“Recollections of a Portrait Painter, A Brother of the Brush”-Part Two
by Ann Neilson
All day that old man haunted my memory—his tall, slight figure, his thin, grey hair, his threadbare garments, his own eager look of prying interest. I could not account for this unless he were the painter of the picture. If he were, he must be in great need; his pale face, his emaciated form, his shabby habiliments, all gave colour to the supposition; and if he were in distress——“I must find this out,” thought I; “my means are but small, but whether Sir Philip buys his picture or not, a brother of the brush must not starve.”
The next day, accompanied by Lady Borrodaile, we re-visited the gallery. Our fair companion was pleased with the picture, yet she wished the purchase delayed for a day or two.
“I should wish to visit some other exhibition first, Philip, said she, “and see if there be any thing that I like better, for you know this last chosen picture is to be mine. I may seem very capricious, Mr. Ashley,” she continued, turning to me, “but I really cannot relinquish my womanly privilege of turning over a whole warehouse of goods before I buy.”
She laughed lightly as she spoke, and I could not blame her, but yet my thoughts turned involuntarily to the poor painter. I made some excuse to part with my friends at the door of the gallery, and returned again when they had left me, for there was a strange restless curiosity awakened in my mind about the picture and its master. I inquired from the attendants if they knew any thing about Mr. Hamilton—such was his name—but the only information I could obtain was, that he had no other picture there—that he was exceedingly anxious about the sale of this, and was in the habit of coming almost daily to know if it were disposed of. Before I had concluded my questions, the object of them entered, and on seeing me, cast a hasty glance towards his solitary picture. Alas! it did not yet bear the ticket announcing its sale, and, turning away, he sank rather than sat down on one of the benches, where, resting his elbows on his knees, he buried his face in his hands. I was certain that he had tears of disappointment to hide at that moment.
I left the gallery and proceeded slowly along the streets, my mind full of my poor brother artist, who I now felt certain was laboring under some heavy distress. I blamed myself that I had not overcome the paltry scruples of caution and custom, and at once addressed him, as one who could sympathise in his sorrows, and who was ready to afford him what small aid my means would allow.
“It is not too late, even now,” said I, half aloud, and I began to retrace my steps. At that moment my attention was attracted by a loud cry—I raised my eyes, and saw the people running towards the end of the street, where a crowd had collected by the time I reached it. With almost a prophetic knowledge of the truth, I forced my way into the centre of the mob, and there extended on the ground, in a deep swoon, lay the unfortunate Hamilton. Putting aside the throng as I best could, and repelling the [?] of one very [?] gentleman of doubtful aspect, who was anxious to search the pockets of the sufferer for a card of address, I directed a coach to be called, and having placed Mr. Hamilton therein, I conveyed him to my own residence, which was at no great distance. He speedily gave signs of returning animation, and when he was established on the sofa in my apartment, a glass of wine and water soon restored him so far as to enable him to raise his head and thank me for my care.
“I am better now, I shall be quite able to walk presently,” he feebly reiterated; but the attempt was vain, and he sunk down again.
“I do not try to move yet, sir,” said I, “you are much too weak to leave your seat at present; rest here awhile, and believe me, you are most welcome to any little kindness that it is in my power to show you.”
He pressed my hand gratefully, and then, leaning his head on the sofa, burst into tears, and wept like a child. A few words did not suffice to tell his story, but they were enough to enlist all my pity on his side, and make me anxious to do him service. He was old and feeble—he lived in a poor street about half a mile off—he was in the extremity of poverty, and had a sick grandchild—had had looked forward to the sale of the picture, so often named, as his only remaining hope of succour. Hitherto he had been disappointed, and on attempting to return home that day, had fainted—I strongly suspected more from want of sustenance than fatigue.
All this I gathered in a few minutes, and as soon as he was sufficiently recovered, I accompanied him to his lodgings. We ascended two or three flights of stairs, each narrower and dirtier than the one below it, and there in a garret, I found, was the painter’s home. Scraps of canvas, half-finished drawings, (very inferior, as I saw at a glance, to the picture in the exhibition,) were scattered about the room. An old tent bedstead, entirely despoiled of its hangings, and furnished only with a wretched mattress, stood on one side, and a bundle of straw, partly covered with a small coarse rug, occupied a corner. But there was one jewel—one glorious feature in that wretched scene, which shed a halo of beauty and romance even over that poor chamber, and made it seem a fit abode for the very spirit of poetry. This was a young girl of about fifteen years old, who, reclining on a wooden settle near the small window—slept! Yes—amidst all the desolation of the scene—amidst the pressure of her sorrows, (for the tears might be traced where they had dried on her cheeks,) she slept!—the beautiful image of Christian peace in the midst of a cold and persecuting world. Her lips were slightly parted, and her breathing short and quick; her brow was pale and pure as marble, but one little crimson spot on each cheek told “of the foe that worked within,” and her white, shrunken hand hung powerless by her side, almost transparent in its exceeding thinness. But her hair! Never have I seen such masses, such wreaths of deep golden hair as those which hung, half uncurled, in heavy, damp waves around her face and shoulders! The string that should have confined it had evidently been unfastened as she stirred in her slumbers, and all that ocean of hair was falling around her, bright, rich, unscathed by the illness that was evidently consuming her life. I have known one other instance in which the hair of a consumptive patient seemed to grow more luxuriantly than in health—probably drawing its strength from the very vitals of the sufferer—and never but one. All this was impressed on my mind in a few moments, and Hamilton going up to the side of the invalid she awakened. With a low, sweet voice, and something of a foreign accent, she inquired, “Why he had been away so long, and if the picture”——She paused, for she saw a stranger, and fixed on me a look so sweet, so plaintive, that it clung to my mind for days after.
“You are faint, my Madeline,” said Hamilton, as he assisted her to rise—“faint and weak, but God has helped us, see here”—and he showed her a certain coin which I had just deposited in his hand. “You shall have nourishment—medicine, dearest—soon, very soon.”
This was half whispered, as if for her ear alone, but I caught every word.
“I have not wanted,” said the poor girl; “I was weak, and faint, and sinfully sad an hour ago, but I have slept, and angels have come to me with pleasant dreams, and now I am quite strong and well.”
And she smiled, such a smile as a ministering spirit might wear when assuming the office of a comforter to some sorrowful mortal. Then followed a scene of temporary joy and relief, which it gladdened my very soul to witness. Oh, ye who have more wealth at your disposal in a single year than I ever possessed in my whole life, and who yet are in a single year than I ever possessed in my whole life, and who yet are in want of excitement and emotion, seek out the abodes of the sick, the poor, the wretched, and see how much happiness to others, and, above all, to yourselves, may be purchased for a single sovereign!