue
kerchief which was folded across her bosom and exposed a glimpse of
her massive throat. Over this kerchief was suspended a little silver
cross. I admired her greatly, and yet with a large reserve. A
certain mild intellectual apathy belonged properly to her type of
beauty, and had always seemed to round and enrich it; but this
bourgeoise Egeria, if I viewed her right, betrayed a rather vulgar
stagnation of mind. There might have been once a dim spiritual light
in her face; but it had long since begun to wane. And furthermore,
in plain prose, she was growing stout. My disappointment amounted
very nearly to complete disenchantment when Theobald, as if to
facilitate my covert inspection, declaring that the lamp was very
dim, and that she would ruin her eyes without more light, rose and
fetched a couple of candles from the mantelpiece, which he placed
lighted on the table. In this brighter illumination I perceived that
our hostess was decidedly an elderly woman. She was neither haggard,
nor worn, nor gray; she was simply coarse. The "soul" which Theobald
had promised seemed scarcely worth making such a point of; it was no
deeper mystery than a sort of matronly mildness of lip and brow. I
should have been ready even to declare that that sanctified bend of
the head was nothing more than the trick of a person constantly
working at embroidery. It occurred to me even that it was a trick of
a less innocent sort; for, in spite of the mellow quietude of her
wits, this stately needlewoman dropped a hint that she took the
situation rather less seriously than her friend. When he rose to
light the candles she looked across at me with a quick, intelligent
smile, and tapped her forehead with her forefinger; then, as from a
sudden feeling of compassionate loyalty to poor Theobald, I preserved
a blank face, she gave a little shrug and resumed her work.

What was the relation of this singular couple? Was he the most
ardent of friends or the most reverent of lovers? Did she regard him
as an eccentric swain, whose benevolent admiration of her beauty she
was not ill pleased to humour at this small cost of having him climb
into her little parlour and gossip of summer nights? With her decent
and sombre dress, her simple gravity, and that fine piece of priestly
needlework, she looked like some pious lay-member of a sisterhood,
living by special permission outside her convent walls. Or was she
maintained here aloft by her friend in comfortable leisure, so that
he might have before him the perfect, eternal type, uncorrupted and
untarnished by the struggle for existence? Her shapely hands, I
observed, wore very fair and white; they lacked the traces of what is
called honest toil.

"And the pictures, how do they come on?" she asked of Theobald, after
a long pause.

"Finely, finely! I have here a friend whose sympathy and
encouragement give me new faith and ardour."

Our hostess turned to me, gazed at me a moment rather inscrutably,
and then tapping her forehead with the gesture she had used a minute
before, "He has a magnificent genius!" she said, with perfect

"I am inclined to think so," I answered, with a smile.

"Eh, why do you smile?" she cried. "If you doubt it, you must see
the bambino!" And she took the lamp and conducted me to the other
side of the room, where on the wall, in a plain black frame, hung a
large drawing in red chalk. Beneath it was fastened a little howl
for holy water. The drawing represented a very young child, entirely
naked, half nestling back against his mother's gown, but with his two
little arms outstretched, as if in the act of benediction. It was
executed with singular freedom and power, and yet seemed vivid with
the sacred bloom of infancy. A sort of dimpled elegance and grace,
mingled with its boldness, recalled the touch of Correggio. "That's
what he can do!" said my hostess. "It's the blessed little boy whom
I lost. It's his very image, and the Signor Teobaldo gave it me as a
gift. He has given me many things besides!"

I looked at the picture for some time and admired it immensely.
Turning back to Theobald I assured him that if it were hung among the
drawings in the Uffizi and labelled with a glorious name it would
hold its own. My praise seemed to give him extreme pleasure; he
pressed my hands, and his eyes filled with tears. It moved him
apparently with the desire to expatiate on the history of the
drawing, for he rose and made his adieux to our companion, kissing
her band with the same mild ardour as before. It occurred to me that
the offer of a similar piece of gallantry on my own part might help
me to know what manner of woman she was. When she perceived my
intention she withdrew her hand, dropped her eyes solemnly, and made
me a severe curtsey. Theobald took my arm and led me rapidly into
the street.

"And what do you think of the divine Serafina?" he cried with

"It is certainly an excellent style of good looks!" I answered.

