CHAPTER VIII

Off to the South of France to finish portrait — Adventure en route — Mentone viá Elysium — On the Riviera — A funny incident on return journey — The Frenchman and the luggage — Painting at the docks, an episode — Curio hunting in the Wood — Tea-parties in studio — A good joke — The British workman — Re-arranging the drawing room — Summer in the Sicily Isles — A large painting

EARLY in the following year I received an invitation from my friends in Mentone asking me to go down there and spend a few weeks with them to finish the portrait. So one miserably cold night, when it was sleeting and raining, and all London shivering, I started for the South and the sunshine of the Riviera. I was bound on a pleasant mission, with a jolly holiday in front of me and all my expenses paid, so it naturally happened that I was in the highest of spirits, and filled with the romantic ideas of a young man.

Such being my enviable state of mind, it is not to be wondered at that a little occurrence at the station took to itself the proportion of an adventure. Doubtless most young fellows have had similar ones at different times of their youth, but when I recall this particular event I remember I felt that the gods had me in their especial good graces.

There were not many people going by the train. I had arrived in good time, and as I sauntered idly about on the platform before we started, in that aimless but enjoyable fashion which I always fancy is part and parcel of the commencement of a journey one has been looking forward to, my eyes became riveted on something in a heavy travelling coat that seemed to me the very embodiment of feminine charm. She was wearing a thick veil, so it was only just possible to guess what her face was like; but from the glimpse one got of it under the gas-light there was not much doubt that she was an exceedingly good-looking young woman. She was alone, judging from her attire evidently going abroad, and when my discreet glances were rewarded by a faint but none the less bewitching little smile, I felt there was all the material for a very delightful journey, if only she were going south also.

The carriage she was in was fully occupied, so there was no chance of a tête-à-tête as far as Dover; but I looked forward to an opportunity during the crossing, and that glance at the railway station haunted me all the way down to the Coast. On the boat she must have disappeared into a private cabin, as I could not find her. At Calais still no sign of her, and I began to think she must have taken the Basle train, and looked upon the whole thing as an opportunity missed. But at the Gare de Lyon, while I was waiting for breakfast, my attention was drawn to a group of waiters apparently quarrelling for the possession of a lady traveler who had entered just in front of me, and to my delight I recognized my charmeuse of the previous evening.

Now or never was the moment, and as an inspiration I decided on a bold move. Keeping well in the background, I marked down the waiter who had captured her, and as he passed me I told him to lay my breakfast at the table next to hers, and then sauntered up and took my seat nonchalantly, and without appearing to see her. When she raised her veil I saw that she was positively beautiful (otherwise, of course, the story would not be worth relating). Well! She was going south as far as Cannes. There were no corridor carriages in those days, and we got a compartment to ourselves, and my journey to Mentone was viâ Elysium, so it seemed to me, I remember. But it was a romance with one chapter only, as I never saw her again, nor did I ever discover who or what she was.

I had one of the jolliest times I ever spent whilst on the Riviera, although I was supposed to be there for work, for in the intervals of my painting I managed to see everything, and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Of course I went everywhere, Monte Carlo, Nice, and back along the Coast into Italy, and enjoyed myself as I believe only a young man can on his first visit to the Sunny South. There were dances every night at one or other of the big hotels, no end of pretty girls, lots of pleasant excursions, and so what more could an artist want?

Painting under such delightful conditions, it is not to be wondered at that I did my very best, so the portrait was at length finished, not a little to my regret, and packed and sent off to Paris en route for the Salon. I would gladly have commenced it all over again, as it had been a pleasurable task from the very start. My experiences of portrait painting since then have not always left such happy memories — rather the contrary, in fact.

I should have liked to have prolonged my stay in the south, for it seemed a pity to leave the lovely warm sunshine and return to England, where from all accounts they were having nothing but cold and wretched weather. Still there was no help for it, and I recollect that the day I left it seemed finer and warmer than ever, and an ideal spring morning. Three very decent young Englishmen, whose acquaintance I had made at Mentone, were returning to England also, so we agreed to travel together and have a mild game of cards en route.

