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 Tales from the Morning Room


The artist had been walking now for more than three hours and still the long dusty yellow road showed no signs of ending. He was perspiring slightly under the hot sun but the valise he was carrying was not too troublesome and at least he had found conveyance for his luggage which was to follow on a cart which would hopefully be repaired by the morning. In all his journeyings on the continent he had found his equipment and the rapidly growing collection of canvases a continued inconvenience.

As he looked at the landscape of parched yellow grass he wondered why he had chosen this particular part of Prussia, and indeed, why Prussia at all. Part of it, he knew, was his indifferent manner to practical affairs, a matter of convenient trains and inconvenient delays in waiting rooms. But part was a matter of sentiment; he had wanted to move away from the Alpine heartland in which he had spent the last six weeks. Enthralled at first by the mountains, he had grown to hate them, yearned for open horizons, for flatness and a blue sky until one morning he had packed, made for the nearest railway station and taken the first train north. Every further train he caught was in the direction of flatness until just three hours since he had stood on the platform of a small station where the line ended.

It was on learning that the sea lay only fifteen miles distant and that a road led to a village on the coast that he had decided that should be his destination. He would rest and paint, observe the quiet fisher folk and then be on his way again. In his mind’s eye he could already see the waves crashing on the shores, taste the salt air, feel the sand under his feet. Impatient he walked faster.

Some time later he stopped for a rest. Unpacking his valise he took out a rough sandwich and a flask of wine. Enjoying his meal, he stared around then when it was finished lay back on the grass and stared at the intense blue of the sky. The walk had tired him and he fell asleep.

When he awoke, more than an hour later, he determined to press on. The road, it was a track really, was easy on his feet and he made good time. Up ahead, in an otherwise featureless landscape, he spotted a dark patch in the overall patterns of greens and yellows. It was a jacket, stained and rumpled. No one was about.

Leaving it behind with some distaste, for his was an aesthetic soul, he was delighted to come a little later upon the village. Happy the random choice as if a divinity had guided his steps here and whispered to him that nothing was random, that always there is a reason. He saw that it was not quite as he had imagined it. He was used to the coastal towns of southern England, those little Cornish villages that tumble downhill in stepped galleries of roofs and chimneys and the chine-cloven hamlets of the Isle of Wight - but it was quaint and it was open to the sea which was what he wanted.

Its quaintness lay perhaps in the unusual construction of the houses; shacks and sheds really, of shingle and weather board, painted white or left to weather to their own natural dinginess. It was not good paint, more probably whitewash suited to walls for it had afforded little weatherproofing: the walls and doors and window frames were badly warped which gave the buildings a remarkable ramshackle air. Contributing to this was the low standard of repairs: a piece of sailcloth, a beam of driftwood, even smoke-blackened glass. There were gaps between walls and roof, gaping holes in thatch and timbered roofs, and holes stopped with flimsy canvas. How cold it must be in wintertime he thought, but how pleasant in days like these. There were about forty houses altogether, with odd shacks and boathouses scattered among them, and only a few, including an inn, in any state of repair.

He turned his attention to the sea. Most entrancing. Was this the Prussian blue, was it the blue of the Prussian sky or the Prussian sea? How elemental were such colours, how elemental the setting - the sere brown of the cornfields, the yellow ribbon of the road, the complementary blues of sea and sky. He could see now why there was a village located here, for a fairly wide river ran just yards from the houses before joining the sea some half-mile away. A creek he thought, imagining how pleasant it would be to walk upriver some hot afternoon, perhaps to hire a boat and make a leisurely return. He inferred from the look of the coast that when the tide was out, great flat expanses of mud would show, although the creek itself would be deep enough to allow the passage of fishing boats.

At that moment an occupant of a shack chose to show himself. Our hero was taken aback for the man was exceedingly dirty, his face and hands barely distinct from his dark sack-like clothes, on which rough patches of sailcloth were the only things of colour. He turned away quickly as if to dismiss him from mind, but to his displeasure was aware that the man was crossing over to him; nay, was now tugging at his clothes, mumbling and drooling as he did so.

