The Recovery by Edith Wharton
To the visiting stranger Hillbridge's first question was, “Have you
seen Keniston's things?” Keniston took precedence of the colonial State
House, the Gilbert Stuart Washington and the Ethnological Museum; nay,
he ran neck and neck with the President of the University, a
prehistoric relic who had known Emerson, and who was still sent about
the country in cotton-wool to open educational institutions with a
toothless oration on Brook Farm.
Keniston was sent about the country too: he opened art exhibitions,
laid the foundation of academies, and acted in a general sense as the
spokesman and apologist of art. Hillbridge was proud of him in his
peripatetic character, but his fellow-townsmen let it be understood
that to “know” Keniston one must come to Hillbridge. Never was work
more dependent for its effect on “atmosphere,” on milieu.
Hillbridge was Keniston's milieu, and there was one lady, a devotee of
his art, who went so far as to assert that once, at an exhibition in
New York, she had passed a Keniston without recognizing it. “It simply
didn't want to be seen in such surroundings; it was hiding itself under
an incognito,” she declared.
It was a source of special pride to Hillbridge that it contained all
the artist's best works. Strangers were told that Hillbridge had
discovered him. The discovery had come about in the simplest manner.
Professor Driffert, who had a reputation for “collecting,” had one day
hung a sketch on his drawing-room wall, and thereafter Mrs. Driffert's
visitors (always a little flurried by the sense that it was the kind of
house in which one might be suddenly called upon to distinguish between
a dry-point and an etching, or between Raphael Mengs and Raphael
Sanzio) were not infrequently subjected to the Professor's off-hand
inquiry, “By-the-way, have you seen my Keniston?” The visitors,
perceptibly awed, would retreat to a critical distance and murmur the
usual guarded generalities, while they tried to keep the name in mind
long enough to look it up in the Encyclopaedia. The name was not in the
Encyclopaedia; but, as a compensating fact, it became known that the
man himself was in Hillbridge. Hillbridge, then, owned an artist whose
celebrity it was the proper thing to take for granted! Some one else,
emboldened by the thought, bought a Keniston; and the next year, on the
occasion of the President's golden jubilee, the Faculty, by unanimous
consent, presented him with a Keniston. Two years later there was a
Keniston exhibition, to which the art-critics came from New York and
Boston; and not long afterward a well-known Chicago collector vainly
attempted to buy Professor Driffert's sketch, which the art journals
cited as a rare example of the painter's first or silvery manner. Thus
there gradually grew up a small circle of connoisseurs known in
artistic, circles as men who collected Kenistons.
Professor Wildmarsh, of the chair of Fine Arts and Archaeology, was
the first critic to publish a detailed analysis of the master's methods
and purpose. The article was illustrated by engravings which (though
they had cost the magazine a fortune) were declared by Professor
Wildmarsh to give but an imperfect suggestion of the esoteric
significance of the originals. The Professor, with a tact that
contrived to make each reader feel himself included among the
exceptions, went on to say that Keniston's work would never appeal to
any but exceptional natures; and he closed with the usual assertion
that to apprehend the full meaning of the master's “message” it was
necessary to see him in the surroundings of his own home at Hillbridge.
Professor Wildmarsh's article was read one spring afternoon by a
young lady just speeding eastward on her first visit to Hillbridge, and
already flushed with anticipation of the intellectual opportunities
awaiting her. In East Onondaigua, where she lived, Hillbridge was
looked on as an Oxford. Magazine writers, with the easy American use of
the superlative, designated it as “the venerable Alma Mater,” the
“antique seat of learning,” and Claudia Day had been brought up to
regard it as the fountain-head of knowledge, and of that mental
distinction which is so much rarer than knowledge. An innate passion
for all that was thus distinguished and exceptional made her revere
Hillbridge as the native soil of those intellectual amenities that were
of such difficult growth in the thin air of East Onondaigua. At the
first suggestion of a visit to Hillbridge—whither she went at the
invitation of a girl friend who (incredible apotheosis!) had married
one of the University professors—Claudia's spirit dilated with the
sense of new possibilities. The vision of herself walking under the
“historic elms” toward the Memorial Library, standing rapt before the
Stuart Washington, or drinking in, from some obscure corner of an
academic drawing-room, the President's reminiscences of the Concord
group—this vividness of self-projection into the emotions awaiting her
made her glad of any delay that prolonged so exquisite a moment.
