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A Thread to Follow

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“You would take to it, I think,” she said, “life in a port town. All the little alleyways, twisting and turning. All that anonymous humanity, coming and going. Fuel for an artist, I imagine. Red meat.”

My eyes flicked from the canvas to my sitter.

Blue eyes, piercing blue, set deep in wide sockets, fine lines radiating from distant smiles. Long nose, narrow nostrils, a little flared always.

My feet clipped over the polished floor, back and forth, back and forth to the easel, executing the methodical dance of my profession.

“One feels somewhat set apart from it, when one lives there,” she was saying. “Above it, perhaps. Or suspended in it.”

Thin, pressed mouth, resisting its natural, crooked grin like a coiled spring. Quick to smile. Quick to laugh. Devastatingly sharp.

“One becomes a face, hung at a window,” she murmured, “observing. The watcher, at the heart of the maze.”

I could listen to my subject talking in her slight Alsatian accent for hours, astute and humorous. The Countess enjoyed an audience, and I liked hearing her stories, given generously and without any expectation of reply.

“I stood on an island once,” she said, “in the middle of a river. A summer storm had passed during the night, and our carriage stuck hard as we crossed. We watched the bloated waters flow around us as they dug out the wheels. Like a riot in Arcadia. The current was choked with branches, leaves, splintered timbers, dissolving hay bales, cow carcasses blown up like bladders. And lambs. So many lambs, swept down from the hills. We waited on the dry bank, still and secure, watching the flow of carnage. And my husband took my hand and said to me, ‘This, my darling, this… is like Marseille.’” She laughed.

“Do you never miss the city?” I asked, between brush strokes.

Her gaze snapped to meet mine, head perfectly motionless. She had been excellent company over the weeks we had spent together, and an exemplary model, save for her excited habit of gesturing with her hands. Now, her blue eyes twinkled mischievously under sparse, fair eyebrows, and I could tell she was trying hard not to raise them. “Yes,” she hissed. “Every single day, I miss the sordid, stinking pit. And my shame shall be eternal.”

She was an anomalous figure in her grand house. Where the chateau was symmetrical, formal and huge, its grounds an elegantly composed patchwork of exoticism and wilderness, the mistress of both was short, unadorned, and somewhat shrugged. A pleasingly cock-eyed woman, her beauty, though inarguable once discovered, stemmed from a fierce, often hilarious intelligence rather than any easily delineated arrangement of features. On meeting her, my heart both soared and sank, like a dolphin chasing the prow of a ship. I knew I was doomed in my commission to dance alongside her curious beauty, to spar with it, bask in it, and never to capture it.

“How long were you there?” I asked.

She puffed out her cheeks, and narrowed her hooded eyes. “In Marseille? Nearly ten years,” she said at last. “This place was waiting for us from the day we married, of course, but my late husband was never quite ready to give up the town. The doctors told me that it was the strain of the move which killed him,” she said. “But all his brothers died young. Not the move, I think,” she said, “but the stop.”

“You stayed on,” I observed. “You like your life here? Provence. The chateau.”

Again, that sidelong glance of cynical conspiracy. “The deathly quiet? The doldrums of society? So peaceful, so dull, that I must buy the services of a Parisian painter for my first fresh conversation in twenty years?” I hid my amusement. My contribution had been minimal. She grinned back. “Yes, I like it very well,” she conceded, returning to her pose. After a moment of silence, she asked me, “Do you think it terribly indulgent, to commission a portrait of oneself, for oneself?”

“No,” I replied. “I respect it.”

“I am nearly fifty,” she said, as if impressed by her own achievement. “Fifty! No children. No heir. When I die, this property will revert to my husband’s family. And my tenure here, my decades of careful toil on their behalf, will be an embarrassing footnote in their family record. Forgotten.” Her eyes became fiery, her jaw set. “I want my face on their walls,” she said.

“Your husband’s relatives take no interest in the place?” I asked.

“There are precious few of them left,” she said. “And they do not travel. A cousin, I think, on his father’s side will inherit. Dreadful shrivelled stoat. If he can outlive me, good for him, but to what end? He never married, and his health, I understand, is not the strongest. When he goes, this place will be carrion for half the great houses of France.”