The artist turned away in revulsion, but the madman followed him with staring salt-rimmed eyes, hands reaching out; clawing. What did he want demanded the artist: money, well he couldn’t have it. He could have nothing. He should go away and leave the artist in peace. Our hero was speaking in German but when he saw the man had not understood he became alarmed, the more so because he was now in the clutches of those claw-like hands.

There was a sudden shout, and the thud of running feet. It was two men sprinting to his rescue. The madman let go and backed away with his arms raised as if to ward off blows. The men approached him warily, but with humour and soothing words, as they would a wild dog. Their words calmed the man and he let himself be led away. This done, they returned to reassure the artist and ask if he required a room, and on his nod, took up his valise and escorted him like a lord to the inn.

Feeling pleased with this deference, the artist stepped through the open door of the inn into a quaint low-ceiling room which smelt of fish and strong tobacco. There were three men sitting by the green bottle-glass windows who looked curiously at him, and the wife of the landlord who came round from the counter to greet him. With a great fuss he was shown to his room, small and bare of all except a bed, a rough-hewn bench and hooks on the wall for his clothes. He was content enough.

After a wash in the back yard, he came in to find a meal had been set out for him. It was a wholesome chicken broth filled with swollen barley grains and lank strands of leek, supported by a loaf of dark rye bread. As he ate, the old men, apart from a nod or two, ignored him. He was pleased at this for what he had come for was to work in solitude, wishing company, preferably non-English speaking, as mere background. Long lonesome walks over the mud flats, a quiet room in which to paint, and he would be happy.

On finishing the meal he did not feel tired and as the sun was half an hour from the horizon he decided to take a quick stroll through the village and down to the river. Emerging from the gloom of the tavern, he found himself in the quiet glow of evening. The whole sky was turning golden and the green islets of the mud flats had taken a brownish tinge. As painter, he could appreciate the subtle interplay of light and form and deepening shadow.

As he walked past the quaint higgledy-piggledy dwellings he knew he would get some fine paintings from the place. He wondered how long he would remain. The people seemed friendly and yet pleasingly distant. He admired such self-sufficiency, so unlike the peoples of the south who demanded to know your business and were sometimes outrageously familiar. This made him think of the madman earlier, but he was in good humour and was able to hold this up to himself as an example of an Italian in the north. Italy for him had been unpleasant memories of encounters with vagabonds passing themselves off as guides and custodians of ancient monuments. He shuddered, remembering an unpleasant day when he had been driven eight miles out of Florence and then told that he must pay an outrageous sum for carriage back. He was well content to be out of Italy.

He stepped aside to let a swineherd lead some pigs to the river to drink. Their grunts mingled gently with the quiet sounds of evening that drifted across the still air. Smoke rose lazily from crooked chimneys and there was the smell of peat and fried fish mingled with that of the sea.

Up ahead was a small harbour, its pier nothing more than a jetty of rubble and crudely carved rocks extending into the wide month of the river. There were two largish fishing smacks in poor repair and a number of dinghies, some with primitive fishing gear in their bottoms. The buildings were kin to those of the village but in the glow of the setting sun their infirmities were hidden by shadows and delicate tints of colour so that he was able to exclaim - just so, indeed what I was looking for.

He pictured to himself how this melancholy spot would look on paint. The buildings huddled together, the boats leaning against the stone jetty or lying on their side in the mad, utterly dwarfed by the immensity of the coastal plain, the great flatness of barely covered mud, riddled with creeks and hidden channels, the long line of sand hills that swept into the distance and the long sea line where even now he could see the white breakers flattening themselves on the sand. It was here that man’s dominion ends he thought...the river becomes sea... where else could his last outpost, this shabby little jetty, be but here.