It was in this mood that she opened the article on Keniston. She
knew about him, of course; she was wonderfully “well up,” even for East
Onondaigua. She had read of him in the magazines; she had met, on a
visit to New York, a man who collected Kenistons, and a photogravure of
a Keniston in an “artistic” frame hung above her writing-table at home.
But Professor Wildmarsh's article made her feel how little she really
knew of the master; and she trembled to think of the state of relative
ignorance in which, but for the timely purchase of the magazine, she
might have entered Hillbridge. She had, for instance, been densely
unaware that Keniston had already had three “manners,” and was showing
symptoms of a fourth. She was equally ignorant of the fact that he had
founded a school and “created a formula”; and she learned with a thrill
that no one could hope to understand him who had not seen him in his
studio at Hillbridge, surrounded by his own works. “The man and the art
interpret each other,” their exponent declared; and Claudia Day,
bending a brilliant eye on the future, wondered if she were ever to be
admitted to the privilege of that double initiation.
Keniston, to his other claims to distinction, added that of being
hard to know. His friends always hastened to announce the fact to
strangers—adding after a pause of suspense that they “would see what
they could do.” Visitors in whose favor he was induced to make an
exception were further warned that he never spoke unless he was
interested—so that they mustn't mind if he remained silent. It was
under these reassuring conditions that, some ten days after her arrival
at Hillbridge, Miss Day was introduced to the master's studio. She
found him a tall listless-looking man, who appeared middle-aged to her
youth, and who stood before his own pictures with a vaguely
interrogative gaze, leaving the task of their interpretation to the
lady who had courageously contrived the visit. The studio, to Claudia's
surprise, was bare and shabby. It formed a rambling addition to the
small cheerless house in which the artist lived with his mother and a
widowed sister. For Claudia it added the last touch to his distinction
to learn that he was poor, and that what he earned was devoted to the
maintenance of the two limp women who formed a neutral-tinted
background to his impressive outline. His pictures of course fetched
high prices; but he worked slowly—“painfully,” as his devotees
preferred to phrase it—with frequent intervals of ill health and
inactivity, and the circle of Keniston connoisseurs was still as small
as it was distinguished. The girl's fancy instantly hailed in him that
favorite figure of imaginative youth, the artist who would rather
starve than paint a pot-boiler. It is known to comparatively few that
the production of successful pot-boilers is an art in itself, and that
such heroic abstentions as Keniston's are not always purely voluntary.
On the occasion of her first visit the artist said so little that
Claudia was able to indulge to the full the harrowing sense of her
inadequacy. No wonder she had not been one of the few that he cared to
talk to; every word she uttered must so obviously have diminished the
inducement! She had been cheap, trivial, conventional; at once gushing
and inexpressive, eager and constrained. She could feel him counting
the minutes till the visit was over, and as the door finally closed on
the scene of her discomfiture she almost shared the hope with which she
confidently credited him—that they might never meet again.
Mrs. Davant glanced reverentially about the studio. “I have always
said,” she murmured, “that they ought to be seen in Europe.”
Mrs. Davant was young, credulous and emotionally extravagant: she
reminded Claudia of her earlier self—the self that, ten years before,
had first set an awestruck foot on that very threshold.
“Not for his sake,” Mrs. Davant continued, “but for
Claudia smiled. She was glad that her husband's pictures were to be
exhibited in Paris. She concurred in Mrs. Davant's view of the
importance of the event; but she thought her visitor's way of putting
the case a little overcharged. Ten years spent in an atmosphere of
Keniston-worship had insensibly developed in Claudia a preference for
moderation of speech. She believed in her husband, of course; to
believe in him, with an increasing abandonment and tenacity, had become
one of the necessary laws of being; but she did not believe in his
admirers. Their faith in him was perhaps as genuine as her own; but it
seemed to her less able to give an account of itself. Some few of his
appreciators doubtless measured him by their own standards; but it was
difficult not to feel that in the Hillbridge circle, where rapture ran
the highest, he was accepted on what was at best but an indirect
valuation; and now and then she had a frightened doubt as to the
independence of her own convictions. That innate sense of relativity
which even East Onondaigua had not been able to check in Claudia Day
had been fostered in Mrs. Keniston by the artistic absolutism of
Hillbridge, and she often wondered that her husband remained so
uncritical of the quality of admiration accorded him. Her husband's
uncritical attitude toward himself and his admirers had in fact been
one of the surprises of her marriage. That an artist should believe in
his potential powers seemed to her at once the incentive and the pledge
of excellence: she knew there was no future for a hesitating talent.
