Saturday, May 30, 2020

MEDUSA’S HEAD - by F. D. Millet

Henry Seymour  fancied he was a realist. Indeed, he was very much annoyed when his work was described by an art critic as idealistic, or when he was alluded to in the art columns as “a rising young artist quite out of place in the realistic circle to which he affects to belong.” But the bias of mind which prevented him from recognizing the real qualities in his own productions, equally hindered him from accomplishing what was his present highest ambition, an accurate and realistic imitation of nature. In common with the large majority of the young artists of the day, he studied two or three years in Europe, notably in Paris, where he learned to believe, or fancied he believed, that the most hopeful tendency of modern art consisted in the elimination of all idea and all sentiment from the motive of a picture, and the glorification of the naturalistic and, if I may say so, earthly qualities of the model.

After his return from the ateliers of Paris, Seymour divided his time between the apotheosis of rags and squalor and the delineation of the features of the New York banker, broker, or insurance president, with an occasional excursion into the field of female portraiture, which was opened to him through the large and influential circle of friends and acquaintances of his family. His efforts in this direction frequently resulted in popular and artistic success, and after a season or two gained for him a profitable and exceedingly agreeable line of sitters. A strange jumble of millionaires, bootblacks, society ladies, and beggar-women covered the canvases that encumbered his studio. The portraits went away in their turn, but the pictures, after brief absences at exhibitions, remained his own property, testifying to the practical worthlessness of the encouragement of his comrades, who would sniff at his portraits of ladies and gentlemen, and prostrate themselves before his studies of gutter-snipe. It must be understood that no one of his artistic clique disapproved of his painting society portraits, for they had all adopted some means of gaining a livelihood outside of the special line of art which they, in their mistaken zeal, believed to be the only true and worthy one. Most of his comrades taught in the art schools of the city; some of the more fortunate ones conducted highly profitable private classes, where, at an enormously extravagant price per season, they actively stimulated and encouraged the artistic illusions of wealthy young ladies, and helped them to acquire a superficial and dangerous facility, which, for a future mistress of a house, is the most useless accomplishment imaginable.

Seymour was of an energetic and enterprising turn of mind, and if it had not been for his unwavering devotion to his artistic creed, he would have speedily made a wide reputation for himself as a painter with an original and charming talent. But accident of situation had exposed him to the contagion of realism, and the fever which seized him in Paris was now kept alive, in a milder form to be sure, by association with the young painters in New York, who had been abroad the same time as himself. After two seasons at home he found his studio too small and inconvenient, and he turned a stable in the spacious back yard of his father’s house, on one of the cross streets near Fifth Avenue, into a fine studio, with a side and top light, and transported thither his easels, his bric-à-brac, and the lares and penates of his Bohemian quarters. The new studio was entered by a porte-cochère at one side of the house, and was therefore as isolated and private as if it stood in the centre of an acre of ground.

Among the sitters who came to him in his new studio was Miss Margaret Van Hoorn, the only daughter of a well-known wealthy man, who had a stalwart pride in his Knickerbocker origin, and boasted generations of opulent Van Hoorns before him. Miss Van Hoorn was not an ordinary society belle, but an intelligent, capable, sensible girl, and a favorite no less for the charm of her personal character than for a distinguished type of face and figure, which would stimulate the ambition of the most worn and weary portrait-painter.

Here, then, was Seymour’s golden opportunity. He recognized it, and began to make the most of it by starting to paint a portrait of the young lady in a party dress. It had hitherto been his custom to deny to his sitters the privilege of watching his work in its various stages, but he was unable to refuse Miss Van Hoorn’s request that she might be permitted to see the portrait in progress. Her desire to watch his work was excusable, because she had already taken lessons in painting, and had some little knowledge of technique. After the first sitting was over she occupied the divan under the large window, and chatted cheerfully an hour or more, thus initiating an intimacy which grew rapidly as the sittings went on. The painter, as long as he had his palette on his thumb, looked upon his sitter as a sort of automaton, watched the pure lines of her neck and arms with no conscious feeling except that of keen anxiety to reproduce their grace, and studied the mobile turn of the lips and the varying curve of the eyelids with a single minded desire to catch something of their charm and fix it on the canvas.

