The Official Returns
PERHAPS the real trouble with Mr. Dagonet was that he had too many creases on either side of his mouth.
At any rate they deepened as he hoisted a disreputable foot over a baggy knee (pre-Coolidge, it not preHarding, both of them), propped an Early American chin upon a preternaturally bleached and bony hand, readjusted to a Romanesque nose a pair of inelegantly thick glasses, and inspected with none too enchanted an eye the scene of his long-interrupted labors. After the Rocky Mountains the monstrosity looked more appalling than ever! Why in the world, if they insisted on setting it in front of the space of lawn and trees when; he sat, had n’t they taken their cue from those little brick houses behind him — simple and rosy and innocent, more or less of the period not of Mr. Dagonet’s nose but of his chin — instead of piling up that pompous dingy mass of sandstone?
Not that he did n’t know why. Part of the ground had belonged to the wife of one of the Trustees. The architect was the nephew of another. This young gentleman had been fortunate enough to visit foreign lands, and his Museum was a composite of his impressions. The recessed centre of his façade made a forecourt (Fontainebleau), which he enriched with two washtubs in Tennessee marble Versailles). The path between them (neither Noble nor Eightfold, thought Mr. Dagonet, who was guilty of a book on the Arhats of Buddha) led to a stair of compromise between the practical and the monumental (Frascati), mounting to a portico of six Corinthian columns (Paris). It had been decided in full committee that four would look cheap, while eight would be ostentatious. The portico was surmounted by a pediment (Munich) in which nine wholesome American girls faced the weather in winter-weight draperies but without hats, accommodating themselves with what grace they might to the exiguities of their triangle. And somewhere beyond them, at the exact geographical centre of several acres of slate roof, a whitish swelling (Rome) was visible to the eye of faith. Indeed the top of it could actually be seen, between the months of October and April, from Mr. Dagonet’s bench. What would you? The Trustee’s nephew’s ambition had been to crown his masterpiece in a manner not unworthy of the Popes. He had at least carried the day against cast iron.
Mr. Dagonet, who had visited Washington, was not ungrateful for that. But ruminating anew over the difficulties, disillusionments, surprises, and humors of the Noble Eightfold Path, he wondered whether it. were because he had in other lives yielded himself to the Ten Bonds, to the Four Intoxications, to the Five Hindrances, because he had wantonly ignored the Twice Five Precepts of Aversion, that his still somewhat doddering and wholly unwilling footsteps now dragged him back to an edifice which had so much the air of a penal institution. A Reformatory, perhaps for Wayward Boys! That ridiculous dome, however, reminded him uncomfortably of the Director who lived under it. And he could not help finding it rather ominous, if rather characteristic, that the Director should wish to see him as soon as he returned. For Mr. Dagonet was not a man whom Directors do most assiduously seek out. He was, rather, one of those invaluable but unpresentable beings for whom Directors reserve their darkest comers — and occasionally their most uncongenial tasks. Which being the case, he sighed, rose from his bench, took another look at his favorite row of brick houses, and clumped resolutely toward the Museum.
After a moment of debate as to whether he should not slink around to the private entrance and the elevator, the Early American chin had its way. Those steps might be lamentable, but they would be good for legs that had gone too long unused. Yet when he had extricated himself from that revolving door which he would so cheerfully twirl behind him for the last time, — and in fact he had been on the ragged edge of achieving his ambition, — when he had extricated himself as well from the greetings of his firm friends the guardians thereof, it might have been observed that Mr. Dagonet appeared to be in no haste to seek out the Director. On the contrary, he allowed himself to be led away by his fancy about the Home for Wayward Boys, finding it rather quaint that the Trustees, who had been so strict about the girls in the pediment, should permit these unblushing young people in marble and bronze and plaster to hang about the entrance hall. Wayward Boys indeed! And how about their creators? Mr. Dagonet had n’t a doubt that ne’er-do-wells who had found nothing better to do than to make love had reproduced in materials less perishable than their emotions the
slim or swelling contours of which their expert fingers kept the secret — and had given the result a name to mollify the most suspicious Trustee: Spring, Valor, Surprise, Grief, Solitude. The name was there on a ticket to convince you, neatly tacked to each pedestal.
