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Part I. The Dead Model

I SUPPOSE it will ever be true, that one cannot be a prophet in one's own country. I had hoped it might have been otherwise in my case, and that mine might have been proud of me, the Australian-taught girl artist, who, after having gone ‘home’ for three years' study, had come back to Melbourne with the silver medal of the Royal Academy and two years' experience of one of the most reputed studios in Rome.

But no. The people who made a lounge of the studio on my ‘days,’ who gushed over this ‘bit’ or ‘that study,’ never so much as bought a sketch; and had it not been for literary work in the magazines and newspapers, and a rare portrait, evil would have been those days in which I hoped and struggled and


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grew sick and weary of it all, and then hoped again and struggled on.

Other people who did not come to my studio said they really ‘couldn't countenance a girl who lived alone, and was so peculiar-looking;’ my dress being of the plainest and simplest kind, the said ‘peculiarity’ could only be laid to the score of bright chestnut hair, and very black eyebrows and eyelashes, which perhaps did form a rather remarkable contrast to a face of ivory pallor. And as to my living alone, I had absolutely no relations, and could not afford to pay a companion. When my spirit was not stung by injustice of this kind, it was depressed by indifference, so at last I made up my mind to try if Fortune would not be kinder to me in the old country. I took my well-nigh worn-out courage into my wearied hands, and, having sold all I possessed—furniture, books, pictures—for whatever they would fetch, engaged a passage in a ship that was leaving a week from that time.

The last day but two had arrived; but, short as was the time that lay before me, I hardly knew what to do with it, I was in such a feverish state of unrest and impatience to be gone.

The hotel was deserted that morning; everybody was on Flemington racecourse; but, lounging idly on the verandah, I became suddenly aware of an arrival. A young man on horseback, leading a lady's saddle-horse by the bridle, had alighted, and was giving both horses in charge to one of the inevitable stable-boys,


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who, all the world over, seem to spring out of the ground at the first sound of a horse's hoof in the distance. A waiter was also to the fore; and I could almost fancy I heard my own name inquired for, and the response—‘Yessir; cert'nly. Who shall I say?’

The doubt, however, became a certainty as the door of the room was flung open, and my unexpected visitor entered. I neither knew the name that was announced—Alston—nor the person to whom it belonged, a strong, sunburnt young fellow of about four-and-twenty, in high boots, and a light tweed suit dusty from riding, looking like any other twenty of his fellows after a long ride from some probably remote station. But I shall never forget the expression that met my gaze as his eyes looked into mine —the depth of sadness, the hurt, pitiful look of a wounded animal patiently bearing a pain it can neither realise nor understand. My woman's sympathy must have made itself outwardly visible, for his first words were,—

‘You will come with me, will you not? I know you will come. Can you get ready at once? I have a lady's saddle-horse at the door. Please put on your habit, and bring your painting things with you —that is all.’

The abrupt strangeness of the request did not seem to strike me, and I answered in a natural manner, ‘I am very sorry. I am afraid it is impossible; perhaps you are not aware that I am sailing the day after to-morrow for England?’




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‘And you don't even know who I am. But I quite forgot, Miss Challis—I have a letter with me that will explain.’

I took the twisted slip of paper he held out to me with an unsteady, tremulous hand, and motioned to a chair, into which he threw himself heavily with a long-drawn breath of fatigue or emotion. This is what I read :—

‘You will probably have heard of me—Mordaunt of Telemon. My daughter, my only child, is lying dead. In the name of woman's charity I beseech you to come and paint her for her heart-broken father. The bearer, Dick Alston,—my son who might have been,—will bring you back with him and will take every care of you. I entreat you to come without delay.

   P. MORDAUNT.’

I don't think I hesitated. I think I had made up my mind even before I had come to the signature. Every letter of the bold, manly writing, that should have been so firm and strong, was shaky, as if the palsied hand of age had held the pen. As I looked up I saw that Dick Alston had been watching me while I read, his hand nervously grasping the arm of the chair. Now he sprang up and followed me as I moved towards the door of the inner chamber.

