The Master was dead; and Peschi, who had come round to the studio to see
about some repairs--part of the ceiling had fallen owing to the too lively
proceedings of Dubourg and his eternal visitors overhead--Peschi displayed
a natural pride that it was he who had been selected from among the many
mouleurs of the Quarter, to take a mask of the dead man.
All Paris was talking of the Master, although not, assuredly, under that
title. All Paris was talking of his life, of his genius, of his misery,
and of his death. Peschi, for the moment, was sole possessor of valuable
unedited details, to the narration of which Hiram P. Corner, who had
dropped in to pass the evening with me, listened with keenly attentive
Corner was a recent addition to the American Art Colony; ingenuous as
befitted his eighteen years, and of a more than improbable innocence.
Paris, to him, represented the Holiest of Holies; the dead Master, by the
adorable impeccability of his writings, figuring therein as one of the
High Priests. Needless to say, he had never come in contact with that High
Priest, had never even seen him; while the Simian caricatures which so
frequently embellished the newspapers, made as little impression on the
lad's mind as did the unequivocal allusions, jests, and epigrams, for ever
flung up like sea-spray against the rock of his unrevered name.
The absorbing interest Corner felt glowed visibly on his fresh young
western face, and it was this, I imagine, which led Peschi to propose that
we should go back with him to his atelier and see the mask for
Peschi is a Genoese; small, lithe, very handsome; a skilled workman, a
little demon of industry; full of enthusiasms, with the real artist-soul.
He works for Felon the sculptor, and it was Felon who had been
commissioned to do the bust for which the death mask would serve as model.
It is always pleasant to hear Peschi talk; and to-night, as we walked from
the Rue Fleurus to the Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs he told us something of
mask-taking in general, with illustrations from this particular case.
On the preceding day, barely two hours after death had taken place,
Rivereau, one of the dead man's intimates, had rushed into Peschi's
workroom, and carried him off, with the necessary materials, to the Rue
Monsieur, in a cab. Rivereau, though barely twenty, is perhaps the most
notorious of the bande. Peschi described him to Corner as having
dark, evil, narrow eyes set too close together in a perfectly white face,
framed by falling, lustreless black hair; and with the stooping shoulders,
the troubled walk, the attenuated hands common to his class.
Arrived at the house, Rivereau led the way up the dark and dirty staircase
to the topmost landing, and as they paused there an instant, Peschi could
hear the long-drawn, hopeless sobs of a woman within the door.
On being admitted he found himself in an apartment consisting of two
small, inconceivably squalid rooms, opening one from the other.
In the outer room, five or six figures, the disciples, friends, and lovers
of the dead poet, conversed together; a curious group in a medley of
costumes. One in an opera-hat, shirt-sleeves, and soiled grey trousers
tied up with a bit of stout string; another in a black coat buttoned high
to conceal the fact that he wore no shirt at all; a third in clothes crisp
from the tailor, with an immense bunch of Parma violets in his buttonhole.
But all were alike in the strangeness of their eyes, their voices, their
Seen through the open door of the further room, lay the corpse under a
sheet, and by the bedside knelt the stout, middle-aged mistress, whose
sobs had reached the stairs.
Madame Germaine, as she was called in the Quarter, had loved the Master
with that complete, self-abnegating, sublime love of which certain women
are capable--a love uniting that of the mother, the wife, and the nurse
all in one. For years she had cooked for him, washed for him, mended for
him; had watched through whole nights by his bedside when he was ill; had
suffered passively his blows, his reproaches, and his neglect, when,
thanks to her care, he was well again. She adored him dumbly, closed her
eyes to his vices, and magnified his gifts, without in the least
comprehending them. She belonged to the ouvrière class,
could not read, could not write her own name; but with a characteristic
which is as French as it is un-British, she paid her homage to intellect,
where an Englishwoman only gives it to inches and muscle. Madame Germaine
was prouder perhaps of the Master's greatness, worshipped him more
devoutly, than any one of the super-cultivated, ultra-corrupt group, who
by their flatteries and complaisances had assisted him to his ruin.
It was with the utmost difficulty, Peschi said, that Rivereau and the rest
had succeeded in persuading the poor creature to leave the bedside and go
into the other room while the mask was being taken.
The operation, it seems, is a sufficiently horrible one, and no relative
is permitted to be present. As you cover the dead face over with the
plaster, a little air is necessarily forced back again into the lungs, and
this air as it passes along the windpipe causes strange rattlings,
sinister noises, so that you might swear that the corpse was returned to
life. Then, as the mould is removed, the muscles of the face drag and
twitch, the mouth opens, the tongue lolls out; and Peschi declared that
this always remains for him a gruesome moment. He has never accustomed
himself to it; on every recurring occasion it fills him with the same
repugnance; and this, although he has taken so many masks, is so
deservedly celebrated for them, that la bande had instantly
selected him to perpetuate the Master's lineaments.
