The painting is beautiful, isn’t it?
Whether you’re an art lover or not, the scene evokes emotions—sometimes peaceful, often of awe, and at times, even of wonder.
The artist, clearly a master at his craft, has captured the reflected light on the surface of the water, as well as the powerful motion of the breaking waves; in fact, every detail lends itself to an unassailable sense of the grandeur of the sea.
The beautiful oil painting resides in our den, near the fireplace. Seldom do I enter the room without at least a glance of appreciation. Often, I turn on the little track lights that wash it from above with an ambient light, magnifying the effect of the cloud-covered sun as it lowers to the far horizon.
Then, backing away from the wall upon which it hangs, I simply stand and take in the view, reveling in the glory that is creation and thanking the One who placed us here in His world.
Once in awhile, though—only once in awhile—as I stand there, I find myself considering the ugliness of the human heart while I also contemplate the amazing beauty which emanates from the same heart.
It seems a strange thing to do, does it not, to think about ugly things while looking at great beauty?
Perhaps, you’ll let me tell you a story. No, it’s not the made up kind of story; it’s completely true, as far as I can tell.
I warn you though; it is not a happy tale.
Our hero, or villain—whichever—enters the story in about 1918, toward the end of World War I. The Count had made his way by rail from Des Moines, Iowa down to Kansas City, Missouri, but found himself short of funds to get home again. Stranded and without cash, he worked his way north to the little town of Excelsior Springs, a locale that suited his personality and lifestyle just perfectly.
In his late twenties, he was a sophisticated and debonair artist, lately emigrated from Hungary, and the young ladies in this tourist town of healing springs nearly fell at his feet.
Their fathers? Not so much.
The artist boasted of his expertise and training at the finest art schools in Paris and Italy, and the little projects he turned out for the locals gave testimony of considerable talent.
When it became clear the teenage daughter of the local banker had been seeing entirely too much of the arrogant young dandy, her wealthy father fabricated a plan. Knowing that the Count desired to go home, he made a deal with him.
The bank would pay him twelve-hundred dollars to paint two large murals in their building downtown. In return, he promised to leave town and go home. The artist honored his word, finishing the stunning murals and boarding the next train north, leaving a tearful banker’s daughter behind, along with a number of other disappointed young ladies.
For twenty years, the Count lived in different places, always wandering, always leaving behind his conquests, the young ladies, whom he had wooed and won with his foreign accent and his cocky self-confidence.
He kept finding his way back to his home in Iowa with money earned from paintings he was able to sell to well-to-do folks along the way. He never stuck to any position, and never showed the slightest remorse about the lives he left ruined behind him.
Do you get the idea that this man was not a model of moral purity and goodness?
It got worse.
In the late 1930s he finally found one young lady, half his age, with whom he decided he could tie the knot. Her parents, disliking him intensely, demanded that she break off the relationship. Instead, she and the Count eloped and escaped south to Texas.
Four years later, she was dead. She could stand neither her marriage to him, nor her life, so she ended both by hanging herself.
The police report said that she was still alive when her husband found her, but he didn’t take her down, instead going to the neighbors to ask for help. When they got there, the only thing they could do was to assist in taking down her lifeless body.
Her family came and took the body back to Iowa, refusing to allow the Count to attend her funeral (he had no money with which to travel anyway).
Only months had passed when the Count, traveling under an assumed name, made his way in the twilight of evening to the cemetery where his wife was buried. Standing over her grave, he took a bottle from his pocket and putting it to his mouth, swallowed the entire contents.
His dead body was draped over her grave when they found him in the morning. Carbolic acid does its grisly work efficiently.
They buried him in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
There are some who would call this a romantic tale. Today, they might even make a movie about his life. But, from this distant perspective, one can only assume he was riddled with the guilt of his past and couldn’t face the darkness of continuing life like that.
So, I stand sometimes and gaze at the amazing painting on my wall, completed by the Count himself in 1926, and I consider the dichotomy.
Evil lives in the heart of man.
Great beauty dwells there also.
Both make their way out, without fail, into the light of day. (Luke 6:45)
I’m reminded of the old story, oft repeated, about an old Native American man who was talking to the young braves of his tribe, encouraging them to exercise self-discipline in their own lives.
He told about two dogs that were always fighting inside of him, one evil and one good. One of the young men asked the question that was on each brave’s mind:
“Which one will win, old man?”
The wise old man sat silent for a moment before answering, as if recalling a lifetime of the inner battle. When he spoke, it was almost as if he spoke to himself.
“The one I feed; that one will win.”
There is more to be said—much more.
Words about grace, and new life, and beauty from ashes. I could write for hours and not even begin to deplete the store of wisdom.
You certainly don’t need another sermon from the likes of me.
The two dogs live inside of me, too.
A religious life is a struggle, and not a hymn.
(Madame De Stael ~ French author ~ 1766-1817)
Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires.
(Romans 6:12 ~ NET)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.