Mr. Dagonet sighed again. For he had a complex. He abhorred tickets. He read them meticulously, like everybody else, before — or without — looking at the object to which they were attached. But if he had anything to say about them — which he had n’t, being merely a minor factotum whom the Director had an infuriating habit of introducing as ‘our Far Eastern expert ‘ — he would abolish tickets, root and branch. Which reminded him once more that it was high time he hunted up that Director. Still, apropos of tickets, why not take in the new accessions on the way? He could laugh at his Home for Wayward Boys, but he could also be curious to see what they had been up to while he was convalescing in the sticks. He accordingly made, not for the Director’s door, but for one where he was confronted by two more tickets. The larger and loftier bore the familiar rubric ‘New Accessions,’ while the lower and more unexpected read ‘No Admittance. This Means You!’
Mr. Dagonet paused, asking himself not too grammatically whether that meant him. As he paused, the door opened gingerly. And who should sidle out of it, who should carefully close it again before advancing to meet the situation, in the well-cut morning-coat, in the white dépassants de gilet, in the light-gray spats inseparable from power and place, but the Director himself! Mr. Dagonet would never see forty again. Time had not perceptibly dampered, however, his instinctive reactions. He advanced to meet the situation with outstretched hand.
‘Aha!’ he exclaimed. ‘Caught at last! I was just looking for you! ‘
‘Well, well!’ cried the Director no less jovially. ‘This is indeed an unexpected pleasure! Or I should say an expected one too long deferred. I hope you are feeling quite yourself again, after that nasty setback ? And I trust you are not imprudent in allowing that note of mine to bring you over so soon.’
Mr. Dagonet was feeling quite fit again, thanks. Was in fact ready to remove mountains. At the same time he could not help noting that he himself was removed, by the cordial but firm hand of the Director, from the immediate vicinity of the door to an opportune seat near by.
‘Splendid!’ rejoined the Director.
It was not too splendid, however, for him to lack a moment in which to glance first about him and then at various points of his subordinate’s anatomy. ‘Like a conspirator,’ thought Mr. Dagonet, who, although rather glad of another rest, was never too tired for fancies. His fancy of wayward boys recurred to him. Yes, the Director was just the type to manage a Home for Wayward Boys! He was a man for whom and by whom systems and hierarchies are invented. The law of his being required an orderly universe, in which his most wayward fellow-creatures had their logical and definite place. He knew by instinct the nice degrees of courtesy due superiors, equals, and inferiors of all ranks, and how on the day of a promotion to shift delicately from one to another. It wasn’t a thing for humor or speculation, as it might be with Mr. Dagonet. The world was like that. One climbed, according to one’s forces, a long and arduous stair of grades, paying honor to whom honor was due, but never doubting that one’s own day would come. Yet it struck Mr. Dagonet that, if the Director’s day had come, it had turned out a hot one. Which left him the less prepared to hear the Director say, albeit with his conspiratorial air:—
‘Of course you have seen in the pipers that we have been left the Scratchard Collection.’
Mr. Dagonet himself began to feel the temperature of the day. For the first time in his life he questioned his wife’s fidelity. Could she have seen so portentous a piece of news and kept it from him? He was too taken aback to waste time over obvious explanations.
‘ But of course I have n’t! For a long time they would n’t let me read a word. And out in the Rockies, you know—’ So the stupefying woman was quieted at last! She had filled the world with the thunder and dust of her golden chariot, she had threatened to tie him to the tail of it, — merely because of a monograph or two and that incompetent little book on Arhats which he would so cheerfully suppress, — and now she reached out of the grave to play this fantastic trick! He might be surprised and annoyed, but he perceived that he might also arrive at the point of being amused. In fact it was with a smile that he said aloud: ‘Well, we don’t have to swallow it if we don’t want to, do we?’
‘But we do want to, don’t we?’ countered the Director with deference, with suggestiveness, and not without a certain curiosity. ‘There is n’t a museum in the country that would n’t jump at it. The bequest includes, you know, quite a substantial sum for housing and maintenance. I hardly dared hope we could ever patch things up, after your refusal to help her with that catalogue raisonne. You seem to have made a deep impression on her, Dagonet!’