“The attorneys will be delighted,” I said.

She laughed. “Yes. Scavengers. Harpies. Lawyers. I love them.” She caught my eye, suddenly serious. “It is a terrible thing at my time of life, to laugh only at oneself. Whatever will I do, now that you are nearly finished?”

“You still have Bérénice,” I commented. The Countess and her maid seemed close, rubbing along together with fractious good humour.

“She was never one for laughing,” the Countess said. “And we know one another too completely for surprise.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “you should go back to Marseille. For a visit.” Her head was shaking before I even finished my sentence.

“I do not think so,” she said. “You are too young to understand. You come from the capital, with your enormous eyes, to look at me for weeks. So carefully, you look at me. You see me trapped in this pastoral limbo, and cannot see why I never left. I am safe here. There are no shades. No ghosts.”

“There are ghosts in Marseille?” I asked.

“Thousands! The Styx flows through it!” she replied. “My late husband and Marseille are woven so tightly around my heart that, I think, in unravelling one, I should fear to lose the other.”

“Surely, you will never lose him,” I stated. “You were married for, what, eleven years?”

She turned to look at me for a moment, not just her eyes, but her head, shoulders, hips, all wheeling round, like church vanes miles asunder, all caught in the same sudden gale. Her eyes were sad. “You have a lot to learn about memory,” she said gently, “Marianne.”

 

We descended to the salon for some respite. Bérénice was already setting out some refreshments and I sat slowly, gratefully, trying not to show my exhaustion. I had been standing for hours, and was not getting any younger. But for the company, I would have preferred half an hour on my bed.

“Our neighbour the Duchess remains of the opinion that my husband’s rose would do well in the background,” my client said. She flopped heavily into an armchair, as tired as I was, and poured me a generous measure of chocolate.

“It is not too late,” I replied. “Although it would take time.” The rose in question lay on the fortepiano, mounted like a prize fish under a dome of glass. It was over thirty years old, I had learned, and real, not silk. I had remarked upon its beauty on first seeing it and the Countess had smiled fondly. She was not smiling now.

“I find the very idea macabre,” she said, her face grim. She had fixed the object with a stare that could have scorched marble. “They want to sneak him in. Make a memorial. There are some to whom one will always be a widow.”

“Must we mind the opinions of such people?” I asked, sipping my chocolate. It was too rich, as it had been every day since my arrival. Once again, I would not finish.

My client chuckled. “I am afraid that we must, my dear, when they are Duchesses.”

I had already begun my mental preparations. A delicate red, closer to coral than blush, wide, generous petals, unfurled, fading to powder white at the base, the uncanny illusion of dew. Picked only this morning, left awhile in the shade. “Would you like it to your left hand,” I asked, “or your right?”

When I looked up, I found that she was observing me, one eyebrow raised, the drained cup of chocolate paused halfway from her mouth. She shook her head. “I said only that we must mind,” she corrected. “Not that we must obey.”

 

We worked until the light deserted us. Bérénice kept us quiet company, with her ledger of accounts, watching my progress with tolerant interest. Unseasonal cloud had dimmed the afternoon and my eyes were tired. I pinched the bridge of my nose once too often.

“We shall finish tomorrow,” the Countess announced, rising. Her absence would be the final guard against argument, and I broadcast my relief with a sigh I did not know I had been holding. As her mistress stood and stretched herself, Bérénice circled behind me, looking at the canvas, examining our day’s work with a critical eye.

“You’re close,” she said.

I shrugged. “There is still something lacking.”

“There is,” she said as she strode off. “Her blasted fidget.”

She was right, of course. The image was too placid, too heavy-looking on the canvas. It kept the likeness from living. I should find it in the morning. “We shall find it,” I said.

“And then?” the Countess enquired. I was already cleaning my brushes, and too tired to hide my confusion. “You said you had another commission,” the Countess prompted, “before your return to Paris.”

“Yes,” I said. “Just north of Aix. But not for some time yet. The family is away from home.”

