A Word Only A Word by Georg Ebers
Ulrich again stood before the Alcazar, and recalled the hour when, a poor lad, just escaped from prison, he had been harshly rebuffed by the same porter, who now humbly saluted the young gentleman attired in costly velvet.
And yet how gladly he would have crossed this threshold poor as in those days, but free and with a soul full of enthusiasm and hope; how joyfully he would have effaced from his life the years that lay between that time and the present.
He dreaded meeting the Coellos; nothing but honor urged him to present himself to them.
Yes--and if the old man rejected him?--so much the better!
The old cheerful confusion reigned in the studio. He had a long time to wait there, and then heard through several doors Senora Petra's scolding voice and her husband's angry replies.
At last Coello came to him and after greeting him, first formally, then cordially, and enquiring about his health and experiences, he shrugged his shoulders, saying:
"My wife does not wish you to see Isabella again before the trial. You must show what you can do, of course; but I. . . . you look well and apparently have collected reales. Or is it true," and he moved his hand as if shaking a dice-box. "He who wins is a good fellow, but we want no more to do with such people here! You find me the same as of old, and you have returned at the right time, that is something. De Soto has told me about your quarrel in Venice. The great masters were pleased with you and this, you Hotspur, you forfeited! Ferrara for Venice! A poor exchange. Filippi--understands drawing; but otherwise. . . . Michael Angelo's pupil! Does he still write on his back? Every monk is God's servant, but in how few does the Lord dwell! What have you drawn with Sebastiano?"
Ulrich answered these questions in a subdued tone; and Coello listened with only partial attention, for he heard his wife telling the duenna Catalina in an adjoining room what she thought of her husband's conduct. She did so very loudly, for she wished to be overheard by him and Ulrich. But she was not to obtain her purpose, for Coello suddenly interrupted the returned travellers story, saying:
"This is getting beyond endurance. If she does her utmost, you shall see Isabella. A welcome, a grasp of the hand, nothing more. Poor young lovers! If only it did not require such a confounded number of things to live. . . . Well, we will see!"
As soon as the artist had entered the adjoining room, a new and more violent quarrel arose there, but, though Senora Petra finally called a fainting-fit to her aid, her husband remained firm, and at last returned to the studio with Isabella.
Ulrich had awaited her, as a criminal expects his sentence. Now she stood before him led by her father's hand-and he, he struck his forehead with his fist, closed his eyes and opened them again to look at her--to gaze as if he beheld a wondrous apparition. Then feeling as if he should die of shame, grief, and joyful surprise, he stood spellbound, and knew not what to do, save to extend both hands to her, or what to say, save "I . . . I--I," then with a sudden change of tone exclaimed like a madman:
"You don't know! I am not. . . . Give me time, master. Here, here, girl, you must, you shall, all must not be over!"
He had opened his arms wide, and now hastily approached her with the eager look of the gambler, who has staked his last penny on a card.
Coello's daughter did not obey.
She was no longer little, unassuming Belita; here stood no child, but a beautiful, blooming maiden. In eighteen months her figure had gained height; anxious yearning and constant contention with her mother had wasted her superabundance of flesh; her face had become oval, her bearing self-possessed. Her large, clear eyes now showed their full beauty, her half-developed features had acquired exquisite symmetry, and her raven-black hair floated, like a shining ornament, around her pale, charming face.
"Happy will be the man, who is permitted to call this woman his own!" cried a voice in the youth's breast, but another voice whispered "Lost, lost, forfeited, trifled away!"
Why did she not obey his call? Why did she not rush into his open arms? Why, why?
He clenched his fists, bit his lips, for she did not stir, except to press closely to her father's side.
This handsome, splendidly-dressed gentleman, with the pointed beard, deep-set eyes, and stern, gloomy gaze, was an entirely different person from the gay enthusiastic follower of art, for whom her awakening heart had first throbbed more quickly; this was not the future master, who stood before her mind as a glorious favorite of fortune and the muse, transfigured by joyous creation and lofty success--this defiant giant did not look like an artist. No, no; yonder man no longer resembled the Ulrich, to whom, in the happiest hour of her life, she had so willingly, almost too willingly, offered her pure lips.