Mr. Dagonet recoiled. Never before had the Director addressed him without the prefix of formality. Nor did he care for the Director’s archness. That phrase about patching up, too, made him suspicious. Mrs. Scratchard rather reminded him of the Arhat Pindola, performer of unnecessary miracles.
‘Of course she might have collected warming pans,’ he conceded. ‘But what gadfly stings those people — that they insist on rushing in for this sort of thing? With her means she could very well have afforded to brush up the lost art of being a woman.’
‘Well,’ put in the Director dryly, ‘she stipulated that you were to be Curator of her collection!’
The temperature mounted again.
‘Me? Curator of her collection? Without so much as saying “By your leave”? Nonsense! How did she know I would n’t throw it into the street?’
His thick glasses fixed the Director with something like a glare. As for the Director, he returned a beam — which swiftly took in again the neighborhood of the bench.
‘The will provides for that. There are conditions. You are to be Curator, and nothing is to be thrown into the street. Othenvise — ‘ A gesture of evaporation. ‘But it means, of course, that we shall have a most enviable Section — and we can at last give you the raise you have so long deserved. Quite a comfortable raise,’ he added, as if there were nothing more to be said.
‘What of it?’ demanded Mr. Dagonet. ‘One may be a pauper, but one isn’t a piece of furniture—to be shoved around at the whim of people like that. They think, simply because they can afford to pay whatever dealers choose to ask for the sweepings of their shops, that they own the earth and everybody on it.’
‘Come, come, Dagonet!’ expostulated the Director. ‘You will be starting for Moscow next! Poor Mrs. Scratchard could n’t help it if she inherited five fortunes. Of course I grant you that there are people of means who exaggerate. They become a little capricious, a little too used to having their own way. And, like the rest of us, they make their little mistakes. We ourselves are sometimes at a loss for an attribution. But, after all, they do more good than harm. And where should we be without them? Besides, you know that Mrs. Scratchard bought nothing but museum pieces.’
‘Have you looked them over yet?’ inquired the difficult, the unplacated, Mr. Dagonet.
‘That is just what I wanted to see you about,’ temporized the Director. ‘There was a time limit, you know, and we had no idea when you would be back. Ill as you were, too. But of course we could n’t dream of letting them go.’
‘ Why not ? ‘ demanded Mr. Dagonet anew. ‘If the will really makes those idiotic conditions, I won’t stand in your way. I would rather stay where I am, on next to nothing a year, than be responsible for a lot of rubbish that we shall all have to tell the most hideous lies about. Did the woman have the imbecility to insist that her stuff be kept apart from ours, even when they belong together?’
The Director made a motion of despair, accompanied by an inarticulate sound. But Mr. Dagonet had no bowels: —
‘After all, who is running this show? Is our reputation a jewel to be guarded by dragons, or are we out to sell space to any paranoiac at large who wants to buy a little advertising?’
Yet the tide of Mr. Dagonet’s eloquence did not sweep him so far but what he could ask himself whether it were possible that he had misread the signs of his chief’s agitation. For he suddenly became conscious of a third presence in the vicinity of the bench. He turned. As he did so he discovered that the door of the New Accessions room now stood open. And what immediately transfixed his gaze was a ticket within the room, nobler and more legible than any he had beheld on this eventful morning: —
FOR THE INSTRUCTION AND ENJOYMENT
OF THE PUBLIC FOREVER
If Mr. Dagonet were a guardian of jewels, this was indeed a moment in which he might have proved a dragon. And who shall say that the thick glasses and impressed tweeds of Sinologues caught in the wheels of hierarchies do not conceal emotions as tempestuous as those recorded of more romantic victims of fate? The moment was upsetting for the Director. It could scarcely be less upsetting for Mr. Dagonet, in whom boiled the humiliation of having been shoved about more like a piece of furniture than ever before in his life; who yet realized that if he yielded to his impulse and did twirl the door of the Museum behind him for the last time he would not be the only one to pay for it; who nevertheless felt his creases twitch in an inconsistent and diabolic desire to laugh at the ingenuity of Gorilla’s last trick. For now he would have to write that catalogue raisonne after all! But he did not laugh — then. Neither did flames and venom burst from him. As the moment passed he merely heard himself remarking: —
‘Strong words, Gorilla. Strong words. You know they say the lizard and the lion keep — ‘
The Director resembled Mr. Dagonet very little. In his way, he knew how to live. His alert eye detected the fact that the crisis had passed. He accordingly administered the final shove: —
‘Mr. Smale, I believe you know Mr. Dagonet, our Far Eastern expert, whose famous work on the Arhats you and Mrs. Scratchard found so useful.’ And, turning to Mr. Dagonet: ‘Mr. Smale, you know, is the executor of Mrs. Scratchard’s will. He has been elected to fill the vacancy on our Board of Trustees.’