“What are your plans for the interim?” she pressed. “I will not have you squandering one fee on the expense of waiting for another. If you have no engagements, I insist that you stay here as my guest.” I thanked her, gratified, but she only tutted and waved a hand as she left. “Please. My girl. If you cannot see that my motivations are almost entirely selfish, whatever are those glorious eyes for?”

 

I walked a little in the gardens after dinner, weaving lazily after the dwindling twilight, trying to waft away the hazy effects of wine which I knew would shudder my sleep. The overcast day had lent the walks a pleasing coolness. I stretched my tired legs along their grassy paths, strolling between elegant plantings, where strange foreign blooms threaded between heavy scented lavender, greens gradually becoming blues and blacks as the light failed. There was a smell almost like rain, the hot earth offering up the last of its moisture into the waiting evening. Summer was coming. I tried to imagine the heat, the sweat, the humid southern air pressed tight like a rag to the mouth. But I could not conjure that discomfort into this sweet evening, any more than I could shiver at the memory of ice.

Glancing back towards the house, to the few illuminated windows among dozens, I made out my own room, high and solitary on the third floor. Bérénice must already have lit the few sconce candles for my return. From the Countess’s apartment beneath, a wash of merry gold fell onto the lawn. I checked my footing on the gloomy path for an instant and, in looking back, saw the darkened silhouette of the lady of the house, hung at the window of her chamber. Observing, she had said. I wondered how far that soft wave of candlelight would allow her to see into the gardens at this late hour. But her window was closed, the light behind her. All she would see in the glass was her own reflection.

I kept to the shadowed avenue on my return, nervous of intruding on her thoughts.

 

She was reading a letter when she came through the next morning, evidently perplexed.

“I have replied already,” she said, when I enquired as to whether she needed more time. “I am only puzzling at the way the world flows together.” She settled into her pose, tucking the paper into her bodice. “I spoke to you of my husband’s family only yesterday, did I not? And then, this very morning, I receive the first correspondence from any of them in well over a year.”

“Curious coincidence.”

“Yes. But then, more curious, bizarre in fact, I come to realise that the author must be the only living member of my acquaintance with any connection to you. Many years ago, you painted her mother’s portrait,” she said. “Indeed, it was her mother who recommended you to me. She used to tell me how fine the piece was. How striking.”

“Really?” I tried to think how many ladies I had painted over my career. It must have been dozens. “When was the sitting, do you recall?”

“It would have been nearly a decade since now. But her recommendation was so warm, so admiring. You were the only artist she would trust to do her subjects justice, she told me.”

“In that case, do please send her my gratitude,” I said.

“She has been dead these three years,” she replied. Her lips pursed for a moment. “And now her daughter is on her way to Provence, and may remain here a month. Just as you are here.”

I paused. “If it is no longer convenient for me to stay…”

She waved her hand. “You think the house too small for three? Or that my staff is overstretched? Please. Do not trouble yourself.” She shook her head at nothing, her face curiously set. “I only puzzle at the world sometimes. So long since you would have painted her mother, and so very great a distance, and all moved on, moved away, passed away. And yet the little rivers flow together, from Paris, from Milan, from the Gulf of Gascony. That forsaken little island.”

I started. My fingers gripped the brush. There was blue. Light blue, pale blue on its bristles. I was painting the dress. Highlights. I was.

“Héloïse.”

The Countess turned to me, delight writ large upon her face. “You do remember!” she exclaimed.

“Héloïse, she…”

I stepped away from the canvas. One heavy step. I breathed. Before I knew myself, I was asking how she had died.

And when.

Why she had.

I tried to stop from shaking, but the blue flitted back and forth like a dragonfly and I laid the brush and palette down, rattling.

“No, no.” The Countess was all confusion and concern. She was on her feet. “Marianne. Her mother. It is her mother who is dead.” I had put my blue hand to my forehead, blue, blue against a frosted blue sky, blue so light as to be almost grey, grey like the rolling sea, grey and green, green like the folds of a dress. “Her mother who recommended you.” Through my fingers, I could see the Countess’s curiosity. “Though I see now,” she said slowly, “it must have been on account of her daughter’s portrait that she did so. It was Héloïse’s portrait that you painted?”

