When Renovales got home at dark, tired out with his work, he would find Josephina, already half dressed, waiting for him, and Cotoner helped him to put on his evening clothes.
"The cross!" exclaimed Josephina, when she saw him with his dress-coat on. "Why, man alive, how did you happen to forget your cross? You know that they all wear something there."
Cotoner went for the insignia, a great cross the Spanish government had given him for his picture, and the artist, with the ribbon across his shirt-front and a brilliant circle on his coat, started out with his wife to spend the evening among diplomats, distinguished travelers and cardinals' nephews.
The other painters were furious with envy when they learned how often the Spanish ambassador and his wife, the consul and prominent people connected with the Vatican visited his studio. They denied his talent, attributing these distinctions to Josephina's position. They called him a courtier and a flatterer, alleging that he had married to better his position. One of his most constant visitors was Father Recovero, the representative of a monastic order that was powerful in Spain, a sort of cowled ambassador who enjoyed great influence with the Pope. When he was not in Renovales' studio, the latter was sure that he was at his house, doing some favor for Josephina who felt proud of her friendship with this influential friar, so jovial and scrupulously correct in spite of his coarse clothes. Renovales' wife always had some favor to ask of him, her friends in Madrid were unceasing in their requests.
The Torrealta widow contributed to this by her constant chatter among her acquaintances about the high position her daughter occupied in Rome. According to her, Mariano was making millions; Josephina was reported to be a great friend of the Pope, her house was full of Cardinals and if the Pope did not visit her it was only because the poor thing was a prisoner in the Vatican. And so the painter's wife had to keep sending to Madrid some rosary that had been passed over St. Peter's tomb or reliques taken from the Catacombs. She urged Father Recovero to negotiate difficult marriage dispensations and interested herself in behalf of the petitions of pious ladies, friends of her mother. The great festivals of the Roman Church filled her with enthusiasm because of their theatrical interest and she was very grateful to the generous friar who never forgot to reserve her a good place. There never was a reception of pilgrims in Saint Peter's with a triumphal march of the Pope carried on a platform amid feather fans, at which Josephina was not present. At other times the good Father made the mysterious announcement that on the next day Pallestri, the famous male soprano of the papal chapel, was going to sing; the Spanish lady got up early, leaving her husband still in bed, to hear the sweet voice of the pontifical eunuch whose beardless face appeared in shop windows among the portraits of dancers and fashionable tenors.
Renovales laughed good-naturedly at the countless occupations and futile entertainments of his wife. Poor girl, she must enjoy herself; that was what he was working for. He was sorry enough that he could go with her only in her evening diversions. During the day he entrusted her to his faithful Cotoner who attended her like an old family servant, carrying her bundles when she went shopping, performing the duties of butler and sometimes of chef.
Renovales had made his acquaintance when he came to Rome. He was his best friend. Ten years his senior, Cotoner showed the worship of a pupil and the affections of an older brother for the young artist. Everyone in Rome knew him, laughing at his pictures on the rare occasions when he painted, and appreciated his accommodating nature that to some extent dignified his parasite's existence. Short, rotund, bald-headed, with projecting ears and the ugliness of a good-natured, merry satyr, Signor Cotoner, when summer came, always found refuge in the castle of some cardinal in the Roman Campagna. During the winter he was a familiar sight in the Corso, wrapped in his greenish mackintosh, the sleeves of which waved like a bat's wings. He had begun in his own province as a landscape painter but he wanted to paint figures, to equal the masters, and so he landed in Rome in the company of the bishop of his diocese who looked on him as an honor to the church. He never moved from the city. His progress was remarkable. He knew the names and histories of all the artists, no one could compare with him in his ability to live economically in Rome and to find where things were cheapest. If a Spaniard went through the great city, he never missed visiting him. The children of celebrated painters looked on him as a sort of nurse, for he had put them all to sleep in his arms. The great triumph of his life was having figured in the cavalcade of the Quixote as Sancho Panza. He always painted the same picture, portraits of the Pope in three different sizes, piling them up in the attic that served him for a studio and bedroom. His friends, the cardinals whom he visited frequently, took pity on "Poor Signor Cotoner" and for a few lire bought a picture of the Pontiff horribly ugly, to present it to some village church where it would arouse great admiration since it came from Rome and was by a painter who was a friend of His Eminence.
These purchases were a ray of joy for Cotoner, who came to Renovales' studio with his head up and wearing a smile of affected modesty.
"I have made a sale, my boy. A pope; a large one, two meter size."
And with a sudden burst of confidence in his talent, he talked of the future. Other men desired medals, triumphs in the exhibitions; he was more modest. He would be satisfied if he could guess who would be Pope when the present Pope died, in order to be able to paint up pictures of him by the dozen ahead of time. What a triumph to put the goods on the market the day after the Conclave! A perfect fortune! And well acquainted with all the cardinals, he passed the Sacred College in mental review with the persistency of a gambler in a lottery, hesitating between the half dozen who aspired to the tiara. He lived like a parasite among the high functionaries of the Church, but he was indifferent to religion, as if this association with them had taken away all his belief. The old man clad in white and the other red gentlemen inspired respect in him because they were rich and served indirectly his wretched portrait business. His admiration was wholly devoted to Renovales. In the studio of other artists he received their irritating jests with his usual calm smile of affability, but they could not speak ill of Renovales nor discuss his ability. To his mind, Renovales could produce nothing but masterpieces and in his blind admiration he even went so far as to rave naively over the easel pictures he painted for his impresario.
Sometimes Josephina unexpectedly appeared in her husband's studio and chatted with him while he painted, praising the canvases that had a pretty subject. She preferred to find him alone in these visits, painting from his fancy without any other model than some clothes placed on a manikin. She felt a sort of aversion to models, and Renovales tried in vain to convince her of the necessity of using them. He had talent to paint beautiful things without resorting to the assistance of those ordinary old men and above all, of those women with their disheveled hair, their flashing eyes and their wolfish teeth, who, in the solitude and silence of the studio, actually terrified her. Renovales laughed. What nonsense! Jealous little girl! As if he were capable of thinking of anything but art with a palette in his hand!
One afternoon, when Josephina suddenly came into the studio she saw on the model's platform a naked woman, lying in some furs, showing the curves of her yellow back. The wife compressed her lips and pretended not to see her, listened to Renovales with a distracted air, as he explained this innovation. He was painting a bacchanal and it was impossible for him to proceed without a model. It was a case of necessity, flesh could not be done from memory. The model, at ease before the painter, felt ashamed of her nakedness in the presence of that fashionable lady, and after wrapping herself up in the furs, hid behind a screen and hastily dressed herself.
Renovales recovered his serenity when he reached home, seeing that his wife received him with her customary eagerness, as if she had forgotten her displeasure of the afternoon. She laughed at Cotoner's stories; after dinner they went to the theater and when bedtime came, the painter had forgotten about the surprise in the studio. He was falling asleep when he was alarmed by a painful, prolonged sigh, as if some one were stifling beside him. When he lit the light he saw Josephina with both fists in her eyes, crying, her breast heaving with sobs, and kicking in a childish fit of temper till the bed-clothes were rolled in a ball and the exquisite puff fell to the floor.
"I won't, I won't," she moaned with an accent of protest.
The painter had jumped out of bed, full of anxiety, going from one side to the other without knowing what to do, trying to pull her hands away from her eyes, giving in, in spite of his strength, to Josephina's efforts to free herself from him.
"But what's the matter? What is it you won't do? What's happened to you?"
And she continued to cry, tossing about in the bed, kicking in a nervous fury.
"Let me alone! I don't like you; don't touch me. I won't let you, no, sir, I won't let you. I'm going away. I'm going home to my mother."
Renovales, terrified at the fury of the little woman who was always so gentle, did not know what to do to calm her. He ran through the bedroom and the adjoining dressing room in his night shirt, that showed his athletic muscles; he offered her water, going so far as to pick up the bottles of perfumes in his confusion as if they could serve him as sedatives, and finally he knelt down, trying to kiss the clenched little hands that thrust him away, catching at his hair and beard.
"Let me alone. I tell you to let me alone. I know you don't love me. I'm going away."
The painter was surprised and afraid of the nervousness in this beloved little doll; he did not dare to touch her for fear of hurting her. As soon as the sun rose she would leave that house forever. Her husband did not love her. No one but her mother cared for her. He was making her a laughing stock before people. And all these incoherent complaints that did not explain the motive for her anger, continued for a long time until the artist guessed the cause. Was it the model, the naked woman? Yes, that was it; she would not consent to it, that in a studio that was practically her house, low women should show themselves immodestly to her husband's eyes. And as she protested against such abominations, her twitching fingers tore the front of her night dress, showing the hidden charms that filled Renovales with such enthusiasm.