He eyed me an instant askance, and then seemed hurried along by the
current of remembrance. "You should have seen the mother and the
child together, seen them as I first saw them--the mother with her
head draped in a shawl, a divine trouble in her face, and the bambino
pressed to her bosom. You would have said, I think, that Raphael had
found his match in common chance. I was coming in, one summer night,
from a long walk in the country, when I met this apparition at the
city gate. The woman held out her hand. I hardly knew whether to
say, 'What do you want?' or to fall down and worship. She asked for
a little money. I saw that she was beautiful and pale; she might
have stepped out of the stable of Bethlehem! I gave her money and
helped her on her way into the town. I had guessed her story. She,
too, was a maiden mother, and she had been turned out into the world
in her shame. I felt in all my pulses that here was my subject
marvellously realised. I felt like one of the old monkish artists
who had had a vision. I rescued the poor creatures, cherished them,
watched them as I would have done some precious work of art, some
lovely fragment of fresco discovered in a mouldering cloister. In a
month--as if to deepen and sanctify the sadness and sweetness of it
all--the poor little child died. When she felt that he was going she
held him up to me for ten minutes, and I made that sketch. You saw a
feverish haste in it, I suppose; I wanted to spare the poor little
mortal the pain of his position. After that I doubly valued the
mother. She is the simplest, sweetest, most natural creature that
ever bloomed in this brave old land of Italy. She lives in the
memory of her child, in her gratitude for the scanty kindness I have
been able to show her, and in her simple religion! She is not even
conscious of her beauty; my admiration has never made her vain.
Heaven knows that I have made no secret of it. You must have
observed the singular transparency of her expression, the lovely
modesty of her glance. And was there ever such a truly virginal
brow, such a natural classic elegance in the wave of the hair and the
arch of the forehead? I have studied her; I may say I know her. I
have absorbed her little by little; my mind is stamped and imbued,
and I have determined now to clinch the impression; I shall at last
invite her to sit for me!"

"'At last--at last'?" I repeated, in much amazement. "Do you mean
that she has never done so yet?"

"I have not really had--a--a sitting," said Theobald, speaking very
slowly. "I have taken notes, you know; I have got my grand
fundamental impression. That's the great thing! But I have not
actually had her as a model, posed and draped and lighted, before my

What had become for the moment of my perception and my tact I am at a
loss to say; in their absence I was unable to repress a headlong
exclamation. I was destined to regret it. We had stopped at a
turning, beneath a lamp. "My poor friend," I exclaimed, laying my
hand on his shoulder, "you have DAWDLED! She's an old, old woman--
for a Madonna!"

It was as if I had brutally struck him; I shall never forget the
long, slow, almost ghastly look of pain, with which he answered me.

"Dawdled?--old, old?" he stammered. "Are you joking?"

"Why, my dear fellow, I suppose you don't take her for a woman of

He drew a long breath and leaned against a house, looking at me with
questioning, protesting, reproachful eyes. At last, starting
forward, and grasping my arm--"Answer me solemnly: does she seem to
you truly old? Is she wrinkled, is she faded, am I blind?"

Then at last I understood the immensity of his illusion how, one by
one, the noiseless years had ebbed away and left him brooding in
charmed inaction, for ever preparing for a work for ever deferred.
It seemed to me almost a kindness now to tell him the plain truth.
"I should be sorry to say you are blind," I answered, "but I think
you are deceived. You have lost time in effortless contemplation.
Your friend was once young and fresh and virginal; but, I protest,
that was some years ago. Still, she has de beaux restes. By all
means make her sit for you!" I broke down; his face was too horribly

He took off his hat and stood passing his handkerchief mechanically
over his forehead. "De beaux restes? I thank you for sparing me the
plain English. I must make up my Madonna out of de beaux restes!
What a masterpiece she will be! Old--old! Old--old!" he murmured.