What perplexed her was Keniston's satisfaction in his achievement. She
had always imagined that the true artist must regard himself as the
imperfect vehicle of the cosmic emotion—that beneath every difficulty
overcome a new one lurked, the vision widening as the scope enlarged.
To be initiated into these creative struggles, to shed on the toiler's
path the consolatory ray of faith and encouragement, had seemed the
chief privilege of her marriage. But there is something supererogatory
in believing in a man obviously disposed to perform that service for
himself; and Claudia's ardor gradually spent itself against the dense
surface of her husband's complacency. She could smile now at her vision
of an intellectual communion which should admit her to the inmost
precincts of his inspiration. She had learned that the creative
processes are seldom self-explanatory, and Keniston's inarticulateness
no longer discouraged her; but she could not reconcile her sense of the
continuity of all high effort to his unperturbed air of finishing each
picture as though he had despatched a masterpiece to posterity. In the
first recoil from her disillusionment she even allowed herself to
perceive that, if he worked slowly, it was not because he mistrusted
his powers of expression, but because he had really so little to
“It's for Europe,” Mrs. Davant vaguely repeated; and Claudia noticed
that she was blushingly intent on tracing with the tip of her elaborate
sunshade the pattern of the shabby carpet.
“It will be a revelation to them,” she went on provisionally, as
though Claudia had missed her cue and left an awkward interval to fill.
Claudia had in fact a sudden sense of deficient intuition. She felt
that her visitor had something to communicate which required, on her
own part, an intelligent co-operation; but what it was her insight
failed to suggest. She was, in truth, a little tired of Mrs. Davant,
who was Keniston's latest worshipper, who ordered pictures recklessly,
who paid for them regally in advance, and whose gallery was,
figuratively speaking, crowded with the artist's unpainted
masterpieces. Claudia's impatience was perhaps complicated by the
uneasy sense that Mrs. Davant was too young, too rich, too
inexperienced; that somehow she ought to be warned.—Warned of what?
That some of the pictures might never be painted? Scarcely that, since
Keniston, who was scrupulous in business transactions, might be trusted
not to take any material advantage of such evidence of faith. Claudia's
impulse remained undefined. She merely felt that she would have liked
to help Mrs. Davant, and that she did not know how.
“You'll be there to see them?” she asked, as her visitor lingered.
“In Paris?” Mrs. Davant's blush deepened. “We must all be there
Claudia smiled. “My husband and I mean to go abroad some day—but I
don't see any chance of it at present.”
“But he ought to go—you ought both to go this summer!” Mrs.
Davant persisted. “I know Professor Wildmarsh and Professor Driffert
and all the other critics think that Mr. Keniston's never having been
to Europe has given his work much of its wonderful individuality, its
peculiar flavor and meaning—but now that his talent is formed, that he
has full command of his means of expression,” (Claudia recognized one
of Professor Driffert's favorite formulas) “they all think he ought to
see the work of the other great masters—that he ought to visit
the home of his ancestors, as Professor Wildmarsh says!” She stretched
an impulsive hand to Claudia. “You ought to let him go, Mrs. Keniston!”
Claudia accepted the admonition with the philosophy of the wife who
is used to being advised on the management of her husband. “I sha'n't
interfere with him,” she declared; and Mrs. Davant instantly caught her
up with a cry of, “Oh, it's too lovely of you to say that!” With this
exclamation she left Claudia to a silent renewal of wonder.
A moment later Keniston entered: to a mind curious in combinations
it might have occurred that he had met Mrs. Davant on the door-step. In
one sense he might, for all his wife cared, have met fifty Mrs. Davants
on the door-step: it was long since Claudia had enjoyed the solace of
resenting such coincidences. Her only thought now was that her
husband's first words might not improbably explain Mrs. Davant's last;
and she waited for him to speak.
