By JOANN BACK
Ruskin's studio was filled with the crisp scent of rain, and when the winter storm winds howled between the grey neighboring buildings, there blew through the chinks in the walls a chilliness that crept into one's bones and settled there. There was, however, a lesser quality to the storm, as if it had been diluted by the late February's lengthening days and the encroaching spring, which had set down footholds in the form of milder temperatures.
In one corner of his studio and upon the sole comfortable chair, I sat smoking quietly, occasionally glancing up at the myriad of charred paintings lining the walls. Like a host of Holocaust victims, they stared accusingly down at me. Here was the fragment of a sunrise, alive with a light of its own, darkened now by soot, edged in crisped canvas and paint. There was a fire-made flurry of black and grey, and where it was lightest, one could discern the lacy frill of a ballerina's costume. All of them, all of them just fragments of canvas, glimpses of color. Water colors, oils, acrylics - the fire that scarred them was the very same that had seared away most of Ruskin's face and all but the bones of his hands, stealing away his renowned talent. The art world had hailed his accident two and a half years ago as the tragedy of the century. God curse faulty wiring and open cans of turpentine, they said. Melodramatic fools. No one wept for him now. No one kept him company but for this tired, old art history professor.
"Leave before she arrives for her weekly noon lesson," Ruskin snapped at me, pacing about the studio and waving around a sable-hair brush that had never tasted paint nor touched canvas. He worried it in his hands constantly; a habit he had picked up since his accident. "I do not want you to meet her."
"Your protégé of the past half year? Why ever so, Ruskin?" I purred, smiling lazily.
"Jane Engelbreit has a simple and beautiful nature, and I can be to her as the sun is to the earth," he said. In his hands, he worried the brush with an even greater intensity. "Your influence would be bad, Wechsler. The world is wide, and full of many marvelous people. Take them, infuse them with your frivolity, your high and mighty notions, but leave her to me. Don't take away from me the one person who gives to my art a renewed breath of life."
"What nonsense you talk!" I laughed. "It must be true, what they say about artistic genius and insanity going hand in hand. Ah, but very well. I shall leave immediately. Far be it from me to upset you, old boy."
Ruskin escorted me to the door, and as his hand hovered over the knob, the doorbell chimed. There was only one person Ruskin could have expected at his threshold aside from myself.
"It looks as if you'll have to introduce us after all, old boy." Chips of mirth fell from my lips and I patted my old friend's back in a consolatory manner. A shame there was only one door to Ruskin's gloomy abode.
Ruskin frowned, drawing his fire-scarred skin tightly across his facial bones. "Mind, Wechsler, I trust you."
I dismissed his words with a wave of my hand, as if brushing away cobwebs. "Come, come, I promise to behave. I only want to see who it is that has so renewed your passion for art."
Ruskin pulled open the door, and behind it was the most striking young lady I had seen in all my days. She was wonderfully beautiful, so fresh and young, with all the beaming brightness of a young painter untouched by failure, disappointments, or fires that destroy whole lifetimes. It was no wonder that Ruskin coveted her.
She was wet from the winter storm outside, but seemed unaffected by the chill, smiling warmly and carelessly tossing back her blonde curls. Ruskin brusquely brought about introductions, and would have scooted me out had I not wedged my feet and cane against the frame of the door.
"Miss Engelbreit, did you say you were studying art at Butler University? I was once a professor there. Would you mind, then, if I looked on today?"
Jane's smile seemed too bright for Ruskin's grey little house. "I think it's the very least I could do for one of Mr. Ruskin's friends."
Ruskin shot me a deadly glare, not an unintimidating thing, coming out of that ruined face. I retired to the studio's sole comfortable chair and waited. Jane seated herself before her easel and prepared her paints. Ruskin flitted about the studio, more excited and alive than the first time he informed me of his first student. He gathered up brushes and tubes of paint more speedily than a shrew collecting a store of grass for the winter.
"Jane, please." She beamed at me as she spoke, and I forgot all about the younger generation's propensity for a vulgar informality.
"Jane, how is it you came across my old friend Ruskin?"
The barest trace of a cloud passed over her face. "Mr. Ruskin happened upon me in the university arboretum, while I was sketching robins. Although I'm no da Vinci"-and here she graced us with a smile of genuine modesty - "Mr. Ruskin thought I was good enough to waste a little time on. I'm awfully grateful he did. It's all any artistically inclined person could ask for: to study with a master."
