CHAPTER II

My first experience of Bohemian life in London — Of living as compared with Paris — The saloon bars and the "shilling ordinary" — The London char-woman — Her French prototype — My first commission — A lady visitor — A delightful afternoon — Commencement of a little romance — Painting in my back garden — Sudden ending of the romance

I CAN conceive nothing less calculated to fire one with romantic thoughts than the feeling of being suddenly thrown on one's own resources — as I was at this time. Even now, after the lapse of so many years, I can vividly recall my misgivings as to how my experiment with regard to taking a studio would turn out. I was always of a very impressionable temperament, and it takes but little to depress or elate me, and so it happened at this juncture after the excitement of moving in.

For the next few days I had a fit of the blues at the mere thought of the strenuous task that faced me and the £50 rent assumed brobdingnagian proportions in my vivid imagination. I had a sudden and wild dread that hard times were going to replace the joyous years of my Paris life, and I feared that it would require far more energy than I possessed to get over them. This vague presentiment, fortunately for me, was not borne out by results, for although, like many young artists, I had continual ups and downs, I found that if I could "keep my pecker up," things generally turned out all right, as will be seen.

There being nothing to be gained by sitting down imagining the worst, I had started work on a sketch one morning a few days after I had settled down when Jeph turned up unexpectedly, and to my delight explained the reason of his mutational visit. Like the good fellow he was, he had spoken to a friend about me, and interested him so much in me and my work that I was to go round and see him at once, and probably he would commission me to paint something for his billiard-room. As may be imagined, I didn't require much persuading, and, well to cut the story short, I got an order there and then for a couple of small pictures — and this was practically the commencement of my studio life. I cannot remember now what I was paid for these pictures, but I can recollect how proud I felt at already having real work in hand, and practically making a start at earning a living by my brush, though I didn't allow myself to be led into wild extravagance merely on the strength of my little stroke of good luck.

I had already found before I had been many days in the studio that actual living was more expensive in London than in Paris, and that notwithstanding the fact that provisions as a whole in France were considerably dearer than in England. The only explanation of the apparent mystery is doubtless the superior genius of the French in making the best of and utilizing everything in the shape of food.

The Englishman's old jibe against French kickshaws may have some foundation in fact, but to the young student of small purse and large appetite the selfsame kickshaws, at the price at which they are dispensed on the other side of the Channel, are by no means to be despised. The fare one got at the English eating-houses at the time of which I am writing may have been, and probably was, very filling and satisfying for the money, but to any one like myself, who had lived in Paris, and had acquired a somewhat artistic taste in the matter of flavoring, was a very poor substitute for what they served you at even the most humble of marchands de vin over there.

For the first few weeks, till I was fixed up, I used to go out for my lunch to some public-house close by, as there was nothing in the way of a restaurant anywhere in the district, and I can well remember how repugnant to me it was to have to do so; more perhaps on account of the idea of frequenting a "pub" than by reason of the actual food, which was always fairly good, though very humble, whilst of course there was not much variety.

At a house called "The Knights of St John" in Queen's Terrace, where several artists used to gather for lunch, they gave you quite a good "shilling ordinary," consisting of a cut from the joint, two vegetables, and sweets or cheese which, washed down with "half of stout and bitter," was satisfying enough in quantity at any rate, even for my appetite which, in those days was, I remember, enormous. But it was only "feeding," or as we called it "stoking," pure and simple, and you had to be really hungry to enjoy it.

I do not think that, even in those days, I could have been accused of putting on "side"; but the contrast between the charming little Paris restaurants I had got so accustomed to and these rough and ready public-house bars, was so great that I made up my mind to avoid them as much as possible. I therefore decided always to feed in the studio if I could manage it, as I felt that however rough and ready the meals would be, at any rate they would be preferable to going out every day.

In order to carry out this resolve, it was necessary to find a servant of some description, and I thus made my first acquaintance with the genus charwoman — an individual I have long since come to believe to be absolutely indigenous and peculiar to England. She certainly, so far as my experience goes, has no counterpart in France, where the wife of one's concierge if she is a decent sort, may for a small monthly consideration, usually about 4s. (5 francs), come and clean your place up and get you your morning café and roll. If you are differently situated you may for an equally reasonable honorarium obtain the services of a femme de ménage, but in either case you will have a person working for you who for the nonce is your employee, and is an industrious, cleanly, sober person, and, above all, dressed in keeping with her position.

