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Imaginary portraits, p.13

Imaginary Portraits, page 13


Imaginary Portraits

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calm lightabove and around him, influenced by, and, in a sense, living upon them,and surely might well complain, though to Pliny's so infinite surprise,on being made a Roman citizen.

  And certainly Sebastian van Storck did not felicitate his people on theluck which, in the words of another old writer, "hath disposed them toso thriving a genius." Their restless ingenuity in making andmaintaining dry land where nature had willed the sea, was even morelike the industry of animals than had been that life of theirforefathers. Away with that tetchy, feverish, unworthy agitation! withthis and that, all too importunate, motive of interest! And then, "Myson!" said his father, "be stimulated to action!" he, too, thinking ofthat heroic industry which had triumphed over nature precisely wherethe contest had been most difficult.

  [96] Yet, in truth, Sebastian was forcibly taken by the simplicity of agreat affection, as set forth in an incident of real life of which heheard just then. The eminent Grotius being condemned to perpetualimprisonment, his wife determined to share his fate, alleviated only bythe reading of books sent by friends. The books, finished, werereturned in a great chest. In this chest the wife enclosed thehusband, and was able to reply to the objections of the soldiers whocarried it complaining of its weight, with a self-control, which shemaintained till the captive was in safety, herself remaining to facethe consequences; and there was a kind of absoluteness of affection inthat, which attracted Sebastian for a while to ponder on the practicalforces which shape men's lives. Had he turned, indeed, to a practicalcareer it would have been less in the direction of the military orpolitical life than of another form of enterprise popular with hiscountrymen. In the eager, gallant life of that age, if the sword fellfor a moment into its sheath, they were for starting off on perilousvoyages to the regions of frost and snow in search after that"North-Western passage," for the discovery of which the States-Generalhad offered large rewards. Sebastian, in effect, found a charm in thethought of that still, drowsy, spellbound world of perpetual ice, as inart and life he could always tolerate the sea. Admiral-general ofHolland, [97] as painted by Van der Helst, with a marine background byBackhuizen:--at moments his father could fancy him so.

  There was still another very different sort of character to whichSebastian would let his thoughts stray, without check, for a time. Hismother, whom he much resembled outwardly, a Catholic from Brabant, hadhad saints in her family, and from time to time the mind of Sebastianhad been occupied on the subject of monastic life, its quiet, itsnegation. The portrait of a certain Carthusian prior, which, like thefamous statue of Saint Bruno, the first Carthusian, in the church ofSanta Maria degli Angeli at Rome, could it have spoken, would havesaid,--"Silence!" kept strange company with the painted visages of menof affairs. A great theological strife was then raging in Holland.Grave ministers of religion assembled sometimes, as in the paintedscene by Rembrandt, in the Burgomaster's house, and once, not howeverin their company, came a renowned young Jewish divine, Baruch deSpinosa, with whom, most unexpectedly, Sebastian found himself insympathy, meeting the young Jew's far-reaching thoughts half-way, tothe confirmation of his own; and he did not know that his visitor, veryready with the pencil, had taken his likeness as they talked on thefly-leaf of his note-book. Alive to that theological disturbance inthe air all around him, he refused to be [98] moved by it, asessentially a strife on small matters, anticipating a vagrant regretwhich may have visited many other minds since, the regret, namely, thatthe old, pensive, use-and-wont Catholicism, which had accompanied thenation's earlier struggle for existence, and consoled it therein, hadbeen taken from it. And for himself, indeed, what impressed him inthat old Catholicism was a kind of lull in it--a lulling power--likethat of the monotonous organ-music, which Holland, Catholic or not,still so greatly loves. But what he could not away with in the Catholicreligion was its unfailing drift towards the concrete--the positiveimageries of a faith, so richly beset with persons, things, historicalincidents.

