A Son at the Front

Edith Wharton

Preview: Issue 1 of 34



John Campton, the American portrait-painter, stood in his bare studio in Montmartre at the end of a summer afternoon contemplating a battered calendar that hung against the wall.

The calendar marked July 30, 1914.

Campton looked at this date with a gaze of unmixed satisfaction. His son, his only boy, who was coming from America, must have landed in England that morning, and after a brief halt in London would join him the next evening in Paris. To bring the moment nearer, Campton, smiling at his weakness, tore off the leaf and uncovered the 31. Then, leaning in the window, he looked out over his untidy scrap of garden at the silver-grey sea of Paris spreading mistily below him.

A number of visitors had passed through the studio that day. After years of obscurity Campton had been projected into the light—or perhaps only into the limelight—by his portrait of his son George, exhibited three years earlier at the spring show of the French Society of Painters and Sculptors. The picture seemed to its author to be exactly in the line of the unnoticed things he had been showing before, though perhaps nearer to what he was always trying for, because of the exceptional interest of his subject. But to the public he had appeared to take a new turn; or perhaps some critic had suddenly found the right phrase for him; or, that season, people wanted a new painter to talk about. Didn't he know by heart all the Paris reasons for success or failure?

The early years of his career had given him ample opportunity to learn them. Like other young students of his generation, he had come to Paris with an exaggerated reverence for the few conspicuous figures who made the old Salons of the 'eighties like bad plays written around a few stars. If he could get near enough to Beausite, the ruling light of the galaxy, he thought he might do things not unworthy of that great master; but Beausite, who had ceased to receive pupils, saw no reason for making an exception in favour of an obscure youth without a backing. He was not kind; and on the only occasion when a painting of Campton's came under his eye he let fall an epigram which went the round of Paris, but shocked its victim by its revelation of the great man's ineptitude.

Campton, if he could have gone on admiring Beausite's work, would have forgotten his unkindness and even his critical incapacity; but as the young painter's personal convictions developed he discovered that his idol had none, and that the dazzling maestria still enveloping his work was only the light from a dead star.

All these things were now nearly thirty years old. Beausite had vanished from the heavens, and the youth he had sneered at throned there in his stead. Most of the people who besieged Campton's studio were the lineal descendants of those who had echoed Beausite's sneer. They belonged to the type that Campton least cared to paint; but they were usually those who paid the highest prices, and he had lately had new and imperious reasons for wanting to earn all the money he could. So for two years he had let it be as difficult and expensive as possible to the "done by Campton"; and this oppressive July day had been crowded with the visits of suppliants of a sort unused to waiting on anybody's pleasure, people who had postponed St. Moritz and Deauville, Aix and Royat, because it was known that one had to accept the master's conditions or apply elsewhere.

The job bored him more than ever; the more of their fatuous faces he recorded the more he hated the task; but for the last two or three days the monotony of his toil had been relieved by a new element of interest. This was produced by what he called the "war-fund," and consisted in the effect on his sitters and their friends of the suggestion that something new, incomprehensible and uncomfortable might be about to threaten the ordered course of their pleasures.

Campton himself did not "believe in the war" (as the current phrase went); therefore he was able to note with perfect composure its agitating effect upon his sitters. On the whole the women behaved best: the idiotic Mme. de Dolmetsch had actually grown beautiful through fear for her lover, who turned out (in spite of a name as exotic as hers) to be a French subject of military age. The men had made a less creditable showing—especially the big banker and promoter, Jorgenstein, whose round red face had withered like a pricked balloon, and young Prince Demetrios Palamedes, just married to the fabulously rich daughter of an Argentine wheat-grower, and so secure as to his bride's fortune that he could curse impartially all the disturbers of his summer plans. Even the great tuberculosis specialist, Fortin-Lescluze, whom Campton was painting in return for the physician's devoted care of George the previous year, had lost something of his professional composure, and no longer gave out the sense of tranquillizing strength which had been such a help in the boy's fight for health. Fortin-Lescluze, always in contact with the rulers of the earth, must surely have some hint of their councils. Whatever it was, he revealed nothing, but continued to talk frivolously and infatuatedly about a new Javanese dancer whom he wanted Campton to paint; but his large beaked face with its triumphant moustache had grown pinched and grey, and he had forgotten to renew the dye on the moustache.

Campton's one really imperturbable visitor was little Charlie Alicante, the Spanish secretary of Embassy at Berlin, who had dropped in on his way to St. Moritz, bringing the newest news from the Wil- helmstrasse, news that was all suavity and reassurance, with a touch of playful reproach for the irritability of French feeling, and a reminder of Imperial longanimity in regard to the foolish misunderstandings of Agadir and Saverne.