The painter, tired out by this scene, enervated by the cries and tears of his wife, could not help laughing when he discovered the motive of her irritation.
"Ah! So it's all on account of the model. Be quiet, girl, no woman shall come into the studio."
And he promised everything Josephina wished, in order to be over with it as soon as possible. When it was dark once more, she was still sighing, but now it was in her husband's strong arms with her head resting on his breast, lisping like a grieved child that tries to justify the past fit of temper. It did not cost Mariano anything to do her this favor. She loved him dearly, so dearly, and she would love him still more if he respected her prejudices. He might call her bourgeois, a common ordinary soul, but that was what she wanted to be, just as she always had been. Besides, what was the need of painting naked women? Couldn't he do other things? She urged him to paint children in smocks and sandals, curly haired and chubby, like the child Jesus; old peasant women with wrinkled, copper-colored faces, bald-headed ancients with long beards; character studies, but no young women, understand? No naked beauties! Renovales said "yes" to everything, drawing close to him that beloved form still trembling with its past rage. They clung to each other with a sort of anxiety, desirous of forgetting what had happened, and the night ended peacefully for Renovales in the happiness of reconciliation.
When summer came they rented a little villa at Castel-Gandolfo. Cotoner had gone to Rivoli in the train of a cardinal and the married couple lived in the country accompanied only by a couple of maids and a manservant, who took care of Renovales' painting kit.
Josephina was perfectly contented in this retirement, far from Rome, talking with her husband at all hours, free from the anxiety that filled her, when he was working in his studio. For a month Renovales remained in placid idleness. His art seemed forgotten; the boxes of paints, the easels, all the artistic luggage brought from Rome, remained packed up and forgotten in a shed in the garden. Afternoons they took long walks, returning home at nightfall slowly, with their arms around each other's waists, watching the strip of pale gold in the western sky, breaking the rural silence with one of the sweet, passionate romances that came from Naples. Now that they were alone in the intimacy of a life without cares or friendships, the enthusiastic love of the first days of their married life reawakened. But the "demon of painting" was not long in spreading over him his invisible wings, which seemed to scatter an irresistible enchantment. He became bored at the long hours in the bright sun, yawned in his wicker chair, smoking pipe after pipe, not knowing what to talk about. Josephina, on her part, tried to drive away the ennui by reading some English novel of aristocratic life, tiresome and moral, to which she had taken a great liking in her school girl days.
Renovales began to work again. His servant brought out his artist's kit and he took up his palette as enthusiastically as a beginner, and painted for himself with a religious fervor as if he thought to purify himself from that base submission to the commissions of a dealer.
He studied Nature directly; painted delightful bits of landscapes, tanned and repulsive heads that breathed the selfish brutality of the peasant. But this artistic activity did not seem to satisfy him. His life of increased intimacy with Josephina aroused in him mysterious longings that he hardly dared to formulate. Mornings when his wife, fresh and rosy from her bath, appeared before him almost naked, he looked at her with greedy eyes.
"Oh, if you were only willing! If you didn't have that foolish prejudice of yours!"
And his exclamations made her smile, for her feminine vanity was flattered by this worship. Renovales regretted that his artistic talent had to go in search of beautiful things when the supreme, definitive work was at his side. He told her about Rubens, the great master, who surrounded Elene Froment with the luxury of a princess, and of her who felt no objection to freeing her fresh, mythological beauty from veils in order to serve as a model for her husband. Renovales praised the Flemish woman. Artists formed a family by themselves; morality and the popular prejudices were meant for other people. They lived under the jurisdiction of Beauty, regarding as natural what other people looked on as a sin.
Josephina protested against her husband's wishes with a playful indignation but she allowed him to admire her. Her abandon increased every day. Mornings, when she got up, she remained undressed longer, prolonging her toilette while the artist walked around her, praising her various beauties. "That is Rubens, pure and simple, that's Titian's color. Look, little girl, lift up your arms, like this. Oh, you are the Maja, Goya's little Maja." And she submitted to him with a gracious pout, as if she relished the expression of worship and disappointment which her husband wore at possessing her as a woman and not possessing her as a model.
One afternoon when a scorching wind seemed to stifle the countryside with its breath, Josephina capitulated. They were in their room, with the windows closed, trying to escape the terrible sirocco by shutting it out and putting on thin clothes. She did not want to see her husband with such a gloomy face nor listen to his complaints. As long as he was crazy and was set on his whim, she did not dare to oppose him. He could paint her; but only a study, not a picture. When he was tired of reproducing her flesh on the canvas they would destroy it,—just as if he had done nothing.
The painter said "yes" to everything, eager to have his brush in hand as soon as possible, before the beauty he craved. For three days he worked with a mad fever, with his eyes unnaturally wide open, as if he meant to devour the graceful outlines with his sight. Josephina, accustomed now to being naked, posed with unconscious abandon, with that feminine shamelessness which hesitates only at the first step. Oppressed by the heat, she slept while her husband kept on painting.
When the work was finished, Josephina could not help admiring it. "How clever you are! But am I really like that, so pretty?" Mariano showed his satisfaction. It was his masterpiece, his best. Perhaps in all his life he might never find another moment like that, of prodigious mental intensity, what people commonly call inspiration. She continued to admire herself in the canvas, just as she did some mornings in the great mirror in the bedroom. She praised the various parts of her beauty with frank immodesty. Dazzled by the beauty of her body she did not notice the face, that seemed unimportant, lost in soft veils. When her eyes fell on it she showed a sort of disappointment.
"It doesn't look much like me! It isn't my face!"
The artist smiled. It was not she; he had tried to disguise her face, nothing but her face. It was a mask, a concession to social conventions. As it was, no one would recognize her and his work, his great work, might appear and receive the admiration of the world.
"Because, we aren't going to destroy it," Renovales continued with a tremble in his voice, "that would be a crime. Never in my life will I be able to do anything like it again. We won't destroy it, will we, little girl?"
The little girl remained silent for a good while with her gaze fixed on the picture. Renovales' eager eyes saw a cloud slowly rise over her face, like a shadow on a white wall. The painter felt as though the floor were sinking under his feet; the storm was coming. Josephina turned pale, two tears slipped slowly down her cheeks, two others took their places to fall with them and then more and more.
"I won't! I won't!"
It was the same hoarse, nervous, despotic cry that had set his hair on end with anxiety and fear that night in Rome. The little woman looked with hatred at the naked body that radiated its pearly light from the depths of the canvas. She seemed to feel the terror of a sleep-walker who suddenly awakens in the midst of a square surrounded by a thousand curious, eager eyes and in her fright does not know what to do nor where to flee. How could she have assented to such a disgraceful thing?
"I won't have it!" she cried angrily. "Destroy it, Mariano, destroy it."
But Mariano seemed on the point of weeping too. Destroy it! Who could demand such a foolish thing? That figure was not she; no one would recognize her. What was the use of depriving him of a signal triumph? But his wife did not listen to him. She was rolling on the floor with the same convulsions and moans as on the night of the stormy scene, her hands were clenched like a crook, her feet kicked like a dying lamb's and her mouth, painfully distorted, kept crying hoarsely:
"I won't have it! I won't have it! Destroy it!"
She complained of her lot with a violence that wounded Renovales. She, a respectable woman, submitted to that degradation as if she were a street walker. If she had only known! How was she going to imagine that her husband would make such abominable proposals to her!
Renovales, offended at these insults, at these lashes which her shrill, piercing voice dealt his artistic talent, left his wife, let her roll on the floor and with clenched fists, went from one end of the room to the other, looking at the ceiling, muttering all the oaths, Spanish and Italian, that were in current use in his studio.
Suddenly he stood still, rooted to the floor by terror and surprise. Josephina, still naked, had jumped on the picture with the quickness of a wild cat. With the first stroke of her finger nails, she scratched the canvas from top to bottom, mingling the colors that were still soft, tearing off the thin shell of the dry parts. Then she caught up the little knife from the paint box and—rip! the canvas gave a long moan, parted under the thrust of that white arm which seemed to have a bluish cast in the violence of her wrath.