He decided to walk the remaining distance to the shore. The path grew narrower as it neared the sand dunes. This close to the river they were very low, a mere suggestion of upraising that did not afford hindrance to his vision. The grass-covered mud changed to sand. How delicate the change; the feel of what was underfoot, the long coarse grass, the widening of the space where he could move, for the whole yellow surface of the sand was a path. I shall paint just this he thought. A man leaving the track across the mud flats and creating his own path, but no, a path so slightly bounded by incline and vegetation that his inclination will stand out, will be apparent to the viewer. Trackless and yet the way of the man on the sand will be seen clearly through the presence of scarcely seen hinderances.

He climbed a sand dune and saw the shore ahead. It had a purity of a wild place, a place unused by man. He knew that despite its charm the villagers would be indifferent, would come only as far as the jetty, their travel determined by their daily labour. Yet was he, an artist, so different. Certainly he travelled merely to gaze, sometimes to work at a suitable spot. And once working he would give less and less heed to the locality save as it served his purposes - this and that placing this and that bold form, this and that colouring. Just so would his village friends view the marshes, river and sea-flats: as good places for fowling, or fishing, or gathering wild herbs. He did not, then, seek landscapes for their beauty but in order to paint a scene of beauty It was an irritating thought and he forced it from his mind.

The sun was setting behind a far-away mass of cloud, it was quite a fine sunset but the atmosphere was too dry for any spectacular effects merely a pleasant spectre of shades from pale blue through green and orange to purple. Ah, the mysteries of colour. His sensitive soul vibrated with the aetherial harmonies of dusk in this foreign place. Still unread on the theories of the celebrated Goethe he reminded himself.

It was getting cold and after a last look at the green sea, regular in its way, and the sweeping line of the coast, he turned back. There was a low headland some distance off which he would make his base on the morrow. Now his mind was filled with the vision of the tavern interior, the welcome fire and the mulled ale he would order. He passed the jetty and the shacks. Behind him, sullen in the last light, the deep oily purple of the river ran down to the sea.

The next day he awoke early and was agreeably taken with the appearance of the little bedchamber in the bright morning sunlight. Standing by the window he thought back to the day before when at this time he had been standing on a little railway station one hundred miles away after a journey all night, and to the day before when he had had his last stay in an alpine tavern. To his eye the flat landscape was a relief, how tiresome those mountains had been forcing vision upward, to the side, along crags and down the plunging cataracts so that they had no rest and one’s head nodded from side to side like the wavering path of a mountain goat. Here there was infinity of the horizon and rest for the soul. His mountain canvases he had sent home to England so as to banish all memory of them, as he had done earlier with the torrid scenes of Italy.

In a cheerful mood at the thought of an easy day’s sketching by the beach he went down to the back yard to wash. A number of ducks, their wings shorn, waddled away in alarm at his approach. He worked the pump and exulted in the cold stream of clear water that splashed on to his bare neck and back. It tasted faintly salty.

Once dried and in clean clothes he went to his table where the landlord had prepared an English breakfast. Most important was the coffee, a little bag of which he had handed to the landlord last night with instructions for its preparation. It was satisfactory. A strong drink, he always limited himself to a cup or two in the morning or in the evening when he would allow his imagination to dream of the stranger and more exalted regions of his art.

With his materials in an artists bag he strolled to the beach. There were two or three men working at the boats at the jetty and he bade them a good morning. They did not reply, but downing their tools, stared after him. Unaware of this, indeed aware only of the fresh breeze and the smell of the sea he walked out of their sight. After a while of walking across the beach he became intoxicated and leaping and shouting, ran to and fro in a frenzy of delight. How good his idea was to have his base on the headland. He could stretch out in the dunes and sleep, or set his easel on the highest point for the fine vantage this would give of coast and sea, or leaving his materials in a cache could explore further along the coast.

More sedate now, he mused on the geological history of the coast. A painter, he saw the landscape as form and colour, and as symbolic of another realm. Yet precisely because he had to be so attentive to its forms and colourings, he did notice individual elements of the landscape - the dip of the brush where there was a river, the deeper green of the contiguous vegetation, the yellow of sand and deeper brown of sandstone crag, requiring also a different touch to show their different textures and dispositions.

