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Brushes on Canvas

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"I'm not the type to be overly grateful and go on about how kind you're being," Katti said, unpacking her suitcase and placing clothes in a drawer. "But I am grateful, even if I never mention it again."

"I know," said Troy. "Effusiveness only embarrasses me anyway, so it's just as well. Continue painting good pictures, and we'll call it even."

Troy had first seen one of Katti's paintings at a miserable exhibition in London. She hadn't wanted to go, but Louis Drysdale, who owned the gallery, was someone she couldn't afford to alienate, so she went and tried to remain anonymous.

Most of the paintings were simply awful, twee landscapes or studies of uninteresting people and ugly dogs. One mid-sized canvas caught her eye: an uncompromising three-quarter view of a bricklayer. He held a brick in one hand and a trowel in the other, and they looked like both tools and weapons. The artist had concentrated mostly on his face, with uncompromising realism that approached unkindness. But Troy felt, looking at the figure, that artist and subject had understood each other very well.

She moved on to yet another painting of a bowl of out-of-season fruit and tried to decide how much longer she was obligated to stay.

"You're Agatha Troy, aren't you?" said a voice behind her.

Troy was new to fame and hated being recognized, another reason she hadn't wanted to come to the exhibition. Unable to articulate anything about her painting, she inevitably responded badly to compliments and ended up making herself feel a fool. With reluctance, she turned to look at the speaker, a woman several inches shorter than herself, with brown hair cropped close to her head.

"What in god's name are you doing here?" the woman said. "Everything's rubbish."

Startled into a laugh, Troy said, "They're not all rubbish."

"Oh, they are. One of them's mine, and I can hardly bear to look at it."

Enlightenment dawned on Troy. "The bricklayer. That must be yours."

"It is."

Had the woman's manner been any less brusque, Troy would have suspected her of backhandedly fishing for a compliment. But she understood the feeling of looking at a creation and being dissatisfied with it, even if other more objective observers found value in it.

"The composition's good," Troy said. "It's the use of color that's tripping you up. You wanted to reflect the reality of the man's life with a limited palette, but it's practically monochrome."

"Hmm," Katti said. "Yes, I see. I had the brick brighter at first, but it seemed to unbalance the whole thing." They drifted over to Katti's picture as they talked.

"Not just the brick, but also in the hands and the face. Do you see?" Troy gestured, her hand almost involuntarily shaping brushstrokes in the air.

Katti nodded. "I'll keep it in mind next time." They stood silently for a few moments before the picture, then Katti nodded at the door. "There's a lull in the crowd. You should head out the door before Louis latches on and tours the room with you."

Troy looked around the room at the faces of people pretending to understand and appreciate art, and felt as if by leaving, she would be abandoning Katti. "Do you want to come back to my club and have a drink? I'd like to hear more about your work."

They talked until two in the morning. When Katti stood to take her leave, Troy said impulsively, "I'm leaving in a few days to go back to my house in the country near Bossicote. Would you like -- will you come with me? I have more space than I need, and the studio's big enough for us both to paint in peace. You're far too good to languish in an underheated London flat, painting for people like Louis."

Katti stared down at her, her eyes widening slightly. "I should bluster and say that I couldn't possibly accept so generous an offer."

"Don't," said Troy.

Katti sank back down into the armchair and pulled it a little closer to the fire. "Then I won't."

***

The servants looked askance at Katti when Troy introduced her, but as the days went on and Katti did not make unreasonable demands, nor abscond with the silver, they seemed to accept her presence.

"They're protective, that's all," she said to Katti by way of apology.

"It doesn't bother me," Katti replied, stepping back from her canvas and squinting. "I expect they've been with your family for generations, and some ancestor of yours saved some ancestor of theirs from certain death during the Norman conquest."

Troy laughed. "Hardly. But they knew my father, and I suppose it's transferred to me." She looked up from her own canvas, then moved to stand next to Katti. "That's going well."

"Do you think--" Katti pointed at the lower half of the figure with her brush.

"No," Troy said. "You don't need me to tell you that."

"I suppose not."

Troy gestured at her own canvas. "Can you cast an eye over this? I can't tell if the balance is right."

Katti offered her opinion, and they worked in companionable silence for a while longer, taking advantage of the sunlight pouring through the windows and skylight. Troy stretched and looked at her watch. "It's half-past one."

They walked up the path to the house, Katti a few steps in front of Troy. "Did you always know whether your work was good?" she asked, raising her voice slightly to be heard. "Or was it something that came with success?"

Troy entered the house through the door that Katti held open. "Success certainly didn't hurt. But I think I always knew."

She mumbled something that Troy took as agreement. They moved through the dim hallway and up the stairs, separating on the landing to go to their rooms and wash up before lunch. "Katti," Troy said.

Katti paused with a hand on her door, the other hand shoved inside a pocket of the enormous smock she wore.

"Those with talent may look for reassurance, but deep inside, they always know whether the work is good or bad. It's those who can't tell the difference that are the problem."

***

After her father's death, Troy had considered selling Tatler's End. Without her parents around, the house seemed cavernously empty, each room triggering some bittersweet memory -- the smell of her mother's perfume or her father's pipe, the remembrance of a conversation held around the table, the bed where her father had spent his last days.

Her attachment to the house had won out, along with the knowledge that the memories would eventually comfort her, rather than cause her pain. She spent much of the money her father had left building a studio, though it would have been more sensible to save it. But the first thing she felt, when she emerged from her grief, was the need to continue painting. The acclaim that followed was, in a sense, a secondary benefit.