There was another moment, during which the new Curator — who had been distracted from the discovery of Lionel by the greater discovery of the open door — shook the hand of the new Trustee — who would doubtless take considerable interest in the catalogue raisonne of the Scratchard Collection! But as the Director divined, experienced as he was in the temperamental outbursts of subordinates, the crisis had passed. Mr. Dagonet wondered how long Lionel had been listening. Oh, he knew Lionel Smale well enough, who was in the second grade when he was in the eighth. Lionel used to bring a posy to his teacher in the morning — and to suffer for it afterward on the playground. Yet Mr. Dagonet was not incapable of appreciating that in his former schoolmate which had so early brought him to the notice of the great. By no means blind to certain glances which were wont to linger in the vicinity of his own knees or collar-button, it did not escape him that Lionel knew how to keep his cravat up, his hair down — all those dark hermetic arts which to Mr. Dagonet were so much more impenetrable than Chinese ideographs or the subtleties of Buddhism. Lionel must have made Gorilla quite a proper secretary. He might be able, too, to give quite useful points. The provenance of a picture and the name of the dealer were sometimes highly important. And a rapture a day, thought Mr. Dagonet inconsequently, keeps the doctor away.
The temperature having fallen to so perceptible a degree, the Director now considered it safe to lead the way to the New Accessions, once more carefully closing the door behind him.
‘As there was so much uncertainty as to when we should have you with us again,’he explained, ‘and since Mr. Smale happened to be familiar with the contents of the collection, it occurred to us that valuable time might be saved if we made a start at displaying the more important pieces. The new wing will hardly be ready for you before next year, I am afraid, if then. We felt, too, that we owed it to the public, as well as to the memory of Mrs. Scratchard. But of course this is really your domain, Dagonet. Mr. Smale and I are here only to give you what help we can. You must not hesitate to make any suggestions which occur to you.’
It was Mr. Dagonet who chose the seat in the middle of the room. The moment had passed, and he felt more doddering than ever. ‘So much uncertainty as to when we should have you with us again!’ The plain truth of the matter was that they had seized the chance, while he lay flat on his back, to put the thing over on him. In fact they had probably counted on his never returning at all. Still, the thing was double-edged. They had shoved him in, but they might not find it so easy to shove him out. He rolled that morsel under his tongue as he eyed Corilla’s well-ticketed treasures and wondered whether he ought n’t to have raised a rumpus — whether he might n’t still raise a rumpus. What enraged him as much as anything, though, was the new note in the voice of a Director so adept in the fine art of shoving. The day of a promotion had arrived, and the scale of courtesies had to be revised accordingly!
‘There is one thing w’hich occurs to me,’ volunteered Mr. Dagonet with an administrative air. ‘You know I ‘m not so frightfully keen on tickets.’
‘Tickets?’ inquired the Director.
‘Tickets,’ repeated Air. Dagonet. ‘Labels. Those small snuff-colored cards of more or less reliable information about the exhibits. It is not immaterial, of course, that the information be more reliable than less. But in neither case am I convinced that it serves any useful purpose.’
The Director winced. Tickets, and the infallibility thereof, were one of his strong points. As for Mr. Smale, he made an announcement: —
‘ Instruction was one of Mrs. Scratchard’s principal aims. There are necessarily gaps in every collection; but she was fortunate enough to acquire, thanks to her long research and superior insight, examples of nearly all the more famous periods, schools, and artists. I feel certain that by a careful study of the pieces which she so generously left this Museum the average visitor will be able to follow the development and grasp the significance of Chinese painting. But in order to do that he must know what he is studying.’