In England, as I was not long in discovering, the prototype of the French femme de ménage is usually an impudent, frowsy individual of middle-age, with a marked taste for beer, and for attiring herself in shabby finery. Unfortunately for the struggling artist who has to make his home in his studio, this unpleasant type is a necessity, unless he is prepared to carry his Bohemianism to the extent of cleaning up his place and doing for himself. I was not inclined for this, so had perforce to find some one to come in every morning to tidy up and get me my breakfast and lunch. I was told that 7s. per week was the very least I could get any one to come for, which was of course 3s. more than I paid for the same work in Paris; but the number of applicants I got for the job, even at this figure, was sufficient to prove that "charing" was a popular occupation in the neighborhood.

The person I eventually selected was typical of her class, and indeed quite a character in her way. She had already worked for an artist, so fancied she was familiar with studio life, and never missed an opportunity to let me know it if I gave her the slightest encouragement to talk. Models in her eyes were depraved hussies, so she told me once, and "she would not sit for the figure, no — not if the King of England asked her." Needless to add, I was never tempted to induce her to alter her resolve.

She hadn't been with me a week before I realized that on the slightest provocation she could be so insolent that one had almost to ask as a favor for anything to be done, that her other artist, who "was a gentleman, God bless him," didn't require. Well I kept her on for a time, as it gave me a good opportunity to have a look round and get used to the neighborhood, and gradually to make arrangements for having my meals in the studio. Cooking, however, was not her forte, perhaps her former artist had been a nut eater, as the meals she served me were of the roughest description, and required the healthy appetite of a young man to negotiate.

My next charwoman experience was not much more satisfactory — perhaps it was that I had been spoiled when living in Paris — anyhow it took me some time to get used to the various specimens I had to put up with in the commencement of my studio life in London.

Those early days in St John's Wood were singularly uneventful, probably because my friends had not yet learned my whereabouts, so it was rather dull at first sitting about all day alone, and without even a ring at the bell to liven one up, for I didn't care to go out in the day-time in case any one should call during my absence.

Still there was always a chance of something turning up, as I soon discovered, and it was this expectancy that relieved the monotony of many a quiet day, and in this connection I recall what was quite a little event in its way — my first lady visitor, a model. This incident, trivial as it may have seemed at first, is indelibly marked on my memory, as, curiously enough, it developed all the elements of a little romance, and such it undoubtedly was whilst it lasted. It came about this way.

It was about four o'clock one wet afternoon, and I had been absolutely alone all day, not a soul to speak to, when there came a ring at the bell. I went to open the door, my palette in hand — a little trick of my Paris studio life, so as to make one appear busy in case it was an unwelcome visitor — when I saw it was a very nice-looking girl outside.

She Had My Favorite Color Hair

"Do you want a model?" she asked.

I was so pleased to have a visitor at all that I invited her in, and said I would take her address down in my model book. More for form's sake than anything else I asked her to take off her hat, and then saw she had my favorite color hair — auburn. I cannot recollect what suggested it, but I think it was about tea-time and the tea-things were laid, anyhow I asked her if she would care for a cup of tea, and she accepted without hesitation — in fact I thought she was pleased at the invitation.

Somehow I always felt a little bit sorry for girls who made their living tramping from studio to studio, and in all weathers: it had always struck me as being a wearisome and thankless task at the best of times, apart from the precarious nature of the work. In the case of an extremely pretty and delicate type of girl, as this one was, it seemed almost a shame that she should go round by herself amongst a lot of strange men thus. Of course it was in the interests of Art (with the usual big "A"); but I could not help thinking how many men would have gladly welcomed her, even if she hadn't said she was an artist's model.

Whether it was the tea, or my frankly unconventional manner, I cannot of course tell, but at any rate we were not long before we got on quite friendly terms, more so perhaps than the object of her visit warranted, and I found her a most charming personality. To my surprise she informed me she had only just taken up sitting, and that she had been a nursery governess; but had got tired of the humdrum life of looking after a lot of noisy children and being treated like a servant. So when one day a girl friend of hers, who was a model, told her she could make a good living by sitting, she had it over, and decided to try her luck and go round the studios.

