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After Long Years and Other Stories by  Agnes M. Dunne

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THE DAMAGED PICTURE

THE ARTIST

[117] If one had been seeking for a man who combined all the qualities of goodness and greatness, one would have chosen artist Laurier. He bore the title of "Master of Arts" and his works, mostly landscapes, were famous far and wide. He had amassed a considerable fortune, and his house was the handsomest building in the city, equipped with every luxury. Besides, it was the home in which all artists, rich or poor, found welcome at all times.

But conditions changed. Hard times, following quickly in the wake of recent wars, had made the demand for art, particularly painting, less and less urgent, till there was no market whatever for the artist's works. Little by little, he had to draw upon his capital in order to support his family. However, he continued to paint with unabated diligence, for he hoped with the betterment of the times to sell his paintings; or if he should not be permitted to live so long, he would leave them as a heritage, for the benefit of his wife and children.

[118] Alas, the great man did not live to carry out his purpose. A contagious disease swept over the country, numbering him among its victims; and he intuitively felt that he would never again rise from his sick bed.

One morning, following a night filled with great pain and misgivings, his dutiful wife was seated at his bedside trying to cloak the great sorrow which she felt at his approaching death. His two little daughters stood at the foot of his bed. The dying man looked tenderly at his wife and children, and said: "Be comforted and weep not. True, I can bequeath you but little; but God, the Father of the widow and orphans, will watch over you." He then invoked God's blessing upon them, and with his last breath said, "In heaven we shall meet again." His eyes closed and he passed out of this life. Mother and daughters stood convulsed in tears.

The widow now found herself in very straightened circumstances. Her house was so heavily mortgaged that she could no longer hold it. The pictures which her husband had bequeathed to her were valuable as works of art, but the widow could not realize their worth in money. Soon it became imperative to sell them at auction, at any price. Before the day set for the sale, mother and daughters saw, with anguish, these works hurried off to the auction room. The house, too, fell under the hammer. The poor, miserable family [119] left the home in which they had lived for many years in love, peace and contentment. Still, a certain pride and satisfaction filled the widow's heart when she realized that, though her husband had died poor, yet he owed no one a penny—that his name stood in the community respected and revered by all the good people. The poor particularly held him in loving memory.

The widow was obliged to seek a new home in a cheap section of the city. She was an expert in all household arts, particularly in the art of sewing. Each night found the widow busily engaged with her work, the proceeds of which kept the wolf from the door.

Her two daughters, whom she had brought up with the utmost care, were her only joy. They grew into beautiful girlhood, were modest and good, and loved their mother with all the tenderness of devoted childhood. They, too, helped with the sewing; and their combined efforts, though feeble, were not without visible returns.

Mother and daughters often talked about their departed father. "It gives me great pain," said the mother, "that every picture which your father painted should have been taken from us. If it were but a little landscape that we possessed, how happy I should be. It would enrich our otherwise barren home and make it equal to the most beautiful salon of the grandest castle."

Mother and daughters rarely went anywhere, [120] but every Sunday found them attendants at a church at the other end of the city. There, on those sacred walls, hung a beautiful painting executed by their father. "This indeed is exquisite work," said the mother, and the children fully agreed with her sentiments.

When the services were ended they all slowly wended their way through the city to their modest home. Sunday after Sunday, rain or shine, found them carrying out the same program, always returning with hearts filled with reverence and peace.

The long, weary winter nights were passed reading the books which their father had collected during his lifetime, and which, by the merest accident, had not been disposed of.

Thus they passed their days, quietly and contentedly, each one cheerfully doing her daily share of good deeds and good works in this great vineyard of the world, where we have all been placed to do our best.

THE PICTURE

[115] One day, as the mother was examining the apparel, she turned to her daughters and said: "Children, I see that your summer frocks are really very much worn and faded. As we have saved a little more than we expected, I feel that I want to reward you for your diligence and willingness in helping me so faithfully and uncomplainingly, by giving you each some money, with which to buy material for a few new dresses." She then handed each daughter a hard-earned ten dollar bill, and said: "Select what you wish, and we can make the dresses ourselves."

Both daughters were elated with this generous gift; and at once began to argue with each other as to the shade and material which would be most desirable, and which would also be most durable, from an economical standpoint. At last they started out to make the purchases. Soon they found themselves before a massive building, upon which was placed a sign: "Auction Sale of Paintings." Both girls, as an artist's daughters, had an inherited love for pictures.

"Shall we go in?" said Lottie, the elder, to Louise—"Not to buy, of course; for how could we [122] do that? But just to look at the beautiful works."

They stepped timidly and modestly into the great gallery where several gentlemen and many richly gowned ladies had already assembled. Lottie and Louise remained unnoticed, standing not far from the door.

The auctioneer just then raised a picture to view, and cried: "A landscape, in a handsome gold frame, by the artist Laurier—ten dollars for the first bid."