"Never mind her age," I cried, revolted at what I had done, "never
mind my impression of her! You have your memory, your notes, your
genius. Finish your picture in a month. I pronounce it beforehand a
masterpiece, and I hereby offer you for it any sum you may choose to

He stared, but he seemed scarcely to understand me. "Old--old!" he
kept stupidly repeating. "If she is old, what am I? If her beauty
has faded, where--where is my strength? Has life been a dream? Have
I worshipped too long--have I loved too well?" The charm, in truth,
was broken. That the chord of illusion should have snapped at my
light accidental touch showed how it had been weakened by excessive
tension. The poor fellow's sense of wasted time, of vanished
opportunity, seemed to roll in upon his soul in waves of darkness.
He suddenly dropped his head and burst into tears.

I led him homeward with all possible tenderness, but I attempted
neither to check his grief, to restore his equanimity, nor to unsay
the hard truth. When we reached my hotel I tried to induce him to
come so.

"We will drink a glass of wine," I said, smiling, "to the completion
of the Madonna."

With a violent effort he held up his head, mused for a moment with a
formidably sombre frown, and then giving me his hand, "I will finish
it," he cried, "in a month! No, in a fortnight! After all, I have
it HERE!" And he tapped his forehead. "Of course she's old! She
can afford to have it said of her--a woman who has made twenty years
pass like a twelvemonth! Old--old! Why, sir, she shall be eternal!"

I wished to see him safely to his own door, but he waved me back and
walked away with an air of resolution, whistling and swinging his
cane. I waited a moment, and then followed him at a distance, and
saw him proceed to cross the Santa Trinita Bridge. When he reached
the middle he suddenly paused, as if his strength had deserted him,
and leaned upon the parapet gazing over into the river. I was
careful to keep him in sight; I confess that I passed ten very
nervous minutes. He recovered himself at last, and went his way,
slowly and with hanging head.

That I had really startled poor Theobald into a bolder use of his
long-garnered stores of knowledge and taste, into the vulgar effort
and hazard of production, seemed at first reason enough for his
continued silence and absence; but as day followed day without his
either calling or sending me a line, and without my meeting him in
his customary haunts, in the galleries, in the Chapel at San Lorenzo,
or strolling between the Arno side and the great hedge-screen of
verdure which, along the drive of the Cascine, throws the fair
occupants of barouche and phaeton into such becoming relief--as for
more than a week I got neither tidings nor sight of him, I began to
fear that I had fatally offended him, and that, instead of giving a
wholesome impetus to his talent, I had brutally paralysed it. I had
a wretched suspicion that I had made him ill. My stay at Florence
was drawing to a close, and it was important that, before resuming my
journey, I should assure myself of the truth. Theobald, to the last,
had kept his lodging a mystery, and I was altogether at a loss where
to look for him. The simplest course was to make inquiry of the
beauty of the Mercato Vecchio, and I confess that unsatisfied
curiosity as to the lady herself counselled it as well. Perhaps I
had done her injustice, and she was as immortally fresh and fair as
be conceived her. I was, at any rate, anxious to behold once more
the ripe enchantress who had made twenty years pass as a twelvemonth.
I repaired accordingly, one morning, to her abode, climbed the
interminable staircase, and reached her door. It stood ajar, and as
I hesitated whether to enter, a little serving-maid came clattering
out with an empty kettle, as if she had just performed some savoury
errand. The inner door, too, was open; so I crossed the little
vestibule and entered the room in which I had formerly been received.
It had not its evening aspect. The table, or one end of it, was
spread for a late breakfast, and before it sat a gentleman--an
individual, at least, of the male sex--doing execution upon a
beefsteak and onions, and a bottle of wine. At his elbow, in
friendly proximity, was placed the lady of the house. Her attitude,
as I entered, was not that of an enchantress. With one hand she held
in her lap a plate of smoking maccaroni; with the other she had
lifted high in air one of the pendulous filaments of this succulent
compound, and was in the act of slipping it gently down her throat.
On the uncovered end of the table, facing her companion, were ranged
half a dozen small statuettes, of some snuff- coloured substance
resembling terra-cotta. He, brandishing his knife with ardour, was
apparently descanting on their merits.

