CHAPTER XIV

Aventures in St John's Wood — A pleasant meeting at Marlboro' Road Station — My welcome visitor — Curious incident — A charming friendship — The end of the romance — An unexpected call — Painters idealizing their models — "Love's Golden Dream" — My search for an ideal — The stage door of Her Majesty's Theatre — The understudy — I paint the picture — Strange finale — I am introduced to my ideal — The "material" as against the "ideal" — The nun at the fancy dress ball — She comes to the studio — The story of the confessional

THERE was a good deal of fun to be had in St John's Wood in those days, if you kept your eyes open, but the aventures were usually somewhat tame when compared with what one had in Paris, as I have already pointed out. Still, they were often the more delightful because of this, and there was frequently a touch of mystery and romance which gave them additional charm. I don't suppose I was more fortunate than other young men, or that my particular experiences in this respect present any distinct novelty; but at any rate there were a few exceptional incidents that somehow I have always remembered. One in particular, which I will relate, started in as singular a manner as it eventually ended.

I was standing one afternoon outside Marlboro' Road Station talking to a friend, when an exceptionally pretty and smart girl passed us and went into the booking office. As she did so I caught her eye, and she gave me, as I thought, a glance which sent my impressionable heart into my mouth. My friend noticed it, and remarked jocularly what a lucky fellow I was.

It did not take me an instant to make up my mind. "It's some one I know," I remarked nonchalantly, without heeding his chaff." I must have a chat with her." Hurrying into the station I joined her as she was taking her ticket. Raising my hat, I held out my hand as though I knew her — she gave a quick look at me, then said, "I am so sorry but I have taken you for some one else. I thought I knew you." "I feel flattered at the mistake," I replied banteringly, "for I feel sure he must be very nice, but it is easily rectified. Every friendship must have a commencement; this is where we start."

She gave a little laugh and said, "Well, I must hurry off, for I have a train to catch at Paddington, and shall miss it if I stop now. Please let me go." "But I must see you again," I replied desperately, for she was ever so much prettier than I had at first thought, and one didn't meet anything like that as a rule by accident. An idea occurred to me. "You have just got the face I want for a picture I'm painting," I said; "do please make an appointment, and let me know where I can write you." I could see she was really on tenterhooks to get away. "No, I can't do that. I live with my people, and they are very strict. We are sure to meet again some day, so good-bye now, I really must go." But I was not to be put off so easily. She was handing her ticket to be clipped, and just about to pass through the barrier; another instant she would have gone. "If I give you my address," I said, "will you come and see me one day? Do, please." My persistence seemed to amuse and interest her. "Well, give me the address of your studio quickly, and I will think it over," she replied. There was no time to lose. I felt in my pocket for an envelope, but I hadn't got one; luckily I had a pencil handy, an unusual thing for an artist, but not a piece of paper to write on. She had a book covered with brown paper under her arm. To seize it and to scrawl my name and address on it was the work of an instant. A hurried good-bye and she had disappeared.

"You don't lose much time, old man," said my friend, as I rejoined him. He had evidently realized that this was the first occasion on which I had met the lady, and was perhaps a bit annoyed he had let me have it all my own way.

For the next few days her face haunted me; I could not get it out of my mind, and the recollection of our hasty chat. What a delightful girl she was, and what a bit of luck it would be if I ever saw her again, and we should become great friends! I had not the slightest clue as to her name or even where she lived. How stupid of me it was not to have a notebook handy, then I could have got her name and an address to write to. I determined never to go out again without one in my pocket.

In the meantime, for several days I wandered round Marlboro' Road Station of an afternoon, about the time that I had met her, on the off-chance of seeing her again, but to no purpose. One can't bring about accidental meetings. Weeks passed, and time with its usual callousness had gradually obliterated her image, and, as may be imagined, other things gradually occupied my attention, till at last, I must confess, I completely forgot the episode.

One afternoon about tea-time I was alone in the studio when there came a welcome ring at the bell. On opening the door I found that my visitor was a very pretty and smartly-dressed girl. I didn't know her, but her face seemed somewhat familiar to me. A model, I thought. "Is Mr. Price in?" she asked. "Yes, he is," I said, without hesitation. "Please walk up into the studio." When we were there I turned round and said, "I am Mr. Price. What can I do for you?"