But soon another element crept insensibly into the relation between sitter and painter, and long before it was recognized by either of them, became a potent factor in the growing problem. Miss Van Hoorn first began to question Seymour about his artistic creed, then showed an interest in his early life, thus encouraging the artist to talk about himself. She grew bold in criticising his work, and even modestly declared her disapproval of the confusion of his studio, and occasionally gave to the arrangement of the objects a few of those skilful feminine touches which add an indefinable charm to any interior. The artist, in his turn, suggested books for her to read, frequently joined her in the box at the Metropolitan Opera House, accompanied her to picture exhibitions, and even advised her as to the color and style of dress most suited to her complexion and figure. They were all the while under the protection of that unwritten social law which grants a certain brief license to sitter and painter, which, like the freedom of a picnic or an excursion party, usually lasts no longer than the conditions which make this freedom innocent and desirable.

“Mr. Seymour,” said the sitter one day, “why don’t you paint an ideal subject, something classical or poetical ?”

“I’m a realist, Miss Van Hoorn, and I have come to the conclusion, since I began your portrait, that I had better stick to copper pots and cabbages.”

“But no one cares for copper pots and cabbages, even if the former do have the sheen of burnished gold, and the latter sparkle with dew-drop jewels. I think every painter ought to paint something more than the surface of things.”

“How about Vollon and...”

“You know,” she interrupted, “I am not far enough along, as you call it, to appreciate the wild combinations of color and the hodge-podge of splashes and dashes affected by the modern school. I have tried to acquire this taste under your tuition, but I cannot do it. I shall always believe in the verdict of past centuries, that good art has its reason in the immortalization of the beautiful.”

“But there’s Terburg...” he began.

“Raphael,” she interrupted.

“Van der Meer de Delft,” he suggested.

“Botticelli,” she argued, and so the conversation went on, and at last ended, as discussions on religion, politics, and art always do, in each declaring unwavering adherence to original views.

Excursions to the art galleries and to the Metropolitan Museum were often the result of these little flutters; but although neither the artist nor the sitter would confess to the least disturbance of artistic faith, Seymour actually began, before he knew why, to select an ideal subject. Several motives from classical poetry, from mythology, and from modern writers came to his mind, and he was unable to decide, nor did he know that he really cared to fix on any one of them. Meanwhile the sittings continued, and the portrait approached completion. Suddenly one day a compromise suggested itself to the painter, how or why he never knew, and he quietly remarked, “Miss Van Hoorn, I am going to paint a Medusa’s head.”

“Horrid,” she said, frankly. “I hate snakes.”

Seymour was somewhat discouraged by her impulsive disapproval of his subject, but, nevertheless, warmly defended his choice, and was all the more eloquent, perhaps, because he felt that she had recognized his ingenious compromise between idealism and realism. He insisted that the proportions of her face had suggested the subject to him, and was so serious in his assertion that she was in this degree responsible for his choice of motive, that she finally yielded to his eager solicitation, and consented to sit for the eyes and mouth of the Medusa’s head.

The same afternoon he went downtown to a shop near the docks, where all kinds of birds, animals, and reptiles were sold alive, a sort of depot, in fact, for the dime museums and small menageries and bought a box of a dozen moccasin snakes recently arrived from the South. He selected this variety on account of the venomous appearance of the small heads, the repulsive thickness of the bodies, and the richness of color of the mottled scales, intending to make a close study of all the characteristics of this variety of the serpent. He could in this way heighten the contrast which he proposed to make between the calm beauty of the woman’s face and the repulsiveness of the serpent locks. He ordered the box to be sent to his studio the same afternoon, and spent that evening in blocking out on the canvas a charcoal sketch of the head he had in his mind.

The following day was Sunday, and during the night a severe cold wave, accompanied by a blizzard of unusual severity, began to sweep over the city. Early on Monday morning the artist went around into the studio, and was surprised to find that the snow had blown in through the ventilator, and that the temperature was very low, notwithstanding the fact that a fire had been kept up all the time in the great magazine stove. His first thought was for the snakes, and, by no means certain that they were not already frozen, he moved the box near the fire, closed the ventilators in the roof of the studio, opened the dampers in the stove, and shook the grate, so as to start the fire more briskly.

It was the last day Miss Van Hoorn could come, because she was about to accompany her family to Florida for a few weeks, and in order to sit a little for the picture she had promised to come earlier than usual.

Seymour, like all who were not obliged to brave the blizzard on that now memorable Monday, had no idea of the severity of the storm which was raging, and was not surprised, therefore, at the appearance of his sitter shortly after nine o’clock. She was accompanied, as usual, by her maid and by her pug-dog. Miss Van Hoorn never looked more charming than she did at that moment, for her cheeks were ruddy with the cold, and her eyes sparkled with the excitement of the drive.