With the aid of a Royal Academy catalogue she had made out a lot of addresses of artists likely to want models, and that was how she had come to my studio, because of course my landlord's name was in the book, as he was a constant exhibitor. She was so delightfully frank and ingenuous about it all that I remember I contrasted her in my mind with the vivacious, but, often so artificial, petites femmes one saw in the Paris ateliers, and the comparison was not entirely in their favor perhaps, for she harmonized with the grey surroundings of the secluded St John's Wood street and my particular mood at the moment. In Paris, pretty though she was, she would probably have passed unnoticed; they want chic as well as beauty over there, and very few English girls possess it.

I could not resist the temptation to ask her her impression of studio life, which must have been so different to what she had been accustomed to previously, and was much amused at some of her experiences with artists, for it is always interesting to learn how others see us.

I recollect one little adventure she told me she had had at the very commencement of her taking up sitting, which appeared to me to cast a lurid light on the so-called "artistic temperament."

It was, she said, almost the first time she sat, and it was to a young man. He seemed to be at first as quiet and as mild a person as possible; she had been sitting for what appeared to her quite a long while, in a very strained and unnatural position, doing her best to keep as still as possible; but he was evidently not satisfied either with his work or her, and she heard him muttering and swearing to himself whilst painting. Suddenly, to her surprise, he jumped up, seized his paint knife and scraped off all his morning's work, and then flung his palette and brushes on the floor, stamped on them with rage, smashing them to pieces. He behaved just like a lunatic, and she was too frightened to say anything; she thought he had taken leave of his senses and didn't know what was going to happen next. After a few minutes he calmed down, told her she might dress, paid her, and said she had better go — that he was no good at painting, and would chuck it and take up bootmaking or something else instead. She never sat for him again after that, and would not have if he had begged her to. That was the most curious adventure she had ever had, and although she was getting used to artists she said she didn't want another like it, and I agreed with her it must have been a bit thrilling.

We were getting on splendidly together, and I found her so nice that I had already realized that I was in luck's way that afternoon, when there came another ring at the bell, and who should it be but Jeph. Of course I asked him in, as I felt quite elated with myself, and I remember the look on his face of astonishment when he saw I had a lady visitor, for beyond what he had read in books about life in studios he knew very little really of what went on in them; so we had quite a cheery little tea-party, for he was capital company.

After this he didn't take long getting accustomed to finding visitors of the fair sex when he called, and I feel convinced that his ideas on art henceforth were more specially connected with the pretty girls he might have the chance of meeting at my studio.

But to return to this particular occasion, I could not afford models, so I had to resist the temptation for the moment to paint a picture from my new acquaintance, much as I should have liked to, for she really was very pretty and had, as I have said, fair hair of a shade I have always had a particular penchant for.

When at last it was time for her to go I told her quite frankly that I was not able to give her a sitting yet awhile, and I believe she intuitively guessed my reasons and appreciated my frankness, for we parted the very best of friends, and she promised to come and see me again very soon.

"Never mind," she said, "if you cannot give me any work, you can always let me have a cup of tea, and I should love to have another nice chat with you like we have had this afternoon," and when we separated I felt that there was already a certain bond of sympathy between us.

After this she was constantly calling on her way home from her sittings and making all sorts of excuses for doing so. In the course of time I began to hope that the studio possessed some possible attraction for her beyond the chance of getting a sitting from me, and I soon got to look forward to her coming to see me, and even to wait for it. She seemed to bring an atmosphere of cheerfulness into the place and somehow managed to impart what I had already felt was wanting to complete the ensemble of the studio — the feminine element — that mysterious something, without which, as I have always felt since those days, all is grey and monotonous. I fancy I can still hear her familiar tap at the studio door, and her cheery "May I come in? Are you alone?" and can see her unfeigned pleasure at being with me again.

One sunny morning I remember she turned up, wearing such a charming frock that it positively gave me an inspiration, and I decided to risk the expense and start a painting from her there and then.

I had, as I have said, a few feet of ground which was dignified with the name of "garden" at the back of the studio, with rather a quaint little flight of steps leading up to it, and some straggling bushes. It was really not worth mentioning as a garden, but somehow it suggested an open-air subject, and to her evident delight I said she could sit to me for it if she liked. Whether it was the subject or my model I don't know, but the picture brought me luck, as I sold it before it was finished.

