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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Face Illumined - Chapter 45. Problems Beyond Art
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A Face Illumined - Chapter 45. Problems Beyond Art Post by :spenk Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Payson Roe Date :May 2012 Read :3395

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A Face Illumined - Chapter 45. Problems Beyond Art

Chapter XLV. Problems Beyond Art

When Van Berg left the garden he thought he had learned to understand Ida almost as clearly as he saw the pebbly bed of the little brook through the limpid current that flowed over it, and yet within a brief half-hour another baffling mystery had arisen. Why did she dislike Jennie Burton? Why she HAD disliked her was plain, but it seemed to follow inevitably that one who could love old Mr. Eltinge must also find a congenial friend in the woman he so greatly admired.

As the remainder of the day passed, this new cloud darkened and seemed to shadow even himself. While he could detect no flaw in her courtesy, he could not help feeling that she made a conscious effort to avoid them both. At dinner she conversed chiefly with her cousin. Van Berg's eyes would wander often to her face, but she never looked towards him unless he spoke to her. When he or Miss Burton addressed her there was not a trace of coldness in her manner of responding; a superficial observer would merely think they were people in whom she was not especially interested.

"Poor child," thought Jennie Burton, "she acts her part well," and she puzzled the artist still further by taking less notice of Ida than usual.

"But when I think of it," he mused, "it's just like my unique little friend. Only those in trouble interest her, and Miss Mayhew is on a straight road to happiness now, she believes, although the young lady herself seems to dread a world full of thorns and thistles, and her father and mother, at least, will insure an abundance of both in her own home. But her repulsion from Miss Burton, the very one towards whom I supposed she would be attracted in her new life, is what perplexes me most. I imagine all women are mysteries when you come to scrutinize their motives and impulses closely. The two who have occupied my thoughts this summer certainly are, and I'll stick to painting if I ever get out of this muddle."

After dinner he found a chance to ask Stanton if Mr. Mayhew was expected that evening.

"Yes," was the reply. "In memory of last Sunday he wrote he would not come, but Ida sent a telegram asking him to be here without fail. I took it over to the station for her, and made sure that my uncle received it. She will puzzle him more than she has the rest of us, I suppose, and I am quite curious to see the result."

The artist made no reply, but went to his room and tried to work on his pictures. He was more than curious--he was deeply interested, but felt that he was trenching on delicate ground. The relations between the father and daughter were too sacred, he believed, for even sympathetic observation on his part.

He soon threw aside his work. The inspiration of the morning was all gone, and in its place had come an unaccountable dissatisfaction with himself and the world in general. He had left the garden with a sense of exhilaration that made life appear beautiful and full of richest promise. He had been saved from disaster that would have been crushing; his object in coming to the country had been accomplished, and the Undine he discovered HAD received a woman's soul that was blending the perfect but discordant features into an exquisitely beautiful face. The result, certainly, had not been brought about as he expected, nor in a way tending to increase his self-complacency, but he felt that he would be a broader and better man for the ordeal through which he had passed. He also realized that the changes in Ida were not the superficial ones he had contemplated. he had regarded her face and character as little better than a piece of canvas on which there was already a drawing of great promise, but very defective. By erasures here and skillful touches there he had hoped to assist nature in carrying out her evident intentions. The tragedy that well-nigh resulted taught him that human lives are dangerous playthings, and that quackery in attempting spiritual reform involved more peril than ignorant interference with physical laws.

And yet that morning had proved that the desired change had been accomplished, even more thoroughly than he had hoped. The dangerous period of transition had been safely passed, and the beautiful face expressed that which was more than womanly refinement, thought and culture. These elements would develop with time. But the countenance on which he had seen the impress of vanity, pride, and insincerity, and later the despair of a wronged and desperate woman, had grown open and childlike again as she told him her story and read to Mr. Eltinge; and in it, as through a clear transparency, he had witnessed the kindling light of the Christian faith his mother had taught him to respect at least, long years before.