Now all the visitors had gone, and Campton, leaning in the window looked out over Paris and mused on his summer plans. He meant to plunge straight down to Southern Italy and Sicily, perhaps even push over to North Africa. That at least was what he hoped for: no sun was too hot for him and no landscape too arid. But it all depended on George; for George was going with him, and if George preferred Spain they would postpone the desert.

It was almost impossible to Campton to picture what it would be like to have the boy with him. For so long he had seen his son only in snatches, hurriedly, incompletely, uncomprehendingly: it was only in the last three years that their intimacy had had a chance to develop. And they had never travelled together, except for hasty dashes, two or three times, to seashore or mountains; had never gone off on a long solitary journey such as this. Campton, tired, disenchanted, and near- ing sixty, found himself looking forward to the adventure with an eagerness as great as the different sort of ardour with which, in his youth, he had imagined flights of another kind with the woman who was to fulfill every dream.

"Well—I suppose that's the stuff pictures are made of," he thought, smiling at his inextinguishable belief in the completeness of his next experience. Life had perpetually knocked him down just as he had his hand on her gifts; nothing had ever succeeded with him but his work. But he was as sure as ever that peace of mind and contentment of heart were waiting for him round the next corner; and this time, it was clear, they were to come to him through his wonderful son.

The doorbell rang, and he listened for the maid-servant's step. There was another impatient jingle, and he remembered that his faithful Mariette had left for Lille, where she was to spend her vacation with her family. Campton, reaching for his stick, shuffled across the studio with his lame awkward stride.

At the door stood his old friend Paul Dastrey, one of the few men with whom he had been unbrokenly intimate since the first days of his disturbed and incoherent Parisian life. Dastrey came in without speaking: his small dry face, seamed with premature wrinkles of irony and sensitiveness, looked unusually grave. The wrinkles seemed suddenly to have become those of an old man; and how grey Dastrey had turned! He walked a little stiffly, with a jauntiness obviously intended to conceal a growing tendency to rheumatism.

In the middle of the floor he paused and tapped a varnished boot- tip with his stick.

"Let's see what you've done to Daisy Dolmetsch."

"Oh, it's been done for me—you'll see!" Campton laughed. He was enjoying the sight of Dastrey and thinking that this visit was providentially timed to give him a chance of expatiating on his coming journey. In his rare moments of expansiveness he felt the need of some substitute for the background of domestic sympathy which, as a rule, would have simply bored or exasperated him; and at such times he could always talk to Dastrey.

The little man screwed up his eyes and continued to tap his varnished toes.

"But she's magnificent. She's seen the Medusa!"

Campton laughed again. "Just so. For days and days I'd been trying to do something with her; and suddenly the war-funk did it for me."

"The war-funk?"

"Who'd have thought it? She's frightened to death about Ladislas Isador—who is French, it turns out, and mobilisable. The poor soul thinks there's going to be war!"

"Well, there is," said Dastrey.

The two men looked at each other: Campton amused, incredulous, a shade impatient at the perpetual recurrence of the same theme, and aware of presenting a smile of irritating unresponsiveness to his friend's solemn gaze.

"Oh, come—you too? Why, the Duke of Alicante has just left here, fresh from Berlin. You ought to hear him laugh at us…"

"How about Berlin's laughing at him?" Dastrey sank into a wicker armchair, drew out a cigarette and forgot to light it. Campton returned to the window.

"There can't be war: I'm going to Sicily and Africa with George the day after tomorrow," he broke out.

"Ah, George. To be sure…"

There was a silence; Dastrey had not even smiled. He turned the unlit cigarette in his dry fingers.

"Too young for 'seventy—and too old for this! Some men are born under a curse," he burst out.

"What on earth are you talking about?" Campton exclaimed, forcing his gaiety a little.

Dastrey stared at him with furious eyes. "But I shall get something, somewhere … they can't stop a man's enlisting … I had an old uncle who did it in 'seventy … he was older than I am now."

Campton looked at him compassionately. Poor little circumscribed Paul Dastrey, whose utmost adventure had been an occasional article in an art review, an occasional six weeks in the near East! It was pitiful to see him breathing fire and fury on an enemy one knew to be engaged, at that very moment, in meeting England and France more than half-way in the effort to smooth over diplomatic difficulties. But Campton could make allowances for the nerves of the tragic generation brought up in the shadow of Sedan.

