Voltairine de Cleyre, “The White Room” (1896)

It was an artist’s masterpiece. He had wrought it all with his own hands, after his idea, which grew as he wrought. It was not square nor long nor round, nor any regular shape, such as we are used to thinking of rooms; it was wider here and narrower there, and had strange turns and niches and carvings and arches; and in all these there were bits of statuary, or tiny fountains, or flowers, or curious sea things gathered from many shores, shells and corals and ocean feathers, picked up years apart. The light came from above as all light should, and the dazzling beauty of the ceiling was like a broken arc from a cave’s roof, so white and gleaming was it with the strange substance he had made; and the walls had all the wild fantastic tracery of the frost-forests on our winter windows, which God paints—but no man. The statues were all white, of unflawed marble; and the silken curtains looped back from the small bed were snow. The fish in the little fountains had silver scales, and in the recess where he had made an aviary were four pure-plumed birds. And all the flowers and all the curious sea things were white. The divans were of spotless velvet, and the rugs upon the glistening floor, wrought in strange patterns by his own deft fingers, were of white velvet too. There was a little case of books bound in blanch covers, and beside it a silver-stringed harp, mantled in a stainless case. There was one picture, only one. If it had been made for sale! But now it is only I to write of it, I, who saw it once after all was finished. He was an impressionist, my artist, long before the impressionists began to make noise in the world. He painted the white light of a day, as it lies on sky and water,—only a stretch of sky and water, seen of a summer afternoon, when the clouds drift like curled feathers and the boats are sleeping on Canarsie Bay. That was the last touch to the White Room, except the Easter-lilies he placed in the great vase between the tall wax tapers. He had been working fifteen years that day,—for her, the Soul of the White Room, herself the whitest thing, his pure-faced Scandinavian girl with the chiselled face that looked out with saint’s eyes from under its aureole of pale hair as if the breath of the High One had blown upon her, and no other. So she had seemed to him when he married her, and so with his steadfast love she seemed to him now. Fifteen years! And he had said no word to her in all that time of the marvel he was creating for her,—all with his own hands, which was the only true art. It had taken very long. And all that time that he had wandered and searched and wrought, for her, only for her, she had been living with that beautiful, meek, white patience of hers, in the dirty, narrow city alley, where they had had to live when young and poor; complaining nothing,— only now and then wishing for a little more of his presence, suggesting perhaps some little trifle, which he did not buy, partly to prove her excellence, partly because of the great thing he was making. And when he saw a darker blue of disappointment settle in her eyes would say, “My girl shall have something far better some day.”

And now it was come to pass. To-morrow he would take her, when the third lily should have opened a little wider. She should see his white dream, of which she was the angel,—had been for so many years. She should understand what she had been to him, who had not wrought for the praise of men but for one woman only.

And thinking so he turned into the alley-way, lifting his eyes to the small-paned window.

There Was No Light.

Yes, she had gone. There was a letter badly spelt and written, but it told a world. She had waited, she had been patient, she had served, she had not asked much, she had been promised as we promise children stars in the morning if they sleep now. She had wanted a little, only a little, every day; nothing grand, nothing more than ordinary; a common rag-carpet would have done, a cheap frame or so for the bright prints she had saved to trim the naked walls; some other little things, no matter what now; she knew she should never get them. He had not noticed perhaps; his life had lain outside; he had seen things. But for her it had been so weary. She was going away; it was wrong, perhaps, but she should not come back.

Now the artist was a little more than an artist. He was a philosopher, too. So he did not act like a common man. He did not groan to his friends, nor take to drink, nor talk of suicide, nor grow sour to men and bitter to women. He lived on in the old place, quite the same. He played with other women’s children, and sat late at the door on summer nights reading his paper by the street-light. But still he went alone to the house under the trees, by the water-side, and saw that the White Room was kept very white, long after the lilies had withered.

And the end of it all was that one night he found her in the gutter, quite drunk and dying. And he took her in his arms and rode with her to the waterside and carried her to the White Room, and laid her,

all soiled, on the white bed, and there she died. Just before, she unclosed her misty eyes and shuddered: “Ugh! The horrid fancies in the liquor. It looks all white, white, like a Dead-house! Powdered gravestones! Ugh! If there were only a bit of blue or red.”

He dug her grave with his own hands. He worked all night to line it with the gayest blooms of Life, and laid her in when the morning was streaking crimson against the azure. To-day she sleeps under violets and carnations, with no white stone at foot or head.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The White Room,” The Open Court 10, no. 24 (June 11, 1896): 4945-4946.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.