The Judgment Books. A Story - E.F. Benson - ebook

The Judgment Books. A Story ebook

E.F. Benson



The poet’s career is always full of pitfalls and difficulties. On the one hand, there is a danger of gaining popularity too easily, and on the other, the discouraging effect of a lack of audience. Mrs Greenock is in danger. Some of her poems, which from time to time appeared in a local newspaper, attracted a lot of undeserved attention. The book is about high art.

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The terrace to the south of Penalva Forest lay basking in the sunshine of an early September afternoon, and the very bees which kept passing in and out from the two hives beneath the laurel shrubbery to the right seemed going about their work with most unproverbial drowsiness. A flight of some eight steps led down from the centre of the terrace to the lawn below, where a tennis-court was marked out, and by the bottom of the steps ran a gravel-path which sloped up past the beehives to join the terrace at the far end. In the gutter by this path lay a tennis-ball, neglected and desolate. Below the lawn the ground sloped quickly away in a stretch of stubbly hay-field, just shorn of its aftermath, down to a fence, which lay straggling along a line of brown seaweed-covered rocks, over which the waveless water of the estuary of the Fal crept up silently at high tide.

A little iron staircase, the lower steps of which, and the clasp which fastened it to the wall, were fringed with oozy, amphibious growth, communicated with the beach on one side and the field on the other. Except for this clearing to the south of the house, the woods climbed up steeply from almost the water’s edge to the back of a broad Cornish moor, all purple and gold with gorse and heather, and resonant with bees. Irresponsible drowsiness seemed the key-note of the scene.

At a corner of the lawn, lying full length on a wicker sofa beneath the shade of the trees, lay Jack Armitage, also irresponsibly drowsy. He would have said he was meditating. Being an artist, he conceded to himself the right to meditate as often and as long as he pleased, but just now his meditations were entirely confined to vague thoughts that it was tea-time; and that, on the whole, he would not have another pipe; so he thrust his hands into his coat-pockets and only thought about tea. Perhaps the familiar and still warm bowl of his favorite brierwood was responsible for his change of intention; in any case, it is certain that he drew it out and began to fill it with the careful precision of those who know that the good gift of tobacco is squandered if it is bestowed aimlessly or carelessly into its censer.

He had been staying with Frank Trevor, the owner of this delightful place, for nearly a month, and he had sketched and talked art, in which he disagreed with his host on every question admitting two opinions–and these are legion–all day and a considerable part of the night. Frank, who was even more orthodox than himself on the subject of meditation, had finished, some two months before, the portrait at which he had been working; and, as his habit was, had worked much too hard while he was at it, had knocked himself up, and for the last eight weeks had spent his time in sitting in the sun serene and idle. Jack was leaving next day, and had passed the morning in the woods finishing a charming sketch of the estuary seen through a foreground of trees. At lunch Frank had said he was going to sit in the garden till tea-time, after which they were going on the river; but he had not appeared, and Jack for the last hour or two had been intermittently wondering what he was doing.

At this moment Frank was sitting in a low chair in his studio doing nothing. But he had been having a rather emotional afternoon all by himself, seeing little private ghosts of his own, and he looked excited and troubled. In his idle intervals he always kept the door of his studio locked, and neither went in himself nor allowed any one else to. But this afternoon he had wanted a book which he thought might be there, and before he found it he had found something else which had raised all the ghosts of his Decameron, and had indirectly made him resolve to begin work again at once.

In his search he had taken down from the shelves a book he had not touched for some years, and out of its pages there slipped a torn yellow programme of a concert at one of the Café Chantants in Paris. It went on bowing and fluttering in its fall; and as he picked it up and looked at it for a moment idly the ghosts began to rise. There was one ghost in particular which, like Moses’ rod, soon swallowed up all the other ghosts. She had been to that concert with him–she had been to other concerts with him; and in another moment he had crumpled up the momentous little yellow programme and flung it into the grate.

He walked up and down the room for a minute or two, for the ghost was still visible, and then, by a very natural effect of reaction, he picked up the programme again, smoothed it out, and put it back on the table.

What a hot, stifling night it had been! Paris lay gasping and choking as in a vapor-bath. They had soon left the concert, and walked about in the garden. Even the moonlight seemed hot, and every now and then a little peevish wind ruffled the tree-tops, and then grabbed at the earth below, raising a cloud of stinging dust–a horrible night!