He did not move. For a moment he felt indignant, tempted to throw himself on her but he lapsed into a childish weakness, ready to cry, to take refuge in a corner, to hide his weak, aching head. She, blind with wrath, continued to vent her fury on the picture, tangling her feet in the wood of the frame, tearing off pieces of canvas, walking back and forth with her prey like a wild beast. The artist had leaned his head against the wall, his strong breast shook with cowardly sobs.
To the almost fatherly grief at the loss of his work was added the bitterness of disappointment. For the first time he foresaw what his life was going to be. What a mistake he had made in marrying that girl who admired his art as a profession, as a means of making money, and who was trying to mold him to the prejudices and scruples of the circle in which she was born! He loved her in spite of this and he was certain that she did not love him less, but, still, perhaps it would have been better to remain alone, free for his art and, in case a companion was necessary, to find a fair maid of all work with all the splendor and intellectual humility of a beautiful animal that would admire and obey her master blindly.
Three days passed in which the painter and his wife hardly spoke to each other. They looked at each other askance, humbled and broken by this domestic trouble. But the solitude in which they lived, the necessity of remaining together made the reconciliation imperative. She was the first to speak, as if she were terrified by the sadness and dejection of that huge giant who wandered about as peevish as a sick man. She threw her arms around him, kissed his forehead, made a thousand gracious efforts to bring a faint smile to his face. "Who loved him? His Josephina. His Maja but not his Maja Desnuda; that was over forever. He must never think of those horrible things. A decent painter does not think of them. What would all her friends say? There were many pretty things to paint in the world. They must live in each other's love, without his displeasing her with his hateful whims. His affection for the nude was a shameful remnant of his Bohemian days."
And Renovales, won over by his wife's petting, made peace,—tried to forget his work and smiled with the resignation of a slave who loves his chain because it assures him peace and life.
They returned to Rome at the beginning of the fall. Renovales began his work for the contractor, but after a few months the latter seemed dissatisfied. Not that Signor Mariano was losing power, not at all, but his agents complained of a certain monotony in the subjects of his works. The dealer advised him to travel; he might stay awhile in Umbria, painting peasants in ascetic landscapes, or old churches; he might—and this was the best thing to do—move to Venice. How much Signor Mariano could accomplish in those canals! And it was thus that the idea of leaving Rome first came to the painter.
Josephina did not object. That daily round of receptions in the countless embassies and legations was beginning to bore her. Now that the charm of the first impressions had disappeared, Josephina noticed that the great ladies treated her with an annoying condescension as if she had descended from her rank in marrying an artist. Besides, the younger men in the embassies, the attaches of different nationalities, some light, some dark, who sought relief from their celibacy without going outside diplomatic society, were disgracefully impudent as they danced with her or went through the figures of a cotillion, as if they considered her an easy conquest, seeing her married to an artist who could not display an ugly uniform in the drawing rooms. They made cynical declarations to her in English or German and she had to keep her temper, smiling and biting her lips, close to Renovales, who did not understand a word and showed his satisfaction at the attentions of which his wife was the object on the part of the fashionable youths whose manners he tried to imitate.
The trip was decided on. They would go to Venice! Their friend Cotoner said "Good-by," he was sorry to part from them but his place was in Rome. The Pope was ailing just at that time and the painter, in the hope of his death, was preparing canvases of all sizes, striving to guess who would be his successor.
As he went back in his memories, Renovales always thought of his life in Venice with a sort of pleasant homesickness. It was the best period of his life. The enchanting city of the lagoons,—bathed in golden light, lulled by the lapping of the water, fascinated him from the first moment, making him forget his love for the human form. For some time his enthusiasm for the nude was calmed. He worshiped the old palaces, the solitary canals, the lagoon with its green, motionless waiter, the soul of a majestic past, which seemed to breathe in the solemn old age of the dead, eternally smiling city.
They lived in the Foscarini palace, a huge building with red walls and casements of white stone that opened on a little alley of water adjoining the Grand Canal. It was the former abode of merchants, navigators and conquerors of the Isles of the East who in times gone by had worn on their heads the golden horn of the Doges. The modern spirit, utilitarian and irreverent, had converted the palace into a tenement, dividing gilded drawing rooms with ugly partitions, establishing kitchens in the filigreed arcades of the seignorial court, filling the marble galleries to which the centuries gave the amber-like transparency of old ivory, with clothes hung out to dry and replacing the gaps in the superb mosaic with cheap square tiles.
Renovales and his wife occupied the apartment nearest the Grand Canal. Mornings, Josephina saw from a bay window the rapid silent approach of her husband's gondola. The gondolier, accustomed to the service of artists, shouted to the painter, till Renovales came down with his box of water-colors and the boat started immediately through the narrow, winding canals, moving the silvered comb of its prow from one side to the other as if it were feeling the way. What mornings of placid silence in the sleeping water of an alley, between two palaces whose boldly projecting roofs kept the surface of the little canal in perpetual shadow! The gondolier slept stretched out in one of the curving ends of his boat and Renovales, sitting beside the black canopy, painted his Venetian water-colors, a new type that his impresario in Rome received with the greatest enthusiasm. His deftness enabled him to produce these works with as much facility as if they were mechanical copies. In the maze of canals he had one of his own which he called his "estate" on account of the money it netted him. He had painted again and again its dead, silent waters which all day long were never rippled except by his gondola; two old palaces with broken blinds, the doors covered with the crust of years, stairways rotted with mold and in the background a little arch of light, a marble bridge and under it the life, the movement, the sun of a broad, busy canal. The neglected little alley came to life every week under Renovales' brush—he could paint it with his eyes shut—and the business initiative of the Roman Jew scattered it through the world.
The afternoons Mariano passed with his wife. Sometimes they went in a gondola to the promenade of the Lido and sitting on the sandy beach, watched the angry surface of the open Adriatic, that stretched its tossing white caps to the horizon, like a flock of snowy sheep hurrying in the rush of a panic.
Other afternoons they walked in the Square of Saint Mark, under the arcades of its three rows of palaces where they could see in the background, by the last rays of the sun, the pale gold of the basilica gleaming, as if in its walls and domes there were crystallized all the wealth of the ancient Republic.
Renovales, with his wife on his arm, walked calmly as if the majesty of the place impelled him to a sort of noble bearing. The august silence was not disturbed by the deafening hubbub of other great capitals; no rattling of carts or footsteps of horses or hucksters' cries. The Square, with its white marble pavement, was a huge drawing room through which the visitors passed as if they were making a call. The musicians of the Venice band were gathered in the center with their hats surmounted by black waving plumes. The blasts of the Wagnerian brasses, galloping in the mad ride of the Valkyries, made the marble columns shake and seemed to give life to the four golden horses that reared over space with silent whinnies on the cornice of St. Mark's.
The dark-feathered doves of Venice scattered in playful spirals, somewhat frightened at the music, finally settled, like rain, on the tables of the cafe. Then, taking flight again, they blackened the roof of the palaces and once more swooped down like a mantle of metallic luster on the groups of English tourists in green veils and round hats, who called them in order to offer them grain.
Josephina, with childish eagerness, left her husband in order to buy a cone full of grain, and spreading it out in her gloved hands she gathered the wards of St. Mark around her; they rested on the flowers of her head, fluttering like fantastic crests, they hopped on her shoulders, or lined up on her outstretched arms, they clung desperately to her slight hips, trying to walk around her waist, and others, more daring, as if possessed of human mischievousness, scratched her breast, reached out their beaks striving to caress her ruddy, half-opened, lips through the veil. She laughed, trembling at the tickling of the animated cloud that rubbed against her body. Her husband watched her, laughing too, and certain that no one but she would understand him, he called to her in Spanish.
"My, but you are beautiful! I wish I could paint your picture! If it weren't for the people, I would kiss you."
Venice was the scene of her happiest days. She lived quietly while her husband worked, taking odd corners of the city for his models. When he left the house, her placid calm was not disturbed by any troublesome thought. This was painting, she was sure,—and not the conditions of affairs in Rome, where he would shut himself up with shameless women who were not afraid to pose stark naked. She loved him with a renewed passion, she petted him with constant caresses. It was then that her daughter was born, their only child.
Majestic Dona Emilia could not remain in Madrid when she learned that she was going to be a grandmother. Her poor Josephina, in a foreign land, with no one to take care of her but her husband, who had some talent according to what people said, but who seemed to her rather ordinary! At her son-in-law's expense, she made the trip to Venice and there she stayed for several months, fuming against the city, which she had never visited in her diplomatic travels. The distinguished lady considered that no cities were inhabitable except the capitals that have a court. Pshaw! Venice! A shabby town that no one liked but writers of romanzas and decorators of fans, and where there were nothing higher than consuls. She liked Rome with its Pope and kings. Besides, it made her seasick to ride in the gondolas and she complained constantly of the rheumatism, blaming it to the dampness of the lagoons.