I lowered my fingers. “Yes,” I said at last, my heart stammering. “For her engagement.” Two, six, four.

I felt the Countess’s hand pat my shoulder and my fingers gripped at my smock. “Now, I understand why my sister in law spoke of you with such fondness,” she said. “You gave her Milan! She died happy.” Her hand left my shoulder, and she walked back to her seat, to her pose, ready to resume, confident that my shock must now be at an end.

Beneath the hot flare of embarrassment, welding me to the spot, the foundation of my stomach seemed still to turn, uncertain as a child. “So, it is Héloïse,” I said slowly, guarding my voice, “who will visit?”

“My niece, yes,” the Countess confirmed. “In as rude, as robust health as ever she was, I should imagine. Well, you know,” she said. “It would take a bull to fell that woman.”

She was coming here. “And her daughter?” I asked.

“Staying with her father’s family,” the Countess replied. “Just as well. It would be quite a journey for a child.”

“Of course,” I agreed, the palette somehow back upon my arm, the brush steady in my fingers.

Héloïse.

Someone’s mother. Someone’s wife. A noble lady of Milan, subject of the Habsburg empire, a woman, nearing forty, whom I did not know. I did not know her. Not really. Not anymore.

“What is the purpose of her journey?” I asked.

The Countess frowned, her lips pursed. “It might perhaps…” She shot a glance in my direction. I kept my face carefully blank, trying not to think. Failing.

Her strong blonde head, asleep upon the kitchen table, where she had sliced mushrooms wearing Sophie’s apron, played cards too quickly, drunk wine too eagerly. Gazed into my eyes with that immodest curiosity, fierce intelligence, roaring need. We had gorged on life in that house.

“And yet, if you are to meet, it will be just as well that you know,” the Countess murmured. She tapped her fingers in the lap of her skirt, hesitating. “When did you last see her?” she questioned.

“It was at a concert,” I replied. “Four years ago. I saw her from across the room. Not to speak to.”

I could not have spoken to her; not then. I had turned from my seat at the interval, and hurried for the grand staircase and the street without a backward glance. I found a chair and fled in it, like an exposed adulterer; like a thief. I had stolen something from her in that public place, and could not own it. I could not have faced my victim for the world. Not when I had taken so much, and knew her so little.

Two. Six. Four.

“It was so short a time, that we spent with one another.”

“I see.” The Countess nodded, with that twinkle around the eyes that I had fought so hard to coax out of the canvas. “I have a test for you, then,” she said at last. “To see if you are worthy. What one word, after knowing her so briefly, would you use to describe my niece to an unsuspecting husband?”

I frowned. “Under what circumstance?” I asked.

“To warn him,” she answered, with a playful wave of her hand, “of the danger. Come. One word only.”

I answered much too quickly. “Angry,” I said.

Immediately, I regretted the choice. It was too near. The Countess’s expression saddened for an instant. Then she laughed, once, like a spasm. She wiped away the thought with her fine fingertips.

“Angry, yes,” she said. “But, forgive me, I have one better.” Her face straightened as she looked at me. “Honourable,” she said. It was a reproof carved in granite. “Do not force her to make you promises. Because she will hate you, and she will keep them.”

She resumed her pose without my asking, her hands folding easily into her lap. She spoke into the middle distance, as if to herself, as if to a memory. “Her husband made all the usual promises, you see,” she said, “and of course, he did not keep them. Something discreet, my niece might have tolerated, but then he was so public! So brazen! I am sure you can imagine.”

I could not. Tall, hurt, determined, undressing herself in the wind and forging into the sea. I stepped back from the canvas.

“You know as well as I,” the Countess said, “that Héloïse brought very little of real value to the match. Her father was a younger son; small title, no fortune, few connections.” A smirk spread over her face. “And yet, her husband is in Venice now, ending things with his mistress.”

A triumphant eruption clawed through my chest. “Poor man,” I spat.

“Ah,” she chuckled. “You do know.” She gave another wave of her hand, as much a part of her likeness as the shape of her nose, the curve of her brows. “So, Héloïse comes away to see her aunt, on a journey of plausible denial. And, after a few weeks here, she will go back to Milan. To her daughter. To her home,” she said. “And all will be forgotten.”