His mentor had talked of this, endeavouring to instil an awareness of earth history in his erratic pupil. How can you hope to be a painter, he had asked, unless you know how the land was formed? You see only the surface and that is why your work is superficial - a mere play of colours without reason or necessity. If you wish to recreate a volcano then you must recreate the ruptured surface of the earth by building it up ever so slowly from the first crack in the earth. Do not paint this on an existing surface but beneath the surface so that it wells up and over the paints. Even paint the red mass of molten rock and cover it over with your browns and greens and then scrape away the surface to show the smouldering fire of your earlier paint. Let it be as a volcano, red streams flowing here and there, exactly where your surface is shallowest; mix it with brown and grey as it cools and leave it for another day, and then as your volcano grows in its layers of paint, as it erupts over the nice greens and browns you’ll have something that in its own way is a volcano, and not a mere daub of paint.

So it was that he looked at the coastline and wondered how it had been formed. Was it once the seabed; that would explain why there was so much mud for surely mud was formed at the bottom of the sea. But did that mean that once this muddy seabed had been dry land so that the earth could be formed for it to be turned to mud once it had sunk beneath the waves. But then that earth would itself have been mud and would have required a prior submersion forming mud which would later dry out. When then would the mud have been formed?

With such weighty observations on his mind the journey to the headland passed quickly and on reaching it he put all thought of mud and earth from mind. This indeed is what I have lived for, he exclaimed as he embraced with outstretched arms the great mandala of the encircling horizon. Overhead the sun burned with cool brilliance throwing relief and colour into the seascape. Colours merged into one another; soil became sand, grass faded into the ochre of the ground, sea and sky were lightened by the white of the horizon. A tree caught his eye, its bleached form stark and elemental against the beach. Half-buried it symbolised the destruction so rampant in nature. No shoots grew forth to tell that all was not lost; that man would go on despite wars and plague and famine. Dry and powdery, there was no living sap to the tree. The deeper symbol of the sap, of the hopes and aspirations that sustained men in adversity moved him. Yes, he would paint this very tree in its elemental setting.

He opened his case which was full of bottles of oil and phials of pigment and from these took what was needed to make up his paints. This done he seated himself in front of his lightweight easel and began to paint, first the sun and then the sky, gradually bringing their edges together. Now the sun shone through the hole in the blue ceiling of the sky, a circular hole through which the inner surface of the great sphere of the celestial fire could be glimpsed.

And then he saw the girl.

She was some ten yards off, watching him intently. Confused he rose to his feet and bowed. How had he not heard her? And what a frown. At the painting? Not at him, he thought in relief for he had suddenly realised she was quite beautiful although dressed in a sackcloth dress. He held out his hand, coaxing her to the painting. Reluctantly she came forward and he could see her more clearly: long golden hair, fresh of face, blue eyes, a Germanic goddess, the muse of this heathen land come to look upon his work.

With animation he displayed his painting then stopped. It was incomplete. He looked helplessly at the girl. She stared back at him, not unfriendly, but puzzled. Then with a laugh she stooped down to his paints and snatching at the brush began daubing the canvas.

He cried out then stifled a remonstrance as he realised she had just understood what he was doing. She looked up at him then giggled as she continued to smear the paints. Well, only a canvas he thought as he knelt beside her, and she was exceedingly pretty. Give me the brush he said and delicately painted in a bush with yellow flowers. She took the brush again and tried to copy him but did not succeed.

He spoke to her in German but her dialect was uncouth and barely comprehensible to him, unlike that of the innkeeper, so they fell silent. Not wishing to begin work he offered her food of which she accepted a little. Then abruptly she got up to go. He called after her but she didn’t look round and in the distance he saw an old man walking in a field and beyond, a tumbledown shack.

That night, as he lay on his bed, he was disturbed by the arrival of three horsemen in the yard beneath his window. Two of the voices were coarse, for the speakers swore much and uttered diverse noises that showed them with little breeding. Irritated he rose and looked out the window. To his apprehension he saw three shadowy figures in the courtyard below who from the gleam of metal and their clothing were unmistakeably soldiers.