‘You are coming, I see. Thank God! You can't think how he has set his heart on having her picture, Miss Challis. He had seen the likeness you painted


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last year of Judge Haughton's daughter. It suddenly came across him that it would be a comfort. I don't think he could have let her go, but for this.’

I paused with my hand on the door handle, and the question forming itself on my lips—‘When?’

‘The day after to-morrow, I think. She died at dawn, poor little darling! I started almost directly.’

The young fellow spoke with a strangled sob in his throat, and I left him without another word to make my slight preparations.

And thus it happened that I, Magdalen Challis, on the very eve of my departure from my native land, perhaps for ever, started on an expedition to an unknown place with a perfect stranger, for the purpose of painting the picture of a dead girl I had never seen, for a man I had never heard of.

After first starting off, we rode side by side for about a couple of hours in almost unbroken silence. A thirty miles' journey lay before us; and although the horses had had a short rest, and were fully aware of the fact that they were returning homewards, yet we rode but slowly, with occasional stoppages. The pretty little mare on which I was mounted fretted and chafed at an unaccustomed touch; she was evidently used to a lighter hand, and probably to a far lighter weight than mine; and my companion's animal began to show signs of distress.

‘Poor brute!’ said Dick Alston at last. ‘I didn't spare him riding in, this morning, and, but for you,


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Miss Challis, I am afraid I should not be doing so now.’

I suggested that in any case we could not expect to arrive at our destination before nightfall, and I should not be able to set myself to my pitiful task until the morning. In this he acquiesced, but I saw that he was in a condition of feverish impatience to be back that was almost unendurable. My own feelings were the reverse of pleasant, as can well be imagined; but while anxious not to intrude upon a great grief, or to appear inquisitive, I yet felt I had been thrust into a position in this sad drama in which a natural and legitimate interest in my fellow-actors could hardly be misconstrued into mere curiosity.

This thought must also have occurred to the young fellow himself, for he suddenly emerged from his gloomy musings to say,—

‘It's real good of you, Miss Challis, to have come straight off like this on this miserable errand, and not to have asked any questions either. I think you ought to know something about us all, and poor little Lily.’

Thus it happened that by degrees I was able to piece together and connect the story that Dick Alston told me. It was nothing very new after all, and it seemed to me that in the telling of it the young fellow's love idealized and glorified the poor little heroine who was weak enough to let herself die, and selfish enough to break the hearts of two


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men who loved her for an intangible and visionary fancy based on no foundation.

He spoke of a motherless and only child, petted and spoilt by a tender father, a doting old nurse, a devoted young lover—taking all the affection that was lavished on her as a right, something as natural as the trees and flowers and the sunlight. And then, tiring of her Paradise, and turning to the stranger who entered its gates from another world of which she knew nothing—a man who had lived—who had the curious attraction that world-worn, travel-stained wayfarers of his kind possess for such Eves in their innocent ignorance. To this conclusion jumped my travelled knowledge.

But, said honest Dick Alston, just even to a rival, ‘I don't know that Gordon was what you would have called a bad fellow, Miss Challis. He had been extravagant, backed bills too, sold out of his regiment, and displeased his father, who had shipped him off to Australia—there was nothing worse against him than that. But he made no friends on the station, and always seemed as if he thought himself rather superior to all of us other fellows. And Lily was flattered by his notice of her, and pleased to be taught little Italian songs, and to have poetry read to her. Her father and I hadn't perhaps treated her like a grown-up woman. I was waiting till she was eighteen to ask her to marry me. Mind you, I don't think he ever made actual love to her; and even if he knew he was turning her little head,


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he didn't set about deliberately to break her heart. But one day when he had ridden into town for the mail letters, he sent back a hurried note to say important family affairs called him back to England at once,—that a vessel was leaving the next morning, and there would be just time for the messenger to ride back with some things he specified, and the rest of his belongings might be distributed among the station hands. He thanked Mr. Mordaunt for much courtesy and kindness, and sent his love to the Australian lily. She was to keep his Browning, and would perhaps sometimes read over the pieces they had read together, so that he should not be quite forgotten. That was six months ago, and from that moment Lily drooped and pined like a broken flower. We heard that Gordon had inherited a property and changed his name, and a week since news came out of his marriage. That was the finishing stroke—the last nail that went home.’