‘Then, you know,’ contributed the reviving Director, ‘the Museum already has a policy in that respect. We not only show the visitor a beautiful object. We tell him what it Is, who created it, when. We thus make it possible for him, as Mr. Smale suggests, to trace, to compare, and to appreciate the great movements in art. You surely cannot think there is no utility in that, Dagonet!’
Mr. Dagonet stroked his Early American chin. ‘ I question it very seriously. Tickets are, of course, quite unnecessary for experts like ourselves.’ He cast a grave eye upon each of his companions in turn. ‘Moreover, in the case of the average visitor they distract his mind from what he really ought to look at, and so destroy his last chance of recovering the use of an all but atrophied organ. The greatest possible service we could do him would be to compel him to use his own eyes. That is infinitely more important than trying to ram down his throat a little superficial patter about great movements in art. In fact,’he hurried on, ‘the trouble with this country is that it already knows too much about great movements in art. We have dozens of people who can build you an impeccable Greek temple or a superlative Roman bath, a perfect Renaissance palace or a good Italian garden or even a fair Georgian house. We have thousands of dealers who are ransacking Europe and Asia and Ohio for what they are pleased to call antiques. We pay unheard-of prices for Old Masters and period furniture — which are sometimes genuine. But what good does it do us? Do we scuttle home and chuck our overstuffed furniture out of the window? Do we have the courage to buy a twenty-dollar picture because we can see without being told that the man who painted it knew what he was about? Do we do anything to make our kitchen or our back yard or our street a delight instead of an abomination to the eye? We do not! We scurry out to buy a new overstaffed armchair or a slavish copy of a Chippendale. That is why counterfeiters are billionaires while artists starve. It is an age of imitation, and museums are chiefly responsible for it. It would be better for us if every museum in the country were blown up to-night!’
The Director exchanged a sympathetic glance with his accomplice. But he knew how to take it. ‘In which case we should all be out of a very interesting job! I am afraid we have been too thoughtless, though, in our desire to have the benefit of your advice before opening this room to the public. You must not let us overtire you, Dagonet.
Why not call it a day, and let me take you home in my car? ‘
Mr. Smale took it more seriously, He had perhaps heard too much!
‘ Whatever Mr. Dagonet’s private views may be,’he said to no one in particular, ‘the Trustees seem to have settled the matter of tickets, as he calls them. But I hardly need point out that Mrs. Scratchard enjoyed great opportunities and that, in addition to commanding the most competent advice, she had become herself a very distinguished authority. I therefore see no reason, at this late day, to question her attributions. And as her friend and executor I must object to the insinuation that there are counterfeits in her collection,'
Mr. Dagonet made a superhuman effort to control his creases. The conception of Corilla as a very distinguished authority entranced him. Corilla, who between parties skimmed three pages of Fenollosa! Corilla, who might close her door to an ambassador, but to a dealer never! Corilla, for whom abandoned temples on mountainsides had been rigged up with bonzes and antiques! Corilla, whose idea of a glass was a pair of astigmatic lenses mounted in platinum and brilliants!
‘I don’t think it matters,’he said pleasantly, ‘ if the counterfeit is a good one. Good enough, that is, to be in itself a real work of art. The point is that a museum can hardly label a marble bust which is no longer snowwhite “Contemporary Portrait of Julius Cæsar” unless every hour of its history can be accounted for. There is always a romantic possibility that it may have come out of a Neapolitan stonecutter’s shop in Jersey City in 1917. And unluckily we Americans, with our short memories, incline to overlook the fact that these flimsy things of silk and rice paper don’t last so long as Roman busts. And we know even less about them. They have their roots in a tradition as outlandish to us as the moon. That is why I must, as Curator of Mrs. Scratchard’s collection, under an important clause of her will, object to exhibiting any of her pieces until I have had an opportunity to go over the tickets.’
Was he difficult! The Director moved diplomatically out of the line of fire to an adjoining case. Who would have expected the fellow to turn out as difficult as that? Yet the Director himself looked at these matters not quite from Mr. Smale’s angle, He made a second and more desperate attempt at a diversion, unlocking the case with his little pass-key.
‘Here is a thing which will interest you, Dagonet — and one which proves that Mrs. Scratchard, like ourselves, realized the necessity of caution. No name. No — definite date. Merely the general indication “Legend of an Arhat.” ‘ He took out a partly unrolled makimono and handed it to his older colleague. ‘Do you recognize it?’