“I think not.” Again, the words had fallen from my mouth unbidden, and the Countess’s expression was that same, caged mixture of understanding, and wondering.

“You see,” she said, smiling gently. “You know. At the very least, it will be over.”

 

We did not speak for a while. I had seen what needed doing and busied myself in the doing of it, focussed my whirling mind, smothering thought with the action of impatient fingers.

There, on the lap of the Countess’s dress, just below the left hand, I added the smallest pattern of highlights, the suggestion of reflected light visible under the finger, as if she had gestured only moments before, as if skin and fabric had not yet settled together quite, their shadow not completely fallen. A memory of movement. I blended it quickly, the excitement of solving the riddle fresh in my stomach, and then I stood back. To breathe. To be sure. My model was looking at me, poised.

“I believe, that we have finished,” I said.

She rose to join me before her portrait, to check our workings. We stood for a moment, side by side.

“Well,” she exclaimed, her hands clapping together like the closing of a Bible. “There she is!” It was the satisfaction of immediate recognition. I did not need more.

My client looked upon her likeness for a while, her fingers twined together, saying nothing, and I saw her expression melt from the foreground to the middle distance, as if the canvas itself were receding as she beheld it, a loved one in a carriage, pulling slowly, slowly away.

“Soon, this will be the face of an old friend,” she said at last. “One that I no longer see.” I caught her brows tightening. But, then, she clapped her hands again, a sudden rush of sun blazing through cloud. “Come!” she exclaimed. “Where shall we put her?”

 

My hands busied themselves with cleaning my brushes, squeezing and working the paint from the bristles. The Countess had forged off into the house, in search of just the right pool of light on the correct wall. I called that I would follow. But I could not be sloppy. I would need these brushes for the commission in Aix. If I ruined them now, if I did not clean them thoroughly, if I let them sit in my work box, unfinished, with old paint, drying out, prying apart the bellies like opening thistles while I lingered here, dithered here, who knew whether I could find brushes in Aix? It would be a waste. A waste of time. Of money.

If only they were home. If only they were home, I could leave directly. I could leave the next day, the next hour, complete the commission in a month or less, and be back to Paris before Assumption. Back home. And she need never know. Héloïse need never. Héloïse.

The brush I was cleaning slipped from my oiled fingers and clattered onto the floor.

Two. Six. Four.

I stood for what seemed like hours, my hands on my face, in that light, peaceful room. The birdsong sounded from the garden with such clarity, such piercing sweetness, that the walls might have melted away into vapour. The light seemed to stretch and bend here; a place of gentle shadows. Her mother-in-law’s reading room, the Countess had said. The old lady’s sons had shut it up when she had died, covered it over and squirrelled it away. The Countess herself had never seen it used, never even seen the books on the blanketed shelves, but we had hunted for the best light in the house, and found it together in that cloistered, veiled place.

Bérénice strode in with her usual brisk comportment. She collected the coffee tray, and paused by the painting on the way out, scrutinising. She nodded once. “You found her, then,” she said, and marched out again without waiting for reply.

The painting should hang in here, I thought with sudden clarity. She should open the room up. Uncover the library, the dainty spinet, the work tables. Move her writing desk from that rather severe office of her late husband’s. What better way? I thought. To make her mark.

I picked up the brush, wiped the worst of the dust onto a rag, and began to clean again. I would suggest it.

 

I broached both subjects over dinner; first the matter of the reading room, and then, later, much later, the more pressing issue.

“I should take my leave,” I told her, “and begin my journey towards Aix. I have no wish to intrude.”

The Countess fixed me with a shrewd stare, which she held in silence for quite some time, spinning her glass of wine between careful fingers.

At length, she spoke. “Marianne,” she said, “we have learned, you and I, to be quite frank with one another. Is there a reason that you wish to avoid my niece?” I let the question hang unanswered, feeling my mouth slack and stupid. The right lie would not come. She prompted me, gently. “Tell me truly, and I will cease to insist. It has been some time. A matter of several years. You did not have an argument, I think.”