She stared at me for an instant with a perplexed expression on her face, and asked me in a surprised and aggrieved tone, "Don't you remember me?" I looked at her hard, but was quite at a loss to remember where I had seen her before. "Please forgive me," I replied, "if I appear rude, but I've a memory like a sieve, and it is continually playing me these silly tricks. I shall forget my own name some day! Please tell me where we have met before." "Only fancy your forgetting me, when you said you wanted me to sit for you!" she said, in a surprised tone.

I stood looking at her feeling very uncomfortable, and trying to wake up my memory, but in vain. Although I seemed to know her, I had not the faintest recollection who she was. Then she opened the purse she was carrying and produced a small piece of brown paper, and handed it to me, saying with a laugh, "Perhaps that will remind you." I looked at it, and, to my surprise, I saw written on it my name and address in my own handwriting. Then, with a flash, it all came back to me. This was the girl I had met at Marlboro' Road Station, and been so smitten with a couple of months before, and the piece of paper was from the cover of the book she was carrying that afternoon when I met her. I don't think I have ever felt so lacking in inventive faculty as I did just at the moment; then a happy thought to treat it as a joke came to my rescue, and I burst out laughing at my failure to find a plausible excuse for my lapse of memory. To my relief she entered into the spirit of it, and I was forgiven, so we had tea together with not a ring of the bell to disturb us, and she told me all about herself, and why she had not come to see me before.

She lived at home not very far from London, but too far to get up to town as often as she would like. It was not always easy for her to find an excuse to get away, as her father was an invalid, and she had to look after him; but she had a school friend who lived near Avenue Road, and she came to see her occasionally, so if I really wanted to paint her she would be able to manage to see me now and then. She knew it was very wrong to come to my studio alone, but she was very dull at home, and she loved anything in the way of an adventure; that was why she had kept my address, as she had never been to a studio before. So she prattled on in an ingenuous style, which was as delightful as it was fascinating, and I felt it was indeed a bit of luck my having been in and alone when she came.

She Looked
              Very Beautiful... 
 

The time slipped away on wings, as it always does when one is young or old. We seemed to have had such a lot to talk about that it had passed unnoticed, so when she suddenly discovered how late it was, I felt as though she had only been with me a few minutes instead of nearly three hours. She had to hurry away, and I went with her to the station, and this time when we parted it was arranged that she should come and see me again during the week, when I could commence the picture.

One of the most charming little friendships I ever made started thus in this unconventional manner, and lasted quite a long time. Though we could only see each other occasionally, I really believe there was as much depth in it as if we had been able to be continually together. Such an aventure in Paris would have ended in a liaison, with all its sordid worries and quarrels, but here in England it was quite different.

I painted her in quite a large picture — a romantic subject as was only befitting under the circumstances, an officer bringing home his invalid young wife from India. She looked very beautiful lying back in a deck chair with her fair hair against the pillows.

The particular charm of it all was, I remember, the interest she took in the picture from the very start, and it was due to this that the picture turned out a success, for it was eventually published and became a well-known print at the time.

There is, unfortunately, an ending to all happy times, and sooner or later my rhapsody had to finish — that I realized. My only hope was that it was not to be for a long while, but I could hardly expect to monopolize so sweet and pretty a girl for ever; there must be some sort of dénouement. She was aware that I was a confirmed bachelor, for I had felt bound to hint as much at the commencement of our friendship.

The picture finished, there was hardly an excuse for so many visits to the studio, and I could not fail to notice that they were falling off, so at last I made some remark to her about her getting tired of her artist pal. She said that I knew very well that that was not the case, but the truth was her people had been getting suspicious of her object in coming so often to town, and she found it was more and more difficult to find excuses to get away. Then there was an awkward pause. I felt something unlooked for was coming. "Why don't you come down to my home and let me introduce you to father?" she said almost abruptly, as though a sudden thought had struck her.

I was naturally taken back by the proposition, though I guessed immediately what was in her mind. Taking her by the hand I told her as gently as possible that it was better not for both of us, and she understood. The rest of the afternoon was somewhat quiet, as may be imagined. We had tea in the studio as usual, but we both of us felt constrained, and when we parted at the station, I had an intuition that this was the end, and so it turned out ! She had made an appointment to come and spend a day with me shortly afterwards, but at the last moment I received a wire — "Sorry, can't get away — will write soon."