Evidently I darkened the door. My hostess dropped liner maccaroni--
into her mouth, and rose hastily with a harsh exclamation and a
flushed face. I immediately perceived that the Signora Serafina's
secret was even better worth knowing than I had supposed, and that
the way to learn it was to take it for granted. I summoned my best
Italian, I smiled and bowed and apologised for my intrusion; and in a
moment, whether or no I had dispelled the lady's irritation, I had at
least stimulated her prudence. I was welcome, she said; I must take
a seat. This was another friend of hers--also an artist, she
declared with a smile which was almost amiable. Her companion wiped
his moustache and bowed with great civility. I saw at a glance that
he was equal to the situation. He was presumably the author of the
statuettes on the table, and he knew a money-spending forestiere when
he saw one. He was a small wiry man, with a clever, impudent,
tossed-up nose, a sharp little black eye, and waxed ends to his
moustache. On the side of his head he wore jauntily a little crimson
velvet smoking-cap, and I observed that his feet were encased in
brilliant slippers. On Serafina's remarking with dignity that I was
the friend of Mr. Theobald, he broke out into that fantastic French
of which certain Italians are so insistently lavish, and declared
with fervour that Mr. Theobald was a magnificent genius.

"I am sure I don't know," I answered with a shrug. "If you are in a
position to affirm it, you have the advantage of me. I have seen
nothing from his hand but the bambino yonder, which certainly is

He declared that the bambino was a masterpiece, a pure Corregio. It
was only a pity, he added with a knowing laugh, that the sketch had
not been made on some good bit of honeycombed old panel. The stately
Serafina hereupon protested that Mr. Theobald was the soul of honour,
and that he would never lend himself to a deceit. "I am not a judge
of genius," she said, "and I know nothing of pictures. I am but a
poor simple widow; but I know that the Signor Teobaldo has the heart
of an angel and the virtue of a saint. He is my benefactor," she
added sententiously. The after-glow of the somewhat sinister flush
with which she had greeted me still lingered in her cheek, and
perhaps did not favour her beauty; I could not but fancy it a wise
custom of Theobald's to visit her only by candle-light. She was
coarse, and her pour adorer was a poet.

"I have the greatest esteem for him," I said; "it is for this reason
that I have been uneasy at not seeing him for ten days. Have you
seen him? Is he perhaps ill?"

"Ill! Heaven forbid!" cried Serafina, with genuine vehemence.

Her companion uttered a rapid expletive, and reproached her with not
having been to see him. She hesitated a moment; then she simpered
the least bit and bridled. "He comes to see me--without reproach!
But it would not be the same for me to go to him, though, indeed, you
may almost call him a man of holy life."

"He has the greatest admiration for you," I said. "He would have
been honoured by your visit."

She looked at me a moment sharply. "More admiration than you. Admit
that!" Of course I protested with all the eloquence at my command,
and my mysterious hostess then confessed that she had taken no fancy
to me on my former visit, and that, Theobald not having returned, she
believed I had poisoned his mind against her. "It would be no
kindness to the poor gentleman, I can tell you that," she said. "He
has come to see me every evening for years. It's a long friendship!
No one knows him as well as I."

"I don't pretend to know him or to understand him," I said. "He's a
mystery! Nevertheless, he seems to me a little--" And I touched my
forehead and waved my hand in the air.

Serafina glanced at her companion a moment, as if for inspiration.
He contented himself with shrugging his shoulders as he filled his
glass again. The padrona hereupon gave me a more softly insinuating
smile than would have seemed likely to bloom on so candid a brow.
"It's for that that I love him!" she said. "The world has so little
kindness for such persons. It laughs at them, and despises them, and
cheats them. He is too good for this wicked life! It's his fancy
that he finds a little Paradise up here in my poor apartment. If he
thinks so, how can I help it? He has a strange belief--really, I
ought to he ashamed to tell you--that I resemble the Blessed Virgin:
Heaven forgive me! I let him think what he pleases, so long as it
makes him happy. He was very kind to me once, and I am not one that
forgets a favour. So I receive him every evening civilly, and ask
after his health, and let him look at me on this side and that! For
that matter, I may say it without vanity, I was worth looking at
once! And he's not always amusing, poor man! He sits sometimes for
an hour without speaking a word, or else he talks away, without
stopping, on art and nature, and beauty and duty, and fifty fine
things that are all so much Latin to me. I beg you to understand
that he has never said a word to me that I mightn't decently listen
to. He may be a little cracked, but he's one of the blessed saints."

"Eh!" cried the man, "the blessed saints were all a little cracked!"