Did he recognize it! Before taking out the powerful little pocket-glass which was as much a part of him as his thumb he recognized every stroke and letter and seal and patch and insert of it! Corilla had shown it, named it, and dated it to him on her way home from Paris in 1920 when, glittering with Allied decorations, she invited him to do the catalogue raisonne! And it had been one of several reasons why he so politely confessed he was afraid to take up even a temporary residence in Santa Barbara: he might be hit on the head by an orange!
‘Yes, it is a charming thing. But —’ He fiddled with his glass over one of the decorative inscriptions, asking himself how he should put it. ‘Perhaps in moving the pictures from Santa Barbara some of the tickets got mixed. At any rate I do not recognize any of the more familiar attributes of the disciples of Buddha. On the contrary, the makimono seems rather to illustrate a famous poem of the fourth century — about one Tao Chien, who spent too many years of his life as Literary Inspector of Kiu-kiang, on the Yangtze River. He was at last promoted and transferred to Peng-tze. But he had been in his new post only a short time when he capriciously resigned — on hearing that he was expected to do obeisance to a certain young official of higher rank who was making a tour of inspection. “How can I crook my rheumatic knees before a child of my native town,” he asked, “for no better reason than to earn a few grains of rice a day? ” So he forthwith packed up and went home to his village of Tsz-sang-li-li, where he lived happily ever after.’
‘But are you sure?’ demanded Mr. Smale, meeting Mr. Dagonet’s quizzical glance with frank skepticism. ‘That was one of the last pictures Mrs. Scratchard bought — of d’Évereux. He even gave her a guaranty. How could he run such a risk?’
‘How indeed?’ echoed Mr. Dagonet. ‘Yet extracts from the poem, not ill written or placed, are there on the margin to refute him — unless they were added by a later hand. But the makimono itself seems to bear them out. The first scene, you see, with a fine disregard of inconsequentials, represents the Official’s arrival at his little house in the country. The centre of the composition is the barge with two strange timbers jutting out beyond the rudder post, an all but invisible design on them and on the sheer strakes picked out in the dullest red and gold. Two half-naked boatmen strain at the stem sweep, their faces set with anxiety to make a creditable landing, and a third manipulates a pole at the bow. The Official, impatient to get ashore, stands there in a blowing robe of blue, bordered with green and lined with a suggestion of wallflowers, or perhaps of autumn leaves, in front of that small arched cabin of painted rice-paper. Just such a boat as one should sail away in from the monotonies of routine, the perfidies of subordinates, the insolences of superiors, from all the enervating, the indurating, slavery, snobbery, pettiness, heartlessness, intrigue, artificiality, parade, and bondage to custom of official life — all blown away now around that pale-jade curve of the river, behind that highly conventionalized cloud hanging over the right background.'
The Director’s second diversion appeared to be more or less successful. For the moment, at least, Mr. Smale had nothing to say.
‘The bank which the barge approaches,’ pursued Mr. Dagonet, ‘has not, as you perceive, been subjected to the restraints of convention. It meets the ripple of the river with a ripple of its own. Sedges roughen the pale jade of the Yangtze, a rude boulder lies half in the water and half out, pebbles and wild flowers make as it were a pattern of neglect. A tiled archway marks the water gate, shaded by a great pine. A faithful wife, whose form has not wasted away under the attritions of life, stands there expectant in mulberry — or rather, I think, in eggplant — and wistaria, edged with marigold, a child in her hand, a busy-tailed dog on the steep stone ramp in front of her. He is barking at two more boatmen, one of whom drives into the gravel a stake for the line with which the other has just splashed into the shallow water. Two menservants wait respectfully with their hands in their sleeves, while between them a handmaiden, whom I suspect of having been repainted, prostrates herself in welcome on the damp pebbles.’
Mr. Dagonet, pausing to draw breath, noted a familiar sign — the string of the Director’s pinch-nose winding and unwinding around the Director’s forefinger.