Renovales, who had feared for Josephina's life, believing that her weak, delicate constitution could not stand the shock, broke out into cries of joy when he received the little one in his arms and looked at the mother with her head resting on the pillow as if she were dead. Her white face was hardly outlined against the white of the linen. His first thought was for her, for the pale features, distorted by the recent crisis, which gradually were growing calmer with rest. Poor little girl! How she had suffered! But as he tip-toed out of the bed room in order not to disturb the heavy sleep that, after two cruel days, had overpowered the sick woman, he gave himself up to his admiration for the bit of flesh that lay in the huge flabby arms of the grandmother, wrapped in fine linen. Ah, what a dear little thing! He looked at the livid little face, the big head, thinly covered with hair, seeking for some suggestion of himself in this surge of flesh that was in motion and still without definite form. "Mamma, whom does she look like?"
Dona Emilia was surprised at his blindness. Whom; should she look like? Like him, no one but him. She was large, enormous; she had seen few babies as large as this one. It did not seem possible that her poor daughter could live after giving birth to "that." They could not complain that she was not healthy; she was as ruddy as a country baby.
"She's a Renovales; she's yours, wholly yours, Mariano. We belong to a different class."
And Renovales, without noticing his mother's words, saw only that his daughter was like him, overjoyed to see how robust she was, shouting his pleasure at the health of which the grandmother spoke in a disappointed tone.
In vain did he and Dona Emilia try to dissuade Josephina from nursing the baby. The little woman, in spite of the weakness that kept her motionless in bed, wept and cried almost as she had in the crises that had so terrified Renovales.
"I won't have it," she said with that obstinacy that made her so terrible.
"I won't have a strange woman's milk for my daughter. I will nurse her, her mother."
And they had to give the baby to her.
When Josephina seemed recovered, her mother, feeling that her mission was over, went home to Madrid. She was bored to death in that silent city of Venice, night after night she thought she was dead, for she could not hear a single sound from her bed. The calm, interrupted now and then by the shouts of the gondoliers filled her with the same terror that she felt in a cemetery. She had no friends, she did not "shine"; there was nobody in that dirty hole and nobody knew her. She was always recalling her distinguished friends in Madrid where she thought she was an indispensable personage. The modesty of her granddaughter's christening left a deep impression in her mind in spite of the fact that they gave her name to the child; an insignificant little party that needed only two gondolas; she, who was the godmother, with the godfather, an old Venetian painter, who was a friend of Renovales and, besides, Renovales himself and two artists, a Frenchman and another Spaniard. The Patriarch of Venice did not officiate at the baptism, not even a bishop. And she knew so many of them at home. A mere priest, who was in a shameful hurry, had been sufficient to christen the granddaughter of the famous diplomat, in a little church, as the sun was setting. She went away repeating once more that Josephina was killing herself, that it was perfect folly for her to nurse the baby in her delicate condition, regretting that she did not follow the example of her mother who had always intrusted her children to nurses.
Josephina cried bitterly when her mother went, but Renovales said "good-by" with ill-concealed joy. Bon voyage! He simply could not endure the woman, always complaining that she was being neglected when she saw how her son-in-law was working to make her daughter happy. The only thing he agreed with her in was in scolding Josephina tenderly for her obstinacy in nursing the baby. Poor little Maja Desnuda! Her form had lost its bud-like daintiness in the full flower of motherhood.
She appeared more robust, but the stoutness was accompanied by an anemic weakness. Her husband, seeing how she was losing her daintiness, loved her with more tender compassion. Poor little girl! How good she was! She was sacrificing herself for her daughter.
When the baby was a year old, the great crisis in Renovales' life occurred. Desirous of taking a "bath in art," of knowing what was going on outside of the dungeon in which he was imprisoned, painting at so much a piece, he left Josephina in Venice and made a short trip to Paris to see its famous Salon. He came back transfigured, with a new fever for work and a determination to transform his existence which filled his wife with astonishment and fear. He was going to break with his impresario, he would no longer debase himself with that false painting, even if he had to beg for his living. Great things were being done in the world, and he felt that he had the courage to be an innovator, following the steps of those modern painters who made such a profound impression on him.
Now he hated old Italy, where artists went to study under the protection of ignorant governments.
In reality what they found there was a market of tempting commissions where they soon grew accustomed to taking orders, to the luxurious, indifferent life of easy profit. He wanted to move to Paris. But Josephina, who listened to Renovales' fancies in silence, unable to understand them for the most part, modified this determination by her advice. She too wanted to leave Venice. The city seemed gloomy in the winter with its ceaseless rains that left the bridges slippery and the marble alleys impassable. Since they were determined to break up camp, why not go back to Madrid? Mamma was sick, she complained in all her letters at living so far from her daughter. Josephina wanted to see her, she had a presentiment that her mother was going to die. Renovales thought it over; he too wanted to go back to Spain. He felt homesick; he thought of the great stir he would cause there, teaching his new methods amid the general routine. The desire of shocking the Academicians, who had accepted him before because he had renounced his ideals, tempted him.
They went back to Madrid with little Milita, as they called her for short, abbreviating the diminutive of Emilia. Renovales brought with him as his whole capital some few thousand lire, that represented Josephina's savings and the product of his sale of part of the furniture that decorated the poorly furnished halls of the Foscarini palace.
At first it was hard. Dona Emilia died a few months after they reached Madrid. Her funeral did not come up to the dreams the illustrious widow had always fashioned. Hardly a score of her countless relatives were present. Poor old lady, if she had known how her hopes were destined to be disappointed! Renovales was almost glad of the event. With it, the only tie that bound them to society was broken. He and Josephina lived in a fifth story flat on the Calle de Alcala, near the Plaza de Toros, with a large terrace that the artist converted into a studio. Their life was modest, secluded, humble, without friends or functions. She spent the day taking care of her daughter and the house, without help except a dull, poorly-paid maid. Oftentimes when she seemed most active, she fell into a sudden languor, complaining of strange, new ailments.
Mariano hardly ever worked at home; he painted out of doors. He despised the conventional light of the studio, the closeness of its atmosphere. He wandered through the suburbs of Madrid and the neighboring provinces in search of rough, simple types, whose faces seemed to bear the stamp of the ancient Spanish soul. He climbed the Guadarrama in the midst of winter, standing alone in the snowy fields like an Arctic explorer, to transfer to his canvas the century-old pines, twisted and black under their caps of frozen sleet.
When the Exhibition took place, Renovales' name became famous in a flash. He did not present a huge picture with a key, as he had at his first triumph. They were small canvases, studies prompted by a chance meeting; bits of nature, men and landscapes reproduced with an astonishing, brutal truth that shocked the public.
The sober fathers of painting writhed as if they had received a slap in the face, before those sketches that seemed to flame among the other dead, leaden pictures. They admitted that Renovales was a painter, but he lacked imagination, invention, his only merit was his ability to transfer to the canvas what his eyes saw. The younger men flocked to the standard of the new master; there were endless disputes, impassioned arguments, deadly hatred, and over this battle Renovales', name flitted, appearing almost daily in the newspapers, till he was almost as celebrated as a bull-fighter or an orator in the Congress.
The struggle lasted for six years, giving rise to a storm of insults and applause every time that Renovales exhibited one of his works, and meanwhile the master, discussed as he was, lived in poverty, forced to paint water-colors in the old style which he secretly sent to his dealer in Rome. But all combats have their end. The public finally accepted as unquestionable a name that they saw every day; his enemies, weakened by the unconscious effect of public opinion, grew tired, and the master like all innovators, as soon as the first success of the scandal was over, began to limit his daring, pruning and softening his original brutality. The dreaded painter became fashionable. The easy, instantaneous success he had won at the beginning of his career was renewed, but more solidly and more definitely, like a conquest made by rough, hard paths when there is a struggle at every step.
Money, the fickle page, came back to him, holding the train of glory. He sold pictures at prices unheard of in Spain and they grew fabulously as they were repeated by his admirers. Some American millionaires, surprised that a Spanish painter should be mentioned abroad and that the principal reviews in Europe should reproduce his works, bought canvases as objects of great luxury. The master, embittered by the poverty of his years of struggle, suddenly felt a longing for money, an overpowering greed that his friends had never known in him. His wife seemed to grow more sickly every day; her daughter was growing up and he wanted his Milita to have the education and the luxuries of a princess. They now had a respectable house of their own, but he wanted something better for them. His business instinct, which everyone recognized in him when he was not blinded by some artistic prejudice, strove to make his brush an instrument of great profits.
