[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet this website has obtained a copy and the ten tales from Misadventures will be serialised on Tychy over the coming months.
Harvey eventually rewrote the first story, “The Schalcken Replica, as “Old Masters” (1951), which has since been republished by Wordsworth. Godfried Schalcken was a real historical figure, but Harvey’s use of this particular old master may reference Sheridan Le Fanu’s early ghost story “Schalken the Painter” (1851). It may be also not irrelevant to the following story that Schalcken actually portrayed himself displaying a middle finger to the viewer. Ed.]
“THE SCHALCKEN REPLICA” (1/2).
Athelstan Digby, the senior partner in the firm of Digby, Dyson, and Copplestone, Blanket Manufacturers, was a man of many interests.
There was, of course, the mill in Atterwell Lane, massive and ugly, that raised its walls of smoke-blackened sandstone high above the squalor of Bradborough’s streets. Of its management the main share fell to Dyson and young Charlie Copplestone, Dyson keeping to the grooves, Copplestone supplying the motive force. Only when the grooves showed signs of wear was Mr. Digby called in to lay down new lines for the running of the business.
For not only was he the manufacturer of the D.D.C. Universal Blanket; Athelstan Digby was also chairman of the Batavia and Eastern Oil Syndicate, director of the West Riding Electric Power Consumers’ Association, director of the Mitta Mitta Alluvial Tin Mining Company, alderman of the city of Bradborough, and a member of the Board of the British and Colonial Bible Society. Athelstan Digby had many irons in many fires.
The adventure of the Schalcken Replica had little to do with these things; it was concerned with his pictures. Pictures were his hobby. His little house in Ellesmere Terrace, within sight of the great chimneys in Atterwell Lane, was crowded with them, turned with their faces to the wall, though they had nothing of which to be ashamed. He always intended hanging them some day, just as he intended to move into a larger and more convenient house; but, being a radical, the roots of his nature clung close to old habits and old surroundings. He was born and he would die in Ellesmere Terrace, a semi-detached bachelor.
He had the instincts of a collector. Quite early in his career he had mapped out a province for his own, beyond the borders of which he seldom trespassed. It was a happy chance that first turned the attention of Athelstan Digby to the old Dutch and Flemish masters. Like their first patrons, men of Haarlem, Delft, and Amsterdam, he was an honest merchant, well content with the homely scenes of everyday life. He, too, was proud of his city and his counting house, as they had been of theirs and the ships that traded with the Indies; proud, too, of his stout friends, the aldermen; fond, like them, of stiff old-fashioned flowers, that grew in gardens strait-laced with box-trimmed paths. Athelstan Digby was too honest to let bad workmanship escape him. He made his mistakes, of course; but each time that he made one, being a Yorkshireman, he took care to profit by it.
There was the Mornington Teniers, for example, on which he had dropped a clear three thousand, bought because he had let the scale of his judgment turn on the fact that it had come from the Mornington Collection by way of the Vicomte de Bohun and had been exhibited along with the rest of the Mornington pictures at the Guildhall. And, of course, quite early in his collecting days he had been deceived over spurious Wouvermans, accepted on little better evidence than the inevitable white horse.
At fifty-five he trusted to his own judgment, backed by Smith’s Catalogue Raisonnee and his banking account, and he very seldom made a mistake.
The story of the Schalcken Replica began on the morning in February when Athelstan Digby received the letter from Evan Evans. He had never heard of the name before in connection with pictures; its reiteration seemed to him to be totally unnecessary, and he was prejudiced against the man, even before he realised that the letter was the usual request for permission to view his collection.
Mr. Evans wrote from an address in Bloomsbury, “as connoisseur to connoisseur,” stating that business would bring him to Bradborough in the course of the following week. He wished to use the opportunity to see Mr. Digby’s pictures, of which he had often heard, and should Mr. Digby view his request favourably, would arrange his visit to suit his convenience.
“The gentleman picture-dealer out to plunder the innocent provincial,” thought Digby. “I’ve a good mind to let him see what he can make of the job. “I’ve nothing on Thursday afternoon except the Industrial Schools Committee, and that should be over by three”; and he rang the bell.
“Dawson,” he said, “a Mr. Evan Evans will be calling here at half-past three on Thursday afternoon to see the pictures. If I’m out, ask him to call later. I don’t know anything about him. And see that the frames are dusted. Do it yourself, and get no help from Mrs. Dawson or Mary; they’d want to dust too much.”
