Under the Skylights by Henry Blake Fuller
Little O'Grady vs. The Grindstone
"Come, now," said Little O'Grady; "help the lame duck over the stile. Be a good Gowan--give the poor fellow the use of your studio. Mordreth's isn't enough better to be worth asking for, and Stalinski is working from the model. Come,--as a personal favour to me. It was I let you in on the bank scheme and gave you a chance to make big money; and now you must just let Ignace have the use of your place for a few hours--he can't paint the girl's picture in that little hole upstairs."
"Much you let me in!" retorted Gowan with a grin. "Tell me who is in, anyway, and how far, and for how much, and I'll give you half I get."
"Haven't I seen them?" returned Little O'Grady. "Didn't I address the whole board? Didn't I go for them with the architect himself to help me? Haven't I got the mantel-piece in the president's parlour? And now if Ignace can only get a chance to paint the fav'rite grandchild of one of the----Yes, sir; I talked to them as a business-man to business-men, and it went. They're square; they're solid; they'll treat us right. Never you fear. In a year from now you'll be wearing diamonds and saying: 'O'Grady, you're the wan that hung them on me.' Now will you give Ignace your room?"
"Why, he's no portrait painter, is he?"
"She thinks he is. And it's what the girls think of us that makes us what we are. As for me, I believe he can do anything. Come, give the poor lad a show."
"What could he do in an hour or two?"
"He could get acquainted with her," said Little O'Grady.
Preciosa, thanks to O'Grady's chatterings through the Temple of Art--he blew in and out with great freedom and was as much at home there as in the humbler establishment--had come to some knowledge of Ignace Prochnow. She learned his name--in itself an immense advance, and the location of his studio; and she arranged with the Gibbons girls, who, by reason of their fencing, were developing great self-reliance and a high capacity for initiative, to search him out in his private haunts.
"Set the day," chirped Little O'Grady, "and we'll be ready for you."
Preciosa set the day; Little O'Grady traced Prochnow's name in elaborate letterings and clapped this new placard over Gowan's own; and all waited intent to see just what of interest would develop in the countenance of the daughter of the McNultys, and just what Ignace Prochnow would be able to make of it.
Preciosa wore her green velvet toque, and let her chestnut hair stray and ramble whithersoever it would, and sat in Gowan's best high-backed mahogany chair with the brass rosettes, and tried to view with kindly indulgence his flimsy knick-knacks and shabby hangings (they came nowhere near Dill's) on account of her interest in their supposed proprietor. Nor did she find in her painter any of Dill's soft suavity. Prochnow was direct and downright almost to brusqueness, seeming to see no need of such graduated preliminaries as even O'Grady found place and reason for. He admired her, and admired her extremely, as she perceived at once; but he offered none of the appropriate deferences that she had received on occasion from obscure young men of less than modest fortune. He was intent, he was earnest, he was even a bit peremptory; but she felt perfectly certain that he was not treating her as a subject and a subject merely. His black eyes looked at her with a sort of sharp severity across the leg of the easel, and his rasping crayon promptly scratched down his impressions upon the promising blank of his canvas. Preciosa was slightly puzzled, but on the whole pleased. She knew she was worth looking at, and felt herself fit to stand the keenest scrutiny. She leaned back easily in her chair. Let time attend to the rest.
"Doesn't she compose!" said Little O'Grady in a poignant whisper to Elizabeth Gibbons, as he thrust out his arms akimbo and squinted learnedly at Preciosa through his fingers. "And hasn't the lad got line!" he presently added in a rapturous undertone, as the black and white tracing began to take shape. Prochnow was drawing with immense freedom, decision, confidence; every stroke told, and told the first time. "He knows how! He knows how!" moaned Little O'Grady, locking his hands and forearms in a strange twist and rocking to and fro with emotion. "He's got the wrist!--the wrist!" he exclaimed further, liberating his hands and fanning the air with long pendulous fingers. "There, he's caught her already!" he cried, leaning forward,--"inside of five minutes. Not a line more, Ignace; not a line more!"
Prochnow turned on him with a grim tight smile--a smile that slightly dilated the nostrils of his good firm nose and shifted in ever so small a degree the smutch of black beneath that was slowly advancing to the status of a moustache. It was an acknowledgment from one who could to one who knew. "Ah, si jeunesse...!" ejaculates the poet; but here jeunesse, by a doubling of forces, both pouvait and savait.