I had had the feeling that she would not come, and it was almost word for word what I had expected. I felt a sensation of tightness in my throat as I read it, for we had indeed spent some lovely times together, and I felt I should not easily find another pal like her. I recollect that almost instinctively I turned the easel on which was the picture I painted from her to the wall. The eyes seemed to open and look at me reproachfully!

I heard no more from her until a month or so later, when I received a letter in the familiar writing. My heart leaped into my mouth, for somehow I was delighted to get it. I had been longing that she would write, but its contents gave me a bit of a shock. "I have some big news to tell you," she wrote, "I am engaged to be married. He is much older than I, and I am not sure whether I am in love with him, but my people think it is a very good match for me, so I suppose I shall get used to him in time and settle down to humdrum married life," and she concluded by wishing me all good luck.

There was a touch of sadness pervading it that made me feel a pang of regret.

I sat for some time with the letter in my hand, the events of the last six months racing through my mind, from the day of our first meeting till now, and I could not help thinking how differently it had ended to what it would have been in Paris, and had she been a French girl. It was indeed better as it had turned out, though it had been a bit of a wrench breaking it all off.

Some weeks after I received a little box with a piece of wedding cake and a small envelope with a card in it, printed in silver, to tell me of the wedding.

About six months afterwards, I was working by myself in the studio after lunch, when there was a ring at the bell, and to my intense astonishment she was at the door. I was so taken aback that I hardly knew what to say. When I recovered my self-possession, I could only ejaculate, "Fancy seeing you again!" "I thought I would take you by surprise," she replied gaily, "and I am so glad to have caught you in. Aren't you pleased to see me?" "Of course I am," I answered, although I felt I was a bit abrupt. Somehow she seemed so different. She was still as pretty as ever, but she was not the same fascinating girl who had sat for me.

I could never have believed that a few months of married life could have altered any one so much! There was a false, light-hearted manner about her, which was not in the least like her old self.

"Are you alone, and may I come in?" she continued. "Yes, certainly," I said, immediately, though I must confess her visit gave me no pleasure. The recollection of a certain extremely unpleasant experience with a married woman, which I have already narrated, flashed through my mind.

"Nothing much changed in the dear old place," she exclaimed, as she dropped into a chair and looked round. "I am so glad to be back in it again and see you. My husband has gone away for a few days, so I have come to spend a nice long afternoon and evening with you, and I'll make tea for you in the studio just as I used to, and then we can have a nice little dinner somewhere, and you can put me in the train and send me home again."

I had, by this time, recovered my self-possession, which for a moment had deserted me. "Sorry, Maisie, but it can't be done." "Can't be done!" she exclaimed, "why not, Jules? Are you so hard up and can't afford it?" "No, not exactly," I replied. "Oh, I see," she said," the program's all right, but it happens you have already arranged it with some one else — some other woman?" I said nothing.

There was a painful little droop at the corner of her pretty mouth, then she added reproachfully, "O Jules, how could you? Well, I suppose it was too much to expect you to remain faithful to me all your life, and after I got married." I noticed a tear tremble in her eye, then roll down her cheek.

There was a tense pause, then as with a sudden resolve, she got up from her chair, and, holding out her hand, she said very softly, "Good-bye, Jules," and went down the stairs and out, whilst I stood there, I recollect, not knowing what I ought to do under the circumstances. After she was gone, on turning it over in my mind, I came to the conclusion it was all for the best.

One hears a lot about artists idealizing their models, and there is undoubtedly a good deal of truth in it, for the charm of the successful picture lies, not so much in a close adherence to nature, as in the individualization the painter puts into his work. It is this that constitutes the difference between a life-like portrait and a good picture; in the picture it is the individuality of the painter, in the portrait that of the sitter.

I can recollect how this idea was first impressed on me. When I was studying in Paris, I had occasion one day to visit the studio of my master Gérôme, and I found him at work from a model posing in front of him. I was immediately struck with the subtle difference there was between the painting and the original. That he could have made an exact likeness was obvious, but then it would have been merely a portrait, whereas what he had produced was an idealized painting of his model, which evidently embodied his conception of what he wanted.