 Naturally we wanted a compartment to ourselves. It is an Englishman's weakness to desire to be isolated when travelling. There were a lot of people going by the train, so it looked like a difficult matter keeping out intruders on our privacy; however, we successfully accomplished this at Mentone. The question was could we manage it further on at Monte Carlo, where there was bound to be a crowd? Suddenly a brilliant idea occurred to one of us — and we immediately carried it out. We had a lot of hand baggage with us in the carriage — rugs, holdalls, hand bags — the usual paraphernalia without which Englishmen seem unable to travel, so we set to work and made up what looked like a figure of a man lying full length on one of the seats, and when it was completed I must say it was really wonderfully realistic, as we had even put a pair of slippers sticking out where the feet were supposed to be, and a cloth cap on the head, which was made of a waistcoat rolled up. Of course it was facing towards the wall. It was splendid, but it had a drawback — it took up too much room, so we were a bit cramped; but it had to be life-size, and we had made a giant while we were about it. However, we started our game of cards, and I am ashamed to say that we played practically the whole way to Marseilles, and the lovely coast scenery we were going through passed unheeded.

The dummy figure answered its purpose admirably, and looked so much like a very sick man that a mere glance at it was sufficient to deter any one from getting in — people don't like travelling with a malade. At one station there was such a crowd on the platform that we felt sure that some one would at last get into our compartment, and sure enough, several people made quite a determined rush for it, and for a moment it looked like being taken by storm — but we had forgotten our dummy friend. They didn't take long making up their minds to crush into another carriage rather than come into ours when they caught sight of the huge mass on the seat. Just before we reached Marseilles, officials suddenly came along to examine the tickets, and before we had time to do anything the door was opened and one of them appeared.

We passed him our tickets, which he clipped and returned to us. Then to our horror, for we were hoping, I think, that he had seen through our "dummy" joke, he tapped it on the back and said gruffly, "Your ticket, sir, if you please," with an accent on the "if."

We all pretended to be absorbed in our game, though we had the utmost difficulty in keeping our countenances. As there was no reply he repeated his request more gruffly this time, then losing his patience at the continued silence he exclaimed, "I can't wait here all day — kindly wake up and let's have your ticket," at the same time emphasizing his remark by shaking the sleeping figure vigorously. The result was obvious — the whole arrangement of luggage and rugs came apart, and the head rolled on to the floor. The official started back with a scared, "Nom de D de D" and we lost all control over ourselves and burst into fits of laughter.

For a moment the ticket-collector hesitated what to do, then, as he was evidently a good fellow, and with a sense of humor, he joined in our hilarity, and laughed so heartily that other officials and several people came to see what all the merriment was caused by. "Ah, ces Anglais comme ils ont des idèes droles" was expressed on all sides, and it was lucky for us it was treated as a joke.

Talking of trying to keep a carriage to oneself reminds me of an amusing incident that a friend of mine told us happened to him one day when he was starting from Paris for London. He was leaving by an early train, and as he had had a pretty thick night, and scarcely been to bed, he wanted if possible to have a carriage to himself as far as Calais, so he bethought himself of the time-honored trick of placing various articles of personal luggage on all the seats of the first-class smoking compartment he had selected, so as to make it appear the carriage was fully occupied. Then he settled himself down in a corner, and made himself comfortable. Many people came along and were effectually deterred from getting into the carriage on seeing all the luggage spread over the seats. To his annoyance, just at the very last minute, as the train was about to start a Frenchman hurriedly got into the compartment.

My friend muttered something in his execrable French that the seats were all engaged, but he naturally could not say much as all this luggage was not supposed to be his; but the intruder was evidently too pleased to have caught his train to notice what he said. Suddenly, just as the whistle of the engine was heard, and the train was about to move, to my friend's amazement the Frenchmen leaned out of the window and called out excitedly to a porter to come to the door, and then began rapidly to hand out to him the baggage from the seats, telling him that some passengers had evidently lost their train, so it was no use their luggage going on without them.

