THE PORTRAIT OF MR. W. H.
I had been dining with Erskine in his pretty little house in Birdcage Walk, and we were sitting in the library over our coffee and cigarettes, when the question of literary forgeries happened to turn up in conversation.
I cannot at present remember how it was that we struck upon this somewhat curious topic, as it was at that time, but I know that we had a long discussion about Macpherson, Ireland, and Chatterton, and that with regard to the last I insisted that his so-called forgeries were merely the result of an artistic desire for perfect representation; that we had no right to quarrel with an artist for the conditions under which he chooses to present his work; and that all Art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one’s own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an æsthetical problem.
Erskine, who was a good deal older than I was, and had been listening to me with the amused deference of a man of forty, suddenly put his hand upon my shoulder and said to me, ‘What would you say about a young man who had a strange theory about a certain work of art, believed in his theory, and committed a forgery in order to prove it?’
‘Ah! that is quite a different matter,’ I answered.
Erskine remained silent for a few moments, looking at the thin grey threads of smoke that were rising from his cigarette. ‘Yes,’ he said, after a pause, ‘quite different.’
There was something in the tone of his voice, a slight touch of bitterness perhaps, that excited my curiosity. ‘Did you ever know anybody who did that?’ I cried.
‘Yes,’ he answered, throwing his cigarette into the fire,—‘a great friend of mine, Cyril Graham. He was very fascinating, and very foolish, and very heartless. However, he left me the only legacy I ever received in my life.’
‘What was that?’ I exclaimed. Erskine rose from his seat, and going over to a tall inlaid cabinet that stood between the two windows, unlocked it, and came back to where I was sitting, holding in his hand a small panel picture set in an old and somewhat tarnished Elizabethan frame.
It was a full-length portrait of a young man in late sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age, and was of quite extraordinary personal beauty, though evidently somewhat effeminate. Indeed, had it not been for the dress and the closely cropped hair, one would have said that the face with its dreamy wistful eyes, and its delicate scarlet lips, was the face of a girl.
In manner, and especially in the treatment of the hands, the picture reminded one of François Clouet’s later work. The black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and the peacock-blue background against which it showed up so pleasantly, and from which it gained such luminous value of colour, were quite in Clouet’s style; and the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy that hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal had that hard severity of touch—so different from the facile grace of the Italians—which even at the Court of France the great Flemish master never completely lost, and which in itself has always been a characteristic of the northern temper.
‘It is a charming thing,’ I cried, ‘but who is this wonderful young man, whose beauty Art has so happily preserved for us?’
‘This is the portrait of Mr. W. H.,’ said Erskine, with a sad smile. It might have been a chance effect of light, but it seemed to me that his eyes were quite bright with tears.
‘Mr. W. H.!’ I exclaimed; ‘who was Mr. W. H.?’
‘Don’t you remember?’ he answered; ‘look at the book on which his hand is resting.’
‘I see there is some writing there, but I cannot make it out,’ I replied.
‘Take this magnifying-glass and try,’ said Erskine, with the same sad smile still playing about his mouth.
I took the glass, and moving the lamp a little nearer, I began to spell out the crabbed sixteenth-century handwriting. ‘To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets.’ . . . ‘Good heavens!’ I cried, ‘is this Shakespeare’s Mr. W. H.?’
‘Cyril Graham used to say so,’ muttered Erskine.
‘But it is not a bit like Lord Pembroke,’ I answered. ‘I know the Penshurst portraits very well. I was staying near there a few weeks ago.’
‘Do you really believe then that the sonnets are addressed to Lord Pembroke?’ he asked.
‘I am sure of it,’ I answered. ‘Pembroke, Shakespeare, and Mrs. Mary Fitton are the three personages of the Sonnets; there is no doubt at all about it.’
‘Well, I agree with you,’ said Erskine, ‘but I did not always think so. I used to believe—well, I suppose I used to believe in Cyril Graham and his theory.’
‘And what was that?’ I asked, looking at the wonderful portrait, which had already begun to have a strange fascination for me.
‘It is a long story,’ said Erskine, taking the picture away from me—rather abruptly I thought at the time—‘a very long story; but if you care to hear it, I will tell it to you.’
‘I love theories about the Sonnets,’ I cried; ‘but I don’t think I am likely to be converted to any new idea. The matter has ceased to be a mystery to any one. Indeed, I wonder that it ever was a mystery.’
‘As I don’t believe in the theory, I am not likely to convert you to it,’ said Erskine, laughing; ‘but it may interest you.’
‘Tell it to me, of course,’ I answered. ‘If it is half as delightful as the picture, I shall be more than satisfied.’
‘Well,’ said Erskine, lighting a cigarette, ‘I must begin by telling you about Cyril Graham himself. He and I were at the same house at Eton. I was a year or two older than he was, but we were immense friends, and did all our work and all our play together. There was, of course, a good deal more play than work, but I cannot say that I am sorry for that. It is always an advantage not to have received a sound commercial education, and what I learned in the playing fields at Eton has been quite as useful to me as anything I was taught at Cambridge.
'I should tell you that Cyril’s father and mother were both dead. They had been drowned in a horrible yachting accident off the Isle of Wight. His father had been in the diplomatic service, and had married a daughter, the only daughter, in fact, of old Lord Crediton, who became Cyril’s guardian after the death of his parents. I don’t think that Lord Crediton cared very much for Cyril. He had never really forgiven his daughter for marrying a man who had not a title. He was an extraordinary old aristocrat, who swore like a costermonger, and had the manners of a farmer.
'I remember seeing him once on Speech-day. He growled at me, gave me a sovereign, and told me not to grow up “a damned Radical” like my father. Cyril had very little affection for him, and was only too glad to spend most of his holidays with us in Scotland. They never really got on together at all. Cyril thought him a bear, and he thought Cyril effeminate. He was effeminate, I suppose, in some things, though he was a very good rider and a capital fencer. In fact he got the foils before he left Eton. But he was very languid in his manner, and not a little vain of his good looks, and had a strong objection to football. The two things that really gave him pleasure were poetry and acting.
'At Eton he was always dressing up and reciting Shakespeare, and when we went up to Trinity he became a member of the A.D.C. his first term. I remember I was always very jealous of his acting. I was absurdly devoted to him; I suppose because we were so different in some things. I was a rather awkward, weakly lad, with huge feet, and horribly freckled. Freckles run in Scotch families just as gout does in English families. Cyril used to say that of the two he preferred the gout; but he always set an absurdly high value on personal appearance, and once read a paper before our debating society to prove that it was better to be good-looking than to be good. He certainly was wonderfully handsome.
'People who did not like him, Philistines and college tutors, and young men reading for the Church, used to say that he was merely pretty; but there was a great deal more in his face than mere prettiness. I think he was the most splendid creature I ever saw, and nothing could exceed the grace