Read CHAPTER II - ON THE SECOND FLOOR of The Romance Of Giovanni Calvotti From Coals Of Fire And Other Stories‚ Volume II, free online book, by David Christie Murray, on

I have just found this manuscript among my music, and to charm a lonely evening I will continue it. I remember that the candle went out so suddenly that I lost the place of my pen, or I would have completed the sentence. In the morning I had other things to think of. My landlady came up for the picture and took it away. In five minutes I heard a step upon the stairs, and opening my door I saw Cecilia-I have not told you my little English angel’s name until now-with the picture in her hands. For a moment I thought that my inestimable uncle had refused to accept it, but I saw by her smiling face that it was no misfortune which had brought her back.

’There is a gentleman downstairs, signor, who wishes to buy your picture. He is waiting in the hall. Shall I send him up? It is the gentleman who jumped from the cab yesterday and caused the accident.’

I besought her not to take so much trouble, and myself ran downstairs. There was an Englishman, broad-shouldered, ruddy, and iron-grey, with bushy eyebrows and blue eyes and a square chin.

‘Do you wish to see me, sir?’ I asked him.

‘If you’re the painter of the picture I saw just now-yes.’

‘It is something of a climb upstairs,’ I warned him.

He took the warning as an invitation, and went upstairs, stepping firmly and solidly in his heavy boots. When he reached my room, he took his hat off and I saw he was bald. He had a good face, and a high forehead, and he was evidently of the prosperous middle classes. Mademoiselle had left the room, and had placed the picture upon the easel. He looked round the room, and then faced the picture, square and business-like-like an Englishman.

‘Ah!’ he said, ’that’s the picture, is it? H’m. What do you want for it?’

I told him I had never yet sold a picture, and did not know what price to set upon it.

‘What have you done with the rest?’ he said, looking round the room again. ‘This isn’t the first you’ve painted.’

His bluntness amused me, and I laughed. He saw my circumstances, and there could be no service in disguise. I told him of my estimable Uncle.

‘H’m?’ he said, lifting his eyebrows. Then suddenly, ’What do you get on ‘em?’

‘Twelve and sixpence each.’

‘How many has he got?’

‘Nine,’ I answered.

‘Got the tickets?’ he said, examining the picture on the easel.

I produced them from a drawer.

‘Five pounds fourteen,’ he said to himself. ’A pound ’ll pay the interest. Call it six ten, roughly. Got anybody you can send out for ‘em?’

I rang the bell, and by-and-by my landlady appeared.

‘Look here,’ said the stranger, taking out a purse. ’Take this six pounds ten and that lot of pawn tickets, and send somebody to the pawnbroker’s to bring the pictures out.’

My landlady took the money and went downstairs. In ten minutes she came back again with a boy behind her, carrying all my canvas children home again. During this time the stranger said nothing. Now he took the change in silver and copper from my landlady, said ‘Eight,’ and nothing more, and then set the pictures one by one on the easel and looked at them all in turn. When he had satisfied himself, he turned on me again.

‘Now, Signor-’

’Calvotti’-I helped him with my name.

‘Now, Signor Calvotti, what do you want for the lot?’

I entered into his business humour as well as I could.

‘Permit me to ask what you are prepared to give?’

‘Oh,’ he said emphatically, ’I can’t be buyer and seller. How much for the lot?’

I thought it over. I knew the pictures were good-that they were better than many I had seen sold for high prices. I spoke quietly, but with inward desperation.

‘A hundred pounds.’

My landlady clasped her hands.

‘What?’ said the stranger sharply. ‘Say seventy-five.’

My landlady absolutely curtsied, with her hands clasped.

‘If you think that is a fair price,’ I said.

The stranger looked at me for a minute, then turned to my landlady.

‘Pardon me a minute,’ he said, waving a backward hand to me. Then to the landlady; ‘What sort of gentleman is this? Dissipated dog, eh?’

‘Lord bless you, no, sir,’ said the landlady; ’the steadiest gentleman I ever had in the house.’

‘H’m,’ said the stranger, facing round on me. ’Want a hundred pounds for ’em, eh? Very well. If I can’t get ’em for less. Pen and ink anywhere? Ah, I see.’

He wrote a cheque standing at the table. Then he produced a card.

’That’s my address. Glad to see you, if you’ll call. Any Friday evening after eight. I’ve got a cab at the door, and I’ll take these away at once.’

I was embarrassed by a terrible suspicion. I had read and heard much of London fraud.

’You will pardon me, sir. You are too much a man of the world not to forgive a little caution in a man who is selling all he has.’ Then I stumbled and could not go on.

‘Ah!’ he said, ‘quite right. Stupid of me, to be sure. Wait a minute.’

He seized the cheque and his hat, and went heavily downstairs. When he was at the bottom of the first flight he shouted, ‘Back directly,’ and so went down the other three flights, and out-of-doors.

My landlady opened the window, and looked out.

‘He’s gone into the bank, sir,’ she said; then ran to the head of the stairs and screamed for somebody to open the door.

‘He’s coming out of the bank, sir,’ said the landlady after an interval of renewed observation. He came upstairs, solidly, and into the room.

‘Count that,’ he said, and placed a small bag on the table.

I counted the contents of the bag, but my fingers trembled, and I was confused. I made out one hundred and six pounds.

‘No,’ he said, ’make no mistakes at the bank?

He counted the money rapidly.

‘One hundred and five.’

‘We agreed for one hundred, sir,’ I said pushing five pounds across the table.