One can imagine the dénouement, and more especially as my man could only speak a few words of French; to rush to the window and arrest the exodus of his belongings was the work of an instant, as the train was actually in motion; but it was a very close shave indeed, and he almost lost his Gladstone bag in the scurry. As he sank exhausted into his seat his fellow-passenger, who by the way had good-naturedly helped him, looked at him drily, and, with a twinkle in his eye, said that it was a bit of luck he had not lost his things. My friend made no reply, as he somehow felt that the Frenchmen had had a good joke at his expense.

He Was
              Supposed To Be Flirting...

My life for the next few months presented no incidents of a particularly exciting character. Black and white work, alternating with painting, occupied my time pretty fully. I had always had a penchant for anything connected with ships and the sea, which is rather curious, for it is not that I ever had any inclination for a sailor's life, as I am a bad sailor and loath to be on the sea except in a dead calm. My actual bent was for soldiering; but the sight of the sea and big ships always carried me in my mind to far distant lands and travels and adventures in the wilds.

In those days the South West India Docks presented busy and animated scenes, as the Australian sailing clippers berthed there. So I used to spend happy days sketching amidst the big ships, whilst conjuring up in my fancy dreams of journeys I so longed to be starting on, and which were eventually to be realized beyond my wildest hopes. Many a picture did I sketch in the grimy docks, and usually with success, as they appeared to be my particular line, and I always managed to sell them.

I took a pretty girl down on one occasion, and painted her on board the Rodney, one of the largest of the Australian ships. I had a romantic composition in my mind (I was nothing if not romantic then), and one of the snip's officers, a good-looking fellow with whom I had got friendly, kindly offered to pose for me. The picture was to be entitled, "It may be for years." He was supposed to be in love with her, and carried out the idea so conscientiously whilst I was working that at last I got quite jealous of him, and the girl and I had a tiff on the subject in the train going back, and she told me she couldn't help it, she adored sailors. I didn't take her down to the docks again; as I felt instinctively that I was running the risk of her being carried off to Australia if I did, and I wanted to finish that picture.

My studio meanwhile was gradually becoming more habitable, by that I mean more furnished, and I was able to resume the charming little lunches and tea-parties which had been so enjoyable in Marlboro' Hill. Tea, in particular, was always great fun, the studio was so conveniently situated that friends would frequently turn up uninvited in the afternoon on the chance of my being in, and when, as often happened, there were not enough cups to go round, the most extraordinary makeshifts, such as are only found in a studio, had to be utilized. Talking of tea reminds me of a funny incident.

I was always supposed (I say "supposed" advisedly) to be a bit of a ventriloquist. Well, Jeph was with me one afternoon when two nice girls arrived just as we had put the kettle on, so it turned out a lively little tea-party. It was the first time they had met him, and they found him very entertaining, for he was quite a ladies' man, as are most men who have lived long in the Far East. Suddenly it occurred to him to draw me out and get me to startle them with a little ventriloquism, as they did not know of my talent. Nothing whatever had led up to it, he had not hinted at it to me, so imagine their stupefaction when in a pause of the conversation he turned to me, à propos of nothing, and remarked casually, "There's some one up the chimney, Jules." Of course I knew at once what he was driving at, but I didn't feel in the mood just at that particular moment to give an entertainment, so I pretended not to hear him.

After a pause he repeated his remark, this time with emphasis; I saw the ladies now look at each other enquiringly, as indeed they might, for it was certainly a curious statement for him to make, as there was, I forgot to mention, a fire in the grate. Again I ignored his observation. Nothing daunted he persisted, and even went so far as to ask our friends if they hadn't also heard some one up there. They were now completely bewildered, and began to look nervous. Turning to Jeph I said with mock gravity, "Look here, old man, are you suddenly dreaming or what? How can there be anybody up the chimney?" Seeing then that it hadn't come off, he agreed with me, and that perhaps after all he was mistaken.

