Leon had his hat in his hand at once. He came forward with his customary grace; it was a moment which would have earned him a round of cheering on the stage. Elvira and Stubbs advanced behind him, like a couple of Admetus's sheep following the god Apollo.
"Sir," said Leon, "the hour is unpardonably late, and our little serenade has the air of an impertinence. Believe me, sir, it is an appeal. Monsieur is an artist, I perceive. We are here three artists benighted and without shelter, one a woman - a delicate woman - in evening dress - in an interesting situation. This will not fail to touch the woman's heart of Madame, whom I perceive indistinctly behind Monsieur her husband, and whose face speaks eloquently of a well-regulated mind. Ah! Monsieur, Madame - one generous movement, and you make three people happy! Two or three hours beside your fire - I ask it of Monsieur in the name of Art - I ask it of Madame by the sanctity of womanhood."
The two, as by a tacit consent, drew back from the door.
"Come in," said the man.
"Entrez, Madame," said the woman.
The door opened directly upon the kitchen of the house, which was to all appearance the only sitting-room. The furniture was both plain and scanty; but there were one or two landscapes on the wall handsomely framed, as if they had already visited the committee- rooms of an exhibition and been thence extruded. Leon walked up to the pictures and represented the part of a connoisseur before each in turn, with his usual dramatic insight and force.
The master of the house, as if irresistibly attracted, followed him from canvas to canvas with the lamp. Elvira was led directly to the fire, where she proceeded to warm herself, while Stubbs stood in the middle of the floor and followed the proceedings of Leon with mild astonishment in his eyes.
"You should see them by daylight," said the artist.
"I promise myself that pleasure," said Leon. "You possess, sir, if you will permit me an observation, the art of composition to a T."
"You are very good," returned the other. "But should you not draw nearer to the fire?"
"With all my heart," said Leon.
And the whole party was soon gathered at the table over a hasty and not an elegant cold supper, washed down with the least of small wines. Nobody liked the meal, but nobody complained; they put a good face upon it, one and all, and made a great clattering of knives and forks. To see Leon eating a single cold sausage was to see a triumph; by the time he had done he had got through as much pantomime as would have sufficed for a baron of beef, and he had the relaxed expression of the over-eaten.
As Elvira had naturally taken a place by the side of Leon, and Stubbs as naturally, although I believe unconsciously, by the side of Elvira, the host and hostess were left together. Yet it was to be noted that they never addressed a word to each other, nor so much as suffered their eyes to meet.
The interrupted skirmish still survived in ill-feeling; and the instant the guests departed it would break forth again as bitterly as ever. The talk wandered from this to that subject - for with one accord the party had declared it was too late to go to bed; but those two never relaxed towards each other; Goneril and Regan in a sisterly tiff were not more bent on enmity.
It chanced that Elvira was so much tired by all the little excitements of the night, that for once she laid aside her company manners, which were both easy and correct, and in the most natural manner in the world leaned her head on Leon's shoulder. At the same time, fatigue suggesting tenderness, she locked the fingers of her right hand into those of her husband's left; and, half closing her eyes, dozed off into a golden borderland between sleep and waking.
But all the time she was not aware of what was passing, and saw the painter's wife studying her with looks between contempt and envy.
It occurred to Leon that his constitution demanded the use of some tobacco; and he undid his fingers from Elvira's in order to roll a cigarette. It was gently done, and he took care that his indulgence should in no other way disturb his wife's position. But it seemed to catch the eye of the painter's wife with a special significancy. She looked straight before her for an instant, and then, with a swift and stealthy movement, took hold of her husband's hand below the table. Alas! she might have spared herself the dexterity. For the poor fellow was so overcome by this caress that he stopped with his mouth open in the middle of a word, and by the expression of his face plainly declared to all the company that his thoughts had been diverted into softer channels.
If it had not been rather amiable, it would have been absurdly droll. His wife at once withdrew her touch; but it was plain she had to exert some force.
Thereupon the young man coloured and looked for a moment beautiful.
Leon and Elvira both observed the byplay, and a shock passed from one to the other; for they were inveterate match-makers, especially between those who were already married.
"I beg your pardon," said Leon suddenly. "I see no use in pretending. Before we came in here we heard sounds indicating - if I may so express myself - an imperfect harmony."
"Sir - " began the man.
But the woman was beforehand.
"It is quite true," she said. "I see no cause to be ashamed. If my husband is mad I shall at least do my utmost to prevent the consequences. Picture to yourself, Monsieur and Madame," she went on, for she passed Stubbs over, "that this wretched person - a dauber, an incompetent, not fit to be a sign-painter - receives this morning an admirable offer from an uncle - an uncle of my own, my mother's brother, and tenderly beloved - of a clerkship with nearly a hundred and fifty pounds a year, and that he - picture to yourself! - he refuses it! Why? For the sake of Art, he says. Look at his art, I say - look at it! Is it fit to be seen? Ask him - is it fit to be sold? And it is for this, Monsieur and Madame, that he condemns me to the most deplorable existence, without luxuries, without comforts, in a vile suburb of a country town. O non!" she cried, "non - je ne me tairai pas - c'est plus fort que moi!
