The Ikon by Maurice Baring
Ferroll was an intellectual, and he prided himself on the fact. At Cambridge he had narrowly missed being a Senior Wrangler, and his principal study there had been Lunar Theory. But when he went down from Cambridge for good, being a man of some means, he travelled. For a year he was an honorary Attache at one of the big Embassies. He finally settled in London with a vague idea of some day writing a magnum opus about the stupidity of mankind; for he had come to the conclusion by the age of twenty-five that all men were stupid, irreclaimably, irredeemably stupid; that everything was wrong; that all literature was really bad, all art much overrated, and all music tedious in the long run.
The years slipped by and he never began his magnum opus; he joined a literary club instead and discussed the current topic of the day. Sometimes he wrote a short article; never in the daily Press, which he despised, nor in the reviews (for he never wrote anything as long as a magazine article), but in a literary weekly he would express in weary and polished phrases the unemphatic boredom or the mitigated approval with which the works of his fellow-men inspired him. He was the kind of man who had nothing in him you could positively dislike, but to whom you could not talk for five minutes without having a vague sensation of blight. Things seemed to shrivel up in his presence as though they had been touched by an insidious east wind, a subtle frost, a secret chill. He never praised anything, though he sometimes condescended to approve. The faint puffs of blame in which he more generally indulged were never sharp or heavy, but were like the smoke rings of a cigarette which a man indolently smoking blows from time to time up to the ceiling.
He lived in rooms in the Temple. They were comfortably, not luxuriously furnished; a great many French books--French was the only modern language worth reading he used to say--a few modern German etchings, a low Turkish divan, and some Egyptian antiquities, made up the furniture of his two sitting-rooms. Above all things he despised Greek art; it was, he said decadent. The Egyptians and the Germans were, in his opinion, the only people who knew anything about the plastic arts, whereas the only music he could endure was that of the modern French School. Over his chimney-piece there was a large German landscape in oils, called "Im Walde"; it represented a wood at twilight in the autumn, and if you looked at it carefully and for a long time you saw that the objects depicted were meant to be trees from which the leaves were falling; but if you looked at the picture carelessly and from a distance, it looked like a man-of-war on a rough sea, for which it was frequently taken, much to Ferrol's annoyance.
One day an artist friend of his presented him with a small Chinese god made of crystal; he put this on his chimney-piece. It was on the evening of the day on which he received this gift that he dined, together with a friend named Sledge who had travelled much in Eastern countries, at his club. After dinner they went to Ferrol's rooms to smoke and to talk. He wanted to show Sledge his antiquities, which consisted of three large Egyptian statuettes, a small green Egyptian god, and the Chinese idol which he had lately been given. Sledge, who was a middle-aged, bearded man, frank and unconventional, examined the antiquities with care, pronounced them to be genuine, and singled out for special praise the crystal god.
"Your things are very good," he said, "very good. But don't you really mind having all these things about you?"
"Why should I mind?" asked Ferrol.
"Well, you have travelled a good deal, haven't you?"
"Yes," said Ferrol, "I have travelled; I have been as far east as Nijni-Novgorod to see the Fair, and as far west as Lisbon."
"I suppose," said Sledge, "you were a long time in Greece and Italy?"
"No," said Ferrol, "I have never been to Greece. Greek art distresses me. All classical art is a mistake and a superstition."
"Talking of superstition," said Sledge, "you have never been to the Far East, have you?"
"No," Ferrol answered, "Egypt is Eastern enough for me, and cannot be bettered."
"Well," said Sledge, "I have been in the Far East. I have lived there many years. I am not a superstitious man; but there is one thing I would not do in any circumstances whatsoever, and that is to keep in my sitting-room the things you have got there."
"But why?" asked Ferrol.
"Well," said Sledge, "nearly all of them have come from the tombs of the dead, and some of them are gods. Such things may have attached to them heaven knows what spooks and spirits."
Ferrol shut his eyes and smiled, a faint, seraphic smile. "My dear boy," he said, "you forget. This is the Twentieth Century."
"And you," answered Sledge, "forget that the things you have here were made before the Twentieth Century. B.C."
"You don't seriously mean," said Ferrol, "that you attach any importance to these--" he hesitated.
"Children's stories?" suggested Sledge.
"I have lived long enough in the East," said Sledge, "to know that the sooner you learn to believe children's stories the better."
"I am afraid, then," said Ferrol, with civil tolerance, "that our points of view are too different for us to discuss the matter." And they talked of other things until late into the night.
Just as Sledge was leaving Ferrol's rooms and had said "Good-night," he paused by the chimney-piece, and, pointing to the tiny Ikon which was lying on it, asked: "What is that?"
"Oh, that's nothing," said Ferrol, "only a small Ikon I bought for twopence at the Fair of Nijni-Novgorod."