Isabella's young heart contracted with a chill, yet she saw that he longed for her; she knew, could not deny, that she had bound herself to him body and soul, and yet--yet, she would so gladly have loved him.
She strove to speak, but could find no words, save "Ulrich, Ulrich," and these did not sound gay and joyous, but confused and questioning.
Coello felt her fingers press his shoulder closer and closer. She was surely seeking protection and aid from him, to keep her promise and resist her lover's passionate appeal.
Now his darling's eyes filled with tears, and he felt the tremor of her limbs.
Softened by affectionate weakness and no longer able to resist the impulse to see his little Belita happy, he whispered:
"Poor thing, poor young lovers! Do as you choose, I won't look."
But Isabella did not leave him; she only drew herself up higher, summoned all her courage and looking the returned traveller more steadily in the face, said:
"You are so changed, so entirely changed, Ulrich I cannot tell what has come over me. I have anticipated this hour day and night, and now it is here;--what is this? What has placed itself between us?"
"What, indeed!" he indignantly exclaimed, advancing towards her with a threatening air. "What? Surely you must know! Your mother has destroyed your regard for the poor bungler. Here I stand! Have I kept my promise, yes or no? Have I become a monster, a venomous serpent? Do not look at me so again, do not! It will do no good; to you or me. I will not allow myself to be trifled with!"
Ulrich had shouted these words, as if some great injustice had been done him, and he believed himself in the right.
Coello tried to release himself from his daughter, to confront the passionately excited man, but she held him back, and with a pale face and trembling voice, but proud and resolute manner, answered:
"No one has trifled with you, I least of all; my love has been earnest, sacred earnest."
"Earnest!" interrupted Ulrich, with cutting irony.
"Yes, yes, sacred earnest;--and when my mother told me you had killed a man and left Venice for a worthless woman's sake, when it was rumored, that in Ferrara you had become a gambler, I thought: 'I know him better, they are slandering him to destroy the love you bear in your heart.' I did not believe it; but now I do. I believe it, and shall do so, till you have withstood your trial. For the gambler I am too good, to the artist Navarrete I will joyfully keep my promise. Not a word, I will hear no more. Come, father! If he loves me, he will understand how to win me. I am afraid of this man."
Ulrich now knew who was in fault, and who in the right. Strong impulse urged him away from the studio, away from Art and his betrothed bride; for he had forfeited all the best things in life.
But Coello barred his way. He was not the man, for the sake of a brawl and luck at play, to break friendship with the faithful companion, who had shown distinctly enough how fondly he loved his darling. He had hidden behind these bushes himself in his youth, and yet become a skilful artist and good husband.
He willingly yielded to his wife in small matters, in important ones he meant to remain master of the house. Herrera was a great scholar and artist, but an insignificant man; and he allowed himself to be paid like a bungler. Ulrich's manly beauty had pleased him, and under his, Coello's teaching, he would make his mark. He, the father knew better what suited Isabella than she herself. Girls do not sob so bitterly as she had done, as soon as the door of the studio closed behind her, unless they are in love.
Whence did she obtain this cool judgment? Certainly not from him, far less from her mother.
Perhaps she only wished to arouse Navarrete to do his best at the trial. Coello smiled; it was in his power to judge mildly.
So he detained Ulrich with cheering words, and gave him a task in which he could probably succeed. He was to paint a Madonna and Child, and two months were allowed him for the work. There was a studio in the Casa del Campo, he could paint there and need only promise never to visit the Alcazar before the completion of the work.
Ulrich consented. Isabella must be his. Scorn for scorn!
She should learn which was the stronger.
He knew not whether he loved or hated her, but her resistance had passionately inflamed his longing to call her his. He was determined, by summoning all his powers, to create a masterpiece. What Titian had approved must satisfy a Coello! so he began the task.