Then Prochnow turned the canvas itself round toward Preciosa. "Does Mademoiselle recognise herself?"
"It's you, Preciosa, to the life," said the daughter of Roscoe Orlando Gibbons.
"Oh, Ig!" cried Little O'Grady, much moved, "you're the king-pin sure. People shall know you; people must know you!" He faced about toward Preciosa. "Ah, my fair young thing, he's got you dead. Why, Daff himself couldn't have reached this in an hour!"
Preciosa was like most of the rest of us--inclined to take good workmanship for granted; where there was nothing to criticise there was nothing to take hold of. But the words and actions of Little O'Grady--he was now hopping about on one leg, holding the other in his hand--made the matter perfectly certain. Her painter had done a notable thing, and done it easily, promptly, without revisions, without fumblings. His own face and attitude expressed his consciousness of this. "Nobody could have done it better," she read in his eyes; "and you, you blooming young creature, have been the inspiration." He had called her "Mademoiselle" too; could anything be more charming? Nothing save his accent itself,--a trick of the tongue, an intonation ever so slightly alien that addressed her ear just as some perfume's rich but smothered pungency might address the nose. Yes, the first stage in her apotheosis was an undoubted success. All that was needed now was her translation from black and white to colour. Well, the chariot was ready to take her up still higher.
"I have found you very easily, Mademoiselle,"--Preciosa felt a sugary little shudder at this repetition of the word,--"I have found you very easily," said Prochnow, casting about for his palette and brushes; "and now I may just as easily lose you."
"Oh no," said Elizabeth Gibbons, with great earnestness.
"Never fear," said Little O'Grady confidently. "Though the likeness generally gets submerged at first, it comes to the surface again in the end."
"Don't risk it," continued Elizabeth Gibbons.
"What has been done once," said Prochnow, motioning with a brush-handle toward the charcoal sketch, "can be done once more."
Prochnow handled his brushes with the same firmness and confidence that he had shown in handling his crayon. The "resemblance" soon sank beneath the waves, as prophesied, but Little O'Grady continued to ride on the topmost crest with unabated enthusiasm. "Whee! hasn't he got the nerve! hasn't he got the stroke! Doesn't he just more than slather it on!" he cried. "Catch the shadows in that green velvet! R-r-rip!--and the high light on that tan jacket!" he proceeded in a smothered shout, as he nudged Elizabeth Gibbons in the side. Elizabeth had never been nudged before, and moved farther down the settle, after giving him a look. Little O'Grady, who never knew when he was squelched--he never, as a fact, had been squelched by anybody whomsoever--moved along after her. "Oh, my! Can't he paint! Can't he more than lay it on! Did you get that last one, now?"
Buoyed up by such support as this, Prochnow forged ahead with quadrupled brio, and Preciosa felt the chariot rising heavenward cloud by cloud. Little O'Grady continued to lead the performance, prompting Preciosa to look her prettiest and Prochnow to do his best. "Ah, my sweet child," he declared, "you've fallen into good hands. You're trying to get away, true: you've nearly lost those bright eyes, and I wouldn't want to swear to your ears or your chin, just yet; but your blessed old-gold hair is there all right, and it's put on to stay. The rest of you will be coming back tomorrow, or next day, or the day after. And then you'll be all on deck, jew'l. You'll see; you'll hear; you'll speak, by heaven! Won't she, Lizzie?"
Miss Gibbons gave Little O'Grady another look. Preciosa paused in her heavenward ascent, and seemed to be wondering with a questioning little glance just how far along, after all, she had got. When she finally left her high-backed chair--"That's as far as we will go to-day," Prochnow had said--she felt herself very close to earth again: the cherished "resemblance" had vanished altogether. But Prochnow seemed satisfied with the result, and Little O'Grady was rapturously fluent over the brushwork. "Ignace is a wunder-kind," he declared to the doubting girl. "I never saw such swing, such certainty. He'll fish you back, and he'll have you to the life in less than a week. Or I'll eat my hat."
There was a knock at the door. O'Grady rushed to open it. "Go right away," Miss Gibbons thought she heard him say, in a tense undertone.
The face of Kitty Gowan showed in the doorway, puzzled, protesting. Medora Joyce was behind, her hands full of parcels.
"Go away?" repeated Mrs. Gowan. "What does this mean? Let me in at once."