"Look here," he said, "I'll tell you what. Come along with George and me—as far as Palermo, anyhow. You're a little stiff again in that left knee, and we can bake our lamenesses together in the good Sicilian oven."

Dastrey had found a match and lighted his cigarette.

"My poor Campton—there'll be war in three days."

Campton's incredulity was shot through with the deadly chill of conviction. There it was—there would be war! It was too like his cursed luck not to be true… He smiled inwardly, perceiving that he was viewing the question exactly as the despicable Jorgenstein and the Fatuous Prince Demetrios had viewed it: as an unwarrantable interference with his private plans. Yes—but his case was different… Here was the son he had never seen enough of, never till lately seen at all as most fathers see their sons; and the boy was to be packed off to New York that winter, to go into a bank; and for the Lord knew how many months this was to be their last chance, as it was almost their first, of being together quietly, confidentially, uninterruptedly. These other men were whining at the interruption of their vile pleasures or their viler money-making; he, poor devil, was trembling for the chance to lay the foundation of a complete and lasting friendship with his only son, at the moment when such understandings do most to shape a youth's future… "And with what I've had to fight against!" he groaned, seeing victory in sight, and sickening at the idea that it might be snatched from Him.

Then another thought came, and he felt the blood leaving his ruddy face and, as it seemed, receding from every vein of his heavy awkward body. He sat down opposite Dastrey, and the two looked at each other.

"There won't be war. But if there were—why shouldn't George and I go to Sicily? You don't see us sitting here making lint, do you?"

Dastre smiled. "Lint is unhygienic; you won't have to do that. And I see no reason why you shouldn't go to Sicily—or to China." He paused. "But how about George—I thought he and you were both born in France?"

Campton reached for a cigarette. "We were, worse luck. He's subject to your preposterous military regulations. But it doesn't make any difference, as it happens. He's sure to be discharged after that touch of tuberculosis he had last year, when he had to be rushed up to the Engadine."

"Ah, I see. Then, as you say… Still, of course he wouldn't be allowed to leave the country."

A constrained silence fell between the two. Campton became aware that, for the first time since they had known each other, their points of view were the width of the poles apart. It was hopeless to try to bridge such a distance.

"Of course, you know," he said, trying for his easiest voice, "I still consider this discussion purely academic… You'd better know that…"

Dastrey, rising, held out his hand with his faithful smile. "My dear old Campton, I perfectly understand a foreigner's taking that view. . He walked toward the door and they parted without more words.

When he had gone Campton began to recover his reassurance. Who was Dastrey, poor chap, to behave as if he were in the councils of the powers? It was perfect nonsense to pretend that a diplomatist straight from Berlin didn't know more about what was happening there than the newsmongers of the Boulevards. One didn't have to be an Ambassador to see which way the wind was blowing; and men like Alicante, belonging to a country uninvolved in the affair, were the only people capable of a cool judgment at moments of international tension.

Campton took the portrait of Mme. de Dolmetsch and leaned it against the other canvases along the wall. Then he started clumsily to put the room to rights—without Mariette he was so helpless—and finally, abandoning the attempt, said to himself: "I'll come and wind things up tomorrow."

He was moving that day from the studio to the Hotel de Crillon, where George was to join him the next evening. It would be jolly to be with the boy from the moment he arrived; and, even if Mariette's departure had not paralyzed his primitive housekeeping, he could not have made room for his son at the studio. So, reluctantly, for he loathed luxury and conformity, but joyously, because he was to be with George, Campton threw some shabby clothes into a shapeless portmanteau, and prepared to despatch the concierge for a taxicab.

He was hobbling down the stairs when the old woman met him with a telegram. He tore it open and saw that it was dated Deauville, and was not, as he had feared, from his son.

"Very anxious. Must see you tomorrow. Please come to Avenue Marigny at five without fail. Julia Brant."

"Oh, damn," Campton growled, crumpling up the message.

The concierge was looking at him with searching eyes.

"Is it war, sir?" she asked, pointing to the bit of blue paper. He supposed she was thinking of her grandsons.

"No—no—nonsense! War?" He smiled into her shrewd old face, every wrinkle of which seemed full of a deep human experience.

"War? Can you imagine anything more absurd? Can you now? What should you say if they told you war was going to be declared, Mme. Lebel?"

She gave him back his look with profound earnestness; then she spoke in a voice of sudden resolution. "Why, I should say we don't want it, sir—I'd have four in it if it came—but that this sort of thing has got to stop."

Campton shrugged. "Oh, well—it's not going to come, so don't worry. And call me a taxi, will you? No, no, I'll carry the bags down myself."

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