Lady Tamworth repeated his words in sheer bewilderment. "You owe it all to me?"
"Yes," he nodded, "all to you." And with genuine gratitude he added, "You didn't know the good that you had done."
"Ah, don't say that!" she cried.
The bell tinkled over the shop-door and a woman entered. Lady Tamworth bent forward and said hastily, "I must speak to you."
"Then you must buy something; what shall it be?" Fairholm had already recovered his self-possession and was drawing out one of the shelves in the wall behind him.
"No, no!" she exclaimed, "not here; I can't speak to you here. Come and call on me; what day will you come?"
Julian shook his head. "Not at all, I am afraid. I have not the time."
A boy came out from the inner room and began to get ready the shutters. "Ah, it's Friday," she said. "You will be closing soon."
"In five minutes."
"Then I will wait for you. Yes, I will wait for you."
She paused at the door and looked at Julian. He was deferentially waiting on his customer, and Lady Tamworth noticed with a queer feeling of repugnance that he had even acquired the shopman's trick of rubbing the hands. Those five minutes proved for her a most unenviable period. Julian's sentence,—"I owe it all to you"—pressed heavily upon her conscience. Spoken bitterly, she would have given little heed to it; but there had been a convincing sincerity in the ring of his voice. The words, besides, brought back to her Sir John's uncomfortable aphorism and freighted it with an accusation. She applied it now as a search-light upon her jumbled recollections of Julian's courtship, and began to realise that her efforts during that time had been directed thoughtlessly towards enlarging her influence over him. If, indeed, Julian owed this change in his condition to her, then Sir John was right, and she had employed her influence to his hurt. And it only made her fault the greater that Julian was himself unconscious of his degradation. She commenced to feel a personal responsibility commanding her to rescue him from his slough, which was increased moreover by a fear that her persuasions might prove ineffectual. For Julian's manner pointed now to an utter absence of feeling so far as she was concerned.
At last Julian came out to her. "You will leave here," she cried impulsively. "You will come back to us, to your friends!"
"Never," he answered firmly.
"You must," she pleaded; "you said you owed it all to me."
"Well, don't you see? If you stay here, I can never forgive myself; I shall have ruined your life."
"Ruined it?" Julian asked in a tone of wonder. "You have made it." He stopped and looked at Lady Tamworth in perplexity. The same perplexity was stamped upon her face. "We are at cross-purposes, I think," he continued. "My rooms are close here. Let me give you some tea, and explain to you that you have no cause to blame yourself."
Lady Tamworth assented with some relief. The speech had an odd civilised flavour which contrasted pleasantly with what she had imagined of his mode of life.
They crossed the road and turned into a narrow side-street. Julian halted before a house of a slovenly exterior, and opened the door. A bare rickety staircase rose upwards from their feet. Fairholm closed the door behind Lady Tamworth, struck a match (for it was quite dark within this passage), and they mounted to the fourth and topmost floor. They stopped again upon a little landing in front of a second door. A wall-paper of a cheap and offensive pattern, which had here and there peeled from the plaster, added, Lady Tamworth observed, a paltry air of tawdriness to the poverty of the place. Julian fumbled in his pocket for a key, unlocked the door, and stepped aside for his companion to enter. Following her in, he lit a pair of wax candles on the mantelpiece and a brass lamp in the corner of the room. Lady Tamworth fancied that unawares she had slipped into fairyland; so great was the contrast between this retreat and the sordid surroundings amidst which it was perched. It was furnished with a dainty, and almost a feminine luxury. The room, she could see, was no more than an oblong garret; but along one side mouse-coloured curtains fell to the ground in folds from the angle where the sloping roof met the wall; on the other a cheerful fire glowed from a hearth of white tiles and a kettle sang merrily upon the hob. A broad couch, piled with silk cushions occupied the far end beneath the window, and the feet sank with a delicate pleasure into a thick velvety carpet. In the centre a small inlaid table of cedar wood held a silver tea-service. The candlesticks were of silver also, and cast in a light and fantastic fashion. The solitary discord was a black easel funereally draped.