What jolly times they were whilst I was painting it. I can see her now in my mind's eye seated on a rug on the top step leaning against a packing case which represented an old wall. Her coloring was perfect in the open air, and I worked with an enthusiasm which I believe she shared, for she took the greatest interest in the work as it progressed — in fact our relations were scarcely those of artist and model, and she realized it as well as I. We used to have afternoon tea in the "garden," and I remember her facetiously suggesting that it only wanted a few wasps to complete the illusion and make it quite rural.

It was very delightful while it lasted, for it was all new to me; but it was not destined to become a liaison such as one might have expected under similar circumstances in Paris — as a matter of fact it terminated somewhat abruptly, as will be seen.

The picture was at last finished, and then she had to look out for some other sittings; but still she came to see me as usual. From dropping in occasionally she gradually took to calling every day, until at last I could never be certain if I was going to be alone or not. It was not exactly awkward, but as in the meantime my relations were beginning to look me up it was not always convenient to have a girl there when they came, more especially as I was not painting from her.

In Paris it didn't so much matter; studio life was so different, and there were no prejudices to be overcome, moreover I had no female relatives to visit me there. Well, one afternoon I had a little tea-party on when there came a ring at the bell, followed by her tap at the studio door. I went out, palette in hand as was my usual wont, and pulling the door to behind me, explained in a whisper that I had a family party, so she must forgive me if I didn't invite her in. She looked a little bit surprised and disappointed, as this was the first time such a thing had happened.

"I suppose it cannot be helped," she remarked; "but I wanted so much to have a chat with you. I will come back this evening."

In the evening, however, I was not there as I had to dine en famille, so I had to leave a note to that effect pinned on the door. The next day she came as though nothing had happened; she quite understood, she said, that I was obliged to go out sometimes and be with my people. But it was the little rift within the lute, and on two other occasions shortly after I was again obliged to make excuses for not asking her in. At last the end came with tragic suddenness.

I was not expecting her one afternoon — a friend and I had two ladies to tea, and we were having a very jolly time laughing and singing. Any one just outside the studio could have heard our merriment distinctly. Suddenly there was a ring, followed by a tap at the door I knew so well. Somehow I felt annoyed at her visit just at that moment, so asked my friend to go out and say I was engaged and could not see any one. He came back in a few minutes looking very mysterious, and coming up to me said significantly, "It is Jones, and he says he won't keep you a moment, but he must speak to you; you had better go, I think." So I went out. I shall never forget the look on her face; she was positively livid with suppressed rage or jealousy; I never thought it was in her.

"I am sorry to disturb your little party," she said with icy intonation; "but you might give me that book I left in the studio yesterday."

Her manner irritated me beyond measure, and any tender feeling I may have had towards her vanished instantly. I had seen this sort of thing too often whilst living in Paris, and didn't want to start any of it on my own account here in London — so without a word I went back into my studio, fetched the book, and brought it to her. She took it without saying anything, and was walking down the gravel path to the street, when something impelled me to follow her and ask her when I should see her again — for after all we had been very good pals, and I suppose I had just a little soft spot in my heart for the girl. She turned round, and I noticed to my surprise that her fit of temper had passed, and she was weeping.

"I am never coming to see you again," she replied quietly; "so you will be quite free to have as many girls as you choose in the studio. I have been very foolish to let you see how much I care, but it has been a lesson to me I shan't forget."

I was dumbfounded, as I had had no idea that she had taken our seeing so much of each other so seriously. I could do nothing but utter a sort of mild protest. She turned to go away without another word, whilst I stood at the gate irresolute and half hesitating, watching her retreating form, as she walked quickly up the deserted street. For a moment I had it in my mind to run after her and persuade her to come back; but the thought was only momentary, young as I was then I had already realized from what I had seen in Paris that anything in the nature of a "tie" was irksome, and besides which I knew that I wasn't in love with her, although I liked her very much.

As she disappeared round the corner and out of my life I felt instinctively that it was better for both of us that it should end thus.

"So you have managed to get rid of Jones at last; we thought you were never coming back," cried my visitors.

"Yes," I replied; "I am quite free now." But I could not help feeling a little pang at my heart as I remembered her tears.




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