"Splendid thing, indeed," I replied, throwing a glance Ruskin's way long enough to notice his flushed face."And your studies at Butler University? Do you find that they complement Ruskin's tutelage?"
This time Jane gained a little color, adding immeasurable charm to her young, fresh features.
"Well, Mr. Ruskin doesn't think too highly of my teachers at Butler. But that's kind of good," she added quickly, "since my grants are running out and I can't seem to get supplementary loans. This will probably be my last semester at Butler."
"Your family won't help you out, my dear?" I asked. Surreptitiously, I shot my old painter friend a dark look; I did not approve of any disparaging remarks about my former colleagues, as they were a talented bunch.
There was a moment of quiet consideration, Jane's bright face again clouded over. She looked at me, and the storm cleared away, as if she judged me trustworthy after all. It was the most flattering feeling I had felt in a long time.
"Well, no, Mr. Wechsler, not really. I only have my father, and we haven't really been on good terms as of late." She paused a moment, then, "Actually, not since I was thirteen. He was, well, a bit abusive, and I never really saw him after the foster homes. I'm not really sure where he is these days, you know."
"But, my dear, certainly there is financial aid to be had from..."
"That's enough!" Ruskin roared, shaking as he glared, his eyes sunken deep within his burning red face. "One more word from you, Wechsler, and I'll boot you out!"
The surprised silence that followed his outburst left everything motionless except for the smoke curling lazily from my cigar towards the low ceiling.
"All right, old boy, if that's the way you want it," I managed quietly.
I resumed puffing on my cigar while Ruskin descended upon his pupil. It was as he stood over her shoulder, sharply criticizing her every brushstroke that I fully comprehended his transformation. He was less and less my brilliant friend than he was a deformed troll, a black familiar darting about her face, biting with words that sunk too well into the flesh of young Jane Engelbreit's golden enthusiasm.
"No, no, no, NO!" Ruskin shouted, accentuating each "no" with a sharp thrust of his paintbrush in Jane's direction. "Why, why do I bother with you?" He stomped away, whirled, and pointed again with that damnable brush at poor young Jane. "Do you know what the artist does?"
Though she was sitting ramrod straight on her stool, her mouth slightly agape, she looked to me like a sunflower wilting, head bowed and storm-beaten.
"You wouldn't know anyway!" Ruskin resumed, just as she drew breath to answer. "An artist lives to create beautiful things, and nothing I see here is beautiful."
Jane Engelbreit's sunflower suddenly fell over in the onslaught of storm-borne wind. She looked as if she would cry, and the thought so enraged me, I wanted to close my hands around Ruskin's scarred neck. Instead, I puffed silently on my cigar, indignant and upset until several hours later young Jane departed for the day. Then I rose from my chair and came around to Jane's easel, viewing her work of the past several weeks. What I saw was a field afire with scarlet poppies, small brown birds darting between the wind-ruffled flowers and grass. I was struck still and speechless for a moment and when I could move, I had to place my hand over the painting, feeling for the wind, the flutter of birds wings. The entire painting seemed to vibrate and barely contain itself from leaping off the canvas.
"What's wrong with this?" I barked, jabbing my cigar at Ruskin in a malicious mockery of him and his paintbrush. "What in God's name is wrong with you?"
Ruskin did not glare at me, as I expected, nor snarl back at me. Instead, he smiled, eyes alight with glee, more so than on the day he shared with me his news of his first protégé since the fire. His scarred face disappeared into a sea of wrinkles that followed the lineaments of joy.
"You don't see it, do you?" he laughed. "Wechsler, I thought you of all people would!"
"You are trying my patience," I snapped.
"What is the purpose of art?" Ruskin chanted, spinning about the room and encompassing his host of fire-scarred works within his spread arms.
I gaped at him, and like a parrot, echoed his earlier answer. "To create beauty."
"Why?" I echoed, so puzzled I forgot to nurse my cigar. "Why create beauty?"
Ruskin hooted with laughter and danced in place. For a moment I thought him some crazed elf or jubilant demon, dancing before a bonfire fueled by someone's pain. Gleefully, he shouted, "To destroy it, of course!"
What should have flown from my mouth was a declaration of his madness; instead, a wheezy little breath was all I managed.