The two ladies took their departure somewhat hurriedly, I thought.

Shortly after I saw them again. They referred to our tea-party, and mentioned Jeph. "What a nice fellow he seems; but has he had sunstroke out in the East that he behaves in such a peculiar manner?"

"Peculiar manner! In what way?" I asked, having completely forgotten the incident.

"Oh, when he talked of hearing a man up the chimney!"

Of course one could not very well expect dainty little ladies to sit on packing cases and drink tea out of thick china cups, and really enjoy themselves. Bohemianism was all very well, and they might do it once or twice, but they had to like you very much to come often and rough it, so I spent all my spare cash fixing myself up comfortably, and it was really surprising how far a few pounds would go when judiciously expended in an old furniture shop, and one could really pick up bargains in those days. I have a fine old grandfather's clock, for which I only gave twelve shillings in Henry Street. The dealer wouldn't actually guarantee it was in working order, but he put the quaint word "go-able" on the receipt, and strange to relate it has kept splendid time all these years.

It is remarkable what a lot of rubbish in the guise of bargains one buys when one has a few shillings to spare. Things that would under ordinary circumstances be consigned to the dust heap seem to acquire artistic value when on sale in the "antique" shop, in the neighborhood of a studio. They become "decorative," and that means a good deal in a dusty atelier, so I became bitten with curio collecting mania, and have had it ever since, with results which would probably be very disappointing if I am ever forced to dispose of my "collection."

I soon found that if one could pick up odds and ends cheap, it often cost as much as they were worth to put them right. A cracked plate would want rivets, a cupboard a hinge or a key — in fact there was always something wanting that had made them cheap, and this reminds me of an experience I had of the genus British workman, which, trivial as it was, I always recollect when I want anything in the least out of the way done.

I had bought a cupboard with a rather peculiar handle to the door; something had gone wrong with it and it wouldn't turn properly, so I got a locksmith from Cochrane Street to come and put it right. He came and looked at it meditatively and went away and fetched his tool bag; then he took off his coat, put on his spectacles, unscrewed the lock, and proceeded to remove the works — informing me they wanted oiling. He then remembered he had no oil with him, so I had to give him some of mine. It now seemed pretty plain sailing, and with the remark that I should find it work all right when he'd got it back in its place, he started putting it together again. But his fingers now seemed to have suddenly become all thumbs; as fast as he put in one little screw another dropped out, and he was busy looking for them and picking them up from the floor. Thinking I was making him nervous by standing looking on, I moved away and pretended to be working.

I could hear him muttering to himself as he kept dropping bits of the lock. Then he suddenly asked me if I could lend him a screw-driver as his was no good — it was too large or something. I happened to have one to suit him — so off he started again. It must have been hot work, for he kept taking off his spectacles and mopping his forehead whilst he was groping for odd bits and screws he had let fall on the floor. I continued to appear to be absorbed in my work. After many efforts and much reviling at himself and his Maker he at length succeeded in getting the lock into its position again, when suddenly in an extraordinary attempt to hold it in its place with his right hand, whilst with his left he extracted the last screw from the back of his mouth, where he had placed it for safety, the whole thing fell to the ground and came to pieces again. To my surprise he made absolutely no comment this time, but set to work again and apparently replaced it. Then he got up and put on his coat.

"Have you done it?" I ventured to enquire.

"No, I give it best, guv'nor," was his laconic reply, and picking up his tool bag he walked out.

It was about this time that I became aware of the existence of that most irritating of personalities, the souvenir collector. Perhaps it was because I was beginning to "get on," but anyhow I recollect how it would jar on my nerves when I discovered that I was generally expected to make a sketch portrait or contribute a drawing to my hostess's collection or album if I accepted a weekend invitation. At first I was inclined to look on such a request as a very charming compliment, till on one occasion I had placed before me an album which was nothing more or less than a sketch book of extra large size, and in which were already several highly finished drawings. "Do please draw something in my book — anything — no matter how rough." Then it flashed across my mind that I was expected to "work my passage" as it were, and at least to contribute something as important as what was already in the book. It was an extremely ingenious method of getting together a collection. Doubtless my experiences are similar to those of other artists, so I feel sure they will agree with me that to give something of one's own accord is one thing, but to be asked pointedly for it, whether it be a sketch, a song, or an entertainment, is quite another matter. I have often thought how curious would be the impression of, say, a doctor or a solicitor if they found they were being asked for professional advice gratis, on the strength of being invited to a dinner or a weekend party.