The young fellow broke off with a shudder; his own simile had conjured up a painful picture. I knew that in imagination he heard the sound of the nails being driven into his dead love's coffin.

‘The day after to-morrow,’ he went on, half to himself, in broken sentences. ‘Poor little girl! Buried on her birthday,—only eighteen,—and I was waiting for that day!’

He said no more, but spurred on his tired horse, and the rest of the ride was accomplished in silence.




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Darkness had fallen like a pall by the time we reached our destination. I felt unutterably weary, physically worn out, and almost fell prone on the threshold as I dismounted. Young Alston said something about looking after the horses, and handed me over to a grave, elderly serving-woman who had come forward, and ushered me into the house.

‘You must not expect to see the master,’ she said; ‘he will not leave the child to-night. But you must eat, young lady, and I daresay you will be glad afterwards of rest. You must be faint and very tired. I will bring you some refreshment here.’

She removed my hat, bathed my face and hands, and even took off my habit body, replacing it by a white dressing-jacket which she threw over my shoulders. I submitted without a word to her kind ministrations, and she waited upon me where I sat, drawing up a table by the side of the chair, on which she set a cold repast.

‘You are very kind,’ I said at last, when a little restored by the wine and bread and fruit of which I had partaken (I could eat nothing else), ‘and I think I would like to go to bed directly.’

It was a bedroom into which she had brought me. She pointed to a little slip of a dressing-room partitioned off it. ‘I am sleeping there, and shall be within call of you, Miss Challis. I am Lily's old nurse.’

Great tears welled up into her eyes and trickled


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down her cheeks as she mentioned the girl's name; but she was bearing her grief quietly, and was endeavouring, I could see, to restrain as far as possible any outward demonstration of it.

‘You will find all you may require,’ she said, ‘and I shall not be long without looking in. Try to sleep, Miss Challis;’ and she wished me good-night and left me.

I had been in a state of unrest for days past; my own preparations for departure and leave-takings, though causing no heart-pangs, had somewhat excited and fatigued me. Then came this unexpected and extraordinary summons. Perhaps the exhausting ride of the day had been the best thing that could have happened to quiet and calm me. At any rate, I was too wearied to think either of myself or others. Almost as soon as my head touched the pillow I slept—a profound, dreamless, and unbroken sleep.

When I awoke it was seven o'clock in the morning of the next day. It was not until some moments later that I realized where I was, and for what purpose. After I was dressed and had partaken of some breakfast, the nurse, who had again waited on me, said simply, ‘If you are ready, Miss Challis, I will take you to Lily.’

It was a one-storied house, and the only room in which I had hitherto been was on the ground-floor; but now the nurse preceded me up a flight of


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shallow stairs, and quietly opened the door of a room, into which she entered reverentially, as into a church. I followed mechanically, almost in spite of myself, with downcast eyes which feared what they might see when their gaze should be raised and concentrated. Without looking, I became conscious of details—of matting on the floor, of cool-looking chintz coverings and draperies, of the heavy scent of flowers, of a white bed facing the door.

Slowly at last I looked up as I stood by the side of it. The bed was empty. But on a couch by the window, which was open to the verandah, lay a frail, white-robed form over which the nurse was bending. She beckoned me to her side, and I looked for the first time upon my dead model. A lily indeed! On earth, love's sweet virgin martyr, now one of Heaven's angels!

I had never looked on Death before, orphan though I was. I had feared his unknown, nameless terrors and never dreamt of such calmly beautiful repose, such pure and passionless peace.