"But it's an excellent likeness," said Peschi; "you see they sent for me
so promptly that he had not changed at all. He does not look as though he
were dead, but just asleep."
Meanwhile we had reached the unshuttered shop-front, where Peschi
displays, on Sundays and week-days alike, his finished works of plastic
art to the gamins and filles of the Quarter.
Looking past the statuary, we could see into the living-room beyond, it
being separated from the shop only by a glass partition. It was lighted by
a lamp set in the centre of the table, and in the circle of light thrown
from beneath its green shade, we saw a charming picture: the young head of
Madame Peschi bent over her baby, whom she was feeding at the breast. She
is eighteen, pretty as a rose, and her story and Peschi's is an idyllic
one; to be told, perhaps, another time. She greeted us with the smiling,
cordial, unaffected kindliness which in France warms your blood with the
constant sense of brotherhood; and, giving the boy to his father--a
delicious opalescent trace of milk hanging about the little mouth--she got
up to see about another lamp which Peschi had asked for.
Holding this lamp to guide our steps, he preceded us now across a dark
yard to his workshop at the further end, and while we went we heard the
young mother's exquisite nonsense-talk addressed to the child, as she
settled back in her place again to her nursing.
Peschi, unlocking a door, flashed the light down a long room, the walls of
which, the trestle-tables, the very floor, were hung, laden, and
encumbered with a thousand heterogeneous objects. Casts of every
description and dimension, finished, unfinished, broken; scrolls for
ceilings; caryatides for chimney-pieces; cornucopias for the entablatures
of buildings; chubby Cupids jostling emaciated Christs; broken columns for
Père Lachaise, or consolatory upward-pointing angels; hands, feet,
and noses for the Schools of Art; a pensively posed
échorché contemplating a Venus of Milo fallen upon her
back; these, and a crowd of nameless, formless things, seemed to spring at
our eyes, as Peschi raised or lowered the lamp, moved it this way or the
"There it is," said he, pointing forwards; and I saw lying flat upon a
modelling-board, with upturned features, a grey, immobile simulacrum of
the curiously mobile face I remembered so well.
"Of course you must understand," said Peschi, "it's only in the rough,
just exactly as it came from the creux. Fifty copies are to be cast
altogether, and this is the first one. But I must prop it up for you. You
can't judge of it as it is."
He looked about him for a free place on which to set the lamp. Not finding
any, he put it down on the floor. For a few moments he stood busied over
the mask with his back to us.
"Now you can see it properly," said he, and stepped aside.
The lamp threw its rays upwards, illuminating strongly the lower portion
of the cast, throwing the upper portion into deepest shadow, with the
effect that the inanimate mask was become suddenly a living face, but a
face so unutterably repulsive, so hideously bestial, that I grew cold to
the roots of my hair. . . . . A fat, loose throat, a retreating chinless
chin, smeared and bleared with the impressions of the meagre beard; a vile
mouth, lustful, flaccid, the lower lip disproportionately great; ignoble
lines; hateful puffiness; something inhuman and yet worse than inhuman in
its travesty of humanity; something that made you hate the world and your
fellows, that made you hate yourself for being ever so little in
this image. A more abhorrent spectacle I have never seen. . . . .
So soon as I could turn my eyes from the ghastly thing, I looked at
Corner. He was white as the plaster faces about him. His immensely opened
eyes showed his astonishment and his terror. For what I experienced was
intensified in his case by the unexpected and complete disillusionment. He
had opened the door of the tabernacle, and out had crawled a noisome
spider; he had lifted to his lips the communion cup, and therein squatted
a toad. A sort of murmur of frantic protestation began to rise in his
throat; but Peschi, unconscious of our agitation, now lifted the lamp,
passed round with it behind the mask, held it high, and let the rays
stream downwards from above.
The astounding way the face changed must have been seen to be believed in.
It was exactly as though, by some cunning sleight of hand, the mask of a
god had been substituted for that of a satyr. . . . . You saw a splendid
dome-like head, Shakespearean in contour; a broad, smooth, finely-modelled
brow; thick, regular horizontal eyebrows, casting a shadow which
diminished the too great distance separating them from the eyes; while the
deeper shadow thrown below the nose altered its character entirely. Its
snout-like appearance was gone, its deep, wide-open, upturned nostrils
were hidden, but you noticed the well-marked transition from forehead to
nose-base, the broad ridge denoting extraordinary mental power. Over the
eyeballs the lids had slidden down smooth and creaseless; the little
tell-tale palpebral wrinkles which had given such libidinous lassitude to
the eye had vanished away. The lips no longer looked gross, and they
closed together in a beautiful, sinuous line, now first revealed by the
shadow on the upper one. The prominence of the jaws, the muscularity of
the lower part of the face, which gave it so painfully microcephalous an
appearance, were now unnoticeable; on the contrary, the whole face looked
small beneath the noble head and brow. You remarked the medium-sized and
wellformed ears, with the "swan" distinct in each, the gently-swelling
breadth of head above them, the full development of the forehead over the
orbits of the eyes. You discerned the presence of those higher qualities
which might have rendered him an ascetic or a saint; which led him to
understand the beauty of self-denial, to appreciate the wisdom of
self-restraint: and you did not see how these qualities remained
inoperative in him, being completely overbalanced by the size of the lower
brain, the thick, bull throat, and the immense length from the ear to the
base of the skull at the back.