A strong impulse urged him to sketch boldly and without long consideration, the picture of the Madonna, as it had once lived in his soul, but he restrained himself, repeating the warning words which had so often been dinned into his ears: Draw, draw!
A female model was soon found; but instead of trusting his eyes and boldly reproducing what he beheld, he measured again and again, and effaced what the red pencil had finished. While painting his courage rose, for the hair, flesh, and dress seemed to him to become true to nature and effective. But he, who in better times had bound himself heart and soul to Art and served her with his whole soul, in this picture forced himself to a method of work, against which his inmost heart rebelled. His model was beautiful, but he could read nothing in the regular features, except that they were fair, and the lifeless countenance became distasteful to him. The boy too caused him great trouble, for he lacked appreciation of the charm of childish innocence, the spell of childish character.
Meantime he felt great secret anxiety. The impulse that moved his brush was no longer the divine pleasure in creation of former days, but dread of failure, and ardent, daily increasing love for Isabella.
Ulrich lived in the lonely little palace to which he had retired, avoiding all society, toiling early and late with restless, joyless industry, at a work which pleased him less with every new day.
Don Juan of Austria sometimes met him in the park. Once the Emperor's son called to him:
"Well, Navarrete, how goes the enlisting?"
But Ulrich would not abandon his art, though he had long doubted its omnipotence. The nearer the second month approached its close, the more frequently, the more fervently he called upon the "word," but it did not hear.
When it grew dark, a strong impulse urged him to go to the city, seek brawls, and forget himself at the gaming-table; but he did not yield, and to escape the temptation, fled to the church, where he spent whole hours, till the sacristan put out the lights.
He was not striving for communion with the highest things, he felt no humble desire for inward purification; far different motives influenced him.
Inhaling the atmosphere laden with the soft music of the organ and the fragrant incense, he could converse with his beloved dead, as if they were actually present; the wayward man became a child, and felt all the gentle, tender emotions of his early youth again stir his heart.
One night during the last week before the expiration of the allotted time, a thought which could not fail to lead him to his goal, darted into his brain like a revelation.
A beautiful woman, with a child standing in her lap, adorned the canvas.
What efforts he had made to lend these features the right expression.
Memory should aid him to gain his purpose. What woman had ever been fairer, more tender and loving than his own mother?
He distinctly recalled her eyes and lips, and during the last few days remaining to him, his Madonna obtained Florette's joyous expression, while the sensual, alluring charm, that had been peculiar to the mouth of the musician's daughter, soon hovered around the Virgin's lips.
Ay, this was a mother, this must be a true mother, for the picture resembled his own!
The gloomier the mood that pervaded his own soul, the more sunny and bright the painting seemed. He could not weary of gazing at it, for it transported him to the happiest hours of his childhood, and when the Madonna looked down upon him, it seemed as if he beheld the balsams behind the window of the smithy in the market-place, and again saw the Handsome nobles, who lifted him from his laughing mother's lap to set him on their shoulders.
Yes! In this picture he had been aided by the "joyous art," in whose honor Paolo Veronese, had at one of Titian's banquets, started up, drained a glass of wine to the dregs, and hurled it through the window into the canal.
He believed himself sure of success, and could no longer cherish anger against Isabella. She had led him back into the right path, and it would be sweet, rapturously sweet, to bear the beloved maiden tenderly and gently in his strong arms over the rough places of life.
One morning, according to the agreement, he notified Coello that the Madonna was completed.
The Spanish artist appeared at noon, but did not come alone, and the man, who preceded him, was no less important a personage than the king himself.
With throbbing heart, unable to utter a single word, Ulrich opened the door of the studio, bowing low before the monarch, who without vouchsafing him a single glance, walked solemnly to the painting.
Coello drew aside the cloth that covered it, and the sarcastic chuckle Ulrich had so often heard instantly echoed from the king's lips; then turning to Coello he angrily exclaimed, loud enough to be heard by the young artist:
"Scandalous! Insulting, offensive botchwork! A Bacchante in the garb of a Madonna! And the child! Look at those legs! When he grows up, he may become a dancing-master. He who paints such Madonnas should drop his colors! His place is the stable--among refractory horses."