He had left Paris next day for a holiday, and had spent a month at New Quay, on the north coast of Cornwall. How restful and delicious it was! It seemed the solution of all difficulties to pass quiet, uneventful days in that little backwater of life, away from towns and jostling crowds; above all, away from Paris–beautiful, terrible Paris! He lived a good deal with the artist set there, charming and intelligent folk, who prattled innocently of sunsets and foregrounds, and led a simple, healthy life. He had fallen in love with simple, healthy lives; he began to hate the thought of the streets and the gas and the glitter of Paris. He spent long days on the shore listening to the low murmur of the sound-quenched waves, and long nights with the fisher-folks on the sea, catching mackerel. In those long, still hours he could think that the sea was like some living thing, breathing slowly and steadily in sleep, and he a child leaning on her breast, safe in her care, alone with the great tender mother of mankind.

One morning–how well he remembered it!–after a night on the sea, he had landed a mile or so from the village, and had walked along the shore alone as the dawn was breaking, and, coming round a little jutting promontory of rock, he had found two or three fishermen who had just pulled their net to land, naked but for a cloth round the waist, gathered round a little fire they had made on the beach, where they had broiled a few of their haul; and as he paused and spoke to them, for they were old friends, one offered him a piece of broiled fish, and another, who had not been out, but had helped them to bring in the net, had brought down some bread and honey-comb, and he ate the fish and honey-comb on the shore of the sea as day broke...

And it was on that same morning he first met Margery his wife. She had come with some friends of his from London by the night train, and they were all going down to the bathing-machine, after their night’s journey, when Frank arrived at the village. He had known at once that the world only held one woman for him.

Their days of courtship were few. Within three weeks of the time they had met Frank had proposed to her and been accepted. One afternoon, with the fine, bold honesty of love, he had told her that he had led such a life as other men lead, that his record was not stainless, and that she ought to know before she bound up her life with him. But Margery had stopped him. She had said she did not wish to know; that she loved him, and was not that enough? But Frank still felt that she had better know; if ghosts were to rise between them it was less startling if she knew what ghosts to expect. But she had started as if in pain, and said:

“Ah, don’t, Frank; you hurt me when you talk like that. It is dead and past. Ah, I knew that. Well, then, bury it–let us bury it together.”

And he obeyed her, and buried it.

He thought over all this as he sat with the crumpled programme in his hand. Was it ever possible to bury a thing entirely? Had not everything which we thought dead a terrible faculty of raising itself at most unexpected moments? A scrap of paper–a few words in a printed book–these could be the last trump for a buried sin, and it would rise.

He got up off the sofa–these were ugly thoughts–and went on looking for the book he had come to find. Ah, there it was in its paper cover–Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He had bought it on his way down from London, but had not yet looked at it.

He opened it and glanced at a few pages; and then, sitting down where he had been before, read the whole book straight through. He was strangely excited and wrought upon by it, and his mind was beginning to grope in the darkness after an idea. Yes, surely, this was the essence of portrait-painting: not to present a man as he was at a particular moment, in one particular part, with the emblem of one particular pursuit by him–an artist with his canvas, a sculptor with his clay–but the whole man, his Jekyll and his Hyde together in one picture.

Then in a moment his mind, as it were, found the handle of the door for which it had been groping in darkness, and flung it open, letting in the full blaze of a complete idea. There is only one human being on earth whom any artist who ever lived could paint completely. It is only a man himself who wholly knows both the side he turns to the world and the side he would hide even from himself but cannot.

Frank’s hands trembled nervously, and his breath came and went quickly. He would paint himself as no man yet had ever painted either himself or any one else. He would put his Jekyll and Hyde on the canvas for men to wonder at and to be silent before. He would do what no artist had ever yet done. He thought of that room in the Uffizi at Florence which holds the portrait of the Italian families, each painted by himself: Raphael, with his young, beardless face–Raphael, the painter, and no more; Andrea del Sarto, not the painter, but the liver. Each of them had painted marvellously outside themselves–one gift, one way of love. But he would do more: he would paint himself as the husband and lover of Margery, the Jekyll of himself, who had known and knew the best capabilities for loving in his nature; and he would paint his Hyde, the man who had lived as other men in Paris–a Bohemian, careless, worthless, finding this thing and that honey at the moment, but to the soul wormwood and bitterness. The wormwood should be there, and the honey; his love for his wife and his rejection and loathing of those earlier days which he had thought were dead, but which had risen and without their honey. His own face, painted by himself, should be the book out of which he should be judged; for love and lust, happiness and misery, innocence and guilt–all unite their indelible marks there, and no one can ever efface the other.

Then, because he felt he was on the threshold of something new, and because all men, the strongest and weakest alike, are afraid, desperately afraid, of everything which they know nothing of, he became suddenly frightened.

