The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents
The Temptation Of Harringay
It is quite impossible to say whether this thing really happened. It depends entirely on the word of R.M. Harringay, who is an artist.
Following his version of the affair, the narrative deposes that Harringay went into his studio about ten o’clock to see what he could make of the head that he had been working at the day before. The head in question was that of an Italian organ-grinder, and Harringay thought--but was not quite sure--that the title would be the “Vigil.” So far he is frank, and his narrative bears the stamp of truth. He had seen the man expectant for pennies, and with a promptness that suggested genius, had had him in at once.
“Kneel. Look up at that bracket,” said Harringay. “As if you expected pennies.”
“Don’t grin!” said Harringay. “I don’t want to paint your gums. Look as though you were unhappy.”
Now, after a night’s rest, the picture proved decidedly unsatisfactory. “It’s good work,” said Harringay. “That little bit in the neck ... But.”
He walked about the studio and looked at the thing from this point and from that. Then he said a wicked word. In the original the word is given.
“Painting,” he says he said. “Just a painting of an organ-grinder--a mere portrait. If it was a live organ-grinder I wouldn’t mind. But somehow I never make things alive. I wonder if my imagination is wrong.” This, too, has a truthful air. His imagination is wrong.
“That creative touch! To take canvas and pigment and make a man--as Adam was made of red ochre! But this thing! If you met it walking about the streets you would know it was only a studio production. The little boys would tell it to ‘Garnome and git frimed.’ Some little touch ... Well--it won’t do as it is.”
He went to the blinds and began to pull them down. They were made of blue holland with the rollers at the bottom of the window, so that you pull them down to get more light. He gathered his palette, brushes, and mahl stick from his table. Then he turned to the picture and put a speck of brown in the corner of the mouth; and shifted his attention thence to the pupil of the eye. Then he decided that the chin was a trifle too impassive for a vigil.
Presently he put down his impedimenta, and lighting a pipe surveyed the progress of his work. “I’m hanged if the thing isn’t sneering at me,” said Harringay, and he still believes it sneered.
The animation of the figure had certainly increased, but scarcely in the direction he wished. There was no mistake about the sneer. “Vigil of the Unbeliever,” said Harringay. “Rather subtle and clever that! But the left eyebrow isn’t cynical enough.”
He went and dabbed at the eyebrow, and added a little to the lobe of the ear to suggest materialism. Further consideration ensued. “Vigil’s off, I’m afraid,” said Harringay. “Why not Mephistopheles? But that’s a bit too common. ‘A Friend of the Doge, ‘--not so seedy. The armour won’t do, though. Too Camelot. How about a scarlet robe and call him ‘One of the Sacred College’? Humour in that, and an appreciation of Middle Italian History.”
“There’s always Benvenuto Cellini,” said Harringay; “with a clever suggestion of a gold cup in one corner. But that would scarcely suit the complexion.”
He describes himself as babbling in this way in order to keep down an unaccountably unpleasant sensation of fear. The thing was certainly acquiring anything but a pleasing expression. Yet it was as certainly becoming far more of a living thing than it had been--if a sinister one--far more alive than anything he had ever painted before. “Call it ‘Portrait of a Gentleman, ‘“ said Harringay;--”A Certain Gentleman.”
“Won’t do,” said Harringay, still keeping up his courage. “Kind of thing they call Bad Taste. That sneer will have to come out. That gone, and a little more fire in the eye--never noticed how warm his eye was before--and he might do for--? What price Passionate Pilgrim? But that devilish face won’t do--this side of the Channel.
“Some little inaccuracy does it,” he said; “eyebrows probably too oblique,”--therewith pulling the blind lower to get a better light, and resuming palette and brushes.
The face on the canvas seemed animated by a spirit of its own. Where the expression of diablerie came in he found impossible to discover. Experiment was necessary. The eyebrows--it could scarcely be the eyebrows? But he altered them. No, that was no better; in fact, if anything, a trifle more satanic. The corner of the mouth? Pah! more than ever a leer--and now, retouched, it was ominously grim. The eye, then? Catastrophe! he had filled his brush with vermilion instead of brown, and yet he had felt sure it was brown! The eye seemed now to have rolled in its socket, and was glaring at him an eye of fire. In a flash of passion, possibly with something of the courage of panic, he struck the brush full of bright red athwart the picture; and then a very curious thing, a very strange thing indeed, occurred--if it did occur.
The diabolified Italian before him shut both his eyes, pursed his mouth, and wiped the colour off his face with his hand.
Then the red eye opened again, with a sound like the opening of lips, and the face smiled. “That was rather hasty of you,” said the picture.
Harringay states that, now that the worst had happened, his self-possession returned. He had a saving persuasion that devils were reasonable creatures.
“Why do you keep moving about then,” he said, “making faces and all that--sneering and squinting, while I am painting you?”
“I don’t,” said the picture.