Serafina, I fancied, left part of her story untold; but she told
enough of it to make poor Theobald's own statement seem intensely
pathetic in its exalted simplicity. "It's a strange fortune,
certainly," she went on, "to have such a friend as this dear man--a
friend who is less than a lover and more than a friend." I glanced
at her companion, who preserved an impenetrable smile, twisted the
end of his moustache, and disposed of a copious mouthful. Was HE
less than a lover? "But what will you have?" Serafina pursued. "In
this hard world one must not ask too many questions; one must take
what comes and keep what one gets. I have kept my good friend for
twenty years, and I do hope that, at this time of day, signore, you
have not come to turn him against me!"

I assured her that I had no such design, and that I should vastly
regret disturbing Mr. Theobald's habits or convictions. On the
contrary, I was alarmed about him, and I should immediately go in
search of him. She gave me his address, and a florid account of her
sufferings at his non-appearance. She had not been to him for
various reasons; chiefly because she was afraid of displeasing him,
as he had always made such a mystery of his home. "You might have
sent this gentleman!" I ventured to suggest.

"Ah," cried the gentleman, "he admires the Signora Serafina, but he
wouldn't admire me." And then, confidentially, with his finger on
his nose, "He's a purist!"

I was about to withdraw, after having promised that I would inform
the Signora Serafina of my friend's condition, when her companion,
who had risen from table and girded his loins apparently for the
onset, grasped me gently by the arm, and led me before the row of
statuettes. "I perceive by your conversation, signore, that you are
a patron of the arts. Allow me to request your honourable attention
for these modest products of my own ingenuity. They are brand-new,
fresh from my atelier, and have never been exhibited in public. I
have brought them here to receive the verdict of this dear lady, who
is a good critic, for all she may pretend to the contrary. I am the
inventor of this peculiar style of statuette--of subject, manner,
material, everything. Touch them, I pray you; handle them freely--
you needn't fear. Delicate as they look, it is impossible they
should break! My various creations have met with great success.
They are especially admired by Americans. I have sent them all over
Europe--to London, Paris, Vienna! You may have observed some little
specimens in Paris, on the Boulevard, in a shop of which they
constitute the specialty. There is always a crowd about the window.
They form a very pleasing ornament for the mantel-shelf of a gay
young bachelor, for the boudoir of a pretty woman. You couldn't make
a prettier present to a person with whom you wished to exchange a
harmless joke. It is not classic art, signore, of course; but,
between ourselves, isn't classic art sometimes rather a bore?
Caricature, burlesque, la charge, as the French say, has hitherto
been confined to paper, to the pen and pencil. Now, it has been my
inspiration to introduce it into statuary. For this purpose I have
invented a peculiar plastic compound which you will permit me not to
divulge. That's my secret, signore! It's as light, you perceive, as
cork, and yet as firm as alabaster! I frankly confess that I really
pride myself as much on this little stroke of chemical ingenuity as
upon the other element of novelty in my creations--my types. What do
you say to my types, signore? The idea is bold; does it strike you
as happy? Cats and monkeys--monkeys and cats--all human life is
there! Human life, of course, I mean, viewed with the eye of the
satirist! To combine sculpture and satire, signore, has been my
unprecedented ambition. I flatter myself that I have not egregiously