Pictures were bound to disappear, according to the master. Modern rooms, small and soberly decorated, were not fitted for the large canvases that ornamented the walls of drawing rooms in the old days. Besides, the reception rooms of the present, like the rooms in a doll's house, were good merely for pretty pictures marked by stereotyped mannerisms. Scenes taken from nature were out of place in this background. The only way to make money then was to paint portraits and Renovales forgot his distinction as an innovator in order to win at any cost fame as a portrait painter of society people. He painted members of the royal family in all sorts of postures, not omitting any of their important occupations; on foot, and on horseback, with a general's plumes or a gray hunting jacket, killing pigeons or riding in an automobile. He portrayed the beauties of the oldest families, concealing imperceptibly, with clever dissimulation, the ravages of time, giving firmness to the flabby flesh with his brush, holding up the heavy eyelids and cheeks that sagged with fatigue and the poison of rouge. After successes at court, the rich considered a portrait by Renovales as an indispensable decoration for their drawing rooms. They sought him because his signature cost thousands of dollars; to possess a canvas by him was an evidence of opulence, quite as necessary as an automobile of the best make.
Renovales was as rich as a painter can be. It was at that time that he built what envious people called his "pantheon"; a magnificent mansion behind the iron grating of the Retiro.
He had a violent desire to build a home after his own heart and image, like those mollusks that build a shell with the substance of their bodies so that it may serve both as a dwelling and a defense. There awakened in him that longing for show, for pompous, swaggering, amusing originality that lies dormant in the mind of every artist. At first he planned a reproduction of Rubens' palace in Antwerp, open loggie for studios, leafy gardens covered with flowers at all seasons, and in the paths, gazelles, giraffes, birds of bright plumage, like flying flowers, and other exotic animals which this great painter used as models in his desire to copy Nature in all its magnificence.
But he was forced to give up this dream, on account of the nature of the building sites in Madrid, a few thousand feet of barren, chalky soil, bounded by a wretched fence and as dry as only Castile can be. Since this Rubenesque ostentation was not possible, he took refuge in Classicism and in a little garden he erected a sort of Greek temple that should serve at once as a dwelling and a studio. On the triangular pediment rose three tripods like torch-holders, that gave the house the appearance of a commemorative tomb. But in order that those who stopped outside the grating might make no mistake, the master had garlands of laurel, palettes surrounded with crowns, carved on the stone facade, and in the midst of this display of simple modesty a short inscription in gold letters of average size—"Renovales." Exactly like a store. Inside, in two studios where no one ever painted and which led to the real working studio, the finished pictures were exhibited on easels covered with antique textures, and callers gazed with wonder at the collection of properties fit for a theater,—suits of armor, tapestries, old standards hanging from the ceiling, show-cases full of ancient knick-knacks, deep couches with canopies of oriental stuffs supported by lances, century old coffers and open secretaries shining with the pale gold of their rows of drawers.
These studios where no one studied were like the luxurious line of waiting rooms in the house of a doctor who charges twenty dollars for a consultation, or like the anterooms, furnished in dark leather with venerable pictures, of a famous lawyer, who never opens his mouth without carrying off a large portion of his client's fortune. People who waited in these two studios spacious as the nave of a church, with the silent majesty which comes with the lapse of years, were brought to the necessary frame of mind to make them submit to the enormous prices the master demanded.
Renovales had "made good" and he could rest calmly, as his admirers said. And still the master was gloomy; his nature, embittered by his years of silent suffering, broke out in violent fits of temper.
The slightest attack by some insignificant enemy was enough to send him into a rage. His pupils thought it was due to the fact that he was getting old. His struggles had so aged him that with his heavy beard and his round shoulders he looked ten years older than he was.
In this white temple, on the pediment of which his name shone in letters of glorious gold, he was not so happy as in the modest houses in Italy or the little garret near the Plaza de Toros. All that was left of the Josephina of the first months of his married life was a distant shadow. The "Maja Desnuda" of the happy nights in Rome and Venice was nothing but a memory. On her return to Spain the false stoutness of motherhood had disappeared.
She grew thin, as if some hidden fire were devouring her; the flesh that had covered her body with graceful curves melted away in the flames that burned within her. The sharp angles and dark hollows of her skeleton began to show beneath her pale, flabby flesh. Poor "Maja Desnuda"! Her husband pitied her, attributing her decline to the struggles and cares she had suffered when they first returned to Madrid.
For her sake, he was eager to conquer, to become rich, that he might provide her with the comforts he had dreamed of. Her illness seemed to be mental; it was neurasthenia, melancholia. The poor woman had suffered without doubt at being condemned to a pauper's existence, in Madrid, where she had once lived in comparative splendor, this time in a wretched house, struggling with poverty, forced to perform the most menial tasks. She complained of strange pains, her legs lost their strength, she sank into a chair where she would stay motionless for hours at a time, weeping without knowing why. Her digestion was poor; for weeks her stomach refused all nourishment. At night she would toss about in bed, unable to sleep and at daybreak she was up flitting about the house with a feverish activity, turning things upside down, finding fault with the servant, with her husband, with herself, until suddenly she would collapse from the height of her excitement and begin to cry.
These domestic trials broke the painter's spirit, but he bore them patiently. Now a gentle sympathy was added to his former love, when he saw her so weak, without any remnant of her former charm except her eyes, sunk in their bluish sockets, bright with the mysterious fire of fever. Poor little girl! Her struggles brought her to such a pass. Her weakness filled Renovales with a sort of remorse. Her lot was that of the soldier who sacrifices himself for his general's glory. He had conquered, but he left behind him the woman he loved, fallen in the struggle because she was the weaker.
He admired, too, her maternal self-sacrifice. The baby, Milita, who attracted attention because of her whiteness and ruddiness, had the strength that her mother lacked. The greediness of this strong, enslaving creature had absorbed all of the mother's life.
When the artist was rich and installed his family in the new house, he thought that Josephina was going to get well. The doctors were confident of a rapid improvement. The first day that they walked through the parlors and studios of the new house, taking note of the furniture and the valuables, old and new, with a glance of satisfaction, Renovales put him arm around the waist of the weak little doll, bending his head over her, caressing her forehead with his bearded lips.
Everything was hers, the house and its sumptuous decorations, hers too was the money that was left and that he would continue to make. She was the owner, the absolute mistress, she could spend all she wanted to, he would stand for everything. She could wear stylish clothes, have carriages, make her former friends green with envy, be proud of being the wife of a famous painter, much more proud than others who had landed a ducal crown by marriage. Was she satisfied?
She said "Yes," nodding her assent weakly, and she even stood on tiptoe to kiss the lips that seemed to caress her through a cloud of hair, but her expression was sad and her listless movements were like a withered flower's, as if there was no joy on earth that could lift her out of this dejection.
After a few days, when the first impress of the change in her mode of life was over, the old outbreaks that had so often disturbed their former dwelling began again in the luxurious palace.
Renovales found her in the dining-room with her head in her hands, crying, but unwilling to explain the cause of her tears. When he tried to take her in his arms, caressing her like a child, the little woman became as agitated as if she had received an insult.
"Let me go!" she cried with a hostile look. "Don't touch me. Go away!"
At other times he looked all over the house for her in vain, questioning Milita who, accustomed to her mother's outbreaks and made selfish by her girlish strength, paid little attention to her and kept on playing with her dolls.
"I don't know, papa; she's probably crying up stairs," she would answer naively.
And in some corner of the upper story, in the bedroom, beside the bed or among the clothes in the wardrobe, the husband would find her, sitting on the floor with her chin in her hands, her eyes fixed on the wall as if she were looking at something invisible and mysterious that only she could see. She was not crying, her eyes were dry and enlarged with an expression of terror, and her husband tried in vain to attract her attention. She remained motionless, cold, indifferent to his caresses, as if he were a stranger, as if there were a hopeless gap between them.
"I want to die," she said in a serious, tense tone. "I am of no use in the world; I want to rest."