At breakfast the next day he met the soldiers. One was a lieutenant, a dapper young man in his fine uniform, apparently charming and correct but with a manner that frightened the painter, something predatory lay behind his eyes the painter told himself as he was introduced, as if the soldier had laid claim to the whole earth and was agreeable in behaviour only because no one disputed his possession. The two other were sergeants, heavy brutish oafs who ate their breakfasts like dogs.

Lieutenant Koenig said nothing to the painter, merely bowed and continued his meal but the amused twinkle in his ayes made the artist uneasy. He ate hurriedly and went out to the coast.

The girl was waiting for him.

Two days passed in this way and with them a flame grew in his heart. How beautiful she is, he thought, as she sat quietly on the sand. He longed to speak to her, to tell her of his love but all she could say was in that damn guttural language that seemed so inconsistent with her appearance.

He shared his lunch with her and then abruptly she got up to go. Dismay took him, was she going when the whole afternoon was ahead of them, when they could walk along the beach, sit on the sand. It was not to be, her work called her and he had to be content with a mimed promise that she would return on the morrow.

His heart ablaze, he lay on the grass and dreamed the afternoon away. That evening, conscious of an ache her absence caused he sought to dispel this by representing certain charming configurations of house, harbour and sailing craft which could be found within the village. How rustic he thought as he painted with furious skill a passable village scene, and then he was lost in the work, abstracted by a light on a shingled roof, on a verandah, by fretwork on an eave, so that he did not know the whole village had come out to watch.

As creation died within him and the last paint was on he realised he was being watched. Flushing, he stammered that it wasn’t a good painting really but was silenced by the oddness of the looks addressed to him and by them, short, tall, fat, thin, and all misshapen in some way. An ugly man with a wart on his face spat near the artist. A hostile murmur ran through the crowd.

Hurriedly he gathered his materials together and went back to the inn. What was wrong he wondered. They had been indifferent before but now were hostile. Damn these foreign places he thought. Damn peasants. It was every bit as bad as Italy and for a moment he thought of leaving; but there was the girl and his heart, though how he could reconcile its demand with her position and her life was gravely problematical. He hardly noticed that his luggage had now arrived.

The next day he saw her again. Idyllic that summer day with the murmuring wash of the sea, the clear sky, the browns and fawns of the landscape. He painted her as she appeared to him, symbol of the supra-mundane, the goddess hidden in the earth, in flesh. Like a Venus emergent from the sea she played idly with the sea-creatures, the shells and the starfish, as the waters lapped her feet.

On his return to the inn, his heart was so full with his flaxen-haired goddess that he did not concentrate on those who filled the saloon, and so passed by the lieutenant and his two sergeants. Otto, the larger of the two reached out almost as an afterthought and pulled our man back towards their table.

“But you pass us by, English.” He said this in a reasonable tone, not looking at him, but all the while holding him in a vice-like grip. So pervasive was his presence that the young painter apologised.

“That is all right, English,” replied Otto, releasing his grip. The other leant over ‘We forgive you.” And they laughed.

“But what is this?” Otto had discovered the painting. Ignoring the cries of alarm not to touch the wet painting he took it firmly on each side, smudging the paint up and around his fat palms and held it up in front of him.

“Oh, you ignorant fool, you’ve gone and spoiled it,” shouted the artist.

‘Wait,” commanded Otto, holding up a paint smeared hand though he had heard the insult right enough. He turned the painting round to the other two. “It’s a woman.”

Wilhelm, the other sergeant made faces, blowing his cheeks out and forcing his eyes to stand out of his head.

“Yes, you appreciate that,” shouted Otto.

“And I too,” exclaimed Lieutenant Koenig taking admiring glances at the portrait. “Landlord, you didn’t tell us about this one.”

“She’s old Pfeffer’s daughter, lives along the marsh,” the landlord replied. Like all the others in the inn he had come over to see the painting.

“Ah, but she’s a fair one,” said one or two of the older men, and the young ones made ribald comments about attempts made by others in the past. And then a silence grew and all eyes looked at the artist who had obviously been out alone with this girl and who had painted her with these clays.

