A Vision of the Fountain by Bret Harte
Mr. Jackson Potter halted before the little cottage, half shop, half hostelry, opposite the great gates of Domesday Park, where tickets of admission to that venerable domain were sold. Here Mr. Potter revealed his nationality as a Western American, not only in his accent, but in a certain half-humorous, half-practical questioning of the ticket-seller–as that quasi-official stamped his ticket–which was nevertheless delivered with such unfailing good-humor, and such frank suggestiveness of the perfect equality of the ticket-seller and the well-dressed stranger that, far from producing any irritation, it attracted the pleased attention not only of the official, but his wife and daughter and a customer. Possibly the good looks of the stranger had something to do with it. Jackson Potter was a singularly handsome young fellow, with one of those ideal faces and figures sometimes seen in Western frontier villages, attributable to no ancestor, but evolved possibly from novels and books devoured by ancestresses in the long solitary winter evenings of their lonely cabins on the frontier. A beardless, classical head, covered by short flocculent blonde curls, poised on a shapely neck and shoulders, was more Greek in outline than suggestive of any ordinary American type. Finally, after having thoroughly amused his small audience, he lifted his straw hat to the “ladies,” and lounged out across the road to the gateway. Here he paused, consulting his guide-book, and read aloud: “St. John’s gateway. This massive structure, according to Leland, was built in”–murmured–“never mind when; we’ll pass St. John,” marked the page with his pencil, and tendering his ticket to the gate-keeper, heard, with some satisfaction, that, as there were no other visitors just then, and as the cicerone only accompanied parties, he would be left to himself, and at once plunged into a by-path.
It was that loveliest of rare creations–a hot summer day in England, with all the dampness of that sea-blown isle wrung out of it, exhaled in the quivering blue vault overhead, or passing as dim wraiths in the distant wood, and all the long-matured growth of that great old garden vivified and made resplendent by the fervid sun. The ashes of dead and gone harvests, even the dust of those who had for ages wrought in it, turned again and again through incessant cultivation, seemed to move and live once more in that present sunshine. All color appeared to be deepened and mellowed, until even the very shadows of the trees were as velvety as the sward they fell upon. The prairie-bred Potter, accustomed to the youthful caprices and extravagances of his own virgin soil, could not help feeling the influence of the ripe restraints of this.
As he glanced through the leaves across green sunlit spaces to the ivy-clad ruins of Domesday Abbey, which seemed itself a growth of the very soil, he murmured to himself: “Things had been made mighty comfortable for folks here, you bet!” Forgotten books he had read as a boy, scraps of school histories, or rarer novels, came back to him as he walked along, and peopled the solitude about him with their heroes.
Nevertheless, it was unmistakably hot–a heat homelike in its intensity, yet of a different effect, throwing him into languid reverie rather than filling his veins with fire. Secure in his seclusion in the leafy chase, he took off his jacket and rambled on in his shirt sleeves. Through the opening he presently saw the abbey again, with the restored wing where the noble owner lived for two or three weeks in the year, but now given over to the prevailing solitude. And then, issuing from the chase, he came upon a broad, moss-grown terrace. Before him stretched a tangled and luxuriant wilderness of shrubs and flowers, darkened by cypress and cedars of Lebanon; its dun depths illuminated by dazzling white statues, vases, trellises, and paved paths, choked and lost in the trailing growths of years of abandonment and forgetfulness. He consulted his guide-book again. It was the “old Italian garden,” constructed under the design of a famous Italian gardener by the third duke; but its studied formality being displeasing to his successor, it was allowed to fall into picturesque decay and negligent profusion, which were not, however, disturbed by later descendants,–a fact deplored by the artistic writer of the guide- book, who mournfully called attention to the rare beauty of the marble statues, urns, and fountains, ruined by neglect, although one or two of the rarer objects had been removed to Deep Dene Lodge, another seat of the present duke.
It is needless to say that Mr. Potter conceived at once a humorous opposition to the artistic enthusiasm of the critic, and, plunging into the garden, took a mischievous delight in its wildness and the victorious struggle of nature with the formality of art. At every step through the tangled labyrinth he could see where precision and order had been invaded, and even the rigid masonry broken or upheaved by the rebellious force. Yet here and there the two powers had combined to offer an example of beauty neither could have effected alone. A passion vine had overrun and enclasped a vase with a perfect symmetry no sculptor could have achieved. A heavy balustrade was made ethereal with a delicate fretwork of vegetation between its balusters like lace. Here, however, the lap and gurgle of water fell gratefully upon the ear of the perspiring and thirsty Mr. Potter, and turned his attention to more material things. Following the sound, he presently came upon an enormous oblong marble basin containing three time-worn fountains with grouped figures. The pipes were empty, silent, and choked with reeds and water plants, but the great basin itself was filled with water from some invisible source.
