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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » CHAPTER XXVIII. AN ART PATRON.
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The four years that passed before Gwen Howard-Russell and Lothrop Audouin returned to Rome, were years of bright promise and quick performance for Cohn Churchill. He hadn't been eighteen months with Maradiano, when the master took him aside one day and said to him kindly, 'My friend, you will only waste your time by studying with me any longer. You must take a studio on your own account, and begin earning a little money.'

'But where can I get one?' Colin asked.

'There is one vacant five doors off,' Maragliano answered. 'I have been to see it, and you can have it for very little. It's so near, that I can drop in from time to time and assist you with my advice and experience. But indeed, Churchill, you need either very little; for I fear the time is soon coming when the pupil is to excel the master.'

'If I thought that, master,' Cohn replied smilingly, 'I should stop here for ever. But as I know I can never hope to rival you, I shall take the studio, and tempt fortune.'

It was one morning during the next winter that Cohn was hard at work upon his clay group of Autumn borne by the Breezes, then nearly completed, when the door of the new studio opened suddenly, and a plain, farmer-looking old man in a tweed suit, entered unannounced.

'Good morning, Mr. Churchill,' he said, in a voice of infinite condescension. 'My niece sent me here to look at your statues, you know. You've got some very pretty things here, really. Some very pretty things indeed, as Gwen told me.'

'Oh, I see,' Colin answered, with a smile of recognition. 'It was Miss Howard-Russell, then, who told you where to find me.'

'Well, not exactly,' the visitor went on, peering at the Autumn with a look of the intensest critical interest; 'she told me I should find you at the studio of a man of the name of Miaragliano—or something—I think she called him. Well, I went there, ferreted out the place, and found a fuzzy-headed foreigner Italian fellow, all plastered over with mud and rubbish, who spoke the most ridiculous broken English; and he told me you'd moved to these new quarters. So I came on here to look you up and give you a commission, you know—I think you call it. My niece—she's really a first cousin once removed, or something equally abstruse, I fancy—but I always speak of her as my niece for short, because she's a good deal younger than I am, and I stand to her in loco avunculi; in loco avunculi, Mr. Churchill. Well, she positively insisted upon it that I must come and give you a commission.'

'It was very good of her, I'm sure,' Colin answered, his heart fluttering somewhat; for this was positively his first nibble. 'May I ask if you are also a Mr. Howard-Russell?'

The visitor drew himself up to his utmost height with much dignity, as though he felt surprised to think that Colin could for a single moment have imagined him to be nothing more on earth than a plain Mister. 'No,' he said, in a chilly voice; 'I fancied my niece had mentioned my name to you. I am Lord Beaminster.'

Colin bowed his head slightly. He wasn't much used to earls and viscounts in those days, though he grew afterwards to understand the habits and manners of the species with great accuracy; but he felt that after all the Earl of Beaminster, mighty magnate and land-owner as he was, didn't really differ very conspicuously in outer appearance from any other respectable fox-hunting country gentleman. Except that, perhaps, he looked, if anything, a trifle stupider than the average.

The earl considerately left Colin a minute or so to accustom himself to the shock of suddenly mixing in such exalted society, and then he said again, narrowly observing the Autumn, 'Some very pretty things, indeed, I must admit. Now, what do you call this one? A capital group. I've half a mind to commission it.'

'That's Autumn borne by the Breezes,' Colin answered, gazing up at it for the thousandth time with a loving attention. 'My idea was to represent Autumn as a beautiful youth, scattering leaves with his two hands, and upheld by the wild west wind—“the breath of autumn's being,” as Shelley calls it.'

'Quite so,' the earl said, assuming once more a studied critical attitude; 'but I don't see the leaves, you know—I don't see the leaves, Mr. Churchill.'

'It would be impossible, of course,' Colin replied, 'to represent any of the leaves as falling through the air unsupported; and so I didn't care to put any in Autumn's hands, even, preferring to trust so much to the imagination of the spectator. In art it's a well-known canon that one ought, in fact, always to leave something to the imagination.'