‘Well,” said the lieutenant, “we’re all waiting. Tell us how you met her.” He turned to the audience, giving a sly glance at the youth. “Artists are great fellows for flattery. They whisper to a girl that Venus herself could not look lovelier, that they are the very essence of beauty enfleshed and that if they will but allow him to paint them eternal admiration by men will be theirs.”

“But she’s still got her clothes on,” shouted an ugly young fellow excited by drink and this talk.

“She’s still got her clothes on,” mimicked the Lieutenant. “Well, we can put that right. Your paints, artist.”

He was so sick, so pale, so trembling whether from rage or fear he knew not, but he could not move to obey this command. Otto grumbled and rose to slip off the case of materials from his shoulder and placed them on the table in front of the officer. All crowded round and watched as the Lieutenant scraped off the fresh paint from the girl’s dress and carefully applied a flesh tint to her body.

In minutes he had a reasonable likeness of the human form and proudly held the painting up for all to see. There was no denying it was a crude sketch but it was enough to excite the most licentious feelings in the onlookers and for a while the inn rang with jokes, mock groans and awed gasps. When the laughter had died down people looked at both the Lieutenant and the artist, the one white-faced and trembling, the other amused and hostile.

“Come, come, artist,” snapped the Lieutenant, holding up the painting. “Is this or is it not a good likeness of the lady. Are her legs as long as this, is her waist so slender....?”

“Damn you, how should I know?”

The soldier looked in amazement to his audience. “He doesn’t know. Can you understand this? Alone all day with a beautiful girl and he paints her in a sack-like dress. Come, come. Admit she sat beside you like a golden goddess on the sand, her hair waving gently in the breeze, her pretty face anxious that no one will discover you, eh artist, was that how it was?”

Sickened, confused, the artist grabbed the painting and his oils and stumbled through the hostile jeering crowd towards the stairs. In his room he sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, his head in his hands, overwhelmed with shame and with rage.

In the morning he noticed with unease that the Lieutenant and his dogs were not at their table. He asked the landlord if they were gone for good but he just shrugged impatiently. The artist picked at his breakfast and then, sure that something was wrong, went out in search of the girl.

Nausea gripped him when he saw the little group ahead on the sand, the Lieutenant walking arm in arm with the girl, the soldiers by the horses. These two grinned as they saw him approach and sauntered over to meet and flank him.

“Good day, artist,” cried the Lieutenant cheerily. “Ilse tells me what a fine artist you are.”

He looked at her. How could she walk arm in arm with this monster?

The Lieutenant noticed he had not brought his painting utensils. “But my dear fellow,” he remonstrated ‘Where are your paints?” He looked craftily at the artist then laughed. ‘Why, you’re jealous. Yes, jealous.”

The girl looked puzzled and asked Koenig what he had said. Speaking in her rough dialect, he told her to a shriek of laughter. She asked a question; smiled brightly at the artist.

“She asks if you are going to fight for her, artist?”

He was astounded. Was this the same girl who’d embraced him, who had walked by his side, who had laughed with him. He shook his head, stared open-mouthed at the sand.

His head snapped up at the Lieutenants brisk tone “Come, come, fellow. Are you to fight or not?”

Total confusion gripped him.

“Have you no courage, artist? See, she expects you to fight. She says this. Is she not worth fighting for? Yes? Good. Come, here is a sword.”

He took the sabre from one of the soldiers and looked stupidly at it; appealed to the girl who was indifferent.

The Lieutenant spoke briskly. “To the death then, artist?” He nodded dumbly.

In the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Berlin there hangs a painting by an unknown artist. Set by the sea it shows a golden haired girl laughing with a young officer in the militia. They are walking away from a body huddled on the beach. Two soldiers stand near this body, their spiked helmets on the ground. One is staring at a crab which has approached him with raised claws, the other retrieves a sword from the fallen figure. Experts are uncertain whether this should be classed as a symbolist painting or as depicting an actual event.


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