The deadly resignation would change a moment later into furious antagonism. Renovales could never tell how the quarrel began. The most insignificant word on his part, the expression of his face, silence even, was all that was needed to bring on the storm. Josephina began to speak with a taunting accent that made her words cut like cold steel. She found fault with the painter for what he did and what he did not do, for his most trifling habits, for what he painted, and presently, extending the radius of her insults to include the whole world, she broke out into denunciations of the distinguished people who formed her husband's clientele and brought him such profits. He might be satisfied with painting the portraits of those people, disreputable society men and women. Her mother, who was in close touch with that society, had told her many stories about them. The women she knew still better; almost all of them had been her companions at boarding-school or her friends. They had married to make sport of their husbands; they all had a past, they were worse than the women who walked the streets at night. This house with all its facade of laurels and its gold letters was a brothel. One of these fine days she would come into the studio and throw them into the street to have their pictures painted somewhere else.
"For God's sake, Josephina," Renovales murmured with a troubled voice, "don't talk like that. Don't think of such outrageous things. I don't see how you can talk that way. Milita will hear us."
Now that her nervous anger was exhausted, Josephina would burst into tears and Renovales would have to leave the table and take her to bed, where she lay, crying out for the hundredth time that she wanted to die.
This life was even more intolerable because he was faithful to his wife, because his love, mingled with habit and routine, kept him firmly devoted to her.
At the end of the afternoon, several of his friends used to gather in his studio, among them the jolly Cotoner who had moved to Madrid. When the twilight crept in through the huge window and made them all prone to friendly confidences, Renovales always made the same statement.
"As a boy I had my good times just like anyone else, but since I was married I have never had anything to do with any woman except my own wife. I am proud to say so."
And the big man drew himself up to his full height and stroked his beard, as proud of his faithfulness to his wife as other men are of their good fortune in love.
When they talked about beautiful women in his presence, or looked at portraits of great foreign beauties, the master did not conceal his approval.
"Very beautiful! Very pretty to paint!"
His enthusiasm over beauty never went beyond the limits of art. There was only one woman in the world for him, his wife; the others were models.
He, who carried in his mind a perfect orgy of flesh, who worshiped the nude with religious fervor, reserved all his manly homage for his wife who grew constantly more sickly, more gloomy, and waited with the patience of a lover for a moment of calm, a ray of sunlight among the incessant storms.
The doctors, who admitted their inability to cure the nervous disorder that was consuming the wife, had hopes of a sudden change and recommended to the husband that he should be extremely kind to her. This only increased his patient gentleness. They attributed the nervous trouble to the birth and nursing of the child, that had broken her weak health; they suspected, too, the existence of some unknown cause that kept the sick woman in constant excitement.
Renovales, who studied his wife closely in his eagerness to recover peace in his house, soon discovered the true cause of her illness.
Milita was growing up; already she was a woman. She was fourteen years old and wore long skirts, and her healthy beauty was beginning to attract the glances of men.
"One of these days they'll carry her off," said the master laughing. And his wife, when she heard him talking about marriage, making conjectures on his future son-in-law, closed her eyes and said in a tense voice, that revealed her insuperable obstinacy:
"She shall marry anyone she wants to,—except a painter. I would rather see her dead than that."
It was then Renovales divined his wife's true illness. It was jealousy, a terrific, deadly, ruinous jealousy; it was the sadness of realizing that she was sickly. She was certain of her husband; she knew his declarations of faithfulness to her. But when the painter spoke of his artistic interests in her presence, he did not hide his worship of beauty, his religious cult of form. Even if he was silent, she penetrated his thoughts; she read in him that fervor which dated from his youth and had grown greater as the years went by. When she looked at the statues of sovereign nakedness that decorated the studios, when she glanced through the albums of pictures where the light of flesh shone brightly amid the shadows of the engraving, she compared them mentally with her own form emaciated by illness.
Renovales' eyes that seemed to worship every beauty of form were the same eyes that saw her in all her ugliness. That man could never love her. His faithfulness was pity, perhaps habit, unconscious virtue. She could not believe that it was love. This illusion might be possible with another man, but he was an artist. By day he worshiped beauty; at night he was brought face to face with ugliness, with physical wretchedness.
She was constantly tormented by jealousy, that embittered her mind and consumed her life, a jealousy that was inconsolable for the very reason that it had no real foundation.
The consciousness of her ugliness brought with it a sadness, an insatiable envy of everyone, a desire to die but to kill the world first, that she might drag it down with her in her fall.
Her husband's caresses irritated her like an insult. Maybe he thought he loved her, maybe his advances were in good faith, but she read his thoughts and she found there her irresistible enemy, the rival that overshadowed her with her beauty. And there was no remedy for this. She was married to a man who, as long as he lived, would be faithful to his religion of beauty. How well she remembered the days when she had refused to allow her husband to paint her youthful body! If youth and beauty would but come back to her, she would recklessly cast off all her veils, would stand in the middle of the studio as arrogantly as a bacchante, crying,
"Paint! Satisfy yourself with my flesh, and whenever you think of your eternal beloved, whom you call Beauty, fancy that you see her with my face, that she has my body!"
It was a terrible misfortune to be the wife of an artist. She would never marry her daughter to a painter; she would rather see her dead. Men who carry with them the demon of form, cannot live in peace and happiness except with a companion who is eternally young, eternally fair.
Her husband's fidelity made her desperate. That chaste artist was always musing over the memory of naked beauties, fancying pictures he did not dare to paint for fear of her. With her sick woman's penetration, she seemed to read this longing in her husband's face. She would have preferred certain infidelity, to see him in love with another woman, mad with passion. He might return from such a wandering outside the bonds of matrimony, wearied and humble, begging her forgiveness; but from the other, he would never return.
When Renovates discovered the cause of her sadness, he tenderly undertook to cure his wife's mental disorder. He avoided speaking of his artistic interests in her presence; he discovered terrible defects in the fair ladies who sought him as a portrait painter; he praised Josephina's spiritual beauty; he painted pictures of her, putting her features on the canvas, but beautifying them with, subtle skill.
She smiled, with that eternal condescension that a woman has for the most stupendous, most shameful deceits, as long as they flatter her.
"It's you," said Renovales, "your face, your charm, your air of distinction. I really don't think I have made you as beautiful as you are."
She continued to smile, but soon her look grew hard, her lips tightened and the shadow spread little by little across her face.
She fixed her eyes on the painter's as if she were scrutinizing his thoughts.
It was a lie. Her husband was flattering her; he thought he loved her, but only his flesh was faithful. The invincible enemy, the eternal beloved, was mistress of his mind.
Tortured by this mental unfaithfulness and by the rage which her helplessness produced, she would gradually fall into one of the nervous storms that broke out in a shower of tears and a thunder of insults and recriminations.
Renovales' life was a hell at the very time when he possessed the glory and wealth which he had dreamed of so many years, building on them his hope of happiness.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when the painter went home after his luncheon with the Hungarian.
As he entered the dining-room, before going to the studio, he saw two women with their hats and veils on who looked as if they were getting ready to go out. One of them, as tall as the painter, threw her arms around his neck.
"Papa, dear, we waited for you until nearly two o'clock. Did you have a good luncheon?"
And she kissed him noisily, rubbing her fresh, rosy cheeks against the master's gray beard.
Renovales smiled good naturedly under this shower of caresses. Ah, his Milita! She was the only joy in that gloomy, showy house. It was she who sweetened that atmosphere of tedious strife which seemed to emanate from the sick woman. He looked at his daughter with an air of comic gallantry.
"Very pretty; yes, I swear you are very pretty to-day. You are a perfect Rubens, my dear, a brunette Rubens. And where are we going to show off?"
He looked with a father's pride at that strong, rosy body, in which the transition to womanhood was marked by a sort of passing delicacy—the result of her rapid growth—and a dark circle around her eyes. Her soft, mysterious glance was that of a woman who is beginning to understand the meaning of life. She dressed with a sort of exotic elegance; her clothes had a masculine appearance; her mannish collar and tie were in keeping with the rigid energy of her movements, with her wide-soled English boots, and the violent swing of her legs that opened her skirts like a compass when she walked, more intent on speed and a heavy step than on a graceful carriage. The master admired her healthy beauty. What a splendid specimen! The race would not die out with her. She was like him, wholly like him; if he had been a woman, he would have been like his Milita.
She kept on talking, without taking her arms from her father's shoulders, with her eyes, tremulous like molten gold, fixed on the master.