The man whom he addressed had been with Athelstan Digby for ten years, and with his wife and an elderly house-parlour-maid made up the bachelor’s household. Digby’s frequent Board meetings meant that he was often away from home; and though a man of his simple habits had little need of a man servant, he had a deep-seated distrust of womankind, and liked to leave someone in the house who appreciated the value of his pictures, even though they did stand with their faces turned to the wall.
That, indeed, was a source of constant remonstrance between servant and master. “It does seem a pity, sir,” he would say, “not to hang them”; and to the reply, “No wall space, Dawson, no wall space; wait until we move into a larger house,” would answer with a shake of the head, that implied that in his opinion such a removal was as remote as it was improbable.
For Dawson not only appreciated the value of pictures; he appreciated the pictures themselves. He had begun by admiring the stiff canvases that Weeninx and David de Heem delighted to cover with a medley of fruit and game and fish, gold and silver plate, and flagons of wine. Thence his interest had turned to the jovial drinking scenes of Ostade and Teniers. The faithful accuracy of the work delighted him. He had pointed out to Digby how in the Gerard Dow, the gem of the collection, the artist had caught the very dust on the half of the table that the Dutch housewife had not yet polished. “There’s no one living who could do that now, sir,” Dawson would say; and Digby, interested in the old man’s powers of observation, had lent him books, until the servant knew almost as much about the pictures as the master.
Mr. Evan Evans arrived punctually at the hour named on Thursday afternoon. Digby, shrewd judge of men as he was, found it hard to classify him. He was talkative, always a relief to Digby when entertaining strangers since he himself was usually reserved, and spoke of the collection with more of enthusiasm than discernment. He was, for instance, loud in the praises of a large Cuyp, the only one of the pictures he possessed of whose authenticity Digby was uncertain, and showed little interest in the unique church interior by the same artist. He supposed that the figures in the Van der Heyden street scene were by a different brush, but was unable to conjecture whose. “A moderately, only a moderately well informed amateur,” was Digby’s final verdict; and the same opinion was reflected in the slightly tolerant expression on Dawson’s face as he placed one picture after another on the easel.
It was not until they came to the Schalcken that Digby’s interest in his visitor was aroused. Of all the pictures in the collection it was his favourite. It showed a man – believed to be the artist himself – seated at a table of polished mahogany, with a mug of ale at his elbow, lighting his pipe from a candle which a little girl of five or six, dressed in the stiff costume of the period, held up to him on tiptoe. The light and shadow playing on the man’s features were Schalcken at his best. The white satin of the child’s dress might have come from the brush of a Terbourg. The theme had been conceived as delicately and as purely as it had been handled. The centuries that had passed had done nothing to lessen the freshness of its appeal.
Mr. Evans scanned the picture – it measured little more than twelve inches by ten – with far greater care than he had hitherto shown.
“It’s extraordinary,” he said at last; “the similarity is most extraordinary. I’m referring,” he went on, “to a picture in my own collection. The artist must have painted it in duplicate.” Digby smiled, one of his rare wintry smiles; while in Dawson’s eyes there came an answering flicker.
“Of course it’s possible,” he said. “The Dutch artist was not overpaid, and the temptation to reproduce a masterpiece like this must have been great. But I doubt if Schalcken would have done it. I suggest, Mr. Evans, that you are the possessor of an excellent copy.”
“I thought so at first,” the other replied. “I gave ten pounds for the picture at a second rate old furniture shop in Leicester fifteen years ago. They knew nothing of its history – said something about a Russian gentleman having sold it to them; but I have always believed it to be an original.”
Mr. Digby pursed his lips.
“I should like to see it,” he said.
“And so you shall, my dear sir!” his visitor exclaimed. “Owing to the war, I’m living at present in rooms in Bloomsbury. I can’t afford to keep up my house in Wales, and I want to be near my little girl, who is working at the Ministry of Munitions. But I’m too fond of the picture to part with it even for a time. It’s my especial pride. I can’t think how you can keep these glowing canvases unhung. You must look me up and give me your honest opinion. I’m only sorry I can’t show you my collection; but that will have to wait. Meantime, look me up at 33, Patmore Street, Bloomsbury. I find it so handy, you know, for the Museum. One thing only I would beg – a clear twenty-four hours’ notice. I am a martyr to asthma, and during an attack I find it impossible to see any one. As to the hour, my mornings and afternoons are usually occupied, but any evening, Mr. Digby, when you’re in town, I should be delighted to see you.”
Mr. Evans refused tea, to his host’s relief. “What do you make of him, Dawson?” he asked, as they put the pictures back in place.