The well-known axiom that you cannot make bricks without straw, almost applies to painting from the life. One cannot eliminate the model, but the difficulty most artists have to contend with lies in finding one that approaches nearest to the realization of their ideal.

I had a very curious experience which illustrates this during my life at St John's Wood. I had an idea for a picture which was suggested by a song that was very popular at the time, "Love's Golden Dream," but in order to paint it, I had to find just the type of face I had in my mind, as otherwise it would have been very commonplace.

For many weeks I was trying to find my "ideal," but in vain, and I had almost given up the idea of ever coming across it, when one night I was at Her Majesty's Theatre, where a pantomime was being played, when there suddenly appeared on the stage the very embodiment of my "ideal" for the picture.

She was one of the most lovely women I had ever seen. She was young, and had the most wonderful wavy fair hair imaginable. I could not take my eyes off her, and as soon as the piece was over I tried all I could to find some one who could give me an introduction, but in those days I had no acquaintances connected with theater-land, so it was a very difficult matter, and I soon realized that I should have to take my chance of getting to know her with a formal presentation. I had serious thoughts of sending her a letter, but I felt, young and unknown artist as I then was, it was better not, so decided not to risk it until I had exhausted all other means of getting to know her.

From that moment I haunted the stage-door at night after the piece was over, in the hope that she might perchance come out alone one day, and give me the chance of speaking to her. On several occasions I caught a glimpse of her, but she was always accompanied, and I could not even manage to catch her eye. Little did she realize how ardent an admirer was lurking in the crowd round the stage-door.

At last, on one occasion, I saw her coming out alone. I pushed forward with the senseless idea that I might be able to get close enough to be able to tell her how anxious I was to paint her, but she was not alone for more than a moment, and I saw her drive off in a dainty coupé with some favored admirer. I stood watching the carriage disappear and turned round to make my way home, when I knocked up against a girl who had just left the doorway. I was going to apologize, when, on looking at her, my heart leaped into my mouth, for
she was the very replica of my "ideal."

I uttered such an involuntary exclamation of amazement that she gave me. quite a startled look, and our eyes met. That look was in itself sufficient introduction, so I raised my hat and apologized for speaking to her, then straight away told her what had caused me to express such audible surprise. She listened with amused interest to what I told her, then to my astonishment she informed me she was the "understudy" of the lady in question, and laughingly asked me if she wouldn't do as well as her for the picture.

Nothing could have been more fortunate. I was indeed in luck's way, so I jumped at her suggestion, and she said that if I would give her my address she would come and see me the next day; then I could decide if she were sufficiently like my ideal for the wonderful picture I had in my mind. She lived in the opposite direction to me. She was, so she informed me, only quite a simple girl, without extravagant notions, so she went home by 'bus.

The next day, true to her promise, she turned up at the studio, and in the bright light of day she looked even prettier than I had thought her the previous evening.

It is a severe test of beauty to place it facing a big skylight, and a girl has to be very young and have a splendid complexion to stand it successfully.

I remember her laughingly waiting the result of my critical scrutiny. "Will I do?" she asked with mock seriousness, and I told her that if she would sit for the picture, I felt sure I should make a success of it. Well, she consented, and put her heart and soul into it.

I never had a better or more patient model, and if the picture had not turned out trumps it was through no fault of hers. But curiously enough the whole time I was painting her, though she was just the type I had been looking for, I still had in my mind the image of the other girl whose understudy she was, and strange as it may appear, actually painted the other girl's face from the girl who was sitting for me. This sounds somewhat Irish, but I hope I make myself understood, for this is essential, as will be seen by the curious denouement of the incident.

All went without a hitch. The picture was bought by a West-End picture dealer, who had it reproduced in facsimile, and it eventually was to be seen in most of the print-sellers' windows.

Now comes the curious finale. Some months later I was at a public dance — I forget where now — and was standing by the door with a journalist friend watching the people come in, when my friend remarked, "What a lovely woman!" and, suddenly, who should enter with all the stately grace of a queen of beauty, but my "ideal" for the picture ! I turned to my companion and somewhat excitedly asked whether he knew who she was. "Are you already smitten?" he asked with a laugh. "No, not exactly," I answered, "but curious to relate I painted one of my most successful pictures from her, and she doesn't know it." "Doesn't know it!" he ejaculated, and then I told him all about the incident.