‘Guineas,’ he said brusquely. ’Always guineas in art. Don’t know why, but always is. Oblige me, ma’am, by carrying these downstairs.’

My landlady took the pictures in her arms.

They were defended from each other by strips of thin cork at the corners, and they made a clumsy bundle. I had not looked at my client’s card until now. Whilst he gave his directions to the landlady I took it up, and learned that his name was John Gregory; and that he lived in Westbourne Terrace. When my landlady had gone, he spoke to me, with another glance round the room.

‘Been hard up?’ he asked.

‘I have been totally without money,’ I answered him frankly, for I began to understand him.

‘These things belong to you?’ he asked again, waving his hand at the piano and the violin and the violoncello.

‘Yes,’ I answered.

’Why didn’t you sell ’em? Better than starving.’

‘I would sooner starve than part with any of them,’ I told him.

He turned sharply upon me.


‘My mother played them.’ There seemed no reason, for all his brusquerie, why I should not tell him this.

‘Didn’t play the fiddle, did she?’ ‘Divinely,’ I told him.

’And the ‘cello?’ ‘Yes.’

‘Singular,’ he said. ’Oh, ah, foreign lady. Yes, of course. Not at all remarkable. Good morning. Don’t forget the Fridays. Glad to see you.’

As he was going out he caught sight of the portfolio of sketches. He stopped and turned them over without remark or apology until he came to one which pleased him. It was a large sketch, sixteen inches by twelve, in water-colour, and had some little finish. He held it up and took it to the light.

’I meant to say just now, but I forgot it, he said, turning the picture upside down and looking at it so-’I meant to tell you that you’re making a mistake in painting so small. A larger canvas would suit your style. Let me have this, now, in oil. Say eighty by sixty. Give you fifty pounds for it. What do you say?’

What was I likely to say? I told him I would do my best.

I know that,’ he answered. ‘Couldn’t help it. Good morning.’

This time he really went away. I was confounded by my good fortune. I scarcely knew what had happened, until my landlady came upstairs again and asked me if she should get me something to eat. Then I remembered that I was ravenous. She brought me eggs and ham and coffee; and when I had finished breakfast I despatched her for a portmanteau which lay in the care of my estimable uncle, and for certain parcels of clothing and boots and jewellery. Twenty-three pounds went in this way. I spread my clothing about the room to freshen it after its long confinement. Then I dressed, and was delighted to feel once more like a gentleman. I clapped my hands, and sang, and rattled gay things on the pianoforte. Then I put on my hat-newly recovered from my estimable uncle-and went out to buy canvas and materials for my new picture. I brought these things back in a cab, and carried them upstairs. When I got them there, I found that I had no room for so large a canvas. I had managed to get the small canvases and the little field-easel on which I painted into a good light, but with this it was impossible. I spoke about it to the landlady.

‘If you’ll excuse me, sir,’ she said, ’I think I could propose an arrangement as would suit. The ladies below give warning last week, because the rooms they’ve got is too expensive.

Now, this little room would do nicely for ’em, with the next, which I shall be glad and thankful for a chance of giving Mr. Jinks his warning,’ (Jinks was a drunken tailor, my next-room neighbour.) ’Now, sir, if the rooms below will suit you-’

I told her I was sure they would, and asked her if she would broach the question with the ladies. She went down at once, and came back shortly to ask when it would be convenient for me to remove my things. I said ‘at any moment,’ There was so little property between us all three, that it was transferred without much trouble in a few minutes. The landlady agreed that Mr. Jinks should have other accommodation secured for him in the house until the end of the next week; and for a single day the ladies were to make themselves at home in this one old room of mine. Miss Grammont came up the stairs with difficulty, and asked-

‘When shall you wish to remove your piano, signor?’

Now, I had already proposed to myself a great pleasure.

‘Permit me, madame,’ I answered, ’to leave it here for a little time, until I can arrange my rooms.’

‘Certainly,’ the lady answered.

’And if madame or her sister play, it will improve the piano to be played upon, and I shall be vastly gratified.’

Cecilia thanked me with so much energy that I was assured that she was a devotee to music.

‘Would she play?’ I asked; and she consented.

She was shy before me, but so eager to put her fingers on the keys that she conquered all diffidence and went at once to the piano.

When she had played a Sonata of Haydn’s, I turned in my enthusiastic way to her sister and said how I rejoiced to have been able to gratify genius.

‘Genius is a very large word,’ said Miss Grammont. Cecilia was playing something else, and had not heard me.

‘Genius is a large word, madame,’ I replied. ’But is not that a large style? Is it not a noble style?’

Cecilia, she allowed, played very finely.

’Finely, madame? ’I respectfully protested-’she should play among the seraphs. You shall allow me, madame. I am no mean musician. As a critic I am exact and exacting. Permit me, madame, that I bring my violin, and play once with Mademoiselle Cecilia.’

She consented. I brought my violin and we played. Cecilia’s musical memory is prodigious. Mine is also retentive and precise. But she had too much inventive genius for precision, unless the notes were before her, and sometimes I corrected her. Next, this delicious interlude over, I begged that the ladies would do me the honour to dine with me.

‘You must not be extravagant in your good fortune, signor,’ Miss Grammont said.

‘Trust me, madame,’ I answered. ’If the day has dawned, I will hasten no new night and make no artificial curtains.’

Then I went down to paint, and at seven o’clock they joined me at dinner. The meal was sent in from the famous tavern hard by, and I think I may say we all enjoyed it. And then came music, and for an hour we were happy.