He had left the garden with the belief that he had secured the friendship of this rare Undine, and that she would bring to his art an inspiration like that of which he was so grandly conscious while making the picture in which she formed the loveliest feature. He had expected with instinctive certainty that she would now be drawn towards the woman he hoped to make his wife, and that friendships would be cemented that would last through life.

But in suggesting this hope and expectation to Ida it had been as if a cloud had suddenly passed before the sun, and now the whole sky was darkening. Jennie Burton seemed more shadowy and remote than ever--more wrapped up in a past in which she had no part; and the maiden into whose very soul he thought he had looked became inscrutable again in the distant courtesy of her manner. Even during the brief hour of dinner he was led to feel that he had no inevitable place in the thoughts of either of the ladies, and this impression was increased as he sought their society later in the day.

Moreover, in his changed mood he again began to chafe irritably at Ida's associations. She herself had been thoroughly redeemed in an artistic point of view, and it was his nature to look at things in this light. While he shuddered at her terrible purpose he recognized the high, strong spirit which in it perversion and wrong had rendered the deed possible, and her dark design made a grand and sombre background against which the maiden he had sketched that morning was all the more luminous. Hitherto everything connected with her change of character had been not only conventional, but had appealed to his aesthetic temperament as singularly beautiful. The quaint garden with its flowers, brook, and allegorical tree were associations that harmonized with Ida's loveliness, while Mr. Eltinge, who had rendered such an immeasurable service to them both, realized his best ideal of dignified and venerable age.

But when he compared her spiritual father with the man she expected that night, he found his whole nature becoming full of irritable protest and dissatisfaction.

"This morning," he muttered, "she appeared capable of realizing a poet's dreams, but already I see the hard and prosaic conditions of her lot dwarfing her growth and throwing their grotesque shadows across her beauty. What can she do while inseparable from such a father and mother? The more unlike them she becomes the more hideous they will appear. Mrs. Mayhew is essentially lacking in womanly delicacy, and mere coarseness is more tolerable than fashionable, veneered vulgarity. Mr. Mayhew is a spiritless wretch whose only protest against his wife's overbearance and indifference has been intoxication. Linked on either side to so much deformity, what chance has the daughter unless she escapes from them and develops a separate life? But are not the ties of nature too close to permit such escape, and would it not be wrong to seek it? It certainly would not be Christian, and I am confident Mr. Eltinge would not advise it. Her lot is indeed a cruel one. No wonder she clings to Mr. Eltinge and the garden, and that the outside world seems full of thorns and thistles. Well, I pity her from the depths of my heart, and cannot see how she will solve the harsh problem of her life. I imagine she will soon become discouraged and seek by marriage to obliterate her present ties as far as possible."

Having reached this unsatisfactory conclusion he threw his sketch impatiently aside and went down to the piazza. Ida and her mother were already there, for it was about time for arrivals from the earlier train. Van Berg felt almost sure that Ida must have been aware that he was standing near her, but she exhibited no consciousness of his presence. When a little later they met in promenade she bowed politely but absently, and in a way that would lead any who were observing them to think that he was not in her thoughts. So he was led to believe himself, but Miss Burton, who was reading in one of the parlor windows, smiled and whispered to herself, "Well done."

Ida was in hopes that her father would take the first opportunity of reaching the Lake House, and she was not disappointed. The telegram had flashed into his leaden-hued life that day like a meteor. Did it portend good or evil? Evil only, he feared, for it seemed to him that evil would ever be his portion. It was therefore with a vague sense of apprehension that he looked forward to meeting his wife and daughter.

As he emerged from the stage with the others he found Ida half-way down the steps to greet him.