I take these gentlemen and this lady for judges - is this kind? is it decent?
is it manly? Do I not deserve better at his hands after having married him and" - (a visible hitch) - "done everything in the world to please him."
I doubt if there were ever a more embarrassed company at a table; every one looked like a fool; and the husband like the biggest.
"The art of Monsieur, however," said Elvira, breaking the silence, "is not wanting in distinction."
"It has this distinction," said the wife, "that nobody will buy it."
"I should have supposed a clerkship - " began Stubbs.
"Art is Art," swept in Leon. "I salute Art. It is the beautiful, the divine; it is the spirit of the world, and the pride of life. But - " And the actor paused.
"A clerkship - " began Stubbs.
"I'll tell you what it is," said the painter. "I am an artist, and as this gentleman says, Art is this and the other; but of course, if my wife is going to make my life a piece of perdition all day long, I prefer to go and drown myself out of hand."
"Go!" said his wife. "I should like to see you!"
"I was going to say," resumed Stubbs, "that a fellow may be a clerk and paint almost as much as he likes. I know a fellow in a bank who makes capital water- colour sketches; he even sold one for seven-and-six."
To both the women this seemed a plank of safety; each hopefully interrogated the countenance of her lord; even Elvira, an artist herself! - but indeed there must be something permanently mercantile in the female nature. The two men exchanged a glance; it was tragic; not otherwise might two philosophers salute, as at the end of a laborious life each recognised that he was still a mystery to his disciples.
"Art is Art," he repeated sadly. "It is not water-colour sketches, nor practising on a piano. It is a life to be lived."
"And in the meantime people starve!" observed the woman of the house. "If that's a life, it is not one for me."
"I'll tell you what," burst forth Leon; "you, Madame, go into another room and talk it over with my wife; and I'll stay here and talk it over with your husband. It may come to nothing, but let's try."
"I am very willing," replied the young woman; and she proceeded to light a candle. "This way if you please." And she led Elvira upstairs into a bedroom.
"The fact is," said she, sitting down, "that my husband cannot paint."
"No more can mine act," replied Elvira.
"I should have thought he could," returned the other; "he seems clever."
"He is so, and the best of men besides," said Elvira; "but he cannot act."
"At least he is not a sheer humbug like mine; he can at least sing."
"You mistake Leon," returned his wife warmly. "He does not even pretend to sing; he has too fine a taste; he does so for a living. And, believe me, neither of the men are humbugs. They are people with a mission - which they cannot carry out."
"Humbug or not," replied the other, "you came very near passing the night in the fields; and, for my part, I live in terror of starvation. I should think it was a man's mission to think twice about his wife. But it appears not.
Nothing is their mission but to play the fool. Oh!" she broke out, "is it not something dreary to think of that man of mine? If he could only do it, who would care? But no - not he - no more than I can!"
"Have you any children?" asked Elvira.
"No; but then I may."
"Children change so much," said Elvira, with a sigh.
And just then from the room below there flew up a sudden snapping chord on the guitar; one followed after another; then the voice of Leon joined in; and there was an air being played and sung that stopped the speech of the two women. The wife of the painter stood like a person transfixed; Elvira, looking into her eyes, could see all manner of beautiful memories and kind thoughts that were passing in and out of her soul with every note; it was a piece of her youth that went before her; a green French plain, the smell of apple- flowers, the far and shining ringlets of a river, and the words and presence of love.
"Leon has hit the nail," thought Elvira to herself. "I wonder how."
The how was plain enough. Leon had asked the painter if there were no air connected with courtship and pleasant times; and having learnt what he wished, and allowed an interval to pass, he had soared forth into
"O mon amante, O mon desir, Sachons cueillir L'heure charmante!"
"Pardon me, Madame," said the painter's wife, "your husband sings admirably well."
"He sings that with some feeling," replied Elvira, critically, although she was a little moved herself, for the song cut both ways in the upper chamber;
"but it is as an actor and not as a musician."
"Life is very sad," said the other; "it so wastes away under one's fingers."
"I have not found it so," replied Elvira. "I think the good parts of it last and grow greater every day."
"Frankly, how would you advise me?"
"Frankly, I would let my husband do what he wished. He is obviously a very loving painter; you have not yet tried him as a clerk. And you know - if it were only as the possible father of your children - it is as well to keep him at his best."
"He is an excellent fellow," said the wife.
They kept it up till sunrise with music and all manner of good fellowship; and at sunrise, while the sky was still temperate and clear, they separated on the threshold with a thousand excellent wishes for each other's welfare. Castel- le-Gachis was beginning to send up its smoke against the golden East; and the church bell was ringing six.
"My guitar is a familiar spirit," said Leon, as he and Elvira took the nearest way towards the inn, "it resuscitated a Commissary, created an English tourist, and reconciled a man and wife."
Stubbs, on his part, went off into the morning with reflections of his own.
"They are all mad," thought he, "all mad - but wonderfully decent."