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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBebee; Or, Two Little Wooden Shoes - Chapter X
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Bebee; Or, Two Little Wooden Shoes - Chapter X Post by :hectoryrosa Category :Long Stories Author :Ouida Date :April 2012 Read :1086

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Bebee; Or, Two Little Wooden Shoes - Chapter X

Her stranger from Rubes' land was a great man in a certain world. He had become great when young, which is perhaps a misfortune. It indisposes men to be great at their maturity. He was famous at twenty, by a picture hectic in color, perfect in drawing, that made Paris at his feet. He became more famous by verses, by plays, by political follies, and by social successes. He was faithful, however, to his first love in art. He was a great painter, and year by year proved afresh the cunning of his hand. Purists said his pictures had no soul in them. It was not wonderful if they had none. He always painted soulless vice; indeed, he saw very little else.

One year he had some political trouble. He wrote a witty pamphlet that hurt where it was perilous to aim. He laughed and crossed the border, riding into the green Ardennes one sunny evening. He had a name of some power and sufficient wealth; he did not feel long exile. Meanwhile he told himself he would go and look at Scheffer's Gretchen.

The King of Thule is better; but people talk most of the Gretchen. He had never seen either.

He went in leisurely, travelling up the bright Meuse River, and across the monotony of the plains, then green with wheat a foot high, and musical with the many bells of the Easter kermesses in the quaint old-world villages.

There was something so novel, so sleepy, so harmless, so mediaeval, in the Flemish life, that it soothed him. He had been swimming all his life in salt sea-fed rapids; this sluggish, dull, canal water, mirroring between its rushes a life that had scarcely changed for centuries, had a charm for him.

He stayed awhile in Antwerpen. The town is ugly and beautiful; it is like a dull quaint gres de Flandre jug, that has precious stones set inside its rim. It is a burgher ledger of bales and barrels, of sale and barter, of loss and gain; but in the heart of it there are illuminated leaves of missal vellum, all gold and color, and monkish story and heroic ballad, that could only have been executed in the days when Art was a religion.

He gazed himself into an homage of Rubens, whom before he had slighted, never having known (for, unless you have seen Antwerp, it is as absurd to say that you have seen Rubens, as it is to think that you have seen Murillo out of Seville, or Raffaelle out of Rome); and he studied the Gretchen carefully, delicately, sympathetically, for he loved Scheffer; but though he tried, he failed to care for her.

"She is only a peasant; she is not a poem," he said to himself; "I will paint a Gretchen for the Salon of next year."

But it was hard for him to portray a Gretchen. All his pictures were Phryne,--Phryne in triumph, in ruin, in a palace, in a poor-house, on a bed of roses, on a hospital mattress; Phryne laughing with a belt of jewels about her supple waist; Phryne lying with the stones of the dead-house under her naked limbs,--but always Phryne. Phryne, who living had death in her smile; Phryne, who lifeless had blank despair on her face; Phryne, a thing that lived furiously every second of her days, but Phryne a thing that once being dead was carrion that never could live again.

Phryne has many painters in this school, as many as Catherine and Cecilia had in the schools of the Renaissance, and he was chief amidst them.

How could he paint Gretchen if the pure Scheffer missed? Not even if, like the artist monks of old, he steeped his brushes all Lent through in holy water.

And in holy water he did not believe.

One evening, having left Antwerpen ringing its innumerable bells over the grave of its dead Art, he leaned out of the casement of an absent friend's old palace in the Brabant street that is named after Mary of Burgundy; an old casement crusted with quaint carvings, and gilded round in Spanish fashion, with many gargoyles and griffins, and illegible scutcheons.

Leaning there, wondering with himself whether he would wait awhile and paint quietly in this dim street, haunted with the shades of Memling and Maes, and Otto Veneris and Philip de Champagne, or whether he would go into the East and seek new types, and lie under the red Egyptian heavens and create a true Cleopatra, which no man has ever done yet,--young Cleopatra, ankle-deep in roses and fresh from Caesar's kisses,--leaning there, he saw a little peasant go by below, with two little white feet in two wooden shoes, and a face that had the pure and simple radiance of a flower.

"There is my Gretchen," he thought to himself, and went down and followed her into the cathedral. If he could get what was in her face, he would get what Scheffer could not.

A little later walking by her in the green lanes, he meditated, "It is the face of Gretchen, but not the soul--the Red Mouse has never passed this child's lips. Nevertheless--"

"Nevertheless--" he said to himself, and smiled.

For he, the painter all his life long of Phryne living and of Phryne dead, believed that every daughter of Eve either vomits the Red Mouse or swallows it.

It makes so little difference which,--either way the Red Mouse has been there the evening towards this little rush-covered hut, he forgot the Red Mouse, and began vaguely to see that there are creatures of his mother's sex from whom the beast of the Brocken slinks away.

But he still said to himself, "Nevertheless." "Nevertheless,"--for he knew well that when the steel cuts the silk, when the hound hunts the fawn, when the snake wooes the bird, when the king covets the vineyard, there is only one end possible at any time. It is the strong against the weak, the fierce against the feeble, the subtle against the simple, the master against the slave; there is no equality in the contest and no justice--it is merely inevitable, and the issue of it is written.

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