A few months after Katti had come to live with her, Troy returned to Tatler's End one night after dining with John Bellasca in London, choosing to drive back rather than stay the night at her club. She found Katti sitting in one of the chairs in the library, a book in her square, capable hands. She thought that she might like to paint her, see if she could capture the contrast between Katti's stolid frame and the spark of intelligence in her eyes.

"John sends his regards."

Katti reached for the scrap of paper she used for a bookmark. "Has he asked you to marry him yet?"

Troy stopped in her tracks, shocked. "What?"

"He wants to."

"How do you know?" she asked, dropping into a chair opposite Katti.

"I can't imagine how you don't know," Katti said.

Troy took a moment and considered her interactions with John. He was always scrupulously polite, though friendly. They saw each other every few weeks, more when she was in London. "He hasn't -- he hasn't said anything, or done anything--"

"Of course not. He knows how you'd answer, so he doesn't dare speak."

"Don't take this the wrong way, Katti, but I never thought of you as being so perceptive." Katti had many good qualities, but Troy had always seen her as a bull-in-a-china-shop type, gruff to the point of being cantankerous.

Katti shrugged, a flicker of motion in the lamplight. "It's much easier to see these things from the outside. Men have no interest in me, nor I in them, so the kind of games that perplex you are transparent to me. And damn foolish. If he wants you, he should speak up."

"But I don't want to marry him."

"I know." Katti picked up her book again.

Troy pulled her legs up and tucked them under her, curling into a corner of the chair. Her friendship with John, something she had thought of as a simple fact, was now neither. And her opinion of Katti had undergone a significant shift. She'd needed Katti so badly as a friend and a fellow artist that she had almost failed to see her as a person.

"What other things do you know about me?" Troy laughed thinly and tried to make a joke of it, but she heard the words come out of her mouth as plaintive sounds.

Katti stood and looked down at Troy in her chair, shadows playing across her blunt, honest face. "Your eyes are blue. Your hair is short. Your hands are long and thin and were made to hold a paintbrush. Your skin is pale and clear. You smile more often than you laugh. You're a brilliant artist, but I sometimes wonder if you see anything."

She walked out of the library, leaving Troy silent and stunned in her wake.

***

Troy didn't see Katti again until mid-afternoon the next day, when she gathered her courage to go down to the studio and found Katti inside, placidly painting as usual. Troy stood in the door for a few minutes, watching her work, placing paint on the canvas in bold strokes, then stepping back on her square, sensible shoes to consider the effect.

She finally gathered her courage, placing her hand on the doorframe and using it to push herself forward.

Before she had a chance to say anything, Katti spoke. "You're not going to be tiresome about this, are you?"

"Katti, I didn't know."

"It doesn't matter," Katti said, still painting. Her current picture was a group of three workmen, huddled around a fire at the end of a dark alley. "I thought you might feel differently, but I was wrong. It honestly doesn't change anything."

"You're not going to leave, are you?"

Katti sniffed. "Don't be absurd. Unless you're going to kick me out?"

"Don't be absurd," Troy said, the rush of relief weakening her knees. She disguised the emotion by moving over to her supplies and preparing her palette.

***

On a warm summer day several months later, Mrs. Hipkins came into the studio.

"Phone call for you, ma'am," she said to Katti.

"For me?" Katti occasionally received phone calls from friends and family, but not often enough to be an ordinary occurrence. Troy watched her tromp up to the house, through the lilac bushes, blossoms fluttering down onto the path with the disturbance.

When the light began to fail, Katti hadn't returned. Troy washed out her brushes and tidied the area around her canvas, then returned to the house. She found Katti sitting in a straight-backed chair in the front hallway.

"Katti? Is it bad news?" Few emotions ever showed on Katti's face other than a generalized irritation, but she looked stunned.

"My painting. 'Foreman Fitter.' The Royal Academy wants it for the summer exhibition."

Troy caught her breath. "Oh, how wonderful!"

"I can't quite believe it." Katti's voice dropped even lower than usual, and she swallowed and coughed a little while she ran a paint-stained hand through her hair.

"It's the best you've done, really. You'll take them by storm."

When the exhibition came, Troy felt that she enjoyed it more than Katti. Katti was nervous, hiding it under a facade of disinterest. Troy, however, had the satisfaction of seeing the academicians walk past Katti's painting, one after another, and stop with a jerk as it caught their attention. At the end of the evening, Katti joined her and handed her a glass of champagne.

"I owe this all to you, you know," Katti said.

"Nonsense."

"The solitude, the chance to paint, the advice--"

"It's mutual," Troy said. "Having another artist around has been invaluable to me, and so has your friendship. I had friends in school, but I was never close to anyone. I'm glad you didn't try to talk yourself out of coming to live with me."

"You'll see," Katti said. "I'll be far too grand to live with now. You'll boot me out on my over-inflated head."

Troy laughed, and they stood together in front of a painting, much as they had nearly two years ago.

***

"Tell me about the man you met on board." Katti sat on Troy's bed and watched her unpack.

Troy sighed and flushed a little with the memory. "His name is Roderick Alleyn. He was practically the only person on the ship who wasn't stupid, and I made a fool out of myself with him." She told Katti about the voyage from Suva to Vancouver, and the dreadful evening she'd spent in Alleyn's company.

"He wants to buy the painting I made of him, but my agent can handle that. I'm sure the last thing either of us wants is to have another of those stilted conversations."

Katti turned one of Troy's shoes over in her hands. "Hmm."

"Hmm?"

"It sounds like you finally met the man who made a dent in that armor of yours."

"Only if snapping at him counts," Troy said. She pulled the painting of the Suva wharf out of her trunk, remembering the light playing across the fine bones of Alleyn's face as he stared at it. "Besides, I'll probably never see him again."

"You'll see him again."

Troy propped the painting up against the wall. "I doubt it."

"You will," Katti said. "I know you."