And peace fell upon me as I looked.

When I was at last able to turn away from my contemplation, I saw that the nurse was no longer there, and knew that the time had come when I must set myself to the task which had to be begun and completed that day.

I felt relieved that none of the ghastly paraphernalia of the grave surrounded the girl, who, clad in some


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soft white woollen garment, was lying on the couch, over which had been spread a large opossum rug; a crimson shawl of China crape was thrown lightly across her knees and feet, and a mass of white flowers strewn over it. On the edge of the couch a book was lying, which seemed to have just slipped from her grasp. I did not need to look at it to know that it was the Browning, and one might have imagined she had fallen asleep while reading it. Such was the picture that I saw and painted, at first calmly and steadfastly enough.

I must have been at work for several hours when the nurse came in, and, in the quiet but decided manner which she had adopted with me from the beginning, insisted on my leaving off for a time to take the food which she had prepared for me in the room downstairs. I was probably away about half-an-hour; as I returned, and had almost reached the top of the short staircase, some one passed from that room into another of which the door was quietly but quickly closed, and then the stillness was broken by the painful sound of a man's sobs.

I felt unnerved as I sat down again to my work. The sunlight that filtered through a trellis of leaves on the verandah seemed to cast strange shadows over Lily's face. … I could fancy that I saw her blue-veined eyelids quiver—that her long lashes trembled on her waxen cheek—surely a faint, wan smile was flickering over her mouth!




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I threw down my brush, and buried my face in my hands. I think I must have remained long in that position, for it seemed to me when I once more raised my head that the room had grown almost dark. With a sudden desperation I seized my brushes again, and resumed my task. I painted quickly, feverishly, with hurried glances at the motionless form, whose face I hardly dared to look at. And then fell the sudden Australian twilight, and a breeze sprang up, and blew the muslin window drapery across my face. I could hear the soft pit-a-pat of falling raindrops, and my beating heart kept time to the sound. Then the wet leaves of a shrub on the verandah swung in at the window, and cast a shower of drops around. They fell chill and wet on my own warm hands, they fell on those other cold ones, and I bent forward trembling to wipe them off. Horror! what did I see? Tears on the dead face!

The ground seemed to give way beneath me. I felt myself sway and stagger. I fell across the couch. I remember no more.

The next day at an early hour I left Telemon with Mr. Mordaunt's cheque for £500 in my note-book, and with a haunting memory at my heart that will never depart from it. I saw Dick Alston for a few moments only, in which he acted as messenger for the host whom I was not to see at all.

An overseer ‘who could be trusted’ was to be my escort back to Melbourne, Dick Alston, of course, not


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being able to leave, as the funeral was to take place that afternoon. All through the long ride from the station—a solitary one to all intents and purposes of companionship, my escort either preceding or riding behind me in silence—I could think of nothing but Dick Alston's words: ‘Buried on her birthday, poor little girl! Buried on her birthday!’ For, by a curious coincidence, I remembered that it was my birthday too, and my heart sank with a vague fore-boding of disaster that should result to me from the association.

‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ was the cry that rose unbidden to my lips, with an involuntary perversion of its meaning that I was powerless to prevent. Who should deliver me from an undying remembrance of death itself? Who shall break the link that must ever bind me living to the dead girl buried on my birthday? The thought pursued and remained with me even on board the ship that was to bear me away to new scenes and a new life. It took tangible shape and action, impelling me to perpetuate it by an outward and visible sign that should abide with me, and prevent me forgetting if I would. In the seclusion of my cabin it forced pencil and brushes into my unwilling fingers, till at first a faint sketch outlined itself on the canvas, and then the contours filled themselves in with all those accessories and details that seemed burnt in on my mental vision. A girl with closed eyes lying on a couch, her brown hair spread out upon the pillow,


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a book fallen from a nerveless grasp, white flowers on a crimson covering, wet leaves blown in at an open casement, and always tears—tears on the wan, white cheeks—tears escaping from the closed waxen eyelids!

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