  Rigidly logical in the method of his inferences, he attained the poeticquality only by the audacity with which he conceived the whole sublimeextension of his premises. The contrast was a strange one between thecareful, the almost petty fineness of his personal surrounding--all theelegant conventionalities of life, in that rising Dutch family--and themortal coldness of a temperament, the intellectual tendencies of whichseemed to necessitate straightforward flight from all that waspositive. He seemed, if one may say so, in love with death; preferringwinter to summer; finding only a tranquillising influence in thethought of the earth beneath our feet cooling down for ever [99] fromits old cosmic heat; watching pleasurably how their colours fled out ofthings, and the long sand-bank in the sea, which had been the rampartof a town, was washed down in its turn. One of his acquaintance, apenurious young poet, who, having nothing in his pockets but theimaginative or otherwise barely potential gold of manuscript verses,would have grasped so eagerly, had they lain within his reach, at theelegant outsides of life, thought the fortunate Sebastian, possessed ofevery possible opportunity of that kind, yet bent only on dispensingwith it, certainly a most puzzling and comfortless creature. A fewonly, half discerning what was in his mind, would fain have shared hisintellectual clearness, and found a kind of beauty in this youthfulenthusiasm for an abstract theorem. Extremes meeting, his cold anddispassionate detachment from all that is most attractive to ordinaryminds came to have the impressiveness of a great passion. And for themost part, people had loved him; feeling instinctively that somewherethere must be the justification of his difference from themselves. Itwas like being in love: or it was an intellectual malady, such aspleaded for forbearance, like bodily sickness, and gave at times aresigned and touching sweetness to what he did and said. Only once, ata moment of the wild popular excitement which at that period was easyto provoke in Holland, there was a certain [100] group of persons whowould have shut him up as no well-wisher to, and perhaps a plotteragainst, the common-weal. A single traitor might cut the dykes in anhour, in the interest of the English or the French. Or, had he alreadycommitted some treasonable act, who was so anxious to expose no writingof his that he left his very letters unsigned, and there were littlestratagems to get specimens of his fair manuscript? For with all hisbreadth of mystic intention, he was persistent, as the hours crept on,to leave all the inevitable details of life at least in order, inequation. And all his singularities appeared to be summed up in hisrefusal to take his place in the life-sized family group (tresdistingue et tres soigne, remarks a modern critic of the work) paintedabout this time. His mother expostulated with him on the matter:--shemust needs feel, a little icily, the emptiness of hope, and somethingmore than the due measure of cold in things for a woman of her age, inthe presence of a son who desired but to fade out of the world like abreath--and she suggested filial duty. "Good mother," he answered,"there are duties toward the intellect also, which women can but rarelyunderstand."

  The artists and their wives were come to supper again, with theBurgomaster van Storck. Mademoiselle van Westrheene was also come,with her sister and mother. The girl was by [101] this time fallen inlove with Sebastian; and she was one of the few who, in spite of histerrible coldness, really loved him for himself. But though of goodbirth she was poor, while Sebastian could not but perceive that he hadmany suitors of his wealth. In truth, Madame van Westrheene, hermother, did wish to marry this daughter into the great world, and pliedmany arts to that end, such as "daughterful" mothers use. Her healthyfreshness of mien and mind, her ruddy beauty, some showy presents thathad passed, were of a piece with the ruddy colouring of the very housethese people lived in; and for a moment the cheerful warmth that may befelt in life seemed to come very close to him,--to come forth, andenfold him. Meantime the girl herself taking note of this, that on aformer occasion of their meeting he had seemed likely to respond to herinclination, and that his father would readily consent to such amarriage, surprised him on the sudden with those coquetries andimportunities, all those little arts of love, which often succeed withmen. Only, to Seba
stian they seemed opposed to that absolute nature wesuppose in love. And while, in the eyes of all around him to-night,this courtship seemed to promise him, thus early in life, a kind ofquiet happiness, he was coming to an estimate of the situation, withstrict regard to that ideal of a calm, intellectual indifference, ofwhich he was [102] the sworn chevalier. Set in the cold, hard light ofthat ideal, this girl, with the pronounced personal views of hermother, and in the very effectiveness of arts prompted by a realaffection, bringing the warm life they prefigured so close to him,seemed vulgar! And still he felt himself bound in honour; or judgedfrom their manner that she and those about them thought him thus bound.He did not reflect on the inconsistency of the feeling of honour(living, as it does essentially, upon the concrete and minute detail ofsocial relationship) for one who, on principle, set so slight a
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