He paused with his hands in his pockets before an unfinished picture
on the easel; then, as his habit was, he began to stroll touristlike
from canvas to canvas, standing before each in a musing ecstasy of
contemplation that no readjustment of view ever seemed to disturb. Her
eye instinctively joined his in its inspection; it was the one point
where their natures merged. Thank God, there, was no doubt about the
pictures! She was what she had always dreamed of being—the wife of a
great artist. Keniston dropped into an armchair and filled his pipe.
“How should you like to go to Europe?” he asked.
His wife looked up quickly. “When?”
“Now—this spring, I mean.” He paused to light the pipe. “I should
like to be over there while these things are being exhibited.”
Claudia was silent.
“Well?” he repeated after a moment.
“How can we afford it?” she asked.
Keniston had always scrupulously fulfilled his duty to the mother
and sister whom his marriage had dislodged; and Claudia, who had the
atoning temperament which seeks to pay for every happiness by making it
a source of fresh obligations, had from the outset accepted his ties
with an exaggerated devotion. Any disregard of such a claim would have
vulgarized her most delicate pleasures; and her husband's sensitiveness
to it in great measure extenuated the artistic obtuseness that often
seemed to her like a failure of the moral sense. His loyalty to the
dull women who depended on him was, after all, compounded of finer
tissues than any mere sensibility to ideal demands.
“Oh, I don't see why we shouldn't,” he rejoined. “I think we might
“At Mrs. Davant's expense?” leaped from Claudia. She could not tell
why she had said it; some inner barrier seemed to have given way under
a confused pressure of emotions.
He looked up at her with frank surprise. “Well, she has been very
jolly about it—why not? She has a tremendous feeling for art—the
keenest I ever knew in a woman.” Claudia imperceptibly smiled. “She
wants me to let her pay in advance for the four panels she has ordered
for the Memorial Library. That would give us plenty of money for the
trip, and my having the panels to do is another reason for my wanting
to go abroad just now.”
“Yes; I've never worked on such a big scale. I want to see how those
old chaps did the trick; I want to measure myself with the big fellows
over there. An artist ought to, once in his life.”
She gave him a wondering look. For the first time his words implied
a sense of possible limitation; but his easy tone seemed to retract
what they conceded. What he really wanted was fresh food for his
self-satisfaction: he was like an army that moves on after exhausting
the resources of the country.
Womanlike, she abandoned the general survey of the case for the
consideration of a minor point.
“Are you sure you can do that kind of thing?” she asked.
“What kind of thing?”
He glanced at her indulgently: his self-confidence was too
impenetrable to feel the pin-prick of such a doubt.
“Immensely sure,” he said with a smile.
“And you don't mind taking so much money from her in advance?”
He stared. “Why should I? She'll get it back—with interest!” He
laughed and drew at his pipe. “It will be an uncommonly interesting
experience. I shouldn't wonder if it freshened me up a bit.”
She looked at him again. This second hint of self-distrust struck
her as the sign of a quickened sensibility. What if, after all, he was
beginning to be dissatisfied with his work? The thought filled her with
a renovating sense of his sufficiency.
They stopped in London to see the National Gallery.
It was thus that, in their inexperience, they had narrowly put it;
but in reality every stone of the streets, every trick of the
atmosphere, had its message of surprise for their virgin sensibilities.
The pictures were simply the summing up, the final interpretation, of
the cumulative pressure of an unimagined world; and it seemed to
Claudia that long before they reached the doors of the gallery she had
some intuitive revelation of what awaited them within.
They moved about from room to room without exchanging a word. The
vast noiseless spaces seemed full of sound, like the roar of a distant
multitude heard only by the inner ear. Had their speech been articulate
their language would have been incomprehensible; and even that far-off
murmur of meaning pressed intolerably on Claudia's nerves. Keniston
took the onset without outward sign of disturbance. Now and then he
paused before a canvas, or prolonged from one of the benches his silent
communion with some miracle of line or color; but he neither looked at
his wife nor spoke to her. He seemed to have forgotten her presence.
Claudia was conscious of keeping a furtive watch on him; but the sum
total of her impressions was negative. She remembered thinking when she
first met him that his face was rather expressionless; and he had the
habit of self-engrossed silences.