A terraced walk occupied one side of the long parallelogram; at intervals and along the opposite bank, half shadowed by willows, tinted marble figures of tritons, fauns, and dryads arose half hidden in the reeds. They were more or less mutilated by time, and here and there only the empty, moss-covered plinths that had once supported them could be seen. But they were so lifelike in their subdued color in the shade that he was for a moment startled.
The water looked deliciously cool. An audacious thought struck him. He was alone, and the place was a secluded one. He knew there were no other visitors; the marble basin was quite hidden from the rest of the garden, and approached only from the path by which he had come, and whose entire view he commanded. He quietly and deliberately undressed himself under the willows, and unhesitatingly plunged into the basin. The water was four or five feet deep, and its extreme length afforded an excellent swimming bath, despite the water-lilies and a few aquatic plants that mottled its clear surface, or the sedge that clung to the bases of the statues. He disported for some moments in the delicious element, and then seated himself upon one of the half-submerged plinths, almost hidden by reeds, that had once upheld a river god. Here, lazily resting himself upon his elbow, half his body still below the water, his quick ear was suddenly startled by a rustling noise and the sound of footsteps. For a moment he was inclined to doubt his senses; he could see only the empty path before him and the deserted terrace. But the sound became more distinct, and to his great uneasiness appeared to come from the other side of the fringe of willows, where there was undoubtedly a path to the fountain which he had overlooked. His clothes were under those willows, but he was at least twenty yards from the bank and an equal distance from the terrace. He was about to slip beneath the water when, to his crowning horror, before he could do so, a young girl slowly appeared from the hidden willow path full upon the terrace. She was walking leisurely with a parasol over her head and a book in her hand. Even in his intense consternation her whole figure–a charming one in its white dress, sailor hat, and tan shoes–was imprinted on his memory as she instinctively halted to look upon the fountain, evidently an unexpected surprise to her.
A sudden idea flashed upon him. She was at least sixty yards away; he was half hidden in the reeds and well in the long shadows of the willows. If he remained perfectly motionless she might overlook him at that distance, or take him for one of the statues. He remembered also that as he was resting on his elbow, his half- submerged body lying on the plinth below water, he was somewhat in the attitude of one of the river gods. And there was no other escape. If he dived he might not be able to keep under water as long as she remained, and any movement he knew would betray him. He stiffened himself and scarcely breathed. Luckily for him his attitude had been a natural one and easy to keep. It was well, too, for she was evidently in no hurry and walked slowly, stopping from time to time to admire the basin and its figures. Suddenly he was instinctively aware that she was looking towards him and even changing her position, moving her pretty head and shading her eyes with her hand as if for a better view. He remained motionless, scarcely daring to breathe. Yet there was something so innocently frank and undisturbed in her observation, that he knew as instinctively that she suspected nothing, and took him for a half- submerged statue. He breathed more freely. But presently she stopped, glanced around her, and, keeping her eyes fixed in his direction, began to walk backwards slowly until she reached a stone balustrade behind her. On this she leaped, and, sitting down, opened in her lap the sketch-book she was carrying, and, taking out a pencil, to his horror began to sketch!
For a wild moment he recurred to his first idea of diving and swimming at all hazards to the bank, but the conviction that now his slightest movement must be detected held him motionless. He must save her the mortification of knowing she was sketching a living man, if he died for it. She sketched rapidly but fixedly and absorbedly, evidently forgetting all else in her work. From time to time she held out her sketch before her to compare it with her subject. Yet the seconds seemed minutes and the minutes hours. Suddenly, to his great relief, a distant voice was heard calling “Lottie.” It was a woman’s voice; by its accent it also seemed to him an American one.
The young girl made a slight movement of impatience, but did not look up, and her pencil moved still more rapidly. Again the voice called, this time nearer. The young girl’s pencil fairly flew over the paper, as, still without looking up, she lifted a pretty voice and answered back, “Y-e-e-s!”
It struck him that her accent was also that of a compatriot.
“Where on earth are you?” continued the first voice, which now appeared to come from the other side of the willows on the path by which the young girl had approached. “Here, aunty,” replied the girl, closing her sketch-book with a snap and starting to her feet.