I had often seen the Master in life: I had seen him sipping
absinthe at the d'Harcourt; reeling, a Silemus-like figure, among
the nocturnal Bacchantes of the Boul' Miche; lying in the gutter outside
his house, until his mistress should come to pick him up and take him in.
I had seen in the living man more traces than a few of the bestiality
which the death-mask had completely verified; but never in the living man
had I suspected anything of the beauty, of the splendour, that I now saw.
For that the Master had somewhere a beautiful soul you divined from his
works; from the exquisite melody of all of them, from the pure, the
ecstatic, the religious altitude of some few. But in actual daily life,
his loose and violent will-power, his insane passions, held that soul
bound down so close a captive, that those who knew him best were the last
to admit its existence.
And here, a mere accident of lighting displayed not only that existence,
but its visible, outward expression as well. In these magnificent lines
and arches of head and brow, you saw what the man might have been, what
God had intended him to be; what his mother had foreseen in him, when, a
tiny infant like Peschi's yonder, she had cradled the warm, downy,
sweet-smelling little head upon her bosom, and dreamed day-dreams of all
the high, the great, the wonderful things her boy later on was to do. You
saw what the poor, purblind, middle-aged mistress was the only one to see
in the seamed and ravaged face she kissed so tenderly for the last time
before the coffin-lid was closed.
You saw the head of gold; you could forget the feet of clay, or,
remembering them, you found for the first time some explanation of the
anomalies of his career.
You understood how he who could pour out passionate protestations of love
and devotion to God in the morning, offering up body and soul, flesh and
blood in his service; dedicating his brow as a footstool for the Sacred
Feet; his hands as censers for the glowing coals, the precious incense;
condemning his eyes, misleading lights, to be extinguished by the tears of
prayer; you understood how, nevertheless, before evening was come, he
would set every law of God and decency at defiance, use every member,
every faculty, in the service of sin.
It was given to him, as it is given to few, to see the Best, to reverence
it, to love it; and the blind, groping hesitatingly forward in the
darkness, do not stray as far as he strayed.
He knew the value of work, its imperative necessity; that in the sweat of
his brow the artist, like the day-labourer, must produce, must produce:
and he spent his slothful days shambling from cafe to cafe.
He never denied his vices; he recognised them and found excuses for them,
high moral reasons even, as the intellectual man can always do. To indulge
them was but to follow out the dictates of Nature, who in herself is holy;
cynically to expose them to the world was but to be absolutely sincere.
And his disciples, going further, taught with a vague poetic mysticism
that he was a fresh Incarnation of the Godhead; that what was called his
immorality was merely his scorn of truckling to the base contentions of
the world. But in his saner moments he described himself more accurately
as a man blown hither and thither by the winds of evil chance, just as a
withered leaf is blown in autumn; and having received great and
exceptional gifts, with Shakespeare's length of years in which to turn
them to account, he had chosen instead to wallow in such vileness that his
very name was anathema among honourable men.
Chosen? Did he choose? Can one say after all that he chose to resemble the
leaf rather than the tree? The gates of gifts close on the child with the
womb, and all we possess comes to us from afar, and is collected from a
thousand diverging sources.
If that splendid head and brow were contained in the seed, so also were
the retreating chin, the debased jaw, the animal mouth. One as much as the
other was the direct inheritance of former generations. Considered in a
certain aspect, it seems that a man by taking thought, may as little hope
to thwart the implanted propensities of his character, as to alter the
shape of his skull or the size of his jawbone.
I lost myself in mazes of predestination and free-will. Life appeared to
me as a huge kaleidoscope turned by the hand of Fate. The atoms of glass
coalesce into patterns, fall apart, unite together again, are always the
same, but always different, and, shake the glass never so slightly, the
precise combination you have just been looking at is broken up for ever.
It can never be repeated. This particular man, with his faults and his
virtues, his unconscious brutalities, his unexpected gentlenesses, his
furies of remorse; this man with the lofty brain, the perverted tastes,
the weak, irresolute, indulgent heart, will never again be met with to the
end of time; in all the endless combinations to come, this precise
combination will never be found. Just as of all the faces the world will
see, a face like the mask there will never again exchange glances with it.
. . . .
I looked at Corner, and saw his countenance once more aglow with the joy
of a recovered ideal; while Peschi's voice broke in on my reverie,
speaking with the happy pride of the artist in a good and conscientious
piece of work.
"Eh bien, how do you find it?" said he; "it is beautiful, is it not?"