"Depart!" hissed Little O'Grady. "This is not Mr. Prochnow's day. Come to-morrow."
"Step aside, O'Grady," said Kitty Gowan spunkily. "Let me pass." An afternoon of shopping had tired her and shortened her temper.
"Well, as a visitor, possibly," said O'Grady condescendingly. "Ignace, do you feel disposed to----" He glanced back and forth between Prochnow and the petitioners.
Prochnow took down the canvas and set its face against the wall.
Kitty Gowan strode in holding her head high. "How do?" she said carelessly, by way of general salute. "Sit there, Medora," she directed Mrs. Joyce, indicating a chair.
"Sit here, Medora," said O'Grady firmly, placing another. "Prochnow, Preciosa dear, allow me to present----" and so on. "And you sit here," he said to Kitty Gowan, placing a third chair. "You're a visitor, remember," he whispered to her fiercely; "so behave like one. Stay where you're put and don't own the earth. We have loaned the shop for the day. Understand?"
Preciosa passed lightly over Kitty Gowan, whom she found brusque in her manners and plain in her looks; but she fixed her best attention on Medora, with whom she was as much charmed as at the first. Idealist and heroine-worshipper, she was always ready to prostrate herself before a young married woman of Medora's gracious and fashionable cast.
O'Grady lingered over Medora's chair. "We've had a wonderful session," he said, laying his hand affectionately on her shoulder. "You ought to have come a bit sooner, my dear."
Preciosa shivered. It was like the profanation of an idol.
Medora unconcernedly pushed away his hand. Preciosa envied such serenity and self-poise.
"Why, how's this?" asked O'Grady, studying his hand curiously, as some detached thing, some superfluity rejected and returned. "Ain't we friends? Ain't we old pals? You can't mean to stand me off with your London clothes and your London manners? Don't say you're trying to do that, Dodie!"
Preciosa shuddered. Medora laughed carelessly--oh, how could she! Kitty Gowan jumped up and boxed O'Grady's ear with one of Medora's long, flat parcels. "Get away, you saucy child!" she said.
O'Grady grimaced and nursed his ear. "It serves you right!" said Elizabeth Gibbons tartly.
Preciosa was placated; the great retribution had fallen. She banished the wish that she herself might have had the daring to be a third avenging fury, and fell to studying the folds of Medora's bottle-green cloak. She wondered if she herself were not as pretty as Mrs. Joyce--oh, in an entirely different way!--and if she were glad or sorry that Medora and her companion had come a little late for seeing the picture. Would it be a success--this portrait? Was it all that Mr. Prochnow's lively little friend seemed to think?
Prochnow, putting away his palette and brushes, grandly overlooked the late irruption of trivialities. He glanced across to Preciosa, and she felt that he was thanking her for having held herself quite aloof from them.
Preciosa went away not completely reassured, yet on the whole pretty well pleased. She felt that she had been taken hold of by a strong, decided hand. She had made an excursion into a new land where feeble compliments were dispensed with and where meek-eyed ingratiation seemed not to exist. Yes, he was a forcible, clever fellow. That Virgilia Jeffreys should have tried to make her think anything else, and that she should have permitted Virgilia to make the attempt! She should see Virgilia soon, somewhere, and should regain the lost ground; she should not allow herself to be walked over a second time. She should probably say something very cutting, too--if she could but find the right words. Suppose she were younger than Virgilia and less expert? Was that any reason why she should be played with, be cajoled into making fun of a----Yes, Ignace Prochnow was a fine clever fellow; good-looking too, in a way; and masterful, beyond a doubt. Had she been kind enough to him to cancel her cruelty at their first meeting? She was afraid not. Should she have been kinder but for the abundance of company and the absorbing nature of the work? Probably so. Should she be kinder next time? That would depend on him;--yes, if he became a little less professional and a little more personal. Would he become so? She hoped he might. And if he didn't? Then he might be encouraged to. How? Preciosa opened her purse for her fare and postponed an answer.
At that same moment, Prochnow, banished along with the canvas to his own room by the return of Gowan, sat staring at the portrait as it stood propped against his trunk. Little O'Grady, if he had been present, instead of being occupied on the other side of the partition in sweeping up the dried plaster that littered his floor, would have decided that the personal interest was in fair proportion to the professional, and would have rated Prochnow no higher as an artist than as a man.