Julian prepared the tea, and talked while he prepared it. "It is this way," he began quietly. "You know what I have always believed; that the will was the man, his soul, his life, everything. Well, in the old days thoughts and ideas commenced to make themselves felt in me, to crop up in my work. I would start on a picture with a clear settled design; when it was finished, I would notice that by some unconscious freak I had introduced a figure, an arabesque, always something which made the whole incongruous and bizarre. I discovered the cause during the week after I received your last letter. The thoughts, the ideas were yours; better than mine perhaps, but none the less death to me."
Lady Tamworth stirred uneasily under a sense of guilt, and murmured a faint objection. Julian shook off the occupation of his theme and handed her some cake, and began again, standing over her with the cake in his hand, and to all seeming unconscious that there was a strain of cruelty in his words. "I found out what that meant. My emotions were mastering me, drowning the will in me. You see, I cared for you so much—then."
A frank contempt stressing the last word cut into his hearer with the keenness of a knife. "You are unkind," she said weakly.
"There's no reproach to you. I have got over it long ago," he replied cheerily. "And you showed me how to get over it; that's why I am grateful. For I began to wonder after that, why I, who had always been on my guard against the emotions, should become so thoroughly their slave. And at last I found out the reason; it was the work I was doing."
"Your work?" she exclaimed.
"Exactly! You remember what Plato remarked about the actor?"
"How should I?" asked poor Lady Tamworth.
"Well, he wouldn't have him in his ideal State because acting develops the emotions, the shifty unstable part of a man. But that's true of art as well; to do good work in art you must feel your work as an emotion. So I cut myself clear from it all. I furnished these rooms and came down here,—to live." And Julian drew a long breath, like a man escaped from danger.
"But why come here?" Lady Tamworth urged. "You might have gone into the country—anywhere."
"No, no, no!" he answered, setting down the cake and pacing about the room. "Wherever else I went, I must have formed new ties, created new duties. I didn't want that; one's feelings form the ties, one's soul pays the duties. No, London is the only place where a man can disappear. Besides I had to do something, and I chose this work, because it didn't touch me. I could throw it off the moment it was done. In the shop I earn the means to live; I live here."
"But what kind of a life is it?" she asked in despair.
"I will tell you," he replied, sinking his tone to an eager whisper; "but you mustn't repeat it, you must keep it a secret. When I am in this room alone at night, the walls widen and widen away until at last they vanish," and he nodded mysteriously at her. "The roof curls up like a roll of parchment, and I am left on an open platform."
"What do you mean?" gasped Lady Tamworth.
"Yes, on an open platform underneath the stars. And do you know," he sank his voice yet lower, "I hear them at times; very faintly of course,—their songs have so far to travel; but I hear them,—yes, I hear the stars."
Lady Tamworth rose in a whirl of alarm. Before this crazy exaltation, her very desire to pursue her purpose vanished. For Julian's manner even more than his words contributed to her fears. In spite of his homily, emotion was dominant in his expression, swaying his body, burning on his face and lighting his eyes with a fire of changing colours. And every note in his voice was struck within the scale of passion.
She glanced about the room; her eyes fell on the easel. "Don't you ever paint?" she asked hurriedly.
He dropped his head and stood shifting from one foot to the other, as if he was ashamed. "At times," he said hesitatingly; "at times I have to,—I can't help it,—I have to express myself. Look!" He stepped suddenly across the room and slid the curtains back along the rail. The wall was frescoed from floor to ceiling.
"Julian!" Lady Tamworth cried. She forgot all her fears in face of this splendid revelation of his skill. Here was the fulfilment of his promise.
In the centre four pictures were ranged, the stages in the progress of an allegory, but executed with such masterful craft and of so vivid an intention that they read their message straightway into the heart of one's understanding. Round about this group, were smaller sketches, miniatures of pure fancy. It seemed as if the artist had sought relief in painting these from the pressure of his chief design. Here, for instance, Day and Night were chasing one another through the rings of Saturn; there a swarm of silver stars was settling down through the darkness to the earth.
"Julian, you must come back. You can't stay here."
"I don't mean to stay here long. It is merely a halting-place."
"But for how long?"
