Esther HTML version

Chapter IV
St. John's church was a pleasant spot for such work. The north transept, high up
towards the vault of the roof, was still occupied by a wide scaffold which shut in the
painters and shut out the curious, and ran the whole length of its three sides, being
open towards the body of the church. When Esther came to inspect her field of labor,
she found herself obliged to choose between a space where her painting would be
conspicuous from below, and one where, except in certain unusual lights, it could hardly
be seen at all. Partly out of delicacy, that she might not seem to crowd Wharton's own
work into the darkness; partly out of pure diffidence, Esther chose the least conspicuous
space, and there a sort of studio was railed off for her, breast high, within which she
was mistress. Wharton, when painting, was at this time engaged at some distance, but
on the same scaffolding, near the nave.
The great church was silent with the echoing silence which is audible. Except for a call
from workmen below to those at work above, or for the murmur of the painters as they
chatted in intervals of rest, or for occasional hammering, which echoed in hollow
reverberations, no sound disturbed repose. Here one felt the meaning of retreat and
self-absorption, the dignity of silence which respected itself; the presence which was not
to be touched or seen. To a simple-minded child like Catherine Brooke, the first effect
was as impressive as though she were in the church of St. Mark's. She was
overwhelmed by the space and silence, the color and form; and as she came close to
Wharton's four great figures of the evangelists and saw how coarsely they were painted,
and looked sheer down from them upon the distant church-floor, she thought herself in
an older world, and would hardly have felt surprised at finding herself turned into an
Italian peasant-girl, and at seeing Michael Angelo and Raphael, instead of Wharton and
Esther, walk in at the side door, and proceed to paint her in celestial grandeur and
beauty, as the new Madonna of the prairie, over the high altar.
This humility lasted several minutes. Then after glancing steadfastly at Wharton's figure
of John of Patmos which stood next to that which Esther was to paint, Catherine
suddenly broke out:
"Shade of Columbus! You are not going to make me look like that?"
"I suppose I must," replied Esther, mischievously.
"Lean and dingy, in a faded brown blanket?" asked Catherine in evident anguish.
"So Mr. Wharton says," answered Esther, unrelentingly.
"Not if I'm there," rejoined Catherine, this time with an air of calm decision. "I'm no such
ornery saint as that."