A long time ago I was a young artist and came to France where I was travelling from place to place making sketches. One day I met two French artists who were also moving from place to place making sketches and I joined them. We were as happy as we were poor, or as poor as we were happy, as you like it.
Claude and Carl – these are the names of those boys – were always in good spirits and laughed at poverty. We were very poor. We lived on the money which we got from time to time for our sketches. When nobody wanted to buy our sketches we had to go hungry.
Once, in the north of France, we stopped at a village. For some time things had been very difficult for us. A young artist, as poor as ourselves, lived in that village. He took us into his house, and saved us from starvation. The artist’s name was Francois Millet.
He wasn’t greater than we were, then. He wasn’t famous even in his own village; and he was so poor that very often he hadn’t anything for dinner but cabbage, and sometimes he could not even get cabbage. We lived and worked together for over two years. One day Claude said:
«Boys, we’ve come to the end. Do you understand that? Everybody is against us. I’ve been all around the village and they do not want to sell food until we pay all the money». There was a long silence. At last Millet said, «What shall we do? I can’t think of anything. Can you, boys?»
We made no answer. Then Carl began to walk up and down the room. Suddenly he stopped in front of a picture and said: «It’s a shame! Look at these pictures! They are good, as good as the pictures of any well-known artist. Many people had said so too».
«But they don’t buy our pictures,» said Millet.
Carl sat down and said, «I know now how we can become rich».
«Rich! You have lost your mind».
«No, I haven’t.»
«Yes, you have – you’ve lost your mind. What do you call rich?»
«A hundred thousand francs for a picture».
«He has lost his mind. I knew it».
«Yes, he has. Carl, these troubles have been too much for you, and…»
«Carl, you must take some medicine and go to bed».
«Stop it!» said Millet seriously, «and let the boy say what he wants to. Now, then – go on with hour plan, Carl. What is it?»
«Well, then, to begin with, I will ask you to note this fact in human history: many great artists die of starvation. And only after their death people begin to buy their pictures and pay large sums of money for them. So the thing is quite clear», he added, «one of us must die. Let us draw lots». We laughed and gave Carl some medical advice, but he waited quietly, then went on again with his plan.
«Yes, one of us must die, to save the others – and himself. We will draw lots. He will become famous and all of us will become rich. Here is the idea. During the next three months the man who must die will paint as many pictures as he can, sketches, parts of pictures, fragments of pictures with his name on them, and each must have some particulars of his, that could be easily seen. Such things are sold too and collected at high prices for the world’s museums, after the great man is dead. At the same time the others of us will inform the public that a great artist is dying, that he won’t live over three months».
«But what if he doesn’t die?» we asked Carl.
«Oh, he won’t really die, of course; he will only change his name and disappear, we bury a dummy and cry over it and all the world will help us. And –». But he wasn’t allowed to finish. Everybody applauded him, we ran about the room, and fell on each others’ necks, and were happy. For hours we talked over the great plan and quite forgot that we were hungry.
At last we drew lots and Millet was elected to die. We collected the few things we had left and pawned them. So we got a little money for travel and for Millet to live on for a few days. The next morning Claude, Carl and I left the village. Each had some of Millet’s small pictures and sketches with him. We took different roads. Carl went to Paris, where he would begin the work of building Millet’s fame. Claude and I were going abroad.
On the second day I began to sketch a villa near a big town because I saw the owner standing on the veranda. He came down to look on. I showed him my sketch and he liked it. Then I took out a picture by Millet and pointed to the name in the corner.
«Do you know the name?» I said proudly. «Well, he taught me!» I finished.
The man looked confused.
«Don’t you know the name of Francois Millet?» I asked him.
«Of course it is Millet. I recognise it now», said the man, who had never heard of Millet before, but now pretended to know the name. Then he said that he wanted to buy the picture. At first I refused to sell it, but in the end I let him have it for eight hundred francs. I made a very nice picture of that man’s house and wanted to offer it to him for ten francs, but remembered that I was the pupil of such a master, so I sold it to him for a hundred. I sent the eight hundred francs straight back to Millet from that town and was on the road again next day.
Now that I had some money in my pocket, I did not walk from place to place. I rode. I continued my journey and sold a picture a day. I always said to the man who bought it, «I’m a fool to sell a picture by Francois Millet. The man won’t live three months. When he dies, his pictures will be sold at a very high price».
The plan of selling pictures was successful with all of us. I walked only two days. Claude walked two – both of us afraid to make Millet famous too near the village where he lived – but Carl walked only half a day and after that he travelled like a king. In every town that we visited, we met the editor of the newspaper and asked him to publish a few words about the master’s health. We never called Millet a genius. The readers understood that everybody knew Millet. Sometimes the words were hopeful, sometimes tearful. We always marked these articles and sent the papers to all the people who had bought pictures of us.
Carl was soon in Paris. He made friends with the journalists and Millet’s condition was reported to England and all over the continent, and America, and everywhere.
At the end of six weeks from the start, me three met in Paris and decided to stop asking for more pictures from Millet. We saw that is was time to strike. So we wrote Millet to go to bed and begin to prepare for his death. We wanted him to die in ten days, if he could get ready. Then we counted the money and found that we had sold eighty-five small pictures and sketches and had sixty-nine thousand francs. How happy we were!
Claude and I packed up and went back to the village to look after Millet in his last days and keep people out of the house. We sent daily bulletins to Carl in Paris for the papers of several continents with the information for a waiting world. The sad end came at last, and Carl came to the village to help us. Large crowds of people from far and near attended the funeral. We four carried the coffin. There was only a wax figure in it. Millet was disguised as a relative and helped to carry his own coffin.
After the funeral we continued selling Millet’s pictures. We got so much money that we did not know what to do with it. There is a man in Paris today who has seventy Millet’s pictures. He paid us two million francs for them.
Francois Millet – Франсуа Милле, французский художник (1814 – 1875)
funeral – похороны
coffin – гроб