"Hm," said a portly gentleman, "this picture was certainly executed more hastily than any of his other works. It lacks a certain finish. However, I'm an ardent admirer of Laurier. I bid fifteen dollars."

The children had forgotten all about their dresses, and after a moment's whispering and hesitation, Lottie called out with a beating heart and trembling voice: "Seventeen dollars!"

Several of the ladies and gentlemen turned to see where this gentle, timid voice had come from, and noticed the poorly clad children standing so far back that they could scarcely see the picture. When the children became conscious of the many eyes fastened upon them, they turned pale. The portly gentleman, without taking any notice of them, continued: "I give nineteen dollars."

Then Lottie said, timidly and almost inaudibly, "Twenty dollars."

"Oh, those dear children," said a friendly lady, [123] "they are the artist's daughters; let us bid no higher, so the picture may be theirs!"

Everyone was deeply affected, praised the deceased artist and father, and respected the love of his daughters.

Then the auctioneer went on calling, "twenty dollars once—twice—for the third and last time." He then summoned Lottie, the purchaser, to take the picture.

Lottie stepped forward to the long table, and laid upon it the two ten dollar bills which her mother had given her.

"You have made a good purchase, my child," said the portly gentleman, "and were you not the daughter of the artist, I would not have let you outbid me."

The assembled people wished the children luck; and taking the picture, which was not large, both sisters hurried out of the gallery.

"O mother," they cried, as they entered the neat little living room of their home, "we have had great good luck. The wish you have so long expressed is at last fulfilled. See, here is a picture painted by our beloved father."

The mother looked at it for a long time in deep silence, and at last broke forth in tears of joy and homesick longing.

"Yes," said she, "the picture is his, though I cannot remember ever having seen him work at it. But I know his art, his beautiful thoughts and his [124] delicate colorings. It is an exquisite landscape. Notice the evening glow over the wooded hill, behind which the sun has just disappeared; the huts, from whose chimneys the light-blue smoke ascends; the distant village, with the old church tower which the last rays of the declining sun still illumine; and the rosy, hazy light which spreads over all. It is beautiful beyond description, and stirs within me memories of the past. Such scenes have I ofttimes viewed in company with your father. But how did you ever get this picture?"

Lottie related the incidents leading up to its purchase, and said: "Louise and I are perfectly willing to wear our old clothes."

"We certainly have a treasure in the house now, in comparison with which all the grandeur of the world counts as nothing," said the mother. "You are, indeed, good children, and I appreciate your self-sacrificing spirit. I consider that more acceptable than a great collection of paintings. The love which you have shown for your departed father and for me affords me unbounded joy. Come now, let us hang the picture at once."

Often all three would stand before the painting and gather from it such joy and strength that the work of the day seemed lightened and brightened.

"When you study with exactness the details of a beautiful landscape," said the mother, "you [125] will find more and more to admire at each view. So it is with reading. We learn much that may befall us in life from books, and by thinking and reviewing the good and the beautiful in the lives of others we may better know how to act under the changing scenes of life."

THE DISCOVERY

[126] With the returning spring, the mother received an urgent letter from her best friend, a widow, who lived in the country. This friend had been seriously ill for some time, and her life was despaired of. She was particularly desirous of seeing Mrs. Laurier about making a few final arrangements.

The mother made hasty preparations, and at break of day started on her journey, her two daughters accompanying her a short distance from the house.

The mother gave them a parting injunction to work diligently and to remain at home. "Within two or three days, I shall return," she said. "I know that my friend has much to tell me, and will not hear of my going sooner. Behave yourselves in such a manner that when I return, I may be so pleased with your conduct that my troubles will be the lighter to bear."

As the two girls returned to the house, Lottie said to her sister: "Do you know, dear Louise, our rooms have become somewhat dingy during our stay here. Let us, while mother is absent, have them painted. We could launder the cur- [127] tains and polish the floors. These bright spring days seem to demand it. Then, when mother returns, steps into the house, and sees its whitened walls, its beautiful fresh draperies and its brightened aspect, what a pleasure it will give her. What do you think about it?"

Louise clapped her hands in joy, and said: "You always have the cleverest ideas. Yes, let us send for the painter at once."

The girls then worked industriously for two days, and everything seemed to glide along swiftly and entirely to their satisfaction.

On the morning of the third day, Lottie said: "Everything is now in readiness, and I will hasten to the market and order some things, so that we may provide a good dinner for our mother when she returns this evening."

"That is wise," said Louise, as she helped Lottie put on her coat.

When Lottie returned after an hour's absence, Louise rushed up to her with red-rimmed eyes, and cried: "Oh, Lottie, I have met with a great misfortune. Through ignorance, I damaged the beautiful painting. Come quickly and see it."

Lottie looked at the picture, in horror.

"Oh," said Louise, "it seemed somewhat dusty to me, and I tried to wash it off with soap and water. But, not until it was too late, did I notice that the colors ran together and the beautiful painting was completely ruined."