A stout woman, fashionably dressed, made her appearance from the willow path.
“What have you been doing all this while?” she said querulously. “Not sketching, I hope,” she added, with a suspicious glance at the book. “You know your professor expressly forbade you to do so in your holidays.”
The young girl shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve been looking at the fountains,” she replied evasively.
“And horrid looking pagan things they are, too,” said the elder woman, turning from them disgustedly, without vouchsafing a second glance. “Come. If we expect to do the abbey, we must hurry up, or we won’t catch the train. Your uncle is waiting for us at the top of the garden.”
And, to Potter’s intense relief, she grasped the young girl’s arm and hurried her away, their figures the next moment vanishing in the tangled shrubbery.
Potter lost no time in plunging with his cramped limbs into the water and regaining the other side. Here he quickly half dried himself with some sun-warmed leaves and baked mosses, hurried on his clothes, and hastened off in the opposite direction to the path taken by them, yet with such circuitous skill and speed that he reached the great gateway without encountering anybody. A brisk walk brought him to the station in time to catch a stopping train, and in half an hour he was speeding miles away from Domesday Park and his half-forgotten episode.
. . . . . .
Meantime the two ladies continued on their way to the abbey. “I don’t see why I mayn’t sketch things I see about me,” said the young lady impatiently. “Of course, I understand that I must go through the rudimentary drudgery of my art and study from casts, and learn perspective, and all that; but I can’t see what’s the difference between working in a stuffy studio over a hand or arm that I know is only a study, and sketching a full or half length in the open air with the wonderful illusion of light and shade and distance–and grouping and combining them all–that one knows and feels makes a picture. The real picture one makes is already in one’s self.”
“For goodness’ sake, Lottie, don’t go on again with your usual absurdities. Since you are bent on being an artist, and your Popper has consented and put you under the most expensive master in Paris, the least you can do is to follow the rules. And I dare say he only wanted you to ‘sink the shop’ in company. It’s such horrid bad form for you artistic people to be always dragging out your sketch-books. What would you say if your Popper came over here, and began to examine every lady’s dress in society to see what material it was, just because he was a big dry-goods dealer in America?”
The young girl, accustomed to her aunt’s extravagances, made no reply. But that night she consulted her sketch, and was so far convinced of her own instincts, and the profound impression the fountain had made upon her, that she was enabled to secretly finish her interrupted sketch from memory. For Miss Charlotte Forrest was a born artist, and in no mere caprice had persuaded her father to let her adopt the profession, and accepted the drudgery of a novitiate. She looked earnestly upon this first real work of her hand and found it good! Still, it was but a pencil sketch, and wanted the vivification of color.
When she returned to Paris she began–still secretly–a larger study in oils. She worked upon it in her own room every moment she could spare from her studio practice, unknown to her professor. It absorbed her existence; she grew thin and pale. When it was finished, and only then, she showed it tremblingly to her master. He stood silent, in profound astonishment. The easel before him showed a foreground of tangled luxuriance, from which stretched a sheet of water like a darkened mirror, while through parted reeds on its glossy surface arose the half-submerged figure of a river god, exquisite in contour, yet whose delicate outlines were almost a vision by the crowning illusion of light, shadow, and atmosphere.
“It is a beautiful copy, mademoiselle, and I forgive you breaking my rules,” he said, drawing a long breath. “But I cannot now recall the original picture.”
“It’s no copy of a picture, professor,” said the young girl timidly, and she disclosed her secret. “It was the only perfect statue there,” she added diffidently; “but I think it wanted– something.”
“True,” said the professor abstractedly. “Where the elbow rests there should be a half-inverted urn flowing with water; but the drawing of that shoulder is so perfect–as is your study of it– that one guesses the missing forearm one cannot see, which clasped it. Beautiful! beautiful!”
Suddenly he stopped, and turned his eyes almost searchingly on hers.
“You say you have never drawn from the human model, mademoiselle?”
“Never,” said the young girl innocently.
“True,” murmured the professor again. “These are the classic ideal measurements. There are no limbs like those now. Yet it is wonderful! And this gem, you say, is in England?”
“Good! I am going there in a few days. I shall make a pilgrimage to see it. Until then, mademoiselle, I beg you to break as many of my rules as you like.”
Three weeks later she found the professor one morning standing before her picture in her private studio. “You have returned from England,” she said joyfully.
“I have,” said the professor gravely.