'But might I suggest,' Lord Beaminster said, putting his head a little on one side, and surveying the figure with profound gravity, 'that you might easily support the falling leaves by an imperceptible wire passing neatly through a small drilled eye into the legs of the Breezes.'

Colin smiled. 'I don't think,' he said, 'that that would be a very artistic mode of treatment.'

'Indeed,' the earl answered with some hesitation 'Well, I'm surprised to hear you say that, now; for my father, who was always considered a man of very remarkable taste, and a great patron of art and artists, had a Triton constructed for our carp-pond at Netherton, blowing a spout of water, in marble, from his trumpet, and the falling drops, where the spout broke into spray, were all secured by wires in the way I mention. Still, of course,' this with a deferential air of mock-modesty, 'I couldn't dream of pitting my opinion—a mere outsider's opinion—against yours in such a matter. But couldn't you at least make the leaves tumble in a sort of spire, you know, reaching to the ground; touching one another, of course, so as to form a connected column, which would give support to the right arm, now so very extended and aerial-looking.'

'Why,' Colin answered, beginning to fancy that perhaps even admission to the British peerage didn't naturally constitute a man a great art-critic, 'I don't think marble's a good medium in any case for representing anything so thin and delicate as falling leaves; and though of course a clever sculptor might choose to make the attempt, by way of showing his skill in overcoming a technical difficulty, for my part I look upon such mere mechanical tours de force as really unworthy of a true artist. Obedience to one's material rather than defiance of it is the thing to be aimed at. And, to tell you the truth, the pose of that right arm that you so much object to is the very point in the whole group that I most pride myself upon. Maragliano says it's a very fine and original conception.'

The earl stared at him intently for two seconds, in blank astonishment. What a very-extraordinary and conceited young fellow, really! The idea of his thus contradicting him, the Earl of Beaminster, in every particular! Still, Gwen had specially desired him to buy something from this man Churchill, and had said that he was going to become a very great and distinguished sculptor. For Gwen's sake, he would try to befriend the young man, and take no notice of his extraordinary rudeness.

'Well,' he said slowly, after a long pause,

'I won't quarrel with you over the details. I should like to have that group in marble, and if you'll allow me, I'll commission it. Only, as we don't agree about the pose of the Autumn, I'll tell you what we'll do, Mr. Churchill; we'll compromise the matter. Suppose you remove the figure altogether, and put a clock-dial in its place. Then it'd do splendidly, you see, for the top of the marble mantelpiece at Netherton Priory.'

Colin leant back against the parapet of the wainscot in blank dismay. What on earth was he to say to this terrible Goth of a Lord Beaminster? He wanted a first commission, badly enough, in all conscience, but how could he possibly consent to throw away the labour of so many days, and to destroy the beauty of that exquisite group by putting a dial in the place of Autumn. The idea was plainly too ridiculous. It was sacrilege, it was crime, it was sheer blasphemy against the divinity of beauty. 'I'm very sorry, Lord Beaminster,' he said, at last, regretfully. 'I should much have liked to execute the group for you in marble; but I really can't consent to sacrifice the Autumn. It's the central figure and inspiring idea of the entire composition. If you take it at all, I think you ought to take it exactly as the sculptor himself has first designed it. An artist, you know, gives much time and thought to what he is working upon. Be it merely the particular turn or twist of the bit of drapery he is just then modelling, his whole soul for that one day is all fixed and centred upon that single feature. The purchaser ought to remember that, and oughtn't to alter on a moment's hasty consideration what has cost the artist whole weeks and months of patient thought and arduous labour. And yet, I'm sorry not to perform my first work in marble for you; for I'm a West Dorset man myself by birth and training, and I should have liked well to see my “Autumn and the Breezes” standing, where it ought to stand, in one of the big oriel windows of Nether ton Priory.' That last touch of unconscious and unintentional flattery just succeeded in turning the sharp edge of Lord Beaminster's anger. When Colin at first positively refused to let him have the group with the dial in the centre, the earl could hardly conceal in his face his smouldering indignation. Such conceit, indeed, and such self-will he could never have believed in if he hadn't himself actually met with them. It positively took his breath away. But when Colin so far relented as to touch his territorial pride upon the quick (for the earl regarded himself as the personal embodiment of all West Dorset), Lord Beaminster relented too, and answered with something like geniality, 'Well, well! I'm always pleased when one of my own people rises to artistic or literary eminence, Mr. Churchill. We won't quarrel about trifles. You come from Wootton Mande ville, don't you? Ah, yes! Well, I'm the lord of the manor of Wootton, as you know, of course, and I'm pleased to think you should have come from one of my own places. We'll take the figures as they stand; we'll take them as they stand, and I'll find a place for them somewhere at Netherton, I can promise you. Now how much will you charge me for this group, Autumn and all, in marble?'