As this jaunty Juvenal of the chimney-piece delivered himself of his
persuasive allocution, he took up his little groups successively from
the table, held them aloft, turned them about, rapped them with his
knuckles, and gazed at them lovingly, with his head on one side.
They consisted each of a cat and a monkey, fantastically draped, in
some preposterously sentimental conjunction. They exhibited a
certain sameness of motive, and illustrated chiefly the different
phases of what, in delicate terms, may be called gallantry and
coquetry; but they were strikingly clever and expressive, and were at
once very perfect cats and monkeys and very natural men and women. I
confess, however, that they failed to amuse me. I was doubtless not
in a mood to enjoy them, for they seemed to me peculiarly cynical and
vulgar. Their imitative felicity was revolting. As I looked askance
at the complacent little artist, brandishing them between finger and
thumb and caressing them with an amorous eye, he seemed to me himself
little more than an exceptionally intelligent ape. I mustered an
admiring grin, however, and he blew another blast. "My figures are
studied from life! I have a little menagerie of monkeys whose
frolics I contemplate by the hour. As for the cats, one has only to
look out of one's back window! Since I have begun to examine these
expressive little brutes, I have made many profound observations.
Speaking, signore, to a man of imagination, I may say that my little
designs are not without a philosophy of their own. Truly, I don't
know whether the cats and monkeys imitate us, or whether it's we who
imitate them." I congratulated him on his philosophy, and he
resumed: "You will do use the honour to admit that I have handled my
subjects with delicacy. Eh, it was needed, signore! I have been
free, but not too free--eh? Just a hint, you know! You may see as
much or as little as you please. These little groups, however, are
no measure of my invention. If you will favour me with a call at my
studio, I think that you will admit that my combinations are really
infinite. I likewise execute figures to command. You have perhaps
some little motive--the fruit of your philosophy of life, signore--
which you would like to have interpreted. I can promise to work it
up to your satisfaction; it shall be as malicious as you please!
Allow me to present you with my card, and to remind you that my
prices are moderate. Only sixty francs for a little group like that.
My statuettes are as durable as bronze--aere perennius, signore--and,
between ourselves, I think they are more amusing!"

As I pocketed his card I glanced at Madonna Serafina, wondering
whether she had an eye for contrasts. She had picked up one of the
little couples and was tenderly dusting it with a feather broom.

What I had just seen and heard had so deepened my compassionate
interest in my deluded friend that I took a summary leave, making my
way directly to the house designated by this remarkable woman. It
was in an obscure corner of the opposite side of the town, and
presented a sombre and squalid appearance. An old woman in the
doorway, on my inquiring for Theobald, ushered me in with a mumbled
blessing and an expression of relief at the poor gentleman having a
friend. His lodging seemed to consist of a single room at the top of
the house. On getting no answer to my knock, I opened the door,
supposing that he was absent, so that it gave me a certain shock to
find him sitting there helpless and dumb. He was seated near the
single window, facing an easel which supported a large canvas. On my
entering he looked up at me blankly, without changing his position,
which was that of absolute lassitude and dejection, his arms loosely
folded, his legs stretched before him, his head hanging on his
breast. Advancing into the room I perceived that his face vividly
corresponded with his attitude. He was pale, haggard, and unshaven,
and his dull and sunken eye gazed at me without a spark of
recognition. I had been afraid that he would greet me with fierce
reproaches, as the cruelly officious patron who had turned his
contentment to bitterness, and I was relieved to find that my
appearance awakened no visible resentment. "Don't you know me?" I
asked, as I put out my hand. "Have you already forgotten me?"

He made no response, kept his position stupidly, and left me staring
about the room. It spoke most plaintively for itself. Shabby,
sordid, naked, it contained, beyond the wretched bed, but the
scantiest provision for personal comfort. It was bedroom at once and
studio--a grim ghost of a studio. A few dusty casts and prints on
the walls, three or four old canvases turned face inward, and a
rusty-looking colour-box, formed, with the easel at the window, the
sum of its appurtenances. The place savoured horribly of poverty.
Its only wealth was the picture on the easel, presumably the famous
Madonna. Averted as this was from the door, I was unable to see its
face; but at last, sickened by the vacant misery of the spot, I
passed behind Theobald, eagerly and tenderly. I can hardly say that
I was surprised at what I found--a canvas that was a mere dead blank,
cracked and discoloured by time. This was his immortal work! Though
not surprised, I confess I was powerfully moved, and I think that for
five minutes I could not have trusted myself to speak. At last my
silent nearness affected him; he stirred and turned, and then rose
and looked at me with a slowly kindling eye. I murmured some kind
ineffective nothings about his being ill and needing advice and care,
but he seemed absorbed in the effort to recall distinctly what had
last passed between us. "You were right," he said, with a pitiful
smile, "I am a dawdler! I am a failure! I shall do nothing more in
this world. You opened my eyes; and, though the truth is bitter, I
bear you no grudge. Amen! I have been sitting here for a week, face
to face with the truth, with the past, with my weakness and poverty
and nullity. I shall never touch a brush! I believe I have neither
eaten nor slept. Look at that canvas!" he went on, as I relieved my
emotion in an urgent request that he would come home with me and
dine. "That was to have contained my masterpiece! Isn't it a
promising foundation? The elements of it are all HERE. And he
tapped his forehead with that mystic confidence which had marked the
gesture before. "If I could only transpose them into some brain that
has the hand, the will! Since I have been sitting here taking stock
of my intellects, I have come to believe that I have the material for
a hundred masterpieces. But my hand is paralysed now, and they will
never be painted. I never began! I waited and waited to be worthier
to begin, and wasted my life in preparation. While I fancied my
creation was growing it was dying. I have taken it all too hard!
Michael Angelo didn't, when he went at the Lorenzo! He did his best
at a venture, and his venture is immortal. THAT'S mine!" And he
pointed with a gesture I shall never forget at the empty canvas. "I
suppose we are a genus by ourselves in the providential scheme--we
talents that can't act, that can't do nor dare! We take it out in
talk, in plans and promises, in study, in visions! But our visions,
let me tell you," he cried, with a toss of his head, "have a way of
being brilliant, and a man has not lived in vain who has seen the
things I have seen! Of course you will not believe in them when that
bit of worm-eaten cloth is all I have to show for them; but to
convince you, to enchant and astound the world, I need only the hand
of Raphael. His brain I already have. A pity, you will say, that I
haven't his modesty! Ah, let me boast and babble now; it's all I
have left! I am the half of a genius! Where in the wide world is my
other half? Lodged perhaps in the vulgar soul, the cunning, ready
fingers of some dull copyist or some trivial artisan, who turns out
by the dozen his easy prodigies of touch! But it's not for me to
sneer at him; he at least does something. He's not a dawdler! Well
for me if I had been vulgar and clever and reckless, if I could have
shut my eyes and taken my leap."