“You have seen the original subject?” she said timidly.
“I have not. I have not seen it, mademoiselle,” he said, gazing at her mildly through his glasses, “because it does not exist, and never existed.”
The young girl turned pale.
“Listen. I have go to England. I arrive at the Park of Domesday. I penetrate the beautiful, wild garden. I approach the fountain. I see the wonderful water, the exquisite light and shade, the lilies, the mysterious reeds–beautiful, yet not as beautiful as you have made it, mademoiselle, but no statue–no river god! I demand it of the concierge. He knows of it absolutely nothing. I transport myself to the noble proprietor, Monsieur le Duc, at a distant chateau where he has collected the ruined marbles. It is not there.”
“Yet I saw it,” said the young girl earnestly, yet with a troubled face. “O professor,” she burst out appealingly, “what do you think it was?”
“I think, mademoiselle,” said the professor gravely, “that you created it. Believe me, it is a function of genius! More, it is a proof, a necessity! You saw the beautiful lake, the ruined fountain, the soft shadows, the empty plinth, curtained by reeds. You yourself say you feel there was ‘something wanting.’ Unconsciously you yourself supplied it. All that you had ever dreamt of mythology, all that you had ever seen of statuary, thronged upon you at that supreme moment, and, evolved from your own fancy, the river god was born. It is your own, chere enfant, as much the offspring of your genius as the exquisite atmosphere you have caught, the charm of light and shadow that you have brought away. Accept my felicitations. You have little more to learn of me.”
As he bowed himself out and descended the stairs he shrugged his shoulders slightly. “She is an adorable genius,” he murmured. “Yet she is also a woman. Being a woman, naturally she has a lover–this river god! Why not?”
The extraordinary success of Miss Forrest’s picture and the instantaneous recognition of her merit as an artist, apart from her novel subject, perhaps went further to remove her uneasiness than any serious conviction of the professor’s theory. Nevertheless, it appealed to her poetic and mystic imagination, and although other subjects from her brush met with equally phenomenal success, and she was able in a year to return to America with a reputation assured beyond criticism, she never entirely forgot the strange incident connected with her initial effort.
And by degrees a singular change came over her. Rich, famous, and attractive, she began to experience a sentimental and romantic interest in that episode. Once, when reproached by her friends for her indifference to her admirers, she had half laughingly replied that she had once found her “ideal,” but never would again. Yet the jest had scarcely passed her lips before she became pale and silent. With this change came also a desire to re-purchase the picture, which she had sold in her early success to a speculative American picture-dealer. On inquiry she found, alas! that it had been sold only a day or two before to a Chicago gentleman, of the name of Potter, who had taken a fancy to it.
Miss Forrest curled her pretty lip, but, nothing daunted, resolved to effect her purpose, and sought the purchaser at his hotel. She was ushered into a private drawing-room, where, on a handsome easel, stood the newly acquired purchase. Mr. Potter was out, “but would return in a moment.”
Miss Forrest was relieved, for, alone and undisturbed, she could now let her full soul go out to her romantic creation. As she stood there, she felt the glamour of the old English garden come back to her, the play of light and shadow, the silent pool, the godlike face and bust, with its cast-down, meditative eyes, seen through the parted reeds. She clasped her hands silently before her. Should she never see it again as then?
“Pray don’t let me disturb you; but won’t you take a seat?”
Miss Forrest turned sharply round. Then she started, uttered a frightened little cry, and fainted away.
Mr. Potter was touched, but a master of himself. As she came to, he said quietly: “I came upon you suddenly–as you stood entranced by this picture–just as I did when I first saw it. That’s why I bought it. Are you any relative of the Miss Forrest who painted it?” he continued, quietly looking at her card, which he held in his hand.
Miss Forrest recovered herself sufficiently to reply, and stated her business with some dignity.
“Ah,” said Mr. Potter, “that is another question. You see, the picture has a special value to me, as I once saw an old-fashioned garden like that in England. But that chap there,–I beg your pardon, I mean that figure,–I fancy, is your own creation, entirely. However, I’ll think over your proposition, and if you will allow me I’ll call and see you about it.”
Mr. Potter did call–not once, but many times–and showed quite a remarkable interest in Miss Forrest’s art. The question of the sale of the picture, however, remained in abeyance. A few weeks later, after a longer call than usual, Mr. Potter said:–
“Don’t you think the best thing we can do is to make a kind of compromise, and let us own the picture together?”
And they did.