All that evening, at the hotel, they talked about London, and he
surprised her by an acuteness of observation that she had sometimes
inwardly accused him of lacking. He seemed to have seen everything, to
have examined, felt, compared, with nerves as finely adjusted as her
own; but he said nothing of the pictures. The next day they returned to
the National Gallery, and he began to study the paintings in detail,
pointing out differences of technique, analyzing and criticising, but
still without summing up his conclusions. He seemed to have a sort of
provincial dread of showing himself too much impressed. Claudia's own
sensations were too complex, too overwhelming, to be readily
classified. Lacking the craftsman's instinct to steady her, she felt
herself carried off her feet by the rush of incoherent impressions. One
point she consciously avoided, and that was the comparison of her
husband's work with what they were daily seeing. Art, she inwardly
argued, was too various, too complex, dependent on too many
inter-relations of feeling and environment, to allow of its being
judged by any provisional standard. Even the subtleties of technique
must be modified by the artist's changing purpose, as this in turn is
acted on by influences of which he is himself unconscious. How, then,
was an unprepared imagination to distinguish between such varied
reflections of the elusive vision? She took refuge in a passionate
exaggeration of her own ignorance and insufficiency.
After a week in London they went to Paris. The exhibition of
Keniston's pictures had been opened a few days earlier; and as they
drove through the streets on the way to the station an “impressionist"
poster here and there invited them to the display of the American
artist's work. Mrs. Davant, who had been in Paris for the opening, had
already written rapturously of the impression produced, enclosing
commendatory notices from one or two papers. She reported that there
had been a great crowd on the first day, and that the critics had been
The Kenistons arrived in the evening, and the next morning Claudia,
as a matter of course, asked her husband at what time he meant to go
and see the pictures.
He looked up absently from his guide-book.
“Why—yours,” she said, surprised.
“Oh, they'll keep,” he answered; adding with a slightly embarrassed
laugh, “We'll give the other chaps a show first.” Presently he laid
down his book and proposed that they should go to the Louvre.
They spent the morning there, lunched at a restaurant near by, and
returned to the gallery in the afternoon. Keniston had passed from
inarticulateness to an eager volubility. It was clear that he was
beginning to co-ordinate his impressions, to find his way about in a
corner of the great imaginative universe. He seemed extraordinarily
ready to impart his discoveries; and Claudia felt that her ignorance
served him as a convenient buffer against the terrific impact of new
On the way home she asked when he meant to see Mrs. Davant.
His answer surprised her. “Does she know we're here?”
“Not unless you've sent her word,” said Claudia, with a touch of
“That's all right, then,” he returned simply. “I want to wait and
look about a day or two longer. She'd want us to go sight-seeing with
her; and I'd rather get my impressions alone.”
The next two days were hampered by the necessity of eluding Mrs.
Davant. Claudia, under different circumstances, would have scrupled to
share in this somewhat shabby conspiracy; but she found herself in a
state of suspended judgment, wherein her husband's treatment of Mrs.
Davant became for the moment merely a clue to larger meanings.
They had been four days in Paris when Claudia, returning one
afternoon from a parenthetical excursion to the Rue de la Paix, was
confronted on her threshold by the reproachful figure of their
benefactress. It was not to her, however, that Mrs. Davant's reproaches
were addressed. Keniston, it appeared, had borne the brunt of them; for
he stood leaning against the mantelpiece of their modest salon
in that attitude of convicted negligence when, if ever, a man is glad
to take refuge behind his wife.
Claudia had however no immediate intention of affording him such
shelter. She wanted to observe and wait.
“He's too impossible!” cried Mrs. Davant, sweeping her at once into
the central current of her grievance.
Claudia looked from one to the other.
“For not going to see you?”
“For not going to see his pictures!” cried the other nobly.
Claudia colored and Keniston shifted his position uneasily.
“I can't make her understand,” he said, turning to his wife.
“I don't care about myself!” Mrs. Davant interjected.
“I do, then; it's the only thing I do care about,” he
hurriedly protested. “I meant to go at once—to write—Claudia wanted
to go, but I wouldn't let her.” He looked helplessly about the pleasant
red-curtained room, which was rapidly burning itself into Claudia's
consciousness as a visible extension of Mrs. Davant's claims.
“I can't explain,” he broke off.
Mrs. Davant in turn addressed herself to Claudia.