‘In the second scene the Official begins to taste his hard-won freedom,’ he continued, ‘amid surroundings admirably composed. A terrace divides the foreground into two unequal levels. A pair of trees, their dense leaves powdered with a gold which can only suggest the happiest sunlight, shade the lower area. Into the vine-hung penthouse at the left disappears the repainted handmaiden, not too rapidly for us to catch a glint of her holiday splendor of peacock and flamingo. From the penthouse has just emerged a second, a slighter, a less flamboyant handmaiden, in a green of young bamboo flowered with periwinkle and doubled with morning-glory, bearing refreshments of a superior order. Under those lichened eaves of the upper terrace sits the returned Official, done at last with drudgery save of his own contriving, his sober blue, green, and filemot set off by the buff wall behind him, the higher part of which lets in the sky through vertical perforations. At his right hand sits the faithful wife, who has not had time to change her costume, who indeed may well lack a change of costume, but who has added certain jeweled pins to her dark hair. Watchful is she of the well-being of her lord, watchful that nought in her house go amiss, not least watchful of the three children who sit on balancing black-bordered mats in front of the more imposing parental mat — a largish child in the silvered green of artichoke leaves, facing a smallish child in the blue of chicory flowers and a quite small child for whose peach-petal coat I tremble. For I discover no bibs. Do you? Between the children’s mats stands a noble jar with two handles.
Other receptacles of decorated porcelain, holding recondite dainties and fruits of sapiently contrasted hue, lie between the rotund knee of the Official’s consort and his own. But the jar, whose generous proportions and exhilarating color proclaim the preciousness of its contents, is the centre of interest. The eye of the Official takes in with silent approbation his modest but perfectly designed courtyard, the ample contours beside him of eggplant and wistaria brightened with marigold, the softer, the more innocent curves of his artichoke-green child, of his chicory-blue child, of his peach-petal child. Nor is ho unobservant of his two handmaidens, — at least of her in bamboo, periwinkle, and morning-glory, — of the fruits of his acre set forth on their well-chosen plates, or of his jar — superb in outline, superb in color, superb in its assurance of escape from the exasperations and humiliations of Peng-tze.’
‘Extraordinarily interesting!’ intervened the Director. ‘ How many scenes does the makimono contain?’
‘This is only the second,’ replied Mr. Dagonet. ‘There are nine in all.’
Mr. Smale rose and stepped toward the open case.
‘If there is any possibility of—a confusion,’ he suggested, ‘you had better put something else in a place as conspicuous as this.’
‘But why?' queried Mr. Dagonet, all ingratiation. ‘It is a charming piece — and really not badly done.’
‘What period is it? ‘ asked the Director, looking first at his Trustee, then at his Curator, and then at his watch. ‘You surely did n’t say fourth century, did you, Dagonet?’
It was Mr. Smale who held the ticket. But it was Mr. Dagonet who, finally, answered: —
‘Fourth century is the period of the poem, not of the picture. The makimono can hardly be earlier than the eighteenth century.’
‘Ching?’ all but screamed Mr. Smale. ‘ Why, Mrs. Scratchard made it a point never to buy anything later than Ming! ‘
‘Ching!’ repeated Mr. Dagonet relentlessly, returning to his Official. ‘Let’s see. Where were we? Oh yes. Number three. Outside the gate of the palisade the men are waiting. One restrains the curvetings of a long, low, prune-colored horse, rather too gaudily caparisoned, which I am not convinced the emancipated Official is eager to mount. At any rate he seems to inspect with some interest that cream-colored ox with a hump, yoked to a two-wheeled cart of red lacquer. This vehicle commits the lèse-majesté of having a yellow canopy and curtains, shot with silver, to guard the occupant against the sun and dust of Tsz-sangli-li. No doubt it is also delicately cushioned within. Which shall he choose? And whither shall steed or vermilion wheels convey him?’
Had he chosen, Mr. Dagonet might have answered these questions in elaborate, decorative, and fatiguing detail. But certain indications apprised him that other engagements made it necessary for his audience to disappear without interrupting him, leaving him in sole possession of the New Accessions. And when he put the makimono back in the case he discovered, before snapping the lock, that the ticket which he would so have liked to see had disappeared as well. If, however, his creases then deepened a trifle, it was for no more than the barest instant. For it came to him that when on his way home he twirled the door of the Museum behind him, by no means for the last time, no barge would be waiting for him at the steps, no prune-colored horse, not even a two-wheeled cart of red lacquer curtained with yellow and silver.