[128] "Completely!" said Lottie, and began to cry. But, in order to reassure her sister, she said, "Perhaps it may yet be restored by some good artist."

As the two girls sat conferring as to the best method to pursue, the mother stepped into the house. She was exceedingly delighted to find her home in such exquisite order and newness. "You certainly are very dutiful children. But what is troubling you? What has happened that I find you both in tears?"

"Oh," cried Louise, "just look at the painting. I wanted to clean it. I meant well, but met with such disappointment. Forgive me, forgive me!" and she fell at her mother's feet.

The mother was greatly agitated, as she gazed at the painting. She paled and trembled. "This misfortune is indeed pitiable," said she. "You know not how much I would give had it not occurred." She drew on her glasses and viewed the damaged picture scrutinizingly. "The colors," said she, "were but water-colors, and that is why they were so easily blurred. But, it is peculiar. I see, under these water-colors, a ground work of oil paint, and there, I see a little finger, most assuredly painted by a master. What shall I do? I will dare, as long as the picture is damaged and past restoration, to wash it off entirely."

The mother then took a big sponge and delib- [129] erately began to wash the painting. A hand, an arm, an angel's form appeared to view, such as only the greatest master could portray. Though the mother hated to destroy the work of her beloved husband, yet she worked assiduously to remove all the water-colors, and lo! a painting of extraordinary beauty and genius met her admiring gaze.

It was a historical picture of ancient times. The figures stood forth in living beauty and seemed to speak from out the canvas.

"If I see rightly," said the mother, "this is a painting by an old master. On a journey, which I once took with your departed father, I saw many paintings by this same artist. But this painting, unless I am very much mistaken, is classed among his best productions. It is one of the finest in art. Nothing in this picture is without purpose and shows the stroke of a genius.

"I must seek advice from Mr. Raymond—an old, true friend of your dear father. He is a connoisseur on works of art." So she hurriedly donned her cape and hastened to his house.

The venerable gentleman was only too glad to welcome her to his home. He had scarcely looked at the picture, when he cried in astonishment: "Yes, truly, this painting is by one of the earliest Italian masters. It is exquisite and sublime. And now it dawns on me how this beautiful work came to be hidden by the brush of another artist.

[130] "During the late war, as the besiegers were drawing nearer and nearer a certain castle, the owner had his paintings and works of art concealed in the cellar.

"As this picture, however, was the most valuable and the choicest of his wonderful collection, he could not for one moment think of parting with it. So he sent for your worthy husband to paint a picture over it in water-colors, which could be easily removed, and yet serve to conceal the picture's real value. In this way, he hoped to save it from the hands of the besiegers.

"However, he did not live to see the war ended, and your dear husband passed away also. This twice painted picture could have remained forever undiscovered, but it has been destined otherwise. A wonderful treasure has been sent to save you and your children from all future want. It only now depends upon finding a lover of pictures, and an admirer of genius, who will pay the full value for this work of art."

"But," said the good woman, "can I with a clear conscience keep in my possession so valuable a picture, for which we paid but such a trifling sum of money?"

"Of course you can, and no person can dispute your right to it. The owner of this picture was a noble, right-living man, whom I knew well. He had no relatives and did much good to the poor. For himself he needed but little. His only pleas- [131] ure in life was buying the paintings by the old masters. Little by little, he collected quite a gallery. This constituted his entire fortune. After his death, the pictures which had been concealed in his home were brought forth and were sold, together with this beautiful one. The late merchant, Mr. Pinole, purchased most of them.

"If you take my advice, I would suggest that you advertise in the daily papers the fact that you have this beautiful picture for sale. Then a purchaser will surely present himself who will pay you its value."

Mrs. Laurier then asked him to undertake this responsibility, to which he kindly acceded.

Soon the whole city was aware of Mrs. Laurier's wonderful possession, and people were filled with astonishment. Mr. Pinole's son, at whose salesroom the picture had been sold at auction, hastened to Mrs. Laurier's house.

He had, he said, not only received less than half his due, but the picture was worth a thousand times more than she had paid for it. As she made no attempt whatever to return the picture to him, he left her presence in rage, and determined to sue her at once.

When he presented the case to his lawyer, the latter explained that as the picture had been sold at public auction, he could do nothing about it. "Besides," said the lawyer, laughingly, "remember, your father paid still less for it."

[132] Disappointed and chagrined, Mr. Pinole returned to his home.

Through the untiring efforts of Mr. Raymond, the picture was at last sold to a wealthy gentleman, who paid a high price for it.

The money which Mrs. Laurier realized from this sale enabled her to live with her two daughters in comparative ease and comfort. The two girls soon married well-to-do merchants, who succeeded in purchasing Mrs. Laurier's former house, which happened just then to be on sale. It was large and sufficiently commodious to admit of the two families occupying it. The best room in the house was accorded to Mrs. Laurier.

The families lived together harmoniously, and vied with each other to brighten the declining years of the mother's peaceful life.


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