Coello could make no reply, but the king, glancing at the picture again, cried wrathfully:
"A Christian's work, a Christian's! What does the reptile who painted this know of the mother, the Virgin, the stainless lily, the thornless rose, the path by which God came to men, the mother of sorrow, who bought the world with her tears, as Christ did with His sacred blood. I have seen enough, more than enough! Escovedo is waiting for me outside! We will discuss the triumphal arch to-morrow!"
Philip left the studio, the court-artist accompanying him to the door.
When he returned, the unhappy youth was still standing in the same place, gazing, panting for breath, at his condemned work.
"Poor fellow!" said Coello, compassionately, approaching him; but Ulrich interrupted, gasping in broken accents:
"And you, you? Your verdict!"
The other shrugged his shoulders and answered with sincere pity:
"His Majesty is not indulgent; but come here and look yourself. I will not speak of the child, though it. . . . In God's name, let us leave it as it is. The picture impresses me as it did the king, and the Madonna--I grieve to say it, she belongs anywhere rather than in Heaven. How often this subject is painted! If Meister Antonio, if Moor should see this. . . ."
"Then, then?" asked Ulrich, his eyes glowing with a gloomy fire.
"He would compel you to begin at the beginning once more. I am sincerely sorry for you, and not less so for poor Belita. My wife will triumph! You know I have always upheld your cause; but this luckless work. . . ."
"Enough!" interrupted the youth. Rushing to the picture, he thrust his maul-stick through it, then kicked easel and painting to the floor.
Coello, shaking his head, watched him, and tried to soothe him with kindly words, but Ulrich paid no heed, exclaiming:
"It is all over with art, all over. A Dios, Master! Your daughter does not care for love without art, and art and I have nothing more to do with each other."
At the door he paused, strove to regain his self-control, and at last held out his hand to Coello, who was gazing sorrowfully after him.
The artist gladly extended his, and Ulrich, pressing it warmly, murmured in an agitated, trembling voice:
"Forgive this raving. . . . It is only . . . I only feel, as if I was bearing all that had been dear to me to the grave. Thanks, Master, thanks for many kindnesses. I am, I have--my heart--my brain, everything is confused. I only know that you, that Isabella, have been kind to me and I, I have--it will kill me yet! Good fortune gone! Art gone! A Dios, treacherous world! A Dios, divine art!"
As he uttered the last sentence he drew his hand from the artist's grasp, rushed back into the studio, and with streaming eyes pressed his lips to the palette, the handle of the brush, and his ruined picture; then he dashed past Coello into the street.
The artist longed to go to his child; but the king detained him in the park. At last he was permitted to return to the Alcazar.
Isabella was waiting on the steps, before the door of their apartments. She had stood there a long, long time.
"Father!" she called.
Coello looked up sadly and gave an answer in the negative by compassionately waving his hand.
The young girl shivered, as if a chill breeze had struck her, and when the artist stood beside her, she gazed enquiringly at him with her dark eyes, which looked larger than ever in the pallid, emaciated face, and said in a low, firm tone:
"I want to speak to him. You will take me to the picture. I must see it."
"He has thrust his maul-stick through it. Believe me, child, you would have condemned it yourself."
"And yet, yet! I must see it," she answered earnestly, "see it with these eyes. I feel, I know--he is an artist. Wait, I'll get my mantilla."
Isabella hurried back with flying feet, and when a short time after, wearing the black lace kerchief on her head, she descended the staircase by her father's side, the private secretary de Soto came towards them, exclaiming:
"Do you want to hear the latest news, Coello? Your pupil Navarrete has become faithless to you and the noble art of painting. Don Juan gave him the enlistment money fifteen minutes ago. Better be a good trooper, than a mediocre artist! What is the matter, Senorita?"
"Nothing, nothing," Isabella murmured gently, and fell fainting on her father's breast.