“Do you know,” she said, “we came very near not getting here. The drifts were so high that John was scarcely able to get the horses through the street; and as for the cold, I never felt anything like it. There now, I do believe I have left my opera cloak at home, and you must finish the drapery to-day. You’ll have to run back and bring it,” she added, turning to her maid. “I don’t think the storm is as bad as it was; the wind does not sound so loud, at any rate.”

The maid courageously set out on her walk, but before she crossed the avenue was blown down, half smothered with the snow and half frozen, and was finally rescued by a policeman, who carried her into the basement of the nearest house, where she was obliged to remain the larger part of the day.

Meanwhile the artist and his sitter sat for a long time beside the fire, expecting the return of the maid at every moment. Almost the first thing Miss Van Hoorn noticed was the box of snakes, and, although she was horrified and disgusted at the first sight of them, soon began to look at them with interest, because the artist was so enthusiastic about the use he proposed to make of them, and so full of the picture he had begun. The glass in front of the box was slightly clouded by vapor condensed by the change in temperature, and in order to examine more closely the beautiful colors of the scales, Seymour took out the glass, placed it on top of the box, and went to get a paint rag to wipe off the vapor. The moccasins made no sign of life.

Miss Van Hoorn was very much interested in the charcoal sketch of the head, criticised it frankly and freely, and they both grew quite absorbed in the changes the artist rapidly made in the proportions of the face. The loud striking of the antique clock soon reminded them, however, that the hour for the sitting was long past, and that the portrait was of more present importance than the embryonic picture.

The artist was shortly busy with his painting, and the sitter, now well accustomed to the pose, endeavored to facilitate the progress of the work by remaining as quiet as possible. The silence of the studio was broken only by the stertorous breathing of the pug, asleep on the Turkish carpet in front of the stove, and by the rattle of the sleet against the large window.

Suddenly the shrill yelps of the dog startled them from their preoccupation. On the carpet, near the stove, one of the moccasins was coiled, ready to strike the pug, who, in an agony of terror, could not move a foot, but only uttered wild and piercing shrieks.

“Never mind; I’ll soon settle him,” said Seymour; and he rushed at the snake with his maul-stick. But before he could cross the room, the moccasin had struck his victim; and as the artist shattered his slender stick at the first blow, he saw that the box was empty, and that the other snakes were wriggling around the studio.

Miss Van Hoorn was transfixed with horror, but she neither shrieked nor fainted, although she looked as if she would swoon before Seymour could reach her. The pair were fairly surrounded by the reptiles before the artist had time to think of another weapon.

The only thing to do in the emergency occurred to both of them at the same instant, and in a much shorter time than it takes to tell it Miss Van Hoorn was safely perched on the solid crossbar of the French easel, four feet or more from the ground; and the painter, who had hastily thrown the portrait on the floor, face upward, was standing on the shelf.

Knowing the venomous character of the moccasin, Seymour was not eager for a fight with the snakes, particularly since he was without a weapon. It was impossible to reach the trophy of Turkish yataghans on the farther wall of the studio without encountering at least two of the reptiles, and after a moment’s consideration he climbed up and sat down beside Miss Van Hoorn, tête-à-tête fashion, and, like herself, put his arm around the upright piece between them.

Neither one of them spoke for a moment; and then he, overcome with remorse at his carelessness, and trembling at the possible result of the adventure, exclaimed, in a tone of despair, “Here’s a situation!”

This commonplace remark did not carry with it a hint of a satisfactory solution of the difficulty, and he felt this the moment he had uttered it. Miss Van Hoorn made no reply, but with pale cheeks and frightened eyes sat silent, clinging almost convulsively to her support.

“We can easily bring the people by shouting,” suggested her companion.

“No, no!” she half gasped. “What a ridiculous position to be found in! Indeed, I...I...Are you sure the neighbors cannot see through the window?”

“Of course they can’t; it’s corrugated glass. But then, after all, if any one should come, the moccasins might bite them, and we should be no better off.”

The snakes became more and more active.

The pug lay in his last death-agonies, and as he struggled on the carpet, almost under their feet, the soft fingers of the young lady instinctively found their way to the firm, muscular hand of the artist, and closed around it with a confiding pressure, as if she recognized in him her sole protector in this danger, and had great need of his sympathy and support.

If the truth must be told, her sweet unconsciousness was not shared by her companion, for he felt a distinct sense of satisfaction at the touch of her hand, and this sensation fully dominated for a moment the complex feeling of relief at escape from recent imminent danger and of great present perplexity, uncertainty, and fear.