"What exemplifies beauty more than its transience? What increases its preciousness a thousandfold, if not its imminent death?" Ruskin stopped to gesture at his sooty works. "Like them. Jane Engelbreit is just like them. A masterpiece."
"Good God, old boy, you're going to kill her!"
"No, no, no, no! Idiot! I'm merely going to destroy the artist in her, the most talented artist we would have had in this decade!" Ruskin took down one of his paintings from the wall, cradled it in his arms, close to his chest. His face softened, filled with old pain. "She already hangs on my every word, awed by a master whom she thinks was so generous in lowering himself for her. It won't be hard. It won't be long. I already see her wilting before me.
"It will be so beautiful."
It was by sheer accident that I was visiting old colleagues on campus and ran into young Jane Engelbreit. I had meant to wash my hands clean of Ruskin and his delusions, of golden Miss Engelbreit; I had promised to save her from my influence. How quickly all those resolutions melted when I saw her walking across the lawns and beneath the oaks of the university library, portfolio in hand.
"Mr. Wechsler, hello again," she said, and smiled at me, though it was not the sunflower- bright smile I recalled from several weeks ago.
"Good day, Miss Engelbreit - ah, Jane, my dear. Tell me how you have been all this time." I smiled feebly at her, knowing too well how it had been. I hoped perhaps my cheer would infect her, rekindle hers and counteract Ruskin's influences. I have hated myself for that weak thought ever since.
"All right. I suppose I should be happier, though. In just a few months more, I won't be at Butler anymore, and I'll be able to devote more time to working on my paintings for Mr. Ruskin, instead of for my professors," she said quietly. "But that doesn't really make me very happy. I feel like the harder I try, the worse I become, and that I'll never be any good at anything. Mr. Ruskin said that's the way it is, when you have a smattering of talent and too much ambition."
I think a swift hammer blow to my gut would not have hurt me more.
"Jane, you do wonderful work, beautiful work," I emphasized, belatedly lashing out at Ruskin and his host of dark words. "Those who find ugliness in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
"Now, Jane, what is the purpose of art to you? And please don't parrot Ruskin, my dear."
She spoke her words with a face forlorn, too far from happy. "To make myself happy."
Ah, indeed, it was the type of frivolous thought of which Ruskin himself would have accused me.
I reached for her portfolio, which she snatched away and hugged close to her chest. There was a wan smile of apology. "Mr. Ruskin doesn't like me to show others my work. He said it might give me the wrong idea about the measure of my talent."
I put my hand on the portfolio and said, "My dear, believe me, there is more than one teacher in all this world."
She wanted to believe me; it was her sunflower hopefully raising its head to the sun, it was the storm-bruised white rose breathing relief in the calm. No one ever truly wants to be beaten down, and no one ever truly believes that she is without all value. Jane Engelbreit was not different in this respect.
The first work I drew out from her portfolio was a heavy charcoal drawing, inexpertly rendered on an inferior grade of paper. The heavy black lines wavered, drawn without confidence. They converged to show the dark features of a face that could have been young Jane Engelbreit's, were they not such a black mockery.
"I thought maybe I should try a different medium," she explained, noting my sudden quietness. "It wasn't going so well with oils."
For a long moment all I could do was stare at the painting, cigar dangling from the corner of my mouth and adding to an overall mien of stupidity. And the sound I heard confused me, because I did not know whether it was her heart or mine that wailed.
"Miss Engelbreit, I have for you a most unusual proposition." I resumed puffing industriously at my cigar and began to crumple the charcoal rendering. "I will take out a loan for you, co-sign, whatever, my dear, but you must continue on with my fine colleagues here at Butler University. Are we agreed?"
"Well, Mr. Wechsler, I don't know," she said, her blossom of hope closing as quickly as it had opened. "I don't think Mr. Ruskin would like that."
"My dear, I doubt Mr. Ruskin is a good influence for you." I paused to touch the butt of my cigar to the crumpled paper. "You know that, don't you?"
She nodded reluctantly, and I felt that I had planted the smallest of seeds that would grow into her separation from Ruskin. We watched her rendering smolder and flake away into bits of grey and black. I held the ash before her and softly said, "Now, like birthday candles, make a wish."
Though she smiled wanly, it seemed a star brighter, and she scattered the ashes with her breath. Overhead, there was a patch of blue in the sky of storm clouds, and a watery light filtered down and promised that young Jane Engelbreit's winter would soon be over.