“People think it's so odd,” she complained. “So many of the artists
here are anxious to meet him; they've all been so charming about the
pictures; and several of our American friends have come over from
London expressly for the exhibition. I told every one that he would be
here for the opening—there was a private view, you know—and they were
so disappointed—they wanted to give him an ovation; and I didn't know
what to say. What am I to say?” she abruptly ended.
“There's nothing to say,” said Keniston slowly.
“But the exhibition closes the day after to-morrow.”
“Well, I sha'n't close—I shall be here,” he declared with an
effort at playfulness. “If they want to see me—all these people you're
kind enough to mention—won't there be other chances?”
“But I wanted them to see you among your pictures—to hear
you talk about them, explain them in that wonderful way. I wanted you
to interpret each other, as Professor Wildmarsh says!”
“Oh, hang Professor Wildmarsh!” said Keniston, softening the
commination with a smile. “If my pictures are good for anything they
oughtn't to need explaining.”
Mrs. Davant stared. “But I thought that was what made them so
interesting!” she exclaimed.
Keniston looked down. “Perhaps it was,” he murmured.
There was an awkward silence, which Claudia broke by saying, with a
glance at her husband: “But if the exhibition is to remain open
to-morrow, could we not meet you there? And perhaps you could send word
to some of our friends.”
Mrs. Davant brightened like a child whose broken toy is glued
together. “Oh, do make him!” she implored. “I'll ask them to
come in the afternoon—we'll make it into a little tea—a five
o'clock. I'll send word at once to everybody!” She gathered up her
beruffled boa and sunshade, settling her plumage like a reassured bird.
“It will be too lovely!” she ended in a self-consoling murmur.
But in the doorway a new doubt assailed her. “You won't fail me?”
she said, turning plaintively to Keniston. “You'll make him come, Mrs.
“I'll bring him!” Claudia promised.
When, the next morning, she appeared equipped for their customary
ramble, her husband surprised her by announcing that he meant to stay
“The fact is I'm rather surfeited,” he said, smiling. “I suppose my
appetite isn't equal to such a plethora. I think I'll write some
letters and join you somewhere later.”
She detected the wish to be alone and responded to it with her usual
“I shall sink to my proper level and buy a bonnet, then,” she said.
“I haven't had time to take the edge off that appetite.”
They agreed to meet at the Hotel Cluny at mid-day, and she set out
alone with a vague sense of relief. Neither she nor Keniston had made
any direct reference to Mrs. Davant's visit; but its effect was
implicit in their eagerness to avoid each other.
Claudia accomplished some shopping in the spirit of perfunctoriness
that robs even new bonnets of their bloom; and this business
despatched, she turned aimlessly into the wide inviting brightness of
the streets. Never had she felt more isolated amid that ordered beauty
which gives a social quality to the very stones and mortar of Paris.
All about her were evidences of an artistic sensibility pervading every
form of life like the nervous structure of the huge frame—a
sensibility so delicate, alert and universal that it seemed to leave no
room for obtuseness or error. In such a medium the faculty of plastic
expression must develop as unconsciously as any organ in its normal
surroundings; to be “artistic” must cease to be an attitude and become
a natural function. To Claudia the significance of the whole vast
revelation was centred in the light it shed on one tiny spot of
consciousness—the value of her husband's work. There are moments when
to the groping soul the world's accumulated experiences are but
stepping-stones across a private difficulty.
She stood hesitating on a street corner. It was barely eleven, and
she had an hour to spare before going to the Hotel Cluny. She seemed to
be letting her inclination float as it would on the cross-currents of
suggestion emanating from the brilliant complex scene before her; but
suddenly, in obedience to an impulse that she became aware of only in
acting on it, she called a cab and drove to the gallery where her
husband's pictures were exhibited.