They were now fairly besieged; and although no harm could come to them in their present position, it was by no means comfortable to sit perched on a narrow oak bar, and it was impossible to tell how or when they would be delivered from their enemy.

A strange and oppressive silence seemed to have come over the whole city; not so much a silence, perhaps, as an unusual muffling of all the ordinary sounds of traffic and activity. The swish of the sleet against the window was almost continuous, but when it ceased for a moment there was heard no rattle of the streets, no rumble of the horse-cars, no clatter of trains on the elevated railroad. Instead of these familiar sounds, a wide, deep, and ominous murmur filled the air. This was not a loud and heavy sound, like the roar of the ocean, nor yet shrill, like the rush and whistling of a gale, but had a peculiar low and muffled quality that made a weird accompaniment to the dramatic situation of the artist and sitter in the storm-and-serpent-beleaguered studio.

There was a horrible fascination in watching the movements of the snakes as they restlessly glided from one part of the studio to another, the scales on their thick repulsive bodies glistening in the strong light, and flashing a variety of colors. The stove was now red hot, and the fire was roaring loudly. In spite of the intense cold outside, the heat became oppressive at the height where they sat, and Miss Van Hoorn, whose nerves were much shaken by her fright, and kept in a flutter by the movements of the snakes below, began to feel faint. The house-servants had standing orders never to interrupt the sittings on any excuse until the artist rang for luncheon. It was now half-past eleven, and Seymour, despairing of the return of the maid, at last resolved to shout as loudly as possible, and to stop the servant from opening the door by calling out to him as he came along the passageway. He explained this plan to Miss Van Hoorn, and proceeded to shout and halloo with the full strength of his lungs. He waited a few moments, but no sound of footsteps was heard, and then he shouted again and again. Still the roaring of the fire, the grumble of the storm, and the hideous rustling of the snakes alone greeted their eager ears. At last he was obliged to conclude that the noise of the storm prevented his cries from reaching the house.

What to do next he did not know, but as he was fanning Miss Van Hoorn with a letter out of his pocket, indeed, with one of her own notes to him, he struck upon a plan of letting in air, and at the same time attracting the attention of some one. When the brief faint turn had passed off, he climbed down to the shelf, gathered up his tubes of color, and returned to his perch. After a few vigorous throws with the heaviest tubes, he succeeded in breaking one of the panes of the large window, and a fierce gust of wind blew upon them. To their great disappointment the opening in the glass disclosed only the blank wall of the opposite extension; and as he had wasted all his heavy ammunition, he could not break another pane higher up in the window. He tried shouting again, but with no result.

The situation was now worse than before, for Miss Van Hoorn was in her evening dress and exposed to the freezing draught of a blizzard. Seymour persuaded her to put on his velveteen jacket, and, after a few attempts, succeeded in tearing down a curtain that hung from the ceiling alongside the opening in the roof in order to cast a shadow on the background. This he wrapped around both of them, then sat and considered what to do next. No new plan, however, suggested itself to either of them. They did not talk much, for they were too seriously occupied with the problem of escape to waste words. The single hand of the antique clock moved with agonizing slowness, and the pair sat there a long time in silence, shivering, despairing. Once or twice a sense of the ludicrousness of their position came over them, and they laughed a little; but their mirth was almost hysterical, and was succeeded by a greater depression of spirits than before. Seymour had proposed several times to make a dash for the door, but two or three of the reptiles were always moving about between the easel and the entrance, and Miss Van Hoorn entreated him tearfully not to attempt it. The cold seemed to increase, and Seymour soon noticed that the fire was burning itself out. This was a new source of anxiety, and neither of them cared to anticipate their sufferings on the top of the easel with the temperature below zero.

“Just look at the snakes!” suddenly cried Seymour, in great excitement.

Miss Van Hoorn was startled by the vehemence of his cry, and could only gasp: “No, no! I can’t bear to look at them any more.”

“The cold is making them torpid again,” he fairly shrieked, in the joy of his discovery. “How stupid not to have thought of this before!” he added, in a tone of disgust.

He was right. One by one they ceased to crawl, and those nearest the window soon lay motionless. Checking his impatience to descend on the snakes until those by the stove ceased to show signs{187} of active life, he dropped from the perch, seized a yataghan from the wall, and speedily despatched them all.

Miss Van Hoorn anxiously watched the slaughter from the safe elevation of the easel, and, when it was over, fainted into the artist’s arms.


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