My experiences in this direction were not always confined to making a drawing. I remember on one occasion spending a weekend with some friends. I had already done sundry sketches in their "album" so might have reasonably imagined myself immune from further taxation in the souvenir line. To my surprise my hostess remarked to me during dinner, "I am going to ask you to help me rearrange my drawing-room before you go, Mr. Price. You've got such taste in these matters, so I know it won't worry you, etc." It was very complimentary on her part no doubt, but it was merely a variation of the album trick, and I felt irritated beyond measure at the idea that I had been invited with an object, and was expected to be busy. Then suddenly an inspiration for a practical joke occurred to me, and I determined to carry it out and have my revenge. In the drawing-room she broached the subject again, but I adroitly managed to postpone doing anything till the following evening.

The drawing-room, I may mention, was a very large and well-furnished apartment with full-sized grand piano and numerous sofas, cabinets, pictures and the usual paraphernalia. After dinner my host and hostess were so insistent on my carrying out my promise to rearrange everything that I had no compunction in following up my scheme. The guests were sent into another room in order to more fully appreciate the change later, then seating myself in a corner I persuaded my host to remove his coat and waistcoat as "there was work to be done." "We must make a thorough alteration, so will shift the rugs first," I said; "they had better be rolled up for the moment, and, of course, the piano cannot be left where it is. It is far too suburban placed that way; you had better get some one to help you move it." So an obliging guest volunteered his services. Well, to cut a long story short, in less time than it takes to relate, the room which had looked very cheerful before, was now a complete wreck, and had the appearance of being packed up ready for removal. Everything was stacked in the center of the room, even to the pictures, ornaments, and curtains. I should never have believed that so great a transformation could have been accomplished so quickly.

My hostess looked on meanwhile with a bewildered expression on her face; but she said nothing. When all was complete my host and his friend mopped their foreheads and waited for the next development. I pretended to be absorbed in thought. "What do you want us to do now?" they at length said. "Don't disturb me, I am thinking it out," I replied. "I want to fix up something really original."

There was silence for a few moments, then I started up and said dramatically to my hostess, "I'm awfully sorry, but my mind is a complete blank, and I can't for the life of me remember how I intended to arrange the room, so I suppose the best thing to do is to put the furniture back as it was." The look on her face was a study. Without a word she went out, leaving me with the two men.

"Shall I lend you a hand to put things straight again?" I asked with a laugh. "Not much," said my host; "I've had enough of furniture shifting for one night." When I got down the next morning everything had been replaced in its original position.

That year I was consumed with the ambition to paint something important for the Royal Academy, so I made a careful sketch of a subject I had thought out, and decided to paint it on a very large canvas. I forget the dimensions, but I remember I showed the sketch to Sir Frederick Leighton, who expressed his approval of the subject, and as a sort of further encouragement to me to have a shot at it, said he thought that if I put it in a very narrow frame it might have a chance of getting hung. So I went off in the summer holidays to the Sicily Islands and painted it in the open air. It represented a stirring life-saving episode, and I got coastguards as models, and being nothing if not conscientious then, I painted it all on the rocks and on the very edge of the sea, many times risking my life in my determination to get the effect I wanted.

The Sicily Islands in those days were very quiet and primitive. It was eternal Sunday there, and so few visitors that it was possible to work anywhere in comparative solitude, and when not painting there was excellent deep sea fishing and wild bird shooting to give one distraction, added to which the curiously tropical character of the vegetation made one almost feel in the South of France. So I put in a very jolly holiday as well as a lot of hard work on the picture.




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