A magnificent official in gold braid sold her a ticket and pointed
the way up the empty crimson-carpeted stairs. His duplicate, on the
upper landing, held out a catalogue with an air of recognizing the
futility of the offer; and a moment later she found herself in the long
noiseless impressive room full of velvet-covered ottomans and exotic
plants. It was clear that the public ardor on which Mrs. Davant had
expatiated had spent itself earlier in the week; for Claudia had this
luxurious apartment to herself. Something about its air of rich
privacy, its diffusion of that sympathetic quality in other countries
so conspicuously absent from the public show-room, seemed to emphasize
its present emptiness. It was as though the flowers, the carpet, the
lounges, surrounded their visitor's solitary advance with the mute
assurance that they had done all they could toward making the thing “go
off,” and that if they had failed it was simply for lack of
co-operation. She stood still and looked about her. The pictures struck
her instantly as odd gaps in the general harmony; it was self-evident
that they had not co-operated. They had not been pushing, aggressive,
discordant: they had merely effaced themselves. She swept a startled
eye from one familiar painting to another. The canvases were all
there—and the frames—but the miracle, the mirage of life and meaning,
had vanished like some atmospheric illusion. What was it that had
happened? And had it happened to her or to the pictures? She
tried to rally her frightened thoughts; to push or coax them into a
semblance of resistance; but argument was swept off its feet by the
huge rush of a single conviction—the conviction that the pictures were
bad. There was no standing up against that: she felt herself submerged.
The stealthy fear that had been following her all these days had her
by the throat now. The great vision of beauty through which she had
been moving as one enchanted was turned to a phantasmagoria of evil
mocking shapes. She hated the past; she hated its splendor, its power,
its wicked magical vitality.... She dropped into a seat and continued
to stare at the wall before her. Gradually, as she stared, there stole
out to her from the dimmed humbled canvases a reminder of what she had
once seen in them, a spectral appeal to her faith to call them back to
life. What proof had she that her present estimate of them was less
subjective than the other? The confused impressions of the last few
days were hardly to be pleaded as a valid theory of art. How, after
all, did she know that the pictures were bad? On what suddenly acquired
technical standard had she thus decided the case against them? It
seemed as though it were a standard outside of herself, as though some
unheeded inner sense were gradually making her aware of the presence,
in that empty room, of a critical intelligence that was giving out a
subtle effluence of disapproval. The fancy was so vivid that, to shake
it off, she rose and began to move about again. In the middle of the
room stood a monumental divan surmounted by a massif of palms
and azaleas. As Claudia's muffled wanderings carried her around the
angle of this seat, she saw that its farther side was occupied by the
figure of a man, who sat with his hands resting on his stick and his
head bowed upon them. She gave a little cry and her husband rose and
Instantly the live point of consciousness was shifted, and she
became aware that the quality of the pictures no longer mattered. It
was what he thought of them that counted: her life hung on that.
They looked at each other a moment in silence; such concussions are
not apt to flash into immediate speech. At length he said simply, “I
didn't know you were coming here.”
She colored as though he had charged her with something underhand.
“I didn't mean to,” she stammered; “but I was too early for our
Her word's cast a revealing glare on the situation. Neither of them
looked at the pictures; but to Claudia those unobtruding presences
seemed suddenly to press upon them and force them apart.
Keniston glanced at his watch. “It's twelve o'clock,” he said.
“Shall we go on?”
At the door he called a cab and put her in it; then, drawing out his
watch again, he said abruptly: “I believe I'll let you go alone. I'll
join you at the hotel in time for luncheon.” She wondered for a moment
if he meant to return to the gallery; but, looking back as she drove
off, she saw him walk rapidly away in the opposite direction.
The cabman had carried her half-way to the Hotel Cluny before she
realized where she was going, and cried out to him to turn home. There
was an acute irony in this mechanical prolongation of the quest of
beauty. She had had enough of it, too much of it; her one longing was
to escape, to hide herself away from its all-suffusing implacable
At the hotel, alone in her room, a few tears came to soften her
seared vision; but her mood was too tense to be eased by weeping. Her
whole being was centred in the longing to know what her husband
thought. Their short exchange of words had, after all, told her
nothing. She had guessed a faint resentment at her unexpected
appearance; but that might merely imply a dawning sense, on his part,
of being furtively watched and criticised. She had sometimes wondered
if he was never conscious of her observation; there were moments when
it seemed to radiate from her in visible waves. Perhaps, after all, he
was aware of it, on his guard against it, as a lurking knife behind the
thick curtain of his complacency; and to-day he must have caught the
gleam of the blade.
Claudia had not reached the age when pity is the first chord to
vibrate in contact with any revelation of failure. Her one hope had
been that Keniston should be clear-eyed enough to face the truth.
