A Rainy Sunday in Rome
THE fact that one never knows how often it rains until one lives m the open air is as true of the tourist as of the soldier. Once deprived of ready shelter, we become slaves to the elements. Especially is this the case in a foreign city, where indoor life is scant and meagre, and where all communication is swayed and limited by Ollendorf. Thus musing, I made my damp and drizzly way through the wet streets to the studio of a compatriot, who had often invited me to divide with him the besiegement of a rainy Sunday.
I found Mr. Hamilton Wilde occupied in setting to rights a very disorderly collection of curios, sketches, screens, rugs, Japanese or Turkish, and stray canvases, — the last covered with figures in every stage of development; while the dust from his activities threw over the whole scene an air of half realism, as of a picture seen through clouded glasses.
“ I am glad you came to-day,” he said, with a smile of welcome. “ I ’ve been hard at work trying to finish the picture of the boy Browning, and I rather expect a visit from the father. Look! ” and he carefully lifted a many-stained cloth from his largest easel, disclosing a bright, lifelike composition, whose subject was a boy of twelve or thirteen, seated on a handsome pony, which latter was pawing, to the evident delight of himself and his rider. “ Yes,” continued my friend, “ I’ve had hard work to get the shadows to fall correctly from the pony’s legs,” pointing to a burst of sunshine which seemed to envelop the group, beneath which recent tracks wrought confusion on the ground below.
There still remained about this artist some remnant of that Puritanism which compelled obedience to the fourth commandment ; but, although the ethics of New England forbade him to paint on the Sabbath Day, there was no law against tidying and dusting his studio ; that was not his labor.
I was admiring the fantastic weapons, the embossed armor, and all the pretty picturesqueness that goes to the appointing and equipment of a first-class studio, and had lost myself in deciphering an inscription on a Toledo blade, when a heavy step, followed by a very distinct knocking, announced the poet: a stout, middle-sized man of about fifty, with graying hair, a fine complexion, and a wholesome robustness of bearing quite at variance with the indolent morbidezza which so often seems to herald genius among the Latins, and sometimes among ourselves. “ A man who looks like that,” remarks Bulwer, “ might play on the violoncello, marry for love, and even write poetry, and yet not go to the dogs.” Of all attempts at description by those who had seen the poet, that of Professor Hill seemed the most fitting, — “A nice Englishman.”
He immediately walked over to the largest easel, and, taking the cloth off, gazed at the picture with fond eyes, long and tenderly ; then, suddenly, as if ashamed of his preoccupation, he turned to me with deprecation in voice and gesture. “ Pardon me ! You see I’m so delighted to be a father that I forget that I can be anything else. You are not old enough to understand, perhaps ; but I am like the Elector of Hanover, who was to receive a visit from the Spanish ambassador, — a most stately personage. When that dignitary entered, he found the elector on his hands and knees, playing horse with his little son. Pausing and half rising, he exclaimed, ‘ Excuse me, but are you a father ? ’ ‘ Oh yes,’ said the Spanish ambassador. ‘ Then I ’ll continue my ride.’ ” Then, as though suiting the action to the word, Browning turned his back to us, and resumed his delighted gaze at the picture, which I immediately began to consider very remarkable, — such is the indorsement of high authority !
After another long and earnest look at the portrait of his boy, the poet began to walk up and down the room, with nervous, hurried stride, talking in a low voice, as if in soliloquy, yet really to the artist and myself : “ Yes, I want that picture exhibited in London. I did intend to hang it up over my bed foot, so that I might wake each morning and find myself a father ; but that would be mean and selfish, besides being an injustice to Wilde [pointing to the artist], who, surely, has some rights of recognition among his peers.” Fumbling in the corners of his memory awhile, he came out with a sort of Eureka exclamation, as he recalled the address of a London picture dealer to whom the art treasure could be confided, — No. 167 Strand. He kept walking up and down, repeating the name and number, as though committing it to memory, like a schoolboy. Suddenly stopping at a side table, he began to tumble the books that lay helter-skelter thereon, and, with a low cry of surprise and pleasantry, he reft from the disorder a volume of his own poems, remarking as he turned the leaves, “ Where did this come from ? ” Then, taking the open book to the window for better light, he read aloud the name of the artist, with the added words, “ From his loving mother.” “ Dear me ! ” exclaimed the frankly gratified poet. “ That’s very pleasant. And had I readers so long ago beyond the seas ? ” 44 Always among the transcendentalists,” remarked Wilde. “ How very pleasant! And I never saw this before : why did you never show it me ? So like you, Ham, to remember the pleasure that comes unlooked for is thrice welcome.”
Dropping the book, he sauntered to the piano, and began to play chords and modulations with a skill and musicianly manner almost professional. Remembering how George William Curtis had delighted in Browning’s organ-playing at Vallombrosa, I was eager to listen to the wizard whose heard melodies might contend with those unheard. But, beyond a somewhat dizzying maze of chords and sequences, there was little that could be recognized. His touch was skilled and admirable, while his management of the pedals seemed modest and judicious ; but the most noticeable feature of Browning’s playing was gusto. Never did I meet a musician who so tasted his own music, so to speak. Like the lady in Alastor, the beating of whose heart was heard to fill the pauses of her music, he appeared to include in himself player and audience, as well as poet and composer, with sufficing completeness. I was not surprised to hear him say that he had heard Mendelssohn play; but as to the rumor that he had been a pupil of that great master of form, he denied it as absurd, saying that he never had possessed patience enough for a musician, or at least a virtuoso, although at one period he had practiced a number of hours each day, for some months.
Turning suddenly from his playing, Mr. Browning looked up, observing : “ What am I doing here ? Mumbling over blind chords, when I ’ve been invited to hear you play! You are quite an exponent, I hear, of American music.”
Remembering the allegory concerning the Scottish and French kings, to the effect that it is polite to obey, I complied without deprecation. Seating myself at the piano, I continued playing for an hour or so, furtively watching the poet, who sat with closed eyes, beating time with his foot, or occasionally with his hand. The repertoire included most styles then in vogue, from the Marche de Nuit of Gottschalk to the simplest negro melody.
“ Yes, yes,” murmured the poet, “ further evidence of what I have long suspected. You Americans [turning to Wilde] are a luxurious people: your metre is wearisomely faultless, and your music dallies overmuch with the chord of the diminished seventh. You are far more refined than we English would have you, and even I miss the robust virtues we have been led to expect. But, after all, you are consistent.”
Here followed a most affectionate leave-taking between 44 Ham ” and 44 Robert,” for the two had reached that stage of intimacy which makes the calling of first names an added tie ; and with a cordial invitation to take a “ cup of tea with Mrs. Browning,” the poet left as suddenly as he came, — producing upon my mind an impression as of one escaping through spring doors.