"I'm so glad you've come!" she said in a low earnest voice, and she kissed him, not in the old formal way, as if it were the only proper thing to do, but as a daughter greeting her father. Then, before he could recover from his surprise, his light travelling bag was taken from him and the young girl's arm linked lovingly in his, and he led to Mrs. Mayhew, who also kissed him, but in a way, it must be admitted, that suggested a duty rather than a pleasure.

Her husband scarcely gave to her a glance, however, but kept his eyes fixed on his daughter.

"Ida is bewitched," said Mr. Mayhew.

"And I hope you will find me bewitching, father, for I want as much of your society as you will give me during this visit." She tried to speak playfully and naturally, but tears were gathering in her eyes, for his expression of perplexity was singularly pathetic and full of the keenest reproach. "O God," she murmured, "what have I been that he should be speechless from surprise, when I merely greet him as a daughter should!"

Van Berg turned hastily away, for he felt that scenes were coming, on which he had no right to look. There was nothing yet to indicate a wish on Ida's part to avoid inartistic associations, and deep in his heart he was compelled to admit that she had never appeared so supremely beautiful as when she looked love and welcome into the eyes of the smirched and disheartened man to whom nature gave the best right to claim these gifts.

"Come with me, father," said Ida, trying to give him a reassuring smile, "and I will answer your scared and questioning glances in your room," and he went with her as if walking in a dream.

Tears now gathered in Jennie Burton's eyes, but she smiled again as she thought, "Better done still, Ida Mayhew, and Mr. Van Berg, who is stalking away so rapidly yonder, is not the man I think him, if you have not now made your best and deepest impression on his heart."

"Ida," her father faltered, after they had reached the privacy of his room, "what does your telegram mean? What is important?"

"YOU are to me. O father, please, please forgive me," and she put her arms around his neck and burst into a passion of tears.

The bewildered man began to tremble. "Can it--can it be that my daughter has a heart?" he muttered.

"Yes, father, but it's broken because of my cruel treatment of you; I now hope better days are coming for us all."

He held her away from him and looked into her face with a longing intensity that suggested a soul perishing for the lack of love and hope.

"Father, father, I can't bear that look. Oh, God forgive me, how I have wronged you!" and she buried her face on his shoulder again.

"Ida," he said, slowly and pleadingly, "be very careful--be sure this is not a passing impulse, a mere remorseful twinge of conscience. I've been hoping for years--I would have prayed, if I dared to--for some token that I was not a burden to you and your mother. You seemed to love me some when you were little, but as you grew older you grew away from me. I've tried to forget that I had a heart. I've tried to become a beast because it was agony to be a man. why I have lived I scarcely know. I thought I had suffered all that I could suffer in this world, but I was mistaken. I left this place last Monday with the fear that my beautiful daughter was giving her love to a man even baser than I am, base and low from choice, base and corrupt in every fibre of his soul and body, and from that hour to this it has seemed as if I were ground between two millstones," and he shuddered as if smitten with an ague. "Ida," he concluded piteously, "I'm too weak, I'm too far gone to bear disappointment. This is more than an impulse, is it not? You will not throw yourself away? Oh, Ida, my only child, if you could be in heart what you were in your face as you greeted me to-night, I could die content!"

For a few minutes the poor girl could only sob convulsively on his breast. At last she faltered brokenly:

"Yes, father--it is an impulse--an impulse from heaven; but I shall pray daily that it be not a passing one. I--I have lost confidence in myself, but with my Saviour's help, I will try to be a loving daughter to you and make your wishes first in everything."

"Great God!" he muttered, "can this be true?"

"Yes, father, because God IS great, and very, VERY, kind."

His bent form became erect and almost steely in its tenseness. He gently but firmly placed her in a chair, and then paced the room rapidly a moment or two, his dark eyes glowing with a strong and kindling excitement. Ida began to regard him with wonder and almost alarm. Suddenly he raised his hand to heaven, and said solemnly:

"This shall be no one-sided affair so help me God!"

Then opening his valise, he took out a bottle of brandy and thew it, with a crash, into the empty grate.