Whatever it turned out to be, she wanted him to measure himself with
it. But as his image rose before her she felt a sudden half-maternal
longing to thrust herself between him and disaster. Her eagerness to
see him tested by circumstances seemed now like a cruel scientific
curiosity. She saw in a flash of sympathy that he would need her most
if he fell beneath his fate.
He did not, after all, return for luncheon; and when she came
up-stairs from her solitary meal their salon was still
untenanted. She permitted herself no sensational fears; for she could
not, at the height of apprehension, figure Keniston as yielding to any
tragic impulse; but the lengthening hours brought an uneasiness that
was fuel to her pity. Suddenly she heard the clock strike five. It was
the hour at which they had promised to meet Mrs. Davant at the
gallery—the hour of the “ovation.” Claudia rose and went to the
window, straining for a glimpse of her husband in the crowded street.
Could it be that he had forgotten her, had gone to the gallery without
her? Or had something happened—that veiled “something” which, for the
last hour, had grimly hovered on the outskirts of her mind?
She heard a hand on the door and Keniston entered. As she turned to
meet him her whole being was swept forward on a great wave of pity: she
was so sure, now, that he must know.
But he confronted her with a glance of preoccupied brightness; her
first impression was that she had never seen him so vividly, so
expressively pleased. If he needed her, it was not to bind up his
He gave her a smile which was clearly the lingering reflection of
some inner light. “I didn't mean to be so late,” he said, tossing aside
his hat and the little red volume that served as a clue to his
explorations. “I turned in to the Louvre for a minute after I left you
this morning, and the place fairly swallowed me up—I couldn't get away
from it. I've been there ever since.” He threw himself into a chair and
glanced about for his pipe.
“It takes time,” he continued musingly, “to get at them, to make out
what they're saying—the big fellows, I mean. They're not a
communicative lot. At first I couldn't make much out of their lingo—it
was too different from mine! But gradually, by picking up a hint here
and there, and piecing them together, I've begun to understand; and
to-day, by Jove, I got one or two of the old chaps by the throat and
fairly turned them inside out—made them deliver up their last drop.”
He lifted a brilliant eye to her. “Lord, it was tremendous!” he
He had found his pipe and was musingly filling it. Claudia waited in
“At first,” he began again, “I was afraid their language was too
hard for me—that I should never quite know what they were driving at;
they seemed to cold-shoulder me, to be bent on shutting me out. But I
was bound I wouldn't be beaten, and now, to-day”—he paused a moment to
strike a match—“when I went to look at those things of mine it all
came over me in a flash. By Jove! it was as if I'd made them all into a
big bonfire to light me on my road!”
His wife was trembling with a kind of sacred terror. She had been
afraid to pray for light for him, and here he was joyfully casting his
whole past upon the pyre!
“Is there nothing left?” she faltered.
“Nothing left? There's everything!” he exulted. “Why, here I am, not
much over forty, and I've found out already—already!” He stood up and
began to move excitedly about the room. “My God! Suppose I'd never
known! Suppose I'd gone on painting things like that forever! Why, I
feel like those chaps at revivalist meetings when they get up and say
they're saved! Won't somebody please start a hymn?”
Claudia, with a tremulous joy, was letting herself go on the strong
current of his emotion; but it had not yet carried her beyond her
depth, and suddenly she felt hard ground underfoot.
“Mrs. Davant—” she exclaimed.
He stared, as though suddenly recalled from a long distance. “Mrs.
“We were to have met her—this afternoon—now—”
“At the gallery? Oh, that's all right. I put a stop to that; I went
to see her after I left you; I explained it all to her.”
“I told her I was going to begin all over again.”
Claudia's heart gave a forward bound and then sank back hopelessly.
“But the panels—?”
“That's all right too. I told her about the panels,” he reassured
“You told her—?”
“That I can't paint them now. She doesn't understand, of course; but
she's the best little woman and she trusts me.”
She could have wept for joy at his exquisite obtuseness. “But that
isn't all,” she wailed. “It doesn't matter how much you've explained to
her. It doesn't do away with the fact that we're living on those
“Living on them?”
“On the money that she paid you to paint them. Isn't that what
brought us here? And—if you mean to do as you say—to begin all over
again—how in the world are we ever to pay her back?”
Her husband turned on her an inspired eye. “There's only one way
that I know of,” he imperturbably declared, “and that's to stay out
here till I learn how to paint them.”