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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Painter’s Progress
By Hendrik Conscience (1812–1883)
 
From ‘The Progress of a Painter’

AT the funeral of Baron de Erct, a humble vehicle followed the procession afar off. Arrived at the burial-ground, three persons alighted from the poor conveyance. They turned into a by-lane near the cemetery, and did not show themselves during the ceremony. But when all was over, and the splendid carriages were returning in speed with all the mourners to the town, three persons were seen entering the churchyard with slow steps. It was Frank, his aged grandmother leaning on his arm and supported by his mother on the other side. Nobody saw them; all was still in the cemetery, and the greatest silence prevailed around.  1
  Do you mark them all three,—their eyes red with tears, their breath choked by the agony of grief, approaching a mound of newly dug-up earth? There rests the man who did good by stealth. Oh, say not that virtue is not rewarded, not honored! The tears of these people weigh thousands in the scales of the heavenly Judge.  2
  Look! the women are kneeling on the mound. They clasp their hands and bend their heads over the grave; their lips move. Is theirs a set speech? are their words studied, measured, written down, in order that they may remember them? Oh no! They know only one prayer, which the Lord himself has taught them: they say the Lord’s prayer over and over again. Their voices become clearer whilst they pray:—“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors! Holy Mary, Mother of the Lord, pray for us miserable sinners, now and in the hour of death. Amen.” Their sobs, their tears, their sighs tell the rest:—“Sleep in peace, kind-hearted friend! we plant no flowers on thy grave; they are not everlasting as the memory of thy countless charities. May thy soul receive in the bosom of thy Maker a reward which the world cannot give!”  3
  And why does not Frank also kneel on the ground? Why? He is absorbed in grief; he feels no life in him, he has forgotten where he is. Look! there he stands like a statue, his head dropping on his breast, his hand pressed to his forehead. How the streaming tears sparkle which burst from his eyes! Unfortunate youth! who could describe the mortal despair which weighs on thy bursting heart!  4
  Awake! seest thou not that the cold ground will injure the health of thy grandmother? Remove her from the grave, else the evening will perhaps still find her kneeling and weeping here. Take courage! return to thy home.  5
  On the following day Frank said in a sorrowful tone to his parents, “We are unfortunate and poor—I am the cause of your sorrow, I know I am. But let me now put a question to you, and answer it candidly! Can we still hold out for three months without earning any money?”  6
  The question remained long unanswered. The mother went up to the invalid husband, and after a long serious conversation with him said, “Three months with the utmost stretch, but no longer.” “Well then,” said Frank, “I shall make a last attempt. One picture I will paint still—one only, and if I do not sell it soon, then I shall turn sign-painter.”  7
  It gave him evident pain to utter this last word; there was a spasm in his throat,—yet he soon composed himself, and asked once more whether they would let him work for three months without trouble or molestation. This his parents readily promised him. Frank then went to Mr. Wappers and received the last twenty-five francs which his generous patron had left for him. With part of this money he purchased colors, and on the following day he shut himself up in the loft where he used to work, and sketched the first outline of the picture which he intended to execute.  8
  It was the churchyard of Hemixem, with a newly thrown-up grave, on which two women were kneeling in prayer; behind them stood a young man weeping and absorbed in the deepest grief; on the side were the walls of the chapel, and in the background a rich landscape. During two months and a half Frank worked without intermission; he went out to the churchyard in order to draw from nature, and made his mother and grandmother sit to him for models.  9
  Never perhaps had an artist worked with more enthusiasm, with more love and industry, at a picture. His soul was full of his subject, and during all the time he was employed in his work his head burnt feverishly. Could this picture turn out ill? No, it must necessarily bear the stamp of inspiration. And so it was.  10
  Frank got on credit an appropriate frame for the exhibition. But this time another thought struck him: he sent his picture to Germany to the exhibition at Cologne. Will he be more successful there? Yet the picture was gone, and stayed away without any news of it whatever.  11
  Poverty, greater than they had ever felt, now broke in upon the longing family. They ate black bread, and were as if crushed by the awaking to the dreadful reality. The good old grandmother showed the greatest courage; she carried quietly her best habiliments and her few trinkets to the pawnbroker’s, and consoled the others. But matters could not thus last long. The clothes of Frank and of the mother must at last also be pawned; even the prize medals and other honorable decorations went to the baker as pledges for a little bread. They had already run up an account with the butcher and the grocer—the baker would let them have no more—none would trust the wretched artist, as Frank was nicknamed in the neighborhood; the weekly house-rent was unpaid during a whole month, and the landlord had even sent the bailiff to exact payment.  12
  One afternoon in the month of September the destitution of these people reached its height. None of them had tasted a morsel since the preceding evening. The bailiff had just left them with the warning that he would return at six o’clock, and if they did not then pay their rent they would be turned into the street.  13
  Grandmother held Frank’s hand in hers, and sought to console him; the mother shed silent tears; the father, who still wore his arm in a sling, sat at the chimney and stared gloomily into the chamber. All at once he burst into a flood of tears and sobbed aloud.  14
  Frank had never seen his father weep: this was the first time in his life; it struck him like a thunderbolt. A shriek of terror burst from him, and he fell on his knees before his father. “Father,” he cried, “father, you weep—you! Oh, be at ease; to-morrow I shall turn sign-painter; then I shall at least earn sixpence a day.”  15
  The workman raised his son from the floor, and pressed him with his left arm to his heart. “Frank, my boy,” he said, “I don’t lay blame on you; but we are so wretched. I weep because I am in despair that I cannot work. We are starving, and craving hunger is gnawing at our hearts. Who will give us to eat before the night falls in? Where shall we go when they turn us out to-morrow? Is it not sufficient to turn my brain, or to make me—”  16
  Frank pressed him forcibly to his bosom, and cut short his awful speech by a tender embrace.  17
  Whilst father and son were thus clasped in each other’s arms, the door opened, and a man with a leather bag strapped over his shoulder stretched out his hand with a letter in it. With a sudden start Frank disengaged himself from the arm of his father, and attempted to seize the letter; but the postman drew it back and said dryly, “A letter from Germany—two francs!”  18
  Two francs! Where is such a treasure secreted in this poor dwelling? Two francs from people who are starving! Who could describe the tortures and sorrows of this family? The letter contains perhaps what may put an end to their distress; perhaps it would dry up their tears, satisfy their hunger, and protect them from ejectment. And alas! whilst they are staring with beating heart at the letter, and long so ardently to open it, the postman is turning to go off with it and to rob them of all their hopes. It is as if the ground was burning beneath their feet; they stamp the floor from impatience and tear their hair.  19
  Now the mother kneels down before the postman; she raises her hands imploringly! Ha! he weeps—his heart is not of stone. “Here”—he hands the letter to Frank—“take it; I am a poor man too, but I can’t stand this any longer.” Frank opens the letter slowly with a trembling hand, cautiously undoing each and every fold: but scarcely had he cast his eyes upon the contents, when the muscles of his face began to tremble convulsively; he grows deadly pale, and a strange scream escapes his breast. He supports himself upon the table, and the letter drops from his hands on the floor. The room rings with lamentations, the grandmother raises her hands to heaven, the mother sinks backward from her chair as if paralyzed. Frank was struggling to speak. It was evident he wanted to say something, but he could not make it pass his trembling lips. At last his speech burst forth—“Grandmother, mother, father, I am a painter! Five hundred francs for my picture!”  20
 
 
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