Ida sprang towards him with a glad cry, exclaiming, "O father, now I understand you! Thank God! thank God!"

He kissed her tearful, upturned face again and again, as if he found there the very elixir of life.

"Ida, my dear little Ida," he said, huskily, "you have saved your father from a drunkard's end--from a drunkard's grave. I was in a drunkard's hell already."

Mr. Mayhew requested that supper should be served in his own room, for neither he nor his daughter was in a mood to meet strangers that evening. Ida called her mother, and tried to explain to her why they did not wish to go down, but the poor woman was not able to grasp very much of the truth, and was decidedly mystified by the domestic changes which she had very limited power to appreciate, and in which she had so little part. She was not a coarse woman, but matter of fact, superficial, and worldly to the last degree.

Van Berg could scarcely believe his eyes when Mr. Mayhew came down to breakfast with his family Sunday morning. The bondman had become free; the slave of a degrading vice had been transformed into a quiet, dignified gentleman. His form was erect, and while his bearing was singularly modest and retiring, there was nothing of the old cowering, shrinking manner which suggested defeat, loss of self-respect, and hopeless dejection. All who knew him instinctively felt that the prostrate man had risen to his feet, and there was something in his manner that made them believe he would hold his footing among other men hereafter.

The artist found himself bowing to the "spiritless wretch" with a politeness that was by no means assumed, and from the natural and almost cordial manner in which Mr. Mayhew returned his salutation, he was very glad to believe that Ida had not told him the deeper and darker secrets of her experience during the past week.

"This is her work," he thought, and Ida's radiant face confirmed the impression. She then felt that after her father's words, "You have saved me," she could never be very unhappy again. A hundred times she had murmured, "Oh, how much better God's way out of trouble has been than mine!"

Mr. Mayhew had always had peculiar attractions for Miss Burton, and they at once entered into conversation. But as she recognized the marvellous change in him, the pleased wonder of her face grew so apparent, that he replied to it in low tones:

"I now believe in your 'remedies,' Miss Burton; but a great deal depends on who administers them. My little girl and I have been discovering how nearly related we are."

Her eyes grew moist with her sympathy and gladness. "Mr. Mayhew," she said, "I'm inclined to think that heaven is always within a step or two of us, if we could only take the right steps."

"To me it has seemed beyond the farthest star," he replied, very gravely. "To some, however, the word is as indefinite as the place, and a cessation of pain appears heaven. I could be content to ask nothing better than this Sabbath morning has brought me. I have found what I thought lost forever."

Jennie Burton became very pale, as deep from her heart rose the query, "Shall I ever find what I have lost?" Then with a strong instinct to maintain her self-control and shun a perilous nearness to her hidden sorrow, she changed the subject.

It was touching to see how often Mr. Mayhew's eyes turned towards his daughter, as if to reassure himself that the change in her manner towards him was not a dream, and the expression of her face as she met his scrutiny seemed to brighten and cheer him like a coming dawn.

"What heavenly magic is transforming Miss Mayhew?" Jennie Burton asked of Van Berg, as they sauntered out on the piazza.

"With your wonted felicity, you express it exactly," he replied. "It is a heavenly magic which I don't understand in the least, but must believe in, since cause and effect are directly under my eyes. It has been my good fortune to witness as beautiful a scene as ever mortal saw. Since she refers naturally and openly to the friends whom she has visited during the past week, I may tell you about Mr. Eltinge's influence and teaching without violating any confidence," and in harmony with the frank and friendly relations which he now sustained to Miss Burton, he related his experience of the previous day, remaining scrupulously reticent on every point, however, that he even imagined Ida would wish veiled from the knowledge of others. "I cannot tell you," he concluded, "how deeply the scene affected me. It not only awoke all the artist in me, but the man also. In one brief hour I learned to revere that noble old gentleman, and if you could have seen him leaning against the emblematic tree, as I did, I think he would have realized your ideal of age, wholly devoid of weakness and bleakness. And then Miss Mayhew's face, as she read and listened to him, seemed indeed, in its contrast with what we have seen during the past summer, the result of 'heavenly magic.' It will be no heavy task to fulfil the conditions on which I was permitted to enter the enchanted garden. They expect more pencil sketches, but I shall eventually give them as truthful a picture as I am capable of painting, for it is rare good fortune to find themes so inspiring."