What to say to the poor fellow, what to do for him, seemed hard to
determine; I chiefly felt that I must break the spell of his present
inaction, and remove him from the haunted atmosphere of the little
room it was such a cruel irony to call a studio. I cannot say I
persuaded him to come out with me; he simply suffered himself to be
led, and when we began to walk in the open air I was able to
appreciate his pitifully weakened condition. Nevertheless, he seemed
in a certain way to revive, and murmured at last that he should like
to go to the Pitti Gallery. I shall never forget our melancholy
stroll through those gorgeous halls, every picture on whose walls
seemed, even to my own sympathetic vision, to glow with a sort of
insolent renewal of strength and lustre. The eyes and lips of the
great portraits appeared to smile in ineffable scorn of the dejected
pretender who had dreamed of competing with their triumphant authors;
the celestial candour, even, of the Madonna of the Chair, as we
paused in perfect silence before her, was tinged with the sinister
irony of the women of Leonardo. Perfect silence, indeed, marked our
whole progress--the silence of a deep farewell; for I felt in all my
pulses, as Theobald, leaning on my arm, dragged one heavy foot after
the other, that he was looking his last. When we came out he was so
exhausted that instead of taking him to my hotel to dine, I called a
carriage and drove him straight to his own poor lodging. He had sunk
into an extraordinary lethargy; he lay back in the carriage, with his
eyes closed, as pale as death, his faint breathing interrupted at
intervals by a sudden gasp, like a smothered sob or a vain attempt to
speak. With the help of the old woman who had admitted me before,
and who emerged from a dark back court, I contrived to lead him up
the long steep staircase and lay him on his wretched bed. To her I
gave him in charge, while I prepared in all haste to seek a
physician. But she followed me out of the room with a pitiful
clasping of her hands.

"Poor, dear, blessed gentleman," she murmured; "is he dying?"

"Possibly. How long has he been thus?"

"Since a certain night he passed ten days ago. I came up in the
morning to make his poor bed, and found him sitting up in his clothes
before that great canvas he keeps there. Poor, dear, strange man, he
says his prayers to it! He had not been to bed, nor since then,
properly! What has happened to him? Has he found out about the
Serafina?" she whispered, with a glittering eye and a toothless grin.