It tickled his journalistic fancy immensely, and he said it was the strangest thing he had heard for a long time, and as a proof of this the following week, to my amusement, he related the whole story in a paper he was connected with.

Two days later I received a letter from some one who was unknown to me, written from a very smart address. In it the writer informed me that he had read with much interest the story of my picture, as the lady in question was a particular friend of his, and he went on to say that the episode interested her immensely, and that if I were still anxious to make her acquaintance he would have much pleasure in introducing her to me, if I would call the following afternoon and take tea with them.

I had had many experiences of the accuracy of the adage that "Truth is often stranger than fiction," but this was, indeed, the strangest adventure of its kind I had ever yet had. Of course I accepted the invitation, and it was not without a certain amount of excitement that I was ushered into one of the daintiest little drawing-rooms imaginable, where I was received in the most genial and unreserved fashion by the writer of the letter, a fine, soldierly-looking man.

An instant after, the door opened, and in walked my "ideal," and I was presented as the artist of the picture. She was very merry, and made me feel quite at my ease.

As we were having tea I had the opportunity for taking a good look at her. The exquisitely furnished drawing-room made, as it were, a particularly appropriate set-off for her wonderful beauty, but somehow on a closer inspection I began to find flaws in my "ideal." Perhaps it was that I had succeeded in accomplishing what I had intended, and was no longer seeking an " ideal." It is always the unobtainable that excites the imagination, and now that I had obtained my desire I was disappointed with it. I found myself mentally comparing this smartly appareled, up-to-date actress with the simple girl who had sat for my picture, and I confessed to myself that in my mind my model came out best, because she was decidedly younger and fresher. Still it was quite remarkable the likeness between the two, the hair and complexion particularly. We naturally had a long chat over the incident, and I told her of my stage-door experiences, which made her laugh heartily. Then her friend remarked that she ought to sit for me for a real portrait, and she willingly agreed. So it was settled that I should start on it at once, and it was arranged that she should come to the studio for the purpose.

For several weeks, therefore, I had my quondam ideal to myself in the studio, but it was only with much difficulty that I succeeded in finishing the portrait, as she was not a patient model. I was not long in realizing that if she had sat for my picture I should not have made it the success that I did. She was certainly a very lovely creature, and delightful company, but she was far too "material" to personate even on canvas a subject so ideal as "Love's Golden Dream," and I gradually found myself thinking more and more of her understudy, and congratulated myself on my luck in having met her. All of which went to prove to me that one's "ideal" is only what you picture to yourself in your mind, and it is perhaps fortunate that one so seldom comes across it in reality. Whilst on the subject I recall another experience, which, however, is quite the reverse of romantic. I was introduced to a very pretty girl at a fancy dress ball. She was in a nun's costume, and had such expressive eyes, and altogether looked so exactly the part, that it occurred to me that she was the very ideal for a picture of a religieuse. I asked her if she would come and sit to me for a picture in the costume. The idea seemed to please her immensely, and she consented, and came to the studio with the dress.

"Love's
              Golden Dream"

In order not to destroy the illusion, and also as I thought to convince her I was serious, I suggested her going into the privacy of my bedroom to change into the costume. She said it didn't matter, but I insisted, for I felt that with a religious subject there must be no hints at levity.

When she returned to the studio she looked so demure and innocent that you would have thought that butter wouldn't melt in her pretty mouth. I started making sketches in various poses prior to deciding how to paint her, and whilst doing so was chatting with her on ecclesiastical matters, as befitted the dress she was wearing.

Made A
                  Black And White Drawing...

Whilst on the subject of religion I learned that she was a Roman Catholic, which struck me as particularly fortunate, as it accentuated, as it were, the illusion of her being a novice, so I said that I supposed she went to Mass regularly. "Go to Mass!" she repeated with a hearty laugh, which seemed strangely incongruous, "I haven't been there for quite ten years, and my sister was only saying the other day that if ever I went to confession now the priest would have to take brandy after I had finished!"

As may be imagined I did not feel inclined to paint her as a religieuse after that little avowal, so I postponed that picture and made a black and white drawing of her as a ballet girl instead, in a costume and tights I happened to have. She looked quite as piquant in it, and, as it turned out, it was far more appropriate.


 

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