What would this thing be? he asked himself. What would happen to himself when he had done it? Would he have raised his dead permanently? Would they refuse to be buried again now that he had of his own will perpetuated them in his art? And Margery, what would she have to say to the ghosts she would not allow him to tell her about?

But he was not a coward, and he did not mean to turn back because of this sudden spasm of fright. He would begin to-morrow; he could not help beginning at once, for, as he often told Margery, when the idea was ready he had to record it; the artist’s inexorable need for expression could not be gainsaid or trifled with. It must come out.

Frank Trevor had a very mobile face, a face which his feelings played on freely as a breeze ruffling a moorland pool of water. His dark-gray eyes, set deep under their black eyebrows, were kindled and glowing with excitement. In such moments he looked strikingly handsome, though his features, taken singly, were not faultless. His mouth was too short and too full-lipped for actual beauty; but now, as he sat there, the very eagerness and vitality that came and went, as now one aspect of his idea and now another struck him, gave a fineness to every feature that made it worthy of an admiration which a more perfectly moulded face might well have failed to deserve.

But there was another fear as well, a fear so fantastic that he was almost ashamed of it; but, as he thought of it, it grew upon him. He had always felt when he painted a portrait that virtue went out of him; that he put actually a part of his personality into his picture. What, then, would happen if he painted his own portrait completely? He knew his idea was fantastic and unreasonable; but the fear–a fear again of something that was new–was there, lurking in a shaded corner of his mind. But of this he could speak to Margery, and Margery’s cool, smiling way of dealing with phantasms always had a most evaporating effect on them. Of the other fear he had wished to speak to her once, but she did not wish to hear, and he wished to speak to her of it no longer.

He looked at his watch and found it was nearly tea-time; he had been there over two hours, and he wondered to himself whether it had seemed more like two years or two minutes. He rose to go, but before leaving the room he took a long look round it, feeling that he was looking at it for perhaps the last time; at any rate, that it could never look the same again.

“We only register a change in ourselves,” he thought, “by the impression that other things make on us. If our taste changes we say that a thing we used to think beautiful is ugly. It is not so–it is the same as it always was. I cannot paint this picture without changing myself. What will the change be?”

The yellow, crumpled programme and the copy of Jekyll and Hyde lay together unregarded on the table. When we have drunk our medicine we do not concern ourselves with the medicine-bottle–unless, like the immortal Mrs. Pullet, we take a vague, melancholy pleasure in recalling how much medicine we have taken. But that dear lady’s worst enemies could not have found a single point in common between her and Frank Trevor.


Jack Armitage, as we know, though he was aware it was tea-time, was filling his pipe. He had accomplished this to his satisfaction, and had just got it comfortably under way when Mrs. Trevor, also with tea in her mind, came down the steps leading from the terrace and strolled towards him.

“Where’s Frank?” she asked. “I thought he said he was going to sit about with you till tea?”

“He said so,” said Jack; “but he went into his studio to get a book, and he has not appeared since.”

“Well, I suppose he’s in the house,” she said. “In any case it’s five, and we sha’n’t get more than two hours on the river. So come in.”

Jack often caught himself regretting he was not a portrait-painter when he looked at Mrs. Trevor. She was, he told himself, one of the beauties of all time, and her black hair, black eyes, and delicately chiselled nose had caused many young men on the slightest acquaintance to wish that she had not decided to change her maiden name to Trevor. It was also noticeable that as their acquaintance became less slight their regret became proportionately keener. Frank had done a portrait of her, the first that brought him prominently into notice, and, as Jack thought, his best. By one of those daring experiments which in his hands seemed always to succeed, he had represented her a tall, stately figure, dressed in white, standing in front of a great Chinese screen covered with writhing dragons in blue and gold, a nightmare of hideous forms in wonderful colors. It was a bold experiment, but certainly, to Jack’s mind, he had managed with miraculous success to bring out what was almost as characteristic of his wife’s mind as her beauty was of her body, and which, for want of a better word, he called her wholesomeness. The contrast between that and the exquisite deformities behind her hit eyes, so to speak, straight in the face. But it hit fair, and it was triumphant.

Mrs. Trevor paused on the edge of the gravel-path and picked up the lonely tennis-ball.

“To think that it should have been there all the time!” she said. “How blind you are, Mr. Armitage!”

Jack rose and knocked out his pipe. “The Fates are unkind,” he said. “You call me in to tea just when I’ve lit my pipe, and then go and blame me for not finding the tennis-ball, which you told me was not worth while looking for.”

“I didn’t know it was in the gutter,” she said. “I thought it had gone into the flower-beds.”

“Nor did I know it was in the gutter, or I should have looked for it there.”

Margery laughed.

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