Sledge said "Good-night" again, but when he was on the stairs he called back: "In any case remember one thing, that East is East and West is West. Don't mix your deities."
Ferrol had not the slightest idea what he was alluding to, nor did he care. He dismissed the matter from his mind.
The next day he spent in the country, returning to London late in the evening. As he entered his rooms the first thing which met his eye was that his great picture, "Im Walde," which he considered to be one of the few products of modern art that a man who respected himself could look at without positive pain in the eyes, had fallen from its place over the chimney-piece to the floor in front of the fender, and the glass was shattered into a thousand fragments. He was much vexed. He sought the cause of the accident. The nail was a strong one, and it was still in its place. The picture had been hung by a wire; the wire seemed strong also and was not broken. He concluded that the picture must have been badly balanced and that a sudden shock such a door banging had thrown it over. He had no servant in his rooms, and when he had gone out that morning he had locked the door, so no one could have entered his rooms during his absence.
Next morning he sent for a framemaker and told him to mend the frame as soon as possible, to make the wire strong, and to see that the picture was firmly fixed on the wall. In two or three days' time the picture returned and was once more hung on the wall over the chimney-piece immediately above the little crystal Chinese god. Ferrol supervised the hanging of the picture in person. He saw that the nail was strong, and firmly fixed in the wall; he took care that the wire left nothing to be desired and was properly attached to the rings of the picture.
The picture was hung early one morning. That day he went to play golf. He returned at five o'clock, and again the first thing which met his eye was the picture. It had again fallen down, and this time it had brought with it in its fall the small Chinese god, which was broken in two. The glass had again been shattered to bits, and the picture itself was somewhat damaged. Everything else on the chimney-piece, that is to say, a few matchboxes and two candle-sticks, had also been thrown to the ground--everything with the exception of the little Ikon he had bought at Nijni-Novgorod, a small object about two inches square on which two Saints were pictured. This still rested in its place against the wall.
Ferrol investigated the disaster. The nail was in its place in the wall; the wire at the back of the picture was not broken or damaged in any way. The accident seemed to him quite inexplicable. He was greatly annoyed. The Chinese god was a valuable thing. He stood in front of the chimney-piece contemplating the damage with a sense of great irritation.
"To think that everything should have been broken except this beastly little Ikon!" he said to himself. "I wonder whether that was what Sledge meant when he said I should not mix my deities."
Next morning he sent again for the framemaker, and abused him roundly. The framemaker said he could not understand how the accident had happened. The nail was an excellent nail, the picture, Mr. Ferrol must admit, had been hung with great care before his very eyes and under his own direct and personal supervision. What more could be done?
"It's something to do with the balance," said Ferrol. "I told you that before. The picture is half spoiled now."
The framemaker said the damage would not show once the glass was repaired, and took the picture away again to mend it. A few days later it was brought back. Two men came to fix it this time; steps were brought and the hanging lasted about twenty minutes. Nails were put under the picture; it was hung by a double wire. All accidents in the future seemed guarded against.
The following morning Ferrol telephoned to Sledge and asked him to dine with him. Sledge was engaged to dine out that evening, but said that he would look in at the Temple late after dinner.
Ferrol dined alone at the Club; he reached his rooms about half-past nine; he made up a blazing fire and drew an armchair near it. He lit a cigarette, made some Turkish coffee, and took down a French novel. Every now and then he looked up at his picture. No damage was visible; it looked, he thought, as well as ever. In the place of the Chinese idol he had put his little green Egyptian god on the chimney-piece. The candlesticks and the Ikon were still in their places.
"After all," thought Ferrol, "I did wrong to have any Chinese art in the place at all. Egyptian things are the only things worth having. It is a lesson to me not to dabble with things out of my period."
After he had read for about a quarter of an hour he fell into a doze.
* * * * *
Sledge arrived at the rooms about half-past ten, and an ugly sight met his eyes. There had been an accident. The picture over the chimney-piece had fallen down right on Ferrol. His face was badly cut. They put Ferrol to bed, and his wounds were seen to and everything that was necessary was done. A nurse was sent for to look after him, and Sledge decided to stay in the house all night. After all the arrangements had been made, the doctor, before he went away, said to Sledge: "He will recover all right, he is not in the slightest danger; but I don't know who is to break the news to him."
"What is that?" asked Sledge.
"He will be quite blind," said the doctor.
Then the doctor went away, and Sledge sat down in front of the fire. The broken glass had been swept up. The picture had been placed on the Oriental divan, and as Sledge looked at the chimney-piece he noticed that the little Ikon was still in its place. Something caught his eye just under the low fender in front of the fireplace. He bent forward and picked up the object.
It was Ferrol's green Egyptian god, which had been broken into two pieces.