Colin stood for a moment perfectly irresolute. That was a question about which, in his abstract devotion to the goodness of his artistic work, he had never yet given the slightest consideration. 'Well, I should think,' he said hesitatingly—'I don't know if I'm asking too much—it's a big composition, and there are a good many figures in it. Suppose we were to say five hundred guineas?'

The earl nodded a gracious acquiescence.

'But perhaps,' Colin went on timidly, 'I may have asked too much in my inexperience.' 'Oh, no; not at all too much,' the earl answered, with a munificent and expansive wave of his five big farmer fingers. 'I like to encourage art—and above all art in a West Dorset man.'

'You're very kind,' Colin murmured, rather humbly, feeling as though he had much to be grateful for. 'I shall do my best to execute the group in marble to your satisfaction, so that it may be worthy of its place in the oriels at Netherton.'

'I've no doubt you will,' the earl put in with noble condescension: 'no doubt at all in the world about it. I'm glad to have the opportunity of extending my patronage to a Wootton sculptor. I'm devoted to art, Mr. Churchill, quite devoted to it.'

Colin smiled, but answered nothing.

The earl stopped a little longer, inspecting the drawings and models, and then took his departure with much stately graciousness, to Colin's intense relief and satisfaction. As he went out, the door happened to open again, and in walked Hiram Winthrop.

'My dear Winthrop!' Colin cried out in exultation, 'congratulate me! I've just got a commission for Autumn and the Breezes!'

'What, in marble?' Hiram said, grasping his hand warmly.

'Yes, in marble.'

'My dear fellow, I'm delighted. And you deserve it, too, so well. But who from? Not that fat old gentleman with the vacant face that I met just now out there upon the doorstep!'

'The same, I assure you. Our great Dorsetshire magnate, the Earl of Beaminster!' Hiram's face fell a little. 'The Earl of Beaminster!' he echoed with a voice of considerable disappointment. 'You don't mean to say an earl only looks like that! and dresses like that, too! Why, one would hardly know him from a successful dry-goods man!—Besides,' he thought to himself silently, 'she must have sent him. He's her cousin.'

Colin had no idea what manner of thing a dry-goods man might be, but he recognised that it probably stood for some very prosaic and everyday employment. 'Yes,' he said, half laughing, 'that's an earl; and as you say, my dear fellow, he hardly differs visibly to the naked eye from you and me poor common mortals.'

'But, I say, Churchill,' Hiram put in with American practicality, 'what are you going to let this Beaminster person have the group for?'

'Well, I didn't know exactly what to charge him for it, never having sold a work on my own account before; but I said at a venture, five hundred guineas. I should think that wasn't bad, you know, for a first commission.'

Hiram raised his eyebrows ominously. 'Five hundred guineas, Churchill,' he muttered with obvious mistrust; 'five hundred guineas! Why, my dear fellow, have you asked yet what would be the cost even of the block of marble?'

'The block of marble!' Colin repeated, blankly. 'The cost of the marble! Why, upon my soul, Winthrop, I never took that at all into consideration.'