She was going for her daily walk with "Miss," a two hours' tramp through the Castellana and the Retiro, without stopping a moment to sit down, taking a peripatetic lesson in English on the way. For the first time Renovates turned around to speak to "Miss," a stout woman with a red, wrinkled face who, when she smiled, showed a set of teeth that shone like yellow dominoes. In the studio Renovales and his friends often laughed at "Miss's" appearance and eccentricities, at her red wig that was placed on her head as carelessly as a hat, at her terrible false teeth, at her bonnets that she made herself out of chance bits of ribbon and discarded ornaments, of her chronic lack of appetite, that forced her to live on beer, which kept her in a continual state of confusion, which was revealed in her exaggerated curtsies. Soft and heavy from drink, she was alarmed at the approach of the hour of the walk, a daily torment for her, as she tried painfully to keep up with Milita's long strides. Seeing the painter looking at her, she turned even redder and made three profound curtsies.
"Oh, Mr. Renovales, oh, sir!"
And she did not call him "Lord," because the master greeting her with a nod, forgot her presence and began to talk again with his daughter.
Milita was eager to hear about her father's luncheon with Tekli. And so he had had some Chianti? Selfish man! When he knew how much she liked it! He ought to have let them know sooner that he would not be home. Fortunately Cotoner was at the house and mamma had made him stay, so that they would not have to lunch alone. Their old friend had gone to the kitchen and prepared one of those dishes he had learned to make in the days when he was a landscape-painter. Milita observed that all landscape-painters knew something about cooking. Their outdoor life, the necessities of their wandering existence among country inns and huts, defying poverty, gave them a liking for this art.
They had had a very pleasant luncheon; mamma had laughed at Cotoner's jokes, who was always in good humor, but during the dessert, when Soldevilla, Renovales' favorite pupil, came, she had felt indisposed and had disappeared to hide her eyes swimming with tears and her breast that heaved with sobs.
"She's probably upstairs," said the girl with a sort of indifference, accustomed to these outbreaks. "Good-by, papa, dear, a kiss. Cotoner and Soldevilla are waiting for you in the studio. Another kiss. Let me bite you."
And after fixing her little teeth gently in one of the master's cheeks, she ran out, followed by Miss, who was already puffing in anticipation at the thought of the tiresome walk.
Renovales remained motionless as if he hesitated to shake off the atmosphere of affection in which his daughter enveloped him. Milita was his, wholly his. She loved her mother, but her affection was cold in comparison with the ardent passion she felt for him—that vague, instinctive preference girls feel for their fathers and which is, as it were, a forecast of the worship the man they love will later inspire in them.
For a moment he thought of looking for Josephina to console her, but after a brief reflection, he gave up the idea. It probably was nothing; his daughter was not disturbed; a sudden fit such as she usually had. If he went upstairs he would run the risk of an unpleasant scene that would spoil the afternoon, rob him of his desire to work and banish the youthful light-heartedness that filled him after his luncheon with Tekli.
He turned his steps towards the last studio, the only one that deserved the name, for it was there he worked, and he saw Cotoner sitting in a huge armchair, the seat of which sagged under his corpulent frame, with his elbows resting on the oaken arms, his waistcoat unbuttoned to relieve his well-filled paunch, his head sunk between his shoulders, his face red and sweating, his eyes half closed with the sweet joy of digestion in that comfortable atmosphere heated by a huge stove.
Cotoner was getting old; his mustache was white and his head was bald, but his face was as rosy and shining as a child's. He breathed the placidness of a respectable old bachelor whose only love is for good living and who appreciates the digestive sleepiness of the boaconstrictor as the greatest of happiness.
He was tired of living in Rome. Commissions were scarce. The Popes lived longer than the Biblical patriarchs. The chromo portraits of the Pontiff had simply forced him out of business. Besides, he was old and the young painters who came to Rome did not know him; they were poor fellows who looked on him as a clown, and never laid aside their seriousness except to make sport of him. His time had passed. The echoes of Mariano's triumphs at home had come to his ears, had determined him to move to Madrid. Life was the same everywhere. He had friends in Madrid, too. And here he had continued the life he had led in Rome, without any effort, feeling a kind of longing for glory in that narrow personality which had made him a mere day-laborer in art, as if his relations with Renovales imposed on him the duty of seeking a place near his in the world of painting.
He had gone back to landscapes, never winning any greater success than the simple admirations of wash-women and brickmakers who gathered around his easel in the suburbs of Madrid, whispering to each other that the gentleman who wore on his lapel the variegated button of his numerous Papal Orders, must be a famous old "buck," one of the great painters the papers talked about. Renovales had secured for him two honorable mentions at the Exhibitions and after this victory, shared with all the young chaps who were just beginning, Cotoner settled down in the rut, to rest forever, counting that the mission of his life was fulfilled.
Life in Madrid was no more difficult for him than in Rome. He slept at the house of a priest whom he had known in Italy, and had accompanied on his tours as Papal representative. This chaplain, who was employed in the office of the Rota, considered it a great honor to entertain the artist, recalling his friendly relations with the cardinals and believing that he was in correspondence with the Pope himself.
They had agreed on a sum which he was to pay for his lodging, but the priest did not seem to be in any hurry for payment; he would soon give him a commission for a painting for some nuns for whom he was confessor.
The eating problem offered still less difficulty for Cotoner. He had the days of the week divided among various rich families noted for their piety, whom he had met in Rome during the great Spanish pilgrimages. They were wealthy miners from Bilbao, gentlemen farmers from Andalusia, old marchionesses who thought about God a great deal, but continued to live their comfortable life to which they gave a serious tone by the respectable color of devotion.
The painter felt closely attached to this little group; they were serious, religious and they ate well. Everyone called him "good Cotoner." The ladies smiled with gratitude when he presented them with a rosary or some other article of devotion brought from Rome. If they expressed the desire of obtaining some dispensation from the Vatican, he would offer to write to "his friend the cardinal." The husbands, glad to entertain an artist so cheaply, consulted him about the plan for a new chapel or the designs for an altar, and on their saint's day they would receive with a condescending mien some present from Cotoner—a "little daub," a landscape painted on a piece of wood, that often needed an explanation before they could understand what it was meant for.
At dinners he was a constant source of amusement for these people of solid principles and measured words, with his stories of the strange doings of the "Monsignori" or the "Eminences" he used to know in Rome. They listened to these jokes with a sort of unction, however dubious they were, seeing that they came from such respectable personages.
When the round of invitations was interrupted by illness or absence, and Cotoner lacked a place to dine, he stayed at Renovales' house without waiting for an invitation. The master wanted him to live with them, but he did not accept. He was very fond of the family; Milita played with him as if he were an old dog, Josephina felt a sort of affection for him, because his presence reminded her of the good old days in Rome. But Cotoner, in spite of this, seemed to be somewhat reluctant, divining the storms that darkened the master's life. He preferred his free existence, to which he adapted himself with the ease of a parasite. After dinner was over, he would listen to the weighty discussions between learned priests and serious old church-goers, nodding his approval, and an hour later he would be jesting impiously in some cafe or other with painters, actors and journalists. He knew everybody; he only needed to speak to an artist twice and he would call him by his first name and swear that he loved and admired him from the bottom of his heart. When Renovales came into the studio, he shook off his drowsiness and stretched out his short legs so that he could touch the floor and get out of the chair.
"Did they tell you, Mariano? A magnificent dish! I made them an Andalusian pot-pourri! They were tickled to death over it!"
He was enthusiastic over his culinary achievement as if all his merits were summed up in this skill. Afterwards, while Renovales was handing his coat and hat to the servant who followed him, Cotoner with the curiosity of an intimate friend who wants to know all the details of his idol's life, questioned him about his luncheon with the foreigner.
Renovales lay down on a divan deep as a niche, between two bookcases and lined with piles of cushions. As they spoke of Tekli, they recalled friends in Rome, painters of different nationalities who twenty years before had walked with their heads high, following the star of hope as if they were hypnotized. Renovales, in his pride in his strength, incapable of hypocritical modesty, declared that he was the only one who had succeeded. Poor Tekli was a professor; his copy of Velasquez amounted to nothing more than the work of a patient cart horse in art.
"Do you think so?" asked Cotoner doubtfully. "Is his work so poor?"
His selfishness kept him from saying a word against anyone; he had no faith in criticism, he believed blindly in praise; thereby preserving his reputation as a good fellow, which gave him the entree everywhere and made his life easy. The figure of the Hungarian was fixed in his memory and made him think of a series of luncheons before he left Madrid.
"Good afternoon, master."
It was Soldevilla who came out from behind a screen with his hands clasped behind his back under the tail of his short sack coat, his head in the air, tortured by the excessive height of his stiff, shining collar, throwing out his chest so as to show off better his velvet waistcoat. His thinness and his small stature were made up for by the length of his blond mustache that curled around his pink little nose as if it were trying to reach the straight, scraggly bangs on his forehead. This Soldevilla was Renovales' favorite pupil—"his weakness" Cotoner called him. The master had fought a great battle to win him the fellowship at Rome; afterward he had given him the prize at several exhibitions.