Guarded as Van Berg was in his narrative, Miss Burton was able to read more "between the lines" than in his words. He did not understand her motive when she said, as if it were her first obvious thought:

"The picture which you have presented, even to the eye of my fancy, is uniquely beautiful, and I think it must redeem Miss Mayhew in your mind, from all her disagreeable associations. But in my estimation she appeared to even better advantage in the greeting she gave her father last evening. Was there ever a more delicious surprise on earth, than that poor man had when he returned and found a true and loving daughter awaiting him? With her filial hands she has already lifted him out of the mire of his degradation, and to-day he is a gentleman whom you involuntarily respect. O Mr. Van Berg, I cannot tell ou how inexpressibly beautiful and reassuring such things are to me! You look at the changes we are witnessing from the standpoint of an artist, I from that of poor wounded humanity; and what I have seen in Ida Mayhew and her father, is proof to me that there is a good God above all the chaos around me, which I cannot understand and which at times disheartens me. Their happier and ennobled faces are a prophecy and an earnest of that time when the sway of evil shall be broken, when famishing souls and empty hearts shall be filled, when broken, thwarted lives are made perfect, and what was missed and lost regained."

She looked away from him into the summer sky, which the sun was flooding with cloudless light. There were no tears in her eyes, but an expression of intense and sorrowful longing that was far beyond such simple and natural expression.

"Jennie Burton," said Van Berg, in a low, earnest voice, "there are times when I could suffer all things to make you happy."

She started as if she had almost forgotten his presence, and answered quietly: "You could not make me happy by suffering. Only as I can banish a little pain and gloom here and there do I find solace. But I can do so very, very little. It reassures me to see God doing this work in his grand, large way. And yet it seems to me that he might brighten the world as the sun fills this sky with light. As it is, the rays that illumine hearts and faces glint only here and there between the threatening clouds of evil. Mr. Van Berg, you do not know--you never realized how shadowed humanity is. Within a mile of your studio, that is full of light and beauty, there are thousands who are perishing in a slow, remorseless pain. It is this awful mystery of evil--this continuous groan and cry of anguish that has gone up to heaven through all the ages--that appalls my heart and staggers my faith. But there--after what I have seen to-day I have no right to such gloomy thoughts. I suppose my religion seems to you no more than a clinging faith in a far-away, incomprehensible God, and so is not very attractive? I wish I could suggest to you something more satisfactory, but since I cannot I'll leave you to find better influences."

"It does seem to me that rash, faulty Ida Mayhew has a better faith than this," he thought; "she believes she has found a near and helpful Friend, while my sad-eyed saint has only a God, and is always in pathetic doubt whether her prayer can bridge the infinite distance between them. Who is right? Is either right? I used to be impressed with how much I knew; I'm glad the opposite impression is becoming so strong, for, as Miss Burton says, the hopeless fools are those who never find themselves out.

"She was right. Ida Mayhew will ever appear to better advantage in aiding her poor father to regain his manhood, than by the most artistic combination of circumstances that I could imagine. All the man in me recognizes the sacredness of the duty and the beauty of its performance. And yet but yesterday I was stupid enough to believe that her best chance for development was to escape from her father and live a separate life. It has taken only a few hours to prove how superficial was my philosophy of life. Guided simply by the instinct of love and duty, this faulty girl has accomplished more than I had supposed possible. But her mother will continue a thorn in her side," and Van Berg was not far astray.

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