"Prove at least that one old woman can be faithful," I said, "and
watch him well till I come back." My return was delayed, through the
absence of the English physician, who was away on a round of visits,
and whom I vainly pursued from house to house before I overtook him.
I brought him to Theobald's bedside none too soon. A violent fever
had seized our patient, and the case was evidently grave. A couple
of hours later I knew that he had brain fever. From this moment I
was with him constantly; but I am far from wishing to describe his
illness. Excessively painful to witness, it was happily brief. Life
burned out in delirium. One night in particular that I passed at his
pillow, listening to his wild snatches of regret, of aspiration, of
rapture and awe at the phantasmal pictures with which his brain
seemed to swarm, comes back to my memory now like some stray page
from a lost masterpiece of tragedy. Before a week was over we had
buried him in the little Protestant cemetery on the way to Fiesole.
The Signora Serafina, whom I had caused to be informed of his
illness, had come in person, I was told, to inquire about its
progress; but she was absent from his funeral, which was attended by
but a scanty concourse of mourners. Half a dozen old Florentine
sojourners, in spite of the prolonged estrangement which had preceded
his death, had felt the kindly impulse to honour his grave. Among
them was my friend Mrs. Coventry, whom I found, on my departure,
waiting in her carriage at the gate of the cemetery.

"Well," she said, relieving at last with a significant smile the
solemnity of our immediate greeting, "and the great Madonna? Have
you seen her, after all?"

"I have seen her," I said; "she is mine--by bequest. But I shall
never show her to you."

"And why not, pray?"

"My dear Mrs. Coventry, you would not understand her!"

"Upon my word, you are polite."

"Excuse me; I am sad and vexed and bitter." And with reprehensible
rudeness I marched away. I was excessively impatient to leave
Florence; my friend's dark spirit seemed diffused through all things.
I had packed my trunk to start for Rome that night, and meanwhile, to
beguile my unrest, I aimlessly paced the streets. Chance led me at
last to the church of San Lorenzo. Remembering poor Theobald's
phrase about Michael Angelo--"He did his best at a venture"--I went
in and turned my steps to the chapel of the tombs. Viewing in
sadness the sadness of its immortal treasures, I fancied, while I
stood there, that they needed no ampler commentary than these simple
words. As I passed through the church again to leave it, a woman,
turning away from one of the side altars, met me face to face. The
black shawl depending from her head draped picturesquely the handsome
visage of Madonna Serafina. She stopped as she recognised me, and I
saw that she wished to speak. Her eye was bright, and her ample
bosom heaved in a way that seemed to portend a certain sharpness of
reproach. But the expression of my own face, apparently, drew the
sting from her resentment, and she addressed me in a tone in which
bitterness was tempered by a sort of dogged resignation. "I know it
was you, now, that separated us," she said. "It was a pity he ever
brought you to see me! Of course, you couldn't think of me as he
did. Well, the Lord gave him, the Lord has taken him. I have just
paid for a nine days' mass for his soul. And I can tell you this,
signore--I never deceived him. Who put it into his head that I was
made to live on holy thoughts and fine phrases? It was his own
fancy, and it pleased him to think so.--Did he suffer much?" she
added more softly, after a pause.

"His sufferings were great, but they were short."

"And did he speak of me?" She had hesitated and dropped her eyes;
she raised them with her question, and revealed in their sombre
stillness a gleam of feminine confidence which, for the moment,
revived and illumined her beauty. Poor Theobald! Whatever name he
had given his passion, it was still her fine eyes that had charmed

"Be contented, madam," I answered, gravely.

She dropped her eyes again and was silent. Then exhaling a full rich
sigh, as she gathered her shawl together--"He was a magnificent

I bowed, and we separated.

Passing through a narrow side street on my way back to my hotel, I
perceived above a doorway a sign which it seemed to me I had read
before. I suddenly remembered that it was identical with the
superscription of a card that I had carried for an hour in my
waistcoat pocket. On the threshold stood the ingenious artist whose
claims to public favour were thus distinctly signalised, smoking a
pipe in the evening air, and giving the finishing polish with a bit
of rag to one of his inimitable "combinations." I caught the
expressive curl of a couple of tails. He recognised me, removed his
little red cap with a most obsequious bow, and motioned me to enter
his studio. I returned his salute and passed on, vexed with the
apparition. For a week afterwards, whenever I was seized among the
ruins of triumphant Rome with some peculiarly poignant memory of
Theobald's transcendent illusions and deplorable failure, I seemed to
hear a fantastic, impertinent murmur, "Cats and monkeys, monkeys and
cats; all human life there!"

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