It was a statement, not a query. “No,” I admitted.

“Ah,” she breathed sadly. “Then it was the other.”

“The other?”

Her head was on one side, those intelligent eyes reflecting the candlelight like liquid topaz. “You were fond of her.”

Again, the rebuttal would not come. The longer I left the statement undenied, the more nearly the truth would wind its way out. And yet the lie would not come.

“You were fond of her,” the Countess repeated with certainty. “And you sent her off to a marriage that you now know to have been unhappy. You worry that she bears a grudge?”

“No.”

“That she blames you, then?”

My face was burning. You blame me for what comes next.

“I met your niece,” I managed, “at a difficult time.” Still, the Countess stared at me, waiting for the candid answer that I could never give, patient as an adder. I swallowed. “I was fond of her,” I allowed. “Very fond. And I would not wish, with all that she has gone through, all that she is going through even now, I would not wish my presence to cause her any further pain.”

“And how would it do that?”

I downed my wine. It felt good. It burned. “I don’t know,” I said. “Memories. Things long buried.” I looked at her. “Marseille.”

The Countess nodded to herself, and followed my example, tipping her head back on that strong, pale throat. “Ghosts,” she agreed. I refilled our glasses, and we finished our meal in silence.

 

We were both a little drunk, weaving up the grand staircase. “But I think it would do you good,” she said. “To see her.”

The atmosphere was warmer. Hot air wafted in from the garden terrace where the windows were ajar onto the night, inky-black.

“And for her to see you.”

“Madame la comtesse.”

“I think it would do you both good.”

“Eugénie.”

She swung round on the stair, against the bannister, the candle held high, like a priestess on the threshold of her temple. Like a prophet. “But you were honest,” she said, magnanimously. “And we had a bargain. So, stay or leave as you wish.”

“I will,” I said, more sadly than I meant to.

“We look for her carriage about noon,” she said, resuming her climb. “If you leave your trunk outside your door tomorrow morning, Bérénice will have them prepare the horses before then. But please sleep on your decision.”

She handed the candle to me on the landing outside her chambers, that I might light my way up the narrower stairs to the third floor. For the briefest moment, her hand touched mine.

“All those little rivers,” she said. “Drawn together at last.” I saw the appeal hiding in her eyes, felt the temptation for an instant, to confess, to confide, to say out loud something I had barely admitted to myself. I batted the thought away.

“I don’t believe in fate,” I said.

She shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she answered. The doors to her chamber opened stiffly, the portal to an inner sanctum. She snuck between them, drawing her skirts around her legs. “But they all flow to the same place,” she said over her shoulder. “And, Marianne, it is vast, and cold, and dark.”

 

I stood by the open window for a long time, gazing into the garden. The Countess’s candles illuminated the lawn below me, making the gloom of the park beyond seem deeper and more truly wild. I could almost hear the summer mounting, as if it rose up from the south in swelling waves, breaking ever closer, ready to overwhelm the walls of the house.

I had hunted in my trunk by the light of that single candle, scooped round the hidden corners, rummaged in pockets and compartments unused for months, years even. I found it at last. Cold and heavy, wrapped in a handkerchief that had been my mother’s, I had concealed it for safety in the toe of a boot. It lay in my palm now, unwrapped, but still nestled on its bed of linen, a miniature in coloured wax, preserved under its solid dome of glass. I could hardly look at it.

“Two. Six. Four,” I whispered to myself over and over, like an incantation.

I had spoken her name aloud for the first time in years. For the first time since the island, I had done so knowing for certain that she was no unmoored fantasy of mine, no gradually blurring memory. She was alive. She was real, tethered to real, living people, with whom I had conversed not an hour before. She was coming here. And I knew, I knew with every honest feeling of which I was capable, that I had to leave.

I had to.

Because I knew that she was unhappy.

I had felt the same, desperate certainty in the opera house. Had she been contented, or merry, or even unmoved by the performance, I could have stayed.

But she had wept.

I dragged my trunk into the corridor long before the lawn went dark, and lay the night in my overcoat, her picture clutched fast in my pocket.