He looked on him almost as a son, attracted perhaps by the contrast between his own rough strength and the weakness of that artistic dandy, always proper, always amiable, who consulted this master about everything, even if afterwards he did not pay much attention to his advice. When he criticized his fellow painters, he did it with a venomous suavity, with a feminine finesse. Renovales laughed at his appearance and his habits and Cotoner joined in. He was like china, always shining; you could not find the least speck of dust on him; you were sure he slept in a cupboard. These present-day painters! The two old artists recalled the disorder of their youth, their Bohemian carelessness, with long beards and huge hats, all their odd extravagances to distinguish them from the rest of men, forming a world by themselves. They felt out of humor with these painters of the last batch—proper, prudent, incapable of doing anything absurd, copying the fashions of the idle and presenting the appearance of State functionaries, clerks, who wielded the brush.
His greeting over, Soldevilla fairly overwhelmed the master with his effusive praise. He had been admiring the portrait of the Countess of Alberca.
"A perfect marvel, master. The best thing you have painted, and it's only half done, too."
This praise aroused Renovales. He got up, shoved aside the screen and pulled out an easel that held a large canvas, until it was opposite the light that came in through the wide window.
On a gray background stood a woman dressed in white, with that majesty of beauty that is accustomed to admiration. The aigrette of feathers and diamonds seemed to tremble on her tawny yellow curls, the curve of her breasts was outlined through the lace of her low-necked gown, her gloves reached above her elbows, in one of her hands she held a costly fan, in the other, a dark cloak, lined with flame-colored satin, that slipped from her bare shoulders, on the point of falling. The lower part of the figure was merely outlined in charcoal on the white canvas. The head, almost finished, seemed to look at the three men with its proud eyes, cold, but with a false coldness that bespoke a hidden passion within, a dead volcano that might come to life at any moment.
She was a tall, stately woman, with a charming, well-proportioned figure, who seemed to keep the freshness of youth, thanks to the healthy, comfortable life she led. The corners of her eyes were narrowed with a tired fold.
Cotoner looked at her from his seat with chaste calmness, commenting tranquilly on her beauty, feeling above temptation.
"It's she, you've caught her, Mariano. She has been a great woman."
Renovales appeared offended at this comment.
"She is," he said with a sort of hostility. "She is still."
Cotoner could not argue with his idol and he hastened to correct himself.
"She is a charming woman, very attractive, yes sir, and very stylish. They say she is talented and cannot bear to let men who worship her suffer. She has certainly enjoyed life."
Renovales began to bristle again, as if these words cut him.
"Nonsense! lies, calumnies!" he said angrily. "Inventions of some young fellows who spread these disgraceful reports because they were rejected."
Cotoner began to explain away what he had said. He did not know anything, he had heard it. The ladies at whose houses he dined spoke ill of the Alberca woman, but perhaps it was merely woman's gossip. There was a moment of silence and Renovales, as if he wanted to change the subject of conversation, turned to Soldevilla.
"And you, aren't you painting any longer? I always find you here in working hours."
He smiled somewhat knowingly as he said this, while the youth blushed and tried to make excuses. He was working hard, but every day he felt the need of dropping into his master's studio for a minute before he went to his own.
It was a habit he had formed when he was a beginner, in that period, the best in his life, when he studied beside the great painter in a studio far less sumptuous than this.
"And Milita? Did you see her?" continued Renovales with a good-natured smile that had not lost its playfulness. "Didn't she 'kid' you, for wearing that dazzling new tie?"
Soldevilla smiled too. He had been in the dining-room with Dona Josephina and Milita and the latter had made fun of him as usual. But she did not mean anything; the master knew that Milita and he treated each other like brother and sister.
More than once when she was a little tot and he a lad, he had acted as her horse, trotting around the old studio with the little scamp on his back, pulling his hair and pounding him with her tiny fists.
"She's very cute," interrupted Cotoner. "She is the most attractive, the best girl I know."
"And the unequaled Lopez de Sosa?" asked the master, once more in a playful tone. "Didn't that 'chauffeur' that drives us crazy with his automobiles come to-day?"
Soldevilla's smile disappeared. He grew pale and his eyes flashed spitefully. No, he had not seen the gentleman. According to the ladies, he was busy repairing an automobile that had broken down on the Pardo road. And as if the recollection of this friend of the family was trying for him and he wished to avoid any further allusions to him, he said "good-by" to the master. He was going to work; he must take advantage of the two hours of sunlight that were left. But before he went out he stopped to say another word in praise of the portrait of the countess.
The two friends remained alone for a long while in silence. Renovales, buried in the shadow of that niche of Persian stuffs with which his divan was canopied, gazed at the picture.
"Is she going to come to-day?" asked Cotoner, pointing to the canvas.
Renovales shrugged his shoulders. To-day or the next day; it was impossible to do any serious work with that woman.
He expected her that afternoon; but he would not feel surprised if she failed to keep her appointment. For nearly a month he had been unable to get in two days in succession. She was always engaged; she was president of societies for the education and emancipation of woman; she was constantly planning festivals and raffles; the activity of a tired woman of society, the fluttering of a wild bird that made her want to be everywhere at the same time, without the will to withdraw when once she was started in the current of feminine excitement. Suddenly the painter whose eyes were fixed on the portrait gave a cry of enthusiasm.
"What a woman, Pepe! What a woman to paint!"
His eyes seemed to lay bare the beauty that stood on the canvas in all its aristocratic grandeur. They strove to penetrate the mystery of that covering of lace and silk, to see the color and the lines of the form that was hardly revealed through the gown. This mental reconstruction was helped by the bare shoulders and the curve of her breasts that seemed to tremble at the edge of her dress, separated by a line of soft shadow.
"That's just what I told your wife," said the Bohemian naively. "If you paint beautiful women, like the countess, it is merely for the sake of painting them and not that you would think of seeing in them anything more than a model."
"Aha! So my wife has been talking to you about that!"
Cotoner hastened to set his mind at ease, fearing his digestion might be disturbed. A mere trifle, nervousness on the part of poor Josephina, who saw the dark side of everything in her illness.
She had referred during the luncheon to the Alberca woman and her portrait. She did not seem to be very fond of her, in spite of the fact that she had been her companion in boarding-school. She felt as other women did; the countess was an enemy, who inspired them with fear. But he had calmed her and finally succeeded in making her smile faintly. There was no use in talking about that any longer.
But Renovales did not share his friend's optimism. He was well aware of his wife's state of mind; he understood now the motive that had made her flee from the table, to take refuge upstairs and to weep and long for death. She hated Concha as she did all the women who entered his studio. But this impression of sadness did not last very long in the painter; he was used to his wife's susceptibility. Besides, the consciousness of his faithfulness calmed him. His conscience was clean, and Josephina might believe what she would. It would only be one more injustice and he was resigned to endure his slavery without complaint.
In order to forget his trouble, he began to talk about painting. The recollection of his conversation with Tekli enlivened him, for Tekli had been traveling all over Europe and was well acquainted with what the most famous masters were thinking and painting.
"I'm getting old, Cotoner. Did you think I didn't know it? No, don't protest. I know that I am not old; forty-three years. I mean that I have lost my gait and cannot get started. It's a long time since I have done anything new; I always strike the same note. You know that some people, envious of my reputation are always throwing that defect in my face, like a vile insult."
And the painter, with the selfishness of great artists who always think that they are neglected and the world begrudges them their glory, complained at the slavery that was imposed upon him by his good fortune. Making money! What a calamity for art! If the world were governed by his common sense, artists with talent would be supported by the State, which would generously provide for all their needs and whims. There would be no need of bothering about making a living. "Paint what you want to, and as you please." Then great things would be done and art would advance with giant strides, not constrained to debase itself by flattering public vulgarity and the ignorance of the rich. But now, to be a celebrated painter it was necessary to make money and this could not be done except by portraits, opening a shop, painting the first one that appeared, without the right of choice. Accursed painting! In writing, poverty was a merit. It stood for truth and honesty. But the painter must be rich, his talent was judged by his profits. The fame of his pictures was connected with the idea of thousands of dollars. When people talked about his work they always said, "He's making such and such a sum of money," and to keep up this wealth, the indispensable companion of his glory, he had to paint by the job, cringing before the vulgar throng that pays.