“An amateur, sir,” he replied; “hardly, I think, sir, what I should call a connoisseur,”
“You’ve hit the right nail on the head,” said Digby. “I disliked the way he spoke of glowing canvases. It reminded me too much of the auctioneer. But I’ll call on the man next time I’m in London.”
The opportunity occurred three weeks later. Mr. Digby had come up to London for one of his monthly Board meetings, and had written suggesting that he might call at Patmore Street on Friday evening.
The room in which Evans welcomed him with unnecessary effusion was littered with books. Every available chair was occupied. They lay in stacks upon the table, one half of which had been cleared for supper.
“You must excuse this confusion,” said Evans. “I’m here alone, practising war-time economy. Believe me, Mr. Digby, it’s not the sort of welcome I should have wished to give you.”
But Athelstan was too intent on other things to pay attention to his host; for, hanging on the wall at the end of the room, dwarfing the tawdry background of the Bloomsbury lodging house, was the picture he had come to see.
A glance was enough to tell him that this was no clumsy copy. Evans had been lucky in his find. Smiling, he came sidling up to Digby, rubbing unctuously his fat little hands.
“Some picture!” he exclaimed, “as our American friends would say. I think you must admit that it’s genuine.”
Athelstan Digby was conscious of a strong feeling of dislike to the man.
“If it’s not genuine,” he said, “it’s a copy by some pupil. I wonder if you would mind my taking it down to examine it more closely.”
“With all the pleasure in the world, Mr. Digby,” said the other, as he got on to a chair. “That’s what you came for. I want the opinion of an expert.”
The picture was glazed; it needed cleaning; and Mr. Digby was shortsighted. He scrutinized carefully every square inch of the canvas. Yes, there was the same minuteness of workmanship, the same absolute mastery of brush in the painting of the man’s hand as he screened the bowl of his pipe, the same wonderful sheen of white satin in the child’s dress.
“Both pictures are genuine,” he said at last. “I congratulate you, Mr. Evans. I can only account for the existence of this picture being unknown by the fact that it was sold to your Leicester dealer by a Russian. There were at one time more Dutch pictures in Russia than in any other country. The court set the fashion, and every nobleman who claimed to possess taste followed it. To own a country tavern scene by Teniers was a hall-mark of good breeding. But still I should have expected to find some mention of the picture in the Catalogue Raisonnee; and he ran his forefinger along his chin, as his manner was when perplexed.
He was in reality torn between the opposing forces of delight and envy; delight in a new discovery, even though he himself had had no part in it, and envy of the discoverer upon whom Fortune had smiled.
“Unlike you” – Evans was speaking to one who only half heard him – “I like to live with my treasures. To-night I’ve dined with Schalcken and his little girl. One picture is sufficient for a room; at the most four. The rest should be hung in a gallery. When I am likely to be away from home for any length of time, I take a picture with me. When I return, I know that picture. If I were an artist, I could reproduce every line of it.”
“I wish we had the two pictures together, so that we could compare them,” said Mr. Digby, tentatively. “Have you a photograph by any chance? I have only an engraving of mine by de Launay that I picked up last year in Paris.”
“No,” Evans replied. “To tell you the truth I’m a little chary of photographers. But if you liked, Mr. Digby, I could easily arrange for the picture to be photographed, so that you could have a copy to compare with yours. Perhaps you would not object to your picture being photographed too?”
Again Mr. Digby ran his forefinger along his chin.
“N-no,” he said. “Though it’s against my usual practice, I’m sufficiently interested in your find to make an exception. What did you say was the name of the Leicester dealer who sold you the picture?”
“It was either Walker or Thompson, I can’t remember which; but I’ll write to my secretary and get the receipt forwarded. He was quite an ignorant fellow, more interested, like myself, in old furniture and books than in pictures.”
“I’m afraid I’ve never had either the leisure or the education to form a library,” Digby replied. “Are these recent purchases?”
“Most of them, yes. A well-edited second-hand bookseller’s catalogue is an irresistible temptation to me even in war-time. You must be going, Mr. Digby? I’m delighted that you’ve called, and I hope next time you are in town you’ll look me up. All I ask is twenty-four hours’ notice, and that you should time your visit for my evenings, which are free. I will forward you a photograph as soon as they are ready. Please don’t trouble to return it.”
“A curious fellow,” said Digby to himself, as he walked back through the darkened streets to his old-fashioned hotel. “I can’t quite place him. I wonder if he’d be prepared to sell.”