"I have one more picture to complete."
They turned again to the wall. Suddenly something caught Lady Tamworth's eye. She bent forward and examined the four pictures with a close scrutiny. Then she looked back again to Julian with a happy smile upon her face. "You have done these lately?"
"Quite lately; they are the stages of a man's life, of the struggle between his passions and his will."
He began to describe them. In the first picture a brutish god was seated on a throne of clay; before the god a man of coarse heavy features lay grovelling; but from his shoulders sprang a white figure, weak as yet and shadowy, but pointing against the god the shadow of a spear; and underneath was written, "At last he knoweth what he made." In the second, the figure which grovelled and that which sprang from its shoulders were plodding along a high-road at night, chained together by the wrist. The white figure halted behind, the other pressed on; and underneath was written, "They know each other not." In the third the figures marched level, that which had grovelled scowling at its companion; but the white figure had grown tall and strong and watched its companion with contempt. Above the sky had brightened with the gleam of stars; and underneath was written, "They know each other." In the fourth, the white figure pressed on ahead and dragged the other by the chain impatiently. Before them the sun was rising over the edge of a heath and the road ran straight towards it in a golden line; and underneath was written, "He knoweth his burden."
Lady Tamworth waited when he had finished, in a laughing expectancy. "And is that all?" she asked. "Is that all?"
"No," he replied slowly; "there is yet a further stage. It is unfinished." And he pointed to the easel.
"I don't mean that. Is that all you have to say of these?"
"I think so. Yes."
"Look at me!"
Julian turned wonderingly to Lady Tamworth. She watched him with a dancing sparkle of her eyes. "Now look at the pictures!" Julian obeyed her. "Well," she said after a pause, with a touch of anxiety. "What do you see now?"
"Nothing?" she asked. "Do you mean that?"
"Yes! What should I see?" She caught him by the arm and stared intently into his eyes in a horror of disbelief. He met her gaze with a frank astonishment. She dropped his arm and turned away.
"What should I see?" he repeated.
"Nothing," she echoed with a quivering sadness in her voice. "It is late, I must go."
The white figure in each of those four pictures wore her face, idealised and illumined, but still unmistakably her face; and he did not know it, could not perceive it though she stood by his side! The futility of her errand was proved to her. She drew on her gloves and looking towards the easel inquired dully, "What stage is that?"
"The last; and it is the last picture I shall paint. As soon as it is completed I shall leave here."
"You will leave?" she asked, paying little heed to his words.
"Yes! The experiment has not succeeded," and he waved a hand towards the wall. "I shall take better means next time."
"How much remains to be done?" Lady Tamworth stepped over to the easel. With a quick spring Julian placed himself in front of it.
"No!" he cried vehemently, raising a hand to warn her off. "No!"
Lady Tamworth's curiosity began to reawaken. "You have shown me the rest."
"I know; you had a right to see them."
"Then why not that?"
"I have told you," he said stubbornly. "It is not finished."
"But when it is finished?" she insisted.
Julian looked at her strangely. "Well, why not?" he said reasoning with himself. "Why not? It is the masterpiece."
"You will let me know when it's ready?"
"I will send it to you; for I shall leave here the day I finish it."
They went down stairs and back into the Mile-End road. Julian hailed a passing hansom, and Lady Tamworth drove westwards to Berkeley Square.
The fifth picture arrived a week later in the dusk of the afternoon. Lady Tamworth unpacked it herself with an odd foreboding.
It represented an orchard glowing in the noontide sun. From the branches of a tree with lolling tongue and swollen twisted face swung the figure which had grovelled before the god. A broken chain dangled on its wrist, a few links of the chain lay on the grass beneath, and above the white figure winged and triumphant faded into the blue of the sky; and underneath was written, "He freeth himself from his burden."
Lady Tamworth rushed to the bell and pealed loudly for her maid. "Quick!" she cried, "I am going out." But the shrill screech of a newsboy pierced into the room. With a cry she flung open the window. She could hear his voice plainly at the corner of the square. For a while she clung to the sash in a dumb sickness. Then she said quietly: "Never mind! I will not go out after all! I did not know I was so late."