'Let's go round to Maragliano's at once,' Hiram suggested, in some alarm, 'and ask him what he thinks of your bargain. I'm awfully afraid, do you know, Churchill, that you've put your foot in it.'

When the great sculptor heard that Colin had really got a commission for his beautiful group, he was at first extremely jubilant, clapping his hands, laughing, and crying out eagerly many times over, 'Am I a prophet, then?' with Italian demonstrativeness. But as soon as Colin went on to say that he had promised to execute the thing in marble for 12,500 lire, Maragliano ceased from his capering immediately, and assumed an expression of the most profound and serious astonishment. 'Twelve thousand lire!' he cried in horror, lifting up both his hands with a deprecatory gesture; 'twelve thousand lire! Why, my dear friend, the marble alone will cost you nearly that, without counting anything for your own time and trouble, or the workmen's wages. A splendid stroke of business, indeed! If I were you, I'd go and ask the Count of Beaminster at once to let me off the bargain.'

Colin's disappointment was, indeed, a bitter one; but he had too keen a sense both of commercial honour and of personal dignity to think of begging off a bargain once completed. 'Oh, no,' he said, 'that would never do, master. I shall execute the commission at the price I named, even if I'm actually out of pocket by it. At any rate, it'll be a good advertisement for me. But, after all, I'm really sorry I ever said I'd let him have it! Just think, Winthrop, of my spending so much loving, patient care upon every twist and fold of the robes of those delightful Breezes, and then having to sell them in the end to a monster of a creature who wanted me to replace the Autumn by a bronze dial. It's really too distressing!'

'Ah, my friend,' Maragliano said sympathetically, 'that is the Nemesis of art, and you'll have to get accustomed to it from the beginning. It is the price we pay for the nature of our clientele. We get well paid, because we have to work chiefly for the very wealthy. But after we have worked up some statue or picture till every line and curve of it exactly satisfies our own critical taste, we have to sell it perhaps to some vulgar rich man, who buries it in his own drawing-room in New York or Manchester. The man of letters gets comparatively little, because no rich man can buy his work outright, and keep it for his own personal glorification; but in return, he feels pretty sure that those whose opinion he most wishes to conciliate, those for whose appreciative taste he has polished and repolished his rough diamond, will in the end see and admire the work he has so carefully and lovingly performed for them. We are less lucky in that respect; we have to cast our pearls before swine too often, and all for the sake of filthy lucre.'

As it turned out, however, the group of Autumn and the Breezes, in spite of this unpromising beginning, really formed the foundation of all Colin Churchill's future fortunes. Colin worked away at it with a will, nothing daunted by the discovery that it would probably cost him something more than he got for it; and in due time he despatched it to the earl in England, at a loss to himself of a little over twenty guineas. Still, the earl, being a fussy, consequential man, sent more than one friend during the progress of the work to see the group that Churchill was making for him. 'One of my own people, you know—a poor boy off my Dorsetshire estate—conceited I'm afraid, but not without talent; and I've taken it into my head to patronise him, just for the sake of the old feudal connection and all that sort of thing.' Some of the friends were better judges of sculpture than the earl himself, and when the Autumn was nearly finished, Colin was pleased to find that that distinguished connoisseur, Sir Leonard Hawkins, was much delighted with its execution. Next time Sir Leonard came he looked over Colin's designs carefully, and was greatly struck with the sketch for the Clytemnestra. He asked the price, and Cohn, wise by experience, stipulated for time to consult Maragliano. When he had done so, he said 700L.; and this time he made for himself a clear 250L. That was a big sum for a man in Colin Churchill's position; but it was only the beginning of a great artist's successful career. Commissions began to pour in upon him freely; and before Gwen Howard-Russell returned to Rome, Colin was already making far more money than in his wildest anticipation he had ever dreamt of. He must save up, now, to repay Sam; and when Sam's debt was fairly cancelled, then he must save up again for little Minna.



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